Friday, September 19, 2014

The Fort York Visitor Centre: An Important Step Forward

The Fort York Visitor Centre is about to open. It is a marvellous accomplishment.

The Fort York Visitor Centre: in harmony with its surroundings

Decades (literally!) of patient, persistent work, wrangling, and planning went into making the Visitor Centre a reality. A generation of stakeholders and all levels of government have been involved.

The Fort has been an oft-forgotten, sometimes neglected gem in the heart of the city, but the Visitor Centre marks an important step forward in the evolution and life of the Fort.

The Visitor Centre is a clean, elegant, low-slung building that somehow manages the trick of bringing solemnity to the underside of the Gardiner Expressway. It was designed by Patkau Architects Inc. / Kearns Mancini Architects Inc. and has already won awards.

On duty at the Visitor Centre entrance

I’m one of those fusty stick-in-the-mud types who are highly resistant to change, and I was anxious that the Visitor Centre might turn out to be an over-expressive architectural carbuncle drawing attention away from the actual historic site.

Not to worry.

The Fort now has a world-class facility with which to welcome visitors and provide context for the history of Toronto, as well as host events and exhibits. It’s part of an overall vision that recognizes that the Fort and the accompanying Garrison Common are an integral part of the community and have a participatory role to play.

Beautiful, functional gallery space 

Inside, the Visitor Centre seems well-laid out, and I look forward to seeing how the space is used by different exhibits. The Immersive Ramp on the upper level is particularly intriguing; I want to see how it develops.

On display at the moment (in addition to materials relating to the First World War) is a donation of 11 paintings inspired by the War of 1812 by noted artist Charles Pachter (if you’ve been to College subway station, you’ve seen his handiwork).

Thirst for Victory, by Charles Pachter
City of Toronto Museums, A14-33

The Fort York Visitor Centre is celebrating its opening this weekend with the On Common Ground Festival. Check it out!

Get Fortified!

p.s. while you’re in the neighbourhood, be sure to drop in to the recently opened 99th branch of the Toronto Public Library, the Fort York branch on Bathurst.

Fort York branch of the TPL

More about the Visitor Centre design: here.

Full disclosure: the Friends of Fort York and I collaborate together on the website, Fort York and Garrison Common Maps.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

5 Years Down, About 20 To Go: My Quest For A Peace Tower Canadian Flag

Did you know that Canadian citizens can submit a written request for flags that have flown atop Parliament Hill?

Photo: Canadian Flag flying on Parliament Hill, Ottawa
Would you like to own a Parliament Hill Canadian flag? Just ask!
Photo courtesy: PWGS

It’s a popular wait-list — the approximate waiting period is currently 42 years for a Peace Tower flag, and 31 years for East and West Block flags. The Peace Tower flag is changed daily, and never serves another official purpose after its flight.

I sent in my request about five years ago, when the Peace Tower list was shorter. A little over seven thousand Canadians are in the queue ahead of me.

The Ministry of Public Works and Government Services administers the program, which started in the mid-1990s.

Only a couple more decades to go!

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Celebrating My Candy Crush Dominion

I have a confession to make. It’s a little embarrassing.

But sometimes it’s more entertaining to just blurt things out, even if it gets awkward.

I’ll express it in pictorial form:

Yup. In case you don’t recognize that middle graphic, it’s an in-game relative standing progress chart: I am the top Candy Crush player of all my friends.

It has taken me 9 months of desultory play to achieve this dubious distinction, woven from the interstitial pauses of transit commutes, laundry loads, and grocery lines.

I have survived the horror of level 578. Emerged resilient and unbowed from the frustration of level 461. Endured and somehow vanquished level 350. I am a Candy Crush King!

My sincerest apologies to any Facebook connections I spammed along the way, inadvertently or otherwise. Your forbearance is admirable.

Candy Crush Saga Level 461: Indelibly frustrating

I’m fascinated by the mechanics that make Candy Crush so popular.

And it definitely is popular. Boasting over 46 million average monthly players on Facebook, Candy Crush Saga has also been installed over 500 million times across iOS and Android devices. It’s played by men, women and children of all ages, exhibiting a uniquely broad appeal that most video games lack.

As with anything that becomes so widespread that it seeps into the culture, many people outwardly profess an attitude of scorn and derision towards the game. Certainly it is a time-waster. But vast rewards have accrued for its British maker, Ltd. According to ThinkGaming, the game’s daily revenues are currently just shy of $1 million — for the US section of the iOS App Store alone.

I’ve been tempted many times to join that throng of paying rubes.The gameplay is transparently designed to provoke and beguile players into purchasing extra moves and game boosters. But as King notes in their FAQ, the entire game can also be completed without any purchases. My miserly nature (and yes, my ornery stubbornness) has enabled me to resist—thus far.

Mr. Toffee (left) and the main protagonist, Tiffi (short for Toffette)

How I First Got My Sugar Crush
Kat, this is all your fault.

My friend Kat introduced me to this saccharine diversion. We were riding the subway home after a climbing session, and she started playing with her cellphone.

“What’s that?” I asked her.

“Just a silly game. It’s called Candy Crush.”

That night, I googled the name and came across this Slate article describing the game’s addictive qualities. Like other match-three puzzle games before it (Bejewelled comes to mind), Candy Crush features straightforward play that begins simply, and progressively gets harder as you complete more levels.

The social integration is devilish, and though I am loathe to admit it, the system hooked me almost instantly: In addition to fielding periodic exhortations to share and like the game, users can observe where they stand in relation to their peers.

Colour bomb! Delicious.
This was my first exposure to such cunning psychological manipulation (I don’t normally play video games), and my competitive instinct was led astray far too easily.

While I was initially taken aback by the number of my Facebook connections who indulge — I had expected close to zero — soon I was right there among them, vying feverishly to complete “just one more sweet level.”

It turns out there is a disproportionate thrill to be had from catching up to, and then passing people you know. Nevermind the game’s lack of sophistication or its gaudy, childish presentation — it’s fun.

Final Thoughts
I’m going to savour this absurd moment, however fleeting it may be, where I am demonstrably the... best? at this endeavour.

Yes, it’s a stupid game, a leisure-time opiate of distraction. But I’ve enjoyed playing it. It relaxes me. At time of writing, I’ve only got about 30 levels left; King periodically releases new levels. Then I’ll be done, and I can start reading Shakespeare again in my spare time. [Note: see update below]

Yeah, right.

I cannot recommend that you try it for yourself. It’s far too much of a time-waster. But should you decide after all to challenge me for the Kingship of Candy Crush — I’ll see you in nine months.

It’s official. I’ve completed all of the regular Candy Crush levels that have been created. I can now relax!

I’m done!! Until they make more levels, that is.

Monday, July 07, 2014

Setting Easy for Summer Sweatfest Wasn't So Easy!

I recently had the diverting experience of assisting the setting crew for the initial competition in this year’s Summer Sweat Fest bouldering series. The opener was held at The Rock Oasis, my home gym.

My first time setting problems for a bouldering comp!

I learned that setting for a competition—even a casual one like Sweat Fest—is a lot of work, and harder than I imagined. Comp routesetters: you have my newfound respect!

Often when you read (or watch videos) about cool boulder problems that people have made, the focus is on hard movement through advanced sequences—so I thought I’d write a somewhat unstructured piece regarding the other end of things, and relate my first-time personal experience of trying to set easier and moderate problems, in the context of a comp.

The head-setters were Adam Tataryn and Adrian Das (both professional setters), and we were joined by Dave Machado (another ‘recreational’ setter like myself). The way it shook out, I wound up authoring a modest chunk of the beginner and intermediate grade problems, which freed the other fellows to focus primarily on the Open category and advanced scramble-format problems.

An Emphasis on Fun
It’s important to note that with Sweat Fest the emphasis is on a friendly bouldering series, with beginners and youth encouraged to participate. Other themes would be low cost, informality, and the general aim of fun.

There were 26 scramble-format problems, numbered in roughly ascending difficulty (e.g. 1 was the easiest, 2 a little harder, etc.) (There were also 5 Open problems each for Men and Women).

The challenge was, how do you set problems which beginners find stimulating, but without being frustrating or too difficult? And at the same time you can’t just let the intermediate climbers cakewalk through your problems either.

It was a learning experience for me—it was my first time ever setting for a comp. The most apparent lesson is that I’m still figuring out how to properly set at a given grade.

My problems tend to favour movements that I personally find entertaining, or that I’m trying to improve on. I had to continually remind myself (and occasionally be reminded) that I was setting for newer, moderately skilled climbers, and youth.

This meant: You can’t make moves too hard. You can’t make moves too long or out of reach. You have to take into account a lack of technique. You have to make it extra safe.

Following are a few of the problems I set (bear in mind this is only a small subset of the comp). I’ll briefly discuss my intent versus how it turned out.

#8 - Yellow (click images to view larger)
This short V1 requires calm, deliberate movement. Despite the brevity, the volumes give the route a curiously exposed feeling; the hand holds are tolerable, but not overly good, pinches that you have to negotiate with.

We turned the start and middle holds so they were easier to use. I wanted to create a longer problem with more moves, but at that skill level I didn’t want the finish to be over either of the two volumes, in case of a fall. So it wound up being quite brief. Perhaps I could have put a couple of easy traverse moves leftwards at the top.

#10 - Purple
I was happiest with #10. It has two distinct playful movements. The first involves stepping up onto the red volume and balancing on it with no hands. The second move is leaning left from that balanced position until you 'fall' onto the next hold. Both involve the climber doing something coordinated, a bit out of the regular.

The start hold (on the green volume) was added to prevent the climber from skipping the above sequence and grabbing the left hold immediately. Instead, most people will step up on the red volume from the right side, leading into the balance position. I was delighted to watch people get on, reach out left, then realize they had to leave the safety of the start hold and balance on the red volume, exactly the way I had imagined it.

I added two left side footholds for the 2nd half. Originally I wanted to make the climber smear up but it proved too challenging for the grade range we wanted to use it in.

#5 - Green
This simple problem caused me headaches, believe it or not. I wanted to set an easy (V0) overhanging problem. The challenge is that most beginners are not strong enough to do much on an overhang.

I put up the biggest, juggiest holds I could find — and it was still too hard. Then we substituted in the big hold in the middle, adjusted a few angles to be smoother, and that solved it; the problem became doable for novices.

I also couldn’t make the problem too lengthy, again because most beginners haven’t the endurance to deal with an extended overhang. So the problem peters out after not going anywhere exciting. If it were twice as long, it would make for a nice warmup.

During the comp I watched this problem specifically, and was gratified to see climbers on it, sometimes falling off, but ultimately mostly completing it.

#19 - Yellow (green tape)
The blue volume is the highlight of this V3. (Though if you’re short like me you have to fight with the opposing vertical holds, also some good work. I should have moved the start hold further right to force this for everyone)

You have to wrestle with the volume to get to the end. Adrian and Adam removed a foothold I originally placed under the volume. It was an excellent tweak, and really forces the climber to deal with the volume. Thematically the end is like the reverse direction of the Women’s Open problem (pink holds) shown in the same photo.

The tail end of #16 - Grey/Black (beginning not shown)
#16 (about a V3) has a pleasurable sequence at the end where you have to use the (left) triangle volume in a couple of different ways. Approaching from the left, you pull on the spine of the volume as if it was a big hold, moving your feet from the small knob below it (in the yellow paint) to the next foothold out and up to the right. Then you move forcefully upwards into a double gaston, which you must maintain as you shift your body right in order to high-step the left foot onto the side of the volume. After establishing both feet on the side, launch for the finish.

I had originally made the top of the wall the end, but then we moved it down and used a nice soft finishing hold.

#20 - Blue
This one qualitatively turned out very different from what I intended! I wanted to set an elegant, somewhat beta-intensive problem where the climber has to thoughtfully push and pull the corner, in order to get around it.

Instead it climbs very messy and a tad sketchy. The lower hold on the corner is slick and slippery, a real pain to deal with first as a handhold going left around the corner, and then a couple moves later as a foothold when you come back right for the finish.

An ugly problem, but it served its purpose.

Final Thoughts
In general, I had a tough time relaxing and ‘setting loose’. I felt overly self-conscious about balancing the tension of keeping the grading consistent, versus spicing things up. I had to tone down several of the problems because I would lose sight of the audience who would be climbing them. And the pressure of setting in quantity within a given timeframe unnerved me. Although I’m happy with the overall end results, I felt that a couple of my problems (not shown) perhaps leaned towards the mundane, and in that sense I was not entirely satisfied with the expression of my creativity. I was glad that the other setters were there to worry about ‘the big picture’ of where problems fit into the context of the overall competition.

The comp turned out great—there was a solid turnout, and people enjoyed themselves. Crucially (to me, at least), people got on my problems! And within the more-modestly-skilled set of competitors, the problems didn’t all get sent on the first try, nor did they frustrate and bedevil everyone. I saw smiles!

So it was a decent mix.

I want climbers to get something out of the problems, to feel like they’ve accomplished something at the end, that they’ve had to apply their mind and bodies to solve the puzzle.

Big thanks to The Rock Oasis and Karen McGilvray for the unexpected invitation to participate—I had a fantastic time. Thanks to Adam and Adrian for their thoughtful advice and direction, their trust and patience with my setting and questions, and to Don Williams and Dave for forerunning with me. I enjoyed myself.

The problems from the comp are all still up at Oasis, so by all means go and check them out! They’re a lot of fun.

Other Climbing Posts I’ve Written (recent or otherwise)
Hub Climbing in Markham: a great bouldering experience
What is it like to Judge an IFSC Bouldering World Cup?
Why is Tree Climbing Illegal in Toronto?
The Secret Life of Iyma Lamarche, Rock Climber
Hurrah For The Ontario Access Coalition