Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Extra, Extra: English Hard to Spell

On Sunday in North America and Monday in Australia, the Sydney Morning Herald reported on the findings of a survey reminding us that, yes, written English is not straightforward. The survey of four hundred people over the age of 16 in Sydney and Melbourne found that 70% of respondents couldn't correctly spell "accommodation," and 25% consistently misspelled "February." Probably as Febuary, though I don't know if that pronunciation is common down there.

It's something I've been seeing increasingly often myself, from quarters you wouldn't necessarily expect. The Herald's story cites Deborah Abela, an Australian children's author, who blamed "spell check and text message abbreviations" for the poor showing. While technological assistance is probably a factor in the decline of spelling ability, it won't be for a decade or two until the scope of such effects really become evident.

This isn't just a problem in Australia, either. It's systemic. Rarely a day goes by when I don't come across some error of language. Witness those TTC extended-service ads which used "everyday" instead of "every day" and were everywhere, and which I personally complained about to TTC Chair Adam Giambrone. Sure, part of it's no doubt due to the crutch effect of technological aids. Beyond that, though, there's a lot of damage that can be done to the language through laziness and simple ignorance.

If you've spent any time at all on the internet, you've probably seen someone write "should of" when they mean "should've." This is a simple problem of ignorance compounded by the nature of the language. "Should've" and "should of" both sound the same, and if someone is more used to speaking than writing, when it does come time to write it's easy to understand that they'd go for the familiar, unaware that it's wrong.

I see this in Toronto a great deal, too. One of our main east-west streets and the gateway to Midtown is Eglinton Avenue, named after a village that once stood where the intersection of Yonge and Eglinton is today. In the 1820s, a clerical error transformed "Eglinton" into "Eglington" - this was not the first time a city was named for a misspelling - and it wasn't until sixty years later that the extra "g" was finally removed.

One "g" good, two "g" bad! Also, gotta love that there Vitrolite.

That hasn't stopped people, though. The common pronunciation in Toronto seems to skew far closer to "Eglington" than it does "Eglinton." With the error maintained in the spoken word, it's no wonder that the extra G keeps appearing where it's unwelcome. The new automated announcements on the subways and buses use the correct pronunciation, though, so there's a fair chance that the proper spelling will be cemented in the years to come. Right now there are two million hits on Google for "Eglinton" and only 207,000 for "Eglington" - and only that because there apparently are a few people with the surname Eglington.

Strangely enough, there doesn't seem to be any similar problem with spelling "Etobicoke."

Monday, June 29, 2009

PDP #63: Fred Grant Square

It seems as if every Canadian community of village-size and greater, so long as it existed before 1914, must have its own war memorial. That's no surprise thanks to places like Passchendaele and the Somme. Many of them are simple and straightforward in their own way, such as in Long Branch, others with cenotaphs carved with the names of the fallen, or monuments in cities such as Toronto inscribed with the battles and wars where they fell.

My old hometown Barrie has its own memorial in Fred Grant Square, between Dunlop Street and Kempenfelt Bay, in the heart of its vestigial downtown. The statue of the soldier on top helps, I think, to ground it. While the war memorials in Peterborough and Vimy Ridge do include statues, in both places they're symbolic representations of Canada; I think the choice of the First World War soldier at Fred Grant Square represents well the down-to-earth attitudes of what was, at the time, a small-to-middling Central Ontario community.

It makes the war less of an apocalypse and more a thing of men.

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, June 28, 2009

Road to 2011: Premier Who-Dat?

As of yesterday the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario leadership race is over, and Tim Who-Dat Hudak will be their great golden hope to carry them back to the Premier's Office after a six-year absence. I can't say I'm surprised, but neither can I say I'm excited - I wrote about his run back in April, and even then he seemed like one of the better candidates. Witness Christine Elliot's predilection for a flat tax, say, or Randy Hillier's proposal to have "Highway 448" crash through Scarborough1 and to dismantle the Ontario Human Rights Commission. I've seen Frank Klees described as a "social conservative," but I haven't yet found anything in the fragments of his platform to bear that out.

It seems as if Hudak may be the least objectionable of the lot.

Oh, joy.

Hudak's victory was the lead story on the Toronto Star's website this morning, and it ran with a photograph of Hudak being congratulated by former Premier Mike Harris, who ran the province (into the ground, some might say) from 1995 to 2002. Highly appropriate, as Hudak has ditched his previous "unknown cipher" status and embraced the role of a Harris loyalist, and if he does march victorious into Queen's Park two years from now, we'd only need to look at history to see what he'd do.

I suppose that the time is more than good enough to hold a wake for the Big Blue Machine. Back in the day, you see, the Progressive Conservatives had the same sort of grip over Ontario as the Liberal Democratic Party still does in Japan. In the sixty-two years between 1923 and 1985, the PCs were only out of power for a nine-year interlude, and most of that owed to Mitchell Hepburn. They managed this stretch by being competent in government, by not rocking the boat, and particularly in the 1970s by out-liberalling the Liberals.

Back then, it seems "conservatism" meant a steady hand on the wheel, worthwhile investment, and a lack of interest in legislating social issues or ideology. While Mike Harris didn't represent social conservatism of the sort that's far more common in the United States, he sure as hell did use Queen's Park as a blunt instrument to stamp his ideology onto Ontario. Among his more storied victories were the forcible amalgamation of the cities of Metropolitan Toronto and the sale of Highway 407 to a foreign company in a sweetheart 99-year-lease that included unlimited control of tolls on the highway. In the original plan it was only supposed to be a toll road for thirty-five years, and that only to pay off the cost of its construction.

Why was it sold, by the by? According to a 1999 article from TOLLROADSnews, because the province would get $900 million "profit" back after paying off its 407-related debts. And, you know, why would the province possibly want to retain control over a major highway when it could turn it into a one-time opportunity for bread and circuses right before an election?

The Big Blue Machine is dead and, at least in the foreseeable future, isn't coming back. Personally I feel that the success of Stephen Harper's Conservatives at the federal level are responsible for this. The Conservatives in Ottawa have taken a particularly right-wing tack ever since their foundation in 2003, and really, it Just Wouldn't Do for provincial conservatives to be ideologically out-of-step with their federal brethren. Bear in mind I'm not saying this isn't something Harper's engineered. It's more the case that there's only room for one flavor of conservatism in government at a time.

At this point, it's far, far too early to speculate on whether Hudak will actually win the 2011 election. All I can say is that there's a chance for it to happen, and given the legacy Mike Harris left this province, I can't say that I'm looking forward to the prospect of an encore.

1 But he DID support building the Downtown Relief Line... I'm torn!

Saturday, June 27, 2009

PDP #62: Please Do Not Litter

Nearly a week into the city workers' strike, garbage is beginning to pile up around Metro's overflowing receptacles. Just before the strike deadline last week, all the city-run receptacles were wrapped in plastic ribbons with signs exhorting people to not litter.

That lasted a matter of hours. For a few lucky ones, a day or two. At this point there's probably not one left in the downtown core that's not overflowing. Pity the tourists, I say.

So it was rather a surprise when, while cycling along Rogers Road in York this morning, I found a city garbage receptacle east of McRoberts Avenue that was completely intact and had no refuse pileup at all.

I wonder, I wonder, how long that's going to last.

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, June 26, 2009

City Council's Dragon-Pokers

For the last five days, Toronto has been trudging through a city workers' strike - though, like many other things, this is simplified in common parlance to a "garbage strike" because city workers pick up garbage in most of the City of Toronto - bringing a halt to meetings of municipal government. Striking workers have set up a picket line at City Hall, and the city announced that council meetings would be suspended for the duration. Ordinarily this might not be much of a problem, as whether a particular motion gets passed now or later is rarely of much consequence.

It's an unusual time, though. Recently the city inked an agreement with Bombardier to buy new Flexity Outlook streetcars to run on the existing streetcar system and the planned Transit City lines, but the $1.2 billion deal had to have funding committed by June 27th or else it would lapse. The dust-up between City Hall and Ottawa over an improper application for federal stimulus funding was a big enough complication as it is without the strike thrown into the mix.

Nevertheless, important things can still get done. An special session of Council is being held this morning in the Metro Toronto Convention Centre for the sole purpose of dealing with the streetcar issue - at this point, it looks like the TTC is going to fumble for the rest of the cash itself, although the particulars of its financial gymnastics haven't yet hit the streets. Furthermore, the striking workers won't be picketing the convention centre or otherwise interfering with the meeting. Pretty good, right?

Not for everyone. Yesterday, Councillor Karen Stintz, who sits in City Council's right wing and is one of the more credible contenders for the Toronto mayoralty in 2010, sent a letter to Mayor David Miller on behalf of a loose coalition of councillors called the "responsible government group." In it she criticized the plan for council to sit in the Convention Centre.

"There is absolutely no justification for holding this meeting off site," Stintz wrote in the letter, which was excerpted in the Toronto Star yesterday. "We have critical business to conduct and council should not have any reservations about crossing picket lines to do so."

For hell's sake.

One of the biggest problems with this strike is that neither the city nor the union is in any position to budge. The union, rightly, sees itself as defending concessions it won previously and is unwilling to sacrifice when other unionized city employees, such as police, fire, and EMS, don't have to share it. The city, on the other hand, can't afford weakness. Mayor Miller's always been a friend of the unions, and quickly giving in would only assure his defeat in 2010.

There is already enough acrimony on both sides over justifiable grievances. This situation is bad enough as it is, and what we don't need is for the city to give the union even more of a reason to dig in its heels - and this over something that is, in the long run, irrelevant. In ten years it will be remembered as a historical curiosity, a trivia tidbit or a sentence on a Wikipedia page, as one of Toronto City Council's handful of extraordinary meetings.

Toronto's councillors should work to resolve the issues that face the city before they inflame existing ones.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

PDP #61: Abandoned Arches

Not even McDonald's outlets last forever. I found this one last May 31st, on Yonge Street in North York between Ellerslie and Empress Avenues. According to the sign on the door, it had been vacant for months - its lease had run out on September 30th. It's been some time since I've been in that area, so I don't know what's happened to the site since - but knowing North York, it's even money that the building's been levelled to clear the way for either a condo tower, a parking lot, or a statue of Mel Lastman to dwarf the Statue of Liberty.

It's only a matter of time, you know.

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, June 24, 2009

From Fort Totten to Russell Hill

The recent accident on the Washington Metro, Washington, D.C.'s subway system, is an all-too-rare and all-too-tragic black mark on public transit safety. News is still coming in fast and furious, and some of the details have changed significantly in the time since I started assembling notes for this post on Monday night. What we know for sure is that one Metro train rammed into another with enough force to stack cars like fallen dominoes, and that at least nine people are dead and eighty more injured. It's an accident that has such scope that people can only step back and be stunned by its scale - a train wreck in the clearest sense of the term.

This isn't the first time there's been such an accident on the Washington Metro - an accident involving a derailment in January 1982 killed three people and injured twenty-five - but it is the most deadly. Speculations as to the cause have been many, and it'll be some time before a consensus is reached as to what happened and why. For now, in the interests of similarity and contrast, I thought it might be instructive to compare this crash with the 1995 Russell Hill subway accident. That was the deadliest accident in the Toronto Transit Commission's history, and I hope that record stands for a long, long time.

On the face of it, the two accidents are broadly similar - one train, moving at standard subway speed, plowed into the back of a stationary train. In both cases the worst damage was in the front car of the colliding train, though Russell Hill was less deadly in this regard; the operator of the colliding train at Russell Hill survived to give his account of what led up to the accident, while the operator of the colliding Washington Metro train is among the deceased.

From there, the two situations continue to differ. The Russell Hill accident was deep underground, between St. Clair West and Dupont stations, which at 1.2 kilometers apart are among the more widely separated stations in the system, and in an area where the tunnel was not arrow-straight. Between Fort Totten and Takoma stations, where the Washington accident took place, the separation is even wider - 2.988 kilometers (1.85 miles) according to the Gmaps Pedometer, give or take a few meters (feet). The difference here, though, is that no portion of the track between Fort Totten and Takoma is underground. Viewed from Google Maps, it more closely resembles the insulated right-of-way the Toronto subway enjoys within the Allen Expressway, but without a highway on either side.

Weather wasn't a factor either. The accident occured at 5:03 PM ET; Weather Underground's records state that at 4:52 PM, a mere eleven minutes earlier, conditions in the Federal City were mostly cloudy and that no precipitation had fallen during the day. Overcast skies can make for depressing vistas, but they're not nearly enough to hide something as large as a subway train until the last minute.

The issue of operator control is one that's been back and forth. At Russell Hill, the operator of the colliding train threw on the brakes as soon as he saw the stopped train ahead of him. According to a Washington Post story I read on Tuesday morning, "it appeared that the operator of the train that crashed did not apply the emergency brakes," but on Tuesday evening a second story cited early results of an NTSB investigation that indicated the opposite. In any case, there was not nearly enough time to prevent the collision once the brakes were applied, either in Washington or Toronto.

In Toronto, the accident was chalked up to human error and design failure - the operator misread his signals, and the train's emergency brake equipment wasn't up to the task. In Washington, it's something different. Not only do we have likely human error, but computer error as well.

It wasn't until I started putting this post together that I learned the Washington Metro is one of a number of heavy rail systems that uses Automatic Train Operation (ATO). What this means is that the operator is, effectively, a spare part, and while the train is under ATO they operate mainly the doors. On the TTC it's completely different - subways have a crew of two, with an operator in the front car driving the thing and a guard in a middle car who's responsible for opening and closing the doors.

Trains on the Washington Metro are fully capable of driving themselves, and at the time of the accident, that's exactly what the colliding train was doing. It's not the first time computer-controlled trains have got into trouble in the District of Columbia, but never this badly. In 2005, two Metro operators had to override their computers to avoid a crash. This time - not so fortunate.

What's this all mean for Toronto? Nothing, objectively - the Toronto subway is still manually controlled, and in the aftermath of the Russell Hill accident, the signalling system was modified to, hopefully, prevent a similar collision. In the fourteen years since there's been nothing to even remotely compare to it in this system. Still, there are potential issues.

One of the present blue-sky projects for Toronto subway expansion is an extension of the Yonge subway line from its current terminus at Finch station to Richmond Hill Centre, a major transit hub in southern York Region. The problem with this is that it's expected to draw significant ridership to a corridor that's already stressed well before it reaches downtown. Automatic Train Control has been touted as a possible solution, one that would enable separation between trains to be decreased to as little as ninety seconds. Sure, it would increase the capacity of the line, but it would decrease the margin for error.

Note that Automatic Train Control doesn't necessarily mean a conversion to driverless operation as on the Washington Metro - from what I understand, it's primarily an improved signalling system. Nevertheless, three-quarters of any success is in the name, and Automatic Train Control conjures up visions of some kind of robot at the controls.

Pure driverless operation may be ideal one day, once the system has been further refined. For now, though, it seems to me it might be better in the end to leave people at the controls and space things out. They can build more lines if they have to - I'd much rather have the opportunity to ride a Downtown Relief Line than never have to wait more than a minute and a half on the platform in rush hour.

I used to think an interesting concept for traffic control in a future city would involve a central coordinating mainframe that kept all the cars in order on their guideways, but accidents like this really make one stop and consider if that's the best way after all.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

PDP #60: Share the Wind

I've previously posted a photo that included the WindShare turbine, but here's one of its own from an uncommon angle. The turbine itself is one of two urban wind turbines in the Greater Toronto Area - the other one is in Pickering, on the grounds of Pickering Nuclear Generating Station - and, as it's not operated by city staff, it continues to provide emission-free electricity during the present strike.

That's good, because it doesn't look nearly as good when it's turned off - and practically, isn't electricity only a bit more of an essential service than garbage collection? Cities don't tend to work so well when they become cesspools. That's the sort of environment cholera likes!

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 any entity the right to use this work for any purpose, without any conditions, unless such conditions are required by law.

Monday, June 22, 2009

When All Old Words Are New Again

Science fiction is a field that's profoundly vulnerable to being dated, probably more so than any other genre except possibly historical pieces, and even then they'd only be dated in the event previously unknown and contradictory primary sources came to light. The future's never how anyone predicts it, but sometimes things can go particularly askew, and as a result a reader's willing suspension of disbelief gets to take a body blow.

Oftentimes, it's because the author simply didn't see something coming, and the something in question reinvented society. This is most obvious in stories written before the 1970s, with advanced and miniaturized computers being almost entirely absent. Robert A. Heinlein's 1950s juveniles had astrogators plotting their courses with slide rules instead of calculators. Computation in much of sf tended to follow the UNIVAC model, being based around large, complicated systems which demanded a great deal of resources and attention, and yet still don't seem much better than a 2009 laptop.

Nevertheless, obsolescence isn't solely confined to technology, or the lack thereof. Personally, I'm a forgiving enough reader that, say, the absence of ubiquitous smartphones and the presence of a lunar colony in the "present day" is a sticking point - frankly, I'd prefer to live in that world. A lot of obsolescence is in the words themselves.

Arguments have been put forward that advancements in printing and literacy have reduced the speed of language shift. Four hundred years after Shakespeare, his writings remain fairly easy to read, perhaps with some squinting at word choices that seem odd today; in what was history to Shakespeare, Old English and Middle English resembled Scandinavian languages more than they did the language I'm writing in. That may be so, but if the language isn't changing greatly in detail, it rapidly fluctuates in specifics. When was the last time you heard someone describe something as "copacetic," for example, or use the phrase "23 skidoo?"

It's not just slang, though. On Friday I reviewed Tom Ligon's "Funnel Hawk," written in 1990, and there were occasional word choices in it that would have been innocuous then, but strike me as odd now. At one point in the story, the heroine is playing a flight simulator game that would make perfect sense as a modern MMO. It's the terminology that gets me - she "calls up" a simulation of the SR-71 Blackbird, when today we would say "loaded," and a modified joystick is described as using "the MicroSoft controls." From what I understand, the only other name Microsoft ever had for itself was "Micro-Soft." Certainly by 1990, the Microsoft name as we know it had been in use for a while.

These aren't major things, nor did they decrease my enjoyment of the story - they're just speed bumps. But, as speed bumps, they rattle me and for a second jolt me out of the story's flow. I'm not saying this is the author's fault - language changes, it's a simple fact of life. Look what the last hundred years have done to the meaning of the word "gay."

Personally, what I've taken out of it is a commitment to use a conservative narrating style. Simple, clear words tend to stay in favor. If I use an odd word, or if I use a few, generally I'll do it for flavor with a specific character. That, at least, might put it to my advantage.

Nevertheless, it's an aspect of the genre that can't really ever be overcome. There's no telling how words will shift meaning and which will date a story just as surely as one that features our Intrepid Space Hero and the Rogue Princess storming the Computerized Catacombs of the Emperor of Mars.

That might be kinda neat in any event, though.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

PDP #59: Devonian Pond

You'll find it on the campus of Ryerson University at the intersection of Gould and Victoria, shadowed by the buildings all around. Devonian Pond is a small space that helps bring a feeling of nature and openness to Ryerson's otherwise urban campus. The girders at right are the skeleton of Toronto Life Square, still under construction at the time this photo was taken (September 23, 2006).

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 any entity the right to use this work for any purpose, without any conditions, unless such conditions are required by law.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Short SF Review #8: "Funnel Hawk"

"Funnel Hawk," by Tom Ligon
Appeared in Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact, June 1990

Ed wanted to dub the trainer "Toto," but NSSL had already taken it for an oil drum full of instruments they kept trying to pitch off the back of a pickup truck into the path of a tornado. After a few embarrassing flights, we settled on "The Wicked Witch of the Mid-West."

There's always something to be learned from history, and it's in older books that you learn it. For example, I learned that Tom Ligon not only did Twister one better, but did it six years before the movie came out. Sure, maybe 1990 isn't *history* history, but it sure isn't just yesterday either. While I did get a Twister vibe from the story, Michael Crichton would be more to blame for that - stories about storm chasers tend to follow similar tracks by their very nature.

"Funnel Hawk" follows Susan Denton, a university scientist and storm chaser chafing at the futility of studying how and why tornadoes form from below. She believes that there's another, far more effective way to study heavy weather - from the air. The only problem with this is that heavy weather tends to be, well, monstrous enough to swat planes from the sky.

Fortunately, sf stories - at least the ones I'd rather read - don't end along the lines of "and it was impossible. The end." Susan's solution is instead to custom-build a research aircraft, the titular Funnel Hawk or X-WX, a sleek and sophisticated craft that appears in all its glory on the cover of the June 1990 Analog, built "using graduate student slave labor and computer time bonus bogus bucks." Though Susan and her crew manage to get their plane built, that's perhaps the easiest thing they had to deal with.

Aside from the climax, "Funnel Hawk" is not so much about human vs. nature as human vs. bureaucracy (though the case could be made that bureaucracy just represents a different force of nature). First it's a constant struggle to get the plane built, and even once that's accomplished it's an even greater struggle to use it for what it was built for. I know that Tom Ligon has written other things which include elevatied safety-consciousness and its negative effects on society, and I see some of that in "Funnel Hawk" as well.

I can't help but wonder what it would've been like to read this back in 1990, even if I was only seven years old then. The blockbuster success of Twister in 1996 left a deep imprint, and I can't help but compare the movie and the story. Nevertheless, those comparisons do raise points that might not have been thought of back in 1990, when "Funnel Hawk" first hit the streets. Though they're fundamentally about the same thing - storm chasers trying to use a sophisticated new method to gain valuable insight into tornadoes - they approach them through fundamentally different angles.

Twister was all about DOROTHY, an observatory in an oil drum based on the National Severe Storms Laboratory's TOtable Tornado Observatory, now in a museum. In "Funnel Hawk," NSSL gets its TOTO inside a tornado. "They found it three months later in the bottom of a cattle pond half a mile from where they planted it, its data destroyed."

"Funnel Hawk" is based on a harebrained idea that's brought to fruition. Twister didn't even extend the state of the art - by the time it came out, TOTO had been retired for nine years. I have to wonder if this reflects a certain conservatism in mainstream Hollywood productions, contrasted with a willingness to push the envelope in science fiction.

It'd certainly make sense, it would.

ANDREW'S RATING: 5/5, and better than Twister.

Previous Short SF Reviews:

Friday, June 19, 2009

PDP #58: Rocket Garden

My only regret is that once I finally made it to Kennedy Space Center, way back in 2005, I went with an inferior digital camera.

One of the exhibits NASA has put out for visitors there is the Rocket Garden, a portion of the grounds where static examples of rockets from the early days of space exploration are displayed in all their silent grandeur. This photo doesn't really do them justice - they're hells of things to see in person.

And none of them will hold a candle to the Ares V - presuming it ever gets off the ground, that is.

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 any entity the right to use this work for any purpose, without any conditions, unless such conditions are required by law.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Stars of Other Worlds: 55 Cancri

Every once in a while, Acts of Minor Treason takes a jaunt through subspace and hyperspace and across cosmic strings and collapsars to some strange new world, to set up a telescope and look up at the stars from a new angle.

Though I was a star nerd during my youth - I learned the Greek alphabet from Terence Dickinson's Nightwatch, and pored over its starcharts religiously even though I never mustered the gumption to actually take the telescope out for a spin - it wasn't until the 21st century that I first heard of 55 Cancri. Also known as Rho1 Cancri, 55 Cancri is a binary star in the constellation Cancer, approximately forty-one light-years away. The larger of the two stars is a G8V yellow dwarf, a bit dimmer than our own sun, and it's accompanied by a much dimmer red dwarf. From Earth, 55 Cancri A has an apparent magnitude of 5.95, just barely visible to the naked eye under ideal conditions.

The stars themselves aren't too remarkable. Binaries are, after all, one of the most common stellar arrangements in the galaxy. The 55 Cancri planetary system, on the other hand, is something else entirely. It's the largest known system beyond the solar system, with at least five planets detected in orbit of 55 Cancri A, all thought to be gas giants based on their mass. One of them, 55 Cancri f, orbits its sun in 260 days and spends its orbit entirely within the habitable zone - close enough to the sun that a hypothetical moon of the planet could sustain liquid water, which might enable an ecosphere similar to Earth's.

So, hypothetically, if there are thinking beings on a moon of 55 Cancri f - whether they're humans or otherwise - what would they see?

There'll always be the stars. Earth and 55 Cancri are close enough to share bright stars in common - Canopus is effectively just as bright when viewed from either system, and Rigel and Betelgeuse in Orion are a bit dimmer here than there. Discounting 55 Cancri B, when observing from a moon of 55 Cancri f Pollux would be the brightest star in the sky, a bit dimmer than Sirius appears on Earth.

Still, even though Sol and 55 Cancri occupy the same galactic neighborhood, perspective changes fast with only a handful of parsecs. While snooping around in its sky I found two constellations that struck my interest, constellations I've named the Broken Plough and Atalanta.

The Broken Plough

Aside from Orion, the Big Dipper is probably the single most recognizable star pattern in Earth's skies. It's known by many names by many cultures, and in the British Isles it's also called the Plough. As many of its stars move together in a cluster called the Ursa Major Moving Group, it's no surprise that from 55 Cancri they're still together in the sky. Even the pattern we're familiar with on Earth is mostly intact - if a bit distorted.

Viewed from Earth, the two brightest Big Dipper stars are Dubhe and Alioth, which share an apparent magnitude of 1.8. Although Dubhe doesn't figure into the Broken Plough as I've laid it out, Alioth is its keystone and even brighter than we see it, with an apparent magnitude of 1.22 from 55 Cancri. Alkaid, at the western end, is still brighter than any of the Big Dipper stars from Earth, and Thuban - the brightest star in Draco, and the northern polestar in ancient Egypt's heyday - at the eastern edge is only slightly dimmer than Megrez seems to us, and again is somewhat brighter than it appears from Earth.


In Greek mythology, Orion was a masterful hunter who was killed either by Artemis (who, presumably, did not like competition of Orion's caliber) or a giant scorpion and subsequently elevated to the heavens in the form of the constellation we know today. He's one of the many larger-than-life heroes that populate the myths - taken together, they're a real sausagefest, if you ask me.

Orion the constellation has such mythological significance because it's so damned obvious. Owing to its position in the sky it's visible in every part of the world, and it's anchored by some of the brightest stars in the sky. Bright patterns like that definitely attract attention.

Should there ever be humans looking up from a moon of 55 Cancri f, they might not take long to notice a particular arrangement of stars that reminds them of what they left behind.

In Greek mythology, Atalanta was also a hunter, and one of the few non-goddess females in that canon. The correspondence isn't exact, but haunting nevertheless. Antares, at her right foot, is Atalanta's brightest star, with Graffias (Beta Scorpii) her head while Zubenelgenubi and Sigma Scorpii form her belt. Here, Atalanta comprises stars from no less than three Earth constellations - while the majority are in Scorpius from Earth's perspective, Zubenelgenubi is the brightest star in Libra, and Atalanta's left foot is formed by Gamma Virginis, in Virgo.

This correspondence is particularly interesting because none of the familiar stars of Orion are involved in it. Still, the human brain is the most sophisticated finder of patterns in the static that we have, and it's no suprise that on distant worlds we might look up to see something that, while not the same, remains vaguely familiar - enough to put one at ease, remembering home.

What of home, by the by? Forty-one light-years is hardly enough to make a star like ours invisible. Sol's above the limits of vision from 55 Cancri, but not by much - it would have an apparent magnitude of 5.32, best viewed with binoculars.

As previously, all glory goes to Celestia for making these views possible without a hell of a lot of painful mathematics on my end.

Further Stars of Other Worlds

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

PDP #57: Loons and Swans

In my experience, not many animals make their presence felt in the city aside from pigeons, squirrels, raccoons, and seagulls. Down by the lake, insulated and isolated from the busy developed areas, it's a different story. I caught this photo on a beach adjacent to Long Branch Park, a beach full of swans and loons.

It was taken with maximum zoom because I didn't want to get too close. I've heard that swans can be mean bastards.

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 any entity the right to use this work for any purpose, without any conditions, unless such conditions are required by law.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Common Words #6: The Platinum Desolation

This is the big time. (Edit: Download link here if you want to skip all the fuss.)

Previously in this series I've been posting bits of earlier work that wouldn't otherwise have seen the light of day. Today, it's a different situation entirely. "The Platinum Desolation," my first truly published work, is one of eighteen stories collected in Return to Luna, an anthology published by Hadley Rille Books. Today I'm making it available to you under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.


Because I believe in the principle of information and of sharing. I like my storiess to be read and I want to give people the opportunity to read them however they can. To that end, so long as you abide by the covenants of the Creative Commons license, you're free to circulate this story as you will.

"The Platinum Desolation" is a story of lunar discovery. "Adventure" isn't the right word. In an environment as lifeless as the moon, the people who go there to spend their days will have to deal with situations that may resemble what's been done on Earth for millennia immemorial, but distorted by the harshness of nature. It's a story of justice.

I've prepared plain text and PDF versions for download, and full details are inside the files. If you really like them, I'd suggest you go over to the Hadley Rille website, and see about giving the anthology as a whole a try - online purchasing links are available in the text and PDF files. I've got an inkling that the other seventeen authors would really appreciate that.

And to quote the Great Ones (well, one of them, at least), be excellent to each other.

Previously on Common Words

Monday, June 15, 2009

PDP #56: Kipling Platform

I've rarely seen multiple buses all waiting together in my travels along the TTC. In places like Barrie, it's far more common; the hub-and-spoke arrangement Barrie Transit uses, wherein most of the routes radiate from the Barrie Transit Terminal downtown, demands that buses put into the station at the same time to allow transfers between them. Woe betide you if your bus is running a little late, though, and the one you want to board is a little early.

Sometimes, though, things arrange themselves like that here. I snapped this on the bus platform at Kipling station in Etobicoke just after stepping off a 192 Airport Rocket because, really - I'd never seen anything like it up here. It's just all arranged so perfectly.

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 any entity the right to use this work for any purpose, without any conditions, unless such conditions are required by law.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

That Jumbuck In His Taser Bag

Despite the possibilities of our modern wired - or, more appropriately, wireless - future, it's instructive to remember that while news can circle the world in a blink of an eye, people aren't necessarily going to see it. A great deal of news has an inherently local basis and bias, and lessons learned in one corner of the world may be entirely unknown or ignored in another, even if they spring from the same seed.

Ignored in, say, Australia.

The Sydney Morning Herald carried a story yesterday entitled "State's police licensed to Taser," reporting that police forces across the Australian state of New South Wales will be equipped with tasers in "the biggest revolution of police equipment since... 1862." It explains that tasers have been in limited use by NSW police special operations units for two years and regular police departments since last year, and that while previously "Tasers had to be signed out by supervisors," under the new state of affairs "every officer will have a Taser on his or her belt."

Progress, right? On the face of it the introduction of a "less than lethal" alternative into the police's arsenal will enable them to defuse situations that might otherwise have ended with a bullet. The article states that New South Wales police "have drawn Tasers about 280 times, but the sight of the weapon has caused suspects to capitulate about 180 times."

That's a pretty significant takedown-by-threat ratio alone. You'd have to wonder why. Maybe it has something to do with the concern raised by taser opponents, who say they are "potentially deadly."

The phrase "potentially deadly" comes up twice in the document. The word "kill" does not appear once. I have to wonder if this is a result of limited research or biased reporting. Here in Canada, where tasers have been used by police since 1999, twenty people have died after being shocked by one. The case of Robert Dziekański, who died after being tasered by Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers in Vancouver International Airport in October 2007, is just the most high-profile. Similar cases have occured in the United States, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere.

In Australia none of this appears to be a blip on the radar. In my opinion, the circumstantial evidence alone surrounding taser deaths should merit something stronger than the bloodless "potentially deadly." At no point in the article is any reason given as to why tasers are "potentially deadly" - it's as if the comment was shoved in there just for the sake of addressing it, without really doing so. It's not as if the Sydney Morning Herald would've had to work to find this out; in a search for "taser" on Google.com.au, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation news story "Man dies after police use Taser" is hit number five. The next three hits also deal with taser deaths in Australia.

So it's not even the case that taser deaths are a "foreign problem." Australia, it seems, has already got plenty of its own to deal with.

I have to wonder if this is research failure or an intentional effort to strengthen one side of the debate by papering over the other. Ideally, newspapers should present both sides of an issue to fulfill their honest mandate, that being to inform the reading public. Realistically, that doesn't happen very much at all anymore. That doesn't mean I shouldn't be irritated when I find a newspaper being derelict in its duty.

if that swagman had been boiling his billy today, the squatter would've given him a taste of the electric rifle well before he could've got up and jumped into that billabong

Saturday, June 13, 2009

PDP #55: Future Site of Bloor Square?

The other day, Randy MacDonald at A Bit More Detail wrote about the extraordinary scar in the cityscape at One Bloor East, where Kazakh development giant Bazis International plans to build an eighty-storey mixed-use condominium tower, because god knows Toronto doesn't have enough of them already. Plans for this came down in the happy days before the economy bottomed out, and the site was demolished and cleared by last December.

Not much has happened since then, and it seems as if the raging fists of the recession may scupper the plans for One Bloor East entirely. A story by Christopher Hume in today's Star echoes my own opinion on the site, that it should be transformed into a northern reflection of Dundas Square, an open public space.

We've already got enough goddamn towers.

Here, though, is what the site looked in May 2008, before everything that was there already came down.

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

Friday, June 12, 2009

Quaff Review #3: Nektar

One of the many things I like about Toronto is the profusion and variety of LCBOs - even if I would ultimately prefer I could get my beer and liquor the same way Americans seem to, from the grocery store, as it would save me a trip. From the endless racks of the North Toronto Station store to the narrow rows of the one in Union Station, to make that evening GO train seem like it's going just a bit faster, none of them have quite the same things.

Frequently they'll have things you've never heard of.

As I'm a (reluctantly) former resident of the 1990s, it should come as no surprise that when I think "Bosnia," I think "war." Though the Bosnian War only lasted three years, being that it was a significant armed conflict and that the Soviet Union was no longer around for the media to stare at, it got a lot of press here.

Now, when I think "Bosnia," I can also think "beer." Specifically, Nektar.

Nektar is a product of the Banjaluka Brewery, which began making beer in 1873 with ancient recipes and German technology, according to its website. Nektar itself apparently includes German malt, but I didn't notice anything particularly German about it. The bottle I picked up was 500 mL, and is 5% alc./vol.

What I did notice was that this is a smooth beer. It's nice and golden, with a thick but not-too-thick body of foam at the top, and goes down well with no aftertaste - that is my biggest problem with some beers. With Nektar, though, I didn't find anything to really distinguish it as a "premium" beer, which is how the LCBO sold it. It's not a bad beer, but I don't find it outstanding, either - for me it falls into that wide continuum in the middle of so-so, where it's good enough to drink and get drunk on if need be, but unlike something special like Innis & Gunn I'm not going to go out of my way to look for it. It just didn't present anything that might distinguish itself to me.

I must note, though, that it does burn when it ends up infiltrating one's sinus cavities. Be aware!

Previous Quaff Reviews

Thursday, June 11, 2009

PDP #54: Sir Adam's Place

In Ontario, the universal shorthand for electricity is "hydro." For this we can thank the hydroelectric power works at Niagara Falls, and for them we can thank Sir Adam Beck, one of the men who made it all possible. Back in the early twentieth century the province of Ontario was almost entirely powered by hydroelectric generation; it was only once every river that could been dammed, had been dammed that it invested in coal and nuclear.

This statue of Sir Adam Beck stands in Toronto, between the lanes of University Avenue, looking north past Queen Street West toward the Ontario Legislature. It's one of the many works of fine statuary in the city, and I'd imagine that most people who live here or go past it every day don't even know it's there.

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, June 10, 2009

(Dark) Magic Highway U.S.A.

More personal disclosure time: the sort of thing I wrote about on Monday most definitely leads to me taking a jaundiced view of what I'm writing about today.

Back in 2007, a colorful piece of Disney futurism called Magic Highway U.S.A. made its way across the internet. First broadcast in 1958 as part of the Disneyland series, it looked forward from a time where the Interstate Highway System was just beginning to transform the way Americans travelled to a perfect retrofuture where the roads were wide, journeys swift and the automobile king.

A good way to gain insight to a specific point in history is to look at its futurism, its science fiction. Nineteenth-century Britain's preoccupation with a rival European power found expression in invasion literature such as 1871's The Battle of Dorking, and a century later Japan's seemingly invincible economy saw science-fictional works predicated around the United States eclipsed by the Rising Sun.

In the 1950s, everything was swell, so long as you weren't black, a woman, an atheist, a communist, a beatnik, or any kind of minority, and were American. The Second World War was over and America was stronger than ever, ready and able to spread freedom, democracy, and Mom's apple pie to every part of the world, thanks to the twin fists of Prosperity and Science. Magic Highway U.S.A. reflects that postwar optimism and forecasts a world in which great highways "link together all nations, and help create a better understanding among the peoples of the world... and a better way of life for the future."

In this Magic Highway U.S.A. reflects the boundless, triumphal optimism of a country that had not yet learned to fear the Soviet nuclear threat, and had not been humbled by Vietnam. The highways would be laid down, the people would be free to drive where they pleased, and everything would be awesome.

Another truth about science fiction is that one can learn nearly as much from what isn't said as what is. Take a look at it yourself, if you haven't; I've found it here on YouTube, but there's no telling if this is authorized by Disney, and so I offer no guarantees as to whether this video is actually live as you read this. If so, you're missing out - but I do have a couple of stills from the movie below, as well.

Magic Highway U.S.A. stresses scale. Bigness! The highways themselves are massive, the network is massive, and the machines that build it are massive, from mobile bridgebuilders to the monstrous roadbuilder, which devours the land with a toothy maw and lays down road like some tremendous steel behemoth. It's suggested with such casual flippancy that I somehow doubt there was much in the way of an environmental impact assessment before it rumbled through. What we don't see are the prefabricated suburbs being flown in from roaring factories, slung below a fleet of carrier helicopters each with blades the breadth of a football stadium, but that would hardly be out of place in Magic Highway U.S.A.'s vision of the future.

"In one sweep, a giant roadbuilder changes rough ground into a wide, finished highway."

The film's vision of a country "[decentralized]... into vast urban areas" is a simple extension of the suburban impulse which was, in 1958, still in its infancy. Our perspective changes from a tightly-packed labyrinth of buildings without a scrap of ground or grass visible, to a few stands of towers that stretch toward the horizon, linked together by wide roads almost free of traffic and standing largely separate from one another.

They tried that once in North York, by the by, with a new model suburb based around tall residential towers isolated from each other by wide-open areas. Today it's called Jane and Finch and has some of the highest crime and poverty rates in the city. I'm not saying that correlation equals causation here, but for me it's hardly a stellar advertisement for the concept.

These "urban areas" look far less like cities than they do farmers' fields that yielded a bumper crop of skyscrapers. The only allowance for pedestrian travel we're shown is in a shopping center, where "moving sidewalks make window shopping effortless," and "escalator ramps carry office workers from level to level."

At no point in Magic Highway U.S.A. is anything non-mechanical ever depicted as moving. Motor cars and moving sidewalks are the arteries of this world of statues. Nor does it acknowledge that anyone gets around by any method other than a car; obviously, the General Motors streetcar conspiracy was only the beginning in this future. Even freight trains have been replaced by "truck trains," which "combine railroad volume with highway flexibility."

Environmental consequences? What environmental consequences? For that matter, what environment? The use of cantilevered skyways above the sort of desert where Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner dueled is framed as preserving "the beauty and grandeur of mountain travel," not the beauty and grandeur of nature itself. While I'll admit that highway networks do go a long way to bind together peoples and countries, they're hardly the unalloyed good that Magic Highway U.S.A. represents - at the least, with present methods, they encourage negative impacts such as carbon pollution. In this future, they certainly don't have a problem with building highways straight through equatorial rain forests.

To be fair, Magic Highway U.S.A. doesn't assume that the internal combustion engine will reign supreme forever, and this is one point where I wish it had hit the mark. It posits automobiles switching first to jets, then to nuclear power, and finally "the sun-powered electro-suspension car, which needs no wheels."

Yes, of course! All we have to do in order to have Hover-Boards is to make sure they're solar-powered! Mattel's only got six years; they'd better get cracking!

"These spectacular conceptions will lead to new dimensions for the American highway." And, one would hope, perfectly reliable cars...

At the time it was made, Magic Highway U.S.A. was earnestly showing a world that was supposed to be pleasant and full of promise, a utopia that we could all look forward to. Fifty-one years later, it looks to me more like a roadmap to social breakdown. Not only does its world of the future encourage sprawl and dependency, it practically makes them mandatory. It is so married to the concept of the personal automobile that there is no allowance at all for their absence. In this world of the future, people would probably think they were better off dead than have their driver's license revoked. Personally, I can only be thankful that the techno-utopian excesses of Magic Highway U.S.A. did not come true.

The most outlandish prediction, though? "America will one day be criss-crossed by a network of super-speed transcontinental motorways." Oh, the things they believed back then...

just because I'm behind the curve doesn't mean I don't care

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

PDP #53: Engineering Test

Today's was a photo of opportunity, taken while I was delving into the little-attested history of Long Branch for my recent post on the subject. Based on what I can figure, this is an Orion International Orion VII Next Generation transit bus, fresh from the manufacturing plant in Mississauga and being put through its paces before being sent south to Oriskany for final finishing and delivery to some lucky transit agency. I see buses like this every day in TTC colors; I just never thought they could be so purple.

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, June 8, 2009

More than a Busy Highway

Personal disclosure time: I've absolutely no motive to be charitable about anything the City of Barrie does, because I was made to live in that sprawling suburban labyrinth for nearly thirteen years of my life. I'm thankful that university allowed me to escape, and I never want to live there again. It seems, however, that the Barrie government wants to bring itself ever closer to me anyway, like a zombie cut in half dragging itself across the rocks.

What's happened is simple, understandable as a mere extension of previous policy, and to my mind still indefensible. The province of Ontario has given the go-ahead for the city of Barrie to annex yet more chunks of Innisfil, a town to the south that seems to exist solely to provide Barrie with something to annex, where it will proceed to build a number of new transit-oriented developments linked to downtown and Barrie South GO station by quick, speedy, reliable light rail vehicles.

Hah. Got you, didn't I? What they're really going to do is the same thing Barrie has always done - they're going to drop down some more ill-designed residential subdivisions in virgin land and call it a day. This is nothing new for them. Back when I lived there, I thought I knew the place like the back of my hand. I can't say the same now, as half of the city that exists now wasn't even built in 2001.

That is if you can call an agglomeration of meandering suburban roads, inexpertly stapled to a downtown core more appropriate for a community of 30,000 than 130,000, a "city."

Personally I find this move distressing - in this day and age, suburbs are the last things we should be investing in, when the rewards of densification and new urbanism have the potential to reinvent our way of life in a positive manner - but not unexpected. What really gets me is the way the Toronto Star, where I became aware of this, frames the issue.

"Drive up 400 could get worse," the headline reads. "Highway 400, notorious for its bumper-to-bumper traffic, could get a lot more crowded," says the first line of the story. It's telling that the Star chooses to focus purely on the traffic consequences of this planning decision. Not the social impacts, not the environmental costs, but the fact that drivers on the 400 will have to spend more time on it than before because of more people using it. (God forbid they take the GO train - public transit's for the plebes, I suppose.)

The greatest problem with this is that the consequences will be invisible. All we'll have is more endless rows of houses where once were farmers' fields. Because, really, we don't need agricultural land - we can always buy food from other countries! The concept of food security is just so gauche, isn't it?

Sunday, June 7, 2009

PDP #52: Parading the Colours

As I said previously, yesterday I was at the D-Day ceremony in Nathan Phillips Square, and it was well-attended; though I doubt there'd have been the same kind of turnout in places like Barrie or Peterborough. After a half-hour preshow that began as soon as the clock in Old City Hall stopped striking twelve - the sort of precision so rare it's always extremely welcome when it appears - the ceremony began with the colour parties marching around the square.

The parade was led by the Toronto Fire Services Pipes & Drums. I'd forgotten how much I appreciate bagpipes.

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.