Monday, January 31, 2011

Freedom to Move

Every weekday morning around 9 Pacific Time, the day's transportation headlines from the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority's Metro Library and Archive show up in my inbox. Over the past couple of months, ever since the midterm elections in the United States ended the Democratic Party's dominance in Congress, I've been seeing more and more stories about transit initiatives encountering heavier and heavier resistance in government committees that are now dominated, or led by, Republican Party lawmakers. Witness the case of planned intercity rail projects in Wisconsin and Ohio, where newly-elected Republican governors moved to cancel these programs.

Highways aren't getting the same rap - something that, to completely honest, comes as absolutely no surprise considering the strength of the Republicans' grip on the wheel. The open road has always carried connotations of freedom, the idea that people can just pack up their car and go where they want, when they want, how they want. While the truth is significantly more complicated, the simple meme of "roads mean freedom" is deeply entrenched in the United States' cognitive ecology.

The real barometer of freedom is choice. The infrastructural decisions of the past several decades, decisions which not only continue to echo but are echoed today, prioritized the development of highway networks over railway and urban transit expansion in both the United States and Canada. But we can't just blithely assume that what has held true for the past few decades will likewise continue uninterrupted into the future. We can't assume that people will always be able to pack up their car and go where they want, when they want, how they want. What if, for starters, they can't afford the gas?

A population's movements can be controlled by means far subtler than the internal passports demanded by the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and which are still used in Russia today. We've already spent decades engineering our society around the idea of automotive mobility - it wouldn't take much now to use that dependence against us.

A China Eastern Airlines A340-600 taxis toward the runway at Vancouver International Airport

Imagine a future where the railways pull nothing but freight between cities... a future where oil shocks have come and gone, and the price of gas has reached such heights that the kind of intercity driving common today simply isn't economical anymore, or a future where the highways have been made limited-access only. It wouldn't be too hard to justify in the wake of, say, a national emergency. Sure, you could still go point-to-point by air; but air travel is the easiest method of transit for governments to control. I would not be surprised - but it would disturb me greatly - to live to see a future where air travel is far more regimented and controlled than it is now, where very few people fly anywhere other than government-approved sun destinations because the pre-ticketing background checks are just too much of a hassle. If you can't afford to drive, you can't get on a plane, and there aren't any trains you can take from one city to another - then how free are you, really?

There always need to be options in how people can get from point A to point B. In business, that competition is necessary to prevent consumer gouging. In government, it's just as necessary - to head off one potential mode of oppression and control.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Photo: Peaceful Pond and Palm Tree

I came across this small pond while I was wandering through Phoenix's Papago Park, looking in vain for any signage directing me to the Desert Botanical Garden. It's strange thinking of the desert as an abode of any life other than that which is specifically geared to surviving in those burning sands - something that probably colors my perceptions of the Valley of the Sun as a whole.

But, still, it seems peaceful and calm. You might even say it's an... oasis.


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, January 29, 2011

Photo: Against a Purple Sky

As this extended stretch of photo-only posting continues, I offer this for your consideration - taken right around sunset along Mill Avenue in Tempe, Arizona, this looks to me like it belongs on some 1980s album cover - in fact I had to put on "Broken Wings" by Mr. Mister because it just didn't feel right without it. I had always thought that sort of thing was just artistic license.

I haven't converted to an all-photo format yet, though. Tunnel Visions: Phoenix's Metro Light Rail, for one, is going to be going up soon.

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, January 28, 2011

Photo: Giraffe In Motion

It took me a while, looking at this photo just now, to notice the evidence of human intention behind the African Savannah at the Phoenix Zoo - I believe that wire fence, between the giraffe and the palm trees, is it. Just another reflection of how the camera's eye can trick, depending on where it's pointed - 180 degrees away from this is the bustle of the zoo, and about fifty people or so jostling for position to get pictures of the giraffes as they trundle toward their elevated foodbox. It was feeding time, you see.

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

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Photo: Lens Flare Ahoy

I'm surprised this photo turned out, so close to the sun; my old camera probably would have been overwhelmed by the light, but my new one was capable enough to just make lens flares. Here, I've caught a Bombardier CRJ200 flying for US Airways Express descending into Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport on the sort of blue sky day that's common for the desert in January.

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, January 26, 2011

Photo: Clouds Over Point Roberts

Returning from Phoenix to Vancouver, for much of the flight the ground was concealed by heavy clouds that didn't begin to break until we reached Puget Sound, and not meaningfully until the plane descended below them. As the plane breached the low levels of cloud, its descent path put it right above Point Roberts, Washington - an exclave of the United States created by the razor-straight 49th parallel, cut off from the remainder of Washington State by the water and by British Columbia. It seems almost like the ultimate bordertown - with no small hint of vague unreality.

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, January 25, 2011

Watch Out For the Watch

Whenever I'm out and about and need to know the time, there's only one thing I turn to: my trusty wristwatch. With a time-tested analog readout and glow-in-the-dark hands, it's everywhere I wanna be.

It's also a relic of the twentieth century.

Yesterday/today - it's one of those weird time zone things - The Independent ran an article that asked, "Is time running out for the watch?" Because, to be honest, they can't do many things - tell the time, make comforting ticking sounds, act as the central timer of bombs on buses that have to stay above fifty miles per hour - and what they can do is done just as easily by mobile phones. My own observations certainly parallel Rhodri Marsden's - I just don't see many people wearing watches anymore. Certainly people like myself, who wear them purely for utilitarian function, are sufficiently rare these days to be freaks of a sort: someone of my generation who's wearing a watch will, more likely than not, be wearing it for style rather than a comforting reminder of that thing we have that keeps everything from happening at once.

This increasing trend toward form over function will, I agree, probably lead to the end of the line for digital watches. They've had their time and their dominance, but to me, they always seem inextricably linked to that time, the 1980s and 1990s. I don't believe they'll have as much relevance for future generations, whereas I feel analog has something more of a timeless quality - the soft clicking of the hands, the fact that it only does one thing and does it well. Nobody's going to text you on a purely analog watch.

I can imagine future watches that cram a lot of miniaturized capability beneath the comfortable, ticking exterior of an analog watch, something comfortable and familiar. ThinkGeek has sold a watch that's also a USB drive for some time now, and there's plenty of opportunity for people to keep going down that path. I don't think Dick Tracy-style video watches will ever really take off, but you don't need to have a video camera on your wrist to be living in the future. Perhaps the watch of the future will be packed full of monitors, keeping an eye on your pulse rate, body temperature, the surrounding temperature, local radioactivity levels...

The watch isn't obsolete. It's just no longer got a monopoly. There will always be people who prefer that form, and there will always be things watches can do. It would be a sad day if the last watchmaker had to close up shop because no one cared about the ticking and the gears.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Photo: Stay Back or I'll Rip Your Face Off

Among the diverse array of animals in residence at the Phoenix Zoo is this particular cat - a Sumatran tiger, a member of a critically endangered species. There are barely hundreds left in the wild, with their habitat in the jungles of Sumatra being constantly pressed by palm oil cultivation. This tiger's presence at the Phoenix Zoo is part of a preservation program - a "lifeboat" should the worst happen, and the species go extinct in the wild. It wouldn't be the first time - the Arabian Oryx went extinct in the wild in 1972, but was reintroduced in the 1980s thanks in part to the presence of a herd at the Phoenix Zoo.

Just look at that tiger. Full of majesty. And claws, and teeth.

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, January 23, 2011

Photo: Seeing Things in Transit

What we see isn't necessarily what's there. Take the logo of TransLink, Metro Vancouver's public transit provider, visible on the front of the second-generation Mark II car photographed below during a stop at Metrotown Station. When I first arrived in Vancouver, and for a while after I returned for good, all I could see in that logo was a dude bodysurfing - the dot is his head, the squiggle his body, and the arc his board. It was only rather later that I came to the conclusion that it was probably supposed to be the sun, a mountain, and the coast instead.

I can be empty-headed sometimes. And by sometimes I mean frequently.

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, January 22, 2011

Photo: Handlin' that Baggage

In the course of my travels, luggage transfer is always one of those things that's been dealt with invisibly; you put your tagged bag on the conveyor belt, and then hours later you grab it from the carousel wherever it is that you were headed - unless you don't tip the baggage handler, in which case it will be in Honolulu. In between the beginning and the end - it's rare you have a chance to see it.

Just after my plane had pushed away from its gate at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, I caught this AeroMéxico Connect Embraer ERJ 145 at the next gate over loading luggage, getting ready for its own flight to Hermosillo.

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, January 21, 2011

We're Developing a Problem Here

I nearly put my fist through my monitor when I read "Urban sprawl rules choking Toronto development: building industry," the Globe and Mail's latest tale of wholly-deserved corporate woe. It would seem that the existence of the Greenbelt, an area of agricultural, forest, and watershed land surrounding the Greater Toronto Area and made so by provincial law, is "choking development" - according, of course, to the development industry, those people who see a pristine meadow or an intact forest and are overwhelmed by visions of the cookie-cutter suburbs or soulless power centers that will rise up there as soon as that pesky "nature" is swept away.

Personally, I think that the Greenbelt has a valid and extremely important reason to not only be maintained, but strengthened. Not only does it protect the Oak Ridges Moraine, an ecologically important and vulnerable landform, but it provides a necessary impediment to expansion. Vancouver wouldn't be the city it is today if it wasn't hemmed in by the water and the mountains; aside from the lake, southern Ontario has no similar geographical stumbling blocks, so it's up to artificial ones to do their work. Limits encourage people to solve problems and try new avenues to success - whereas in a situation where everything is straightforward and open, the easy choice is going to be taken every single time. But we have to put in hurdles to those easy choices, or what we're going to end up with is low-density sprawl coating the land like a fungus.

An aerial view of part of the low-density Phoenix metropolitan area

The constant construction of new sprawling subdivisions of single-family residential homes is a windfall to the development industry, sure, but they're the only ones who truly profit by it in the end. Today's suburbs aren't communities but hollowed-out zones to hang one's hat and rest one's head. When I lived in Barrie, I was fortunate that I happened to live in one of the first rings of suburbs... back in 1998, I was only a forty-minute walk from my downtown high school. Thirteen years later, someone living at the fringe of Barrie would be lucky to be able to walk to downtown in twice as much time. Sprawling subdivisions are based on the idea that the automobile brings freedom, but in practice they're practically tools of oppression - if you have to use your car to get anywhere, if you're obligated to fritter away your day behind a steering wheel without any alternative... how free are you, really?

This strategy of building, this insane drive to plow under more and more land, borders on the instinctual now - the industries have been building this way for nearly seventy years, ever since Levittown. We can't allow them to keep on this way forever - their goals are not the same as ours. What we need are livable suburbs, ones built along transit lines like the streetcar suburbs of old, and densification to create walkable communities. We can't let the attitudes of the twentieth century continue to shape the twenty-first, if we want to greet the twenty-second in any semblance of good order.

There needs to be choice - not just the assumption that a car and a house in the suburbs should be the only game in town.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Photo: Rising Above the Valley of the Sun

Also known as the Phoenix metropolitan area, but I guess that sounds insufficiently exotic. It was when I saw them from the air that the sheer alienness of Phoenix's environs really drilled themselves into my skull; I can't look out over this sprawl, this endless chain of subdivisions that's somehow been tied together into multiple cities, and not see a vague sense of wrongness. It's the color of the ground that does it, desert brown - while I'm all for building cities in marginal land, all the better to keep prime agricultural land being paved over, there are places less marginal than the desert.

If you look carefully, you can see downtown Phoenix in this photo, about three-quarters of the way toward the horizon; aside from two condo towers in Tempe, it includes the only real skyscrapers I know to exist in the Valley of the Sun.

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, January 19, 2011

A Capsule of a Concept

When I flew to Toronto this Christmas, I had to take a taxi from New Westminster to Vancouver International Airport because, for some reason, the SkyTrain doesn't start running until 7 AM on Sundays. I regretted that greatly when the fare came out to $45 even before the tip entered into it - but I paid it, because I didn't want to worry about missing my plane, and because Air Canada encouraged travellers to arrive early during the holidays because of volumes.

Of course, being that this was Christmas Day, most everyone was already where they were going and so passengers were rather thin on the ground in the terminal. Also, my flight was delayed five hours. But early flights are common, and with the recommended arrival times always something to contend with, getting to the airport in proper time can be problematic - if you don't have a car, at least, which I manifestly don't. It only gets worse when you're flying internationally, and you find that from the departure times you've got no choice but to call a cab.

I'm really into choice, myself. I started wondering if there was another way - if there's something that the airport of the future could do to simplify this problem. I think there is: capsule hotels.

A capsule hotel in Osaka, Japan. This Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons image is from the user Chris 73 and is freely available at under the Creative Commons CC-BY-SA 3.0 license.

Capsule hotels are just that - hotels where, instead of rooms, you get a small capsule big enough to fit yourself in with a pillow, bedding, a light, and so on. Their main advantage is that they're cheap; $24-48 CDN per night. They're easily stackable and don't take up too much space... and what do airports have, if not space?

I can imagine airports maintaining banks of capsules for brief overnight stays or travellers with long layovers. If it meant I could catch a 6 AM flight without having to stress out about how I was going to get to the airport, I would absolutely head on over at 11 PM the night before and rest my head for a few hours, comfortable in the knowledge that I wouldn't have very far to go at all to make my flight.

It's not for the claustrophobic, though.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Photo: Palm Trees Against the Sunset

Exactly what the title says - I encountered these palm trees not far from the intersection of Mill Avenue and University in Tempe, Arizona, silhouetted against the burning clouds as the sun dipped down. I never thought that desert skies around that time of the day looked like they do in media... but they do. Hell of a way for a January day to end.

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, January 17, 2011

What I Learned in the Arid Zone

Forty-eight hours in Phoenix, Arizona enabled me to see a lot. Not everything, mind you, considering that Phoenix is the fifth-largest city in the United States, but sometimes all you need to really see something is to have no prior experience with it. This was the first time I'd travelled to the core of the American Southwest, and everything there was new. Like, for example, the prickly pear cacti; they were everywhere in Phoenix, from Papago Park to the landscaping around skyscrapers, and yet I could never bring myself to totally accept them. They just looked too fake to be real, like plastic props on a soundstage.

Yesterday, I got the same feeling from downtown Phoenix itself. It had the vibe common to many American downtowns I've visited - a feeling of emptiness, of people having thrown plastic covers over all the buildings so they don't collect dust until they get back from wherever they've gone. Like the people think there's no reason to go there if it doesn't involve work in one of the skyscrapers, most of which appear to house bank offices, or an event at Chase Field or US Airways Center.

Sure, I know that there's a downtown mall in the Arizona Center as a potential trip generator, but even a couple of blocks away its presence was imperceptible - businesses were closed for the day and vehicular and pedestrian traffic were almost nonexistent. There's hardly any residential presence there, if any - the only condo towers I ever saw in my time there were a pair in downtown Tempe. It definitely didn't feel like the downtown of a major metropolis - it's too small to anchor the rest of the city, far too small. Even New Westminster's downtown feels far more active than Phoenix's on a Sunday, and it's a city of sixty thousand that experiences frequent rain in winter.

Looking toward downtown Phoenix from Hole in the Rock, Papago Park

It's because Phoenix, and the entire Valley of the Sun, is a land of sprawl. I had plenty of time to look out the windows during landing and takeoff, and there were no clouds to obscure my view of a metropolitan area that seemed to be composed almost entirely of residential subdivisions, cul-de-sacs, air-conditioned shopping malls, and golf courses - no "second downtowns" like North York along Yonge Street, hardly any apartment buildings more than a couple of stories tall. That tells in the demographics: the Valley of the Sun has a population of 4.3 million people in 37,744 square kilometers, more than half the size of Nova Scotia. In comparison, Metro Vancouver's 2.1 million people occupy a mere 2,877 square kilometers, while the 5.5 million who call the Greater Toronto Area home only take up 7,124 square kilometers.

This might have made perfect sense in decades past, constantly building out new developments so people could own their dream homes in the land of endless sun, when they would keep on pumping the oil forever and everything would be right as rain. Therein, of course, lies the problem. Phoenix has an additional complication that neither Vancouver nor Toronto have to worry about, as it is in the middle of the Sonoran Desert. Fully ninety percent of its water is drawn from three rivers - one of which is the Colorado, which has not reliably reached the sea for years now. In the course of my walkabouts I would come across immaculate grass landscaping or vast suburban tracts, and think - where the hell is all the water coming from?

It may be a historical irony that Detroit's motto includes the phrase "resurget cineribus," Latin for "it shall rise from the ashes" - appropriate, considering the decivilization program it's currently embarking upon. But it's the phoenix that really rises from the ashes... and having been there, I saw nothing to dissuade me from my belief that Phoenix may well be the Detroit of the 21st century. Hollowed out not entirely by economics - although the real estate industry there did take an understandably huge hit back in 2008 - but by environmental pressures. It wouldn't be the first time in history that the local population was forced out due to drought. Hell, that's how it got its name, from being built on the ruins of a previous civilization.

Some parts of it feel quiet enough to be abandoned already.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Photo: Southwest Sun

Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport is a rather busy place, mostly attributable to the Southwest Airlines and US Airways flights that seem to be constantly arriving from every point in the United States and occasionally beyond. If you can find a good spot in the airport's landing pattern, like downtown Tempe or the southern extremes of Papago Park, you can watch a new plane descend almost every minute. The job of an air traffic controller at PHX must be a non-stop one.

I was near the intersection of Priest and Washington when I tracked a Southwest 737 across the sky. It's not quite silhouetted against the sun, but I think it works even so. All part of the charm.

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, January 15, 2011

Keeping the Narrative Consistent, Or Not

Apologies for not posting earlier today, presuming anyone out there noticed; I was a bit busy wandering around sunny Phoenix, Arizona. During the course of my walkabouts through this desert metropolis, I had the opportunity to think about a few things - such as the writer's necessity to create settings that hang together. Internal consistency and a sensible narrative! It's one of the things that separates good writing from the dross, and I know, because I've produced some of the latter. One story in particular was so long in the writing - more than two years from beginning to completion - that much of it didn't make sense anymore; the plot had changed almost completely from the beginning to the end. As a writer, you mustn't undermine the foundation of your tale through contradictions.

It's so unfortunate that reality never got that particular memo.

Pictured above is US Airways Center in Phoenix. Though it's primarily a basketball and arena football venue, it does play host to other performances - like Harlem Globetrotters shows, two of which took place today. I'd been debating whether or not I should drop the money to watch the Globetrotters, and so I figured I'd go to the box office to see what they had.

To get there, I had to pass through security - a man with what I presume to be an explosives-detecting swabber, as it looked the same as the ones they use in airports now, and he went through all the pockets of my backpack with it. After a moment I was pronounced clean and stepped into the center's towering atrium... but I didn't buy anything. I was still figuring out how I wanted to spend my night.

After a few minutes of wandering, I decided I would go back - but this time, I went through a different door with a different security guard. He didn't appear to have the explosives swabber at all; instead, he physically searched my backpack. After the search, he informed me rather brusquely that I couldn't come in, that I'd have to leave my bag in my car (such a wonderfully Sun Belt assumption; I came in on the light rail) and return.

There are, to my thinking, a few problems with this - and the lack of any exterior signage, to the best of my ability to find it, prohibiting backpacks inside the atrium doesn't even register. Most notably, what the hell is the point of giving explosive detectors to some guards but not others? When I pass through security at the airport, it's not as if it's random whether my bags will go through the x-ray machine or I'll walk through the metal detector. I can't see any point in employing multiple detection methods if they're not universal. What I encountered at US Airways Center wasn't security, it was a roulette wheel.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Photo: High Crash Location

As the latest in what seems to be developing into a series of photographs from my wander across a somewhat significant chunk of Burnaby last week, I present this portion of Canada Way, a bit east of its intersection with Willingdon. The sign speaks for itself; still, it's not that common that I see street signs with such a kinetic design.

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, January 13, 2011

A Fire For the Budget

"Budgeting based on punitive fines that are, ultimately optional - in the sense that people can theoretically choose to avoid committing actions that would result in fines - is not good economic sense... smaller buildings don't have many tenants to spread the pain between. What I worry about are the smaller fires that would previously have been caught, but won't, because people disconnect their smoke alarms to avoid accidentally setting off a false alarm."
- Acts of Minor Treason, "The Fire and the Fussbudget" - February 19, 2010

I hate when I'm proven right. Especially when it's something like this. In exchange for an expected $1.9-million, Torontonians are now going to be on the hook for even bigger false alarm fees - "negligent or malicious" alarms, that is, which does include short circuits or other mechanical malfunctions.

Because, you know, it's perfectly feasible to keep a system running one hundred percent of the time without any errors at all. A mechanical failure does not automatically imply negligence!

Funny, isn't it, how it's a $60 increase per fire truck dispatched to the scene of a false alarm? I wonder how many people who thought they got a good deal with the reversal of the $60 vehicle registration tax will have to shell out for that in the coming months... or, alternatively, how many homes will be damaged beyond salvage because the smoke alarms were disconnected. It's not every Torontonian that would be able to pay a bill for $1,230 just like that.

Granted, this has yet to be approved by City Council. Still, though, I have to wonder what hizzoner da Mayor will say about it. If anything.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Photo: Brentwood Station

Brentwood Town Centre Station, on the SkyTrain's Millennium Line in Burnaby, really looks like it belongs in Metro Vancouver to my eyes: mainly because, much like significant chunks of downtown Vancouver, it looks like it came from fifty years from now. This was the end of my journey that started at Metrotown and went past Deer Lake; I was definitely happy to see this place. I suppose whether or not it will end up all zeerusty remains to be seen - contingent upon TransLink's maintenance budgets, of course.

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.

wow, take a look at that title! so full of originality!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Between Downtown and Dog River

Recently I've begun watching Corner Gas - mostly because the Comedy Network was running it nonstop on New Year's Eve and New Year's Day - and it's pushed my thoughts in some unexpected directions. Though I've never lived in a small town like Dog River, Saskatchewan - or any small town at all, for that matter - it's in that sort of community that most of humanity lived for most of history; it's only in the last couple of centuries that cities have really taken the prize. But things are constantly in flux; things that were once rocksteady are crumbling into dust now.

I can understand why some people wouldn't want to live in small towns - the isolation, the potential of an insular local culture, the lack of services and opportunities that exist in larger communities. That won't necessarily stay the same as the years go by, though.

The post office in Gagetown, New Brunswick, serving a population of 719

The future of how we live is something that comes up time and again in futurist works, partially because it has deep, meaningful resonance: everyone lives somewhere. Frequently, I think, the answers are deeply influenced by personal politics or the pervading assumptions of society. Take the Transhuman Space setting, one of the more in-depth looks at a potential world of 2100 that I've come across - it's a world of decivilization, where cities are being bulldozed and returned to nature in favor of arcologies and suburbs.

Honestly, I never found that particularly believable. Sure, there are active decivilization efforts right now; Detroit's leading that charge, demolishing abandoned homes in an effort to densify the city in the urban prairie. Arcologies themselves have their own problems - they remind me of postwar housing developments in a way, and I can't help but suspect that an arcology might tend to resemble Cabrini-Green more than Green Acres. As for suburbs... for me, they deliver all the drawbacks of urban and rural life, with very few of the benefits.

My theory - based on little more than my opinion, to be sure, but still a theory nonetheless - is that suburbs will be disproportionately impacted by the problems we'll face through the rest of the twenty-first century. Cities and small towns both have lineages that go back to the dawn of civilization; suburbs are more like a weird fusion of the two. Should technologies like telepresence and 3D printing become more and more ubiquitous, a lot of the drawbacks of living in a small town would disappear: it doesn't matter where you live so long as you have a good enough internet connection to remotely operate whatever it is you're operating, and 3D printers could easily make small communities self-sufficient in basic goods.

Cities have their own reasons for being, and I don't expect them to go away either.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Photo: Sun on Deer Lake

Yesterday I took advantage of the sunny conditions to walk across Burnaby, on a path that took me through Deer Lake Park - not exactly preserved greenscape, since it was logged to the nubs ninety years ago, but protected nonetheless. There were spots in there where you could easily forget you're standing in the middle of Metro Vancouver - just the sound of the rustling wind and not much else.

This photo was taken from the path that follows the north shore of Deer Lake, and was taken with a lower shutter speed than usual. I've been experimenting with that recently.

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, January 9, 2011

My Horoscope is Nekulturny

Back in the early part of the last decade, I wrote horoscopes. They weren't very good. For entertainment purposes only, really - and in any event, who the hell is entertained by horoscopes? The entire concept of astrology has always been at least faintly ridiculous to me; but, hell, it also filled pages. This particular horoscope may be seven years old, but I can assure you that the stars will exert exactly as much influence toward it today as they did in 2004.

Aries (Mar 21 - Apr 19) - Your competence in the labors of life and love will be called into question next week when, for the ninth straight time, you beach the god damned battleship.

Taurus (Apr 20 - May 20) - You will be astonished to discover that, despite all evidence to the contrary, the President of France is in fact a gigantic, sessile eggplant.

Gemini (May 21 - Jun 21) - The limitations of medical science will be made painfully clear to you this Thursday when your home skin-grafting procedure goes horribly, horribly wrong.

Cancer (Jun 22 - Jul 22) - You will enter a new world where down is up and breathing is impossible when you embed your head in a water faucet tomorrow.

Leo (Jul 23 - Aug 22) - A knife fight on a carrier deck may be a valid means of relieving stress, but just make sure to keep away from the arrestor cables.

Virgo (Aug 23 - Sep 22) - Archimedes may have been on the right track about fulcrums, but if you want to shove Jupiter into a new orbit, I don't think a MiG-29 was what he had in mind.

Libra (Sep 23 - Oct 23) - Just because TVs emit radiation, that doesn't mean they can double as microwaves if necessary. You will learn this to your dismay only after you have thoroughly ruined the electronics.

Scorpio (Oct 24 - Nov 21) - "Bad taste" will be defined for a new generation when you persist in pushing your latest Retro-Victorian craze on the unsuspecting public.

Sagittarius (Nov 22 - Dec 21) - Originality might seem like it requires hard work and dedication, but all you really need is seventeen turnips and enough money to pay off the lawsuits.

Capricorn (Dec 22 - Jan 19) - Your brilliant plan to solve the world's energy crisis forever will collapse when you learn that, despite the assurances of ad executives, neither Coke nor Pepsi is combustible.

Aquarius (Jan 20 - Feb 18) - The government of Canada will not be impressed when, upon attempting to renew your passport, you submit autographed photos of Abigail Smith Adams (1744-1818).

Pisces (Feb 19 - Mar 20) - When studying for your physics test, at least try to remember that Newtonian physics was named for its discoveror, Isaac Newton, not Las Vegas lounge fixture Wayne Newton.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Photo: Clock and Province

Vancouver isn't nearly as tall of a city as Toronto. Perhaps it's because that with the North Shore Mountains right over there, there's no perceived need to build artificial ones to hold up the skyline - or because the demand for space in downtown is more economically met with smaller buildings, or maybe because of seismic building codes. I don't know.

Granville Square, housing The Province newspaper among others, is four hundred and fifty-four feet tall and thus the tenth tallest building in the city; before Expo 86, it was in the top five. So it's no surprise that it's bright in the sun while below, the Post Office Building at Sinclair Centre is down in the shadows.

NOTE: This image has been slightly modified from its original, to conceal a dead-pixel defect in the camera. Take a look and see if you can find it!

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

Friday, January 7, 2011

A Head for Slang Ahead

Words change and meanings change, all a natural part of linguistic development and evolution. Words that were utterly innocuous a hundred years ago can pick up huge amounts of cultural baggage, and words that could never have been said in polite company become ordinary. If you're in the middle of it, it's no problem.

When it comes to slang terms of the future you're writing, though, you've got to make choices. It's a key component of living language, one of the things that adds verisimilitude to a story, and you don't want to go the pulp sci-fi route, where characters said things like "space!" when from context it should have been more like "holy shit!" or "fuck!" - unless that, in and of itself, is a part of the setting itself, say a particularly puritan society that frowns on that sort of cursing. Culture isn't quite as fragile as it acted back in the 20th century.

The biggest issue, though, is intelligibility. The deftest slang in the verse won't be worth much if your readers can't grasp what you mean by it. For a real world example, take a look at rhyming slang - full of terms that, on the face of it, have little logical connection to each other. I mean, seriously; without the entire formation process laid out and lacking any prior experience with the slang, what kind of human would be able to pick up that "syrup" means "wig" from context alone?

So it is for the future, and my own philosophy has been to look for terms that can be adapted to slang, that fit with its rhythms, and that are not totally opaque in meaning. One that I particularly liked is "vuggy" - a mining term referring to empty, mineral-lined spaces in rocks. This lent itself well, I thought, to phrases like "vuggy bastard" or insults like "vughead." Plus, the V makes it seem all future-y.

Still, rhythm can lead you down potentially bad roads as well. This is one I'm struggling with in a current ongoing project:

"Modern anders didn't have quite as much raw physical strength as their neanderthal forebears, but she'd seen ander brawls that left elves and reggies with their skulls caved in."

The big question being, well, what's a reggie? Here, it refers to an ordinary, unmodified - hence, regular - human, in a setting where genetic engineering has been able to resurrect neanderthals ("anders") and create elves of a sort. I could hardly put "elves and humans" and keep it sensical within the logic of the story, since elves and anders are humans.

It's a question of opacity and of understanding - the answer will probably be different for everyone.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Photo: So Long, Surrey?

The other morning I looked outside to find that Surrey had disappeared.

Okay, it was just concealed, behind a heavy head of fog lifting off the Fraser River. Still, from my initial vantage point it looked like it filled most of lower New Westminster as well. That may have been an optical illusion, or it may have retreated a bit by the time I got to the top level of the downtown parkade overlooking Westminster Pier Park, still under construction - but much of the Surrey-hiding fog was still there.

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

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Finding An Honest Image at Honest Ed's

After spending a few months in Metro Vancouver, I've begun to get a feel for the place and to figure out the things I like about it. When I met up with him on New Year's Eve, Randy McDonald put it simply and, to my mind, accurately - Vancouver is comfortable in its own skin. Mind you, this is in contrast to Toronto, which is getting more frazzled by the minute as to whether it really is a World-Class City.

Is it? Perhaps. It's probably the closest to that prize than any other Canadian city, but it's one of those question that lurks in the city's subconscious and tickles god knows how many urban neuroses. A big part of it, I think, is that Toronto didn't do anything to attain its current primacy aside from, well, exist - it got the top prize by default, when Anglos by the tens of thousands poured out of Montreal and down the 401 back in the 1970s. Other cities had to really struggle for dominance, and in many cases it took decades, if not centuries.

Thinking back on it now, I think there remains a big disconnect between the way Toronto envisions itself, and the way the city really is - like a fourteen-year-old wearing his dad's suit. The official image is ubiquitous: a photo taken from a good vantage point on the Islands, the CN Tower in the middle and the forest of skyscrapers endless on both sides.

I took this video on New Year's Eve, at the corner of Bloor West and Bathurst, and I think it represents a piece of what Toronto really is - bright, loud, perhaps a bit obnoxious and desperate for your attention, but friendly beneath it all.

And that's what Toronto is.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Photo: Light and Gas

There's something about the patterns of light and shadow in this photograph that calls to me. Just not something I can put into words. It's a Canadian Tire gas station on Bayfield Street in Barrie with the low-slung 70s facade of Bayfield Mall beyond, perfectly ordinary but for the live bait vending machine (closed, at least, until the fishing season begins). Perhaps I stumbled into a good angle.

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, January 3, 2011

Common Words: No Regrets

I had no idea it had been so long since I've posted one of these, but there you are. Five months pass by fast, especially when you move across the country during them.

I can't recall much about this snippet - it's something I wrote in 2006, and while I'd like to say it's a mere extract from a 900-page unpublished novel, I'd be lying; my unpublished novel would probably be more like 300 pages. It has, however, seen prior publication; it appeared in Volume 8, Issue 4 (October 14, 2006) of the Trent University student publication Absynthe Magazine, distributed from Kerr Hall to Otonabee College and everywhere in between. However, given the tight geographic focus of Absynthe's circulation, it didn't likely go much farther than that.

After more than four years I can't rightly recall, but I think it may have been written on the bus. It was also back when I was on a science/magic kick that ended with the former's decisive victory.

(Disclosure: Though I did serve as Editor-in-Chief of Absynthe for two years, by October 2006 I had left the organization.)


Tisiphone Zeeman held a warrior's stance, savage and defiant. The sleek, grey revolver was heavy in her grip, but it was a feather compared to the responsibility that she bore. She took one step forward, eyes filled with anger and contempt, toward the prideful man in green.

Her finger quivered on the trigger. The man's head was in her sights.

"It's over," she said, and her words were absolute. Kings and emperors had fallen with similar finality. "The Jieitai's seen to your distraction, Colonel. I don't know what you expected to achieve, other than the sacrifice of your men, but that's hardly out of character."

"You wound me," Colonel Choi answered in a self-assured tone that had grated on Tisiphone ever since she'd first heard it, two years before in the labyrinth beneath Pyongyang. "They have done their duty as all patriots should, the efforts of your friends in the Self-Defense Forces notwithstanding. Don't think for a moment that the fulfillment of their duty has left me unable to do mine."

Lightning flashed, and for a split second the tiny shrine on the promontory was illuminated with divine light. It stiffened her resolve, and she stepped forward again. Choi stood with his arms outstretched like a reverend blessing his congregation.

"Good for you. I've got my own duty to think about, you fucking pinko," Tisiphone said, spitting the words like venom. The symbol of North Korea, that obscene badge that presided over the enslavement of millions, was prominent on Choi's uniform. "Get on the fucking ground."

"Such crude language from such a lovely woman," Choi said, and Tisiphone could only glare. While the charm he wore didn't provide absolute protection, it would take quite a few bullets to punch through its defense. Choi knew it, and that knowledge only riled Tisiphone more. "This is hardly something you should be concerning yourself with in any event. The last time I checked, you didn't hold Japanese citizenship."

"I have some friends in Tokyo," Tisiphone said. "Maybe you'll be able to meet them, once you're shown how to be a decent fucking human being."

"Really, madam, there's no call for that," Choi said. "What is life, at its fundamental root, but ensuring the survival of blood? You and I, we follow different paths, that's all."

Choi took a step toward the altar. Tisiphone let her gun answer. The North Korean commissar staggered back from the impact, but there was no blood. It was, at the best, as if he'd been hit by a rubber bullet. She hoped she would need less than five more to finish the job.

"You should be the last person standing in my way," Choi said. There was a look of betrayal in his eyes. "I know you have a respect for the works of the ancients. This is a work that should be reclaimed by its rightful inheritors, not sat upon by shrinemaidens."

"Somehow I doubt the king of Gojoseon would like to acknowledge Fearless Leader as his inheritor," Tisiphone said. "Almost as much as I doubt that you'd let an artifact as powerful as that see the light of day."

"The artifact belongs to the Choson, not the filthy Japanese," Choi said. "It is only through us, through me, that this artifact will ever see the light of day. I know that you and your ilk would be perfectly content to leave it here, hidden and forgotten, until doomsday."

"I'd rather it be forgotten than used to do the work of evil," Tisiphone said. "I know what you would use it for. You won't be content until you can enslave all of Korea, and Japan besides."

"One woman's enslavement is another man's stewardship," Choi said. "No matter, this discussion has served its purpose. I do enjoy sparring with you, Miss Zeeman. I'm almost saddened to think that one day, it will all end."

"With me standing over your cooling corpse, it'll end," Tisiphone said. "You can count on that."

"Yes, well, we'll see when we get there, won't we?" Choi said. He waved a finger above the largest badge on his tunic, and it shone with a mystical light. "After all, we're just slaves to the river of time. Sooner or later the current will carry us to our future selves, and then we'll know just whose corpse will cool first. With that, my dear lady, I can only say farewell."

For a moment the rage overwhelmed Tisiphone, and she emptied the six-gun into the North Korean colonel. His shield flickered and threatened to give, but before it collapsed entirely he gave Tisiphone a knowing smile. He made no move to run or otherwise defend himself, and with the final bullet he crumpled.

Tisiphone took a moment to reload the chamber before taking another step forward. Choi was just the sort of man to exploit appearances, and she put another three slugs into him before she was confident enough to approach him.

His face was locked in an expression of serenity, smiling as only a man with no regrets could smile.


This story is distributed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 license. That means you are free to Share - to copy, distribute and transmit the work - and to Remix - to adapt the work - under the following conditions:

Attribution. You must attribute the work in the manner specified by the author or licensor (but not in any way that suggests that they endorse you or your use of the work).

Noncommercial. You may not use this work for commercial purposes.

Share Alike. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under the same or similar license to this one.

Previously on Common Words

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Photo: So Many Revelers

Back on New Year's Eve, Randy McDonald and I eventually ended up at Dundas Square shortly after midnight clicked over - so, technically, back on New Year's Day. Though we were on a subway car when the minute clicked over, we made it up to Dundas Square only a couple of minutes after; it seems to have been a spillover space for the main celebration at Nathan Phillips Square, with the Citytv coverage being broadcast on the big screen.

It was far, far more accessible than Nathan Phillips Square, too. I didn't have to constantly struggle against the press of bodies or worry about the mire of mud trying to eat my shoes.

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, January 1, 2011

The Return of Rob Ford

I couldn't help but think about time last night. I suppose the shadow of 2011 tilted a lot of peoples' thoughts in that direction. In particular, I was thinking how good it is that while it is easier to destroy than to create, in some circumstances it's not the easiest thing in the world to get the destructifying going. What I'm most thankful for, though, is that what's past is done.

Even before I left Toronto the greenscaping improvements along Bloor Street were controversial, and Hizzoner Rob Ford was hardly the only mayoral candidate that fulminated against it. From what I can tell, though, at this point it's all done aside from a few tree plantings scheduled for the spring - and it's a good thing it's all done, because if I've been able to judge Rob Ford's character from his pronouncements, had he had the chance to put an end to it, he certainly would have.

It's a good thing, I thought while wandering through an dark, shuttered New Year's Eve Yorkville, that Ford can't retroactively stop this. Wait a minute...

Back in the 1980s, Larry Niven wrote the short story "The Return of William Proxmire," wherein everyone's favorite anti-space, milk-price-support-supporting Wisconsinite senator got hold of a time machine and used it to go back in time to cure Robert A. Heinlein of tuberculosis - the idea being that with Heinlein remaining in the Navy, he would not become a prominent sf author and would not inspire the scientists and engineers that came after him.

Of course, it didn't work out that way.

So imagine, if you will, "The Return of Rob Ford," in which the mayor gets hold of a time machine. What might he do with it? Realistically there's only one person who can answer that, but what seems believable is that he might use it to go back to the late 1960s and work to prevent the rise of the Streetcars For Toronto Committee. Without a surge of popular support in favor of retaining the streetcar system, the TTC could easily have remained on its original trajectory toward total streetcar abandonment by 1980 - and more importantly for Ford, he would be laying the foundations for a 21st century city in which transit was all shoved underground, out of the cars' way.

Or would he?

I've written before about my opinion that light rail transit is having an unfair shake in Toronto because of the automatic comparison to streetcars; hell, Transit City is frequently referred to _as_ a "streetcar" program by its political opponents. That problem would be significantly lessened in the absence of an active streetcar system - consider cities like Los Angeles, Edmonton, Phoenix, and Cincinnati, which are replacing abandoned streetcar systems with modern light rail systems - and, in Cincinnati's case, a modern streetcar system.

So, instead, imagine a 1980s Toronto where the streetcars have ceased to run. Transit pressures would still exist, and the political issues that precluded meaningful subway expansion after 1978 would likely remain unchanged. Imagine a climate where there was a greater openness to light rail; imagine the beginning of construction of a complementary light rail transit system in 1990, a construction program that would not have to reckon with opinions toward streetcars or the fallout of the St. Clair right-of-way reconstruction.

Sure, of course, that changed timeline would have to deal with the expense of not only tearing up the tracks, but entirely rebuilding them... but it might be worth it.