Saturday, April 30, 2011

Photo: I Know Where the Rainbow Ends

I know this is going to be difficult to believe, but it rained in Vancouver the other day. Water falling from the sky and everything! When it was over, a towering rainbow appeared in the sky - from my vantage point downtown I couldn't see the whole arc, but the gaps in the buildings gave me a clear view to where one end came down to Earth: out in the middle of Burrard Inlet, onto a ship waiting in the water. I guess the leprechauns have now blessed it, or something.

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Friday, April 29, 2011

Quaff Review #12: Hitachino Nest JCA

At one time, I figured that by now I'd be in Japan already. Back during my last years of university, when the Great Recession was just an unresolved future possibility, I was after a post as an Assistant Language Teacher in the JET Programme, a Japanese government initiative that brings native English speakers into Japanese classrooms. I got rejected twice; both times they liked my essay, and both times the interview did not go nearly so well. Still, while I was in Toronto it was simple to move on.

Here in Vancouver, there are rather more reminders of that possible path I didn't take. One of them I found in, of all places, a beer and wine store: a bottle of Hitachino Nest Japanese Classic Ale - from "hitachino," which not only does not seem to mean "owl" but does not even appear in my Japanese dictionary, and "nest," meaning... well, nest. The front label is easily understandable; it's the back that's swimming in hiragana. It's one of several beers produced by the Kiuchi Brewery in Naka, Ibaraki - close enough to Fukushima Prefecture that the company's English website has front-and-center assurances that no radioactivity was detected in their products.

One reason I was interested in this, aside from the Japanese connection, was that this is a historical beer - hence the name Japanese Classic Ale. According to the back label, this is a modern reconstruction of the first kind of Japanese beer, brewed during the Edo period, which for those of you who fell asleep in Japanese History class lasted from 1603 to 1868. Japanese Classic Ale is aged in cedar casks, though there's no mention of how long, in a technique borrowed from the old English IPA method.

So how's it taste? Like nothing I've ever had before - not even Route des épices, that Québecois beer with peppercorns in it. Kiuchi's website describes it as having "a unique note of cedar and [a] complex spicy yet mild aroma," and it did start out tasting spicy when I took my first sip, and pleasantly spicy at that. Beyond that there was another sensation in it, something that took me a while to pin down - it wasn't fizzy, more like little bubbles full of strange flavor coursing over my tongue.

Salt. Japanese Classic Ale tasted salty. It may just be in my mind; the only ingredients attested on the label are water, malt, hops, and yeast, and it took me a couple of minutes just to identify the taste. The salty aftertaste lingered for a while afterward, too - which is where Hitachino Nest Japanese Classic Ale loses points with me. Generally speaking, I'm not a fan of aftertastes.

The bottle I picked up contained 330 mL with 7.5% alc./vol. Kiuchi's website says that it's available in Japan and the United States, but this isn't completely accurate; I found my bottle at Firefly Fine Wines and Ales in Vancouver, and I was far from the only one to try it out, it seems.


Previous Quaff Reviews

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Photo: New West's First Line of Defense

Outside New Westminster City Hall, you'll find an interesting reflection of the city's origins: a pair of twenty-four pounder field howitzers, dropped off on these shores by HMS Sparrowhawk in 1866 to defend the place against, presumably, the Americans. Even though they haven't been used for a hundred and thirty years and now have plugged muzzles, they're still pointed toward the south, just in case those folks down in Blaine or Point Roberts get it in their heads to go all 1812 on the Lower Mainland.

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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Advancing Democracy: A Look at Some Poll Numbers

During this past long weekend, when I wasn't biking to Point Roberts or luxuriating in the sunlight that tore the Lower Mainland's usual cloudy ceiling clean away, I and exactly two million and fifty-six thousand other Canadians cast a vote at an advance poll. Elections Canada released its preliminary turnout count yesterday, and it was a slammer; more than a third again as large as the advance turnout in 2008. Hopefully, this represents a turn against the frequent media narrative that voters are disillusioned and that turnout will remain low come May 2.

I found something potentially interesting while browsing through the data Elections Canada made available. Saanich—Gulf Islands, the British Columbia riding where the Green Party is throwing every resource it has in the hope of unseating Conservative minister Gary Lunn in favor of their leader Elizabeth May, had a pretty respectable advance poll turnout: 11,330. As I looked through the rest of the riding data, I realized this was a considerable showing, and in fact represented the highest poll turnout of any riding east of Simcoe—Grey, where the turfed ex-Conservative independent Helena Guergis is battling it out against Harper's new Great Blue Hope.

It certainly wasn't the sort of turnout I was expecting; my own riding, New Westminster–Coquitlam, came in at 7,024 advance votes, even beating out Vancouver East and Vancouver Kingsway. So I had to wonder... was the turnout in Saanich—Gulf Islands a reflection of the Greens' efforts? Did it perhaps augur well for the removal of another Conservative MP and Harper being pushed that much farther away from his precious majority? Was the high turnout in Saanich—Gulf Islands, of all places, outside the realm of the ordinary? Coming on the heels of the Oraclepoll Research poll yesterday that found the Greens to be leading the Conservatives 45% to 38% there, I thought it was something worth investigating.

This isn't something I've seen the news media tackle yet, as I write this on Tuesday night: perhaps there'll be something fresh in the early editions, though there's just as great a chance they'll be distracted by the Canucks' overtime drubbing of the Chicago Blackhawks. Nevertheless, I did some further digging into this, and here are the numbers I worked with - the top eleven ridings in terms of advance voters. The preliminary poll counts come straight from Elections Canada, and the 2011 elector counts come from Wikipedia. Any errors beyond these are mine alone.

Nepean–Carleton (ON): 103,414 electors, 16,988 votes
Oak Ridges–Markham (ON): 136,755 electors, 15,003 votes
Simcoe–Grey (ON): 93,705 electors, 14,977 votes
Ottawa–Orléans (ON): 109,950 electors, 13,645 votes
Mississauga–Erindale (ON): 99,774 electors, 12,810 votes
Halton (ON): 115,255 electors, 12,710 votes
Louis-Hébert (QC): 83,272 electors, 12,686 votes
Barrie (ON): 91,447 electors, 12,446 votes
Ottawa Centre (ON): 92,877 electors, 12,054 votes
Louis-Saint-Laurent (QC): 81,053 electors, 11,393 votes
Saanich-Gulf Islands (BC): 91,822 electors, 11,330 votes

First impressions: aside from the two Quebec ridings, and the suburban sprawl of York Region that's contained within Oak Ridges–Markham, the ridings seem to be on a pretty even keel in terms of how many electors can choose to cast their ballots. With the exception of Louis-Hébert, which represents portions of Quebec City, none of these ridings are solely "big urban" - they're suburbs, the sort of battlegrounds where Harper picked up a good deal of support in 2008. I can speak with particular authority on the suburban nature of Barrie, since I lived there for thirteen years - though, due to quirks of election timing, I was never able to actually vote there.

At first I wondered whether the Saanich—Gulf Islands numbers might be exaggerated due to its population makeup; I've never been there, I had no idea what the nature of the population looked like. But as you can see by the numbers, it doesn't have vastly more or fewer electors than the rest - hell, even Barrie doesn't have so many. To get a better look at the true nature of the turnout, I recalculated the advance turnout as a percentage of each riding's total potential turnout, confining it to the same top eleven ridings because, damn, I don't have the time or the energy to paw through the numbers for all three hundred and eight. Here's what I came up with:

Nepean–Carleton - 16.4% of total
Simcoe–Grey - 15.9% of total
Louis-Hébert - 15.2% of total
Louis-Saint-Laurent - 14.0% of total
Barrie - 13.6% of total
Ottawa Centre - 12.9% of total
Mississauga–Erindale - 12.8% of total
Ottawa–Orléans - 12.4% of total
Saanich-Gulf Islands - 12.3% of total
Halton - 11.0% of total
Oak Ridges–Markham - 10.9% of total

So what's to be concluded from these numbers? For myself, a total political amateur, it suggests to me that while there may be a Green Revolution rumbling on Vancouver Island, it's not necessarily so. The real action looks to be in Simcoe–Grey, where a drag-down fight and certain vote-splitting between independent conservative Guergis and Harper Conservative Kellie Leitch may open the door for the Liberal or NDP candidate to squeak into victory.

This time next week, we'll know. But seeing such a high turnout gives me hope that I'll like what I'll see then.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Photo: The Bridge and the Beaver

The crossings of Burrard Inlet are key to the success of the North Shore cities; without them they'd be isolated from the rest of the country, effectively an island in the middle of what's already effectively an island. The ones I have the most experience with are the ones closest to downtown Vancouver - the Lions Gate Bridge and the SeaBus, the only radar-equipped public transit vehicle I've ever been on.

Taken from the Vancouver-bound Burrard Pacific Breeze, here's a shot of the Lonsdale-bound Burrard Beaver passing between the Breeze and the Lions Gate Bridge.

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Monday, April 25, 2011

All I Ask Is a Good Bike and a Post to Lock it To

Over the past seventy years, parking spaces have become so ubiquitous throughout the West that nobody gives them a second thought anymore; their presence is taken as a given now, on par with electricity or running water, in great part a result of building codes that mandated a given number of parking spaces depending on the size and nature of the building. Bicycles can't claim nearly the same degree of infrastructural support. While the tide has been changing in the last couple of decades - witness the proliferation of official urban cycling programs, dedicated bicycle lanes, and bicycle racks on city buses across the country - the relationship is still an unequal one.

Nevertheless, I never really had cause to think about this until Friday, when I rode my bike south to Point Roberts, Washington - a small chunk of the United States surrounded by water on three sides and Canada on the fourth. This was the first time I'd ever taken my wheels into a new country, and it felt rather odd crossing the border that way instead of in a car or through an airport. Now, Point Roberts isn't exactly what you'd call a metropolis; less than 1,500 people live on a peninsula that still retains much of the towering forest that once covered the primeval Lower Mainland. It's the sort of town that lives and dies on the tourist trade, in this case tourists from Metro Vancouver looking for cheap gas and American brand-name goods that aren't for sale in the lands of the maple leaf. You can even rent bikes there, for tooling around on your own terms.

There just wasn't much support that I could see, even given the size of the town. I'm not talking bike lanes here; the only road in Point Roberts I could honestly call "busy" was Tyee Drive, and it has a paved shoulder that does double duty as bike lane and sidewalk - incidentally, no sidewalks in Point Roberts either, so far as I noticed. No, I'm talking about bike racks. Aside from one at the International Marketplace, and a couple bolted to the front wall of the Point Roberts Public Library, I couldn't find anything to lock my bike to - not even at any of the small restaurants or cafes where I really wanted to sit down, relax for a bit, and spend my money. There were hardly even street signs around that I could lock it to for a few minutes - and even then, that's not something I like doing.

Ultimately, the lack of infrastructure meant I didn't spend quite as much time in the Point as I'd imagined - riding around gets tiring after a while, and it had been something on the order of forty kilometers from my apartment to the border. I really knew I was back in Canada once the stores started boasting bike racks again.

A full-up bicycle stand outside a White Spot restaurant in Tsawwassen, British Columbia.

I know Point Roberts isn't exactly a high-crime location, but even so a bicycle is not the sort of thing that should be left standing on its own out of its owner's sight, not if you don't want it to mysteriously pedal away. While major cities have begun to pursue a more bike-friendly posture, this isn't something that should just be limited to major cities; if anything, bikes are an even more sensible way to get around in small communities, where things are close together. The general trajectory for fuel prices has been upward; making it as easy to get around on two wheels as four should be something every community can invest in.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Photo: Borderline

Earlier this week I got it in my head to do something really bold, so on Friday, I took advantage of the extremely good weather and bicycled from my apartment in New Westminster to Point Roberts, Washington - in other words, to the United States of America. I've never made it to the border purely through my own efforts before; every other time it was by car or plane. I didn't expect the line at the border to be so long, though. It backed a fair bit up into Tsawwassen itself - a wait, I estimate, of ninety minutes to two hours. Fortunately, I didn't have to worry about that - pedestrians and bicyclists get to jump the line.

It wasn't even the worst, though - while making my way north up Tyee Drive, the radio reported that wait times at the Surrey border crossings were in the neighborhood of four hours. But, then, this is the first long weekend of the year here.

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Saturday, April 23, 2011

Light Rail's Greatest Hits

You don't necessarily have to look far to find someone who isn't a fan of ground-level light rail - no farther than the mayor's office in Toronto, for example. But the requirements of light rail that share the streets has traditionally been a thorny issue in cities across North America; hell, the vast majority of city streetcar systems no longer exist because they were seen as an obstruction to the more car-centric paradigm that came into play after the end of the Second World War.

The pendulum has started to shift on this in the last couple of decades, and light rail investment seems to be the new "it" thing for happening cities. Though Toronto's ambitious light rail network has been reduced to little more than a damp squib thanks to hizzoner Rob Ford, cities that are not saddled with a leader who reflexively opposes street-sharing light rail or streetcars are making real progress. In Los Angeles, test trains have started running on the first segment of the new Expo Line; in Cincinnati, planning continues on a new downtown streetcar system; and in Washington, DC, work on the DC Streetcar is continuing. With the high expense involved in tunnelling, and considering the economic chickens that will soon be coming home to roost across the United States and Canada, most rapid transit projects in the coming decades will likely be realized in light rail.

But it's not always a smooth ride. Putting light rail trains on ground level forces them to reckon with an unpredictable force - drivers! Take, for example, the video below - a series of train's-eye-view videos from Houston's METRORail, a light rail system that started operations in 2004, and which I was reminded about by the Buzzer's latest link roundup.

Kind of pathetic, isn't it? Take the second one, that Dodge pickup truck. There's no way you can expect me to believe that the driver did not see the big, shiny, ninety-foot long light rail train bearing down on it, and turned anyway. What I find more likely for all of these instances is that they come down to driver error - these accidents can be easily explained by the driver not bothering to check their mirrors and blind spot before turning - something that was hammered into me during my driver's education classes.

I've encountered a few people who argue that examples such as these demonstrate why light rail and vehicular traffic shouldn't share the same space. Personally, I think that's bunk. You could argue that the video above owes a lot to Houston's drivers being unused to the presence of these speeding light rail trains sharing their roads, but you can only take that so far. If this had been, say, a bus that the cars had turned directly into the path of, would that be justification for removing buses from the roads?

Phoenix Metro Light Rail trains may have a curb separating their tracks from the street, but there are still plenty of opportunities for a determined driver to get smashed up by one.

Light rail is a complicated subject. To stand opposed to it because ignorant drivers who lack situational awareness might drive right into it is a problem - if that's the case, the issue of light rail is secondary to the issue of getting them off the road, before they smash up a school bus.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Photo: Serendipity on the Water

I grew up in Barrie, Ontario, so one of the marks of the weather turning was the start of TV and radio commercials advertising the Serendipity Princess, a paddlewheeler that ran cruises around Kempenfelt Bay in Lake Simcoe. I was never aboard - cruises were never my family's bag. The last time I was in Barrie, back in September 2010, I caught it at the dock.

Not pictured are the depth charge launchers, for when Kempenfelt Kelly gets too close for comfort. Kempenfelt Kelly is a sea monster, possibly a relative of Ogopogo.

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Thursday, April 21, 2011

Instant Society, Just Add Water

One of the prominent themes that has run through science fiction since its beginning has been colonization: the settlement of a fresh, new world, and the testing of men and women against its unexpected challenges. I can understand the popularity of the concept; who wouldn't want the opportunity to be in at the ground floor of an entire world, to stamp their influence on a new society from the very beginning? Sure, it would be difficult, but that's never stopped humanity before.

Problems occur when the creator doesn't give enough thought to those unexpected challenges. Settlement of a new planet is a difficult, expensive business; it's easy to forget that exoplanets would be the result of a completely alien development process: no matter how much they might look like British Columbia, if their life is based on dextro rather than levo amino acids, you might as well have landed in Death Valley. This seems to be a relatively new concept; Mass Effect was the first sf series I encountered that addressed the issues of chirality. Earlier settings, like the Co-Dominium or Battletech universes, seem to take it as a given that Earthcompatible planets will be numerous and settling them won't be much more difficult than going down the Oregon Trail. Even if you go the route of having planets terraformed in Earth's image by Precursors, as I've been leaning toward, there's still the issue of evolution running in different directions afterward; the first wave of colonists might well have some difficulties against roving packs of Tyrannosaurus superbus, for instance.

It wouldn't be good if they all got eaten. After all, the core requirement of a society is people, and if you're a society that wants to progress and improve, you need enough people to support specialists. Below a certain population level, the necessities of survival are such that more complex things can't be maintained - consider the Aboriginal inhabitants of Tasmania before European contact, who had lost mainland technologies like bone tools and fishing. There are plenty of instances throughout the historical record where a society numbering in the hundreds failed and was swallowed up completely.

Not exactly something a few people can slam together over the weekend.

I've been thinking about this recently because of Stargate Universe; in the latest episode, the Destiny crew encounters members of a society founded by themselves - or, rather, their temporal duplicates, sent two thousand years into the past. Aside from the Eternal English, it runs headlong to the problem of numbers - with effectively nothing more than the clothes on their backs, on a completely alien world that nevertheless looks just like British Columbia, the entire story is based on the premise that less than eighty people managed to survive, avoid falling into pretechnological darkness, and ultimately build an advanced and sprawling civilization numbering in the millions in the course of two millennia. That last one isn't that much of an issue; a seed population of seventy-five doubling itself after every generation would result in a population of 2,457,600 after fifteen generations; call it three hundred years, though you're unlikely to be able to sustain that kind of growth rate for long without any social or technological infrastructure. Nevertheless, the episode implies that the Destiny crew not only survived but were able to establish a respectable garment industry after only ten years.

The ultimate distillation of this concept is the Shaggy God story - a tired, worn-out sort of yarn where a male and female astronaut (not necessarily, but frequently) are marooned on an habitable, empty, paradisical world and are - dun dun dun - Adam and Eve! I can understand one reason why editors hate to see this sort of story turn up in their slush piles again and again; it is not thought through. Societies are not easy things to start. Two people is not enough to cut it. Even if they're lucky enough to survive without dying in a thunderstorm or flood or wildfire or from starvation or cold - or the cold, since ordinary things become society killers when you can fit that society into a Geo Metro with room to spare - there's the problem of insufficient genetic diversity. Do you really want to found a civilization on the concept of inbreeding?

Settlement needs people; it's as simple as that. I can understand why creators might want to start with small seed groups; it gives us a chance to know most, if not all, of the members as individuals, to root for them singly as well as collectively, and to see them overcome the vast challenges in their way. But when that comes at the expense of believability, it's not something I can really stand by.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Photo: A Flurry of Motion

Here's the lowdown: while riding the BC Parkway last weekend, I turned off in Burnaby to investigate the remnants of the old interurban track, where it disappears behind a chain link fence in the shadow of the BC Hydro tower. There were a couple of pigeons and a crow chilling by the fence. As I took my pictures, I noticed a bit of a scuffle; one of the pigeons had found some kind of morsel, and the crow wasted no time in going over and mugging the other bird. The pigeons escaped, and after a moment the crow decided to cheese it as well before the police showed up.

Caught in the act.

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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Run Sovereignty Up the Flagpole

Another day, another misrepresentation of reality by Stephen Harper, the man who hopes you a) don't remember or b) don't care that he closed Parliament twice in a three-year span because he was at risk of losing his grip on power. This weekend, he went back to beating that separatist horse, because god knows the greatest threat facing Canada today is the prospect that Quebec might want to become an independent state. While I was cycling across Richmond's Westminster Highway under a clear blue sky, Harper was in that very same city trying once again to get the Canadian people to trust him with a majority government by representing a prospective Conservative government as a bulwark against separation.

"Step one," Harper said on the subject of the Bloc's plans, "is to weaken the country, have a weak government in Ottawa."

Except, you know, it doesn't have any basis in reality - which I suppose is no big deal, since Harper's high school yearbook lets it be known that his pet peeve is reality. It is an emotional button, nothing else. Why? Think back to the last two referenda, 1980 and 1995. Years both characterized by majority governments in power! It would be far more correct, if not necessarily accurate, for him to urge Canadians to vote for him because referendums happen under Liberal majorities.

You can tell a lot about a person by their unspoken assumptions. What I've seen during the five years of his ministry and over the course of this election campaign suggests to me that Harper believes that negotiation, consensus, and cooperation are weak. His rhetoric is all about strength and stability, and is calculated to imply that a minority government can be neither. That does us no favors. A minority government is at least responsive to the people. The problem with a majority government is that it is only a few steps removed from dictatorship.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Photo: Lufthansa Approaching

Part of the trick of spotting planes is being there at the right place and time; unless you plan it out beforehand, for an airport like Vancouver International, you're likely to get mostly Air Canada and WestJet flights. Sometimes sheer luck enters into it, though. While biking across Lulu Island yesterday, my route took me right near the airport's approach path - and while at No. 5 Road and Westminster Highway, I caught Lufthansa Flight 492 running D-AIHB "Bremerhaven," an A340-642, descending after a long flight from Frankfurt.

I tell you, those engines put out a hell of a lot of sound.

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Sunday, April 17, 2011

A Historical Perspective: The Maltese Deployment

Once again, I feel in the mood to post an extract from the memoirs of my grandfather, Les Parkinson. Unlike previous posts, this doesn't relate to his service in the Royal Navy or the police; instead, it's a bit from his service in the British Army with the Cheshire Regiment in 1934. At that time, the Cheshires had been posted to Malta, Britain's central Mediterranean fortress.

When we got up and saw that we had stopped we realized that we had arrived, for we no longer felt the rhythmic pulse of the ship's engine. When we were able to go on deck, oh, what a sight. There lay the biggest battleships I had ever seen, lots of them, what a grand sight it was. Later the ship was berthed at the quayside to be unloaded. Although it was winter the weather was warm, no snow or frost, and the harbour was a hive of activity. Small boats were like flies, bells ringing, and bugles sounding off on the battleship. It was all a new world.

The Grand Harbour, as it was called, was a wonderful sight. On the west side were high cliffs with a lift running up the side from sea level to the top, where the Barracca Gardens were. It was in this area that the navy wives used to gather to wave farewell to their husbands when the fleet left harbour. In the Grand Harbour were the battleships Barham, Repulse, Renown, and Queen Elizabeth with her distinctive inverted "Y"-shaped funnel. There were the eight-inch gun County class cruisers with their huge funnels, the London and the Devonshire, the aircraft carriers Glorious and Courageous, the fleet repair ship Resource, and several supply ships. These were painted a different colour than the fleet, which was painted in medium light grey. The Home Fleet was a dark grey, the Mediterranean Fleet medium grey and the Pacific Fleet a very light grey. In the various creeks that let off the main harbour lay the destroyer flotillas and the submarines with their depot ship, the Cyclops. The whole view was so wonderful that it is a sight never to be forgotten. Little did we know that we would get to know the ships and their crews better as time went on.

We had to leave the view in order to eat breakfast and prepare to disembark. At the appointed hour we left the ship, carrying our musical instruments and our sea kit bags. We ended up inside a large warehouse on the quayside. There we found the band of the only other infantry battalion on the island, the 1st Bn. Worcestershire Regiment, waiting to play us to our new home, St. George's Barracks. The civilians were out in droves to see the latest regiment to occupy their homeland. The Maltese people have a long history. While they are somewhat akin to the Italians, they have their own lingo and ways but there was a lot of poverty evident. It was plain to see that they relied on the armed forces for their living and well-being.

Our barracks were about two or three hours' march away. We marched along the coastal road past Sliema Creek, a town where the destroyers were moored, and on to St. George's Bay, a village. Here we saw the building that was to be our home for the next few years. It was on high ground. The barracks lay in two long rows, behind which was the NAAFI at one end of the building that was the gymnasium, cinema, and sometimes church, and at the other end was the sick bay. The rows of buildings ran north and south. At the back of the westerly rows lay two double-decked buildings. These were to be used by us, the Band, Drums and Signallers. Behind the east block lay the NAAFI, below which was the guard room and north of this was the officers' mess and quarters. At the south end beyond the sick bay was a road that led up to St. Andrew's Barracks and to officers' married quarters.

At the side of the road led up the hill to the barracks was St. George's Bay, which was to be our private swimming pool-cum-boating pond. On the side of this was a huge block of flats, which were married quarters, and the road that was in front of our block led to the fire hall and the barrack square. Also there was the band sergeant's married quarters plus the range warden. He was from the Royal Engineers and looked after the rifle ranges. The whole island was made of lava rock, but from which volcano no one knew.

It didn't take long to settle in our new quarters and get back to normal routine. The worst bit of news we got was that boys were allowed into town only on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, and then we had to be in by 6:00 PM. They said that this restriction was to prevent our being corrupted by the evil goings-on in the "bad" areas of the town.

We learnt that the main city was the capital, Valletta. The other "towns" were Sliema, Calafrana, Chian Tuffea, Imtarfar, Marsa and Musta. Musta boasted of having a church with the fourth-largest unsupported dome in the world. The population were devout Catholics, and this was evident by the feast days they had. It was surely a land of bells and smells. They had some funny beliefs, and one was rather funny. Most churches had two spires, one on each side of the main entrance. On each spire was a clock, both in working order, but neither of them showed the correct time. One was early and the other late, the reason being that the Devil himself liked to interrupt their church services. When the devil came by the first clock he was early, for the service had not started, so he went away only to return by the time on the second clock. He then found that the service had been held and the people had gone home, so he missed the service much to the joy of the people.

We used to contend with church in St. Andrew's Barracks, and the gymnasium was converted for this purpose. Our chaplain was a Captain Carter, he was a terrible man, and we often wondered how he ever became a man of the cloth. His wife was not a nice person. She used to have men working in her house doing housework that she hated doing. She was always reporting the men to their officer for the slightest infraction, boy, she was hated. I myself was once reported by her for having a couple buttons on my fly undone, and this was whilst we were in church. During church services the boys were the choir, and Mrs. Carter used to sit in the front pew with her daughter. They both used to look for trouble.

After we had settled in to our normal routine, life was great. We used to get up at five thirty in the summer and finish at twelve noon, then the rest of the day was play time.

We had a couple of new officers come to us, one was named John Daniel Egerton Smith. He was a real snob, as his name suggests, and we christened him "Egg and Chips." He hated our guts and was a double-dyed "B" of the first degree. He hated the Band, why, we never knew. One day we were playing his platoon at field hockey, at which he was good for he played for the English national team one year. Anyway, we knew that he had it in for us and expected the worst.

Before the game, Bill Hookway, our bass drummer, who was a very good player, offered a reward of half a crown to the first bloke who drew blood on Egg and Chips. The game was about five minutes old when Hookway hit the ball at Egg and Chips, who tried to hit it but missed, and the ball veered off his stick and hit him on the left eyebrow, nearly taking it off. He had to go to hospital and left the game. His team had to play one man short and never stood a chance, but this didn't ease the situation at all. He never changed his ways, but he was always on his guard in contact sports for I am sure that he knew why he was hurt.

Sport was good, for it no doubt developed us and gave us a good start in life. Our soccer team won all the trophies. There was a civilian league open to civvy teams only and the champions were always the Sliema Wanderers, and in the annual charity game between the forces and civilians, they always won for that was the only team that beat us. Rugby was not played as the ground was too hard, for the playing area was gravel.

There was a horse racing track at a place called Marsa, and each year there was a period of racing that they liked to think was akin to Ascot. The ladies got dressed up to the nines, just like the real Ascot, and the Governor-General being the guest of honour as is the Queen of England, this being the typical actions of the English abroad. There were two army bands on the island and they were always engaged to play during the main meets of the year.

Whenever there was the British Army, there was always pomp and ceremony. Depending on the whim of the Governor-General, the bands used to take it in turn to beat retreat on the Palace Square in Valletta. The two regiments used to take it in turn to provide guards at the Palace. The regiment used to send a company to town, and they used to stay in the Floriana Barracks just outside of town. From there they used to march into town for the guard duties, and changing guard on the Palace Square was an event that drew big crowds.

The first time we beat retreat was an exciting thing to me. We bussed to Floriana Barracks then marched the short distance to the Palace. We rehearsed and rehearsed until we were perfect. There was only one land entrance to Valletta and that was through the arch called the Porte des Bombes. Everybody who could hold and play an instrument was on parade and boy, the thrill of marching through the gate and seeing the crowds, for anybody who was anybody was there. In fact, the whole of Malta must have been there to see the Cheshires beat retreat for the first time.

Anyway, we included the changing of the guard for the first time, and how the crowd loved it. Our regimental sergeant major, Jack Sharples (Big Jack, he was called), was as proud as a peacock, and the CO came to us after the show with the Governor-General and his wife to congratulate us on a good show. This became a regular monthly event during the summer months.

Big Jack, by the way, was a wonderful man. He was about six feet tall and took size seventeen in boots. He had a voice like a foghorn and prided himself on knowing every man in the regiment by his name. In fact, one day in the 1950s when I was in the Police after the war, he saw me in Manchester on duty in Deansgate. He came to me and said, "How are you Parkinson, how are your brothers?" That was about fifteen years after I had left the regiment.

Anyway, back to Malta and the thirties. Being a band boy, life was restricted and we had to attend school. Everybody in the regiment had to get the third class certificate of education, but we boys had to carry on until we became men at eighteen years of age, so we carried on learning and taking exams. First the second class certificate, then the first and on to the special, and the latter two were equivalent to high school. They involved languages, and it was a rule that one selected Hindi or one of the other popular languages of India.

When I started swatting for my first class, I thought I had bitten off more than I could chew. I managed to pass one subject easily, but the English was hard. We had to more or less learn these books to memory. One of them was as dull as dishwater, and this was "Chippinge" by Stanley Weyman. It was a story of the Middle Ages in England. I just couldn't get into it enough to answer detailed questions, so I was glad when my eighteenth birthday came. This was a day I had looked forward to, for I became a man. My daily rate of pay increased from one shilling a day to three shillings a day, and most of all, I was able to smoke openly and not have to hide my cigarettes. But the other things that came were unwanted. I had to have a rifle and battle order equipment, do guard duty and go on fatigue party.

Our school was in St. Andrew's Barracks, as was the church, and to get there we had to climb a hill and pass married quarters. It was about two miles' march and of course the musicians had to play on the march. The hardest thing was to keep one's khaki uniform clean. The "dhobie wallahs" used to a good job starching stiff the tropical uniforms.

Being boys, we all had to do sports, such as soccer, rugby, field hockey, athletics, swimming, water polo, life saving, fencing - you name it and we did it. Most of all, we did a lot of it, to get out of band practice in in the afternoon and evenings, and when we had spare time we used to go into the practice room and make up a band with one of the boys being the conductor. Nine times out of ten, the band master would come by and listen and watch, and more often than not would teach the conductor how to beat time.

As a result of our public performances, the band was much in demand. The wives and families of the Royal Navy personnel had an amateur dramatic society, and they decided to stage "Gypsy Love" at the Valletta Opera House. This was a very beautiful building and it was quite an honour to play there. The band became the orchestra in the pit, the conductor was of the opera house and our band master, who was a good cellist, was in the orchestra. The show was a huge success. Another job we did was for the Navy. The captain of the aircraft carrier Glorious asked us to beat retreat on the flying deck of the carrier to celebrate the ship's birthday. This we did, and what a shock when we got on the deck. We formed up below decks and were taken up on the aircraft hoist to the upper deck. That, I thought, was the best and most interesting retreat we did. Afterwards we were assigned to messes for a meal, boy, those sailors lived well!

After that, friendships with three vessels were formed, in particular the one with HMS Resource was the best. When the fleet sailed on its autumn course to the eastern Mediterranean, the band went with them. Only men went, though. They were assigned to various messes and parts of the ship. They gave many concerts, especially as they entered the foreign parts of the eastern end of the "Medi." All told, they were away for one month, and we had many social evenings with the crew. I got friendly with a rating, Bob Dunne. He was saving up to get married when the ship was in England for refitting and recommissioning. It was a sad day for us when he went. The band was on the quayside, playing her out of the harbor, while she was flying her decommissioning pennant. This was a very long pennant that flew from the aftermast as a sign that she was going home after two and a half years' absence.

About six months later, who should walk into our barracks room, none other than Bob. When I asked him why he was back, he said, "Well, as you know, I was going to get married. When I first left England I made an allotment from my pay to my girlfriend. She got the money every month for two and a half years. Every now and again she would send with her letter a bill showing that she had bought something for our home. When I got to the house I saw all the furniture she had bought with my money. I also saw the children she had by her husband, who she married one month after I first left the UK. There she was, living in my house and using my furniture that had been bought with my money and I couldn't do a thing about it, as all the bills were in her maiden name. So to save trouble I just walked out of her life, went back to barracks, cancelled the allotment and re-signed on the Resource for another tour."

I think that going in to the army was a good thing. I cannot ever recall missing my parents or my home. Of course, I missed the Depression years by being abroad. It was only when I returned and by seeing the state of things that I did realize that I had not lost by joining up. In fact, much later when I went to join the Police, did I fully realize that I had done the right thing by leaving home when I did.

Being in Malta was a good thing, although I was not able to see the place because I was a boy, and being such movement was restricted greatly. We were only allowed into Valletta or any other place outside the barracks until eight o'clock and then it had to be a Saturday or Sunday and in the company of another boy. But I never had the money to go into town. My basic pay was one shilling a day, which was one-twentieth of a pound, and then the exchange rate was four dollars to the pound, so my shilling a day was worth cents. Of that money I made an allotment of sixpence a day to my mother, as did my eldest brother. This helped out at home. We were lucky, for we had three meals a day and a roof over our heads and were paid for it. When we got paid on Friday, the money we received we had to spend on cleaning materials, so to get extra money I did work for other boys.

The main job I did was being DRO for them at the price of one shilling. The Dining Room Orderly had to draw the food from the cookhouse, take it to the dining room, serve it and then clean up afterwards. That happened for times a day for us boys. We got an extra meal, supper, plus we had to go to the cookhouse for "spud bashing," where we peeled potatoes for next day's dinner. The only good thing about that was the bucket of "Sergeant Major's" tea that we had to drink during the time it took to peel potatoes and onions when required.

Our Commanding Officer was Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Percival, and he was later the GOC Singapore during WWII when it surrendered to the Japanese Army. He was mad on sports, so much so that everybody had to take part in most branches of sport. He initiated a league-type programme where a "young" soldier with under two years' service was teamed with an "old" soldier in all team events. I finished up participating in fencing (epee and sabre), bayonet fighting, tug of war, cricket, rugby, soccer, running a quarter-mile, half-mile and cross country, swimming, rowing and water polo. This actively kept us busy and fit, especially field hockey, that was a great game!

Because of the ability of the band, we were split into two to balance out the other company. We were called Band A and Band B. Each year one of us was first and the other second. That was because of one man, Joseph Jellye. He was a very good all-round athlete and he was the odd man between the cutoff for A and B that was done according to the alphabet. We never lost an event. This was good for the regiment.

Every regiment had its sports day during the year and always invfited other teams to run in the invitation race. Usually the race consisted of two laps of one hundred and ten yards, two laps of two hundred and twenty yards, one half-mile and that killer of races, the four hundred yards. We usually entered two teams and always did well. One of the perks of being a member of the battalion teams was that during the season we were fed special meals, much to the sorrow of the non-runners.

With the participation of sports, we did not have much time to go into town. What bit of money we had we managed to last on. We had a cinema in barracks with one projector, and at the end of each part the lights came on and the screen was wetted down with water whilst the reel was changed. We went there three times a week. It cost twopence to get in and threepence for a couple of cooked "pigs' feet" to eat during the show. These we got from the NAAFI. These were good for we used to toss the small bones into the crowd, much to their annoyance.

Today is May 7th, 1934. It is my eighteenth birthday. Today I can go to the NAAFI and buy a packet of cigarettes and walk about smoking without fear of getting put on the fizzler (a charge) for smoking. Today the army says that I am a MAN. To prove it, I had to move out of the boys' room and go into the mens' rooms. To prove it further, they gave me a rifle that fired real bullets and had an eighteen-inch long bayonet, and equipment in which to put the bullets when they gave them to me. But as is life, with the good things that came with being a man so came the bad things, like having to be prepared to do guard duty and to do fatigues. That is how I celebrated my birthday, by being on a working party. We were making a new barrack square-cum-hockey pitch, for the surface was gravel. The engineers used explosives to blow the rocks to a reasonable level of evenness, then we had to manhandle them and level off the surface.

Still, it made me realize what a sheltered life I had led up till that date. It was good to think that no more would I be locked up in a cell for the night for being cheeky to an NCO or to get caught smoking and get jankers for it, which was punishment confined to barracks, and extra fatigues like whitewashing the coal bunkers.

Les Parkinson celebrates his eighteenth birthday with his comrades - Malta, May 7, 1934

Each autumn in the army we had to contend with manoeuvres. This was playing at war, with the red army versus the blue army. Our CO made a bet with the Governor of the island, Sir David Campbell, that he could land troops on the island, so the powers that be decided to make that the plan for the coming manoeuvres. Now that I was a man in the eyes of the army, I was to be an unwilling participant, for our regiment was chosen to be the invaders.

On the day we marched to the grand harbour at Valletta and boarded a battleship, HMS Repulse. This thing they called a ship was huge, it was the biggest thing I had seen, or even been on. We boarded little boats called Trot Boats and were taken out to the Repulse, where she laid at anchor in the harbour. We had to walk up the gangway that was on the side of the ship at a very steep angle and so on to the deck. We were fully booted and spurred for a "war," with full fighting gear plus a load of blank ammunition.

Being an invasion force we didn't have a band as such, so those (me) that were not stretcher bearers were riflemen. I was attached to B Company. My sergeant was a big fat fellow named Culm. He had just returned to the UK, having spent six years in Africa on the Gold Coast as an instructor to the local army. He was scary and mad, having spent so many years in the sun drinking whisky.

When it got dark the ship sailed, to where we did not know, but it was a good feeling to be at sea on the go, and most of all on the "floating town." I lost all sense of time. We eventually stopped sailing and formed up on the deck to go again into the Trot Boats. Then our time came to file down the gang planks to the boats. This time it was a little different, for we had to go down the steep slope. At the top as we left the deck there were two sailors, one on each side of the gangway. They had to check that our belts and our epaulettes were undone. This was to ensure that if we slipped and fell into the water we could cast off our equipment, which weighed about fifty or sixty pounds.

Anyway, we got into the boats safely and moved off and formed up to go to landwards to land on the island. By this time it was getting light, for dawn was breaking. Our sergeant, Benny Culm as he was known, gave us a lecture as to what we should do as he had a lot of experience. He said that when the boat hit the sandy beach it would stop, and over the side we would go and wade ashore. He would lead the way and then we would see him on the beach. After a while, we felt the boat scrape on the bed and stop. Benny Culm then shouted, "Follow me."

Over the side he went and disappeared. The water was supposed to be waist-deep, and it was where we went in, but for him he landed in a hole and all one could see was a rifle laying on the water and a topee floating. Eventually he came back to the surface, cursing and swearing at us for laughing. We made it ashore without further to-do and did not run into the "enemy." We lay around our positions for hours, for the sun came up and dried us. We had no food, so we ate any fruit we could find. Eventually, the "war" ended when we marched into barracks without being "attacked" or even seen, so far as we know. Anyway, we were a sorry-looking bunch and went to bed after a good meal and slept for two days. That was my baptism of fire and the only manoeuvres we held on the island.

Past Perspectives:

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Photo: Look Out, It's Got A Stick

The crow can be an inscrutable creature - flying from here to there, perching on telephone wires, watching, waiting... planning. Remembering. For the next phase of the operation. I'm not sure where the stick this one's holding in its beak factors into it, but I am not willing to claim that it is unrelated. Crows are canny critters, you know.

I, the copyright holder of this work, hereby release it under the Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

This means that 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), and 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).

Friday, April 15, 2011

Radiating Ignorance in the Legislature

As a failed candidate for political office, I know that the only thing that's really needed to get a job in politics is the conviction of the voting public that you're the right one for the office - though just as God fights on the side with the strongest artillery, that conviction tends to correlate closely with the weight of dollars tossed onto the campaign bus. This is one reason why advisors and lobbyists are so common in political circumstances; frequently enough, politicians simply lack understanding of the underlying facts, and so rely on other people to interpret it for them. This can be seen, for example, in the conduct thus far of hizzoner Rob Ford in Toronto, particularly with regard to surface-running light rail and the relative merit of subways - but that is neither here nor there.

Again, it's coming back to nuclear power: the inscrutable black magic of the modern age, brought to the public eye again by the continuing crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi reactors in Japan. I think it's a fair thing to say that the average politician probably doesn't understand nuclear power all that well, because the average person doesn't understand it all that well either, and familiarity with nuclear power generation is not a prerequisite for political office in this or, to my knowledge, any other country.

Nevertheless, I think I like political systems more when its participants don't make such a show about how much they don't know. Case in point: Ontario, where Premier Dalton McGuinty - who, incidentally, is facing an election this October, and I'm sure that little fact has nothing to do with this whatsoever - has come under attack from the opposition New Democratic Party over "failing to tell the public about elevated levels of radiation detected" as a result of the events in Japan.

Because, you know, radiation is some unfathomable curse that has settled over the land, and things like half-lives don't exist.

Amazingly enough, not glowing green!

"This government totally dropped the ball," said NDP leader Andrea Horwath, as quoted in the Globe and Mail on Wednesday. To what I say - what the fuck? Look, I know that the security of the public is the central responsibility of a government, but this is ridiculous. That slightly elevated radiation levels are detectable in Ontario as a result of Fukushima speaks to the quality of Ontario's radiation detectors, not the severity of the threat. Because there isn't one. Not in North America. Remember, iodine-131 has an eight-day half-life; air takes time to cross the Pacific, and even longer to cross the continent.

Let me break this down here. Health Canada's observations indicate that on April 12, the date this story broke, the average dose of radiation per day in Toronto was 0.28 microsieverts. Put another way - the average dose of radiation was almost as much as a person would get from eating three bananas, which are slightly radioactive due to their potassium content - and even though their radiation doesn't linger in the body, it's still a worthwhile benchmark.

Meanwhile, on the same day, Vancouver's average radiation dose was - are you ready for this - 0.44 microsieverts! Twice as much! But do you see people dying of radiation poisoning on Granville Street? No! Do you see the British Columbia opposition making noise about this? No! Why? Perhaps because they're overwhelmingly concerned with the political hay they can make out of the HST, but also perhaps because they're not morons.

Going over the situation, I can arrive at only two circumstances. Either:
  • Andrea Horwath and those Ontario NDP members in the legislature who are pursuing this have seized upon this as an opportunity to attack McGuinty and don't care that they're spreading further cause for atomic fear among the population of Ontario, in which case they are opportunistic bastards; or
  • They honestly think this is a real problem, in which case they're monumental dumbasses.
Either way, it doesn't augur well. It's been sixteen years since the New Democratic Party was turfed out of power in Ontario - if this is representative of their knowledge and capabilities, better to keep them in opposition, where they can only yammer.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Photo: More than Just a Rabbit

I don't see rabbits much - I guess they're not the standard city animal; mostly it seems to be crows and squirrels that are obvious about having filled the vacant niches around here. So when I encountered the rabbits at the Phoenix Zoo in January, I had to take a couple of pictures of them. It was not until later that day, after I had returned to my hotel room and was going through my shots, that I realized I'd also captured one of the zoo's Galápagos tortoises in the shot as well.

I swear, I thought it was a rock. I suppose that's one of the keys to survival for a creature that lives for a hundred and seventy years.

I, the copyright holder of this work, hereby release it under the Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

This means that 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), and 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).

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Transit By Night

When putting together a transit system, it's easy to overlook the peripheries - in space and in time. Just as sprawling, lightly-built suburban areas tend to have limited service at best, in many cities the quality and frequency of service tends to go down with the sun. It may be because I spent a year on the graveyard shift, but I consider night service to be a key part of any transit agency's mandate, and the character of that night service tells a lot about the agency itself.

When I lived in Toronto, I didn't have much to complain about when I found myself having to take the TTC in the middle of the night; sure, I've heard stories of the people you encounter on the Vomit Comit at three in the morning, but that's hardly something the TTC can be held responsible for. When I felt unaccountably ill at 4 AM, I was able to jet away for a sick half-day and hop the streetcar home.

Toronto's Blue Night Network is still a relatively new system - in 1986, there were only seven routes providing all-night service in Etobicoke, York, North York, East York, and Scarborough - but I don't think even Rob Ford would find any gravy within it. Twenty-four routes, two streetcar and twenty-two bus, ply Toronto's roads between 1:30 AM, just before the subway closes for the night, and 5:00 AM, when regular daytime service starts to ratchet up again. The routes are set up in a grid to maximize coverage of the city, and while it's not nearly as in-depth as daytime service... hey, it's night. At least it's easily feasible to get around in the middle of it.

CLRV 4077 takes on night passengers at Yonge and King. Note that the 504 King route is not a night route, though I have known streetcars to run there until after 2 AM.

When I moved to New Westminster, I had to adjust to the fact that the situation here is considerably different. If I had to pick one word to describe TransLink's night bus service for Metro Vancouver, it would be "anemic" - though "spotty" might also work. It's something I had to study, and make careful plans because of, when I went to attend Yuri's Night at the Space Centre last Saturday.

Compared to Toronto, things stop early here. Most buses, from what I understand, tend to stop running shortly after midnight, as does the SkyTrain; hell, on Sundays, the last full Millennium Line trip leaves Waterfront Station at 11:31 PM. When I returned from Toronto back in January, more than two hours late thanks to those wonderful delays I've now come to expect from Air Canada, I made it on a late run that was only going as far as Lougheed Town Centre - uncomfortably close to being stuck downtown.

In contrast to Toronto's web of twenty-four all-night routes, TransLink offers the people of Metro Vancouver twelve routes... and they're not all-night, either. From what I've been able to find, most NightBus routes seem to stop running around 4 AM. What's more, their coverage is minimal at best; sure, TransLink crows about how the NightBuses "cover more ground than all three SkyTrain Lines," but the point of a night bus network is not to replace the rapid-transit spine of a transit system; it's to provide night service. For that matter, parts of the network aren't replaced at all. New Westminster itself is served by only one night route, the N19, which appears to use Royal Avenue before it crosses the Pattullo Bridge to Surrey; I can't tell because, unlike the TTC, TransLink does not offer route maps for individual routes. So if you live in Sapperton and you need to get home from downtown Vancouver at 3 in the morning, it's down to walking through the depths of the night or cab fare.

New Westminster is hardly alone in this, either. Burnaby and Vancouver are the only cities in Metro Vancouver that are served by more than one NightBus route - and even then, service can be spotty. NightBuses in Richmond go no further than Richmond Centre, and Surrey isn't served past Surrey Central Station; the District of North Vancouver, West Vancouver, Delta, White Rock, and Port Coquitlam, just to name a few, have no night transit service whatsoever.

Much of this is, no doubt, due to the incredibly sprawling nature of TransLink's operational authority; where it has to deliver public transit over a 2,877 square kilometer area, the TTC only has to concern itself with the six hundred and thirty square kilometers of Toronto. But it's still a great hole. It's not as if people don't go out for the night in Vancouver; it's more the case that people who do tend to have to cab it home. With $50 fares not out of the question for a trip between downtown Vancouver and New Westminster, plenty of people might just stay home.

There will always be people who need to get around, no matter what time it is. The gravely limited network Metro Vancouver has today is nothing to be proud of, and does no favors to those who work the graveyard shift.