The Toronto Years

5 Months of Sheltering in Place

I'm still riding bikes, and still going to the office once or twice a week. I bought a sturdy lawn chair so I could sit in the park next to my building. I reasoned that it would be a useful thing to have post-pandemic as well. I'm otherwise sheltering in place because there’s no events to attend. At least there are still places to go. I remain optimistic that we'll get to the other side of this pandemic, but I'm also getting used to the idea of not attending any more events in person in the year 2020.

Toronto mandated masks inside public places (and common areas of private places), and has been steadily re-opening businesses, especially restaurants for dining in. Dining solo isn't such a great experience to begin with, but it adds back vibrancy to the city streets. During the pandemic, wearing a mask is the price to pay to go to stores, and that's a fairly small price. I don't think I'm going to like doing it for more than an hour at a time, though, which may come into play if I go on a group day-trip, something I'm considering as a way to get out of town for a few hours.

In an article where the headline signalled pessimism, an interview with Bill Gates in Wired actually gives more hope:

for the rich world, we should largely be able to end this thing by the end of 2021, and for the world at large by the end of 2022. That is only because of the scale of the innovation that’s taking place. Now whenever we get this done, we will have lost many years in malaria and polio and HIV and the indebtedness of countries of all sizes and instability. It’ll take you years beyond that before you’d even get back to where you were at the start of 2020. It’s not World War I or World War II, but it is in that order of magnitude as a negative shock to the system.

(Although the criticism is that it relies too heavily on the idea that innovation will save us when there are established practices for this sort of thing.)

I'm still single, and while this year started off with a date (and for once, a second date), while dating apps reported a surge in signups, I can't report increased matches, so I decided to take all of August off. It was always time-consuming to spend an hour swiping in the hopes of making a match, and then trying to think of something original but sincere and getting to what I call the "values conversation" (i.e. getting beyond small talk to discuss what each other wants in a relationship). Matches seemed to get fewer and further between, so I'm taking the hint and re-tooling in that department.

I haven't learned any new skills or read many books during the shutdown period. Every time I start to feel bad about that, I recall that I've been cooking a lot, writing in my blog more, sitting on my balcony and in the park more, and focussing on learning how to relax, something I'm not sure I've experienced in a while. I have started learning Chinese again, using the Duolingo app, and recalling my time in university, the courses I enjoyed the most were those that assigned short essays based on course readings, i.e. no research outside of the texts already suggested. I'm looking to take such a course again, possibly in a field new to me. One that isn't computers (self-learner) or political science (my university major).

Toronto Islands

I had a vacation day today, the day after a weekend on-call shift. This year I decided I didn't want to work 12 days in a row, so for this weekend and the next time I have pager duty, I have a day off in between. Today started out with breakfast from the diner across the street from where I live, sitting in the park catching up on personal email while sitting on the new lawn chair I bought, and trying to decide whether to visit Toronto Islands. In the COVID-19 era, the ferry there is open to non-residents, at half capacity, and everybody has to wear a mask, even on the top deck, which is open to the elements. I had the presence of mind to take a bad selfie with the CN Tower in the background. How else are people going to know it was taken in Toronto?

I had no plan other than to take a Toronto Bike Share on the ferry and bike around Wards Island, which I hadn't seen much of previously. I was treated to this view of downtown Toronto:

Toronto Islands

It was a short bike ride, no longer than 40 minutes. Near the end of it, I took a wrong turn and ended up on a boardwalk on Centre Island:

Centre Island boardwalk

I had intended to get a hot dog at a local bar (with outside seating), so with half an hour to spare, I did just that. 5 minutes before the ferry was due to leave, I discovered the bike had a flat tire. That meant I had to wait for an hour for the next ferry, and I couldn't venture far due to disabled bike, though I was able to read a book on a bench.

On every trip I take, I try to fit in a boat ride. There's no travel for the foreseeable future, so for $9, that's my boat ride for the summer.

For more photos, see my set of the trip on Flickr.

4 Months of Sheltering in Place

The one thing that has kept me going, from the gloomiest times in March of this year, is that time marches forward no matter what. I look at my Timehop recap of where I went and what I said on this day in previous years on a daily basis, the years seem both so long ago and like it was yesterday. Either way, time will its way, and this too shall one day be in the past. I never lost track of what day it was, thanks to still having a job. (Co-workers lost track of what weekday it was, so I'm not saying continuing to work and have a weekend was the only reason.) I stuck to my Sunday routine and did everything I was allowed to do while taking all the precautions asked of me.) I've read the various articles about experiencing time differently, and that could be true for March and parts of April. That said, May, and especially June, went by about as quickly as they do outside of a pandemic. I experienced a loosening up from the pandemic anxiety as stores opened up again (or closed for good), and restaurants started offering patio service. My beloved diner even came through with a re-opening, first with takeout and then with patio service, which I take advantage of on Saturdays, weather permitting. While planning ahead has been more difficult (no plane travel until at least Christmas, for example), I have been taking it 2 weeks at a time, and that has worked well for my peace of mind.

The other ideas that keep me calm come from an interview with epedimiologist Larry Brilliant. From that I get the confidence there will be a vaccine. (Also a treatment for those that, rolling my eyes here, choose not to take the vaccine.) this quote near the end stands out: “Everybody needs to remember: This is not a zombie apocalypse. It's not a mass extinction event.” To my knowledge there's no obvious treatment, but our knowledge of the virus grows, and, if they're not 100% guarantees, I have yet to hear someone say treatment will definitely never come and that a vaccine is impossible. All signs point to the scientific community coming to a full understanding of the virus this year.

Also encouraging has been that my office has opened up. I have the benefit of living in downtown Toronto, and the office is a 12-minute bike ride away. I'm only comfortable going in twice a week, mainly to get a break from the construction noise across the street from my apartment and to sit in a comfortable chair, and not taking transit to get there. I don't have a plan for the colder months other than working from home, though generally speaking, Toronto has been good about clearing the bike lanes of snow.

I haven’t taken up any new hobbies or restarted many old ones. I have been biking for leisure as much as possible, and have just started doing self-guided architectural tours of Toronto. I’ve been cooking at about the same frequency, but double the amount each time. That and gaming take up most of my time, and reading books has come to be a habit again. I'm still listening to full albums like I had started a few years ago.

I have been spending a lot of time on my balcony. So much so that I have dinner out there regularly, and I now have a storage box so that I make less frequent trips to get things.

In the box I have paper towel, a glass or two, placemats, cutlery, and earplugs for the times I want to have breakfast or lunch out there when construction across the street is happening. I expect to be able to stay out there through September, and possibly October if warmer weather prevails that long. Because of how well things have gone these four months, the only thing I have to plan for is cold weather during lineups to the grocery store, and so far trips have been minimal because I cook using meal kits that are delivered to me weekly.

I've also been making a number of fixes to this blog. It's been nice getting back into the depths of Drupal 7 again, which has had some life breathed into it recently. I've restored the following sections: my bookmarks, no longer syndicated from anywhere; my Flickr photos, which will start being syndicated here shortly, and the station pages of my SkyTrain Explorer section. This is all in anticipation of an upgrade to Drupal 8, though there's at least two years until I have to do that.

King St. W. Heritage

Faced with having someone over to clean my apartment, and nowhere to go, my first idea was to sit on my balcony for 2½ hours. Eating dinner there that evening, it was obvious that being stationary in the sweltering Toronto heat would not be a good idea. If it weren't for the COVID-19 pandemic, I would go to a Starbucks and sit inside for the duration, and cross off some items on my task list. Dining inside is currently not possible, and patio space is at a premium, so I took along my copy of Toronto Architecture: A City Guide by Patricia McHugh and Alex Bozikovic and walked around my neighbourhood, the area of King St. West near Spadina Ave. Starting at Bathurst and King, I walked east and took photos of the buildings and construction sites along what is mostly restaurants and nightclubs, but is transitioning towards high-rise residential. My favourite view along the King St. corridor is the location of where ing Toronto will be located, giving me a temporary view of the side of a building and the CN Tower. That site will be filled by King Toronto, a huge residential development that I quite like, if it comes close to the proposed designs.

View from the development site of King Toronto by Bjarke Ingels Group

The directions too me north on John St., back south to Adelaide, then to Peter St., then the home stretch on Richmond St. W. all the way to Maud St. to see the Waterworks residential and food hall building under construction.

The first walk I took was northbound on Yonge St., which is mythically the longest street in the world, and this was the second walk. All of the buildings were familiar to me, but they didn't have names. Every walk I go on contains a surprise, though, and this was no different. On Adelaide St. W. near Widmer, is a map of the southern parts of Toronto engraved in the sidewalk. I hadn't noticed it before because usually there are chairs and tables on top.

Map of Toronto

It doesn't photograph well, but I admired it as a flat memorial to the city and Lake Ontario. I killed even more time in St. Andrew's Playground Park, itself slated for redevelopment, though the pandemic has delayed that too, if only slightly. Overall the walk serves as a good introduction to my neighbourhood as it changes rapidly.

The Lakeshore Boulevard Activeway is Real, and It’s Spectacular

As soon as it was announced in May, I couldn't wait to bike the sections of Lakeshore Boulevard to cyclists, runners, walkers and others who want to exercise and stay physical distant. My position is: As long as the gyms are closed, the city needs to open up as much public space to move around as possible. I've gone every weekend it has been opened, missing only one day. (After I missed that day, I realized I wanted to go each day the road was open.) I even went on a day when I assumed it was open, but it was closed to active participants because the Gardiner "Expressway" was closed due to repairs.

I don't own a bike, mainly because I don't want to have to lock it up. Instead, I have a monthly membership with Toronto Bike Share. It's a 10-minute walk to the nearest bike share dock (more like the dock that's most convenient to depart from), and after that, it's about an hour of biking. That's from the time I take out my first bike share bike to the time I dock. My yearly membership gives me unlimited 30-minute rides, and as long as I dock at a station. Each day I go, I take a photo to memorialize a moment, add a tweet to the above thread, and I keep track of the rides through Strava. Some days I try to get a personal best, and some days I go for a leisurely ride. The days with a headwind are usually followed by days with a light breeze, so I don't let it demoralize me.

While I appreciate the branding of and the effort into SafewaysTO1, since it refers to roads that have reduced or no car traffic on them, I'm trying to make 'activeway' a thing. That's especially true of Lakeshore Boulevard.2 It hasn't caught on yet.

I still don't know what to make of people using motorized vehicles, like e-bikes and scooters. I guess they're getting some freedom on the open road and outside time, but I don't think that was the idea.

On my rides, I take along my $50 Anker speaker and play music as loud as it will go. Inspired by Roland, I use the Volumatic app to control my volume based on my velocity. As soon as I'm biking full speed, the speaker is at full volume, but when I slow down (such as at a stoplight), it turns the volume down to about 70%. It's especially nice for when I have to dock a bike, since the music still plays, meaning no pausing and unpausing, and no manually having to adjust the volume for nearby ears.

It has been my way to stay active, see the lake, and see other people, which reminds me that we're not locked down even if restrictions on large gatherings are still in place. I haven't yet ridden on the other sections that are open to active users, and that's something I hope to do by the end of summer. Toronto has recently entered Phase 2, meaning patios are open for service and we can get haircuts now. I'm not happy with how long it has taken to flatten the curve, and I think it could have been a lot flatter, but opening up streets to people on weekends has been such an inspired idea that I hope we learn from it, and I hope it can be made a permanent feature of summers in Toronto.


  1. I'm very fond of maps and mapping, but found, to my surprise, that I didn't find the SafewayTO map useful. It has spurred some thinking on how useful I find maps to begin with. I now have more questions than answers, like "What do I use maps for most?" and "What story is any particular map trying to tell me?" and "Is a map the best way to display this?" A map like the SafewayTO map would be very useful in an app like MapinHood and, don't worry, I told them so↩︎

  2. I prefer the spelling Lakeshore to the official Lake Shore. It feels like it should be one word rather than two. ↩︎

Toronto Heritage

When I lived in Vancouver, I wanted a way to explore the city in a structured way, and as someone who loved riding transit, the perfect way to do that was by doing the tours in SkyTrain Explorer: Heritage Walks From Every Station by John Atkin. Having moved to Toronto almost 5 years ago, I was able to see the city through Jane's Walks and other walking tours, and I was on the lookout for something similar to Atkin's book. Toronto Architecture: A City Guide by Patricia McHugh and Alex Bozikovic is a close analogue. While they don't use subway stations as their starting point, I flipped through the book and the tours seemed brisk and informative, not to mention opinionated. (Each tour references others, as they overlap, so the reader is often referred to the building description in another tour by walk number and building number.) I have created a separate page for the architecture I'll take from the book, and the format of that page will closely follow that of the SkyTrain Explorer page.

The book does not direct the reader to each point like SkyTrain Explorer does, and has more to see on each walk than that book does. The book does number the buildings, so you can piece together a route. In the Yonge St. walking tour I just completed, I ran Strava in the background to capture the route I took. You can see the diversions to side streets, as well as deciding not to retrace my steps early on.

Like with the SkyTrain Explorer section, I will embed the photos in a page per walk. It will take some time to upgrade the code behind it, which is a both a major PHP version and Drupal version behind, but I'm looking forward to exploring the city I live in again, and documenting it here along the way.

Two Months of Sheltering in Place

The weeks have gone by a lot faster these past 30 days than the first 30 days. Toronto is slowly loosening it’s restrictions, allowing curbside pickup from retail stores, though all restaurants are still open only for delivery or pickup. So far none of the restaurants I get food from have closed permanently, though I don’t have a lot of hope for the diner across the street from me. I take a walk each day, weather permitting, go grocery shopping for snacks once a week, and as of today, I finally have masks that fit me. A family friend, Ruby, made them for not just our whole family, but my sister’s in-laws as well. We call them our Ruby Masks. It was a heartwarming gesture, one I've seen friends on social media gush about as well when their friends make them masks. I don't know if we're all in this together, but a lot of people are stepping up.

My task list is just as long as it was before the pandemic. If I've said "I'm too busy to do [xyz]," well, that wasn't the reason. I watch more movies than usual, with Saturday having become movie night with co-workers. We stream it over one of the video chat services, and we make up for the low quality with camaraderie during the film. There’s a demand for a service like this, even in a post-pandemic world, or a world in which movie theatres still exist, because of the distributed nature of teams and friends. A browser plugin won’t cut it.

The weather is warming up, and even in a cold May, I’m out on the balcony in the sunlight. I went on my first bike ride of the pandemic to Trinity Bellwoods Park on a warm Saturday, which was followed by a week of cold weather. That all changed this week. I can finally drop my parka off at the dry cleaner.

I've taken two streetcar trips, both of which were back from a computer repair place, having walked to get there. I took note of the time and ID number of the streetcars, but that has been at least 2 weeks ago. The next streetcar I board, I'll be wearing a mask. I still keep track of every place I go using Foursquare's Swarm. While before the pandemic it was a game, the winner getting more points based on how many places they visit, now it has taken on the sombre task of logging where I was in case I need to retrace my steps up to 14 days later.

All concerts I had tickets for to this point have been either cancelled or postponed. I expect the same of June concerts, and any concert happening this year. I know why sports leagues have not cancelled their seasons (they traffic in optimism), though it's all but certain no games will be shown in front of live crowds in North America in 2020.

It's easy to rationalize away the things I miss. "Restaurants weren't such a great experience anyway." "Concerts always had annoyances that I don't miss." "Museums are boring." But I'll go to them when they re-open, taking any precautions that's asked of me. I'm still optimistic that we will get to enjoy what we enjoyed before the pandemic, just in a different way.

A Month of Sheltering In Place

Even though I'm Canadian, I've long preferred the American expressions for things. A "furlough" is the temporary leave of absence that employees don't choose, and in recent times has referred to employees during government shutdowns in the United States. I think "donut" is a funnier way to spell doughnut, which is the Canadian spelling. And "shelter in place" is a term I learned during the days after the Boston Marathon bombing, and is my preferred term for "stay at home" or "lockdown" during the COVID-19 pandemic.1

My first day of working from home full time was March 13th, a month ago today. My manager knew which way the wind was blowing, and beat the wider company's order to work from home by a week. Our organization, Customer Service, has a lot of experience working from home, as many of us working from home once a week before the pandemic to begin with, plus others on my team not located in Toronto or Boston had their home office setup already.

I find myself well-placed for this. I've tried to avoid the words "privileged" or "lucky" because, while undeniable, they don't fully account for decisions I made in the four years of living in Toronto. One of them was to establish a space in my apartment for working. Another was to start the habit of buying in bulk for necessities and get them delivered on a regular basis. A third decision was to learn how to cook for myself. In a previous life, I ate out tremendously, and knew how to cook maybe one meal that wasn't macaroni & cheese. Now, my fridge is half full of ingredients to cook (with deliveries each week) and half full with leftovers. (The third half is taken up by beer.) Twentysomething Richard would marvel at the full fridge and the fact that I have a full set kitchen utensils that I use regularly.

The other aspect that puts me well-placed is introversion. I've overheard people on the street say it has been hard for them as an extrovert to have to stay home all day and not have an office to go to and the ability to visit friends. On the flip side, however, as the crisis started, I saw the jokes by introverts who mockingly asserted this should be easy for them, since they were used to being alone and now get to do it all the time. I had a hard time with those jokes.

Introversion (being comfortable with being alone) is not the same thing as shyness (anxiety about establishing new relationships and maintaining existing ones). In the first couple of weeks, my social anxiety took a back seat to anxiety about the pandemic. I found that frustrating because, due to an overly anxious Valentines Day, I resolved to restart the work I had done about the social anxiety. I'm less anxious about the pandemic after considering what I have control over, such as washing my hands, staying away from crowds, "s o c i a l  d i s t a n c i n g" (which sounds funnier when said ominously), and muting keywords related to The Virus on Twitter. I've also accepted I don't have control over when we will sufficiently flattened the curve, or when therapies or a vaccine become available. I've done and will continue to do everything health authorities have asked of me, all the while keeping an eye on the impact to civil liberties.2 The improving weather will be a test for Canada's resolve to stay away from crowds or travel unnecessarily. It will test my resolve. Now that pandemic anxiety has subsided, it won't be easy to work on my social anxiety, as there the number of social situations in which I meet new people are going to be few and far between. I can still work on the feelings associated with it, though.

Other aspects of my current life that have me well-placed:

  • Two bookshelves full of books and DVDs, at least a quarter of them unread and unwatched, and a long-enough watchlist.
  • Friends and family who not only check on me but care about me
  • A job which keeps me busy during the day, and that I can effortlessly do remotely, with a reduced cost of living (which I haven't fully understood) and savings that make it possible for me to donate to food banks.

I'm grieving for a lot of things as a result of this: the quiet that now surrounds my apartment, making downtown Toronto feel like a small town; having to work from home when I moved here so I could work in an office; no in-person gatherings of any kind; the oxygen that the crisis sucked out of the news and conversations; travel plans I've had to cancel and visits by family that are a lot less certain now. The opportunity is in time gained. I don't plan on starting any new hobbies, but rather jump-starting old ones, like synthesizers and running.

Walking and exercising outside hasn't been cancelled. Cooking isn't cancelled. The economy collapsed but Canada's social safety net kicked into overdrive. Medical science around the world has been put on hold to work almost exclusively on one problem. People in Toronto, as they so often do, are more or less coming together. My balcony hasn't been cancelled. So I'm still optimistic in the ethic sense of the word. We'll get through this because we, at least in Canada, are embracing the challenge, and when we embrace the challenge, our track record is very good.


  1. I also liked "shutdown" for a while, seeing as how we weren't locked in our homes, but rather anything that involved lingering, such as restaurants or concert venues or libraries or art galleries, were shut down. "Shelter in place" quickly replaced that in my mind, though. ↩︎

  2. I'm signing up for decentralized privacy-preserving proximity tracing the day it becomes available. ↩︎

Watching Movies

Joseph Planta, a podcaster who interviews notable people in public life, once posted the list of films he had watched over the course of the year.

Recalling this at the end of 2017, I had made added to my yearly list of New Year's Intentions the idea to carve out time to watch more movies. I decided that Friday would be movie night, and that as part of my Sunday routine, I would pick a film to watch the following week. As 2018 progressed, it was obvious that I couldn't rely on Friday night to be the specific night for watching a movie, but my conscious effort paid off in making good on a promise to watch a movie almost every week.

It certainly helps that I live two blocks from a commercial cinema and the TIFF Bell Lightbox, not to mention subscribing to Netflix and Amazon Prime. I'm a Bronze member of The Revue Cinema in Roncesvalles, and have had a fun time at their Drunken Cinema series, where hooting and hollering is encouraged. It is not often that I rent a DVD, the closest store being an hour round trip, but the Toronto Public Library has a good selection, so I include them on my list. Only as a very last resort do I secretly and illegally download a film. I tend to turn on captions for movies, especially if people with British accents are speaking, but also because almost always captions capture what is said at low volume in the background, adding colour to the scenes. I'm not sure I'm willing to use the captioning display unit that Cineplex theatres offer, but that's without having tried it.

I'm particularly interested in movies in which a character’s understanding and effective internalization of the content of a systematic moral theory is a major driver of the story, films that showcase Los Angeles, and movies directed by women.

I post my movie-watching activity to my profile on Letterboxd, and have even been known to add a movie or two to the database it pulls from. For 2019, I switched from Friday being movie night to having at least one movie night sometime during the week. My watchlist on Letterboxd is plenty long, so I shouldn't lack for films to watch over the coming months.

One thing that has been lacking has been my ability to talk about film. It is common across all media, that is, my inability to tell people why I think something is good. When I come across the course for film appreciation that I lost track of, I'll sign up for it.

I Came Second Place In Helping People Out for the 504 Streetcar

You might remember such blog posts as my thoughts on the King St. Pilot and my long thread on Twitter on the subject. Since the pilot has started, I have used the Transit app more and more to give me transit directions. It does things like notify me when I'm two stops away and when my stop is approaching, useful only when GPS is available (i.e. not underground in the TTC subway). In August, it introduced Go, a crowdsourced real-time vehicle location feature. Many transit agencies, the TTC included, give the public access to real-time location of buses and streetcars, but the Transit app developers claim it can be 30 seconds out of date. With this new feature, riders are the source of information, and it feeds back to Transit's servers.

As a way to entice people to turn tracking on, the developers gamified it by counting how many people you've "helped" along the way. Presumably these are people who are sending their location to the app in the background, or looking at the app currently. They are not necessarily people thinking of using the route I'm on, but just people nearby. Over the course of a month, the number of people "helped" is aggregated and I'm ranked among other people who are doing the same thing. For November 2018, I came in second place:

I imagine the person who came in first tracked their trips for every rush hour during weekdays, whereas I worked from an undisclosed location couple of days in November and forgot to press "GO" a few times I did commute to the office along King St.

Some interesting problems came up: I sometimes take the 503, but it's not always listed as an option in the Transit app. It's truly the Secret Streetcar! I counted it as 504 for the purpose of the game. It did sometimes ask me if I was on the 503 or the 504, and I told the truth each time. Midway through using Transit Go, the 504 changed how it was split. Long story short, instead of two routes, 504 and 514, it changed where they turned off and kept 504A and 504B as the route numbers. The Transit app doesn't seem to differentiate between the two. That works out fine for me, since I'm aware of the difference, and even once a 504B caught up with a 504A (which I wanted to be on eventually), so I hopped off the streetcar that would turn left at Dufferin and got on the streetcar that would take me to Roncesvalles.

I don't know what happens if I end up 1st since I haven't ended up as 1st on any of the routes I take over the course of a month. There doesn't appear to be an API that I can tap into (to get where I went, how many people I helped, which place I'm currently in for a route). There are real-time updates to the directions (e.g. when I might miss a connection), but I haven't tested updated instructions for times when I stop at a transfer point to do something, like go to a coffee shop. It's still neat to try to get to the top and to wonder who it is that's more eager to give their location data away for free than I am, though.

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