A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

Archive for May 2014

[PHOTO] Comic Sans for the Lieutenant Governor, Ontario Legislative Building

Comic Sans for the Lieutenant-Governor, Ontario Legislative Building

While visiting the Ontario Legislative Building for Doors Open on Sunday with a friend, said friend noticed that the document announcing the most recent appointment to the office of Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario, David Onley, was written in the font Comic Sans.

I don’t get the hatred of this font, the sort recounted in this BBC article. I think it a pleasant and mildly goofy font, quite suitable for friendly or informal occasions. It’s just that I certainly didn’t think it suitable for an official document like this one!

[URBAN NOTE] On the import of Davenport riding in Ontario and Canada, even

David Rider‘s Toronto Star article examining the fight between the NDP incumbent and Liberal challenger in the provincial riding of Davenport where I live caught my interest. Given the thin margin of Jonah Schein’s victory last time, a swing away from the NDP could easily cost him the seat. All Toronto could well become another Liberal stronghold provincially.

This might even be of pan-Canadian interest, since the boundaries of the provincial riding of Davenport correspond to those of the federal riding of the same name. In the 2011 federal election, the NDP successfully displaced the Liberal incumbent there. I myself was part of the orange wave that swept urban Ontario. If the NDP suffers provincial losses, what happens at the federal level?

Davenport is home to many Portuguese-Canadians and a rising number of Vietnamese and Spanish speakers. Sharing an MPP are Queen Street artists, young professionals in The Junction, working-class tenants of Symington Place apartments, and old-world retirees strolling Corso Italia.

The vote here could signal which party clinches Ontario, predicts Lorne Bozinoff, president of the polling firm Forum Research and a Davenport resident. “I think this is the number-one bellwether riding in Ontario,” he says. “If the NDP doesn’t keep the seat, it means a trend,” and likely a Liberal government.

Working hard to ensure that does not happen is NDP MPP Jonah Schein, 39, elected in 2011 and now in a testy rematch with Cristina Martins, 48, whose Liberals are doing everything they can to retake their former bastion.

At Sandor-Kerr’s doorstep, Martins tells him the NDP supported the 2012 and 2013 budgets without making that support contingent on electrification of the contentious Union Station-Pearson link.

[. . .]

“That the person who doesn’t live here, who doesn’t ride transit here, is billing herself as the transit champion ….” Schein shakes his head. “That train line has been a disaster from the beginning in the way the Liberals have handled it.”

Despite west-end residents’ warnings of polluted neighbourhoods, the Liberal government announced diesel trains would run on the line when it opens before the 2015 Pan Am Games.

The Liberals recently switched tracks, however, vowing to retrofit the line for quicker, cleaner electric trains as part of a $29-billion, 10-year transit plan.

Written by Randy McDonald

May 30, 2014 at 10:07 pm

[LINK] “What War Might Be Like”

Guest posting a week ago at The Power and the Money, Martin Skold predicted that war in the future–non-nuclear war, at least–would proceed through four stages: rapid attrition, stalemate, mobilization, and insurgency in successfully occupied territories). The first stage would be critical.

In the past two World Wars, it was actually the norm for the combatants to fail to knock each other out of the fight initially. The great exception appears to be France, which suffered what can only be described as a total knockout in the first round of World War 2. In all other cases, although one side or the other might make some gains, it usually failed to completely destroy its opponent. One could point to the Battle of Britain, operations on the Russian Front in 1941, initial Japanese gains in the Pacific after Pearl Harbor, the stalemate on the Marne in September 1914, the inability of Germany to eliminate Russia after its victories at Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes at about the same time, and so on.

There are reasons for this. In many cases, the wrong set of assumptions was in play: Germany, for example, did not begin serious industrial mobilization in World War 2 until after Stalingrad (arguably, after it had already lost), trusting in the ability of the blitzkrieg to deliver quick and decisive battlefield victories. In other cases, it simply took time for resources to become available: Britain, which had always focused as much of its defense budget as possible on its navy, entered World War 1 with a professional army (the crack units in the British Expeditionary Force, who, according to legend, fired their rifles so rapidly as to appear to be using machine-guns), only to enroll large numbers of after hostilities commenced (the so-called “Kitchener Battalions” that were slaughtered on the Somme two years later). In all such cases, however, the great powers were close enough to evenly matched to be able to survive the initial shock and awe.

This scenario would probably prevail in the world of the 2020s. (Right now, the United States has a good chance of achieving a rapid knockout blow in a conventional conflict.) The trend towards professionalization (absence of conscription in most big states) and reliance on high technology (the inflation-adjusted costs of major weapons systems being significantly higher than in past wars), combined with the likelihood that at least one side would not have a long warning time prior to the onset of hostilities suggests that replacing lost equipment and personnel would require more mobilization and preparation than either side would likely have at the start of conflict.

In other words, unless one side or the other prevails decisively in the first weeks of the war, the initial forces of both sides are likely to be destroyed. Let’s first consider personnel. Most modern militaries invest large sums of money and large quantities of time in training their personnel. That makes lost personnel difficult to replace, particularly in the absence of conscription, which few states (and no great powers except Russia) employ. For that matter, mass conscription by definition implies sacrificing quality for quantity: professional armies throughout history have invested more training resources in each individual soldier, sailor, or airman than militaries based on mass conscription. The IDF and South Korea are partial exceptions, but those are armies geared for territorial defense (and in Israel, occupation of hostile territory) not expeditionary warfare.

The size of modern armies is small for this reason: in terms of military participation rates, the modern great powers are closer to medieval kingdoms than to pre-World War 1 states. (Modern great powers have less than 1% of their populations in the military, including reserves, compared to 5% of European populations on the muster rolls in 1914.) Although some of this reflects a choice (conscious or unconscious) some of it is a function of technology and the time it takes to learn to use it. It is quite debatable whether a modern state could replace combat pilots, for example, at the same rate as Britain and Germany did in 1940 — even allowing for the fact that both countries tolerated a much lower standard of proficiency than the prewar norm.

The discussion in the comments is interesting, with some (like Will Baird) suggesting that technological units like drones–inexpensive and usable from the start–could be game-changers for this scenario.

Written by Randy McDonald

May 30, 2014 at 8:36 pm

Posted in History, Politics

Tagged with , , , ,

[LINK] “The Woman Who Saved Syria’s Jews”

Back in March, The Daily Beast‘s Emma Beals had a nice article about Judy Feld Carr. A Canadian Jewish musicologist, Carr was responsible for the successful flight of Syria’s remnant Jewish community to safety. (Her prediction that, if Syrian Jews had stayed, they would have risked slaughter seems sadly correct.)

In the late 1970’s, Feld Carr, a Canadian mother and musicologist, was reading a newspaper when she was struck by an article about 12 SyrianJewish men who tried to escape into Turkey overland from Qamishli, in the north of the country. They stepped on a land mine and Syrian border guards watched them die.

She was so moved by the story that she decided to track down members of Syria’s Jewish community. She began cold-calling numbers in Syria until she eventually hit upon a contact. “I sent a telegram to the Rabbi in Damascus asking if he needed religious books and prepaid [for his response].” she explains. “Who would have ever believe, an answer came back with a shopping list! That was the beginning, the first opening since 1948.”

In the decades following the creation of the state of Israel, Syria’s Jewish community had become isolated, says Sarian Roffe, a historian of the Syrian Jewish community. “After Israel’s creation that was it. They shut the doors because they didn’t want people to go to Israel and fight against them,” she says. “So the doors to leave Syria were closed and there was increased persecution.”

There was also enforced segregation—Jewish residents of Damascus, Aleppo and Qamishli were forced to live only in certain neighborhoods and initially had to seek permission to travel further than three kilometers from their homes.

Feld Carr’s relationship with the Damascus Rabbi started to develop into more frequent coded telegrams and secret messages written into religious books. Eventually, she says, some members of the community managed to leave the country and meet with her. To do so, they had to leave family members behind as ‘collateral’. “This one older couple came to meet me and told me what was happening in Syria.” she explains. “Then somebody went to Aleppo in the north and asked me, ‘Is there any way to get my brother out?’ And that’s how I started. It was crazy. I ransomed him. I started buying people!”

Written by Randy McDonald

May 30, 2014 at 8:32 pm

[LINK] “The 1970s Spacecraft is Ours Again!”

io9 reported last night that ISEE-3, a space probe launched in 1978 and at risk of abandonment after NASA stopped funding, was successfully contacted by a crowdfunded effort.

ISEE 3 is a spacecraft from the 1970s currently creeping back up on Earth orbit. NASA abandoned it, but after a crowdfunding campaign, a team of citizen-scientists visited Arecibo with homebrew-hardware and made first-contact. Communications are re-established, and everything looks good to recover the craft!

After establishing that we can hear the ISEE signal loud and clear, the next stage was to open up two-way communications by giving the spacecraft commands. At the start of this campaign, we didn’t have the code, hardware, or knowledge of how to do that, but with a lot of work, your financial assistance, and a bit of luck, the team pulled together a new hardware emulator to speak to the craft in a language it understands.

Communication requires a hardware amplifier installed in the dish at Arecibo. After a lot of fiddling around and even an earthquake, everything was ready.The team has been waiting since Friday last week for permission from NASA to go ahead with first contact. Every day of delay was a mounting risk, as orbital dynamics has no patience for paperwork.

More, including links, are at io9. While the team is still waiting to get data back from the probe as to its functionality, it may well be launched on a new mission thanks to this crowdfunding.

Back in February, Emily Lakdawalla at the Planetary Society Blog predicted the loss of the spacecraft. It’s nice to know that this prediction was wrong.

Written by Randy McDonald

May 30, 2014 at 8:28 pm

Posted in Science

Tagged with , , , ,

[BLOG] Some Friday links

  • Antipope Charlie Stross argues that the publishing industry, beset by consolidations, is trying unsuccessfully to move from an artisan model of literary production to something new. Would that something new could be found and made to work.
  • The Dragon’s Gaze links to a paper that tries to model the atmosphere and climate of the exoplanet Gliese 581g, potentially Earth-like but tidally locked.
  • The Dragon’s Tales reports on the ongoing events in Ukraine.
  • Geocurrents’ Martin Lewis maps the political divides of the south India state of Kerala onto caste and religious boundaries.
  • Language Log links to a paper analyzing big data in linguistics.
  • Languages of the World’s Asya Perelstvaig notes that California is exceptionally diverse language-wise.
  • Lawyers, Guns and Money’s Erik Loomis notes that the ability of journalist Nicholas Kristof to be fooled by an alleged anti-prostitution activist in Cambodia prone to making things up fits in a long Progressive history of being easily fooled about things Progressives care about..
  • Torontoist introduces the new Fort York branch of the Toronto library system.
  • Towleroad’s David Mixner interviews GLBT activists in Italy about their challenges.
  • The Volokh Conspiracy’s Eugene Volokh notes, in discussing the underemployment of many minorities at Google relative to their shares of the American population, the ways in which Asians are assimilated to the white majority, at least rhetorically.
  • Window on Eurasia links to a Russian journalist’s analysis of the consequences of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. It’s bad for Russia internationally, he concludes, but a good way for the state to consolidate its control domestically.

[PHOTO] The Ryerson Student Learning Centre rising, May 2014

The Ryerson Student Learning Centre rising, May 2014

The new Student Learning Centre continues to rise on the northeast corner of Yonge and Gould where Sam the Record Man used to be.

Written by Randy McDonald

May 30, 2014 at 1:08 pm

[BRIEF NOTE] On Livejournal being made into Medium, or Tumblr with text

James Nicoll linked to a Techcrunch article describing how the new CEO of Livejournal wants to position this blogging platform as a kind of Medium, as a place for long-form writing.

LiveJournal is hanging out the “under new management” banner yet again. Last month, the company announced a new CEO, Katya Akudovich, who previously worked at Google, Box and Microsoft. Akudovich was confirmed in a unanimous vote by the board of directors, who believe her international experience at these major tech companies will help her make LiveJournal a top social media platform yet again.

“My Box experience, where I started the Deal Desk department, gave me unique insights into how a company turbo-charged an amazing product,” she tells us. “At Google, it was about bringing the right content in the right form to brand new Google Play markets. And this is exactly what we’re planning to do at LJ,” Akudovich says.

In addition to the new services Akudovich teases, LiveJournal is also rolling out new iOS and Android applications next month, designed to appeal to both writers and readers. And the company is hopping on the ‘anonymity’ bandwagon, now in vogue thanks to services like Whisper, Yik Yak and Secret, noting that LiveJournal “will remain anonymous and will never ask its users to identify themselves.”

[. . .]LJ’s new strategy for 2014 and beyond is one where it hopes to promote itself as a platform for longer-form content and self-expression in an era when users can’t seem bothered to post status updates, preferring Instagram selfies, looping Vine clips, GIFs and texts over longer articles, lengthy videos, and the like.

But that, thinks LiveJournal, is the opportunity.

“There’s a big market for this that really only we and Medium are filling – and with significantly more personalization, while still being easy to use,” says Akudovich. “Our users generate an amazing amount of deep content – half a million long-form posts a day – these are not tweets, these are real long-form posts where people write some very interesting things. We have amazing communities too,” she says.


This proposal certainly does seem to reflect the way Livejournal is now used. Of the people active on my friends list, most of them are people who write long-form entries. Many of them are, in fact, published authors. Rejigging the non-Cyrillic functions of Livejournal to service this demographic does work.

And yet. Is this an innovative effort to position Livejournal as a platform of choice for long-range writing, perhaps even social journalism, or is this trying to take some advantage of the fact that the users who have remained are too locked to their journals and communities to move? I’ve migrated already: this text is being entered into a window at Dreamwidth, which then automatically posts to Livejournal, and will be cut-and-pasted over to WordPress. Making Livejournal an active hub for me again, as opposed to a second-order backup with a friends page I visit, will take some doing.

There’s also the non-trivial question of whether or not Livejournal can make these changes without alienating its user base. Not a week ago, I was perturbed to find out that Livejournal had switched the user interface entirely. I couldn’t locate my aforementioned friends page. It was only when I found out, via a LJ friend’s post, how to switch the user interface back to a usable format. I fear that Livejournal may yet change it back. I had no idea this particularly was coming, but the idea that Livejournal’s administrators would unilaterally change something critical of the site without letting its users know is sadly not a surprise. The commenters at Techcrunch shared their own stories of how the site has let them down. Navigating a revamp of the site without angering frequently disappointed long-time users is going to be an issue.

I hope Livejournal can survive in some form, but I will need to be convinced. We’ll see what will happen.

Written by Randy McDonald

May 30, 2014 at 3:35 am

[URBAN NOTE] On the move of Sonic Boom to Spadina

blogTO’s Aubrey Jax reported today that Sonic Boom–a Toronto record shop of note, one I’ve known from its locations in The Annex at Bloor and Bathurst–is set to make a big move. It will be closing up its two existing locations, neatly vacating the Bloor/Bathurst location before Honest Ed’s closes at the end of 2016, and moving to the Robertson Building at 215 Spadina Avenue, on the east side of the street between Dundas and Queen West. Exclaim!‘s Alex Hudson has more.

Currently, long-running Toronto record retailer Sonic Boom operates two stores, one in Honest Ed’s and another in Kensington Market. This fall, the two locations will merge into one store in downtown Toronto.

As of October 2014, Sonic Boom will take over a 12,000-square-foot street-level industrial space in the Robertson Building at 215 Spadina Ave. The building is already home to the Centre for Social Innovation and Dark Horse Espresso Bar.

[. . .]

This is a preemptive move in anticipation of Honest Ed’s shutting down at the end of 2016. By moving to Spadina, it joins an area that’s already a hub for Toronto music thanks to the nearby Horseshoe Tavern and MuchMusic building.

This is true, and yet I think of This Ain’t the Rosedale Library, a wonderful bookstore on Church Street that escaped rising rents there to a new location in Kensington Market only to close up in 2010. Will the new Sonic Boom survive?

[URBAN NOTE] On the condo country Fort York library

Yesterday on my Facebook feed, Toronto Life‘s Informer noted the imminent library of the latest branch of the Toronto Public Library, the new Fort York Branch opening opposite Fort York on the bottom of Bathurst Street, in condo country. The new branch will actually anchor the Library District Condos, a complex built by developers who offered to pay the costs of the branch’s construction. The whole thing is described by the National Post‘s Alex Jivov.

Opening this Thursday at 190 Fort York Boulevard, Toronto’s 99th Public Library Branch will contain unique features such as 3D printers, digital innovation hubs, and DJing equipment, all available for public consumption.

The 16,000 square foot glass structure will contain 35,000 books at opening. A computer centre will allow visitors to access the entirety of the Toronto Public Library’s electronic catalogue, totaling over ten million e-books, movies, magazines, and music albums.

Five full time staffers will provide assistance to those wishing to navigate and use the new facilities.

Designed by KPMB Architects, the Fort York Branch has partnered with developer Context Development to create a community built around the new library. “Everyone can agree libraries are wonderful things to have,” said Toronto Public Library Board Chairman Michael Foderick. “They have been and will continue to be a cornerstone for every successful community in this city. We’re just laying a new cornerstone right here in Fort York.”

The partnership has allowed the library’s $9.1 million cost to be completely funded without any cost to the taxpayer, according to Foderick.

The new location will have, among other things, DJ-ing equipment and a 3-D printer.

There’s certainly need for this location, in a neighbourhood that has literally sprung up out of nothing over the past decade. When I walked down there a decade ago soon after moving to Toronto, there was nothing but empty lots. By the same measure, I’m not sure that allowing the Library District Condos’ builders to build a taller building in exchange for doing something nice for the city is the best policy. What are the parameters for these offers? Where will it stop?

(Still, beautiful library.)

Written by Randy McDonald

May 29, 2014 at 8:13 pm