Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Gambling on Toronto's Future

Proposed image of a downtown casino development in Toronto. Copyright 2012 Oxford Properties Group.

There's been quite a bit in the news about a proposed casino in downtown Toronto. I normally try and present a neutral stance about things on this blog, but in this case I can't; I'm pretty vehemently anti-gambling. As a transplant from Nova Scotia, I was very disappointed by the (at the time) newly-elected NDP government's decision to backtrack their position on VLTs. I think there are serious economic costs associated with any form of legalized gambling, that often outweigh the economic benefits.

But, at the same time I understand that people have the right to do lots of harmful things to themselves. Heck, I enjoy the occasional drink, and have gambled before at the casino in Halifax (I won $80 after playing a slot machine for 3 minutes, and quit for the rest of the night. I was the only one of my friends that walked away richer). I'd be a hypocrite to suggest that the government wrap people in legislative bubble-wrap to prevent them from harming themselves, especially when alcohol causes a laundry list of negative ills.

That's why you try and take the good with the bad, and use the good in order to help fight bad. If Toronto is going to have a casino, then we should make sure that the revenue that it generates is diverted to social programs that help combat ills such as gambling addiction and crime. Too often the money generated by a social ill - such as liquor taxes - get placed into the general revenue, in order to prevent "general" tax increases (i.e. PST/HST).

This is a poor way of handling "new" revenue streams. For example, if you have an issue with traffic congestion, you should use revenue tools such as road tolls in order to fix the traffic congestion; it shouldn't be used to prevent a property tax increase.

So while I fundamentally believe that there is no economic or moral reason for having a casino in Toronto, if we're going to have it, let's make sure it causes the least amount of harm possible. I may not get what I want, and Mayor Rob Ford may not get what he wants, but we'd (hopefully) get something neither of us vehemently dislike, and that's the nature of compromise isn't it?

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Using the Pedestrian Realm

2009 image of the east side of Yonge just north of Bloor in Toronto. Copyright Google, 2012.

Quiz time: there are five uses above; an office supply store (Grand & Toy), an ESL school (ILAC), an internet cafe (Netropass... although they've moved since this photo was taken), and two coffee places (Tim Hortons and Starbucks).

Why use is most likely to cause traffic problems on the sidewalk?

If you examine the Toronto Zoning By-law, chapter about permitted uses on "Commercial-Residential" spaces (such as the one above), you'll find a laundry list of uses that range from Art Galleries to Veterinarian Hospitals. Chapter expands the permitted uses either further, as long as they meet particular conditions, from Amusement Arcades to Vehicle Washing Establishments.

But as zoning by-laws (ZBLs) are wont to do to me, I wonder if giant lists of specific uses are really that helpful. Certainly, one could apply to obtain a minor variance (or in an extreme case, a ZBL amendment) to allow a use that isn't currently permitted. Such broad lists also say very little about what actually is going to go on inside. Consider that a "Financial Institution" could range from a major bank (i.e. RBC, CIBC) to a very small investment company. The former will have perhaps hundreds of people a day travel through and into it; the latter might be an office that perhaps sees a dozen visitors.

These classifications are good for only two things really; establishing an as-of-right list of potential uses within a structure, and preventing potential noxious uses (e.g. a manufacturing use) from being put in an area. But I wonder if this is potentially the wrong way to determine what can/cannot go on inside a building.

To me, it makes more sense to think about uses in terms of their potential traffic too. Certainly, city planning does think about issues such as car traffic (in which minimums for parking and such are set), but there aren't very many policies (to my knowledge) about how uses affect the pedestrian realm.

Let's answer that quiz question above: the answer is the ESL school.

Why? Well, the other uses may see "spikes" in service (such as Tims and Starbucks in the morning), but their traffic largely gets in and then gets out. Like the internet cafe and office supply store, there are rarely "extreme" spikes of traffic where dozens and dozens of people leave at the same time.

But a school? You have scheduled classes that cause nearly your entire student population to flood out onto the street during breaks or after classes. And yes, if you walk up this section of Yonge at certain times, you'll find that there are so many students gathered on the tiny sidewalk outside that it actually becomes quite difficult for north and south-bound traffic. With nowhere for the students to "hang" afterwards, they get in the way of people traveling to and from the Shopper's Drug Mart or. the Canadian Tire nearby.

Certainly, there are other options that could improve the pedestrian realm without affecting the school; widening the sidewalk would be the most obvious "step", but imagine if the ESL school and Grand and Toy swapped places; the students at the ESL school would be able to spill over onto Asquith Avenue. This would likely create issues for Grand and Toy (namely regarding deliveries to the store) but I think it works as a thought exercise. With a mind on what uses generate foot traffic, perhaps a better pedestrian realm could be achieved.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Internet on the Double (Double)

As my girlfriend and I only watched about an hour and a half of TV a week (outside of the Olympics), the decision was made to cut cable television out of our lives. As the receiver box that converted the signal for our cable TV had to physically returned, it fell to me to return it to the most convenient Rogers location. A quick postal code search showed that the store near the Davisville Subway station was the closest. I ended up wandering (and getting a bit lost) on the twisty residential streets rather than taking the main roads (east on St. Clair West, north on Yonge), but the cable box made it to its destination eventually. It was as I was returning home that I noticed that the Tim Hortons there had a new sign in the window:

"Free Wi-fi".

I had heard about this business move (started this summer) before, but this was only the second location I'd remembered advertising free Internet for customers. In a weird way, the introduction of free wi-fi is not so much a shift in strategy, so much as a return to the business model I remember Tim Hortons having back when I was in high school.*** Perhaps my memory is failing me, but I remember when Tims was a place you could go to hang out in. You would see people young and old gathering with friends after events to enjoy a hot drink and relax.

Somewhere along the way, this model was exchanged for one that favoured getting coffee in the customer's hands, and then getting the customer out of the store. Drive-thrus became the coffee delivery mechanism of choice, with some places literally only giving walk-in patrons a handful of seats facing a window. Certainly, not every Tims location transformed this way, but with the invasion of higher end coffee places such as Starbucks, I think there was probably some concession within the Tim Hortons organization that their plastic interiors couldn't compete on a "social atmosphere" level. And why should they? The drive-thru coffee market was an area they dominated.

Of course, then McDonalds figured out how to make coffee. But I don't want to dwell anymore on the economics of coffee joints.

Ray Oldenburg (a well-known sociologist) is famous for his theories of informal meeting places. The theory goes something like this: people spend most of their time in two places: their home, and their work (he refers to them as the "first" and "second" places respectively). Both of these locations are centres of normality and routine, and provide much of the stability in our lives that we crave. But human beings like a bit of chaos in their lives. Not too much of course! But enough to keep the world we live in spicy and interesting. Oldenburg refers to these places as "third places".

A third place can be fairly encompassing term, but generally it refers to places where informal activity can occur. They allow participants to kick off their shoes (metaphorically at least), forget whatever troubles and woes they're facing, and relax. They allow user to "appropriate" the space they're in, which means that there is little concern that someone is going to tap them on the shoulder and kick them out. Lingering is almost a given. "Proto-typical" examples are places such as park benches, mall food courts, pubs, and (as you might have guessed) coffee places.

The benefits of "third places" are often quite invisible, but their ability to bring people together on a  regular basis brings a number of social benefits, such as the creation of new friend networks, and a reduction in cases of social isolation, the former of which affects our aging population particularly hard.

The introduction of free wi-fi is Tims declaring "loiter here", and I think that's a message that speaks to more than just the laptop crowd. It speaks to people's needs to be social creatures, especially in a world where there is already a lot of competition for "third places". Whether the strategy pays off or not for them, I think that opening up more space for people to socialize within (whatever your opinion on Tim Hortons coffee) is a good thing, especially given the amount of stores they have in Toronto (let alone Canada).

Now if we could get some more electrical outlets please...

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Subways, Subways, Subways: Enough already!

A picture of what is across the street from the Greenwood Subway Station. Copyright Google, 2012.

The big provincial news this week was, of course, the resignation of Dalton McGuinty as both leader of the provincial Liberal Party, and Premier of Ontario. I have a few opinions as to this move (particularly the decision to prorogue the legislature), but the one that bothered me more was Tim Hudak's proposal to shift provincial funding to "subways"... when the funds became available.

If you haven't been paying attention to the transit debate in Toronto, it went something like this:

1) March, 2007: Mayor David Miller gets council approval and provincial funding to create "Transit City", a series of light rail transit (LRTs) lines that would cross the Toronto.
2) December, 2010: Rob Ford is elected as mayor, declares subways the only option for Toronto, and cancels Transit City. He believes that the private sector will help the city build them (he refuses to raise taxes to pay for them), pushing for the provincial money that was to go to Transit City to instead be diverted to construct subways. It turns out that the private sector is not a source of funding, and is not knocking down the doors to give the city billions of dollars.
3) February, 2012: Karen Stintz, former Ford ally and Chair of the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC), rejects Mayor Ford's insistence that subways are the only solution. Gets a majority of council on side, and resurrects most of Transit City, redirecting the provincial funds toward it.
 That's basically the summary without all the hyperbole and infighting that went on between the creation of Transit City and now. It was funny (in a morbid sort of way) when council had to slap Ford down for his fantastic (but not realistic) transit dreams. The fact that Tim Hudak is once again resurrecting a debate that is now over 5 years old is not funny; it's tragic, especially during a time when Toronto is studying options for raising funds to pay for new transit expansion. Transit Blogging superstar Steve Munro has a takedown on Hudak's plan that is more eloquent than anything I could muster, so let me just throw one basic fact at Mr. Hudak and the pro-subway crowd.

You need sufficient population and job density to make subways "worth it".

In a world of fantasy and unlimited funds, subways would be attractive. In real life, you need to justify the costs of building (and importantly: maintaining!) a subway over using other modes of transit (such as buses). The TTC reported once that a population/job density of about 100 jobs/residents per hectare were needed to justify a subway (blown up, about 10,000 jobs/residents in a square kilometre). Here's what Toronto's density roughly looks like on a map (the data is about ten years old, but I suspect this map wouldn't look radically different if performed with 2011 data):

Modified image from Hess et. al's "Urban Density in the Greater Golden Horseshoe", 2007.

I have no doubt that the relative densities of various tracts has changed since this data was published (especially given the condo boom) but I expect that you'd find that the vast majority of construction still occurs along the subway lines. At the very least, we can probably consider any area that has at least 80 residents/jobs per hectare to be a "viable" candate for a subway.

Let's look at the image again, with any area that does not have at least 80 people/jobs a hectare removed:

Modified image from Hess et. al's "Urban Density in the Greater Golden Horseshoe", 2007.

A few comments after considering the above:

1) Most areas that "deserve" a subway already have one. The biggest exception is the stretch roughly along where Queen Street would be; they have a streetcar line. These areas "connect" with one another, to ensure that there is roughly enough people on any given point to justify a subway stop. The "black" areas that aren't near one largely exist in a sea of white; it's hard to justify building an entire line to reach a small island of density.

2) Zoning must follow transit investment. There are several large areas along the existing subway line that don't "deserve" to have a subway based on the surrounding density. My biggest pet hobby to complain about is the Danforth line. This is what the intersection of the Danforth near Greenwood looks like:

The Woodbine/Danforth intersection. Copyright Google, 2012.

I have nothing against the people who live near here, but for having a major piece of infrastructure in close proximity, the best that the intersection has is a three story bank? This is a lesson for those with a "if we build it, they will come" mentality. Subways are not a ticket to investment simply by their existence; there are many other factors which determine whether they "intensify" the surrounding area, particularly the zoning (The recent Avenues and Mid-Rise study may allow an 8 to 9 story building along this section of the Danforth. Before that, up to about 4 stories were allowed).

Even Rob Ford's cheerleader, Gordon Chong, who tried to make the case for private investment, admitted that getting the "private" sector involved would require allowing buildings that are 30 to 40 stories high nearby.

3) A lot of areas don't meet a subway "threshold", but other forms of transit, such as streetcars, LRT, Bus Rapid-Transit (BRT), etc. might work. Not only will they suffice to meet projected transit demand, they'll also be cheaper to build and to operate compared to a subway, and that's a clear win for the taxpayer. And these transit modes will bring investment, as long as the zoning is there. Consider that Queen Street East currently has more new buildings proposed and under construction compared to the Danforth; there's a multitude of factors of why this is, but chief amongst them is that it's simply easier to build something taller than six stories along Queen East.

And finally, enough with demonizing St. Clair West's streetcar. It seems every time someone wants to trumpet subways, they claim how this particular line is a textbook example on how above surface vehicles can ruin neighborhoods. I'm not claiming that the project was flawless, but its issues were largely due to neighbourhood opposition, political meddling, and unforeseen circumstances. You can't judge all LRTs to be horrible based off a single line, especially one that had little to do with the LRT (and by all accounts, it's made the streetcar much more reliable and efficient).

Should subways be off the table in transit discussions? I'm almost tempted to say "yes"; many Torontonians have a love-affair with subways that blinds them to the reality of their city's situation (both physically and financially), envisioning some weird Toronto where everyone lives next door to underground rail. And some politicians, such as Tim Hudak, will play to that daydream in order to get their votes. And because of this, we continue to spin our tires on actually building transit.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

A Better Public Meeting

Residents picket a public meeting. Photo by Kate Allen, copyright 2012 The Toronto Star.

I think it's probably a safe bet that most planners at the City of Toronto generally dislike public meetings. Then again, it's probably safe to say that most everyone (politician, planner, private company, or public) finds public meetings to be draining. It shouldn't have to be that way of course. The tension between developers and the public is a result of a bevy of things (and a different blog post), but there are two causes in particular that I think sometimes turn the meetings themselves into unproductive screaming matches, that often leave planner stuck in the middle.

The first is that there is sometimes no discussion between developers and the community before a proposal - usually a zoning by-law amendment, (ZBLA) - is given to the city. The minimum guidelines in the Planning Act (Section 34(12)) potentially only offer two chances for the community and developer to meet in a public forum. A proposal therefore is often a "first impression" that can put the local community on the defensive, as if the developer has metaphorically fired the "first shot" in a conflict.

The second reason I feel is that most public meetings suck. The common format is to let the developer make a presentation on their proposal, and then have the community "ask questions" (which usually leads to angry accusations). Especially given such a negative first impression (see above), the community is going to expect that the developer frames their proposal in a "positive light", and is therefore not thinking about x, y, and z (even if the developer absolutely has thought of x, y, and z). I think this occurs because it's easy; the developer can probably handle one evening of abuse as long as something approximate to what they want gets built, relying on the experts at the city to iron the kinks out. The public leaves frustrated, believing the worst about the developer. Organizing something more complex takes a lot more resources and time; it's probably not surprising that a PowerPoint slideshow and a Q&A is chosen.

There are tons of little things about the typical format that I think inhibit a proper dialogue between the developer and the community. For starters, there tends to be an imbalance on stage, with a handful (developers) against potentially a hundred angry constituents. Secondly, there tends to be a lot of misinformation about a proposal that the public brings with them into a meeting, which takes time to sort out, time that can't therefore be spent elsewhere. Finally, the public tends to be ill-informed about the planning process. This isn't surprising, given that the planning framework in Ontario is likely the most convoluted in Canada. In sum total, you often end up with a panel of experts armed with engineering plans and studies on one side, and a crowd of emotions of the other: both sides are speaking different languages.

At the end of summer past, there was a public meeting for 109Oz (which I have written about before here and here), and by all accounts it was "unproductive". In order to encourage a friendlier exchange of opinions, the public was encouraged to come out to a different meeting last week. The goal was to go through a list of "visioning" principles that a working group came up with as being "important" to residents of the area, and to then to try and apply those points to the 109Oz proposal to see where the proposal worked/did not work with the community's vision of the neighbourhood.

For example, one of the principles was related to the type of uses that were seen along the Ossington Strip. The working group said that the community liked professional services, art, and a grocery store, and didn't want a large retail chain (a la Shoppers Drug Mart). While there is no actual tenant for the property, thinking about what could go there helped people rationalize what is/is not possible (e.g. the chance of a land use that required a lot of parking would be off the table, given that there was no planned space for commerical parking).

In order to do so, people were arranged into tables of about six to eight individuals. After sitting through a rundown of the working group's visioning principles, the city planner quickly ran through the proposal highlighting which areas of the proposal contravened the current ZBL (and thus, triggered this process). Each group were given about 15 minutes each to apply a single principle to the proposal, with someone from the working group leading the discussion, and another taking notes. Copies of relevant documents related to the proposal were provided for informational purposes. After the exercise was finished, the general consensus of group was shared with the entire audience, and the notes were collected to be reviewed by the city planner.

I felt, as a whole, that the process worked a lot better than past public meetings I've attended. While not perfect, it offered a chance for a lot of constructive criticism to come through. For starters, by breaking people into smaller groups, it close the gap between professionals and planners; everyone was more-or-less equal around the table. Secondly, it allowed dissenting opinions to be discussed. Finally, it allowed people to be educated about the planning process in a format where they could ask questions without holding up the rest of the groups.

While the ideas brought forward at my table weren't all feasible, there were some good ideas shared that I think that both sides might be able to bring forward to future discussions. I should say that our table was probably overloaded with "experts" compared to other tables; aside from myself, we had three urban planners (!). There were a couple of vocal critics of the proposal at our table too, and while I don't think they walked away loving the proposal, I think they came away a little less angry about it. Additionally, I think the developer (whose staff was present) got some ideas that can help make the proposal a bit more palatable to the community.

The one change I would make if such a format was used again was trying to ensure that there was a relative even distribution of experts. At our table, for example, the experts present were able to allay fears of shadowing by talking about how the structure of the building would affect sunlight. This allowed us to spend less time worrying about the backyard gardens, and more time talking about privacy issues related to rear-facing balconies (along with proposing potential solutions). A distribution of experts might therefore allow for better overall discussion.

As for 109Oz, everyone is still waiting to hear what the city planner decides about the proposal. His opinion will likely inform the next steps for both the developer and the Ossington Community Association alike, but even if talks break down between both sides, I think the proposal is going to turn out a little better for the community (probably not 4 stories, but still...), and for that reason I'm chalking that meeting up as a victory for both sides.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Transgendered in the Bathroom: Why Rob Anders has it wrong

Mea Culpa time.
Back when I went to UNB (this would have been over a decade ago), and before the days when I knew my twin brother was gay, and before gay marriage was even really an issue, I lived in the Lady Beaverbrook Residence on campus. Rumours were starting about a person who was looking to transfer into the house, and a meeting was called with university staff to address the issue. The problem? A person named Happy, who was (to our knowledge) a guy who dressed like a girl, wanted to transfer to the residence.

I'm not going to sugarcoat it: I acted like a real prick. I spoke against her coming over because I was uncomfortable with the idea. I didn't understand why she dressed the way she dressed. I was afraid that her presence would disturb my happy little university life. There are a handful of events that I look back on and cringe to think about. This is one of them. Happy wasn't trying to put me in a dress. She wasn't trying to make me uncomfortable. She just wanted two things. A place to live, and to be treated with respect. And I failed horribly to give her either. 

I'm sorry Happy.

This article is dedicated to you.

Source/author unknown. Image from here.

Apologies for "skipping work" here for a week. I was going to blog about the new agreement that TTC, not a private company, will run the new LRT lines or maybe about the latest news about Toronto's plastic bag ban (still around), but something in the news got in my craw recently. Two articles in fact, in (you guessed it) the Toronto Star:

The number one rule about any articles involving such a sensitive topic about sexuality and gender is probably "don't read the comments", which I have of course, broke to be own despair. I am perhaps not the strongest person to be speaking about this topic, as being a straight male, society has no issue with either my sexuality or the gender I identify myself as. I can't even claim to have a transgendered friend. 

But, perhaps there are some people who might read this who don't understand why it is so important to not allow people to "be" their gender, even when it contradicts the fiddly bits below their waist. And while the subject in the above articles is specifically about transgendered individuals,this is about more than gender identity. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer, intersex, transexual, asexual,- numerous others that I've missed in that short list, -this is really all about challenging the social norms that people have, and showing them that there is no bogeyman at the end waiting to turn them into some monster.

As some of my readers know, I have a twin who is gay (my story about that follows this post). When my brother came out to my dad (who was amazingly cool about it), my brother asked him if he had any questions. If you are LGBTQ or other, you've probably been asked this too: "why."

It's a simple question, but it's not an easy answer. My brother put it this way: he didn't choose to be gay. Why would someone choose to identify as a group which (despite progress) is still seen as a less-than-equal member of society? To be part of a group whose presence brings out hate and fear in some people, whether it be for religious reasons, politican reasons, -- or worse -- ignorance? No, my brother is gay because there is some part of him that tells him that is who he should be, not what others want him to be.

This is not to say my brother isn't proud to be gay; I doubt it was easy for him, but he has made a lot of peace with who he is. But he had to get there with a good portion of society telling him he was wrong for feeling the way he felt. I'm sure it takes its toll; it has taken a lot of time to get it in peoples' heads that being gay is not going to crash the stock markets of the world, that it's not some form of sexual "cooties" that spreads by being in the next urinal over, and that if society is serious about separating church and state, then marriage can't be an exclusive "straight only" club.

Yes, it will make people uncomfortable. But that lack of comfort comes from fear and ignorance; it does not come from rational behaviour.

So when the news hits that *gasp* people who identify as being female might want to use washrooms designed for women a lot of hate and anger pour out. Let me grab some actual comments:

"So let's see... as a male, all I have to do is walk along whistling Shania Twain's popular tune... "I Feel Like a Woman" and now I can enter any woman's washroom. Gee, thanks for that. Oh, by the way... Am I supposed to leave the seat up or down?"

"Have a penis? Use the men's washroom. Don't have one? Use the women's." 

" I don't want guys, who decide they are feeling like a woman today to decide they can use the same as my daughters or wife whenever they feel like it. I know there are legitimate transgendered out there but the right would also be used by the perverted. If it makes transgendered uncomfortable, that's unfortunate."
Let me break some of these arguments down:

1) "Perverts will use this as an excuse to be pervy". 

First of all, I think some people are overestimating the amount of people who are going to put on a dress or tell people they're transgendered in order to enter a women's washroom to get their jollies. There isn't currently any practical way of stopping a dude from pulling a Mrs. Doubtfire if they're determined enough; neither the TDSB policy or Rob Anders' bill will stop either.

Secondly, if criminal deviants are abusing policies designed for accommodation in order to get their jollies, then we've got legislation on the books to *gasp* throw them in jail. Assuming that women won't be able to tell the difference between a person who identifies as female using the toilet, and the person who is only "pretending" to be female, and instead using the washroom to sexually objectify someone is an insult to women. It won't even stop people from "harming" children, unless you make the claim that currently, no men prey on young boys, nor women on young girls (in which case the logical conclusion is to have seperate washrooms for minors).

Regardless, the point is that you can't use criminal behaviour as an excuse to not pass legislation. Such logic dictates that people shouldn't drive motor vehicles is dangerous because car chases happen and that woodchippers be banned because.... well, you saw that scene from Fargo.

2) "Gender is a physical construct".

No. Most everybody is born physically male or physically female. This is one's "sex". But that's simply one's outer shell. This "shell" is something completely out of one's control. Certainly, if I had the choice, I would have picked a body that would have given me Chris Murphy's hair

But we're dealt the body we're dealt. My "sex" is male, because I've got that particular organ. But (and this is important) sex is not gender. Gender is what one feels they are, whether they feel male or feel female. This "gender identity" often lines up with one's sex, but not always. Much like someone who identifies as being gay, this is not a choice.

What it means, is that if you believe you're female on the outside, but male on the inside, that you do not wake up and say to yourself "gosh, I think I'll be a dude today" any more than I do in the morning.

Imagine if you were told that "new rule, you must use a washroom opposed to your gender". Heck, just think back to those days when your mom/dad would come with you into public washrooms, whether they were for "your gender" or not. Imagine how uncomfortable it would feel to be in a space that is not for you (to get a different experience, but similar feeling, walk in the middle of the road). Now put your feet of the shoes of someone who identifies as male, but is forced to use the women's washroom.

3)  "If this makes transgendered people uncomfortable, it must for the greater good."

When is shaming and making a group of people uncomfortable ever for the greater good? This is the most ridiculous argument, the classic "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others" commandment from Animal Farm. You can't apply human rights on a scale that takes into account one's gender, sex, race, colour, or any other numerous variables that people can "be".

There are generally three reasons to infringe human rights. 
  1. The first is as punishment for a crime; a person harms another, and is punished monetarily, or finds their freedoms taken away because of it. Robbery and murder come to mind, but let's also not forget libel and slander.
  2. The second is to prevent behaviour that is deemed undesirable, even if the immediate impact does not necessarily harm another. This is stuff like preventing store owners from selling cigarettes to minors, and drinking and driving.
  3. The last reason you do it is because it protects a greater right. This is stuff like making the possession of child pornography illegal, on the basis that children are vulnerable members of society, and allowing such material to be distributed only encourages the creation of more child pornography.
To make the argument that allowing a transgendered person to use the washroom their gender associates with would "harm another", or should be deemed "undesirable behaviour", or that it somehow "violates a greater right" is laughable. Any way you slice it, to make such a case you have to claim that someone who is transgendered should be punished in our society. 

I'm sorry, I'm a bit uncomfortable at such a suggestion.

So props to the TDSB for not ostracizing people whom face ridicule and shame daily -- especially children -- for something they had no control over. And slops to MP Rob Anders for using fear and ignorance to ostracize Transgendered Canadians. Shame on you sir.

- Eddie

*Amendment: How a Poker Game made me a LGBT-Q Ally

I sent this post to my brother to read first, to try and make sure I wasn't misrepresenting him. He asked that I talk about my own experience with coming to understand homosexuality, which I've written about below.

When my brother came out to me, I'd like to say that I had some inkling of it coming, but I totally didn't. I have the worst gay-dar in the world (I seriously went to school with two classmates that I saw four times a week and didn't have a clue they weren't straight until I saw one with his boyfriend, and the other talking about a girl she was seeing). I want to say I was all class when my brother told me, but the truth was that my brain shut-off for a while. I spent a good couple of weeks in a kind of shock. Oh, don't get me wrong; it wasn't because he was gay, but rather because I thought that I might be gay. I mean we're identical twins right? Isn't that how it works?

I mean, they don't teach you to be tolerant in school back in the 90s. We both grew up Catholic, but despite the whole "church" thing not sticking, you combine that with a childhood divided between Cape Breton Island and Northern Alberta, and you don't really meet people who are gay - at least not openly. There was no conversation (that I can remember) where a person of authority (family member, religious figure or teacher) that said "you can't like gay people!" But that doesn't stop you and your friends from getting your own ideas that being "gay" is something you don't want to be. I sometimes wonder that some people misunderstand homosexuality not because someone misinforms them, but because there is no one there to try and educate them differently.

Needless to say,  I don't think I was a very good cheerleader for LGBT-Q issues immediately after my brother's revelation. It didn't help that I wasn't in a very good point in life (but that's a different story). I think my brain shut-off about the whole subject. I figured out that yes, I'm not gay, but I couldn't really go any further than that mentally.  I put the whole subject in a box in my mind and put it aside to be examined later. 

It would take over four years, But I finally opened it during a poker game.

My dad works in the oil patch in Alberta, and had several of his friends over for a game that I was participating in. I don't want to paint all Albertans with this brush, but these were the kind of people who probably didn't have gay friends. One of them mentioned that there was going to be a gay pride parade happening somewhere soon. One of them suggested that "they get in their truck and run a few of them down."

I snapped.

It was one thing to read on the news about someone being assaulted or jailed because they were gay. It was literally quite another to be across the table from a man who just suggested that gay men - men like my brother - deserved to be killed. I'd like to say I tore a strip off that guy, but he probably just walked away frustrated, not embarrassed.

But it changed me.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

My Nuit Blanche, 2012

Picture of "World Without Sun" in Nathan Phillips Square. Photo by Andrew Francais Wallace, 2012 Toronto Star
Nuit Blanche happened last weekend, where once again Toronto's downtown was transformed into an all-night celebration of art. I think there are two ways you can enjoy Nuit Blanche. One is as a somewhat passive observer, who soaks up the various smaller installations that pepper the downtown area. The other is to try and go for some of the bigger exhibits that draw large line-ups, but are tend to offer a more polished experience.

You'll get hits and misses either way, sometimes within the same instillation. Last year, there was a brilliant instillation that was little more than a spotlight set up in the middle of a closed-off street, which was to encourage visitors to simply let loose. Tell a joke, perhaps show off a neat trick. Whatever. Unfortunately, once the wee hours hit, the kids (under their parents' supervision) faded, and all that were left were a bunch of drunk teenagers, telling nothing but dirty jokes. Oh well.

Me and my girlfriend opted to try and hit several of the "bigger" exhibits this year, rather than simply whimsically drifting from exhibit to exhibit like previous years. It was once again a positive experience overall; I'd love to hear about other people's experiences! Here's what we did, in order:

Zone B 

#19: The Toronto Consort, Forty Part Motet(2001)

This instillation, held at the Trinity St Paul's United Church near Bloor and Spadina, had participants walk into a room where a circle of fouty speakers had been assembled. Each speaker was a recording of a choir member singing Spem in alium. Some of the listeners really got into this, and while standing for 10 minutes was a bit of a drag (could there not have been more than one bench?) the song was beautiful, especially as it was literally "surround sound." If you got close to the speakers either before or after the 10 minute piece, you can listen to the individual choir members chatting as they were preparing to record.

#17: University of Toronto Schools, Lux (2012)

We started our Nuit Blance pretty early, so early that there wasn't much of an exhibit when we came. Participants were asked to write secrets on paper lanterns, which would be hung from the building at 371 Bloor West. We didn't get a chance to come back when the sun had properly set, and when lanterns had been hung. I wrote on a small lantern both an inspirational quote and how to get the Warp Whistle in 1-3 of Super Mario Bros 3.

#16: Lesia Mokrycke Studio, Chõrus (2012)

There was actually two small installations at the Bata Show Museum; the first was a small room where the walls were covered in drawings of what looked like graphs and smoke, vaguely giving the image of city buildings. The second was a black room where a blurry image played on a screen. In both cases, sounds that were vaguely like city scape noises played. I don't think I really "got" what was trying to be communicated here (how sound affects our sense of space); sometimes art needs to be a bit less subtle!

#14:  The Royal Conservatory, The Royal Conservatory Presents (2012)

This was pretty cool. From the outside, viewers could watch as participants inside created two different window scapes that had been covered with a light blue material. The first was filled with images cut from cardboard that were then pasted onto the window, creating a shadowy sort of "stained glass". The second had participants act and pose near the window, creating temporal shadows that could be seen from the other side. Neat stuff!

Inside there were two areas for performances that were rotating through. We got there at the end of one of them, involving what looked to be an actor and a lady on a clarinet. Can't comment on it. Inside one of the theatres, they had this dual thing going on where a musician would play a solo piece on an instrument, while an artist used their music for inspiration (I think). We had the pleasure of entering just as Sylvian Blaissel played this fancy piece on a harp. It was a pretty impressive performance, especially since I'd never seen an expert play a huge harp before! Of slightly more head scratching was the artist, John Coburn, who did a pair of rough sketches of Blaissel as he played. I mean, the sketches were fine, but the artist seemed to spend more time mixing paint, examining his sketch, thinking about his line, and uh, not being on stage, than actual sketching. Artists!

#23: Justina M. Barnicke Gallery (Various)

A kind of ode to the piano, we saw six different pieces inside of U of T's Hart House. The first was about a minute long video of a piano being tested in China. As you may expect of a process that involves hitting multiple keys very quickly, it was loud. The Hart House help desk was right outside; I imagine the volunteers who had to sit there for hours were delighted.

The second piece involved one man playing a song on a piano... except not all at once. The artist (a very amateur pianist) played the song carefully (and probably pretty badly), one hand at a time, then spliced recordings of him playing with each hand together such that he was playing the song "well", then combined both hands at once. The result sounds terrific, but watching the videos of his hands, you can see how many measures got smushed together (and for people who know how to play piano, his terrible fingering). Great stuff!

Outside they had a piano rigged up with piano wire attached to the roof of one of the buildings. If I remember correctly, the wire was carrying the vibrations of an actual piano piece, causing the piano bellow to faintly act as a kind of speaker. Kind of neat!

Next was a room with a guy hammering nails into piano keys. The room was crowded and the sound... well, he was hammering piano keys. How do you think it sounded? We watched for a few seconds and left.

The next piano piece had the viewer step inside a room where four piano techniques were being played, each projected on a different screen. It wasn't all that impressive if I were to be honest.

Finally, we saw the tail end of a performance where a guy was (apparently) playing the piano in a unique way. It didn't sound that great, and it wasn't the Ben Folds-esq playing that I was hoping for. Oh well!

#62: Max Streicher, Vertical Constructions: Dancer #1 and #2, 2012

Then we headed downtown and get swamped by the crowds! Sheesh. We ended up passing by a few nearby exhibits just because it was too insanely packed to reasonably watch. Special "Ugh" to that one guy with the speaker and mic who kept trying to explain about how we'll all rot in hell without Jesus or whatever. I'm trying to watch someone breakdance you are ruining the groove.

So we escaped into the Eaton Centre, but managed to only pass by one exhibit this year. The place was filled with teenagers. I ended up passing by one of the "first years" (she's a second year now), Sophie Knowles. Sorry I couldn't stop and chat! My girlfriend is much more aggressive at navigating crowds than I am, and she vaguely threatened to leave me behind if I didn't keep up.

The exhibit was... okay. They didn't really look like "dancers" in any traditional sense, and the materials used (recycled billboards) gave them a pretty big paper-mache look. I don't think they were disappointing so much as they were the only thing we saw in the Eaton Centre this year; last year they had a robot that moved around watching people and it was pretty cool.

#77: Peter Bowyer, Flat Space, 2012

An instillation of panels arranged on the ground that gave the feeling that the pavement was "warping", this was kind of neat, although there was some obvious discomfort that the crowd had with sharing the space with the exhibit. Without any sort of barrier you could literally walk right next to it, and some people weren't sure if they could walk through it or not. I saw someone try, and get booed. Ha.

City Hall (Museum for the End of the World)

#74: Christine Davis, World Without Sun, 2012

Before I get into some of the City Hall exhibits, I want to say that the maps of this area were kind of confusing! This exhibit was set up in the middle of Nathan Phillips Square, and made for nice watching as we climbed the ramp up to City Hall's rooftop garden area. Projected on six circular screens were images of... well I don't know wheat they were images of. I went with underwater stuff. It was pretty, and not having to wait in line to see it was a huge plus for me.

#61: Public Access, Symposium - Until the End of the World, 2012

This was probably the most awkward "exhibit" of the night. There was a huge lineup, which we thought was for Marco Brambilla's Civilization (Megaplex), 2012. It was not. What it was a line up for (as we found out once we were inside) was a talk with Slavoj Žižek.

I'm going to put Žižek's politics aside (he's a radical leftist), but will say his speech was entertaining (if uneven, the guy doesn't know how to be concise). However, the experience itself was... kind of terrible. Yes yes, it's our own fault for not understanding what we were wandering into, but we didn't enter thinking we were going to watch a two hour lecture. We went in wanting to see some art, and them move on. Not only was the place packed, they ended up ushering us into a room beside council chambers where a video projector was set up. Well, that's fine, except that the video stopped working shortly into his speech. Gheh.

The conditions were not optimal for us. Aside from not really being something we desired to see in the first place (a two hour speech is not exactly art), the place was so packed that we ended up watching from a screen... which would have been okay (there were seats at least), except that the video feed stopped working. Thanks to a large number of idiots blocking the stairs (despite being told to, you know, not do that), we couldn't exactly leave. So we stood with the crowd and watched the rest of the speech, eeking our way out when it was over.

The experience was pretty draining, so we decided to do the "Museum of the Rapture" in the City Hall Parking garage, as it was a big draw to coming here, before calling our Nuit Blanche a, er, night.

#48, Tania Mouraud, Once upon a time, 2011-2012

We go to see a bit of this while waiting in line. Projected on City Hall's east tower, this film contrasts images of beautiful forests next to the machines that want to turn them into Ikea furniture. It was neat to watch as we waited in line to get in.

Speaking of the line, there was a large crowd waiting to get inside the underground parking garage. They had signs up giving a suggested wait time (we got in place around the 45 minute sign), but the wait was much shorter than that, probably only about 15 minutes. Special props to the people who were trying to convince the bouncer to let their friend over the wall. No amount of chanting or clapping was convincing enough, but their spirit was admirable. Special slops to the group of guys who thought yelling "YEEEPP" a bunch of times was funny.


#56 Douglas Coupland, Museum of the Rapture, 2012

Coupland's wackiness was on full display here. Entering the parking garage, viewers experience an array of signs that were each fighting each other to be a new pop culture slogan (you know how Coupland can be). Upon entering, to the right was a series of scenes of people who have vanished, leaving nothing but what they were using (a shopping cart for example) and their clothes. Creepy! To the left were a series of installations where actors played out a classroom, a Christmas living room, and a office scene. The office scene was the creepiest, as all the actors pretended they were in the throes of death. Pretty awesome!

#59: Thomas Blanchard, The Vault, 2012

These were a series of neat shiny tubes with images inside. If you stuck your head in, you'd see a extreme reflection from all angles. My girlfriend had a lot of fun poking her head in them all.

#49: Iris Häussler, Ou Topos, 2012

The most "museum" like of the exhibits, this piece worked on the premise of viewing the historical remains of a man driven to board himself up in fear of the apocolypse. The glass exhibits of "objects" the man used were cute, but the full sized trailed filled with books, mad writings, and cans was super cool.

#55: Jean Michel Crettaz and Mark-David Hosale, Quasar 2.0: Star Incubator, 2012

This was just a neat exhibit of fluorescent colours and tubes and stuff. Not really much to say about it, except that I don't think whatever would come out of that contraption would be human.

#50, Dana Claxton, The Uplifting, 2012

These trio of movies were (keeping with the theme) creepy. There was one of a woman in red just kind of looking like Charlie Brown after getting the football pulled away yet again. Dust yourself off lass! It's not your fault Lucy is a jerk.

#60, Sarah Beck, Postcards from the End / Dirty Loonie, 2012 / 2009

The Postcards were my favorite piece of this whole exhibit. They were (as the title suggests) postcard-like structures that showed (for example) the view from a supermarket roof overlooking a town in chaos, and a giant hole in the roof of a house. They were all designed to allow people to "interact" with them, allowing people to photograph them in these otherworldly situations. Super keen!

Dirty Loonie was (obviously) a pretty political piece. Like one of those drinking birds, the Loon  would dip itself in over and over into a barrel of what I assume was oil, splashing some on the floor (covered in kitty litter) as it came back up. I want to to say I thought it was cute, but the entire time I was thinking how much of a waste of oil the whole production was. So, uh, mission accomplished Miss Beck?

#51, Geoffrey Pugen, 416-788-9663, 2012

This one wasn't labelled, but I'm pretty sure this was technically the last exhibit we saw. As we were leaving through the exit, we could see a bunch of people gathered around what looked like a small rave party in a fenced off area near the ramp. Kind of lame after the trailer and loonie guys, but I won't hold it against them.

At this point, it was approaching 1am and we are old so we had to go retire for the night. Phew! That was my 2012 Nuit Blanche experience! What did I miss out on? Let me know in the comments!