Thursday, December 22, 2011

Where does Ontario's electricity come from? (Winter edition.)

Lately I've been involved in some arguments about just how effective solar panels are at reducing CO2 emissions. That's a topic for another post and it will be an occasion for extended ranting--stay tuned--but in the meantime, the debate has forced me to go digging for some data on the composition of electricity in Ontario.

Ontario (like many places) has a bunch of different generators in its electricity mix; each of them has its pros and cons, and they get cranked up to meet demand at various times according to a fairly complex set of criteria. What I wanted to know is, what combination of generators is providing power, and in what proportions, at any given moment.

What I found was the time-series data, going back a month, for the output of all the major (over 10MW) generators in Ontario. The data is disaggregated by hour, so you can graph exactly how much of each kind of generation is contributing to the system during any given sixty-minute period.

So I did. Here are the charts for four one-week periods, starting November 19th, 2011 and ending December 16th.

First, the basics. These charts are for seven-day periods, beginning on midnight Saturday. Each day, you see a sort of double hump in electricity production. It's low overnight, ramps up to a bit of a peak around mid-morning, drops off a bit around lunchtime, and then ramps up to a higher peak in the early evening before dropping back down at night. It sort of looks like a graph of someone's heartbeat...

Since you can't really store electricity (well, you can, but not at this scale) that production curve is a pretty close match for the demand curve--how much electricity people in Ontario are using.

The humps are less pronounced on Saturday and Sunday (left-hand sides of the graphs.) That's because people are sleeping in, they aren't all making coffee and toast at the same time, and of course a lot of businesses are closed so they're not drawing so much power.

There's a ton of interesting stuff in there--so much that I'll have to break this up over a series of posts. Check back later.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Back To The Future: A City Planner's Perspective (Part 5)

This is the fifth in a series on the Back To The Future franchise as seen by a city planning nerd. Frame grabs are copyright Universal Pictures and are used here on the basis of fair use, for commentary purposes.

We left off
with a quick look at Hill Valley's downtown, and specifically its central Courthouse Square, in five different time periods. The Courthouse Square, more than any other single location in the franchise, is our anchor--it's what tells us what year we're in, and what is going on in that period.

Our first introduction to downtown is in 1985, when Marty cruises through on his little four-wheeled death wish on his way to school. Growing up in the suburbs, I was--well, whatever the opposite of "streetwise" is, with a relatively blind eye to the poverty and decrepitude of the inner city
. So I never really noticed, until years later, just how crappy and run-down Hill Valley 1985 is.

How crappy and run-down? If you've arrived at this blog, chances are you've seen the movies at least once and you know the story. So rather than rehashing it, maybe the best way to describe the change in Hill Valley over three decades is to imagine an alternate version of Back To The Future--one in which a teenager from 1955 is accidentally whisked thirty years into the future:

Our guy knows the Courthouse Square as a public green, occupied by people who to all appearances are there by choice. Pedestrian paths crisscross the green, providing shortcuts to well-dressed adults and comparatively well-behaved minors on their way to and from their various no-doubt-wholesome engagements. The streets around the square are lined with a variety of businesses--a travel agent, a stationery store, a record store, two movie theatres, a corner cafe and several others.

When he arrives in 1985, he is shocked to discover that the Courthouse Square has been paved to make a parking lot:

Surprisingly, given the 1980's shall-we-say muscular approach to foreign affairs, even the war memorial...

... has been torn out to make room to park one more Buick.

Our naïf from 1955 might conclude that, for all the talk about honouring the sacrifices of its soldiers, his country is more fixated on keeping its cars running--indeed, that the former talk is usually just a pretext for the latter. (And since this is 1985, not 2015, he could say so without being hauled off to Guantanamo to be pounded in the ass by the Taliban for the rest of his life.)

As for the businesses, they've been replaced by marginal operations including an occult bookstore, a bail bondsman, payday loan joint, and a shop dedicated to the sale of, um, adult accessories.

The travel agent is still there, oddly enough. Maybe it thrives because anyone who finds themselves in downtown Hill Valley is overcome by the urge to get out of town, fast.

Not everything has changed, of course. For instance, the movie theatre...

... is still there, albeit with different programming and slightly more talented actors.

A running joke in the original movie was that everyone in 1955 thought Marty was a sailor because of his "life preserver." I expect that our guy from the fifties would observe that half of downtown Hill Valley's business is now dedicated to sex industries and conclude that the entire town has been taken over by sailors on leave. Hopefully someone will clue him in before he passes the window where a dozen women in skintight costumes wave at every passing male, lest he misread their intentions...

Not that the entire town has been given over to marginality, sleaze and Spandex. The other movie theatre from 1955...

... is now a church, albeit of the evangelical thunder-and-tarnation variety.

(Spoiler alert: Just as the B-movie actor from 1955 is President in 1985, in the sequel our guy goes to 2015 and finds that every single candidate for the Republican nomination got his or her start preaching at that church!)

If our guy sticks around 1985 for awhile, he'll learn that suburbia has sucked the life out of downtown, to the point that no one lives there anymore. But this is not quite true:

All in all, our guy from 1955 will notice a pretty drastic change. It's summed up rather nicely by the sign, which in 1955 promotes Hill Valley as "A Nice Place To Live..."

But at bare minimum a town's motto has to be something people can say with a straight face, and if you can't say something nice... say nothing at all.

As I've suggested earlier, BTTF is a remarkable piece of storytelling, not least because it makes us believe that Marty really, really wants to get back to this decrepitating shithole. But it sets a bit of a challenge for the sequel. Having established that Hill Valley is basically Frank Capra's Pottersville, we need to come up with an alternative so bad it makes this place worth saving.

Stay tuned...

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Scary Perry

Like the proverbial human brain, I haven't used 90% of the capabilities of this media-friendly Mac I'm working on. I have been practicing with my new digitizing tablet, which holds great promise for online smartassery, but tablets have a learning curve like Kilimanjaro and so far I've mainly succeeded in creating a pretty fair impression of a recovering stroke victim.

Meanwhile, this weekend the recent Rick Perry campaign ad (which by now should need no introduction) hit the Internet. Okay, I said it needs no introduction but regardless of your political leanings, surely all reasonable people can agree that this is the most vile, mendacious and small-minded campaign video ever to come out of a mainstream candidate's media office.

Within a couple of days, it crossed three important thresholds. Firstly, it became the most-Disliked video ever to hit YouTube. Secondly, it spawned a cottage industry of video mashups mocking it. Thirdly, and most significantly, it actually prompted me, a notorious late adopter, to open up a new piece of computer software and start farting around with it. The result is clumsy, amateurish and probably nothing that hasn't been done better elsewhere online.

But goddammit, I just couldn't not.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Heavy metal shop.

One of the tricky things about blogging is that it lets you stick every half-baked thought on the internet as they occur to you. That's a bit of a problem because we all (I assume) start things and then, for one reason or another, lose interest and let them fall by the wayside. Fine if you're just thinking about building a bookcase or taking up the banjo, but when you announce your intention to do so and then fail to follow through, it makes you look like a bit of a flake. Too much of that and the Internet's reputation as a meeting ground for serious, intelligent people with well-thought-out positions on things might be tarnished.

I've got a few threads that seem to have trailed off and I apologize for that. My series on the advisability of going to university kind of petered out because, well, I work in an office doing research on the Internet all day and it's tough to ramp up the motivation to do it some more once I get home. Plus it's depressing. Kids these days are really getting hosed.

My Back To The Future series is still going, and I'll be posting some more installments during the cold, dark, blogogenic nights of winter.

As for my ambition to learn some practical manual skills on my own, that's been tricky because I live in a smallish apartment without an obvious workshop area. I can't just haul an arc welder into the dining room, start mounting bottom brackets to angle iron and expect to still have a girlfriend tomorrow morning.

But I've taken some steps. Last week I started an oxy-acetylene welding course at Algonquin College. Community college is a wonderful thing--they offer night courses in all kinds of stuff, and some of it is quite useful. (I knew there had to be somewhere people go to learn to actually do things, since there seem to be things getting done all the time.)

So I'm learning to weld, and next semester I may take woodworking or electricity. It may be awhile before I actually do anything with it, but I'm starting.

Other than that, this summer I learned to sail. I'm hooked, to say the least. Even better, it's a skill and a hobby that fits very nicely into both the comfortable world I'm in now and the rapidly disintegrating one I suspect might be coming. Today I can be a leisurely sailing dork, spending a day on the water before retiring to the clubhouse for a martini or six; tomorrow, I can get busy smuggling penicillin from Hamilton to North Bay under the nose of Admiral Fungus Humungous and his postapocalyptic mutant lake pirates.

I'm all about transferable skills.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Nostalgic for nostalgia.

Steve Jobs is dead, the leaves are falling and the global economy continues to lurch around looking for brains to eat. It's hard these days not to think of decline and decrepitude, entropy taking its toll, the world winding down.

This weekend I had to go out to St.-Laurent Shopping Centre with Sarah to pick up some mundane necessities. I note with some shock that gradually, without my noticing, and even in major cities with nominally thriving downtowns, many basic goods can no longer be had in the urban core. Expensive niche goods for affluent bobos have taken over much of the urban retail landscape, while getting a basic pair of pants requires a trip to at least the inner-ring suburbs.

Once we finished at the mall, we made a Logan's Run to the outside to hit a local second-hand store. The neighbourhood around St.-Laurent has seen better days, to put it charitably. At one point it was Ottawa's rural hinterland--there's an old French Catholic cemetery nearby where, among others, my great-great grandparents and Sir Wilfrid Laurier are buried--but the Development Fairy arrived just after World War II and waved her magic can of whoop-ass. Now St.-Laurent is a standard automotive kill zone with the strip malls, gas stations and other bric-a-brac clustered to take advantage of six lanes of passing car traffic.

We broke for lunch at Rockin' Johnny's, one of a local chain of 1950's-themed chrome replica diners. You've seen these places, or others like them, in every city on the continent. They started springing up as part of the wave of desperate Happy Days nostalgia that seized North America after the 1973 oil embargo and that, subsequently, everyone agreed to squint real hard and mistake for optimism throughout the Reagan years.

If you're in the restaurant business there's probably a decor kit you can buy, containing neon Coke signs, rock-and-roll '45's complete with pre-drilled screw holes, and framed shrines to patron saints Presley, Monroe and Dean. One phone call will summon a van with four nostalgia installers in immaculate white Maytag Man uniforms. With NASCAR pit crew efficiency, they will roll out a Wurlitzer jukebox, slap black-and-white checkerboard tile on the floor and chrome on everything else, and reupholster the booths from a ten-foot-wide roll of sparkle-infused vinyl.

The appeal of these places is obvious--a longing for the perceived simpler time of cheap gasoline and giant tailfins, gainful employment for high-school graduates and (not least, for its target baby boomer demographic just then starting to develop post-adolescent metabolisms) a time when you could wolf down a giant cheeseburger with fries and a litre of chocolate shake without spontaneously inflating like the driver-side airbag in your Chrysler K-car.

But now here's where it gets meta. Because what can you say about a nostalgia-themed place that makes you wistful for a time you could go to a nostalgia-themed place that looked convincingly new? When I was young, if you went to a fake reproduction of a 1950's diner, that fake 1950's diner looked like it was just built. That was the whole point. If you're in a 1950's diner and it looks like it's thirty years old, that means you're in at least the 1980's and who the hell needs that?

As it happens, this particular establishment was pretty grim.

Its once-shiny chrome exterior was coated with grime from sitting next to a six-lane arterial for twenty years.

The blinds were pulled down over all the windows. When we arrived at 4:30 on a Saturday afternoon, we were the only customers aside from a pair of babushkas nursing their coffee.

The table jukeboxes had red duct tape over the coin slots. Perhaps they were out of order, or maybe they were just trying to prevent any customers from denting the already-shaky ambience by cranking up The Eagles or Huey Lewis. The wall plaster bore the scars of decades of being whanged with the napkin dispenser.

The mandatory iconic James Dean poster had faded into the same suicide-blue colour as the walls:

Since we were the only actual customers, it was tricky trying to take pictures without being noticed by the staff. It's too bad because possibly the saddest element (I couldn't get a decent shot) was a clock over the counter, looking distinctly unfabulous with long-burnt-out neon lettering reading "The Fabulous '50's." In a similar vein, the menus sported the slogan "Bring Back Great Times and Great Food." Hey, kitten, you wanna bring me Johnny's Irony Burger with a side of pathos?

For all of this, it wasn't an unpleasant experience. Truth is beauty, even at its ugliest. I found it delightfully freaky to be in a place that so sharply illustrates the end of the rope we find ourselves at, where even our shrines to the golden age are battered, grimy and all but abandoned.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Sarcastic Smurf.

I went to a movie last night and saw that there's a Smurfs movie coming out--in 3-D.

This is amazing as it effectively triples the number of dimensions traditionally allocated to smurfs.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Once Upon A Time... WTF?

Classical music is one of those things that, until now, I have simultaneously not been interested in but recognized that someday I probably would be. Last week, I headed over to the library and borrowed some CD's, intending to make up for years of indifference and see what I've been missing.

Even if you don't care about classical music, you've almost certainly been exposed to a lot of it just through movies and TV. At the very least, you've heard it in popular movies as a lazy shorthand for stuffy elite opulence. Whenever there's a string quartet playing, you can bet there's a bored pretty rich girl who's about to be spirited away by the charming working-class hero to a way funner party drinking moonshine down by the river.

Anyway, the first piece on the disc I borrowed is Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, better known to pop culture as Creepy Frankenstein Organ Music.

I'm still unclear on how any given piece of music, absent lyrics, can be "about" something. But I've always felt like this piece was about either the creation or the destruction of the world. That's because it was the theme music to a certain educational cartoon I used to watch when I was a kid.

I'm a bit of an anxious guy, and I was certainly an anxious kid. My childhood memories are of one apocalyptic neurosis after another. In grade four, during Fire Prevention Week, the psychopaths at the local fire department came to our school and showed us a film on fire safety that included a series of horrifying images of people who had died in house fires. Not just anonymous charred corpses on a coroner's table. I mean images of people where they were found, in context, all pathos and horror--real people whose tragedies were burned into your mind with shrieking Psycho strings. A half-naked man inches from the window, his upper body burned beyond recognition, who awoke too late and tried and almost succeeded in crawling out of a burning house in the dead of night. A woman, roasted in the fetal position, wrapped in towels in the bathtub where she tried to hide from the flames.

For years thereafter, I worried about spontaneous combustion, soaking matchbooks before throwing them out; even today I'll turn back halfway to work to make sure I've turned off the stove.

Rest assured, dear firemen, you've made your point.

Later there would be fear of fire of a more primal sort. In one year was the accidental shooting down of a Korean Airlines passenger jet by a Russian warplane, TV specials like The Day After and documentaries If You Love This Planet--this last shown to us by our spikey-haired peace activist teacher, who had determined that the most effective way to prevent nuclear holocaust was to scare the living shit out of seventh graders.

But throughout those years, extinction and immolation--my own and that of the world--were never far from my mind. And as far as I can tell it started with Bach's Toccata, and an educational cartoon called Once Upon A Time... Man.

TV Ontario in the early 1980's had a whole raft of educational and/or foreign kids' shows running for several hours after dinner. This parade of odd, not-quite-cool, but strangely gripping programs defined my early winter evenings for a few crucial years. A reading show with talking shoes, followed by Doctor Who (the old, crusty, un-hip version.) Then an epic French puppet series about a singing bear with a magic whistle stuck in his throat, travelling the world in pursuit of a kidnapped rat. And, finally, Once Upon A Time... Man.

OUATM follows a group of humans throughout human history, the same characters in more-or-less similar roles in different time periods, from the paleolithic through to the mid-twentieth century. I only dimly remember the show itself, but the opening credit sequence, Bach and all, has been lodged in my mind ever since.

Cold space condenses into the solar system. A fish in a stream becomes an amphibian, which crawls out of the water and becomes a lizard. The lizard becomes a monkey, then an ape, who picks up a spear and becomes an australopithecine. Ape-man to cave-man to Neolithic Man; Babylon to Egypt to Greece to Rome, the medieval to the Renaissance to the industrial to the modern; stagecoach to steam train to automobile to jet plane to, finally, a rocket ship, launched into the same starry sky from which it all emerged.

I am enthralled; the doors to my eight-year-old mind have just been pried open to an epic of geologic time, from the beginning of it all to the boundless future, brought to you by friendly and relatable cartoon characters.

But, wait. There's one more bit, tacked on to the end.

A man's face, terrified. Pull out. He is running towards a rocket ship, waiting on its launch pad. A dozen more follow, running for their lives. They board the rocket and blast off into space, moments before.... Earth explodes!

Cut to tonight's episode, which is about, I dunno, Egyptians or whatever. The eight-year-old, who has been given every reason to treat this entire sequence as factual, isn't exactly paying attention at this point. Hey, whoa, back up--what was that last part?

Monday, May 23, 2011

Tony the Oncologist

Back To The Future: A City Planner's Perspective (Part Four.)

This is the fourth in a series on the Back To The Future franchise as seen by a city planning nerd. Frame grabs are copyright Universal Pictures and are used here on the basis of fair use, for commentary purposes.

Downtown Hill Valley and Courthouse Square

As I noted before, it's Hill Valley itself that is as much a co-star as any actor in the Back To The Future franchise. We see various parts of town in one or more time periods. However, it's only the Courthouse Square and its surrounding city blocks that appear in all five eras.

Before we get into particulars, here are the town square's five incarnations, in no particular order.

Courthouse Square, 1955:

Courthouse Square Parking Lot, 1985:

Courthouse Square Mall, 2015:

Biff's Pleasure Palace Parking, 1985A:

Hill County Courthouse, 1885 (under construction):

There's so much going on here that I'm not even going to try to get into it in this post. I'll be going into detail in the next few weeks.

For now, suffice it to say that these images speak volumes about what has happened to North American towns in the past century, and our wishes, feelings and hopes in this regard.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Weird Internet hijacking

Just for fun, I just googled myself. Always nice to know what a disembodied information cloud is saying about you.

There's a lot of software out there that intercepts Google searches and returns a site that appears to be just what you're looking for. Then, when you go there, it's just a bunch of ads for nothing remotely related to what you wanted, and indeed if you search that page for your search terms they're nowhere to be found.

But I just found a surreal little upgrade to that algorithm. One of the hits that came up was remarkably similar in wording to my own blog. (What are the odds?)

The text of the hit read:

Tim J. Moerman. city-limits artisan * activity beatnik * artisan * smartest guy in the room, depending on the allowance .... Tim J. Moerman: I'm an burghal ...

Sort of took existing hits and replaced a few words with synonyms (or not quite.)

But I rather like it. City-limits artisan? Activity beatnik? Why, that's the nicest thing anyone's said to me all week!

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Back To The Future: A City Planner's Perspective (Part Two.)

This is the second in a series of posts on the Back To The Future franchise through the eyes of a city planning nerd. The frame-grabs are copyright Universal Studios, and are used here on the basis of fair use for commentary purposes.

The Naming of Malls Is A Difficult Matter...

Doc Brown uses the parking lot of the local shopping mall as the testing ground for his new time machine. He tells us that thirty years ago, this was all farmland as far as the eye could see. The farmer was intent on growing pine trees--hence the name of Twin Pines Mall.

When Marty accidentally jumps the Delorean to 1955, he encounters said farmer, complete with shotgun. In his haste to get out with his skin intact, he runs over one of a pair of young pine trees at the front gate. Later, when Marty finally makes it back to 1985, we see that the mall has changed a bit:

It's a somewhat cynical rule of thumb in the development industry that you name developments after whatever they tore down to build it. Hence the endless series of subdivisions called Royal Oaks or Wildflower Estates or Convent Glen without a tree, flower or nun in sight.

To be continued...

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Back To The Future: A City Planner's Perspective. (Part Three.)

This is the third in a series of posts on Back To The Future as seen by a city planning nerd. Frame grabs are copyright Universal Pictures and are used here on the basis of fair use, for commentary purposes.

Getting Around Hill Valley - 1985

In 1955, Hill Valley is still compact enough (including a well-defined and thriving downtown) that cars aren't strictly necessary. Mass car ownership has only been underway for about ten years--not long enough to force the wholesale rearrangement of the built environment we live with today.

By 1985, though, the town has sprawled enough to present a by-now familiar plot problem for any movie involving teenagers: namely, how do we give someone enough access to his setting to make a story possible?

In most movies, we wave this problem away by assuming that the teenager has his own car, or at least access to one, at all critical story points. When we want to show that a teenaged character is a loser or otherwise some kind of underdog, we show him driving a, you know, really old beat-up car which is supposed to suck terribly. (In Savage Steve Holland's "Better Off Dead," released the same year as BTTF, being stuck driving the family station wagon to the local ski hill is apparently enough of an existential humiliation to justify multiple suicide attempts.) In fact, I can't think of a single movie where teenagers have to take the bus everywhere.

I think this explains a lot more about the world than we care to admit. When you're a kid, forming your first impression of how the world works, you're watching movies and TV shows full of people you're supposed to identify with. But they invariably have far more mobility and autonomy than you do. What's missing is the boredom. They seem to be always able to go where the action is, and get there before it's over. They don't have to spend two hours and three transfers taking transit to their friends' houses, and they don't have to duck out of the school dance halfway through Stairway To Heaven because the last bus is at 12:45. So you spend your first four years as a non-child wondering why your life sucks, and no one can quite explain why.

By the time you're sixteen, you've figured it out: North America is designed for the exclusive enjoyment of people with the health and wealth required to own and operate a vehicle. No wonder, when hard times hit, people are more likely to give up their homes and live in their cars than vice versa.

In this respect, Back To The Future faces the teenage mobility quandary more honestly than most films. Access to the family car is make-or-break for Marty's personal life, and when that car gets totalled he's up the proverbial creek, his upcoming hot date with Jennifer presumably replaced by an evening at home with a box of Kleenex.

Faced with the same shit sandwich as every real-life suburban teenager physically stranded in his elders' version of the American Dream, Marty's next-best option is... suicidally dangerous skateboard stunts in rush-hour traffic!

Maybe, like his grandfather suggests, he's just an idiot. (After all, he did need to be told that Riverside Drive in his hometown must be located next to the river!) But I think it's more basic than that. I don't know a single teenager who, faced with marooning in some Bungaloid Acres subdivision, wouldn't gladly sell his left kidney to Satan for an alternative--any alternative.

So it's significant that the top of Marty's big wish list is that shiny new Toyota 4x4. The definitive sign, once he's returned to 1985, that he's changed history is that he now owns one.

I once heard a critic chalk this up to that old 1980's materialism (dreadfully passé and dated, to hear him say it--yeah, like we're all a bunch of burlap-wearing monks now.)

But I think it really resonates with teenagers. It's like, "Well, I changed the past... my dad is no longer a coward and a failure, my mom is no longer an alcoholic and the meathead who tormented them both is now a neutered little lapdog. That's nice but the important thing is that I now have full access to the world around me!"

In any case, even before he goes back, Marty has it comparatively easy. According to the road sign in 1955, the site of his future home is a mere 2 miles from Hill Valley proper. He can walk there in about 45 minutes if he has to. Most suburban kids in 2010 (or in 1985 for that matter) should be so lucky.

But technological progress will make things worse by 2015.

"Where we're going, we don't need roads!"

2015 Hill Valley is a kitchy techno-utopian future right out of Popular Mechanics. The most noticeable change is the profusion of flying cars. Finally--oh, God, finally!--traffic jams are a thing of the past. Goldie Wilson III flat-out tells us so on his animated jumbotron ad.

And yet five minutes later, we learn that the skyway out to the future McFly home in Hilldale is jammed with rush-hour traffic!

It's actually so bad that it's dark by the time they get there.

So there it is, the lesson that some of the smartest people on the planet have spent a hundred years and billions of dollars failing to learn: No matter how advanced your technology and infrastructure, it still somehow takes 45 minutes to get across town. The only thing that changes is how big "town" becomes, how much it costs to build and maintain that system, and (presumably) how crummy and inaccessible the world becomes when you don't have a flying car.

To be continued...

Back To The Future: A City Planner's Perspective. (Part One.)

A former student of mine recently emailed me to ask what had driven me to choose city planning as a career.

I told her about car dependency and its effect on the environment; the fact that the spaces we build and live in have a profound effect on our health and happiness and ability to deal with the world; and the fact that after living in three major cities and working in a half-dozen more, I had started to get some very definite ideas about what worked and what didn't.

What I left out is that I am a huge Back To The Future geek.

When the time-travel fantasy came out in the summer of 1985, I was so blown away that I went back to see it three days in a row. Twenty-six years later I've probably watched it a hundred times; I still find stuff in it that I didn't notice before.

And much of its appeal comes from its setting, the fictional town of Hill Valley, California. Over the course of the trilogy, we get to see Hill Valley in no less than five distinct time periods. Starting from its "current" incarnation in 1985, we see the same places in 1955, 1885, a parallel-nightmare-Pottersville version of 1985, and finally the impossibly far-flung future of 2015.

The town is more than a setting; in many ways it's the central character of the series. I wonder if there's anyone my age or younger in the planning profession who hasn't been influenced in it; who had the place-making bug stuck in their ear first by watching Hill Valley change through past, present and future.

At least I hope they were. 'Cause if they're getting their ideas from Star Wars we're all in big fat trouble...

This series of posts looks at the Back To The Future trilogy from a city planning geek's perspective. It is liberally sprinkled with frame-grabs from the films; these frames are copyright Universal Pictures and are used here on the basis of fair use, for purposes of commentary.

Part 1: Doc Brown's Lab

The first film opens in 1985 in the laboratory of Dr. Emmett Brown, a mad scientist with a clock obsession. We're not sure where this lab is, exactly. A framed newspaper clipping informs us that Doc's house burned down at some point, the land sold to developers. It's not clear when, exactly, but the clipping is yellow enough that it was probably awhile ago.

It looks like Doc has been living here in his lab for quite some time. But where is it? Where does a scientist go to lease laboratory space in a small town anyway? (A question that presumably dogs small-town mad scientists all over America. You may know how to build an eighth-dimensional balonium fraculator but try getting that past the zoning board...)

When Marty emerges from the building, we see that it is a run-down, single-storey structure at the back of a Burger King parking lot on a suburban commercial strip.

Anyone who's ever dealt with a suburban commercial chain-store developer knows their mulish refusal to work around anything that's already there, especially some crummy old shed. So what's the deal?

Finding himself stranded in the fifties, Marty looks up Doc Brown, who in 1955 lives somewhere called Riverside Drive. He's never heard of Riverside Drive; asking for directions, he learns that it's the street he knows in 1985 as John F. Kennedy Drive.

So he goes there to find a beautiful, graceful Arts and Crafts mansion on a manicured lot with a detached garage or carriage house. The garage looks familiar....

It's Doc Brown's lab from 1985!

Suddenly the whole site is thrown into context. When Doc Brown's house burned down, he moved into his garage and sold the surrounding land to developers, who went on to scrape the site bare and plop down parking lots, burger huts and gas stations all around the garage parcel. Riverside Drive has evolved bit by bit into a suburban commercial wasteland renamed John F. Kennedy Drive. It's taken a mere thirty years for this..

to turn into this:

It's Robert Crumb's A Short History of America come to life, and our first hint that Hill Valley in 1985 actually sucks pretty hard. It says a lot about how well the film is set up that we are able to believe that Marty really wants to get back to 1985. That Jennifer Parker must really be something...

The garage is one of those leftover buildings that line first-wave suburban strips all over North America. These former roads out of town gradually attracted one commercial development after another, which are now mixed in with rundown old houses from the street's past life as a rural road. These roads are typically no good to anyone. Because of the old lot fabric and access rights, there are driveways every forty or fifty feet, making the strip next to useless for moving traffic. And yet the built environment is completely devoted to cars at the expense of any pedestrian amenity. Old buildings remain but it's not worth keeping them up so they are allowed to decrepitate while the owners wait for Dunkin' Donuts to show up and buy them out. The strip is just commercially viable enough to suck the life out of downtown, but not enough to succeed as an environment in its own right.

Since this strip used to be called Riverside Drive, it's a safe bet that it's located along the river. In a chronically water-starved state such as California, what should be the town's major amenity is instead occupied by the the loading docks and dumpsters of convenience stores and lube shops built with their backs to the river. All that asphalt is probably wreaking havoc with drainage, dumping torrents of greasy stormwater and Whopper wrappers into the Hill River every time it rains.

We don't get to see this part of town in 2015. That's probably a good thing. In the real-life 2015, the urban boundary will have grown beyond even the old rural fringe. City Council after City Council will have spent a couple of stealth bombers' worth of tax money tackling the endless traffic snarl, upgrading John F. Kennedy Drive to as many lanes as it can hold. But you can't stop progress, and JFK won't be able to compete with new greenfield sites with more convenient traffic geometry out off the Interstate. A lot of this strip will be practically abandoned to pawn shops, payday loan agents and other sunset uses, while the retail and fast-food action migrates to Shonash Corners power center. When that day comes, Doc Brown's lab will probably still be there, used by his 21st-century counterpart to brew crystal meth.

Oh, and one more point about Doc's lab. The address in 1955 is 1640 Riverside Drive...

but in 1985 the street number is 1646.

I always figured Doc probably torched his own house to get the money to fund his time machine. But I only just realized, on viewing number eleventy, that before he did that, he subdivided the property, establishing the garage with its own address, allowing him to keep his lab while selling off the rest of the land unencumbered.

To be continued...

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Mixing it up.

The other night I cut through Rideau Centre on my way home from the bookstore. For those of you who don't live in Ottawa, it's a multi-storey shopping mall right downtown. As much as I dislike malls, I have to acknowledge the evil brilliance of the place. It's strategically placed between geographic, traffic and topographical barriers. Anyone going from the major Transitway stop on the Mackenzie King Bridge--which is to say, all the kids busing in from the suburbs--to the nightlife of the Byward Market finds that the path of least resistance takes them straight through that mall. Because the Transitway station is located on a tall bridge--that is, some three stories above ground level--the multiple escalators between Rideau Street and the station make the mall even more attractive as a shortcut.

All of which is to say that in the evenings and overnight, the centrally-heated, ice-free halls of Rideau Centre are full of bright young things in short skirts and heels making their way to and from the restaurants, bars and nightclubs on and around the Byward Market.

One girl in particular I noticed that night. At first glance what I took to be a black woman--I mean black as in, not dark-skinned-African but coal-black--was in reality a Muslim girl wearing a black full-body stocking and headscarf under her short pink club dress.

Every now and then you hear nativists, bigots and talk-radio loudmouths, yammering about how multiculturalism is undermining our values and immigration is going to make this country unrecognizable. It's the same refrain we've heard for generations: that the changes in our culture that happened until recently (be it 1850 or 1900 or 2011) made us who we are, sure, but the most recent ones (brought by the Somalis or the Ukrainians or those lousy, stinking Irish) are but the thin edge of the wedge that will swamp and destroy us... whatever "us" happens to be at that particular moment.


What I saw the other night was, or should be to any reasonable person, a sharp rebuttal to that view. I saw a girl from a different culture with its own rules (including the idea that women should stay covered head to toe) and who found a way to follow those rules while fully participating in what our culture has to offer (such as the right to be smokin' hot in public.)

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Timing is everything.

When I was a kid, my mom tried for awhile to expose me to religion. This took the form of reading me stories from an illustrated children's bible. It didn't take. I had no interest in these hippies in housecoats, grovelling before invisible space monsters. The only part of the book that held any interest for me was Genesis. Night after night, I asked for that creation-myth blockbuster until Mom got sick of it and forever gave up on my religious instruction.

Creation myths are compelling. We want to hear about where we come from, even if the story doesn't make any goddamn sense.

I recently watched Nowhere Boy, a biopic about the teenaged John Lennon. It was enjoyable enough, though I can't help feeling that I've seen this story, in one form or another, about a zillion times before. The rock and roll biopic is a genre that is so well established and formulaic, you could write 'em in your sleep.

(Come to think of it, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story did just that, as a parody. The genre is so predictable, in fact, that even what should have been hilarious--it's got John C. Reilly fer chrissake!--actually was kind of boring. For something to be funny, it has to be surprising. Rock and roll biopics are too predictable even to be fertile ground for parody.)

But they keep coming. People love a good creation myth, and rock-and-roll biopics are the creation myths of a certain large demographic cohort. The Baby Boomers love to hear about how awesome the music of their youth was, and how It Changed Everything Forever. It's a safe bet that any competently executed film about a major musical act that emerged from 1955 to 1969 will put asses in seats.

I've never been a Beatles fan. I don't dislike them, but I honestly never saw what was so exciting about them. I listened to a lot of sixties rock when I was a teenager (what was the alternative? It was the eighties!) But I was never into the Beatles. What's the big deal?

The Beatles came along in 1963. They did their spot on the Ed Sullivan show in February 1964, which was (do the math) almost exactly eighteen years into the postwar baby boom. A spike in the teenager population had just been cranked up to eleven.

Combine overwhelming numbers with the raging hormones and shall-we-say forgiving taste of teenagers, and I would imagine that any moderately talented band that came on the scene in 1963 to 1965 would have stood a good chance of becoming absolutely fucking huge. And by playing such a central role in the formative consciousness of such a gigantic demographic bulge, they would forever be recognized (through the permanently-youth-tinted lens of their early fans) as the greatest thing ever.

The Beatles didn't make the greatest music ever, any more than Microsoft makes the best operating system ever. They just came along at the right time.

Pretty good timing for a band with Ringo Starr in it.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Language and its consequences

Words have consequences. It's said often enough that I can't nail down who said it first. (My gut feeling was that it was Dick Cheney, but google it and you get a bunch of answers.)

Anyway, I often wonder what are the consequences of English, the current global lingua franca. It has some quirks and chinks that, in certain contexts, make it very easy to misunderstand and to propagate misunderstanding.

A big one is the fact that our words for a million, a billion, a trillion etc. all sound alike--alike enough that a figure quoted when you're not paying attention is hard to remember accurately. Do we spend millions or billions on higher education? On defense? On subsidies to the tar sands?

It's not a trivial distinction. The difference between a million and a billion is the same as the difference between a thousand and a million. If I told you three million people died in the World Trade Center, you would immediately know I was off by several orders of magnitude. But when we learn that Government Program A costs a million dollars a year, while Program B costs a billion, we have a hard time feeling the difference and therefore deciding how we feel about them.

The other one that's occurred to me is the word "falsify."

Did you know that climate scientists have spent decades systematically trying to falsify the science on global warming?

Here's the definition of the word:

falsify [ˈfɔːlsɪˌfaɪ]vb (tr) -fies, -fying, -fied
1. to make (a report, evidence, accounts, etc.) false or inaccurate by alteration, esp in order to deceive
2. to prove false; disprove

The second definition is the essence of science. Scientists test theories, look for evidence, and try to disprove each other's theories. That's why you can trust science--it's set up so that whatever theory someone advances, there are a legion of very smart people whose careers can be made by successfully demonstrating that one of their rivals is wrong.

But the same word is used for fraud, for manipulating evidence, for concealing truth. It is the direct opposite.

This makes it all too easy for the exact same statement to carry two contradictory meanings, and thereby to sow confusion instead of understanding.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

A plug: Hyperbole and a half

Usually when people with blogs don't post for awhile, they start their post with "Sorry I haven't posted lately." I refuse to do that. It's a blog; I'm doing it for free; I post when I feel like it. Dammit!

Which is why you should not interpret my posting twice in one day as a kind of spasm of remorse, massive overcompensation for failing to update a blog that is mostly followed by immediate family members who have heard this stuff a million times already.

Okay, that said: I found an awesome blog by a girl named Allie, who is one of those rare creatures whose ability to tell a story with a combination of words and pictures qualifies as genius. She seems to be both genuinely eccentric and hyper-talented--an exceedingly rare combination, as anyone who's been to art school can attest. Allie seems to draw using some low-res image program like Windows Paint or some such. But she's so good with a mouse (I am told she actually draws with a mouse, not a stylus) that her drawings come out with a kind of gestural energy combined with master draftsmanship that reminds me of Ralph Steadman without the splatters.

And her stuff is funny. Go see her blog. It's called Hyperbole And A Half.

Okay, that's my second post today. There might not be any others for awhile. Depends how I feel.

Please come back from time to time, though, just to make sure.

Friday, February 11, 2011

They don't make 'em like they used to.

I was nine years old when I first saw The Empire Strikes Back and, like most kids, what happened in that movie was a source of speculation and anxiety for the next three years. What's gonna happen to Han Solo? Is Darth Vader really Luke's father? These were deep and vexing questions. But the one that nagged at me the most was this: How's Luke gonna be a Jedi without a lightsaber?

As you'll recall, Luke gets his fighting hand lopped off in that climactic battle. Off it goes, saber and all, into the big screaming vaccuum-cleaner void underneath Cloud City. The hand's no big deal. It's sci-fi; they'll build you a new one. They have the technology. But a lightsaber? Where are you gonna get another one of those? The Jedi are extinct; you can't just walk into the Jedi Supply Store and get another one. That was the last one. They just don't make 'em anymore.

I'm not a materialistic person in the usual sense. I don't want a big house and a ten-thousand-dollar stereo and a garage full of sports cars. But I'm not serene enough, evolved enough or masochistic enough to embrace a fully minimalist lifestyle.

I used to. For years I lived out of a backpack and a duffle bag, sleeping in a sleeping bag on the floor or on friends' sofas, a stripped-down hobohemian unburdened by material possessions, utility agreements or a fixed address.

But what feels fun and free when you're 25 is much less so when you're pushing forty. You want some stability in your life. Your back hurts and so you need a bed, a proper desk and chair, not a thermarest and a laptop. You want cooking utensils and a place where your mail can find you. The Buddha reminds us that everything is temporary but we don't have to like it.

A few years ago I started gathering the accoutrements of a settled, mature existence--mainly furniture and clothes. I'm a professional adult who works in an office and so it's appropriate that I look the part. From the outset, the goal was to buy quality stuff that I wouldn't have to replace in six months; stuff that would cost more up front, but that would be well-made enough to last for decades, to age gracefully, to accumulate a lifetime's patina of personal history and meaning.

If I thought I could persuade you I was some kind of environmental saint, I might say this is because I resent the idea of a throwaway society, where resources are used up forever to make a thing that will have to be replaced next year. But this would only be half true. The other half is that I'm a cheapskate and I really, really, REALLY hate having to pay money for something and then, almost immediately, have to pay again. Goddammit!

If you want to be that kind of cheap, though, you have to be prepared to spend a whack of money, at least up front. You get what you pay for.

Unfortunately, what I'm finding is that quality goods are exceedingly hard to come by, no matter how much you are willing to pay. The old saw is false: You don't get what you pay for. You pay for what you hope to get, but you probably don't get it.

Last summer I went out and bought a navy blazer with the full intention of never buying another one. I bought a very reputable, high-quality brand in a classic cut and spent about six hundred dollars on it. It fit very well.

Now, this winter I put on a bit of weight. Not much; about ten pounds. But enough that I needed to get that jacket let out a bit so it would fit comfortably. So I took it to my tailor, who opened it up and informed me that the manufacturer hadn't left any material on the inside of the seam. (Historically, tailors and clothing manufacturers left enough material that you could let a garment out by up to an inch and a half--which you're going to have to do if you intend to keep something into middle age.)

So he couldn't do anything with it. He was as annoyed as I was; the manufacturer had saved about twenty cents' worth of material, but at the expense of creating a $600 jacket that becomes unwearable if you eat a box of donuts.

I've had comparable experiences with shoes, furniture--well, I was going to run off a whole list of all the things I've tried to buy quality and gotten junk, but there haven't been that many categories. For eight years I've kept buying clothes, shoes and furniture in the hope that I'll finally be getting something worth the trouble, and keep having to replace it for one reason or another. The hamster wheel of trying to get a pair of dress shoes that lasts more than a year has eaten much of my disposable income.

The point is this: It is increasingly starting to seem as though quality goods cannot reliably be had, no matter how much you're willing to spend.

This is deeply distressing. I don't want my civilization to be in decline. I think about the last days of the Roman Empire and imagine people walking around, looking at these magnificent marble buildings built by their grandparents, and saying "Hmm, it's funny.... they don't make 'em like that anymore. I wonder why?"

I have had to resort to buying antique furniture and vintage clothes. The difference in quality is obvious and overwhelming; I'm talking about department-store jackets from 1950 that are twice as good as anything you could buy today. All right, perhaps there is a survival bias at work here. Maybe there was always this much crap in the system, but all the crap has since been sloughed off to landfills and only the quality stuff is left.

I don't know. What I do know is that when I do find something in a vintage shop that fits me, or a piece of furniture in an antique shop, I feel an overwhelming need to buy it because I will probably never find another item that good. The "vintage horizon", that consumer K-T boundary before which things were made well and after which the fast-turnover junk economy took over, is receding fast. Items from Before become increasingly rare, lost to entropy or quality nuts like me who know the score. Things as prosaic as a good-quality jacket become priceless relics, not to be had at any price, except when fate smiles upon you and entrusts you with an heirloom like a grandfather on his deathbed.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Misguidance Counsellors Part 3: Student Loans

I'm going to start my discussion on the pros and cons of university by looking at student loans.

The Canadian Federation of Students, not surprisingly, keeps track of the numbers on this. Average student debt at graduation in 2010 from a four-year degree ranges from about $13,000 in Quebec to over $28,000 in the Maritimes. These numbers represent significant increases from thirty years ago; in 1982 the average graduate from a bachelor's program in Canada emerged with $8025 (for males) or $7595 (for females) in student debt. (Figures originally given in 1990 dollars here; adjusted to 2010 dollars using the Bank of Canada Inflation Calculator here.)

Okay, I promise I'm not going to keep hammering you with numbers--not unless it's absolutely necessary. I just wanted to make sure you knew I'm not pulling this stuff out of my small intestine. Let's talk about what these numbers mean.

First off, you could argue that $13,000 or even $28,000 isn't really that much money, especially when compared to the statistics on lifelong earning potential of university graduates. I'll agree that on average, over your lifetime, you make enough extra money thanks to a university degree to pay off your loans and then some. This is the kind of dry, bean-counting logic used by the people in charge of justifying cutting support to higher education.

But numbers don't always tell the whole story.

First off, beware of the average. There's a big spread in there. Some people, thanks to scholarships, rich or indulgent parents (or at least parents with foresight and a sense of basic responsibility to their offspring) graduate with no debt. Such was my happy case; when I graduated from my bachelor's degree in 1994, I had zero debt. I was free to spend the next several years living in cheerful bohemian poverty, writing screenplays and drawing comix and other economically-worthless pursuits. My roommate came out over twenty grand in the hole and spent the next five years staggering under the payments before finally defaulting and becoming a credit harijan for another seven. Averages hide the fact that while some people emerge unscathed, others--many others--are completely crushed.

Secondly, just because they call it student loans doesn't mean it's the only debt a student incurs. More and more students have to resort to running up big credit card debts during their four- or five-year run in school. It's well known that credit card companies pounce on freshmen with all manner of offers. The results are predictable. I know one person who has the statistically-typical $28,000 in student loans, plus another $20,000 in credit card debts.

Now, some will object that if students max out their credit cards, that's hardly the system's fault. I have now spent a goodly chunk of my life biting my tongue as I listen to grayhairs behind me in the line or sitting at the next table, bemoaning how irresponsible "kids these days" are. If you get involved in one of these conversations, you'll likely learn that young people today are so overindulged and impatient to get everything now, they'll max out their credit cards buying designer clothes, iPods and two-hundred-dollar sneakers. No wonder they come out of school bleeding red ink.

Let's leave aside some of the obvious responses to this--for instance, that if our kids are irresponsible with money, well, they had to have picked it up somewhere. Responsibility only goes in one direction here, from the old to the young. Parents have to take some ownership of their kids' behaviour. Kids aren't responsible for anything their parents did.

But the galling thing about this kind of attitude is the assumption that these kids blew all that money on toys. It's an attitude that's hard to maintain when you look at how expensive basic necessities have gotten in the past thirty years. The housing bubble has gotten all the press in the past few years but they don't talk so much about what's happened to rental housing. Of course the two are related; part of what holds rents down is the fact that if they go too high, it becomes more cost-effective to buy a place. But let the cost of ownership go up the way it has, and suddenly the cap is off the market rate for apartments too.

Okay, I promised I wouldn't hammer you with numbers. I also lied, kind of. When I began graduate school in 2001, I faced what was probably the most ideal situation you could have as a student. I was going to school in Quebec, which meant that about half my roughly $9000 a year in student aid came in the form of grants, not loans. Tuition was only $2600 per year--as far as I know, the cheapest tuition in Canada. (Compare that to undergraduate tuition in some regions, which can top $5000 a year.) Thanks to Quebec's insanely strong tenant-protection laws, my rent on an apartment walking distance to school (so I didn't even need a bus pass) was about $300 a month. I had $4000 in savings, a part-time and summer job that paid about 11 bucks an hour--that is, substantially above minimum wage. It was a two-year program so there was less time to go racking up debt.

And with all that on my side, I still came out of it with $8000 in student debt. I reiterate, I was not living high on the hog here. There were no major discretionary purchases--no iPods, no trips, no spring breaks at Fort Lauderdale. That $300 apartment was cheap for a reason: it was a decrepit shithole where, for one two-month period, there was no water whatsoever. So you could go over my budget in much more detail, looking for ways I could have saved money, but I guarantee you will find nothing. I was living about as frugally and responsibly as an adult can be expected to. And still I came out with debt.

I'm not complaining; it turned out to be very manageable, because I was fortunate enough to also graduate with a master's degree in city planning at the beginning of an unprecedented housing- and development-boom, where planning grads were walking into jobs right after graduation. In other words, it worked out the way it is supposed to... in my case.

But still... eight thousand bucks. What happens to a kid who's spending $500 a month on rent for four years and paying five grand a year in tuition? And what happens when that kid happens to graduate with a history degree at the beginning of an recession instead of a boom?