Saturday, October 31, 2009

Art Project: Something Old and Embarrassing

I'm taking a break from Public Domain Photography content today. Against my better judgement, my desperate search for content has led me to declare today Post Something Old and Embarrassing Day. Fortunately, you lucky, lucky people, I have a great heaping amount of embarrassing things to choose from, and fortunately for me, the vast majority of them will never, ever, ever see the light of day.

Back in 1999, when I was sixteen, I was mostly working on improving my writing style. At one point, however, I did take a detour to try my hand at drawing a character. I can't remember the context of the drawing at all, or even if there was ever any context to begin with. This is the result. I didn't do much more afterward. On the plus side, it does give you the opportunity to see what a coworker described as my "engineer's" handwriting. And those red spots on her arms are supposed to be bloody cuts, not rashes or something. As I recall, I used a pencil for the outline and pencil crayons for the color.

I wonder what might've happened had I kept on with it. Maybe by now I could've been beating Tim Buckley at his own game.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Keeping Up With Attrition

Personally, I blame Mike Harris for this.

Back in the mid-1990s, as part of his "Common Sense Revolution," the provincial government took its responsibility for highways, assistance programs, and a constellation of other expensive things and forced it onto the cities and towns. This had the immediate impact of lightening the province's financial burden, which made it even easier for Harris to cut things elsewhere. Fifteen years later, we're seeing the consequences of that.

There's a reason you never hear of Toronto being deep in the red or dealing with the sort of punishing deficits that the provincial and federal governments currently have on the table - because Toronto is legally prohibited from running a deficit. Its budget must be balanced each and every year, and thanks to Harris and his ilk Toronto and other cities have a great deal more things to finance with a limited ability to finance them.

This has come to a head recently, with the city seriously looking at a 5% across-the-board cut in order to make some headway against a looming $500 million shortfall. There hasn't been any firm decision on what will be cut and how, yet; the other day the Toronto Zoo blatantly defied this, not only not cutting but adding 3.6% to its budget next year.

Of all the city's expenses, one of the single largest is the payroll. Apparently, budget chief Shelley Carroll has a plan to deal with this. According to the Toronto Star, she "hopes that staff reductions could be covered by attrition - not replacing people who leave."

This is patently ridiculous. The only time attrition ever works is when the volume of activity is dropping, and for a city government, there's alway something that will need doing. I can see not hiring new people, but refusing to replace ones who depart is something else entirely. Putting the responsibility for delivering city services on fewer and fewer overworked city workers is a recipe for problems, and it's not something that makes me envy a city worker today.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

PDP #123: North Broadway's Stone Bridge

Despite what I may have wrote yesterday in my analysis of the system, not all of the Chicago 'L' is metal and industrial - the nature of the track supports in the Loop isn't universal. Further out from downtown, differing architectural sensibilities found their way into the system. This portion of elevated track, diagonally spanning North Broadway at West Leland Avenue, entered service a hundred years ago and carries Red Line trains between Wilson and Lawrence stations. Toronto's system isn't nearly old enough to equal this sort of antique grandeur. The long history and differing design aesthetics of the 'L' system, I think, really give it a character that newer transit systems lack.

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, October 28, 2009

Tunnel Visions: The Chicago 'L'

Every once in a while, Acts of Minor Treason hops out of Toronto, lands in some other city with some other light- or heavy-rail transit system, and looks at different ways of getting around on two rails, whether it's on the ground, under it, or above it all.

The past few times I've travelled to the United States, it always felt like I was entering some strange and foreign Bizzaro World where everything was exactly the same except for extremely minor surface differences that leapt out everywhere. Chicago and Toronto have a great many things in common - they're both Great Lakes cities, they were once the Second Cities of their respective countries, and they both lack the sheer metropolitan weight of grand cities like New York or London. They're accessible.

This is especially true in terms of transit. Earlier this month I spent three rainy days in Chicago evaluating its subway-equivalent, the 'L.' I say subway-equivalent because "subway" is not the proper word in the Chicago context. The 'L' struck me as being very much like the Toronto subway system, turned inside out. Not only does a majority of Chicago's system run aboveground, it literally runs aboveground - it's called the 'L' because it's primarily an elevated rail system.

Even before my arrival in Chicago, I was curious about what I think of as "the paradox of the 'L.'" Chicago is one of the great cities of North America, with a population of 2.8 million to Toronto's 2.5 million - and had had a heavy-rail transit system in place more than fifty years before the opening of the first stretch of Toronto's subway. It operates a network that comprises nearly 171 kilometers of track, a length to which the Toronto subway and RT combined amount to barely more than a third.

Nevertheless, despite less comprehensively serving a smaller population, the Toronto subway has substantially higher usage than the Chicago 'L' - while a TTC study found an average daily ridership of 1,246,020 people on the three subway lines and the Scarborough RT, the Chicago Transit Authority cites average weekday rail ridership in 2008 of 640,000.

To put it another way: Toronto's 32-station Yonge-University-Spadina line alone carries more passengers than the eight lines and 144 stations of the entire Chicago 'L' system combined. This hardly seems right to me. Chicago's been at it for longer than Toronto, both in operating a heavy-rail transit system and in being a metropolis. The exact answer as to why this is the case may be beyond this post, but I think an analysis of the Chicago 'L' system may be instructive in and of itself. Just because the 'L' isn't used as heavily doesn't mean that the TTC can't, or shouldn't, learn from the CTA's experience. Nor shouldn't it try to avoid the paradox of the 'L.'

If you're interested in more information about the 'L,' two worthwhile sites I've found are the Chicago Transit Authority's own website, as well as the independently-operated Chicago "L".org.

A Loop-bound Purple Line train enters Sedgwick station

System

Heavy-rail service in Chicago began in 1892 with the first segment of what would become the 'L' built and run by the South Side Rapid Transit Railroad Company. As in Toronto, the early days of public transit in Chicago were dominated by private interests, but while in Toronto the railroad companies contented themselves with running streetcars, in Chicago they built their rails in the sky. Though 'L' service began with steam locomotives, it was electrified in 1898. While the Toronto Transportation Commission, forerunner of the modern TTC, was established in 1920 to put an end to wildly variant, divided fare systems within the City of Toronto, Chicago continued on with its private companies providing the public with a way to get around. Even its subways, under State Street and Dearborn Street, were begun under the aegis of private enterprise. It wasn't until 1947 that the 'L' network was unified under the control of the Chicago Transit Authority.

As I said before, the Chicago 'L' consists of eight individual lines serving a total of one hundred and forty-four stations, and while most are within Chicago's boundaries some extend into its suburbs - particulary the non-rush-hour Purple Line and the two-stop Yellow Line, or "Skokie Swift," the sole 'L' line that I did not ride during the course of my visit. The heart of the 'L' system is the central core of downtown Chicago, known as the Loop from the 'L' tracks that trace a circle above Lake Street, Wabash Avenue, Van Buren Street, and Wells Street. Seven of the eight 'L' lines extend into the Loop, bringing commuters and travellers to the heart of the city.

Unlike Toronto and Montreal, where the term "line" is interchangable with the physical infrastructure the trains travel through, the eight 'L' lines refer more to routes for individual trains, as is the case in the notoriously confusing New York City subway system. The elevated trackage in the Loop, particularly, is shared between Brown Line, Purple Line, Orange Line, Green Line, and Pink Line trains, and multiple stations north of the Loop are served by multiple lines. While this does mitigate the somewhat long headways of 'L' trains, it does require that passengers be alert and aware when they're boarding a train. This is particularly true in the Loop; while Purple Line, Pink Line, and Orange Line trains travel clockwise through it, Brown Line trains run counterclockwise, and Green Line trains can come or go from either direction. Woe to the inattentive traveller at Clark/Lake bound for Madison/Wabash, who boards a Brown Line train bound for Kimball.1

Much of the system, particularly in the built-up core of Chicago, is served by elevated rail. The State Street and Dearborn Street Subways are abbreviated underground segments that carry the Red and Blue Lines, respectively, through downtown, built to alleviate building congestion in the Loop in the 1930s. Portions of the Orange Line to Chicago Midway International Airport are at-grade along freight railroad right-of-ways, as is the "Dan Ryan" branch of the Red Line, so named because it runs in the median of the Dan Ryan Expressway, the same way Toronto's University-Spadina line runs in the median of Allen Road between Eglinton West and Wilson stations.

This section of elevated 'L' track above Wabash Avenue forms part of the Loop

Unlike the Toronto subway or the Montreal Metro, which are respectively anchored by Bloor-Yonge and Berri-UQAM stations, the nature of the Loop means that there is no one central station pulling in riders from across the city - although Clark/Lake in the Loop, bridging six lines and with a free transfer to the Red Line's Lake subway station, did see 5.2 million passengers in 2008. It wasn't until after I left Chicago that I learned one of the busiest 'L' stations is, in fact, 95/Dan Ryan, the southern terminus of the Red Line and the southernmost station in the system by a significant margin. This owes a lot to 95/Dan Ryan's nature as a commuter hub served by CTA and suburban Pace buses, similar to the TTC's Finch station, which in addition to TTC buses is served by York Region Transit, GO Transit, VIVA, and Brampton Transit buses. Even so, 95/Dan Ryan's 2008 passenger traffic of 4,372,074 is far outstripped by the weekday-only use of Bloor-Yonge station, which I calculated using TTC averages to be 51,797,400 passenger entries - and that's for the Yonge portion alone, as the TTC separates transfer stations between lines for the purposes of ridership calculation.

As for Clark/Lake, possibly the most complex station on the entire 'L' network, touching every line except for the Yellow? Ridership figures for August 2009 show that on an average weekday, 18,599 people entered turnstiles there. The nine stations of the Loop put together saw 70,666 entrances on the average weekday, a 6.2% drop from August 2008. I can only imagine that this is because gas was not quite as expensive this year as it was last year. There are nine stations in Toronto that have individually greater entrance numbers.

Nevertheless, the 'L' brings transit access to a sufficiently large area that it's possible to live car-free in Chicago, or spend three days wandering around there without having to step into a taxicab or rental car. Rapid transit service extends to both O'Hare International Airport, via the Blue Line, and Chicago Midway International Airport, via the Orange Line. Midway is barely more than half an hour away from the Loop, which is good considering that international travellers have to check in a minimum of two hours before departure there.

An Orange Line train waits for travellers at Midway station

As of this writing, regular CTA fares are a uniform $2.25 on the 'L' and buses, though discounted fares are available for students and people with disabilities, while members of the United States Armed Forces and senior citizens can ride for free. The issue of free rides for seniors is a rather charged one presently, as it's seen to contribute much to the CTA's current budget deficit. For my part, I got around with an unlimited-use three-day pass which I bought from a vending machine at Midway station for $14. It's best that I did, because the system as a whole seems set up to discourage the use of money over passes or fare cards. As in Toronto, there's no change given for overpaid fares, but in Toronto you can access the entire system with cash. During the course of my observations, I didn't see a single point of access into an 'L' station that would allow a passenger to pay with cash. The three-day pass I got was simple to use - I feed it into one slot on the turnstile, and retrieve it once it's ejected from another - though I really had to yank it out of the machines. They keep a firm grip, they do.

Stations

Stairs to the Green and Brown Line platform of State/Lake station

The first thing you need to know, hopefully so that you sound like less of a knownothing tourist, is that when a slash appears in an 'L' station name, it means "and." Thus, State/Lake is pronounced "State and Lake." Now then...

Being a primarily elevated rail system, it's no surprise that Chicago 'L' stations differ significantly from their Toronto or Montreal counterparts. While those two cities generally have station buildings on the surface - in Toronto, downtown is the only place where this isn't the case - this isn't always the case in Chicago. For some 'L' stations, their only real footprints are the entry staircases. Other stations, such as Wilson on the Red Line, reflect the era in which they were built with an ornate stone kiosk surmounted by tracks, while many underground stations along the State Street and Dearborn Street Subways invert this; from the surface, they're also nothing but staircases, but heading down. Of all the stations I visited on the 'L,' Logan Square on the Blue Line was the only one with an aesthetic similar to the average Toronto subway station.

To be perfectly honest, a number of the elevated stations I visited struck me as being the Theme Park Versions of a public transit system - they seemed to me like the sort of structures that wouldn't be entirely out of place in Frontierland. They had a generally old-timey feel to me, something which is specifically emphasized at Quincy station, echoing the dawn of the 20th century. Both inside and outside the Loop, many elevated station platforms are just planked wood framed in steel. They're not particularly friendly as far as inclement weather goes, either, something I had no shortage of opportunities to discover, considering that it rained every day I was in Chicago.2 While there are roofs, they don't cover the entire platform. Sometimes they don't even cover the platform around the stairs. To me, it added to the somewhat gritty and industrial feeling that permeated the 'L' - stations that aren't refined, but purely functional. Rosedale and Davisville are the Toronto stations most reminiscent of this 'L' standard, and they are both far more enclosed than any elevated station I explored.

I don't even want to imagine what it would be like waiting for an 'L' train in the winter. Very few, if any, of the elevated stations I visited had anything as luxurious as walls. This was even true of the stations along the Dan Ryan branch of the Red Line, with cars speeding along the expressway a matter of feet away from the edge of the rails. On some days it might be invigorating. Others... not so much.

A view of the platform in Clark/Division station

Chicago's underground stations, far more comfortable in inclement weather, are fascinating in themselves. The ones I visited, in the State Street Subway along the Red Line, predate the Toronto subway by barely more than a decade - the State Street Subway opened in 1943, while service began along the original Yonge subway in 1954 - yet their architecture and design aesthetic seems closer to the nineteenth century than the mid-twentieth.

This may be partially due to the design. Though Toronto's highly reflective Vitrolite glass tiles have been removed or covered over in all stations that had them except Eglinton, the tunnel walls are frequently nothing but naked concrete. This is mitigated somewhat in side-platform stations like North/Clybourn, where the platform walls are tiled over, but in center-platform stations such as Clark/Division or Grand, it's a bit unwelcoming. Furthermore, there seemed to be a lot less lighting in the stations than their Toronto counterparts. Still - aside from the font, the appearance of the station name etched into the tiled walls really reminded me of home.

The station name at Clark/Division, formerly with ampersand!

I never encountered strong smells of any sort in the underground stations, which was thankful, but in some cases I didn't encounter much of anything. At one point, while waiting on the platform at Grand station in the early afternoon, the hairs on the back of my neck went up when I realized that aside from the other people present, there was no ambient noise of any kind. Granted, it could be a result of the renovations which were ongoing at the time of my visit, but I still found it rather disturbing. All in all, if I was looking for a place to film a Sinister Subway, I'd head to the State Street Subway.

For a more in-depth look at Chicago underground stations, I refer you to the videos of YouTube user artistmac. I've embedded one where he walks through Lake station on the Red Line - hopefully this will bring it more to life. If the surroundings seem vaguely familiar, it may be because this is the same entrance, albeit redesigned, that Larry and Balki emerged from in the opening of the 1980s sitcom Perfect Strangers. It is, thankfully, a lot brighter than I found Clark/Division to be.



Equipment

Wikipedia tells me that the CTA's trains are "streetcar-derived," and that Toronto had considered the use of similar vehicles for its own subway while it was still under construction. Rush hour would have been significantly more cramped had the TTC tilted that way. Chicago's trains, to me, occupy a strange middle ground, between the narrowness of the ICTS trains on the Scarborough RT and the comparative spaciousness of modern Toronto subway cars. My first impression of the 3200-series cars, which form the backbone of 'L' service today, was that they felt intermediate between Montreal and Toronto rolling stock - that in terms of size and seating arrangements, which on the Orange Line includes single seats, they were "almost like big streetcars." As it turns out, they are just slightly smaller than, and ultimately most individually comparable to, the CLRVs that anchor Toronto's present streetcar service. At sufficiently low speeds, they even sounded like streetcars to me.

As in Toronto and Montreal, the Chicago 'L' has an automated announcement system, and while in the former two cities it's used solely to announce next-stop information, in Chicago it's played to the hilt. The announcer, who first struck me as reminiscent of a past voice of the Walt Disney World Monorail System, frequently makes public service announcements. One of the first I heard informed me that "soliciting and gambling" are prohibited on all CTA vehicles. Barely fifteen minutes out from Midway Airport this struck me as rather odd - sure, I can understand that something like that would be against the rules, but has gambling on the 'L' been so out of control that the CTA needs to specifically speak against it?

It jumps the gun, too. Chicago trains have door chimes just like Toronto ones, although not the same tone, and they frequently went off while passengers were still alighting, let alone while people were still boarding from the platform. At least when the door-closing chimes sound after two seconds at Sheppard Line stations, at least I know they mean it. Take this video I recorded of a trip from Clark/Lake to Chicago/Franklin, during which the announcement that "Merchandise Mart is next" helpfully came while the train was actually in Merchandise Mart station.



On the whole, trains in Chicago are smaller than trains in Toronto. Though eight-car trains can be brought into service during rush hour, in my experience off-peak service included nothing more lengthy than four-car trains, and apparently the Yellow Line to Skokie gets by with two-car trains. Contrast that to Toronto, where six cars are the standard and four-car trains are used only on the Sheppard Line, which itself has higher ridership than three of the eight 'L' lines (Purple, Pink, and Yellow, if you must know).

Left: A Chicago 'L' train at Southport station. Right: A Toronto subway train departing Rosedale station, the most 'L'-like of any station in Toronto except for, you know, not being elevated

Like the Montreal Metro and the Scarborough RT, Chicago 'L' trains run with a one-person crew, with the operator also serving as the guard when the train is at a station, watching out to make sure the doors don't close on anyone. It's fortunate, too, because if the announcements are any indication, if it was left up to automatics no train would dwell at a station for longer than two seconds.

Ease of Access and Ease of Use

I used to take it for granted that I could end up on a subway platform and never have to wait more than five minutes to start heading where I was going, regardless of whether it was the middle of rush hour or ten minutes to midnight on Sunday night. My travels and my researches both have demonstrated that Toronto appears to be an outlier when it comes to headways (that is, time separation between trains). The 5-6 minute separation between trains on the Sheppard Line and Scarborough RT is the longest you'll find in the Toronto system - but in Chicago, outside of rush hours, it's rare you'll find a headway that equals that. From 7:14 AM to 1:20 PM on weekdays, the scheduled frequency of northbound Blue Line trains is 7-10 minutes, and between 10:54 AM and 1:20 PM you'll have to wait fully 10 minutes between southbound trains.

I never knew how good I had it here.

Nor are there any fare-paid transfers, that I could find, from trains to buses. Stations in the Loop don't have room for terminals, but there's not much attention given to that elsewhere in the system. Most boarding zones I found were simple curbside stops, and even where there's allowance at a station for buses to stop, as at Logan Square or Midway, the bus loading zone is on the far side of the turnstiles. This is a significant contrast to Toronto, where passengers can climb directly from the subway platforms to bus loading area while remaining inside the fare-paid zone. I have, however, come to the conclusion that Toronto is effectively unique in this regard; I don't know of any other transit agency that's designed its stations to enable this.

If you're lugging a bike along with you, the CTA is willing to help. Much like the TTC, it's begun installing bicycle racks on its buses, and bicycles are allowed on 'L' trains - two per car, with a sticker saying as much on each and every car - except from 7 to 9 AM and 4 to 6 PM on weekdays, mirroring Toronto's prohibition on bringing them aboard when rush hour commuters are busy cramming the cars, as well as all Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays, but not July 3rd. I have no idea why this is. I've never been in the United States on July 4th, but I guess maybe there are a lot of people going back and forth the day before.

Some stations on the 'L' aren't exactly friendly to transfers. This may well be a result of the system's origins as lines established and run by competing private companies. While the consolidation of Clark/Lake station in 1992 permitted free transfers between the elevated platform and the underground Blue Line platform, in other cases stations that one might think were connected are entirely separate. The Red Line, in particular, is entirely disconnected from the rest of the system within the Loop; though the names are similar, Lake station on the Red Line and the elevated State/Lake station are entirely separate, and passengers must exit the Red Line fare-paid area and pay another fare at State/Lake in order to proceed.

The layout of some stations can also be confusing for the uninitiated, owing to the degree of interlining in the Loop. At State/Lake, access to the Green and Brown Lines is by staircases on one side of Lake Street, while the Orange, Purple, and Pink lines must be accessed from the other side. It's a system that demands forethought and knowing exactly how you want to get where you're going. What really makes it irritating is that some stations like State/Lake have no platform crossovers within the fare-paid area. This means that if you pass through the turnstiles only to find you're on the wrong platform and try to go around to the right one, since you used your card only minutes before you'll be locked out and unable to proceed.3

Sometimes, you just have to be a local. While the 'L' signage is good, it isn't perfect. There was one notable occasion when it wasn't until I reached the platform that I found signage telling me I was at Library-State/Van Buren station. I don't have the same complaint with the trains; given the degree of interlining, they have no choice but to have good signage. Rollsigns indicating the train's destination are present not just at either end of the train, as they are in Toronto and Montreal, but on both sides of the train as well, and are color-coded to indicate what line the train's running. It's fairly straightforward, too - with the exception of the Yellow Line, which forever shuttles between Howard and Skokie stations, all trains are bound either for their terminus or the Loop. There, it's just a matter of knowing whether you're on a clockwise or counterclockwise train that makes the difference.

Orange Line rollsigns are clearly visible on this train, stopped in the elevated portion of Roosevelt station

Conclusion

I haven't been able to unravel the paradox of the 'L.' It's something which is most definitely beyond the scope of a simple analysis such as this, and all I have is conjecture. Chicago's been a metropolis for a lot longer than Toronto, so it could be that it had a far greater opportunity to go all-out when the age of suburbanization started, and lost a greater share of CTA riders than did Toronto. Nevertheless, the TTC remains a system used heavily by the city's middle-class, and I never got the impression that things were different on the 'L.' It might also be that because the CTA is a far more bus-oriented system than the TTC, it's more convenient for people to take buses rather than trains from point A to point B. I suppose that, in the end, it's just a bit strange for me to see a system that appears far vaster and more comprehensive than Toronto's, but which is used less.

It'd be better for everyone if more people did ride it. I've written before about the CTA's recent "budget doomsday," and apparently it has a reputation for doing that sort of thing on a regular basis. Apparently it's come up with a new idea; right now the CTA is negotiating with Apple for 10-year advertising rights in and first naming rights to North/Clybourn station, which struck me as an Art Deco North York Centre station, in exchange for $4 million to fix it up. That's a whole argument in and of itself, but I really don't think it's the sort of recourse a public transit operator should be eager to take.

I'd appreciate feedback from any Chicagoans who might have a better handle on the situation - I'm sure there's a great deal of aspects to the system that I didn't pick upon from the limited length of my experience.

1 Not me. Fortunately.
2 I'm not bitter. Really.
3 This one actually did happen to me. Fortunately, the extraordinarily close stop spacing in the Loop meant I only had to walk two minutes to Madison/Wabash.

Previous Tunnel Visions

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

PDP #122: Down Washington Way

Despite the altogether beastly weather that characterized most of my time in Chicago, there were still enough breaks in the rain for me to at least cursorily explore its downtown. The elevated portions of Millennium Park, effectively an outdoor art gallery that has no Torontonian compare, provided an excellent vantage point for city photography. This photo looks down the urban canyon of East Washington Street, one or two blocks away from the 'L' tracks over Wabash Avenue.

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, October 26, 2009

Passing the Torch of the Stars

The Augustine Commission, set up to review NASA's spaceflight goals and provide potential alternatives if necessary, presented its conclusions last week, and while it will likely be some time before President Obama makes a final decision on it, the implications are still percolating across the internet. The document is about a hundred and seventy pages, so it'll take me some time to go through it, but at least they didn't hide the general thrust of their argument. Human spaceflight isn't dead - far from it - but the Commission believes that NASA's current goal of a renewed lunar exploration program is ill-founded, and prefers a "flexible path" that would take astronauts to near-Earth asteroids or the moons of Mars - visits to Luna and Mars themselves would, for the foreseeable future, be confined to orbital missions only, to spare the expense of fuel necessary for landing and takeoff.

I do have my disagreements with the Commission's findings as I currently understand them, as I believe a lunar facility would be advantageous: both in terms of low-g research impossible to conduct on Earth or the International Space Station, as well as resource gathering that could support future space endeavors with materials that does not have to be hefted out of Earth's gravity well. Fortunately, the situation today is not the same as it was in the 1970s - when it comes to the potential of activity beyond low Earth orbit, NASA is no longer the only game in town for the foreseeable future.

A Mercury-Atlas rocket in the Kennedy Space Center Rocket Garden, February 2005

Take China. I know that China has made statements about how it would like to be involved in the International Space Station project, but at this point I don't think it's very likely that Beijing would be let in. Beyond that, I don't think defusing that sort of international competition in space development would be a good long-term thing. China has plans to orbit a space station of its own as Project 921-2, with the first element potentially launching as early as next year. A Chinese lunar mission is a natural follow-up, and if the Augustine Commission's report gains traction in Washington, the next boots on the moon likely will be Chinese ones.

I do wholeheartedly agree with the Commission on its view toward low Earth orbit transport. Its conclusion is that NASA should get out of the space trucking business entirely, and leave LEO crew and cargo flights to commercial providers. SpaceX, after its successful Falcon 1 launches in 2008 and 2009 and with the heavy-lift Falcon 9 set to light off from Cape Canaveral at the end of November, seems almost ready to take over this responsibility. Really, at this point it's the most sensible thing. Until now, NASA has been the workhorse because only NASA had the capability to do it, and there are those in Washington and elsewhere who do not particularly relish having to rely on the Russian Federation to maintain the American manned spaceflight program.

NASA blazed the trail, and now other organizations can carry the load. It's high time that NASA pass the torch to the companies and focus its time, money, and effort on what it was always meant to do - extend the horizon further and further.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

PDP #121: Twin Ribbons

Recently I read an article bemoaning the state of traffic in Toronto, and that what was peak rush-hour volume twenty years ago is now ordinary in the middle of the day. As I recall, it didn't go so far as to suggest building a new system of expressways in the city - fortunately. This city needs neither a new Spadina Expressway argument nor a new Spadina Expressway.

Allen Road is all that we got of the Spadina Expressway, before popular and mayoral opposition halted it at Eglinton Avenue. I wouldn't shed a tear, personally, if not even one more meter of expressway was never laid in Toronto again. We've spent seventy years kowtowing to the automobile in urban design. If only the roads could usually be so empty as they are in this photograph - then the car could be what it should be, a luxury but not a necessity.

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, October 24, 2009

Common Words #8: Corona

If you're looking for horrid writing today, than have I got writing for you - my first real story, "Corona," completed on Thursday, June 5, 1997.

As it turns out, I've been writing for longer than I can remember. "Corona" was not, by any stretch of reckoning, the first story I ever wrote - but it's the first that seemed particularly significant at the time I wrote it, and as such it's as good a starting line for my career as a wordguy as anything I can think of. It's my own personal reflection of the Golden Age of Science Fiction, which in this case was 14.

"Corona" was written as a Grade 9 English assignment, and came back with a mark of 10/10 with comments from the teacher of "interesting characters," "technically superb," and "imaginative." In the context of a classroom full of fourteen-year-olds, I'm sure it probably was. Back in 1997, though, I had only a vague comprehension of what I was doing. (Paragraph breaks? What are those?) The dialogue - both the characters' and the narrator's - is laden with infodumps, the conflict is almost entirely absent, and there's no resolution at all. At the time I was probably imagining it as the first part of something larger which never got off the ground.

Nevertheless, despite how horrid I find it now, it was a beginning. The 10/10, I imagine, greatly buoyed my fragile, barely-teenage self-confidence at the time. Otherwise, I might never have gone anywhere.

**********
Corona
by Andrew Barton
**********

In the outer perimeter of the Beta Ancaster system, there was sheer emptiness. Here, between the orbit of the outermost gas giant and the system's Oort Cloud, there were barely one hundred atoms per cubic meter, as opposed to billions, perhaps trillions, of atoms in a comparable space at sea level on Earth. In this void, the only objects of appreciable size were rare vagabond asteroids or comets on their way in-system. This area had changed little since the birth of its sun billions of years ago. Then, there was a flash of light followed by a blue vorted; the traditional signature of something dropping out of hyperspace. Seconds after the vortex disappeared, two objects were faintly visible. They approached with amazing speed, and within five seconds their identification plaques were visible. Located on the dorsal hull, where the light from the star reflected off them, two names were visible; FSS ARCTURUS and FCC CORONA. Seconds later, they had become small dots again, heading toward the sun.

#

On board the Corona, Captain Tyrone Richards was awakened from his sleep by the sound of his door chime. Grumbling about being woken up at 2 a.m. ship's time, he hurried over to the closet to put his robe on, pausing only to place an ancient paperback copy of "The Hitch HIker's Guide to the Galaxy" back on the shelf. Since he was still half-asleep, he stumbled over a small step-stool on the way to the door. Conducting a near-flawless faceplant, he picked himself up and strode over to the door. He punched in a code on his wall pad, disabling the locking mechanism, and was greeted by Commander Michelle Hall, the Corona's executive officer. Standing 1.7 meters tall, with short space-black hair, she was one of Corona's most valuable officers. Born on the planet of Ithaca, the fourth planet of the Arcturus system, she was slightly stronger than most members of the crew, as Ithaca had a gravitational pull of 1.4 gees. After graduating from the University of Altair with honors, she enrolled with the Terran Federation Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland. She rose through the ranks quickly, and at thirty-one Terran years old, was one of the youngest XO's in the navy.

"Good morning, sir," she said. "I'm sorry that I had to wake up you up like that, but you turned off your comlink."

"Yes, I did," Richards replied. "I haven't had very much sleep since we left Alnilam, so I thought that I would take advantage of this opportunity."

"I understand, sir, but the captain of the Arcturus is on Commchannel Four and wishes to speak with you. He said something about 'unusual electromagnetic fluctuations' in the vicinity of the fourth planet."

"All right," Richards said as he attempted to brush his hear out of his eyes with his right hand. "I'll meet you on the bridge in five minutes. Thank you for bringing this to my attention." As Commander Hall walked down the corridor toward the bridge, she began to get a bad feeling about the energy readings, much like a certain other Federation officer had received immediately prior to the Battle of New Jupiter. Figuring that it was nothing, she shook her head and walked to the turbolift.

#

When Captain Richards arrived on Corona's small, circular bridge, the image of the Arcturus was visible on the viewscreen. The viewscreen's field of vision was centered on the Beta Ancaster star, with the ventral hull of Arcturus's forward hull appearing in the upper middle section of the streen. Its nose was pointed almost straight ahead, likely scanning the fourth planet. Sunlight reflected off the destroyer's xeranium armor plating, revealing a multitude of laser turrets and missile launchers, ready to defend the small convoy if necessary. Even though Federation HIgh Command had thought it prudent to bring a destroyer along, just in case a Fhyoni battlecruiser decided to drop by, Richards seriously doubted the logic of it. Just before he turned away from the viewscreen to open a commchannel with Arcturus, he noticed a small flag which looked exactly like the one on his shoulder; a blue rectangle with two olive branches. It was similar to the flag of Earth's United Nations, but was different in one respect. Huddled between the branches, where the UN flag showed a polar view of the Earth, lay an above view of the Milky Way galaxy. Even though the two organizations had different flags, they both had similar goals: the United Nations strived for world peace from 1945 to 2056, when the first planetary government was formed, and the Terran Federation had been trying to establish galactic peace since its founding in 2112. However, the campaign had not gone smoothly in recent years, ever since the Fhyoni War broke out in 2445. How ironic, Richards thought, that the worst war the galaxy has ever known began exactly five hundred years after the worst war that Earth has ever known ended.

Glancing at the flashing "incoming communications" indicator mounted beneath the main viewscreen, he knew that trouble was brewing, as Arcturus's Captain Hansen rarely opened a commchannel unless there was a problem. Taking his seat in the command chair, he turned to the comm station. "Lieutenant Kiritis," he said to the cat-like Sirian at communications, "open a commchannel to the Arcturus." The Sirian replied in the affirmative and quickly set up the link. Within seconds, the image of the Arcturus had been replaced by the visage of Arcturus's CO, Captain Telerius Hansen. Originally from Bellatria, he left his homeworld at the age of seventeen Terran years to study at the prestigious University of Altair. After his six-year tenure at the school, he signed on to become a fighter pilot at the Federation Pilot Academy on Demeter. After becoming one of the most talented pilots to ever attend the FPA, he piloted a Banshee in such conflicts as the Perseus War (2449-2450) and the War of 2452. After being promoted to his current rank in 2456, he had served in several major convoy battles, commanding the Arcturus in all but one. The Arcturus itself had been in drydock when, due to the insistence of Federation High Command, its repairs were cut short in order to escort a freighter from Alnilam to Beta Ancaster, a small orange dwarf in the deep boondocks of the Perseus spiral arm. While it was not exactly an optimal use for a Proxima-class destroyer, Hansen preferred that Arcturus was out in space, under its own power, rather than having technicians swarming around the vessel back at Starbase Omicron 7. After he had finished confirming that the channel was secure, he turned his head up to a level where the viewscreen could see it clearly. Behind him, members of Arcturus's crew were visible walking around the bridge.

"Captain Hansen," Richards said, "to what do I owe the honor of communications opened by you?"

Laughing, Hansen replied, "That's the Tyrone Richards I remember. Back on the Saratoga, you had a comedic quote ready for every day of the week."

"Yeah, that's right," Richards said. "So, Telly, what can I do for you?" He intentionally mentioned Hansen's old nickname to see what kind of response he would receive.

"It's not 'Telly' anymore, it's 'Tellus'. A man like you should know that."

"Okay, 'Tellus', I'll remember that. Now, what's the problem at hand? Gravity flux? Ion storm? What?"

Responding quickly, Hansen said, "No, it's neither of those, but they are good guesses. In fact, it's quite similar to our primary problem, the EM flux near the fourth planet. One of the moons of the outermost gas giant is displaying strange energy readings. When we analyzed them, they almost seemed like a Fhyoni signature."

Looking concerned, Richards sat up in his chair. "Judging by the power of these energy signatures, what would be capable of producing htem?"

"Just a second," Hansen said as he worked a computer. "According to this, it looks like a simple hyperfusion power plant that's been abandoned for a year."

"All right," Richards said as he stood up, "but do you think that this discovery should take precedence over the electromagnetic flux over Ancaster IV?"

"Hmm..." Hansen put his hand on his forehead, apparently in deep thought. "No, I don't believe so. However, we can't just thunder away before we investigate this phenomenon."

"I agree," replied Richards. "What I think we should do is send Corona's Banshee to investigate the moon, while four of Arcturus's Hurricanes take up a position half a million kilometers ahead of us. Doing that will increase our scanning range and lessen the possible risks toward Arcturus and Corona." Even though neither of the ships had any evidence that the EM flux threatened the ships in any conceivable way, it was Federation policy for phenomena like this to be treated with caution. This policy had come into place back in 2314, over one hundred years before, when the starship Polaris was destroyed by a sudden solar flare erupting from the primary star of the Capella system. When Polaris's telemetry was analyzed one month later, it was determined that the solar flare had been detected approximately one minute before the vessel's destruction. As a result, the Chief of Naval Operations quickly devised a policy dealing with strange sensor readings.

"All right, I agree," Hansen said after some deliberation. "I'll scramble the Hurricanes immediately. I suggest that you do the same with your Banshee. Out." Hansen's face vanished from the screen, and was replaced with the Arcturus realigning its course and getting ready to power up its ion engines. "Well," Richards muttered to himself, "who should I send on this mission? Can't be the pilot - he transferred off at Alnilam. Wait a second - yes, that's it!" Standing up from his chair, Richards surveyed the cramped bridge, looking for his executive officer. Finding his quarry, he started to speak. "Commander Hall," Richards said, "What is your current pilot rating? Level 4?"

"Actually, sir," said the Ithacan, "it's Level 7. I did some training exercises when I was on Spica last month."

"All right then, how would you like to take a spin in the Banshee?" Richards wore a grin on his face.

"I'd like that very much, sir," said Hall.

"Then what," said the captain, "are you waiting for? I know you've been waiting a long time for this opportunity, so go! I'll download your mission parameters into the fighter's onboard computer."

"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir." Hall saluted, then turned around and entered the turbolift. Returning to the command chair, Richards pressed the intra-ship comlink button. Speaking loudly, he said, "Richards to hangar deck!" Seconds later, the words "Hangar deck here," were emanating from the speaker. "Hangar deck," he said, "get the bird ready to launch. Arm it with plasma torpedoes." The hangar deck's affirmative response filtered through Corona's circuitry within milliseconds. Upon hearing the reply, Richards terminated the comlink.

#

Several minutes later, after donning her flight suit, Commander Hall exited the turbolift and walked into the upper hangar deck. A short, tunnel-like passage jutted out ahead of her for approximately fifteen meters. At the end of the passageway sat the door into the flight control room, a cramped space with a small positronic computer and vessel-to-fighter uplink system. The walls of the passage were covered with transparitanium, affording Hall a spectacular view of the hangar bay directly below. The hangar bay itself was a seemingly cavernous room, kept at zero-gee at all times. Three maglocks extended down from the roof of the bay, seeming like stalactites deep inside Mammoth Cave on Earth. The locking appendages, specifically designed for Banshees, extended further down from the maglock tubes themselves. They were arranged in a layout similar to that of a triangle; the forward clamp was attached to the forward fuselage over the tachyon communications antenna between the cockpit and the hyperradar array in the nose, while the bottom two were attached to the port and starboard wings. The outer thirds of the wings themselves were currently folded upwards at a ninety-degree angle to conserve space, not unlike the wings of fighters based on aircraft carriers in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. In addition, a small, vertical tube which completely covered the cockpit extended up and into the corridor where Hall was standing. After confirming that there was an atmosphere and zero-gravity in the tube, Hall unlocked the hatch and floated down into the Banshee's cockpit.

The Banshee's cockpit was standard for most fighters and small shuttles in service of the Terran Federation, with a small, padded seat that had emergency ejection capabilities, a gravity generator, a control stick, and lots of displays. While managing such a craft would certainly seem daunting to the average skyskimmer pilot, it was no problem for experienced pilots like Hall. She sat on the pilot's seat, automatically triggering both the grav generator and the seat harnesses. Pressing a button on the main console, she closed and sealed the cockpit. Giving a verbal command to the Banshee's onboard computer, she heard the relaxing sound of the fighter's ion engines coming on-line.

"Computer," she said, "open a channel to Control."

"Control here," came the reply.

""Control, this is Banshee. Begin launch sequence."

"Acknowledged."

Underneath the Banshee, the great bay doors began to swing open, creating an exit path for the fighter, seeming like a bomber about to drop its explosives. "Computer," Hall said, "fold wings to flight position." The computer complied, and several seconds later it said that it was ready to launch. "Okay then," replied Hall. "Computer, release the maglocks!" Even in zero-gravity, the force of the ejection was enough to push Hall down into her seat. When she cleared Corona's hull, she set a course for Beta Ancaster VII. Rocketing towards the planet at full velocity, Hall decided to open the mission profile.

After a relative lull in the mission lasting for about an hour, the flight time from the take-off point to Beta Anc VII, a relatively quiet klaxon sounded in the cockpit. Upon hearing the klaxon, Hall ordered the fighter's computer to end reciting the most recent copy of the Arcturus Picayune, Hall's homeworld newspaper. While the newspaper itself had its head office on Ithaca, it serviced the planet of Ithaca, its two moons, the six inhabited asteroids, and the ten moons of Arcturus IX. Before the computer had stopped reading the publication, it had been talking about a large earthquake near New Corinth. Hall then adjusted her helmet-mounted HUD (Heads Up Display) and said, "Computer, overlay the location of the energy signature on the HUD visor." On the green, transparent sheet of duraglass, a red dot pulsed in the moon's southern hemisphere. Steering the Banshee towards the location, Hall switched the active weapon from the particle cannon to the plasma missiles, which formed the image of wandering crosshairs in the HUD. The missile had almost locked onto the energy signature when laser fire began erupting from the surface of the moon. Reacting almost instinctively, Hall jerked the control stick away from the moon. After exiting the range of the lasers, Hall had a decision to make. Should I fire a plasma torpedo and risk destroying half the moon, or should I execute a strafing run? she thought. After agonizing over the decision for several minutes, she decided on the strafing run. Just before she was going to tell the computer to set up a course for the run, the "Incoming Communications" light winked on.

"Computer," she said, "what type of commchannel are we currently receiving?" After analyzing the transmission for a second or two, the computer responded by saying, "It is a standard Terran Federation broad-band distress signal." Distress signal? she thought, then she remembered the EM flux at Beta Anc IV. "Computer," she said, "let me hear it." The resulting noise was a combination of static, multiple explosions, and people trying ot be heard over the din. "To any and all Federation vessels near the Beta Ancaster system, this is Captain Hansen of the Federation vessel Arcturus." Hall felt a chill with the mention of the destroyer's name. "We are under attack by multiple enemy vessels. We've lost engines, and the shields are buckling. They have already crippled the freighter we were escorting and forced it to crash-land on the third moon." An explosion, louder than all the others, filtered through into the Banshee's cockpit. Accompanying it were the unmistakeable sounds of a hull breach siren and a damage control team boarding a turbolift. "Please," Hansen repeated, "if you can hear this message, please assist us! I repeat, we are under attack in the Beta Ancas-." The last three letters of "Ancaster" were drowned out by the sound of a monumental explosion, which was replaced by static several seconds later. Hoping that the static was just a result of the primary tachyon transmitter being damaged or destroyed, Hall realized that she had to assist. "Computer, close the commchannel, engage the stealth field, and plot a hyperspace microjump as far in-system as possible without putting the ship at risk." When the computer reported that it was ready to execute the microjump, Hall simply said, "Engage." In a flash of light, the Banshee promptly disappeared into the swirling blue hyperspace vortex.

#

Arriving at Beta Anc IV twenty minutes later, Hall's eyes were met with devastationi. Debris - tools, frozen bodies, hull fragments littered the scene. While the majority of the fragments were the size of Hall's fighter or smaller, the hypperradar quickly detected a fragment fifteen meters long. As it drifted into view, Hall was able to make out the letters "FSS ARCTURUS DD 475." "That explosion I heard must have been the antimatter reactor losing containment," Hall said, thinking aloud. After the fighter's radar had finished scanning the wreckage, discovering no life-signs in the debris, Hall swung the fighter towards the third moon. Upon achieving orbit, Hall said, "Computer, scan the moon for life-signs." "Scanning," the computer said. Finally, it said, "One hundred and four life-signs detected." "Computer," Hall said, "can you specify the life-forms on the moon's surface?" Within seconds, the computer responded, "Detecting eighty-seven humans, nine Sirians, three Trannians, and five Bellatrians." Realizing that, since Corona's crew complement was only fifty-six beings, part of Arcturus's crew had survived. Those crew members might be able to give descriptions of what Hall had dubbed the "Battle of Beta Ancaster." Sending a coded tachyon burst transmission to Starbase Kappa 16, informing them of the situaiton, Hall piloted the Banshee through the atmosphere to an effortless landing among the wreckage of the Corona.

**********

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Previously on Common Words

Friday, October 23, 2009

PDP #120: Rainscape

Of the three days I spent in Chicago earlier this month, it rained every damn day. Seeing as how it's considerably more annoying to take photographs while holding an umbrella, and that excessive moisture in the air seems to drive down the quality of the photos I take, it was not very pleasant. The transition from overcast to driving rain was always rapid, too. Twenty minutes in the Adler Planetarium was enough for me to bridge the gap from "grey but okay" to driving rain.

I actually think that, in this circumstance, it actually improved this photo of the Chicago skyline from what it might have otherwise been.

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, October 22, 2009

The Madness of Damocles

Truman went on to promise, "Citizens of the United States will awaken in cold sweats, screaming, night after night. Dark visions will haunt their every night's sleep: their children being cut apart like burnt paper by the gush of million-degree atomic heat or worse, their children surviving as 'radiated,' subhuman mutants who roam the charred earth as marauding cannibals."
- The Onion, "War Over! 50 Years of Nuclear Paranoia Begin Today." August 15, 1945.

Earlier this month, Germany celebrated the twentieth anniversary of its reunification. The coming-together of West Germany and East Germany, an event no one at the time had seriously expected, marked a turning point in the Cold War - although it was overshadowed by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the definitive end of that fifty-year standoff two years later. It has been nearly eighteen years since the Hammer and Sickle last flew over the Kremlin. Today, there are university students to whom the Cold War, and its attendant omnipresent threat of nuclear annihilation from a clear blue sky, is nothing but history.

I'm practically there myself. I was born in 1982, and by the time I was old enough to intellectually conceive of just what nuclear war was, the Cold War had ended. I think that gives me a different perspective from those who actually lived through it - and it's the sheer logistics of living through something like the Cold War that's brought me back to one question, again and again.

How is it that the last generations, living so much of their lives in the shadow of bombs, were not driven insane by that fear? Denial and ignorance and an unwillingness to confront the gravity of the situation can only go so far. Stress can be sublimated, but it's still there, just waiting for an opportunity to roar. You could find it wherever you looked, so long as you looked hard enough; back in 2006, Randy McDonald at A Bit More Detail called attention to "a worringly popular subgenre" in 1980s music "about the world ending in nuclear fire."

In 2005 or so I heard, through a friend, that his father found the then-current War on Terror to be far more worrisome than the twentieth-century threat of nuclear war. I couldn't understand that position at all. Granted, while a terrorist attack is significantly more likely to occur than global thermonuclear war, terrorist attacks by their very nature are limited. The odds of being swept up in one are remote, and they are very focused in terms of targets - a marketplace, a building, an aircraft. In contrast, the hopeful unlikeliness of nuclear war is, I think, far counterweighed by the ubiquity of nuclear war. Had the United States and the Soviet Union launched all their birds back in, say, 1983 - a Soviet first strike brought on by panic toward NATO's Able Archer 83 exercise, maybe - there is nowhere on Earth that would not have been touched by it.

Something as long-lasting and dreadful as the threat of nuclear annihilation cannot possibly have passed without leaving some kind of psychological imprint. I've wondered if the idea of the "disposable society" that's so in vogue today was at least partially inspired by it. Around the 1950s, Western society turned from favoring well-built products that lasted and stood up to punishment in favor of kitschy crap that fell apart if you looked at it askance, but it was cheap, cheap, cheap! Even the abandonment of public transit systems in North America and the United Kingdom might conceivably be tied to this attitude - why not build a system to be convenient to the growing legions of car owners, if there was a legitimate danger of civilization being destroyed in the next couple of decades? Deathbeds are supposed to be comfortable, aren't they?

It'll be a long time yet before people who were too young to conceive of, or weren't around for, the dangers of the Cold War enter positions of public and private leadership in any significant way. Until then civilization will be guided by those who grew up powerfully aware that at any moment, their lives might be ended by a silent flash of light in the sky.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

PDP #119: The Future, Above the Past

Toronto's Distillery District, a thirteen-acre area of preserved Victorian industrial architecture recently converted into a residential/entertainment center, is one of those places that would be a lot more well-known if Toronto had a higher global profile. The city is still shedding the "boring and ordinary" nature it had for much of the twentieth century, and it's in places like this that I see the future.

The future, and the past. It's a perfect encapsulation of the nature of Toronto - the low-slung, red-brick, converted industrial precincts overshadowed by towering glass condo towers, the 19th and 21st centuries being combined into one. It's one of the few instances where Toronto actually shied away from bulldozing its past.

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, October 20, 2009

Electronic Ephemera

Today it doesn't seem like it's a race, but a full-on stampede toward the promise of the future, at least as far as shiny technological toys are counted as "the future." In fifteen years, cell phones have gone from brick-sized tchotchkes that only high-powered Wall Street traders and styling West Coast agents carried around to things that make twenty-third century technology look outdated; soon traditional rabbit ears will be useless everywhere as television broadcasting switches from analog to digital - I only wish someone would explain why this is necessary; and electronic publication is slowly but surely starting to chip away at the print market.

I'm not so sure if this is the greatest thing, in the long run, even if the immediate news is good.

That good news is that in June 2010, Prime Books is launching Lightspeed, a new science fiction magazine that will "focus exclusively on science fiction... and push the envelope." After the recent announcement of Baen's Universe's imminent demise and the skin-of-teeth salvation of Realms of Fantasy earlier this year, the idea of a completely new venue for short science fiction appearing on the scene is energizing. If Lightspeed ends up publishing bound collections of the stories that appeared in it, as Baen's Universe did, it'd be even better - I have one of the Universe collections, and I'm glad of that, since it won't disappear into the aether when the online component goes dark.

To be honest, I'm not all that fired up about the prospects of electronic-only publication, particularly in the long-term. I know that right now they're on fire - given the massive potential audience of smartphone owners who are always looking for more distraction or stimulation on the go, and the overhead expense of electronic publication is considerably less than physically printing a magazine every month - but I think there should also be attention paid to circumstances beyond the immediate. What concerns me is the prospect that, if I ever was published in an electronic-only publication, if it ever folded and went offline I might not have anything to show for it but a check.

It's not unbelievable. Look at GeoCities. In 1999, that website was at the top of the world. People from around the Internet flooded there to set up personal sites full of frames and animated .gifs with MIDI background music. Six days from now, it is going to be turned off and shut down, and anything that is not rescued by the Internet Archive or squirreled away on some hard drive somewhere will be lost forever. It will be XOOM/NBCi all over again, which failed spectacularly in 2002; it's only fairly recently that I've noticed web searches not offering a platter full of hits from those shuttered sites. The disappearance of GeoCities will be even more substantial.

The way I see it, there is no security in electronic publication besides the host's willingness and capability to continue paying the server bills. If an online-only publication did fold, they sure as hell wouldn't be in a position to maintain its website and story archives as it was at the height of its glory. More likely it would all just disappear with an electronic poof, and don't think about saving and archiving its content elsewhere unless you're the author. I've never seen, let alone signed, an electronic-only publishing contract yet, but I doubt it would look kindly on that practice.

I own an issue of Amazing Stories from 1940. Looking at the shelf across the room, I can see at the top of one of the magazine piles issues of Astounding from May 1947 and May 1948. These require no active upkeep or maintenance, and as long as they're treated properly, they will last until the very paper they're printed on starts to disintegrate. They're windows into the history of the genre, and glimpses into the cultures within which they were written. A fundamental shift of the industry's orientation from physical to electronic publication would make that impossible. If Lightspeed shuts its doors in, say, 2040, it's not as if you'll be able to stumble across a back issue of it from December 2021 in a used bookstore.

Electronic publication is inexpensive and immediate. With those advantages alone, it's not much of a bet to guess that it will come to control a much more significant market share in the years ahead. Balanced against that, though, is its lack of permanance. If we're not careful, we may end up stumbling into the same void as the early days of television, when episodes and entire series were casually wiped from archived tapes because, of course, no one would ever want to watch the same episode twice, would they?

Monday, October 19, 2009

PDP #118: Revolt in Leafs Nation

The way I see it, the Toronto Maple Leafs are the Chicago Cubs of hockey. Though they never take home the prize at the end - their last Stanley Cup victory was in 1967 - they still command fan loyalty and regularly play in arenas filled to the rafters. Or, at least, that's been the case for most of the last forty-two years. After a four-decade streak of mediocrity, it seems that Leafs fans are starting to get fed up with the team's status as perennial losers.

I found this graffiti on a Maple Leafs sidewalk ad yesterday at the corner of Queen West and Bathurst. The Habs are the Montreal Canadiens, the Leafs' traditional rivals and a team far more likely to win the Stanley Cup.

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, October 18, 2009

Short SF Review #11: "Revolt of the Ants"

"Revolt of the Ants," by Milton Kaletsky
Appeared in
Amazing Stories, April 1940

Continuing, the ants said: "We are excellent engineers, architects, agriculturists and herdsmen. We are far better economists than you because every ant has a job and enough to eat. We live together without laws, courts and police. We ants have no drunkards, thieves, politicians or lunatics; no moral troubles, no poverty, no swing bands, no fake stock salesmen and no taxes. We actually practice what we preach. Can you humans say the same? You will never eliminate all your faults and defects by yourselves, so we must do it for you. Good day."

For much of the twentieth century, science fiction was popularly pigeonholed as a genre of nerds and weird loners more concerned with fanciful spaceships than the problems of the present day. Today, thankfully, the general impression isn't nearly as skewed and science fiction has come into its own - though, to be honest, a lot of it isn't called science fiction so bluntly, and some of its writers have no desire to be known as science fiction authors. Take Harlan Ellison, who expressed his reasons why in a 1980 interview available on YouTube. Until Star Trek and Star Wars started to gain traction in popular culture, science fiction was a genre of ray-guns and rocketships, found in magazines with lurid covers of monstrous aliens menacing scantily-clad women, and even then it took a while for the pendulum to shift.

"Revolt of the Ants" by Milton Kaletsky, while including neither ray-guns nor rocketships or scantily-clad women, is firmly within that school of science fiction. According to the Internet Speculative Fiction Database, it only ever appeared in print twice. The most recent was Science Fiction Adventure Classics, March 1972, which I've never encountered. Where I found it was right at home, right where it was meant to be, in the seventy-year-old pages of the April 1940 issue of Amazing Stories (cover story: David Wright O'Brien's "Fish Men of Venus"). I found it in a Wrigleyville bookstore while wandering Chicago and bought it on the spot for $15, but the magazine would have been a bargain at three times the price.

This is an actual god damned pulp science fiction magazine, the source of that pigeonholing. Aside from minor age-related yellowing around the edges of the pages, it is in excellent condition. See for yourself.

Of the six stories in the April 1940 Amazing, "Revolt of the Ants" may at once be the closest to reality and the most ludicrous. A calm day at the White House is shattered when thousands upon thousands of ants stream into the Oval Office and, as they are "very intelligent animals" and have become literate by "examining children's elementary reading books and dictionaries" in landfills, demand the right to vote.

I'm not sure if this is just ludicrous or awesomely ludicrous. I'm going to summarize the plot here as well; considering how obscure this story is, locating a copy might be an adventure in itself.

The human characters in the story seem to take the idea of intelligent, communicative ants fairly well in stride. Only a few weeks go by before the Supreme Court rules that ants born on American soil are, in fact, natural-born American citizens and thus fully capable of exercising the right to vote. Considering the actual political environment of 1940, when racist Jim Crow laws were still very much in force throughout much of the United States, I can't help but see this as extremely forward-looking and optimistic on the part of the author.

Matters become complicated when the newly-enfranchised ants wish for the extension of that privilege to bees and termites, and the President plays his trump card - the ants, bees, and termites can vote when they reach the age of twenty-one years, the same as any other citizen.1 The insects, being "noble, honorable, efficient and intelligent" by their own description, respond to the human-centric laws of the United States of America by formally declaring war on humanity.

It isn't much of a war, actually, as wars were considered in 1940. It's more of a sustained global terrorist campaign waged by insects, conducted by bees "stinging at everyone they could catch" and termites forcing the cancellation of baseball games as they "ate the bats into uselessness." Truth be told, throughout the story the insects prove themselves to be on an entirely different plane of morality than 21st century human terrorists - their tactics never go beyond vandalism and annoyance, and there's no mention in the story of any human actually dying as a result of the "war." Plenty of ants, bees, and termites are, though - after four months of this asymmetrical warfare, their numbers are halved through sustained human chemical warfare.

Still, the war against the ants brought humanity together, and the climax of the story finds the President of the United States at a conference meant to unite the quarreling political parties and fight as a united front. Into this, representatives of the Grand Supreme Council of Ants, Bees, and Termites (yes, really) deliver a new message - an end to the war and an indictment of humanity, effectively summarized by their last statement: "To hell with you."

Predictably, of course, as soon as the spectre of insect bites and insomnia from nighttime swarming attacks is lifted, humankind's newfound amity dissolves into political backbiting - "Brotherhood broke up in a riot. The United States was back to normal."

I found an earnest simplicity in "Revolt of the Ants" that was, frankly, endearing. There's none of the social or futurological speculation that is the foundation of the genre, little characterization - the characters are ciphers, nameless and referred to only by position - or plot twists and suspense; it's a story about ants that revolt.

Of the story's assumptions, one of two which struck me as particularly unusual was the idea that the ants were individually intelligent. The concept of an insect revolt isn't that sophisticated, but a more modern treatment would likely have given the ants a hive mind, like the hornets in Neal Asher's Polity universe. It may be that the concept of a hive mind was what was sophisticated then; one of its first substantial uses was by Olaf Stapledon in 1930, only ten years before "Revolt of the Ants" was published.

The other odd assumption was the ants' mention of swing bands as a particular negative of human society. This would appear to be the personal view of author Milton Kaletsky; the "Meet the Authors" section of the magazine tells me that in addition to swing, he disliked "liquor, modern art and poetry, economics, dictators and the movies."

Kaletsky also expressed a desire to "see Halley's Comet when it returns in 1986." I checked up on this. According to the ISFDB, Milton Kaletsky wrote his last piece of short fiction in 1942 and died in 1988. I can't know if he was in a position to see that "source of tears," as Eilmer of Malmesbury is reputed to have called it, but - it made me feel a bit better.

ANDREW'S RATING: 3/5

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1 Looking into this led me to a bit of history I wasn't previously aware of. In 1940, this actully was the voting age. In the United States, it wasn't standardized at 18 until the passage of the 26th Amendment in 1971.