Monday, November 11, 2013

The attack on peace

Twice this weekend I heard the local Talk Radio station lead their news broadcast with these words: "A handful of university students have hopped aboard the left-wing Rideau Institute's "white poppy" bandwagon for Remembrance Day, promoting their pacifist ideology by piggybacking on the Royal Canadian Legion's red poppy campaign."

I googled part of the quote and discovered that the entire news story was lifted from an article in the Toronto Sun (link). The Sun article, of course, includes additional invective and links to other stories about outrage towards the white poppy campaign.

So, first off, shame on me for listening to a radio station that takes its newscasts verbatim from the gutter press, but there's more to this. We first noticed this trend in the US, where any objection to war was deemed to be disrespect to members of the armed forces (even though the situation is exactly the opposite). Now in Canada people can't take a slightly different view of Remembrance Day without being viciously attacked.

There is something seriously, seriously wrong here.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

King & University: Density node? Neighborhood? Mess?

The density at King & University has been a long time coming. When I was a teenager in the 70s there were already large apartment buildings on Regina Street North. University Avenue in the King-Regina area has been steadily growing with apartments and strip malls. WLU is building more and more student residences in the area.

We now have one of the densest parts of the region (perhaps the densest in Waterloo) located at King & University, and it's difficult to see any coordination or planning whatsoever. It's the node that Waterloo City Hall forgot.

The intersection at King & University is one of the most dangerous in the Region. In 2012 there were 41,000 vehicles and 6,000 pedestrians using the intersection each day, and there were 130 collisions, including 11 involving pedestrians. (link) City Council recently debated installing a pedestrian scramble there but decided not to, apparently because it would cause even greater traffic delays.

Both King and University are major routes for drivers going cross town. The intersection is a bottleneck, largely because of the lack of a right turn lane for traffic heading south on King turning west on University. Traffic backs up because those right-turners have to wait for all the pedestrians to clear the crosswalk.

It's a real problem that such a dense neighborhood lacks a grocery store. The area was recently reduced to just one corner store when Forwells threw in the towel. And there are other amenities that should be apportioned to neighborhoods, such as a park. For the student population, you'd think a beer store would be appreciated. For non-students, some sort of sports field or playground might be useful.

There are some student eateries in the area (notably Frat Burger, Burrito Boyz, Morty's, and a Starbucks), but the retail shopping is not aimed at the local population or pedestrians in general. There is an automotive repair place, a store that sells 20-liter bottles of water, specialty medical buildings.

For pedestrians, the area is inconvenient and unpleasant. The sidewalks abut against the street. The strip malls have large parking lots out front. The stores are widely spaced. And then there's that dangerous intersection, which is no fun at all to cross.

The City of Waterloo can't help that the Region decided to make the LRT bypass King & University: the Region was bound and determined to route the LRT through the UW campus so that its ridership numbers will be bolstered by students with free transit passes. But the city has to do something to improve the King & University neighborhood. For starters, it needs a name. Next, it needs a vision. Then it needs a plan.

Maybe we need to restrict cars from turning off of King and/or University. Add pedestrian islands in the crosswalks. The area could use a streetscape improvement plan with better sidewalks, planters, trees, and benches. A beer store could perhaps anchor a development with a grocer's. It's all going to be time consuming and expensive, but it's too important an area to overlook any longer. Just consider how much time and money Waterloo has spent on Claire Lake (a pond in a wealthy subdivision) or the Clay & Glass Museum (which practically nobody goes to except school children who have no choice).

And almost more important than anything else, if we built a proper hiway on the west side of Waterloo, we could hugely reduce the traffic that floods down University and Erb to the Conestoga Parkway - a hiway that connects major arteries like the 401 with the east side of town.

Before any decisions are made, we need a solid understanding of the neighborhood now and in the future. Think you know everything? This is being built just a couple of blocks away:

Update, January 10, 2014:
I drove down King from Columbia to William last Thursday around 10 PM. In the area from Hickory to Lodge there were masses of people on the snowy sidewalks. The uptown had less than half as many people, even including those at the skating rink in Waterloo Square.

Cell phones > Smartphones > Superphones > ?

Just fooling around here, but with the rapid evolution of smartphone technology, you have to be wondering where it's going.

Earlier this year we learned of an imager chip that lets mobile phones see through walls, clothes, and other objects.

With Square, we see an evolution to peripheral devices that free consumers from the sales cycle of phone manufacturers. (Square sells a little piece of hardware that turns phones into credit card readers.)

And of course, wearable phones are here, currently as glasses or watches.

But we still seem to be just on the cusp of fundamental change. There is emerging technology that lets finger and hand gestures do many things, that lets brain power direct objects without physical intervention, that replaces phone screens with public viewing areas. In five years the paradigm of typing on tiny keyboards and peering at tiny screens may seem ludicrous. More interestingly, there may be a fundamental change in what we do with our mobile devices.

I don't pretend to have any clear view of the future, but I wonder what the social effects will be. Economist Tyler Cowen worries that technological change will kill the middle class, although he doesn't argue the case very convincingly.

The internet was built on porn. More recently, the economic driver of technological change appears to be advertising and its insatiable need for more and better data on consumers. Game developers even talk about the importance of "digital exhaust" - making gold of information previously thought worthless, like how long certain demographics of player linger on a level in a game.

What will happen if data becomes available to everyone - if, just as free access to the internet became seen as a right of humanity, access to data becomes a right? The killer apps of the future could be ones that mine, analyse, present, and use data. That seems like a future I can get excited about.

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This post is cross-posted on my work blog: Focus on Readers

Musings on love and freedom in the Ring Cycle

Wagner's Ring Cycle is about a curse on a ring, but in another (even larger) sense it's about a curse on women. Four women in the four operas are forced to marry and submit to a man against their will.

The first we encounter is Freia, who is Wotan's sister-in-law. Wotan contracts with two giants to build Valhalla, and he agrees that if he is unable to pay he will give them Freia. He never had a way to pay them, so when they demand their money he gives them Freia (to the horror of Freia and her siblings) - but then discovers that the gods will lose their immortality without her, so he steals the Rhine gold to give the giants instead.

In the next opera we encounter Siegmund, who is pursued after trying to free a woman who is being forced into marriage by her brothers. Siegmund seeks refuge in a house, only to discover that his twin sister Sieglinde lives there - they were separated years before when bandits abducted her and forced her into marriage with the cruel Hunding.

Next up is Brunnhilde herself. Daughter of the earth goddess Erda and the sky god Wotan, she is the head of the warrior clan the Walkures. A virgin goddess, no mortal man can meet her gaze and live. But she disobeys Wotan and in punishment he turns her into a mortal, leaving her helpless on a mountain to become the slave of the first man who finds her. She thinks she has broken the curse by convincing Wotan to surround her sleeping form with fire so that only the greatest hero will be able to win her - and that plan seems to work until her hero, Siegfried, is drugged and duped into forcing her to marry another man.

Other characters suffer minor versions of the this sexual predation. Fricka is humiliated by her philandering husband Wotan. Erda is duped by Wotan into giving up wisdom, and after bearing Brunnhilde for him she loses much of her power. (Even one male character, Siegfried, is given a drug that makes him forget his wife Brunnhilde and think he loves Gutrune. But you have to feel that Siegfried is partly to blame: why did he leave Brunnhilde so soon after finding her? Why did he trust his hosts so stupidly?)

There is nothing subtle about Wagner's theme that women are not free in love - the repetition and drama smash us over the head with it. In a piece of art that is so preoccupied with the idea of love, this is a heavy undercurrent of darkness and cynicism.

(Love is not all rosy in other ways, either. Alberich is able to steal the Rhine gold only after he renounces love - but he does that after some pretty cruel taunting. The two great romances in the cycle are both incestuous: Siegmund with his twin sister Sieglinde, and Brunnhilde with her nephew Siegfried. There is much passionate love-making, but all of it is creepy.)

Erda, the earth goddess, has a relationship with Wotan off-stage, between the first and second operas. All we know is that he wooed her to obtain her wisdom, and then Brunhilde was born. Erda goes into a steady decline after that, sleeping almost all the time. When Wotan cut a branch of the World Ash tree to use as his staff of power, the tree slowly withered and died; the same seems to happen to Erda: this appears to be a zero-sum game, where power gained by one player causes another to lose it.

The only married female character who is not in an unwanted sexual relationship is Fricka, Wotan's wife. Fricka is the goddess of marriage and her major motivation in the text is to find ways to keep her husband from dallying with other women. (She is not successful.)

There are other female characters in the Ring Cycle. The Walkures are virgin goddesses, depicted as proud and free (although they exist to serve Wotan by collecting heroes who die in battle to serve in Wotan's army). The Norns, daughters of Erda, don't appear to have lives outside of their job of untangling the ropes of fate. The Rhine maidens, mermaids who guard the Rhine gold, are definitely sexual beings, but it is not clear that they do more than flirt. Finally there is Gutrune, spinster, who drugs Siegfried to make him love her, but her actions are manipulated by Hagen, who is scheming to get the ring.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

In praise of bus bays

A lot of rush hour traffic jams are at least partially preventable. If we had bus bays that let GRT buses get off the road when they stop to pick up passengers, cars wouldn't have to queue up behind them.

The reason we don't have bus bays, according to local councillors and staff, is that cars don't let buses back on the road. But that problem is solvable. Many local buses don't even have Yield signs on their backs. We need a PR campaign to inform drivers that they must yield to buses pulling into traffic, and we need enforcement.

Increasingly, the cities and Region are reducing roads from four lanes to two. The LRT will increase that trend. The Region is also putting more buses on the roads - a great initiative, but one that will increasingly cause headaches for drivers.

Many local government staff are committed to making driving inconvenient as a way to encourage people to stop driving. Unfortunately, the main effect of this movement is to encourage people to avoid the downtowns and shop in the malls instead - the malls have good multi-lane access roads that aren't jammed up with buses.

In praise of speed bumps

The reason we have roundabouts is that they let traffic flow without stopping through intersections. The problem with roundabouts is that having traffic flow without stopping is extremely hazardous to pedestrians. Roundabouts seemed like a great idea when when we were building them on roads that don't have pedestrians, but then we started putting roundabouts in front of high schools and other high-pedestrian areas, and now we have one hell of a mess. Since the Homer Watson/Block Line roundabout was built, pedestrian accidents and injuries have doubled.*

It was folly to build so many roundabouts so quickly, but now we have them - at great expense - and we have to find a way to make them safe for pedestrians. The only solution I can see is speed bumps. For new roundabouts we could use temporary metal speedbumps until drivers get used to them. Problem roundabouts like the one on Homer Watson should have permanent speed bumps.

Jeff Outhit has argued that speedbumps are bone rattling, snowplough-wrecking menaces (I may be exaggerating here) that fire departments loathe. But well-built speedbumps are shallow and smooth - it's mostly parking lot speedbumps that are the bone rattlers. Plus, nobody, not even a fire truck or ambulance, should be speeding through a roundabout.

Most of our roundabouts were built on the edge of town where there are few pedestrians, but as we increase density there will be more people travelling on foot. We've got to fix our roundabouts so pedestrians, even children, can be safe on them.

*According to Jeff Outhit in The Record, during the 509 days before the Homer Watson roundabout was built seven people were hurt, none seriously, in five injury-causing collisions. In the 509 days after the roundabout was built 14 people were hurt, including two seriously, in 10 injury-causing collisions.

Rob Ford's not drunk

A video was released today of Rob Ford in a living room, ranting about someone he wanted to kill in a boxing ring. Almost immediately, Ford went on camera and said he was very inebriated in the video; his mother went on TV and said Ford doesn't do drugs but he does drink to excess. This inebriation story seems to have bamboozled the press; in every online article about it, the Globe uses the word "inebriation".

But Rob Ford's not drunk in that video. He's high on crack. Crack makes people hyperactive. It makes their heart race. It causes a mix of paranoia and euphoria. In the video, Ford doesn't slur his words like a drunk; he speaks clearly except that he's talking so fast that his words run together.

Decide for yourself: Rob Ford on crack

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Will/Should John Chen move BlackBerry to California?

I worked at Sybase for eight years under John Chen, the new CEO of BlackBerry. He was an interesting CEO - refreshingly (almost appallingly) frank. I remember he once came to the Waterloo office and told us that our market was shrinking, and that he felt like the captain of a leaky boat that was destined to sink. It seemed like Sybase did pretty well under Chen.

Another thing I remember, I think correctly, is that Chen moved the California HQ of Sybase from one town to another about an hour's drive away. This greatly upset the many employees who had purchased homes around the initial office, especially because the new building was close to Chen's house.

All this got me thinking about the future of BlackBerry under Chen. The best thing for BlackBerry might be a move to California, for lots of reasons.

BlackBerry isn't going to survive unless it can change its corporate culture. RIM got whammied with a perfect shitstorm that created that culture: the lawsuit, the hyper growth, the duality at the top. There are still too many people at BlackBerry - especially leaders - who don't sufficiently value productivity and quality. By moving the company, Chen could switch out a lot of the current personnel with Californians, thus transforming the culture relatively quickly.

Another factor is the corporate culture of Waterloo. How can I put this delicately... oh hang it: in Waterloo, many people work to live rather than live to work. That's great: their priority is their families and friends. But all too often, ambition in Waterloo is a sense of entitlement; there often isn't the right environment to hone and select the best leaders.

Waterloo is a great place for a development office, what with all the high class talent coming out of the University of Waterloo, but it might not be the best place to headquarter a large, cutting edge tech firm. We have so many startups here that the corporate culture might change, but for now, California could be BlackBerry's best bet.

(With apologies to the many brilliant people I have worked with in Waterloo.)