Monday, February 28, 2011

In Defense of Television

When I was younger I watched a lot of Star Trek: The Next Generation, a lot of it off hand-labelled VHS tapes. There was one episode in particular, Season 1's "The Neutral Zone" - the one where the Enterprise finds that ancient satellite full of cryogenically-frozen twentieth century humans, much farther away from Earth than it has any right to be (though that is not really brought up in the episode itself, since in Star Trek space is whatever the writer needs it to be). One of the background details that comes up in the course of that episode is that television, as an entertainment medium, essentially went extinct in the mid-21st century.

At the time, I was all "No! How could that be possible? What would people watch?" Twenty years later, it seems like it may be one of Star Trek's more realistic predictions. Even now it feels like television, or at least the form of television that dominated the 20th century, doesn't have many years left in it. The internet is doing to video what video did to radio, and with services like Netflix, YouTube, and Hulu for the Americans in the audience - the internet is undermining TV's foundations.

As for myself, it's been something on the order of ten years since I regularly watched television. When I went off to university in 2001, I no longer had a regular cable hookup and so drifted away - the only thing I made a habit of watching was Enterprise on the big screen in the junior common room, and that was only an hour a week. I got out of the habit, and never really saw a motivation to get back into it.

Today, I still don't have cable. I do have rabbit ears, though, and they're reminding me of some of the things I liked about TV the first time around.

One of the televisions at the Hotel Ruby in Spokane, Washington.

I don't get all that much over the air. The strongest signal is from KVOS, an independent station based out of Bellingham, Washington that carries a variety of modern and more classic programming; I watch mainly because it airs House on Saturday nights - it's a series that would constantly come up in conversation or on TV Tropes, but I wasn't willing to go buy a DVD set based purely on word-of-mouth. But I will watch it as it streams in.

Plenty of people will be familiar with being spoiled for choice. The way I watch TV now, it's about discovery. I don't have an TV Guide - though I have heard they barely even bother with the program grids now, which tells you how long I've been out of the loop - and I don't have a digital information system with an on-screen guide and plot summaries and what have you. I have the antenna, the remote, and the screen - and aside from easy conclusions like "House will be a jerk" or "it's not lupus," I have no idea what's coming up next. It's almost exploratory - just finding out what's there, with only the barest knowledge of what to expect.

Sure, I'll admit that it's got problems - as an entirely passive medium, there are plenty of ways in which it's just thoroughly beaten by the internet - but I still think that TV does have place in this modern future. I don't think television itself will die - more along the lines of television as I, personally, know it.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Photo: The Light at the End of the Tunnel

Despite its name, the SkyTrain in Metro Vancouver isn't entirely elevated; geography and the cityscape prohibit that. There are, in fact, three underground sections on the system where, if you didn't know better, you'd think Vancouver had a subway. One is the rehabilitated Dunsmuir Tunnel, which explains why the route is so weird downtown, and the other is a short segment under Clarkson Street in New Westminster, immediately around Columbia Station. I took this photo of a portion of that tunnel from the railfan seat on a westbound train. Here you can see a crossover connecting the two tracks; presumably, this is what was used during the service slowdowns a few months back, when the Millennium Line was in operation only between VCC-Clark and Columbia.

The third underground section, by the by, is pretty much the entire length of the Canada Line in the city of Vancouver.

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).

Saturday, February 26, 2011

A Voice from the Wilderness

I have an admission to make: in 2006, I voted for the Conservatives. At the time I was tired of thirteen years of Liberal control of the government and thought that some time in the wilderness would do them good - but more importantly, at the time I did not know Stephen Harper. Given the way the last five years have unfolded, I find the prospect of my ever voting for them again to be unlikely.

While Canadians don't have the knee-jerk terror that was well exhibited in the British media leading up to the election of its Conservative-Liberal Democrat minority government - or, as the papers constantly put it, "hung parliament," since obviously the only way for a parliamentary government to do anything is for the majority to have near-dictatorial control of the procedure - it may be that after nearly seven years, some people are becoming disenchanted at the prospect of an eternal minority government. Personally, I like it. It's a necessary buffer in a system that gives far too much power to Prime Ministers with parliamentary majorities: since, thanks to the antediluvian and anti-democratic practices of party loyalty and party discipline, Canadian MPPs are essentially robots who must vote the way their party leaders instruct unless specifically told otherwise. Remember John Nunziata? I do.

Still, even though my views on this aren't shared by everyone, the Conservatives at least aren't taking the country by storm either; while Harper's big blue machine has recently pulled thirteen points ahead of the Liberals in the polls, they command only a plurality of public support... but in a country divided between five political parties, three of which battle for support in the liberal half of the population, a plurality is often enough.

I just have difficulty understanding it. I can only rationalize it in terms of people forgetting... because, to be fair, it has only been a year since the Prime Minister closed Parliament. For the second time.

Part of the crowd in Toronto's Dundas Square, demonstrating against Harper's second prorogation of Parliament on January 23, 2010.

I've been thinking about Harper's parliamentary shutdown again in light of recent events, specifically the flight of the Wisconsin 14 - the fourteen Democratic state senators who fled the state to stall Governor Scott Walker's antediluvian union-busting legislation. Specifically, I had to wrestle with the question of whether the two events were two sides of the same coin: was Stephen Harper just using the last tactic in his arsenal to forestall what he didn't want - that is, the formation of a Liberal-New Democratic coalition government? If that's the case, wouldn't it be hypocritical for me to support the Wisconsin 14 and go to the streets against Harper?

I thought about it for a while... and I have to conclude that these events, while outwardly similar, are not two sides of the same coin - they're more like a Canadian loonie and an American dollar coin. Wisconsin's Democratic senators decamped for Illinois because their only other option was to stand and be defeated despite a continuous outpouring of public opposition against Governor Walker's measure. By stalling the bill through use of parliamentary tactics, they're doing what they can to keep their constituents from having no voice in this struggle.

Harper, on the other hand - Harper represented only a plurality acting against another plurality - in 2008, the Liberals and NDP together captured 44.44% of the vote, and the involvement of the Bloc Quebecois or the Greens in any coalition would be enough to make it reflect the votes of a majority of the population... because, really, how many people are out there every election, casting their votes for parties that they do not want to win? Harper's case is of the government freezing out its opponents; in Wisconsin, we have the opponents freezing out the government.

It's something we should keep in mind, looking ahead. I can feel the electoral winds start to blow again.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Photo: A Flurry of Droplets

This photo comes from the lagoon right next door to the one where I caught the ducks, in the photo I posted a few days ago. Getting this picture was a matter of patience, though the birds were obliging in that they did freak out and start beating their wings every ten seconds or so - as I'm not sure what kind of bird this is, I can't explain why. But it makes me wish I had access to that stuff that snipers use to get rid of excessive fidgeting; this shot was taken through a 12x zoom lens, and at that level of zoom one little shake will be magnified significantly.

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).

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Common Words: Alpha Pavonis

When I was a teenager, I wrote - but it was without direction. I didn't yet have any idea of what I wanted to do or where I wanted to take any of my narratives, and at that point I'd barely managed to stick with one story from beginning to end. If I was aware of the SF short story markets at the time, it was only peripherally at best: I don't remember buying any of the magazines until university, and even had I been, there's no way the stuff I produced back in the '90s would have passed muster. It's only now that I've managed to not get a rejection slip every once in a while.

This story, "Alpha Pavonis," is another one of those blue-sky story projects; I don't remember if I knew where I was taking it back in 1999, and I certainly don't know. Nevertheless, this story will always be meaningful to me for one simple reason. I can still go back and be there - still early on January 20, 1999, and I sat in one of the study carrols in the library of Barrie Central Collegiate, writing the first draft of this story on three-hole-punch, lined paper. I remember it well because my understanding of the times involved led me to the conclusion that it was while I was writing this story that my grandfather died.

I don't want to forget it, even though I know it sucks - in my defense, I was sixteen. Though I'd be interested in knowing what inspirations influenced the style within.

"Alpha Pavonis"
by Andrew Barton

The convoy of trucks crawled through the dense undergrowth at a snail's pace, their wheels sinking into the mud left by the storms of the previous day. It was mainly the slowness that annoyed Arkady Yakov. He'd been appropriated from the motor pool for this run by Military Transportation, apparently because they were short one crew and needed one on the run they were making into the nearby air force base, a run which was very important and needed to be made that night, no matter what. But Yakov didn't really care about all that. All he cared about was that he was driving through some godforsaken forest in the middle of nowhere where he could be back in the barracks, sitting back and watching the Deseret Cup.

"Damn, look at this mess," Yakov said to his crewmate, Dan Ziggs. Ziggs was a native of the world of Deseret, like Yakov, and didn't seem to be enjoying this run much either. His usually jovial attitude had subsided ever since they'd joined the convoy, probably as a result of the job assigned to them. "You'd think the least they could do is cut a decent road through this bloody forest. It's not like there's any shortage of trees on this rock."

"Nah, that'll never happen, Yak," Ziggs said, using the nickname Yakov had earned during their first run together, back in '14. Has it been six years already? Jeez, I'm gettin' too old for this, Yakov thought idly. "Why's that?" Arkady said a moment later.

"When was the last time the military made something easy? You ever seen one of their damned forms? Entry forms, exit forms, requisition forms... Jeez, you probably have to fill out five seperate forms just to take a dump," Ziggs commented.

"Yeah, I hear that." One of the unfortunate things that had accompanied humanity when the diaspora began was the incredible system of bureaucracy that had evolved on Terra back in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Even if the military was correct in asserting that its bureaucracy was nothing to the one developed in the United States in the 2050's, Yakov shuddered at the thought of even a Federal Armed Forces form. Twenty-five pages just to order a chicken sandwich, Yakov thought.

Yakov tightened the grip of his hands on the old-style, yet still effective, steering wheel of his ArrowMotors 509 light truck and silently cursed the bureaucracy, one of the things he truly hated from the very core of his soul. Even though the entire human sphere of influence was connected by a hyperradio network which provided near-instantaneous communications across hundreds of light-years, and though Deseret and Terra were separated by a mere sixty-seven light years, just a trip around the corner with FTL speeds, the bloody inefficient Senatecritters in London still managed to make everyone wait six to eight weeks for delivery.

Unexpectedly, a pitter-patter of rain began to beat down on the truck. "Great, it's decided to rain again," Ziggs said. "Guess the satellite network is down again..."

Yakov was not surprised when brake lights, in a kind of domino effect, surged through the convoy. He hoped that they would get out of this damned forest soon, else the already precarious mud-ground would turn into a quagmire that even the trucks wouldn't be able to get through. Activating the windshield wipers, he grumbled about the weather and the ineptness of the human military, then turned to Ziggs. "How's the cargo doin'?" he asked.

Ziggs turned his head to the rear of the drivers' compartment and referred to a Geiger counter, mounted semi-securely on the wall of the cabin. It seemed like it had been installed in a hurry, judging from the numerous welding torch burns on and around it. Fortunately, the darkened areas of the counter didn't provide much of an impediment to Ziggs as he checked the device.

"Damn military techies, always goin' too fast to get anything done right," Ziggs muttered, facing forwards once more. "It's a damn wonder none of them bloody starships haven't fallen out of the sky yet."

"Give 'em some time, Dan. Just give 'em time," Yakov said, not taking his gaze off the tailights of the truck ahead of them. "Everything's running okay back there, right? I don't know about you, but I get kind of nervous when I'm babysitting a thirty-kiloton nuke."

"Yeah, me too. One bump too many, and you get a lot closer to understanding just how hot Lithovoreland is."

As the streamlined trucks pressed on through the wilderness, the mud seemed to harden somewhat, allowing them to travel at a blistering ten kilometers per hour. Their drivers, all of them concentrating on the path ahead, were blessedly unaware of what lay in wait for them.


Aleksander Kinsey hated the rain. It hardly ever rained on his homeworld, a huge, terraformed, climate-controlled paradise. The only time precipitation came from the sky was either every once in a while to prevent drought, a possibility which an extensive groundwater supply almost completely precluded, or one of those freak accidents with the weather control matrix.

At least those damned crickets had stopped when the rain started coming down. Though they probably weren't at all like the Terran crickets that had infested his homeworld, they made a noise which was just as annoying. Kinsey didn't take that much time to mull over it, for zoology or botany or whatever it was that studied bugs wasn't one of his interests. All his concentration was taken up by the grey-white trucks which edged their way toward his position, a leafy undergrowth which was hidden by multiple plant outgrowths. That alone made them almost undetectable, and coupled with the darkness of the night and the infrared-blocking suits he and his team were wearing, that would make them almost invisible to prying eyes. Unless, of course, someone got stupid.

"Seven trucks in the convoy, sir," reported a young soldier, hidden nearby and peering through night vision goggles. His name was Randolph, or something like that. Kinsey was terrible with names. "A couple of them have what looks like fuel pods, and the rest seem to have cargo pods on board, just like our intelligence indicated." The soldier, Randolph, stood up to try and get a better view. "Have to hand it to the Feds, they stick to their schedule like nothing else. Which truck do you think the--" Before Randolph had a chance to finish, Kinsey grabbed hold of his arm and pulled the soldier to the ground. True, Randolph was the newest member of his team, but he had to learn the tricks of the trade the easy way or the hard way. And Kinsey valued his team too much for them to learn the hard way.

"First lesson, idiot, is to stay down at all times. You never, ever take risks like that when you're in this game. For all we know, the Feds have a whole division hidden in that forest. You want to make your head a nice and easy target for them, go ahead."

"Sir, I just thought that--"

"You thought! Sure didn't seem like that from what I saw. Maybe next time you should think it through a little more. Get it through your brain, you are not invisible!" Kinsey growled, making sure to keep his voice low.

"But, the night--"

"Who cares about the night?" Kinsey said, interrupting Randolph once more. "You see this night vision stuff we got? Take a look at it. This is fifty years old. We got them at a fucking flea market, for Christ's sake! And if fifty-year-old equipment can do all this, imagine what kind of gadgets they have."

"Yes sir. Sorry, sir." Randolph had made a stupid mistake, a rookie mistake. But a common mistake nonetheless. Kinsey reflected on how young Randolph's perceived invincibility had just been removed. Hopefully he wouldn't make another mistake like that in a worse situation, and he'd be able to go back home and retire. Randolph was lucky, though. Kinsey had lost scores of men under his command through stupid mistakes such as that. Men who at one point had had a future ahead of them, and were now pushing up a thousand varieties of flora on a hundred different worlds.

"Now then, Private, look through your goggles at that convoy. It's time for Lesson Two." The private did as he was told, and firmly fixed his gaze on the slow-moving column of vehicles. "See that one in the middle? That's the one carrying the nuke," Kinsey said, pointing to an ArrowMotors 509. "See the differences in its cargo pod compared to the others?"

Randolph studied it for a moment. "It doesn't look any different," he concluded a moment later.

"Yes, to the untrained eye," said Kinsey. "But look at the outside. The other pods are titanium alloy, but that one is pure xeranium. Seems to me they've got most of the rest of the uranium and plutonium in there with the nuke, or they wouldn't need nearly that much shielding.

"You're sure of that, sir? Couldn't it be that they know we're coming, and they're setting some kind of trap?"

Kinsey sighed. Of course he'd gotten stuck with the inexperienced newbie soldier. Taking a moment to activate his nicotine patch, he thought about all his previous exploits. Victory Park, the Unity Planetary Monorail, Nekkar's Financial Square... all of those, important and infamous as they had been in their times, would pale when his ultimate plan came to pass.

"First of all, soldier, let me give you some free advice. Caution is good, but too much caution will manage to kill you just as well as charging the trenches will. Believe it, learn it, and remember it. It cost a hundred thousand credits just to train you, and I'll be damned if I'm gonna throw that much money away. Besides, you don't last as long in this business as I have by being stupid. And about the trap, the last attack was seventeen parsecs from here. They've no reason for suspicion, none at all."

Kinsey glanced through the goggles once again and uttered a Russian curse, the language of his far-distant ancestors, from before humanity had spread out from the homeworld to claim its rightful place in the galaxy.

"What's wrong, sir?" asked Randolph, who had correctly taken Kinsey's curse as a cause for concern.

"Get your damn goggles on your head and use your eyes, man. That convoy is speeding up, and there's a paved road going right to the base starting barely a kilometer ahead of them."

"But sir, if they get on an open road, how would we catch up with them? The transport doesn't have nearly enough speed to equal them, let alone catch up. And there's no way an infantry platoon charging up behind them could retain the element of surprise."

"Right you are, soldier," Kinsey said. So he does have some brains after all. "Get your weapons and be ready to go. Remember, every second we spend here is an extra second they have to get out of the forest." Kinsey reached to his belt and retrieved a small, portable radio. The techs back home hadn't bothered to put a transmission encrypter on it, the main reason that there simply wasn't anything in the area that routinely scanned for radio signals. There hadn't been much demand for the slower-than-light radio starting by the twenty-second century, when both the hyperdrive and the hyperradio came into vogue. True, radio waves were so slow that they made interstellar communication virtually impossible. But on a planet, they still retained their usefulness.

"Dugout, this is Pitcher," Kinsey said, using the laughable code names the bosses back home had decided upon. He noted the static in the background, a static which was usually absent on hyperradio frequencies. Though it was adept at masking words and making things difficult to understand, it also lent a feeling of nostalgia which modern equipment lacked. "Target is leaving the ballpark, and bases are loaded. Prepare to head for home in one minute, on my mark. And... mark."

Kinsey's chrono was set in a countdown for one minute, along with those of the rest of his team. One minute, and a new era would begin to be ushered in.


The convoy slowed down again, and Yakov grudgingly put on the brakes. Fortunately, the onboard GPS was working just fine, and in a few minutes they'd get on a road and out of this muddy hell. "Thank god, eh, Dan?" he said. "Maybe we'll even get back in time for the halftime show."

Ziggs didn't say anything, at first. He thought he spied motion at the outer edge of his vision. He looked for some sign of movement, but could not see anything. Pegging it on either an optical illusion or leaves rustling from the wind or rain, he pushed the thought to the back of his head and began discussing the finer points of the Deseret Cup with Yakov.


"Ready people, in five seconds." The tension was in the atmosphere around Aleksander Kinsey's position near the convoy. From this vantage point, he could even see the truck drivers through the light of their cabins. He thought one of the drivers in the truck carrying the nuclear weapon might have spotted him, so he lied still and unmoving. The driver has then lost interest and returned to what he was doing.

"Good luck, sir," Randolph said.

"You too, kid. And... let's go!" At Kinsey's command, two dozen armored troopers emerged from their hiding places in unison, and began charging towards the convoy.


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

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Previously on Common Words

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Photo: Above the Moon

The only reason I looked up to notice this scene was because someone else had stopped to take a picture. I'm not sure what the person's doing, clinging to the side of a skyscraper at Burrard and Hastings - at first I thought it was a window cleaner, but the only gear I can see looks like dedicated climbing gear.

Glad I stopped to capture it, though.

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).

Tuesday, February 22, 2011


Unions have always been a complicated issue for me to pin an opinion on; I've never actually been involved with one, so all my experience is second-hand or filtered, and the only times that unions have ever directly affected me was during the high school teachers' strike back in 1998 or the TTC strike of 2008. Their indirect influence, however, goes far deeper. The actions of labor unions in the twentieth century led to me being able to take lunch breaks and paid breaks during my eight-hour working day, five days a week.

I can remember having unsophisticated views about unions, relatively recently, but also relatively unquestioned and based on a slim foundation. I can recall believing that unions weren't as necessary now as they were in the past - that they had their place in potentially dangerous jobs, like the factories or the coal mines or what have you, but not in more white-collar occupations. I can't remember why, exactly, anymore.

My primary problem in this viewpoint was, of course, projection. In my mind, if I was in charge I wouldn't abuse employees without unions, so wouldn't it be logical that the people actually in charge wouldn't either? In my defense, I never actually thought it out in those words; had I done so, the ridiculousness of it would probably have been made plain far earlier.

Over the last few days, the ongoing demonstrations against Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's effort to use the state budget crisis as an opportunity to kneecap the public sector unions' collective bargaining rights, I've had motive and opportunity to examine and re-evaluate my previous beliefs.

In the twenty-first century, unions are still important, but in a different way than they were a hundred years ago. Back then, they were pushing workers' rights up a steep, steep incline: today they've got higher footholds, sure, but now they're keeping those rights from rolling back down to the bottom. I'm of the opinion that in a world where, for whatever reason, unions disappeared, workers' rights would not immediately but would inevitably decline. After all, if these rights were widely perceived as natural, there would have been no need to fight for them the first time.

I feel that unions should be defended and maintained for one simple reason: mutually assured destruction. No, really. Hear me out on this.

The Wisconsin State Capitol, site of the past week's protests in Madison.

It's been nearly seventy years since the Second World War ended. In those seventy years, there has never been a war on the vast scale of those fought around the world, with all segments of society working toward victory - and the biggest reason is the existence of nuclear weapons. Deterrence theory. Knowing what I know about the Soviet Union's postwar actions and inclinations, in a hypothetical world without nuclear weapons, I cannot see a reason why Stalin would not have sent the Red Army marching toward the English Channel by 1953. After all, so much of Russia's grand strategy has been predicated on maintaining a buffer between itself and its enemies - and what better buffer is there than an ocean? With nuclear weapons, however, the risk of any attempted European conquest was far too great.

But back to the point about unions. Just by their existence, they influence employers. Employees could always theoretically form a union, or join one - and even if you're running a non-union operation, that in itself gives employers a motive to provide decent pay and benefits in order to head off labor grumblings. In a world without unions, that motive collapses... not all at once, since there is inertia. Laws by themselves are no defense against this: many employers have deep pockets, and slowly and surely those laws dedicated toward workers' protections would be chipped away and broken down.

The presence of unions indirectly influences people in a manner far more deeply than many may realize. If we allow them to be weakened unduly, we'll only be weakening ourselves a short way down the line.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Photo: Like Stars on Water

When you're taking a picture, you can't ignore the light - but the way the light influences the photograph depends on the qualities of the camera. When I took this photo of a small lagoon along the pedestrian path to Granville Island, from where I was standing the sunlight was reflecting off the water directly into the lens; the viewscreen was just a disorganized mess of light, but I figured I'd take the shot anyway to see if it turned out. It wasn't until I was on the bus and away from the bright sunlight that I was able to tell.

I wouldn't have been able to plan it this way, so I think it works out as a result. A good photo, I think, to be the first in my switch from general public domain licensing to Creative Commons BY-NC-SA licensing.

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).

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Ask, and Understand

I didn't watch the recent man vs. machine series on Jeopardy! this past week, so all the information I'm getting about how IBM's Watson crushed its human competitors has been filtered through other sources - but that's okay. The most fundamental thing that we should take from this is that clear-language interaction with computers - something that's been a staple of science fiction for decades - has taken a huge step toward reality, despite speedbumps such as answering "Toronto" in a Final Jeopardy category about United States cities. Watson wasn't fooled by the wordplay and the back-and-forth; it was able to to pierce through the doubletalk and understand what was being asked of it.

That bears repeating: a computer program that understands something. There are plenty of people who think that this is just a dim shadow of what's waiting for us in the very near future. As potentially world-shaking as the Singularity could be, supposing that we ever agree on how to define the damn thing and then it actually happens, that's not one of the implications of Watson's victory that I've been thinking about much.

Specifically, the social implications of people having access to individual question-answerer programs. What if, in ten years, every smartphone literally is a smart phone, and comes equipped with a descendant of Watson that can answer any question you ask of it so long as it has sufficient time to poke around for answers on the internet? Considering the pace of development over the last ten years, I would not be surprised for the phones of 2021 to function as oracles as well.

But what does this do to people? Consider the modern day - how often do you encounter stories of people driving themselves into ditches, or into farmers' fields, or into an illegal turn across multiple lanes of traffic because their GPS told them to, and they obeyed it without question? Let's be honest... critical thinking isn't exactly part of the school curriculum in North America at least, and there are plenty of people out there who don't know how to think think. People have always wanted easy answers. What's going to happen when it's as easy as asking your phone when you've got a burning question, and uncritically accepting whatever it flings back at you as the truth?

One thing I'll always remember about school is that research is difficult. It's hard to find good and appropriate sources, to sort through those sources, to figure out what material you need and to identify biases in the text and distill it down so you can answer the question in front of you. For me, the research phase of an essay took weeks - and that was even without waiting for worthwhile sources to get there through interlibrary loan. Consider how many people would leap at the opportunity to skip all that effort - hell, it's practically what we see now, with some students shamelessly cribbing from Wikipedia articles, or going whole hog and buying essays from mills. Who cares about understanding the answer, so long as you have it?

Understanding is the key. An answered question is worthless unless you know what the answer means. As our computers become more and more sophisticated and capable of interacting with us on more meaningful levels, we need to take care that we avoid falling into the trap of complacency - of working toward a world where our computers understand its workings better than we do.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Photo: Forward, Wisconsin

I was through Madison, Wisconsin last September while en route to Vancouver. It seemed like a city I could get behind, geographically and culturally - it sort of reminded me of Peterborough with a state government attached. Its motto, "Forward," is appropriate - back in 1924 it was the bedrock of support for Bob LaFollette's Progressive Party, and it's not as if its politics have firmly tilted the other way since then. I explored the surroundings of the Wisconsin State Capitol, marked by well-maintained plants and the statue of Lady Forward.

But tilt they have, and today you probably couldn't get this picture - even discounting the differences in seasons - because from what I understand, these the grounds of the Wisconsin State Capitol are packed by people 24/7, protesting against Governor Scott Walker's opportunistic attempt to take advantage of a budget shortfall and strip Wisconsin's public sector trade unions of their collective bargaining rights - among other things.

People, it can be said, aren't too happy. It seems that people in Wisconsin want to go forward, not backward.

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

Friday, February 18, 2011

That Fantastic Fantascience

Traditionally, science fiction has been a big tent. It's only relatively recently that the general public has begun to cotton on to the notion that there are a lot of aspects covered under that one name; you don't need to go back many decades for the common perception to be of rocketships and rayguns and women in scanty metal bikinis. Today it's far more appropriate for "science fiction" to be considered an overarching genre description that contains beneath it things like alternate history, space opera, planetary romances, and sociological speculation. While ridiculous crap in the mold of something like, say, Gale Allen and the Girl Squadron must still exist, at least it's a hell of a lot thinner on the ground now than seventy years ago.

Science fantasy is one particular subgenre that's been around almost since the beginning. Defining it is a difficult thing: beyond the simple descriptiveness of a subgenre that mixes science fiction and fantasy, I tend to lean more toward those that point to science fantasy works as ones that include specificially supernatural forces in it. Still, it's not a perfect definition: something like, say, Shadowrun would thus be considered science fantasy because of the heavy use of actual magic in the setting, and the Telzey Amberdon stories are science fiction even though, fundamentally, psionics are just a way for sf authors to use magic without calling it magic. Same effect, just different label.

It's what I've been saying - labels are important. To me, science fantasy feels like it describes one side of a coin... so what's on the other?

Allow me to suggest... fantascience. I take no credit for the term; it's far older than me, and is just one of the many terms - "scientifiction" was another one, hence why I call myself a scientifictionist - that were dueling for supremacy before "science fiction" won out as a general genre description. Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction refers to it as an obsolete term, listing no usage of the word more recently than 1947. Plenty of opportunity, I figured for it to be rescued and repurposed.

In the end it's all about appearances, so this is how I would define these two sides of the coin against each other - simplistically, of course, but I'll expand as best I can for now.

Science fantasy is a work of fantasy that looks like science fiction, whereas fantascience is a work of science fiction that looks like fantasy.

How does it work? Let's take a bog-standard image of what's popularly understood, at least, to be fantasy - a wizard casting a fireball spell. In a science fantasy setting, the wizard would not be called a wizard at all, but would manipulate the subquantum echoes of the universe or something else that at least sounds scientific in order to summon a fireball. In fantascience, on the other hand, the wizard might look more or less exactly what you'd expect a traditional wizard to look like, but spellcasting means that nanobots in the wizard's brain are commanding nanobots in the surrounding air to heat up to a white heat and launch themselves at the target. This is more or less exactly how it's done in James Alan Gardner's Trapped - though I may be slightly off, as it's been a few years since I read it.

To put it another way, I figure fantascience as featuring the accomplishment of apparently fantastic feats through ultimately mundane means, whereas science fantasy uses the appearance of the everyday to give an apparently mundane air to the fantastic. The way that the "supernatural" effects are depicted matters a great deal, as well - a rigorously examined and justified and understood set of psi-type abilities, like biotics in Mass Effect, wouldn't be enough in my mind to push something into the science fantasy category; the source of these powers would need to be a lot more mystical or ineffable, like the Force. In fantascience, strange things can be ultimately understood - but in science fantasy, they're probably beyond the ken of all but a few.

The way I see it, there's nothing wrong with subgenres - what's wrong with defining the various flavors of science fiction in such a way that readers can zero in on what they're really interested in?

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Photo: Tugging Along

For more than a century, the Fraser River has been one of the most travelled highways leading into British Columbia's interior. Without it, BC wouldn't exist as it does today. It's a thriving, working watercourse, nothing like the more domesticated rivers and lakes you'll find in southern Ontario - you can find everything from corralled logs waiting for pickup to enormous floating bins of presumably mine-related material somewhere along its course.

Nevertheless, it's still a bit of an adjustment to be walking down Fourth Street toward the SkyTrain and look ahead only to see a tug like General Jackson go sailing by.

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, February 16, 2011

Tunnel Visions: Phoenix's Metro Light Rail

Every once in a while, Acts of Minor Treason hops out of New Westminster, 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.

No matter where you go in the world, there's one core necessity underlying successful rapid transit networks: they have to have a sufficiently dense population to serve. With that in mind, then, it should come as no surprise that Phoenix, Arizona, chugged through the majority of the twentieth century with no transit solution more sophisticated than buses. Its streetcar days ended in 1948, after most of the Phoenix Street Railway's fleet was destroyed in a fire1, and with the popularization of air conditioning shortly thereafter, Phoenix and its surrounding communities flung themselves across the desert with wild abandon. Phoenix itself experienced a 311.1% population increase between 1950 and 1960, and the vast majority of those people most probably ended up in the same sort of sprawling suburban developments that still dominate the Valley of the Sun today. It's precisely that pattern of development that made Phoenix the fifth most populous city in the United States; only New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston are bigger.

Despite the opportunities made possible by a population that breached half a million before 1970, it wasn't until very recently that Phoenix's anemic, purely bus-based transit situation began to change. On December 27, 2008, after nearly four years of construction, the modern Metro Light Rail opened for revenue service, and once again Phoenicians could ride the rails without leaving town. The present system forms the spine of what may develop into a significantly wider network over the next few decades, presuming that future governments don't bury expansion plans; even the current system is only a shadow of a planned 108-mile elevated light rail route, shot down in a 1989 referendum.

For me, Phoenix's metro was something of a new experience. While I'm not a stranger to light rail, my familiarity with it is in cities like Los Angeles or Toronto2, where light rail lines branch outward from a central subway network and extend into less dense areas. Phoenix's system is the first I've used where light rail itself forms the spine of the rail system, and from what I observed it's a resilient spine at that - and I hope that the future will bear that observation out. Subway construction isn't getting any cheaper, and the last fifteen years have seen a constellation of American cities from Dallas to Minneapolis invest in building up a light rail-based transit infrastructure. If light rail can prosper in Phoenix and its environs, then it can prosper anywhere.

But only if people understand it.


Two trains meet across the platform at Sycamore/Main, the system's current eastern terminus, in the city of Mesa.

First off, calling it Phoenix's Metro Light Rail is a slight misnomer, just as Vancouver's SkyTrain serves five cities in all. The system actually serves three cities, and while you'll find much of its mileage in Phoenix, the rails extend through the city of Tempe and, for now, terminate in Mesa. In all, the twenty miles (thirty-two kilometers) of rails connect thirty-two stations across the three cities, and as of last year served an more than forty-three thousand riders per day. From my observations, it's certainly well-used - when I rode a train east to the Mesa terminus at 5 PM on a Saturday, it remained essentially at capacity all the way to the end of the line.

As long as I'm on the subject of misnomers, the Metro Light Rail doesn't involve tunnels either. It's entirely surface-running, minimizing construction expenditures and allowing passengers to watch the strange, strange Phoenix cityscape go by. Outside downtown Phoenix, which itself is surprisingly small for such a large city, the pattern of construction is wide and low. Aside from a few condo complexes in Tempe, there doesn't yet seem to be much in the way of transit-oriented development. Between downtown Phoenix and Tempe, the route passes through what seems to be spread-out industrial and commercial areas.

Unlike Los Angeles, where the light rail lines run in former rail rights-of-way or, in the case of the Green Line, the median of Interstate 105, much of the Metro Light Rail's mileage takes the form of dedicated rights-of-way on city streets. Although transit priority signals are ubiquitous along the line, within downtown Phoenix trains frequently have to deal with traffic light cycles. In this respect, at least, it was more reminiscent of the Toronto streetcar system than the light rail lines of Los Angeles.

Moreover, through downtown Phoenix the eastern and western segments of the line are physically separated; westbound trains travel along Washington and Central and eastbound trains use Jefferson and 1st, one city block apart. A good chunk of these unidirectional lines follow outer rather than inner lanes, with the right-of-way separating the street from the sidewalk - something I've only ever encountered in Los Angeles, along the Flower Street segment of the Blue Line.

Unlike the 1989 elevated rail proposal, there's no direct link between the Metro Light Rail and Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. Right now, free shuttle buses run by the airport authority link the terminals with a small loop adjacent to 44th Street/Washington station, and the future PHX Sky Train is set to connect the rail once the first stage is completed in 2013. This is a key innovation, as it will enable people travelling between Phoenix and Vancouver to take the SkyTrain to the airport and from the airport no matter what city they're in.

A typical Metro Light Rail ticket vending machine. This one is at Van Buren/1st Avenue, an eastbound-only station in downtown Phoenix.

Fares on the Metro Light Rail are extremely reasonable compared to some other systems I've ridden. As of January 2011, individual rides on the light rail cost $1.75 - though such tickets are no good on buses operated by Valley Metro, the transit agency that operates the light rail and bus transit in the Phoenix metropolitan area. An all-day pass valid on rail and bus can be got for $3.50, and a three-day pass like the one that got me around during my long-weekend stay was a mere $10.50 - and there are no fare zones to deal with. I can't speak with authority on the one-ride or all-day passes, but my three-day pass came on a paper card with a magnetic strip and a stylized saguaro cactus on the front. According to the rules they're non-transferable, but since there's no room or requirement for any kind of photo identification, it's hard to tell how this particular rule is enforced.

Service schedules are fair, considering the newness of the system - in fact, frequencies are substantially better than I would have expected, with a breadth of service hours typical of a system with deeper foundations - hell, when the SkyTrain first started running in 1985, there were only six hours of service on Sundays. On weekdays Phoenix's trains start running before 5 AM and don't stop until shortly before 1 AM, and on Fridays and Saturdays this night owl service is extended until nearly 4 AM; there aren't many hours of the week in which a light rail train isn't rolling somewhere in Phoenix. The counterbalance for this long service comes in the form of fairly long headways - even during rush hour trains generally aren't any less than twelve minutes apart, with fifteen- and twenty-minute headways common outside of the heavy-use periods.

Thinking back on it a month later, one of the things that still strikes me as unusual about the Metro Light Rail is how it seems to be vaguely disconnected from its surroundings, that there only seem to be a few significant trip generators - US Airways Center and Chase Field, Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, and Mill Avenue and the Arizona State University campus in downtown Tempe - along its route. It feels more like a vastly scaled-down commuter railway than a transit system that can enable a transit-oriented lifestyle - a direct result of the planning decisions that have shaped modern Phoenix. I can't recall seeing a single supermarket from any point of my travels along the line. Nevertheless, I'll admit I may be misreading the nature of its surroundings; I'll have to leave it to interested Phoenicians to weigh in on that aspect.


Priest Drive/Washington Street station in Tempe - appropriately also known as Papago Park Center, as it is the main transit gateway to Papago Park, the Phoenix Zoo, and the Desert Botanical Garden.

No matter where you go in Phoenix or its environs, it's impossible to forget that you are in a desert. The average high temperature in Phoenix in June is 41 degrees Celsius, and the all-time record stands at fifty degrees C. The stations of the Metro Light Rail are built with the simple truths of this climate in mind. They're completely open to the elements with only simple roofshades over the platforms, all the better to let the wind stream through freely and bring some relief to waiting travellers on those scorching summer days, though I don't think they would provide much relief from the beating-down sun except when it's almost directly overhead.

As a result, so far as I can tell, each and every Metro Light Rail station comes equipped with water fountains on the platform - after all, you don't need to spend much time in a desert to understand that water is life. While the water I tried did have a rather strong iron taste to me, it was at least cold.

To my knowledge, public art is likewise universal across the system. It varies from naturalistic clinging vines to more abstract light sculptures between stations, but on the whole it helps provide a sense of individuality and, if nothing else, gives people something to look at while they wait for the train. Nor are the art installations overshadowed by vandalism - I didn't notice any graffiti or intentional damage at the stations I visited, possibly due to the combination of CCTV monitoring and the Adopt-A-Station Program, through which sponsor organizations or individuals maintain their adopted stations to a good standard of cleanliness.

It's a good deal for both the sponsors, who get their names out there as supporters of the community, and Valley Metro, which doesn't have to handle the logistics of basic station maintenance. This, I think, is a concept that could do well to be exported to other cities. Toronto in particular has long been grappling with dirty subway stations because of age and insufficient cleaning staff - station adoption programs could conceivably turn that sort of thing around.

Looking down the platform at Thomas/Central Avenue station.

The architecture of the stations themselves are greatly dependent on the nature of the rails they serve. For most stations, they're open center platforms accessible either directly from an intersection crosswalk or their own dedicated crosswalks. This can make quick access a bit dicey on occasions - as a car-centric city, it shouldn't come as much surprise that traffic signals favor automotive traffic to a far greater degree than pedestrians.

When it comes to naming stations, Phoenix tends to follow the example of other American systems with which I'm familiar. All stations are named after the closest major intersection - generally city streets, but towards the eastern end of the line Interstate 105 is used for orientation - with the slash pronounced as "and" by the automated stop announcements.

Aside from sub-platform signs visible from the sidewalk that command "DO NOT CROSS TRACKS," there's nothing separating waiting straphangers from the street save for the tracks themselves. Granted, this isn't much of a safety hazard since the Metro Light Rail is powered by overhead catenary, but in principle there's nothing to keep an intrepid fare-dodger from dashing across the street to the platform - aside, that is, from the risk of being flattened by traffic or an oncoming train. There aren't any barriers like there are along the unidirectional segments where the rails and sidewalks are adjacent - because really, if you're out there to begin with, you've already taken your life into your own hands anyway.

One prime drawback I found at the stations is that there doesn't seem to be much integration with the Valley Metro bus system. A few stations - Veterans Way/College Avenue in Tempe and the paired Van Buren/1st Avenue and Van Buren/Central in downtown Phoenix spring to mind - are adjacent to transit exchanges and Sycamore/Main is across the street from one, but for the most part the system seems to stand apart. There's not much indication on the platforms about what buses can be picked up in the immediate area, or where you'd have to go to get them. Moreover, aside from the alternate station names, which tend to use a major nearby point of interest - 44th Street/Washington, for example, is also signed as PHX Sky Harbor Airport - there's not much clear indication of local points of interest. I couldn't find any station-area maps or general route maps, either.


A three-car train passes Phoenix's Portland Avenue on a westbound run under a warm and sunny January sky.

As a new system, it makes sense that the Metro Light Rail hasn't had much need to diversity its rolling stock. Right now it operates fifty Kinki Sharyo LF LRVs, the same models as were recently brought into service on the Central Link light rail system in Seattle. Over the course of my time there I saw trains operating in one-, two-, and three-car configurations, though the two-car arrangement was most common. They're low-floor vehicles, easy to board and easy to move around in so long as you're not reckoning with a standing-room-only crowd.

Going by the specifications, they're actually somewhat comparable to the ALRVs in service on the Toronto streetcar system - they're sixteen feet longer, with capacity for sixty-six seated passengers as opposed to sixty-one on the ALRV, but the low floor and the twelve-foot ceiling makes them feel considerably roomier. To me it felt like there was much more breathing room in a Phoenix light rail car than on a loaded Mark I SkyTrain - the nature of the space was far more reminiscent of a Canada Line train or a Toronto subway car. What I really appreciated is that, unlike on Mark I SkyTrains, only a few of those sixty-six seats are arranged in side-by-side rows. Generally, the seating arrangement is rather reminiscent of modern Orion buses with a low forward area, an elevated rear space and seats arranged in pairs.

Two unoccupied bike racks in a light rail car. Another two empty racks are reflected in the window, along with the photographer himself in a rare appearance.

The central portions of the cars serve another important function, one that I'd only encountered previously on GO Transit commuter rail cars. Adjacent to the bench-row seats in the center, each light rail car makes provision for four bicycles to be stored, and I hardly ever boarded a car that didn't have at least one bike hanging up on the pegs. It's a good way to make efficient use of interior space while integrating the system with the local cyclist community. Even if the pegs are all full, there's plenty of space right by the doors for bicyclists to keep their rides. Hell, at one point I saw a guy ride a scooter on board and just chill on it like it ain't no thang.

Phoenix's cars are in line with the modern light rail paradigm, in that they're double-ended and thus require no loops at the end of the line. The operator's areas at each end of the car enclose a wide but somewhat narrow control area, and each train seems to be staffed by a single operator only. You'll only hear the operator if something unusual happens, such as a delay along the line - and in that circumstance the speakers within the cars are crisp and clear, a far cry from the unfathomable crackling that characterizes announcements from Transit Control in the Toronto subway.

One thing I hadn't encountered before was the ability for passengers to open closed doors themselves, presumably only when the train's at rest. I encountered this at Sycamore/Main, when I went to board a westbound train only to find every single door along its length shut... which, in my experience, usually means that the train is in the process of pulling away from the platform. In Phoenix, not so much. The doors all have small yellow buttons on them, and pressing them will cause them to open for you.

There's a valid reason to this, though - I'd imagine it's so the heat doesn't get in. All Metro Light Rail cars are equipped with air conditioning. Again, given the climate of Phoenix, this isn't so much a gesture towards the comfort of riders and more a necessity to ensure their survival. If you don't think so, just try cramming yourself into a rolling metal car with lots of windows and a hundred other people when it's 47 degrees C outside.

Ease of Access and Ease of Use

A light rail train with an ad-wrapped car crosses Mill Avenue in Tempe.

In my experience, it's supremely easy to access the light rail. The streetlight cycles were the only problematic issues I encountered, and generally speaking if you can access a sidewalk you can access the light rail. I don't recall encountering so much as an incline in the system, let alone stairs. The Metro Light Rail is the most accessible system I've been on in my lifetime, and it should be held up as an example to other cities for making sure as many people as possible can get as many places as possible, easily.

This extends to the stations themselves. There are no barriers or fare gates of any sort, as the Metro Light Rail runs on the honor system and all passengers must retain proof of payment. I didn't encounter any fare inspections during my time in Phoenix, and I've been unable to find any indication as to whose responsibility it is - but, just the same, I was always sure to keep my wallet with my three-day pass right next to my passport. Recall that Phoenix is in Maricopa County, and I was no more interested in gaining personal experience with Sheriff Joe Arpaio's brand of justice as I was with even possibly having to reckon with SB 1070.

Wayfinding is likewise simple. Signs in stations indicate which platform is which, though rather than "westbound and "eastbound" the directions are marked as toward 19th/Montebello and Sycamore/Main, and in places this is clarified with control points - Phoenix, PHX Sky Harbor Airport, Tempe, and Mesa - in the same way as highway signs tell you what direction you're headed. The digital rollsigns on the vehicles work the same way; an eastbound train will display "MESA EASTBOUND SYCAMORE / MAIN ST." As there's presently only one line, there's not much reason to go beyond that.

An eastbound light rail train passes smoothly by a closed section of East Jefferson Street in downtown Phoenix.

Automated announcements are ubiquitous throughout the system, and they depart from the pattern I noticed in Chicago and Los Angeles in that the stop announcer is female, albeit synthetic, and speaks English only. She will announce the name of the next station and state which side of the car the doors will be opening on. An equally synthetic male voice, which is also used in Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, gives instructions and updates in English and Spanish. There was a nagging familiarity to the voice when I first heard it - after thinking about it for a couple of weeks, I'm pretty sure it's one of the same voices you can get through the Xtranormal video-making service.3 There are also long, narrow ceiling-mounted display screens which scroll the name of the next station when the train's approaching - otherwise, it gives the time and date, and thanks you for riding.

The announcements are just the most obvious aspect of what almost seems to be a half-hearted bilingualism on the Metro Light Rail. Bear in mind that as of 2006-2008, nearly 34% of Phoenix's population was Spanish-speaking. It was the light rail route map that really drove this through to me. Sure, it's headed as "Route Map | Mapa De Ruta," but everything else on that map is given in English. Not even the Park-and-Ride or Transit Center markers are given Spanish translations. I mean, it's not as if that would have been a particularly complicated project. Sure, there is bilingual signage elsewhere in the system, but the way it's done on the route map almost makes it feel like they gave up halfway.

The biggest problem I experienced in accessing the light rail was accessing it for the first time, from the airport. Until the completion of the PHX Sky Train, the connection is currently handled by free shuttle buses that link the terminals with a bus loop adjacent to 44th Street/Washington station. It took me fifteen minutes of wandering around the baggage claim area before I could find someone that could point me to where I was supposed to wait for it. The signage in the terminals isn't particularly clear once you get to the baggage claim area - though, of course, this isn't Valley Metro's responsibility.

Also, if you're riding the Metro Light Rail, there are a few things to keep in mind as to what you can and can't do. It goes without saying that smoking is out; beyond that you can't eat on board, drinks have to be in a spillproof container, and you can't put your feet on the seats. Signage in the Valley Metro bus system additionally specifies that firearms aren't allowed on board. As the state of Arizona does not require permits for the concealed carrying of firearms, this is actually more necessary than you might think. Presumably the same is true on the light rail - I'd imagine it wouldn't be difficult for guns to be included under "flammable, explosive or hazardous materials" if it really came down to it.


Restored at the Phoenix Trolley Museum, car #116 helps to bridge the historical gap between the old Phoenix Street Railway system and the modern Metro Light Rail.

While I was in Phoenix, I saw the past colliding with the future - I couldn't not. It's something that a desert metropolis may try not to think about too much, but no matter what we want it's where we're all going to spend the rest of our lives. The future, that is, not Phoenix. I don't think I could survive the summer there unless I could live underground, like some mole person with a mole subway to get around.

As far as the future's concerned, I don't expect it to bring me anything like a new subway system anywhere in the United States or Canada. Those cities that could justify the expense have already built them, and so has Cleveland; light rail is what's carrying the banner of sustainable transit forward now, and light rail is what's catching on in city after city. The example of Phoenix and other cities that build new light rail systems after decades of neglecting higher-order transit may be key in the years ahead to build support for larger, newer, and better systems. It's even happening now; just yesterday, the latest United States federal budget included a recommendation for $38 million in FY2012 to fund an extension of the Metro Light Rail into downtown Mesa.

Today in Phoenix, you'll find the car-centric, low-density sprawl that's so loved by Toronto mayor Rob Ford and other leaders of his ilk, side-by-side with an unquestionably modern transit system that paints a tantalizing picture of what Toronto's planned Transit City light rail network could resemble come 2020, so long as regressive calls to cancel the project in favor of a stubway don't come out on top. Streetcars aren't light rail, no matter how opponents may try to frame the debate in that manner - the only things they really have in common with streetcars is that they tend to run along streets, and that they sound like streetcars when they go rumbling by. It's comforting - one foot in the past, and one in the future.

There's still a long way to go. A city shouldn't have to wait until it has more than a million people before it can make real strides toward getting a decent rapid transit system installed - light rail projects like these are the sort of things cities should have been building back in the '80s, regardless of whether or not the Third World War would come and go before they could be finished. But we've got to move on with what we got - and the example of Phoenix demonstrates to me that light rail is a good way to go.

1 Thus giving the PSR a superb justification to do what it almost certainly would have done a few more years down the road in any event.

2 In Toronto's case I count the Scarborough RT this way, though it's more of a medium metro. The dedicated streetcar rights-of-way along St. Clair Avenue West and along Harbourfront likewise approach the light rail paradigm, but realistically Toronto won't have any significant light rail infrastructure in place until Transit City lines start opening for revenue service... presuming, of course, that they're not cancelled in the interim.

3 Thinking back, it's almost definitely the same voice. It's the male voice used in this YouTube video; overhearing someone else watching this was what clicked it for me... and now that I think about it, the female voice kind of sounds like the stop announcer, too.

Previous Tunnel Visions

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Photo: Flying the Flags

Today is Flag Day in Canada, commemorating the replacement of the Red Ensign with a uniquely Canadian symbol, but I didn't want to go the obvious route and just post a picture of a flag and nothing else - that's pedestrian and has been done. Instead, I'll offer a snap of Burrard Pacific Breeze, one of the three SeaBus passenger ferries that link Vancouver and North Vancouver - public transit vehicles with radar. The flags of Canada and British Columbia catch the wind on the mast pretty well.

If only it was also a stat holiday. Then people might actually care.

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.