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  • The fragility of civilization

    Gene Miller

    Does your email inbox (not to mention world news) make you feel we’re in a dress rehearsal for the zombifying apocalypse?


    THERE I WAS, ONLINE, waist-deep in a joyless, turgid, futility-inducing explanation of current geopolitics and wishing I was watching some uplifting porn—remember, you promised to show me again how to get onto that free stuff you watch—when I heard a melodious and welcoming electronic trill announcing new email. An Inbox arrival, what a treat! Out of Google and into Entourage in a heartbeat, to find a note, nestled between “Alzheimer’s Dementia Health” and “Cute Ukrinian Grils” (what’s life without at least one cute Ukrinian gril?), sent by Ambassador Collen V. Kelapile, and titled “YOUR UNCLAIMED PAYMENT.”

    Delightful! I haven’t had mail from the good Ambassador in, why, forever. And short of opening the email, I found myself wondering who I would find if I could trace the communication to its source—some masturbating little whiz kid back east mining sucker money, or a roomful of extortionists in Kenya or some Rio slum, regaling each other with crazy name ideas?

    Wikipedia informs me: “email spam has steadily grown since the early 1990s, and by 2014” (eight long years ago, and before the enforced tedium of Covid) “was estimated to account for around 90 percent, or 54 billion a day, of total email traffic.” Continues Wikipedia: “The legal definition and status of spam varies from one jurisdiction to another, but nowhere have laws and lawsuits been particularly successful in stemming spam.”

    You will, however, be pleased to learn that “governments, through various policies and agencies, are aggressively combating spam in all of its forms.” Here in Canada, we have invoked the Wave a Stern and Disapproving Finger At Them Act. Presumably, if caught, the little bastards will be sent to bed without their supper or recreational drugs. 

    My research also takes me to the related topic of Internet service theft, where I encounter the expression “zombifying malware.” Great name for a death metal band, huh? 

    Principal culprit countries? Brazil, India, Vietnam, Russia, China, Turkey. My guess is that the ambassador hails from Russia. Collen V. Kelapile—the V and the K are giveaways, don’t you think? Plus Russia is, like, so evil. Well, actually, maybe Turkey. That last name, Kelapile, sounds vaguely rug-ish. Or maybe…oh, I don’t know!

    And what do you imagine I would have to do to claim my UNCLAIMED PAYMENT? Probably just slip some tidbit like a bank account number and a password. Seems reasonable: a give for a get.

    I’m sure the daily 54 billion has doubled in the last eight years. “YOUR UNCLAIMED PAYMENT” is only one of a number of things bobbing along on my ever-rising personal crap river, joined, at the moment, by “Bio Boost,” “Men’s Miracle Male Enhancement,” “Big Diabetes Lie,” “Brain Fix;” or, by subject, financial and identity theft, big penis fantasies, and sickness and dementia. 

    Penis size versus Canada’s stern finger—do you even need a ruler?

    All of which takes us to the larger subject of fraying social control. Given current misadventures with managing the pandemic, you have to hope that stop signs and traffic lights at intersections don’t turn into the next symbols of the state’s efforts to limit personal freedom. What a comfort it would be to hear someone dismissing current excesses as simply the latest short-lived fads, like propeller beanies or peace sign headbands in their day.

    I’m posing such matters because I want to paint a picture that reveals the absolute fragility, the limits of capacity and resilience, of our systems of social response and, by extension, the skin-thin wall of social agreement that allows us to get along, that makes every day a nice adventure, happy-face stuff, instead of a horror show.

    These days, I wouldn’t call this an armchair conversation. First, our friends to the south are in a dress rehearsal for chaos—one of their own making, but trust me: borderless. Second, you surely see COVID as the ecological metaphor it is. Next, the Russia/Ukraine catastrophe alerts us to geopolitical, economic, ideological shifts that will touch every human system, including food, energy, financial and other systems, everywhere. And last, we are stepping into a technological twilight zone and even right now, with the emergence of the surveillance planet, it feels like a dress rehearsal for the zombifying apocalypse.

    If you were given to acknowledging catastrophe you might call this a time of emergency. And what’s the least useful thing you can do in an emergency?

    “Emergency? What emergency?”

    You can forgive people for clinging to animal comforts and to presumed normalcy. Anything you can do to make that tinnitus of worry stop ringing in your head….

    Some recent geomorphic event in Tonga, or Pago-Pago, or Narnia has put earthquakes and earthquake preparedness back in the news—a good time to remind you of Gene’s 3 Rules of Earthquake Response:

    1. Run to your closet to grab that outfit, you know, the one that makes your ass look like you’re still a teenager;

    2. Clutch the houseplant, the one you named Dempsey and talk to when you think nobody’s around to hear;

    3. Scream a lot and act paralyzed until someone carts you to safety in an ambulance.

    Which, incongruously, brings me to a last point that’s more or less on point with this column’s stated—okay, ostensible and presumed—themes, architecture and urban design. You will have noticed—this instalment living proof—that such parameters seem rarely to contain the wanderings of this column.

    What’s the architectural message of all the residential high-rises—I’m tempted to say “shitboxes” but I’ll settle for “filing cases”—sprung and now continuing to spring out of the ground around Downtown? 

    If you believe in the principle of the courtship of opposing forces, the hubris of all that concrete and rebar can invite only one outcome. In terms of social messaging, they exist to remind you that the rigidity, exclusion, non-negotiation and social inertia embodied in the city’s previous identity—a little bit of Olde England—made it a candidate for destruction. The only criterion for tomorrow’s buildings—that is, buildings that will serve any social purpose tomorrow—is their ability to foster community and connection—in other words, love, love, love (drag out that peace sign headband, you know it’s still in your closet). Today’s frozen towers will soon be abandoned by good citizens, the windowless shells taken over by the neo-tribal homeless: the Pandora Punishers, the View St Vikings.

    Zombifying malware.

    Founder of Open Space, founding publisher of Monday Magazine, originator of the seven Gaining Ground urban sustainability conferences, Gene Miller is currently promoting ASH, an innovative affordable housing concept, writing “Futurecide,” a book that argues that catastrophe is ecological, writing “Houseplex—Density Without Damage,” presenting and editing the website “Shit Sandwich—the Best of the Bad News,” and initiating the Centre for the Design of the Future, a Victoria-based host for social innovation.


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    Guest A Better Us, a Better Town



    Gene Milller’s columns continue uneasily to measure the fateful rhythms of the anxieties and severities of our times - including that he is so right to be continuously distrustful of the restless initiatives for ever-taller intrusions that are attempting to reach into so many quarters of our city-centre. 
    Victoria has very long been celebrated for pedestrian-oriented scale, and congenial low and mid-rise streetscapes. As downtown grows there is no need to enable a relentlessly more vertical high-rise city - modest scale buildings can readily accommodate all of our downtown expansion for more than another fifty years. Gene provides lively criticism bemoaning: blandness - out-of-scale, visually under-expressed, less-than-spirited new buildings. Too many large new projects, currently underway and proposed, demonstrate by fault how important fine urban scale - streetscape granularity and visually lively architecture - are to an attractive, healthily inhabited and popularly visited downtown. 
    Gene is unstinting, but to give some credit where due, thankfully, a number of longer-established mixed-use projects have been of moderate-scale and generally had managed to maintain Victoria’s signature characteristics of intimate street-scapes - with compact frontages, and multiple setbacks terracing deferentially back from streets - not block-wide facade distension, nor unrelieved, over-towering extreme verticality.  I will attach some reminder photos to credit relatively benign projects - such as ‘The Juliet', ’The Falls’, ‘The Atria’, 'The Era', 'The Jukebox’, 'The Mondrian’, the ‘HBC Block' redevelopment, ‘The Esher’ - all of which, each in their own distinctive ways, have added to urban housing and vitality, without displacing unduly the better-esteemed qualities of our Downtown. Gene is on his critic’s mark to continue urging for: more careful scale, more visual richness, and for warmer urban creativity - he is obviously well aware that severely vertical high-rise districts in no way assure urban conviviality - just visit the multitude of unsociable, less-than-humane high-rise tenement districts world-wide. Extreme high-rise clusters in unwary provincial cities have become the naïve urban clichés of the early twenty-first century.
    The aim of seeking a compass of modest-magnitude for new downtown growth was a central purpose of Victoria’s initial Downtown Core Area Plan (enacted from 2011, continuing to 2022). I worked on the urban design criteria, and know the measures devised to emphasize elements of multiple terracing with both low and mid-rise building forms, to help alleviate the impact of inevitable increases in housing density and building height. Street frontage setbacks, height constraints, no limits to lower floor level sizes and limited floor plate sizes on higher levels, all act to decrease tower sizes, and stepping-back building forms are critical to help maintain attractive streets - to bring views of the sky to sidewalks, to allow for healthy street trees, and to resist wind vortexes and downdrafts.   
    Making a central intention for rewritten urban design of a Downtown Plan: requirements for strictly narrow taller towers, rather then modulated building forms emphasizing both low and mid-rise massing, will lead to an alien and damaging inauguration of a Mini-Metro-Town for downtown Victoria.  For many urban planners there is little doubt that the towns which will retain their distinctive identities and qualities, and their timeless best allure for visitors, through generations to come, will be mid-rise central cities which have fended off high-rises - like Florence, Oxford, Salzburg, Valencia, Antwerp, Prague, Santa Barbara, Savanna, Santa Fe, Quebec, - as well as older low and mid-rise areas of well-regarded, and much visited, larger places, such as Rome, Paris, Barcelona, Berlin, Budapest, Vienna, Athens, Boston, etc. Why should Victoria not choose to keep to this better and much-admired company?
    Examples of currently pending proposals which are urgently due some unsparing height cropping: 
    - The two Starline tower clusters will provide needed housing, but should have heights cut by at least a third, with floor areas instead placed as mid-rise wings alongside lowered towers; 
    - The proposed vertical hotel addition to the 1940s BC Power Commission Building offers a reasonably good building use, but again should have the tower height cut down significantly, and instead side wings added to relate to the mode of its original Art Moderne building base.
    - Proposals for high-rise towers next to Capital Iron would confound the essential planning concept of a low-scale urban 'basin' set over the harbour and its adjacent historic precincts, and do not promise to reinforce the qualities of a long-time urban industrial area, as so successfully evoked in the recent, carefully scaled ‘Ironworks' project. Utilize a more horizontal density and industrial loft type buildings for the Rock Bay area.
    - The three tower proposal at Douglas and Caledonia has many good design features, such as the corner plaza - but the simplistic very vertical towers are under expressed - this would be improved with added, terraced mid-rise massing. A through-block passage is also key to the area's pedestrian network planning.
     Urban Capital, a prominent journal of city business, identifies that the most successful economies are in lower scale towns, and asserts: “It’s generally accepted that mid-rise development creates friendlier cities”. 
    Gene is gravely so right to continue advocating urban amiability for Victoria. 
    Chris Gower
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    Guest A Better Us, a Better Town


    Saluting Gene Miller's many noble pleas for: 'A Better Us in a Better Town' - yes, recover and sustain an enduring, amicable Downtown Victoria - urgently, keep our urban scale moderate, with terracing, well-proportioned forms in support of vital streets, and with beautiful architecture.

    Examples of relatively benign recent buildings which generally confirm a livable modest scale for Downtown Victoria: ‘The Juliet', ‘The Atria’, ’The Falls’, 'The Era', 'The Jukebox’, 'The Mondrian’, the ‘HBC Block' redevelopment, ‘The Esher’ - (images pending). 

    Certainly keep striving for more diverse and more visually complex, more architecturally cultured new buildings - and most certainly for Downtown Victoria we should eschew urbanely oblivious, extremely vertical towers.

    Chris Gower


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    One man's shitbox is another man's castle.

    Thanks for reminding me of this story, Gene.  You're great. 

    In 1996 we bought a cool place on the beach in Gonzales Bay. First new place built on the south shore in years, at the time.  Neighbours to one side never got over the disruption, but were never very nice anyhow. 

    By 2012, and many intense and surprisingly not relaxing years on old Gonzo, we were moving on.  Fairfield had changed and not for the better. 

    To make a long story short, one guy involved in acquiring the property was a serious commercial property owner in downtown Calgary.  He inherited the business from pops.  At one point, we received a copy of an email where he described our property, which he clearly valued highly (as he should have), as a "shitbox". 

    We found that opinion inaccurate, and hilarious. 

    Be that as it may, in subsequent years the commercial real estate market in Calgary has be righteously clobbered by karmic justice, emanating mainly from it's dirty boots on the carpet of our planet.   

    The canyons of Calgary's downtown core are the hollow shell of a once proud community.  It is in real trouble. 

    Well meaning civic leaders have even tried to house the homeless in the tumbleweed festooned wasteland of towers.  That is not getting much traction either.  The developer guy boasts of his time in San Diego. 

    For you to raise the term "shitbox" in relation to the young canyons forming in our own fair Victoria, was truly inspired my friend Gene.  Visionary, if blurry. 

    I am certain the homeless would love our shitbox on the beach. 

    Keep going, Gene.

    Best regards,




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