Thursday, April 30, 2009

PDP #34: FFH 330

Once a year or so, the Canadian Navy sends one of its Halifax class frigates on a Great Lakes tour, conducting port visits in cities across the lakes. On these occasions, the warship is opened for civilian tours. I had the opportunity to participate in such a tour back in May 2007, when HMCS Halifax dropped anchor in Hamilton, Ontario. It would've been more convenient to see it when it was in Toronto, sure, but I didn't find out about the tour until after it had already come and gone.

Two months before I'd finished a novel set on one such ship, a novel which still languishes on my hard drive in draft status. It was a hell of a thing actually seeing Halifax in person - awexome.

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, April 29, 2009

The Race to the Bottom of English

Sixty-three years ago, in his essay Politics and the English Language, George Orwell railed against the importation of "foreign terms" and "jargon words" such as "expedite" or "clandestine" into writing when already-existing English equivalents could do the job just as well. He was writing in favor of clarity and precision, but I can't help but mildly disagree with him in some respects. Importation is what the English language does. It is a mutt of a tongue, its heritage reaching back into dozens of languages within Europe and without, and bringing new words into it is nothing to be ashamed of. William Shakespeare was as much of an importer as a playwright, bringing more new words into the language than anyone else in his time.

Understanding is always important, but it should not be at the expense of the English language's variety and vocabulary. The ability to say the same thing through different methods, with each word carrying a different set of implications, is one of the aspects that helps to make English such fertile ground for creative pursuits.

The problem, as always, comes with attempts to increase understanding at the expense of precision.

On Monday, BBC NEWS reported on a survey of 5,000 British technology users and what it found to be the ten most confusing technology words. The Plain English Campaign has seized upon the findings as yet another brick for its wall to cast the English language in a shadow of simplicity. Of the terms, some of them - "PC Suite," for one - are understandably a bit baroque if you're encountering them for the first time, but others aren't. Phone jack? Digital TV? Desktop?

There comes a point, in my opinion, where unfamiliarity with a "confusing" technical term ceases to be evidence of the term's opacity, and instead becomes a badge of ignorance. Phone jacks have been around for decades. The concept of a desktop should be familiar to anyone who uses a computer, and considering that it's 2009 and not 1989, that's probably most of the population. Understanding is always good, but the fact remains that these are precise technical terms that exist for a reason, and could only be replaced by elaborate circumlocutions - as if that's better.

The problem I see with this is that we're catering to the ignorant, to the unmotivated, to the people who think learning new words is "too much work." That is the last thing that we should be doing. The vitality of a language is partially based on the strength and flexibility of its speakers, and we should be endeavoring to make sure that the depths of the English language are more widely known to its speakers. This is not the first time this situation has come up in the United Kingdom; last year, some of its local council governments banned the official use - in speech and writing - of words so baroque as "vice versa" and "via."

At the time, the BBC reported that a spokesman for the Plain English Campaign "said the ban might stop people confusing the Latin abbreviation e.g." - exempli gratia, meaning "for example" - "with the word 'egg'."

From where I see it, even if you've never come across e.g. before, if despite the context in which it appears you think it means "egg," the problem does not lie in the language you're reading. Maybe we should call it a PEBDAC error - Problem Exists Between Document and Chair.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

PDP #33: Building Nine

The destruction of North America's urban industrial base only started fairly recently. During and immediately after the Second World War, major cities like Toronto were built on industry just as much - or even more so - than they relied on finance, services, and other sectors for their economic health. Now all those factories are in Mexico or Asia and the cities are being forced to reinvent themselves. Some are managing better than others.

On Sunday the Toronto Star carried a story about the neighborhoods of Weston and Mount Dennis, "Toronto's rustbelt," and its position at the crossroads. Founded on strong industry, over the last forty years the factories and jobs have steadily migrated away from this area, spreading north and south along Weston Road just west of Black Creek Drive. The last straw snapped four years ago, when the venerable Kodak Canada factory, active since the First World War, shut its doors.

I was there last year, though at the time I didn't recognize it for what it was. Even today, Google Maps still shows a well-ordered industrial complex north of Eglinton Avenue West, packed between trees to the east and rails to the west; when I visited the area on July 27, 2008, Building #9 was the only structure still standing, and that only because foundations can't be broken quite so easily as windows. The rest was a sprawling, dusty expanse of post-industrial emptiness.

It may not have been inevitable. The factory site is directly north of where the Richview Expressway would have been built, had Metro Toronto's 1960s highway construction plan been translated into asphalt. A highway cutting through Mount Dennis might have kept other factories from pulling up stakes in favor of North York, and the convenient highway access it offered - but would it have been worth it?

Cities change. Industries die. It's reliance on a single one that's bad.

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

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Importance of a Good Name

Allen: What is your name?
Madison: It's hard to say in English.
Allen: Then just say it in your language.
Madison: All right. My name is...
[High-pitched squeals that shatter all the television screens]
Allen: [nervously to the store clerks] So, how about those Knicks?
- Splash, 1984

Names have power, so the old stories go. If you know someone's true name, the legends say, you can command them - or you can kill them. Realistically, those powers are reserved for authors alone, and it is a big responsibility. A compelling name can make the difference between a gripping story and a pointless lark. After all, the reader is going to be experiencing the events along with the protagonist, and if the protagonist can't be taken seriously because of a ridiculous name, there's one strike against success already.

There are methods to naming. Discussing this with an associate yesterday, it came up that in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Tolkein carefully chose names to complement the thematic environment of Middle-earth. The Hobbits have brief, snappy, one- or two-syllable names, giving them a naturalistic, familiar air, while some characters who are set back from the action have longer, more flowerly names.

Myself, I can't start writing until at least I know the names of the major people involved in it. This was something I wrestled with for a while in "Restrictions Management," soon to enter its second-draft stage. Names, when chosen carefully, can be indicative of background and nature and can act as hints to the true face of the character. In this case I settled on the surname of Rowanwood for the characters - after Rowanwood Avenue in Rosedale - to connote a tincture of wealth. That informed the background of the characters, and let me understand the details underlying the story in a more meaningful way.

The same is true for my next work-in-progress, "Oddments." There are going to be three characters on the protagonist's side, the brave crew of the spaceship Eltanin, and one antagonist. I like going for Meaningful Names, when they're not painfully obvious, and as I said before they do help to guide the development of a character. Alonso Peralta - which, if you combine Latin and Spanish, can be read as "to high" - is the commander, and the EVA specialist and protagonist, Phoebe Nassau, has a surname that can be pronounced the same way as "NASA."

I'm not done yet, but I'm still working through it.

Nevertheless, you've got to be careful to not choose a ridiculous name unless the story is built around that intention. Fictional characters may not complain as much as children saddled with poor names might - but you won't have people taking them seriously.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

PDP #32: The Heart of the City

Back in December 2007, I managed to break out of my night-shift schedule for long enough to take a daytrip with my dad to Buffalo, New York. As the closest major city on the American side of the border, Buffalo has always been a magnet for exploration and discovery whenever I've crossed that line. Going to the United States has always felt to me like stepping into some kind of bizarro world, where everything is the same except for a few extremely minor differences that stand out all the more just for that reason.

It was 8 o'clock on a Saturday night when we passed through downtown Buffalo on our way back to Canada, and the place was absolutely and utterly deserted in a way that still unnerves me. The street was wide, the buildings tall and common, and in all respects it seemed like an ordinary downtown except for the near-total absence of people. I've since been told that many American downtowns are similarly hollow when the 9-to-5ers aren't around. Downtown Toronto pulses all through the day and deep into the night, and I've only recently realized how unusual that is for a North American city.

I took this photo last May from the roof of the Merchandise Building, looking southwest into Toronto's downtown core. It looks pretty much the same now, except for the then-under-construction stub of the Bay Adelaide Centre. Today, it is pleasingly blue.

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, April 25, 2009

Short SF Review #5: "No Shoulder to Cry On"

"No Shoulder to Cry On," by Hank Davis
Appeared in Analog Science Fiction / Science Fact - June 1968

Before the moon bases had been developed beyond the level of extraterrestrial summer camps, before man had gone to Mars in person, the stars had come to see him. And brought hope.

Truly timeless literature is in the distinct minority of everything that's been written. For every Epic of Gilgamesh, there were doubtless a thousand pointless tales carved by Babylonian hacks who have since been completely forgotten. The same is true of science fiction. While some works retain their relevance and their capacity to compel decades after they were first put to paper, all around their pedestals the lone and level sands stretch far away.

"No Shoulder to Cry On" is one of those not-particularly-timeless stories, in my estimation. According to the Internet Speculative Fiction Database, this was the only one of Hank Davis' stories to appear in Analog's pages. Arguably set in 1973, it follows Howard M. Nelson, Esq., Ph.D., a lone scientist travelling to an alien world as part of an effort for the "three point nine billion - and more on the way" people of Earth to "coexist on the same eight thousand mile diameter life raft without... capsizing the shaky thing and drowning one and all?" The underlying assumption of the story mirrors Carl Sagan's expectation that any starfaring species would be peaceful as a matter of course, because otherwise they would not have survived to become starfaring in the first place. Nevertheless, this is still Analog it's appearing in, and the humans find that the aliens have far less to offer them than they have to the aliens.

It's a short one - only six pages - and that's good, because I think it was already on the edge of wearing out its welcome by the time it ended. There just wasn't much oomph in it to craft a compelling yarn, just a lone scientist in an alien environment ruminating about what had got him there and speculating on what he'd encounter. On the whole, it struck me as fairly sterile - though I did like the early note that the alien ship's faster-than-light drive also slightly shifted its internal color spectrum, with the result of the character's white shirt appearing violet while cheating Einstein.

I don't think it's much surprise that this story was published when it was. Beyond the ever-present shadow of nuclear annihilation, in 1968 John W. Campbell had been at the helm of Analog for thirty years. Though he was already in the twilight of his life, his tastes in stories hadn't changed. Campbell was always one for the space opera - witness his editorial support of the reactionless Dean Drive - and he likewise had little patience with the "Elder Big Brother" model of extraterrestrials. In Popular Contemporary Writers, Michael D. Sharp wrote that Campbell "believed firmly in human superiority" and that "humans were better than aliens."

"No Shoulder To Cry On" thus strikes me as a story almost tailor-made to appeal to Campbell. That may be so, but it didn't do the same for me.


Friday, April 24, 2009

PDP #31: Streetcar for Tomorrow

In a matter of hours, the Toronto Transit Commission is going to announce whether Toronto will be a Siemens city or a Bombardier burg. At stake is the TTC's new streetcar order, valued at over a billion dollars. The winner will supply vehicles not only to glide on the new Transit City lines once they're actually built, but replace the current fleet before it has many more chances to get long in the tooth. History is going to turn on a fresh track.

Even with the announcement, it will be some time before the TTC can scrape together funding to actually buy the streetcars, longer before they start appearing on the rails, and still longer before they take over. Nevertheless, I can't help but feel that this is the beginning of an end of an era. Whichever streetcar wins - the Bombardier Flexity Outlook or the Siemens Combino Plus - will do so at least partially on the basis of its successes in other systems around the world. The twin workhorses of the TTC for the last thirty years, the CLRV and the double-length ALRV, are unique to this city. No other transit agency uses them; you can't find them in any colors other than the red, white, and black. When they go, so too will a symbol of Toronto pass from the streets into history.

Despite whatever their faults may be, despite the lack of fleetwide air conditioning and weathering that transforms "TO OPEN DOOR STAND ON STEP" into "O OE OOR AND O TEP," I will miss them once they're gone. Also, I will be one of those standing in line on the handful of occasions they bring out the couple they retain for heritage runs, one bright day in a year to come.

UPDATE (11:25 AM): It's Bombardier.

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, April 23, 2009

21st Century Decivilization

There's a recurring idea in science fiction that the rural-to-urban population shift is a temporary one, and with the right combination of technological advancement we'll all start filtering back to the countryside and once again leaving the cities to rot. Transhuman Space includes this as "decivilization," with one of its supplements detailing the demolition of multiple blocks of Manhattan to expand Central Park, and the 1946 Arthur C. Clarke short "Rescue Party" takes time out to describe how the advent of the personal helicopter "brought universal transportation" and enabled people to return "to the fields and forests for which they had always longed."

Personally I can't take the idea of "the death of the city" too seriously. The city has been the foundation of human civilization ever since one brick was stacked on top of another at Jericho, and I don't believe that a transportation revolution or sophisticated communications technologies will make the abandonment of the metropolis feasible. To me it's a relic of twentieth-century modes of thought that still refuse to take externalities into account. The environmental cost of the cities emptying, of people dispersing through the countryside but still demanding the same amentities available in an urban area, would be disastrous.

Nevertheless, cities will empty, by degrees. As it happens, it's not necessarily a negative thing.

Flint, Michigan is far from ground zero of the recession. As Michael Moore spared no detail to demonstrate in Roger & Me, Flint was already screwed a full twenty years before the markets went south; the crisis of the last year has only been kicking the city with steel-toed boots until it coughs up blood. Flint's crisis is one of overextension, and the City that General Motors Built now may as well have been founded on quicksand. On Tuesday, the New York Times' David Streitfeld reported on the newest idea to save Flint from collapse: decivilization.

"The population would be condensed into a few viable areas," Streitfeld writes, with the remainder of the city being demolished rather than left to rot. "A city built to manufacture cars would be returned in large measure to the forest primeval."

This is an excellent idea, and I wholeheartedly support the concept. Partially that's just my surprise that people in positions of authority are recognizing reality; that sometimes there's no going back to the way things were. Flint overextended itself back when times were good, and a consolidation of the city around a functional core may be the only real way to save it from collapse. Furthermore, the rationalization of cities into smaller, more compact forms not only enhance livability through a reduced necessity to rely on cars, but have environmental bonuses via land returned to nature.

Today, I see reflected in Flint the future fortunes of the world as a whole. Since the days of Levittown we've invested more and more time, energy, and resources into spreading, taming, harnessing, and exploiting as much as possible so that the markets will always keep climbing. Back in the 1950s it was as if Prosperity had been handed down by Moses from Mount Sinai. Fifty years later the assumptions of our ancestors are increasingly transparent.

I do hope that through the admittedly drastic measure of shrinkage and demolition, Flint can turn its fortunes around. It may be a dress rehearsal for far larger things in the years to come.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

PDP #30: 401 By Morning

Highways aren't meant to be walked on. They should instead be traversed with great speed. Frequent highway travel in my younger days, back when I lived in Barrie and had yet to grasp what my reliance on car travel was doing to the environment, made me familiar with most of the major routes in and around Toronto, albeit from the front passenger's seat. I often find it a strange switch of perspective when I return to places on foot after only having driven through them, being able to appreciate their nature in a more complete way.

Here, I'm looking east along Highway 401 in Etobicoke from the Kipling Avenue bridge, at 6:55 on a Saturday morning. This is about as quiet as the 401 ever gets.

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, April 21, 2009

New Zealand, You So Crazy

As a prescript, I have been informed by a reliable local that in the argot of New Zealand, "lolly" apparently means "candy." Crazy, no?

I've been made aware, via, of a potential controversy brewing in a kettle - which may yet end up on the front cover of the Globe and Mail - regarding an iconic brand of New Zealand lolly, Pascall Eskimos. The lack of a Wikipedia entry devoted to them indicates, to me, that they are very culturally specific to Godzone, and thus it makes perfect sense that the average Canadian would never have heard of them even in the wired world of tomorrow, today! Nevertheless.

The problem with these lollies, it seems, is that they're derogatory emblems against Inuits. They're shaped like, well, the sort of "stereotypical Eskimo" you'd expect to find in a Looney Tunes short from the 40s or 50s, bundled up in a thick parka with only the face showing any kind of detail. Apparently they taste rather like Peeps and are made mostly of sugar and food coloring. This may not have been a problem so long as no actual Inuits discovered these lollies. As the linked article makes clear that's no longer the case, and the Canadian tourist who's apparently at the center of this, Seeka Lee Veevee Parsons, is planning to send some to Prime Minister Harper. This may yet lead to some more epic shouting on the floor of the House during Question Period.

The manufacturer, as manufacturers are wont to do, are standing by their product - apparently it is "an iconic New Zealand lolly." That may be so, but icons don't appear overnight. They have in fact been around for fifty-four years, which incidentally explains why anyone might have thought basing a candy around a caricature of people of the Arctic fringes was a neat idea.

Still, being around for more than half a century does build loyalty, and I can understand why New Zealanders would rally around a marshmallowy plank of their culture. That doesn't mean the Inuit aren't in the wrong to be offended by it. This sort of thing has happened in the past, with products based on out-and-out racist depictions of black people, and the products in question changed themselves in recognition of the world having changed around them.

I wouldn't be surprised if the reason that this is seen more as a "damn foreigners getting in our business" story in New Zealand is because of the general low profile of the Inuit people. Even in Canada, they are rarely in the news unless there's occasion to talk about how Ottawa is screwing the North. Could it be that since that cultures in both New Zealand and Canada tend not to think of Inuits as objects of ridicule - further to the point, tend not to think of Inuits at all - it's affecting how people look at the situation?

"While this is all blown out of proportion, it's also a stick in the eye," said the aforementioned reliable local New Zealander. "Jane Foreigner sticking her big mouth into our childhood memories and dessert treats."

I can understand but I don't know if I can agree. Cultural wars tend to cut deeper than most other conflicts because the scars are purely spiritual. People can, and will, fight tooth-and-nail for an idea when purely temporal concerns don't faze them. In the end, they tend to produce the kind of solution you'd get from Thunderdome.

I'd be interested to know what you readers (I know there are at least *some* of you) think.

Monday, April 20, 2009

PDP #29: Sparse Corridors

When it's open, Yorkdale Shopping Centre up in North York likely does more business than almost any other mall in Metro Toronto. Negotiating the crowd becomes as much of an art as a science, dodging this way and that around window browsers and slow ramblers, and it only gets more complicated when you're walking against the flow.

Things are different in the mornings. This photo was taken at 9:06 AM on a Saturday morning, about half an hour or so before the majority of the stores were to open for business. That early in the morning, Yorkdale's shopping promenades are as empty as sidewalks in Mississauga. A quiet mall is a strange thing, an almost unnatural thing, an echoing temple of capitalism with no one bowed to pray.

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, April 19, 2009

The Bitter Joke of Canadian Democracy

In the end, we've all got to keep the bastards honest.

Transparency in conduct is a necessary component of a healthy democracy, and I for one am ashamed - though not surprised - that it took the Canadian House of Commons until Wednesday, as reported in the Toronto Star, to place the voting records of our Members of Parliament online for public view. Presently the records are scanty at best, with the House's search engine looking no further back than the 38th Parliament, opened on October 4, 2004. So if you want to know just how the Little Guy from Shawinigan voted on, well, anything, you're out of luck. By purpose of comparison, the Washington Post alone offers a database that includes every U.S. Congressional vote since 1991.

This system is not only long overdue, but is one of the better ways we have to ensure that our elected representatives are doing the jobs we sent them to Ottawa for. At least, that's what it seems to be at first glance. If our MPs are voting out of line with the wishes of their riding, that's good cause to have them turfed come the next election, right?

Not really, because of the magic and wonder of that parliamentary procedure known and loved as party discipline. What's party discipline? To put it simply, a party MP votes the way the party leader wants them to vote, or they get kicked the hell out of the party. Simple, isn't it? I first learned about the magic and wonder of party discipline in my OAC Politics course in high school, and I'm still as disgusted by it now as I was then.

Witness the tale of John Nunziata, the erstwhile Liberal member for York South—Weston, who in 1996 was expelled from the Liberal Party of Canada for daring - daring! - to vote his conscience and against their budget, rather than toe the party line like the good little legislative robot he was expected to be. It's a testament to his personal popularity that he won his seat in 1997 as an independent.

Free votes are notoriously rare in the Canadian House of Commons. The only one I can think of was that regarding Bill C-38, conducted in June 2005 over the national legalization of same-sex marriage. Other than that votes tend to collapse along party lines, and in the modern climate of minority governments it's been the Bloc and the independents who have frequently held the balance of power. In most cases if you want to know how a given MP voted, it's easier to just look up whether their leader said "yea" or "nay."

Transparency in government is a worthwhile thing, but only when it furthers the cause of democracy. Party discipline has made Canadian democracy a joke ever since it was born. Sure, being able to see just how our MPs voted may bring Parliament into the twenty-first century, but it's all just a smokescreen. Whether our MPs voted for or against a bill is irrelevant when their choices on the matter were made for them.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

PDP #28: The Peace Fountain

Toronto may not have a vendetta against its history, but for most of its existence it's sure acted like that. There are few points of real historical significance remaining in the modern city, and most of those can be found within four blocks of the intersection of Yonge and King - so worthy sites elsewhere have had to learn stealth in order to survive.

Toronto's Peace Fountain can be found surrounded by greenery - seasonally permitting - in Amsterdam Park, at the northeast corner of the intersection of St. Clair Avenue West and Avenue Road, and just south of the Korean consulate. It's the sort of site one could walk or drive by dozens of times and never realize the significance. Those are always the greater discoveries, when you finally do stumble into them. It's inscribed with this message:



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

Friday, April 17, 2009

Short SF Review #4: "Crazy Oil"

"Crazy Oil," by Brenda Pearce
Appeared in Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact - April 1975

Collins checked the appropriate recorder. "Yep. You're right. The temperature has fallen forty degrees." Without meaning to imply any condescension, he added, "Clever girl!"

Back in the 1970s, from what I'm given to understand, there was a widespread feeling that the price of oil was killing us. OPEC's 1973 decision to enact an oil embargo brought an end to prices that had hovered in the same narrow range practically since the invention of the internal combustion engine. All science fiction is reflective of the time it's written in some way or another, and as Brenda Pearce's 1975 story "Crazy Oil" demonstrates, it's a short logical leap from "the price of oil is killing us" to "the oil is killing us."

The story's set on and around Venus, the Furnace That Walks Like A Planet, in a time that is never really specified but is probably supposed to be the early- to mid-range 21st century. It follows Dr. Christopher Collins and the rest of a United European Space Service mission to the baking Venerian surface to investigate the titular crazy oil, an enigmatic inorganic oil-like substance which is not only prized for its qualities as fertilizer, but completely destroyed two installations on the planet in ways which shouldn't have been possible.

The mission descends from Venus orbit in an exploration scaphe, an armored aerospace craft which fills the same niche as deep-diving bathyscaphes on Earth and which was described as a "dump truck" by the collaborating artist, a pre-Star Trek: The Next Generation Rick Sternbach. That it's explicitly powered by a gravitic drive left a bad taste in my mouth, however - the presence of gravity manipulation is the only real scrap of superscience in the story, and in my opinion it honestly doesn't need to be there. Once on the surface, the crew sets to continuing the work of their comrades killed in the surface installations, and find that they have more to reckon with than the deadly hot-coal-soup environment of Venus.

I found "Crazy Oil" to be a competent, capable story of survival against long odds in a hostile environment. Nevertheless, at points I found interplay between the characters hard to follow - it was only on my second flip-through that I realized I'd been connecting one of the characters with the incorrect surname. As well, to me the protagonist Collins seemed far more bumbling, even considering the distraction of his being reunited with a lost love, than an astronaut should have any right to be. Neither the vacuum of space nor the hell of Venus are particularly forgiving of mistakes; Collins' mistakes nearly doom them all.

As I said before, "Crazy Oil" is a product of its time, and not just in terms of its subject matter. One problem most every sf author will butt heads with eventually is changing social mores. What was acceptable forty years ago might be unacceptable today, and an artifact further in the future. While Collins' casual, condescending sexism is called out in the story, the fact that it was there at all jolted me from the narrative. I had to spend a moment looking out the streetcar window as Queen Street West rolled past to remind myself that there are still, and undoubtedly will remain, individuals who act like caricatures, well into the true 21st century.


(Also, apologies for the lack of a post yesterday. I was rather sick, and updating this weblog was shoved low on the list of priorities.)

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

A New Life for the New Men

Responsibility. That's a word we're going to be hearing more and more as the 21st century unfolds. The Industrial Revolution marked the end of our childhood and the beginning of a precocious technological adolescence, and with our technologies and our ways of life changing the world to greater and greater degrees, sooner or later we are going to have to take responsibility for our actions and the maintenance of the world. The system has become too complex; nature alone can't handle the job anymore.

To reverse the old saying, with that great responsibility comes great power. Once we finally admit that humanity has become an active steward of Earth, a great deal of windows and doors will be flung open. What kind of things could we do - more importantly, what should we do? Questions like that have been asked for generations, but they may be on the cusp of gaining a new immediacy.

Let's take, for one, extinctions. More than 99% of all the life forms that have ever walked, scuttled, oozed, or flown above the earth are now dead, and despite the tolls that deforestation in the Amazon or the thoughtless introduction of predators into unprepared ecosystems have taken, humanity had nothing to do with the vast, vast majority of this shuffling off the stage of life. While you might be hard-pressed to find anyone who would say a word against resurrecting the dodo or the passenger pigeon, given that their extinctions were the result of human activity, how far should that line of thought be taken?

Should humans give serious thought to resurrecting species struck down only by nature, red in tooth and claw? Should we bring back distant cousins and give them a second chance at life? Should we, given the opportunity, return life to the neanderthals? John Tierney of the New York Times considered this possibility back in February, and he concluded that "I'm afraid I can't see the problem... we've also spent lots of money reintroducing animals into ecosystems from which they had vanished. Shouldn't we be at least as solicitous to our fellow hominids?"

For the record, I agree. There's no such thing as fairness or compassion in nature. There's no justice in how any extinct species was struck down by nature's claw. I think that restoring a population of neanderthals - and by restoring I mean creating new ones, not unfreezing any hypothetical originals like 21st century Encino Men - has the potential to teach us a great deal about our place in the world. Many revelations come only through measuring oneself against something external. With an extant population of neanderthals, homo sapiens sapiens would be able to take true stock of itself through the differences and similarities of homo sapiens neanderthalensis.

Nevertheless, not everyone is going to agree. Should this issue ever migrate from the demesne of science fiction to workaday reality, the big question is going to be whether it's right to do this. How can we justify resurrecting a species that had its shot and didn't make it, they'll say, when there are so many humans suffering right now? Shouldn't we think about them instead?

"Won't someone think of all those suffering people" is always problematic, in my experience. If you disagree, you're some kind of a monster, but I've always thought of the situation as a particularly unfortunate Red Queen's race. No matter what we do, no matter how stressed the environment and our support infrastructure already is, more and more children are being born every day. Not only that, no matter what progress we make, that progress will never be enough. There will always be suffering people; the only way they'll ever differ is in degree. It's like Zeno's paradox - no matter how close we come to "eradicating suffering," the definition of "suffering" will inevitably change. Putting things like space development or neanderthal resurrection on hold because of "problems on Earth" will only ever prevent those things from being done.

Even so, while a resurrected neanderthal population would most likely not be large, and would as such, likely be subject to racism and the other assorted uglinesses of human psychology, I still think it would be a worthwhile pursuit, though I'm biased - my currently-in-progress story "Restrictions Management" includes a small resurrected-neanderthal population in its setting background.

We only learn about ourselves when it's in comparison with someone or something else. Modern humanity has been alone for too long.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

PDP #27: Buses Don't Blink

The best part of living in Barrie was, for me, being one of those fortunate few who lived adjacent to a Barrie Transit bus route - in this case the 34 Ardagh route, but it didn't have the number then, and the route has been changed since. From Grade 10 onward I used the city bus to get to school and back and felt far better about it than had I taken the school bus with everyone else.

Still, public transit in Barrie is a shadow compared to Toronto, even taking into account the differing sizes of the two cities. Barrie is a sprawling, rambling place of suburban cul-de-sacs, poorly served by buses that come no more frequently than every thirty minutes and which wind in weird ways through the asphalt labyrinths the planners laid down. What's left unsaid is that you're in Barrie - why aren't you driving a car?

I wasn't driving when I took this photo - I don't drive. Nevertheless, it's difficult to get a head-on shot of a bus in operation in any other way.

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

Monday, April 13, 2009

Creative Chunks #3: "The Software Market on Rainier"

All writers were amateurs once. This has become a great deal more obvious since the advent of INTERNET, which has provided the firmest proof of Sturgeon's Law yet by tearing down essentially all of the barriers to entry. Some beginning stuff is finer than others, but few very-early works can be called anything like "great."

This one certainly can't.

I can't recall the background in which I wrote it, whether it was part of a school assignment (OAC2 English - Writer's Craft?) or just something I wrote because I could. The final draft I have is dated May 22, 1998 - a Friday. What I do know is that it is clunky and amateurish at best and that I've hopefully improved a great deal since then. Still, while it is not all that good, neither is it worthy of Old Shame status or hiding out on my hard drive for evermore - so instead I share it with all of you, under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 license. Please, mock it relentlessly. It deserves at least that much.

I think that I thought I could be subtle when I was fifteen.

The Software Market on Rainier
by Andrew Barton


"I guess so."

"Yes or no."

"Well, it's just... I don't know if I can do this. I mean, we're about to shut down an entire world here!" The technician pointed his arm towards the forti-plastic window, to illustrate his point.

"I realize that, but you and I both know that we don't have any other options," said the technician's boss, one William Tegas. Tegas was pushing fifty standard years, but he still retained a certain boyish charm, which was especially due to his old-style thick-rimmed glasses. "I've been CEO of this company for near thirty years. I built eSoft completely from scratch, and the damned Feds think they can just move in and eradicate everything we've built here." He promptly folded his hands behind his back and looked out the fortieth story window, watching the people of New Tacoma going about their business, totally oblivious to the fact that disaster was about to befall them.

"Jim," he said suddenly, "do you know why I originally created the virus?"

"Umm... to monopolize Rainier's software market?"

"Not at all, Jim," answered Tegas. "It started about ten years ago. The New Tacoma Picayune published an article claiming that eSoft used 'unfair business practices' in its marketing techniques. Subliminal messages on TV, so they said. We vigorously denied the charges in the public forum, but of course they all were absolutely true."

"But how could you do something like that? Subliminally advertising to the entire seems like cheating, to me."

"Well, some people would see it that way. Fortunately, I don't, and neither does the eSoft Board of Directors. I'm worth 24 billion credits, you know? But there are corporations on Earth and Mars to whom 24 billion credits is chump change. I needed to build up a solid supply of capital so that eSoft could successfully compete off Rainier."

"So that's when you designed the virus," the technician concluded.

"Not exactly, Jim. There's an old saying I know of: 'Never do something yourself if you can pay someone to do it for you.' I'm a forward-thinking man, and I knew that the truth would eventually come out. So I hired the best programmers on Rainier, hackers mostly, and they designed the bug.

"It worked even better then we could have expected. Not only did the bug destroy every eSoft product on the mainframe, but it left the computer in such a state that none of our competitors' software would work on it either, and make Deep Blue look like a genius by comparison. So we secretly installed it in Portals '56, along with every single eSoft product to come out since then. Now, it's in ninety-nine percent of households on this rock, and we've got our finger hovering over the button. Now, my friend, the time has come to push that button."

"But, that would completely destroy our customers' livelihoods!" protested the technician. "Their money made us the largest corporation on Rainier, and this is how you repay them" How do you intend to keep eSoft afloat when no one will buy anything with our name on it?"

"Jim," he sighed, "it's not about profits anymore. The Feds have found the evidence they need, the evidence I tried so hard to keep from them. They're coming to shut us down, and there's nothing can be done. All that we have left is revenge."

"Well then, I don't want any part of your vengeance game. Leave me out of this."

"Fine by me. You're fired." With that, Tegas produced a gun from a hidden pocket and promptly put a bullet in the technician's shoulder.

"Now that that's over with, my public awaits," Tegas said to no one in particular. He sat down at the terminal which the technician had most graciously vacated just seconds before, and began to input commands. When his programming prowess rewarded him by activation of the virus transmission, a timer appeared on the screen. "In ten seconds, Rainier will enter the Stone Age," he marveled to himself, and then started the countdown.

When the timer hit seven, Tegas was distracted from the screen my a whispering voice. It was Jim, the technician. "You fool..." he said, his voice raspy from the severe pain produced by his injury. "I hope you're proud of yourself. You've just destroyed Rainier's entire computer network. Even the automated defendersats. Now what's going to keep the Aliens at bay? The fifty million people on this planet... you've just signed their death warrants!"

"Dear God, no!" Tegas rushed to deactivate the countdown, but it was too late. In horror, he watched as a representation of the signal raced across the hundred thousand kilometers of space adjacent to Rainier at the speed of light, destroying every computer it came across which used eSoft.

"The Aliens should be on their way right now," continued Jim. "I hear their teleporters have ranges over two million klicks. They can send soldiers from their moon base in seconds. And you know the first place they'll come? The spot where the transmission originated. Right here."

"No! No!" But before he could belabor the point further, a squad of heavily-armed Aliens teleported into the room. Wasting no time at all, the intruders secured the room, then picked up Tegas and the technician, carrying them both to the spot where the squad had appeared. Tegas kept shouting at the insectoids the whole time he was in their custody. "Give me my gun back! I'm valuable! I'm corporate material! I'm an executive..."

As the Aliens vanished from the room, returning to the place from where they had come, all that could be heard, aside from Tegas' voice, was the sound of the technician laughing.


I, the copyright holder of this work, hereby make it available under a Creative Commons Attribution-Commercial-ShareAlike 3.0 license. That means you are free to Share — to copy, distribute and transmit this work — and Remix — to adapt this work — under the following conditions.

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Full details of this license are available at the Creative Commons website.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

PDP #26: Smoke over Bloor Street

It's a quick turnaround today in a city that seems to have dealt with a surprising amount of significant fires over the last week. While on northern walkabout with Randy McDonald on Friday afternoon, April 10th, which among other accomplishments included covering the entire length of Lansdowne Avenue, we both noticed an unusual smoke cloud rising over the skyline once we reached Bloor. It wasn't until later that details of the blaze hit the news - a three-alarm fire at 804 Bloor Street West, about 1.7 kilometers from where today's photo was taken. Thankfully, in comparison to other fires that have ripped through the city recently, the news is not reporting anyone to have been hurt because of this one.

Randy McDonald took his own photos of the smoke plume. Once he updates his own site as such, I will link to his thoughts from here.

UPDATE (04/14/09): Randy has updated. His post and somewhat-alternate-angle photo on the matter can be found here.

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, April 11, 2009

Quaff Review #1: Abbey Belgian Spiced Ale

So here's the situation, for your consideration: it's Thursday, I'm getting jazzed at the prospect of a long weekend dominated by weather that doesn't require folk to huddle next to space heaters, when - Shock! Horror! I realize that I've got nothing alcoholic to drink in the apartment, and no opportunity to get some myself! Fortunately, as is most welcome in desperate fixes like this, a friend came through - I gave him five bucks, he said he would surprise me, and he came back with a bottle of Abbey Belgian Spiced Ale, which I've never seen before. Truly, the downtown LCBOs have wonders far beyond that of simple Parkdale.

My experience with Belgian beers runs entirely to Hoegaarden, which is not a bad choice but does cost a fair bit more than the standard standby of a six-pack of Lucky Lager (unfortunately, no longer just a dollar a can). Despite its name the Abbey Belgian brew does not appear to be importado, unless you consider Oakville to be some glamorous foreign destination, which I will not until and unless Toronto achieves its destiny. That's an advantage, though, in one respect - I can get all the joys of Belgian, or at least "Belgian," brewing with a significantly lower carbon footprint involved in shipping it from the manufacturer to the seller and the joyous consumer.

The ale itself was dark brown in color, and did not foam excessively when I poured it - always good, because more foam means the more time I have to wait for it to settle down before I can drink it. It went down smooth with a very vaguely bitter aftertaste, but not enough for me to think ill of it. As for me, the taste and the smell conjured up imagery of big, old wooden barrels, and the ale itself filled me with one of those temporary yet profound senses of well-being.

If you've got some spare cash around and you don't have a problem with dropping multiple dollars on a single 650 mL bottle, I'd recommend this.

In addition, it appears to have expired last month - the best before date reads "MAR 09" - here's hoping for no ill effects! Fingers crossed!

Friday, April 10, 2009

PDP #25: Not the Best of First Impressions

While my opinions have changed in the intervening years, my first real encounter with representatives of the Green Party of Ontario didn't exactly reflect well on the organization. Today's photo was taken in Peterborough on September 17, 2003, during the height of the provincial election campaign that resulted in Dalton "Evil Reptilian Kitten-Eater From Another Planet" McGuinty putting an end to eight years of Progressive Conservative leadership in Queen's Park. I know that, as a university and college town, Peterborough was and probably still is more open to the Green agenda than most - that still doesn't mean that a rally centered around a guy in a blue-and-yellow inflatable fat man costume parading around downtown is the best way to get potential voters to take you seriously.

Tim Holland was the GPO's Peterborough candidate for the 2003 election, and despite compelling inflatable-fat-guy parades, the 1,605 votes he captured were only enough to put him past one independent candidate and another from the Family Coalition Party. In the 2007 election the Green Party's vote total under Miriam Stucky increased to 4,444 votes, which is pretty cool for the numerological significance alone.

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, April 9, 2009

The Wages of Folly

There's nothing that frustrates me more than China, India, and the rest of the developing countries insisting that they should be given a blank check to pollute as much as they want while they industrialize because that's the same way the West did it. While I can see the point, it doesn't apply as such in the world we have today. The West industrialized the way it did because outside of isolated areas, there was no alternative to dirty coal-burning power generation in the Industrial Revolution.

That is not the case today, but in all things inerta is difficult to overcome. Now we're paying the price.

Yesterday's New York Times carried Felicity Barringer's story "Climate Legislation Sends Chill Through Areas Fueled by Coal," looking at the threat of electrical rate increases in Missouri as a result of potential legislation to put a hard cap on carbon dioxide emissions. According to the article, the state of Missouri gets 80% of its power from coal-burning power plants, which together emit seventy-five million tons of carbon dioxide yearly. Missouri and places like it will be the grounds-zero of privation should laws restricting greenhouse gas emissions come into place.

The overriding theme of the twenty-first century, I think, is going to be one of adjustment. Adjusting to new standards, new practices, new ways of living and a world that will in many ways be a new one compared to the way it is now. "We can barely afford what we have now," says a Missourian quoted in the Times' article, but "what we have now" includes "a double-door refrigerator, a washer and dryer, six televisions, three computers, and an iron" - for three people - and an average monthly hydro bill in summer of $250 US ($306.54 CDN).

Something is obviously wrong here, aside from the degree to which Missouri relies on coal power. It's that Western civilization has become accustomed to cheap, plentiful electricity, and does not care where that electricity comes from, so long as it comes. These attitudes are fast becoming as dangerous as the idea that the Third World can pollute however much it wants, because that's how it's always been done.

Changing is going to hurt when the time comes.

Nevertheless, though it will be painful, that does not mean that it does not have to be done, or that it is avoidable. The opposite, in fact, is true. We've spent too much time idling with our eyes shut to switch easily now; the window of opportunity for a smooth transition probably closed before I was born. It is incumbent upon all of us to abandon coal burning as soon as possible and transition to environmentally friendly modes of power generation, such as nuclear.

Incidentally, if you believe that nuclear power is not an environmentally friendly mode of power generation, you're a part of the problem. If it hadn't been for well-meaning but empty-headed environmental campaigners like Greenpeace agitating against the construction of nuclear power plants, we wouldn't be in this bind today. They've built some inertia of their own, but it will only lead us to the same place that burning coal will.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

PDP #24: Toronto Typo Commission #2

I've said before that clarity is key to running an efficient and effective public transportation system. In a system as large as the Toronto Transit Commission, problems will inevitably slip through the cracks, of course, but that should only encourage all of us to watch out for them.

Today's photo was, in a departure for the Public Domain Photography series, not actually taken by me. It was instead captured by the frood Tesseract, who recently found it at Bloor-Yonge station on his way downtown and passed it on to me. Here's his comment:

"Thanks to Tesseract for finding this one at the Sorth End of the Bloor Subway platform. As the photo is of the public domain, I release it into the digital public domain."

Can't really argue with the man, can I? Personally, I feel this oversight would be a lot more forgivable if only the "r" and "u" keys weren't so far away from one another.

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

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Magpie's Library

If you've read some of my earlier posts, you know that I'm not entirely entranced by the prospect of ebooks seizing a commanding market share from ordinary books full of pages to keep the covers apart. As in many other fields, the headlong charge toward advancement at any cost is being done without regard to the potential consequences - the overriding thought seems to be "wouldn't it be cool if we did this?" instead of "what would happen if we did this?"

On April 4, the Slipstream section of the New York Times ran Brad Stone's article "Is This the Future of the Digital Book?", examining the efforts of online entrepreneur Bradley Inman to reinvent fiction for the Internet generation, combining "great fiction, dramatic online video and compelling Twitter stream" into works intended to be read on mobile platforms. The concept is called a "vook," I suppose a combination of "video book," which Stone speculates "might just represent a possible future for the beleaguered book industry."

Interesting on its own, isn't it? It seems that way to me, though I can hardly be sure because I am most emphatically not part of the vook's target market - the only "mobile device" I own is a watch with a big hand and a smaller hand. Nevertheless, the more niches we have in which to indulge our creativity, the richer our culture will be and we'll all be better off as a result. I have no problem with that. What I do have a problem with is the habits that something like a vook would encourage, and the constant, viscous undercurrent of assumption that the day of the book is ending.

"Even worse," Stone writes, "on multipurpose reading devices like the iPhone, more immediately gratifying pastimes like video games are a click away for readers with short attention spans."

The way I see it, that one sentence is ground zero of the argument as to why vooks are necessary, that otherwise people won't read them because they're Just Too Long. This is exactly the wrong way to go about this. We should not and can not cater to people who cannot invest a modicum of time in something, whose attention can be held only by throwing an array of beeps and buzzes and flashing lights at them. Low attention spans have been a problem for decades; we should be fighting them, not encouraging them.

Moreover, I find that the concept of the vook as an integrated platform of text, video, and other multimedia would of necessity diminish the author's control of the creation. Today, an author only ever has to answer to an editor, and until then all the work and sweat is her or his own. The only barriers to entry for an author today are talent and skill. I wrote "The Platinum Desolation" in Notepad; I needed nothing else.

Vooks, on the other hand, would require infrastructure. Few authors have high-quality film equipment and access to high-quality actors. Rather than fill vooks with amateurish multimedia that would repel readers rather than attract them, I can easily see the publishing companies becoming more and more involved in that side of production. The story would cease to be the author's vision and instead be taken over by the company so that it is put together along lines Scientifically Proven to draw customers in.

Futurist Jamais Cascio over at Open the Future has written recently about the concept of "resilience," writing on how a healthy future civilization must disengage from the brittle just-in-time, so-long-as-it-works methodology we've built our society on. Vooks, and ebooks in general, are just as equally a part of that. They are entirely reliant on the Internet as it currently exists, and in fact are worthless without it. I have trouble imagining an equivalent of my recent discovery of Analog back issues from 1965 where vooks are concerned. In the electronic world, things just don't seem to age as well.

The future has the potential to be a wonderful place, but with every day that goes by it feels like we want to see it so badly we're not even bothering to build a bridge there.

Monday, April 6, 2009

PDP #23: The Swamp

A few minutes' walk away from the house in Barrie where I grew up, there was a swamp. That's what we all called it, anyway. Once you reached the end of the road, a few steps took you from the edge of suburbia to the wilds of nature, each shoved against the other without anything in between. It was an outpost of the primeval land amid the encroachment of ever more houses, big backyards, long driveways, and arrow-straight streets. The forest around it was deep and alive, and you didn't need to go very deep into it to forget where you were.

The Swamp doesn't exist anymore. At least, not the way I remember it, not as anything but a shadow of what it was. A new road has been drilled straight through it, and much of the forest has been felled to clear the way for new housing developments - as if new sprawling tracts of cardboard McMansions so that 9-to-5 ex-Torontonians can raise children in a drab, blank, howling wilderness of a community are exactly what we need more of. I don't like going back there. I dislike being reminded of what we've lost, and what we continue to lose with every passing day.

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, April 5, 2009

The Wall Around the World

A little more than twelve hours ago, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea conducted a missile launch test. The missile lumbered aloft at 11:20 AM local time and was claimed to have successfully deployed its payload into orbit by that Indomitable Bastion of Truth Which Never Ever Lies, the Korean Central News Agency. Most of the world sees this action for what it rightly is, a provocative movement by the last real rogue state. Should North Korea develop an arsenal of ballistic missiles, it would become a far greater threat to its neighbors than it has been in all the years since 1953.

This particular launch was conducted by an Unha carrier rocket, based upon North Korea's existing Taepodong-2 ballistic missile, and for which there have been no complete flight tests. Considering that it took SpaceX four tries to smooth out all the rough edges on their Falcon 1 rocket, it's hardly a surprise that the rocket and its payload, supposedly the Kwangmyongsong-2 communications satellite, failed to achieve orbit and crashed into the Pacific.

Nevertheless, as world leaders react to Kim Jong-Il's latest defiant gesture, the issue continues to be framed in what I can't help but classify as a twentieth century mode of thinking. It's all being framed as the necessary prevention of North Korea developing a ballistic missile system that would further magnify the threat of its nuclear arsenal. Nuclear proliferation does remain a major issue, but unlike the days of the Cold War I do not believe that it is the most serious issue that faces us today - honestly, I would be surprised if it was in the top five.

The spread of rocketry to more and more organizations has the potential to make possible a new threat to the world which, while no less dangerous than the spectre of nuclear proliferation, would be far more subtle, incredibly difficult to reverse, and is hardly recognized as a danger by a majority of the world in the first place. I didn't want to write about this until the launch had been completed, because my nagging fear was that the North Koreans were not attempting to launch a communications satellite, but trigger the Kessler Syndrome.

The problem with orbit is that nothing really goes away. Until an object dips low enough to burn up in the atmosphere, it will remain wheeling around Earth at orbital velocity, whether it is a functioning satellite or a discarded wrench or even something as innocuous as a lost screw. The problem arises when these objects collide with one another. Orbital velocity carries incredible kinetic energy, and it would not take much of an impact to reduce a satellite to shrapnel.

There are enough satellites in orbit right now that, if left alone, many of their orbits would certainly intersect, resulting in the destruction of both and the generation of huge quantities of debris zipping through Low Earth Orbit on new paths of their own, new paths which would undoubtedly send them crashing into yet more satellites. If we are ever to go into space in a serious way, active removal of this orbital debris will be an absolute necessity. Otherwise this cascade of satellite debris destroying satellites and creating yet more debris could easily lead to the generation of a cloud of debris saturating Low Earth Orbit, rendering spaceflight effectively impossible for decades or generations.

That would be bad enough. The problem is that this is a situation which can conceivably be husbanded by knowing hands. Imagine, if you will, that the North Korean rocket managed to deliver its payload into orbit. Then imagine that the payload was not a communications satellite as KCNA claimed, but instead a thousand or so ball bearings. These ball bearings would be sprayed out every which way, wheeling around in individual orbits, a thousand whiffs of grapeshot to shred the satellite system.

It's easy to forget about the way space works because so much of it runs counter to the expectations of those who've never left Earth. Space is effectively eternal, and low orbit has a long memory. If we're to make it out of the twenty-first century with any health and strength at all, it's incumbent upon all of us to recognize the dangers of the Kessler Syndrome, and to take action to ensure that low orbit is not allowed to become a wall around the world.