A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

Archive for February 2013

[URBAN NOTE] “With Loblaws a Possibility, Kensington Market Gets Anxious”

Steve Kupferman’s Torontoist article revisits the possibility of a Loblaws chain grocery store near Kensington Market that I noted through Torontoist back in December.

Kupferman’s coverage is quite good, not only–as here–noting the concerns that a chain grocery store might impinge on the smaller merchants of Kensington Market, but also noting that much of this protest seems ill-judged. For starters, right now there does not seem to be any commitment by Loblaws to the site in question on College west of Spadina, once home to a Buddhist temple. There also seems to be a sort of NIMBYism evidenced, in the opposition to bars or other entertainment venues appearing in a neighbourhood that has been dynamic. The commenters at Torontoist further suggest that there may not be much impact on small businesses like fruit sellers and fishmongers in the neighbourhood, since they cater to substantially different demographics than a hypothetical Loblaws would.

It’s an awkward situation. In October, city council, with the support of Councillor Adam Vaughan (Ward 20, Trinity-Spadina), approved a 15-storey condo at 297 College Street, to be developed by a company called Tribute Communities. Now, months after the fact, some residents and businesspeople in Kensington Market, just south of the site, are suddenly up in arms over the building, which they believe will include a neighbourhood-destroying element: a Loblaws supermarket, lodged in a planned 20,000 square foot second-floor retail space.

Sylvia Lassam, a seven-year Kensington resident who owns a home on Bellevue Avenue, is one of the people leading the fight against Loblaws. She believes that a supermarket would steal business away from the many green grocers and dry-goods merchants that line Kensington’s streets. “The raw food sales have been the constant that keeps it a real, honest-to-god market,” she said. “And if you get a Loblaws two blocks away, what’s going to happen?”

Lassam, an archivist by profession, believes that a supermarket would leave Kensington unrecognizable, erasing its century of history as a scrappy, eclectic immigrant district. There’s some reason to believe things could unfold this way. Ever since a Loblaws opened at Queen and Portland streets, about half a kilometre from the Market, neighbourhood merchants have complained of reduced sales. Fueling suspicion in Kensington is the fact that the Portland Street Loblaws is located in a condo building developed by none other than Tribute Communities, in partnership with RioCan.

“I just can’t see how that could be good for [Kensington’s small grocers],” Lassam continued. “And I think what would probably happen is that they would eventually close up, and that those storefronts would turn into more of the entertainment kind of things.” In other words, bars.

Written by Randy McDonald

February 28, 2013 at 11:04 pm

[URBAN NOTE] Two notes on crime on the TTC

Late last evening, there was a stabbing on board a subway train approaching Davisville station by a man who has just been identified and charged.

Toronto police have identified and charged the man wanted in the unprovoked stabbing of a 45-year-old man on a subway train Wednesday evening.

Cassim Celani Cummings, 20, faces several charges including attempted murder and aggravated assault in relation to the incident, which took place as he was riding the Yonge Line, near Davisville station.

He has yet to be arrested.

[. . .]

The attack took place at about 10:20 p.m., police said. A passenger activated the alarm and emergency crews met the train at Davisville station. The suspect exited the train and ran away.

There was no significant interaction between the suspect and the victim before the stabbing, said Const. Tony Vella.

“The suspect was approaching [different] people on the train,” he said. “Then he went up to [the victim] and stabbed him.”

Toronto has also come up on the one-year anniversary of a thankfully non-fatal stabbing of a TTC collector at Dupont station.

Toronto police have chased down many leads, but have still not been able to find the person who shot a TTC collector at Dupont station a year ago.

Staff Insp. Mike Earl reminded reporters on Tuesday afternoon that the same suspect had actually robbed the subway station on two prior occasions before the shooting on Feb. 26, 2012.

But no shots were fired until the incident on a Sunday night last year when the on-duty collector was wounded.

“The collector had no cash, or provided no cash to the suspect, at which time the suspect turned, commenced to walk away from the victim and then turned and fired three shots,” he said during a news conference at police headquarters.

Earl said the TTC collector was hit in the bicep and the neck.

The suspect then fled the station and went to a parking lot at Spadina Avenue and Macpherson Avenue and entered a silver vehicle.

Earl said the public has provided many tips to police, but none have resulted in an arrest.

There is not, as far as I can tell, any particular panic caused by yesterday’s stabbing and the recent anniversary. Torontonians experience the TTC as frustrating, yes, but very rarely unsafe. It’s being taken as just one of those random, but rare, things.

Written by Randy McDonald

February 28, 2013 at 8:55 pm

[LINK] “Brains of rats connected allowing them to share information via internet”

The Guardian‘s Ian Sample reports on a rather remarkable new technological development. The paper’s title is “A Brain-to-Brain Interface for Real-Time Sharing of Sensorimotor Information”, but I’ve seen people on Facebook talking about rat telepathy, too.

Scientists have connected the brains of a pair of animals and allowed them to share sensory information in a major step towards what the researchers call the world’s first “organic computer”.

The US team fitted two rats with devices called brain-to-brain interfaces that let the animals collaborate on simple tasks to earn rewards, such as a drink of water.

[. . .]

Led by Miguel Nicolelis, a pioneer of devices that allow paralysed people to control computers and robotic arms with their thoughts, the researchers say their latest work may enable multiple brains to be hooked up to share information.

[. . .]

The scientists first demonstrated that rats can share, and act on, each other’s sensory information by electrically connecting their brains via tiny grids of electrodes that reach into the motor cortex, the brain region that processes movement.

The rats were trained to press a lever when a light went on above it. When they performed the task correctly, they got a drink of water. To test the animals’ ability to share brain information, they put the rats in two separate compartments. Only one compartment had a light that came on above the lever. When the rat pressed the lever, an electronic version of its brain activity was sent directly to the other rat’s brain. In trials, the second rat responded correctly to the imported brain signals 70% of the time by pressing the lever.

Remarkably, the communication between the rats was two-way. If the receiving rat failed at the task, the first rat was not rewarded with a drink, and appeared to change its behaviour to make the task easier for its partner. In further experiments, the rats collaborated in a task that required them to distinguish between narrow and wide openings using their whiskers.

In the final test, the scientists connected rats on different continents and beamed their brain activity back and forth over the internet. “Even though the animals were on different continents, with the resulting noisy transmission and signal delays, they could still communicate,” said Miguel Pais-Vieira, the first author of the study, in a statement. “This tells us that we could create a workable network of animal brains distributed in many different locations.”

Written by Randy McDonald

February 28, 2013 at 5:51 pm

[URBAN NOTE] “Is Tim Hortons Spiking the Brew?”

Reading Edward Brown’s post about the rumours that Tim Horton’s spike its coffee to nicotine as my coffee perks, my first reaction is “That can’t be so bad!”. My second, well, Brown nails the unlikeliness of the myth and its probable genesis.

The yarn goes something like this: While visiting family in Toronto for the first time, an American tourist makes frequent trips to the nation’s most recognized coffee house, becoming inexplicably enamoured of Canada’s famous brew. In a tamer version of the legend, the sorry sod returns stateside green around the gills. A visit to the doctor reveals nicotine coursing through his veins. Since the tourist is a nonsmoker, his doctor is baffled. Further tests reveal that a copious amount of nicotine-laden coffee ingested during his romp north is the source of the health scare.

In a more sinister version, the American meets his demise in a Tim Hortons. Deathly allergic to nicotine, a single sip brings on cardiac arrest. Another version has a teenage girl’s heart bursting the instant her extra-large combines with the effects of a nicotine patch.

Tim Hortons is aware of the legend. They address it directly, here. Michelle Robichaud, public relations manager for Tim’s, told Torontoist unequivocally, “There is in fact nothing added to our coffee. We believe that our guests are addicted to consistency.”

[. . .]

It’s clearly implausible that Tim Hortons would deliberately poison its customers. So how did the rumour get started? Finding the source of an urban legend is impossible. Tracing its propagation, however, is easier. Urban legends relating to nicotine have a history. In the ’80s, there were tales about McDonald’s adding nicotine to hamburgers. In the ’90s, Pokémon cards were rumoured to be laced with the substance. Today in the U.S., Starbucks coffee has its own nicotine legend.

Written by Randy McDonald

February 28, 2013 at 1:32 pm

[PHOTO] Snow sliding from a shelter roof, 27 February 2013

Yesterday morning saw the end of an almost disappointing snowstorm, the temperature hovering around freezing. Instead of simple rain, or a dry snow, we got a wet snow that quickly became slush covering the sidewalks.

Snow slid inch by inch, off the downwards-curved roof bus shelter at Dufferin and Dupont, the snow lubricated by the water and encouraged by gravity. The regular thumps made interesting sounds as they hit the ground.

Snow sliding from a shelter roof, 27 February 2013

This is a close-up of the previous photo.

Snow sliding from a shelter roof, 27 February 2013 (2)

Written by Randy McDonald

February 28, 2013 at 5:52 am

[LINK] “The Homosexual Atom Bomb”

The invaluable 3 Quarks Daily linked to an interesting article in n+1 by Sophie Pinkham, “The Homosexual Atom Bomb”. Drawing its title from an exhibition in New York City by artist and historian Yevgeniy Fiks, Pinkham’s article takes a look at the construction of homophobia in the Soviet Union in response to the perceived ideological threat that was homosexuality, and the legacies of these in contemporary Russia.

A six-foot cardboard cutout of a Soviet nuclear test explosion named “Joe-1” is the main character in Homosexuality Is Stalin’s Atom Bomb to Destroy America, Yevgeniy Fiks’s current exhibition at the Winkleman Gallery in New York. Joe-1 stands forlornly on empty street corners and in green, empty parks, sometimes casting a shadow, sometimes not. He doesn’t seem like much of a threat. He is in Washington D.C., and he seems to be taking in the sights—always alone, always in an empty frame. Sometimes he seems to be waiting for someone; but no one ever comes. According to the titles of the photos, he’s cruising. But how can you cruise in an empty city?

Fiks’s new book Moscow is a collection of simple photos of Moscow’s gay cruising sites of the Soviet period. (The word “gay” is anachronistic, but I’ll follow Fiks in using it anyway.) The pictures show contemporary Moscow—again, empty—and ask us to imagine men cruising there in the 1920s, 30s, 40s, and into the ’80s. We see the garden in front of the Bolshoi Theater; Okhotny Rad metro station; Pushkin Square; the dormitories of Moscow University; a couple of bathhouses; a café; the Hermitage Gardens, and their toilets; the Nikitsky Gates, and their toilets; Gogol Boulevard, and its toilets; the Lenin Museum and the central department store, both popular for their toilets. The photographs are unremarkable, but maybe that’s the point: they’re meant to evoke isolation, loss, and an everyday life that was hidden, then erased. In his introduction, Fiks writes that his book “remembers the fates and celebrates the lives of those who, from the 1920s to the 1980s, reconstructed their city as a site of queer desire and subjectivity.” For him, the old cruising grounds are “sites of mourning.”

Soviet city-dwellers of all sexual orientations were accustomed to searching for privacy in public places, as Soviet policies left cities overcrowded and communal apartments overflowing. By 1940, the average number of inhabitants per room in Soviet towns was 3.91. Unless you were into voyeurism or group sex, this meant that you probably had to leave home to fulfill your carnal needs. In 1950, one Moscow man got into the habit of bringing younger men home for sex—in the room he shared with his wife. At first his wife would sit in the room, berating him and his partner, tearing off the sheets, trying to drive out the interloper; eventually she got fed up and called the police.

Informers were a serious threat to anyone who lived in a communal apartment, but especially to someone engaged in an illegal activity. To have homosexual sex in a kommunalka was to take an almost insane risk. But the bars, clubs, cafés, and bathhouses where gay men had socialized before the revolution had been nationalized, and were now controlled by government functionaries unlikely to tolerate gay gatherings. This left few alternatives but the sites documented in Moscow: boulevards, public squares, parks, and public toilets. Cruising spots were selected on the basis of architectural features that afforded some measure of privacy, in a convenient location.

Written by Randy McDonald

February 28, 2013 at 2:51 am

[URBAN NOTE] “Officials ban nude sunbathing on Fire Island”

Joe. My. God. and Towleroad both linked to Candace Ruud’s Newsday article announcing that soon, there’s going to be a ban enforced on nude sunbathing on iconic Fire Island. (Environmental concerns following the scouring of the dunes by Hurricane Sandy seem secondary compared to the concerns over public displays of inappropriateness.)

Speaing as someone who has enjoyed Hanlan’s Point on the Toronto Islands, I can see the points being made. I am somewhat surprised that nude sunbathing wasn’t legally protected on Fire Island as it is at Hanlan’s Point.

A decades-long tradition of nude sunbathing on Fire Island beaches is coming to an end this summer: Fire Island National Seashore authorities have announced plans to enforce long-standing laws banning the practice.

The surging popularity of Lighthouse Beach in particular has led to increased complaints and observations of assault, sex, masturbation and prostitution, said Fire Island chief ranger Lena Koschmann. On some summer days, as many as 4,000 people descend on the narrow strip of land east of Robert Moses State Park Field 5, in the shadow of famed Fire Island Lighthouse.

“We’ve been struggling to make it work because Fire Island has a history of that type of use and people have been coming there for years,” Koschmann said. “The more we talked about it and researched it, the more we realized that that use wasn’t compatible with an area like Lighthouse Beach.”

The beach’s proximity to the lighthouse generated complaints from tourists about public nudity, which now would be seen more frequently because the beach’s dunes, decimated by superstorm Sandy, no longer obscure sightlines, she said.

Since the beach has no lifeguards, bathrooms or trash cans, Koschmann said thousands of nude sunbathers pose a public health risk in an area that wasn’t meant to be heavily used.

“There has been a huge change in the demographic and the types of activities happening there in the last 10 or 15 years,” she said. “Now when you go out there it’s a party atmosphere. There’s DJs and music, and people partying and drinking.”

Koschmann also said some social media sites carry invitations to meet for public sex on the beach.

The fact that public nudity is illegal in New York was another compelling reason to change the policy, since FINS maintains joint jurisdiction with the state, she said. The ban also will be enforced at four other Fire Island beaches where nude sunbathing is known to take place — including the tract of land in front of Sailors Haven, from Point O’ Woods to Cherry Grove.

Written by Randy McDonald

February 28, 2013 at 12:24 am

[URBAN NOTE] “Mayor Rob Ford invited to prayer rally against zoning bylaw”

I blogged back in October 2012 about how zoning laws in Toronto made things difficult for immigrant churches, which often take over buildings in areas zoned for light-industrial use on the periphery of the city even as churches downtown close and are converted to different uses. Charles McVety, one of the most powerful leaders in Canada’s evangelical Christian movement, has taken the cause up as his own. Guess who’ll be speaking at a rally for this cause?

Controversial Christian leader Charles McVety says Mayor Rob Ford has promised to attend a prayer rally Saturday to protest aspects of Toronto’s proposed harmonized zoning bylaw.

[. . .]

Ford’s chief of staff Mark Towhey would not say whether the mayor was planning to attend.

McVety, who has significant influence within Canada’s religious right, has been a fierce opponent of same-sex marriage, gay-straight alliances in schools and abortion. He has referred to Toronto’s Pride Parade as a “sex parade.” And two years ago, the CTS television network removed McVety’s program from its lineup for violating its code of ethics, after the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council found his program made “malevolent, insidious and conspiratorial” remarks about the gay community. McVety denounced the criticism as an attack on free speech.

As with these social issues, McVety says, Toronto’s proposed zoning bylaws are an example of government going after the freedoms of religious institutions.

[. . .]

The prayer rally will be held at Canada Christian College, where McVety is president. Ford, who has been criticized for not attending the Pride Parade, and a few other councillors are expected to attend, McVety said.

Written by Randy McDonald

February 27, 2013 at 8:43 pm

[URBAN NOTE] “Many Moscow Natives Don’t Identify as Muscovites, Sociologist Says”

Window on Eurasia is a blog curated by Paul Goble that features articles on any number of cultural and national issues from the area of the former Soviet Union, perhaps skewing to a more Russia-skeptical attitude than I’d think fair but still worthwhile. The most recent post there talks about the Muscovite identity in terms that, frankly, sound quite familiar to this Torontonian. World cities with highly mobile and rapidly growing populations have identity issues, it’s true.

Many Moscow natives do not identify themselves as Muscovites, a Russian sociologist says, while some who have moved to the city, particularly those who have been there more than ten years, identify strongly with it, just two of the many paradoxes of life in the Russian capital.

In an article on the Postnauka.ru site, Viktor Vakhshtayn, a sociologist who teaches at the Presidential Academy of Economics and State Service, says that one of the most intriguing paradoxes of Moscow is that “an enormous number of people live in this city without noting that they live in it” (postnauka.ru/faq/9646).

[. . .]

About 60 percent of Moscow’s residents were born somewhere else, and about 40 percent are people who were born there. According to the surveys, “about 60 percent of the people who continuously live and work in Moscow do not feel themselves to be Muscovites in any way.” But that 60 percent is not made up entirely of the 60 percent born elsewhere.

“In fact,” Vakhshtayn says, “among those who live in Moscow, continuously work here, and do not connect in any way with this place, 20 percent were born” in the city. Another 30 percent of this group, he adds, is made up of people who arrived in the Russian capital more than a decade earlier.

At the same time, “the most-intensely-held Muscovite identity is shown by people who were not born [in the capital] but who have lived in Moscow more than ten years; that is, those for whom this move was a serious achievement, possibly their main life plan because for them, this was an identity that they won, unlike the case of many native urban residents.”

[. . .]

This has some important implications, Vakhshtayn points out. “The archetype of social space was the agora in the ancient Greek polis. It was not so much a place in which you were comfortable and which you went to spend time with friends as a space in which the city recognize itself as a city.”

Such a space is where an urban identity is formed, he says. “And if there is no place in which you feel your tie with this strange meta-city formation, then an urban identity will not be formed.” Moscow for many people lacks such a space, and that in turn creates some unusual circumstances.

Written by Randy McDonald

February 27, 2013 at 8:14 pm

[BLOG] Some Wednesday links

  • The Burgh Diaspora notes that the Chinese system of internal passports, like more informal (and sometimes unauthorized) Indian sanctions against migrants, discourages the free migration necessary for economic growth.
  • Centauri Dreams’ Paul Gilster observes that it might be possible to discover Earth-like planets orbiting post-main sequence white dwarfs, on account of the small size of their orbits and their stars.
  • Eastern Approaches notes that Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych seems right in thinking that he can get away with stringing the European Union on.
  • A Fistful of Euros’ Brent Whelan expects a second round of elections in Italy soon and notes that the quarter of voters choosing Beppe Grillo’s anti-establishment political group have to be taken into account.
  • Patrick Cain has an infographic showing how many of the countries of the world with the largest Roman Catholic populations are badly underrepresented in the College of Cardinals. (Italy has 21 cardinals and 50 million Catholics, while Brazil’s 133 million Catholics have only five.)
  • Torontoist and Steve Munro both note that the TTC is testing new art and display methods for its maps and bus poles.
  • Torontoist commemorates the renaming of an east-end lane street Jack Layton Way after the late NDP leader.
  • Window on Eurasia reports on anxiety among the Chuvash, a Turkic people of the middle Volga region of Russia, that their ethnic identity and their autonomous republic are both being eroded by slow assimilation.