Oh, the irony

March 9, 2011 at 11:11 pm | In johnson street bridge, land_use, victoria | Comments Off

Today our city “leaders” voted to go ahead with a new Johnson Street Bridge project that excludes rail. See this article for skeletal information: Victoria council decides not to include rail as part of the new Johnson Street bridge. See also Ross Crockford’s piece in yesterday’s paper, No need for panic on bridge decision, which hits on some important points.

Regardless of all counter-arguments, city council (with the exception of Counc. Geoff Young) voted to kill the 122-year old rail link into the city today.

Imagine the cognitive dissonance I also experienced today as, walking my dog, I saw a poster for a local upcoming TEDx conference – TED, which stands for progressive thinking and innovation. What did the local organizers of TEDxJuanDeFuca use to illustrate their poster? Why, an image of the bridge that our city council has voted to destroy (along with any hope for rail on the new bridge – already dubbed Fortin’s Folly in “honor” of Victoria’s mayor)…

Do the innovators around TED understand something our city leaders don’t? The old bridge is unique and iconic, and maybe they intuitively grasp that one builds on that DNA (versus destroying it). Unique and iconic is a damn good basis for innovation and transformation.

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Incidentally, while I’m at it: note that TEDxJuanDeFuca will be held at the Vancouver Island Technology Park, which bills itself as the city’s (or region’s) tech hub. But I wonder where the tech community was when the battle to save the existing Johnson Street Bridge – and the rail line it currently carries – was being waged by JohnsonStreetBridge.ORG and its supporters. Why was there no awareness of rail’s significance for technology and innovation in our city? Consider that, over on Quora, Robert Scoble answered the question, Why are so many tech companies based in the San Francisco Bay Area?, with a pointed reference to the significance in Silicon Valley of the railroad. Please read the whole text, it’s a great little history and analysis of what made Silicon Valley become Silicon Valley. Scoble writes :

First, this is a railroad town. It wouldn’t have existed without it. Literally. First of all, if you go and visit the Santa Clara train depot inside is a museum. One of the photos on the wall is of this depot with NOTHING around it. Today it is the hub of Silicon Valley. Inside the rail yard, too, is one of the first computers used in Silicon Valley. It’s an interlocking machine. Basically controlled the the flow of trains in and out of the rail yard. These were the first “geek machines” along with communications, and other systems. That drew the first “geeky types” out west, to build systems for the railroads. Many liked the area and stayed.

The railway also brought a few other things…

Scoble goes on to enumerate those “few other things,” including how railroad wealth (concentrated in the hands of Leland Stanford) eventually created Stanford University. And how the railway right-of-way provided the path for laying internet cables and fiber. Traveling on top of those lines are the trains – commuter trains – that bring workers from San Francisco to Palo Alto (and vice versa). Now isn’t that interesting? Silicon Valley’s railway was integral to growing a robust regional ecosystem – one that could survive. Kill the railway, and you’ve preemptively killed whatever ecosystem it could be sustaining.

We used to have trains running from downtown Victoria to Sidney. No more. We still have a train track running from Nanaimo into downtown Victoria. Soon to be no more – it will end outside of downtown, in Victoria West, thanks to Fortin’s Folly.

Not more cowbell, please

February 23, 2011 at 8:18 pm | In just_so, scenes_victoria, victoria | 5 Comments

It snowed today. Depending on what part of the world you live in, this might not cause you to raise an eyebrow. But if you were where I am, you’d be really surprised – especially since this snowfall was a) unpredicted; b) unusual (for us); and c) really substantial.

Just a few days ago, while out walking at Summit Park, I took photos like these:

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Today, however, we woke up to this:

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…And that was just the start. Check out this photo from a friend who lives in a high-rise in James Bay – it gives you a good idea of what the roads looked like.

It snowed on and off for most of the day – we’re on a corner lot and shoveled the sidewalk on both streets three times. In the end, for just one day, it was fun, …in a weird sort of way. That said, I would appreciate a big melt now, with a return to regular (for here) programming, thank-you.

Late this afternoon, I went out to “beat the bushes.” Lesson learned: you don’t know how much you have until you have to take care of it. Years ago, I wrote a blog post (My Dominion) about my secret garden in the back, enumerating all the shrubs and trees. They are legion, squeezed into a tiny footprint of land. And there are more in the strip of side-yard and the border that runs along the front of the house. By the time I was done beating the heavy snow off their branches (the temperatures will fall tonight, and those branches would be likely to break under the weight), I was half-way cursing the abundance.

Anyway… What the heck does cowbell have to do with any of this, you may be asking (in case you’ve read this far). “More cowbell!” is a SNL parody (see the video here) of Blue Öyster Cult recording the song “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper.” A fictional band member plays cowbell and wrecks the piece – all the while encouraged by a daft record producer (played by Christopher Walken).

“More cowbell!” means a stupid obnoxious noise that interferes with real signal.

The cowbell I heard this morning on Twitter sounded along the following lines:

“Snow on the ground and Victoria grinds to a halt, again.”

And:

“Snow: Grinding Victoria to a Halt Since 1872.”

Now, I’m not trying to single out those two voices – they’re merely echoing a refrain (that Victoria “grinds to a halt”) sounded each and every time it snows here.

It doesn’t snow here very often. But every time it does, the cowbell chorus starts up: Oh gawd, Victorians are soooo stupid, they’re such wussies, they’re such wimps, they can’t handle snow, blah blah, and so on. We’re such wimps – the rest of Canada laughs at us, we can’t handle real weather, …and more along those lines.

Here’s the thing: Victoria did not anywhere near “grind to a halt” today, and given the extreme snow at such an unexpected time of year (for us), it was actually a miracle that so much continued to function normally. Yes, there were fewer cars on the road, but that’s because the roads weren’t cleared. Why weren’t they cleared? Because: what we need isn’t more cowbell-in-a-chorus, but more snowplows.

Schools were closed, but I’ve seen schools close for less …in New England, that alleged mecca of snow-hardiness. The grocery stores were open. The used bookstore was open, as was the used furniture store. The restaurants were open, ditto the cafés. One hairdresser was closed. Just as well, it was a bad hair day anyway.

Many of these places were open because the buses were running, regularly, which meant staffers could come in to work. People who did drive were driving responsibly – not, as the cowbell mythos would have it, like silly snow-scared ninnies.

In short, the reality did not mesh at all with the perception that Victorians are soft and inept.

So what’s up with all the cowbell?

I think people need the dissonance, the wrong noise, the clang of disharmony because it confirms their specialness. Seriously: we would be just like “everyone else” if we didn’t have this handicap of being the stupidest people in Canada (who happen to live in one of the nicest places in Canada) who can’t even deal with just. a. little. bit. of. snow.

It actually wasn’t just a little bit of snow, and we dealt with it rather well, thank you. And that makes us merely stinkin’ normal, doesn’t it? Whereas “more cowbell” is the dissonant clang that insists we’re different and special. Too bad it makes such a dumb noise.

Reading in the archives

January 31, 2011 at 8:41 pm | In authenticity, creativity, ideas, victoria, writing | 2 Comments

I was rooting around in my Google documents just minutes ago and came across two 2006 blog post drafts I’d parked there. I published them to my blog at the time, but hadn’t re-viewed them since then: All Eyes (Oct.22, 2006) and Winter will come soon enough (Oct.25, 2006).

Both posts convince me of two things: 1) that I should be leveraging my own archive; and 2) that I’ve become stupider over the past couple of years.

When I started blogging in 2003, I paid attention to what was said about blogging – what it was “supposed” to be, and what it wasn’t supposed to be. I guess I wasn’t particularly good at following instructions, though, so I never rose anywhere near the ranks where the big A-listers hung out – and instead I usually wrote long, convoluted posts.

Why? Probably because I had enough belief in my own ability to analyze – and most importantly: to synthesize – ideas. I continued to pursue my “big” ideas, irrespective of my marginal status and my inability to be popular. So what if my texts were an acquired taste and had a readership of …a few? These few were my readers, and that’s what counted. And so I wrote what I wanted to write.

While it bothered me that popular bloggers insisted that one should write at a Grade 8 level or that one shouldn’t write large blocks of text and that one should always break text up with lots of images and bullet points and paragraph headings, I kept going along in my style. Why? Because it helped me think – and I happened to be thinking about important matters.

That changed.

Somehow, in the last few years I lost touch with my intellectual side, the side that kept me thinking about important things. And it wasn’t other bloggers or A-list pundits who convinced me to lose that touch. It was my local environment. Here, in this island city, I tried to be a local pundit, and lord, what a disaster that was. I wrote for a print publication, which garnered me even less feedback than my blog posts had. I tried writing simply, because I was made to understand that overly complex texts aren’t popular. But I still wasn’t getting any resonance, even if I tried to write at a Grade 8 level. Therefore, it must all be my fault, I concluded. In 2007 the local mainstream media ripped me off, which hammered home the insight that ideas count for nothing when there’s an old boys’ network and $$ at stake.

Things got worse: in 2009 I also got sucked into a very fraught local political issue, which nearly completely destroyed my sense of …being able to make sense. That disaster happened in the slipstream of another lowlight of 2008, the aftereffects of which have dragged on for over two years: a municipal election that swept into power an awful mayor and council, further alienating me from Victoria. The 2011 election promises no relief, incidentally.

Doubly alienated – from my academic self as well as my engaged civic self – I have spent the last many months floundering. I’ve thrown myself into other projects and subjects, but my output has gone to the lowest common denominator. I tried to make myself understood locally, and that was my personal Waterloo. So much time wasted… talking to …whom? The town closed ranks and shut me out.

And I have lost years of serious thinking. What an idiot I’ve been to waste my time like this.

Happy New Year

January 1, 2011 at 11:43 pm | In just_so, victoria | Comments Off

The irony doesn’t escape me. A couple of days ago I posted photos of bad art, and today I’m going all soft in the knees over a spectacular sunset – which I captured on my iPod Touch and then massaged via Camera+ (an excellent iPhone/ iPod Touch app), bringing out what some might call the sunset theme’s most saccharine and kitschy qualities…

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The local Twitter-verse (and Vancouver’s) was abuzz with tweets about the fabulous sky this afternoon – it was this amazing gift we were getting. Bad art might be bad art, but a sunset is only kitschy if you weren’t there to see it yourself. Tonight, we West Coasters have black velvet and sequins stapled to the insides of our eyeballs – it was that intense.

I took this photo from King George Terrace at the foot of Gonzales Hill.

…Victoria, your seductive power remains acute.

Once more, the streets

December 10, 2010 at 11:06 pm | In johnson street bridge, land_use, street_life, transportation, urbanism, victoria | 4 Comments

While I promised myself, for sanity’s sake, to forgo paying attention to city politics, the City of Victoria‘s endorsement last night of a transportation proposal has me back at square one. Meaning what? Meaning I’m scratching my head, wondering what’s in the water around here.

The endorsed plan – proposed by BC Transit – would do a couple of really bizarre things that strike me as undesirable. The plan involves putting either rapid transit trams or rapid transit bus lines along Douglas Street, which is the city’s main north-south street corridor. Douglas Street is actually part of the Trans Canada Highway – further north, outside the city core, it becomes the highway. But in the city itself, it’s also just another main street that runs parallel to Victoria’s two other main north-south arterial roads, Government Street on its west and Blanshard Street on its east. At Douglas Street’s southern terminus you find Beacon Hill Park’s Mile 0 and the Terry Fox Memorial, site of many tourist moments. Before reaching the park, Douglas Street traverses Victoria’s Central Business District. As it provides an artery for the city, Douglas Street has four traffic lanes (two north-bound, two south-bound). There is on-street parking along much of Douglas Street’s downtown stretch, albeit on alternating blocks and sides of the street; and there are several blocks where no parking at all is allowed because bus service is heaviest here.

In the proposed plan, all on-street parking would be eliminated. Traffic lanes would be reduced from four to two, running side-by-side along the street’s western edge. Along the east side of the street, there would be two side-by-side tram or rapid transit bus lanes, one heading north, the other south, again: side by side. In the middle of the street would be a two-lane bike path.

Here’s  a rendering, as it appeared in last night’s (and today’s) Times-Colonist online:

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I’m already getting into arguments with friends over this one. Some of my friends applaud the plan and point out that this is not new, and that BC Transit has been working on this since 1995.

To which I say, “it’s still a pretty shitty plan, sorry.”

I’ve never seen a tram arrangement like this, and really can’t understand why (in the case of this illustration) the south-bound tram should be orphaned away from pedestrian access. The only pedestrian access is via the sidewalk, and in this case the south-bound tram is removed from the sidewalk by a north-bound tram lane. I suppose if the trams don’t stop very often, you can build fancy stations to accommodate riders having to cross the tram tracks, etc. But shouldn’t the point downtown be that you have really frequent stops?

Nor do I get the logic of a bike lane down a median. In this scenario the cyclists will have to fight with cars and trams if they want to reach the curb/ retail frontage. That makes no sense. Maybe it makes sense for cyclists who don’t want to stop and are going to keep going until they reach …somewhere. But what if it’s a cyclist who’s hopping from one downtown store or venue to another? I guess he or she will be infringing on the pedestrian’s sidewalk space – and that always has the potential for trouble.

What I really dislike about this plan is how it suggests that if we could only get everyone into their proper slot (into the bike lane in the median, into the tram lanes side by side, into the car lanes side by side, and into the sidewalks – separated by an ocean of other transportation options) – if we could only get everyone to stay in their place, we could “solve” urban transportation issues. I’m not averse to that approach in areas where it’s imperative to clear the path for 50 to 60-kilometer per hour travel, but in a downtown, that’s not where (or how fast) we want to go.

I can’t help but think that rapid transit and cars are doing relatively well in this plan, but that pedestrians and cyclists aren’t. They latter two groups are asked to move like the former two: in straight lines, without stopping in any sort of way that could hold things up, without meandering, without trespassing or “jaywalking” – “jay-riding”? – into the other lanes of traffic. I don’t think that’s very urban. In every real city, pedestrians are constantly taking back their streets through everyday acts of disobedience: dawdling on the sidewalk, hitching bikes to parking meters (oops, I forgot we’re not even going to have parking meters under this new plan!), jaywalking, clustering, gawking, sitting around… Anything and everything in addition to “moving along” in an orderly fashion.

I dislike the extreme tidiness of this plan. There’s no mess here – probably because everyone is in their place. (And heaven help the poor fool who steps out of line…)

It looks suburban.

Finally, a word about the sad fate of the Johnson Street Bridge: those of us who fought to save the bridge suggested that one lane of the three traffic lanes on the current bridge should be given over to “multi-modal” transportation (read: bike lanes etc.). We were told by the rabid pro-replacement councilors around the table at City Hall that it would be impossible to reduce this tiny tiny bridge’s lane capacity from three to two. And yet these same councilors yesterday gave their assent to reducing the city’s main arterial road from four lanes of traffic to two, for a stretch of more than two kilometers. The hypocrisy staggers me.

Addendum: See also my post, Congestion is our friend (on, among other things, Gordon Price‘s talk on Motordom [<--slide deck on SlideShare]). From that slide deck, here’s an image (#26) of what an urban street (Commercial Drive in Vancouver) can look like – note the parked cars and general urban “mess”:

Kaleidoscope Theatre’s The Hobbit

December 9, 2010 at 11:20 pm | In arts, victoria | Comments Off

Are you a huge Tolkien fan? Yeah, me neither…

That said, however, if you’re in Victoria Canada, you should see Kaleidoscope Theatre‘s production of The Hobbit, currently playing at the McPherson Theatre. The remaining three shows are this Friday – that’s tomorrow – and Saturday at 7pm, and then again on Sunday at 2pm.

Kaleidoscope’s production is a treat. Theater by and for young adults, it manages to knock a couple of adult socks off, too. With not much of a budget, it succeeds in creating huge illusions – typically, by dint of excellent performers, direction, and highly creative set designers.

Watch for how they stage the eagle’s rescue of the dwarfs and Bilbo Baggins; conjure a dragon out of lights and sound; and manage a battle scene between dwarfs, elves, and humans with just a handful of actors.

Oh, and Golem: played by Ingrid Hansen, this Golem comes across as a really scary psychopath, truly dangerous and unpredictable. I kept thinking, “Wow, Bilbo, if Golem gets you, this is going to morph into a Jeffrey Dahmer docu-drama…” Not sure if the little kids in the audience caught that whiff of psychosis in Golem, but I sure felt it… Hansen has the dancer’s superb control over how she uses her body: each movement spoke volumes about Golem’s deranged mind.

Kaleidoscope staged The Hobbit in 2002; this photo, "Dwarfs captured by Wood Elfs," is from that earlier production

TEDwomen, global

December 7, 2010 at 7:53 pm | In conference, ideas, victoria | Comments Off

I spent about two hours at UVic this afternoon, where the Washington DC-based TEDwomen sessions were being live-streamed. I came in for Session 2: Life’s Symphony, featuring (among others) Sheryl Sandberg (COO of Facebook); Mona Eltahawy (journalist); Tony Porter (educator); and Lauren Zalaznick (television exec).

I was fortunate to have heard about the live-cast (via a friend), and that was evident when I got to UVic. Some of the attendees (mostly women) had been there for Session 1; I arrived right at the break, about 10 or 15 minutes before Session 2. As we waited for it to start, one of the organizers noted that we were a lucky bunch to be privy to the simulcast … since it wasn’t publicly advertised.

Given that there were only about a dozen people in a room that could easily hold about sixty, I really couldn’t understand why the event wasn’t publicly advertised…

At one point, the DC event cut to a map of all the locations, globally, where TEDwomen was being simulcast, and via the magic of simulcasting and Skype, we “visited” the group located in Mexico. Its audience seemed a lot bigger than ours; they had strung up a banner, and were holding a parallel mini-TEDx conference of their own during breaks in the DC simulcast. They had made a big, decidedly public event out of this – I just had to wonder why our Victoria BC session was so private.

I don’t know… I dropped in late, I probably missed something.

But it reminded me of too much in Victoria – taking “it’s on a need-to-know basis” to a whole new level… #dislike

I’m sorry I failed to take notes – there was lots of good stuff.

The picture, above, is of Lauren Zalaznick, whose riveting analysis of TV-watching habits correlated to social trends (in cynicism or judgementalism or optimism or…) was eye-opening. From what I recall: we have so much in common with animals, except this – humans love to watch, whereas other animals don’t have that voyeurism fetish. From that core insight, Zalaznick looked at what we watch (hint, TV), and then extrapolated social trends. She matched these up with TV trends, and made the argument that TV is our “conscience”… Really looking forwarded to getting my hands on an archive broadcast of her talk, and the others, too.

I signed up for another session tomorrow, but I don’t think I’ll take the time out to attend. It’s a hassle to free up the time, and if I’m going to do that, it has to be better than bowling alone.

Xtranormal version of Victoria BC’s Johnson Street Bridge Debate

November 16, 2010 at 11:19 pm | In johnson street bridge, victoria | Comments Off

Brilliant.

Maybe the self-styled “chairman of the board” will take a boo. And learn something.

Click on image below or here.

Victoria, the ecosystem

November 10, 2010 at 11:59 pm | In ideas, victoria | Comments Off

When people say that Victoria British Columbia is “a small town,” I think they’re dead wrong. I understand what those people are getting at, but I think they’re completely missing the mark: because, with a Capital Regional District (CRD) population of over 350,000 people, it’s not a small town by Canadian standards. We punch above our weight in many areas: we have several universities and colleges in town (and research and medical facilities to go with these); we have art and music and ballet schools; a kick-ass opera (and I say that even though I’m opera-challenged – love the singing, but hate the stupid story-lines); a great symphony orchestra; an exciting youth orchestra; a gazillion music groups and gobs of talented players; an incredible indy music scene; a whole bunch of thriving, innovative theaters, from musical to improv to way-out-there-fringe; slam poets galore; an art gallery that has the best Asian collection (albeit mostly in storage); …the list goes on.

It’s true that we are very very small if we count only the population of the City of Victoria, but no one in their right mind understands those arbitrary political boundaries as having actual social or practical significance in real life (except, of course, when those same political lines in the sand mess up your life with regard to pulling permits or other bureaucratic niceties, etc.). For all intents and purposes, “Victoria” is comprised of all the people in the CRD.

We don’t punch above our weight economically, perhaps in part because there are no “big” employers aside from the Province (government) and we don’t attract any head offices. But there’s a sometimes surprising network of small businesses that increasingly (thank-you, interwebs) plug into the world beyond the island. (For non-BC readers: we’re located on a peninsula on the southernmost tip of a rather large, vastly uninhabited island.)

That we are an island-locked ocean-bordered city is, aside from our municipal political structure (balkanization into 13 municipalities), our biggest constraint, and I’m not yet sure how - even if you look at it as a design issue and say, “let this constraint be a feature, not a …well, constraint/ bug” – or whether it’s possible to get around it. At the end of the day, there’s something so final about geography.

Essentially, people say that Victoria is “a small town” because anyone who begins to engage in any of the city’s spheres comes to realize very quickly that everyone knows everyone here.

Isn’t that the very definition of “small town”?

I don’t think so.

You know what a Venn diagram is, right? There’s a simple example on the right —>

In a small town, a simple Venn diagram would explain the overlap of people connections. There would be this core group of individuals (the ones in the area where all three circles overlap) who sort of know everyone and everything, and there would be slightly weaker overlaps in those areas where just two circles overlap.

What makes Victoria different – possibly unique – is that we can’t use simple Venn diagrams to “explain” overlaps or cultures in this city. Imagine, instead, a Venn diagram drawn by M.C. Escher (on the left, a relatively uncomplicated – heh – structure called Circle Limit <– click that link for a larger image).

Or perhaps imagine a Venn diagram drawn by M.C. Escher, which is then re-interpreted by Benoit Mandelbrot as a fractal.

That’s the sort of overlap we deal with here, and it can make for some very strange overlaps indeed – and it can create the feeling that it’s literally impossible to get away from anyone anytime anywhere in this city. Wherever you go, there you are – and you are connected to everyone else.

Why is that? My theory is that Victoria has one of the densest (and sometimes weirdest) ecosystems of any place around. This ecosystem is of course expressed in the nature of the place – a nature which is indomitable, impossible to squelch or suppress – and it replicates in all the “little” human ways of the two-legged inhabitants of this place.

This is not a small town. This is an especially dense and concentrated ecosystem (albeit economically still underdeveloped). But if it ever busts out and becomes the sort of economic generator that Jane Jacobs talked about when she described economies as ecosystems (stretching imports in the conduit, she called it), it’s going to be very big (that is: rich and complex and vibrant) indeed.

I would like to think that our political and civic leaders get this. Most of the time, I’m not convinced.

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