Trip report: Toronto

Posted on September 22, 2008 by Steve

Priceline hooked us up this time, with a room at a fancy downtown hotel for US$90 per night. The Sheraton Centre had great views from even our ninth floor room; this set of tilt-shift photos from the rooftop gives an idea. We also enjoyed the cavernous lobby with pervasive free wifi, furniture with embedded chess and backgammon boards, and recesses filled with books. I inserted a book of my own, complete with a gratuitous slam of our generally cheery hosts: "Those Canadians are fools." (8-page PDF version.)

Books were in plain sight everywhere, starting with the plane passengers and including many book discounters in the city. I saw a guy sit down with Ulysses while we sipped coffee at Cafe Debut. He wasn't making very good progress though, as he paused frequently to tap something into an electronic gizmo or ogle female pedestrians.

We spent most of our time, as usual, wandering in neighborhoods that looked interesting on the map, and stopping for food and drink whenever appetite and restaurant coincided. We searched the old downtown area for the bank that featured in "The Score," later to realize that it was inconveniently in Montreal. The waterfront area around the CN Tower is quite developed, but pleasantly uncrowded, perhaps because half the condo high-rises are still under construction. The tower itself was not awe-inspiring, despite it's outdated claims to being the world's tallest. Perhaps because it is set apart from the city skyscrapers, or perhaps because it is mostly an undecorated concrete stalk, it did not overwhelm up close, and looks best in the distant background of our photos.

Growing up in the U.S. trained me to despise Canadian currency, since their coins are undervalued slugs that you try to pass on soon after carelessly accepting one. Their banknotes, however, are handsome and colorful. And they have scrapped $1 and $2 bills in favor of coins, so you can actually spend your pocket change usefully. Prices were generally what we're used to, and I was chagrined to learn, toward the end of our visit, that the exchange rate is no longer much in our favor. I gave my last toonie to the driver who took us to the airport, at a savings of $25 to our incoming taxi ride, on a comfy new bus complete with seatback outlets, free wifi, and a running commentary of local lore.


Posted on September 11, 2008 by Steve

   The guy seemed to know what he was doing, and I was sitting there, hanging on his words, when he said, "And you also have to know about colors -- how to get different colors when you mix the paint. For example, what colors would you mix to get yellow?"
   I didn't know how to get yellow by mixing paints. If it's light, you mix green and red, but I knew he was talking about paints. So I said, "I don't know how you get yellow without using yellow."
   "Well," he said, "if you mix red and white, you'll get yellow."
   "Are you sure you don't mean pink?"
   "No," he said, "you'll get yellow" -- and I believed that he got yellow, because he was a professional painter, and I always admired guys like that. But I still wondered how he did it.
   I got an idea. "It must be some kind of chemical change. Were you using some special kind of pigments that make a chemical change?"
   "No," he said, "any old pigments will work. You go down to the five-and-ten and get some paint -- just a regular can of red paint and a regular can of white paint -- and I'll mix 'em, and I'll show how you get yellow."
   At this juncture I was thinking, "Something is crazy. I know enough about paints to know that you won't get yellow, but he must know that you do get yellow, and therefore something interesting happens. I've got to see what it is!"
   ... So I went to the five-and-ten and got the paint, and brought it back to the restaurant. The painter came down from upstairs, and the restaurant owner was there too. I put the cans of paint on an old chair, and the painter began to mix the paint. He put a little more red, he put a little more white -- it still looked pink to me -- and he mixed some more. Then he mumbled something like, "I used to have a little tube of yellow here, to sharpen it up a bit -- then this'll be yellow."

--Richard Feynman, Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!

Eighteen-inch plinth of mud-parge

Posted on September 01, 2008 by Steve

Tony got a whiff of life in the Good Old Days before the horseless carriage, reminding me of this classic description of London in the late nineteenth century.
The Strand of those days...was the throbbing heart of the people's essential London...But the mud! [a euphemism] And the noise! And the smell! All these blemishes were [the] mark of [the] horse....

The whole of London's crowded wheeled traffic - which in parts of the City was at times dense beyond movement - was dependent on the horse lorry: wagon, bus, hansom and `growler', and coaches and carriages and private vehicles of all kinds, were appendages to horses...the characteristic aroma - for the nose recognized London with gay excitement - was of stables, which were commonly of three or four storeys with inclined ways zigzagging up the faces of them; [their] middens kept the cast-iron filigree chandeliers that glorified the reception rooms of upper- and lower- middle-class homes throughout London encrusted with dead flies, and, in late summer, veiled with living clouds of them.

A more assertive mark of the horse was the mud that, despite the activities of a numberous corps of red- jacketed boys who dodged among wheels and hooves with pan and brush in service to iron bins at the pavement-edge, either flooded the streets with churnings of `pea soup' that at times collected in pools over-brimming the kerbs, and at others covered the road-surface as with axle grease or bran-laden dust to the distraction of the wayfarer. In the first case, the swift-moving hansom or gig would fling sheets of such soup - where not intercepted by trousers or skirts - completely across the pavement, so that the frontages of the Strand throughout its length had an eighteen-inch plinth of mud-parge thus imposed upon it. The pea-soup condition was met by wheeled `mud-carts' each attended by two ladlers clothed as for Icelandic seas in thigh boots, oilskins collared to the chin, and sou'westers sealing in the back of the neck. Splash Ho! The foot passenger now gets the mud in his eye! The axle-grease condition was met by horse-mechanized brushes and travellers in the small hours found fire-hoses washing away residues....

This description appeared in Julian Simon's The Ultimate Resource, but I haven't been able to determine the original source.