Sunday, November 30, 2008

Photos: Santa Claus Parade

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's update to my photo site features the Santa Claus Parade.

The Holiday Season in the Greater Toronto Area opened with the Santa Claus Parade on Sunday, 16-November-2008. More than twenty bands and more than twenty floats were featured in the parade, which appropriately took place during a period of snow showers, and ended with Santa Claus himself. Also featured is the set-up of the tree above the Alex Ling Fountain in Bloor West Village.

Margin Notes: Change, Politics, Gas

The first home my grandparents rented in Kennewick, Washington still stands at 811 West Kennewick Avenue as seen on 27-November-2008

BELLEVUE, WASHINGTON - Sometimes it's great to visit a place and find that little or nothing has changed. While there certainly has been suburban sprawl around the Tri-Cities of Kennewick, Richland, and Pasco, Washington, the core of Kennewick has not significantly changed since my last visit about six months ago. Some of the town has changed even less. My grandfather noted that the first house my grandparents had occupied in Kennewick--in 1942--was not only still standing at 811 West Kennewick Avenue, but looked essentially as it had more than 65 years ago. I had to take a walk and look at it myself. It was there, but not the highlight of walk--that would either be the Stonehedge replica or an effective gas station museum also found along Kennewick Avenue.

Interesting artwork resembling Stonehedge was found in a yard along Kennewick Avenue in Kennewick, Washington on 27-November-2008

* * * * * *

I didn't realize until watching "The Santa Clause" that the Northern Pacific Railway Museum mentioned yesterday has a certain poetic right to run a train to the North Pole--"NPR" could stand for "North Pole Railway" as well as "Northern Pacific Railway".

* * * * * *

An especially ironic aspect of the potential political crisis in Canada is that if a Liberal-NDP coalition does take power, it may well be led by Stéphane Dion--after all the attention paid to the fact that he would be only the second Liberal Party leader not to become Prime Minister. Perhaps we all wrote too soon. As of today, the Conservatives have backed off on their intention to end public financing of political parties, but the Liberals and the NDP still say they'll still proceed with a no confidence motion--it will be an interesting week before the votes may occur on 8-December.

* * * * * *

Gas prices were approaching their peak at Hollywood, California on 31-May-2008

Gas prices continue to decline; today I noted several Arco stations in Yakima, Washington selling unleaded for $1.75 per gallon; that's about C$0.60 per liter at today's exchange rates. It's hard to believe that in late May, the price was $4.19 per gallon in Hollywood, California.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Radio Pick: Fiscal Update Crisis on The House

BELLEVUE, WASHINGTON - This week's radio pick follows up on yesterday's post on the Canadian political situation, and comes from CBC Radio One's "The House".

While it is still possible that the current political explosion in Canada following Thursday's Fiscal Update may amount to nothing much, within two days it appeared that the government might fall and two rival left-wing parties might form a coalition. Understanding how this could happen seems to have been best handled by the show chartered with tracking Canadian politics, CBC's "The House." In a 48-minute program, it summarized what the issues are, and how they may be resolved in the most cogent form I have yet heard.

Listen to streaming RealAudio of The House "Fiscal Update Crisis"

Heritage: Taking the Train to the North Pole

BELLEVUE, WASHINGTON - Today, I had the opportunity to visit the Northern Pacific Railway Museum in Toppenish, Washington, located between Yakima and the Tri-Cities. The draw was their seasonal Toy Train Christmas event at the historic Toppenish depot.

The Northern Pacific Railway was the first northern transcontinental line, building its line through Toppenish and throughout the Yakima Valley in 1884. The current depot in Toppenish was constructed in 1911 and serviced its last mainline passenger train in 1961. Re-opening as a museum in 1992, the depot has been restored to a 1930's-era appearance with a variety of artifacts.

The 1911 Toppenish, Washington depot housed the Northern Pacific Railway Museum on 29-November-2008

For the holiday season, though, the entire building is taken over by model railroads of all scales and sizes for the Toy Train Christmas. Everything from Z-scale to G-scale, Legos to hand-crafted models are in constant motion in nearly every room of the building. While some of the normal indoor displays are somewhat sidelined by the special displays, the full-scale rolling stock and communications and signal equipment outdoors are still on display outside. Amongst the most impressive of the displays are the Northern Pacific steam locomotive once on display in Tacoma, a 1921-era Mann McCann spreader for snow-fighting, and a "wig-wag" crossing gate.

A G-scale model of Northern Pacific's North Coast Limited ran at the Northern Pacific Railway Museum on 29-November-2008

The real draw of the event, though, is the opportunity to ride the train to the North Pole. Visitors board a caboose for the ride on what turns out to be about a 1000-foot trip to the North Pole, where they find Santa Claus in a restored passenger car. After sharing wishes and taking photos with Santa, it's time for a ride in a different caboose back to Toppenish.

The Northern Pacific Railway Museum train headed for the North Pole at Toppenish, Washington on 29-November-2008

The Toy Train Christmas continues Saturdays and select Sundays through 21-December-2008 in Toppenish. See the Northern Pacific Railway Museum web site for more details.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Politics: A Plot Against Harper?

KENNEWICK, WASHINGTON - When Stephen Harper's Conservative party was re-elected in the last Canadian federal election with another minority instead of a majority, some pundits recognized that Harper may have actually been the real loser. While in the short term, Liberal leader Stéphane Dion was the one forced to resign from his leadership post, the fact that Harper had not met expectations in Quebec largely because of how he handled the campaign led some to believe that the party would turn against Harper in the medium term and replace him as leader, most likely with the widely popular Jim Prentice. It became something of a given in the political culture that Prentice would someday succeed Harper; CBC comedian Rick Mercer mentioned this perspective matter-of-factly in one of his rants earlier this month.

I don't think anyone expected such a scenario to happen quickly, but in light of the events of the past week, I now wonder if some in the Conservative Party are in a bigger hurry than we thought. Stephen Harper had been giving a variety of unofficial speeches saying things that many on the left would regard as at least reasonable, including that deficit spending might be appropriate in weak economic times. Then, this week, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty presented the government's Fiscal Update and called for spending cuts to achieve supposed small budget surpluses in the coming years. There was no mention of running a deficit or any fiscal stimulus unless one counted (as the Conservatives did) previously-announced tax cuts.

But, just leaving out stimulus spending that all three of the opposition parties believe is necessary wasn't enough for Flaherty. Amongst a suite of cuts and measures, the Fiscal Update called for ending public financing of elections through elimination of the $1.95 per vote payment to parties, temporarily suspending the right of federal employees' unions to strike, and freezing efforts to create pay equity between men and women in the federal workforce. While the latter two items are clearly at odds with the ideologies of all three opposition parties, the first item quite literally endangers their very existence. The Bloc Quebecois and NDP rely heavily on the public money for their operations, and the Liberal Party is already in debt and cannot handle a further revenue loss. Quite literally, the implementation of that policy might kill the Liberal party as it presently exists.

The NDP and Bloc Quebecois tend to vote against Conservative budgets and throne speeches as a reflex, so the Conservatives needed to count on the Liberals to vote confidence in the government. Did the Conservatives honestly believe that even a weakened Liberal party would vote for something that was designed to attack their very financial existence?

If they did, they were wrong. Outgoing Liberal leader Stephane Dion has made it clear that the Liberals will vote against the Fiscal Update along with the NDP and the Bloc, which as a confidence vote would mean the fall of the government. At that point, Governor General Michaëlle Jean could either call an election or ask the opposition to form a government. Considering that an election was just held, it would seem likely that if the opposition had demonstrated that they could form a government that they might be allowed to do so.

It certainly appears that they are ready to try. Former Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and respected former NDP leader Ed Broadbent have been meeting to hash out a coalition between the two parties that would form a new government, and all indications are that they will be able to reach agreement. Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe, while not part of the potential coalition government, has indicated that he would vote for it, meaning that it would have enough votes to pass a confidence measure.

Prime Minister Harper has now delayed any vote that would bring down the government until Monday, December 8th. It is entirely possible that the Conservatives will back down from their present position on the Fiscal Update and include a stimulus package such that the Liberals would be at least pressured to vote for it. They will certainly try to paint their position as fiscally responsible and the Liberals as trying to grab power without an election.

Whatever the outcome of what will likely be a very interesting next two weeks in Canadian politics, Harper now looks to be weakened. If he manages to remain Prime Minister, the internal pressures within the Conservative Party will increase as he will be seen as having created this crisis. If the Conservative government falls and a coalition is installed, he will take the blame for it and likely be removed as leader in short order.

All this makes me contemplate that maybe all this didn't happen by chance--have anti-Harper forces in the Conservative Party created some of the apparent daylight between Harper and Flaherty, or have they encouraged Harper to push the Liberals to the brink, expecting that Harper would come out the loser? I wonder.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Travel: Over the River and Through the Woods

BELLEVUE, WASHINGTON - According to Wikipedia, Lydia Maria Child wrote the poem "A Boy's Thanksgiving Day" in 1844. Before long, it was set to music and became the song we know as "Over the River and Through the Woods" today.

While written as a Thanksgiving song, many variations have come into existence over the years, mostly notably lyric changes to make it apply to Christmas instead of Thanksgiving. I somehow learned the song as "to Grandmother's house we go" instead of "to Grandfather's house we go." This is not surprising, as the most typical Thanksgiving of my youth was to visit my maternal grandmother and her sister Lucile east of Renton, Washington. It wasn't a long journey, and technically it didn't cross a river (though Coal Creek was close) though there were woods and one year there was even snow, but it was still easy to relate to the song.

Today, for the first time in over a decade, I will be traveling to my paternal grandfather's house for Thanksgiving. The song applies, as there are multiple rivers and multiple woods in the 225 miles between Bellevue and Kennewick, Washington, and there is undoubtedly snow on Snoqualmie Pass. Modern vehicles are a far cry from a horse and sleigh, but the journey will be much like the adventure written about a century and a half ago.

Over the river, and through the wood,
To Grandfather's house we go;
The horse knows the way to carry the sleigh
through the white and drifted snow.

Over the river, and through the wood -
Oh, how the wind does blow!
It stings the toes and bites the nose
As over the ground we go.

Over the river, and through the wood,
To have a first-rate play.
Hear the bells ring, "Ting-a-ling-ding",
Hurrah for Thanksgiving Day!

Over the river, and through the wood
Trot fast, my dapple-gray!
Spring over the ground like a hunting-hound,
For this is Thanksgiving Day.

Over the river, and through the wood -
And straight through the barnyard gate,
We seem to go extremely slow,
It is so hard to wait!

Over the river, and through the wood -
Now Grandmother's cap I spy!
Hurrah for the fun! Is the pudding done?
Hurrah for the pumpkin pie!
Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Heritage: Saving the Steel Electrics?

BELLEVUE, WASHINGTON - For much of my life, the Washington State Ferries fleet contained operational floating museums. Time finally caught up with the four "Steel Electric"-class vessels about a year ago, and rather than at least one being preserved for history, it appears that all four will be scrapped.

The construction of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1930's had nearly as large of an impact on commuting across Puget Sound in Washington State as it did locally in California. The car ferries that previously crossed San Francisco Bay became surplus, and many were purchased by the Puget Sound Navigation Company that at the time operated the majority of ferry services in the northwest corner of the United States.

The ferries were re-named from local California names to Chinook Jargon native names upon their arrival in the Pacific Northwest, and many were extensively rebuilt. In their new forms, they became the core of the ferry system serving Vashon Island, the Kitsap Peninsula, the Olympic Peninsula, Whidbey Island, and the San Juan Islands from the Washington state mainland.

In 1951, the state of Washington took over most of the former Puget Sound Navigation Company's routes and ferries. Soon thereafter, a modernization program gradually led to the retirement of many of the former San Francisco bay transplants. Four, however, were retained by the state and came to symbolize the system, their silhouette forming the official logo of Washington State Ferries to this day. These vessels, all built in 1927, formed the "steel electric" class for the state.

While extensive rebuilding in the 1980's changed their appearance considerably, it also gave them a life extension. As cars increased in size, their capacity and usefulness was diminishing, but they were still regulars as the "inter-island" ferry in the San Juans--and they were the only boats that could operate into Keystone Harbor on Whidbey Island and hence had a monopoly on the Port Townsend-Keystone route.

All that started to come to an end in the spring of 2007 when cracks were found in the hull of the Klickitat. As the vessels started to be more closely inspected, stern tubes in the Illahee had to be replaced, and work had started to do the same on the Quinalt. However, while that was going on, it was determined that corrosion on the Quinalt had proceeded to the point that 60% of the steel in the hull would need to be replaced. Besides being a major expense, it would mean that the grandfathered safety status of the boat with the Coast Guard would end, so there was little choice except to retire the Quinalt. On 20 November 2007, the other three vessels were withdrawn from service, and officially retired on 13 December 2007. Their eighty-year careers, more than sixty on Puget Sound, had come to a close.

With other problems to deal with, the ferry system quietly put all four boats up for sale. Quietly, in September, all four were sold to Environmental Recycling Systems, which intends to tow them to Mexico for scrapping. This move angered preservationists. However, with the preservation of the Kalakala art-deco ferry, the clearly most prominent of Puget Sound ferries, having been through many problems since its return from Alaska in 1998, it seems unlikely that any action will be taken to undo the sale for scrap.

A petition drive is in progress, so perhaps a way will be found to preserve at least one of the boats that served in the west for 80 years.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Politics: Egos vs. Cronies

BELLEVUE, WASHINGTON - The two most recent presidential transitions in the United States featured governors moving to Washington D.C. and taking much of their staffs with them. Barack Obama, as a senator rather than an executive, didn't have a similar executive staff to move with him, and has instead chosen mostly quite experienced people with independent political ambitions. Can Obama mold this crew into a cohesive team?

When Bill Clinton moved from Little Rock, Arkansas to Washington D.C. in 1993, he brought such names with him as original chief of staff "Mack" McLarty, and lawyer Vince Foster. When George W. Bush moved from Austin, Texas in 2001, he brought with him such names as deputy chief of staff Karl Kove, counselor Karen Hughes, and attorney Harriet Miers. Thus, my generation has gotten used to close administrative aides moving from the state level to the national stage.

The obvious advantage of such moves for the president is that trusted and loyal advisers will already understand how they operate and how they wish to make decisions and generally get things done. The disadvantage of bringing in this kind of person is that they can insulate the president from creative input, may not connect well with the other political structures in nation's capitol (especially an issue during the early Clinton administration), and from a public relations perspective can give the appearance of surrounding oneself with "cronies."

Not having served in an executive position in government, Barack Obama couldn't just bring a team from Illinois into the White House. Instead, he has tried to generally tried to find qualified individuals. Rahm Emanuel, Obama's Chief of Staff designate, represents and interesting example. He may be from Illinois and have figured prominently in Obama's presidential campaign, but outside of that campaign had never worked directly for Obama, so he is not really analogous to a McLarty or a Rove.

Moving up to the cabinet level, Obama seems to have followed a strategy of getting his former presidential rivals into top jobs. The process could be said to have started with Joe Biden's nomination as vice president, and has now been followed up with expected nominations of Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State and Bill Richardson as Secretary of Commerce. Since all of these individuals had been running for president, they clearly had political ambitions of their own, and may yet harbor them.

This raises the question of whether Obama might be creating a government of egos who won't operate as a team. In a sense, this is the opposite problem of the "crony" situation--there may be plenty of ideas around the table but potentially no teamwork leading to very inefficient and inconsistent government.

While this would seem to be a very real possibility, recall that Obama's one big piece of executive experience--his 2008 campaign itself--was reportedly set up in a similar manner, with Obama recruiting disparate experienced individuals, giving them direction, and then letting them run their portions of the organization. It is hard not to view that as a success; some say that the Obama electoral machine was the best seen in a generation. Likely, there were not the same level of egos within the campaign staff as there will be in the cabinet, but other than that, the situations seem analogous. If Obama could create a high-functioning campaign organization, there seems to be some hope that he can manage the egos of the high-powered cabinet nominees and create a high-functioning White House executive organization.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Heritage: Downtown Bellevue Safeway

The downtown Bellevue Safeway store as it appeared on 26-January-2006

BELLEVUE, WASHINGTON - The downtown Bellevue Safeway store was an anachronism for most of my life. Today, for the first time I saw the building closed, and experienced the replacement building, just across NE 4th Street from its traditional location.

Opened twelve years to the day before I was born, on 30-January-1963, the old downtown Bellevue Safeway was built in what was called the "Marina" style after the Marina Avenue store in San Francisco, California, the first-built example. The history of the building was best told at Brian Lutz's website as the store closed in late June of this year, right after my last visit.

The "Marina"-style storefront defined Safeway to me. Whenever I saw a store in that style, all up and down the west coast, I knew what grocery store I was looking at. A number of these stores still remain; I even noted one in Winnipeg, Manitoba earlier this year.

A "Marina"-style Safeway was noted on Ellice Avenue in Winnipeg, Manitoba on 11-July-2008

Furthermore, this store had been the quintessential grocery store of my youth. There were plenty of other chains in Bellevue, but others tended to be higher-priced (like QFC or even Lucky) or simply not as convenient. The downtown Safeway store was what I would now consider walking distance from my parents' home.

There had been talk of the store being torn down for as long as I could remember. Located at one of the key intersections in the city, on the northeast corner of Bellevue Way NE and NE 4th Street, on land long since owned by developer Kemper Freeman Jr., it was inevitable that it would be replaced by a denser structure. Saved each recession, its number finally came up earlier this decade. Safeway agreed to move to a new multi-use development on the southeast corner of the same intersection with a new 55,000-square foot store.

Today was my first time to enter the new store, and it was a completely different experience. Gone were the simplistic meat and seafood departments of the old store. Instead, the interior of the new Safeway could be mistaken for the contemporary QFC located only about six blocks away. Most remarkable was an enormous wine section, easily five times the size of the one in the corner of the old store. Yet, the prices still seemed to be the modest Safeway norms. The QFC in downtown may be facing some serious competition.

The new downtown Bellevue Safeway at dusk on 24-November-2008

With another recession either looming or just starting, perhaps the building will be spared a bit longer. The Bartell Drugs still operates in the northern portion of the structure. Safeway, though, is gone, and with it another portion of my youth.

Photos: Swan Song of Siskiyou Steam

BELLEVUE, WASHINGTON - This week's photo update completes coverage of my autumn trip to California. The final portion of the trip took me to the far north of the state, Siskiyou County, for a pair of steam-powered railroad excursions. On 1-November-2008, the Yreka Western ran what may be its final steam trip between Yreka and Montague, California, and then on 2-November-2008, the McCloud Railway ran a railfan trip out of McCloud, California toward Bartle and then up the 4% grade to Signal Butte which was almost certainly the last excursion before locomotive #25 is sold. It may have been the swan song of Siskiyou steam.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Margin Notes: Snow, Soldiers, and Sweeteners

The first snow accumulation of the season was noted at Bâby Point Road in Toronto on 20-November-2008

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I've never been a big fan of early winter. Frankly, I find forests denuded of leaves and a fundamentally brown landscape to be ugly. I'll never forget the first time I took a trip at this time of year outside of Boston, Massachusetts toward Providence, Rhode Island and wondered how people could stand it. So, for me, the early snow accumulation this week in Toronto was a rather pleasant white dusting that remarkably improved the landscape. The scene above in the nearby Bâby Point neighborhood certainly wouldn't have been worth presenting had everything still remained brown like it was last Sunday.

* * * * * *

Just last Sunday I was listening former Member of Parliament Peggy Nash talking about social justice and getting Omar Khadr out of the Guantanamo Bay prison. She made a point of saying that she wasn't certain what she was going to do next and wasn't in a hurry to decide. It didn't take long. By Tuesday, it became public that she will be returning to a $135,000-a-year position as assistant to the president of the Canadian Auto Workers. While I was surprised, it only took me about fifteen seconds to come to the realization that even at that salary, the CAW is getting a bargain--if Nash works as hard for the CAW as she did as MP, they will get more than their money's worth. I really don't understand the anti-NDP outrage that followed--if someone can provide value to an organization, why shouldn't they be paid for it? And, for the record, the first I heard about Nash's new job was from the local NDP Riding Association. They didn't see any need to hide the news.

* * * * * *

Nash probably would have liked an idea put forward by Seattle talk show host Dave Ross. The KIRO-FM commentator stated that the election of Barack Obama should mean that the era of "human labor as a commodity" like soybeans or razor blades would come to an end. Unfortunately, the debate over the fate of the three major North American vehicle manufacturers this week didn't show much sign of such a change.

* * * * * *

A different kind of change was on my mind this week. Many times over the years, I would be going through a roll of quarters from the bank, trying to do my laundry, when I would discover that the reason the machine wouldn't take my coin was that it was a Canadian quarter. For the first time this week, I had the opposite experience--finding a US quarter in a roll of Canadian quarters. Of course, this time I was happy--I had C$0.32 before me at present exchange rates.

* * * * * *

The Monument to the War of 1812 by Douglas Coupland was observed on 22-November-2008

Douglas Coupland, of course, would like to remind everyone why there are two kinds of quarters. I finally found the Monument to the War of 1812 mentioned here two weeks ago at Bathurst and Fleet streets near Fort York yesterday. Interestingly, I saw no way to immediately intuit that the standing soldier was British and the fallen soldier was American, which was supposed to be the controversial nature of the piece. Instead, the use of board game-like soldiers seemed to be sending the message of troops as helpless pawns in a political game.

* * * * * *

Lest that leave a bitter taste in one's mouth, a new, zero-calorie sweetener may be on the way. Chemical and Engineering News has reported that Cargill intends to introduce a natural sweetener called Truvia. A purified form of the Stevia rebaudiana plant grown in Paraguay, it has been used as a sweetener in unpurified form there for hundreds of years, and it has been on the market in Japan for about thirty years. A naturally-derived zero-calorie sweetener? The FDA approval process is ongoing.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Radio Pick: How It Happens

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's radio pick is a local show, so to speak.

There really could be only one selection this week. As It Happens, the flagship program of CBC Radio One produced in Toronto, celebrated its 40th anniversary on Tuesday. The "phone out" program has survived longer than I have been alive for not just one reason, but many. Their quest to get through on the phone to newsmakers often leads to amazing interviews, and their sense of humor--unmistakeably Canadian--comes through regardless. The 84-minute, three-part 40th anniversary show, besides having some significant old clips and stories, focused on how the show is put together--the tales from the producers and the writers were particularly notable. For anyone interested in radio, this show is a must-listen.

Listen to streaming Windows Media of As It Happens "How It Happens" Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3

Music: Help with Best of 2008

TORONTO, ONTARIO - As the end of the year approaches, I was surprised to look on my personal copy of iTunes and discover that my playlist for the year 2008 contains only nine songs. Over the course of any given year, I create a playlist that contains the songs that represent the soundtrack of my year. These aren't necessarily my favorite songs of the year--though those do show up on the list and tend to have a higher play count. They are the songs that to me define a year--a song that I didn't particularly like but was playing all the time while I took a significant trip (say, Lionel Richie's "Just for You" which was popular in Europe in 2004) or that became significant politically (say, Fleetwood Mac's "Peacekeeper" in 2003) will be placed on the list, unless I really don't want to hear it again (like Katy Perry's "I Kissed A Girl" this year--it's hard to deny its significance, but I'll be happy if I don't hear it again).

Normally, I end up with about twenty songs on the list for any given year, sometimes a few more. This decade, the shortest list had been 18 in 2000, with the longest being 24 in 2002. However, the list was only 15 songs long in 2007. I passed that off at the time as being a function of that year being a relatively light travel year for me, and often it is when traveling, when I break routines, that I am mostly likely to encounter new music--and remember it. Besides, statistically speaking, 15 wasn't all that much shorter than the previously-shortest list.

That explanation won't work in 2008. While far from the heaviest travel year of my life, it certainly hasn't been my lightest--blog readers will note that Minnesota and California have appeared in the dateline in less than three months since the inception of the blog, and Washington state will be added shortly.

A more plausible explanation is that I'm having a harder time finding new music these days. Once, I would rely on listening to commercial radio stations for introductions to new music. That ended with the rise of the podcast starting in 2005, as suddenly I had something to listen to at times when no interesting programs were on public or talk radio locally. Yet, that didn't stop me from finding new music. By checking the playlists of certain radio station sites (WXRV near Boston, better known as 92.5 The River, KLLC San Francisco, better known as Alice@97.3, and WTMX Chicago, better known as The Mix are three favorites) and the iTunes list of most popular downloads, I seemed to find about as many interesting songs as I ever had.

However, some of the stations I used to pay attention to, like 92.9 WBOS in Boston, no longer exist, and others, like KPLZ "Star" 101.5 in Seattle, have gotten considerably less adventurous in their playlists to the point that they don't even seem to be worth looking at anymore. There seem to be fewer editorial voices to turn to for guidance.

The same problem of fewer reputable editorial voices, of course, plagues the mainstream news media. As newspapers and newsrooms shut down or get their stories from central services like the New York Times, the Associated Press, or Fox News, it's harder to find interesting editorial voices--and the easier it is to just settle on one that is preferred, to the detriment of reading any other opinions.

So, I need the help of my readers. What new music has interested you in 2008 that I should check out? Please leave a comment to this post, and maybe I'll be able to expand my list to its more traditional size.

To get things started, the nine songs that I have placed on the list for 2008 so far are, in order of addition:
    (1) "Sorry" by Buckcherry
    (2) "Stop and Stare" by OneRepublic
    (3) "Bleeding Love" by Leona Lewis
    (4) "Pocketful of Sunshine" by Natasha Bedingfield
    (5) "Realize" by Colbie Caillat
    (6) "New Soul" by Yael Naim
    (7) "My Song" by Brandi Carlile
    (8) "I'm Yours" by Jason Mraz
    (9) "Better in Time" by Leona Lewis
Since a number of readers have had difficulty posting comments, I have turned off moderation for now. If a blog like Blather Watch can exist without moderation, there's no reason this one can't. So, if you have a suggestion, please leave a comment. I have no intention of turning on moderation again unless a spam problem comes to exist.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Politics: The Actual First Blog Post

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Officially, this blog started on Monday, 8-September-2008. However, it wasn't actually my first personal blog entry. Long before the term "blog" existed in the fall of 1999, I posted to my personal web site a piece of political commentary questioning the beliefs of then-presidential candidate George W. Bush with respect to the "ideal family."

The piece is presented as it appeared on 21-November-1999, nine years ago today:
SOMERVILLE, MASSACHUSETTS - This morning on the NBC Program "Meet the Press," Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush made a point of declaring that he stands for "the ideals in American society." To Bush, these ideals mean such things as the nuclear family and equality in selecting contractors. As a leader, he feels that he needs to oppose alternatives to these ideals, placing him in opposition to adoption by gay couples and quotas for minority-owned contractors.

Bush surprised interviewer Tim Russert on this latter point by not coming out against rules in place since 1983 that set a goal for Federal contractors of 10% minority ownership. In fact, Bush said that "10% seems rather low." While going on to state that he sees a problem in the same minority contractors repeatedly getting the same kinds of contracts over and over again, to the detriment of startup minority-owned businesses, he made a point of not ruling out considering the race and gender of an owner in selecting Federal contractors. In order to reach his implied ideal of selecting contractors by merit and having a reflective number of minority-owned contractors be selected without considering their minority-owned status, he is willing to continue to consider that status in the interim. It seems that rather than standing for an ideal, Bush is standing for freedom and fairness.

In contrast, Bush sees no compromise on the family ideal. He is adamantly opposed to gay marriage, saying that marriage is "for a man and woman, period." He gives no ear to the argument that allowing some kind of recognized partnership for same-sex couples might encourage gays and lesbians to live the kind of monogamous, stable lifestyle that he claims to encourage. He is adamantly opposed to gay adoption, giving no ear to studies that show that children are more likely to grow up mentally healthy when they have two supportive parents, no matter whether their parents are gay or straight.

While few would argue with Bush's implied ideal of ownership-blind contractor selection, many would argue with his ideal family. The new Chief Justice of Massachusetts' Supreme Judicial Court, Margaret Marshall, wrote in an earlier ruling that the societal definition of family appears to have changed to a broader one than the traditional nuclear family, incorporating a number of alternatives. So, who gets to set the ideal?

Perhaps nobody should get to make that judgment. This nation was founded on the concept of freedom, not any specific ideals. Existing laws allowing gay adoption have been passed in part in recognition that freedoms should not be denied to a portion of the population. On the other hand, going to the extreme freedom of allowing anyone to adopt a child is clearly even more dangerous than enforcing Bush's ideal, since that would allow pedophiles to do so.

The ultimate goal of the ideal family would seem to be to allow children the opportunity to grow up with the emotional and financial support to pursue their own happiness and contribute to society. If that is indeed the goal, it would seem that Bush's ideal family is not a prerequisite.

Perhaps Bush will review his position, much as he wants to review the minority contractor rules, and realize that what he is aiming for is freedom and fairness, not an ideal. Freedom and fairness applied to the goal of raising a healthy next generation of Americans does not necessarily require an ideal, nuclear family.

That was certainly optimistic. Bush would become the President of course, and to the best of my knowledge has never had a second thought about his vision of the ideal family.

At the time I wrote that commentary, I was intending to write a similar piece weekly through the 2000 election, but after one week I decided I had better things to do and removed even that first post from my web site. Rather than being one of the many proto-bloggers, I kept my views off the Internet until this year, when everyone and their dog had a blog.

Expect my next post to show up in something a lot less than nine years this time.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Media: The PPM Comes to Canada

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Anyone that has looked seriously at radio station ratings in North America for the past quarter-century, as I have been known to do, knows not to take the exact numbers too seriously. The diary method used by Arbitron Incorporated to measure radio listenership has inherent flaws and has been prone to fluctuating results that did not reflect actual changes in the market. However, Arbitron has been moving to a new technology, the Portable People Meter or PPM, that has different characteristics and may change what we hear on the radio. Furthermore, the PPM will come soon to Canada, as well as the United States--the first Canadian PPM data went to some stations just today.

Commercial radio stations care about their ratings because they effectively determine the advertising rates that they can charge. Armed with the data they have purchased from Arbitron, they can tell advertisers exactly how many people in any given demographic listen to their broadcasts, and hence the advertisements they carry. While Arbitron makes public its "12+" numbers, or ratings for all listeners age 12 or greater, most advertisers care about the "25-54" ratings, or listeners between the ages of 25 and 54, and some care about gender-based ratings as well--and those ratings are often different than the more widely-reported "12+" numbers. While public radio stations do not sell advertising and hence usually do not purchase data from Arbitron (and thus do not appear in the ratings), many of the major stations do use ratings to gauge how well they are serving the public (in the case of CBC Radio in Canada, for example) or to use as fodder in attracting underwriting (especially stations that are highly-ranked in their local markets, like WBUR in Boston and KUOW in Seattle).

Traditionally, these ratings have been determined by Arbitron using diaries. After finding a representative sample of listeners, Arbitron gave them notebooks to record the programs they had heard. The good thing about that system is that the programming had to make a real impression on the listener such that they remembered how to record it in the notebook, which means any advertising in it would likely also have had a chance to be remembered. However, it was obviously prone to human error. When I was in the San Francisco Bay Area, a common tale was that Arbitron had many notebooks that claimed to have listened to the BBC news at the top of the hour during morning drive on KQED-FM. The only problem was that KQED-FM carried NPR news. Rival public station KALW actually ran the BBC--but their call letters were so un-memorable that listeners would think they were listening to the memorable call letters, KQED. The accuracy of the diaries was always in doubt.

To solve this problem, Arbitron has turned to the PPM. Instead of asking its participants to fill out a diary, it is asking them to wear a device that detects special, non-audible encoding in radio audio that identifies a station in the wearer's environment. In addition to recording what the wearer hears in their home and in their car, the PPM will pick up the background noise in a store or dentist's office, assuming it is of listenable volume. Right there, one would expect the ratings to change--stations that serve as background, especially "soft adult contemporary" stations like New York's WLTW "Lite-FM", Boston's WMJX "Magic 106.7" or Seattle's KRWM "Warm 106.9" would be expected to get a bounce.

All reports seem to be that the PPM does pick up the encoding signal quite well, impressing skeptical engineers--though there is some question about picking up distant signals (people that listen to, say, WXLO out of Worcester in Boston or KXXO Olympia in Seattle, both of which I was personally known to do on occasion and both stations currently show up in those market ratings). There seem to be deeper issues with the PPM, however. While an attachment is provided to allow the monitoring of radio listened to on headphones, it has to be inserted between the headphone jack and the headphones with each use of the headphone device, something that I personally can't imagine doing every time I turn on a Walkman-type device. The PPM must detect motion or it assumes it is not being worn and shuts off. Thus, it will miss radio listened to at bedside in the morning or before falling asleep, or during showering. These are key radio listening times for some people.

Blog reader Urban Stiess from Los Angeles wrote that he had seen the PPM device about a year ago at a Society of Broadcast Engineers meeting. Said Stiess, "I was probably the only one present who was NOT impressed. Where others saw less required human cooperation in the process - I saw nothing more than a quick, less labor intensive, method of generating numbers regardless of accuracy."

Of course, Arbitron hasn't really been known for accuracy under the diary system, either. I used to say that it was one of the best-named companies in the world, as its results were entirely arbitrary. (The company name actually came from a device by that name developed when the company was called the American Research Bureau.) While many a radio station made a decision based on a single quarterly ratings book, wiser heads looked for trends over multiple quarters as any given book could have strange results. The PPM was designed to end that--Stiess is not the only one who questions whether it actually will.

The fact of the matter is that we do not know what impact the PPM will have on radio ratings and hence on programming. There simply hasn't been enough published data from the PPM available to compare with older diary data. Early tests in New York seemed to imply that besides the pro-light rock effect described earlier that the new ratings tended to favor active rock stations and show lower listenership to ethnic radio stations.

That early result has resulted in political attention. Just yesterday, the Wall Street Journal reported that a Democrat on the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Jonathan Adelstein, was calling for FCC Chairman Kevin Martin to investigate the PPM, saying that the system "constitutes a clear and present danger to media diversity." Arbitron claims the FCC has no jurisdiction--and it's probably correct. New legislation on radio advertising would probably be required for the FCC to have any say in how radio stations use privately-commissioned ratings to sell advertising.

Lest this seem like a problem for the US, Arbitron has the contract for radio ratings in Canada, and it is rolling out the PPM here as well, starting in the Montreal market where the last diary-based ratings will come out on 27-November and the first PPM-based ratings will appear on 10-December and monthly thereafter. At 2:15 pm Eastern on Friday, Astral Media will have a live webcast about the PPM results in Montreal, which interested readers may want to watch. Most other major markets in Canada, including Toronto, will move to PPM measurement in the fall of 2009.

It's too early to know the impact of the PPM on radio in the United States and Canada. We may have to put up with more "light rock, less talk." We may lose ethnic programming. Until we have numbers, we won't have an intelligent way to evaluate the situation. I eagerly await some data.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Politics: It's the Economy, Stupid

TORONTO, ONTARIO - With all of the discussion about how Barack Obama may or may not bring transformational change to the country (including on this blog), it is easy to lose sight of the primary reason why he won the election. All other factors like his professional, disciplined campaign, the unpopular war, and concerns about the judgment of his opponent in the end would not have mattered much if not for the state of the economy. As soon as it looked like the economy was in trouble, Obama suddenly became a shoo-in--it was, as was made famous in the 1992 Clinton campaign, "the economy, stupid."

It's rather amazing how well presidential election results have correlated with GDP growth in the past fifty years. Starting with the 1960 election that resulted in Democrat John F. Kennedy taking office from the Republicans, there has been an economic rule--if GDP growth falls below 2.5% in the two-year period before the election, then the incumbent party loses. The two-year time frame is necessary because the figures for the year of the election are not available at the time of the election, so an opposing party may credibly campaign against the incumbent party's performance, especially if there is a feeling of economic weakness. The best example of this was 1992, when the economy was actually recovering but the media hadn't reported it as such and Bill Clinton was able to successfully question George H. W. Bush's record from the negative growth in 1991.

In the table below, a "-" indicates that the GDP had dipped to 2.5% or below in the window, whereas a "+" indicates that it had not. (These figures are from Angus Maddison's web site.)
1959 7.42%, 1960 2.49% - {Shift}
1963 4.32%, 1964 5.79% + {Same}
1967 2.50%, 1968 4.76% - {Shift}
1971 3.12%, 1972 5.30% + {Same}
1975 -0.3%, 1976 5.24% - {Shift}
1979 3.40%, 1980 0.05% - {Shift}
1983 4.19%, 1984 7.28% + {Same}
1987 3.52%, 1988 4.21% + {Same}
1991 -0.2%, 1992 3.34% - {Shift}
1995 2.54%, 1996 3.75% + {Same}
1999 4.69%, 2000 3.69% + {Shift}
2003 2.52%, 2004 3.65% + {Same}

The only exception to a "+" re-electing the incumbent party and a "-" resulting in a shift in power was in 2000, and recall that Al Gore actually won the popular vote in the election, just not the electoral college.

This is not to say that the economy is the only factor, but when it is perceived to be clearly far from the 2.5% line, the results are pretty predictable. The solid economies around 1972 and 1984 were the biggest landslides for the incumbent during the period. When there was little or negative growth (around 1976, 1980, and 1992), there was turnover. When things were close to the line (including 1960 and 2004), there were nail-biter elections.

This year's election was little different. Head over to and look at the "SuperTracker" in the right-hand column. Before Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy on September 15th, this year's presidential race was close, and in fact John McCain was about two points ahead. Within two weeks of the Lehman Brothers announcement, as other poor economic news snowballed, Barack Obama had opened up a lead of about 6%, and it stayed there for the rest of the race. While the GDP growth rate in 2007 was over 3%, in 2008 it is expected to be below 2%. Following the rule, it should have been expected that the incumbent party would lose.

The pattern may prove haunting for Barack Obama. If the economy does not turn around and experience at least 2.5% GDP growth by 2011, he'll be looking at the same scenario in reverse. With predictions such as that of Niall Ferguson for five years or more of little or no growth, it may be very difficult for him to be re-elected in four years--even during the Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt had economic growth (if not overall economic status) in his favor in 1935-6 and 1939-40 when he was re-elected.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Politics: A Post-Racial Era?

TORONTO, ONTARIO - In looking through the exit poll data from the 2008 Presidential election, one thing stands out. While Barack Obama won or tied amongst men, women, independents, all income levels (if taken in $50,000 steps), all education levels, new and repeat voters, all racial and ethnic groups except whites, all religious affiliations except protestants, and all age groups except those 65 and older, for most of these categories, the vote was reasonably close. The only major categories in which Obama won more than 70% of the demographic were Democrats, self-identified liberals, and African-Americans. It's hard to make the statement that this was a post-racial election when only one in every twenty African-Americans voted for any candidate other than Barack Obama.

It's nothing new for the Democrats to receive a disproportionate percentage of the African-American vote. Bill Clinton and Al Gore both received 80% or better of that demographic. It's not correct to say that Obama won the election on the basis of his margin amongst this group that makes up only 13% of voters--he would have lost only about a percent of his overall vote if he had only polled as well as Al Gore. It is true that the 95% figure is unprecedented--African-Americans as a group were more likely to vote for Obama than self-identified Democrats.

What this underscores is not that race explicitly mattered in this election--it's really impossible to say if it did, as it was hard to divorce Obama's bi-racial background from his overall appeal to all voters, and I haven't seen a poll that has tried. The importance of the election is not that it was different racially in itself, but that the election of person with African-American background presents the opportunity for future change. Just as John F. Kennedy's Catholicism was an issue in the 1960, it has not been a significant issue for Catholics ever since--many voters did not even know that John Kerry, for example, was Catholic. Now that Barack Obama has been elected and the barrier has been broken, it might be possible for race to become a non-issue in future elections.

Unfortunately, the racial divide in the United States seems to be much deeper than religious divides, so it will take much greater effort for the race of a candidate to become a non-issue. Race is different than some other interpersonal divides like religion and sexual orientation because it cannot be hidden. Unless it has been buried in my history books, Catholics did not suffer from death threats as a result of John F. Kennedy's election. African-Americans have gotten them as a result of Barack Obama's.

The most widely-distributed article running around summarizing the issue was written by Jesse Washington of the Associated Press. It describes incidents from Georgia to Maine to Idaho of threats being made on Obama himself or local African-Americans being investigated by the Secret Service or the FBI. The bottom line was stated by hate crime monitor Mark Potok: There is "a large subset of white people in this country who feel that they are losing everything they know, that the country their forefathers built has somehow been stolen from them."

Hope, of course, comes from the likelihood that many of the people that currently feel that way are going to come to the realization that with an African-American president, pretty much everything they know is actually going to be the same, and nothing is going to be stolen from them. For all the rhetoric about change from the Obama campaign, when all is said and done, there likely won't be all that much change, and what changes do occur might well benefit the person holding racist views.

There is really only one way to get over fear about differences between people of whatever nature--interaction. The best way is one-on-one interaction, which will never happen with the President of the United States. However, the more people see the Obama family--as they did on 60 Minutes on Sunday--the more they are going to realize that the Obamas are essentially as "normal" as can be.

The election of Barack Obama in and of itself doesn't usher in a post-racial era. What it does do is provide the opportunity to move in that direction. It is a step, not an end unto itself.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Holiday: Toronto's Santa Claus Parade

The North Toronto Collegiate Band marched near the peak of the snowfall during the Santa Claus Parade on 16-November-2008

TORONTO, ONTARIO - It's hard to deny that the holiday season has started in Ontario. Cornelius Krieghoff events aside, the first unmistakable sign came as I walked to Remembrance Day activities, as a city crew was in the middle of erecting an artificial holiday tree above the Alex Ling Fountain at the corner of Bloor and Jane in Toronto. A lighting ceremony was held at the tree two days later. For most, the true kickoff of the holiday season comes with the Santa Claus Parade the third weekend of November.

When living in the United States, I would complain about any winter holiday activity before US Thanksgiving, held on the fourth Thursday of November. After that day, the holiday season could be considered in full swing and red and green were fair game. Bringing them out before Thanksgiving brought cold shoulders and a personal boycott of any business starting too early. In Canada, without that natural temporal barrier, a holiday season that is about six weeks long seems reasonable--why not have ten percent of the year be "the most wonderful time of the year"?

Hence, I headed out to Bloor Street near the beginning of the parade route at Christie Street--the long route utilizes Bloor, Queen's Park Crescent, University, Queen, and Yonge. Every inch of that route is needed, as the parade draws larger crowds than I have seen at any other Toronto event. It seems like anyone with a legal or interior age below twelve lines the streets.

It isn't hard to see why. The parade goes on for over an hour, with twenty or more floats (twenty-two this year), twenty or more bands (twenty-one this year, from as far away as Ohio), and a variety of interesting things in between from groups in uniform costumes of various animals to Mr. Peanut.

A float sponsored by Pizza Pizza featured bears eating and fishing for pizza in Toronto's Santa Claus Parade

My favorite float this year was one sponsored by Pizza Pizza that featured a group of bears eating pizza. The cutest part was a cub sitting on the shoulders of its father, trying to use a fishing pole and hook to snag a slice of pizza out of his father's hand. Other especially good ones included penguins sponsored by Smart Choice, a surprisingly tasteful dragon and castle from McDonald's, and giant snowmen from Canadian Tire.

Elicia MacKenzie waved to the crowds at Toronto's Santa Claus Parade from the "Sound of Music" float

The clear crowd favorite was a "Sound of Music" float featuring Elicia MacKenzie. The 23-year old from Vancouver was the winner of the summer reality show on CBC Television, How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria? which chose who would star in a live production here in Toronto. MacKenzie was a popular winner, has gotten good reviews from the critics in the actual production, and brought big cheers from the crowd during the parade.

A bicycle sponsored by Flickr took pictures of the crowds at Toronto's Santa Claus Parade

Amongst the more unusual things in the parade was a bicycle sponsored by Flickr that tracked along with the Yahoo-sponsored float. A camera was mounted underneath the handlebars and took pictures of the crowd.

One of the most amusing things about the parade is hearing all the marching band arrangements of holiday music. I can't recall ever hearing "Winter Wonderland" played on bagpipes, or "Good King Wenceslas" coordinated by a xylophone player before.

Santa Claus waved to the crowd during Toronto's Santa Claus Parade on 16-November-2008

Finally, the moment everyone was waiting for came as Santa Claus guided his sleigh down the street, wishing all who could hear a Merry Christmas.

My full coverage (over 90 photos) of the Santa Claus Parade will be posted to my photo blog--after the holiday season begins in the United States.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Photos: Trip to California, Part II

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's update to my photo site features the Sierra foothills of California.

The second portion of a trip to California was a visit with my great-aunt Pauline McGrady and her daughter Judi Rehmann in Diamond Springs near Placerville, California on 27-31-October-2008. The time provided an opportunity to explore the Sierra Foothills, including a trip along the rural Sand Ridge Road and a visit to the Apple Hill area above Placerville in the waning autumn days before Halloween.

Margin Notes: Santa, Politics, Truth as a Drug

Near the peak of a snow shower, the Zellers Sled Float came down Bloor Street during the Santa Claus Parade in Toronto on 16-November-2008

TORONTO, ONTARIO - There was a certain appropriateness that a reasonably heavy snow shower passed through town during today's Santa Claus Parade, the unofficial start of the holiday season in the Greater Toronto Area. It was certainly preferable to the cold rain that blanketed the GTA yesterday. There will be much more about the Santa Claus Parade and the beginning of the holiday season on this blog tomorrow.

* * * * * *

The other event I attended today was a reception for the volunteers of the losing Peggy Nash campaign in the Toronto riding of Parkdale-High Park. In stark contrast to Sarah Palin and even Michelle Obama, who have gotten publicity for their fashion statements in recent weeks, both Nash and Member of Provincial Parliament Cheri DiNovo spoke about shopping at Value Village during the event. How refreshing is that?

* * * * * *

I claim this blog to be forward-looking, so how about looking ahead to the 2016 congressional campaign? It seems that a Caroline Gleich, no known relation, has mused about running for Congress in Utah, but not until 2016. In the first message of her 2016 congressional campaign, Gleich complains about two hypocritical Republican senators and speaks out against California's Proposition 8--views that certainly match those often seen on this blog. There's good skiing in Canada, Caroline, how about moving up here and running for the leadership of the Liberal Party?

* * * * * *

A large Michael Ignatieff campaign sign was noted on the Kingsway in Toronto on 24-September-2008

Lest that seem like carpet-bagging, recall that this was a major charge leveled at Michael Ignatieff in the 2006 Liberal leadership campaign after he spent 30 years outside of Canada. Now, after winning two elections to federal parliament from the Etobicoke-Lakeshore riding just across the Humber River from this computer and proving a forceful member of the body, Ignatieff believes that people trust him and most pundits believe he is the front-runner. So far, he has only two opponents, Bob Rae, another Toronto Member of Parliament who was the other front-runner with Ignatieff in the last contest, and Dominic LeBlanc, a New Brunswick Member of Parliament. The race earned publicity today when Rae refused to participate in an internal party debate in Toronto since the media was not invited. LeBlanc may have been the winner of this round, telling a group of reporters that both Rae and Ignatieff needed to grow up.

* * * * * *

One thing the Liberals could do to increase their chances of electoral success would be to utilize on-line resources the way the Barack Obama campaign did in the United States. Continuing the use of the Internet, CNET News reported this week that Obama's weekly radio address will also appear on YouTube.

* * * * * *

The internet is used for activism by all kinds of groups, including nudists. Despite growing up in one of its suburbs, I was not aware until this week that Seattle has no law against nudity in public parks. Indecent exposure is banned, but generic nudity is not, and hence the World Naked Bike Ride is presently legal. In an entire hour devoted to the subject on KUOW's The Conversation on Thursday, perhaps the most revealing moment was when an organizer noted that the event takes place in the summer months--"for most of the rest of the year, it's not so pleasant to ride naked."

* * * * * *

Chemical and Engineering News Editor-in-Chief Rudy Baum, who has become controversial for writing against climate change skeptics and the Bush administration for not listening to scientists, spoke out again recently. In a 20-October-2008 editorial, Baum noted that it seemed that the only reason Robert Gallo had not shared this year's Nobel Prize for Medicine was that he is a "brash, extremely self-confident American." Anyone who didn't think Nobel Prizes had become politicized wasn't paying attention when Al Gore shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. Baum calls for criticism of the Nobel Prize Committees--I think this is old news. The prizes come from a fundamentally Swedish point of view, and sometimes that is political. It's their right to operate that way, and I don't see it changing. If you want to win a Nobel Prize, it behooves you to share a world view with the Swedes. If you don't like it, start your own prize.

* * * * * *

Philosophy can come from anywhere, but I was surprised to hear it on CBC Radio One's show on medicine, White Coat, Black Art, this week. Dr. Philip Hebert, author of "Doing Right" told host Dr. Brian Goldman that "truth is to be dispensed like any other drug." Does this mean George W. Bush was avoiding the truth since he might become addicted?

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Radio Pick: Masked Avengers on C'est la vie

This week's radio pick is a show mentioned in last week's margin notes.

The CBC provides a nice window on francophone Canada for anglophones weekly on the radio. Hosted by Bernard St-Laurent, the cross-cultural program C'est la vie tries to bridge the cultural divide that can exist in Canada. This week, the program focused on the Masked Avengers who pranked Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin during the final week
of the campaign. It was especially amusing to hear them compare their various pranks, including Britney Spears, Bill Gates, and Jacques Chirac as well as Palin. The contrast between Gates and the other pranks was particularly revealing in this 23-minute program.

Listen to MP3 of C'est la vie "The Masked Avengers"

Media: Why Karel was Fired

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Earlier this week, I went through my possessions and found my Restricted Radiotelephone Operator Permit. Issued by the US Federal Communications Commission on 24-December-1992, last posted at a radio station sometime in 1994 at KZSU on the Stanford University campus in California, it isn't exactly my most valuable possession. I wanted to look at it for the first time in years to see what it explicitly stated about on-air behavior at a radio station. Unsurprisingly, it states almost nothing, simply referring to the appropriate regulatory code. Those not familiar that regulatory code might not understand why former KGO radio talk show host Charles "Karel" Bouley was fired on Tuesday. It's worth a clarification.

As alluded to in this blog earlier this week, the talk show host known as Karel was suspended following an on-air outburst on 1-November-2008, and as predicted at the time, both he and the engineer involved in the incident were fired by San Francisco's KGO Newstalk 810 on 11-November-2008.

Karel became prominent in the broadcasting world when he and his same-sex partner, Andrew Howard, became the first openly-gay couple on a drive-time show at a major-market radio station in 1998, on Los Angeles' KFI AM 640. The "Karel and Andrew Show" ran during afternoon drive until May 2001, when Howard died of a heart attack. Karel sued as a domestic partner for malpractice in the death and won the case on appeal. Meanwhile, he continued to do a radio show on his own on KFI before he was fired in 2002. Shortly thereafter, he was hired to do the weekend 7-10 pm show on San Francisco's KGO Newstalk 810, a job he had held ever since.

Karel still usually did the broadcast from his residence in Long Beach, a common practice in modern talk radio. As a result, an engineer at the KGO studios in San Francisco actually controlled what went out on the air, including the feed to Karel's studio in the Southland. During the 9 pm network news on 1-November, the engineer in San Francisco left Karel's line going out onto the air as he went to the bathroom, a break he was only allowed to take during the network news. Karel claims that this was not the normal practice, so he was not aware that he was speaking to all the listeners of KGO during the news.

When the news did a story about "Joe the Plumber," Karel got worked up, and reacted to the news with a string of profanities. I suppose I could publish his actual words on this blog, but I'd rather not, so if you want to know exactly what he said, refer to Michael Hood's article on BlatherWatch. Suffice to say he called for the death of "Joe the Plumber" and used a profane word three times in the process. As the engineer was not in the studio, the studio delay was not useful; the words could not be prevented from going out onto the airwaves all up and down the West Coast of the United States. When Karel found out that this had gone out, he did apologize on-air, just minutes later during his show.

After Karel's suspension, many in the media seemed to focus on the fact that Karel had made what amounted to a death threat on "Joe the Plumber." As despicable as that may be, it was legal and KGO did not face any particular sanction for allowing that on the air. In contrast, the three profane words could result in serious consequences. Under current Federal Communications Commission regulations, any occurrence of a profane word may result in a $315,000 fine. Thus, the three occurrences during Karel's outburst could result in a $945,000 fine. It was this prospect of a nearly million-dollar fine that caused KGO management to fire Karel and the engineer. Having taken this action, they can hope that the FCC will choose to levy only a token fine for the incident.

The FCC makes distinctions between obscenities, indecencies, and profanities. As described on the FCC web side, obscenities are never allowed to be broadcast and must meet three standards, "(1) that an average person, applying contemporary community standards, must find that the material, as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest; (2) that the material must depict or describe, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by applicable law; and (3) that the material, taken as a whole, must lack serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value." Indecency is defined as "language or material that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium, sexual or excretory organs or activities." Profanities are include "language so grossly offensive to members of the public who actually hear it as to amount to a nuisance." Indecencies and profanities are not allowed between 6 am and 10 pm.

I have never thought particularly highly of Karel as a talk show host. He tended to choose topics that focused on culture and celebrity, whereas I prefer politics and hard news. Furthermore, his demeanor tended to include on-air ranting to a greater degree than his other KGO colleagues. Thus, when I heard Karel's voice, I tended to turn the radio to another station, especially when he has filled the 10 pm-1 am slot as a fill-in during the past year. I had a strong preference for his rival Christine Craft as a permanent host in the 10 pm-1 am slot; Craft is someone that I often disagree with but usually find has an interesting viewpoint.

The reason for Karel's firing, though, seems ridiculous. One of the things I enjoy about the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation up here in Canada is that on occasion, if a person during an interview uses a term that is considered profane in the United States, it might well be aired. I don't believe I've ever heard anything that would qualify as indecent or obscene on the air in Canada, but in proper context, profanities might be aired. This strikes me as mature--Canada trusts its citizens to handle speech that indeed they may hear on the street, while protecting them from inappropriate sexual or excretory descriptions. Karel and his engineer may each have made a really stupid mistake, one that anyone that has been educated in broadcasting (including me) should know not to do ("treat any microphone as live"), but it isn't a mistake worth nearly a million-dollar fine or anyone's job. An intentional act might merit some serious discipline at the station's discretion, but not a mistake.

Interestingly, during my education leading to the Restricted Radiotelephone Operator Permit, one of the guests brought in to talk to us was Jack Swanson, who at the time in 1992 was programming KING Newstalk 1090 AM in Seattle. In 1994, KING would go all-news and Swanson would become Program Manager at KGO, a post he holds to this day. So, I've met Swanson, heard him talk about dealing with the FCC first-hand, and I understand why he would have felt he needed to fire Karel.

The only good thing to come out of this situation is that as I type this, Christine Craft is holding down the 7-10 pm weekend slot on a fill-in basis. It would be very nice to see that continue.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Transport: Amtrak after Kummant

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Today, the resignation of Amtrak President and Chief Executive Officer Alex Kummant was announced--except that a prominent and respected source says that a "resignation" isn't exactly what happened. Especially unclear is whether the exit of Kummant, for whatever reason, provides any indication about the future of Amtrak, the only intercity rail passenger company in the United States.

Kummant had served as Amtrak President for about two years following the very political firing of widely-respected predecessor David Gunn in 2005. Gunn, who had earned wide acclaim for his previous work improving transit systems in New York and Toronto amongst other places, had been hired in 2002 to improve the operating efficiency of the railroad and generally improve Amtrak's standing with Congress and the Bush administration. While Gunn made significant progress in his goals, focusing on running a passenger railroad while ending an express business that interfered with passenger operations and angered host freight railroads, working on putting the equipment in a "state of good repair" and stabilizing the overall financial status of the railroad, he rapidly found himself at odds with an Amtrak board filled with George W. Bush administration appointees that wanted Amtrak to operate without a subsidy. In contrast, in a famous 2003 presentation about the "Six Myths of Amtrak," Gunn expressed his belief that Amtrak could never be profitable, that no other rail passenger system in the world was profitable, and that no transportation system in the world exists without significant subsidies of some kind. During Senate testimony, he challenged Amtrak opponent John McCain to let commuter airlines in the state of Arizona try to operate without subsidies to outlying areas. Eventually, the Amtrak board had enough of Gunn's perspective and he was fired in late 2005.

When Alex Kummant was hired to be Amtrak president in the summer of 2006 after David Hughes had served as placeholder, it wasn't clear how he would approach the job. While Kummant had served in several vice-presidential positions at freight railroad and Amtrak host Union Pacific, he had since moved on to construction and mining equipment. He would still dealing with the same Amtrak board, but in a significant change, he would no longer be dealing with a Republican Congress intent on "reform" (read privatization of Amtrak). The Democrats moved into control of both houses of Congress within months of the start of Kummant's tenure, meaning that Amtrak's subsidy was much more secure. While President Bush threatened to veto Amtrak funding, in the end the subsidy would be included in some other bill that Bush did not dare veto and the railroad could at least live on.

The board still wanted to "reform" Amtrak, however. A ban on new routes, imposed during Gunn's tenure in exchange for a government loan that kept Amtrak running during a funding crisis, remained in effect. The board wanted to avoid subsidizing "cruise" passengers, so for a time the number of sleeping cars had to be reduced on some long-distance trains even if they were available and could have been sold out. Money spent on "amenities" had to be reduced, resulting in the implementation of a less-than-popular "Diner Lite" service on many long-distance trains in which much less actual cooking was done on-board the trains and millions of dollars were spent re-configuring dining cars for the new-style service. In an attempt to save money through making operations more uniform, standardized consists were introduced on the Northeast Corridor, instead of changing train length based on demand, and through coaches and a sleeper between Boston and Chicago were eliminated to avoid switching a train at Albany, New York.

Furthermore, even improvements that were attempted under Kummant just didn't seem to be implemented very well. The re-launch of the premium service on the long-distance train on the west coast, the Coast Starlight, was supposed to occur in June 2008, but many of the promised amenities simply weren't there when I rode the train on 21-June. Yet, they did materialize by the time I rode the train again on 25-October. A general feeling of lack of discipline seemed to permeate the entire railroad--a feeling that seemingly has been almost-continuously increasing since it took over passenger service in the United States in 1971.

Yet, despite the moves that were unpopular with rail advocates, it was clear that Kummant was at least trying to run a passenger railroad within the restrictions that he was given. Under Kummant, the reliability of the Acela trainsets in the Northeast Corridor increased considerably. State-supported corridor services, where states were willing to step up with increasing funding, increased in frequency, including in California, Illinois, and Washington. Service initiatives like the "re-launch" of the Coast Starlight have proceeded, even if their implementation has been somewhat lackluster. Most significantly, obviously driven by increased gas and airline prices, ridership has been rising. 28.7 million passengers rode Amtrak in the fiscal year ending on 31-October-2008, more than a 12% increase from the previous year--and increases were seen all over the system, not just in expanding corridors.

So why did Kummant resign? Railway Age has reported that Amtrak spokesperson Clifford Black stated "differences in strategies, direction, and management philosophy" with the board were behind the resignation. Respected long-time transportation reporter Don Phillips, now of Trains magazine, has reported that Kummant has been feuding with Chairman of the Board Donna McLean over debt restructuring. Phillips characterized the dispute as an "arcane budget matter," but it was apparently enough that "Kummant agreed to walk away and not bring the clash before Congress in exchange for being allowed to characterize the departure as a resignation, not a firing."

In time, the exact nature of the dispute will likely come out, but it seems hard to believe that an "arcane budget matter" would be worth bringing to the attention of Congress or resigning over unless it made a real difference to the future of the railroad. While Kummant himself has been accused of being a Bush administration tool, Donna McLean is definitely a Bush follower. After serving various transportation roles in the Reagan and both Bush administrations, McLean was nominated to a five-year term on the Amtrak board in 2006. While her nominating statement was far from inflammatory, her history implies that she would be in favor of the radical reform agenda espoused by Republicans. It seems entirely plausible that Kummant--like Gunn before him, fundamentally coming from the perspective of trying to operate a railroad--may have thought that the "debt restructuring" pushed by McLean and the board would in some way hinder either the operation or future expansion of Amtrak.

More interestingly, regardless of the viewpoint of the McLean, the makeup of the Amtrak board is likely to change radically in the coming months. A nominally seven-person board, it presently has only five members: McLean, Hunter Biden, Thomas Carper, Nancy Naples, and Mary Peters. McLean, Peters, and Naples are relatively-recent Republican appointees who will remain on the board for some years, while Biden (the vice-president-elect's son) and Carper are Democrats. Besides the two presently-open seats, the board will be expanding by two additional members in April under legislation signed by President Bush last month, so there are effectively four openings. By May, the Amtrak board may have a Democratic majority.

Furthermore, vice-president-elect Joseph Biden is well-known for riding Amtrak regularly between Wilmington, Delaware and Washington, D.C., and has long been a rail transportation advocate. With his influence in the White House, his son on the Amtrak Board, and a Democrat-controlled Congress, it seems likely that Amtrak will not be struggling for its very existence for at least the next two years.

The big question is not whether Amtrak will survive in its present form, but whether it will be able to turn around its deteriorating operations, equipment and on-board attitude and actually become a real and attractive alternative in the US transportation system outside of a few limited corridors. Alex Kummant's successor may not have to worry about his company's existence, but he or she will still have a very hard job to do.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Economics: From Chemical Statistics

TORONTO, ONTARIO - A rule of thumb often used in Canada is that basically anything in the United States should be about one-tenth as large in Canada, since the population here is about one-tenth of that in the United States. For example, the gross domestic product of the United States in 2007 according to the International Monetary Fund, for example, was USD 13.8 trillion. So, one would expect that Canada's would be about USD 1.38 trillion, and sure enough the actual number was 1.43 trillion. (Canada's population is actually more like 11% of the US, about 33 million versus about 305 million, so actually the per capita GDP in the US was slightly higher than Canada, contrary to what the raw numbers and the one-tenth rule would imply, but they certainly would be considered similar.) So, when comparing raw (as opposed to normalized) figures from the two countries, it is generally assumed that there is a significant difference if the one-tenth rule isn't followed.

It was with this mind-set that I looked at the 7-July-2008 edition of Chemical and Engineering News some time ago which contained their annual "Facts and Figures" on the chemical industry worldwide for the year 2007. There are enough figures in this issue to make anyone's head spin, and the amazing thing is that they make even more available on-line to members of the American Chemical Society. Most of the tables that I chose to look at weren't terribly interesting until I focused on the trade balance tables.

The United States actually ran a surplus in overall chemical trade to the tune of USD 2.8 billion, for the first time since 2001. Canada, which is generally regarded to have a more resource-based economy, actually ran a deficit to the tune of USD 7.3 billion. Since Canada does have a greater tendency to sell raw materials (in this case, mostly petroleum) as opposed to finished products (like paints, fertilizers, and medicines), this was not necessarily surprising, but I wanted to look closer to see exactly what role petroleum might be playing in the figures.

What I found in the sector breakdowns was something I didn't expect to see. The single largest deficit in the US figures was "medicinals and pharmaceuticals" at USD 20.2 billion. That means that the United States imports USD 20 billion more in drugs from other countries than it exports; without that drag, its chemical trade balance would be nearly four times more positive. For Canada, the same largest drag was found--USD 4.9 billion in "medicinals and pharmaceuticals," accounting for more than two-thirds of the deficit. Apply the one-tenth rule, and Canada's deficit should have been about 2 billion--the deficit is actually about twice as large in Canada as it is in the US.

Why would that be? A look through the rest of the statistics revealed that the deficit is not being run with China (which itself has a deficit in "medicinals and pharmaceuticals"), Japan (which is about balanced), or the developing world. While India is a minor factor, the deficit is primarily with Europe. Nearly USD 25 billion more in drugs are entering North America from the European Union than are being sent eastbound across the Atlantic. The Europeans invested in value-added products, and the payoff is seen in the trade figures for the "medicinals and pharmaceuticals" sector.

But what about the difference between Canada and the US? Canada has not gone out of its way to protect brand-name drug manufacturers, instead favoring generic manufacturers. For whatever reason (likely economies of scale in larger markets), the brand-name companies are apparently choosing to manufacture drugs elsewhere and import them into Canada. Blog reader Bruce Millman pointed me to the web site of the Canadian Generic Pharmaceutical Association. While clearly a self-promotional site, some of the figures they tout are pretty telling. Brand-name pharmaceuticals account for CAD 15 billion in sales in Canada, while generic sales amount to only CAD 3.9 billion. However, the CGPA claims to be saving Canadians CAD 2.6 billion. Do the math, and that means that primarily-imported brand-name drugs account for about 70% of the volume of drugs sold and about 80% of the monetary value. With exports of generics from Canada to the US amounting to about CAD 2.6 billion, it's not hard to see that the Canadian deficit in this sector is coming almost exclusively from brand-name imports.

With Canadians paying lower prices for their drugs than their American counterparts as a result of the emphasis on generics, from a consumer perspective, there seems little reason to complain. The savings by encouraging generic drugs result in a trade deficit with respect to brand-name drugs, but overall savings are attained. Basically, a relative efficiency of the single-payer system is masking an underlying trade inequity that may not much matter in the macroeconomic picture.

A little curiosity and application of the one-tenth rule led to recognition of some interesting economic realities, but blog readers are will probably be glad to hear that my curiosity expired after looking at the chemical trade deficits.

Note: This posted was refined shortly after its original posting with additional information courtesy Bruce Millman

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Politics: Obama's Enemy May Be Democrats

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Unsurprisingly,'s Nate Silver beat me to the punch. In a post earlier today, he explained in more detail why it is not possible to determine whether 2008 was a re-aligning election, an opinion I only briefly expressed in the introduction to a post questioning the state of the US electorate last week. The immensely popular Silver and I agree that whether this proves to be an election that moves the US out of the rightward shift that has dominated since 1980 will largely be determined by the success of the Obama administration. I believe that Obama himself likely has the skill set to effect a lot of needed changes in the country--his biggest enemy will not likely be the Republicans or rogues within his administration, but in the broader Democratic Party.

Contrary to Republican claims during the campaign, there seems to be every reason to believe that Barack Obama will pursue a moderate or moderate-liberal agenda during his presidency, not an especially liberal one. For one thing, the current financial crisis means that there simply isn't the money available for lots of new domestic spending. Even if there were, Obama's tax proposal--basically restoring the tax rates on wealthy Americans in place before the Bush administration--and his health care proposal--representing far less change in the system than the now-infamous Clinton proposal in 1994--do not suggest the kind of fundamental change and increased government involvement that characterized the New Deal of the 1930's or the Civil Rights movement of the 1960's. The third major tenant of his campaign after the economy and health care, a withdrawal from Iraq, hardly seems like a wild left-wing policy when it is supported by most moderates in the electorate. Obama didn't campaign against gun rights or as a promoter of gay marriage, called for a reduction in the number of abortions while maintaining abortion rights, and sounded more like Bill Cosby or even Bill Bennett in talking about parental responsibility. If he spends political capital on a left-wing social issue early in his presidency, the way Bill Clinton tried to change the treatment of gays in the military, it would be a real surprise considering that he has talked mostly about focusing on the economy.

However, that very focus on the economy and all of Obama's rhetoric about a "new politics" and reaching across the aisle may do little to satisfy his own Democratic Party. In control of both the presidency and the congress for the first time since 1994, there are some Democrats who may not be satisfied with some economic reform and stimulus and modest health care reform. To just cite a few prominent interest groups within that party's coalition, is impatient to withdraw troops from Iraq, unions are impatient for the so-called Employee Free Choice Act, and teacher's unions aren't overjoyed with Obama's pro-charter school positions. If those or other groups see actions they don't like, or lack of action on things they want, they may create some serious problems for Obama in trying to move forward with his agenda.

Indeed, the conventional wisdom on why the Jimmy Carter administration proved to be so unsuccessful in the late 1970's, despite a Congressional majority for the Democrats, was that Carter could not lead the more liberal factions of the party in Congress. Legendary columnist David Broder wrote a column on this way back in May, warning that Obama could face a similar problem as an outside-the-beltway figure who might want to govern more moderately.

Yet, there seem a number of signs that not only will Obama avoid the mistakes of Clinton's early presidency, but he will also avoid those of Carter. Some are structural--while few members of Congress owed Carter or Clinton any debt for winning their seats, Obama actually appeared to have modest coattails. The new Democratic members in Congress not only may not only feel some gratitude to Obama, but they tend to be from traditionally Republican areas and hence are more moderate than the rest of the caucus. Congressional leaders wanting to solidify their gains would be loathe to set up those colleagues for a loss in the next election. More importantly, Obama seems to be making an effort to reach out to Congress. While Carter's transition lead (and later chief of staff) Hamilton Jordan was from Georgia and reportedly clashed with Congressional leaders from day one, Obama has selected a member of the House of Representatives, Rahm Emanuel, to be his Chief of Staff. The wartime cooperation from the Bush administration in the transition, as exemplified by the early vetting of Obama's team for security clearance and the visit of the Obamas to the White House last week, may not directly address Congress but means there will be less distraction for the transition team so that they can focus more on interacting with Congress.

It's still very early to make any judgment, but the early indications are that President-Elect Obama may pursue a relatively-moderate, potentially very popular agenda that may actually be supported by Congress. If that does come to pass, we might indeed look back on 2008 as a re-aligning election and only a mid-point in a leftward shift of the political pendulum.