01/18/12

Scientists reveal favourite theories


Charles DarwinOne hundred and ninety two scientists contributed more than 128,000 words in answer to The Edge’s question, “What is your favourite deep, elegant, or beautiful explanation?”

You have to admire that question. They didn’t ask, “What is your favourite theory?” or “What is your favourite scientific puzzle?” Neither did they confine it to any particular field. As noted in the Edge:

“Scientists’ greatest pleasure comes from theories that derive the solution to some deep puzzle from a small set of simple principles in a surprising way … answers may embrace scientific thinking in the broadest sense: as the most reliable way of gaining knowledge about anything, including other fields of inquiry such as philosophy, mathematics, economics, history, political theory, literary theory, or the human spirit. The only requirement is that some simple and non-obvious idea explain some diverse and complicated set of phenomena.

A breathtakingly clever question. And the responses are as luminous as they are eclectic. It is a testament to the wide, and eyes-wide-open, vision of science.

As the National Post noted in its story, Darwin’s explanation of evolution by natural selection, and Einstein’s explanation of time and space by general relativity, were the two most often mentioned. But the range of ideas presented is too rich to really limit it to just these two.

Many of the ideas suggested in the responses came to me as breathtakingly new and visionary. Some I had read about in books and magazines, although I don’t profess to truly understand them (string theory, for example). However, even as a layperson, I can appreciate why they highlighted Darwin’s realization of the mechanics of evolution (it basically created modern biological sciences) and Einstein’s realization (it created modern physics).

For me, Darwin’s explanation has always held a sort of charm. I suspect it’s because I first wrestled my way through his book around the precocious age of 12 or 13 (with intermissions to devour Tom Swift Jr and Andre Norton novels). It’s true that I understood little of it, and required the help of some other books borrowed from our local library to explain its broad scope in terms more appropriate for a pre-teen school kid. And it’s further true that my efforts to reread it since then have suffered from less attentiveness than I apparently had back then. But I still am in awe of its beauty and clarity and am slowly rereading it, in small bites.

As evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins, wrote about Darwin’s ideas in his submission, “Never in the field of human comprehension were so many facts explained by assuming so few.” But, fascinatingly, that was a mere sidebar to his submission. Dawkins chose to write not about Darwin, but about his great-grandson’s work in neurobiology. And at the end, he poses a challenge to genetic science. A delightful read – both Dawkins and all the responses.

01/8/12

Annual Mayor’s Levee today


The annual Mayor’s Levee will be held this afternoon, January 8, at Georgian Manor Resort, from 1-3 p.m.

This is the annual event in which people who have contributed significantly to the greater good of the community get recognized with the “Order of Collingwood.” It’s also an opportunity for the public to socialize with their council

This year the following people will get the Order of Collingwood:

  • Ms. Catherine Campbell
  • Ms. Penny Skelton
  • Mrs. Jennifer Nichol
  • Mrs. Barbara Fawcett
  • Mr. Terry Geddes

The following people will also be given a Companion to the Order of Collingwood pin. This is awarded to those people who have previously received the Order of Collingwood and have continued to make outstanding volunteer contributions to improve social, cultural, and or recreational conditions in the Town of Collingwood.

  • Mr. Charles Tatham
  • Mr. Dunc Hawkins
  • Mr. Paul Hurst

For the full program and to see a list of all previous recipients of the award, see this document.

01/3/12

Musing on mixed heights in urban environments


Mixed building sizesI recently spent some time looking online for images of cities where mixed building heights could show me how a varied skyline looks when buildings of significantly different heights are close together in an urban environment. This is, of course, because Collingwood council will soon consider allowing a six-storey building downtown, set amidst what are mostly two- and three-storey buildings. The mix of high and low in the core is common in cities, less so in smaller towns. That’s simple economics, however.

Aurora, ILAll of these images here were borrowed from various sites to showcase the mix. It’s a simple effect, it seems, of growth and time: buildings grow taller as population increases. Height was limited before the development of elevators and modern steel construction. This had the effect of limiting density, as well. There were many six-storey walk-ups built, but not very often outside big cities, at least from what I could find.

Barrie, ONI make no claims as to whether these photos represent good or bad planning, or whether they create a beautiful or ugly skyline. Those judgments are subjective. We will never reach a consensus on taste, so other factors will have to be considered in our decision. I was merely curious as to how such dichotomies of size looked in the real world. Nothing I’ve seen has changed my mind.

Boston, MAI’ve had the pleasure of visiting a lot of cities: I’ve been in Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, Halifax, Ottawa, London and almost every other Canadian city (the sole exception being Quebec City). I have visited many American cities, including New York, Atlanta, Chicago, Las Vegas, Boston, Cleveland, San Francisco, Detroit, Buffalo, Seattle and several others. I’ve been to Guadalajara, Acapulco, Mexico City and Morelia in Mexico, and Cartagena and Baranquilla in Colombia. I’ve been to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv where ancient and modern share property lines. I’ve seen a wide and varied mix of new and old in every city, often side-by-side in the core of the city.

Halifax, NSMost recently, I was in London, England. England has some very stringent laws about heritage and development, far stronger than anything we have here. I had the pleasure of sipping a pint of beer in a small pub in the heart of London, surrounded by tall, modern buildings that towered over it. I had the pleasure of eating lunch and shopping in 17th and 18th-century buildings that had been incorporated into newer structures much larger than the originals. And I had the pleasure of doing the same in entirely new buildings made of glass and steel. Nothing seemed glaringly out of place.

Toronto, ONThe mix of heights usually also indicates a mix of ages: heritage (shorter) and new (taller), co-existing. But not always: some of the shorter buildings on Toronto’s Yonge Street are comparatively new. Sometimes a lower height is the choice because taller buildings require more extensive engineering, and there may not be sufficient land for anything larger. Downtown Collingwood has such a mix of new and old shorter buildings.

Ottawa, ONMost Canadian cities are new compared to Europe’s, so we lack the volume of heritage buildings there. That makes it more important to retain what we have. But what does that mean for current and future development? For some, at least, it means nothing can be built that does not in some way enhance or mimic those heritage sites, or at least does not in any way overshadow them (aesthetically and literally). To me, part of the beauty of cities lies in their mix, not merely in the areas of similarity.

Philadelphia, PAI am not convinced that the character of a heritage building is in any way diminished by a more modern, or a larger building beside it. In fact, I personally feel that the heritage aspects can be enhanced when they are juxtaposed against another era’s architecture. I don’t feel, for example, that the classic brownstone homes turned into shops and offices in Toronto’s Kensington Market or along Baldwin Street are in any way diminished by the nearby highrises and office towers that can clearly be seen beyond the roof lines. To me, it makes the smaller buildings more human-scale and enjoyable.

Montreal, QCThere are numerous modern, small-scale buildings on the main street of Collingwood. the soon-to-be-vacant Shoppers’ Drug Mart is an example of a mediocre, boxy, modern design that would benefit from demolition and replacement. On its site won’t go a heritage building – maybe in another century it will be considered as such. Instead it will be a modern simulacrum that mimics older designs and their height.

Nashville, TNTo me the height argument has flaws when applied to the property at Hume and Hurontario, as much as it would to property in the Shipyards’ end of town. I see it as akin to my neighbours telling me I can’t plant a maple tree on my property because everyone south of me has older, established lilac bushes that would somehow be diminished by a taller maple at the far end of the street.

Hamilton, ONPerhaps if I wanted to plant that maple between two smaller bushes close to one another on a single property, I might agree that there could an aesthetic mismatch. In the same way, I wouldn’t want the one-storey SDM building replaced with a six-storey micro-tower (if such a thing were possible) because it would look out of place between buildings of three stories. But would a four-storey seem so out of place? What about a two-storey? Must it be three to suit the streetscape?

Markham, ONAt almost the end of the downtown portion of street, the Admiral Collingwood development needs special consideration. I can’t accept the argument that a six-storey building there will be so grossly out of place. There are too many examples I’ve seen where mixed heights complement one another, not detract from the other. I think that would be the case, here. I don’t believe a taller building will hurt the property values of the surrounding heritage buildings.

Fredericksburg, USAOf course, whether it fits or not, no matter what the height, the building will be new, not old. Although it will be tasteful and elegant, it will not be a heritage building. No argument for or against the height will change that. It will not even look much like the late-19th century buildings further up the main street. It will look like what it is: a new building with heritage-like stylistic touches.

Mixed heightsAs council, we have to consider all the factors that are represented by the development – economic, social, impact on the downtown businesses, tax revenue, etc. – not just the height. And if we want to avoid sprawl and live up to those honourable goals and visions we have set for this town – active transportation, active lifestyle, less dependence on automobiles, cultural strength, strong core area – then we need more people downtown. Higher density is the only way to put more people into a small space, and taller buildings are the only way to get more density. That’s why cities grow upwards. Property values increase with the height, too. That’s simple capitalism.

More mixed heightsWe’re still a small town and we have to ask whether a development of that size and scale will negatively affect our community (and the perception of our beloved small-town-ness). Or will it help it be a vital and exciting place to live with a lively and thriving downtown core? Which is most important to the long-term future of this town?

01/2/12

Jesus and Grilled Cheese


The Huff Post has a story on the most bizarre religious sightings from 2011, which I read on New Year’s Day. The Post story has people finding images of Jesus on everything from sandwiches to rock faces to dirty laundry and pizzas last year. No Photoshopping, honest…

Ashton KutcherAmazingly, most of the images look more to me like Ashton Kutcher than the radical Jewish rabbi of biblical description. Maybe we won’t know the truth until images of Demi Moore start appearing on toast.

One of the sighting includes the word “God” spelled out in veins on a woman’s leg (see here). She noticed it while shopping at a local mall. Some folks may find it comforting to know their supreme being has chosen a Wichita, Kansas, woman to spread his/her word – on her skin. Looking at the pictures, I wonder if the supreme being might be dyslexic, or simply really bad at handwriting, because to me at the best it looks like “Ooq” or “goo”on her leg.

I would have thought something more impressive, like “Mene, mene tekel upharsin” would have been better proof of a divine message than “Ooq.” Unless, of course, the message is meant for chimps and gorillas, not humans. And why the supreme being would write in English, rather than a biblical language, is unclear. Would Yod-He-Vav-He have been too much to write? Would a mid-western American shopper have even recognized Hebrew?

But take heart, ye desperate-for-a-miracle believers, because the bottom of the page of that story includes the sighting of Jesus in a crumpled sock in England. On seeing the visage in her drying laundry, Sarah Crane realized she had “the most holy pair of socks in Britain” and built a shrine to the sock. A shrine to a sock. In the land of Monty Python, it’s a place pilgrims will flock, I’m sure. Sorry I missed it on my recent trip to Old Blighty.

Jesus on a fish stickOn this side of the Atlantic, right here in Ontario, you can line up to see Jesus on a fish stick. Imagine people flocking to the fish freezer at Loblaws to light candles over a box of frozen Highliner fillets…

HuffPost isn’t alone in listing bizarre religious sights from 2011. Back last March, The Shark Guys ran a story on ten strange “Virgin Mary” sightings. These include variously imagined images of Mary in such unlikely media as potatoes, bird droppings and restaurant griddles.

Mary in a potatoBuzzfeed picks up on stories from around the Net and adds more weird sightings of Jesus and Mary, that includes dried mangos, tie-dyed T-shirts, melted chocolate and that all time favourite, rock faces.

Some believers will take almost anything as an image that bolsters their faith (called pareidolia). In a separate HuffPost story, a Virginia artist has had to fend off the pious because they’ve come to worship at his 30-foot sculpture of a pregnant woman, claiming it resembles the Virgin Mary (to me it looks more like Stevie Nicks did about 20 years ago…). Apparently his statue to motherhood has become a stop on bus tours of religious pilgrims, who never seem to find it curious that their Mary is heavy with child, not the usually svelte portrayal. Or that she lacks hands and feet and her gold-covered head seems disproportionately large for her body.

Naan bread, tortillas, bathroom tiles, irons, frying pans, Marmite jars, perogis – Jesus and Mary seem to pick pretty mundane places to appear. Why a divine image would appear on a consumable item like a sandwich baffles me. But it doesn’t baffle believers, who proudly show them off. And then sell them.

A grilled cheese sandwich with an alleged face of the Virgin Mary in it – with a couple of bites eaten – went for $28,000 on eBay. Other such items have appeared on eBay (a pancake and pierogi for example), making me suspect there’s a growth market for religious food icons.

Twenty-eleven wasn’t the only year with bizarre religious sightings: they happen all the time (see The Wondrous for a few from previous years). But thanks to the growing power of the Internet, more of them are shared than ever before. And more are on eBay, of course.

For the believers who feel slighted by not finding a holy image in their own morning cereal, this company offers a toaster that will burn the face of Jesus into your cooked bread every morning. Or the Virgin Mary. Or a peace sign, a cannabis leaf or a dog pawprint. Apparently the toaster is very popular. That begs the question if one is supposed to eat the toast or worship it. Is there some transubstantiation taking place? Too deep for me to ponder. (An alternative is the Jesus Pan, especially goof for making grilled cheese sandwiches…)

So far I haven’t run across any reports of Buddha images appearing on food, let alone walls or rock faces. Nor any images of Allah, Muhammed, Ganesh, Lao Tzu, Avalokiteshvara, Joseph Smith, Shiva, Manitou or any other religious figure or leader. I haven’t found Om-Mani-Padme-Hum inscribed on any veins or arteries, either. However, Mother Theresa did appear on the “Nunbun” at a coffee shop in Nashville, 1996, and in the same story, the name of Allah was found spelled out in eggplant seeds (in Urdu, not Arabic) in Mendhasalis, India, in 2003. It seems Jesus and Mary have cornered the franchise on images on fast foods, though.

Darwin on ToastHowever, I did find this remarkable image of Charles Darwin on toast. Now if someone was looking to build a shrine that would attract the likes of me, finding Darwin on a dirty tea-towel or unwashed sock, or even in a half-eaten grilled-cheese sandwich, that would be the ticket. According to The Onion, Darwin’s visage has graced at least one wall stain. Unfortunately that stain looks remarkably similar to one on a Chicago underpass wall that believers claimed showed the Virgin Mary, so I suspect my presence there lighting a candle to Charlie and his contribution to reason and science would be misconstrued.

I would think for the believers, finding a piece toast with an image of the late atheist, Christoper Hitchens, on it would really cinch their faith. After all, if Hitchens was still around in spirit, even on a pizza or a waffle, it would vindicate their belief in an afterlife.