Saturday, July 31, 2010

Population: Unbelievable

Unless you're talking about an eerily abandoned city, nothing has resonance without people. Creative works in particular need to take that into account - one of the reasons early science fiction was so easily marginalized was because for some time after its genesis, authors were far more interested in writing about gadgets and gizmos with only a few cardboard characters to shepherd along what semblance there was of a story. People, to put it bluntly, are necessary for something to be interesting - people are the drivers of plot and of conflict, and it's through people that we gain a connection to the world of the setting.

The issue of population is, likewise, an important one in the background of any setting - to me, it's a good marker of how much thought the creator or creators put into it, or how much of a sense of scale they have. There's a natural tendency for writers to think that "bigger is better," and to do so with populations in order to establish a more "epic" or "sprawling" feel. Sometimes this works. Other times, it's like taking a sledgehammer to the plate glass window that is willing suspension of disbelief. It's a tempting trap, one that I've had to carefully avoid a few times while I've been putting things together.

I try to take my craft seriously, and that's why when I encounter something that goes against that, it's like steel wheels squealing on the rails.

I recently picked up StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty, Blizzard Entertainment's latest real-time strategy game and the culmination of twelve years of anticipation and expectation. What I've already noticed is that it greatly expands the setting of the Koprulu Sector, a galactic fringe tens of thosuands of light-years away, colonized by exiles from Earth - and I think that one of its big issues, story-wise, is that it's kicked the "bigger is better" issue into overdrive. I'm not sure whether or not it's unfamiliarity on the part of the writing team with what was previously established, a desire to change what has already been established about the setting, or just not caring about inconsistencies, but in my opinion it does diminish StarCraft II as a work.

To summarize: the original settlement of the Koprulu Sector was made by thirty-two thousand terrans, then spread across three planets, and totally isolated from one another for at least sixty years. Based on what information I've been able to find online, they've had two hundred and forty-five years to increase their numbers. If you assume that their population doubled every twenty years, which is pretty good considering these are exiles on totally alien planets with an extremely limited technological infrastructure, by the time of the setting's "present day" the population should stand at a bit over 131 million. Which is not bad - I can certainly see that sort of population managing, with the aid of a great deal of sophisticated technology and equipment, to keep a multiplanetary civilization holding together. Plus, a not-too-big population adds to the "frontier" atmosphere that many space-based settings try to elicit, and if there's never enough people to do everything that needs doing, individual heroes have the chance to make a difference.

With StarCraft II, it's clear Blizzard didn't go this route. Korhal, the capital world of the Terran Dominion, looks like Coruscant and is listed as having a population of 6.3 billion. What makes this even more hilarious is that the setting background included the nuclear destruction of that planet, thirteen years before StarCraft II's present day, in which its entire population was wiped out - its population of four million.

Where, in short, are all these bloody people coming from? Artifical wombs? Clone farms? What?

All of the people in this photograph were created, educated, and released into the world in 4.2 seconds thanks to the power of SCIENCE!

Working within limitations is one of the greatest advantages any creator has. I know well how much it sucks to be spoiled for choice, such as when I've got multiple potential plots vying for my attention and can't narrow one down enough to start work on it, and so none of them make any progress. Ignoring them, or pretending that they don't exist, may not be one of the Great Sins of worldbuilding but it's still damn annoying. When I pick up your book, turn on your movie or boot up your game, I want to be immersed in a world that I can believe in. Details like this, details that don't even need to be in the first place - which population numbers definitely are - only shatters that belief for me.

Friday, July 30, 2010

PDP #258: A Sunset at Gladstone

The historic Gladstone Hotel, a boutique hotel at Queen Street West and Gladstone in Toronto, is one of the anchors of West Queen West and one of the welcome survivors of the purge-the-historic construction trend Toronto went through in the mid-20th century. Back when it was built, when there was a railway station practically next door, it stood at the edge of Toronto - west of Dufferin Street was the independent village of Parkdale. The construction of the Gladstone and the annexation of Parkdale into Toronto came in the same year, 1889.

I took this photo while looking across the railway lands, at what I believe was the approximate position of the old Parkdale railway station - one of the motivating factors for the Gladstone's construction. It's a parking lot now, and not a very big one.

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

Thursday, July 29, 2010

You Can't Take the Sky From Me

One of the richest veins of science fiction involves the single improbable thing. Whether it's an alien invasion, time travel, technological transcendence or something even more exotic, some of the great works of science fiction have been founded on the premise of introducing just one improbable thing into the world and examining how it affects the people in it. Sometimes, when the night outside is deep and black and I've read just the right combination of newspaper articles or shrill blog posts, I can't help but believe that the idea of space travel itself, that we will ever stop being prisoners of gravity in any meaningful sense, is our single improbable thing.

It's never a pleasant conclusion to draw, but to not do so would be to ignore reality. In a world where governments shovel tens of billions of dollars into the furnaces of war like so much coal and yet manage to lose the equivalent of nearly half of NASA's 2010 budget, where the Governator has declared an imminent threat of "fiscal meltdown" in California and historians like Niall Ferguson opine about the United States' fall being hard, fast, and soon, certain things will fall by the wayside. Space is one of them - space has always been one of them; recall that it was the leaders who ruled in prosperous times that established the tradition of pillaging NASA for beer money year after year.

If we couldn't take substantial steps into space when our lands were flush, if the barriers to entry have been flung up so high that the free-spending twentieth century couldn't climb them, what does that say about our hopes for the twenty-first?

At least space investment and military investment will be one and the same in the twenty-fourth century. Don't listen when they claim that Starfleet isn't a military organization. It totally is.

Recently it seems like the entire concept of space colonization has come under attack - the Mundane SF blog, which has been thankfully dead for a couple of years now, seemed to take the viewpoint that science fiction which portrayed space settlement was escapist tripe that could only detract from the mission to save Earth, that pretensions that life was possible elsewhere were practically crimes against the future. That blog really did a lot to sour me on the mundane sf movement. But moving on...

As the twenty-first century unfolds, I think we're faced with a situation that's without significant precedent in our recent history. There's no more frontier. The world has been ranged over, tamed, and developed. The blank spots on the map have been filled in and there's nothing left that's unknown. Granted, there's plenty of room for personal exploration, as my walk-until-I-cannot-walk-anymore experiences in Vancouver attest, but societies are better off with the capacity for pressure release than they are without. Take the example of the Pilgrims who settled Massachusetts, or the Huguenots that were kicked out of France. It's groups of like-minded people, not teeming masses yearning to breathe free, that space colonization would benefit.

If only we could afford it. I know that there are plans underway to open up the space business to private enterprise, that one day in the not-too-distant future NASA might finally be able to come the research agency it was meant to be and not just a space truck dispatcher. In the end, the money's got to come from somewhere - and in a climate like this, I can't help but think that the money may end up staying close to home. After all, time travel is perfectly possible in theory - you just have to fly one mouth of a wormhole around at relativistic speed - what if space colonization is the same way?

It'd be an awfully depressing notion to consider, that a perfect blue sky is an almost-perfect prison.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

PDP #257: Dude With Sword and Some Hammer Chick

Casting back to last week's midnight release of Scott Pilgrim Vol. 6, there is one thing that I wish I hadn't done - and that's miss the costume contest. Apparently there was one, though I only heard as much through the disjointed mutterings of the line. I only saw a couple of cosplayers aside from THE BOYS!! AND CRASH!! Specifically, Scott Pilgrim and Ramona Flowers, with a nice sword and real big hammer. I wasn't the only one trying to get their picture, but it seemed like a lot of the other people around were using phones to get their shots.

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

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Words About Words: The Hidden Precedent

While my computer is valiantly failing to install Vista Service Pack 1 so that I can play Starcraft II, a game for which I've been waiting twelve years, I thought I'd reflect some more on the art of writing.

Pictured: A very early draft from one of my stories. Art it ain't.

When someone says something is "unprecedented," that should be a big thing. Society is structured on the basis of the known, the understood, the easily comprehensible, and something coming in out of the cold without any justification to its name besides itself will always be of concern to some people. It shows up primarily in law, but it's just as important to consider in the field of writing as well. Unprecedented appearances in written works are one of the easiest things for newcomers to misuse, and one of the most direct ways to compromise the quality of a story.

The other day I pulled such a story out of the slush pile - this is where unsolicited submissions to magazines and publishers go, generally to be sifted through by a low editor on the totem pople in the hope of finding a speck of gold amid the dross - and it does happen, though it is difficult. Some of these magazines get hundreds upon hundreds of submissions vying to fill the space of a single issue. As to whose pile it was, or whose story, I will not say because really, there's no point, but it gives me a worthwhile perspective on the creation process. The key issue is that the story involved a change brought onto a character, without his knowledge, due to his association with a particular object.

There's nothing wrong with this idea on the face of it - indeed, it's the sort of one that's been used since time immemorial, with the "particular object" usually being something of magical significance. Today, it's easy to imagine technology capable of doing the same thing. What's wrong with this idea is doing it in such a way that the revelation of why everything happened as it did comes as a complete surprise to the reader, and not in a good sense. While this story had a second character explain the source of the first's troubles, it rested on another piece of technology that had not been mentioned once before that point. I did a search of the document when I got to that point to see if I'd missed something, but no, this had not come up before.

I can understand why the author might have not established that detail - with that specific technology established earlier in the story, many readers would quickly be able to guess what the character's problem was well before the climax. That, to me, is an example of a plot that's not been thought all the way through. If a plot is so unsteady that knowledge of one aspect of the world that should be common for everyone living in it is enough to make it transparent, it should be reconsidered and rewritten. You can't expect to make a good work by hiding key details from the reader, and then at the end going "HAH! Fooled you! Bet you didn't see that!"

Readers like stories that make them think, that let them stretch their minds forward and give them an opportunity to solve the protagonist's problem before the protagonist does. That engagement with the reader is one of the things that keeps the written word vital. What they don't appreciate is getting dicked around by an author who doesn't lay all the cards on the table.

Earlier Words About Words:

Monday, July 26, 2010

PDP #256: The Western Gap

At the foot of Bathurst Street, there is only a hundred and fifty feet of open water between the mainland and the Island Airport. Considering that the island airport has been in operation for seventy years, you would think that a bridge would have been built to link it with the rest of the city a long time ago, but no. For most of history, the Toronto government has either ignored the island airport or, since the election of David Miller, been trying to press a pillow down on its face. Nevertheless, things finally seem to be moving forward on a pedestrian tunnel to the airport, which would make the ferries that now take passengers across the Western Gap obsolete.

Sure, it'll be more efficient. But there's something about crossing the waves like that, even if it's a trip of less than a minute. This photo, taken in October 2009, is a view past the stern (or possibly bow - they're bidirectional, you see) of one of the ferries, departing the mainland terminal.

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

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Sustaining Immigration in a Sustainable Future

You may not know this, depending on where you are and what sort of news you pay attention to, but Australia is in the thick of another election campaign. With the Ruddbot shunted off to the political wilderness and Australia's first female prime minister jockeying to stay ahead of those who'd love to see her time in office be short, politicians are coming out of the woodwork to argue about what should be done. Whether or not it will be done is, of course, dependent on how much faith you have in the democratic process.

One such issue, and one that has been rather politically charged over the course of Australia's history, is immigration. Recently Tony Abbott, the leader of the conservative Liberal Party, announced his party's intention to cut Australia's annual immigration rate to 170,000, down from 300,000 in 2008. The headline in the Brisbane Times specifically mentioned "unsustainable" immigration levels, which at first made me think that a political party had seen the light and would be fine-tuning their immigrant acceptance numbers in line with an environmentally-sound development policy. Most of Australia is a desert, after all, with the population disproportionately clustered around the few centers of agricultural productivity.

Well. Turns out they're not using "sustainable" in that context, because the Liberals want Australians to have more children - "one for mum, one for dad and one for the country." Considering the love/hate relationship Australia has traditionally had with regard to immigration - from the White Australia Policy to the apex of One Nation in 1998 and a more modern spate of "FUCK OFF WE'RE FULL" bumper stickers - it's not much of a surprise to me. But that doesn't change the fact that Australia has come to its current prosperity by exhausting the resources of an old and sunburned continent, and that the models of development that held true in the twentieth century cannot be blindly followed as gospel in the twenty-first.

North America didn't get to be what it is today by turning all the ships around at the shore.

What this feels like to me is an expression of attitudes that are commonplace in throughout the world, particularly in continental Europe - the idea of immigrants as some strange "other." Australia is one of the relatively few immigrant societies in the world, since the local natives were unable to prevent the Europeans from stealing their land out from under them - even more so in Australia than elsewhere. Nevertheless, immigration is valuable. The mix of cultures, backgrounds, and ideas produced in an immigrant state lends a dynamism that I think will be vital in the years ahead. Look at the example of Toronto - today one of the most vibrant cities on Earth, but sixty years ago a backwater provincial burg dominated by the Orange Order.

Australia's Treasury has estimated that, if current trends continue, in 2050 its population will stand at thirty-six million, up from 22.3 million in 2010. I'm doubtful whether or not the Australian continent could support that kind of population. Already it's planning large-scale pipeline water transport, and its electrical generating infrastructure is disproportionately based on dirty coal. Immigration should be made sustainable, sure, but what it shouldn't be made as a scapegoat - slashing immigration but spurring an increase in natural population growth does nothing to solve Australia's potential support problems. A country that cuts itself off from the world does so out of fear, and if Australia's leaders believe Australian culture is so fragile that immigrants could replace it wholesale, to me that speaks to how well they'd be able to deal with problems ahead.

Given its climate, I tend to think of Australia as a canary in the coal mine for the future of the developed world. We should all pay close attention to the problems it faces, and the avenues it explores to solve them. We may need to be making similar decisions ourselves a few decades down the road.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

PDP #255: Earth, Sky, and Endlessness

In the words of Douglas Adams, "in an infinite universe, the one thing sentient life cannot afford to have is a sense of proportion." It's true. The universe is far too massive to be really grasped by our small and puny brains. What we can use, though, is a sense of perspective - that what we think is huge and sprawling isn't really so. Like Earth. I look forward to Virgin Galactic opening up the suborbital and, eventually, orbital tourism market, because what we need is for as many people as possible to have that new perspective on the planet - to be able to look out the window and see it as a single thing.

I took this photo from the window of an aircraft at cruise altitude, crossing the Rocky Mountains between Vancouver and Toronto. It's not high enough to see the curvature of Earth, but the way the sky fades to black is a reminder that the rest of the universe isn't far away.

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

Friday, July 23, 2010

I've Got Bicycling on the Brain

For more than a century, bicycles have been a popular way of getting around. They're liberating in the same way that many people believe that cars are liberating, but are more honest - not only are bicycles zero-emission vehicles, when you get to where you're going it's because you earned it with your own sweat and exertion. Today, more and more cities are recognizing bicycles as a key component of a healthy urban transportation network. Bixi, a municipal bike-sharing system pioneered in Montreal, has now spread as far afield as London and Melbourne and is set to start rolling in Toronto in 2011.

I'm glad to see it happen. I've been riding bicycles for more than twenty years, and when I lived in Barrie those two wheels were my only option when I wanted to go somewhere on my own schedule. When I visited Montreal last year to attend Anticipation, I had the opportunity to try out Bixi for myself, and discover the city from a new perspective. I came very, very close, but in the end I couldn't bring myself to swipe my credit card and take one of those bikes out for a roll. Why? Simple, really - I didn't have my bicycle helmet.

Though I do have photos of myself as a kid riding a bike without a helmet, back in those freewheeling 1980s, I don't remember ever settling on the saddle without one strapped around my chin. To me it was as vital as a sturdy lock or inflated tires - and that's not only because Ontario required all bicycle riders under the age of 18 to wear helmets starting in 1995. The reason I wear a helmet is, fundamentally, because I'm not a tremendous fucking dumbass.

It seems as if my view is not shared particularly widely. I've recently been reading an article from Washington City Paper, originally published in March 2009, which asks why so many DC cyclists eschew helmets when they cost so little and can prevent serious damage to the single most important part of one's body. Excuses range from perceptions of helmets as "corny" to the ridiculous, with one man claiming "he can't wear a helmet because he wears headphones when he rides." Well, if you're going to be a tremendous dumbass, you might as well go all the way.

Apparently, attitudes such as these are crashing full-force into the law in Melbourne, Australia. Yesterday The Age of Melbourne reported on the city's new Bixi-derived bike sharing system, Melbourne Bike Share, and its tribulations - apparently, despite investing $5.5-million AUD ($5.1-million CAD) in to the system's development, not even 70 trips per day are made with the system's six hundred bikes.

A Bixi station in downtown Montreal, August 2009

Why such a low takeup, when similar systems have seen great popularity elsewhere? The fact that it's the middle of winter in Melbourne right now? No - it's helmets, apparently. Whereas the use of bicycle helmets for over-18 riders in Ontario has been up to the adult's discretion since 1995, the state of Victoria - of which Melbourne is the capital, for all you geography majors - has mandated that all cyclists wear helmets, and that since 1990. As the explanation goes, Melburnians are unwilling to hop onto a Melbourne Bike Share bike because they can't be arsed to wear a helmet.

It's ridiculous. Try as I might, I cannot see bicyclists who eschew helmets as anything other than reckless fools. I know that there are arguments. One of them goes like this: "Oh, but there are so many accidents that a helmet wouldn't do anything to protect yourself from!" I damn well know that. My major bicycle accident involved a collision with a stationary object that wasn't even on the road at all. That doesn't mean I shouldn't have been wearing a helmet.

The brain is an amazing machine, an incredible machine, but the brain is likewise a fragile machine, and while it can still work after sustaining damage it's rarely at optimum capability. I realize that I am my brain. Those 1200-odd cubic centimeters enclose my memories and experiences, hopes and dreams, personality and consciousness. Even the fingers I've used to type out this post are nothing but remotely-controlled mechanisms that allow me to interact with the world.

I'm not sure how we should proceed from this. Personally, in some greyer moments, I've toyed with the notion that we should let consenting adults who choose to ride without helmets suffer the consequences of their decisions. That is, if you get into an accident and you're not wearing a bicycle helmet, your health insurance should not cover it. I know that it's vengeful, and that this would result in thoughtless dumbasses bankrupting themselves and their families to cover medical expenses arising from helmetless accidents, but-- I just don't know. Riding without a helmet is as foolhardy as riding in a car without wearing a seatbelt. From what I understand it took a long, hard campaign of memetic engineering to change the popular attitude. We may need a similar campaign to firmly establish the helmet-safety meme in our society. If that can be combined with shareable helmets as part of bike share systems - perhaps something involving a disposable outer lining, maybe - we could make a lot of progress toward a safer, healthier transportation system.

Ultimately, I believe it comes down to laziness and a sense of invincibility. In Melbourne they claim that no one is riding because everyone must wear a helmet - and yet in Vancouver, where helmets have been mandatory for all cyclists since 1996, bicycle use is exploding - from the dedicated lanes on Dunsmuir Street to the successful lane test on the Burrard Street Bridge, and the racks on the buses which always seemed to be carrying at least one bike along.

I won't ride without my helmet. I'm not about to put my brain into my own hands.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

PDP #254: Way Out of Their Jurisdiction

The other day I went to downtown Toronto and ended up in Manhattan. The southern exit of King subway station had become 34th Street Station, NYPD cruisers and New York taxis lined the streets, the flags flying from the Hotel Victoria were replaced with American and New York State flags, and at the corner of Yonge and Melinda a bunch of guys in FBI jackets stood back from the crowd.

It's yet another television shoot. This one is for the new TV series Nikita, which according to the filming notification letter "follows Nikita after she has escaped 'Division.' And her new mission is to take down the organization that created her." Also it apparently has nothing at all to do with Khrushchev.

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

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Omnibus Ubique: Peterborough Transit

Not every city is fortunate enough to have the population, or population density, that makes a rail transit system possible - but that doesn't mean that bus-only systems aren't worth considering. Follow along as Acts of Minor Treason evaluates bus-based transit systems in cities and regions near and far.

This will be the first of an occasional series supplementing Tunnel Visions. I've still got a post for Vancouver in the pipeline and more will be following it. Nevertheless, you can't take an analytical look at urban mass transit and not pay attention to buses. Far too often, bus systems represent the only public transit system the people have.

They call Peterborough the Electric City. It's the gateway to the Kawarthas, Central Ontario's cottage country, and a regional center of 75,000 people, 125 kilometers northeast of Toronto. Until fairly recently it was a blue-collar city through and through, with a General Electric plant generating both steady employment and, so I'm told, a targeting solution for at least one Soviet nuclear missile. Unlike many cities in the Greater Toronto Area, it's not a festival of sprawl. Its downtown is healthy and, from what I've seen, its post-war development is modest. We'd probably be better off now if more cities resembled Peterborough instead of, say, Barrie.

The city is served by Peterborough Transit, a bus-only operator - streetcars operated there early on, owing to the local hydroelectric generating capacity, but the last stopped running in 1927. In addition to serving the city in general, it provides express routes to Trent University and Fleming College - the lifeline of the student bodies. It was the first transit system I had to know, because there was nothing for me to fall back on.


Peterborough Transit buses depart the Downtown Transit Terminal on a Thursday afternoon

Peterborough Transit operates twelve regular routes, four express routes, and the Handi-Van, a paratransit service that provides door-to-door, appointment-based service for people who cannot use the regular system, throughout the city of Peterborough, and transports 2.1 million people every year. Service does not presently extend beyond the city boundaries, as Peterborough is surrounded by low-density countryside; Oshawa is the closest major city. The only public transport system it connects with is GO Transit, which commenced bus service between Oshawa GO Station and Trent University in September 2009.

Like many smaller, bus-dependent cities, transit service is oriented along a hub-and-spoke pattern. The Downtown Transit Terminal on Simcoe Street is the nexus of Peterborough Transit service, and the vast majority of inter-route transfers are made there. Beyond the central terminal, roadside stops alternate between signposts only and covered shelters.

Even though Peterborough isn't a particularly sprawling city, it's large enough that bus service can't be justified in every single corner of it. To combat this, Peterborough Transit works with local taxi agencies to provide Trans-Cab service, which allows people in specific areas of the city, presently not served by the bus routes, to complete parts of their journey via taxicab with only a slight premium above regular fare.

Fares are comparable to most Ontario transit agencies, though Peterborough Transit differs in its disinclination to provide discounted fares. If you're below the age of 2, you don't have to pay - for everyone else it's $2.25 into the farebox for a ride, with no child, senior, or student discount fares. Day passes are similarly level, with a $7 pass providing unlimited service to all Peterborough Transit routes on the day it's purchased. Discounts come into play only with the monthly ass, which is $55 for adults and is eligible for the federal government's transit pass tax credit program. Full-time Trent University students don't have to worry about it at all, though - their tuition includes unlimited use of Peterborough Transit from September to April. I'm not sure if the system has changed since 2006, but when I was there it was just a matter of flashing my Trent student card at the driver, the same thing I do with my Metropass now.

The big problem with Peterborough Transit is its hours of operation. During the week, buses run from 6 AM to 11:20 PM, on Saturday they start forty minutes later, and Sunday service is limited to less than twelve hours, from 8 AM to 7:20 PM. While this is an improvement from earlier - it wasn't until relatively recently, from what I recall, that Peterborough Transit had any Sunday service. Still, it's not the most friendly to someone who doesn't maintain a strictly orthodox schedule, and it means that the taxi companies pull in a lot of money from drunk Trent and Fleming students stumbling out of the bars with no other way to get back to the dorms or home.


Peterborough's Downtown Transit Terminal

The only real station in the Peterborough Transit system is the Downtown Transit Terminal on Simcoe Street in downtown Peterborough. It's the ground floor of a parking garage and incorporates a pass vendor, a waiting room with ATM and vending machines, a small diner and a convenience store. The twelve regular routes are scheduled to arrive here every forty minutes, with passengers transferring from route to route while drivers lay over or switch between buses. Lansdowne Place, the anchor of Peterborough's southern commercial district and served directly by the Monaghan bus, offers some station amenities such as interior seating and pass sales.

If you're buying passes, though, do so as early as possible - I'm not sure when exactly the ticket kiosk in the downtown terminal closes on weekdays, but it's definitely before 5:45 PM, and there are no ticket or pass vending machines that I could find. This is particularly important to keep in mind if you're leaving Peterborough via GO Transit - fortunately, though, in that circumstance there's always the option to buy a ticket directly from the GO Transit operator.

Most people will board Peterborough Transit at roadside stops, identified with the ubiquitous and standard bus image. The signs are in the process of getting replaced, in the wake of a livery change in the last few years - buses were originally white and orange, but now the standard colors are white and green, though orange bus stop signs can still easily be found outside downtown.


Bus #25 waits at Trent University before turning south

Peterborough Transit has replaced much of its fleet since I made regular use of it. Today, it almost exclusively operates Canadian-made Nova Bus LFS low-floor buses - only thirteen of its buses are other models, compared to thirty 21st century Novas, and those new buses are the only ones I saw in service on my most recent visit. They're kneeling, accessible buses that are easy to board, air-conditioned with an elevated seating section behind the rear doors. Side-facing seats toward the front of the bus can be folded up to make room for strollers, wheelchairs, or other articles that need more space than usual.

Unlike the majority of bus operators in the Greater Golden Horseshoe, there are no bicycle racks mounted on Peterborough Transit buses. There's no engineering difficulties - the Novas operated by TransLink in Metro Vancouver have the standard front-mounted racks - so I can only presume that Peterborough Transit doesn't believe that rack installation is worth the expense. There's nothing I can find on the Peterborough Transit website regarding bikes on transit, so I would suppose that the decision of whether or not to let a passenger bring a bicycle aboard is up to the operator's discretion. Even so, the Novas don't have plenty of unused space, so getting one on board wouldn't necessarily be a sure thing.

Peterborough's is the only system I know of that continues to use old-style linen destination rollsigns instead of modern digital versions. Granted, they're in the process of phasing the linens out and new buses are equipped with the digital boards, but it's not hard to find some of the older ones on the road. They have no side or rear screens, unlike TTC or TransLink buses, and so if you don't see one from the front you can only guess at which route it's running.

Ease of Access and Ease of Use

Riders transfer between buses at the Downtown Transit Terminal

Remember how I said that the twelve regular bus routes are scheduled to arrive and depart from the downtown terminal every forty minutes? Well, the first thing you need to understand about Peterborough Transit is that those schedules are horrible, horrible lies. In my personal experience, the only routes that can boast reasonable on-time performance are the Trent University express routes, and that's because they operate independently. The system as a whole is a very Three Musketeers, "one for all and all for one" system, in that it's set up in such a way that if one bus is late, every bus will subsequently be late.

In my recollection, it's typically the Lansdowne bus that's late; most likely because it has to deal with the traffic on Lansdowne Street, Peterborough's main big-box commercial drag. This was the case on my visit to Peterborough, watching the buses stream into the downtown terminal while I waited - the Lansdowne bus arrived about five minutes after what I'd thought were the last stragglers had arrived, but because of the nature of the system, none of the other routes could leave until the Lansdowne bus had arrived and left off its passengers. Once they leave, of course, it's a dance of twelve buses trying to depart through two exits in a timely manner.

What this means is that relying on Peterborough Transit is inherently a game of chance and luck. Though service will start out by the schedule in the morning, minor delays will snowball and steadily push the actual arrival/departure times away from those printed in the schedules. Ultimately, as delays continue to stack, the buses' departure will eventually become so late that they are actually on time again. So it goes.

Furthermore, if you're getting around on Peterborough Transit, you'd best become as familiar with the routes as possible as quickly as possible, because it's not going to give you any help. The destination signs have very little information - just the route name. Not even a route number, and especially not any information about the destination, and there's significant potential for confusion. For example, say you want to go directly to Lansdowne Place down on Lansdowne Street, one of Peterborough's two major malls. If you want to go directly there, you'd think you'd take the Lansdowne bus, wouldn't you? You'd be wrong; while the Lansdowne bus does pass Lansdowne Place, it doesn't stop there, and service directly to its doors is instead provided by the Monaghan bus.

Bus stops give little information beyond the fact that they are, in fact, bus stops. I didn't find any that had so much as an indication of what routes served them, let alone route maps. It seems, to me, to operate very much with the opinion of "you should know this already," and I can imagine this lack of information beyond the printed route maps could be a major barrier to higher usage of the system.

There are no automated announcements on the Peterborough Transit system; the buses do not appear to be set up for it. Personally, I have no real nostalgia for the times when I was riding an unfamiliar bus route and couldn't relax because I had to keep staring out the window, checking every street sign as it went by, to make sure I didn't miss my stop. Things like that are likewise barriers to greater use, in addition to being a necessity for visually-impared riders.


For what it is, Peterborough Transit is a system that manages to work - that said, there are a number of places where it could improve and better serve the people of Peterborough. Granted, public transit agencies everywhere are being pushed to the edge recently, and it could be that Peterborough Transit simply doesn't have the resources to push through the reforms that might make it easier to use for first-time and recurrent riders. Route clarification could be one of the simplest and cheapest changes to make. Take, for example, the George North bus - right now, the only information its destination sign gives is "GEORGE NORTH." With a digital rollsign, it wouldn't take much effort to program a new display pattern - rename the route 1 George North, and add something like "To Trent U via Hilliard" in the manner of a TTC bus when it's going north, and "To Downtown" when it's southbound.

Given more resources than that, I would completely redevelop the current downtown terminal: tear down the parking garage, bury it, and replace it with an architecturally pleasing station complex that combines shops, services, waiting areas, and plenty of room for Peterborough Transit and GO Transit buses to arrive, lay over, and depart without having to all back out in one massive show. The scheduling, too; the way I see it, Peterborough Transit could greatly increase its on-time performance by staggering departures - have half of the routes arrive at, say, 10:00, and the other half arrive at 10:20 or so, rather than condensing them all into a single point in time.

They invented time for a reason, you know.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

PDP #253: Prepare To Have Your Minds Obliterated

There were easily over a thousand people in line for the midnight release of Scott Pilgrim Volume 6 at the Beguiling last night - or, more appropriately, nine and a half hours ago. I know this because my voucher was numbered #1037, and the line was very nearly occupying three separate streets.

The atmosphere on Markham Street was very much that of a block party, but with the sort of Pilgrim vibe you'd be hard-pressed to track down anywhere else. Like, really - how often is it that you'd run into The Boys and Crash, who have the ability to manipulate pure sound waves through hard work and willpower alone? I should totally see if they're doing a show soon, like that one back in Volume 3.

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

Monday, July 19, 2010

I Almost Died Behind the Wheel

It's been years since I've been behind the wheel of a car. My interest in transit is, partially, a response to how necessary it is in my life, the same way an automobile owner would do well to have a basic familiarity with the care and feeding of a motor vehicle. I don't have a full license for a few reasons, including but not limited to being too honest for my own good and a recalcitrant emergency brake. I've spent my adult life carfree, and I am satisfied.

A few days ago, Briana Tomkinson from the New Westminster blog Tenth to the Fraser wrote about resisting the call of the car. A lot of what she writes rings familiar, particularly how "suddenly not driving became a point of pride." Some of it doesn't, like the "pressures of... friends and countless busybodies who have nagged me... people count it as a deficiency not to drive."

Personally, I have never felt like an incomplete person because I don't have a set of wheels to call my own. I credit my current lower-middle-class lifestyle to my lack of a car; if I had to pay for those wheels, gas, insurance, maintenance, and so on, I know I would be living much closer to the knife's edge. Nor have I ever felt any driving need, let alone desire, to have a car of my own. Tomkinson's post made me ask myself why this was the case - after all, living a carfree life is hardly common, even in 2010.

I think a lot of it comes from how I nearly died behind the wheel of the family van, nine years ago. Let me tell you how it went.

A 1992 Dodge Caravan is most emphatically not the kind of tomb anyone should have.

Back in the summer of 2001, it was a different world. For me, it was a world on the cusp of great things. With my high school diploma in one hand and my acceptance letter from Trent University in the other, the road to the future was wide and bright. I'd gone through the Young Drivers of Canada training courses to steady my hands, and since then I'd driven whenever I had the opportunity. There was none of the typical "teen freedom" about it - the terms of my license demanded that someone who'd held a full G license for at least four years always be in the front passenger seat. Therefore, most of those opportunities were grocery trips, generally to the Zehrs on Bryne Drive in the South End of Barrie.

On this particular day, there was a slight complication - someone had had a bit of an accident. After nine years I can't remember precisely what the details were, but the most important factor was that it had occured directly in the intersection. Traffic was filtering through slowly with police officers on the scene to direct it, but anyone going west through the intersection was forced to curve around the accident before continuing on. We'd finished the grocery shopping, and were heading westward for home.

I can close my eyes today and still see the scene clearly, as clear as decade-old memories can get. The police officer waves me forward and I ease the van into the intersection, turning broadly around the accident scene. There's a big white 18-wheeler ahead of me at Ardagh Road, waiting to turn north onto Essa. At least, that is what it should have been doing. As I'm making my way through the intersection, I see this truck powering ahead, slowly but steadily turning.

I put on my brakes. The truck's not stopping. I realize that the driver hasn't seen me. He's not looking at the intersection or the police officers. He's looking at the accident and he's turning.

A map of the Ardagh-Essa-Bryne intersection. Solid lines indicate the direction of travel up to this point, and dotted lines the intended direction of travel subsequent to it.

Have you ever seen the wheels of a big rig close up? They're large and robust, because they have to be - trucks have been the foundation of North America's intercity freight-hauling infrastructure for decades. Today I can close my eyes and still see the wheels on this truck, still in the turn and getting ever closer. Much too close; he's still not finished his turn. I'm seeing them almost edge-on now. I can't remember what my mother or sister, who were also in the van, were doing; I can't even remember if I was screaming. All I can recall now is those wheels and the deep, crushing, absolute certainty that I was watching the last few seconds of my life go by. I could see, in my mind's eye, those wheels first reducing the hood of the van to crumpled aluminum, and then rolling along over me. I don't know if I was breathing. I wasn't prepared; how can anyone really be prepared to die, let alone a callow eighteen-year-old who's barely had a chance to build a life?

There was a hard shove, the van moved a few feet backwards despite my foot on the brake pedal, and a shattering. I was able to breathe again. My estimation of the truck's path had been just slightly off, and it was a near-miss after all. Part of the truck had impacted the van and pushed it backward, and the left taillight was broken. Its shards stayed in the middle of the intersection for days afterward. I was a wreck afterwards; from the van I went to the back seat of a Barrie Police Service cruiser, but I was so rattled that the police ended up thinking that I had been turning left onto Essa, not turning slightly left to avoid the accident. As a result, the driver of the 18-wheeler got off scot-free, so far as I know, despite the fact that if it hadn't been for him paying more attention to the accident than the road, I would have driven home safe and that would have been that.

Shortly thereafter, I went to university in Peterborough and had precious little opportunity to drive a motor vehicle, though I did rack up enough experience to get my G2. Whenever I did drive, particularly on mountainous stretches of the Interstate, I would shudder and shake whenever an 18-wheeler passed close by - I kept having visions of one making a sudden turn in my direction while I was in its driver's blind spot, and that would be the end of the whole mess.

As I said, it's been years since I've driven. Reflecting on my current situation, at this point in my life I don't trust myself behind the wheel. I know how I've reacted to split-second decisions in the past. I'm not willing to put someone else's life, or my own, in the balance for convenience. Because that's all it is; that's the black heart of modern North American culture. Convenience above all. Maybe it took the memory of that truck coming toward me, as inevitable as a rumbling avalanche, to make me realize that and to say "no." I resist the call of the car because I have seen the spot where the road ends.

You can have your cars. I'm happy without one. I refuse to accept the responsibility that comes with them.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

PDP #252: Machines In Motion

There's rarely a time when the Gardiner corridor is not a busy place. In addition to the expressway, where cars go back and forth at all hours of the day and night and are stuck in traffic during many of them, the Lakeshore railway corridor sees frequent GO Transit service. In this photo, taken just before sunset from the Roncesvalles footbridge, one train is pulling hard toward Union Station while another is approaching, bound for Aldershot in the west.

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

Saturday, July 17, 2010

What Price Sovereignty, Now and Tomorrow

In a move that doubtless sent ripples of disbelief and shock across the country, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government has moved ahead on the purchase of sixty-five F-35 Lightning II stealth fighters. Because, you know, a military purchase is totally out of character for a Conservative government. These sixty-five multirole fighters, the product of an international research and development project that goes back to 1993, are set to replace Canada's current fleet of CF-18 Hornet fighters, which have been the backbone of the Air Force for twenty-seven years and are likely to continue serving until the F-35s arrive, sometime around 2020.

The cost for this replacement? $9-billion up front, and maintenance over an initial twenty-year timeframe has been estimated to account for another $7-billion for $16-billion in total. In what has been perhaps the single most predictable political announcement of this season, the Opposition has come out against it. While the rhetoric of "if we win the next election we will cancel this program" has been toned down, there's still a great deal of back-and-forth about the sole-source nature of this contract. Myself, this didn't come as much of a surprise - I've known about this impending purchase for years, quite literally. Fighter programs have a hell of a long turn-around time from commencement to actual service.

Incidentally, I find it interesting that the Liberals are raising such a hue and cry over the "lack of competitive bids" in the F-35 project, whereas they were - to my recollection, at least - totally silent when Toronto awarded Bombardier more than a billion dollars for its streetcar renewal program without seriously entertaining any other companies' bids, but I guess stealth fighters are sexier than streetcars.

I'll admit that the F-35 itself appears to have potentially serious issues, the most prominent of those being that in contrast to the two-engined CF-18 Hornet, it has only one engine. Defence Minister Peter MacKay's assertion that "it won't" fail during, say, a long and isolated Arctic patrol strikes me as an equally serious issue. Look, I know that the government is all starry-eyed over these fighters, but please be realistic. Bad things happen no matter how much we don't want them to, and dismissing the possibility of a catastrophic engine failure on a single-engine aircraft out of hand does a disservice to the men and women who will be flying those aircraft, not to mention Canada's security. Nor does the assertion of an anonymous official, who claims that "the F-35 engine is newer technology so it is extremely robust," fill me with any sort of confidence. In my experience, it's the newer technology that's much more liable to break.

But what's the alternative? It's easy to say that procurements like this are relics of the Cold War and have no place in the modern world, but honestly I think that's simplifying the situation. Whether it's the F-35 or something else, we really do need a new fighter. Canada needs to maintain a modern air arm, because once the resource wars and climate wars start in earnest, we're going to need them. More importantly, we need to shoulder the burden of securing our own airspace because there's a country down south that some of you may have heard of, and which is greatly interested in its own security and that of its backyard. If we don't patrol the Arctic, I imagine the Americans will (perhaps grudgingly, but regardless) do it for us.

Delegating the security of its own airspace is generally not the mark of an independent state, and it could easily push Canada down that road.

Four F/A-18 Hornets of the Blue Angels, the United States Navy's aerial acrobatics squadron, fly low over the Toronto Islands - September 6, 2009

If you don't like it, think of it this way - the F-35 may be the last piloted airframe the Canadian Forces purchases. By 2040, at which point the F-35s will have been in service for less time than the CF-18s already have, the skies may be filled with combat UAVs. Unmanned aerial vehicles capable of performing all the missions modern piloted aircraft do, but piloted remotely from a secure location, may well be the future. Though the possible removal of humans from the aerial battlefield does present a great deal of problems, and should be considered very carefully in the years to come, it would probably at least be cheaper.

Friday, July 16, 2010

PDP #251: Flower's Turning

One of the strangest things I encountered on the Los Angeles County Metro Rail system was the nature of the light rail tracks along Flower Street, currently used by the Metro Blue Line and soon to be shared with the under-construction Metro Expo Line. While most light rail systems use rights-of-way that are either in the center of a road or isolated from it entirely, on Flower Street the rails are between the road and the sidewalk - making that entire half of the street inaccessible to private transit. I'm not sure how big of an issue this is among local drivers, but I've yet to find another instance of street rails being laid down in this fashion.

Note that this is another one of those photos that can't be taken exactly like this anymore - it was taken in December 2009, and this is the spot where the new Expo Line tracks split off from the current Blue Line route. I'll have to go back to LA once it's done - or maybe wait until at least they finish Phase 1 of the subway to the sea.

EDIT: Two days ago was the Blue Line's twentieth birthday. I was too oblivious to notice at the time. So consider this a "twenty years of Blue Line" post. Woo!

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

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Perils of Bulldozing Through

The Toronto Transit Commission is, without question, the Butt Monkey of Toronto. It seems like nothing ever goes right for the TTC, and it's always taking heat from irate commuters or antediluvian talking-heads who think it would be so much better if it all just went away. Recently it's been taking some heat over a recent plan to expropriate and demolish some houses in East York in order to build second exits at Donlands station and Greenwood station - since they've only got one exit each at the moment, they're not necessarily the best places to be during an emergency. After an outpouring of discontent, the TTC has come up with an alternative that wouldn't result in any homes coming down, and it has admitted that there should have been a public consultation on it from the start.

I'll admit that time after time, the only conclusion I can draw from the evidence at hand is that the TTC is still learning just how to operate a metropolitan mass transit system. That's the only reason I can think of that explains why I can find two 512 St. Clair streetcars back-to-back on the new right-of-way, why it hasn't picked up articulated buses for high-traffic routes like 29 Dufferin, why it can't make accurate station-area maps, and the generally erratic nature of surface transit schedules in general.

Though, on the other hand, these problems may well have existed since the dawn of streetcar service in this city. It's easy to conceal what would be erratic service when you're running more than seven hundred streetcars. So I'll reserve judgement for the moment.

But really, give the TTC a break. It could be worse - like what happened recently in Footscray, a suburb of Melbourne, Australia, where the residents of twenty-six houses discovered from the media that their homes would be expropriated and demolished in order to build the proposed Regional Rail Link. Not only was there no consultation with the government, they weren't given any prior warning because... well, apparently because Victoria Premier John Brumby thought it would be totally awesome to synchronize the notifications with an announcement of the project at a business lunch.


According to The Age of Melbourne, the government totally planned to inform the residents that their houses were going to be reduced to rubble - but the bringers of bad news "fled when they saw television camera crews in the area... and had made the judgment that it would be better not to have such a 'personal and private conversation' with residents in front of TV cameras."

Let me state right now that I'm not blaming the messengers here. This was obviously a totally awkward situation. The point is that they shouldn't have been put in it! Say what you will about the TTC, at least it 1) announced its plans, 2) was receptive to public response, and 3) altered its plans based on public response. That is how a government agency should work! I'm really not sure how much room there was for public consultation in this at all - while the routing was apparently unveiled in June 2009, until the announcement it seems to have been cloaked in secrecy, with no one but the government knowing what the deal is. Beyond that, the fact that the affected people did not know if their homes would be demolished until they learned as much from the media suggests to me that, no, the government didn't exactly do a sterling job on entertaining public opinion for the route.

What makes it even more delectable is that Premier Brumby is refusing to apologize for the way the situation's been handled. "Every effort was made to contact those people," Brumby is quoted as saying, but The Age does not specify whether he's referring to actual efforts or just efforts in Government Land, where idly entertaining the possibility of performing an action while staying as motionless as possible is functionally equivalent to carrying that action out.

So say what you will about the TTC. At least it recognizes, when it counts, who it really reports to. The actions of the Government of Victoria here follow all the cherished traditions of government, in which it is to be obeyed and it is above the manners of mortal men.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

PDP #250: City Hall By Night

First off, I recognize that this is a departure from my usual habit. I defend myself in that 1) this is my weblog and I do what I want, 2) the aforementioned ISP changeover is happening tomorrow and I'd like to make sure this gets posted without hassle, and 3) a night post deserves a night photo.

So then, this is Toronto City Hall on the occasion of Earth Hour this past March, with almost all of the lights extinguished. It's actually darker here than it was the night of the 2003 blackout. Most of what I can see looks like emergency lighting. At least they're trying here - just next door, Old City Hall was practically drowning in light.

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

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Rights of Man at 1Mbps

Near the intersection of Parliament and Gerrard, Randy McDonald pointed me to a bit of news the other day that, I'll admit, struck me as faintly ludicrous at the time - Finland, one of the few nations ever successful at beating back the Russians, has apparently decided that broadband internet is a human right. This strikes me as particularly relevant now, as right now I'm looking down the barrel of an ISP changeover that will temporarily leave me without home internet access. At first I thought it was odd because, really - when I think of fundamental human rights, I think of things that are necessary for life. Access to food, water, shelter, that sort of thing. The internet has only been around for forty years - assuming you count ARPANET - and there are still a vast many people who have never been able to use it. One might think that states would best focus on more immediate concerns.

So cold...

But that's a pretty hollow dismissal of something that, realistically, is of fundamental importance to 21st century society. Limiting the scope of fundamental human rights to the things that are biologically required for survival isn't magnanimous. It's the ground state, the absolute lowest that things should go. We built civilizations to go beyond that. Sure, there are those who would argue that internet access is a luxury, that it's not necessary to live one's life - but then liberty, justice, free speech, and all that aren't strictly necessary either. People don't die in dictatorships because they can't say what they want, though people frequently do because they say it regardless. We've long since established the precedent that social inventions are equally valid human rights.

Besides, internet access is becoming more and more necessary to day-to-day life, in its capacity as a means to connect individuals and communities. If you think it's a frippery, how willing would you be to try living without electricity? Our ancestors managed just fine without it for hundreds of thousands of years, but look at the nature of their lives. The internet, in addition to being the sine qua non for ninja cat videos, is in my opinion a revolution on the order of writing. Throughout human history, the societies that have advanced are those that were open and those that communicated widely. The internet enables that to a greater degree than anything we've ever done before.

Beyond that, there's a strictly utilitarian reason why this sort of recognition should press on beyond just Finland. Governments, as I've written before, constantly seek greater and greater control of the people, and the current controversy about internet-enabled copyright infringement is giving them an excuse to exercise it. Three strikes laws such as the French HADOPI law provide an avenue for internet users to be disconnected and blacklisted after three accusations of copyright infringement. Laws such as these are tailor-made for abuse by governments - if they want to silence a person, they can simply accuse them of torrenting a few first-run movies and let the wheels turn.

The enshrinement of broadband internet access as a fundamental human right would be a step in the right direction, I think, to tying the bastards' hands behind their backs. The specification of broadband is, I think, particularly important. If it was just "internet access" as a human right, that's something that could easily be warped. "Sure," says the government, "of course you're entitled to internet access. Enjoy your 300-baud modem."

The internet is more than a meme factory, and to deny people access to it is equivalent to denying them literacy.