A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

Archive for December 2016

[FORUM] What do you hope for in 2017? What do you fear?

Discuss, please.

Written by Randy McDonald

December 31, 2016 at 11:59 pm

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[DM] “On Max Roser’s A history of global living conditions in 5 charts and the future”

Over at Demography Matters, I have a post up meditating on the significance of the largely positive global trends identified by Max Roser in his essay “A history of global living conditions in 5 charts” at the Our World in Data project.

Why can we be unduly pessimistic? Roser suggests it’s a failure of perspective.

Written by Randy McDonald

December 31, 2016 at 11:00 pm

[LINK] “George Michael and Me”

Rajeev Balasubramanyam’s short piece at the LRB Blog looking at the importance of Wham!, including George Michael, for him as a British schoolboy of South Asian background growing up in northern England in the early 1980s, is superb. This is how important pop music can be.

I used to listen to Wham! in secret. It was 1984 and I was nine. My school was in a white and mostly working-class village in Lancashire. I knew only one other Wham! fan and, though it’s been thirty years since we last met, he was the first person I contacted after I heard George Michael had died. He once claimed to have reached the singer on a secret number he found in a magazine and had a hilarious conversation with him. I still wonder if this might have been true. We used to listen to the albums over and over at one another’s houses, but at school we kept our adoration to ourselves. It was normal for boys to like Duran Duran. They said Wham! were ‘poofs’. George Michael was loved by older girls, teenagers, but in my class the girls hated him too (they liked Madonna). ‘He loves himself,’ they said. ‘He looks at himself in shiny floors when he’s dancing.’

I didn’t understand the appeal of Duran Duran, with their pale, sullen look, the sallow, understated maleness of English post punk. It felt so far away from the black American singers I also used to listen to in secret – Michael Jackson, Prince – and so far away from Wham! In contrast to the dull, rainy, post-industrial landscape around me, they always looked as if they were having the time of their lives. They were young, beautiful, tanned, and made spectacular pop music. Their first two albums were called Fantastic and Make It Big. After their first number one single, George Michael performed on Top of the Pops in a T-shirt with ‘Number 1’ embroidered in gold on it; in the video, he wore one with ‘Choose Life’ printed on it in bold black letters. In gloomy, northern, cold, racist England, this was what I wanted to hear. I wanted hope. I wanted fun.

Written by Randy McDonald

December 31, 2016 at 9:00 pm

[LINK] “This researcher wants to initiate contact with Proxima Centauri b”

Astronomy‘s John Wenz reports on a proposal to try to initiate contact with a hypothetical civilization on Proxima Centauri b that does not necessarily leave me cold, or worried. A hypothetical Proximan civilization only a decade more advanced in observational astronomy that us might well be aware of the existence of Earth, could conceivably even be aware of our technological civilization’s existence. A Proximan civilization capable of travelling to us would certainly know this. That said, the critics’ argument that this is the sort of thing that really should be handled by a broad-based coalition also makes sense. If we are going to send out messages, let’s try to come up with some standards, at least.

Douglas Vakoch, the former Director of Interstellar Message Composition at the SETI Institute, is launching the METI Initiative with one planet in mind: the recently discovered planet around Proxima Centauri, the closest star to Earth (and thus the closest exoplanet.)

Vakoch says that METI has more than a few targets in mind, there are a few advantages to Proxima Centauri b.

“First, it’s close to our solar system, keeping the time for a roundtrip exchange as short as possible,” Vakoch says. “Second, some have suggested that this exoplanet is potentially habitable.”

[. . .]

“To be intelligible, any message to extraterrestrials needs to be written in a universal language, and that won’t be English or Swahili,” Vakoch says. “We begin with mathematics, because it seems likely that scientists on any world will need to know at least the essentials of math.”

Then there’s the question of why, which Vakoch paraphrases SETI research Ronald Bracewell in saying that humanity should “join the Galactic Club.” Even bigger, though, is the question of “why should we broadcast that we’re here in case we, you know, get invaded.” Of the many, many things that Stephen Hawking has said publicly in recent years, the dangers of alien contact has come up again and again. Some in the SETI community say a cautious approach should be taken, with a consortium saying, “We know nothing of ETI’s intentions and capabilities, and it is impossible to predict whether ETI will be benign or hostile.”

[LINK] “Things Can Only Get Better!”

Over his blog Antipope, Charlie Stross has a future timeline–so far, up to two parts–imagining what it would be like for 2017 to turn out worse than 2016. So far, the timeline’s pretty grim, giving us an idea of what perhaps we should work to avoid.

Written by Randy McDonald

December 31, 2016 at 7:45 pm

[URBAN NOTE] “Short-sighted city planning continues to cost Toronto”

If Toronto was to make and keep a New Year’s resolution, I wish it would be to overcome the negative patterns identified this Friday by Marcus Gee in The Globe and Mail of terribly short-sighted urban planning in Toronto.

When city leaders built an enormous bridge over the Don Valley linking Bloor Street East to Danforth Avenue in the 1910s, they decided, after some debate, to include a deck underneath the roadway to carry subway trains, should Toronto ever get them. That saved great trouble and expense when the city finally got around to building the Bloor-Danforth subway line in the 1960s. The commuters who ride the subway today, enjoying the view as they sail underneath the Bloor Viaduct, can be thankful for their foresight.

This famous decision was exceptional in the truest sense. What makes it stand out is that, in Toronto, it is so unusual. Foresight, in this town, is the exception to the rule. Far more often, city leaders fail to think ahead. Sometimes, it seems we have learned nothing from the tale of the viaduct. Just look around. Left and right, you can find examples of staggering short-sightedness.

This year, Mayor John Tory caught the city’s interest when he proposed to create a splendid new urban park by decking over the railway lands west of Union Station, in effect building the park on a huge roof over the tracks. Great idea, but it could cost something like a billion dollars. Imagine how much cheaper it would have been if, 20 or 30 years ago, before the waterfront construction boom, the city had set aside a swath of land for parkland built on actual terra firma. The rail-deck idea came along because no one had the sense to foresee how dense and crowded the area around Union would become, even though it was a natural target for development. Now that the area is chock full of office and condo towers, there just isn’t any empty land left. The tens of thousands of people who are moving there to live and work have no place to walk the dog or read on a park bench.

Riding the new airport express train offers another glimpse of blinkered planning. Years ago, when authorities were expanding Toronto Pearson International Airport, they failed to put in a rail link, or even leave space for one. So when it came time to build the Union Pearson Express connecting the airport to downtown, they couldn’t just lay track to the airport from a nearby rail line. They had to build a long, twisting overpass carried on tall pillars that dodges around roadways and hydro lines to reach the terminal. It’s functioning now, and it works fine, but what a job it was, and what an expense.

Written by Randy McDonald

December 31, 2016 at 7:15 pm

[LINK] “2016: The year the music died”

Ben Rayner wrote earlier this week in the Toronto Star about how 2016’s toll of notable rockers is set to only grow, in 2017 as in the future. The stars of old are aging, and as age approaches death inevitably comes in behind.

If 2016 taught us anything, it’s that even pop’s most seemingly immortal figures are, in fact, quite mortal and destined for the grave just like the rest of us. It was an annus horribilis that began on a low note with the death of David Bowie just three days after the release of his blackly magical 27th albumBlackstar on Jan. 8 — and basically stayed down there in the depths for the next 12 months.

The pop deaths just kept coming: Prince, felled at 57 on April 21 by something as impossibly prosaic as an opiate overdose. The Eagles’ Glenn Frey. Merle Haggard. Prince Buster. Phife Dawg of A Tribe Called Quest. Maurice White of Earth, Wind & Fire. Suicide’s Alan Vega. Sharon Jones. Keith Emerson and Greg Lake, whose twin departures from this plane rendered Emerson, Lake & Palmer a solo act within the space of just nine months. Canadian icon Leonard Cohen, too, of course, who predicted his own looming demise in Bowie-esque fashion with an album-length goodbye of his own, You Want it Darker, released just a couple of weeks before his very private death on Nov. 7 at 82 years of age. George Michael, announced on Christmas Day.

Scarcely a week would pass without the mention of another drummer here or another guitarist there of a certain age quietly saying goodbye forever — and this after the shock of the sudden death of whiskey-swillin’ metal survivor Motorhead’s Lemmy Kilmister at 70 just three days before the end of 2015.

The Canada-stunning announcement in May that Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip was fighting to survive against terminal brain cancer didn’t help matters much, either, even if the Hip’s triumphant farewell tour in the summer and the subsequent release of his noble Secret Path solo album in the fall proved inspirational rather than sad.

In any case, 2016 was not the happiest time to be a music fan. As the Georgia Straight put it, “About the only good thing that happened in 2016 was that Keith Richards didn’t die.”

Unfortunately, at some point Keith Richards, who just turned 73, is going to die, along with the rest of the Rolling Stones, who have played the poster boys for rock longevity for 50 years now but simply can’t keep it up forever. Time is on no one’s side, not even the Rolling Stones’.

Written by Randy McDonald

December 31, 2016 at 7:00 pm