A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

[FORUM] What fictional universes do you like to analyze?

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​Thinking about last night’s post on the position of religion in <I>Star Trek</I>, I realized not for the first time that I think way too much about the way that fictional universe plausibly works.

I am quite fine with that. It is a source of interest for me, an intellectual game playing with a setting that plenty of others know and can engage with. It can be fun, so why not go ahead?

That is me. What about you? What fictional universes do you like to try to analyze?

Written by Randy McDonald

December 10, 2016 at 11:30 pm

[LINK] “Alien life could thrive in the clouds of failed stars”

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Science Magazine‘s Joshua Sokol shares the wonderfully plausibly bizarre idea of alien life floating in the upper atmospheres of brown dwarfs.

There’s an abundant new swath of cosmic real estate that life could call home—and the views would be spectacular. Floating out by themselves in the Milky Way galaxy are perhaps a billion cold brown dwarfs, objects many times as massive as Jupiter but not big enough to ignite as a star. According to a new study, layers of their upper atmospheres sit at temperatures and pressures resembling those on Earth, and could host microbes that surf on thermal updrafts.

The idea expands the concept of a habitable zone to include a vast population of worlds that had previously gone unconsidered. “You don’t necessarily need to have a terrestrial planet with a surface,” says Jack Yates, a planetary scientist at the University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom, who led the study.

Atmospheric life isn’t just for the birds. For decades, biologists have known about microbes that drift in the winds high above Earth’s surface. And in 1976, Carl Sagan envisioned the kind of ecosystem that could evolve in the upper layers of Jupiter, fueled by sunlight. You could have sky plankton: small organisms he called “sinkers.” Other organisms could be balloonlike “floaters,” which would rise and fall in the atmosphere by manipulating their body pressure. In the years since, astronomers have also considered the prospects of microbes in the carbon dioxide atmosphere above Venus’s inhospitable surface.

Yates and his colleagues applied the same thinking to a kind of world Sagan didn’t know about. Discovered in 2011, some cold brown dwarfs have surfaces roughly at room temperature or below; lower layers would be downright comfortable. In March 2013, astronomers discovered WISE 0855-0714, a brown dwarf only 7 light-years away that seems to have water clouds in its atmosphere. Yates and his colleagues set out to update Sagan’s calculations and to identify the sizes, densities, and life strategies of microbes that could manage to stay aloft in the habitable region of an enormous atmosphere of predominantly hydrogen gas. Sink too low and you are cooked or crushed. Rise too high and you might freeze.

On such a world, small sinkers like the microbes in Earth’s atmosphere or even smaller would have a better chance than Sagan’s floaters, the researchers will report in an upcoming issue of The Astrophysical Journal. But a lot depends on the weather: If upwelling winds are powerful on free-floating brown dwarfs, as seems to be true in the bands of gas giants like Jupiter and Saturn, heavier creatures can carve out a niche. In the absence of sunlight, they could feed on chemical nutrients. Observations of cold brown dwarf atmospheres reveal most of the ingredients Earth life depends on: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, and oxygen, though perhaps not phosphorous.

Written by Randy McDonald

December 10, 2016 at 8:30 pm

[LINK] “Elephant Refugees Flee to Last Stronghold in Africa”

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National Geographic‘s Christine Dell’Amore’s feature is quite right to identify the elephants fleeing poachers into Botswana as refugees, I think. What a terrible situation.

The elephants swim across the river in a straight line, trunks jutting out of the water like snorkels. With low, guttural bellows, they push their bodies together, forming a living raft to bolster a calf too tiny to stay afloat on its own.

This pachyderm flotilla has a dangerous destination in mind: The grassy shores of Namibia, where elephants are literally free game for legal hunters. The animals will risk their lives to feed here before fording the Chobe River again, back to the safety of Botswana’s Chobe National Park.

To avoid ivory poachers in neighboring Namibia, Zambia, and Angola, elephants like this family are fleeing in astounding numbers to Chobe, where illegal hunting is mostly kept in check. (See National Geographic’s elephant pictures.)

“Our elephants are essentially refugees,” says Michael Chase, founder of the Botswana-based conservation group Elephants Without Borders, which works to create transboundary corridors for elephants to travel safely between countries.

Elephants aren’t the only animals battling for survival in the dry, harsh world of northern Botswana. Tune in to the three-part miniseries Savage Kingdom on November 25 at 9 p.m. ET on Nat Geo WILD.
But while Chobe offers some protection, it’s not the most welcoming stronghold. The increasingly dry ecosystem is buckling under the pressure of supporting so many of the six-ton animals, which each eat 600 pounds of food daily.

Written by Randy McDonald

December 10, 2016 at 8:30 pm

[URBAN NOTE] “John Tory defends road toll plan: If you have a better idea, let’s hear it”

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Chris Selley writes in the National Post about Tory’s defense of his road toll plan.

Mayor John Tory visited the National Post editorial board Thursday to defend his plan to toll the Gardiner Expressway and Don Valley Parkway, putting the proceeds toward some $33 billion in approved-but-unfunded capital projects, notably public transit.

“There was no sense having a traffic and transit plan … if you didn’t have the answer to the one question that’s been elusive over time: How are you going to pay for it?” Tory said. “Our map of transit lines is pathetic, compared to any city (in the world) of our size, sophistication and wealth.”

And if you don’t like his plan to pay to improve it, he said — to everyone implicitly, and explicitly to Progressive Conservative leader Patrick Brown — where’s yours?

It remains a remarkably bold gambit. But the plaudits died down by the end of the day he announced it. Then, and since, Toronto’s air raid siren of complaint has been fading back up toward full volume.

“In Toronto, whenever the going gets tough, politicians turn to the panacea, road tolls,” Coun. Shelley Carroll wrote, bizarrely, on her website. No one suggested tolls were a panacea, and it is demonstrably not the case that Toronto politicians always turn to road tolls when the going gets tough. Hence the lack of road tolls.

Written by Randy McDonald

December 10, 2016 at 7:00 pm

[URBAN NOTE] “TTC rolls out transit-themed merchandise, online store”

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The Toronto Star‘s Laura Beeston reports on a new wave of TTC merchandising that I will have to investigate, personally.

The TTC has expanded its online shop, stocked with official merchandise, just in time for the holidays.

Items such as a $90 TTC-themed shower curtain or a $29 T-shirt are available at ttcshop.ca.

The TTC officially launched the website Nov. 28 after a limited-run of merchandise two years ago revealed consumer interest.

“It’s something that people wanted or expected us to do,” said Cheryn Thoun, head of TTC customer communications. “The TTC is integral to the Toronto experience, so this kind of offering really helps to … extend our brand.”

The shop was created to promote Toronto’s subway system and fleet of iconic street cars, which are an increasingly rare site on modern roads.

Written by Randy McDonald

December 10, 2016 at 6:40 pm

[URBAN NOTE] “Hamilton has hottest real estate prices in Canada”

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Via blogTO, I came across Mark McNeil’s Hamilton Spectator report noting that Hamilton has the hottest real estate market in Canada.

The RE/MAX annual Housing Market Outlook Report says real estate in Hamilton-Burlington shot up by 19.8 per cent this year compared to last. That’s a few notches ahead of second place Fraser Valley, which rose by 19.5 per cent.

But unlike the B.C. community, which is expected to see a 5 per cent decline in prices next year, the report predicts another double-digit increase next year in the Hamilton area. Prices here are predicted to jump by 11 per cent, again putting Hamilton on top in Canada.

That means next year the average house in Hamilton-Burlington will spike to $594,427 from $535,520 this year.

The jump next year is consistent with predictions by the Canada Mortgage Housing Corp., which sees the hot market continuing over the next two to three years.

“As long as we keep seeing people move from the GTA to Hamilton, this will not slow,” said Abdul Kargbo, a senior market analyst with Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation.

Written by Randy McDonald

December 10, 2016 at 6:20 pm

[URBAN NOTE] Frances Bula in the Globe and Mail on Vancouver homeowners and heritage properties

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Frances Bula’ takes a look at Vancouver to see how heritage designations are being resisted by many homeowners.

Bruce Pearson is furious that the city is trying to tell him what he can do with his house, a modest 1921 bungalow near Hastings Park on Vancouver’s east side.

Mr. Pearson, a retired machinist who has lived in his house for 48 years, is angrily arguing with the soft-voiced city planner sitting across the table from him. They are at one of Vancouver’s recent open houses to consult the public on policies to encourage the preservation of the city’s character houses.

Planner Tanis Yarnell is trying to explain to Mr. Pearson the bonuses the city wants to offer homeowners like him who own character houses in four large swathes of Vancouver: much of the west side, Point Grey, part of the central city and a pocket in the northeast where Mr. Pearson lives.

But the proposed enticements – the opportunity to build additions to their existing houses, to create multiple suites in a house, the chance of building a laneway house that’s much bigger than rules currently allow – aren’t going over so well with Mr. Pearson.

“That’s what it’s about is to force increased density,” grumbles Mr. Pearson, who believes his property value will go down when he sells if a new owner can’t build something larger.

“It’s a conspiracy against homeowners.”

Written by Randy McDonald

December 10, 2016 at 6:00 pm