Posts Tagged 'covid-19'

Urban rethink.

If there’s one thing the pandemic has proven, it’s that we were right about everything all along.

Those of us who admired the Chinese government have found new reasons for admiration. Those of us who distrusted the Chinese government have found new reasons for distrust.

Those of us who fretted about deficits now have even bigger deficits to fret about. Those of us who favoured bigger government are certain that the current crisis has vindicated our arguments.

And those of us who argued for “taking space away from cars and using it for people” are more committed than ever to the cause…

I happen to like density, public transportation, and walkable neighbourhoods. So I’m not too vexed by the news that the City of Vancouver is using the pandemic as an excuse to do more of what it was doing already:

[T]he pandemic is creating opportunities, council heard Wednesday, like the massive reduction in cars driving and parking, allowing the city to make strides on long-standing goals of promoting active transportation for a more healthy, happy, environmentally friendly city.

But I had to laugh at the headline of the above story as it appeared in the print version of Thursday’s Sun:

pandemic forces urban rethink vancouver sun

“Pandemic forces urban rethink”, by Dan Fumano, Vancouver Sun, May 14, 2020.

What would an “urban rethink” actually look like?

Richard J. Williams argued in the New York Times earlier this month that the mid-20th century trend towards sprawl and suburbanization was driven largely by still-fresh memories of poor sanitation and plague in overcrowded big cities:

If density was disease for modernists, it followed that their cities were about keeping people apart. Look back at the utopian schemes for cities of the first half of the 20th century, and the same hygienic preoccupations come up again and again: There must be light and space and fresh air. The Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier wrote about these things in his book “Vers Une Architecture” (translated as “Towards a New Architecture”). Parts of the book read like comedy now – the author’s attempt to turn his own obsession with hygiene into an avant-garde manifesto. But it was serious when it was published in 1923, the Spanish flu pandemic having just run its course.

As the new millennium approached, and concern about hygiene receded, the old wisdom that crowded sidewalks were dirty and unsightly was supplanted by the conviction that density was terrific, that every family should be grateful to live in an 800 sq. ft. townhouse and ride the subway to work, and that the previous generation of planners who had pulled down tenements to build freeways and public housing projects were frauds and bullies and probably racists to boot.

But now, of course, it looks like hygiene is something we have to worry about again, so planners may drift back to sprawl and suburbanization:

The dense city might not turn out to be responsible for the virus when all is said and done – but as it did a century ago in relation to the Spanish flu, it might well start to feel like a cause. After months of social distancing, are we going to want to go straight back into the crowd? Even if we are allowed to, I doubt it.

With arguments like these gaining traction – here’s Steve Sailer elaborating on the Times article, and Joel Kotkin and Marshall Toplansky making a similar case in Quillette – I wonder if Vancouver city staff will be forced to re-evaluate their priorities.

Take the Broadway subway that finally got the go-ahead last year, which will, upon its planned completion in 2025, fill an annoying gap in Vancouver’s SkyTrain network. Might it be postponed or cancelled outright when politicians are forced to grapple with the deficits that have been piling up during the shutdown?

There is a trendy line of thought that says – I hope I’m getting this right – that deficits don’t matter, that since governments control the supply of money they can print more whenever they need it, and that inflation can be controlled by simply regulating prices. Therefore we should spend our way back to prosperity with massive public works projects like subways and bridges, the costlier the better.

But if it turns out that public transit was a significant vector of infection – which at the moment looks plausible, though far from proven – then it may be foolish to continue building hugely expensive subways that no-one will be very eager to ride. There are more hygienic megaprojects that can be bumped to the top of the to-do list.

In BC’s Lower Mainland, a region of rivers and inlets, there’s always a demand for more bridges and tunnels:

  • Work had already begun in 2017 to replace the antique and overcrowded Massey Tunnel under the Fraser River with a new bridge, before the project was booted back into consultations with the change of government. It would be easy to get it back on track.
  • The new government also squashed hopes for a bridge to the Sunshine Coast, with the district’s MLA saying “it would not provide value for money”. But the study he was referring to specifically excluded “consideration of economic development benefits”, which could always be factored back in to justify reviving the idea.
  • If those projects aren’t ambitious enough, we could always take another look at the old, old dream of a fixed link between Vancouver Island and the mainland.

Over in the UK there’s the so-called Boris bridge. In 2018 Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s idea for an English Channel bridge came to nothing, but now that he’s prime minister, civil servants are obliged to take his whims seriously – so they’re at least going through the motions of considering a 20-mile-long, £20 billion bridge over the Irish Sea to join Scotland and Northern Ireland. Last I heard, the Scottish government was bitching that London hadn’t consulted them before undertaking the study.

boris bridge northern ireland scotland

“Boris bridge”, as visualized by The Sun.

Now, assuming it’s technically possible, I don’t think the bridge is such a bad idea. But it’s unlikely to be built, not just because of the eye-popping price tag but also because, with the UK’s devolved parliaments in Edinburgh and Belfast, the project would be scuppered by the same kind of grandstanding, blame-shifting, and legal obstructionism that make it nigh-impossible to build any infrastructure across an interprovincial border in Canada.

But if in the aftermath of the virus London is looking for something big, bold, and labour-intensive to lift British spirits – and to put a ton of potential Tory voters to work – then a massive bridge that travellers cross in their own hermetically-sealed automobiles might look better than, say, a £106 billion high-speed rail network that could end up whooshing half-empty trains past idling queues of resentful auto commuters.

M.

Speaking of bridges and tunnels, the BC government has embarked on yet another study of a rapid transit link to the North Shore; I touched on one of the previous studies last year when looking at some abandoned SkyTrain schemes. A couple weeks back I wondered whether, given the current difficulties getting infrastructure built, an un-building project might be an easier sell. I’ve mentioned Le Corbusier once before, in an essay that attempted to extract a consistent definition of that perennial media bugbear “populism”.

The rectification of names.

The Chinese government seems to have been successful in its campaign to guilt us into replacing the logical, easy-to-remember “Wuhan virus” with the turgid, clinical “Covid-19”.

Apart from everything else, it strikes me as a blown marketing opportunity for the city of Wuhan. When international travel picks up again, western tourists who would otherwise hop straight from the Great Wall to the giant panda sanctuary at Chengdu might be convinced to add a stop at Wuhan Virusland. The mascot could be a pangolin wearing a surgical mask. Ozzy Osbourne could star in a promotional video where he dips into a bowl of delicious bat soup.

But if Beijing has its way, in a year or two Wuhan – that insignificant provincial town, home to a mere nine million souls – will recede into the obscurity it enjoyed before the virus made it briefly famous.

We in the west are pretty clueless about Chinese geography. It’s partly because China was closed to the outside world for 30 years, partly because their language looks so forbiddingly strange, and partly because, in a test-run of the Wuhan/Covid guilt trip, we went meekly along with their decree that we should junk our old, familiar names for their towns and provinces and replace them with hard-to-pronounce Chinese versions – so Tsingtao became Qingdao, Canton became Guangzhou, Amoy became Xiamen, and so on.

(In his 1988 travel book Riding the Iron Rooster, Paul Theroux is corrected by a government flunky when he refers to Peking and Canton. “I’m giving you their English names, Mr. Zhong,” he replies. “We don’t say Hellas for Greece, or Roma for Rome, or Paree, if we’re speaking English. So I don’t see the point–” But the flunky smoothly changes the subject.) [1]

Speaking of under-publicized tourist destinations, Zhengzhou is another huge city – almost six million people – that I couldn’t have placed on a map before the other day. That’s probably why I was unaware of this monument to the ancient semi-mythical emperor-heroes Huang and Yan carved into a mountain outside of town. Their faces are three times as big as the ones at Mount Rushmore.

Meanwhile in Changsha (population five million) there’s an oddly sexy 100-foot-tall bust of Mao Zedong. Or if you like your colossi a little shaggier, the 1200 year old giant Buddha statue near Leshan (a quaint village of 1.2 million) gives a preview of how Mao will look in a millennium or so, when the elements have done their work.

I was watching The Neverending Story with a friend a while back and when I saw the Ivory Tower – the fortress sprouting like a pistil from the shell of a hollowed-out mountain – I said, “How come our multibillionaires all live in boring suburban mega-mansions when they could be using their fortunes to erect cool fantasy architecture like that?”

But even if Jeff Bezos yearned to live in a hollowed-out mountain, he would never get away with it. For that matter, Mount Rushmore wouldn’t get the go-ahead nowadays. The local Native Americans would raise a fuss, protesters would converge, lawsuits would be launched, and after a few years the whole thing would be quietly dropped, as happened to that “grandiose” (actually, by Chinese standards, rather understated) statue of “Mother Canada” the Tories were talking about building in Cape Breton.

The Chinese, poor rubes, lack the sophistication to realize that enormous monuments to their heroes and heritage are gaudy and wasteful, and that developed countries have more important things to spend their money on, such as…wait a second, what are we spending our money on? Our infrastructure is rickety and inadequate. Our streets are full of homeless drug addicts. Our homes are full of cheap made-in-China crapola. Is it possible that all our extra wealth is going into inflated university degrees and pipeline litigation?

***

Ever since I moved to Vancouver from the Canadian prairies, I’ve had the vague intention of learning a little Chinese. Not enough to actually talk to people – I figure that’s unrealistically ambitious – but maybe enough to make out the gist of signs outside the many local Chinese businesses.

As I understand it – and I’m aware this is a gross oversimplification – Chinese characters, or hanzi, are built from ideograms representing ideas rather than sounds. Two quick strokes make a person; a few extra strokes denote a woman; two women side-by-side, hilariously, represent a quarrel. The concept of “big” is communicated by a little man, arms thrown wide, going “it’s this big!

Thus speakers of mutually unintelligible Chinese languages – Mandarin, Cantonese, Fujianese, etc. – can still communicate by scrawling characters on a piece of paper. Chinese travellers in Japan and Korea can also get along, to some degree, without knowing the local languages because hanzi (or kanji, or hanja) form part of the Japanese and Korean writing systems.

I’ve heard mixed reports as to whether Chinese languages are especially difficult for westerners to learn. I assume they are: on top of the usual challenges of learning a foreign A) vocabulary and B) grammar, you’ve also got C) a completely alien tone system and D) at a bare minimum, a few hundred non-phonetic characters to memorize.

Maybe if your goal is to become a fluent Chinese speaker you need to learn A, B, C, and D together. But I’ve often wondered if it wouldn’t be useful to disaggregate the various off-putting features of learning Chinese. Maybe you could, for instance, acquire a basic vocabulary without worrying about tones.

Consider English: every word has a stress that falls on one syllable or other, sometimes according to a predictable rule but often not. We say “AUTomobile”, “autoMOtive”, and “auTOMoton”, which is just something foreigners have to learn – but we can still understand those words if all the syllables are stressed equally, even if the result sounds funny and robotic to us.

The go-to example for the Chinese tone system is the sound “ma”, which in Mandarin can mean “mother”, “horse”, “hemp”, and “scold”, depending which tone is used. But those are pretty distinct concepts – couldn’t the listener figure out by context which is intended, the same way we do with “be” and “bee”, or “high” and “hi”?

This Mandarin language teacher pretty much concedes my point:

[B]elieve it or not, people can mostly understand when foreigners speak without tones. Why? Because of context.

But before you become tempted to take this “shortcut” yourself…don’t! It’s a big mistake! You see, even though people might still be able to understand you if you don’t use tones, it’s not accurate Chinese. And the other person may have to try much harder to catch what you’re trying to say.

You’re basically limiting yourself to “complete beginner”.

But if “complete beginner” is all you’re aiming for – why not? There are a lot of people who, like me, might be interested in acquiring just a smattering of Chinese, who would be happy to take this shortcut if they knew it existed.

Likewise, maybe it would be useful to learn Chinese characters without learning a word of Chinese. Maybe we could absorb a limited set of hanzi into our language, which we could use to communicate across language barriers not only with Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans, but with Germans, Russians, Indonesians, and so forth.

You might say, why import a bunch of antique, abstract, overly complicated ideograms from a foreign country? Why not devise a brand new set of simple, rational ideograms of our own?

Well, consider the fate of Blissymbolics, the hanzi-inspired, hyperrational universal language invented by a disillusioned Eastern European Jew during World War II. (It was introduced in a book called Semantography: A Logical Writing for an Illogical World.) Blissymbolics caught on in a limited way as a method of teaching writing to handicapped kids in Canada, and nowhere else.

blissymbolics charles bliss

From The Book to the Film “Mr. Symbol Man”, by Charles K. Bliss. Image source. You can watch Mr. Symbol Man on YouTube.

That’s how it goes with a constructed language: absent a pre-existing population of speakers and a pre-existing body of texts, there’s little reason, apart from ideological enthusiasm, to learn it. With no-one to talk to and nothing worth reading, students grow bored and chuck it over. Whereas with Chinese you can just take the bus down Kingsway and every third or fourth storefront will present a new opportunity to test your vocabulary.

If our descendants ever do wind up adopting hanzi into the English language, it won’t be through the efforts of armchair theorizers like me. Attempts to benevolently direct linguistic evolution tend to backfire. For instance, the Chinese government “simplified” their writing system in the 1950s, reducing the number of pen strokes needed to draw many common hanzi. But in Hong Kong and Taiwan they ignored these directives, so that now many readers of “simplified” Chinese have trouble reading the “traditional” forms, and vice versa. Meanwhile the Japanese adopted some, but not all, of the simplified forms. (See also.)

This reminds me of the various ineffective attempts to preserve Canada’s endangered aboriginal languages. I can appreciate that aboriginal people would like to hang onto those languages. I think it’s a laudable goal. But to take a local example, there are 14 different Coast Salish dialects on or near the southern BC / Washington coast, distributed over an area smaller than Ireland. (The modern convention is to call them “languages”, but it seems that adjacent tribes could understand one another, though more distant ones couldn’t.)

squamish language road sign

The “7” stands for the number of people who can actually read this. Image source.

Left unmolested by Europeans, a single dominant dialect would eventually have emerged – or maybe the Coast Salish would have been conquered by some other, more unified tribe and had an alien language imposed on them, as happened to the Irish.

My point being, in my imaginary Coast Salish Republic, there’d still be at least 13 dialects regrettably falling into disuse, with old-timers in the sticks grousing that their grandkids didn’t know the words to the old folk songs anymore. But Coast Salish as a whole would stand a chance of survival. It would have enough speakers to sustain newspapers, a publishing industry, radio, TV, and so on.

My further point being, if there’s any chance of preserving Coast Salish now that its surviving dialects are mumbled by a handful of codgers each – it will be by picking one. But then, how do you get the 14 or more Coast Salish-speaking communities to agree to a strategy that involves 13 of them euthanizing an essential part of their culture for the good of the rest?

M.

1. Re Peking/Beijing, Kingsley Amis grumbled in The King’s English: A Guide to Modern Usage, under the heading “Didacticism”:

[T]hat right of the English language, as of any other, to devise its own forms for foreign names is under constant erosion. Peking was an English word for centuries before it was suddenly replaced by Beijing, however you pronounce it; Ceylon has notoriously been replaced by Sri Lanka; Lyons has reverted to Lyon (Lee-on(g)) and Marseilles (pronounced Marsails) to Marseille (MarSAY, often with an attempt at the French uvular trill in the middle); Seville and Genoa have come a step nearer being pronounced in the native fashion. What about Brussels and Brussels? Ah, that I predict will go on as before. The British/English form conveniently steers between Bruxelles and Brüssel, the Walloon and Flemish versions of the name of the Belgian capital.

Mark Steyn once referred to this trend as “the reflexive multicultural cringe that automatically assumes any new, less familiar (and thus less ‘western’) name must be more ‘authentic'”.

 


Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area. He used to be the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss.

You can find a selection of his cartoons, music videos, and ads on the Gallery page.

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