Friday, July 31, 2009

PDP #78: On This Day

As a Torontonian, I am contractually obligated to think of anything beyond Eglinton Avenue as "up north." Notwithstanding that, Cochrane, Ontario is way up north. It's as far as the Ontario Northland trains from Toronto roll, or it was the last time I was around, and if you want to keep inching toward the Arctic Circle from there, it's where you transfer to the Polar Bear Express that takes you the rest of the way to Moosonee.

My grandfather and I made that journey when I was a kid. We changed trains in Cochrane on July 31, 1989, and took this picture of ourselves in front of Chimo, a tremendous polar bear statue, twenty years ago today. It's been more than ten years since my grandfather died, and photos like this are still a bit hard.

But it's a good one. Maybe for July 31, 2019, I'll go back there and take another picture.

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, July 30, 2009

Copyfight, Win, Prevail

Copyright will be the struggle of our age. Twenty-five years ago, no one except for video pirates like Marty McFly in the first draft of Back to the Future would have had reason to care about it. Today, the implications of copyright are everywhere, and as it gains in scope and influence, copyright maximalists have begun coming out of the woodwork to channel it like water in a Sumerian irrigation canal.

I think that's a valid comparison. Just as the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt were hydraulic empires, deriving their authority from control over water, the issue of control over intellectual property may well be one of the defining struggles of the twenty-first century. Steve Jackson Games' Transhuman Space series explores this issue in detail - and, to be honest, it was seeing its presentation of copyright in 2100 that galvanized me to work towards something fairer, something more equitable, in the here and now.

Yesterday, Cory Doctorow over at Boing Boing wrote about Access Copyright, a copyright license agency up here, attempting to throw its weight around in the current copyright law consultations being run by the Canadian government - which will, more than likely, completely ignore the outcome and just pump electricity into Bill C-61's corpse, but that's neither here nor there.

Their broadside paints the project to its membership as "[taking] aim at your livelihood," and claims that the consultations are "dominated by individuals who do not agree you should get fair compensation for digital and other reproductions of your works." What's really telling about Access Copyright's intentions, though, is in the message sample they provided as a means of getting their members to record videos and circulate their perspectives.

"When someone reproduces my work for free, it destroys the market for it, and I suffer the consequences."

This may be one of the single most ridiculous sentences I've ever read. An author's greatest challenge is obscurity, not piracy. When I think of "reproducing work for free," I think of Jonathan Coulton and Cory Doctorow and Paulo Coelho, creators who wholeheartedly embrace free sharing through Creative Commons licensing or otherwise and who have seen their awareness among the public increase greatly as a result.

This is what copyright needs to recognize. When I read Access Copyright's post, I was galvanized, yes - but probably not in the way they intended, as I made a video and posted it on YouTube, detailing why I disagree with what they're doing.

That room is like an echo chamber.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

PDP #77: Art Decospital

Toronto is by no stretch of the imagination an Art Deco city. When Art Deco was in vogue Toronto was a second-string provincial burg, still in Montreal's shadow, with its attention far more on the past than the future. Nevertheless, there are a few examples of the style here and there, if you know where to look.

Toronto East General Hospital in East York, built in 1929, looks like it could be one. This picture was taken from the opposite side of Coxwell Avenue, and I do like the way the angle of the two wings gives a "comforting embrace" undercurrent to the building. It's a comfortable architecture, the kind that Toronto could use more of.

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, July 28, 2009

Yes, Virginia, People Really Are That Stupid

Despite my better judgement, I can't help but be just slightly nervous at the prospect of stepping on a plane in August. No matter how aware I am of how safe flying is, there will be a small part of my brain that recognizes there is a chance, however miniscule, that I'll never step off again; whether that chance is greater or lesser than, say, Earth being sterilized by a gamma-ray burst between now and then is open for debate.

Intellectually, though, I know there's no real danger. Realistically, I know that I'm in far more danger crossing the street at an intersection with the lights in my favor, and if the latest news is any indication, the driver that hit me would probably be texting.

The Toronto Star reported today on the findings of a Virginia Tech Transportation Institute study that found truckers driving while text-messaging were twenty-three times more likely to get into an accident than truckers with their full attention on the road. The study found that when the truckers took their eyes off the road to read a message, they did so for "nearly five seconds" - and when you're on the lanes at a hundred per, that's practically forever.

I've always heard it said that the reason teenagers are so liable to get into accidents is because of a sense of "youthful invincibility," that nothing bad could possibly happen to them because, you know, they're them and not someone else. The general implication, never said outright, was that that these attitudes went away with adulthood. At least, that's the implication I derived from it while growing up, but now, I can see that's just wishful thinking. I know that not only do I still feel the same way now as I did when I was 18, I'll probably still feel the same way I did when I was 18 - mentally, at least - when I'm 80.

It's not as if this situation was engineered by the study; plenty of people, far too many, do this sort of thing of their own accord. Talking on a cell phone while driving is so common now as to be wholly unremarkable. While bicycling along Queens Quay a few weeks ago, I was caught behind another cyclist wearing earbuds and no helmet, who was so oblivious she almost cut off a right-turning car. Texting while driving is only the latest manifestation of the go-go-go, always-on 24/7 culture that makes me refuse to get a cell phone in the first place, evidence of the degree to which we prize convenience and efficiency over as pedestrian a matter as safety.

If you'd asked me about this a few years ago, I'd have hoped that "texting while driving" would fall into the same domain of ridiculousness as "shaving while driving" or "applying lipstick while driving." Unfortunately, though, texting seems to be gaining more and more cultural acceptance by the day, even if I still have difficulty figuring out why everyone is so crazy for it - so you can send messages without having to talk. So what?

It's news like this that makes me wonder if low-level solipsism is a more common psychological condition than we think.

Monday, July 27, 2009

PDP #76: The Driving Rain

Weather has never been 100% predictable. The forecast for yesterday made no bones about how Toronto was to be subjected to thunderstorms, but the alternating periods of light and shadow made it easy to believe the big downpour was still a ways away. It wasn't until just after we left the pub that it really started raging down.

I thank Frank Gehry for it not soaking me to the bone. The recent renovation of the Art Gallery of Ontario includes a rather wide overhang above the sidewalk, and we waited there in its rain shadow for the worst of it to pass. I wasn't about to miss the opportunity for some street-level rainy day photographs in the meantime, though.

This is the intersection of Dundas Street West and McCaul Street, looking to the northeast. I wasn't sure how obvious the heavy rain would be in the camera's eye, but it's there; I particularly like the misty effect on the roof of the approaching streetcar.

Also, to all you new readers, welcome - take some time and look around! There's plenty to see.

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, July 26, 2009

In Defense of the Island Airport

In Which Andrew Will Somehow Mask His Irritation at VIA Rail Settling the Strike Nine Hours After He Cancels His Reservations With Them

Recently I've begun seeing flyers around Parkdale, flyers which feature an infant in a breathing mask and criticize the five four hundred "TOXIC diesel trains" that will be roaring through the neighborhood when the Blue22 rail link between Union Station and Toronto Pearson International Airport comes to fruition. Personally, I have always thought that Blue22 was ridiculous, the sort of project only a politician could support. For one, it steals valuable rail corridor space that could be put to much better use as a western extension of the Downtown Relief Line.

I think this conflict all stems from a misapprehension of the situation at hand. See, personally I don't think air travel, in its most common form, has staying power. Those big turbofan jetliners, the Boeings and the Airbuses and Ilyushins, are not the cheapest machines in the world to operate. There's an old joke: what's the easiest way to become a millionaire? Be a billionaire and buy an airline. The environmental cost is no less, even if it's not commonly thought of; a 2006 Guardian piece reported a "general consensus" that aviation was responsible for 4% of global carbon dioxide emissions.

Here in Toronto, I think the Island Airport - officially, Toronto City Centre Airport - provides a much-needed alternative. For the last three years, Porter Airlines has been the sole passenger airline operating from YTZ, flying Bombardier Q400 turboprop aircraft on short-haul routes in eastern Canada and the northeastern United States. When I was planning for my trip to Montreal next month for the 67th World Science Fiction Convention, Anticipation SF, I was only interested in VIA Rail or Porter Airlines because the two of them offered the lowest environmental impact.

Nevertheless, the Island Airport has historically had a fractious relationship with the city of Toronto, both old and new. The controversy goes back to the late 1970s, when the first whispers of passenger service out of YTZ reached City Hall, and reached a fever pitch in 2006 when Porter Airlines began its operations. Mayor David Miller, you see, doesn't like the idea of the Island Airport, and was elected on a platform that included a halt on the construction of a bridge across the narrow Western Gap to the airport - perhaps out of the hope that ferry-only access might choke Porter's profit margins like Hercules in the crib.

It hasn't really worked out that way, but Miller still opposes the idea of passenger aircraft flying from the Island. Personally, I think the city should encourage development and use of the Island Airport. No matter how much Pearson's management might want it to be otherwise, there is no reason to believe that the status quo will last forever. Short-haul flights on efficient aircraft like the Q400 are far more sustainable a mode of transportation than modern jetliners.

For a mayor who's staking so much, like the Jarvis bike lane project, on his environmentalist creds, Miller's continued opposition to the Island Airport seems quixotic and more than a bit shortsighted to me. For my part, I imagine what's possible - a pedestrian and transit bridge that flies across the Western Gap, and a platform where travellers can step straight on a streetcar and step off again at Union Station.

It'd be a hell of a lot cheaper, cleaner, and quieter than Blue22.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

PDP #75: Captured in Reflection

University Avenue is, effectively, the western border of Toronto's financial district. While there are shoots of new development beyond it, such as the new RBC Centre a block further west, much like Yonge Street it's essentially a line in the sand where the skyscrapers do not go beyond.

This photo was taken from an eastbound 504 King streetcar, stopped at the intersection of University Avenue. If you look very closely you may be able to see a reflection of me taking it.

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, July 24, 2009

Have Mars Suit, Be Visible

This is a special time. Sometime next month, NASA's Human Space Flight Review Committee will announce its conclusions on whether NASA should pursue its spaceflight goals as they are currently planned. It may be that by September, ideas of a crewed Mars mission in 2030 will have been relegated to the same dustbin as the Apollo-tech Manned Venus Flyby1 or the Delta Clipper. Until we know the shape of the future, though, there's plenty of speculation to be made on what challenges that mission may face.

Humans can't walk in shirtsleeves on the Red Planet, but neither would they wear off-the-shelf spacesuits either. Modern spacesuits, as found on the shuttles and the International Space Station, are meant for a very specific purpose - to maintain a comfortable pressure and insulate its wearer from temperature extremes, radiation dangers, and other environmental hazards present in the vacuum. They'd be perfectly functional on Luna, but Mars is not quite as harsh as that pitted, airless world. Most likely, a Mars expedition would take with it specialized Mars suits optimized for conditions on the Martian surface.

There are a few efforts currently underway to design a functional and effective Mars suit. In August 2004, the Sydney Morning Herald reported on one of them, the MarsSkin project, attempting to simulate Martian suit conditions on Earth. At the time its prototype suits were being tested in South Australia, and were "elasticised to counter the effects of the lower atmospheric pressure on Mars." This is most definitely the sort of research you want to do, and do right, before you leave home or you will look worse than Doug Quaid after he got sucked out the alien chamber in the Pyramid Mine.

There's one detail that could easily be overlooked in the shuffle of assembling an effective personal environment, though; the color. The MarsSkin suits photographed in the article are deep blue, close enough to black in shadow. Visibility is important everywhere, but the hostile environments we find throughout the solar system make it key. If a Martian traveller takes a fall and finds the suit's emergency beacon broken, say, a noticeable paint scheme could well be the difference between death and survival.

Popular depictions of Mars don't have much agreement. The first major Mars-focused movies I thought of, 1978's Capricorn One and 2000's Mission to Mars, use ordinary white spacesuits that would not look one bit out of place on the International Space Station. Red Planet, also from 2000, has its astronauts wear black suits - which could be an advantage in terms of heat retention - and 1990's Total Recall begins with a dream sequence where characters wear khaki suits with disturbingly fragile faceplates.2

For a while I thought MarsSkin was really on to something with their blue suits. After all, there's not much that's blue on Mars - all but, it seems, the sky. Although it appears salmon or butterscotch through the cameras of our probes there, the evidence I've found suggests that its true color is the same familiar blue as on Earth. This question won't be settled once and for all until people actually see it with their own eyes.

I brought the idea of this post up with a friend, and she didn't waste any time in coming up with a preferred color: green. And, you know what? I think she's right.

Its sky aside, Mars is red, thanks to the plentiful iron oxide dust. Not only are red and green close complementary colors, there is absolutely nothing on Mars that is green that would not have been brought there by humans. There are no Martian trees, no Martian grasslands, no Martian jungles. The smallest swatch of green in that rusted desert would be all the more starkly visible for its loneliness.

Should NASA's human spaceflight ambitions go ahead, and should humans walk on Mars in my lifetime or anyone else's, I think it would be best if the color they wore was green. Our presence there alone would make it appropriate - bringing living nature to a lifeless (according to current evidence) world.

1 Although, James Nicoll had a rather sensible objection to this plan.

2 2009's Watchmen also had scenes on Mars, but Dr. Manhattan is above such petty requirements as "air."

Thursday, July 23, 2009

PDP #74: Who Watches?

After the success of Watchmen, it was only a matter of time. The graffiti pictured below appeared between last Friday and last Monday afternoon on the south wall of a City Transportation Services and Corporate Services motor pool, visible from King Street. After a month without garbage collection or other city services, at this point I wouldn't be surprised to see masked vigilantes collecting garbage and taking it to transfer stations in the dead of night.

Hell, at least it'd give the news something to talk about besides CUPE's latest antics.

If you're having trouble reading it - and to give this post more pull on the search engines - it says "Who Watches the Garbage 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.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Short SF Review #9: "To Make a New Neanderthal"

"To Make a New Neanderthal," by W. Macfarlane
Appeared in Analog Science Fiction / Science Fact, September 1971

He had been located among the teeming millions only because Guert Maury had persevered in his computerized membership and subscription lists; the Audubon Society, the Sierra Club, Portola Institute, Environment magazine - habits of mind do not change. Of course Noss had adopted another name, but the temptation to proselytize and associate with his own reactionary kind had turned him up.

The spiritual genesis of the modern environmental movement is widely held to have been December 1968, when the Apollo 10 "Earthrise" photograph captured all of Earth in a camera lens for the first time. If that's the case, it didn't take long for opponents of a heightened ecological consciousness to make their counter-arguments. The September 1971 issue of Analog has two; the first in the form of John W. Campbell's editorial, where he fulminated against Concerned Ecologists who pressed for immediate solutions without concern for unintended consequences, and the second in the five-page "To Make a New Neanderthal."

This story may have been good enough to appear in Best Science Fiction Stories of the Year anthologies in 1972, 1973, and 1974, but honestly, I think that the march of time had seriously left it behind, and while back in the 70s it may have been a "thoughtful subversion" of ideas prominent at the time, here in 2009 I can't help but find it patently ridiculous.

The protagonist of "Neanderthal" is Guert Maury, a man we first meet affixing bumper stickers with such witty messages as "BAN CARS" to whatever cars are convenient, and who is pursuing David Langley Noss, a "paranoiac youngster" described early on as a reactionary. I suppose that only makes sense, when the protagonist is the agent of a worldwide conspiracy dedicated to polluting the Earth in order to increase the average brainpower of humanity with phlogiston.

Yeah, that's right, phlogiston. When, at the end of the story, Noss and his fellow environmentalists are rather cruelly marooned on a planet with no heavy metals and no usable wood - "the vegetation's built like a banana tree" - I found it amazing the protagonist's starship didn't also push against the luminiferous aether to get there.

I've heard it said that if a story pisses you off, it's done its job. That may be so, but "Neanderthal" inspired a special kind of irritation in me, the kind that I don't think would have been possible in 1971. Back then it must have been more of a playful what-if, a quick exploration of a world where everything we know is wrong. Thirty-eight years later, I find it representative of the lackadaisical, laissez-faire attitudes of the time that helped to create the situation we find ourselves in today.

I recognize I'm allowing my political and social beliefs to seep into this review. The way I see it, this was a damn provocative story, and it does not hold up well with what we know now. The author's foreword points to "recent studies... that pasture grass grows best when there's adequate sulfur dioxide in the air." The Wikipedia article on sulfur dioxide says nothing about this quality, though I did find the abstract of a 1975 Soviet journal which indicated that "even at low sulfur dioxide concentrations," the studied grasses didn't take in as much carbon dioxide as they would have otherwise.

Furthermore, the entire concept didn't rest well with me - even if pollution did create a more intelligent breed of humanity, one would think that they'd balance their pursuit of ever-greater cogitation against the expense of maintaining a planetary biosphere reduced to "a brown ball for the mentation of man."

Finally, it uses the word "neanderthal" as a pejorative. Considering I've written stories with genetically-resurrected neandertal characters, I really don't like that very much, anymore.

ANDREW'S RATING: 1.5/5. It very much did not, in my opinion, age well.

Previous Short SF Reviews:

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

PDP #73: Barrie Gate

I lived in Barrie for thirteen years, and this structure is still an enigma to me. It spans Mulcaster Street at its intersection with Collier in downtown Barrie, and while I believe that it marks where the original city hall stood way back when, I really don't know either way. These days, it's most often used as a symbol for a city that has precious, precious few symbols aside from Kempenfelt Kelly and sprawling suburbs.

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, July 20, 2009


Some people might have trouble believing it's been forty years. Four decades since the day that Neil Armstrong stepped off Eagle's ladder and landed on moondust, and thirty-seven since the last time sons of Earth were there.

It happened, and it's history. I've read accounts from some people of how much a betrayal the end of the Apollo program seemed at the time, how ridiculous and senseless it was that the United States would go to the moon and then, with the keys to the solar system in its hand, just stop.

That stop is all I've known. I was born in 1982, a month after the first flight of a space shuttle that had more than two people aboard. In the future that we were supposed to have, in the future that the sf visionaries of midcentury saw, there should have been men and women already living on the moon by 1982. Today, in 2009, there should have been a city. By that logic, the entire Earth space program as it has unfolded over the last forty years is a faint shadow of what could have been, and the modern Constellation program a cruelly dangled carrot on a stick, soon to be snapped by the pressures of deficit and recession. To put it simply, looking at the course of space through this lens, we have been cheated.

Maybe it's for the better.

Everything leading up to the Apollo landings was, first and foremost, a competition between the United States and the Soviet Union. There was nothing sustainable about it. The moon was reached with the philosophy of "rocket as ammunition" - of the 3,350-ton bulk of the Saturn V rocket, 6.4 tons returned in the form of the Command Module, the remainder discarded in space or left to burn up in Earth's atmosphere. Even then, after the fires of reentry the only careers the Command Modules could look forward to were in the exciting field of being museum pieces.

The space shuttle may have been a vehicle in search of a destination, but the reusability inherent in the system was what the space program needed. Instead of the relatively short, sustained burst of activity that characterized the rockets of Apollo, the space shuttle era was one of gradual, sustained buildup that has cemented a permanent human presence beyond Earth.

And now all possibilities are, in time, open to us. Some of us may gnash our teeth at how we've stepped back from the brink of space, but how much of this is born from disappointment that here, in the year 2009, we don't have colonies in L4 and L5 and on Mars and fusion-powered torchships capable of constant 1g acceleration? Think of it this way: in 1959, humanity's involvement in space was Sputnik 3, Vanguard 1, and nothing else. Today, the modern world lives and dies with its orbital infrastructure. We have had a space station constantly occupied for nearly nine years. Spaceflights are so routine that they are back-page news, and private companies have made their own steps into the spacelaunch and orbital development business.

In 2059, if we make it that far, we may not have as much to gnash about. The Platinum Desolation was written with this in mind - that this time, we might just stay.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

PDP #72: Red Ones Go Faster

This is my bike. It is a good bike, as it is ten years old and still rides well after I inadvertently left it outside for a winter. You may notice that it is red. This is the bicycle that now gets me around Toronto considerably faster than my own two feet, and from which I gathered the photographs for my investigation of the Rogers Road streetcar a couple of weeks ago.

The problem with conceptualizing the future is that things are changing all the time - countries, philosophies, hopes and fears. Too often there's never any solid touchstone to bridge a nigh-unfathomable future with a familiar present. When I think about things like that I take heart, because the basic framework of the modern bicycle has been effectively unchanged for more than a century.

The modern bicycle frame works. And no matter how unfathomable the future becomes, I find it relaxing to know that at the least, bicycles will probably still be recognizeable as bicycles.

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, July 18, 2009

Bloor Square in Waiting

Last month I wrote a few paragraphs about the precarious future of One Bloor East, a proposed multi-use skyscraper to be built on what was a developed corner and is now an empty, fenced-off field of dirt and gravel at the intersection of Yonge Street and Bloor Street. Today, the Toronto Star reported that the project is "on the brink," and while developer Bazis International claims the site is the "best address in the world," financial scandal may well prevent the tower from being built there.

What I have to wonder is - would this really be a bad thing? Towers are sprouting like sunflowers in Toronto these days, recession or no, and the only reason you can't see cranes every which way in the downtown core is because the existing buildings block the view. It's a powerful reminder of how modern society is built on the "runaway train" model of economic development, that the economy has to grow every single quarter and it's a terrible defeat and tragedy if it doesn't.

I recognize that the proposed site of One Bloor East is incredibly valuable land. What I take issue with is the automatic notion that some developer should profit from it, rather than the ordinary people of Toronto. Personally I hope they don't build the place. I hope they return the $70 million they've already collected as down payments for condos that haven't even been built yet, and I hope that the land can instead be converted into another downtown public space - something that a city can never have enough of.

James Bow has decribed the Yonge Street Strip, the portion of it between Dundas Street and Bloor Street, as the "heart of Yonge." I would go one further and say that length also represents its soul. The spinning records of Sam the Record Man are gone, but that street still thrums, and for many Torontonians and non-Torontonians alike those leagues of storefronts and sidewalks are what comes to mind when Yonge Street is mentioned. Dundas Square anchors it in the south; rather than build yet another tower for the enrichment of yet another developer, I'd much prefer to see a Bloor Square where that field of dirt and gravel is now.

Friday, July 17, 2009

PDP #71: The Poor State of the Originals

When the Toronto subway was opened in 1954, each station used Vitrolite tiles - a special kind of reflective glass, apparently no longer manufactured - on their platform levels. Today, only Eglinton station's Vitrolite is still clean and intact, but there are more tiles than those still on the system. Too often, the case was that original Vitrolite tiling was covered up by later renovations.

St. Andrew station's platform walls are presently slats, though this is in the process of being replaced in favor of "fake Vitrolite" walls which are, I'm told, easier to wash. In some places, the slats have been removed and the original Vitrolite tiling is visible.

What a sad and shabby state it's in.

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, July 16, 2009

Stars of Other Worlds: Iota Horologii

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.

When a friend asked where I found the tribble, I answered, "Iota Horologii IV. Where did you think I found it?" That story held up until the stark, terrifying realization that tribbles are from Iota Geminorum IV. My hyperspace nav had a few fresh dents the next day, I can tell you. Still, I can assure you that while there are no tribbles to be found in the Iota Horologii system, it is theorized to be the site of Installation 04, the Forerunner ringworld destroyed by Master Chief in the original Halo.

You've probably never heard of Iota Horologii. Hell, you've probably never heard of the constellation Horologium, unless you're one of my few Southern Hemispheran readers. To put it simply, Horologium is supposed to be a clock but looks nothing like one, and Iota Horologii is a G0V yellow dwarf star broadly similar to Sol, 56.2 light-years away. Its Wikipedia article calls it a "solar twin" like HD 98618, but since the evidence suggests Iota Horologii is less than seven hundred million years old, that's really straining the term. Nevertheless, it's interesting enough that it was #69 on the Terrestrial Planet Finder's list of stars, until that potential observatory was eviscerated on the table.

What it does mean, though, is that unless the Precursors tore through and terraformed the place, it's highly unlikely there's any life more complex than microbes in the Iota Horologii system. However, one planetary companion has been detected, and like 55 Cancri f it orbits within the star's habitable zone. It could be that for extrasolar colonies, moons are where it's at after all. In the end, if anyone's going to be looking at its constellations any time soon, they'll probably be human or of human descent.

The images presented here include all stars with an apparent magnitude of 6.4 or greater. 6.5 is the limit for visibility to the naked eye under perfect conditions. Also, unlike previous Stars of Other Worlds segments, I've consolidated the unlabelled and labelled constellations into individual images here. If you've got any comments on which format you prefer, giving them would be totally rad.

Triangulum Magnum

If the Precursors had terraformed a world in Iota Horologii, and they'd scooped up some Atlanteans or Tartessians or other "ancient magical societies" to settle there, they'd probably see significance in this pattern of stars. Perhaps this is the True Mystic Triangle, and when it is high in the sky a wizard can tap Power unimaginable.

Or maybe it's just three bright stars that stand out in a recognizeable pattern, taking up about the same chunk of sky as Orion.

There's also a bit of honest astronomical interest to this constellation. Chi Eridani at the top is, with a separation of 7.29 light-years, Iota Horologii's closest known stellar neighbor. What's more, with an apparent magnitude of -0.78, it's brighter than all Earth's night sky stars but Sirius, and is the second-brightest star in Iota Horologii's sky; only Canopus outshines it.

Nevertheless, I can understand that while a triangle's a natural shape, it's also boring. There are plenty of other things Triangulum Magnum COULD be, after all - a d4! A pyramid! Alternatively, add Beta Capricorni into the design and you've got yourself a poorly-made Shofixti Scout.

The Penitent Knight

I keep coming back to the stars of Orion out of a sort of "repertory theatre" view of the sky: some stars will always have the important roles. From Iota Horologii their pattern's hardly as obvious and striking as HD 98618's Heavenly Scimitar, but I wasn't about to let that stop me. I've done far too many constellations that actually resemble what they're supposed to be; as far as I'm concerned, the Penitent Knight is one of those "just take my word for it" constellations, just like back home!

See, this is how it goes. Delta Orionis forms his head, and Zeta, Epsilon, and Eta Orionis his neck and shoulders. Rigel, just slightly brighter than it appears from Earth, is the foot on which he's kneeling, and Mu Leporis, Kappa Orionis, and Beta Leporis make his other leg. Theta1 Orionis C and Iota Orionis form the scabbard for his sword. Some may say that it could be longer, but they are sadly mistaken and wrong. What Celestia doesn't reflect here is the presence of the Orion Nebula; in Iota Horologii's real sky, it would be centered around the scabbard stars.

You may notice that Betelgeuse, the blood-red second-brightest star of Orion, is not in this picture. It's actually out of frame, "above" Delta Orionis, where it is busy chilling with Bellatrix. The same stars can't all hang out together all the time, you know.

The Great Fish of the Galaxy

This ain't your father's Pisces.

Originally this constellation was to be known as the Trumpet of Stars, because that's what I first saw when I saw it, and I would just have explained it away as having been named by someone who didn't really know what a trumpet was other than "thing with big horn," and who was probably thinking of a tuba anyway.

It wasn't until I'd made the lines that I realized what else they made. It vaguely resembles an ichthys, and reminds me of the fish cutouts I'd make on construction paper, glue googly eyes to, and present to my mom as if I'd personally fished them out of Kempenfelt Bay. That it's "swimming" in the visible galaxy only made it more appropriate.

Like Sagittarius, most of the Great Fish of the Galaxy's stars can be found very near to the galactic core as viewed from Iota Horologii. It's not the most striking in the sky - its brightest member, Epsilon Sagittarii, has an apparent magnitude of 1.83, with the rest generally second- or third-magnitude stars - but, unlike the Penitent Knight, it actually looks like what it's supposed to be. Presumably, in myth and legend, it is the trickster rival of the Great Bird of the Galaxy.

Though, now that I look at it again, it could just as easily be a caricatured Apollo service module.

Incidentally, there's just one more thing I wanted to show you - not a constellation. But it's something that's always at the back of my mind. Remember, fifty-six light-years is a long,



Distant Stars of Other Worlds
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Wednesday, July 15, 2009

PDP #70: The Lone and Level Rail

Streetcar ghosts are in evidence all around Toronto, some more obviously than others. The old Rogers Road route, which I wrote about recently, has been all but annihilated from the cityscape. On a recent bicycle expedition to Harbourfront, I stumbled across some rails embedded in the street that I can't tie to any route I know of.

This photo is looking west along Queens Quay, and you can see a couple of streetcars in the distance, where they descend into the tunnel that connects to Union Station. The exposed track looks like it could be a piece of streetcar rail to me; it continues behind my perspective in this shot, to end abruptly in the center of the Yonge Street-Queens Quay intersection. As far as I know, not even the Yonge streetcar - abandoned in 1954 - came down here.

Tesseract thinks it's a relic of some old harbor freight line. Me... I don't know. It is a mystery!

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Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Streetcar Lessons from Melbourne

As a lifelong resident of the Toronto region, it was easy to fall into the trap that streetcars are a historical anachronism, and that of all the cities they rolled through only Toronto didn't tear the tracks up. Even in North America that's an oversimplification; New Orleans, Boston, Pittsburgh, and other cities maintained their tracks when most others were dismantled, although it's true that no other Canadian city did.

Overseas it's completely different. I wouldn't have guessed it in the time before Wikipedia, but it happens that while Toronto operates the largest streetcar system in the Western Hemisphere, the city of Melbourne, Australia operates what may well be the largest in the world - right now, there is a lack of consensus on Wikipedia - and their trams are just as much a part of the urban social fabric as streetcars are in Toronto. Nevertheless, from time to time the scissors still need to come out.

The Age of Melbourne reported yesterday that the city's "tram superstops" - miniature stations in their own right, reminiscent of the new boarding platforms along the 512 St. Clair streetcar's new right-of way - are too short for the new vehicles the city will take delivery of in 2012, and that they will have to be extended. I haven't been able to find any reference as to what these vehicles are or who the manufacturer is, but the cited length of thirty-two meters matches up nicely with Bombardier's Flexity, the same family of streetcar that will hit the streets of Toronto next decade to relieve the aging CLRV and ALRV fleets. Melbourne's most recent purchases were of Combino trams, the longest of which are just shy of thirty meters long.

Two meters, it seems, counts for safe departure from all doors.

This possibility of obsolescence is definitely something that should be taken into account by planners when it comes time to design the Transit City stops. All-door boarding has been one of the intended hallmarks of the project since it was unveiled, and a streetcar longer than its station would turn that hope to dust. The rights-of-way will be expensive already, and it'd be far better to design in some extra room from the outset rather than plan only for today and leave tomorrow to tomorrow. It's thanks to that kind of foresight that Bloor-Danforth subway trains can cross the Don Valley beneath the Prince Edward Viaduct.

I'll be keeping an eye on the Melbourne tram system - it seems to me to be a worthwhile "other" against which to contrast Toronto's own streetcar operations. Few things can be studied seriously in isolation. For example, no matter how people might have gnashed their teeth over the cost Toronto's had to assume in order to make sure new streetcars hit the rails, it's not really all that bad. The city and the province will, together, pay $1.22 billion for two hundred and four vehicles and their assorted spare parts. Melbourne's tab for a mere fifty new trams is $1 billion AUD, which according to the exchange rate measured by at 12:28 AM today, converts to $903,719,804.17 CDN.

Perhaps Mayor Miller is a better negotiator than he lets on.

Monday, July 13, 2009

PDV #3: Queens Quay, A PCC, and Thee

The Presidents' Conference Committee streetcar is the Toronto streetcar - everything else is just filling its void. Back in the day, hundreds of PCC cars rumbled across the city, and at one point Toronto's fleet of them was the largest in the world.

Today, the TTC retains two of them, the rest scrapped or sent to museums, but at least the ones still in the city aren't decaying in a carhouse. Between May and Labour Day of 2009, subject to availability, the TTC has been running one of these streetcars along the 509 Harbourfront route, from Union Station to Exhibition Loop.

I had a chance to take this video of PCC 4500 yesterday, moving south down Bathurst Street and turning east onto Queens Quay. It's something else to see it actually moving.

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Sunday, July 12, 2009

A Calendar for Ceres

Once humans go into space to stay, the Gregorian calendar isn't something they'll necessarily take with them. A timekeeping system based around equinox and solstice and organized for the needs of an agricultural society may not have much more than nostalgic value to the pioneers of Sol, considering that the environments they inhabit will be purely artificial. Depending on the tempo with which space is settled, humanity's new worlds may well ditch Earth's dating system in favor of one which is relevant to them, and not just an apron string binding them across the light-hours to a land that's no longer home.

Ceres is one potential middle-term colonization prospect, given sufficient impetus and sufficiently low launch costs. With a perihelion of 2.54 AUs and a required delta-v of 9.4 km/s from Earth orbit to Ceres orbit, it would probably languish in the shadow of Mars, which is somewhat closer to Earth and has an orbit-to-orbit delta-v of only 5.7 km/s - Hohmann orbits, though. The issues of relative inconvenience go out the window if one has a ship capable of accelerating and decelerating all the way.

Once NASA's Dawn probe arrives there in 2015, a great deal of questions we've currently got on the books about Ceres may well be answered. For one - the question of whether it has underground water ice. That alone would be absolutely vital to any kind of colonization enterprise. Setting down landers without a source of water isn't a colony, or even a caravanserai - it's a dependency of the most base and coarse nature, and I doubt there would be many people who'd pay to have water lobbed across the solar system when those enterprising colonists could have set out instead for Europa or Enceladus. Water is life, remember.

Presuming that Ceres does have water ice, it's sounding to me like the sort of place a fringe colony - presuming it could find enough investors or venture capitalists to pony up the start-up funds - might set up. And once they got there, hey... why not make a new calendar, relevant to their new circumstances, to celebrate their new life?

Ceres' orbital period is a little over four and a half Earth years - 1680.5 days, and the Cererean calendar divides this out into 1,680 twenty-four hour days with a bit left over at the end. The days are grouped into twenty-one months, each eighty days long, and owing to my vision of Ceres as being run along technocratic lines, they are for the most part named after scientists, astronomers, and people relevant to the discovery of Ceres. Here they are:

Dawn, Piazzi, Hirayama, Maskelyne, Dyson, Wolf, Chandrasekhar, Al-Battani, Von Zach, Kirkwood, Messier, Cassini, Hayabusa, Galileo, Herschel, Biederman, Bode, Olbers, Gauss, and Vespers.

One interesting historical synchronicity I found while researching this calendar originally was that Giuseppe Piazzi's first observation of Ceres came on January 1, 1801, the first day of the nineteenth century. This serves as the calendar's zero date, and corresponds to Dawn 1, 0 AC (Anno Cereris). My original notes, which have since been lost in the shuffle, included a formula I kludged together to translate a Gregorian calendar date to a Cererean one, but with this shared starting point it's roughly possible to figure something out.

Very roughly, though, because there's still the issue of that .5 of a day left over. Originally I could have just chopped it off and decreed that, for the purposes of timekeeping, Ceres' year was precisely 1,680 twenty-four hour periods in length. While that would work from an individual perspective, as someone living in Ceres might not care much where exactly the sun was in the sky, this would have left the calendar prone to drifting. I can't see any sense in building a calendar from the ground up and intentionally leaving it unbalanced.

To that end, to fill in the extra time, Ceres has an extra "day" which isn't a day at all. Where the Gregorian calendar jumps smoothly from December 31 to January 1, the Cererean calendar does not similarly transition from Vespers 80 to Dawn 1. Instead, the space between them - 19 hours, 39 minutes, and 21 seconds by my original calculations, although I may have been off - constitutes Year's End. I can imagine this is would be the day when Cerereans drink to excess; think of it as a temporal Vegas, when anything that happens stays there.

Writing out this post, and coming to the slow realization that there are probably a great deal of mathematical shortcomings in it that would blow my brilliant concept to flinders, has made me want to drink to excess myself. Excelsior!

Saturday, July 11, 2009

PDP #69: Monorail! Monorail!

You may have heard about the recent monorail crash at Walt Disney World that killed one of the operators. Hardly an ideal way to go - not just dying at work, which is a prospect that's always disquieted me, because who wants to die at work - seeing as how Disney World seems to be based on disassociating itself with the world outside, and all its attendant problems. When you enter Disney World, you're meant to enter a world of Fun and THE FUTURE.

And, of course, THE FUTURE has monorails. I took this photo of Monorail Yellow in Epcot Center way back in 2005, the most recent time I spent more than five hours in the United States of America.

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Friday, July 10, 2009

The Arrow of Avalon

They say that in an hour of great need, King Arthur will return from blessed Avalon to save Britain and its people. Messiahs run deep in human belief, back to deepest antiquity, because there really is something primal about the desire for a grand, glorious, elevated leader to show us the light and save us from ourselves. It is the bedrock of myths and religions around the world, repeated again and again in the interest of building a bright future.

Mythologies can unify nations just as much as any great leader or historic charter. J.R.R. Tolkien created a mythology out of whole cloth in The Lord of the Rings, and as Google comes up with 4,080 hits as of this writing for "English-Quenya dictionary," it can hardly be argued that he missed the mark. I've seen it mentioned in a few places - though I can't find corroborating links at the moment, so take this with a grain of salt if you'd prefer - that one of Tolkien's goals was to create a uniquely British mythology through his literature.

Canada is a young country, and has a very limited national mythology - Mounties, lumberjacks, voyageurs, blackflies and log drivers are pretty much all we've got. It may be that this is a significant factor in the ongoing "Canadian identity" debate, and I see it as a definite relic of our colonial past. For the longest time Canada didn't need any identity of its own; hell, Canadian citizenship didn't even exist until 1947. It's only very recently in our history that the United Kingdom's coattails stopped being good enough.

It's possible for myths to be made. Every day there's a chance for a new messiah to be born. There's nothing in the rules that says a messiah has to be a person, though.

The Avro Canada CF-105 Arrow is one of those enduring what-ifs in modern Canadian history, a perfect component of what Michael Moore's Canadian Bacon called our "serious inferiority complex." A product of the 1950s need to do the Soviets one better, it was to have been one of the finest interceptors in the air and break records that the best aircraft today would struggle to meet. The prototypes flew, the project weathered governmental caprice, and it was poised to enter service and history - only for the program to be cancelled in 1959. It wasn't just cancelled, though, but practically annihilated. Today, the severed nose section of the last Arrow stands in the Canada Aviation Museum, and aside from a few fragments, it represents the only known remains of the five aircraft that were built.

Yet, for fifty years now there's been a whispered legend going around, once championed by the late June Callwood, that "one got away." The 1996 CBC docudrama The Arrow embraced the legend wholeheartedly, and ended with the last Arrow taking to the skies for an unknown destination. There it would sit, in secrecy and silence, perhaps until it was needed again...

It wasn't until more than ten years later that it struck me how similar this concept was to the myth of King Arthur. Instead of a person asleep on blessed Avalon or under Glastonbury Tor, we have the Last Arrow in a lonely hangar or hidden away in a farmer's barn. A triumph of science, technology and engineering, hidden from the small minds that would tear it down until it could one day return to the world and inspire a new generation to look toward the future.

Sounds like a hell of a national myth to me. Might make a good story. Hmm...

Thursday, July 9, 2009

PDP #68: The Juggler

For more than thirty years, the City of Barrie has held one of the few events that give people a reason to go to downtown Barrie in the first place - Promenade Days, held in late June and early July. This year, as in past years, Dunlop Street in the downtown core was closed off and pedestrianized to accommodate the kiosks, booths, and bagpipe performance areas along its length. Fred Grant Square, which I wrote about back in June, was flanked by a stage and a carnival midway.

It was just outside Fred Grant Square where I saw the juggler, a man who juggled FIRE. He was rather good at it, actually.

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Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Polishing the Golden Ages

Though the last man alive, whenever he lives, will be justified in believing times were better in the past, that belief is a common thread that winds through the labyrinth of history. Today everything - comic books, the CBC, hats - seem to have experienced Golden Ages. The idea of the "golden age" as a purer, more enlightened, yet departed time was expressed in mythologies around the ancient world. The science fiction field alone has two of them (c. 1939 to 1959, and twelve).

The idea of social golden ages have their own haunting power, the more so because by their very nature they can't be recognized as such until they're gone. The mere definition of the recent past as a golden age implies that things have gone downhill since then. Science fiction has run with this concept very well in the past.

Last week I picked up a 1974 anthology entitled 2020 Vision, or possibly 20/20 Vision, edited by Jerry Pournelle and including stories by such luminaries as Poul Anderson, Norman Spinrad, Larry Niven and A.E. van Vogt. In his preface, Pournelle writes that while 2020 Vision originally began as a collection of stories which the author of each "truly believed" might take place in the year 2020, there emerged a unifying theme of "do we now, or will we soon, live in a Golden Age?"

From behind his typewriter in 1974, Pournelle did put forth a plausible argument that events could drive much of the world into poverty and despair well before 2009, let alone 2020. Sure, so far we've stood out of the long shadow of nuclear war - and the recent news from Moscow is even more encouraging on that front - but the global problems of pollution and overpopulation, and in the West a shrinking workforce supporting a massive pool of retirees, are with us still. In 1974 the free world was still riding high thanks to the boom years after the Second World War, tensions with the Soviet Union were relatively low, and the United States had yet to learn the lessons of Vietnam.

From behind my laptop in 2009, though, I have to wonder if the 1970s really were a golden age, and whether future generations might look back to them as such now that the history of those years has been written. Personally, though, when I think of the 1970s, I don't think of a golden age. I think of years of malaise, of years when the world stopped reaching for the stars, of bad polyester leisure suits and orange shag carpeting.

If I had to point to some point of recent history as a golden age, I'd go to the 1990s - specifically, 1991-2001. The Cold War was over, the early 1990s recession had effectively lifted, the international system was sufficiently peaceful and stable for Francis Fukuyama to declare that liberal democracy had won forever, new technologies were making more people more prosperous, and the future seemed bright. It wasn't until after September 11 that North America's "vacation from history" ended and the gold was put away. This represents, however, a very Western golden age; things were not nearly so rosy in places like Russia, Rwanda or the former Yugoslavia. Globalization or no, the world system is far too fragmented for things to be good and rosy everywhere.

Then again, I was born in 1982, and am a child of the 1990s. My entire experience with the 1970s is by necessity filtered through the opinions of others. Whether or not the 70s were a golden age, this is the sort of argument you can't have without knowing what a golden age is in the first place. Seeing as how that's an intensely subjective issue, I asked around.

Tesseract, of Screaming through Static: "When the greatest number of people are happy. Definitely not 2009."

Alex, roommate: "It's a society in which everyone respects the rights of everyone else, there's full egalitarianism, and the lowest possible percentage of homelessness and lack of education, and prosperity. Where everything is as close to perfect, in terms of general happiness and niceness, as you can get with human beings."

Acts of Minor Treason reader Professor S, harvesting brains in South Korea: "I would say that it is a point of significant power (political, military, cultural, economic, not necessarily all, but likely more than one) which includes a period of increasing rise in power, refinement, and complexity resulting in rising prosperity for a large segment of the population."

Similar in outline, different in the details. From my perspective, I doubt they explain the 1970s any better than they describe 2009.

A social golden age being "a time where everything was awesome" is something that pretty much everyone can agree on, but the details of what constitutes awesome always vary. An extreme social conservative might think of the 1950s as a golden age, because it was when women and minorities Knew Their Place. Others might think of it as when beer was cheap and music was good. For a few, it doesn't even have to happened yet. As David Brin wrote in his 2002 article "J.R.R. Tolkien -- enemy of progress," modern Western society is rare in that it has, "with its impudent notion of progress, brashly relocated any 'golden age' to the future, something we might work toward, a human construct for our grandchildren to achieve... assuming that we manage to prepare them."

People will only ever agree on the broad strokes of what constitutes a golden age. I don't know whether Jerry Pournelle today thinks the 1970s were a golden age after all, or whether future generations will come to think of them that way, but in the end that's not my decision to make. It may yet be that despite dark clouds and rumors of war, David Brin is right, and the great golden age is yet to come.

All I know is that if you're looking forward to a golden age, just make sure your base has plenty of Talents and no Drones, and you can't go wrong.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

PDP #67: Platform Corridor

Platforms 26 and 27 are among the newest at Union Station, accessed adjacent to the Air Canada Centre and built on the southern limit of the railway lands. When two trains are waiting on both sides of the platform, it can produce a somewhat claustrophobic effect.

Also, this is one of those rare photos of mine which has actual humans in it. Shock!

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