Friday, April 30, 2010

An Old-Fashioned Hand

The problem, I think, is the nature of cursive writing. It's a relic of an earlier age, when never taking the pen off the paper was necessary to avoid unsightly ink splotches or smudges, and while it's true that it can be faster, it's that much harder for other people to read. The general impression I get today is that, for better or for worse, it's on the way out - not only is it not a priority for schools anymore, handwriting as a whole is being nibbled at by electronic alternatives. Five years ago, I made all my university course notes on paper, but even then there were people here and there tapping them into laptops instead - and that was before ubiquitous smartphones or iPads.

The implication, then, is clear: cursive writing is just the canary in the coal mine, and sooner or later the practice of writing in general will decline, as electronic and voice-recognition transcription systems make it possible for people to record their thoughts and ideas without ever having to resort to paper and pen. Clarity would improve - from millions of different hands, subtly shaped by the way each writer learned from the examples hanging over the blackboard and the way they held their pen, we would go to a relative handful of fonts designed for legibility. One prime reason that I never put an effort into learning cursive was that it would be counterproductive for me for exactly that reason. I've never come across anyone who could not read my printed handwriting, whereas if you go by my cursive chickenscratch, you would think my name was something like "Aw Batv."

On the other hand, the replacement of traditional writing methods with electronic ones wouldn't do much in terms of saving paper - if anything, it would encourage more use. There will still be a need for physical copies of documents, and running something off on a printer is a matter of pushing a few buttons; no exertion at all. Writing or no, the occasional dream of a "paperless society" is still a long way in the future, and until we develop methods of perfect information security and ubiquitous hardening of storage media against electromagnetic pulses, it's better for it to remain a dream.

Will writing become a lost art? I don't think so. There's a great many stages between ubiquity and irrelevance, and handwriting is just too valuable to lose completely. What might happen is that the frequent use of handwriting may end up becoming a signifier of affluence, effectively allowing a person to say "I am so well off I can afford for this task to take several times longer than would otherwise be the case." Though I don't think the idea of writing would become unheard of, I think it's likely that outside certain specific situations, people might come to think of handwriting as being a bit odd and old-fashioned.

Still, it's the most significant invention in the history of humanity. The future of writing will greatly influence the shape of years to come.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

PDP #213: Move Along Home

Yonge Street may be Toronto's main street, but Bay Street is arguably the pivot around which downtown moves - not only because of the sheer presence of the skyscrapers that line it south of Queen, but because Union Station abuts it. Every day, once the clock approaches 5, tens of thousands of people file out of their offices on their way to the trains that keep the entire region moving. The people crossing King at Bay are only a small part of the movement.

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

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Power of One

This is the fact at hand: four days ago, a 79-year-old man was robbed on the Toronto subway, his wallet stolen by two attackers - and this on a car that was hardly empty, and like all Toronto subway cars equipped with a passenger assistance alarm. Yusuf Hizel couldn't press it, though he tried, because he was a bit busy being mugged at the time. Neither did anyone else in the car, though - and that's the rub. Suburbanites have picked up the story as yet another bludgeon to bring down on Toronto's head, while Torontonians wring their hands about whether this means the end of Good Samaritanism and lolbertarians in newspaper comment threads rail about how it's all because Canadians aren't allowed to carry concealed weapons. Everyone, it seems, has an angle in this story.

What everyone seems to agree on is that the other passengers' inaction was shameful. Personally, I'm not sure what went down - though I've heard that the car surveillance footage will be released today, the reports I've seen suggest that it was fast - but I can understand it. It's something that has roots deep within the human psyche. The bystander effect, in particular, is particularly vicious and tends to crop up in situations like this: perversely, the more people who are in a position to help, the less likely it is that any of them actually will. Whether it's because people subconsciously assume someone else better suited to help will do so, or because they don't want to stand out from the crowd, or so on--

It's difficult to overcome this - even more so if you're unfamiliar with it. In that respect, the news coverage of this incident is a good thing. If people are aware of this issue, if they ever find themselves in the proper situation they may be able to do the right thing. Still, I can understand why those in a position to act, don't - hesitation, fear, an unwillingness to get involved. That doesn't mean I excuse it. For me, the TTC has always been a kind of sanctuary. It's supposed to be safe.

Maybe that's why, when someone assaulted the operator of a streetcar I was on, I at least tried to act. I was too angry to be afraid at first - but as I stood staring at him from across half the length of the streetcar, I buckled. Confrontation can be a frightening thing. I mean, what if he had a knife - or something worse? In the end, all I can really hope for is that since I had him staring and growling right at me for what seemed like forever but was most likely a few seconds, the streetcar surveillance cameras got good video of his face. So I can understand why people might not act.

Nevertheless, if we want the TTC and our city as a whole to continue to be safe, we have to be willing to act, to step forward when necessary. The bystander effect only holds true if no one takes action. One someone, anyone steps up, the spell is broken and people can justify getting involved. We can't allow ourselves to be intimidated.

Safety is in numbers, but it always starts with one.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

PDP #212: Structural Integrity

Up on Queen Street West, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health is in the midst of a monumental renewal. This meant the demolition of the structures that were already on site so that new ones could rise in their place - a philosophy that is par for the course in Toronto. This shot was taken in March from a passing Queen streetcar, and shows what was once the main building on the Queen West site in the process of coming down, with ragged edges.

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

Monday, April 26, 2010

A Problem of Memetic Discrimination

The unfortunate truth is that discrimination, in some form or another, will probably be with humanity for as long as there is a humanity - only the targets of social antipathy will be different. What makes it worse is that for most of history, people have been discriminated against by no fault of their own - people don't have the opportunity to choose what color they're going to be, what culture they're going to be born a part of, what their sexual orientation is, or what have you. Granted, we've been making positive strides recently, but there's still a hell of a long way to go.

Discrimination is a problem that we still need to solve. What may change about it in the future is that we might stumble into a situation where - to be blunt - people are discriminated against as a result of their own choices. The big problem is that while this is as indefensible as racism or anti-Semitism or anti-homosexual bigotry today, there are probably plenty of people who would not see it that way. Xenophobia doesn't need much justification for xenophobes.

What people might end up on the wrong side of these crosshairs? Possibly, people who set out to "improve" themselves - people who take advantage of biogenetic or cybernetic technologies to elevate themselves above what they once were. This sort of human modification is something I expect to see in the future; after all, it's relatively inexpensive, particularly when compared to the whole "cities on Mars" trope that is common in science fiction, and present-day technology is beginning to approach the point where it might be feasible. Consider, for a moment, digilegs.

Right now, these are innocuous; aids for cosplayers and movie producers, primarily. Nevertheless, I can easily see a time when technology has advanced to such a point where these could stop being just aids. There are people who, if the opportunity was available, wouldn't hesitate to replace their natural legs with mechanical digitigrade legs and live their lives as cyberfauns, cybercentaurs, or whatever. The idea of people identifying themselves as "non-human" is not new; otherkin, as an organized subculture, have existed for twenty years, and the concept of therianthropy has pretty much existed in one form or another since the dawn of human culture.

These people would be distinguishing themselves from "ordinary people" in a significant way, and by doing so they would make themselves targets to some of them. Given that the "improvers" might be geographically scattered, discrimination against them could be even more vociferous - and the fact that they chose this would probably encourage the sort of people who'd discriminate, that they "deserve it" for choosing to make themselves "inhuman."

The prototype for this already exists in the world to some extent - discrimination against atheists. It's the one avenue of discrimination I can think of that's based on the perception that it's the result of a choice - granted, that's often the case, but not nearly universally. Article 36 of Maryland's Bill of Rights, for example, states that an otherwise-competent witness may not "be deemed incompetent as a witness, or juror, on account of his religious belief; provided, he believes in the existence of God" - because, as we all know, the only possible reason people don't lead their lives in a manic, orgiastic whirlwind is because they're afraid of Hell. Granted, it's not nearly as harsh as racist discrimination has been in the past - but it does presage, I think, the capacity to discriminate based on an idea and not an intrinsic nature.

It's a shame, really. When I was growing up, the future always seemed like it should be the kind of place where this sort of thing didn't exist at all. Now that I'm older, I realize that the future is just the present - shinier in some ways, and dirtier in others.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

PDP #211: A Lonely Street in Pompeii

Most of us have probably heard, in some way or another, of Pompeii - the ancient Roman city that was buried in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius back in 79, and which today is one of our primary sources for understanding Roman civilization. I was there on March 13, 1998 - not the brightest and most bluesky of days.

This photo was taken with my old film camera, a Minolta Pocket Autopak 430E from approximately 1976. As befitting my extremely amateur nature at a time before the easy-check nature of digital photography, a lot of the photos I brought back don't really make the grade. Part of that has to do with the 110 film the camera uses, which apparently tends toward the grainy.

Even so, here and there I think some rise above.

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

Saturday, April 24, 2010

A Way of the Future: Planned Decrepitude

I used to take my photographs with an Olympus digital camera. I don't anymore, because I dropped that camera on a hard concrete floor in Los Angeles and it has been nonfunctional ever since. Fixing it was out of the question - I don't think digital cameras today are made to be fixed. If I had had the time and inclination to send that camera in to the Olympus Corporation for repair, I would not have been surprised to receive an entirely new camera. It's one of the scourges of the modern economic landscape: planned obsolescence. Modern devices are not only not built to last, but are frequently built to not last. Everyone reading this probably has a planned obsolescence story, and the trope of a device breaking the day (or the minute) after its warranty expires is frequently used in comedy.

No model lasts forever, though, and this model in particular is one that I can easily see flailing in the twenty-first century - at least in the West - as situations and cultural viewpoints shift. I believe it's plausible that in the coming decades there'll be a shift, and just as we turned away from the "build to last" philosophy in the mid-twentieth century, we may yet turn away from planned obsolescence in the twenty-first. The big question is what will replace it. My idea? Planned decrepitude.

To understand planned decrepitude, you also have to take into account another development that has the potential to radically influence the twenty-first century and set it apart from the twentieth - distributed manufacturing. Where manufacturing from the dawn of the Industrial Revolution to the present day has been focused in large, specialized factories, the advent of the 3D printer - a device capable of manufacturing objects by "printing" multiple discrete layers of material - suggests a future where industry leaves the factories and enters the commons. While 3D printers are generally confined to businesses because of their expense, the same was broadly true of computers as recently as the mid-1970s, before the Apple I and Commodore PET hit the market. I think it's plausible that general-purpose 3D printers could be easily affordable by the average consumer by, say, 2040 - and with that, we would be set for a cultural shift.

The idea of planned decrepitude begins with the idea that many people have this capacity for in-home manufacturing of small items and goes from there, and where planned obsolescence operates on the assumption that anything broken will simply be replaced, planned decrepitude takes a different tack - that anything broken can be repaired, and that it will need to be repaired multiple times, in multiple ways, over the product's lifespan. In a society of planned decrepitude, devices would be built in such a way that anyone could repair them - as easily as screwing in a new lightbulb, as long as it's technically possible.

Under this philosophy, the companies would make the lion's share of their money from the sale of replacement parts. Imagine this - it's a fine day in 2050 when the redundant melacortz ramistat in your isopalavial interface goes on the fritz. In 2010 you would have to go to the store and get a new interface, but you are a canny and seasoned consumer OF THE FUTURE! Your 3D printer has an internet connection, and with it you're able to purchase a one-time license from the manufacturer to print a new ramistat. Once it's taken shape in the printer, it's easy as anything to click it in where it needs to go, and you're once again interfacing isopalavially without ever having to leave the house. Score!
Of course, when the replacement ramistat breaks down - whether planned obsolescence or planned decrepitude, there's not much room for hopeful "ifs" - you'll have to buy another license to print another replacement. This is one of the manifestations of the role intellectual property will have in the twenty-first century. Sure, you could always spend a while searching and print a free, open-source ramistat, assuming that in 2050 our creative liberties have not been eroded to a point where that is impossible. The manufacturers wouldn't like it, though. You'd probably see things reminiscent of those damn ads HP is running now to try to convince people not to buy non-HP toner, because only HP toner is as pure as the blood of the Lamb. Or something.

Admittedly, this is just one possibility, one that for me arose from the intersection of 3D printing, planned obsolescence, and the rising importance of intellectual property. When I talked about the idea to my roommate last night, he thought it was unlikely - but not implausible. Ultimately, that's all the future is: a series of events that, if you went back in time and described to an average person on the street, would be dismissed as rubbish science fiction.

"Computers in everyone's phone but no cities on the moon? Come on, get real!"

Friday, April 23, 2010

PDP #210: A Bridge to Nowhere

Forget Alaska; this is the real deal.

Here in Toronto, one of the city's ongoing construction initiatives is the Dufferin Jog Elimination Project, meant to be completed later this year. Dufferin Street is a major street in west Toronto, one of the concession roads laid out during the original European settlement of the area, and yet for more than a hundred years it's been cut in two because of the railway. As a result, a roughly ]-shaped detour along three other streets is necessary, and that all that turning at traffic lights has a mad tendency to slow down the streetcars.

So they're extending Dufferin through the gap, in an underpass. To do this, they had to do some serious relocation of the railway lines running above - I'm not an engineer, so I don't know exactly what they did, but I do know that there wasn't any interruption to regular rail services as a result. What it means is that for a while now, the western bridge has led to nothing but sky.

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

Thursday, April 22, 2010

It's Old, Not Worthless

Back in 1951, when the last Hamilton streetcar ran for the last time, it was decorated with a sign saying, in part, "goodbye for ever." Depending on the actions of the provincial government in the immediate future, that claim may soon be exposed for the horrible, horrible lie that I wish it to be. Still, I thought it really marks something out, something that was absolutely dominant in the wake of the Second World War - the tide of neophilia in Western society, and the unshakeable belief that if something was new, it was automatically superior to older things by simple dint of being new. While this wasn't a universal opinion - Arthur C. Clarke's 1951 short story "Superiority" takes a look at some of the consequences of this line of thinking - it was certainly common enough that society was greatly shaped by it.

The problem is that it's absolutely bunk - and, in fact, in some respects is the opposite of what you would be best off doing. Old methods are, by their very nature, reliable and predictable as generations of technicians, mechanics, and thinkers have had the opportunity to polish them to a shine. It's the same way in culture - some traditions exist for good reasons. While a new thing isn't necessarily unreliable, it is far more likely to surprise the people using it, if only because the problems haven't been worked out yet.

This view, I believe, was one of the major factors in the streetcar abandonment policies practiced by cities worldwide. While the Great American streetcar scandal had influence in some cities, it couldn't have reached them all. Across the Anglosphere, the only two cities I can think of that retained more than a shadow of their streetcar networks were Toronto and Melbourne, Australia. They are the outliers, the cities that for whatever reason didn't step into what everyone else thought of as "the future." Today, enough time has passed that the view is shifting. Though Portland and Seattle have recently begun rebuilding traditional streetcar systems, the old is coming back now in the form of light rail. Much of Los Angeles' light rail infrastructure runs along the rights-of-way of the Pacific Electric Railway, for example, and even Hamilton is taking strides toward again running rails through its downtown. The idea of streetcars may be a hundred and fifty years old, but it's an idea that still works.

Ultimately, I think it goes back to the rather erratic manner in which human psychology works. When cities were tearing up their streetcar rails because buses were cheaper or because they'd lost too many riders to private automobiles, no one (or, charitably, hardly anyone) was sparing a thought about the future - except to think that whatever problems arose from the choices they were making, SCIENCE! would inevitably solve. We're wired to prioritize today over tomorrow. The implications of automobile reliance and the attendant explosive suburbanization, destruction of agricultural land, atomization of society, and urban decay seem to have been hardly thought of. I'd imagine there is a deep, rich well of anti-urban sentiment throughout the science fiction of the 1950s - it'd be something worth looking into, if only I had more of a 1950s library.

It's for reasons like this that societies need to pay attention to their history. Aside from the obvious need to avoid continuous repetition of the past, we may well find that in looking into history, we may find that keys to solving the problems we face today were smithed generations ago.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

PDP #209: It's Not Any Bluer Underneath

They're doing some reconstruction along the south side of Bloor Street, at least between Avenue Road and Yonge Street. While I don't know with 100% certainty what they're doing, it's more likely than not part of that sidewalk rehabilitation project that was in the news last year, the one that had some of the streetside merchants up in arms about lost business during construction. I can understand their hesitancy now - there are some businesses that have to be accessed by temporary bridges over the trench, marked with signs saying that each business is "OPEN FOR BUSINESS" - and it's good that they went that extra mile because if their door's open, lights are on inside, and they've gone so far as to put down a bridge between the pedestrian corridor and the door, I know my first thought would be "this place is obviously closed."

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

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Toronto's Unfortunate Transit Classism

It's been almost a month now since the Ontario budget dropped, and there's been nothing but the usual political jumbletalk about the future of Transit City since then. Mayor Miller has taken to the free newspapers and the TTC announcement system to plead his case for light rail in Toronto, and I plan to send a letter to my MPP about the need to fund this system. We've come to the point where we can't just leave it for the future to worry about. That time-honored tactic, relied upon by premiers for more than thirty years, has reached the end of its shelf life.

As usual, it's the people who are least able to roll with the punches that are caught in the ring by this. The Etobicoke-Finch West line, the Eglinton Crosstown line, the Scarborough RT conversion and extension all extend higher-order transit outside of the traditional, built-up corridors and take it to the fringes of the city, to the suburbs built with the assumption that cars would be so cheap everyone would own one and there would be no reason to think about allowance for public transit. These postwar neighborhoods are where Toronto is coming to grips with a looming poverty crisis, and it's where public transit improvements - making it possible for families to reduce or eliminate their reliance on automobiles, and thereby spend that money elsewhere. People should not have to choose between transportation and rent, transportation and food, or transportation and anything. People need to get around.

This is true in Los Angeles just as it is in Toronto. I recently came across an article via the Bus Bench in the Claremont Progressive, "Transit Racism in Los Angeles," that really puts the issue into perspective. The sprawling bus network in Los Angeles - until 1990, the only public transportation available in that city - is predominantly (80%) used by working-class black and Latino populations, of whom 75% earn $12,000-$20,000 a year. The authors of the piece take issue with the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority's aggressive pursuit of rail construction projects, focusing on the Foothill Extension of the Metro Gold Line, approved in late March and poised to extend light rail even further afield. The argument is that not only would the $690-million earmarked for this extension be better spent on improving the Los Angeles bus system, the problem is that in this framework, bus fares are being used as a "cash cow" to subsidize extensions to the doorsteps of affluent suburban riders.

While I don't think the situation is rather that bad in Toronto - from what I've encountered, the TTC is widely used across much of the social spectrum - if we sit back and do nothing, that's what we'll get. Too, I couldn't help but be reminded of the lamented Toronto-York Spadina Subway Extension north from Downsview station in North York to Vaughan, which the TTC website in all seriousness describes as "critical." Design documents available on the TTC website give an estimated final cost of $807-million just for building the six stations along this line - nonwithstanding the cost of tunnel boring machines or tunnel construction. What's even more comforting is that I've heard reports - unconfirmed, so hopefully that's all they are - that York Region is not going to pay a share into the operations budget of the extension, even though two of its stations rise up on the far side of the Toronto border.

Is a subway to Vaughan really a project the TTC should be focusing on when there are scores of underserved neighborhoods throughout the city? Personally, I say no - but I know it will still get built. For one, construction is to start this year, and that means jobs that Queen's Park can crow about. More than that, though, the construction is being bankrolled by the federal and provincial governments - and this way the province can pretend it cares a whit about public transportation while its funding choices actively degrade the state of it.

Toronto needs another solution.

Monday, April 19, 2010

PDP #208: The Gates of the Village

Yesterday was a nice day, far more pleasant than the weather forecasts had suggested, so I took advantage to go out venturing. Off of King Street West I took a quick northern detour and went through the brick streets of Hess Village - made possible because I was, in actuality, in Hamilton and not Toronto. It's rather smaller than comparable entertainment districts in Toronto, but understandably so; Hamilton's got a somewhat smaller population than old Toronto itself, let alone the rest of Metro. It was rather quiet, too. Maybe going to Hamilton for the first time on a Sunday gave me a bit of a skewed view.

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

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Crumbling Bricks, Crumbling History

Time has its own agenda. No matter what our own hopes and dreams may be, in the end it's the grinding pressure of second stacked upon second that has the final say. I saw that for my own in downtown Toronto yesterday while I watched the careful, piece-by-piece demolition of 335 Yonge Street - a building that's stood at the corner of Yonge and Gould for more than sixty years, one of the last reminders that that stretch of Yonge was not always lined with shining glass and polished steel, a note that the city of today is built on the foundations of the past. I couldn't help but wonder about the people who had built it, if they had imagined it would stand for generations, and what they might have thought to see it come down in such a way.

In the end, everything comes down. It's just our responsibility to ensure that the end is as far removed from the now as we can make it.

Toronto is a city that lacks much of a visible past. Aside from a sprinkled handful of buildings downtown like Old City Hall and Commerce Court North, much of it seems like it might have just arrived out of nowhere - and the further you go from the downtown core, the stronger this feeling becomes. It's partially because it was only in the latter half of the 20th century that Toronto ceased being a middling provincial backwater-of-Empire and capitalized on Montreal's discontent to achieve ascendancy in Canada. Beyond that, it's only fairly recently that people have come to realize the value of historic preservation. In the 1950s and 1960s, there was little thought spared in Toronto for sparing its past. The ideal of progress dominated above all, and edifices like Old City Hall had outlived their time and needed to be pulled down and be replaced by something newer, grander, modern.

Because of that attitude, in part, the streetcar system has been left as one of the more obvious examples of preserved historic infrastructure - even though they're not the same rails anymore. There have been tracks in King Street for more than a hundred and thirty years. As a result, today we're left with what can, from time to time, seem like a city without a past. If we're not aware of that past, how well does that bode for us being able to build a better future? Will present-day hopes of expanded transit along Eglinton, along Finch, and deeper into Scarborough end up being forgotten - or, worse, being wistfully remembered as yet more "might-have-beens" in our urban fabric?

People talk a great deal about what they're going to build, what they're going to create. What's just as important, and what I think has been missed, is talk about what they're going to preserve, protect, and defend. It's too late for 335 Yonge Street - but on the other side of the equations, there are places like the Tollkeeper's Cottage at Bathurst and Davenport, perhaps the city's smallest museum, excellently restored, preserved and maintained.

It's our responsibility to do what we can to ensure that our past endures, to grant a greater context to us and our future.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

PDP #207: Mies' Monolithic Mirror

I've posted photos of the Toronto-Dominion Centre on here before - with good reason, I think. Designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the original towers of the Centre were among the first modern skyscrapers in Toronto. On a bright day when the light is right, they become something more - in this photo, the Royal Trust Tower is reflecting Commerce Court West, just across the street. Almost makes me want to go down there and throw a bone in the air.

Incidentally, this post marks something of a milestone for this weblog - a post every day, without fail, for the past year, as April 16, 2009 broke my original stride. My thanks to you all who read through it all.

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

Friday, April 16, 2010

An Inability to Consider Implications

"As the Americans learned so painfully in Earth's final century, free flow of information is the only safeguard against tyranny. The once-chained people whose leaders at last lose their grip on information flow will soon burst with freedom and vitality, but the free nation gradually constricting its grip on public discourse has begun its rapid slide into despotism. Beware of he who would deny you access to information, for in his heart he dreams himself your master."
- Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri

As has been said in many places by many people, the most difficult part of creating science fiction is developing the future - and there's a reason for that. Science fiction is unnatural. Humans are not meant to think about the future. In the old days, speculation about tomorrow wasn't an absolute survival trait - every minute you spend thinking about what's to come is a minute you're not assuring your own survival in the present. Even when people are actively trying to project the course of the future, they're hamstrung by these limitations and end up creating worlds where everything is the same except for one shiny, new technological advance.

This is the sort of science fiction that's increasingly becoming associated with the modern intellectual property enforcement movement. The big corporate rightsholders push for more and more regulations, more and more restrictions_ under the guise of openness and economic freedom, but they do not appear to consider that they're not pushing in a vacuum. Witness the United Kingdom's Digital Economy Bill, a law that not only reflects the sheer detestability of a government rushing out a law without giving it proper debate - partially because, I believe, they wanted it to pass under Labour government and not die with the prorogation of parliament, but mostly because Big IP was pushing it forward with all the strength it could muster - but changes the game.

I believe that Cory Doctorow is right - the Digital Economy Bill represents a shift in the winds of the modern copyfight, that the idea of "a negotiated peace... between the thrashing entertainment giants and civil society" is more unlikely than ever, if not impossible - but with the controllers continually working to frame copyright infringement as "theft" when it is, in fact, copyright infringement (you see, we already have a perfectly good term for it, such a shame it's not as sexy), it may be a long time before we hear whispers of a cease-fire, let alone armistice.

The Digital Economy Bill was just the first shot in what will likely be a long war. If you listen carefully, you can already hear the rumble of artillery in the distance. The only problem is that they're being fired by people who can't conceive of the damage that may be wrought once their shells explode, the heirs of those who decided that bombarding Passchendaele until it was a quagmire of muck was a good idea well worth pursuing. The document that the people at the RIAA and MPAA, among others, presented recently to the office of the United States Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator is a case in point. I suggest you read it, and read the Electronic Frontier Foundation's commentary on it. Consider what they suggest could be useful in going after copyright infringement: "technologies to detect, monitor (and filter) traffic or specific files based on analysis of information such as protocols, file types, text description, metadata, file size and other "external" information" and "consumer tools for managing copyright infringement from the home."

Yeah. Because I would certainly love to download something that polices my own computer and "manages copyright infringement" - and what does that mean? Would it lock down the computer if it found something that was pirated? That it thought was pirated? If I have a legitimate file that sets off a false positive, would it react anyway? What if it's a legitimately scanned childhood photo that the software decides is an infringement?

These questions, and questions like them, are absolutely important questions. We cannot afford to not ask them. We need to consider the implications, because our governments are not willing to do so on our behalf. The big problem is that people, even the people behind ideas like these, aren't generally evil. That would at least make it easy. No, most times when you're dealing with issues like this, it's because the person or people promulgating them are just too stupid to look past the ends of their own noses. It's something I'd rather believe - I'd rather be dealing with people who are ignorant than those who are actually malicious.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

PDP #206: A Common Canvas

Graffiti is a mixed bag. While it's often persecuted by governments and property owners as a scourge or a precursor of decay, it can also bring life to dead concrete as a kind of vigilante art. The supports of the Bathurst Street Bridge over the Cedarvale Ravine are well done up with graffiti tags along its lower edges - and it's a shame that it's just graffiti tags, and only at that low level. Someone with the proper equipment and enough paint could make a hell a scene on a blank canvas like the one I've photographed here.

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

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

To Your Scattered Panels Go: Ad Astra 2010

It could, as one of the Nerdgasm comics observed, just as easily have been called "GoggleCon." If you're wondering why I'm wearing goggles myself now, this year's Ad Astra convention - the twenty-ninth since 1980, since it wasn't held in 1999 - is the reason. After my experience at Anticipation last year, I'd been looking forward to going back to Ad Astra for a proper convention experience, and not just the handful of hours I picked up last year. With what seemed like only a few hundred people in attendance, I didn't have much trouble finding it. It was much the same "convention flavor" as I'd found in Montreal, only not as concentrated.

The convention was held from April 9 - 11 in the same place it's been since 2006, the Toronto Don Valley Hotel & Suites - though it was known as the Crowne Plaza Toronto Don Valley Hotel as recently as last year, and there still remain some monogrammed napkins that attest to the old name. Situated adjacent to the Don Valley Parkway where the Eglinton East and Flemingdon Park buses meet, it's straightforward to get here by transit, if time-consuming - it took me an hour to return downtown on Saturday night, though some of that was swallowed waiting for my streetcar connection at Broadview station. Between the hotel salons, conference rooms, and the three-part Commonwealth Ballroom, there was plenty of room for everything from the Apocalypse Now panel to the Beefcake/Cheesecake Charity Event and the steampunk fashion salon, the latter of which likely goes a long way toward explaining why so many people had goggles on.

After speedily passing through registration, I had a chance to dig through the customary red swag bag. In addition to the standard convention programme book, it came with - among other things - a trial-size bottle of Irish Spring bodywash ("NOT FOR RESALE") and the first issue of the Stephen Colbert's Tek Jansen Adventures comic book series. Now I have two. Solar plexus!

You may recall from my Anticipation conreport that the last thing I did, before rushing off to catch a train in which the haze was palpable to Berri-UQAM station, was attend a reading given by Robert J. Sawyer. So it was only an appropriate synchronicity that the first event I attended at Ad Astra was another reading by Robert J. Sawyer - in which he read one of the pieces he'd also read in Montral, a prose poem called "The Transformed Man," as well as an extract from his new novel Watch and a scene from his earlier novel FlashForward. It was interrupted for a moment when he went to investigate the loud, thumping bass from the Collaborations panel next door, and I have to say I was a bit disappointed when he came back not covered in bloodstains and without a massive claymore slung over his shoulder. The air conditioning also started whirring and groaning the second he started reading from Watch. Everyone's a critic.

After taking the opportunity to float around the dealers' room (no fresh bumper stickers, regrettably), the next event I attended flowed seamlessly from the last - Robert J. Sawyer's Guest of Honour Hour, and it was devoted to the new series FlashForward, his involvement with it, and "why it seemed like a good idea at the time." He explained why the TV series ditched the original twenty-year flashforward for one only six months in the future - among other things, to avoid the necessity of artificially aging the cast, and to enable obvious seasonal discontinuities between the present and the future of the show.

"The usual Hollywood thing," he said, "is you get the rights, then you screw the author." Fortunately that hasn't happened in the case of FlashForward, and Sawyer is closely involved with the series. He read a couple of scenes from the script of the episode he wrote, scenes that ended up on the cutting room floor, which is unfortunate - the one of Lloyd Simcoe identifying his wife's body in a stadium full of dead bodies was powerful and "would've been really f'ing cool" if it had been filmed.

After the hour was up, I traded the future for an intersection of the future and the past at Steamed to Perfection: A Steampunk Salon, where the gracious Lord Spector and lady adicat "parade[d] visiting dignitaries and the latest in steam inspired haute couture... pomp and pageantry guaranteed." There were characters from time travellers and Continental royalty to the nefarious Mr. Holocaust - who has yet to conquer so much as a Tim Horton's - and Lord Summerdown and Lady Grey, "genetic aberrations" fighting for justice. Mostly though, I liked the steampunk fashion. Plenty of goggles.

The Apocalypse Now panel that evening was the first regular panel I attended during the convention, and it was a trip back to the sort of thing I'd done at Anticipation - standing on the production floor of the idea factory. It looked at why apocalyptic themes seem to be so common now, and asked why they resonate the way they do and whether they reflect the tenuous social climate of the modern day. I'm not too sure about that - I agree more with one of the later points raised in the panel, that it's when society is relatively stable that people are willing to get apocalypses in their entertainment. After all, you didn't see too much end-of-the-world stuff during the Second World War, which is arguably the closest we've come to an apocalypse in terms of culture.

Sunday was my panel day, and for Sunday morning panels they were rather well attended. The first was one that's been eating at me ever since, Writing the Future with Matthew Johnson, Hayden Trenholm, and Karl Schroeder. What were the key points of it? For one, that the future is not just the past with better gadgets. When creating a future, it's easy to exaggerate just one thing and leave everything else utterly unchanged - which is bunk. People are collaborative. Things can change in unexpected ways. There's no such thing as absolute stasis, technological or cultural.

What I hadn't fully comprehended before I attended this panel, though, was that while disruptive and transformative technologies exist, the assumption that a technology will prove transformative by simple fact of its existence - or, alternatively, that an existing technology is not transformative because it hasn't disrupted society yet - is inaccurate. These things can lurk in the wings for years, waiting for the right climate to erupt. Take the automobile - while the idea of the modern suburb became technically possible as soon as Model Ts started rolling off the assembly lines, it wasn't until the end of the Second World War that the social and cultural climate existed to make it happen. Without the example of the Great Depression and lacking the Levittowns that sprang up to provide housing for veterans coming back from the battlefields, North American suburbanization may well have taken a different turn.

I'm not going to blame Hitler for that. But someone might eventually. Or, worse - as was pointed out at the Inventing Real People: History & Fiction panel - some people a few centuries down the line, some culture who's isolated from what he did, might try to rehabilitate him as a hero through the process of historical revisionism. Imagine a time traveller stepping into 2510 and finding statues of him, and people so innocently unaware of ancient history that they don't realize why this is a problem. It wouldn't be the first time a leader and conqueror has been put on a pedestal - just look at Alexander the Great.

It was a fine convention, and I had plenty of opportunities to think on that during the bus and streetcar ride back under an open blue sky. Next year, Ad Astra 2011 will be commemorating the convention's thirtieth anniversary - and in November, SFContario will add a new gathering to Toronto's calendar. I can say that, yeah, I'm looking forward to the future.

Previous Convention Reports

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

PDP #205: Ain't Nothin' Gonna Get In Our Way

Every so often, streetcars break down. This is perhaps the one significant drawback of streetcar operation in opposition to buses - or at least the one that streetcar opponents seem to keep bringing up, but I've seen plenty of buses break down in inconvenient places myself. When a streetcar does break down, it's got to be moved by one that's still working. Unfortunately, that doesn't happen with all due speed, and so a convoy will build up.

Predictably enough, on the day this was taken the Queen streetcars were diverting onto this stretch of King West, making it even more fun.

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

Monday, April 12, 2010

Rob Ford's Proposed Democratic Deficit

It's been three weeks since Rob Ford, he of the $0 expense accounts and the populist demeanor, stepped onto the stump and announced his entry into the Toronto mayoral race. It's no surprise that he's fairly prominent - aside from already being a known quantity, he's also somewhat polarizing. That's particularly true when you consider the only platform plank of his that I can find - according to the Toronto Star, his first act as Mayor would be to start the process of cutting Toronto City Council in half, from forty-four to twenty-two "tax-and-spend" councillors. Like pretty much everything else Ford does, it's being framed in terms of his "taxfighter" credentials.

I find it interesting that, in his urge to save Toronto's tax dollars, Rob Ford apparently believes that diminishing the strength of municipal democracy is a worthwhile trade-off. He's never said as much that I can find - but I wouldn't mind as much if he came out and said it bluntly.

The fact is, Toronto has forty-four councillors because Toronto has plenty of people to represent - 2,503,281 by the 2006 census, which gives each councillor a little under fifty-seven thousand people to represent at City Hall. This is unequal even when you take Toronto's neighbor cities into account. While the city of Barrie only has space for ten councillors in its council chambers, that city's 2006 population was 128,430 - meaning that each Barrie councillor only has to represent the interests of 12,843 people. Mississauga's eleven councillors each look out for 60,777 people out of 668,549. If Rob Ford is elected Mayor in October and he pushes his cuts to Council through, each councillor would represent 113,785 people - and as an unavoidable consequence, the government would become less responsive to the people. There are, after all, only so many hours in the day.

According to the City's website, in 2009 a councillor's salary was $99,153.60. This means that if we have Mayor Ford on October 27th and he starts these gears grinding, at the end of it all Toronto would be richer every year by the princely sum of $2,181,379. What a relief it is - that two million dollars obviously marks the difference between shining prosperity and financial ruin for the city. Maybe he can use it to clean up Queen Street and King Street, where apparently it is "filthy dirty, there's graffiti everywhere... there's empty stores, the windows are smashed." Just so long as he tells us where he's seeing this - because I commute downtown on the King streetcar every day, and I'd really like to know.

All I want is a little explanation - why Rob Ford thinks the level of representation in Toronto's municipal government should be roughly equivalent to that of the Ontario provincial government.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

PDP #204: A Man of Steam-Powered Science

I've just returned from Ad Astra, Toronto's primary literary convention for science fiction and fantasy, and while it wasn't Worldcon it was stellar in its own right. As you might expect there was no shortage of costumed attendees, and given the course of recent trends, it should not come as a surprise that the steampunk aesthetic was common. Take, for example, this natty gentleman, who with some patience explained to me that he was a man of mad science and steam. I especially liked his mechanical spider pet. Or whatever it 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 anyone the right to use this work for any purpose, without any conditions, unless such conditions are required by law.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Common Words #11: A Scene from the West

It's been a long week, and while it wasn't a particularly trying week for me until the very end, now that it's over I'm in the mood to celebrate the weekend, even though it's not a long one. Today I'm going to leave the news of the Toronto election and the rest of the world at the doorstep. It's too nice of a day outside to dwell. Instead I'm going to post another bit of creative work.

This bit is the first scene of a story, a science fiction Western set in 1876 Montana, that never went beyond the working title "Siobhan Super Adventure." It reads as having been modified last on December 22, 2006, and so it probably reflects a slightly more halting grasp of the craft than I have now. Could be that one day I'll decide to go back and give it a thorough rewrite, see what I can find that shines.


Siobhan Cameron had never really known anger before the day they killed her horse.

The first shot went wide, and that was the only thing that saved her. A bullet that had probably been meant for her instead sliced through the air a few feet above her head, giving her a few precious instants to dodge Death's icy scythe. She threw herself off Brendan's back into the bushes that flanked the path, confident that a legacy of gunfights had taught her horse to get out of harm's way when the gunpowder burned.

There was another crack of artificial thunder, and her horse went down as a screaming, quivering thousand-pound sack of flesh and bone. Siobhan peered out from between the leaves and got her first clear look at her attackers, and felt the rage bubble up as she drew a bead on the closest. He had the typical look of a six-gun highwayman, rough and ruthless.

There were five men in all, equally scruffy in dress and tactics. They'd been amateur enough to spoil their chance at a clean ambush, which suited Siobhan well enough. She wasn't in the mood to give them an opportunity to learn from their mistake before Judgement Day.

They were advancing now, likely to see if she was still a threat. Siobhan was expressionless as she aimed at the leader. She'd killed her share of criminals in situations less just than this, and when she pulled the trigger it seemed to have no weight at all.

Her revolver thundered. The first man stopped as if he was suddenly yanked backward, fell, and was still. His confederates scrambled for cover, but it was futile. Siobhan hadn't scraped out a living in the lawless frontier on wits and charm alone. Two more shots, good straight ones, and two more men were swallowed by the Reaper's shadow.

The last two men were brave, she had to admit. Most bandits would turn tail and flee if they'd seen their friends cut down with hardly a chance to act. Siobhan caught one of them levelling a rifle at her hiding spot, one that looked powerful enough to blow her apart as sure as a stick of dynamite. She fired fast, without regard for careful aiming. He pinwheeled into the dust, rifle discharging as he fell, and there was blood mixed in with the dirt.

"Shit! Shit!" The last man's reserves of courage had run dry, and he was chasing after them, back into the deep woods. Siobhan held her fire once his back was to her. There wasn't any honor in killing a retreating enemy, and she knew all too well that honor made all the difference. Putting a wounded enemy out of his misery, though, was something else entirely.

Once she was confident that she wasn't walking into a renewed ambush, Siobhan stepped back onto the path and kneeled beside Brendan. The horse was making a few quiet, painful neighs, but she could tell the life was flowing out of him fast. She put her arms around his neck and held the dying animal close, unable to stop her own tears.

"It'll be all right in the end, Brendan, it will," she whispered, her old accent striking through the pain. "Just sleep now. It'll all be better soon. Close your eyes and think of the meadows, now. Find your peace."

The horse's breathing got shallower and shallower, and Siobhan wished she had the medical knowledge to save him, or at least keep him blinking until she could walk him to a doctor. Far too little time had passed when Brendan wheezed and fell silent. She felt a piece of her own soul tear itself away at that moment, perhaps to make sure that he wouldn't be lonely in whatever world waited beyond.

When she rose to her feet again, she left her sense of mercy on the ground. She stalked to where the rifleman had fallen and found that he was still gasping for air, albeit weakly. There was no sense of satisfaction in what she was about to do, no revenge, only justice that had to be done. Siobhan's coin purse may have been light enough to not matter, but she knew well that Charon took payments in kind.

The man was terrified, but that didn't stay her hand. If he'd been too stupid to know that it had been fated to end like this - if not her pulling the trigger, than someone else - he didn't have any business living. Siobhan drew her gun down to point at the center of his chest, and placed a boot on his neck to make sure he didn't try to scramble away.

"Please, good God, don't do this!" he wheezed. Without her boot, and the weeping wound just above his waist, he probably would have been shouting. "Have some goddamn decency! I can tell you... I can help you..."

"The only help you can give me is some fucking peace of mind," Siobhan said with a level look barely restrained. "You won't be killing any more horses, today or ever."

She fired. The bullet tore through the man's torso and buried itself in the dirt beneath. The man convulsed and the air filled with the stench of death. Siobhan was no stranger to it, but that didn't mean it was something easily tolerable. She holstered her revolver and stood still for a long, silent moment, summoning the strength to go on.

After a few moments of introspection, Siobhan gathered what belongings she could salvage and headed down the path, following the tracks of the man who'd fled. Her burning temper was barely cooled by the soft, mountain breezes that had brought her to Montana. True justice would only be served once she eliminated the menace the gang of ruffians presented, totally and completely.

It would be a long walk, but Siobhan Cameron was not a woman to shy away from a challenge.


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Previously on Common Words

Friday, April 9, 2010

PDP #203: And the Streets Were As Water

It's easy to understand why so many people have chosen to live in the Los Angeles area. It's got the sort of Mediterranean climate that's rare in North America, warm throughout the year but not too warm, and if it wasn't for the seismically active nature of the land it's built on it'd be perfect. One aspect of its climate is that it doesn't get that much rain - about 30.5 centimeters per year, and most of that in the winter months - for comparison, Toronto gets 83.4 centimeters in an average year. So it wasn't all that surprising that it rained for four out of eight days I was there, though I didn't exactly enjoy that part.

I suppose it's because heavy rains are so rare in Los Angeles that there doesn't seem to be much drainage infrastructure in the streets themselves - at least, not compared to northern cities like Toronto or Chicago. As a result, when there's a lot of water and cars around things can get... splashy.

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

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Looking Beyond the Next Ballot

When I was interviewed for an article in the Varsity a few weeks ago, one of the questions that came up - but which wasn't included in the final article - dealt with why I thought my being a science fiction writer was relevant to people following the municipal election. I answered then, and still think now, that the inherent forward-looking nature of that genre is something that's deeply necessary in politics. Just because so many politicians look no further than the next election, and sometimes not even then, doesn't mean that's a good way to run a government. Because it isn't.

Given the events of the last couple of years, I believe that a greater consideration of the future is of the utmost necessity. While I still think that transit will be one of the core issues, perhaps the core issue, in Toronto's 2010 election, it's becoming more and more clear that we can't run a city just by staggering from month to month, election to election. Neither can we pretend that foundations laid in the twentieth century remain sound today. We need to consider the future.

As cities go, Toronto is actually doing rather well - if not prospering, the government is able to at least stay afloat, while Cleveland is cutting its transit almost to the bone and Los Angeles is considering shuttering city functions for two days of the week to save money. Still, we're nowhere near solid ground. Very few people are, in this day and age. In particular, Toronto is hamstrung by provincial laws which dole out comparatively miniscule taxation privileges. While city- or county-level governments in, say, the United States freely levy sales taxes and hotel taxes, to pick two examples, the legal structure here leaves Toronto almost entirely dependent on two things in order to keep functioning - property taxes on one hand, and provincial goodwill on the other. Now that $4.5-billion of the province's once-assured Transit City funding has been cut (whoops, I mean "delayed"), it's become even more starkly evident that the city can't count on Queen's Park.

We need to look at ways to break this cycle of dependence. Sarah Thomson's proposal to levy tolls on the Gardiner Expressway and Don Valley Parkway to finance transit expansion is the sort of thing we need to examine, to consider. We need to realize that with the new century we face new challenges, and that our old solutions can't solve them all today. We need to prepare for the next recession - there'll always be a next recession, and all we can hope for is that it's not quite as bad as this one - and to build resiliency into the system. With age comes fragility.

I don't know what the answers are. The possibilities are complex enough that it's too much for just one person to be able to see them. It's something that needs to be opened up, to be talked about widely, so that the foundations can be set down. Planning for the future must become a greater priority in City Council. For too long in this city, politicians have just let things slide because things were doing okay, and it seemed like they'd always do okay.

The problem is that at one point or another, the ground gets rough. We deserve better than to lurch from challenge to challenge, never able to look up.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

PDP #202: I Get What You're Implying

I've not spent much time in Forest Hill - unsurprisingly, as it is one of the wealthiest neighborhoods of Toronto, and I am hardly wealthy in a Torontonian context. I was through there recently due to my trip through the Cedarvale Ravine, and I returned a day later to get photographs from the top of the Bathurst Street bridge - photos which, ultimately, I ended up not using for the post.

While returning to the bus stop, I found it decidedly odd how the sidewalks - both sidewalks - just stop at Ridgewood Road. There doesn't appear to be any allowance for pedestrians along it, unless you want to do a balancing act on the curb. It seems to me to be an interesting, subtle discouragement of people wandering up that road unless they have good reason to.

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

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

A Target-Rich Environment

Warfare has always gone beyond the simplicities of soldiers fighting soldiers. Both sides of the battle have always scrambled to come up with some new angle, to find a new way of fighting that would give them the advantage and let them win the day. It wasn't uncommon for medieval armies to attempt breaking sieges by catapulting plagued corpses over city walls, and if the Romans had been able to salt the fields of Carthage without first grinding that city to powder, they may well have taken the opportunity to push their Carthaginian rivals even further back against the wall. Under Operation Popeye, which ran from 1967 to 1972, the United States military seeded clouds over the Ho Chi Minh Trail with silver iodide to induce them to give up their rain and thus extend the normal monsoon season.

This kind of warfare is nothing new, even though it's only been within the last hundred years that armies have gained the ability to even begin to use the weather as a weapon. Fortunately, it didn't have much of a chance to get established - the Environmental Modification Convention, banning the use of weather modification-based warfare, has been ratified by pretty much every major player save France. The United States, Russia, China, and the United Kingdom are all on board. Nevertheless, I think that there's a fair chance environmental warfare may come to be used in the twenty-first century.

If you only pay attention to North American news sources, you may have missed the story of Shen Neng 1, a Chinese coal ship that ran aground in Australia's Great Barrier Reef on Saturday. The Australian government is understandably furious - beyond the potential damage to the reef if the ship breaks up and dumps its fuel oil into the ocean, the area where it ran aground is within a nautical exclusion zone. Australian Prime Minister Rudd has not been sparing the tongue-lashings, and it's probable that a hefty fine will come out of this.

I know that one should never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity. A lot of people know this. More than enough to take advantage of it. As the twenty-first century unfolds, I wouldn't be surprised to see a rise in instances of environmental warfare - by which I mean deliberate, destructive actions targeted at the environment, specifically a particular state's environment. Proxy war without bloodshed - just forcing a state to spend resources and effort remediating an environmental disaster. It wouldn't have to be something as blunt as an oil spill in a sensitive reef, either - invasive species can cause billions in damage over a very short time, and devastate carefully balanced ecosystems. Witness the effect of pine beetles in the northern forests of British Columbia and Alberta, the scourge of zebra mussels in the Great Lakes, or the infestations of Asian long-horned beetles across North America.

The fact is, too many world leaders don't appreciate the reality of Spaceship Earth, and that there's no form of environmental warfare that wouldn't come back to bite the agency that began fighting with it. I don't think that the Shen Neng 1 incident was some kind of Chinese black op. But I wouldn't be surprised to see something like it repeated in the future.

Monday, April 5, 2010

PDP #201: Streetcars of Bathurst

Though I had a pizza slice in my hand while walking north up Bathurst past Bloor, when I saw this I had to juggle for my camera and take a few photos. While I'm no stranger to vehicle bunching - it happens far, far too often in this city for anyone's preferences - I'd never seen three streetcars, bumper-to-bumper, trying to get into Bathurst station of all places. Thankfully, this was a temporary aberration - the track work on Spadina over the long weekend meant route diversions, and two of those are actually Spadina streetcars.

They're still bumper-to-bumper, though.

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

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Phototour: Expressing Spadina

While the Gardiner brings the people to the heart of downtown and the DVP lets them idle in a sea of brake lights while they dream of going up north and away, they would never live up to their full potential without the Spadina Expressway.

By the middle 1950s, with the end of the Second World War and the growth of the suburban dream, Metropolitan Toronto had a problem. In North York, what had once been rolling agricultural land dotted with village clusters was being divided into new residential subdivisions with such a fury that the world might as well have been ending in 1970. While downtown North York today is dominated by skyscrapers and condo towers to such a degree that the resemblance to downtown Toronto is eerie - so long as you don't journey more than five hundred meters east or west of Yonge Street, at least - it wasn't so back then. Just as was the case in cities across the free world, there were plenty of people clamoring for a patch of land and a home to call their own, but the jobs remained in the old central core.

North York's far enough removed from Toronto's core that walking's not really an option. Neither, at the time, was the subway - it wasn't until 1974 that it reached into North York proper, and the old Yonge streetcar had always looped right at the border between North York and Toronto. North York, like Etobicoke and Scarborough and Toronto's modern suburbs in York Region and Durham and Peel, owe more to the automobile than mass transit in terms of getting around. Highway 401, that great Windsor-to-Quebec motorway once thought of as the "Toronto Bypass," opened to traffic in Metropolitan Toronto in stages through the 1950s. The people who'd sought new lives in the suburbs were quick to take advantage - and Metro's planners were not slow to realize that there was work to be done to make sure all these people and their automobiles could get around.

The first projects were the Gardiner Expressway and the Don Valley Parkway. Picking up where the Queen Elizabeth Way - one of the first modern highways in Canada - left off, the Gardiner followed the shore of Lake Ontario into downtown Toronto, where today its elevated lanes remain as a psychological barrier between the core and the waterfront. East of the financial district's gleaming towers, it linked up with the Don Valley Parkway. The DVP, laid out next to the Don River in the largest of Toronto's many ravines, wound its way north to Highway 401 and would eventually be extended even further north, as Highway 404, to Newmarket in York Region.

These two expressways were only the beginning. Metro Council, led by Fred Gardiner - he for whom those elevated lanes were eventually named - believed that the automobile was the future, and sought to smooth out the city for it. Highway 400, which ran from the 401 north to Barrie, was to have been extended south to meet the Gardiner, linking along the way with the Crosstown Expressway, meant to connect to the Don Valley Parkway and thus encircle downtown Toronto with expressways. Personally, when I look at the maps, it reminds me more of a noose.

But the keystone to the whole project rested on one route - the Spadina Expressway. From Downsview it would plunge south through neighborhoods and parklands to Bloor Street. Construction began in 1963, and though it proceeded south as the years went on, popular opposition to the project mounted. Pro-urban activist Jane Jacobs, who was no stranger to standing in the paths of expressways, played a significant role in it. The great fear was not only that it would devastate the neighborhoods through which it passed, but that it would encourage the hollowing-out of inner Toronto, with the expressway providing a quick path to the outer suburbs.

It happened in many other cities across North America, but whether it would've happened to Toronto is a question for the alternate historians. On June 3, 1971, the Spadina Expressway was cancelled by the provincial government. None of the other planned expressways were ever more than lines on maps. The completed portion, which went no further south than Eglinton Avenue, is known today as Allen Road. For me, it was always the gateway to Toronto - my father would always turn off the 401 there, take it to the end, then navigate through a twisted skein of Forest Hill roads to the downtown core.

To some degree, the shadow of the Spadina Expressway still falls upon Toronto even today. Depending on who you talk to, it's either the great victory over encroaching car culture and one of Toronto's seminal moments in urban planning, or a great lost hope that has doomed the city to ever-increasing traffic congestion. It's become mythologized, something larger than life, bigger than it ever could have been in reality. So, given that this weekend brought the first breaths of summer to Toronto, I went to chart the expressway - both what had been built, and what never was.

Thanks go to TheCharioteer on the SkyscraperCity forums for providing scans of a planning document from 1961 for the route of the expressway. They were invaluable in figuring out just where the lanes would have gone.

Phase 1 - What's Done is Done

North of Downsview subway station, Dufferin Street forks, and one of the paths becomes William R. Allen Road. I checked up on it where it intersects with Sheppard Avenue, mostly because that point was conveniently accessible from Downsview station, and at that point there's nothing to distinguish it from any other wide suburban throughfare beginning to experience a boom in condo development. It's not until you go further south, to Wilson, that Allen Road really rises above the rest - seriously, since it's elevated by the point - and when it interchanges with the 401 at Yorkdale in a sweeping, swooping series of ramps and dips like bird's flight paths immortalized in concrete, it comes into its own.

If you've ever shopped at Yorkdale, by the way, you indirectly have the Spadina Expressway project to thank. It wasn't until the beginning phases of it were approved, funnelling motorists directly past its inviting signs, that construction on what was for a short time the world's largest shopping mall began.

This view, looking south from Viewmount Avenue at Glencairn station, is typical of Allen Road today, and had the Spadina Expressway been completed its surface sections likely would have resembled this. The subway right-of-way in the median echoes Chicago's Red and Blue Lines, and was really the prime beneficiary of the expressway project - even though the road was cancelled the subway continued on, and the route of the subway still parallels what the route of the road would have been. From what I understand, that's the reason why that particular line is called the University-Spadina Line. Being at the surface, not only was it inexpensive to construct compared to tunneling, but it also allows one to make faces at the motorists stuck in traffic on the other side of the barbed-wire fences.

At Eglinton Avenue, the lanes turn into off-ramps and Allen Road comes to an end, just as the subway enters Eglinton West station and from there the tunnels that continue uninterrupted to Finch, on the other end of the line. Traffic there is no surprise - after all, light cycles only last for so long. It's a brief journey, but it was intended to be much more. If the planners had had their way, there still would have been off-ramps but the lanes of the expressway would have kept on going.

Phase 2 - There But for Grace

Everden Road is a quiet, unremarkable residential street stretching south of Eglinton, and taking into consideration the layout of Allen Road as it was construction, it would have been obliterated had the expressway come through. It would, most likely, have been given over to the median, and this picture would then be looking right down the tracks - though the subway line may still have gone underground at Eglinton West. Still, Metro planners at the time didn't lose sleep over the expropriations and demolitions they had to conduct in the names of progress and traffic flow. A significant chunk of Parkdale, not to mention almost the entire Sunnyside Amusement Park, were demolished in order to build the Gardiner Expressway. For the most part, though, Everden was an outlier - the majority of demolition would have occured around the southern limits of the Expressway.

Demolition, but not destruction.

Everden ends at Ava Road, but the path beyond leads into Cedarvale Park. Occupying one of the city's many ravines carved in the wake of glacial action, it's a rolling, forested, wild expanse of greenspace left almost untouched. Aside from subway emergency exits and some tennis courts at the north end, very little has been built within it. Had the Spadina Expressway gone through, it would quite literally have gone through Cedarvale Park, the ravine transformed into asphalt and concrete. It's an understandable route - the scale of expropriation and demolition of existing properties elsewhere might have been politically unpalatable, and to say that nature was given short shrift back then would be putting it generously. The 1961 planning documents suggest that this area, photographed from the century-old Glencedar Bridge, might have been underground and roofed over - nevertheless, the construction would have changed the ravine, perhaps irreparably. The chirping birds, the wind rustling through trees, the buzz of bicycles passing fast on the path - none of it would be the same.

Cedarvale Park ends at Heath Street, as well as a convenient secondary entrance to St. Clair West station. The highway would have continued - likely to a degree underground, if only to prevent a rather expensive reconstruction that section of St. Clair Avenue - and into Nordheimer Ravine, smaller and more densely forested than Cedarvale. More importantly, Nordheimer marks where the route leaves York and enters Toronto, and the city of Toronto's strident opposition to the Spadina Expressway project was another significant factor in its cancellation. After briefly following the Nordheimer Ravine, the route turns south at Spadina Road, finally meeting its namesake and origin - the whole project, starting in the 1940s, was originally floated as a northward improvement of Spadina Road.

This area is a wealthy one, named after its most eye-catching residence - Casa Loma. Toronto's twentieth-century castle would have survived the coming of the Spadina Expressway, but only just, with artist's impressions I've seen perching it on the edge of an open-roofed, trenched highway. The Baldwin Steps, the pedestrian access from Davenport Road to Casa Loma up the edge of the Iroquois Shoreline, and which I commented on in my Scott Pilgrim phototour two weeks ago, would have have been destroyed.

This photo looks south along Spadina Road from the Baldwin Steps, and this perspective would have been utterly, absolutely transformed by the Spadina Expressway. If I read the maps correctly, Davenport Road would have been rebuilt to be carried over the Expressway here. Where the road is now would have been the northbound lanes, while the subway line would have been built in an open trench along the right side of the photo. The potential route of southbound lanes, crashing through the middle of existing construction, aren't visible. They would pass beneath the railway bridge you can see further down. Beyond that, approximately where the center line splits to form a peanut-like shape in the middle of the road, where some of the grand historic residences of the Annex still stand - it would have been entirely obliterated, because this is where the Spadina Expressway was to interchange with the Crosstown Expressway.

There's almost a grim beauty in the audacity of the plans, of the degree to which the planners wanted to smooth the ground for progress. Between the lanes themselves and the network of sweeping on-ramps and off-ramps necessary to guide motorists from the Spadina to the Crosstown, the Crosstown to the Spadina, or onto whatever residential roads survived the construction, it might be that no building photographed here would have still been standing had the projects all come to fruition.

After meeting the Crosstown the Spadina would split and separate out, in preparation for its planned Bloor Street terminus - while the southbound lanes would remain on Spadina, the northbound lanes would split to bury Madison Avenue. The number of heritage properties I passed in just a couple of blocks wasn't surprising - this is the Annex, after all, one of the historic residential centers of Toronto. It's a quiet street in terms of traffic, but considering how many of these houses are probably subdivided residences for students of the nearby University of Toronto, probably not as peaceful once exams are over. I doubt it ever gets even close to what it would've been like had the Spadina's northbound lanes come through here.

It was the residents of the Annex, Jane Jacobs among them, who were instrumental in pushing back against the suburban interests that sought to push the expressway through. Understandably, as in terms of the unbuilt portion, the neighborhood would have been bisected and possibly devastated - though the damage to Forest Hill and Cedarvale Park wouldn't have been small change either.

Here, at Bloor Street West, the Spadina Expressway would come to an end and the commuters would have to make the rest of their way downtown - an admittedly short way, mind you - on city streets. I can only imagine how clogged and congested this intersection would be if that had been the case. It would've transformed the area around it and beyond, that much is certain. It's safe to say that the Expressway would, among other things, mean that there would be no Spadina streetcar today - anyone trying to lock up two lanes in a right-of-way for transit vehicles along such a busy corridor, in the more car-centric Metro Toronto a completed expressway network would have fostered, probably would have been crucified. There are a number of possibilities for what could have happened beyond here - I've seen references to express lanes south, but I've also seen artist's impressions of the Spadina being taken south to meet the Gardiner, crashing through Chinatown and Kensington Market to get to the lakeshore.

I believe it's for the better that the Spadina Expressway was never built. It would have cut through established communities, reduced valuable greenspace to asphalt, and encouraged more and more people to quit Toronto for the suburbs and their siren song. Nor would have it solved any long-term congestion issues - congestion is never solved by just building more expressways. The phenomenon of induced demand is particularly noteworthy in terms of automobile infrastructure - new expressways would encourage more use of the system, ultimately to the extent that Metro's traffic troubles would just be larger and spread out over more of the city. The implementation of an auto-centric policy, such as the one behind the Spadina Expressway, would encourage people to use cars who might not have otherwise done so.

The Spadina Expressway was the keystone, and it's arguable that because of its absence, the Gardiner Expressway and the Don Valley Parkway never did live up to their potential. Today, every once in a while you can still hear people calling for a demolition of the Gardiner in downtown, nd the sheer weight of traffic it sees in rush hour should make it no surprise that the DVP's unofficial nickname is the "Don Valley Parking Lot."

There's always a cost to everything. Myself - I do believe that, in the end, it was one worth paying.

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