Tag: Flood

Day 1000: How It Ends


Inside this cubicle the air is thick as honey, with asphyxiating flecks of the mundane bracing against the irrefutable promise of a golden weekend. Outside these pin-cushion partitions – and indeed inside as well – every tiny molecule in the universe is saying its goodbyes to its neighbors and preparing to splash into the unknown permutations of a distant someday. My fingers hammer at these tiny plastic letters, fully ignorant of what’s to come.

Or are they? The hallowed fingers of esteemed science – no doubt similar in size and shape to my own, only tasked with a far more specific purpose – have combed back the hair of the observable now and picked at the scalp-nits of projection. The fields of astronomy, physics, mathematics, and a cabinet full of –ologies have given us a map of what’s to come. A timeline of time’s last hurrah.

And the best part? If any of these predictions are wrong, every record of them will likely be destroyed before anyone finds out. That’s my kind of science.


Within 10,000 years, human genetic variation will no longer be regionalized. This won’t mean we’ll all look the same – the blonde gene will still speckle crowds and set up offensive jokes, but it will be distributed equally worldwide. This forecasted panmixia is far more optimistic than astrophysicist Brandon Carter’s Doomsday Argument, which places our present at roughly the halfway point of humankind’s civilized journey, and projects a 95% likelihood that we’ll be wholly extinct in 10,000 years.

If global warming hasn’t already soaked us into a Kevin Costner-esque hellscape by then, we may also be facing the melting of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet, which will raise the sea levels by 3 or 4 meters above wherever it will be once we lose the rest of the polar ice caps, which should happen long before then.

Long term forecast: buy a big-ass boat. Read more…

Day 932: Tornadoing It Right


As the summer weeks amble past that first premature sploosh of sun, sweat and network television’s filler programming (the latest season of Fox’s 24 notwithstanding), we are reaching the time when the season becomes entrenched in whichever little cubbyhole we wish to place it. For some, it’s the season of swimming in a sun-soaked pool. For teachers and their flock, it’s the season of delectable freedom and a furlough from responsibility. For those of us who live with both a teacher and a student, it’s the season for drinking heavily to compensate for the globby paste of envy we feel at watching everyone else in the household sleep as we leave for work.

But for a number of geographically-encumbered folks, the sub-surface pillow-down of summer brings with it more grave and ungroovy consequences. Hurricanes and tropical storms are gearing up to spank the Gulf of Mexico with a debris-wreaking fist. Droughts will speckle farmland country, crapping its dusty fury upon a smattering of unlucky agriculturalists. And inevitably the funnel clouds will open up their peppery maws at the vengeful sky, bullying rural settlements and trailer parks alike on the ground.

Edmonton has seen but one tornado in our 100+ years as a city, and it left its mark on everyone who lived through it – even for those of us who saw nothing worse than the dog-spittle of rain against our windows. But in the interest of public safety – and as part of my court-ordered restitution for ‘liberating’ those pet store frogs into the IKEA ball-pit – here are some safety tips.


Remember that viral video in which a Kansas TV crew near El Dorado fled from a nearby tornado and took refuge beneath an overpass? Yeah, don’t do this. If you happen to be caught on an empty two-lane highway with a tornado sneering at the hairs on the back of your neck, you might be tempted to tuck yourself under a concrete canopy, but you’ll really only be worsening your chances of survival. That TV crew happened to pick a rather odd overpass – there was a hollow crawlspace at the top of the embankment where they could grab hold of the exposed girders to stay stable. Read more…

Day 915: The Titanic Conspiracy


We all know the story – the RMS Titanic plows into an iceberg, everyone panics, and Leonardo Dicaprio dies because Kate Winslet isn’t willing to scooch over and give him some room. But that purportedly open-and-shut accident may have a little more squeak in its hinges, depending on how deeply one is willing to invest in conspiracy futures. Theories range from something other than an iceberg thwacking the Titanic upside its hull to the Titanic not even being present when those 1523 souls perished in the Atlantic.

The difference between the Titanic conspiracies and other such shady suspicions is that these would have required no elaborate government cover-up, and its secrets (if there were any at all) would only have needed to be known to a tiny group of insiders, which lends credibility to the possibility that there may be more to the story than that which James Cameron put on film. There’s no vast network of deception at play with any of these theories – this isn’t JFK being assassinated by the Cuban mafia or the mass-hypnosis that allowed Dances With Wolves to beat out Goodfellas for the Best Picture Oscar.

But as with any musings on the shadowy side of commonly-accepted history, it’s always wise to suspend one’s accusatory finger in mid-furl. 102 years have passed, and if there’s any more truth to be known about this tragedy it probably never will be. That said, it’s still fun to dig.


First off, what if there was no iceberg? Captain L.M. Collins published his theory in 2003, asserting that it was a devious chunk of low-lying pack ice that felled the mighty liner, not a big Goliath of an iceberg. Collins points out that the two Titanic lookouts both reported a haze on the horizon at about 11:30 on the night of the sinking. Also, while various witnesses reported that the alleged berg of ice towered 60 to 100 feet above the water, this is apparently a well-known optical illusion when drifting through ice. Read more…

Day 803: The Shocking (Pun Tragically Intended) War Of Currents


While ruminating on beer and movies and the mighty Cleveland Browns may fuel the tip-tap-thump of my dancing fingers, every so often I owe it to myself and to my rapt and generous audience to dip into the unknown. A project such as this is by necessity a learning experience, and I pride myself on the days when  the scope of my learning extends beyond “man, writing a thousand words takes a lot out of my day.”

To wit, I give you the Current Wars. My entire life I’ve taken for granted those two or three metal prongs that when plugged into a wall socket can generate electrical functionality. I know there’s a difference between AC and DC, but I never cared much what it was. The plug enables my stereo to play Hall & Oates really loudly. That’s all that matters.

And while part of me is swiftly stomping upon the piece of my brain that decided a history of Hall & Oates would be too fluffy a topic, the rest of me is on board for hearing all about the scraps and scuffles that shaped our electrical standards. Let’s load up our Big Gun, then Shoot to Thrill at Hell’s Bells while a little TNT Shakes Me All Night Long and leaves me Thunderstruck at the Highway To Hell that was the Current Wars. To those about to read, I salute you.


Thomas Edison waved the proud flag of Direct Current (DC), and helped it to become the early standard for the United States. It was simple – a power plant fed the power outward, and each street lamp could tap into it, as could anything else that required around 100 volts to operate. If you needed something a little oomphier or a little less mighty, different lines would have to be run for those things. As long as every area built their own plants to their own needs, everyone would be serviced and no corporate monopoly would run everything. Read more…

Day 802: Edmonton – The Opening Credits


Last week, while another icy winter blast was gossiping through our beloved city streets, I heard a familiar question discreetly uttered in my office tower elevator. It’s a question that inevitably falls from the cliffs of quivering lips every year when the onset of March is mocked by November-esque climate.

“Why did anyone decide to settle a town in this spot?”

It’s true that, while our swirling stripe of river valley parkland is an emerald jewel among modern urban nature triumphs, and while we perpetually possess a bountiful bevy of artistic talent that vastly supersedes expectations, our winters also display a wicked longevity. And the earliest Edmontonians had half a country of gorgeous parkland to sift through, none of which had an established arts scene. So why here? Why plant one’s flag amid such an unforgiving tundra?

Money, baby. A businessman goes where the customers are, and in 1795 there were scads of Blackfoot and Cree folks in the region, not to mention a raucous cavalcade of settlers headed west. No one knew there was a generous cauldron of bubblin’ crude below our terrestrial waistline (that surprise was 150 years away); back then our town was all about hocking pelts to the locals.


Today, Edmonton’s premier tourist attraction is inevitably our monstrous Mall, which sucks more than 30 million shoppers and gawkers inside its yellow brick shell each year. Ironically, a mall is exactly how Edmonton started out. The North West Company picked out the spot where the North Saskatchewan River shook watery hands with the Sturgeon River (near modern-day Fort Saskatchewan) and opened up a trading post in 1795. The Hudson Bay Company joined them shortly thereafter, giving us two anchor stores. For all your pelt and survivalist needs. Read more…

Day 794: London, 1858 – Awash In A Fecal Funk


It was only a matter of time before this illustrious project, which had launched itself with such promise and potential, devolved into a dignity-free river of steaming poo. We can blame the natural progression of time and the tenuous maturity of an overgrown teenager at the keyboard’s helm, or perhaps we can simply point our accusing finger in the general direction of England. For it is to London that Ms. Wiki, our guide to the absurd, has taken us. To the unfortunate brown smear upon the city’s great history. To the Great Stink.

I’m certain that every city in existence prior to the advent of the sanitation practices we now take for granted has gone through some caca crisis. As a species, we had not yet been introduced to the germs and bacteria that lug diseases on their slimy backs to deposit in our innards. No one had perfected the sewage process until relatively recently in history, and no doubt the very stank of any 19th-century burg would grind our modern olfactories into dust.

In fact, given the state of personal hygiene, laundry and civic sanitation back then, I imagine our world as being in a perpetual state of putrid. This is never addressed in historical dramas or time-travel movies, but that’s missing an opportunity. I don’t think we could handle it. Just imagine parking your DeLorean in the heart of London during the Great Stink of 1858.


In the early 1800’s, Londoners received their drinking water either from shallow wells, from the Thames river or from one of its tributaries. There were no water treatment plants, so you’d simply have to block out the knowledge that the stuff you’d be gulping down with lunch was from the same water source in which drunken folks would urinate. You know there’s pee in there – you probably added some of your own last weekend after a few too many pints at the ol’ Hog ‘n Sputum. When you were sober, your human waste would usually get dumped into an underground cesspit. Read more…

Day 770: The Summerless Summer


This year the news has been splattered by alarming weather reports like a silent film soundstage wall after take thirteen of an epic pie fight. Much of the western world has been grappling with weather that we in Edmonton call ‘regular winter’. I’m not trying to minimize the unusual meteorological hip-check nature has bestowed upon my more southernly friends – after all, up here we’re well stocked with snow tires, city plows and vehicle block heaters. The folks in Texas, not so much.

Perhaps the most common and least valuable platitude here is “it could be worse.” The bone-scraping cold and soul-squishing wind are brutal, but at least they’re unleashing their fury during the vacuum of the winter months. When the silver light of spring shows up, nature’s insipid polar fart will be nothing more than a series of old photos, buried deep in the tomb of distant newsfeeds.

In 1816, there was no such relief. The winter was winter, but spring and summer were slaughtered like calves en route to becoming veal marsala, cut down in the prime of youth. Historically they call it the Year Without A Summer. Its effects were cruel but the wonky residue may have given birth to the Old West, the Model T, the Book of Mormon and the Depression-era fad of spooky horror flicks. That’s a hell of a weather pattern.


It all began with the massive eruption of Mount Tambora, located on the island of Sumbawa in Indonesia. This was one of only two VEI-7 eruptions in the past millennium – and that scale only goes up to 8. This occurred on April 15, 1815, and while the 100 cubic kilometers of solid earth the volcano blasted into neighboring communities caused a virtual apocalypse for locals, the ash and toxins pumped into the atmosphere would sneak up and bitch-slap the rest of the planet several months later. Read more…

Day 730: Taking The Stairs


The sage philosopher and observer of our cultural eccentricities Mitch Hedberg once said, “An escalator can never break; it can only become stairs.”

That may be true, and it may be soberingly poignant. Also, it’s possible that I simply know of no other way to effectively begin an article about stairs.

Every morning I find myself facing the same choice on my way up to work from the subway. Do I heave my frame up the 30-40 steps to my building or flop lazily against the escalator handrail and let the labor of 19th century inventors Jesse W. Reno and Charles Seeberger do the work to haul me up from the depths?

It will surprise absolutely nobody who knows me… I take the escalator. If ever I am motivated to spew forth the extra energy for that fleeting moment of cardio and leg-strengthening climbing work, it won’t be at 8:00 in the morning when I’m facing a tedious 8-hour sentence inside a drab cubicle. There are, however, some stairs in the world that I’d very much like to climb. Staircases which are in themselves an attraction worthy of a trip.

But I’ll tell you right now – I don’t care if they’re just a few blocks away from my hotel; I’m taking a cab.


While it would probably take me a few years to get in shape for it, I’d love to ascend the Haiku Stairs. Plopped onto the south side of the Hai’ku Valley on the island of Oahu, these steps lead brave hikers to an astounding 2800-foot peak. There’s nothing up there apart from a decommissioned Naval radio station and a killer view, but that’s enough to draw in the tourists. 3,922 stairs is a hefty climb for sight-seeing, but from the photos I’ve seen it might be worth the effort. Read more…

Day 553: When Thrills Are Quelled


Neither of my voyages to the magnificent city of New York have brought me to Brooklyn. This is a matter of personal irk, as Brooklyn is where my great-grandfather hung his funky old 1910’s-era fedora after shuffling through the lineups at Ellis Island, planting the Schwartz flag on North American turf. And apart from this soil of my familial roots, I have always wanted to ride the historic Cyclone at Coney Island. Honestly, what was Coney Island before there was a Cyclone?

Well, it was a great place for rabbit hunting, but that’s going way back to the 1600’s when New York was New Amsterdam. In the opening days of the 20th century, Coney Island was relegated to fun and amusement, even before its most famous attraction went up. Before Astroland there was Dreamland – a very different breed of amusement park.

Dreamland is where we’ll set our wheels into motion, combing through some of the parks that once were and are no more.


Speckled with one million electric light bulbs – quite a feat in 1904 – Dreamland opened with ambitions of being a slightly higher-class fun park. There was an imitation Swiss alpine landscape through which you could ride a train, a replica of Venetian canals through which you could drift on a gondola, and a Lilliputian Village featuring 300 dwarf inhabitants through which you could walk and… I don’t know, feel tall. There was a one-armed lion tamer with a handlebar mustache, a display of incubators and premature babies, and of course a number of sideshows for folks to ogle at the self-proclaimed freaks. Read more…

Day 437: Skyscraper Lite


The humble town of Wichita Falls, Texas, with a  population just over 103,000, has a somewhat unusual past. First of all, the actual falls after which the town was named were destroyed in a flood in 1886, just fourteen years after the town was founded. They had to build an artificial simulation almost a century later because they were tired of tourists showing up to see the falls that didn’t exist.

But today’s article isn’t about that. Nor is it about the 1964 tornado that slashed through the town and killed seven people. It’s not about “Terrible Tuesday” in 1979, when thirty tornadoes spun around the region, killing 45, injuring 1800 and leaving over 20,000 people homeless. No, today I’m writing about a different chapter in the wonky history of Wichita Falls.

This is the story of the world’s littlest skyscraper. And it all begins with the fanciful verbiage and slick persuasive skills of one man.

(artist's rendering)

(artist’s rendering)

Wichita Falls’ first forty years were rather unspectacular, apart from that flood that killed their namesake. But in 1912, a huge cache of oil was discovered just west of nearby Burkburnett. Within five years, every town in the county became a boomtown; people flocked to the region, hoping to cash in on the local black gold. Texas tea. You get the point. Read more…