Wednesday, February 25, 2009

PDP #4: Gzowski Sunrise

One of the few things I regret about no longer being on the night shift is that once summer comes around again, I won't be awake to take photos of when the day just begins. I did a lot of that last summer, when I had to expose myself to as much daylight as possible to keep from going mad. There's something very calming in the air at daybreak, a cool edge to the wind that's long evaporated by the time the averagefolk start to roll out of bed.

I took this photograph on August 23, 2008 at 5:52 AM EDT from Sir Casimir Gzowski Park on the Toronto waterfront, just east of the border with Etobicoke, looking back toward the downtown core. A cropped and printed version of this photo lives on my living room shelf, as well - it's good that I like this photo so much, because I opened my finger on the edge of the glass frame when I was getting everything together. If you like it, I encourage you to do the same - except for opening your finger, as it's rather unpleasant and can liberate a lot of blood.

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, February 24, 2009

Short SF Review #2: "Job Inaction"

"Job Inaction," by Timothy Zahn
Reviewed February 24, 2009

I'm probably not the only 1990s teenager who first became acquainted with Timothy Zahn through his Thrawn trilogy. They were the first Star Wars novels I read, and were a major departure in every good respect from the Star Trek tie-in books that had previously been my go-to standard. Before that, though, Zahn started out with short stories like everyone else from Heinlein and Clark at the top to myself, way way way at the bottom.

One such story was his "Job Inaction," which I found in the November 9, 1981 issue of Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact. In it, Zahn explores the near-future world of 2009, where Charley Addison shows up at work on Monday morning to discover that a computer glitch fired him on Friday night. Though this is hardly out of character for the actual 2009 in which we find ourselves, the problem Charley faces isn't an economic meltdown but red tape - in Zahn's 2009 the employment system has been reformed, and he can't get his job back - his only recourse is to an employment lottery that has replaced the welfare system.

Much like any other lottery you'd care to name, the chances of winning in the employment lottery are long. Winners in Zahn's world have the privilege of reporting to whatever job they were in the running for to serve out a four-day week, regardless of whether or not they have any qualifications for the job.

"This is an equal opportunity system... it really does work," she assured him. "Maybe a bit slower than the old methods, but it spreads the jobs and wealth around more evenly and eliminates the need for a welfare system. And that saves all of us money."

The story follows Addison's struggles against the red tape of the system, wanting nothing more than to go back to the old job that he held, he knew, and was comfortable in, as he wages his fight all the way to the top. The manner in which he finally cuts a hole in the hedge maze is satisfying, and maybe even light-hearted. Had I been writing this story, the ending would have tilted a lot farther toward the "righteous vengeance" end of the spectrum.

Ordinarily a story like this might be a bit didactic, but Zahn deftly dumps his info - Addison's been on his job for thirty-five years, long enough to never reckon with the story's new employment system, and so provides a lens for the readers to find out how it works. Though I have a bit of difficulty believing that it would be entirely foreign to someone who lived in that world, it's a necessary transfer of knowledge to keep the story running.

In all, I thought it not only an interesting story, but another one of those precious windows on how what's our present was viewed by the past. Track it down and give it a read, says I.

Monday, February 16, 2009

My Spirit Will Go On: A Song of the 21st Century

I have to say that DragonForce is a pretty k-rad group - so much so that, apparently, they are a reasonable substitute for scandium on the periodic table of the elements. I've not had much experience with power metal bands, but the epic nature of DragonForce's lyrics really set up their songs as things apart. Beyond that, they have way more meaning than the standard popular shlock that is 99.5% about love.

Their song My Spirit Will Go On, in particular, captures my attention. Though the music is fast and active, the lyrics are rather dark, and in my opinion capture what will probably be ahead of us in the next ninety years. It's one of those songs that can have a lot read into the framework - personally, the way I read it, the demon is carbon dioxide.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

PDP #3: A Sign of Abuse

Vandalism's nothing new. Most often it manifests as graffiti on the sides of buildings or at transit stops, but every once in a while you'll come across an example that's far more brazen. While walking north along Dufferin Street through Dovercourt-Wallace Emerson-Junction back at the end of November, I observed a sign at the corner of Dufferin and Chandos that had been brutalized by the sheer force of the vandalism. Somebody obviously didn't like Dufferin Street much.

I promise I'll get off this sign kick soon.

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, February 7, 2009

Signs of a Change

Two thousand years ago in Roman Pompeii, there were no such things as street names or house numbers. Newcomers to the city would have to get around through the aid of a local, hard experience, or blind luck wandering the streets. Things have changed for the better since then - a modern city shorn of its signage would be unnavigable, even to natives. The industrial-era street grid layout of Toronto doesn't have this to as great a degree as, say, any suburban development built in the last forty years, but absent its signs getting around would still be a problem.

Nor can old signs be left up forever. Even if they're not stolen by souvenir-seekers or ne'er-do-wells, they tend to get old and rusty and essentially worthless for navigation - as a point of example, consider these signs at the intersection of Linnsmore Crescent and Strathmore Avenue up in East York.

It's not only difficult as hell to read that if you don't have time to squint, which many car drivers don't, but it's a blight on the urban landscape.

Toronto's municipal government has been laying the groundwork for a new generation of signs for a while now, and the first photographs of them in the wild which I know of started going up in January. They're slick, sleek, easy to read and suffused with all the space-age qualities of this twenty-first century in which we live - but they're also a departure from history. I provide old-style and new-style signs for the reference of those unfamiliar with Toronto, or who have more important things to care about than what street signs look like.

Left: An old-style, "traditional" sign, possibly still the most common in Toronto.

Right: A new, 21st century sign.

The new models aren't bad signs, in and of themselves. In fact they're very striking. What concerns me is that they're part of the slow and steady homogenization of Toronto, a grinding-down of old identities into a new whole that bears few similarties to the former shapes of its components.

Until January 1, 1998, what's now the city of Toronto was the Municipality of Metropolitan Toronto, a layer of government between municipal and provincial which consisted of the independent cities of Toronto, North York, Etobicoke, York, Scarborough, and the borough of East York. They all had their own mayors, councils, and local governments which dealt with their own issues while larger matters were dealt with through the Metro system. On that New Year's Day eleven years ago, those six cities (I'm not making another exception for East York) were effectively abolished by order of the provincial government, and Metropolitan Toronto became just the City of Toronto.

This was not a popular change; referendums in all cities before the amalgamation went against it, though then-Premier Mike Harris cared nothing for the will of the people in this respect. There's still a fair bit of resentment about the whole thing.

Still, the old cities were around for long enough that they're still relevant on the modern-day map of Toronto. Here, street signs serve another purpose; they not only tell what road you're on, they let you know what city you're in. Street sign design was not one of the responsibilities of the Metro Toronto government. The last eleven years have seen some sign replacements along major routes, but by and large the pre-amalgamation signs are still easy to find.

Kipling Avenue in Etobicoke

Coxwell Avenue in East York

Dufferin Street in North York

Birchmount Road in Scarborough

To my mind, differences such as these are what made, and continue to make, Toronto the excellent city it is - a city of diversity, a place of communities. Replacing all these signs with a single standardized model, even if it is to be a gradual phase-in over the next twenty-five years, strikes me as a loss of some small anchors of history. It may yet be that the city will preserve some of the older signs; there are antiquated box-model signs still remaining at Queen Street West and Bay, for example. Should it turn out like that, it's not particularly surprising for Toronto - this is, after all, a city that has ground 90% of its own history to dust in the name of construction and progress. Even Old City Hall would have been old photographs, memories, and nothing else had the original Eaton Centre developers had their way.

Still, it's not as if they're going to be cookie-cutter. While the default adornment for the top third of the new signs is just the city logo, there is allowance for neighborhood Business Improvement Areas to customize that space the same way signs are now - but to a far more limited degree. Personally, if it was up to me, I would go one farther and standardize a "standard" design for each of the old municipalities. It's simple - Toronto gets the city hall logo, Scarborough gets the Bluffs, East York gets its maple leaf and EY, York gets nothing because it is irrelevant and most people forget it ever existed in the first place, Etobicoke gets that weird plant thing, and North York gets the grinning face of Mel Lastman.

I predict those last ones would be the first to be vandalized or stolen.

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

Friday, February 6, 2009

PDP #2: A Streetcar Named Blur

One of my hobbies as far as this neato-keen digital camera goes is transit photography. Most of last year I spent adding photos to Wikipedia articles relating to the Toronto Transit Commission, and today if you go to an article about a specific subway station in Metro Toronto, there's a very good chance that the photo in the infobox is one of mine. Stations are easy to get, though. They stay where they are.

Streetcars, y'know, are entirely something else. There are eleven streetcar lines currently operating in Metro Toronto, the pulse of the downtown core's surface transit and pieces of history preserved for the modern day. Over time I gathered photographs of streetcars working most of the routes, all but one - the 508 Lake Shore. This one is a particular challenge because its cars run only during rush hour, which respectively find me stone asleep (in the morning) or at work (in the afternoon).

One fine day in December last, I'd gone out to brave the cold for what ended up being my most recent photographic expedition. While waiting for the streetcar to take me home, an elusive 508 rolled up on the eastbound track, and I had more than enough time to ready my camera and capture it in zeroes and ones.

My camera which has never been particularly good at taking decent shots in low-light situations.

I was not particularly pleased to find how the photo below turned out - mostly because I really wanted a photo of a 508. As a blurred and disjointed artistique image, I think it works pretty well.

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.


(The first Public Domain Photography piece, if you're wondering, was Guelph Sunset from January 11th. Check it!)

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

It's What They Do, Not How They Do It

Much like in the swiftly-contracting newspaper business, I happen to stand by the conviction that in science fiction writers, the "whys" of a scene or character are generally more important than how those scenes or characters accomplish what they're meant to. There's always a place for description of important events so that the reader can be fully aware of what's going on, sure, but there is a threshold where a surfeit of description hampers instead of helps a narrative, as far as I'm concerned.

In science fiction this isn't too uncommon, though I think it has been moderating in the last couple of decades, with more and more tropes and gewgaws of the traditional "future world" entering mainstream reality. One impression I've got from reading back issues of Analog magazine from 1970 to 1972 is that back then, sf was far more of an insular niche genre than it is today, to the extent that no mean handful of stories seemed to have been written by and for engineers. Not that there's anything wrong with that, certainly, but it does present a significantly higher barrier to entry than what you come across in most fiction, or even the modern sf genre.

There's a passage in Mack Reynolds' 1975 novel The Towers of Utopia that put me on this path. While it's an interesting story - it'd have to be, considering that it was a Frederik Pohl Selection - I can't get past the impression that its two hundred and one pages are padded unnecessarily by superfluous description which, from a 2009 perspective, only helps to jolt me out of the narrative.

"Here he dialed a two-seater electro-steamer. ... He stuck his pocket phone cum credit card into the car's slot for payment and relaxed back into the cushions when it slipped into traffic. Since his destination was within the limits of Phoenecia, he remained in the automated, underground network of roads." (pp. 71-72)

Objectively, this is far from the worst offender of what I'm talking about; it's pretty light, actually, but at the same time it's what set me on this line of thinking to begin with. Beyond the somewhat didactic language of some sf of the period, my problem is that Reynolds described things that did not need to be described. As a reader, I don't find the mechanism of how Bat Hardin paid for his electro-steamer ride (electro-steamer? I thought this story was set in 2000, not steampunk 1900) to be particularly relevant to the story. In fact, when I read it for the first time on the streetcar last night, my first reaction was slight bemusement that Reynolds hadn't seen wireless device interfaces coming.

The problem is that these reactions will probably become more and more profound on the part of readers as technology diverges from the technologies incorporated into these settings. The concept of on-demand driverless vehicles isn't itself hard to believe; if technology keeps developing and the envirocalypse holds off, I expect to see them at some point before I reach the age at which I would've retired if the economy wasn't in such a damn shambles. It's just the nuts and bolts.

If the description had read, instead, that he'd summoned his car and whisked through underground highways, or something of that nature, I wouldn't have tripped up on it at all.