Wednesday, June 30, 2010

PDP #243: Approaching Capri

The Italian island of Capri, a short jetboat ride from the Sorrento region, is one of the Mediterranean's older tourist draws. For ten years during the reign of Tiberius, it was the seat of the Emperor. I was there on March 12, 1998, and took this picture of the City of Capri, the island's main population center, from the deck of the jetboat that brought us in. My impression at the time was that "[the port of Capri] seems like it belongs on some island in the Caribbean. It is extremely rocky, with very large precipices, and if the stores are not in what is essentially one giant building, they are built into the rock face itself."

Had it been an actual Caribbean island, the sky probably would've been blue. But that's a minor issue.

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, June 29, 2010

What I Learned in the Last Days

As I understand it, schools across Ontario will shortly be shuttering for the summer if they haven't already. Back when I still had to worry about report cards, this was always a time of synthesis - figuring out what I needed to keep aware of until September, and what neurons I could afford to let rust. After the events of last weekend, I think it's appropriate now to stand back and take stock of what Toronto learned from hosting the G20, and how we can use our new knowledge for future benefit.

Because despite the chaos, I think the people of Toronto should take one major lesson from how the G20 was conducted - that our government holds us, the people, in utter and absolute contempt. Granted, I'd be surprised if anyone didn't know this already, but the sheer brazenness with which this truth was demonstrated recently was rather unnerving. I'd never expected the government of Ontario to demonstrate so forcefully that it doesn't give a fuck about the people.

By now, you may have heard of an addendum to the law called Ontario regulation 233/10, attached to the Public Works Protection Act for the duration of the G20 summit and which, thankfully, was written to expire yesterday. It was passed through the legislature without debate on June 2, went into force on June 21, and designated a vast swath of downtown Toronto wherein people approaching the security fence are required to produce identification or face arrest, two months in jail or a $500 fine. The problem with secret laws is that people don't tend to be aware of them, and so the first the general public heard of it was when a man was arrested near the security fence for refusing to produce his papers.

A section of the G20 security fence on Wellington Street West, photographed on June 20, 2010. Had I waited a day I could theoretically have been arrested for taking this photo, thanks to Ontario regulation 233/10.

Once this became general knowledge, there was quite understandably a furor - to which Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty responded with perhaps one of the most asinine statements he could have chosen. On the subject of a law passed as quietly as possible, with absolutely no legislative debate whatsoever, the Evil Reptilian Kitten-Eater from Another Planet said "I just think it's in keeping with the values and standards of Ontarians."

As a lifelong Ontarian with values and standards, I think that Dalton McGuinty is completely fucking delusional if he honestly believes this. Queen's Park is one of the single largest noise machines in the province. There is absolutely no reason why this regulation could not have been announced when it was passed, rather than allowed to wait viper-like in the bushes. Except, of course, for the whole "constitutional challenge" thing. But after all, what's the Constitution worth when security (for foreign dignitaries who nobody but Stevie fucking wanted here anyway) is at stake?

Granted, these powers weren't McGuinty's idea. They were requested by Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair, who is likely answering furious questions of his own from Mayor Miller, who appears to be no greater a fan of this news than I am. But the fact that McGuinty was complicit in pushing them through, with the only notification an obscure post on a government website, puts the responsibility squarely on his shoulders. I believe the government has, yet again, violated the spirit of the law while remaining true to the absolute letter.

We can't afford to forget about what the government of Ontario has done. We can't afford to let them forget, either. In the final analysis, they are responsible to us, and perhaps it's time that the suits in Queen's Park were reminded of that fact. With the Harmonized Sales Tax due to hit two days from now, they're already on thin ice. They'd better start skating more carefully, and remember who it is they work for, or they might as well hand Tim Who-Dat the keys to the province in 2011.

As a final note, when I tried to load the e-Laws website while putting this post together, Firefox at first returned a "server not found" error. That's gotta be meaningful.

Monday, June 28, 2010

PDP #242: Looking Up

It's been a hard weekend for Toronto, probably the hardest it's faced in decades. I was here for the 2003 blackout, for example, and there was no rioting and anger - only impromptu street parties and camaraderie. Though the wreckage is being cleared away, the shattered windows will stay that way for a long time in this city's memory. To a city as peaceful as Toronto, unaccustomed to this sort of temporary chaos, it was a shock.

But the walls will be coming down soon. All the doors of Union Station are open. This city is past the worst of the dark clouds now. Today is the day for deep breaths, calm consideration, and renewed progress toward the future.

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Sunday, June 27, 2010

No Running, No Responsibility, Only G20

I never expected anything good to come out of this weekend. What upsets me is that I've been vindicated. All I can do is hope that today will be somewhat more peaceful than yesterday. At least no one's dead yet.

I booked Friday off almost the instant I learned that Toronto would be hosting the G20 summit, and I hoofed it up north to Barrie to escape it. What I realized is that there's no escaping something of this magnitude. Even here, a hundred kilometers removed from the Black Blocs and the riot cops, the summit's presence was still strong up here. I had the poor timing to be out and about in Barrie's South End when the G8 motorcades from Huntsville were transferring from highway to helicopter at Molson Park Drive, a congested patch of the city at the best of times, as police and military choppers thundered above. It seemed like the entire Barrie Police Service was down there, pinching off the traffic flow - or, at least, what bits of the Barrie Police Service weren't trying to hold the line against the anarchists by the lake.

The truth is that there is no escape from it. It's possible that the passage of time may heal the wounds, but as far as I know Toronto hasn't experienced chaos of this scale within recent memory. Long after the riots are over, the shit is cleaned up and the broken windows are replaced, the bruises to Toronto's psyche will linger. It's hard to reconcile the notion of "Toronto the Good" with what rolls off the Twitter feed, dozens of perspectives per minute. What's more, it was painful to follow what was going on through the afternoon, as peaceful demonstrations gave way to cowardly hoodlums and base anarchy. A police car, a symbol of our civil society and our freedom to safely walk the streets at night, burning in the middle of the same intersection I cross every day. Hope gutters. Tempers fray.

It's distressing, it's sick, and it feels like it has a life of its own.

Royal Canadian Mounted Police helicopter C-FGSB while circling over south Barrie

Originally I'd meant to write about the G20's lack of understanding. It's plain enough to see, from the simple fact that they thought it was a crackerjack idea to hold this kind of summit in the center of a major metropolitan area - and watching Lawrence Cannon, Canada's Minister of Foreign Affairs, flop around like a fish on a cutting board when Peter Mansbridge asked him a very simple, very direct question about whether the magnitude protests surprised him just put it in perspective: "It's not up to me to determine whether I'm surprised or not" is essentially what he said. The same way that the summit organizers thought it would be an excellent idea to transfer from cars to choppers in south Barrie - I suppose it's their good fortune that no one was camped out and waiting by the Bayfield Street bridge with a rocket-propelled grenade launcher. More than a billion dollars of security theatre, and what do we get? Riots in the streets. Riots that would probably have happened even had the red zone been in Exhibition Place.

It's doubtful that those behind the summit will ever acknowledge their culpability for the events of yesterday. They brought the Black Bloc thugs here as surely as if they'd handed them tickets, but instead they will harp on about the "breakthroughs" the meeting achieved - which, if they're anything like the G8's condemnation of Iran and North Korea, will accomplish precisely dick - and keep on with business as normal. I feel for whatever city in France gets to host the summit in 2011, but at least the French are no strangers to riots.

Chaos like this on the streets of Toronto - I can understand people from other parts of the world who say they've seen worse. Undoubtedly there's been far, far worse, and what happened on Saturday is on the low end of the spectrum. It's an experience that Toronto hasn't lived through since the 1992 Yonge Street Riot - and even then, it's in a different category. In 2010, the anarchists rioted purely for rioting's sake.

I came to Barrie to escape the G20, but I can't escape what's going on in the heart of the city. A hundred kilometers away I can feel the pain.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

PDP #241: Total Science Fiction

There are only so many ways I can say this - Vancouver does not look like a modern city. Instead, it looks like a transmodern city, in that it's so far beyond what's considered ordinary architecture anywhere else, it can't help but look like the future. There are tons of towers in the West End with roofs designed in such a way that they look like landing pads for really advanced helicopters or spaceships. The Toronto Reference Library and its apparently weaponizable corporate art is positively modern compared to Vancouver.

But sometimes they shake it up, like this building near English Bay Beach. I guess that's the advantage of living in an undoubtedly expensive pad that's also representative of the future - you get to enjoy a huge tree on your roof whenever you want.

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Friday, June 25, 2010

A Civic Proposal: The City of Toronto Store

Last year I took a $100 bill to Chicago for the express purpose of buying a parking meter. You see, the Lonely Planet Chicago guidebook referenced this "City of Chicago Store" - a place where actual surplus city property, up to and including street signs and parking meters, was available for purchase. Unfortunately, only individual editions of a guidebook remain static, and by the time I made it to the Windy City there was no sign of the place. I will, however, admit the possibility that the CONSTANT RAIN and my general obliviousness meant that I missed the place entirely.

Still, to the best of my knowledge there's never been anything like that in Toronto. The TTC Transit Stuff store in Union Station was vaguely similar, but its stock was extremely limited and also it's closed now - thankfully I got the subway and RT T-shirts while I still had the chance. If for whatever reason you want to express Toronto pride now through swag you can buy, the only avenue that comes to mind is through the subway station buttons Spacing sells.

I think there's a vacuum here that the city government might do well to fill. Imagine a City of Toronto Store - not just a run-of-the-mill city souvenir store, since there are plenty of those in the airport already, but a place where you can pick up things you wouldn't be able to find elsewhere. Like surplus parking meters - or, for that matter, surplus street signs.

I'd buy that for a dollar! At least! Just needs a bit of scrubbing to get the rust off!

You may have noticed that, since its introduction back in late 2008, the new street signs are starting to appear with greater and greater frequency across the city. At first it was a coup for me to spot one, whereas now I need to put more effort into not looking for them. The counterpoint is that the old acorn signs, the ones that I still think of as quintessentially Torontonian even though I know for a fact the same design is used in Dorval, are disappearing - being replaced. I've heard rumors of the city selling them, but I've never encountered anything concrete. A City of Toronto Store would provide the municipal government with a crackerjack outlet for its superfluous stuff - and if managed properly, it would be that most precious of feathers in a government's hat, an agency that actually turns a profit.

It could be something worth considering.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

PDP #240: The Whirlybirds

In two days the G20 summit will kick off in Toronto, and while the red zone downtown hasn't yet been locked down, the heightened security measures are becoming more obvious - from the phalanx of bicycle cops that passed by on Yonge Street the other day to the mounted patrol at Yonge and King and the helicopters slashing through the sky over Parkdale. I can't identify them myself, as I was rather more a fixed-wing nerd in my youth. The image has been cropped somewhat to remove the rather annoying and distracting dead pixels my camera likes to throw up.

Incidentally, this photo was taken at approximately the same time as yesterday's earthquake - definitely within a few minutes. Personally, I never felt 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.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

A Stellar Break of Secrecy

There's a friend of mine who takes a rather dim view of the news media. I've never asked specifically why, as I'm rarely in the mood for an ideological lecture, but I can understand how someone might settle in that opinion. While the idea that "the public has a right to know" is a worthwhile ideal to pursue, I can't help but think there are times where that should be balanced with a consideration of whether or not something should be reported, just because it can be.

Case in point: today's Toronto Star has a story detailing some of the background security measures for the G8 and G20 summit - in particular the Joint Intelligence Group, described as the "nerve centre" for security operations in Toronto and Huntsville. This is where decisions will be made if, as the Star reports, "any major attack" takes place.

Earlier reports in the media stated that the JIG was up in Barrie, effectively equidistant between the two summit sites, but went into no further detail than that. In an attempt to ensure operational security, the Integrated Security Unit "has requested media outlets keep the location of the Barrie nerve centre a secret since it would be an obvious target."

Barrie, Ontario and Kempenfelt Bay

So what's the Star's response to this? Why, to not only publish a photograph of the JIG setup, but to specify exactly where it is. Who cares if the media was asked not to report on the minor detail of the precise location? Going into specifics doesn't make a difference - Barrie is barely a step removed from being a black hole anyway. So how does the Star justify this? By claiming that it "became a rather poorly kept secret when the ribbon-cutting for the facility included a large contingent of Mounties in red serge posing on the lawn outside."

Oh, all right. So because it's a poorly-kept secret, it's perfectly all right to ignore the ISU's request to report on a single detail that is not material to the release. If it was such an open secret, you'd think I'd have been able to find something mentioning it in the Barrie Examiner's archives - but not a thing to be seen in there. Honestly, there's a difference between breaking a veneer of security for valid reasons in the public interest, and doing it just for the hell of it. It's as if the Star's editorial board considered the ISU's secrecy request and said "fuck that, we're going to do it anyway."

I'm reminded of a story related by military historian Geoffrey Regan in his Book of Military Blunders - though since I can't find my copy of it right now, I can't verify if my recollection is totally accurate. It dealt with the Crimean War and focused on the British at the siege of Sevastopol, and how the British guns frequently came under preternaturally accurate Russian bombardment. The reason for the Russian accuracy was that the Times of London reported on the events of the siege in great detail, up to and including the location of the British guns, and new issues of the Times reached the Russians in Sevastopol before the British.

I can understand wanting to make sure the public knows, but newspapers need to choose their battles. The role of the media isn't to antagonize the security apparatus purely for the sake of it.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

PDP #239: Between the Fences

Yesterday, work was completed on the network of fencing that will, on Friday if not sooner, lock down a chunk of Toronto's downtown core for the G20 summit this weekend. It's a very sobering thing, seeing fences go up on your city streets. With them comes endless security theatre and speculation on what's going to happen next - it's like that part of the city will be waiting to exhale until the walls come down again.

Here, on Front Street, there's two adjacent layers of fencing - or at least there were last Friday, when this was taken.

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Monday, June 21, 2010

Walking a Road to the Future

Take a look at a street photograph from a hundred or so years ago, and aside from the physical quality of the photo itself to the styles of the buildings and the clothes, there's one key factor that tends to separate the early 20th century from the early 21st - back then, pedestrians made the street their own. Rather than stick to the sidewalks, they took advantage of all the space from curb to curb, and why not? This was a time where automobiles were curiosities, playthings of the rich. There was precious little traffic, other than streetcars, for people to be alert for.

With the coming of the car, of course, that all changed. Cities shifted from being centered around pedestrians to cars and their passengers. Most cities tore up those streetcar networks, leaving Toronto one of the only North American cities that kept the rails in its streets. People were pushed back to the sidewalks, to the fringes. Plenty of people would, I have no doubt, see this as natural progress - but I can't help but think that the pendulum may yet swing the other way. For decades, modern Western culture has pushed the notion that an old thing is an obsolete thing. What I've come to see recently is that our ancestors may have plenty of answers for the problems we've created through our natural progress.

Take cities. Back in the day, cities were walkable because they had to be. The suburban exodus was the result of multiple social, political, and economic issues intersecting - compare the drastic emptying-out and suburbanization of once-major American cities like Detroit and Cleveland to the patterns of development around Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver. There's no absolute reason why cities couldn't still be walkable - it's just that for the last decades, many cities have been catering to the suburban impulse to the exclusion of all others. Go to Mississauga, for example, and unless you spend all of your time in Port Credit or Streetsville you'll find wide, wide roads where cars slash past like shooting stars.

Dependence on cars to sustain a healthy streetlife is like keeping a boa constrictor as a pet - unless you're careful and everything goes absolutely right, sooner or later you're going to get into trouble with it. Witness St. Clair Avenue West, which was in a state of reconstruction for five years between road repair, watermain replacement, and the reinstallation of the streetcar right-of-way. All those conspired to keep traffic away from St. Clair, and while I was there this weekend, I noted no shortage of empty storefronts up for lease. Though it's a shame that so many dreams died in such a way, the real shame, in my mind, is that the cityscape is so dependent on a single mode of transit that its absence can make things fall apart. Brief events like the "Feet First on St. Clair" pedestrian celebration last weekend, where the whole street was closed off between Vaughan and Winona, inject fresh life into the asphalt - it's the sort of energy our streets deserve to always have.

On June 20 this portion of St. Clair Avenue West became a pedestrian mall, and the road a canvas for chalk art

The most dangerous thing we can do is assume that today will always lead smoothly into tomorrow. Nor can we discount the lessons of the past, even if we don't pay that much attention to them. We can't bind our fate to that of the automobile, and we shouldn't let what's convenient for four wheels dictate our destiny.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

PDP #238: Tower in the Sunset Hour

One thing that I had to get used to about Vancouver is that it's not quite as vertical as Toronto - while there are a number of condo towers rising in Coal Harbour and elsewhere, in the city's actual downtown the skyscraper situation is a bit more subdued. The 34-storey Scotia Tower is one of the disctinctive buildings in the downtown skyline.

It also jolted me out of suspension of disbelief for Battlestar Galactica, as I recall at least one skyline shot of a city on Caprica that displayed it, and the Scotiabank logo, rather prominently.

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Saturday, June 19, 2010

We Almost Lost the Solar System

I've written before about the necessity for politicians to take the future into greater consideration if we're ever to improve our lot beyond simply "muddling through." One of the big problems with this is that humans in general just aren't wired to consider the future - for many of us, the further we look beyond tomorrow, the more difficult it becomes to see anything. While it's perfectly understandable given our origins - our distant ancestors couldn't afford to dwell on what the next sunrise would bring when they still hadn't brought back fresh meat for that night's meal - today it conspires against us. Now, more than ever, we need to live with one foot in the future.

Now and again, governments are capable of making the forward-looking leaps that make tomorrow a bit brighter. Nevertheless, our governments are still made up of people, and "capacity to consider the future" isn't a quality that necessarily accompanies leadership. As a result, even when they're trying to take the future into account, many times they don't. Exhibit A: the Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, more compactly known as the Moon Treaty. This treaty would, in essence, have taken the current regulatory regime that applies to the sea and expanded it to cover the entire solar system.

And for what? Well-meaning but utterly shortsighted notions of "common heritage of mankind" provisions spreading out into space. I'm sorry, but like the level of gravity to which we've become accustomed, there are some things that just don't apply off Earth. I cannot see how those provisions should apply to celestial bodies that are, as far as current science knows, absolutely dead.

I still haven't been able to find a concrete reason as to why this treaty was pushed through the United Nations, aside from the typical UN bafflegab about "international cooperation" and "peaceful uses of outer space" and so on. Despite the almost science-fictional nature of the treaty, I really don't think that the people behind it were sparing much thought for the future. Except for offplanet versions of the science stations in Antarctica, the Moon Treaty would have confined the efforts of humanity to Earth orbit. No resource extraction, no possibility of property rights, and everything subject to inspection by any of the States Parties to the treaty. While it'd be difficult at the best of times for anyone live in space, the Moon Treaty would go one step further and make it intolerable, if not impossible.

Perhaps, though, that was part of the motivation. I've been reading more works from the 1970s recently, a time that in North America was deeply characterized by the 1973 energy crisis and was also the first great eruption of environmental sentiment. The origins of that damned mantra, "solve Earth's problems before we go to space," can probably be traced back to that decade. Perhaps the idea *was* to confine humanity to Earth - to prevent the idea of an escape valve from distracting people from the issues at hand.

But that's pretty conspiratorial. The simpler explanation is that they just thought they were doing a good turn for the future, without stopping to consider what it actually might do to the future.

Friday, June 18, 2010

PDP #237: On the Edge of the Night

The evening is its own world. As the sun sinks below the horizon and whatever else may be in its way, things emerge that are hidden during times of light - owls, vampires, that sort of thing. The world in dusk and twilight frequently stands in stark opposition to that of the day - there are perspectives that you just can't get at high noon. Like this one - taken from Vancouver's Lions Gate Bridge, the sun ready to disappear between the rolling mountains of the North Shore.

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Thursday, June 17, 2010

A Civic Proposal: Feet First on Yonge

When I was in elementary school, I read a brief short story about alien observers over Earth, who studied the shape of civilization and came to the conclusion that the automobile was the dominant life form. When I think about Toronto today, sometimes I feel as if that's literally the case. Whenever anything rises up that could even conceivably threaten the dominance of our internal combustion overlords, there's no shortage of people charging forward to decry it as the next salvo of the "war on the car" - whether it's the prospect of bicycle lanes on Jarvis or speed bumps, which the Toronto Sun suggested with a straight face last year.

If you'd only ever experienced this city and its hinterland, you could be easily forgiven for thinking attitudes like this are universal. Fortunately they're not, and Vancouver - a city that didn't just stop its Spadina Expressway equivalent from crashing through downtown, but never built any kind of municipal expressway system - is at least one place where, next to the mountains and enlivened by a fresh breeze off the mighty Pacific, I understood just how crazy this all is. Personally, I was always of the opinion that cities should be designed around people. Automobiles have had their day in the limelight, but instead of a day it's been seventy years.

Granted, Toronto isn't standing still on this - it's recently created two new pedestrian zones, one along Gould Street within the Ryerson University campus and another on Willcocks Street at the University of Toronto. It's a fair start, but that's all it is - a start. Toronto has a long way to go yet, but there are other cities that have gone this way before. It's easier to go forth when you know you're following a path that others have successfully and safely walked.

Granville Street at Robson

Granville Street is fairly significant in the Vancouver street grid. South of False Creek it supports South Granville Rise, a thriving neighborhood that reminds me of Queen West in many respects, but as it crosses the Granville Street Bridge and makes its way into downtown, its character shifts significantly. Between Smithe Street and West Hastings Street, it becomes Granville Mall, a transit and pedestrian zone to make Toronto's latest offerings look like crude sketchwork. During the day, at least, private vehicles are not allowed on this part of Granville - though they are able to pass through it on all cross streets - and as a result the street has an energy that I've only seen rivalled by Augusta Avenue on Pedestrian Sunday. From messages left in chalk by passers-by to magic shows to a guy rocking out in a Spider-Man mask, this stretch of street really was the province of the people and not the automobile.

What's more, it's been like this since 1974 and yet it has not been reduced to a vacant, smoking ruin. Though I know this may be difficult to believe for the suburban crowd, just because a car cannot go somewhere does not mean that people will not go there. From what I've heard, the recent construction on the Canada Line beneath Granville had more of an effect on businesses than the vehicle restrictions.

There is no reason this concept couldn't be imported to Toronto - nor should there be a reason to keep from doing so. A city, first and foremost, should reflect its people, not its vehicles. In that vein, as a candidate for Mayor of Toronto, this is what I propose - a pilot project for summer 2011 wherein, during daylight hours, Yonge Street between Dundas Street and College Street would be closed off to form a pedestrian mall. Yonge Street is the core of Toronto's identity - it should be given, first and foremost, to the people directly.

Personally, if we can't give five hundred and forty-six meters of roadway directly to the people that make this city possible, I think it just demonstrates the depths of the challenges Toronto will face in the years ahead. We're at a point where we can't keep making the same old decisions anymore.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

PDP #236: Bridging the Gate

The other day, someone found this weblog by asking Google "why is the Golden Gate Bridge a wonder of the world and Lions Gate isn't?" It's a valid question, one that I was wondering a bit myself while I was in Vancouver. They're both very similar in design and they are close contemporaries, but while the Golden Gate Bridge is rather well-known worldwide, the Lions Gate Bridge is obscure outside of the Lower Mainland. I hadn't even heard of it myself until I started doing preparatory research. I'm not really sure why things settled out that way - the easiest answer I can come up with is that "it's not American," since a lot of the Golden Gate's recognizability has come from its many appearances in film and television. Sure, Vancouver's become a major entertainment production area, but how much is actually set there? Less stuff than is set in Toronto. Aside from Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower, the Pyramids and the Leaning Tower of Pisa, how many international landmarks do you see in American productions?

So here's a photo of the Lions Gate Bridge. It's a lot easier to just look at it than actually walk across it.

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Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Cruisin' For A G20 Bruisin'

I was not looking forward to leaving Vancouver - primarily for the reason that I knew I would be returning to a Toronto where a miniature police state, courtesy the Government of Canada, is busily under construction. Though the walls have begun to go up the disruptions right now are minor, but ultimately what it's like in the third week of June doesn't really matter. What's important is the G20 summit, the two-day summit for which Our Glorious Leader is shutting down the core of Canada's largest city and spending $1-billion (whoops, excuse me, that's $930-million - can't sacrifice accuracy, yanno) for the privilege, fake lake and all.

Here's a note: I work in downtown Toronto, right on the edge of the traffic control perimeter. Based on the reports on how things are most likely going to shake out, it looks like there's a good chance I will have to bring my passport to pass through the checkpoints. The prospect of needing my passport, the document that I use to transit national borders, to get around in my own fucking city alarms me greatly.

Summary: while the G20 summit in and of itself is not going to leave Toronto a smoking ruin, during it and a little while afterward, at least some of us will probably wish it had. The worst part, to my mind, is that there's absolutely no reason for it to have happened at all. I don't mean that the summit could have been held in Exhibition Place, an easily-secured and more isolated area that the city offered and the federal government rejected out of hand - I mean that it shouldn't have been held in this city, or, for that matter, any city.

This has long since escalated beyond photo-op to pure farce. One of the consistent narratives that Harper and the Conservatives have been spinning is that this is an opportunity to showcase Canada to the world - which is complete bullshit. All they're going to be "showcasing" is a lake that cost $2-million taxpayer dollars to build - money that could have gone to things that are, you know, actually worth something - and a city locked down behind security cordons, where not even kite-flying will be allowed. Because, you know, terrorists!! could strap a bomb to a kite! And... do something!

But that's the elephant in the room, isn't it? The insane depth of the security measures that will be going up in Toronto stem from one reason and one reason only - the threat of terrorism. If they really believe that there is a clear and present threat of a terrorist attack on the G20 summit, than in my opinion it shows only how utterly reckless and unconcerned with consequences the Conservatives are. Ultimately, though, whether the worst-case scenario comes to pass or it's just an issue of a few protestors or totally non-involved people getting beaten to death, the responsibility will fall at the feet of Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the others who buffaloed this summit through - and it's us, the people of Toronto, who will be left paying for it.

The idea of this being a vehicle to "showcase Canada to the world" is, in my mind, likewise flawed; it's entirely the wrong model for a summit with as much importance as the G20. In my mind, the appropriate comparison should be that of a behind-deadline writer being locked in a hotel room by his publisher until he produces enough copy. We're living in turbulent times, and it is the responsibility of the heads of government to look at the hard questions and to make some difficult decisions, not bask in the light of a media circus.

Because there is an alternative. I just wish that the people behind the summit had considered it before they decided it would be an awesome idea to throw the locks on Toronto.

The Holland America Line cruise ship MS Zuiderdam passes Vancouver's Brockton Point Lighthouse as it sails through Burrard Inlet, bound for the Pacific Ocean - June 12, 2010

While I was in Vancouver I saw two cruise ships making for the Lions Gate Bridge and the open ocean, the Coral Princess and MS Zuiderdam. Seeing as how cruises don't generally go up the St. Lawrence, these things aren't exactly a common sight in Toronto Harbour, and neither are they of a scale that can be appreciated from photographs alone. These things are literally floating cities, and I had no idea that something so absolutely massive could move so fast.

Wouldn't it be far more straightforward, not to mention less taxing on whatever hapless cities get saddled with the dubious privilege to host this wonderful summit in years to come, to just create a meeting place for future G20 summits and the like? Wouldn't it be easier to, bluntly, pack them all off on a ship? I mean, it's not as if we'd have to worry about the world leaders getting "out of touch" with the people - they're not in touch with them now, and the bigass security fences around the summit perimeter here are hardly going to encourage any extra awareness.

Hosting the G20 on a cruise ship would enable a decrease of the security overhead - it's easier to secure something floating than the downtown core of a city - and it could be put in the middle of a carrier battle group for the duration. There's no way that renting out such a ship for a few days would be more expensive than Toronto's security tab. The way things are going, we're getting to the point where we need to lock our leaders in a room until they come up with workable solutions. This way, even if they do manage to jimmy the door, they'd have to swim for it. Hell, it might be easier for them to just make decisions and do things. Shock!

Monday, June 14, 2010

PDP #235: And the City Far Below

Yesterday I left Vancouver and returned to Toronto. It will be some days yet before I'm fully adjusted. The plane's route took us over the mountains of southern British Columbia, and in that part of the country it was a clear day. From my seat just aft of the wing, I had a clear view of what turned out to be the city of Penticton, with Okanagan Lake spreading to the north. If you squint, you might be able to see Ogopogo.

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

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Short SF Review #14: "The Frontliners"

"The Frontliners," by Verge Foray
Appeared in Galaxy Science Fiction, July 1974

She risked a mini-warp - dangerous in the atmospheric fringe - and came out of it seventy miles higher, with body and ego-field still together. Her detector immediately revealed half a dozen guardsmen within range. She had warped into the middle of a platoon! She quickly warped again, and came out to see a spectacular display of flares blossom around the spot she had just vacated.

The 1970s were an incredible time. They gave us the summer blockbuster, the energy crisis, eye-blistering fashion, and an undercurrent of inevitable apocalypse that has only recently resurfaced in popular culture in the context of climate change, though back then it tended to focus around the far more simplistic "pollution," in addition to overpopulation and the threat of nuclear war. Personally, I'm glad to have not been around for the 1970s. When I say "incredible," I mean it in the sense that I have difficulty believing they were actually real.

The July 1974 issue of Galaxy, which I stumbled across in the bargain basement of a comic book store in Kitsilano, has done a lot to convince me that while the 1970s were real, it does not follow that they were necessarily believable. Exhibit A is that month's cover story, "The Frontliners" by Verge Foray, a pen name used by author Howard L. Myers - who, it seems, died in 1971.

In this case the cover worked exactly as it had been intended to. I bought it because I had to know just what the frak is going on, no matter how ridiculous it seemed to be. As it turns out, this cover is pretty much totally faithful to what you'll find in the story - the only reason I don't say one hundred percent faithful is because I'm not sure if the number of arrows in her quiver is accurate.

Yes, really.

"The Frontliners" is set in a sufficiently distant future that humanity's diaspora has led to the establishment of large interstellar states, two of which - the Lontastan Federation and the Primgranese Commonality - struggle and compete ruthlessly in the "econo-war," a situation that's not particularly well-explained in the story but may be the Cold War recast through a stellar lens. Our heroine is Gweanvin Oster, an ultra-deep-cover agent of the Commonality, said to come from "a long-established family, one which had devoted itself for generations to the job of resembling loyal citizens of the Lontastan Federation." She's a mutant - the story is nonspecific, to my recollection, as to whether or not she's the result of genetic engineering - and only knows one other member of her "species," a Federation frontliner named Marvis Jans - she's the woman in blue, firing the raygun on the cover. Gweanvin's mission has her infiltrating a top-secret Federation research project, a sort of psychic amplifier that would allow the minds of every Federation citizen to be subject to scrutiny.

You would think that the horrifically dystopian possibilities presented by this project would drive the conflict in the story, but you'd be wrong. In fact, the author seemingly goes out of his way to downplay the dangers of mental privacy being swept away. Gweanvin attempts to interface with the core of the device, but is discovered and is forced to flee to report back to her masters in the Commonality.

At this point, the story really begins running on Rule of Cool. The sufficiently distant future of the setting is enough to provide some seriously capable technology - the key being life-support implants that, in addition to protecting their users from hostile environments, also enable personal, shipless interstellar flight. For some reason. It's not explained anywhere in the story, just taken for a given, and I had to reread the part where Gweanvin escapes from the planet with security guardsmen in hot pursuit to figure out just what the hell was going on.

Honestly, I'd much rather have read a story that dealt with the implications of ubiquitous telepathic surveillance and the potential freedoms offered by personal interstellar flight capacity on these characters. It seems like they would go well together. Instead, we get a "desperate flight to return home with key information" plot that's not much different from a spy pursuit story through West Berlin and the East German countryside circa 1960.

No matter how far in the future it is, the technology isn't *entirely* unimpeachable. With power reserves limited, Gweanvin is forced to land on the first habitable planet she comes across - Arbora, a world where technological civilization didn't do so well after colonization. With the help of a local woodsman, Holm Ocanon, she struggles to recharge her implant and complete her flight home, all the while trying to slip away from Marvis Jans' pursuit. The ending of the story actually makes a lot more sense, ultimately, than when it first begins to unfold.

I'll admit right off that the story does work - it just doesn't work as well as it might, in my opinion, had it been built from different parts. Stylistically I found it reminiscent of Robert A. Heinlein in a way - possibly because the most recent novel of his I read, Friday, deals with a broadly similar protagonist. Some parts of the language were a bit bumpy as well, such as a male character referring to a female character as "a dish" - which is the real problem with slang. Using terms that are modern frequently causes that sort of disconnect for me. I had an easier time suspending my disbelief over the ability to fly through space independently - of course, though, I wanted to do that. Because it's totally awesome.


Previous Short SF Reviews:

Saturday, June 12, 2010

PDP #234: The Wreckage on Helmcken

By now you may have read about, or seen one of the YouTube videos regarding, the partial collapse during demolition of a Vancouver building on Thursday, at Hornby Street and Helmcken Street in downtown - a collapse that sheared a lightpole in half and nearly pancaked a couple of people. As it happens, I have been staying literally a block away from where that happened, and so last night I went past to see what was left.

Only what would have been the basement foundation is still intact; otherwise, the former site of 834 Helmcken Street is scattered with fallen bricks and twisted debris, much like the site of the Queen West fire in Toronto a couple of years back. There was a vague smell of dust still hanging in the air, and the door was one of the largest things still intact.

Or, at least, still recognizably a door.

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

Friday, June 11, 2010

Tourist, Educate Thyself

The other day I was riding the SkyTrain - yes, I know, completely out of character, but bear with me - and, while the train was waiting with its doors open at Commercial-Broadway Station, I overheard a tourist asked someone near the doors if this was the train to the airport. I assume that he was a tourist because 1) he had an Australian accent, and 2) he was looking for directions to the airport. As it was, the person he asked just said no; had it been me, I would've given directions.

For those of you playing along at home, the simplest way to get from Commercial-Broadway Station to Vancouver International Airport by SkyTrain is to ride an Expo Line or Millennium Line train to Waterfront Station and transfer there to the Canada Line. Riding to Granville Station and transferring to Vancouver City Centre Station is also acceptable, but not quite as direct.

This train is, in fact, for YVR-Airport.

Nevertheless, you'd think that if you're a tourist in a strange city, you'd make an effort to at least know how to access the airport via public transit, as it's a rather important destination. It's not as if the SkyTrain is complicated, either - the bus system is one of the most chaotic and difficult-to-understand I've ever used, but the SkyTrain is straightforward and simple. In my book, familiarizing yourself with the basic methods of getting around a city you know you're going to visit is just good sense; just like if you're travelling to a place that speaks another language, you should at least know how to say please and thank you and how to order beer.

Because, really, I've always believed that the point of going to new places is to come to a greater understanding of both the new and the old - in addition to what you discover about the place you've journeyed to, that knowledge can be placed in context with what you didn't know before. Without that proper context, knowledge is inert - travel and trade and interchange with new perspectives is what's required for dynamism and growth. Compare the trajectory of the independent and perpetually squabbling Greek city-states, for example, with that of China under, say, the Qin Dynasty.

A lot of this, I know, comes from my own biases shining through. When I landed here, aside from how to reach the airport and hotel I didn't know very much - but after a couple days of just wandering around downtown and more outlying areas, I built a map for myself. I'm well aware that my adherence to the wandering ethos is not universal. Even then, though, there's nothing stopping a misdirected tourist from writing "take Canada Line to airport" on a piece of pocket paper - then the question becomes, much more directly, "where can I transfer to the Canada Line?"

Like I said, though, it's easiest at Waterfront. There, at least, you don't have to go outside.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

PDP #233: Tracking the Trackless Trolley

Vancouver and Toronto have at least this in common - they're now the only two cities in Canada with a network of wires strung above their streets. While in Toronto they power streetcars, here in Vancouver that's how the electricity flows into what is now the country's last operating fleet of trolleybuses, thanks to the city of Edmonton's short-sighted abandonment of its system last year. They're great vehicles to ride, though they take a bit of getting used to: when one is stopped, say waiting for a streetlight to change from red to green, aside from the hum of a few fans it is entirely silent. You really can't appreciate how horrifically loud an internal combustion engine is when all of a sudden you don't have to hear it anymore. Given that Toronto abandoned its own trolleybus system back in 1993, this is the first opportunity I've had to actually experience one.

In this photo, trolley #2262 is waiting to turn off Seymour Street onto West Cordova in downtown Vancouver, bound ultimately for Phibbs Exchange.

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

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

A Brief of Five Vancouver Bridges

Vancouver is a city profoundly influenced by its geography. Unlike Toronto, where the only real discontinuities in the landscape are the ravines carved by the glaciers as they went by, modern Vancouver is very much the triumph of engineering over natural obstacles. I found that most evident in the bridges here. There aren't that many significant bridges in Toronto, and they're rather utilitarian; they carry roads above the Don Valley and the other major ravines and not much else.

In Vancouver, the situation is different: the major bridges here span equally major bodies of water, and at least some of them were built to be more than just things that keep the traffic from falling into the waves. In the days I've spent here so far I've gone across a few of them, and found that they each have their own positive and negative qualities - observations that I'll share with you from five bridges in total, proceeding from west to east.

Lions Gate Bridge

The Lions Gate Bridge is the most picturesque of Vancouver's current bridges, and is the most involved to reach by foot from downtown. It spans Burrard Inlet, linking Vancouver with the hemmed-in suburbia of the North Shore - specifically, it links the North Shore to Stanley Park. Between the southern end of the bridge and the traffic lights at West Georgia and Denham, there's nearly three kilometers of open road with deep, seemingly unbroken forest on both sides. I did this walk my first day in Vancouver, a matter of hours after stepping off the plane, and it was like I'd gone into some other world. It was one of the things I'd planned out before I arrived - if nothing else, it would provide a crackerjack platform for skyline shots.

Approaching from the south, the towers of the Lions Gate Bridge don't reveal themselves until you're close by, thanks to the equally towering trees of Stanley Park. It carries three traffic lanes and two sidewalks shared between bicyclists and pedestrians. I didn't see any bicyclists as I crossed, and only one or two other pedestrians. There are no consistent "lanes," but regular reminders that bicyclists should be using the inner half of the sidewalk and pedestrians the outer.

Frankly, I didn't appreciate the degree to which crossing the Lions Gate Bridge would terrify me until I'd already started, and at that point I was committed; I wasn't about to hike back through Stanley Park in defeat. Nevertheless, the sidewalks are only nine feet wide, with no real separation from the high-speed traffic lanes except a roughly knee-high barrier and, at intervals, the steel cables that keep the bridge suspended. On the other side, the only thing standing between me and the deceptively calm waters of Burrard Inlet was a barrier fence about five feet high. Unlike Toronto's Prince Edward Viaduct, the Lions Gate Bridge doesn't have suicide prevention barriers - for that matter, none of the Vancouver bridges I went across seemed to. What the Lions Gate does have, at the southern end and at intervals across the span, are yellow boxes that contain crisis hotline telephones.

That the Lions Gate Bridge is a suspension bridge posed one significant problem, in addition to the narrowness of the pedestrian walkway: whenever a vehicle motored past, it felt like the whole damn bridge was shaking. By the midpoint I was wondering what my chances would be like if a major earthquake tore through while I was still on it, and after passing the northern tower I walked the rest of the span at a pace just short of a run. I've never been so glad to have real, solid ground beneath my feet as I was when I made it to North Vancouver.

It's a beautiful bridge though, and well worth its place as a symbol of the city and region - if you squint, it's rather reminiscent of the Golden Gate Bridge, though it's greenish and not International Orange. I just consider myself fortunate I crossed when I did; before it went through a full deck replacement ten years ago, the sidewalks were all of four feet wide.

Burrard Bridge


Note: Blogger refused to upload this photo and that of the Cambie Street Bridge, which is why I've had to take recourse to Photobucket thumbnails. Apologies for the discontinuity.

The Burrard Bridge is the westernmost of the three bridges that span False Creek and feed more or less directly into downtown Vancouver. Easily visible from Granville Island, the Burrard Bridge carries Burrard Street - yes, I know, what a shock - into Kitsilano, and it's both older and far more solid-under-the-feet than the swaying, suspended wonder that is the Lions Gate Bridge. Given the greater degree to which it's tied into Vancouver's urban fabric, it makes sense that the Burrard Bridge sets aside plenty of room for non-motor vehicle traffic; in addition to the wide pedestrian sidewalk on the western side of the bridge, bicycles have their own, physically separated, dedicated lanes on the western and eastern sides. It's a good thing, too. Vancouver completely lacks a municipal expressway system of any kind, and so during rush hour its streets tend to get a bit busy. Speaking as a pedestrian, it's totally luxurious.

For me, it just sucked that I couldn't legitimately access the eastern span with only my feet, because that way lies good views of the city and Granville Island. It's also solid; it's a steel truss bridge with more in common with the Prince Edward Viaduct than the Lions Gate Bridge. The barrier at the edge of the sidewalk is approximately the same size as that on the Lions Gate, though a bit beefier - it's made of stone rather than metal - and the crossing didn't set off any of my "you've really screwed up now, boy" senses.

The Art Deco style, in my opinion, really makes the Burrard Bridge worth experiencing. There are two observation platforms on the west side of the bridge, set within the towers; while the southern platform was closed off when I passed, the northern is still a great place for views of the West End, Kitsilano, Stanley Park, the North Shore mountains and the widening sweep of English Bay.

Granville Street Bridge

Of all Vancouver's bridges, I feel the Granville Street Bridge would fit the best in Toronto; as a product of the 1950s it's not only completely devoid of architectural value - on my first day here, when I went over to Granville Island, I overheard a couple of guys talking about the bridges and how boring this one was - but pedestrians seem to have pretty much been an afterthought in the design process. It carries Granville Street across False Creek, though Seymour Street and Howe Street both split off it on the downtown side in an elevated interchange that's rather reminiscent, to me, of the Los Angeles style - streets completely separated from the ground and the "street life," doing their own thing up in the sky.

Like the Burrard Bridge, it's a solid bridge - if you go to Granville Island you can see just how solid, because it's built directly overhead. Note, though, that there's no direct access from the bridge to the island as it's elevated ninety feet above. Nor is it decorative: the sidewalks are just sidewalks and the railings and lightpoles are stark, ordinary metal. The views of Granville Island, False Creek, and the surrounding city make up for it very slightly, and the spiderweb of trolleybus wires overhead help somewhat, but not too much.

The sidewalks are where the Granville Street Bridge really came up short. As you can see in the photograph, there's no barrier between the sidewalk and the road. At all. I don't know what it was, but the Granville Street Bridge was the place where I found it most plausible that some dude could come up behind me on the sidewalk and shove me over the side. What a wonderful Vancouver experience - come for the weather, stay for a screaming dive into beautiful False Creek!

Cambie Street Bridge


Though it's officially known as the Cambie Bridge - so says the commemorative plaque at the north end - this bridge seems to be widely known as the Cambie Street Bridge for the extremely valid reason that it carries Cambie Street. It's the third and easternmost crossing of False Creek, and from here the eastern shore of False Creek - just before the glittering silver geodesic dome of Science World - is clearly visible. It's also the newest of the crossings, having been opened in 1985. Like Science World, it's a beneficiary of Expo 86 - appropriate, given the "transportation and communication" theme of that particular World's Fair.

It shows. While it's not much to look at in architectural terms either, the designers of this bridge recognized that it would not be used solely by drivers. If the Burrard Bridge's reservations for pedestrians are luxurious, the Cambie Street Bridge's sidewalks are beyond reproach: though shared between pedestrians and bicyclists, they're fully fourteen feet wide, and separated from traffic by a small railing, an addition with incredible psychological value. It's the only one of the major bridges directly accessible via SkyTrain - Olympic Village Station on the new Canada Line is adjacent to its southern approach. When I went across the clouds that had made my trip across the Granville Street Bridge so waterlogged had lightened considerably, and there were a few other people chattering and taking photographs of the views from over the side. I'm always thankful when I'm not the only one. It makes me seem far more normal.

On the northern side, while the routes for drivers are rather direct, for pedestrians and cyclists there's a bit of choice. Different paths peel off at different elevations, circling up, down, and around like miniature highway interchanges to put you on the ground at the right spot. It was rather well done.

Lynn Canyon Suspension Bridge

This fifth bridge is, technically speaking, not in Vancouver at all - it's actually in the District of North Vancouver, part of Metro Vancouver, in Lynn Canyon Park - but is easily accessible by TransLink's 229 bus from Lonsdale Quay or Phibbs Exchange. The Lynn Canyon Suspension Bridge is a purely pedestrian bridge, nearly a century old, strung one hundred and sixty-four feet above the rushing waters below. It links the main entrance, ecology centre, and cafe site with the extensive hiking trails on the far side of the canyon. I definitely recommend a trip across the bridge and a hike around on the other side; it's nature pure and untrammeled over there, like you're walking around on another planet, entirely unspoiled. In fact, Lynn Canyon Park has in fact been other planets on television - if you've ever watched Stargate SG-1 or Stargate Atlantis, the feel of the place will be familiar. For my part, I wouldn't have been surprised to stumble across an overgrown DHD.

A few words of caution, though: this bridge is narrow, and it sways. For me, getting across was a simple matter of grabbing onto the big woven steel cable and not letting go. Still - what a view!