Book Review: My Town

The Kitchener public library has a pretty substantial collection of local history books, which are generally very rare and can’t be taken out of the library. One book there that I’ve been really taken with is “My Town”, by E. Joyce Thompson Byrnes. I have found no record of it online.

It’s an incredibly cool book, about Hespeler, Ontario as a small town in the 1930s. (It is now a neighbourhood in my current municipality.) Writing from 2013, Byrnes is playful, reflective, and extremely funny. Each chapter deals with a different facet of life at the time – commerce, medical care, holidays and festivals, and so on. This being Canada, there was in fact an entire section dedicated to hockey and ice skating.

More than anything else the comparison that springs to mind for me is Anne of Green Gables, in that it’s a very saccharine view of life in the period. But it’s also really well researched and I think does a good job of cleaving to reality. Sometimes the suck leaches in from the sides of her cheerful stories – offhand mentions of her classmates dying of smallpox, how shitty winter jackets were for keeping you warm and dry, the whole great depression thing. I kind of appreciated that. It really made me appreciate how good we have it, from the big stuff (like not having 100% of cancers be fatal) to the small (man, ice skates really sucked at the time).

There’s this line of thinking that goes – once a way of life is gone, there’s no way to really understand it. As an example, some might say that people who are working on rolling back post-9/11 surveillance laws are aspiring to a pale imitation of what we once had, and the incredible, ridiculous amount of freedom that was commonplace before then would spook the shit out of this wimp-ass generation. Or in this case, something like – we’ll never get to a truly inalienated world again and we don’t understand how much we lost to industrialization and atomization.

But this book had such vivid descriptions of life in the deliciously slow old days, and I feel like I genuinely understand a lot more now about what was lost. It seemed like a tightknit and wonderful community. Shit, is this why historians like firsthand accounts so much???

rub it in why dont you joyce. god.

Between stories of the hilariously dark and fucked up pranks that her mom would pull, her incredibly unique vantage point into the advancement of medical science at the time, and fond recollections of ridiculously cool things that you are no longer able to do1, what captivated me most was the descriptions of the horses.

The fucking horses, man. I cannot believe how cool they were, I had no idea how much of a tradeoff we made when we shifted to cars.

Get this. You are a milkman, because milk delivery was a commonplace thing back then. You have a horse and a cart attached to it, full of bottles of milk. You know what you were able to do? You were able to literally just chill and read a paperback between your deliveries, because your horse! Got! Your! Fucking! Route! Memorized! It will stop at the appropriate times and know what your routine is at each stop and when to get going again. I honestly had no idea that horses were smart enough to do that. So basically we literally had intelligent self driving transportation for centuries???2

Ok, sometimes horses threw a shitfit. There was a really funny story about the baker trying to teach his new apprentice how to do his route, but the horse really didn’t like the apprentice’s vibes. So when the apprentice tried to climb on, it protested by lying down on its side – toppling over the attached cart and sending baked goods flying into the street.

But you know, maybe we need more horse tantrums in our lives and that would make us all better people. I for one would like a greater percentage of my first world problems to be caused by something other than human coordination failures. I would pay money for more of them to be like “sorry, Applejack the horse threw a tantrum this morning and that’s why your package wasn’t delivered” instead of “the local amazon warehouse decided to cut workers and force the remaining ones to work longer shifts again”. Can the aspiring startup founders in the area start working on this please?

Anyways, this is what I got from the first third of the book. I’ve only been able to read it in fits and snatches since I can’t take it out of the library! I might start going over on my lunch breaks. Someone else should start reading it so we can start a fan club.

Final score: 10/10

  1. Stuff like: getting freshly squeezed warm milk from the local farm a 10 minute bike ride away as a treat (she takes the time to assure you that this was nothing to worry about despite the lack of pasteurization, as “the cows had been tested for Tuberculosis”); being able to skate all the way to Guelph on the rivers that were frozen in the wintertime; have a favourite shoe design as a kid that your cobbler was always ready to make for you in the next size up []
  2. Byrne often jokingly questions whether or not society has progressed at all since the 30s after relegating some tale or another, but man, honestly I found myself nodding in agreement more than I expected to (so like – two times, instead of zero times). []

Ontario’s Solar Energy

So it’s the day before I have two midterms back to back, which means that obviously I’ve spent the last few hours getting sucked into the energy section of the Auditor General’s Report. There’s some fascinating stuff in there about solar power, which I’m learning just in time for wowing the bae on Valentine’s day!

-When you make an electrical grid, you need to achieve parity between supply and demand. When there’s too much power in the grid, you need to shut down some generators. When there’s too little, you need to turn some on. The solution that we came up with is to have two tiers of suppliers:

  • base load plants which provide the minimum supply of power in the system, and
  • peaking plants, which provide additional supply during peak hours.

-Nuclear and hydroelectric plants are base load plants; they are large, their energy is really cheap, and they’re very expensive to turn off and on again. 

-Fossil and alternative power sources make peaking plants. Their energy is more expensive, but they’re easy to turn off and on again.

-Solar energy throws a giant wrench into this. They 1) can’t be easily turned on and off, 2) are not reliable enough to be a base load supplier, 3) are also not reliable enough to be a peak load supplier, and 4) is incredibly expensive.

-We have a microFIT program in Ontario, which is when the government pays you to hook your solar panels up to the grid. The government pays in total $491 million per TWh for solar. Compare to the traditional source of peaking power:

  • fossil: $153 million
  • wind: $119 million
  • bioenergy: $200 million.
  • (If you’re curious, base load plants cost around $60 million per TWh)

oh, and 5) it’s actually messing with our energy grid because it’s unpredictable and it must be embedded within our system due to its not-easily-turned-on-and-off-ness. Because of all the panels hooked up now, Ontario has started experiencing a lot of days with surplus energy generation (defined as when base load power generation exceeds demand) – from 172 days in 2011 to 319 days in 2014. On a yearly basis, we waste more energy than the maximum amount that Manitoba can produce.

This is bad because consumers have to eat the costs, exporting power happens at a loss, and some other reasons like wearing down infrastructure.

There’s even more interesting stuff in the Auditor General’s Report, which you should read on a day that is not a day before you have two midterms.

Like how the incentive scheme to get renewable energy off the ground was supposed to have their goal met in 10 years but managed it under one, but the government kept it going anyways, or how it’s apparently not actually the most efficient way to stop GHG emissions.

Embarrassing confession time: through the course of writing this I realized that last year we had a guest lecture about this, but I don’t think I was paying attention. If anyone in my year is reading this, this is apparently supposed to be old news to us? From the notes of that guest lecture though, I rediscovered which has some rad graphs about the current status of energy generation in Ontario.

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