Winter on two wheels: an interview with Tom Babin

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Long marginalized as mentally unstable radicals, there’s a particular group in Calgary and beyond that is fighting back against stereotypes in an effort to bring more unwitting citizens into their fold. Terrorists? Scientologists? Climate-change deniers? Nah, winter cyclists.

Front and centre in this battle for the minds is Tom Babin, senior tablet producer at the Calgary Herald and author of the new book Frostbike: The Joy, Pain and Numbness of Winter Cycling.

“I think the biggest obstacle to adopting winter cycling is having a healthier relationship with winter and getting over the fear of being cold and the fear of being outside,” says Babin, chatting over a coffee.

His book is geared mostly to people who are considering taking the step of riding year-round, weather be damned, and acts as a sort of guide for how to get started. In it he talks about attitudes and infrastructure around the world, dives into some history and shares information on available gear. He also shares anecdotes of his own journey — from car-dependent, to fair-weather rider, to winter cyclist — in the hopes that others will avoid some of the same mistakes he made, or simply gain the confidence to mount up when the thermometer dips.

“For me it was, I kept wanting to read something as I was starting winter riding and it was hard, I was just figuring it out on my own and I felt there were no resources,” he says. “So I thought, ‘I went through this whole process, I need to write something to help other people out.’”

One of the main issues with winter cycling is the perception that it is difficult, dangerous and uncomfortable, and while you do have to be more cautious — just as you do in any vehicle in winter — the truth is that winter cycling isn’t such a big deal.

“I also think that’s part of the problem right now, it’s sort of holding it back from being accepted as more of a mainstream thing, this idea that you’ve got to be this super-tough masochist to want to ride in the winter,” says Babin. “A lot of that comes from people who ride in the winter themselves — we like to sort of foster that image, and I admit it feels good to be exceptional, but it’s not that exceptional. If we want it accepted widely, we have to normalize it. We have to get over this idea that we’re doing something unique.”

He uses the example of seeing “grandmas putting their groceries in their basket and riding through the snow” while he was touring around Europe as fodder for his argument. He also highlights better clothing and equipment that make it easier to ride in the cold.

Although Babin is careful to note that you can’t sugarcoat the winter riding experience, and he documents a few wipeouts in his book to drive the point home, he also thinks there’s a critical mass of riders in the city who are looking to ride year-round and who need the support — from current riders and from the city. Maintenance and clearing of pathways is important and so, too, is debating cycling infrastructure, no matter how tiresome it can be.

“It would be nice to see the city get beyond the same arguments we’ve been going over and over and over again,” he says. “It would be nice to have a wider recognition that this is a good thing, but we also have to be reasonable too. Not every street should have a bike lane, and not every idea that comes out of the city is a good one, that’s for sure, and not every idea that comes from a bike advocacy group is a good one, but at least these are conversations that we’re having now and it’s nice to see us moving in the right direction.”

At the end of the day, however, it’s Babin’s lucid descriptions of those special moments, like riding down vacant streets and paths as snow falls and silence envelopes the city, that really capture the imagination and encourage a winter ride. You can argue infrastructure and gear all you want, but one trip like that and you’re bound to be hooked.

This post originally appeared in Fast Forward Weekly.

Laneway living in Calgary

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Behind the facade of Calgary’s inner-city neighbourhoods is a largely dusty area of garbage cans, bottle pickers and garages. It’s the perfect place to build a home.

While there’s been a lot of rhetoric as of late around suburban versus urban growth, there’s a wealth of unused land in Calgary. In other cities that same land is being gobbled it up in the name of higher density while still maintaining the character of their neighbourhoods. You may initially scoff at the idea, but living in an alley is more appealing than you think.

Matthew Kennedy has spent a lot of time thinking about alleys and community, specifically in Calgary. He wrote his masters of architecture thesis on the subject and is keen on pursuing the idea in the real world through his work at Studio North, along with partner Mark Erickson.

“The idea is not transforming the urban fabric of the community,” says Kennedy. “The empty nester could potentially build a laneway house or have a secondary suite that they could rent out to university students or a young professional, where the urban fabric is maintained but there’s just a new layer added on top of it, a new social intricacy that wasn’t there before. It’s just adding a richness to a community as opposed to just bowling it over and putting up a new condo.”

Both men say it’s a good middle ground for those who want to live urban but have their own space with a yard. It also has the potential to make inner-city living more affordable, not only for those living in the laneway house, but also for those living in the larger, original home.

“Maybe it doesn’t make it easier for a family that makes $35,000 a year, but what I think it will do is free up the rental market where people who make more money, who can afford $1,200 a month in rent, can live in a laneway house,” says Kennedy in reference to Calgary’s dismal rental situation and rising costs.

Of course, this isn’t a new concept — laneway housing has existed for a long time in many cities around the world. In our densest neighbour, Vancouver, it’s an increasingly popular planning option. Since 2009, that city has seen over 800 permits issued for laneway housing in single-family neighbourhoods, with 500 already built.

In Calgary, where there’s a palpable fear of rental properties in many communities, and where the words “secondary suite” send some screaming for cover, this concept hasn’t really taken off and certainly faces a battle from NIMBY neighbours.

“I think a really provocative way to think of zoning would be to allow people to subdivide — you see it a lot in Ramsay where lots are subdivided front to back,” says Kennedy. “Think if everyone is able to subdivide their house between front and back, all of a sudden everyone has, like, $200,000 potentially. They could sell for someone to develop a small laneway house. For a working professional, building a small dwelling on a small piece of land puts you in the same market as a condo, but then you have your own house.”

It’s the reliance on relaxed zoning regulations, rather than drawing up a master plan, that most appeals to the Studio North partners. Though they have designed concepts for what laneways could look like, including tree canopies and informal courtyards between houses, their ideas tend to the anarchic rather than the prescriptive.

“It would be homeowners and architects and different builders, with all these little cottages in the backyard,” says Kennedy of his vision for Calgary’s alleys. “The thing that was really great about Kyoto [when I was there researching] is there wasn’t a defined street edge, it was really rough where there’s all these little pockets where plants would be growing, bikes would be parked and people would be sitting in the shade. It was that roughness along the edge that really kind of animated that area and created a kind of framework… that people could fill in themselves.”

For both Kennedy and Erickson, great cities develop in a piecemeal fashion, adding layers and mixing demographics to create a more interesting whole.

What also appeals to them about the concept is the need for smart design, not only of the dwelling proper, but also it’s more confined interior — space at a premium is space that needs to be well thought out.

“In terms of design, it’s very interesting for us because it forces us to really be smart with space and make space that’s very versatile and that can transform,” says Erickson. “Space, you can design it so it’s massive. In a suburban home, because there’s so much space, it’s often misused.”

“Or not used at all,” adds Kennedy.

Defined by what is not: Unbuilt Calgary

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The great myth of Calgary is one of big open spaces that breed big ideas, fed by a relentless entrepreneurial spirit, but is that the reality? Somewhere in the ether between open sky and concrete, Calgary’s bold aspirations collide with an inbred conservatism that stops and asks: Yes, but how much does it cost? It’s a question that litters our history and, in the case of Stephanie White’s book Unbuilt Calgary , our (un)constructed landscape.

The title of the book is self-explanatory. White examined projects from the archives that, for one reason or another, were never built. From grand schemes, including the 1978 civic centre plan that was defeated in a city-wide referendum, and the VIA Rail terminal along Ninth Avenue, to the little details, including an LRT bridge over Fish Creek or an earth-sheltered house that was almost built into a Calgary hillside. It’s a story of booms and busts. Of grand ideas unfulfilled, of disasters averted and of defining moments in our design history lost.

For White, however, it’s the things that were built, or torn down in our ever-constant cycle of creation and destruction, that’s most telling about this city. The levelling of what already existed downtown to make way for the rise of the great corporate towers, the push for transportation so that people can escape those towers, and the city hall that turned its back on the East Village before it became a blank canvas awaiting new condos.

EDGES

As with any discussion involving Calgary’s development and growth, it starts with a line — the hard line between prairie and city. Everyone has at least one story related to it. For me, it was my father, who lived down the hill from what would become Elboya, then the city’s southern edge and now decidedly in the hole of Calgary’s expanding doughnut. Later, my friend lived in the last row of housing in Shawnessy.

“You know, that is the classic Calgary story,” says White. “My parents grew up here too, so in the ’20s they were just off 17th Avenue in the southwest. They were saying: ‘There was nothing behind us but prairie and buffalo wallows.’”

As Macleod Trail continues to stretch south, far beyond the original grid laid out by the Canadian Pacific Railway, the neighbourhoods have changed, the distance has increased, but there are some constants, even in a city like Calgary. While the CP grids still exist downtown, what’s most interesting is the creation of space in the city, heavily leaning to corporate places, as opposed to great public ones.

POLITICS

It used to be that the centre of Calgary was at the CP station just east of the Palliser Hotel. Open to Ninth Avenue S.W., the station was a fundamental reason for the city’s expansion and a justifiably important location. It was a company town, at least for a little while, and it’s never outgrown that beginning. Calgary doesn’t have great civic spaces, preferring instead to build gleaming towers and privatized squares.

“When you talk about civic open space, I have to think about Olympic Plaza and the forecourt of the municipal building,” says White. “When you think about really potent downtown civic spaces, and I’m thinking of the Grand Parade in Halifax, which is a very old space; church at one end, seat of government at the other, flat, it was parade ground for the military for heaven’s sakes. And that’s where protests happened. It’s sort of a very hot urban site. You can see how that kind of heat is completely undercut by both all those steps in front of the municipal building and then the Olympic Plaza itself, which you can’t walk across in a straight line and you can’t assemble in great numbers without people being at many different layers.”

The University of Calgary is another example of space that doesn’t allow for the unwashed masses to gather. White recounts in her book how the original design was overridden, leading to the almost arbitrary configuration of the campus, with no central meeting ground. Something that might have been inspired by the student protests sweeping the western world at the time.

Stepping away from the campus, White was researching her book when she came across a photo of Stephen Avenue mall in its early days. In it, a policeman clears hippies from wide, grass-filled planters that once lined the avenue. “I mean, the picture I saw was policemen moving hippies on. That was the caption to it. ‘Police oust hippies.’ And they were. You know, they were long-haired louts,” says White with a laugh.

The planters were removed. The hippies, one can assume, were as well, and Calgary could breathe easy with one less gathering spot for ne’er-do-wells.

TIME-LAG

It’s a fitting metaphor for the design of the city and its self-perception. As White says, there is a time-lag in Calgary’s aspirations and constructed environment, as tied to our social views of others as our design. There was the (thankfully unsuccessful) push to create a transportation parkway along the Bow River’s southern edge, filled with rail tracks and cars.

“That was suggested at a time when it was maybe like 20 years after such projects were going in in the States,” says White. “In the interim 20 years there’d been a huge American anti-parkway style of transportation planning. The people who led the protests against [the Bow River parkway] were Jack Long, who’s an American, and various other people, young people who had studied elsewhere. They were people who realized it was an outmoded model that was coming at the very end of an era.”

It can be seen over and over again in Calgary’s development. Take the recent example of projects that were built — the Peace Bridge and the Bow. While both are welcome additions, they don’t really mark the city as a hot spot of cutting edge design. Calatrava has a bridge in just about every major city and Foster kind of mailed in his design for Calgary’s tallest tower.

“By the time Calgary gets to get their famous architect bridge, it’s now 2004 or whatever it was, and they pay a lot of money to someone who’s recycling his designs because he’s no longer a sharp young architect,” says White. “There’s a time warp, or a time lag in this. The city comes late to movements. By the time we get to them they’re already over.”

When White and others were bringing hot young architects to the city for lectures in the ’80s, it failed to capture the imagination of those who make the decisions and commission the work.

CYCLES

It’s those missed opportunities that are the real unbuilt Calgary, the projects that don’t have any drawings, or plans — the ones that were never considered. While our constant game of catch-up certainly plays a role, there’s also the ever-present cycles of boom and bust, making Calgary a fairly unique canvas of ideas come and gone.

“In the book, there’s the thing about the Penny Lane tower,” says White, referring to the space now occupied by Eighth Avenue Place. “That was a case where [architect] Barry Johns did his little models and he went on holidays and by the time he came back it was all over.”

Thomas Mawson’s plan to remake Calgary as the Vienna on the Bow — the only part of which was constructed was the Centre Street Bridge — was likely never going to happen, but Calgary’s first crash from its first boom ensured that it would be lost. In fact, the plans were literally lost until being rediscovered in an Eau Claire garage in 1977.

There are the innovative condos-townhouse developments of the Beltline that became imposing towers with no street interaction. There was McIntyre Plaza along the C-Train tracks downtown that would have been the highest density tower at the time and opened up the avenue with a wide plaza. All lost to the inevitable busts.

Currently it’s the East Village, sitting largely vacant, with considerable buy-in from the city, that awaits its fate amidst a global recession.

TRUE CONSERVATISM

But White argues that perhaps we’re harping at the wrong things. Perhaps we shouldn’t be throwing ourselves into an architectural arms race, or bemoaning grand plans that never came to pass. What she misses most is not the projects that were never completed, but the loss of our heritage spaces and the destruction of a lively downtown to make room for commerce and commerce only.

There is also relief that some of the projects, or more specifically, the big plans, were not completed. There is a necessary tyranny to bold plans and great architectural statements.

“What kind of a political democracy or totalitarian system would we be living in where such plans would actually come to pass? They would require massive expropriations and draconian rules to tell people what to do with their own little pieces of land. It could never happen,” says White.

“Right now, where do we see the most extravagant modern architecture? We see it in Dubai, in Kazakhstan, in places where there’s not a functioning democracy.”

The great unbuilt city is missing out on the small things, rather than the large towers, the neighbourhoods and the plans.

“We can do an awful lot just in the downtown core dealing with how every building hits the sidewalk, and making some beautiful little transition that’s a whole set of planting and benches around every block around every building,” says White. “That would be so small, but it would be so significant.”

We may not ever be the architectural wonderland that so many hope for, and if White is right about the lacing of political oppression and grand design, we should be thankful for it. We get buildings. We’re too Canadian to ask for much more.

“I had never thought of Calgary as being a particularly conservative place. You know, it has always voted conservative, but I never had quite realized the extent of its caution,” says White. “And if we started to talk a lot about what’s positive about conservatism is that you conserve , and we started to perhaps realize that this caution could be seen as not a dead weight, but as a positive thing, it might mean that we turn our attention back to little things. That would be my hope.”

Unbuilt Calgary, by Stephanie White
Dundurn, 230 pp.

Bob Edwards: Early Calgary’s boozy bad boy

Illustration by Darcey Muenchrath

Illustration by Darcey Muenchrath

We are greatly depressed that an apparent abundance of our fellow citizens have never been blessed to know the writings of the late, great Bob Edwards. If there was a thing such as justice in this great city (without the need for the proper coinage to purchase it), those who don’t know of this Calgary precursor to the great gonzo journalists of the ’60s would be strung up and berated by their more enlightened counterparts. And what a show it would be.

Never heard of Bob? Well, for shame. He was the editor and, more often than not, the sole writer of the long-defunct Calgary Eye Opener , a feisty (semi) weekly rag, depending on his drinking, that caused no end of problems for its proprietor and those who found themselves in its crosshairs. Prime ministers, great corporations, aldermanic wannabes, ne’er-do-wells, grafters and other journalists all got their comeuppance in Bob’s pages. Think you can besmirch the innocence of a fair young lady? Think again ya scoundrel! Off to the printer it goes. Think you can roll into town and sell Calgarians a bridge? That’s Bob sitting on the stool at the hotel bar. Blamo! Your name in print. What’s that? You want advertorial for a gift? Be careful what you wish for. Yawp! Call Bob a drunk, a dope fiend and a squelcher of debts? Whoa ho! He’ll berate you to the grave and beyond. Damned right.

Of course, not all of what Bob wrote was true — that was his beauty. He made up social announcements (“Miss Myra Jennings has gone east to visit friends. We always thought something would come of that picnic to the lake last summer.”). He made up lasting characters (see Peter J. McGonigle, the shady, hapless fictional editor of the fictional Midnapore Gazette, or the fictional squelcher Albert Buzzard-Cholomondeley who penned letters to his father asking for money). And when there wasn’t news, or one of his favourite targets hadn’t done anything wrong, he would skewer them with non-news (“Not a life was lost or a buggy smashed at the CPR crossing last week”).

Bob, or Uncle Bob to his readers, was a satirist, a spewer of opinions, a muckraker, a boozer of the highest degree, a fearless editor and, for a brief time before his death, an independent MLA in the Alberta legislature. He was a larger-than-life character who used his fame (he was read across Canada) to shed light in darkened places, whether they be public offices or his own struggles with alcohol.

A WEE BIT OF HISTORY

Bob was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, orphaned at a young age, and raised by aunts. Despite his disdain for fancy education, or at least many of the people with fancy educations (“An educated fool is more foolish than an ignorant one”), Bob attended a posh private school at St. Andrew’s and studied at Glasgow University, but to his undying credit he failed to graduate (there is some disagreement over his university years, with some alleging he never got up to so much high-falutin’ nonsense). He departed for warmer climes and landed in Milan before striking out for France.

The continent proved unsuccessful, or perhaps unfulfilling, or perhaps too filling, for Bob. He set out for the wild lands of the United States, at one point owning an Idaho farm with his brother, before wandering the country. “The only really useful knowledge we possess today has been obtained while knocking about the continent and the United States — broke,” he wrote.

He eventually brought that knowledge to Canada, settling in Wetaskiwin, of all places, where he established the Wetaskiwin Free Lance paper, already displaying his irascible wit. After that escapade, he established the Alberta Sun in Leduc, then moved back to Wetaskiwin and published the Wetaskiwin Breeze before finally starting the Eye Opener in High River in 1902.

Now, if you go in for rumour — and when it comes to Bob, we most certainly do — he was chased out of High River for running afoul of the methodist minister, calling him a “misfit man of God.” Needless to say, he soon found the confines of our southerly neighbour perhaps a little to confining after that, and he packed up and moved his nascent publication to Calgary. There it remained until his death in 1922.

Of course, he accomplished many other noteworthy things aside from his constant chipping away at Calgary society. Uncle Bob managed to get himself elected to the Alberta legislature, largely on the promise of overturning some aspects of prohibition — Bob wanted whisky to remain banned, but he wanted a five-cent glass of beer, damn it.

THE MAN, THE FOLLOWING

Bob was a popular man in his day. His splendid local rag was read across the country and, according to the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online, had a circulation in 1908 of 18,500 copies. In 1906, Bob gloated that the Eye Opener had a circulation of 10,000 and “reaches and is read by about 40,000 people.” Regardless of numbers, there’s no doubt that he was a kind of celebrity in his day and he greatly relished his (in)famy.

Although the boozer was said to be quite shy in his daily life, his pages are stuffed with bragging, taunting and self-congratulation. He would tell tales of criminals facing the gallows with a smile on their face because they had just read a particularly witty bit of writing in his paper. He would regularly apologize for not publishing the paper after being, ahem, sick, or to make amends for the quality of a given issue: “The editor of this paper has been laid up by a severe illness for the past five weeks and is far from himself yet. Readers of this paper are therefore asked to overlook the shortcomings of this exceedingly bum issue.” On these occasions it often meant he was on a bender, or trying to dry out.

But with fame, and with his fearless style, Bob also engendered his fair share of enemies, and didn’t waste a damned minute in shifting from lighthearted raconteur, to fiercely aggressive attacker. He was banned from CPR trains, at one point banned from having his paper distributed in the mail, and he was sued twice.

When the editor of the Calgary Daily News , the dastardly Daniel McGillicuddy, penned a letter in his paper denouncing Bob as a “‘four flusher,’ a ‘tin-horn’ and a ‘Welcher,’ where poker debts are concerned,” that pushed Bob over the edge. He sued for libel and won, but was also censured by the jury and warned that if he didn’t clean up his act, his paper should be “suppressed.”

Needless to say, our man didn’t take it lying down, berating McGillicuddy relentlessly and not stopping even after the libeller was in the grave. When the Daily News shut down, Bob was all over it. “The old hypocrite, of course, was not fitted to conduct a newspaper, but was admirably equipped to run an obscene and libelling sheet for shameful purposes,” he wrote in 1910. Two years later, when McGillicuddy died, he was as angry as ever. “Hell got a new settler last week,” he wrote.

SOCIAL CONSCIENCE

We must here admit to feeling a bit guilty. We’ve painted Uncle Bob with a harsh brush, perhaps focusing too much on his dark side. It’s not the full story, and for that we are heartily remorseful. Bob wasn’t just a boozer. He wasn’t just vindictive. He wasn’t just funny. He tackled the issues of the day and showed a social conscience that was lacking in many others during Calgary’s early days.

His favourite rallying cry was against government graft. The man could not, would not, tolerate public officials on the take, and he felt free to call them out on any perception of it. But he also stood up for the poor, railed against the abhorrent conditions of Calgary’s new prison and condemned the mayor of Vancouver for authorizing excessive force against strikers. On the Calgary prison, he wrote: “The aggregation of so-called Christians — or bunch of rummies, whichever you prefer — whom you elected to run this city, are busy constructing a stronghold of police tyranny and cruelty compared with which the Bastille and the Black Hole of Calcutta were joy palaces.” Whoa ho!

He warned his readers of shady land speculators and bellowed loud and far about the inequitable treatment in local hospitals, appearing an early advocated of our universal health care system. “As the General Hospital has been run, it is little more than a hotel for sick people — rich sick people. There has been a place for paupers, but for the great mass of self-respecting people who will not accept charity and yet cannot afford to pay fees of $14 to $35 per week (which is about 60 per cent of the population), no accommodation is available,” he wrote in 1918.

THE PRESENT

As we said before, Bob isn’t as well-known as he should be. Sure there’s a school named after him, there’s a building at the Mayland Heights SAIT campus named after him, the CBC Calgary morning radio show throws him a nudge and, as you can read on this page, there’s an annual award given out in his honour, but it’s largely his name that catches the eye, rather than his writing.

But he has his acolytes. This writer, for one. We know for a fact that former Fast Forward Weekly staff writer Jeremy Klazsus is mightily chuffed by the old man’s writing. And then there’s Mr. Smutty. Remember him? For longtime readers of this rag, the name ought to be familiar and we’ll leave it at that. Anyway, his real name is James Martin and he edited a collection of Bob’s writing that we relied upon heavily in this article called Irresponsible Freaks, Highball Guzzlers & Unabashed Grafters. You should probably read it.

“I always knew the name, as most Calgarians probably do… and in my basement there was my grandfather’s copy of Grant MacEwan’s Eye Opener Bob with a bunch of other books that as a kid always looked really boring,” says Martin, who now calls Montreal home.

“I was an arrogant 20-something and this thing that I’d always dismissed as dull and not worth reading without having read it, was actually worth reading.”

Martin’s book collects a great many highlights from Bob’s career and, for the first time, prints the full text of his one speech in the legislature as an independent MLA. “The reason why whisky — good, bad or indifferent — finds such a ready sale, is due entirely to the inaccessibility of beer,” he lamented.

Researching Bob, however, was difficult. “There are many missing issues of the Eye Opener, or we think missing. One of the frustrating things about researching him is because he was a drinker and a binger, that he didn’t pay a lot of attention to the numbers that he put on the newspaper, so it’s actually hard to know if there are missing editions, or just because sometimes he’d give something the same number, two consecutive issues, (if) he skipped one but there wasn’t actually a missing issue.”

His mystery years while cavorting in the U.S. are also hard to pin down, but that’s really just part of the charm and part of the mystery for those who still cherish Bob’s writing. It sets him up as another of Calgary’s tall tales, of which we are a fan.

We’ve tried to emulate him a bit here (he always used “we” in case you’re wondering), but have largely failed and ask forgiveness for our terrible lack of skill. And there are others that take up the mantle, for better or for worse. The Sun ’s Rick Bell comes to mind. Hell, the Dinger (does anyone call him that anymore?) even ran for mayor, as Martin points out. We like to think thatFast Forward Weekly is a muckraking weekly in the Eye Opener ’s spirit, but that might be giving us too much credit.

One thing is for sure: this city needs to be more aware of a pioneering writer who pushed societal bounds well past their breaking point at a time when supplication was more the norm. He suffered for his craft. He suffered from the bottle. But in the end, he gave us a history of troublemaking that we should all be proud to call our own. Yawp!

Neil Turok on the quantum (r)evolution

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To say that Neil Turok’s book, The Universe Within: From Quantum to Cosmos , is a little disconcerting is an understatement. Fear of change is a constant in humans, but what Turok is proposing is a mind-blowing transformation of what it means to be human and what lies beyond our conceptual grasp of the universe.

The world-class physicist (his name is on a theory with Stephen Hawking) and head of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario, however, prefers to focus on the positives when it comes to upending our current technological state: it’s coming and we better start talking about it.

“I think the first thing I would say is that it’s kind of unstoppable,” says Turok over the phone from Vancouver. “It’s like trying to stop time, we don’t know how to stop time. And yes, we could all relax if we all knew that absolutely nothing was ever going to happen again, but we’re marching forward into the future, we can’t stop it, the universe is expanding and we can’t stop that either. There’s not much we can do but try to, I think, appreciate the capacities we have for benefiting from that progress.”

To be specific, Turok is talking about the coming quantum revolution, where quantum computers will be able to shed light on the most hidden aspects of our universe and change the way we think, operate and evolve.

Trying to explain quantum theory, or quantum computers, is difficult. Turok, who admits it’s a challenge to bring these ideas to a broad audience, says to think of the comparison between a digital bit, and the quantum equivalent — a qubit. Whereas a bit is either a zero or a one, and hammers through equations in a mechanical way, a qubit is both a zero and a one. It is essentially taking a piece of the universe and using its natural function to tackle the largest of puzzles. The spin of an electron, for example, contains an almost limitless amount of information compared to our traditional view.

“An example I gave in the book is on your laptop, in 10 years, or at most 20 years, if Moore’s law (the theory which predicts increasing capacity in chip technology) continues, we’ll be able to put every book that has ever been written on a laptop. On a quantum laptop, one will be able to store every book that ever could be written.”

Here’s the best analogy I’ve heard for understanding the power of quantum computing. Picture the computer as a hotel with a thousand doors. In a digital computer, if you ask it to search for information, one bellhop goes to each door and opens it, one at a time. In a quantum computer, there is one bellhop for each door and, when given the command, they open all the doors simultaneously.

Turok argues that this will not only change our view of the universe and open previously closed avenues of exploration, it will change the way we evolve as humans — a sort of symbiosis between the power of quantum machines and humans. We ask the questions and the machines guide us to the answers.

To make matters more interesting, each quantum computer will be unique.

“They can be the same,” says Turok of copying quantum computers. “But you cannot make multiple copies. If you have a quantum computer in a certain state, you could actually transfer that state to another computer, but then losing the initial state in the original computer. You can’t make multiple copies. Again with digital information it’s easy to just replicate; quantum information doesn’t work like that.”

Of course, this raises the spectre of a quantum divide unlike anything the digital world could produce. If we gain quantum knowledge, how do we fit into our natural world?

“If humans form this sort of partnership with quantum computers and are able to experience the universe on a different level, what’s going to happen to the rest of life?” says Turok. “I think it’s a great question. I love nature, I love living beings and I don’t want to leave anything behind, but I think this is going to happen. Something like this is going to happen and it’s better for us now to think about it and try to plan for it as best as possible and as non-destructively as possible. I think we’re only just beginning to think about it; what it will mean.”

When it comes to the more traditional concept of a divide — within human society — quantum computing offers a way out. “The wonderful thing about quantum computers is that they’re just doing what nature does all the time,” he says. “So, this is how atoms work. In principle you can make a quantum computer out of anything and there’s nothing inherently expensive. It’s just the universe and any piece of the universe works this way.”

The Universe Within , however, doesn’t spend all its time in the ether. Turok also talks about the need for society and science to better understand one another, to break down the wall between them — a wall first erected in ancient Greece.

“The split between the arts and humanities and science is a very destructive thing. It means, unfortunately, that scientists think much too little about what the implications are of what they’re doing, positive as well as negative,” says Turok.

“They end up being, in some cases, used as sort of technicians, for purposes for which they would not necessarily want to support.”

Turok believes that we urgently need a new Renaissance or Enlightenment to guide us through the coming storm, and he thinks Canada is the best place for this to happen. Diplomatically dodging the assertion that there is a war on science in this country, led by the Conservatives, Turok is firm in his belief that Canada is a sort of promised land for scientific study.

“Canada has somehow established a society that is extremely respectful of diversity,” says Turok, who grew up in Africa and the U.K. before moving to the U.S. and, finally, Canada. “I think that’s probably the key, because if you want great advances in science or in arts, or music or whatever, the key is to allow the oddballs space to do something unexpected. And I think Canada really has that.

“I’m extremely positive about Canada… if only it can be a little more ambitious.”

You are a slave owner: Andrew Nikiforuk on energy consumption

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As the oilsands continue to expand — clearing forest, digging earth and pooling effluent — there’s more than just nature that is being shunted aside. According to journalist Andrew Nikiforuk, we’re also burying debates about what it all means in the process. And so, in his new book, The Energy of Slaves , he revives some old ideas that remain fresh and takes them to an exhaustively researched new starting point.

“If there’s any place in Canada where we should be having wide-open debates about energy — its character, its nature and its development — it should be here,” he says over coffee in Calgary. “And what happens when anybody raises even a question about the pace and scale of development in the tarsands? ‘Oh well you’re fucking Greenpeace, or you’re this or you’re that.’”

Peppering his conversation with expletives, it would be easy to paint Nikiforuk as an angry ideologue, but that’s simply not the case, in person or in print. His latest book takes us from the use of slaves in building society to the present-day use of energy slaves, slurping up oil and gas in order to give us a level of societal opulence never before seen. The arc is presented matter-of-factly and helps to illustrate the gooey bind we find ourselves in.

“We’re locked into high energy living, which is really high carbon spending too,” he says. “We have all these freakin’ slaves, we’ve become fat and lazy and extremely comfortable, and like the slave holders of old, we don’t even want to have a discussion about this.”

Nikiforuk blames this silence on the fact that Big Oil dominates the conversation, but he also acknowledges that the comforts afforded by oil and its mechanical slaves are a balm for people not wanting to address the inevitability of change. He calls the oil age “a hell of a joyride.”

From a historical arc, Nikiforuk takes us on a journey through our increasingly complex world, from the politics of the petro state (Alberta is textbook in this definition, save for the military spending), to the absurdities of economics, to Japan’s energy crisis and what it means for the rest of the industrialized world.

These are not new ideas, at least not all of them. There are astute observations about the dangers of mechanical slaves and the new capitalism that date back to the 19th century, but Nikiforuk has skilfully weaved these old ideas into the contemporary sphere in an attempt to create a concise metaphor for a larger discussion about where we need to go.

His logic is sharpest when he focuses on the rate of energy returns and the changes that have occurred in efficiency since the early days of oil. Our rates of return are diminishing and the high returns that led to our complex world of luxuries are gone.

“We can argue and rail against the tarsands in terms of carbon emission and pollution, but the thing that’s going to get us there are how poor those damn returns are,” he says.

“Big Oil can make a lot of money off that, but civilization can’t run on this shit for long. It is not providing the surplus. We haven’t had that conversation at all.”

Those waiting for the big sales pitch on renewables from Nikiforuk will have to hold their breath a while longer. Although he thinks that we need to invest heavily in cleaner forms of energy, he doesn’t see it as a panacea. He says that if we do renewables the same way we’ve done oil and gas, “we’re going to be really fucked.”

“They thought the transition would be glistening windmills and solar panels in their front yard, when in fact the transition begins with an economic dislocation and disruption,” he says. “The same way the industrial revolution began.

“Unfortunately I think going down the energy ladder might be a lot harder than it was climbing up the energy ladder.”

So, the book and the author aren’t the most optimistic, but it’s not all doom and gloom. Yes there will be shocks, but there is only one conclusion to be drawn, according to Nikiforuk: we have to use less energy and give up some of our slaves.

“That doesn’t mean that everything will be bad,” he says. “I mean, I think relocalizing food production, I think that’s a good thing; getting more people involved in agriculture and farming, that’s a good thing; reducing the complexity of having to deal with so many mechanical, digital, electrical slaves in your life, I think most people are going to welcome that and, in many ways, are looking for that, because they can no longer cope with the complexity of machines in their lives.”