Feb. 10th, 2016

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  • blogTO notes a controversial condo project on Dupont just east of me, and Torontoist notes a controversial condo project in Yorkville.

  • Centauri Dreams notes preliminary research suggesting rocky exoplanets will be structured like the Earth.

  • The Dragon's Gaze links to a paper suggesting that tightly-packed exoplanet systems are product of gas giants.

  • Joe. My. God. notes that the Georgian Orthodox Church has requested police protection for a man who filed a marriage equality lawsuit in that country, since previous gay activists have been publically attacked.

  • Marginal Revolution notes an apparent permanent downwards shift in employment in the United States.

  • The Map Room Blog notes the return of stolen maps of Samuel de Champlain to the Boston Public Library.

  • The Power and the Money's Noel Maurer wonders if the Democratic Party can shift as far left as the Republicans have shifted right.

  • Peter Rukavina recounts his recent visit to New Hampshire to see the primaries.

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Spacing Toronto's John Lorinc gives readers more reason to despair about Toronto's municipal government funding.

The 2016 budget debate, which lands today at executive committee after doing the usual rounds, has offered up a curious mix of urgency and its opposite.

On the one hand, Mayor John Tory and city manager Peter Wallace have been warning for some time now that city council needs to adopt unspecified new revenue tools meant to address not merely normal course operating pressures but shortfalls that are looking a lot like entrenched structural deficits.

On the other, the mayor’s proposed property tax hike of just 1.3% — a figure that is slightly under the Bank of Canada rate, but doesn’t reflect rising prices of food and other imports — is lower than anything the post-amalgamation council ever approved, except for the four years (1998-2000, in the Lastman era, and 2011, year-one of Ford) which featured zero tax increases (many thanks to Western University’s Zack Taylor for the longitudinal data). Soaring real estate prices have added a $100 million windfall to the land transfer tax, and so it seems almost certain that the federal budget will bring all sorts of manna for housing and transit. The message: we can relax because David Miller’s land speculation tax is going to save us, again.

So: Bad news and good news. Pick your poison.

At the risk of hurling Spacing readers into a pit of budgetary obscurata, let me further confound this ambivalent picture with a substantial, though little noted, shift in the City’s policy for funding certain capital expenditures from the operating budget – the so-called “capital from current (CFC)” or “pay-as-you-go” line item. If you don’t pay much attention to the CFC figure, don’t feel bad. No one does.
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My thanks go out to Torontoist's Sean Marshall for explaining, what, exactly, short turns are.

Short turns have long been one of the biggest frustrations of riding local transit. You’re halfway to where you need to be and then you’re told you need to exit the bus or streetcar. Everyone groans, and impatiently waits for the next vehicle to arrive, and no one is happy.

[. . .]

Simply speaking, a short turn is where a transit vehicle is turned back and taken out of service before reaching the terminus of the route. In a transit system as complex as the TTC, some short turns are inevitable; major disruptions such as a collision blocking a route will require backed-up vehicles to be turned around. But thanks to simple traffic congestion or poor route management, they’re a common frustration for many riders.

Sometimes, short turns are deliberate and planned: for example, during morning rush hours, every second subway train on Line 1 is turned back at St. Clair West Station. This provides for extra train service on the busier Yonge and University sections of the subway line, but reduces service north of St. Clair West. Buses or streetcars might run in service along a part of their route on the way to the garage or carhouse.

In most cases, short turns are unplanned. Traffic and weather conditions, vehicle crowding, poor scheduling, mechanical problems, or other delays will often cause buses and streetcars to fall behind schedule, sometimes resulting in bunching, as other vehicles catch up to the delayed bus or streetcar. Buses are often able to leap-frog each other, but streetcars are stuck. If delays are bad enough, it can create long waits for passengers waiting further down the line, eventually affecting passengers in the opposite direction. Transit control or route supervisors can instruct operators to turn-around early in an attempt to maintain the posted schedule.

The 501 Queen Streetcar, for example, can short turn at several points along the route. A Queen car headed eastbound from Long Branch to Neville Park can turn around at Humber Loop, Roncesvalles Carhouse, Dufferin/Shaw, Bathurst, Church, Parliament/Broadview, Connaught (Russell Carhouse), or Kingston Road. Kingston Road is an especially common short-turn location, frustrating passengers trying to get to the Beach(es).
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At Discover's The Extremo Files, Jeffrey Marlow draws from the Nature Communications paper "Talc-dominated seafloor deposits reveal a new class of hydrothermal system" to describe a new kind of life-supporting seafloor vent.

In December, however, a team of researchers from the National Oceanography Centre and the University of Southampton in Southampton, England, published a remarkable new finding: a new type of hydrothermal vent.*

At the Von Damm Vent Field (VDVF) in the Caribbean Sea, diverging plates move apart at a mere 15 milimeters per year – much slower than most mid-ocean ridges. This didn’t seem to bode well for rigorous venting activity: “It was originally thought that ultra-slow spreading ridges would not be able to support hydorthermal activity,” notes Matthew Hodgkinson, a PhD student at the University of Southampton who led the study. “As the spreading rates get slower, you generally have a lower magma supply and less heat to power hydrothermal vent fields.”

Which is why the 1997 discovery of hydrothermal venting at the ultra-slow spreading Southwest Indian Ridge came as a surprise. VDVF follows in this tradition, and is even more surprising given its slightly off-axis position. Electron-rich 200-degree (C) water was supporting a rich ecosystem comprised of many endemic species. “We’d expect there to be no magma whatsoever,” Hodgkinson explains, “so what’s powering this kind of activity? And what are the chemical consequences?”

During two different expeditions in 2010 and 2013 to the vents, the Southampton researchers tried to get answers, retrieving rock samples and developing high-resolution bathymetric maps of VDVF. When the remotely operated vehicle Isis returned to the ship after a day of sampling with a basket full of rocks, “the scientists would swarm around to get their samples,” Hodgkinson recalls, “bring them inside, take a photo, and do a quick description.” The more detailed analysis of mineralogy and rock precipitation history would be done back in the lab over the coming months and years.

Ultimately, the team found something remarkable: the dominant mineral was talc, a magnesium-rich silicate mineral perhaps best known for its softness and starring role in cosmetics products. It’s an unusual mineral to see at the seafloor, likely attributable the high pH values at VDVF (6) compared to those found at canonical black smokers (2-4). With a higher pH, the concentration of dissolved metals remains low, allowing silica to serve as a more prominent mineralogical player.
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Wireds Sarah Zhang describes how the spread of the Zika virus has influenced the abortion debate in South America.

With no vaccine, no cure, and without even a reliable diagnosis, doctors are at a loss for how to protect their patients from the Zika virus. In the past year, the mosquito-borne disease has spread throughout Latin America, sparking panic because of a possible link to microcephaly—babies born with abnormally small brains. Without more information, medical advice so far has boiled down to this: Don’t get pregnant. So say official guidelines from Brazil, Colombia, and Honduras. El Salvador has gone so far as to recommend women do not get pregnant until 2018.

But most of these Latin American countries are also Catholic, so access to birth control is often poor and abortion is flat-out banned. “This kind of recommendation that women should avoid pregnancy is not realistic,” says Beatriz Galli, a Brazil-based policy advisor for the reproductive health organization Ipas. “How can they put all the burden of this situation on the women?”

In Brazil, where Zika has hit the hardest, birth control is available—though poor and rural women can still get left out. One report estimates that unplanned pregnancies make up over half of all births in the country. And abortion is illegal, except in cases of rape and certain medical conditions. A raft of impending legislation in Brazil’s conservative-held congress may make it harder to get abortions even in those exempted cases.

Now throw Zika into that. Scientists still haven’t confirmed the link to microcephaly, but Brazilian researchers have confirmed the virus can jump through the placenta from mother to fetus. Circumstantially, the number of of microcephaly cases has gone up 20 fold since Zika first reached Brazil. In the face of fear and incomplete information, women will have to figure out how to protect themselves and their children.
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Wired's Nick Stockton describes the scale of the devastation in the Michigan city of Flint, left to repair a poisonous infrastructure.

It is possible to trace every drop of toxic water spewed from Flint, Michigan back to two terrible decisions. The second was switching the city’s supply from treated Lake Huron water to the corrosive broth in the Flint River. Left untreated, that water unleashed the disaster stored in the walls of the city’s first bad decision: its lead pipes.

In the past few weeks, the nation’s attention has increasingly focused on Flint’s public health disaster. At least 15 percent of the city’s homes have water with lead levels exceeding the safe limit established by the federal government. Several of those homes had water with lead levels 900 times above the safe limit. Poor political decisions caused the crisis, but it wouldn’t have happened at all if the lead pipes weren’t there to begin with. The current solution is a stopgap—spiking the water supply with an anticorrosive chemical. But if the powers that be want to eliminate the risk completely, they will ultimately have to replace all the lead plumbing. A September estimate, only recently released by Michigan governor Rick Snyder, puts the cost of replacing all the lead pipes in Flint at $60 million. And the project will take 15 years.

The basic challenge: dig up several thousand miles of poisonous pipe buried as deep as dead bodies.

Oh, for Pete’s sake. People can only take bottled water baths for so long. “I don’t understand, are they only going to fix four pipes a day?” says Harold Harrington, business manager of Flint’s plumber’s union, the United Association Local 370. He says with the right kind of investment, the city—or state, or whoever ends up taking responsibility—could move a lot faster.

Most of the corroded pipes in Flint—20,000 to 25,000 in total—are what is known as service lines. These are one inch in diameter, and connect homes to the larger, main pipes running under the middles of streets. (The mains are cast iron.) Because Flint is in Michigan, and Michigan is a very cold place, the service lines have to be buried about three and a half feet deep, below the frost line. “But most of the main pipes are between five to seven feet deep, so the service lines are at a similar depth,” says Martin Kaufman, a geographer at the University of Michigan-Flint. So that’s the basic challenge: dig up several hundred miles of poisonous pipe buried as deep as dead bodies.
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At Discover's The Crux, Jo Merchant describes how a high degree of social integration can extend longevity.

The Nicoya peninsula in northwestern Costa Rica is one of the most beautiful places on the planet. This 75-mile sliver of land, just south of the Nicaraguan border, is covered with cattle pastures and tropical rain forests that stretch down to the crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean. The coastline is dotted with enclaves of expats who fill their time surfing, learning yoga and meditating on the beach.

For the locals, life is not so idyllic. They live in small, rural villages with limited access to basics such as electricity, linked by rough tracks that are dusty in the dry season and often impassable when it rains. The men earn a living by fishing and farming, or work as laborers or sabaneros (cowboys on huge cattle ranches), while the women cook on wood-burning stoves. Yet Nicoyans have a surprising claim to fame that is attracting the attention of scientists from around the world.

Their secret was uncovered in 2005 by Luis Rosero-Bixby, a demographer at the University of Costa Rica in San José. He used electoral records to work out how long Costa Ricans were living, and found that their life expectancy is surprisingly high. In general, people live longest in the world’s richest countries, where they have the most comfortable lives, the best health care and the lowest risk of infection. But that wasn’t the case here.

Costa Rica’s per capita income is only about a fifth that of the U.S., but if its residents survive the country’s relatively high rates of infections and accidents early in life, it turns out that they are exceedingly long-lived — an effect that is strongest in men. Costa Rican men aged 60 can expect to live another 22 years, Rosero-Bixby found, slightly higher than in Western Europe and the U.S. If they reach 90, they can expect to live another 4.4 years, six months longer than any other country in the world.

The effect is even stronger in the Nicoya peninsula, where 60-year-old men have a life expectancy of 24.3 years — two to three years longer than even the famously long-lived Japanese. Nicoya is one of the country’s poorest regions, so their secret can’t be better education or health care. There must be something else.
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First, the CBC:

The federal housing agency says there is a risk of correction in Canadian housing markets in several cities, especially Toronto, Saskatoon and Regina, because of overvaluation and overbuilding of real estate.

Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation looks at housing markets in 15 Canadian cities every quarter, in an effort to detect housing bubbles.

Cities such as Calgary, Saskatoon, and Regina suffer from both overvaluation and overbuilding, as prices remain high and building continues in face of low oil prices.

The level of housing prices in these cities is not supported by the economic conditions, CMHC says. Prices remain high despite rising vacancies and falling demand for housing.

Alberta and Saskatchewan are facing weakening migration, employment, and income, which are in turn affecting housing markets, CMHC said in its report released Wednesday.

Overbuilding has worsened in Saskatoon and Regina, despite downward pressure on prices from weakened demand for housing, CMHC says.

Next, Bloomberg:

Canadian Finance Minister Bill Morneau introduced a package of tighter home-lending rules in December, citing risks from a surge in prices in Toronto and Vancouver that leave some younger families at risk from outsized mortgages. Prices of single-family homes in those cities often exceed a million dollars and have sparked a surge in condo construction that has drawn warnings from the International Monetary Fund.

“In Toronto, overall strong evidence of problematic conditions reflects a combination of price acceleration and overvaluation,” the CMHC report said. “We are also monitoring for the potential emergence of overbuilding in Toronto due to the high number of condominium units under construction. Inventory management therefore continues to be necessary to make sure that these condominium units under construction do not remain unsold upon completion.”

The overvaluation rating for Montreal, Canada’s second-largest city, was lowered to moderate from strong.
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The Dragon's Gaze recently-ish had two interesting links examining Venus and Mars, two worlds in our solar system's youth which could have been rather more Earth-like than at present. The first link was to the paper "Exploring the Inner Edge of the Habitable Zone with Fully Coupled Oceans".

Rotation in planetary atmospheres plays an important role in regulating atmospheric and oceanic heat flow, cloud formation and precipitation. Using the Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) three dimension General Circulation Model (3D-GCM) we investigate how the effects of varying rotation rate and increasing the incident stellar flux on a planet set bounds on a planet's habitable zone with its parent star. From ensemble climate simulations we identify which factors are the primary controllers of uncertainty in setting these bounds. This is shown in particular for fully coupled ocean (FCO) runs -- some of the first that have been utilized in this context. Results with a Slab Ocean (SO) of 100m mixed layer depth are compared with a similar study by Yang et al. 2014, which demonstrates consistency across models. However, there are clear differences for rotations rates of 1-16x present Earth sidereal day lengths between the 100m SO and FCO models, which points to the necessity of using FCOs whenever possible. The latter was recently demonstrated quite clearly by Hu & Yang 2014 in their aquaworld study with a FCO when compared with similar mixed layer ocean studies and by Cullum et al. 2014.

We also show how these results have implications for Venus in the early history of our Solar System since even at this time Venus received more solar flux than Earth does today while it may still have had a slow retrograde rotation. The Venus runs utilize a 2.9Gya solar spectrum generated with the code of Claire et al. 2012, a modern Venus topography with an ocean filling the lowlands (giving an equivalent depth of 310 meters if spread across the entire surface), atmosphere of 1 bar N2, CO2=0.4mb, CH4=0.001mb and present day orbital parameters, radius, & gravity. We demonstrate that ancient Venus could have had quite moderate surface temperatures given these assumptions.

The second link was to "The early geodynamic evolution of Mars-type planets".

It is not clear whether Mars once possessed active tectonics, yet the question is critical for understanding the thermal evolution of Mars, and the origin and longevity of its early dynamo. To address these issues, we have coupled mantle flow simulations, together with parameterized core evolution models, to simulate the early evolution of Mars-like planets, and constrain the influence of early mobile-lid tectonics on core evolution. We have explored a wide parameter suite, encapsulating a range of uncertainties in initial conditions, rheological parameters, and surface strength. We present successful models that experience early mobile-lid behaviour, with a later transition into a stagnant-lid mode, which reproduce core dynamo histories similar to the magnetic history of early Mars.
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The above is a rendering of the Sam the Record Man sign, planned to be posted--as described by the Toronto Star's Jennifer Pagliaro--in Yonge and Dundas Square, south of its former location.

Years after Sam the Record Man’s neon vinyl was dismantled and stored out of view, the sign’s keepers at Ryerson University are now starting the process of restoring it in earnest.

This week, the university issued a request for interested qualified companies to bid on installing the sign on top of a city-owned building facing Yonge-Dundas Square.

A Ryerson spokesperson said it’s too soon to estimate when the sign will be up, but that the university is “committed” to restoring it. Companies that respond will be asked about a timeline, Michael Forbes said in an email. Ryerson will be paying all the costs.

[. . .]

The following year, council backed a proposal to put the sign atop the roof of the Toronto Public Health building at 277 Victoria St. — around the corner from the old record store site and facing Yonge-Dundas Square, a spot city staff called a “culturally appropriate and relevant location for the Sam signage.”

When that plan was debated at council, there was concern the building on Victoria St. could also soon be up for sale.

At the request of Councillor Josh Matlow, council voted that any future sale of the site would include an agreement to preserve and maintain the sign there.

Below is my photo of the sign in question, in situ at Yonge and Gould.

Sam the Record Man
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Wired's K.M. McFarland makes the case that Bryan Fuller, who started his television career on Star Trek in the 1990s, is interestingly creative enough to run the show when it relaunches.

When CBS announced it was developing another Star Trek television series last year, most of the talk about it focused on the fact that it would exclusively be on the network’s on-demand and live streaming app and that the series would not tie in to the continuity of the forthcoming movie, Star Trek Beyond. With the debut set for 2017, it was an announcement that got people excited (or at least interested), but offered few details about what the series would look like or who would run it.

Now we know a few more tidbits (tribbles?) about the forthcoming series—and its seemingly perfect captain.

Yesterday, CBS announced Bryan Fuller, creator of the sadly departed Hannibal, would be co-creator and showrunner for the new series. Fuller got his start in TV as a writer on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and later worked on Star Trek: Voyager, so he’s already a smart pick to run the new show. But add in his other bonafides and he’s a near-genius one.

Aside from his experience on two previous Treks, Fuller’s other TV work—Dead Like Me, Wonderfalls, Pushing Daisies, the only episodes of Heroes that still hold up—prove him to be something akin to Joss Whedon: not always commercially successful, but consistently worthy of attention. Fuller approaches television in a riskier and more creatively ambitious way than most. Dead Like Me’s protagonist is an 18-year-old female grim reaper in Seattle. Wonderfalls centers on a gift shop clerk who talks to various animal figures that give her cryptic instructions. Pushing Daisies’ central romantic pairing can’t ever touch, because doing so would kill one of them forever. Even Mockingbird Lane, Fuller’s failed pilot (that still aired) for an update of The Munsters, centered on the black sheep of the Munster family: a normal human woman.

That kind of boundless creativity seems like a goldmine for a revival of Star Trek, and there’s already evidence for how Fuller would approach it. When asked about his ideas for a new series by Den of Geek in 2013, Fuller mentioned that he envisioned Angela Bassett and Rosario Dawson as captain and first officer, respectively, aboard the USS Reliant—the Federation ship that Khan takes control of in Star Trek II. “I would love to do that version of the show,” he said. After Kate Mulgrew played Captain Janeway on Voyager and Avery Brooks played Benjamin Sisko in Deep Space Nine, Fuller’s ideas would hold with how Star Trek depicts leadership roles more progressively than almost any other franchise.


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