Thursday, February 28, 2013

Startling news... from 60 years ago

If you have a Toronto Public Library card, one of the secret little joys is that it gives you free access to the online archives of both The Globe and Mail and The Star. A shame the pages of the long-defunct Toronto Telegram aren't similarly available... though you won't find me shedding many tears over the similar lack of access to its "successor", The Toronto Sun, the Vandal king "successor" of Roman emperors of local newspapers.

The Star's pages date back to 1894, and The Globe (and Mail)'s go back to 1844—which means  you can read about Confederation in its pages online as it was casually reported in the paper in 1867, and reports coming in about the progress of the US Civil War just prior to that, and the astonishing news of Lincoln's assassination.

I find the pages of these papers at the most interesting, though, in the years after about 1950, when the expansion of Toronto was really kicking into gear. The creation of Metro in 1953, the building of the Gardiner Expressway and the Don Valley Parkway, the 400-series highways being hatched with quaint names like "the Toronto By-Pass" for the 401 and "the Barrie Highway" for the 400. This morning over my first coffee I decided to have a look at what I could glean about the DVP in the pages of The Star after January 1, 1955. It's quietly astonishing to see headlines about Metro Council voting a $1.7 million start to the project (Feb. 12, 1957, p. 42) with the number apparently so impressive at the time that it was actually spelled out, commas and all: "$1,700,000". These days that would probably pay for a about mile of construction. Maybe.

I really get a charge out of reading phrases like "The Don Valley parkway, the only solution to the current traffic problems in sight..." (Feb. 21, 1957, p. 16) and "An immediate start on the Don Valley parkway to relieve traffic congestion" (Nov. 21, 1956, p.31). People who read those phrases with a hopeful sigh would easily live long enough to see them converted to knee-slappers.

There are fun little notes like the idea that in 1957 Metro was considering expanding the zoo, which was downtown at the edge of the Don River at the time, "a mile alongside Don". Around 1970 the zoo moved to much bigger digs in northeast Scarborough at what is still the edge of town. An article about North York trying to dump Leslie Street on Metro's tab and Metro grumbling it made no sense because it was a road "from nowhere to nowhere"; North York suggesting it be extended down from Lawrence Avenue to the new section of Eglinton Avenue joining its two discontinuous parts. And, in fact, it was. But it still goes from nowhere to nowhere; Leslie still doesn't cross the Don south of Eglinton and dies for no reason at all just north of Steeles.

A couple of things really impress me. One is how desperate the politicians of the day seem to be to raise the money to do these things from the tax base, rather than just whipping out the I've-got-a-AAA-rating international credit card. Repeatedly I see articles in which councilors are begging the residents of Metro to accept taxes that will fund them. Fred Gardiner, the first Metro Chairman, gets a lot of guff for being a kind of 'raze it and build it' sort of guy, but I think he was onto something when he was quoted on Feb. 12, 1957: "If we are not going to raise the money then we have got to stop talking about things we want." People needed to be reminded of it then, but they could see it was true. I look around the world these days and all I see are nations panting on the floor with demons of their citizenry parked on their chests demanding services for which they refuse to pay.

The other is the range of casual ads interspersed with the news. Page 16 of The Star on Feb. 21, 1957, heralds a portable TV from RCA (remember RCA?). The thing still looks like you'd want a dolly if you were going to move it much, but I'm intrigued by the little quirks. For instance, they make a big deal of it bringing in UHF signals and specifically mention a station in Buffalo, so this had to be an ad tailored to south-central Ontario. Secondly, they go out of their way to institute the "second set" family home, explicitly advocating the segregation of family entertainment along generational lines, which I had always assumed was a phenomenon of the 1970s. I guess it was a long time coming.

But if you live in Toronto and you already have a library card, use it to log into the online research section of their site and have a ball. If you live elsewhere, see what your local library's site has on offer. You never know!

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Heavens

The Heavens are a band from Leeds in the UK. That's about all I know about them. According to their bio on their MySpace page,...

Best described as a blend of British & American Psychedelia, Rock & Roll and 90's Brit-Rock, The Heavens are Richard Green (vocals and guitar), Davey Fairbrother (drums and vocals), James Heggie (bass guitar) and Mark Drury (organ and guitar). 

A bit puzzling because in some shots of the band, there appear to be five members; one a young woman, whose name we're left to guess at from everything I've seen, which isn't much.

Now if it sounds like I'm complaining, it's because I am. I stumbled across a song by the band in a YouTube video utterly unrelated to them... their song was being used as theme music for a guy demonstrating a graphics program. Tried the program; didn't think much of it. But the song stayed with me...

The song above is called If You're Lost For Somewhere Else To Be, and it's one of four songs I've been able to find by The Heavens. I was at a site of theirs, which I'm not able to find, or which might have changed, where they were all available as a download.

The songs are varied, textured, and so professionally done that I can't understand why they haven't been signed and sent on tour. These are guys who've done their homework and gained the skills to apply what they've learned. I say, fully and forcefully as a compliment, that these fellahs have got the chops to fit into just about any band I've ever heard and liked. A long time ago on this blog I praised a rum for its subtle hints of other flavours. This band is like that rum. The works are completely unique and their own, but they're so good and have such studied touches of the history of their medium that you could easily have convinced me that these are songs I've overlooked by Oasis, The Clash, Smash Mouth, The Smiths... even touches of Schoolhouse Rock, though that's probably more a matter of my musical history than theirs.

But seriously, these guys are great, and I'm really disappointed that's all there is. There should be more. At least an album, if not two or three! When I think of all the shitty albums I've been obliged to buy over the years just to squeeze out the one or two good songs a band has, it really seems unfair that this group, with four extremely listenable songs all of which I like, haven't got more. Go have a listen; see what you think. I find Echo Serena to be particularly impressive. In Second Day Blues, enjoy the opening homage to O Lucky Man! with Malcolm McDowell.

Echo Serena:

Second Day Blues:

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Time passages

Funny. Just out of nowhere I happened to click on the link to this old post here from about six years ago. It's about a casual trip down to Bloor and my first time at The Bishop and the Belcher pub and the Anglican Bookstore a minute or so up the street from it.

Well, I was back down there again this Sunday, this time meeting up with Kaid. We were supposed to meet at the B&B at 11. When I got there at quarter to, it was closed. Doesn't open till 3 on Sunday. That rings a bell; that's happened to me before, but I keep forgetting. I don't think it was always like that, though, which is what keeps tripping me up.

So, knowing I'd just be a moment and I'd be able to spot Kaid anyway, I took a quick wander up the street to see when the Anglican Bookstore opened. It was a fool's errand, it being Sunday and all, but it was something to do. When I got there, a little printed note taped up in the window said they'd closed for good, January 18, 2013... about a month ago. Thanks for your patronage; see us at our Kitchener location. Kitchener's over an hour west of here. One more little occasional joy that's bled away.

Kaid arrived just after 11 and we made other plans. Just around the corner on Bloor, past the big Anglican church (which, it occurs to me, must be associated with the offices and former bookstore behind it) is Finn McCool's. We were chased there before by the failure to be able to meet up at the B&B for being closed, sometime last summer. We started off on the patio that time but light rain chased us indoors. This being winter, we were indoors from the start this time.

We had a nice time. I'd brought a book for reading while I waited about Eastern Europe, written in the period after the Berlin Wall fell but before the Soviet Union broke up. It sparked a long, interesting discussion. As for the fare, I didn't have anything to drink, though I'm no longer tee-totaling. They have a very nice chicken flatbread there... sauteed onions, red peppers, some strong hard cheese melted over cubed chicken breast. No fries, just the thin slab. It was indeed pleasant. Kaid had a few pints of beer and the Canadian breakfast. I'm not sure what made it specifically Canadian, but so it was called. The lighting is low but not dark. The music was audible but didn't interfere with conversation and seemed geared to guys who reached adulthood circa 1990 but who hadn't signed off against anything new (I picked up a new tune while I was there, matter of fact; You're a Tourist by Death Cab for Cutie). I really like the place, and I remember liking it last time. We decided to make it the new default for meeting midtown. I think I'm going to move my own allegiance from the B&B to Finn McCool's, at least for the time being.

We called her Georgette

I’ve been putting off writing this for a while for a number of reasons. But it’s reaching the point where it’s inexcusable to hold off.

Three weeks ago, a friend of mine of nearly 20 years passed away. Her name was Mary, but she was known to most of us by her middle name, Georgette. She was P-Doug’s wife for 30 years, and because it’s clear he occasionally pops in here at City in the Trees, I wanted to wait a bit because reading this, no matter how kindly it might be, will probably rake that fresh wound. But better that, I think, than it should seem I didn’t care.

Another reason I held off was because I wasn’t sure what to say. I kept waiting and hoping that The Big Important Words or the Major Life Lesson would occur to me. They haven’t. Georgette was simply one of those gems that is a fixture in a person’s life that drops away and sinks into the waves where it can't be retrieved. We can only remember. So my tribute, I’m afraid, will of necessity be a bit of ramble. Sort of like my friendship with her was.

To start off, I’ve been principally P-Doug’s friend. It’s hard for me to imagine that I would have encountered Georgette, much less had her as part of my life for 20 years, without having met her through him. But that’s okay; friends come into our lives by all sorts of means. And whatever he represents to me, I realized long ago that, had early misadventure befallen him, it probably would have been my place to step up and be around for her more. I couldn’t have ever replaced him, of course, but I knew she wouldn’t be alone. That I was not going to let that happen. And so I knew I was her friend alongside him, but also independently of him.

The first time I met her, she was in her mid-30s. She already seemed considerably older. She took it with good grace that I actually mistook her for his mother. She was prematurely grey, and her health was never ideal, not even then. I was working downtown at the time, as was she. Work was piecemeal for me then and I was often let go in the middle of the day and told to call back early next week to see what was up. So there were any number of times I was able to drop in on her, working the cash at Shopper’s Drug Mart, on my way home. She often took her break with me and we’d sit in the food court and I’d hear the stories of her youth. Even then, that was special to me. Those really became special times because they didn’t last all that long. By the end of the 90s, she had arterial blockages. She wound up with a quad bypass and that was pretty much it for her working days. She was on disability after that.

Still, it didn’t affect her negatively too much. She could still get around, and a lot of weekends, especially in good weather, involved them inviting me along for their treks to the rural fringe of southern Ontario; some bachelor-younger-brother by adoption. By and large those trips have all merged into a single big jaunt for me... I can’t really distinguish one small town and its quaint little restaurant with home cooking from another... but I’m glad they took me. There’s a whole lot of the province I’m faintly familiar with now that I wouldn’t be if they hadn't. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that, at least initially, inviting me along was her idea. Just seems more her kind of thing than his.

She was there, along with him, when I was confirmed in the Catholic Church about ten years ago. They were both lapsed Catholics but they appreciated the cultural milestone, and if they considered my spiritual quest naïve, they never let on. Georgette even gave me a rosary of green beads on a silver chain, held in a black leather case. I carried it around daily for a couple of years before it started feeling too much like an affectation. But I’ve always cherished it and I always will.

Probably the most wonderful thing Georgette ever gave me was permission to understand and love my cats, especially Bonnie. Bonnie jumps up on things and makes fussy noises at me, which I interpreted as just plays for attention. But Georgette saw it and tilting her head and smiling, she said warmly, “She loves you...” In saying it, she let me believe it too. In that moment she gave me as sort of permission to let my relationship with these little beings become deeper. It was like I’d known all along but wasn’t allowed to really believe without someone else saying it. She did. Her words ring in my ears just as she said them, every day.

Georgette didn’t suffer fools or foolishness happily. She wasn’t at all unfriendly; far from it: she could strike up simpatico conversations with strangers effortlessly... but she was easily frustrated and often made no bones about being plain about it, especially with people she knew. When I was younger it was off-putting. But as I grew older, it became oddly endearing. I can’t really explain why but it’s true. She just wouldn’t have been Georgette if she were a doormat. Georgette knew her rights, and consequently, so did everyone else. And to be honest, I find myself rather more vocal when I think I’m being taken advantage of. Maybe I learned to show those claws by watching her.

Her health declined slowly over the years, and each time she went to the hospital for a week or two, she came back slightly diminished. It was never a big thing, never anything I noticed... it was just cumulative. At first, pretty much whenever I saw P-Doug, I saw Georgette. Midway through the 2000s, it seemed like I was still seeing a fair bit of her on the road trips and a few nights out, but it was easier for P-Doug to just get away and have a buddies day on the weekend at a pub or doing some hiking. Often we’d meet up with her at the end of the day. But really in the past three or four years it got to the point where it was getting difficult to budge her for anything social. She found it hard to sleep at night, and basically slept out of exhaustion during the day. If I saw her every couple of months towards the end there, I’d say that was the extent of it, and I was finding myself wishing it were more. But never mind, I thought, it’ll come.

There was a day last summer when I was bringing something down to P-Doug, and he was out at a concert or something, and so I sat with Georgette in the living room, just talking. It was kind of like those old days, just her and me in the food court. I was looking forward to more moments like that. But just dropping in during the day was, more often than not, to meet with an unanswered door, because she was usually sleeping. So it really didn’t happen. And there was always more time, you know.

She didn’t look well at all when we all met up for Christmas at our traditional meeting place, the Swiss Chalet in Don Mills. She was distracted and pale. It took her a couple of minutes just to leave the restaurant and get to the car. I suppose a part of me sank that day. Part of me knew, I suppose, that we probably really didn’t have long. As it turned out, Georgette had both a stroke and a heart attack more or less simultaneously on New Year’s Eve. She was admitted to Toronto East General Hospital and never left it.

At first, she was unconscious, and P-Doug wasn’t even sure she’d wake up, and if she did, who she’d be, and what she’d be able to do. But then it seemed almost like a miracle. She did wake, and over the course of a week or so, her personality largely reintegrated and reemerged. She still had control of her body, though she was weaker. Larry and I arranged to come and see her on Wednesdays, and she looked remarkable the first couple of times I saw her. She was pink again, and she looked a decade younger. My heart soared for her. There was talk that she would need to move to a nursing home, since P-Doug would not have been able to attend to her during working hours, but to look at her, deep down, I had every hope she’d make her way home sometime this spring.

But of course, I was only seeing her occasionally. P-Doug was seeing her daily, and was getting the bigger picture. She was stable, but not improving. In fact, her kidneys, never strong, were on the verge of failing. She feared dialysis and had watched her foster father die of kidney failure shortly after President Kennedy was shot. Her body had been through a lot over the past 15 years. There was little more they could do. He signed papers to put her into palliative care at the hospital, and began the grieving process while she was still alive.

We all expected a few more months with her. When I saw her that Sunday, her arms were covered with burgundy splotches that looked like Indian burns. They were a drug reaction. She made a joke about the hideous colour. She was slow and tired but still bright. And I prepared myself for more weekends like this.

Larry dropped by to see her on his way someplace the following Tuesday. He did not know they’d moved her to the palliative care ward, and him not being family, they couldn't tell him anything. He left, frustrated, with the gift of a word search puzzle book he’d brought her; a gesture of compassion and personal recognition he never got to make. Less than twelve hours later, she died quietly in her sleep.

They called P-Doug.

Later, he emailed us.

Georgette didn’t want a funeral, so she had none. P-Doug saw no point in a showing since hardly anyone in Toronto knew her; their families were up north, and Georgette’s coworkers from the 1990s had largely drifted on. And so the last time I saw her, alive, was the last time I would ever see her. She was cremated the Monday following her death.

For me, it’s not quite real. In recent years long stretches of not seeing her were the norm, but she remained a presence in my mind. I don’t fault their plans and decisions (even if I did, my opinion hardly matters). It’s just... hard to make real. I know she’s gone, but that feeling that, yeah, she’s still in that house and if I want to I can see her, that’s still kind of there. I’m not sure what will dislodge that. It might be months or years before that stops feeling a part of my fundamental reality.

Being 12 years or so her junior, I anticipated going to her funeral, someday. I always imagined myself placing the rosary she’d given me back with her where it belonged. That’s not going to happen. I find that even the thought of taking it out and looking at it is painful. Not just because she’s gone, or even mainly that... because it means I’m older; that things that were mine to avail myself of have moved past me, beyond my reach. Those sweet days are gone. Something warm, familiar, and even familial has disappeared from my life and won’t be back. And that is a deeply somber feeling. I’m left with the memories of her, and the slightly different person I am for having known her all those years.

But there’s that. The big lights in your life exert a form of gravity on your character. The path it would otherwise have taken is changed under their influence, and as a result you become a slightly different person than you would have been otherwise. And in some ways, I’m not the person I would have been had she not been such an influence on my life for 20 years. I think I’m slightly more dependable for having known her. I think I’m more likely to be a bit brittle and stand up for myself because I’ve known her. And I can see love for what it is, even in beings with no way to say it in words. All that is what she gave me and how she shaped who I am today, and it’s a part of her immortality; the only kind we know for sure we ever get. It resonates in me and everyone she knew, and it will ripple through the world through us in the interactions we, the people subtly changed by her, have with others. She herself is gone, but persists in who we all are.

And I think there I’ve found my answer; that thing I didn’t have when I started writing this.

It hurts, but it will be okay.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Dream catcher

For about seven and a half years, I had a little dream catcher on a leather strap hanging from my rearview mirror. I got it when I bought (leased) my previous car, and it moved over to the new one, a later model of the same kind, when I bought that nearly four years ago. It had a bright yellow feather when I got it that was slowly bleached white over the years by the sun. The only reason I know that is that old photos I took way back when show a startlingly canary-yellow feather. Photos are like that.

Recently, I took it down. I had a pang of guilt doing it, but the thing was getting old and drying out. The leather straps cracked just trying to get it set up in the new car, and that was nearly four years ago. What prompted me to replace it was that I got a really cute Pinkie Pie Christmas ornament that I wanted to hang from the mirror. Much as I liked it, she weighed a few ounces, and when she got swinging, she really took your eye off the road. A little reluctantly, I took her down too, a couple of weeks ago. But, again, that was prompted by a replacement.

This one wasn’t anything to hang from the mirror. It’s a dash cam... a different kind of “dream catcher”. Specifically, it’s a Papago P3. They’re not easy to get in North America, and I ordered it from Taiwan. I suppose I could have kept Pinkie flying, but having her wallop the dash cam every time I hit a bump didn’t seem like a good idea.

How did this come about. Well, a friend sent me a YouTube link to a crash compilation video. A large number of them were from Russia. Now, I’ve been hitching my various cameras up to my windshield and videoing certain drives for years. But it was a rare occasion I planned for. These things were so numerous, and the drives so casual, that I started thinking, nah, there’s no way they’re doing that. Someone’s learned to rig up something permanent. Somewhere in the back of my head the term “dash cam” was either coined, or vaguely remembered, and I started looking around. Sure enough, there are scores of models and have been for several years now. I did a lot of research into models with features I wanted and ultimately settled on the Papago P3 (review here).

(Incidentally, the Russians apparently have a vogue for dash cams because there's been a rash of hood-divers throwing themselves onto slow-moving cars and suing the borscht out of drivers... hence the proliferation of "crazy Russian driver" videos on YouTube at the moment.)

It’ll be nice to have if I get in an accident, particularly if I’m not at fault. But principally I want it because I want to record what the city and its environs look like, in the hopes of passing that along to future generations. So often, I’ve driven through something in town, thought I should go back and record what it was like at least passing through, and then forgot. This way, it’s there. Also, it means less set-up for the drives I do plan. This summer, I mean to use it to video a lot of the roads in York Region that are, for the moment, two-lane rural blacktop, but will probably be six-lane thoroughfares through subdivisions by the time I retire. I’m fascinated by photos people took years ago of streets I’ve lived near, even ones taken when I was living there years ago, because I either wasn’t there, or else didn’t take notice back then because it was too ordinary. Having something that takes the planning out of doing that really appeals to me.

I’ve already used it to add a few things to the Millennium Project. The video of my very first crossing of the new bridge carrying 16th Avenue over the Little Rouge River, found a few posts back here on this blog, is a case in point. I’ve since videoed my first drive on Sheppard Avenue under the new railroad underpass at Agincourt on its newly-opened westbound lanes. I also saved video of a tree coming down as I drove past on Victoria Park Avenue. No big deal, but it was such a strange occurrence, I just had to add it.

I’ve written a whole lot there just to get around to my ultimate point, and that is that I’m truly amazed at the progress camera technology’s taken in a very short sweep of time. Because I was updating my Agincourt project, I had a look at the first video I shot there, just as construction was beginning. If I remember correctly, that was in August, 2010... not even three years ago. (Actually, I just checked the blog; it was July. But yeah, 2010.) For the work I did that day, I was using three cameras. I had the HX5V and the W1 for large and 3D photos from the ground respectively, and I had the old G9 mounted on the windshield to record driving over the level crossing, something that wouldn’t be possible for much longer (and, in fact, now isn’t). A nostalgic moment even then because for me, that level crossing always meant I was heading into the part of town my buddy Dig and I would go to for a few beers around the time I moved to North York, now nearly 13 years ago. But anyway... I was watching the video I’d shot of the level crossing and was a little disappointed. The video was mono and 640x480. I knew that, of course, on an academic level, but I was kind of shocked to go back to it and see what that implied. The G9 was state-of-the-art at the start of 2008, when full 30 fps video at 640x480, without short time limits like 15 or 30 seconds, meant you had a camera with some serious chug. Of course, already by that day in 2010 I could have done better with the HX5V, but I had the G9 in the window because I didn’t figure the video quality would be an issue, I guess. I wish I’d used the HX5V.

When I compared it to the P3 video, the difference is sobering. And the P3 isn’t even particularly high end as cameras go; it’s a journeyman object made to record practical video on the fly; nothing more. But even so, the video quality is clear and is full HD (1920x1080 at 30 fps), and the sound (while still mono) is excellent and sharp;  I would even say textured. A shame it’s not stereo, but really, just recording ambient sounds inside the car, why would it be. Where it really adds something to the project, and why I chose it, is because of what it logs. At the bottom of the video, it records your GPS location down to a ten thousandth of a degree, your heading in the eight cardinal and ordinal directions, your speed moment by moment, and the time and date. It also creates an NMEA log file, which includes information on the jostling the camera experienced in three axes. One of its jobs is to automatically lock the current file when it senses a collision so it won’t be overwritten (it records in 5 minute file chunks and when the card is full, serially overwrites the oldest file); as it happens, it also stores that data in the NMEA file, which can give you some sense of how rough the road was, exactly where turns were made, and things like that. It’s also far better at picking up GPS signals than any other system I’ve had so far; on average, well under a minute after the car starts. I’ve had trips where even my PhotoTrackr logger, which does nothing but record GPS info, has been 15 to 20 minutes into a trip before it found its GPS ass with both electronic hands. As for the GPS-enabled HX5V and S100, well, I can tell stories of missions with them where they never managed to get a fix (and they don’t record that information for videos in any case). So I’m quite pleased with that.

I believe it’s possible to turn off the different kinds of information being written into the field of the video, and let people depend on the NMEA file for all that, but I’m probably not going to do that. The P3 records just about everything I’d like it to in the video, something I’ve wished for for a long time, and as such its videos can stand alone. No doubt there will eventually be computers that can “watch” the video, read the numbers, and reconstruct the course on a map just from the video. I think having that information in there, scrawled innocuously at the bottom of the view across the end of my hood, will be of real value to nerds like me one day... down the road. :)

Monday, February 11, 2013

Numbers slumber

Over at Down the Road, Jim has posted about ancient math skills. Unlike him, my stamina for math ran out early. From being on the math team that won city-wide when I was in grade 8, by grade 13 I was getting a D-for-effort 51% pity pass in relations and functions. Numbers that weren't tied to something concrete that I could manipulate in my mind have always given me trouble. The only math I ever really shined at in high school was trigonometry, because I could see it, experience it, show it, use it. It was the one trick I could really show off with my math yo yo. The rest of them? Forget it. I can manage quadratic equations provided they're simple enough, but don't bet the mortgage I'll get the right answer.

Every once in a while, though, I get this hankering to dust off the math skills I do have and see if I still have any chops. Recently I wound up in a kind of a slow-motion debate online with a guy who pointed out that the Andromeda galaxy is due to, eventually, collide with ours. He was essentially characterizing the event as something like gigantic car crash; something that would end life on Earth. And I just shook my head.

Galaxies are nothing like as solid as objects in the common world. Scaled up, they behave much more akin to liquids or even gasses. Stars seem huge, but that's only in relation to the scales we're used to here on Earth. In reality, they're specks unimaginably far apart in space so vast it's really beyond our ability to really grasp. This "collision" will take place over millions of years, and will be something more like two swarms of bees passing through each other than two solid objects colliding. The shapes of the galaxies will be massively disrupted, that's true. But collisions between stars, or disruptions to their planetary systems? Extremely unlikely for any given star due to the vastness of the distances involved.

Consider: it takes light between three and four seconds to cross the diameter of the Sun. It takes light roughly seven hours to reach the orbit of Pluto, which traditionally we've thought of as the "edge" of the solar system, whatever we might call it today. After that... four and a half years to reach the nearest next star, Alpha Centauri. Seven hours, then nothing to speak off for over four years, and that's if you head in exactly the right direction. Other "nearby" stars are decades or centuries away at the speed of light.

So I set out to try to enlighten this guy with an illustration. And this was my reasoning.

What affects the Earth in a noticeable way? Well... the Moon. You can see the tides. Okay, there's my standard.

What's an impressive distance, but one that sounds dangerously close on the scale we're talking here? A light year. Over four times closer than Alpha Centauri.

Okay. So how massive would a star have to be, passing a light year from the Sun, to have the same gravitational influence on the Earth as the Moon? That's the mathematical task I set for myself.

The starting premise I have from my old days watching Cosmos. I know that gravity, like light, propagates by the inverse square rule; that is, a body twice as far away must have four times the mass to have the same influence as a body half the distance away. I did some scribbling on my cream-coloured desk in pencil and decided the following:

a/b = √c/d, where

a = the distance from the Earth to this hypothetical star (9,460,730,472,581 km)
b = the distance from the Earth to the Moon (370,000 km)
c = the mass of the hypothetical star (unknown)
d = the mass of the Sun in lunar masses (81.3 [lunar masses in the Earth]*332,000 [terrestrial masses in the Sun]) = (26,991,869.9)

My calculations had to be rough, because the numbers I was inputting were, but I knew I should get something approximate. Essentially, if you square the result of the first calculation, it's equal to the mass of this star divided by the mass of the Moon, as expressed in solar masses. The number I came up with at the end of it all was that for a star passing one light year away to have the same gravitational influence on the Earth as the Moon does, it would have to be 23,207,735.6 times the mass of the Sun. That's very rough, of course, but if my math is right, then the answer has to be somewhere around that figure. I don't think there are any stars that massive. VV Cephei, I star I've marveled about since I was a kid, is thousands of times the radius of the Sun, but even so, probably has a mass only about 20-25 times that of the Sun. The long and the short of it is, even a very massive star would have to come improbably close to the Sun to even mess with the tides, let alone chuck the Earth out of its orbit or suck the atmosphere away, or any of the other disasters this guy seemed to have expected for the planet... When Galaxies Collide! And this was me trying to put what little math I can apply to some kind of practical use to demonstrate a point.

Even if I'm off, I'm still kind of proud I could marshal this much of a proof without getting stymied. :)

P.S. I forgot to mention that I scaled down the example in order to provide the guy with something he might be able to relate to. If you imagine stars to be the size of the average car... say, 10 feet across... then at that scale, Alpha Centauri, the nearest "car", would be 58,000 miles away. There's a whole lot of space in space, and even at that scale, the likelihood that a passing car, or 18-wheeler, or even a B-52 is going to cause you much trouble in terms of collision is, obviously, perishingly small.

Thursday, February 07, 2013


Quite an age we're living in. I'm sitting in a pub in North York, watching the first of a major snow storm as people crawl homeward, waiting for a buddy of mine who works downtown to get here. Meanwhile, I'm using the pub's free wifi to watch Convoy, a movie I haven't seen since I was a young teenager, on YouTube. Now... if only I could walk away from this $2800 computer that belongs to my employer to go relieve myself, all would be, however momentarily, right with the world... :)