blarg?

travel

For about ten minutes this morning I was in a beautiful relationship.

I bike to work in the morning, and I’m pretty aggressive about it. I’m one of the scofflaw cyclists people who spend a few hours every day slowly dying in traffic like to complain about. I move so much faster than traffic, though, that their opinions hardly matter. Off peak hours (whenever those are) you can make a case for driving, I suppose? But in general, in rush hour in this city, nothing is faster than me. Subway, Porsche, Ducati, doesn’t matter.

Today, though.

This morning I’m cranking down the road, not full out but sure not dawdling, when a woman about my age riding with fenders and a pannier – a pannier! Wicker! – blows past me like it’s not even a thing. Whoosh.

This cannot stand, of course; the machismo bullshit is strong with me at moments like this. It’s a rare day and a rare treat for me that I get a rabbit to chase on my ride in, so I can’t miss this; I gear down take off after her.

After a while I catch up, start drafting – the two of us are flying down the road – and then pass her, but I’m not shaking her, oh no. She was not having that. I beat her to a light by about two lengths but she timed it better, got out in front of me again, took a better line around the traffic and started stretching her lead. She was raising her game here, and I did not have an easy time catching up. By the time I do I’m feeling it, and looking over it doesn’t look like I’m pushing her anywhere near as hard as she’s pushing me.

We went back and forth like that for about ten minutes, past everyone, trading leads and drafting around traffic and go go go until finally her commute took her north near where I turned south. I was grinning like a lunatic at the end of it, and she seemed happy as well; we shared a nod and went our separate ways, and that was that.

Whoever you are, that was one of the best rides in I can remember. I hope it was as much of a blast for you as it was for me.

Well done, and thank you.

Leaves

In Tsukiji there’s a small, open-fronted shop called “Tsukiji Masamoto”, and it’s packed. The walls are lined floor to ceiling with knives in various wooden cases, row after row of every tool you’d need to separate one part of some animal from another.

Their shapes were unfamiliar to my western eyes, specialized tools for jobs I know nothing about. Even the local equivalent of the west’s workaday one-size-fits-all chef’s knife, the santoku, seems to come in more shapes and sizes than makes sense. The cleaver-like usuba bocho doesn’t have an obvious western counterpart, the hard angles of the usagisaki hocho, the “eel knife”, likewise. And the savage economy of the soba kiri or udon kiri – literally “noodle knife”, because that’s all they’re for – looks more like the business end of something stylized and cruel than a common household utensil in its own right.

Most striking is the maguro bocho, made for filleting four hundred pounds of tuna in a single motion; some seven feet long, five of it blade, they seem more like a Daimyo’s tool than a fishmonger’s. It’s hard to believe they’re useful until you see how big a full-sized tuna can be; the nature of the tool becomes clear once you understand the nature of the job, as usual.

When I visited there was a man squared up over a whetstone out front, a man who looks like he’s made out of old leather and dock rope. He was holding a hon deba to the wheel in hands you could mistake for a bag of walnuts. He seemed to have been there forever; as far as I’m concerned he’s probably still there, a small man who stands like an old mountain. Tsukiji seemed to have been built around him; I had the impression some shogun’s son had found him standing in front of that wheel when it was still called Edo and returned home to say, father, we do need a fish market, and there is a man already there sharpening knives. Respectfully, father, I don’t think he’s going anywhere for anyone.

As I was watching him work he lifted the hon deba off the wheel and peered closely at its edge for a long time before he lowered the knife and stared at the sky for just as long. For a moment I could almost see a hint of dissatisfaction and then nothing; he put the edge back to the wheel, I moved on.

I think about this a lot; I wish I’d been able to ask him what he’d seen.

At the November 24th, 2011 TTC Town Hall meeting, it was noted that:

The TTC has attempted to make incremental improvements as we provide new entrances / exits or elevators for step-free access. One of the recommendations made by the Customer Service Advisory Panel in 2010 focuses on improving signs and other customer information. We are working on a plan to do this but re-signing a station is an expensive proposition both in terms of the planning required, the material cost and implementation. We need better understanding of what priority customers give to improved way finding when balanced against things like an increase in service levels.

Having said that, we must get much better at not degrading the look and feel of our stations and trains with visual clutter such as handwritten signs. Such improvements should have little cost impact but can be difficult to ensure consistency. We are experimenting with a new “wrap” on the Davisville collector booth that we hope will balance our operational and customer needs and control some of the clutter on and in our booths.

Line Up

I took this a few weeks ago at Spadina Station during rush hour. It’s classic TTC signage: hastily assembled by TTC employees using all the resources they have at their disposal, which is usually the side of a cardboard box and a sharpie.

Noted accessibility author Joe Clark has written extensively on the subject, though as of early 2008 he has understandably abandoned that project. When an organization doesn’t even want to admit there’s a problem, what do you do?

A sign

I’ve said this a lot recently. When something is a priority for an organization, it has three things: a budget, a calendar and exactly one person responsible for it. Missing any one of those is a guarantee that whatever that organization says, its real priorities are elsewhere. So whatever the TTC’s management says about wayfinding and signage the budget they’ve actually allocated for all that is a pizza box, a broom handle and a sharpie. The person responsible for it is whoever happens to be there that day.

All the evidence suggests that there’s nobody at the TTC that anyone, inside or out, can call to say that signs are broken or missing or need to be printed. There’s no budget, no standards and nobody to ask about any of that and if there is, then boy howdy they’re not answering the phone.

That town hall comment above, as misguided as it is in many respects does get one thing exactly right: it can be inexpensive, but has to be consistent.

It’s impossible for me to blame the boots-on-the-ground TTC employees for this. Hand-scribbled signs like that are adorable; they make it look like the third-busiest transit system in North America is managed by some kids the TTC headhunted away from a lemonade stand, an image I love. And I’m not sure what else to expect, given that we’re looking at the best effort from well-meaning people without expertise, management support, goals, oversight or any guidelines at all, and a time and money budget of zero.

Classic Toronto Traffic

This is absolutely, 100% typical. The police don’t even bother ticketing them most of the time.

Everyday I'm Bustlin'

This came to me the other day when a friend of mine was talking about some acquaintances of theirs who’d driven across Africa, including through the Sudan: some people in some places really, really need a GPS that talks to them like the Fact Sphere from Portal 2.

“The situation you are in is very dangerous. Turn left in 200 meters.”

“Proceed straight for 500 meters. The likelihood of you dying within the next two kilometers is 87.61%. You are about to get me killed. If you proceed along this route, we will both die because of your negligence. The Fact Sphere is not defective. Its facts are wholly accurate, and very interesting.”

“The route you have chosen spans three kilometers of elevation and two war zones. This is a bad plan. You will fail. Violently. Turn right in 100 meters. If you continue on this road at this speed, you will be dead soon.”

“The situation is hopeless. Take the next right turn. You could stand to lose a few pounds.”

To Trains, Still

My bike has been my primary method of transportation lately and gets me where I’m going often faster and invariably with less hassle than a car or even the subway. This summer has been mostly good days for that and, even though somebody periodically somebody tries to kill me, it’s just so much better an experience that it seems like a fair trade. And as a bonus my bike isn’t a cold-war relic that breaks down all the damn time. But when I tell people that I bike in the city they seem astonished that any sane human would do that. Biking downtown, they say? Madness! And then the complaints about cab drivers start.

And that’s how I can tell those people don’t bike and, in all likelihood, aren’t very good drivers. It’s possible that I’m holding a minority opinion on this but I love taxi drivers. I love them to bits.

Cabbies are just about my favorite people on the road for one reason only: they are completely, utterly predictable. Look five meters ahead of a cab and you know what they’re going to do every time. That space they can turn into to win them an extra car length? They’re going there. That pedestrian with their hand up? Here comes a cab, right up snug to the curb. Braking with nobody in front of them? They’re going to stop and then that door’s going to open.

By and large they even signal. And they’re going to make that move every time; just assume it’s coming and roll with it. Compared to cabbies the alternative is so much worse.

Q: As a cyclist in Toronto, what is my threat model?

A:

  • Custom rims
  • Subwoofer
  • Baseball cap (any)
  • Spoiler
  • Custom paint job
  • Support ribbons (any)
  • Tiny woman, land-yacht SUV
  • Fat, moustachioed man, minivan
  • Aviator-style or larger sunglasses
  • One hand holding coffee
  • One hand holding cellphone

Perform a quick visual assessment of the cars around you; vehicles that meet any two of these criteria should be treated with due caution. Three or more and you should assume they’re actively trying to kill you.

Q: So, bike lanes?

A: There are none. Many wildly disjoint roads in Toronto have lines painted three feet from the curb and what appears to be a bicycle painted on the asphalt, but by convention these are reserved parking for service and delivery vehicles, police and parking enforcement officers. The city will also issue private contractors a permit to park in them at their convenience and you should expect any courier or cube-van you see to swerve directly into them and immediately stop. This is less inconvenient that you might think as these “paths” don’t actually go from anywhere to anywhere else.

Q: But bike paths, right?

A: Yeah, whatever. If you work somewhere on Lakeshore and maybe live under a bridge in the Don Valley then sure. Nobody who is not already a bicycle commuter gives even a fraction of a damn about cycling downtown.

Q: So can I get around on a bike, for real?

A: Ultimately the answer is yes, if you’re willing to act like a car. Take up a whole lane; you notice how police on bikes always ride side by side? Establish that you own the space around you. Don’t hug the curb or when you get cut off you’ll have nowhere to go. Signal when you need to change lanes, but don’t otherwise act predictably; a set precedent of scary randomness will earn you the wide berth you want. But be aware of your environment, 360 degrees of it, at all times. Travel light and agile and be able to make decisions fast. If you’ve got panniers or baskets or whatever behind your seat, then forget it; hug the curb, festoon yourself with lights and reflectors and pray that you live through the ride. If you’ve got any weight at all over your front wheel, panniers or grocery bags hanging off your handlebars then I hope your soul is prepared because you’re already a dead man.

You might get honked at now and then, but that doesn’t matter – in Toronto, car horns don’t mean “look out, I’m coming” or “pay attention, there is a car here”, they mean “Fuck you, I hate you and want you to die” – but my thinking in this is simple: let them hate, so long as they fear.

Taste is so tightly bound to memory that I have a hard time believing that I can appreciate or even even taste food on its own, in a void of context. I wonder how many of my likes, dislikes, loves and hates are like that; not about the thing, but the echoes of memory that come with it, the place I was, the people I was with. And the person I was, maybe, and let’s not pretend there’s not some tightly-wound feedback loops in that part of your brain.

I have some fairly clear insight into some of these things, introspectives that come to me at odd moments and are often a little to easy to romanticize, but I think I should make a habit of being as honest as I can with myself about my motives in loving and hating what I do.

Grates

This all occurred to me while I was putting some sauerkraut on a street dog down at Yonge and Dundas today. If you’d told me once upon a time that cabbage fermented in vinegar was delicious, I would have told you that was a lie, because that’s not even food and what the hell is wrong with you. But at some point in my childhood I’d read an Encyclopedia Brown mystery in which Bugs Meany is caught out in some scam involving a rare penny by a miscue involving mustard and sauerkraut. I remembered that (and even remember remembering it, oddly) but I don’t think I’d ever actually seen the stuff in the wild until my family went to New York to visit some relatives. I might have been ten, maybe? Eleven? And I’m pretty sure that was the first time I had a dog from a street vendor, and a pretzel, remembering Bugs Meany and giving it a try.

And I still don’t think I know what sauerkraut tastes like on its own. Whatever else it is, to me it tastes just a little bit like the completely uncynical, unalloyed joy of being eleven years old and seeing New York for the first time.

Today at Yonge and Dundas, for no obvious reason, there were a couple of kids playing some classic eighties hiphop on a big old boom box at the corner, dressed in old-school Adidas jackets and (yes!) hustling people at three-card monte. Some days I think these things are part of some elaborate Truman Show production, staged just for blissfully ignorant me. That can’t be, can it? It seems unlikely, but thanks either way, random kids. I know it’s a long story, but because of you my lunch tasted even better today.

One Stem

This has been making the rounds recently, an article on how America is all infrastructure, and no people. It’s trite, but the old line about the difference between European and North American cities is that European cities were built for people; the cars got there later. In North America it’s the other way around.

So, cities are built for cars and the people get there later, but what if the people never get there? Turns out, we have an answer for that now. Take a look at this.

Google’s street view of this is fantastic, particularly if you slide back up from it to an overhead view of what’s around you. There’s nothing there, nothing but sand and old road.

The same thing has happened here; a city laid out for cars where the people never showed up. It’s incredibly bleak, and of all the things you can read into this I think what strikes me most is the utter disdain for organic growth and the incredible confidence in the planned-out city being the inevitable future. Why else would you put down that much asphalt? But then nothing happened. And ultimately, it wouldn’t really matter if it had – the organic, human aspect always wins eventually. You wouldn’t think so – it’s a big, planned coherent thing, it looks like it should work! – but it never does.

It occurs to me that this is a judgement on the citizenry, carved into the landscape; these are cities that fundamentally don’t trust their own residents with the reins of the future. I really hope we can add that to the pile of the last century’s bad ideas and walk away from it.

Forward Motion

The Telegraph takes a survey, and finds out that life is a lot like XKCD:

“In a survey, which reveals “deeply worrying” levels of ignorance about the Apollo space programme, which sent three men to the moon forty years ago this month, 11 out of 1009 people surveyed thought Buzz Lightyear was the first person to step onto the moon. A further 8 people thought it was Louis Armstrong, with less than three-quarters correctly answering that it was Neil Armstrong.

But 75% seems pretty good to me, considering the entire Apollo program started in 1960 and ended before I suspect most of the respondents were born. I mean, throw in a few question about Vostok-1 or the Messerschmitt ME 262, and watch what happens to those numbers when your history lesson has to cross a few borders.

But it occurred to me to look something up when I read that, and I realized that the last manned moon landing was in 1975, a bare five months after I was born. I knew this somehow, viscerally, but…

The last one. The last one, possibly the last one ever. Forty years later, we sit in the bottom of our gravity well and peer out at the universe through one decent orbital telescope (and peering back down with hundreds, I might add) and sending up camcorders on wheels to report back in black and white.

This sort of thing makes me want to cry.

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”
– JFK, 1960.

And then, as a followup, nothing. Screw you, baby boomers. Your generation has been a blight on every facet of the landscape, and you owe me a rocketship future.