Wednesday, September 27, 2006

What I May Do with a Square Piece of Canvas

I have a basement office at home and I've been trying to make it more pleasant and organized. There is a space over one bookcase and I was thinking, "Since I am an art historian, I would like something there that will really say 'Art.'"

But how can you say Art with just one piece? Should it be a collage of art from all eras and places? Should it be the word "Art" rendered in a stylish way?

Finally I decided to make something myself. I bought a piece of stretched canvas, 12" x 12" square, and I will divide it into quadrants. An attractive border will be part of this, and along the middle horizontal divider I will write "what is art?"

My plan for the four squares is mainly inspired by the amazing painter Ben Reeves's Surrey Suburbs Project. As he explained in a talk that I heard last year (and in another talk reported online in the Klondike Sun ), Reeves "[chose] his subject matter wisely: by throwing darts at a map and painting at every location the darts hit."

So, I decided to put my local map book on a kitchen turntable (aka a Lazy Susan). I asked my dh to spin it as (with eyes shut) I first chose four numbered squares on the large-scale map. I then turned to each of those numbered pages and, with another magic spin, found a precise intersection where I will photograph and/or paint.

It is with considerable trepidation that I reveal this project. I am emphatically not an artist, I just want "something nice for over the bookcase" and to explore some corners of my city that are unknown to me. However, I do promise to reveal to you, dear reader, the results of my undertaking.

The Smiley-face method of motivation and time management

Suppose that you need to write something: a manual of cake-baking, a novel, or a Ph.D. dissertion. Are you despairing that you can't keep at it, day by day, week by week, month by month?

Here is what to do.

Take a small piece of blank paper: 4" x 6" or smaller. Keep this piece of paper on your desk, right near your elbow.

Each day if you manage to accomplish something--anything--on your project, write it down on the piece of paper. Examples:

"Signed four books out of the library."

"Read fifteen pages of Lloyd's book and took notes."

"Wrote to the cake museum in Dusseldorf."

"Wrote three pages."

"Revised seven pages."

"Sent draft of Chapter 3 to my thesis supervisor."

Now the important part: each day, when you have written down your wonderful accomplishments, draw a little smiley face on your piece of paper. Colour it with a yellow highlighter or coloured pencil. Well done!

As you fill these pieces of paper you will see that you have made progress. The work done on a single day may seem tiny, but it all adds up. When you fill a page, file it in the place where you keep your treasured mementos (mine is called "Letters and Souvenirs") and start a new page.

I followed this method to complete my Ph.D. and I have told some of my colleagues about it. May it help you also. Good luck!

Another View of the Public Interest

Warning: Local Toronto Content

Asked by a reporter what he would like to say to Robert Deluce, the CEO of Porter Airlines, a start-up set to provide service from Toronto to a variety of cities through Toronto City Centre Airport, David Miller, the Mayor of Toronto, said this:'s time that you put your private interests aside and let the public interest prevail, and the public interest is in a revitalized waterfront.

The mayor, of course, has the same right as any citizen of Canada to his opinion. I take a different view. As a member of the public who lives in Toronto, I think I have an interest in the larger issue of environmental justice. I want to see a solution that serves everyone in the Greater Toronto region, not just an articulate, relatively wealthy and privileged neighbourhood on the Toronto waterfront.

Should Porter Air succeed, passengers who might otherwise have taken a car or train to Pearson International Airport can instead take a bus or light rail from the downtown to Toronto City Centre Airport. That change has the potential to reduce both overall noise and atmospheric pollution in the GTA region. It has the potential to reduce the human impacts of noise and pollution even more. Comparison between the Q-400 aircraft which Porter Air intends to fly with the Boeing 717 type of aircraft, which Jets-Go flew out of Pearson, before they went out of business, shows the differences. Based on the published fuel consumption figures, the Q-400 which Porter intends to use will get at least 7% more passenger miles to a gallon of jet fuel than the Boeing 717, and over the distances Porter intends to fly, the advantage of the Q-400 increases to as much as 23%.

The structure of Toronto City Centre Airport will help to further reduce the local pollution produced by flight operations there. The short taxiway and small airport reduces the amount of taxiing and holding the planes will do by 50% or better, and figures published for Midway Airport in Chicago by the US Environmental Protection Agency suggest that taxiing and idling aeroplanes produce over 70% of many of the local pollutants emitted by airport operations, including volatile organic compounds and benzine.

Measurements of sound levels of planes taking off from Pearson and TCCA make it very clear that while jets taking off from Pearson produce severe noise spikes, the Dash-8 aircraft taking off from TCCA barely register over the noise levels of traffic on the Gardiner Expressway, or the streetcar on Queen's Quay. The noise exposure forecast (NEF) contour map (produced by Shawn Morgan, used by permission) confirms what the recordings tell us; that Pearson operations subject Rexdale and Malton (a total of 150,000 people) to a barrage of noise from which the Tripartite agreements protects the waterfront neighbourhoods.

As the recent withdrawal of CanJet from scheduled passenger service shows, airlines respond to competitive pressures. If Porter succeeds, it has a very good chance of diverting passengers from noisier and dirtier jet flights out of Pearson. That, in turn, will reduce noise and pollution in the city and region as a whole.

So Porter's success offers us one way to reduce the noise, reduce the pollution, and reduce the human impacts of both, while serving environmental justice at the same time. It does not offer the only way. Mayor Miller, and his supporters, have had three years to promote alternatives: everything from high-speed rail to reduce the passenger load airlines carry, to some form of direct compensation to the communities that carry the main environmental burden. They have done nothing, except promote a plan for a world's fair, which will put seven million more people (according to the official estimates) into the air over the long-suffering children of Malton and Rexdale; that works out to one takeoff or landing every two minutes for the period of the fair. Only Robert Deluce and Porter Air have a plan that stands any immediate chance of reducing the noise and pollution we subject the children of Rexdale and Malton to. Only Deluce and his backers have put their money and their energy into a practical course that will, if it succeeds, reduce the environmental burden while improving environmental fairness.

I invite anyone with an interest in the issue to check my sources. If I've made an error somewhere, by all means, tell me. But don't tell me, yet again, that the people who live in the condos on Bathurst Quay somehow matter more than the people who live in Malton; I've lived my whole life on the premise that no one person matters any more than any other person. Don't tell me that I don't care about reducing pollution as long as it get shared; I've already said that the Deluce proposal actually has a chance to reduce pollution. If the waterfront crowd have a great idea for reducing pollution and promoting environmental justice (that means reducing pollution for everybody, not just them), tell me; I'd love to hear it. If I've made some error in my calculations, let me know that, and I'll gladly correct them.

To love your enemies, you have to know them

If I had to list the columnists I admire least, Mark Steyn would rank high. However, give the man his due, he has a point when he decries the conspiracy theories about 9/11 that have gripped much of the public. Many of his arguments betray a woeful lack of imagination: he quotes a web-logger who asks why people who believe in the grand conspiracy don't pack up and leave the United States, without telling us where someone who wanted to get out of bomber range of the White House and its current occupants could go. But he makes a solid argument; it simply does not make sense, at any level, that any conspiracy within the United States government to bring down the twin towers and bomb the Pentagon could have succeeded and remained hidden to this point.

Such a conspiracy would have had to find several thousand people, many with very specialised skills, willing to commit high treason and mass murder. If they hoped to involve an expert on explosive demolition, the conspirators would have had to approach one of only a few hundred with the required expertise. If even one person they sounded out had talked to a grand jury in the five years since 9/11, the conspirators would have found themselves on a gurney at Terre Haute, following in the footsteps of Timothy McVeigh.

By Occam's razor, if nothing else, the simplest explanation applies: Al Qaeda, a terrorist organisation formed in Afghanistan and Sudan, led by Osama bin Laden, hijacked four planes. They flew two into the twin towers of the World Trade Centre, one into the Pentagon, and one crashed into a field in Pennsylvania after the passengers overcame some or most of the hijackers.

The increasing popularity of conspiracy theories that purport to offer alternative explanations challenge the Left and the Right alike. To the Right, the popularity of even the most improbable conspiracy theories indicates an clear, if unpalatable reality: huge numbers of people have so lost faith in the "War of Terror"® (now the Global Struggle against Violent Extremism"®) that they will believe almost (literally) anything of the people charged with conducting it. And why should that surprise anyone?

Perhaps the time has come for members of the right to admit the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan created Al Qaeda, and the policies of the Reagan administration bear some responsibility for that. If the Bush administration has completely lost the confidence of millions of Americans and others, perhaps they accomplished that by informing us all that we faced a struggle for survival, then voting their wealthy friends a huge tax cut and telling everyone (except the long-suffering soldiers faced with stop-loss programs) to go and shop 'til they dropped.

The Bush Administration has piled up a sad record of blundering into Iraq in search of non-existent weapons, and with an incoherent plan for democratising the Arab world. Maybe the people who believe the Bush administration rigged the towers with explosives would rather believe anything but the obvious and frightening conclusion: the events of the past five years really represent the Bush Administration's best efforts at a strategy. The Right might reassure some people, even capture some of that lost faith and trust, if they would acknowledge the problems, and perhaps even apologise for the many mistakes of conservative governments in the past.

The Left faces a different and tougher challenge. The basic premise of the anti-war left holds that we have to learn not to make war, because without an end to war, we do not have much of a future on this planet. To do that, we have to learn to love our enemies. To love our enemies, we have to face the reality that they exist, that they really hate us, and not all for good or understandable reasons. We have to look our enemy in the face, strip off all the explanations and excuses, and face the ugly truth about the Salafist Jihadists, in the same way, and with the same courage, that we face ugly truths about ourselves and our own civilisation.

Members of Al Qaeda want to kill millions of us, and enslave the rest. We have to love them anyway. The Taliban wants to impose a medieval patriarchy on the women of Afghanistan, and they have allied with Al Qaeda. We have to love them anyway. After twenty centuries in which the Christian world recited Jesus's words in the Sermon on the Mount in church, and then went out to do battle on the field, we have come to a point when heeding those words has gone from a matter of morality to a matter of survival.

In war, the biggest weapon wins. In an advanced technological society, the biggest weapons can raze cities, poison huge areas, and trigger epidemics that will kill millions, even billions of people. If we do not make and end to war, war will make an end, if not of the human species, then of our civilisation. In Christian terms, that means we have to look past the ugly horror of the ideology that motivates our enemies, and find a way to reach, and love, the human beings who hold that ideology. Evading and escaping the face of that ideology, not facing the ugly truth, will do nothing for us. Mohamed Atta took over a plane and used it as a flying bomb. The passengers on the planes hijacked that day included children too young to walk. The Al Qaeda jihadists had to know this, so they had to believe that God would reward them for child murder. Evading that fact with fantasies about some elaborate government plot will not do us any good at all. We have to look into the cold eyes of men prepared to commit any depraved act, face the anger they provoke, and then, somehow, find a way past the anger. Otherwise, their anger justifies their flying planes into towers, and our resulting anger justifies our dropping GPS-guided bombs on women and children, which justifies some other outrage, until someone feels justified in doing something which makes the whole sorry history irrelevant.

We will never break this chain of horror if we comfort ourselves with fantasies. We will have to look honestly into the face of it. We will have to forgive. We will have to return good for evil. We will have to do all the hard, hard things involved in making real and lasting peace. And we will have to begin with the truth.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

...cry peace, peace...

An increase in Canada's commitment to the mission in Afghanistan, together with the inevitable increase in casualties has both raised the public profile of the Canadian Forces, and led to questions, not only about the mission, but also about the purpose of this war, and of the Canadian military itself. As the war has made the military more visible, complaints have arisen not only about the war, but about the visibility of the military itself.

While some "exposures" of the military treat war as a game, simply making the military visible, particularly in wartime, hardly constitutes militarism. Indeed, since we have (involuntarily) gotten into a war, we have an obligation to take note of the military, and the sacrifices Canadian soldiers make on our behalf. Simple distaste for the horrors of war, or worse, blaming the military for wars, does not come close to the ethical and personal commitment required to truly make peace. To make peace here, we will have find a way to love a genuine enemy, a theocratic and political movement at odds with everything we believe. Allowing for the inevitable exaggerations in the Western media, finding a way for our society to coexist with a movement such as the Taliban will involve enormous difficulty. To argue, or suggest, that if the military did not exist, then we should have no problems living with the Taliban (and their allies) amounts to a form of escapism.

Plenty of Leftists (and some thoughtful conservatives) have had plenty to say about the "chickenhawks", who cheer-lead for the "war on terror" from a safe (a very safe) position on the sidelines. But simply saying "no" to war doesn't relieve us of the obligation we rightly deride the "chickenhawks" for shirking. In 1984, Ron Sider put it to the peace churches:

We must be prepared to die by the thousands.

Those who have believed in peace through the sword have not hesitated to die....

Why do we pacifists think that our way -- Jesus' way -- to peace will be less costly? Unless we Mennonites and Brethren in Christ are ready to start to die by the thousands in dramatic vigorous new exploits for peace and justice, we should sadly confess that we really never meant what we said....

Unless we are ready to die developing new nonviolent attempts to reduce international conflict, we should confess that we never really meant the cross was an alternative to the sword.

Ron Sider issued his challenge to professed Christians, but the same challenge goes to secular pacifists as well: we will succeed in making peace, but only at a personal price we cannot imagine. Some of us, perhaps many of us, will have to spend months or years working under tough conditions, far from home, doing the hard work of building peace. Some of us will have to face machetes or guns with our empty hands-- and, almost certainly, some of us will have to die.

This does not mean that everyone who writes or demonstrates against this war needs to pack their bags for Kabul or Darfur or Baghdad, or Guatemala City or Tehran, or any of the hundreds of places embroiled in lethal conflicts. But we should recognise that someone must pay the price. And if we cannot or will not take on the job of making peace, then let us at least have the decency to face the sacrifice that Canada's young warriors will have to keep making, until we finally find a way to make a lasting peace.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Civility (2): Cheri DiNovo

Warning: Canadian political content

Most people in Toronto or Ontario now know about the battle between the Liberal Party of Ontario and the NDP for the riding (electoral district) of Parkdale High Park in Toronto. The contest degenerated into a vicious partisan gouge-fest, with attacks from Liberal web-loggers escalating to a fully fledged mud-slinging and dirty tricks campaign. It ended with the Liberals getting a bloody nose, losing by 2000 votes, or 8% of the turn-out.

So what do we learn from this? We can say that the Liberal web-loggers at fault thought they could get what they wanted with a quick tool through the sewer; well boys, now you've got clothes full of sewage and a face full of rat bites, and Cheri DiNovo still gets to go to Queen's Park.

But I see a further lesson in this: ugly elections like this happen for many reasons. Most of those reasons, such as the competitive nature of the political process and the immaturity of some participants we can do nothing about. However, it seems to me that we can change one thing: we can encourage members of different parties to work together on local civic projects. People would still exist who slime the "enemy" on principle, but they'd get far less support if the other members of their party expected to work on civic issues with all-party coalitions.

For this reason, I think we should avoid having party organisations endorse candidates for municipal office. Knowing you may have to work with a member of the "enemy" party in the next municipal election can have a healthy civilising effect.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Bicycle Safety Techniques

How do you stay safe in traffic? I can't really tell you that. I can only tell you how I stay safe (or try to stay safe) in traffic.

  1. Obey the traffic laws

    Everybody says you should obey the laws, all the laws, which apply to cyclists. Count me as everybody plus one. When I follow the highway traffic act, it makes me possible to predict. Drivers know where to look for me, they can make a good guess as to where I'll go (and more importantly, where I won't go) in the next second.

    In the A&E TV reality series "Airline", the camera crews hung out at airports and taped (usually distressed or unruly) passengers. Once, they taped customers griping because the airline had held up a flight when a part didn't fit. I felt like shouting at the screen: you want to fly seven miles up, going five hundred knots, in an aluminum tube stressed to thousands of pounds per square inch, with a part that doesn't fit? Sometimes, I feel like asking fellow cyclists the same question: you ride on a public road, surrounded by two-ton battering rams going fifty feet every single second, and you don't want the drivers to know what they can expect you to do next?

  2. Stay Attuned to the Road

    I use every sense I have. I have normal hearing; it gives me an enormous advantage. I listen for traffic around me, and particularly behind me. The sound of an engine gives me a very good rough guide to the size of the vehicle behind me, and the driver's intentions. If I hear a Cummins diesel, I get ready for a truck; if I hear a car engine revving up, I make sure I give the driver every chance to safely pass me.

  3. Cycle and Signal, in That Order

    I try to ride my bicycle first. I always make it my first priority to stay upright and in control; whatever the situation, I know I won't improve my situation by collapsing in a helpless tangle in the middle of the road. Second, I try to make sure I signal my intentions. Signals come second; a driver can't respond to what I intend to do if I don't control the bike.

  4. Stay Ahead of the Bike

    I try to keep my mind the appropriate range of distances ahead of my bicycle. In some cases, such as dense traffic on a straight street ride, that means keeping most of my attention on the cars right in front of me. Coming up on a turn or a lane change, I try to look out for the state of the traffic in the other lane or the intersection in mind. I try to stay aware of gaps in the traffic, and how long I can expect them to last.

  5. Behave in a Polite But Firm Manner

    I have the same right to use the road, according to the law, as transit vehicles, cars, trucks, and pedestrians. To the greatest extent possible, I ensure people notice me. I stay far enough from the curb to avoid hazards. I allow cars go by me when I can, and I take lanes when I need to. I have a right to operate my bicycle safely and according to law.

  6. Keep Your Bike Well Maintained

    When I take my bike into an intersection, I really want to know (not just hope) that my chain won't jam, that my gears won't slip and I won't go over the handlebars, and I can concentrate on the job at hand: negotiating the cars, pedestrians and streetcar tracks. I keep my bicycle maintained. If I ever balk at the cost of two professional tuneups a year, thinking about what an accident would cost cures me of that.

  7. Wear the Gear

    When I first contemplated a bicycle helmet, I asked myself whether I considered my brain worth $25. Right, a bicycle helmet won't protect you from everything. It certainly won't replace all the other safety techniques I try to practise. I still wear one anyway. Better a helmet than a head injury.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Thanks for nothing...

Unlike some people I absolutely do not believe drivers in Toronto want to kill me when they see me riding my bicycle. However, that doesn't mean I don't need cars to see me as another road user, someone with a shared interest in keeping traffic moving safely. In short, I need drivers (and the politicians who want to keep traffic flowing in Toronto) to see me and my fellow bicycle riders as allies, or at least not enemies. Enter the subject of this post, Kenneth Kidd, who writes in the Star that he wants to recruit me into a secret anti-car militia:

But we have to be a little Machiavellian here: you encourage cyclists because they make automobile travel even more inconvenient. Anybody who has ever driven on a downtown street during rush hour knows the platelet effect that bicycles have on the flow of traffic.

I have no doubt that councillor Case Ootes will quote this individual in his push to get rid of bike lanes; if I thought Mr. Kidd represented the majority of transit (or bicycle) promoters, I'd have some sympathy with Councillor Ootes. Transit exists to move people; to listen to people like Mr Kidd, you'd think the population of Toronto existed to give the TTC a bunch of people to put in those cool buses and trains. I don't think so.

In any case, I think the time has certainly come to confront the tendency of environmentalists to wander into coercive thinking. Advocates of mass transit should focus on improving their service to the point that people will gladly leave their cars at home, instead of irresponsibly pitting road users against each other.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Just the way I want it... (customising my bicycle)

One of the charms of having and using a bicycle, for me at least, lies in the ability to customise my bike- to experiment with it, to get it looking, and working, just the way I want it, to fit my needs. It helps that bicycle components cost far less than car components do; a makeover that would cost you thousands of dollars to do for your car will cost hundreds or tens to do for a bicycle. The culture of bicycling, as opposed to automotive culture, also helps. Where automobile customisation sometimes seems designed to cater to young men with far too much money and testosterone, the culture of bicycle customisation seems oriented towards people solving practical problems, and doing it without spending much money.

I use my bicycle to go shopping quite a lot, and I have hopes of using it for longer trips outside Toronto, so I wanted storage capacity on the bicycle. Accordingly, I have front and rear panniers.

The rear panniers have many excellent features, including a 56-litre capacity, but my bike has a high, narrow rear deck; it also has a bar that I can only clip to in the rear. As a result, the bags hang toward the back, which means that when I loaded them groceries, gravity tended to pull them into the wheels. Clearly, I needed a bracket to hold the pannier better.

I solved that problem by going to a local bike shop, where I acquired a two bars that had once supported a child bike seat (see photo to the left). I then bolted the bottom of these brackets to the frame, and clamped the top to the rear carrier (see photo at right). I finished up by adding red reflecting strips to the brackets (the Ontario Highway Traffic Act requires red reflecting strips on the rear of any bicycle, in addition to a rear red light). I also added a ring-bolt to give the hook at the bottom of the pannier something to grab on to.

As you can see from the photograph on the left, the brackets to the rear of the bicycle now hold the panniers quite firmly away from the wheel. As a bonus, they also support rear reflectors, which help keep my bike legal, and safe.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Civility (I): Road Rage and Automotive Harassment

While Allison and I rode our bicycles down Jane Street in Toronto, a pickup truck came by and the driver yelled at Allison to "get off the road"; not nearly that politely. It left me wondering why, in a world where a single off-colour word to the wrong colleague at work can cost you your job, a driver's license seems to carry with it an unlimited license to insult anyone you like.

What, if any, reason do we have not expect drivers to practice basic courtesy? Adding an offence of "motor vehicle harassment" to the highway traffic act would not make everyone polite right away, but it would send a clear message that behaving courteously, like fastening your seat belt, contributes to safety on the road, and we expect drivers to do it.

The National Rifle Association has a slogan: "an armed society is a polite society". By that, of course, they mean that where people have the option to settle disputes violently, they think twice about getting into them. Unfortunately, we do not think of ourselves as armed when we slide behind the wheel. We don't often reflect that the average car has more explosive in its gas tank than a lot of suicide bombers carry on their belts, to say nothing of the trauma a two-ton steel battering ram can inflict. As a result, our roads often resemble an armed and rude society. If we want to do something about "road rage", or even just enjoy the benefits of civility, making it an offence to harass other road users or pedestrians from a car would go a long way.