A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

Archive for November 2009

[DM] “Three Atlantic Canadian articles”

I’ve a post up at Demography Matters reporting on population issues in Atlantic Canada, everything from the depopulation of rural Newfoundland to Prince Edward Island’s failure to keep immigrants to Nova Scotians’ reluctance to do farm work.

Go, read.

Written by Randy McDonald

November 30, 2009 at 10:10 pm

[URBAN NOTE] Two changing streets

)Over at his Psychogeography blog, Shawn Micallef tackles (“Our queerest street”) the question of whether Church Street is continuing to be queer or not. After doing a rundown of Church Street’s diversity south of Gerrard, he concludes that things are safe enough. So far.

As Toronto’s gay scene moved from Yonge to Church Street in the 1980s, that old sensibility of queer bars behind darkened windows evolved into a much more conspicuous street presence. It was always a gay area, though, from the legendary days of possibly gay magistrate Alexander Wood in the early 1800s (that’s his statue at Alexander and Church) to the 1950s and ’60s, when the City Park Co-Op and Village Green apartment complexes were built (the latter includes a round building endearingly nicknamed “Vaseline Tower”), residential structures where a single man or (less frequently) woman could live in relative privacy and alone.

The Church-Wellesley kind of urbanism is ideal. That’s why so many less-gay people are moving in, and why the neighbourhood pretended to be Pittsburgh when Queer as Folk was filmed here. At the same time, the security need for cultural ghettos in mostly tolerant Toronto has decreased as the rest of city has become kind of gay.

In the Diversity-Our-Strength-motto sense, it’s all good, but for those worried about the demise of Church, it’s useful to think of how other ethnic strips have evolved. The Greeks don’t live en masse on the Danforth anymore, nor do the Italians along St. Clair and so forth, but the ethnic strip remains, and people visit because it feels Italian or Greek. Bars may come and go, but Church is anchored by visible institutions and places like the 519 Community Centre; the AIDS Memorial and Cawthra Park; the AIDS Committee of Toronto or that Alexander Wood statue. Even the CBC’s Battle of the Blades that recently put life back into Maple Leaf Gardens is good for the community, because it was the gayest event the place has witnessed since Liberace performed there.

While Church Street isn’t cool with the hipster queer kids (all it takes is a few promoters to change that) The Village is still critical if only for this moment: imagine a gay kid coming from less tolerant places like Timmins, Jamaica or Afghanistan arriving at Church and Wellesley and, for the first time, seeing this vibrant, celebratory strip. No offense to those three places, but this is why cities are salvation: you can see, immediately, that you
belong here, just as you are.

Meanwhile, over at the Star, Mary Ormsby examines Sherbourne Street “Sherbourne: Toronto’s ‘city in one street'”, a street just a few minutes’ walk east of Church, starting at the Sherbourne subway station on Bloor Street East and continuing south for kilometres. It’s a street, Ormsby argues, that captures the diversity of Toronto, at least of the old downtown core.

The condominium has not yet emerged from the ground, its cement and iron footings being formed to hold 17 storeys of polished glass and aluminum with suites selling for less than $300,000. In 18 months, “The Modern” promises to be a landscaped playpen for young downtowners.

A short block north on Sherbourne Street, the city’s most damaged, desperate and dangerous roam for drugs, hookers and easy cash. Men with nowhere to go and nothing to do kill time until the shelters open or until sleep overcomes them in Moss Park.

Bookending this 164-year-old thoroughfare is enormous wealth. Elegant stone-and-brick mansions dot the northern tip, vestiges of the moneyed and powerful who once lined both sides of the 3.5-kilometre stretch. Due south on Lake Ontario’s sandy shoals, bulldozers clear space for a $29 million public park to feature waterfalls and play structures.

Street churches, whose preaching was originally for the rich, offer ESL classes and counselling between prayers.

Social housing, gentrification, immigrants, magnificent parkland, the country’s highest concentration of homeless, political activists, acts of kindness, acts of violence, health centres, ballparks and a hockey arena all share the two-lane asphalt strip.

Say hello to Sherbourne – skid row to some, the Ritz to others – the most intensely Torontonian of all Toronto streets.

Go, read them both.

Written by Randy McDonald

November 30, 2009 at 3:18 pm

[LINK] “A Universe Optimized for Starships?”

Centauri Dreams lets us know that some people want to use black holes to drive starships.

Working with colleague Shawn Westmoreland, Crane has been exploring a different and far more speculative option for upping the energy extraction levels. What about using black holes for propulsion? Specifically, Crane and Westmoreland ask whether Hawking radiation from black holes can power a starship, calculating that a black hole of about a million tons would be just the right size, small enough to generate the needed Hawking radiation, while large enough to survive for the duration of a century-long star crossing. Adam Crowl has written fascinatingly about this in Crowlspace.

Crane and Westmoreland’s paper on using Hawking radiation for this purpose has been kicking around on the Net for a bit, never quite making it to the top of the queue here, but Marcus Chown gives it a good look in the latest New Scientist, so let’s pause to examine it now. Rather than finding a nearby black hole, the two suggest using a gamma ray laser powered by solar energy to create one. The energy needed would be enormous, calling for solar panels 250 kilometers across in close solar orbit, a Robert Forward-esque engineering challenge.

But if you could create such solar panels and let them soak up the needed sunlight to power up your black hole production facility, you’d wind up with something tiny that offered tremendous power. Says Chown:

The resulting million-tonne black hole would be about the size of an atomic nucleus. The next step would be to manoeuvre it into the focal range of a parabolic mirror attached to the back of the crew quarters of a starship. Hawking radiation consists of all sorts of species of subatomic particles, but the most common will be gamma ray photons. Collimated into a parallel beam by the parabolic mirror, these would be the starship’s exhaust and would push it forward.

[. . .]

Crane and Westmoreland think a starship powered this way could accelerate to close to the speed of light in a few decades, fast enough that relativistic time dilation would occur and vast distances could be crossed by human crews. Interestingly, a black hole starship like this should create gravitational waves that might be detectable here on Earth, assuming some nearby extraterrestrial civilization were using the technology. If coalescing black holes and neutron stars ought to be producing low-frequency gravitational waves, a black hole starship should leave a gravitational signature at ultra-high frequencies.

All I’ll say is that Star Trek has established that some Romulan starships use quantum singularities to generate power. It’s always slightly worrisome when scientists and thinkers imagine semi-plausible pathways to Trek technology, don’t you think?

Written by Randy McDonald

November 30, 2009 at 2:57 pm

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[LINK] “How blogs like Torontoist and BlogTO are taking local news to a new level”

Maryam Siddiqi’s National Post blog posting argues that excellent group blogs like blogTO and Torontoist are, far from destroying journalism, sustaining that noble art and creating new vehicles with new methods for writers

David Topping has to postpone our phone chat so he can pursue a juicy tip that came to him via Twitter.

“In the midst of a hot story (for our readership at least) that I am writing up and turning out in the next hour if all goes well,” the 22-year-old writes in an email. He’s also supposed to be preparing a presentation on T.S. Eliot for a University of Toronto class, but he stops what he’s doing to hastily assemble a story about the 20-year-old outdoor mural of Lee’s Palace, a rock ’n’ roll bar, being chipped off by workers so it can be replaced by a sign for a burrito joint. (The club will live on, but will share the space with Big Fat Burrito). The Twittering tipster, Danny Glenwright, gets his due credit in the resulting article when it’s posted Tuesday night.

Topping is, with Marc Lostracco, one of the editors of Torontoist. The kind of ear-to-the-ground, youth-oriented news-gathering he’s doing — connecting tipsters to hipsters, as it were — not only explodes the myth of blogs as lazy at actual news gathering, but it has the mainstream media looking over its collective shoulder.

Even if many Torontonians have never heard of them, BlogTO and Torontoist — local news feeds, or blogs, or whatever you want to call them — enjoy readerships in the hundreds of thousands per month, deals to supply traditional print publications with content (see sidebar) and long-term plans involving hiring professional journalists. In the meantime, they want you to check in at their sites as part of your breakfast routine, somewhere between the morning paper and rush-hour radio news.

Despite a scare that saw Torontoist almost shut down by its New York-based parent company earlier this year before it was rescued by a trio of Toronto-based investors, the citizen-written news services have created a niche for themselves in the local media landscape — one burrito review at a time.

Not too bad for a bunch of more or less amateurs. The sites pay token fees, typically as low as $10 per post, to their contributing writers and photographers, usually students and people with day jobs. Most involved have no formal training as journalists, and neither Topping, Lostracco nor BlogTO publisher Tim Shore have spent a day in journalism school.

Despite the sites’ reputations among Toronto mainstream media editors for providing story fodder, Lostracco says, “the biggest challenge for us is to get our name out there. For the most part, people haven’t heard of us.”

And yes, I do check these blogs and others every morning via my RSS reader.

Written by Randy McDonald

November 30, 2009 at 11:21 am

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[PHOTO] erigal: “My husband’s boutonniere”

My husband’s boutonniere
Originally uploaded by Erigal

Erin‘s photo is beautiful.

“This is a shadow box — I pressed the boutonniere separately, and painted the Dollar-Store shadow box with acrylics to frame it. Our wedding colours were blue and pale yellow.”

Written by Randy McDonald

November 30, 2009 at 11:17 am

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[BRIEF NOTE] On the meaning of the Swiss minaret ban

The people who talk about the impending arrival of Eurabia base their argument not only on the–charitably–pretended astronomically high birthrate of “Muslims” but on the weakness and decadence of Europeans, unwilling to defend their proud traditions against arrogant incomers. Right.

Some 57.5 percent of voters supported the ban. The initiative was also supported by the required majority of cantons, with 22 of Switzerland’s 26 cantons voting in favor of the ban. The two city cantons of Geneva and Basel-City rejected the proposal, as did two French-speaking cantons, Neuchâtel and Vaud.

[. . .]

the organizers of the campaign managed to turn the dispute over minarets into a symbolic referendum on the influence of Islam. They did not speak much about minarets. Instead, they talked about Sharia law, burqas and the oppression of women in the Islamic world. In the end, even the prominent feminist Julia Onken supported the initiative.

The poster which the organizers used for their campaign showed a number of black minarets resembling rockets standing closely together on a Swiss flag. In front of the flag, a woman stared angrily out from beneath a black burqa. It was an image of a Switzerland that had been taken over by Islam. Minarets are “symbols of power” of a foreign religion, argued politician Ulrich Schlüer, who belongs to the SVP’s right wing. The ban, he said, represents a clear statement against their spread.

The debate was largely divorced from the reality of Switzerland. Although around 22 percent of the population is of foreign origin, the country has so far had relatively few problems with its roughly 400,000 Muslims. Most of them are liberally minded Bosnians, Kosovo Albanians and Turks and their approximately 160 mosques are practically invisible. Burqas are seldom seen on Swiss streets and there have never been serious calls for the introduction of Sharia law.

The decision, therefore, does not reflect real problems in Switzerland, but rather a general feeling of unease toward Islam. The issue revolves around a deep-seated fear that society’s values could be in danger.

The recent victory in the Swiss referendum of proponents of a cosntitutional ban on the construction of minarets demonstrates pretty strongly that not only the sort of anti-Muslim sentiment Eurabianists say doesn’t exist, but that there’s a fairly broad consensus on this across the political spectrum. Not that this sort of thing isn’t evident across Europe, of course, with everything from bans on conservative Islamic clothing to restrictive immigration laws to strong pan-European opposition to European Union expansion to Turkey demonstrating that, yet again, Eurabianists aren’t in contact with reality.

Written by Randy McDonald

November 30, 2009 at 11:14 am

[CAT] Shakespeare prowls

Shakespeare prowls
Originally uploaded by rfmcdpei

Shakespeare must look fierce in this post, as if he was “walking on imported air” past a pile of books he angrily tipped over as he narrowed his eyes at me, but, truly, it’s an illusion: the books are scattered on the floor because of my ferocious housecleaning, and the angle is responsible for the illusion of anger. If anything, he’s quite the opposite of an alpha male, timid and gentle.

Written by Randy McDonald

November 30, 2009 at 11:08 am

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[META] Blogroll Expansion

We’ve two new blogs up on the blogroll, Globe and Mail technology columnist Matthew Ingram’s appropriately named mathewingram.com/work, and the business writer Stephen Baker’s The Numerati. Enjoy!

Written by Randy McDonald

November 30, 2009 at 10:02 am

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[PHOTO] Lunar nova

Walking along Bloor Street West past the University of Toronto on the night of Nuit Blanche last month, I looked up and saw the Moon through the clouds, shining ever brighter as it expanded from a single point. Stella Nova.

Lunar nova (1)
Originally uploaded by

Lunar nova (2)
Originally uploaded by

Lunar nova (3)
Originally uploaded by

The University of Toronto Admission Center‘s crenellated tower is visible at the bottom of the third one.

Written by Randy McDonald

November 29, 2009 at 9:45 pm

[FORUM] How religious can you be, and how are you religious?

The question of my relationship to religion–should I have one? what sort of ethics should undergird it? how postmodern can religiosity be while still being religious–has been perplexing me of late. One thing that get me thinking about the issue is a 1986 song by XTC, “Dear God”, that I’ve been thinking about lately.

I’m not thinking of XTC, really, since Andy Partridge annoys me, but of the Sarah McLachlan cover version that demonstrates that she’s damn good when she has bite.

The song’s lyrics make the case that God’s complicity in human suffering and humanity’s many divergent and conflictual perceptions of God make the idea of God untenable.

I hope you got the letter, and…
I pray you can make it better down here.
I don’t mean a big reduction in the price of beer
But all the people that you made in your image, see
Them starving on their feet ’cause they don’t get
Enough to eat from God, I can’t believe in you

Dear God, sorry to disturb you, but… I feel that I should be heard
Loud and clear. We all need a big reduction in amount of tears
And all the people that you made in your image, see them fighting
In the street ’cause they can’t make opinions meet about God,
I can’t believe in you

Did you make disease, and the diamond blue? Did you make
Mankind after we made you? And the devil too!

I don’t know if you noticed, but… your name is on
A lot of quotes in this book, and us crazy humans wrote it, you
Should take a look, and all the people that you made in your
Image still believing that junk is true. Well I know it ain’t, and
So do you, dear God, I can’t believe in I don’t believe in

If a God does exist, that God would be the God of Depeche Mode’s 1984 “Blasphemous Rumours”

People who know me have noted that I’ve quoted the chorus “I don’t want to start any blasphemous rumours/but I think that God’s got a sick sense of humour,/and when I die, I expect to find Him laughing” any number of times. It’s a horrifying image, the sort of thing that makes you wish that humans really could go through a technological singularity if only to give us a chance at deposing such a tyrant.

Thankfully, the “Dear God” argument is risible. In a universe with free will (I chose to believe in that or a close simulacrum thereof, many-worlds interpretation or not), there’s no reason why bad things can’t happen without the explicit direction of God (assuming for the sake of this argument that the Christian trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost really is what’s up/out/thataway there). The argument that I first ran into in Paradise Lost, that compelling people to believe strips their humanity from them, makes perfect sense to me: everyone knows how I like my Ernest Renan, and it’s not a stretch at all to go from there to the idea that a religion like any other philosophy has to be actively chosen and embraced, in a daily even hourly referendum, if it’s to be meaningful. That said, religious or philosophical systems which discriminate against people who don’t belong to the community–who, to name an extreme example, could countenance punishing Cacique Haguey for refusing to accept the religion of the people who massacred his?–makes me wish, again, for a technological singularity that would let such a system be dealt with accordingly.

All this brings me to my concern. My relationship to the Anglo-Catholic tradition of Toronto’s St. Thomas’s over the past few months has been motivated by desires to approach the institution and the religion sincerely: I’ve taken my lesson from Emma Bovary’s deathbed impression of the incense of her last rites as nice. But what is sincerity? I think that the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” could make a great hymn (“I shouted out,/Who killed the Kennedys?/When after all/It was you and me”) and perceive Jésus de Montréal as one of the most compelling religious dramas ever made. My approach to religion–to this particular religion–has been driven by my desire to active choose something, but how many choices can I make before I make too many?

All this brings me to the [FORUM] question of the day. Are you at all inclined towards religion, or were you? How do you approach your particular denomination? How many specific choices have you made, to embrace one element of your faith or to embrace an idiosyncrasy? What is an idiosyncrasy for you? My apologies if this [FORUM] post is confused somehow, but then I’m confused so I’m not sure whether I can help out on this front.


Written by Randy McDonald

November 29, 2009 at 6:27 pm