A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

Archive for January 2016

[PHOTO] Front yard robot, Kensington Market, Toronto

Front yard robot, Kensington Market #toronto #kensingtonmarket #sculpture #robot #latergram

I’m not quite sure what this, and the other sculptures, on the front yard of the home at Augusta and Wales towards the south of Kensington Market is supposed to be. “Robot” was my best guess.

Written by Randy McDonald

January 31, 2016 at 4:22 pm

[FORUM] How has your neighbourhood been changing?

Inspired by this evening’s post about the impending transformation of my neighbourhood, starting with the Galleria Mall, I’d like to ask my readers about their physical environments. What are their neighbourhoods like? How are they changing?

Please, share and discuss.

Written by Randy McDonald

January 30, 2016 at 11:59 pm

[URBAN NOTE] On the impending end of the old Galleria Mall in a changing Toronto

I’ve got 30 photos on Flickr with the tag “#galleriamall”. The one below was used by Torontoist to illustrate Stephanie Dipetrillo’s article describing public consultation over the site, bought up this summer for condo development.

Sunset over the Galleria #toronto #galleriamall #sunset #dupontstreet #dufferinstreet

There are days when Maria Morgado will climb up to the roof of her Wallace-Emerson home to get an unobstructed view of the city. In clear skies, the resident of 40 years can see over buildings and treetops, as far as a little school off in the distance.

But that view could soon change. With developers vying to zone the site of the Galleria Shopping Centre for mixed use with both residential and commercial units, the neighbourhood could be home to yet another of the city’s towering condo-shopping hubs.

“Everything seems to be going up,” Morgado laments.

This Saturday, residents like Morgado voiced their concerns about the Galleria’s future at a public consultation. Held at the infamously dated mall and hosted by ELAD Canada and Freed Developments, who purchased the site in August 2015, the consultation was the community’s first formal opportunity to comment on potential land developments.

Councillor Ana Bailão (Ward 18, Davenport), who was also in attendance, says the chance to address concerns about developments can make a difference in the long run. “We have a lot more responsibility,” she says. “It’s one thing when developers come in with a plan that is done and we criticize it. It’s another thing when we actually have the power to feed into that plan.”

Myself, of my various photos I prefer this one from 2012, looking west across Dufferin Street towards this low-slung commercial complex. As the Yelp reviews (and my postings) have indicated, the Galleria Mall is almost famously downscale, but workably so. It’s part of the environment of the neighbourhood, has been since the 1970s. That’s why the plans for a radical transformation are so upsetting.

Sunday morning in front of the Galleria

Lisa Rainford’s Bloor West Villager article goes into grim detail.

Last year, Freed and ELAD Canada purchased the Dupont and Dufferin streets-area mall that boasts 225,000 square feet of retail space. From now until June, its team, including designers from Urban Strategies Inc., will work with the community and city to “re-imagine” the site, situated at 1245 Dupont St.

[. . .]

The open house served to introduce Freed and ELAD Canada to the community.

“We’ve been working very closely with (Davenport Councillor) Ana Bailão,” said Melanie Hare, a partner at the urban design firm Urban Strategies Inc. “There will be retail going forward; some residential; some office space. They do know they’d like to maintain the retail space. We’re here to listen today.”

An application is expected to be made to the city at some point this year, Hare added.

“It’s very early days. We don’t have designs here because there are no designs to show yet,” she said. “It’s important to know what the community wants.”

Currently, the property is zoned for as many as three towers.

“This is the first step in a long process, to meet the community and get a pulse and then work collaboratively towards a vision,” said project spokesperson Danny Roth.

What will this neighbourhood become? I fully expect a process of thorough transformation: Dupont Street, as I’ve noted in the past, is already becoming a new hub for galleries. (Contrary to my promise earlier this week, I will not be attending the Long Winter art party scheduled to start at the Galleria shortly. Life elsewhere intervenes.) This neighbourhood is home to me and to others, but it has been because–I admit–it is so uniquely affordable, so close to the downtown yet with manageable rents and prices. Is there any place for the people who already live here in any of these plans? Or will I be driven out?

Gentrification is good, not just as the only practical alternative to Detroit-style decay but in its own right. Gentrification is also good in Toronto, in the abstract and in reality. I fully acknowledge that my issues also intervene: Would that I belonged to Richard Florida’s prosperous creative classes, or rather that I could have made myself belong! It’s just sad, and more than a bit unnerving, to realize that a place I love is likely to become a place I will not be able to live in, and in less time than I’d like to imagine

Written by Randy McDonald

January 30, 2016 at 9:30 pm

[URBAN NOTE] “City proposes Queen Street route for Toronto’s downtown relief line”

The route of the oft-proposed, never-developed Downtown Relief Line, has been given somewhat more detail. It’s all theoretical, of course. The Globe and Mail‘s Oliver Moore describes the plan (via Torontoist).

Plans for downtown Toronto’s first subway in decades are taking shape, with the city’s planning department urging that it run below Queen Street.

Details of the long-awaited downtown relief line – a route that has been discussed in various permutations for a century – emerged on Friday. According to information obtained by The Globe and Mail, staff have concluded that the best approach involves a connection from Pape Station near Danforth Avenue to the area around City Hall.

Although the plan is primarily about diverting passengers from the overcrowded Yonge subway line, a briefing for councillors made clear the value of the new line to the city centre as well. According to a draft staff presentation, the subway plan would “fill [a] rapid transit void in the core” and “recognizes that downtown is 24/7.”

The proposal pencils in stations along Queen Street around Sherbourne Street, Sumach Street and Broadview Avenue, and one near Gerrard Square. These would allow access to Regent Park and Moss Park, and offer the chance of a connection to the Stouffville GO corridor, which is expected to get much more frequent service under provincial and city plans.

Ridership projections for the proposed line are expected in the next few weeks, and the plan itself will form part of a broader package of transit proposals going to city council in June. Future extensions would push the line farther north and west. But no funding for any of it has been secured, and construction of even the first phase would likely take at least a decade.

Written by Randy McDonald

January 30, 2016 at 7:25 pm

[LINK] On the late Soviet project to use mirrors to transform night into day

Brian Merchant’s “The Man Who Turned Night Into Day”, published at Vice’s Motherboard, examines the nearly successful Soviet project to launch mirrors into Earth orbit to reflect light to nighttime locations.

Employers have always aimed to maximize worker productivity. Today they might exploit the connectivity of email, smartphones, and Slack to extend the reach of the modern workday, big reasons we’re working more and sleeping less. In the 1990s, though, Russian scientists tried it the other way around. They took a different, more dramatic approach to lengthening the day—they launched massive machines into orbit to reflect sunlight down onto the dark side of the Earth.

It’s true: Throughout the early 90s, a team of Russian astronomers and engineers were hellbent on literally turning night into day. By shining a giant mirror onto the earth from space, they figured they could bring sunlight to the depths of night, extending the workday, cutting back on lighting costs and allowing laborers to toil longer. If this sounds a bit like the plot of a Bond film, well, it’s that too.

The difference is that for a second there, the scientists, led by Vladimir Sergeevich Syromyatnikov, one of the most important astronautical engineers in history, actually pulled it off.

A bright young engineer in the USSR, Vladimir Syromyatnikov graduated from a technical university in Moscow in the 1956. At the age of 23, he earned a position in Russia’s elite space and rocket design program, then called the Special Design Bureau Number 1 of Research and Development Institute Number 88 (this was Soviet Russia, recall), and later known as Energia.

[. . . B]y the late 1980s, what Syromyatnikov really wanted to do was to design a solar sail that could harness the power of the sun to propel a spacecraft through the galaxy—one that could also, say, reflect sunlight back to Earth during the dead of night.

His statesmen, however, saw a unique way to maximize labor efficiency. Throughout the Soviet era, Russian scientists were obsessed with finding ways to increase the productivity of farmlands and workers in Russia’s northern regions, where days would grow very long in the summer and extremely short in the winter. In 1988, Syromyatnikov seized on the idea of daylight extension, apparently as a pitch to get backers to support his solar sails. He retooled the focus of his design to function as a space mirror, and founded the Space Regatta Consortium.

Written by Randy McDonald

January 30, 2016 at 7:18 pm

[LINK] “Chavez’s Dream of Unity Stumbles Ahead of Latin American Summit”

Bloomberg’s Nathan Gill notes one consequence of Venezuela’s economic issues: without money, Venezuela’s plans for Latin American unity are not likely to be realized.

Before he died, Venezuela’s late president, Hugo Chavez, had a dream to unite Latin America and the Caribbean against the dark forces of the U.S. empire. It’s not working out like he planned.

As presidents and prime ministers from the regional group CELAC meet Wednesday in an attempt to knit closer ties, President Nicolas Maduro, Chavez’s hand-picked successor, finds himself fending off attacks from the nation’s former ally, Argentina.

“Why does a country have to put up with the whole onslaught of right-wing governments,” Maduro said Saturday after Argentina’s newly-elected president, Mauricio Macri, criticized his government’s human-rights record. “I’m going to the summit of Latin America and the Caribbean nations in Quito with everything. No one is going to shut me up.”

While it’s unlikely anyone will shut Maduro up, his feud with Macri highlights political divisions across the region, where governments from Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff to Ecuador’s Rafael Correa are struggling to fend off allegations of corruption and economic mismanagement after a collapse in global commodity prices plunged their economies into recession. The bickering can only weaken CELAC, said Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin America program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.

“Venezuela historically has wanted to push confrontation with the U.S. and within Latin America,” Arnson said Tuesday in a telephone interview. “If CELAC is going to be merely a forum for ideological confrontation, it will quickly lose relevance.”

Written by Randy McDonald

January 30, 2016 at 7:15 pm

[LINK] “Venezuela is on the brink of a complete economic collapse”

Matt O’Brien’s Washington Post article was widely syndicated this afternoon on my Facebook friends list, and for good reason. The spectre of economic collapse in Venezuela it portrays is plausible, and its realization will have huge consequences for the world at large and the region in particular. (The future of left-wing radicalism in South America, for instance, would be open to question.)

The only question now is whether Venezuela’s government or economy will completely collapse first.

The key word there is “completely.” Both are well into their death throes. Indeed, Venezuela’s ruling party just lost congressional elections that gave the opposition a veto-proof majority, and it’s hard to see that getting any better for them any time soon — or ever. Incumbents, after all, don’t tend to do too well when, according to the International Monetary Fund, their economy shrinks 10 percent one year, an additional 6 percent the next, and inflation explodes to 720 percent. It’s no wonder, then, that markets expect Venezuela to default on its debt in the very near future. The country is basically bankrupt.

That’s not an easy thing to do when you have the largest oil reserves in the world, but Venezuela has managed it. How? Well, a combination of bad luck and worse policies. The first step was when Hugo Chávez’s socialist government started spending more money on the poor, with everything from two-cent gasoline to free housing. Now, there’s nothing wrong with that — in fact, it’s a good idea in general — but only as long as you actually, well, have the money to spend. And by 2005 or so, Venezuela didn’t.

Why not? The answer is that Chávez turned the state-owned oil company from being professionally run to being barely run. People who knew what they were doing were replaced with people who were loyal to the regime, and profits came out but new investment didn’t go in. That last part was particularly bad, because Venezuela’s extra-heavy crude needs to be blended or refined — neither of which is cheap — before it can be sold. So Venezuela just hasn’t been able to churn out as much oil as it used to without upgraded or even maintained infrastructure. Specifically, oil production fell 25 percent between 1999 and 2013.

The rest is a familiar tale of fiscal woe. Even triple-digit oil prices, as Justin Fox points out, weren’t enough to keep Venezuela out of the red when it was spending more on its people but producing less crude. So it did what all poorly run states do when the money runs out: It printed some more. And by “some,” I mean a lot, a lot more. That, in turn, became more “a lots” than you can count once oil started collapsing in mid-2014. The result of all this money-printing, as you can see below, is that Venezuela’s currency has, by black market rates, lost 93 percent of its value in the past two years.

Written by Randy McDonald

January 30, 2016 at 7:12 pm

[LINK] “China Can’t Postpone the Pain Forever”

Bloomberg View’s Michael Schuman suggests that, looking at similar situations elsewhere in Asia, China is primed for a financial crisis. Is it ready?

First of all, China would have to defy decades of history to avoid being crushed by its mountain of debt. Research firm Capital Economics analyzed 30 years of emerging-market crises and concluded that “no country has experienced an increase in its private debt-to-GDP ratio of 30 [percentage points] within the space of a decade and not experienced problems.” At best such countries endured significant, and often protracted, slowdowns in growth. China has seen an 80 percentage point jump in that ratio over the past decade, to more than 200 percent. A reckoning seems inevitable.

And the chances of that debt bomb exploding are rising, since the government, rather than defusing it, is throwing on extra TNT. Terrified of the political fallout from a slowing economy, the central bank has been loosening money; credit growth is accelerating. Meanwhile, the stimulating effect from this renewed flood of lending appears muted, a sure sign that the new cash is being used unproductively. That means the weight of China’s debt burden will continue to increase and the inevitable damage will be even greater.

Nor does it seem possible for China to avoid a monstrous downsizing of industry. Chinese companies simply churn out too much steel, coal, cement and other stuff, no matter how many roads and railways the government builds at home and abroad. That reality is slowly sinking in. The State Council announced in late January it would speed up the elimination of steel capacity, a step analysts consider necessary to repair the sector. But the cost will be heavy. The China Metallurgical Industry Planning and Research Institute has estimated that the cuts could cause as many as 400,000 steel workers to lose their jobs. Now imagine those layoffs repeated across old-line manufacturing industries.

All of these problems will eventually show up on banks’ balance sheets. Officially, the government claims that the slowdown has barely dented the stability of Chinese banks, with nonperforming loans at a mere 1.6 percent of the total. If you believe that, I’ve got some subprime mortgages to sell you. Private estimates place the potential NPL ratio somewhere between the high single-digits and as much as 20 percent.

That doesn’t necessarily mean the banks will pancake Lehman-style. Backed by the state, they’d almost certainly be rescued. But policymakers should prepare for sticker shock. By one estimate, the price tag to support the banks could reach $7.7 trillion — or the equivalent of three-fourths of China’s 2014 gross domestic product.

Such figures may seem outrageous, but history tells us they’re not. Indonesia’s bank bailout cost the government nearly 57 percent of the nation’s GDP, while Korea spent 31 percent. If we extrapolate from Korea’s experience — which isn’t unreasonable, since the country had adopted a similar investment-led growth model — China would end up spending some $3 trillion rebuilding its banking system.

Written by Randy McDonald

January 30, 2016 at 7:09 pm

Posted in Economics

Tagged with , ,

[LINK] “New York Is Going to Turn Off Niagara Falls. Here’s How”

Eric Adams’ Wired article examines how, exactly, the “dewatering” of the American section of Niagara Falls is going to take place.

This round of dewatering needs to happen so engineers with the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation can scrap two 115-year-old bridges that have reached—well, exceeded—the end of their useful lives. The bridges cross the Niagara River above the American Falls, and were built to carry cars, trolleys, and pedestrians between the town of Niagara Falls and Goat Island, one of the prime viewing spots for both the American and Horseshoe falls.

They’ve slowly deteriorated since being built between 1900 and 1901, and in 2005, an examination revealed “that restoration of the existing concrete was no longer considered feasible,” the State said in a report detailing the proposal. That year, engineers shut off access to the aging structures and installed temporary truss bridges on top of the stone-clad spans, which carry pedestrians only. Those structures limit visibility of the rapids—the original bridges were specifically designed to be low so visitors could get close to the rushing water below—and are widely considered eyesores. They “provide an aesthetically unappealing experience for park visitors,” the State said in its report.

New York’s considering three options for their permanent replacements: a precast concrete arched design that closely resembles the current bridges, steel girder bridges that are simpler and more linear, and tied arch bridges with vertical cables supporting the surface from above. The concrete arched design is considered the favorite, though the final selection won’t happen for some time. Whatever the plan, it can’t be done with roughly 30,000 cubic feet of water flowing by every second.

Also TBD is how long the American Falls will be “off.” The State’s considering two options. It may demolish the current bridges and build the foundations for the new ones during a five-month dewatering, then complete the upper structures over the next year, after water flow has been restored, in an attempt to minimize disruption to the park. Or, it could dewater the falls for nine months, and build the bridges in their entirety in that time. Whatever it decides, nothing’s happening tomorrow. “It’ll be three years at the soonest before work begins, but more likely five, six, or seven,” says parks spokesperson Angela Berti.

Shutting off the flow of water is actually a relatively simple operation—and at $3 million, a modest element of the anticipated $27 million project. Engineers will build a cofferdam between the upstream tip of Goat Island and the US mainland, a distance of just 350 feet. A cofferdam is, as the name suggests, a type of dam, used to enclose part of a body of water (once it’s in place, the water inside is pumped out, leaving it dry inside). The State hasn’t revealed details of how long it will take to build the thing, but the 1969 cofferdam spanned about 600 feet and was made up of 28,000 tons of rock and earth, placed in the river by bulldozers and dump trucks.

Made of boulders, gravel, and other landfill, the 21st century temporary enclosure will slow water headed for the American Falls to a trickle, directing the full river’s flow over Horseshoe.

Engineers are planning to ensure the dewatering wouldn’t affect water levels above Horseshoe, or adversely affect wildlife on the American Falls side, since there are relatively modest lengths of coastline there, and the massive waterfall isn’t home to any significant aquatic populations. Nevertheless, state scientists will monitor environmental impacts, both in terms of wildlife and the potential erosion of the nearby shorelines receiving the extra water.

When the falls dry up, the effect will be the equivalent of looking under your sofa for the first time in decades. When crews shut down the falls in 1969, they found two bodies and millions of coins, most of which were removed. (As were the human remains, of course.) But in the last 50 years, tourism at Niagara has grown wildly. The possibilities are endless—more coins, yes, but also lost cell phones, cameras, baby strollers, errant drones, and whatever else could be thrown or dropped by careless, thoughtless, or mischievous visitors. There is, of course, the possibility of human remains being discovered again—though there are no individuals known to have jumped or fallen in who haven’t been recovered.

Written by Randy McDonald

January 30, 2016 at 7:06 pm

[LINK] “The End of Twitter”

I came across Joshua Topolsky’s article in The New Yorker predicting the fall of Twitter into irrelevance on Facebook, funnily enough. I would say that, as a Twitter user who rarely uses the service, the issues Topolsky identifies speak to me.

It wasn’t that long ago that I—and many other people I know—would have argued that Twitter was more than just another social network. I would have told you that Twitter was more like a utility, a service so fundamental that I could imagine a scenario in which it was literally underwritten. Twitter needed to exist. A stream of those hundred-and-forty-character tweets was how you found the most crucial, critical, and thought-provoking stories of the moment.

[. . .]

But cracks in Twitter’s façade had been showing already. Changes to the product made it hard to follow conversations or narratives. A lack of rigor in verifying reliable sources made information suspect or confusing. More troubling was the growing wave of harassment and abuse that users of the service were dealing with—a quagmire epitomized by the roving flocks of hateful, misogynistic, and well-organized “Gamergate” communities that flooded people’s feeds with hate speech and threats. The company seemed to be wholly unprepared to handle mob violence, with few tools at its disposal to moderate or quell uprisings. Even its beloved celebrity users couldn’t be protected. In August of 2014, Robin Williams’s daughter, Zelda, was driven off the service after a series of vicious attacks.

Of course, getting noisy isn’t the only problem Twitter has today, though it seems to be one of the more pronounced symptoms of a company that has lost its direction, or, more worryingly (and perhaps more accurately), never had much direction to begin with. After a summer of turmoil and indecision—a summer spent largely rudderless after the resignation of the C.E.O., Dick Costolo—the company reappointed its co-founder, the Silicon Valley wunderkind Jack Dorsey, and signalled that, perhaps for the first time in a long time, Twitter could find its focus.

That focus would have to come fast. In the yearlong stretch leading up to Dorsey’s return, the number of active users on Twitter only grew by eleven per cent. Even more troubling was the service’s penetration in the U.S.: it remained completely flat for the first three quarters of 2015. Facebook has surpassed the company by orders of magnitude, but it’s hardly Twitter’s only foe. Instagram, WhatsApp, and even WeChat all now have more individual users than Twitter does. Snapchat has almost caught Twitter, too.

In Facebook’s case, the company has demonstrated its mastery of product focus and long-term commitment to user experience. While Mark Zuckerberg’s empire sent users sloshing to and fro on the seas of privacy invasion in its early years, the past five years have seen the company come to dominate and define the concept of a social conversation. If users get abusive on Facebook, they’re dealt with. If someone wants to wage a campaign of noise and intrusion, the repercussions are varied and plentiful. You may not agree with Zuckerberg’s “one identity” concept, but the fact that people have to register their real names has certainly made Facebook a much safer space in which to engage. That’s to say nothing of its mobile and ad offerings, which the company has finally paired elegantly, allowing Facebook to take an even larger bite of mobile-ad dollars. The company closed its latest quarter with revenue up a whopping fifty-one per cent year over year.

Meanwhile, a series of mediocre product changes at Twitter (such as the much-hyped but ultimately confusing Moments feature), a stagnant user base, and a massive executive brain drain have called into question whether Twitter can survive as a business. In the past week, the company has lost its vice-president of media, V.P. of product (to Instagram, natch), its head of the growing video service Vine (to Google), its V.P. of engineering, and its H.R. head. Unsurprisingly, the company’s stock has lost about fifty per cent of its value over the past three months.

But what should worry Twitter isn’t the value of its stock. (USA Today reported that, given its cash reserves, the service could run for another four hundred and twelve years with current losses.) What should worry Twitter is irrelevance, and there is growing data to suggest that that is where the company is headed. If Twitter’s real-time feed is its most powerful asset (and it is), it’s not difficult to see a future in which Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, or even a newcomer like Peach (yes, I am citing Peach) focus enough on real-time news that they obviate the need for Twitter’s narrow, noisy, and oft-changing ideas about social interaction. Considering the fact that Kevin Weil, the head of product, left the company to join Instagram, it’s easy to imagine that service mutating or bifurcating into a speedier, more social platform for sharing links and having conversations. And, for many users—particularly young users, according to a recent survey—Snapchat is already their most important destination. We live in the Age of the Upgrade, and the generation raised on the Internet is the most fickle of brand champions: it loves something passionately, until it doesn’t. Then it moves on.

Written by Randy McDonald

January 30, 2016 at 7:03 pm