Bike Lane Bellyaching Symptomatic of Civilization’s Doom

Recently, in my neighbourhood in Toronto, as part of a multi-year expansion of the much-neglected cycling infrastructure, the city installed bike lanes on both sides of a moderately-busy street named Woodbine, which many drivers use on their commute between downtown and the suburbs.

The installation has caused a firestorm on social media, specifically in a Facebook group named The Beaches, Toronto. This closed group of about 19,000 members includes posts such as merchant endorsements, queries about services, photos of sunrises, and reports of missing pets. Controversy springs up frequently (offleash dogs, street parking, privileged whining about minor view obstructions suffered by wealthy waterfront owners), and are deftly-handled by moderator Denise Angus.

An anti-bikelane petition has been started (link deliberately omitted; it has at this moment about 2800 signatures), and a pro-lane counter-petition (currently 1600 signatures).

The anti-laner petition cites increased traffic as the primary concern. The petition also mentions safety issues for children on side streets due to rerouting drivers, as well as parking reductions, and increased air pollution caused by cars stuck in gridlock. It also includes juvenile rhetoric such as: “The hills from the bottom are massive and even the most in shape person would end up a sweaty mess by the time they got to work.”

The anti-laners have a simple request – get rid of the lanes. The pro-laners ask that they remain.

The point missed by the anti-laners is that change is desperately needed, and everyone knows it. We are currently experiencing a season of unprecedented hurricane activity, with storms of four-plus magnitude battering the Caribbean and parts of the United States. Drought plagues the west, wildfires are chewing through our forests. And this is only the beginning – we know this. If you want a sobering picture of what’s in store for this planet and our civilization, read The Uninhabitable Earth in New York Magazine.

Meanwhile, traffic in Toronto continues to worsen; gridlock paralyzes streets and highways alike.

But even small gestures like a few kilometres of bike lanes are met with aggressive opposition to those it (apparently) inconveniences. People know there are problems, big ones – but many appear to be too apathetic, ignorant, or selfish to make any kind of sacrifice to tackle them.

While increased congestion is the overt reason to oppose the lane, plenty of anger at the erratic, law-defying behaviour exhibited by a small percentage of cyclists compounds the opposition – some cyclists don’t obey laws, ergo, cyclists should not be provided with safe spaces in which to transit.

And some say that cyclists are entitled, as if the means to own and operate a motor vehicle is not, in a global sense, the ultimate in entitlement.

Of course the vilification of cyclists is standard “us” versus “them” rhetoric. “Us” are the drivers. “Them” are the cyclists. In war, we dehumanize the enemy in exactly this way, by inventing separation and alienating the other. The anti-laners complain that bike lanes benefit “them” to the detriment of “us,” when in fact the installation of bike lanes benefits everyone.

Anti-laners also complain that they see few cyclists using the lanes, compared to the number of cars on the same stretch of road.

The fact that bike lanes hope to combat this enormous problem (too many cars, not enough bikes) by making cycling safer and more attractive escapes these opponents. They’d rather see low-usage as a reason the lanes should not exist. Meanwhile, statistically, cycling continues to increase in Toronto, at a faster pace than driving – this is a good thing, and it must be accommodated. And the anti-laners fail to recognize that an increase in cycling serves their own selfish agenda, that is, to improve traffic flow for those who refuse to do anything but drive, by getting more people out of cars and onto bikes.

Then there are those who oppose the Woodbine bike lanes only (not bike lanes in general) because in their judgment city planners don’t know what they’re doing. These opponents (whose position I’m certain has nothing to do with how the lanes personally inconvenience them) explain with authority that this street or that street would’ve been a better choice, as if those weren’t considered.

I’d like to think that city council approved the bike lanes on Woodbine specifically to force the issue – make it harder to drive, create a disincentive to driving. Make alternatives – cycling, in this case, but the plan should be broader: more carpooling, better public transit  – make these all more attractive. Make driving annoying to the point that people give it up. No politician would ever admit to antagonizing their majority voters even for the greater good (which is why our political system will fail to save us from climate change), but it really is what we need – active disincentives to the habits that degrade our planet. Fuel prices for anything but transit and commercial transport should be exorbitantly high, with the proceeds funding alternatives like bike highways and fantastic transit systems – but the political career of anyone attempting such measures would be brief.

Some claim that everyone has a good reason for driving that has nothing to do with selfishness. Their job is far away; their job requires them to travel around the city during the day; they have kids to drop off and pick up from school and daycare; they need to do errands on the way home.


winter riding

Lots of people, even those who own cars, manage a life where they commute by bike every day, while still managing to get their kids to school and daycare (kids who can walk to school should!), run errands, pick up groceries (get a good set of panniers), and so on. They’re healthier  and stronger for it, too.

And people without the luxury (never forget it’s a luxury!) of a car manage to hold jobs and take care of their kids and do errands, because they have to.

The point here is that you can (if you have the physical ability to do so) reduce or end your dependency on a car if you have the willpower to do it. You adapt. You plan. You might still own a car, but you only use it when necessary. You do big grocery shops on the weekend. You drive only on the days you need your car throughout the workday, or when you have some distant appointment.

Those against bike lanes are so wrapped up in vilifying cyclists and bike lanes that they’ve lost sight – if they even had sight – of the true enemy: the car.

Passenger vehicles are exceptionally large machines for the job they need to perform, which, at least in Toronto, is most often to convey a single passenger a moderate distance. And unfortunately, due to the inflexibility of workplace schedules, most people must travel during two specific, high-density periods of the workday.

Our city was planned and constructed for a lower-density of cars than it can now comfortably accommodate, and there is no space left to increase that infrastructure to accommodate current traffic density.

These factors – not bike lanes – are why traffic on Woodbine crawls. Bike lanes might magnify the problem, but they are not the cause. In fact, they are – albeit in an idealized way – the solution, and were human nature different, were humans more enlightened and sensible about their own self-preservation, if humans were willing to make sacrifices for the greater good, then these lanes would be a solution. More would cycle. Fewer would drive.

The Woodbine bike lane controversy is emblematic of human nature. It illustrates the way humans will vociferously fight a single issue that affects their short-term convenience, even if it represents a small step toward conquering a massive threat.

Planning, consultations, and media about the Woodbine bike lanes began more than a year and a half ago – where were all the anti-laners then? In a couple of decades, when civilization is dying and it’s too late to fix, the anti-laners and their ilk will be be crying foul, claiming they were never properly informed. Their anti-end-of-civilization petition will have billions of signatures. But where will they send it?


From Wikipedia’s entry on Ancient Geek Sculpture:

By the early 19th century, the systematic excavation of ancient Greek sites had brought forth a plethora of sculptures with traces of notably multicolored surfaces, some of which were still visible. Despite this, influential art historians such as Johann Joachim Winckelmann so strongly opposed the idea of painted Greek sculpture that proponents of painted statues were dismissed as eccentrics, and their views were largely dismissed for more than a century.

In other words, some dudes let their prejudices prevail, and vehemently dismissed a bunch of other people who interpreted evidence and came up with reasonable conclusions, and it took a century before those narrow-minded dudes were contradicted by science. Remember that next time someone less dynamic than you calls you an eccentric and denies something for which you have clear evidence.

“Influential” doesn’t always mean “right.”

Owning Up, Letting Go

harpersweb-cover-201603-302x410-21Rebecca Solnit’s Easy Chair piece from the March 2016 issue of Harper’s discusses Jarvis Masters, who is on death row in San Quentin prison, with all the standard American tropes about how poverty and race disadvantage people in that country, and to read the facts about the case is to make you lose all faith in the justice system of California. If even half of the data Solnit reveals is true regarding Master’s conviction for sharpening a weapon that was used to kill a guard – that’s right, the state doesn’t even allege that he performed the murder – is true, then Masters is clearly innocent, and you’d have to be an idiot not to believe it. Jarvis was acknowledged to be in another part of the prison at the time of the crime, and while the man who ordered the killing, along with the man who performed it, are both known, and convicted, only Masters is on death row. In February 2016, the California Supreme Court affirmed Masters’s conviction. It’s unbelievable that a justice system can be so broken, that the people behind it – and let’s never forget that all our institutions, whether they be the government, corporations, or the courts, are operated by people – can be so full of pride and recalcitrance not only to fail to take steps to undo this wrong, but to drag out its resolution for literally decades.

I tell my kids when they get into trouble that the best thing they can do is own up, and apologize. It’s something I do myself, with them. Harmony is immediately restored when we do this, and we can move on. But in California, a man is on death row, that is, slated to be murdered by the state, for something he clearly didn’t do. And even if he did do what is alleged, that is, sharpened a weapon that another man used, who received a lesser sentence, at the orders of another man, who also received a lesser sentence, even if in some primitive, backwards way you believe in the death penalty, you would be insane to expect to be applied in this case.

How can I teach my children to behave nobly when an entire justice system, created and run by highly-educated people who are entrusted with tremendous power, does not?

Fix it, California. Admit your mistake, and free this man.

Losing My Stand-up Comedy Virginity – Onstage! :0

On 27 April 2013 I performed my first-ever stand-up comedy routine, at Lazy Daisy’s Café in Toronto as part of Erin Keaney’s Time Out! series. It went extremely well – great fun to be included in a lineup of terrific comics. Here’s an excerpt from my 10 minute-bit:

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And if there isn’t a democratic solution…?

On my bicycle commute today I stopped along a trail for a moment – okay, it was to step behind some trees to pee – and I’d been listening to the haunting Radiolab podcast Dark Side of the Earth. I had just heard David Wolf’s account of spacewalking outside the Mir spacecraft with fellow astronaut Anatoly Solovyev, a moment during which they floated in their suits and stared away from Earth into the depths of the universe, with Solovyev telling Wolf to just relax – “расслабься.”

I had to pause the podcast and take out my earbuds to remove my neckwarmer, and I was suddenly in this stirring spring moment, beside a river, with songbirds all around, the sky a crisp blue. It was one of those abruptly sublime moments that take you by surprise and leave you dumbstruck, floating in a moment unencumbered by thought.

After a minute or so, as usually happens, the experience became polluted by exterior concerns, among them: I should take a video of this, I’m late for work, I need to blog about this…but these thoughts were followed by the most disturbing of all – that all this, all the wonder of this world, right now, right this minute, is in peril. The beauty of the instant both bolstered and destroyed by the tenuousness of it.

I experienced a moment of recognition that the planet’s prospects are extremely dire if we do not aggressively pursue significant change.

It brought to me thoughts of the recent defeat of stricter gun law legislation in the United States senate, this landmark moment that illustrates how our society is actually governed, not with the intent of preserving and enhancing the things that are good for us – our safety, health, and environment – but rather to support the means and ends of one tiny group of unbelievably selfish entities – the multinational corporations, and the ultra-wealthy people who run them. Everything of human agency, everything political, is now catered almost exclusively to a few thousand wealthy psychopaths, whose only concern is to maintain and augment their wealth regardless of the cost to life, to the natural world, and to the welfare of the rest of us. Make no mistake: the NRA-influenced Senate buyoff is simply an overt representation of how democracies now function, that is, with politicians acting almost entirely for the interests of their financial backers – those that contribute significantly to their election campaigns.

This is state-sanctioned bribery at the highest level, and it can only be changed by those in power, i.e., incumbent politicians. The problem of course is that politicians who vote to fix the system risk defeat in the next election cycle when their backers find compliant candidates who will legislate their will. Newcomers who oppose the bribery system stand no chance of being elected without funding from players in the bribery system.

So if there’s no chance of a democratic solution, what’s left? I hate to say it, but logic dictates that if there is no democratic solution, we must either endure the system as it stands (at least until the consequences of the status quo come to bear, which they will – I’m thinking here of climate change), or bring about transformation through non-democratic means. It’s the reason I feel so compelled by this new feature film, The East – in concept it represents a radical course of action for a world that has lost its ability to create policies for anyone but the rich.

I guarantee this film will make more than a few corporate executives uncomfortable.

Let me be clear, I am not advocating for violent change. I abhor violence – in fact, violence, as seen in the empire-building efforts of the Bush II White House, is simply another tool of the wealthy to spread their influence. But I do believe it is the course that will be taken by individuals and groups if the political situation does not soon change. People are becoming desperate – from poverty, injustice, climate change – and these are only going to get worse. Desperate people are dangerous. The wealthy are desperate themselves, desperate to maintain control, desperate to increase their obscene wealth. This is their psychosis.

The alternative is that the natural world will bite back. We cannot destroy the world. But we can damage it enough that it will ruin civilization. This is the path we’re on. I have children, I wish I was wrong. I can find little evidence that I am not.

Think of it this way: wouldn’t you love to watch a nature program or IMAX film about some startling species or gorgeous ecosystem without the inevitable warning from the narrator about the multiple threats to its existence? But you always see it coming, despite the grace of the whales or the vitality of the African savannah – the big “but” in the program, when we are told of dwindling numbers or the encroachment of oil companies.

I want to experience the world not as something threatened, and probably doomed, but as a place both beautiful and perpetual. A lot of political change has to happen before we get there. And if that change doesn’t come democratically, it will come violently. With violence from the planet. And violence from the people, either independently, or in association with disruptions of climate.

In other words – either we end the influence of wealth on our political system so we can pursue what’s right for the people and the planet, or we suffer violent consequences. I’d rather do it on our own terms, before it’s too late. Is there a way?


How to Survive the Copyedit

When you do get published, there comes before the typesetting of your work one of the many events of great vulnerability for a writer: the copyedit. The copyeditor won’t tell you if she likes your work – she’ll just tell you where you went wrong, how you went wrong, and how you can make it right.

I always bring my work as close as possible to perfection before submission, reasoning that the volume of submissions an editor must manage forces him to read not with an eye toward acceptance, but rejection. This means that minimizing errors reduces the number of handles an editor can use to carry your work to the trash bin.

Because I think I’m pretty good at getting the manuscript right, the copyedit always unnerves me, especially in a long work like a novel. The biggest casualty of long workspans is consistency. Everything from your use of the Oxford comma to your basic diction can change over a period of three or five years, and the copyeditor is there to normalize these changes.

The copyeditor is your friend. You may not feel that way about this overscrupulous nitpicker (copyeditor note: redundancy), but trust her. She will keep you from making a fool of yourself, or at least try, with the resources at hand, i.e., your manuscript.

In this day and age (copyeditor note: cliché), most copyeditors work through your Microsoft Word document with the track changes feature enabled, often adding comments to justify corrections or offer suggestions. Julia Armstrong from my alma mater, the University of Toronto, lists in a document for a copyediting workshop the five Cs of copyediting:

“Make the copy clear, correct, concise, comprehensible, and consistent.” She adds, “Copy editors should make it say what it means, and mean what it says.”

While this is all fair and true, a certain latitude needs to be applied when the work in question in fiction, as authors may stretch or break specific rules in the name of art.

I’ve just endured – er – enjoyed the copyedit of my forthcoming novel, The Sky Manifest. Here is the copyeditor at work, in this case improving clarity:

  • “He watched through the steel grating moirés of light rippling across the plates of broken ice below…” becomes, “He watched through the steel grating as moirés of light rippled across the plates of broken ice below…”

There are lots of examples of correcting errors, usually of the type where precision that is not considered during composition becomes essential once the work goes public, for example:

  • Pine-Sol, not Pine Sol; CorningWare, not Corningware
  • The title of Bachman Turner Overdrive’s “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet” vs. “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet”; the copyeditor writes: “Sources, even authoritative ones, seem to disagree on whether the g is dropped. I’m following the punctuation used on the cover of the single.”

I want to commend the copyeditor’s astute concern regarding characters smoking in a tavern:

The province-wide ban on indoor smoking (enclosed workplaces and enclosed public places) went into effect on May 31, 2006, according to this page:

Near the end of the book, the TV news covers the release of the final Harry Potter book, which came out in July 2007. I’m not sure exactly how much time is meant to elapse offstage while Nathan cycles the continent (it certainly could be more than a year), so I’m flagging this just in case it’s a concern. (Same concern would then apply to the bar in Thunder Bay where Nathan meets the pimp.)

The Choo Choo could be a bar that flouts the new law, but that would be inconsistent with Claire’s nervous adherence to the liquor-serving rules.

Another excellent example: I refer to a newspaper headline reporting the D-Day invasion, speculating that the headline would read, “ALLIES LAND IN FRANCE!” To my own credit, I was not far from the mark. But the copyeditor noticed a discrepancy and corrected it, by finding the headline itself in the Globe & Mail’s archives, where it stands minus the exclamation point:

Allies Land in France

The book’s style includes some quirks, for example the frequent compounding of specific adjective-noun combinations, such as “towtruck” and “heatlamps,” (much like the word “copyeditor,” which some insist on writing as “copy-editor”), saddling this copyeditor with the extra chore of assessing the comprehensibility of each (for example, “arclamps” could be misread as “ar-clamps”), while adding candidate phrases to the mix (steeringwheel vs. steering wheel).

I like occasionally to use ambiguous descriptions when the characteristic being described is inconsequential to the plot. In The Sky Manifest, two come to mind. The first is “Eyes the colour of beer bottles.” The copyeditor rightly asserts, “This doesn’t specify the colour (beer bottles come in a variety of colours).” I used this description because the character’s eyecolour is irrelevant to the story, and I like it that his eyes might vary by reader. One might imagine his eye colour as brown, while someone else makes them green. If you drink a lot of Corona, perhaps they’re clear, or the colour of Corona beer itself.

In another section, a man is described as a “slight codger.” The copyeditor asks, “is this a slight (small) man who is a codger, or is he a bit of a codger?” The character described is inconsequential – the ambiguity of the description allows the reader to decide.

I’m tickled by the idea that the ambiguity of these two phrases represents an overt variance in a process of reader interpretation that runs throughout the entire novel. I do not tell you how to respond to Nathan’s reaction to the girl in the amusement park ride – you respond according to your own values, ideas, culture, thoughts. While interpretation of character responses are more subtle than those surrounding physical descriptions, they are in fact more important that the colour of a man’s eyes or whether an old coot is only slightly a coot, or a little coot.

In the end I concede the first point, but maintain the second. The beer bottle eyes are now “eyes like brown beachglass,” to prevent the ambiguity from interrupting the flow of the text, while the second is left to the reader’s discretion. You get to decide what kind of codger greets Nathan at the Canada-U.S. border. It’s like a painfully subtle Choose Your Own Adventure.

All in all, this was a labourious laborious, but unconfrontational copyedit, and I’m pleased with the care and treatment of the copyeditor. I still have no idea if he liked the book. But he made it right, and for that, I’m thankful.

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Hate to Say I Told You So, Climate Change Deniers, But…


The methane feedback loop appears to be ramping up.

Beckwith goes on to say, This is abrupt climate change in real-time. Humans have benefited greatly from a stable climate for the last 11,000 years or roughly 400 generations. Not any more. We now face an angry climate. One that we have poked in the eye with our fossil fuel stick and awakened. And now we must deal with the consequences. We must set aside our differences and prepare for what we can no longer avoid. And that is massive disruption to our civilizations.”

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Crazy Environmental Effort #3: Sustainable Power

Bullfrog Power logo


My family voluntarily pays more than we have to for our electricity and natural gas. This may seem a crazy notion – indeed, some of my neighbours have said as much, but less indelicately (“it’s interesting and cool”) – but it’s the right thing to do. Traditional energy is underpriced, because the price does not include the energy’s total cost to the environment and our health. Renewable energy (currently) costs more, but the price represents the real cost. So I’m willing to pay, not just for myself, but to expand the viability of renewable energy, and to ultimately lower the cost for everyone.

I’m trying to save civilization for my kids. And yours too. You’re welcome.

Bullfrog Power offers renewable, carbon-neutral energy for households and businesses.

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Free eBook, 21 January 2013

NiaS trade 3D cover

My novel is again free for Kindle, January 21st. You can find a long excerpt here, or here’s a brief sampler:


“Your ETA was out by fourteen minutes,” Tessa mutters through a cigarette as she banks to line up the dirt strip.

“The wind changed,” Cordell replies. “You haven’t set the gyrocompass in an hour.”

Tessa says nothing, stubs out the cigarette. Cordell rubs his chin, pledges to recheck his plotting. His eyes follow a bolt of green which runs from the hills below to the opposite horizon, impaling at the plain’s midpoint the clustered structures of a town surrounded by a lowrise sprawl of slum. The runway lies within an irrigated patch of green, some sort of orchard, though it’s hard to tell from this altitude.

“Do they know we’re coming?” Cordell asks.

“Yeah. Yesterday.”

The plane descends steeply, and Tessa battles a crosswind, twisting the yoke to the left while standing on the right rudder pedal, nose askew of the centreline. She trims the elevator, drops the flaps, and throttles back, releasing rudder and aileron, allowing the plane to straighten out. The craft sinks to the sand and they rumble down the runway, decelerating as Tessa cuts the throttles. Cordell looks through the side window, sees limes dangling from the branches like verdant Christmas ornaments, gleaming in the sunlight. He spots among the shrubbery a yellow bulldozer parked with its blade facing the runway and for an instant he sees what looks like a man in military fatigues crouched in the seat.

He is about to comment when Tessa barks, “What’s this?” Cordell stretches his neck to look through her side window, sees an army truck with soldiers clustered in the back pull out from among the trees and onto the runway’s edge, matching their speed.

“Up!” Cordell cries. “Up up up, take us up! It’s a trap!”

“Yeah, got it,” Tessa says, reaching for the throttles before she calls, “Not enough runway!”

She stands on the brakes and they slam into their restraints. The plane pitches forward and Cordell feels the cockpit tilt sickeningly, thinks the tailwheel has lifted and they are tipping onto the nose. Tessa lets up and the tail thumps to the ground. The army truck continues until the soldiers hammer on the cab’s roof and the vehicle brakes. Tessa whirls the plane to face down the strip. “Puts wind behind us, but here goes,” she growls. She slams the throttles forward.

There is motion in the trees on the runway’s left side, and then like a yellow animal scooting headlong into traffic the bulldozer emerges and rolls onto the strip. It reaches the centreline and stops and the soldier in the seat turns to watch their approach, his mouth agape. Tessa grits her teeth, grunts, “All right, soldier. A little game of pollo.”

With only seconds to escape, the soldier leaps from the bulldozer’s saddle and lopes into the trees. Tessa pumps the brakes while Cordell grips the armrests and the Duck skids towards the yellow machine. A moment before collision Tessa swerves off the runway and they race for the trees. Cordell throws his hands over his face, hears the slap of leaves and twigs against the wings and fuselage. He hears branches snapping and the hollow tattoo of trunks against the aluminum, and when he lowers his hands he sees greenery whip against his window.

They stop. Tessa struggles out of her harness and launches her hand under her seat. It emerges clutching a nickelplated Beretta. She checks the magazine, chambers a round, and darts down the aisle.

“Wait,” Cordell yells. “Wait!”

He thrashes out of his seatbelt and hobbles down the aisle where Tessa is lifting a curtain from a window.

They hear from outside a truck’s approach, hear it skid to a stop, footsteps on dirt, voices. Then someone thumps on the door.

Abra la puerta!” a voice demands.

Without a thought Cordell’s hand shoots out and plucks the Beretta from Tessa’s hand. They are both amazed by the speed of this move, and Tessa turns to him with a bewildered look. Then they each notice the weapon in Cordell’s hand, and Tessa makes a move for it, but Cordell draws it back. Her face flushes with rage.

“Give me that,” she growls.

Fear prickles along Cordell’s spine. “No,” he says softly.

“Bechard, I’m serious. Give me that gun.”

“I can’t, Tessa. You don’t stand a chance.”

She steps towards him like a panther, muscles tensed, ready to pounce. “That’s for me to decide.”

“Thank me later,” he says.

She leaps. With a flick of his wrist Cordell tosses the gun away just as she topples him, her hands snapping around his wrists. The fall winds him and the back of his head slams against the deck. She scrambles on top, straddles him, clamping his hips between her knees with surprising force. “Give it back!” she yells, spraying his face with spittle. He turns his head and struggles. Then she spots his empty hand and her grip falters. She is about to jump up when the door flies open and a dozen rifle barrels bristle inside. Tessa roars with rage, rears up, and with a mighty swing slugs Cordell in the jaw.