October 28th, 2010


[PHOTO] The New Lee's Palace

The New Lee's Palace
Originally uploaded by rfmcdpei
Iconic downtown music club Lee's Palace was famous for its fantastic murals, painted two decades ago by Toronto artist Al Runt, influenced (to me) by Keith Haring but by other graphic artists such as Robert Crumb. The murals were taken down last November as part of a renovation, but this summer Runt himself has been repainting the facade. He's done now; I like.

[LINK] "Rob Ford tapped into a zeitgeist that goes beyond Toronto"

The Globe and Mail's Vancouver correspondent, Gary Mason, writes the obvious. The little guy can always be made out to be quite popular versus the elite, if the elite tries hard enough.

Vancouver is awash in transplanted Torontonians who couldn’t get enough of the fight for city hall. Rob Ford is a compelling, controversial figure even in Lotusland, and now that he’s mayor of the centre of the universe, people can’t stop smiling.

Why are so many delighted with Mr. Ford’s ascension? People love to see the Toronto establishment squirm and taken down a notch. The fact that the city’s elites were so horrified at the thought of being governed by someone they clearly felt was better suited to running a car dealership in Okotoks, Alta., made his victory even sweeter.

There are people who look and sound like Rob Ford sitting on city councils from Winkler, Man., to Smithers, B.C. To see him mocked as much for his appearance as his policies had many westerners cheering even harder for him. It undoubtedly helped seed the schadenfreude that has enveloped his unlikely triumph.

His win was a victory for the little guy – the common man who may not possess the same refined vocabulary as his more educated colleagues but, nonetheless, speaks a language that a great swath of Canadians understand perfectly.

Even I felt a certain sympathy for Mr. Ford. Not that I didn’t think his platform was bereft of intelligent analysis and new ideas. It was. Rather, it was the view, sometimes articulated in the media, that he would be a colossal embarrassment to the city not just because of what he said but because of the way he looked. If he weighed 60 pounds less, would he still have been as unappealing? Spare me the talk that the vituperative reaction he elicited was strictly about his policies and had nothing to do with the image he projected.

This has implications.

[C]ould Rob Ford get elected in Vancouver or Montreal, cities that, like Toronto, see themselves as sophisticated and urbane and immune to a mayoral candidate with the kind of gonzo qualities ascribed to Mr. Ford? I think the answer is yes, at least a version of him spouting an iteration of Mr. Ford’s successful Stop the Gravy Train campaign slogan.

Take Vancouver, where taxpayers are feeling the heat, too. It’s why the campaign to stop the HST wasn’t just popular in the northern half of B.C., as many first believed would be the case. It had support everywhere, including Vancouver’s tony west side.

Then there’s the Olympic Village fiasco, in which taxpayers possibly stand to lose hundreds of millions of dollars. Still, the current city council persists in going ahead with previously promised social housing on the site that’s costing in excess of $100-million when the units could be sold at market rates.

New dedicated bike lanes, meantime, are costing millions and are opposed by store owners who say they aren’t being used and will hurt business.

Enter a mayoral candidate in next fall’s civic election campaigning on a Ford-like theme: Stop the Madness.

He (or she) promises to sell the proposed social housing at the Olympic Village in order to recoup as much of the public’s money as possible that’s been sunk “into this mess.” He also campaigns to end bike-lane expansion and put a freeze on hiring at city hall. He vows not to raise property taxes beyond the rate of inflation, to give people “a chance to catch their financial breath.”

“Enough is enough,” our red-faced candidate bellows, jowls shaking. “People are having a tough time putting food on the table and we’re building bike lanes and the most exotic and expensive social housing in the world. What’s next? Free daycare for city workers? It’s time to take back city hall and stop this recklessness once and for all.”

[MUSIC] Boards of Canada, "Macquarie Ridge”

By now, you've gotten a fair idea of my musical preferences: a little bit 80s, a little bit electronica/dance, a little bit classic stuff. It’s music I like, certainly, but as osirius pointed out to me a couple of weeks ago I’ve gotten into a bit of a rut. I got him to recommend me one group of note, and he pointed me to the Scottish electronica duo Boards of Canada, with its dream-like electronica. Am I incorrect to say their music has a lot in common with Tangerine Dream’s?

In my YouTubing, I’ve found more than a few nice tracks, liking particularly the pairing of “MacQuarie Ridge” (a reference to the New Zealand/southwest Pacific fault zone of the same name), a bonus-in-Japan track off of their 2005 The Campfire Headphase with this National Geographic video of the aurora borealis as seen from the Northern Norway community of Salten.


Thanks, <lj user="osirius”>. And you? Do you have any more recommendations for me?

[H&F] "On why nostalgia for the past sucks"

Originally uploaded by etherflyer
I've a post up at History and Futility that draws from the discussion about the terribly false asumptions of some steampunk fiction initiated by Charlie Stross. The past sucked; the present really is better. It got so much better.

I illustrated the post with Robert's picture of the tombstone of a poor girl, Margaret McNevin, who died in Toronto in the mid-19th century before her eighth birthday. The era that gave rise to steampunk certainly wasn't good for her.

[BLOG-LIKE POSTING] On cephalopod intelligence

I came across this video the other day.

Cephalopods, the video above should make clear, are made of magic. (And no, every night before I go to bed I don’t sweep my bedroom walls for cloaked organisms, really.)

Cephalopods are also amazingly smart. Eric Scigliano’s 2003 Discover article ”Through the Eye of the Octopus” sets

Octopuses and their cephalopod cousins the cuttlefish and the squid are evolutionary oxymorons: big-brained invertebrates that display many cognitive, behavioral, and affective traits once considered exclusive to the higher vertebrates. They challenge the deep-seated notion that intelligence advanced from fish and amphibians to reptiles, birds, mammals, early primates, and finally humans. These are mollusks, after all—cousins to brainless clams and oysters, passive filter feeders that get along just fine, thank you, with a few ganglia for central nervous systems. Genetic studies show that mollusk ancestors split from the vertebrates around 1.2 billion years ago, making humans at least as closely related to shrimps, starfish, and earthworms as to octopuses. And so questions loom: How could asocial invertebrates with short life spans develop signs of intelligence? And why?

Although biologists are just beginning to probe these questions, those who observe the creatures in their natural haunts have long extolled their intelligence. "Mischief and craft are plainly seen to be the characteristics of this creature," the Roman natural historian Claudius Aelianus wrote at the turn of the third century A.D. Today's divers marvel at the elaborate trails the eight-leggers follow along the seafloor, and at their irrepressible curiosity: Instead of fleeing, some octopuses examine divers the way Steve checked me out, tugging at their masks and air regulators. Researchers and aquarium attendants tell tales of octopuses that have tormented and outwitted them. Some captive octopuses lie in ambush and spit in their keepers' faces. Others dismantle pumps and block drains, causing costly floods, or flex their arms in order to pop locked lids. Some have been caught sneaking from their tanks at night into other exhibits, gobbling up fish, then sneaking back to their tanks, damp trails along walls and floors giving them away.

That Steve was named Steve was also revealing: Octopuses are the only animals, other than mammals like cuddly seals, that aquarium workers bother to name. So Anderson, Seattle's lead invertebrate biologist, began to wonder: If keepers recognize octopuses as individuals, how much difference is there among individual octopuses? Might these bizarre-looking mollusks have personalities? And if so, how else might their evolution have converged with ours across a billion-year chasm?

These completely non-vertebrate animals are amazing. They have personalities, or at least, different individuals do things in different ways. They appear to play. They seem to learn from experience and may even learn from others. They even use tools (below, an octopus using a coconut half-shell to hide).

Cephalopods seem capable of interiority. When you perform an electroencephalogram on other invertebrates, or on less intelligent vertebrates, there’s only the static of neurons firing at random. When you perform an electroencephalogram on cephalopods, you pick up the slow, varying waves of EEG patterns common to smart animals. Scigliano notes that--unlike other invertebrates--they seem to sleep, may even dream, and seem to have emotional states which can be influenced by their environment. This has obvious implications.

The ultimate question, with octopuses as with other sentient creatures, may be how we should treat them. In 2001 Mather argued in The Journal of Applied Welfare Science that people should err on the humane side, since some octopuses "very likely have the capacity for pain and suffering and, perhaps, mental suffering." If captive cephalopods suffer mentally—or even get "bored," as Boal puts it—then they should benefit from enrichment: amenities and activities that replicate elements of their natural environment. Mather, Anderson, and Wood have urged enriched environments but have no experimental evidence that it makes a difference. Recently that evidence came from a French study that even the skeptical Boal calls "beautiful work." Ludovic Dickel, a neuroethologist at the University of Caen, found that cuttlefish raised in groups and in tanks with sand, rocks, and plastic seaweed grew faster, learned faster, and retained more of what they learned than those raised alone in bare tanks. Performance rose in animals transferred midway from impoverished to enriched conditions and declined in those transferred to solitary confinement.

(As an aside, I remain struck by a passage in Andrew Solomon’s A Noonday Demon where he described an octopus trained to change colours on demand in a circus that, after it had been transferred from the circus to a holding facility where no one paid attention to it, stopped changing colours altogether, went through one last performance without getting attention and then tore its breast open with its beak.)

io9, Slate, BoingBoing, and Seed Magazine all have extensive articles examining the question of cephalopod intelligence (how great is it, how human-like is it). Despite the above profoundly suggestive signs, no one really knows for sure. Not enough attention has been paid to cephalopod intelligence, and cephalopods are so profoundly different from vertebrates--our last common ancestor is entirely hypothetical--that we’ve little idea where to start. How do you motivate cephalopods, or communicate with them? They remain a huge mystery in so many ways. How can they match background colours so perfectly when they are colour-blind?

What does this mean? If nothing else, it’s sufficient reason for me to stop eating calamari. And you?

[BLOG-LIKE POSTING] On the intelligence of social insects

Something John said some weeks ago made my mind click when this blog entry twigged me on to this discovery.

Bumblebees can find the solution to a complex mathematical problem which keeps computers busy for days.

Scientists at Queen Mary, University of London and Royal Holloway, University of London have discovered that bees learn to fly the shortest possible route between flowers even if they discover the flowers in a different order. Bees are effectively solving the 'Travelling Salesman Problem', and these are the first animals found to do this.

The Travelling Salesman must find the shortest route that allows him to visit all locations on his route. Computers solve it by comparing the length of all possible routes and choosing the shortest. However, bees solve it without computer assistance using a brain the size of grass seed.

Professor Lars Chittka from Queen Mary's School of Biological and Chemical Sciences said: "In nature, bees have to link hundreds of flowers in a way that minimises travel distance, and then reliably find their way home - not a trivial feat if you have a brain the size of a pinhead! Indeed such travelling salesmen problems keep supercomputers busy for days. Studying how bee brains solve such challenging tasks might allow us to identify the minimal neural circuitry required for complex problem solving."

The team used computer controlled artificial flowers to test whether bees would follow a route defined by the order in which they discovered the flowers or if they would find the shortest route. After exploring the location of the flowers, bees quickly learned to fly the shortest route.

As well as enhancing our understanding of how bees move around the landscape pollinating crops and wild flowers, this research, which is due to be published in The American Naturalist this week, has other applications. Our lifestyle relies on networks such as traffic on the roads, information flow on the web and business supply chains. By understanding how bees can solve their problem with such a tiny brain we can improve our management of these everyday networks without needing lots of computer time.

Co-author and Queen Mary colleague, Dr Mathieu Lihoreau adds: "There is a common perception that smaller brains constrain animals to be simple reflex machines. But our work with bees shows advanced cognitive capacities with very limited neuron numbers. There is an urgent need to understand the neuronal hardware underpinning animal intelligence, and relatively simple nervous systems such as those of insects make this mystery more tractable."

Cephalopod intelligence is a form of intelligence that, while radically different in origin and manifestation from the intelligence of vertebrates, something comprehensible in that it’s the intelligence of a single discrete organism. The intelligence of social insects--bees, but also the related wasps and ants and the more distantly removed termites--is something outside human ken altogether. (I’m saying nothing here about bacterial communities, since their collective intelligence is much more limited. So it appears.)

The communities of social insects are dominated by strict divisions of labour, these divisions even extending to the point of biological specialization (workers versus queens, say), the labour of the community towards a particular going being dominated by self-organization driven by simple rules and trial-and-error patterns responsive to the environment. Wasps, at least, seem to possess long-term memory, a trait that individuals of other social insect species likely share. Swarm intelligence is at work in a single colony, not an intelligence that’s centrally directed but a property of the interactions of the community’s members with each other and their environment in certain specific ways. Swarm intelligence isn’t our kind of intelligence, but it can be a powerful form of intelligence indeed, even--as Lihoreau noted--inspiring human researches.

There’s just one thing. There’s a science-fiction short story I read some time ago, describing a traveler visiting an icy Earth-like world in a nearby planetary system that happened to host a failed colony. The world’s biosphere was fairly simple, dominated by worms which melted paths through the world’s glaciers, meeting with each other and parting with each other in certain suspiciously regular patterns. In the end, it turned out that these worms were not single organisms, but that they were actually individual elements of a great mind, the neuronal equivalents of a planet-wide megaorganism that was actually conscious but with a consciousness that functioned at a much slower speed than human consciousness. The individual bee may have a brain the weight of a grass seed, but there can be tens of thousands of bees in a single beehive. I wonder now, thanks to John.

[URBAN NOTE] Three maps, two Torontos, one election

Torontoist presented a remarkable map showing how Torontonians voted.

Share photos on twitter with Twitpic

Ford-supporting wards are in blue, Smitherman-supporting ones in purple.

What does this mean? Back in March, I posted two maps of Toronto’s internal divisions. The first was a Patrick Cain map--5 Janaury 2010's "Map of the Week: Commuter cycling by census tract"--showing which neighbourhoods of Toronto are home to people who commute regularly via bicycle and which are not, and, in so doing, shows why biking isn't big across Toronto and why there are so many disputes within Toronto as to the use of biking. The areas coloured dark blue in the area of the Cain's map of Toronto bike commuting are all but one of the areas where 10-12% of the resident population commutes via bicycle, and are themselves surrounded by most of the other bicycle-happy districts of the city.

Excerpt from "Map of the Week: Commuter cycling by census tract"

The second map, originally from here, created by Wikipedia's Lencer and edited by Simon P, showing the municipal boundaries of the various communities federated in Metropolitan Toronto (1954-1998) before these communities' amalgamation into a single megacity.

Metropolitan Toronto Map, from Wikipedia

See a correlation?

blogTO noted that the electoral vote reflected. long-standing electoral patterns where left-wing candidates take the center of the city always and the south more generally, and the right-wing takes the suburbs. It also reflects long-standing cultural differences, too.

A map at the bottom of the Torontoist post linked to above shows the relative strength of the two lead candidates. Even on this map, the contrast remains as sharp as ever. The gaps in most wards between Ford and Smitherman was huge. Patrick Cain has more maps at his website showing the Toronto election in greater detail.

What does this mean? Kelly McParland at the National Post had an interesting idea.

In essence, Toronto is two cities that don’t like one another much but have been forced to cohabitate. And who performed the ceremony? Yes, Mike Harris.

It was the former Ontario premier, who didn’t like Toronto much and decided it would work better if there was just one big city to dislike, instead of a bunch of smaller ones. He also suggested costs would be cut by reducing overlap.

Well, the cost thing definitely hasn’t worked: Toronto spends more money than ever, has more employees and provides crappier services. On that basis, you could argue amalgamation has been a disaster.

On the other hand, maybe Harris was more devious than we give him, credit for. Who’s the mayor now? A right-winger from the suburbs. i.e. just the sort of guy Mike Harris could get along with just fine.

Could she be right, I wonder?