My Father Drew Libraries for a Living

eglinton-lrt-station-2022-08-16.jpgA story from fifty years ago:

My father told me about working for the Ontario Civil Service, specifically for the Ministry of Citizenship and Communications, which had the responsibility for funding and regulating the province's municipal library systems. It kept him busy. If I recall correctly, a lot of the text of the Public Libraries Act of Ontario is his text. He knew the ins and outs of what each library received, and he travelled across the province, visiting library systems big and small. For this reason, he's much more familiar with northern and northwestern Ontario than I am -- at least, with their libraries.

But there were also periods during his work year when there wasn't much to do. And after organizing his desk, rather than sit there and twiddle his thumbs, he made work for himself by going out into the field and sketching local libraries. I haven't seen these sketches, so I don't know how true this story is, but he used it to explain the feast-and-famine nature of government work at the time. He was pleased that he'd found himself something to do that was somewhat inline with the mandate of his job. It's a different world today.

Recently, we've learned that the Eglinton-Crosstown LRT, the biggest rapid transit investment Toronto has seen in since the creation of the Bloor-Danforth subway in 1966 and 1968, is 98% finished, but stalled. Metrolinx -- a crown corporation that answers to Ontario's Minister of Transportation -- is arguing with Crosslinx Transit Solutions, the private consortium managing the contract work laying rails, building stations, and testing equipment. There does not appear to be any timeline on when that final 2% of work is to be done. Worse, it looks like the job that has been done features a number of items that aren't up to spec. The system that was supposed to open in 2020, then 2022, and then late 2023 (maybe), now looks like it won't open until 2024, at least.

And this isn't the only time something similar has happened to the Ontario government. In 2021, the $616 million extension of Highway 427 north of Toronto sat almost complete but unused for months because the Ontario government and the private consortium hired to build it could not agree on the quality of the work provided and the final payments for the infrastructure.

Reading between the lines, here's what I think happened and is happening with the Eglinton-Crosstown LRT: Early in the 2010s, the provincial government (under Dalton McGuinty) committed to building the rapid transit LRT line and gave Metrolinx -- its crown corporation which operated GO Transit, encouraged interregional transit and managed regional transit projects -- the task of getting the line done. Once a budget was agreed to, Metrolinx sought out private interests to do the actual building. Companies including ACS-Dragados, Aecon, EllisDon and SNC-Lavalin formed Crosslinx, an overarching consortium to manage the project and the work of its members. This doesn't surprise me, as this was a several billion dollar project, and managing its component parts was always going to be a challenge.

The Eglinton-Crosstown LRT actually seemed to be going smoothly when they were tunnelling, and building the initial station sites. The yard and the outdoor tracks are now ready enough to operate test equipment. But as we approached our opening dates, progress seemed to slow. Metrolinx's frankly terrible communications strategy in offering silence to local merchants wondering when their long sacrifices will finally pay off hasn't helped. These days, much of the line looks ready, but there's little apparent progress in the areas which are clearly not. So what gives?

I strongly suspect that, as we near the finish line, Crosslinx has discovered that they cannot finish the project within the remaining budget. Worse, some of the work that has been done does not appear to be up to spec, and may have to be re-done at some expense. Possibly these delays and redos are due to unexpected complications in the project (finding pipes or underground wires where you don't expect them, discovering that the water table is higher than you planned for, or unexpectedly uncovering the original corduroy road that brought settlers into the area -- all of these things and more have delayed projects in the past), or it could be that your initial plans were just wrong, or mismanaged by incompetent and/or bad faith actors, anything. Either way, possibly Crosslinx can't finish the line without going over budget, and it doesn't want that overrun to come out of its pocket.

Metrolinx, for its part, doesn't want to be on the hook for these overruns themselves, but their choice is either to go to the province, cap in hand, or hold Crosslinx to its contract, which means that now this matter is being fought in the courts, adding more months of delay.

This is what happens when you rely too much on privatization to build major infrastructure. The lack of clear accountability regarding who pays for what opens the door for litigation and delay. Worse, there's a risk here that if Metrolinx's contract with Crosslinx is air-tight enough, Crosslinx could simply declare bankruptcy and walk away. Consider that it is its own corporation set up by construction giants like EllisDon and SNC-Lavalin to be separate from them. If they decide to fold up Crosslinx, you know that they've shielded themselves from the financial fallout of doing so, from the very beginning.

Over the past fifty years, governments of almost every stripe have fallen in love with the idea of privatizing the construction of government infrastructure. These days, almost every single piece of major highway, commuter railway or rapid transit line has been designed, built and maintained by paying a private company to do so. Part of it is the lure of getting somebody else to take on the financial risk of such a project. Part of it is the result of a conservative-capitalistic shibboleth that all government is inefficient and all government spending is waste. I mean, just look at what my father had to do fifty years ago: he was so short of work during certain months out of the year, he sketched libraries! With private companies taking on the risk, they can turn to the market to provide the best experts to build the best things, and they'll only be paid to work when we need them to.

8ae8-s0243it03601936.pngExcept that a lot of those companies of expert consultants owe a lot to the government civil service for that expertise. Every Toronto subway station built in the 21st century was designed by an outside architectural firm, but most of the TTC's subway stations before then were designed by people within the TTC. Consider the work of Herta Freyberg (pictured right), whose thirty-year career at the TTC has resulted in the construction of subway stations like Wilson and St. Clair West, where thousands of people pass through every day. She has had a considerable impact on the daily experience of so many Torontonians, and yet I don't think her name is even on a plaque.

Her job does not exist at the TTC today.

Sure, my father was underworked for a chunk of his working year -- let's say half a year for ease of calculations -- but that ignores the fact that he was overworked for the other half. The Government was paying him and his colleagues, including architects like Ms. Freyberg, for the right to the use of their expertise whenever it was needed. Sure, you could lay them off and hire consultants to do the jobs when jobs needed to be done -- and that's what happened a lot in the 1980s -- but those consultants would more likely be people like my dad, who would likely charge three times their civil service rate to take on these tasks.

After all, it's the marketplace. If work piles up during a certain portion of the year, there won't be enough consultants around to do all the work that's needed. That drives up their price, especially when they're thinking of how to pay their bills for their fallow period. Now do the math: if my father is laid off to save the government the fact that he was paid a year's salary for half a year's hard work, and then my father charges three times his salaried rate for the six months he's re-hired as an expert consultant, what has the government saved, exactly?

This is one of the things that I think is wrong with our society: in our drive to lower taxes and reduce government "waste", we made our governments stupider by pushing out the expertise within, and raised the prices we have to pay for that expertise. Because Liberal and Conservative governments have shunned rolling up their sleeves and doing the work themselves, they've created an expertise industry that is rife with risk, low on accountability, and which presents no savings to taxpayers in the long term.

Just as it's a lie to say that our governments don't have a revenue problem when almost every government over the past fifty years has lowered taxes, not raised them, those who suggest that the governments that govern best are those who govern the least have been getting exactly what they wished for, and it clearly hasn't helped. Continuing to follow the same path while expecting a different result is the textbook definition of insanity.

It's past time we switch direction. Our governments used to know what they were doing. They used to be more accountable. They can be so again, if we have the political will to force them to act.

Signs You Are Getting Old, #2,743

Some time ago, I don't recall exactly when (edited to add: I looked it up: it was in 2000), my family went to the theatre at Stratford and saw Paul Gross starring in William Shakespeare's Hamlet. Yes, Benton Frasier himself. And he was the perfect Hamlet: youthful, frenetic. Paul Gross is simply a brilliant actor, as he showed in Slings & Arrows. A perfect player for the perfect role for his age.

This year, Paul Gross returns to the Stratford Festival to play King Lear.

The sad thing about this is, you know what? He's going to be perfect at it.


I don't like Mondays


The federal government has just announced that it is spending over $300 million to buy the TTC electric buses and the infrastructure to power them. That's nice and all, and electric buses are cool, but with many TTC buses lying fallow, how about spending some more money on reversing the service cuts that are being forced on the TTC due to pandemic ridership losses and underfunding? We're falling into the trap that afflicted us in the early 90s: focusing spending on flashy capital projects while ignoring the day-to-day needs of service and maintenance. Shame. And it has consequences, which I illustrate below.

The title of this post is a West Wing reference, incidentally.

A week ago Monday, I delivered about 105 minutes of film to a professional film scanning company to finish phase two of my Richard Glaze 16mm Film Archive Digitization Project. The haul includes three 400-foot canisters from the late 1950s and twenty-six 100-foot reels from the mid-to-late 70s. The 1950s reels include footage of some of the last days of streetcar operations in Montreal and Ottawa. There's also some seventies footage of the Ontario Northland Railway; I hope it covers the time the government of Ontario purchased the Trans Europe Express equipment for their run from Toronto to Cochrane. I also had an excellent lunch with a friend and fellow railfan, so all in all an excellent and productive morning and early afternoon.

Getting back home was a bit of a haul. After exploring the city a little, I'm on the subway heading south towards Glencairn Station on my way to Union Station downtown when I hear an announcement that service is holding northbound at Glencairn "due to a medical incident". Not long after, the announcement was made that this incident had been resolved. My train wasn't even affected. However, not two stops later, it's announced that my train, and all after it, would be going out of service at St. Clair West Station and returning northbound. Apparently, subway service has been suspended from St. Clair West to St. Andrew (basically into the west side of downtown) due to "a trespasser on the track level at Spadina Station" further down the line.

We're in the early-middle part of rush hour at this point, so as the train goes out of service, and the others behind pull in and do the same, we're rapidly filling up the platform. They've promised shuttle buses, but I know from experience that these are hard to come by during rush hour. However, we can take the St. Clair Streetcar over to Yonge Street and board the parallel Yonge subway there. It might save time in the long run. While it works, I'm far from the only person to think this.

Getting onto the Yonge subway, we make good time southbound until we stop, again, this time at Dundas Station because of -- you guessed it! -- a medical incident (at the station, in fact, but not apparently on our train, as I didn't see or hear anything). Fortunately, the incident is cleared in about five minutes, so we head on our way. The total delay to my trip was about an hour.

Now, I was able to handle these incidents with good humour. Indeed, that was the state of mind of just about everybody who travelled alongside me. And none of these incidents could be said to be the TTC's fault. But to have three such disruptions happen within an hour... that's something.

And while I'm lucky enough to say that this is the first time this has happened to me while taking the TTC, I'm on enough boards and follow enough feeds to know that these incidents are not uncommon. Indeed some, like the "trespasser at track level" seem to be getting more common, and I'm worried that this may be indicative of societal stress and increasing mental health issues at work, here.

I mean, who goes onto the track level during rush hour and turns it into a security incident? Someone who is not coping well, I suspect, and is making a pretty loud call for help. And the medical issues that paused service? Could they have been fainting spells or, worse, heart attacks?

The therapists who talk to my kids, who talk to Erin, have told me they've seen a great increase in familial stress since the pandemic, and the pandemic has disrupted and continues to disrupt, the provision of medical services, including and especially mental health services. And we have governments, particularly one governing this province, who when people are calling for help, are focused on cutting costs, who have made our medical system worse, not better. 

I worry that we are under pressure and that these pressures are increasing. And just when we most need support and backup, our governments and particular political forces seem hell-bent on taking that away.

We can do better. I know we can because we used to. And we have to do better. If we have to raise taxes to do it, so be it.

Spiders of Toronto

spiders-of-toronto-thumbnail.jpgIt's heartening in this day and age to discover that the Internet can still surprise you in pleasant ways.

I've been working on another educational book assignment during my off hours. This one is those high-interest publications for grade school students about Predators! With an exclamation point. These assignments come up from time to time, they're usually quick work for me, and they help keep my hand in when it comes to publishing. I do have a goal of having 100 books published with my name on them, and I think I've got less than twenty titles to go.

Because these books are designed to be slotted into school curriculums, they tend to follow similar patterns: a series of short, to-the-point, action-heavy chapters highlighting some key facts, and finishing off with links to further resources, such as websites, or other books to read.

Unfortunately, this latter part has become more challenging in recent years. The publishers want to offer up links to other educational and age-appropriate books. It goes without saying that they should be professionally published. It used to be an easy thing to do a search on your subject matter in Amazon's children's book category and select some of the most recent titles that are there. Unfortunately, with Amazon's embrace of independent publishing (not that I'm objecting to people having a venue to publish what they wish), the noise-to-signal ratio has gotten to the point where professionally-made alternate titles are hard to find -- especially if your publisher (reasonably) asks that the alternate material be up-to-date and not published before, say, 2017. The same is unfortunately true with finding additional web resources, though links to more general sites such as the San Diego Zoo usually serve.

It was during this search for alternative resources about spiders that I discovered this link deep, deep within my Google Search on educational resources about spiders. Spiders of Toronto appears to have been published some years ago (this site suggests 2013) as part of the City of Toronto Biodiversity Series. It goes on at length about the spiders we're likely to find in the city and the ecological benefits they provide. Along the way, it busts a few myths and tries to change a few minds.

Unfortunately, I can't point to this publication as an alternative resource, as it's too old for the audience. It's also something of an accident that I'd found it; I don't think it's even meant to be there.

I hadn't heard about this series, but there are other publications, including for birds, trees, shrubs and vines, fishes, butterflies, mammals, and reptiles and amphibians, all on the City of Toronto website. What I haven't found, at least with what searching I've done, is the landing page that links to all of these publications. This suggests to me that this page has been overwritten or vanished, leaving the PDF publications behind on the server, to be stumbled upon by accident as I did.

I always enjoy such discoveries of Internet treasures that would otherwise be lost and forgotten. Indeed, I'm thinking they might be worth downloading and saving, possibly until the Toronto Archives is ready to accept them for preservation...

Stand by Me and Classic Culture


So, one of the things that wrankles most about growing old is how much the pop culture of your childhood is turned into "classic" culture. It's like, for a GenXer, the music of Buddy Holly and the Beatles is ancient history, whereas Kate Bush is the anthem of your generation growing up. What do you mean Kate Bush's Running Up that Hill is now classic rock? WHAT DO YOU MEAN IT WAS RELEASED ALMOST 40 YEARS AGO?!

Anyway, we have a diner in Kitchener-Waterloo called Mel's that leans into classic 50s chic, with posters of classic movies like Attack Of the 50ft Woman adorning the walls. Photos of classic movie scenes and actors like Cary Grant adorn the sneeze shields between the booths.

Which brings me to the photo above taken of the divider between our booths at Mel's and why I'm tagging Wil Wheaton on this toot (originally composed in Mastodon). Wil, you may recall, is an actor, a tech personality and all-round decent guy known for portraying young Wesley Crusher in the series Star Trek: The Next Generation. Recently Mel's has been updating themselves. Not the look -- everything is reassuringly familiar and the food is good -- just the movies they've chosen. Like this scene, from the film Stand by Me, starring Wil Wheaton.

I can only imagine how it might feel to find your face suddenly on the walls of a themed diner that recalls a classic era.

Then again, he happens to be a few weeks younger than me.

Creativity and Working Around Ablest Language

Given that one of the novels I'm working on, The Sun Runners features a major character who becomes an amputee, I thought it wise to pay a sensitivity reader to look over my manuscript to ensure that I wasn't being offensive or condescending. For those who don't know, sensitivity readers are an increasing feature of the professional fiction writing industry, as they help catch and prevent incidents where we authors, writing in our ivory towers, make a hash out of other people's cultures and experiences. And as our society is changing and developing rapidly, this includes uses of terms that may have seemed perfectly acceptable back in our day, but are basically slurs now.

If you think we're too sensitive in this day and age, I ask you to recall my post entitled Yesterday wherein I note that while many of us (myself included) often yearn to go back to years before when times were simpler and we all knew what's what, the fact is that for many people, ethnic minorities, LGBTQ+ individuals, and more, yesterday was not better than today, because they were expected to just take the crap dished out by the establishment and shut up about it. The fact that they aren't willing to do so today and are calling people out about it is a good thing, because why should anybody take that sort of crap? Why should anybody be seen as less than who they are? And if being called to respect equality feels like oppression to you, that's your privilege talking.

My sensitivity reader generally liked my story and my portrayal of the amputee character. She did note some word usages that I had to change. What surprised me was the number of incidences of ablist language in my manuscript where I used terms that derogatively referred to mental illness. (Content warning for the sentence ahead) Phrases like "are you crazy/nuts/insane" recall put-downs of people with mental health issues, and it's increasingly being considered a slur. Note this article in Penn Medicine News for more details.

The issue is, there are people with mental health issues that are commonly referred to in these terms, and these same terms are often also applied to bad people - villains, antagonists, and so on, and these terms are too often used to make people with mental illness feel less human than what they are. Think for a moment the number of slurs out there that attack people with physical ailments and impairments. Are these at all acceptable? Good people, I think, largely say these aren't so, so why would we use similarly loaded and derogatory terms against people with mental ailments and impairments?

So I support the call to change our vocabularty so we don't use these words as often as we do, and let me say that, in writing, this is a challenge. Because when you are dealing with antagonists or accomplices acting outrageously in action scenes, there is a strong, strong desire to respond with a phrase that basically says "are you operating under a set of parameters that differs from objective reality?"

But that's no excuse. Indeed, it should be an opportunity to get creative. Especially in science fiction, a properly placed idiom not only adds colour to the scene, it builds the world you are trying to create. Which is why, when one of my characters asks the lead character if she is operating under a set of parameters that differs from objective reality, she says, "Are you oxygen-deprived?"

I will toss this out into the world. Hopefully, it does its job without demeaning classes of people. And it might give your science fiction story a bit more colour as well. We'll see.

You're also welcome to use the "are you operating under a set of parameters that differs from objective reality?" line as well. Possibly at Trump supporters.

(Update, Thursday: it has been brought to my attention (thank you) that oxygen deprivation within the womb is a cause of cerebral palsy, so maybe don't use that term so casually. Hmm... Back to the drawing board...)

At the Mouth of the Grand


For various reasons, we find ourselves in Port Maitland this week, holding a writing retreat on the shore of Lake Erie, beside the mouth of the Grand River. And, let me tell you, when you get to the mouth of the Grand River, you know why they call it 'Grand'.

We had hoped to be in Utah, spending some time with Erin's father' but for various reasons this fell through. We hope to try again on a journey this June. In the meantime, we're appreciating the week of downtime amongst the waves on the shore, and we may make some progress on our writing.

We're not too far from the town of Dunnville, which is a fascinating place. A small town in the middle of a lot of rural land, which we suspect hops during the high season. Just after March Break, however, when there's still a good chance that Lake Erie might try to turn you into a block of ice, the streets are relatively quiet, but not dead. Almost every shop is open. The kids and I ate at a diner on a Wednesday, alongside other patrons -- probably regulars.

There is always something I like about a prosperous small town, even though they tend to depend on a lot of luck, these days, not to mention tourism. They're also the ideal that has tended to build a lot of sprawling suburbs: a small community that doesn't overwhelm, while things like shops and activities are still close around you. Your typical sprawling suburb often spectacularly fails to achieve these goals, but the drive behind them is still there.

Erin and I have a retirement goal we call the Bone Witch project. She wants a tiny cabin in the woods where she can be closer to nature (and be a bone witch). I want something with good transportation, where my neighbourhood can be my living room. So, why don't we have both? A small cabin in the woods that she can spend three out of four weeks at, and a small apartment somewhere with good public transit where I can spend three weeks out of four at? We have time overlapping at both places and time alone in our preferred places. If we can swing it, I think it would be good.

The cabins around Dunnville could fulfill the bone witch side of things, and Dunnville itself could fulfille the urban side of things, if it had any public transportation connections. It doesn't though, so that search continues. Still, I can't say I'm not tempted.

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