It has been quite the summer! The season started a little early with a one-week visit to the University of Glasgow Big Data Centre thanks to a grant from McGill University International Relations. The visit had the rapid-fire air of a hiring visit: several chats with faculty I had not had the privilege of meeting previously; codeshifting my language based on the specialty of whoever's office I was in; hectic last-minute changes in schedule; small-talk in the break room. The experience offered some eye-opening perspectives about my own work, particularly regarding how I should re-orient my research agenda to take advantage of innovations in big data and GIScience. I closed off the visit with a 22-mile hill walk along the West Highland Way (gorgeous and mystical) and a long layover in Amsterdam, where I saw the infamously efficient and sustainable transportation system close-up following a morning in the city.
Six weeks later, I met with colleagues at the annual meeting of the Canadian Association of Geographers. It was great to meet new people and see the current state of research produced by our tax dollars through our SSHRC (and NSERC, FRQSC, etc.) grants. Having never been to Halifax, I took the whole week to soak in the place, including a very informative tour about the city's urban development led by Saint Mary's University Prof. Hugh Millward. I look forward to meeting everyone again at next year's meeting at York University in Toronto.
June and July have been a bit of a haze. I set my research schedule to 2x speed to write 3 manuscripts in time for the Transportation Research Board conference deadline. It was difficult to jump from principle component analysis one day to socio-spatial epistemologies the next, and like many Ph.D. candidates (Did I mention I passed my comps?), there were days where I felt that I was losing my mind. Fortunately, I finished the manuscripts with time to spare. I'm optimistic that these papers will be well-received by the reviewers at TRB and elsewhere, in cases where they're slated to be submitted to external publications, with the caveat that I'm favourably predisposed toward my own work. In the words of Louis XIV: L'état, c'est moi.
Where do I stand now? In short, I'm well-poised to take a mini-vacation. After a couple weeks at 0.25x working speed and a long drive to the country (or 2), I'm going to ease into my autumn research and teaching schedule. I look forward to starting the "big walkability project" and, with a little foresight, getting some high-quality deliverables ready well in advance of the deadline for TRB 2018. Countdown: 1 year, 3 days.
I've had a busy four months. Coast-to-coast, comps to conferences. Here's a photo sample in lieu of a long blog entry. I'll have something wordier to say in a couple weeks as data collection and manuscript writing heats up for the summer.
I promised that I'd write book reviews for the next post. Well, now the next post is the present post,
Corporal Glass's Island: The Story of Tristan da Cunha by Nancy Hosegood (1966)
Jupiter's Travels by Ted Simon (1979)
The author accounts his trip around the world on a Triumph motorcycle. It includes plot elements spanning human and physical geography. Even deserts! I've read it twice (2011, 2015). One of the best travel books ever.
Pros: weaves seamlessly between sociopolitical observations and motorcycle problems, free of the full-of-oneselfness of Paul Theroux, but with a whiff of British colonial sentiment
Cons: there are story gaps that are partially addressed in his sequel Riding High
Quote: "It is not only pressure from outside that threatens this culture. A woman yesterday asked me, with a satisfied smirk on her pretty face, whether I knew that Rhodesia had the highest divorce rate in the world. Adultery, the Enemy Within."
I've rushed through these reviews a bit because I'm eager to grab a coffee and start reading a bunch of literature about place. I've been focusing too much on space lately, and it has clouded my academic judgment. This is more than nodes and links, my dear transport geographers; this is serious business.
On a final note, I will be adding another place to my 2016 travel itinerary: Scotland. I secured some funding to cross-pollinate expertise and ideas with colleagues at the University of Glasgow. I will keep you posted, but for now, you will have to settle with photos from the last time I was in that side of the world. Oh, August 1998!
I've been listening to a podcast called Radio Diaries, published by Radiotopia in San Francisco. Each episode weaves together audio evidence - ambient noises, news reports, interviews, archival materials - to situate the listener in a narrative and its context, from an older woman's struggle defending her home against the coal industry to the sentiments of North Carolina prison guards. The episodes are far too short (20 min), but when they randomly pop up on my podcast feed 1-2 per month, I listen to them before anything else.
The podcast got me thinking about the role of audio recordings as qualitative data. I've recorded and analyzed a good number of interviews and focus groups over the past couple years. However, the audio data collected using these methods are generally distilled into transcripts, coded, re-coded, [...] until you're left with a theory and a couple salient quotes for your publication. It's not a bad strategy; a great deal can be drawn from participants' statements. But there are limits to what can be learned about unspoken conditions encountered by the participant, e.g., the social and environmental quotidien that may seem so obvious and commonplace that it's not brought up by the participant or, for that matter, the researcher.
Capturing day-to-day life using multimedia is not a novel concept. The reading list for my upcoming comprehensive exam has several studies where daily life is recorded by/with the participant to complement their statements (and other data). I'm new to studying the geographies of everyday movement, however, and I've spent the past months toying around with the experiences of my own life to see what meanings I can generate from audio recordings of day-to-day activities.
Here are a handful of recordings that I picked up on Apple's Voice Memos app:
So, I'm becoming more comfortable with other methods of data collection and reflection. The audio recordings spark off memories of the environmental context and my sentiments while I experienced them, even months after the environment was recorded. The audio recordings generate different sentiments than photographs of the same moment. The audio is also continuous, not static like a photograph in a journal article.
How can audio and visual evidence complement each other? Studies using "photo diary" and participant-filmed video demonstrate that rich Radio Diary-type stories can emerge. My lab has explored the possibilities while testing our GoPro over the past couple weeks. The GoPro is a proactive video camera, i.e., designed for passive recording while mounted to a person or object. It is my hope that over the coming months, I can illustrate the value of proactive camera technology as a means to capture the senses and sentiments of people as they move through everyday life.
But alas, that's all you're going to learn for now. I'm sleepy, and I want to successfully visit the gym tomorrow before work.
Next Post Preview: I'll delve into my latest book purchases including cover-art and, if I've had my coffee that day, a couple reviews.
Autumn is my favourite season. The air becomes crisp, the skies blue, and the leaves all shades between red and yellow on the colour wheel. I am reminded of a two-week stint at a farm in Mangualde, Portugal where, when I was not being berated by the German proprietors for scything grass incorrectly or choking on the smoke of nearby forest fires, I read and re-read the only English-language book at my disposal—an anthology of 19th-century poet John Keats—in the ruins of an abandoned hamlets overlooking the Rio Dão. Keats's "Ode to Autumn" stood out for its vivid imagery of a temperate season recognizable from the English countryside to Vermont:
SEASON of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
In the midst of the perfect autumn weather here in Montreal, I set out on a excursion with McGill's "Urban Field Studies" course to the neighbourhood of Parc-Extension. The 25-odd students, professor, and the wonderful teaching assistant (yours truly) were led on a tour by two long-time residents of the neighbourhood. They pointed out changes to the built and transportation environment spanning generations of post-war immigration, e.g., "This hall used to be a movie theatre, then a Pan-Hellanic cultural centre, and is now condos." The students then set out across the neighbourhood to complete an assignment that I designed for the course titled "Light Theory-Building using Qualitative GIS," in which they teamed up in groups and:
Yesterday I caught a glimpse of Montreal's new metro cars going through testing. I was at Station Berri-UQAM on the way home when a weird horn sounded from one end of the tunnel and then this seek silver bullet popped out. Half the people on the platform took out their smartphones and took photos of it while it stopped.
I had read that STM [our transit agency] was testing the new cars out without picking up passengers, so I didn't line up to enter the train. However, plenty of people peeked inside. The cars are not furnished yet, but rather filled with bags of rocks to simulate the weight of furnishings and passengers.
The new train started moving again a couple seconds later, and the real train nonchalantly pulled up two minutes later. From what I understand, the new cars will be phased in very gradually starting next year. The new cars are expected to last a half-century or more thanks to a fully-enclosed tunnel system that places a check on corrosion and vandalism.
I've never had a problem with the current cars. They have the same cute sky-blue exterior from their debut 50 years ago, and while the interiors are dated compared to the latest metro systems [my experiences in China come to mind], they're far cleaner and more civil than the NYC Subway. Plus, they've got retro flair.
Montreal is incredibly hot right now, the type of hot where you want to mix a mint julep and sit out on the veranda and, realizing no good can come from traveling anywhere in such heat, fatalistically resign yourself to staying locked inside for days while the world turns on its axis - a practically spiritual apathy that Tolstoy and the well-read listeners of Ekho Moskvy might call обломовщина. [And with one graceful pirouette, I meet my monthly quota for Southern and Slavic rural gentry references.]
I'd been watching the heat approach in weather forecasts for days, and yesterday, I decided to do some urban exploring while the going was still good. I started off with a long bus and metro ride to the "southwest" of Montreal to have breakfast at the only pink-and-orange standalone Dunkin Donut's restaurant on the island. Occasionally I feel nostalgic for Connecticut culinary culture, and since CT runs on Dunkin, and Connecticut has literally no other culinary culture or (I hate this word so much) terroir, the experience was a straight shot to the characterless suburbs of my homeland. I was reminded of other exotic places where I've grabbed coolatas, from Columbia, SC to Granada, Spain to the stadium-sized arrivals hall of Xi'an International Airport, where after a long and gloomy taxi ride through the industrial coal-powered wasteland of the central Chinese winter, I indulged in the same quality coffee and coffee roll as the ugly Route 1 commercial strip of linking Branford to East Haven. In Montreal, the only difference was a free copy of the Journal de Montréal, where I read 6 (six) whole pages about the marriage of Parti Quebecois leader Pierre Karl Péladeau who previously, though perhaps not entirely previously, owned the Journal de Montréal.
After breakfast, I walked to the northeastern corner of southwest Montreal to visit the former site of "Goose Village", a.k.a. Victoriatown. The area used to be the site of a booming low-income Irish neighourhood until Mayor Jean Drapeau repurposed and demolished everything for reasons of "health", though it was awfully convenient that the neighbourhood was also the powerbase of his political adversary. The only evidence that Goose Village ever existed is an old war memorial, now surrounded by low-density zoning (e.g., a Costco and Canada Post sorting facility), rail and car lots, and a big Hydro Quebec substation.
This area is a transit desert, for lack of a better term, so I had to walk a long and winding way through a neglected built environment to reach any sidewalk. There was a lot of construction, and I had to tread carefully around all sorts of detritus and speeding cars in an area that wasn't pedestrian-friendly to begin with. I kept heading "north" until I hit the Lachine Canal.
After jumping out of the way of cyclists for a bit along the canal trail, I found a sidewalk that integrated into the downtown area. It was getting very hot by this point, so I didn't stop until I hit the metro. I got home about an hour later, opened a can of PBR, and sat on my balcony reading Knausgaard on my trusty kindle (for a short and sweet taste of his work, check this out).
This morning I biked to the "eastern" point of Montreal - about 60km round-trip through dense urban streets, industrial stretches, and pretty bedroom communities. Here are some photos of the exurban half of the trip.
I have been inundated with geography-related things lately. On April 21, I set off to Chicago for the Association of American Geographers Annual Meeting. It's much more lively and interesting than the Transportation Research Board, because (1) springtime and (2) I'm not surrounded by engineers, and asphalt salespeople. It was also nice to put a face to the authors I read on a day-to-day basis - a nice mix of academia from the regal to the quirky. I can't wait until next year's meeting in San Francisco!
On the research front, I've been tying together my thesis framework and acquainting myself with my neighbourhood of interest and future home, starting July 1st: Parc-Extension, Montreal. I attended a bike tour sponsored by Le Centre d'ecologie urbaine de Montreal and other organizations where we wove throughout Parc-Ex and reminisced about the transportation environment and its history. I also learned at the recent borough council meeting that the neighbourhood's first bike lanes will be installed in the near future.
My god, Montreal has enjoyed a week of magnificent warm and sunny weather with low humidity. The trees are legitimately green now, and when I went to Marche Jean-Talon this afternoon, it had finally evolved into an open-air market for the season. I'm so filled with sunny Vitamin D and fresh vegetables that I broke my previous jogging distance record by a statistically significant margin. The health ramifications are great, but above all, jogging is an important skill if I want to be that "hip and energetic professor" down the road. Habitus, habitus, habitus.
The winter has been long and brutal, but at last things are starting to look up. Today the temperature is expected to hit double-digits Celsius (50F) for the first time all year. Snow is melting, and at least one tree outside my office window is starting to bud (below).
The sidewalks are now ice-free and crowded with people. The city's bike-sharing program, BIXI, has begun to install its seasonal terminals across my neighbourhood. There's more room to breathe in the metro and buses as passengers replace their heavy down jackets for windbreakers and sweaters. Montreal is just weeks away from festivals, terraces, and open-air markets. It's about time!