Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Holiday: Railfanning Tradition

Special holiday Sounder train #1798 passed the BNSF Interbay Yard on its journey from Seattle to Everett, Washington on 31-December-2008

BELLEVUE, WASHINGTON - The "holiday season" at the end of the year is a time for traditions with family and friends. The closest thing I have to a railfanning tradition is to head out to survey the Seattle Terminal (in Washington state) with my longtime friend Bret Gray. Sometime in the afternoon, we would meet (usually at Argo, a junction in the southern part of Seattle) and might explore anywhere from the Salmon Bay Drawbridge or Ballard in the north to Ruston along the Tacoma waterfront to the south, but normally we would venture no farther north than Interbay Yard and no farther south than "the north end of South Seattle" (which the railroad had thankfully re-named "Boeing" by 2007).

In this territory was the majority of the interesting places in the BN (later BNSF) Seattle Terminal Dispatcher's district, including the Interbay roundhouse, the King Street passenger station, the Amtrak (and later Sounder commuter rail) coach yard, the coach wye, Stacy Street Yard, Union Pacific's Argo Yard and service facility, and a glimpse at the mostly trailer traffic South Seattle Yard. The epicenter of activity was the onetime site of Argo Tower, the northern terminus of UP trains and often a place where BNSF trains would make their pickups from Stacy Street Yard. Generally speaking, we would remain somewhere around Argo well after dark, usually until the passage of the Amtrak Coast Starlight from Los Angeles.

The first documented "holiday run of the terminal" seems to have taken place on 1 January 1999, when we saw only the inbound BNSF "Z" train, an outbound BNSF garbage train, and the Coast Starlight during the evening. On 24 December 2000, we did the first of our Christmas Eve runs, noting the outbound BNSF "Z" train's light power, the last southbound Amtrak Cascades, the southbound UP "Barnes Sprint," and the last northbound Cascades. On 24 December 2001, I noted that it was becoming a tradition, and we saw the "Barnes Sprint," UP's Hinkle-Seattle manifest, BNSF's Seattle-Pasco manifest, the last northbound Cascades, and the northbound Coast Starlight. While we did meet in 2002, it was after Christmas and earlier in the day, and then the tradition essentially died for some time before we revived it on 23 December 2006 (a Saturday), seeing five BNSF trains and a very late Amtrak. On 22 December 2007 (another Saturday), we headed out to see five BNSF trains, four UP trains, and two Amtrak Cascades trains.

This year, New Year's Eve was selected for our tradition of "running the terminal". While logging a substantial amount of power at the BNSF Interbay Roundhouse, the first train of the day passed, a special holiday Sounder bound for Everett. Spending most of the evening near the old Rainier Ice spur at Argo, we ultimately saw four Sounder trains, five Amtrak trains, three Union Pacific trains, and six BNSF trains. Most notably, Amtrak's Coast Starlight came in from Los Angeles on time for the first time during our holiday runs since 2001--a fitting optimistic note on which to end 2008.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Margin Notes: Grungy Art Deco White Christmas

The scene in a Bellevue, Washington backyard as snowfall continued on a White Christmas, 25-December-2008

BELLEVUE, WASHINGTON - The rain and wind storm yesterday morning cleared the roads and caused most of the snow to disappear, but the Seattle area did see a rare White Christmas, as evidenced by the photo above. Arguably, this was the first "real" White Christmas of my lifetime in this area, as there was snow on the ground at dawn and snowfall during the course of the day; only one of those elements had been in place in any previous year.

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It was a Seattle Christmas, though. While wandering downtown Seattle last Saturday, a group of street artists near Westlake Center were noted performing Radiohead's "Creep". Where else but the grunge capitol of Seattle could someone sing "I'm a creep / I'm a weirdo" on the streets and not only avoid arrest but expect to earn money?

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"Nutcracker" by Randy Bollanger in Pacific Place was part of the Downtown Light Spectacular in Seattle, Washington on 27-December-2008

More conventional holiday entertainment came in the form of the Downtown Light Spectacular, a series of forty LED light displays depicting various toys. While most of the "Toyland Display Gallery" was dispersed outside throughout downtown Seattle, a few were inside including the "Nutcracker" which mixed in with a variety of Nutcracker figurines at the Pacific Place shopping mall.

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Seattle, Washington's 1930-era Exchange Building exemplified the Art Deco style on 27-December-2008

Also mixing the inside and outside was the reason for my visit downtown, a tour of Art Deco Seattle by the Seattle Architecture Foundation. Looking at such architectural gems as the Seattle Tower and the Exchange Building from both inside and out demonstrated how the ornate and vertical nature of Art Deco structures contrasted with the classical and international styles much more common in Seattle.

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One of the first buildings that comes to my mind when thinking of Art Deco is Palo Alto's railroad station, the public transit gateway to Stanford University. Holiday travel is the time I usually use to catch up on reading "Stanford" Magazine. Had I not read recent issues, I would not have known that Yankee pitcher Mike Mussina, Air America and MSNBC personality Rachel Maddow, and KUOW-Seattle producer Sage Van Wing all went to Stanford.

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For more detailed coverage of radio in 2008, Scott Fybush's well-known Northeast Radio Watch came out with its Year in Review this week. The highlight of Fybush's reviews, especially for those outside of his region of focus, is the Year-End Rant which often has significant insight into the state of the broadcasting industry. With the economic downturn, one might think this would be a pessimistic article this year, but Fybush has managed to insert some optimistic thoughts that are worth reading.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Holiday: Bellevue's Garden d'Lights

One of several large garden scenes at the Garden d'Lights in Bellevue, Washington on 27-December-2008

BELLEVUE, WASHINGTON - Back in 1994, the city of Bellevue's Botanical Garden was looking for a way to expand its attendance during the winter months. They decided to use some holiday lights to make a replica of some of the plants in the garden so that they could be seen after dark during the shortest days of the year. While a modest display that year, the Garden d'Lights has returned and gotten larger each year.

A frog was reflected in a pond in Bellevue's Botanical Gardens during the Garden d'Lights on 27-December-2008

The display has gotten so large now that it includes over 500,000 lights; some individual plant lights contain 15,000 LED's. Besides plants that exist in the garden and those that would not survive in a Pacific Northwest climate, there are now a variety of birds and other creatures across the gardens, even including a spider and the ultimate northwest garden icon, the slug. Classes are now held each spring and fall to train volunteers in how to make the displays, adding to the collection each year. About the only thing that is not found in fervently secular Bellevue are any signs of the holiday season at all, unless one counts a poinsettia as a holiday symbol.

The snow provided a special backdrop to the Garden d'Lights on 27-December-2008

An unexpected attraction of this year's display was about a foot of snowfall. The snow closed the event for about a week before Christmas Day, but it has now re-opened with the white background of the snow making for a very different feel than the normal annual display, providing another reason to attend besides seeing what has been added since last year.

The view from the educational center parking lot of just a portion of the Garden d'Lights on 27-December-2008

The Garden d'Lights is located near Main Street and 124th Ave NE in Bellevue, Washington with the lights on from 5 pm to 10 pm through Saturday, January 3rd. The event is free unless one chooses premium parking for $5; parking at the Bellevue School District Headquarters across the street for free is recommended as the lone crosswalk from that parking lot is guarded by a policeman.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Radio Pick: Scenes from a Mall on TAL

BELLEVUE, WASHINGTON - This week's radio pick is the latest episode from This American Life.

Considering how few purchases I have made, I have spent an inordinate amount of time in malls across the continent in recent weeks. Since this is a broadly shared experience, Ira Glass and the This American Life team headed to the mall and collected a variety of interesting stories, from a salesman who kept trying to sell to his girlfriend too long to infighting amongst Santa Clauses to what those that watch the security cameras see. This 59-minute program was a great example of topical story-telling.

Listen to streaming MP3 of This American Life "Scenes from a Mall"

Holiday: Bellevue's Celebration Lane

Two revelers on stilts passed out kazoos to the crowds at Bellevue, Washington's Celebration Lane on 27-December-2008

BELLEVUE, WASHINGTON - Since 2005, the Seattle suburb of Bellevue, Washington has been host to an interesting night-time holiday performance. At 7 pm sharp, a group of drummers has marched to a designated area along Bellevue Way near NE 8th Street to perform along with a set of classic holiday songs. Called Snowflake Lane, the event was put together by the "Bellevue Collection" of developer Kemper Freeman Junior which includes the well-known Bellevue Square as well as the Bellevue Place and Lincoln Square complexes and has run from the day after Thanksgiving to Christmas.

Soap-sud snow, rather than real snow, fell on Bellevue's Celebration Lane along Bellevue Way on 27-December-2008

Since 2006, the show has continued through New Year's Eve under the name "Celebration Lane," trading the traditional holiday songs in for a rock and roll retrospective of the history of Bellevue and New Year's themed music. Upon arrival along the sidewalk in Bellevue, Washington tonight, disposable kazoos were being passed out to foster the New Year's theme.

A drummer performed during the Celebration Lane show in Bellevue, Washington on 27-December-2008

This year's Celebration Lane performance featured Bill Haley's "Rock Around the Clock" from the 1950's, the Beatles' "Twist and Shout" from the 1960's, the Jackson 5's "ABC" from the 1970's, Kenny Loggins' "Footloose" from the 1980's, Ricky Martin's "Living La Vida Loca" form the 1990's, and Pink's "Get This Party Started" from the last decade before transitioning to New Year's tunes.

Snowflakes were projected on the side of Crate and Barrel store during a patriotic moment of Celebration Lane on 27-December-2008

The Celebration Lane performances continue each evening at 7 pm through December 31st along Bellevue Way near NE 8th Street in downtown Bellevue.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Media: Podcasts Make Us Program Directors

BELLEVUE, WASHINGTON - TransMedia Radio Networks, the one-time distributor of Jim French's Imagination Theater radio dramas, used to run an advertisement during these shows telling people that they could "be their own program directors." Instead of having to listen to radio shows when their local radio station decided to run them, TransMedia suggested purchasing a subscription to weekly CD's of Imagination Theater to listen to whenever was convenient.

TransMedia was on to something, but mailed CD's weren't the way to make it happen, and not just because of the expense. Podcasting of broadcast radio shows would be the enabling technology to turn listeners into their own program directors. Thanks to Really Simple Syndication and software like iTunes that make managing audio files and transferring them to portable devices a near trivial task, it takes only a few moves and clicks of a mouse to make a radio program appear on one's MP3 player, ready to be listened to, usually just once, at any time. That's a lot easier than looking for a CD.

The podcasting phenomena really took off in 2005, just in time for a period in which I was wandering the country while searching for work. By the time I moved to Toronto in 2006, podcasting allowed me to implement something close to my ideal radio schedule in my daily schedule. Sure, I could have resorted to rather complicated measures to hear many of the shows, as WNED-AM out of Buffalo carried Marketplace, for example, but it was much easier to just download the podcast and listen to it off my computer later in the evening. Other shows, like Free Speech Radio News and KUOW-Seattle's The Conversation would not have been available at all without some kind of Internet feed, though conceivably that could have been a more complicated one than the podcast.

In many ways, it's great to be able to listen to one's favorite shows no matter where one is located. What I listen to on the radio here in the Seattle area isn't all that different than what I would be listening to in Toronto. However, there is a downside to all this accessibility. Where it used to be that if a program was missed, it was missed, now there's no excuse to miss anything. While traveling on an airplane, not listening to one's normal programming, it's piling up under one's podcast directory.

Historically, the holidays were a time for me when between repeat programs that didn't need to be heard and programs were just plain missed while engaging in holiday activities. Instead, the podcasts are stacking up. As I write this (listening to a podcast of an On Point show I missed earlier today), I have 1.5 days worth of old podcasts to catch up on. Even assuming that I don't fall farther behind, it will take a month to catch up.

All this completely changes dynamics about programming. Whereas I used to look forward to traveling and checking out different programming in the places I visit, now I feel compelled to catch up on podcasts all the time. In fact, I want to find reasons to decide that a show isn't up to standards anymore so I can drop its podcast and not listen anymore. Where I used to complain about the lack of quality programming, now I almost wish there were less of it so that I wouldn't feel that I was missing so much.

Technology moves things forward on a regular basis, but sometimes it would seem to be better to just slow down. There were things that were a lot simpler when we couldn't be our own program directors.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Holiday: Christmas Without Children

BELLEVUE, WASHINGTON - Christmas is a holiday for children. The light in a child's eye from the scene around the tree first thing on Christmas morning almost defines the modern secular Christmas, never mind what the holiday was originally intended to mean. Instead of being about the child Jesus, it's about the child spirit, within both those that are still children and those that observe and remember their own.

For my entire adult life, there have been children around on Christmas Day. By the time my contemporary cousins and I had grown up from pure excitement about gifts on Christmas day, my older cousins were having children. By the time those children were growing up, my generation started to have children.

Yet, scheduling and traditions this year conspired so that despite a reasonably large group of ten people gathering at my parents' house, they were composed only of my mothers' siblings and their spouses, plus one of my older cousins whose children are grown up and all had other places to be on this day. One of my cousins with children was trapped in the northern part of the state under three feet of snow and could only call to wish us a Merry Christmas, while others had other places to be.

So, I would be the youngest person in attendance at an all-adult Christmas, the first of my life. It was surprisingly quiet and orderly without any babies requiring attention, small children running around and flinging toys around, or even older children wanting to play video games. There was just grown-up conversation, snacking and eating.

Even the gift exchanges were not the same without children around. The anticipation of everyone gathering by tree was not nearly as intense. The formal gift exchange went quite smoothly, with only one "steal" during the whole exchange. The whole experience was just very mature and adult.

While I really didn't mind the added calm on Christmas Day, most would say there was something missing--children.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Holiday: What Color is Your Christmas?

The Pacific Northwest was just two days from a white Christmas in this view from Bellevue across Lake Washington to Mercer Island on 23-December-2008

BELLEVUE, WASHINGTON - If you're Elvis Presley, then you have a Blue Christmas without your loved ones. Hollywood has brought us a Black Christmas at least twice in the past. In the Bush White House this year, it's a Red, White and Blue Christmas. There's even the vaguely racist Yellow Christmas. But, for the vast majority of the people celebrating the holiday, there are only two possible colors for the holiday--green and white.

Here in the Pacific Northwest, there have not been very many white Christmases. In my lifetime, I remember only two before this year--1996 and 2007, and both of those wouldn't meet an absolute standard of having a layer of snow on the ground on Christmas morning, but did see snowfall in the course of Christmas Day, a real storm in the case of 1996 and just a fleeting shower in 2007.

In a region surrounded by evergreen trees of multiple species, the inevitable color of Christmas in Seattle has been green. The single most iconic regional holiday song for the Pacific Northwest, Brenda White's "Christmas in the Northwest," includes the refrain that Christmas "is a gift God wrapped in green."

Of course, the color green is not the only thing that usually predominates a Seattle Christmas. The Pysht River Troubadours captured this well in their song "Let's Have a Seattle Christmas," containing the refrain: "For it doesn't just rain on Christmas, it's every day, every day, every day." I have few memories of outdoor activities on Christmas as a child, but that's not because it was too cold--it was because it was raining. Christmas is an indoor holiday here, which is just fine for visiting with family, eating a big meal, and exchanging gifts.

This year will be a white Christmas around Seattle by any standard, short of an overnight miracle that makes several inches of snow disappear. The biggest concern will be the ability of families to drive to gatherings, and whether electrical power will be maintained as it mostly has been throughout this storm season.

Statistically, tomorrow will be a rare event, so to everyone around the Pacific Northwest, enjoy the white Christmas, and to everyone else, enjoy the holiday, no matter what color it might be.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Travel: Seattle's Snowmageddon

A pile of snow rose in a parking lot near Bellevue Way and NE 8th Street in Bellevue, Washington on 23-December-2008--a common sight in New England or Canada, but not near Seattle

BELLEVUE, WASHINGTON - By leaving Toronto for the holidays, people in Ontario have been saying that I escaped "Snowmageddon," the nickname given to a series of three storms that struck Toronto starting last Wednesday with 8-20 cm of snow apiece. While that constitutes an unusual occurrence, Toronto can handle any given snowfall of 20 cm and by all accounts the city is as functional as would be expected in the winter now that "Snowmageddon" has passed.

I certainly did not escape. The word has not been used in the local media here, but the Pacific Northwest has been facing something that feels far closer to "Snowmageddon" than anything that Toronto has faced. Seattle, of course, can have winters without any snow at all, though it is not uncommon for a significant snowfall to occur. When that happens, however, the temperatures almost inevitably rise above freezing, rain follows, and the snow is off the ground within days. Thus, the Seattle tradition developed of not preparing for a serious snowstorm and simply shutting down the city until the snow is gone.

This December has been different. Instead of the temperatures rising, they have remained below freezing for multiple storm-fronts. By the time of my delayed arrived at Sea-Tac airport on Monday, the snow banks from two storms had grown to about 30 cm, and the forecast is for yet a third significant snowfall in the time before Christmas, when the normal pattern may finally return with rain to wash the snow away.

Seattle is not used to being a winter wonderland, and the winter weather pattern more like that found in Anchorage has strained many systems here. Alaska Airlines (yes, that's Alaska Airlines) shut down operations at Sea-Tac on Sunday night because it had run out of de-icing fluid; a line of their 737's still sat parked near the north end of the airport when I landed on Monday. Amtrak didn't fare much better. Because the northwest normally does not face constant cold temperatures, the BNSF Railway that hosts most Amtrak trains does not employ switch heaters and the tracks froze in place. Trains stopped for the day on Sunday in the Cascade corridor while switches were thawed with propane torches. Similarly, Greyhound stopped all service from Seattle for several days, sending stranded passengers to homeless shelters.

On the roads, the city of Seattle claims environmental reasoning--disputed by most scientists--for not using salt on its roadways, instead trying to create a layer of packed snow for all-wheel drive vehicles and front-wheel drive vehicles with chains. Predictably, this just leads to slippery conditions for everyone, and shoppers have been avoiding Seattle in droves, favoring suburbs that actually take the time to clear their roads and apply something other than sand. Scientists claim that sand, which causes unnatural silt build-up, is actually a larger environmental concern than salt, which is dissolved by the melting snow to concentrations close to that found in natural sea water. Furthermore, the city of Bellevue points out that the use of potassium chloride instead of sodium chloride causes a lower corrosive impact on vehicles. These are all old hat issues in Ontario, but not normally a significant matter in Washington and Oregon.

A woman walked a pair of malamutes down 108th Ave SE in Bellevue, Washington on 23-December-2008

A few have been enjoying the snow. While out walking today, my family encountered a pair of malamutes being walked down the street. For these Alaskan dogs in Washington state, this is the closest they will ever come to running the Iditarod.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Photos: Holidays in Toronto

BELLEVUE, WASHINGTON - This week's update to my photo site features holiday scenes around Toronto, Ontario.

Toronto holiday scenes in December 2008 included the performance of the Canadian Pacific Holiday Train, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's live Sounds of the Season broadcast of "Here and Now," display windows at the Hudson's Bay Company, the Cavalcade of Lights fireworks display at Toronto City Hall, the Trail of Lights at Downsview Park, and more.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Margin Notes: Holidays, Historic Signals, Signs

The holiday display at the Arizona Temple was viewed on 20-December-2008

TEMPE, ARIZONA - One of the better holiday displays in this area comes from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the Mormons), whose Mesa, Arizona Temple grounds are well-decorated with lights this holiday season. Besides a nativity scene and three wise men to attract people to the display, it features lights on just about every tree on the block.

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A classic pedestrian signal was noted in Stockton, California on 18-December-2008

A different kind of light was notable in Stockton, California earlier this week. I was surprised to find pedestrian signals that said "Wait" and "Walk" in the pre-1970's style at San Joaquin and Washington Streets in downtown Stockton while passing through on Thursday. These signals should probably receive a historic designation if they have not already.

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ACE train #2 posed after its arrival in Stockton, California on 18-December-2008

What was I doing in Stockton? For some time, I have wanted to ride the Altamont Commuter Express commuter rail service between San Jose and Stockton, California on the former Western Pacific line over Altamont Pass, but it only runs on weekdays. I finally had my chance on Thursday, and enjoyed the scenery through the Niles Canyon and past the aging windmills on Altamont Pass. The section over the pass was especially significant, with signs quite visible of one-time parallel line of the Southern Pacific and the original US highway 50.

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A different kind of sign caught my attention upon arrival in Phoenix. I wondered why a barricade had lettering stating "king with us" until I realized that some of the message had disappeared and it was likely intended to say something like "Thank you for parking with us."

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Parking may be less of an issue in this area after December 28th, when the light rail line from Tempe to downtown Phoenix begins operation. Test trains have been noted in motion during this visit.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Radio Pick: Race on Radio Lab

TEMPE, ARIZONA - This week's radio pick of the week comes from Radio Lab, the one-hour show on scientific topics from WNYC and NPR. This week's show dealt with race, describing that there is some limited connection between genetics and race and what that all might mean for society in a 59-minute show.

Listen to MP3 of Radio Lab "Race"

Dining: Pizza and Pipes and Organ Stop

Organist Charlie Balogh performed at Organ Stop Pizza in Mesa, Arizona on 20-December-2008

TEMPE, ARIZONA - Today, I had the opportunity to visit Organ Stop Pizza in Mesa, Arizona. The restaurant is touted as the world's largest organ theater restaurant, featuring a Wurlitzer organ with nearly 6,000 pipes. For my cousin Bruce Carson, his wife Julie Malloy, and me, it was an opportunity to re-live our childhood at Pizza and Pipes in the Pacific Northwest.

Pizza and Pipes neatly paralleled my childhood. Its Bellevue, Washington location opened in 1977, early enough that I could not remember a time when there was no Pizza and Pipes. For family events, and even a few times on school field trips, I remember sitting at tables in a tiered layout so that everyone eating would have a view of an organist performing on a 1,200 pipe-Wurlitzer organ. While the pizza was cheap and forgettable, the organists were quite talented and there was plenty to keep a child entertained, from lights going on at whatever instrument like bells or percussion that was currently performing to black and white silent movies being accompanied to a disco ball reflecting about the room to a bubble machine blowing bubbles around the room for popping to Dirk the Duck walking through the audience. It was really quite a show.

There was more than one Pizza and Pipes. The chain actually started in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1962, eventually numbering four restaurants in California, with the first Pacific Northwest location in the Greenwood neighborhood of Seattle--not far from where my cousin Bruce lived--opening in 1973 later joined by Tacoma and Bellevue. The Greenwood location would be the first to close, disappearing while I was in high school in 1989. The Bellevue location was closed because of highway construction in 1992, and the Tacoma location burned to the ground in 1999. Only two of the California locations remain, Redwood City and Santa Clara (which now operates under the name of Pizza Party), and neither had the near-theater seating style of the northwest restaurants.

Yet, Pizza and Pipes was far from the only restaurant to combine organ entertainment with pizza. Organ Stop was founded in Phoenix in 1972, and the current, enormous Mesa location opened in 1995, capable of seating over 500. As we ate dinner there today, Bruce and I could not help but to compare it to the Pizza and Pipes locations we remembered.

Some of the nearly 6,000 organ pipes were visible at Organ Stop Pizza in Mesa, Arizona on 20-December-2008

Physically, the resemblance could not have been stronger, even though both the room and the organ were clearly larger at Organ Stop. The bells, horns, xylophone, and percussion additions to the organ all looked exactly as I remembered from Pizza and Pipes. The same kind of keno-style number board displayed when pizza orders were ready. The dancing cats on the wall were a bit different than Pizza and Pipes' puppets, but served the same function.

A set of dancing cats joined the performance at Organ Stop Pizza on 20-December-2008

The performance took me back to the old days, with favorites like the Mickey Mouse theme song (during which a Mickey Mouse banner was unveiled) and the Chattanooga Choo-Choo. Some songs I doubt I ever heard at Pizza and Pipes (like the Raiders of the Lost Arc theme and the Phantom of the Opera theme) but were well-arranged on the organ. Of course, it being December, a variety of holiday songs were included like Jingle Bell Rock, White Christmas, and a great rendition of the Carol of the Bells.

Bruce Carson enjoyed Organ Stop Pizza on 20-December-2008

The food was actually quite a bit better than the Pizza and Pipes of old with its super-thin crust and textured cheese--the crust was the same style but more substantial, and the toppings including the cheese were more than sufficient. Organ Stop's pizza would stand on its own without the organ.

When the organ descended and brought organist Charlie Balogh out of sight to end the opening act, we chose to leave Organ Stop Pizza, but not before having fully relived a portion of our childhood.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Economics: Time Scale of Market Forces

PLACERVILLE, CALIFORNIA - As a "life-line" or whatever it should be called proceeds for the North American auto industry, there is one aspect of how the industry came to be in such a precarious position that I feel has not gotten enough attention. While there is plenty of blame to go around, the short-term nature of the US economy shares some of it, and until it is addressed, it will likely continue to cause problems not just for the auto industry, but for United States business in general.

Whenever I hear that the US automakers did not provide products that met the marketplace and should be allowed to go bankrupt, I wonder what the people making these statements were doing from the mid-1990's until the past few years. The American people were demanding large vehicles. Whether it was to haul large families, for status, or just because oil prices were artificially low during that era, these vehicles were popular. Even those that didn't really want a full-size SUV often were in the market for them as a defensive measure for safety reasons in case they got in a collision; they wanted to survive if they were hit by a SUV. Furthermore, customers were willing to pay ridiculous amounts of money for them, leading to significant profits for the automakers who were able to produce such vehicles. Japanese automakers were trying to figure out how to go beyond the small pickup market where they had made significant inroads and break into the highly profitable truck and SUV sector. Nobody was saying that American automakers weren't paying attention to the market during that era.

Of course, now the situation looks very different. When gas prices hit $4.00 a gallon, fuel efficiency suddenly became a desirable thing and survivability in a collision didn't seem so important. The market demanded "green" cars, and everyone suddenly wanted a Toyota Prius. When the market changed, it was the foreign automakers that were prepared for it with a product to meet the new market.

So why were Honda and Toyota prepared? Part of it was simply because they weren't as successful in the big SUV era and were looking for other niches in which to gain sales and some of it was the pressure of their domestic Japanese market where fuel economy was always a plus, but a significant factor was the fact that Japanese companies are willing to invest for the long term. They are not under the same degree of pressure from investors to show quarterly returns, so they can choose to try to anticipate where the market is going and invest there. American companies needed to show short-term profits and focused on shorter-term development.

This explanation does not absolve the management of the domestic "Big Three" automakers from blame for not trying to overcome those forces and move their companies ahead. They made plenty of mistakes for which they will likely be paying for years to come. The point is that there were forces working against them, and until something is done to change those forces, the automobile industry will likely not be the last to not take a long-term perspective and not be prepared for a change in a market. If the United States doesn't want to be perpetually bailing out industries, it will need to make some changes in how its financial system operates.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Transport: The Farm is on Board

SUNNYVALE, CALIFORNIA - Last night I headed into The City--that's San Francisco, for the unfamiliar--to have dinner with an old friend. To get there, I used Caltrain, the commuter rail service that runs frequent service between San Jose and San Francisco. For the first time, I was able to take a "baby bullet," or express train that passes other trains, on the northbound trip, and was impressed that the train averaged 50 mph--including stops--on the run. A typical commuter train in North America averages about half that speed. The "Baby Bullet," cruising through some stations at 70 mph, is a rarity outside of some services in the northeastern US and Chicago.

I had to return on a local train, and remembering the days when two of the four cars in late-night trains would be kept closed and dark, was surprised to find the doors on all five cars of the train open when boarding in The City. This wasn't an oversight; the train would be about half full. A group of three decided to fill the seats around me.

As much as I try not to stereotype all the time, I knew as soon as the group sat down that they were Stanford University students. They weren't wearing any clothing with "Stanford" on it, but I could just tell. Sure, Stanford students are a relatively regular fixture on the Caltrain service returning from The City, but age alone didn't identify them. They could have easily been Santa Clara, or San Jose State students.

No, I could tell by way they looked around the interior of the car that these students had a certain zeal for life and insatiable curiosity about the environment around them that seems to be a hallmark of Stanford students. Any doubts that I had faded as they started their conversation as it covered a wide range of topics, each of which would seem pretty random. They covered everything from what mechanisms sharks use to find their prey to whether and how Stanford names its on-campus restaurants to the oxygen-free dead zones that are forming in bodies of water worldwide including the Gulf of Mexico.

When a male of Asian descent mused about trying to find frozen yogurt after they got off the train, I couldn't resist entering the conversation. "When I went to Stanford," I stated, "People didn't talk about Frozen Yogurt, they talked about FroYo." That prompted a long digression about famous acronyms and contractions in use on campus. I had to admit that "FuMuOnQu" was a rare one in my time on campus, but I had heard it to refer to an event normally known as "Full Moon on the Quad" in which freshmen head for the quad in hopes of being kissed by a senior.

After an hour of additional random conversation about everything from the shipping of plastic bottles overseas for recycling to how some jellyfish become transparent when resting on coral, the group left the train in Palo Alto, leaving me to contemplate all my long walks down Palm Drive in the dark for four years of my life. Someday, one of these students would likely be in my place, and who knows what random thoughts future Stanford students might bring to the conversation--but I bet they will still be recognizable as Stanford students.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Margin Notes: TTC, Airports, Minneapolis

SUNNYVALE, CALIFORNIA - The Toronto Transit Commission significantly expanded its bus and off-peak streetcar service on December 1st, implementing 30-minute headways on virtually all routes as long as the subway is operating. Most affected in my neighborhood was the 55 Warren Park. Previously a rush-hour-only route, it now runs every half hour essentially all-day, every day. Surprisingly, there appears to have been latent demand for the service. Even on Sunday afternoons, I have seen the bus as much as half-full heading up the hill on Old Dundas Street out of its destination neighborhood, not just on Jane street where it supplements the often crush-loaded 35 Jane service. While I'm sure a few runs are almost empty, this appears to be a classic case of "run it, and they will ride."

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Two TTC "Fishbowls" at Lawrence and Jane in Toronto on 19-October-2007

As a result of the increased service, bus assignments have changed in interesting ways. The 5 Bay service now often runs with GM "fishbowl" buses. I believe Toronto is the only major transit system in North America that has rebuilt and kept its "fishbowls" in service--and now the buses that appear to be straight out of the 1970's are runing through the heart of the tourist areas. It makes sense from a utilization perspective, though--the non-wheelchair lift-equipped "fishbowls" are appropriate for a route that is paralleled by accessible subways. And, as I left for the airport today, imagine my surprise when I saw a "fishbowl" running on the 55 Warren Park through my neighborhood!

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Of all the "home" airports of my life, I think I have the fewest complaints about Toronto's Pearson International Airport. While transit links certainly could be improved, the "Airport Rocket" is certainly adequate and the airport itself is well-organized and quite functional since expansion of the new Terminal 1. Today, I departed out of Terminal 3 through the satellite "A" concourse, previously reached by shuttle buses. Now, there is a long walk to reach the "A" concourse along moving sidewalks beneath the tarmac.

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A Northwest Airlines A319 arrived at the Minneapolis airport on 14-July-2008

This trip likely represents my final trip on flights branded as Northwest Airlines, as the merger with Delta will swallow the Northwest name. I will have positive memories of Northwest. Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, one of the most memorable jingles of my youth was "Northwest Orient Airlines... the World is Going Our Way." Furthermore, I have enjoyed making connections and visiting the Northwest hub of Minneapolis.

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Two Hiawatha light rail trains met in Minneapolis on 1-June-2007

The Hiawatha light rail line in Minneapolis has Bombardier light rail vehicles with horns that approximate the finest of traditional diesel locomotive air horns, though not as loud of course. While riding the light rail, I could close my eyes and imagine that I was really riding the Amtrak Empire Builder across the Minnesota countryside instead of an urban rail vehicle through the suburb of Bloomington.

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On board the light rail car, I overheard one woman telling another, "I'm so excited that I'm going to the library. I really look forward to Tuesdays and Thursday when the library is open until 8." What could be more appropriate in a city that ranked in 2007 as the most literate city in the United States?

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And why was I riding light rail if I was just changing planes in Minneapolis? I realized on the way to the airport that I had forgotten to pack something, so with 90 minutes between the gate arrival of my inbound flight and the boarding time of my outbound flight, I decided to duck out of the airport and procure the missing item at the Mall of America. Not only did I pull this off--and item was on sale at Sears for 50% off--but I still had time to grab Godfather's Pizza for dinner before heading to the gate, finding that my outbound flight was delayed by about another 90 minutes.

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The delay was because of inclement weather, as it was cold and snowing in Minneapolis. As we departed Toronto in above-freezing conditions, we were warned that the wind chill was -27 C in Minneapolis. Indeed, after landing, I tuned in Minnesota Public Radio and discovered that the ambient temperature was -1 F. Unsurprisingly, it was +43 F upon landing in San Francisico.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Blog: Prorogued? No...

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Way Out In The Margin is prorogued--no, Stephen Harper can't do that, though somebody in government might like to do so.

I'm on vacation--no, not really.

I'm on business travel--well, sort of, but that hasn't stopped me from blogging before.

I guess it's most truthful to say I'm behind in getting out holiday cards, and I won't be writing as much here until I catch up a bit.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Photos: Thanksgiving in Washington State

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's update on my photo site features photos from Washington state.

A job interview prompted a trip to Washington state on 23-30-November-2008 to visit family for Thanksgiving. Besides Thanksgiving meals with family in both Bellevue and Kennewick, Washington, the album also includes a walking tour of the historic portions of Kennewick, a hike up Badger Mountain near Richland, Washington, and a visit to the Northern Pacific Railway Museum in Toppenish, Washington and its Santa Train.

Also posted this week are pictures from a visit to the Toronto Aerospace Museum near Downsview Airport on 11-December-2008.

Margin Notes: Fireworks, Leaders, and Batman

Fireworks lit up Toronto's City Hall during the Cavalcade of Lights fireworks on 13-December-2008

TORONTO, ONTARIO - One of the better free events during the holiday season in Toronto is the Cavalcade of Lights concerts in Nathan Phillips Square. At 7 pm on Saturday nights, a free concert takes place on the stage, followed by a short but spectacular fireworks display over Toronto's City Hall and a DJ leading skating on the nearby rink. I attended Dragonette's concert last night, finding it odd that lead singer and Timmons native Martina Sorbara (yes, the daughter of politician Greg) spent a lot of time complaining about the cold when it was only about -2 C, but really enjoying the fireworks display. One more concert remains--Serena Ryder next Saturday--along with one more red-and-green-dominated fireworks display.

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The political fireworks continued in Canada this week; as predicted, Michael Ignatieff became the leader of the Liberal Party as all other candidates stepped aside. The best take on the transition may have come from the CBC's satire team, which came up with the Iggy Leadership Doll presented at the end this week's edition of The House on Radio One--pull its chain and hear vocabulary not heard outside of academia.

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I have someone different in mind for Prime Minister, though. Before the prime-time speeches during the crisis two weeks ago, the group I was with decided to tune in CBC Television, and soon as we saw Stephen Harper on-screen, we'd turn up the volume and start paying attention. Soon, a figure behind a podium appeared on screen, but it wasn't Harper. The CBC now carries the "Jeopardy!" game show at 6:30 pm, and the man behind the podium was host Alex Trebek. That prompted some thinking--Trebek is Canadian, after all. He would probably make a pretty good prime minister. The only problem is that question period would have to be changed into answer period.

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Also thinking back to that night of speeches by Harper and Stéphane Dion, the most amazing thing to me about Dion's speech is something I've yet to hear noted in the media. Despite one of the main criticisms of the proposed coalition being its perceived rejection of western Canada, his only mention of western issues in the speech was a reference to the forest industry in British Columbia--made seemingly as an after-thought to mentions of the automobile industry in Ontario and the resource industry in Quebec. Would it have been that hard to mention British Columbia FIRST in that list instead of last?

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A voice that used to boom over British Columbia at night, as well as its origin in Washington state, was radio talk show host Mike Webb, once of KIRO-AM in Seattle. Webb was murdered in April 2007, but a portion of his influence lives on in the form of 104.7 the Queen. Webb was a fount of knowledge about popular music in the rock-and-roll era, and often drew upon this information in his radio shows to talk about the influence of one popular group on another. The expertise in one mind may be lost, but Webb's record collection containing all that music continues to be played on an Internet stream, interspersed with short, often political and quite humorous liners. The name, the Queen, is a play on both Webb's homosexual orientation and the fact that he lived on Queen Anne Hill in Seattle. If you miss Mike Webb, listening to the Queen is at least a partial antidote.

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In his final years, Webb was beset with legal problems, but one person that wouldn't be expected to have legal problems is Batman. Yet, Batman, or more precisely the maker of Batman movies--Warner Brothers--is facing a lawsuit from the town of Batman, Turkey. According to an article in the Christian Science Monitor, the town is considering suing the filmmaker over the use of the name Batman, never mind that the comic strip started in 1939 and the town was not incorporated until 1955. In the end, this seems to be all about tourism for Batman--too bad Greece doesn't have a town named Catwoman or Joker.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Radio Pick: Chipmunks Song Slow

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's radio pick comes from the CBC's As It Happens.

The holiday season is upon us, and it is, of course, a time of traditions. Leave it to the CBC to fully investigate one holiday tradition--the Chipmunk Song. Yes, the Canadians found out that the voices of the chipmunks were indeed sped up--and decided to let us hear what it sounds like at normal speed. The piece begins about 20 minutes into this 24-minute segment of the show, and if this doesn't provoke a hearty ho-ho-ho, I would assess that maybe your funny bone is a few sizes too small.

Listen to streaming Windows Media of As It Happens "The Chipmunks Song Slow"

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An honorable mention this week goes to Charles Osgood of the CBS Radio Network. Osgood made a name for himself in radio with excellent writing, including poetry. This commentary on the political scandal in Illinois combines all the elements that made Osgood famous, from verse to integration of clips from the news in this two-minute commentary.

Listen to MP3 of The Osgood File "'Twas the Indictment Before Christmas"

Heritage: Personalizing Railroad History

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Today, I participated in what will likely be the last work session of the Toronto Railway Historical Association (TRHA) that I will attend this year. It wasn't much of a session, as a group of eight people moved something approaching ten tons of rail to a more secure location in the John Street Roundhouse, located in Toronto near the CN Tower and Rogers Centre.

Four weeks ago today, a major task of the work session was the painting of a Fairmont speeder that is under restoration at the future museum. The speeder is a model M14 that once belonged to the Canadian Pacific Railway, and it really needed a fresh coat of yellow and black.

The Fairmont speeder as it appeared at Toronto's John Street Roundhouse on 15-November-2008 after painting

Just one week later, after additional work by TRHA members, that same Fairmont speeder was on display at the huge Christmas Train Show in the Malton neighborhood of Mississauga, Ontario. Positioned with the equipment from the Golden Horseshoe Live Steamers, the presence of the speeder gave those of us from the work session a sense of contribution to the show.

Yet another week later, I was showing various pictures, including some shots from the roundhouse, to my grandfather, Floyd Gleich, while visiting him in Kennewick, Washington. A longtime telegrapher and station agent for the Northern Pacific and Burlington Northern railroads, he took a special interest in the speeder. To him, it looked like the speeder that his father had purchased during the Great Depression. His father had been a road foreman for the Northern Pacific on what is today the BNSF Lakeside Subdivision near Connell, Washington. While the track crews had previously used hand-carts to move down the tracks, about this time motorized speeders were being mandated. The foremen had to buy their own, and my great-grandfather bought one second-hand. My grandfather thought it looked like the one the TRHA was restoring.

So could they possibly be the same model? With the caveat that all speeders look relatively similar, especially those made by Fairmont, a little research revealed that it could indeed be possible. The M14 was introduced in 1922, manufacturing continued through about World War II, and while nobody seems to know for certain, there were likely more than five thousand built. So, it is entirely possible that a used M14 was available in the 1930's.

The TRHA's Fairmont M14 speeder on display at the Christmas Train Show in Mississauga, Ontario on 22-November-2008

A piece of somewhat generic railroad history had just become quite personal--the speeder we were working on in Toronto, set for restoration to operating status, might well have been just like the one used by my great-grandfather in eastern Washington state, three-quarters of a century ago.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Media: PRI 3, NPR 0

TORONTO, ONTARIO - National Public Radio (NPR) in the United States announced this week that it would cancel two daily shows, fire 64 people, and reduce its overall staffing by 7% because of investment losses and the general recessionary economic environment. While the announcement has set off a great deal of debate in the media community about the role of public radio, in my opinion, the big story is being missed--outside of its core news-magazine programs (All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition), NPR is often losing in program genres to the competing Public Radio International (PRI) network. In fact, with this latest announcement, I'd say it's PRI 3, NPR 0.

The relationship between NPR and PRI has always been somewhat confusing. While NPR was founded in 1970, PRI did not start until 1983. At that time, American Public Radio was formed as an alternate distribution mechanism to NPR--it did not actually produce programming. Renamed PRI in 1994, it began to produce its own programming about that time. For awhile, shows on PRI tried to accentuate its identity as different than NPR, but some years ago--about 2004 when Minnesota Public Radio spawned off yet a third distributor, American Public Media (APM), it seems everyone gave up and just started calling it all "public radio." Remarkably, the list of programs on the NPR web site actually contains shows from PRI, APM, and even Pacifica as well as NPR.

A rivalry between NPR and PRI actually seemed most acute after that time, as NPR moved to launch The Bryant Park Project, a morning news-magazine show for a younger audience. PRI had been planning a similar concept for some time, and while the Bryant Park Project debuted first in October 2007, PRI's The Takeaway made it to air in April 2008. While the traditional public radio audience was probably shocked at both shows, the Takeaway received more critical acclaim from critics including this one. The Bryant Park Project went off the air in July 2008, while the Takeaway continues. PRI 1, NPR 0.

This week's announcement included the cancellation of NPR's Day to Day, intended as a noon-time news program. Debuting in July 2003, it was the first show produced out of NPR West in Los Angeles (and the withdrawal of shows produced in Los Angeles by both NPR and APM is a significant topic for another day). Interestingly, that was not long after WBUR-Boston's local noon news show, Here and Now, broadened focus and began to be nationally distributed by PRI. The two shows never had exactly the same format, and Day to Day certainly was aired in more markets (WBUR itself aired both shows), but they certainly always were intended at the same target--a mid-day news-magazine. The cancellation of Day to Day will likely lead to Here and Now taking its slot on many stations across the country. PRI 2, NPR 0.

On the surface, it would appear that the other program targeted for cancellation by NPR, News and Notes, does not have an equivalent show on another network. This program, hosted in its current format by Farai Chideya, traces its root back to 2001, when NPR debuted the Tavis Smiley Program, an attempt to produce a daily news-magazine aimed at the African-American community. Smiley's high profile caused the show to be carried on NPR affiliates in places one might not expect, including Seattle's KUOW. In 2004, claiming frustration at NPR's non-diverse audience, Smiley left the program, but it has continued along under other hosts, including notables like Ed Gordon, ever since. Smiley currently does a television show for the Public Broadcasting Service--and a weekly two-hour radio show distributed by PRI that bears a strong resemblance to his original show on NPR. It looks like the original article--Smiley--has won out over a similar format without him, even if it isn't daily. PRI 3, NPR 0.

It should be noted that not all PRI-produced programs have been successful. In a notable recent example, an attempt to reach a younger audience with comedy-laced news, Fair Game with Faith Salle, lasted for just over a year in 2007 and 2008 before being canceled. PRI can fail with a concept as well--though I have to wonder how much worse an NPR attempt would have been (and perhaps the Bryant Park Project provided the answer).

So what lesson do we take from all this? I think it's simple. NPR has become one of the world's premier news-gathering organizations. It does an excellent job of producing news-magazine programs. That's an expensive activity, and I believe most would say NPR actually does this task relatively efficiently. It should remain focused on that mission, and also continue distributing shows produced at member stations as appropriate (e.g. WHYY's Fresh Air, WAMU's Diane Rehm Show, WNYC's Radio Lab, and WBUR's On Point--which I would point out used to be distributed by PRI). Innovative niches, on the other hand, should be left to local stations and to PRI, since in the end, it's those experiments that seem to survive.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Holiday: Trail of Lights

LED lights provided a greeting at the entrance to the Trail of Lights in Toronto on 11-December-2008

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Downsview Park (er, Parc Downsview Park) in north-central Toronto is rather a strange entity. Used for years as an air force base, CFB Downsview was designated for closure in 1994, and it was decided to make it an urban park. Now touted as "Canada's National Urban Park in the Greater Toronto Area," it is run by Parc Downsview Park, Inc. as a self-supported entity with no taxpayer contribution.

To create this self-sustaining entity, the "park" houses a handful of businesses in the remaining buildings, including several public sports facilities. Throughout the year, the park hosts a number of events, including sports tournaments, outdoor concerts, and fireworks on Canada Day. Today, I visited the park to see its December showpiece, the Trail of Lights.

An arched bough framed the Trail of Lights at Downsview Park in Toronto, Ontario on 11-December-2008

The Trail of Lights isn't an especially original idea. Many cities have lighted displays available for viewing with flashing and moving features. What sets the Trail of Lights apart is sheer size and volume. The event features 400,000 LED lights, and to view all of the displays, one must walk along a two kilometer path. This is a fast stop; it's a place to spend a good portion of an evening.

A pitcher consistently struck out a batter at the Trail of Lights in Toronto, Ontario on 11-December-2008

Some of the displays are typical holiday fare, like a gingerbread house, prancing reindeer, putting up holiday decorations, and Santa's sleigh, but others are less predictable. There's a volcano, dinosaurs, various birds flying, a squirrel running over the path, and musicians. An especially nice series featured action scenes from popular sports including baseball, football, soccer, and, of course, hockey. Any one of the displays might not seem that spectacular, but taken as a whole, it's an impressive thing.

Reindeer pranced over the Trail of Lights in Toronto's Downsview Park on 11-December-2008

While event advertising heavily touted the walk-through 44-foot lighted tree, I didn't find anything remarkable about it, but the lights themselves are ample reason to make the trek to Downsview Park.

Full photo coverage of the Trail of Lights, including about 40 pictures, will be posted as part of my update intended for 22-December-2008.

Downsview Park's Trail of Lights remains open nightly, 5 pm until midnight, through New Year's Eve, with a discounted entry fee on non-holiday Sundays through Thursdays; see the official web site for more information.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Politics: Time for Real Financial Reform

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I agree with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Conservative Party on at least one matter--the $1.95 a vote subsidy of political parties in Canada should end. However, rather than replacing it with nothing, as the Conservatives proposed to do in the Fiscal Update that led to the current political crisis in Canada, it should be eliminated as part of the implementation of a "clean elections"-style system with significant public financing--and spending limits.

While the opposition parties cried foul because the end of the subsidy would mean that they would lose much of their revenue (86% in the case of the Bloc Quebecois, 65% for the Greens, 63% for the Liberals, and 57% for the NDP, while just 36% for Conservatives), I actually have little sympathy for that argument. In the United States, Barack Obama used the Internet to find 3.1 million donors whose average contribution was $200. Surely, the left-leaning parties in Canada could come up with 300,000 similar donors in Canada that could give $100 and potentially raise a combined $30 million, far more than the $16.8 million they collectively earned from the subsidy.

The problem is that we shouldn't be asking any of the parties, including the Conservatives, to be raising more money. Barack Obama may have been a great fund-raiser on the left, but he essentially killed campaign finance reform in the US once and for all by refusing public matching funds and instead collecting these contributions. While it came mostly from small donors, reducing the potential for being tied to special interests, Obama raised about $650 million. That's the new bar for presidential races in the US--each party will now think it needs to raise $750 million in each election cycle. Even applying the one-tenth rule, do we really want Canadian parties spending $75 million in each election someday soon?

The real answer seems to be a "clean elections" law, such as that implemented in the state of Maine in 1996. Under these laws, which are slowing spreading to other US states, candidates who are able to raise a large number of nominal $5 contributions from citizens can apply to be "clean elections" candidates and receive a set amount of public funding for their campaign--and agree to have their campaign spending limited to a set amount. This can be violated only if a non-"clean elections" opponent exceeds the limit or they are targeted by independent expenditures, in which case the candidate received additional matching funding.

The impact has not only been to reduce the influence of special interests (the number of votes for health care reform have been about doubled in Maine, for example), but it has made more people interested in running for office (resulting in fewer races with only one candidate), and the "clean elections" candidates are increasingly winning elections. In the state of Arizona, another early "clean elections" adopter, many statewide offices were contested only between candidates abiding by the new rules. Because there is a spending cap, candidates cannot engage in buying up media--they have to work at the grass roots. Politicians like it, since they don't have to spend time raising money, and most citizens like it, since they feel like they are more important than special interest groups.

In a nation that is so devoted to ideas and debate like Canada, one would think that this would be a preferred course to follow. All five major parties, and some smaller ones, would likely be able to reach the threshold to "clean elections" financing in most ridings. Arguably, since the Conservatives are likely the only party advantaged in the present system, they would rather stick with the current system, but if any other party takes power, it would seem that a "clean elections" law could be passed.

Canada made significant progress against shady politics in 2003 by capping individual contributions to political campaigns at around $1000 and the banning of money from corporations and unions. However, the controversial $1.95 a vote subsidy, tax rebates for political contributions, and campaign expense reimbursements remain. It's time to throw out all three of those subsidies and instead implement a "clean elections" system--hopefully, all of the parties can agree on that.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Economics: Housing Market Differences

TORONTO, ONTARIO - National Public Radio's All Things Considered in the United States has been doing a series on the housing market in Las Vegas, Nevada. Some of the stories told in this series are a reminder of why the housing market in Canada is in much better condition than that in the United States, and offer some pointers for reform in the United States.

A variety of comparisons between the mortgage markets in the US and Canada have come out during the US crisis; one that does a reasonable job of balancing completeness and readability came from Marsha J. Courchane of Freddie Mac and Judith A. Giles of the University of Victoria. It would be futile to try to go in depth in a blog entry, but the basics can be covered here. The most striking difference is the median mortgage in each country. In the United States, the median mortgage has a 30-year term. In Canada, the median mortgage has a 5-year term. The US mortgage usually has a fixed rate for the full 30 years, the rate on longer mortgages in Canada generally shifts after a term no longer than five years and often as short as one year. In Canada, anything beyond a "conventional" mortgage of 20% down and a 25-year term (not fixed-rate) requires insurance, and which mortgages can be insured and under what terms are much more strictly regulated in Canada than they are in the United States (where insurance is often required, but on much less strict terms). The bottom line is that the risk falls much more strongly on the borrower than the bank in Canada as compared with the United States.

While much has been made of the NINJA (No Income, No Job or Assets) loan that existed in the United States not existing in Canada, it is possible to get what would be considered a sub-prime loan in Canada. However, because of all the regulation, those sub-prime mortgages amount to less than 5% of the Canadian market, as compared with 20% in the United States. Again, clearly the lender was taking on a lot more risk in order to create a mortgage in the US.

A further incentive to taking out a mortgage in the US is the mortgage tax deduction, in which the interest paid on a mortgage is deductible against income. That effectively reduces the cost of the mortgage, again allowing the borrower to become more indebted than would otherwise be practical.

All this might seem good for borrowers in the US, since they are shouldering less of the risk, but because of those more favorable terms, they are more like to over-extend themselves and default. Partially because of that possibility, more than half of mortgages in the United States are bundled together or otherwise securitized to effectively reduce risk for the bank. That amount is less than 20% in Canada. So, when the securitization process started to implode in United States, that had a much better bigger impact on the overall market.

What really came out in the NPR series, though, is the consequence of the reduced risk to the borrower. As up to half the homes in Las Vegas are now worth less than the remaining mortgage balance (they're "under water" in common parlance), a number of the borrowers are simply walking away from the residence and returning the keys to the lender. That's not legal in Canada. About the only way to get out of a mortgage in Canada is to declare bankruptcy. Again, the added burden on the borrower has led to a more stable market, and reduced crazy scenarios like abandoning a home.

If it is agreed that the greater stability of the Canadian housing market is desired in the United States--and that may be a big "if"--then it seems the principle of a solution is clear, if not the specifics. That principle is shifting the risk back to the borrower so they will only take loans they can actually handle.

Lest that seem like a recipe for reducing home ownership rates in the United States, recall that home ownership rates in Canada and the US are similar--in the mid-60% range. How can that be? Canada has tried to provide direct ownership incentives, working on the demand side of the equation by making more people able to afford a home, whereas the US has been effectively working the supply side by making homes cheaper through a mortgage tax deduction. It should be clear that these approaches are not equivalent.

Will the United States actually engage in such reform, phasing out the mortgage tax deductions in favor of direct incentives and making it illegal to walk away from a mortgage? It seems doubtful, but I leave the last word to Hugh Mackenzie, speaking last week: "If we don't see those two points addressed, then we have to assume they're not serious about solving the problem."

Monday, December 8, 2008

Politics: It's a Parliament!

TORONTO, ONTARIO - One of the things that became clear in listening to comments about the current political crisis in Canada in the past week, including on the high-brow "Cross Country Check-Up" call-in show on the CBC, is that many Canadian don't seem to understand or appreciate their own system of government. For review, Canada has a Westminister form of parliamentary democracy that is complicated but offers some desirable features compared with the United States' Presidential system.

Canadians don't directly elect the head of the executive branch, nor do they directly elect a government. They elect Members of Parliament to represent their ridings who may or may not be members of a national political party. After the election, the Governor General--an appointed official that functions as head of state--has the function of asking a MP to form a government as Prime Minister; he or she will almost certainly ask the leader of the party that has the most seats in parliament.

From there, everything is based on the ability of the Prime Minister to maintain the confidence of the parliament. When the Prime Minister's party has the majority of seats in parliament, this usually isn't much of an issue, as the votes of that party will be enough to maintain a majority in favor of the government. There is nothing to legally prevent elected Members of Parliament from changing parties or voting against a government of their own party, but those scenarios are generally rare for obvious political reasons.

When the governing party has only a minority, things are different. In order to maintain the confidence of the house, the government needs votes from other parties. This can be achieved by a formal coalition or agreement with another party, which is rare in Canada, or it can simply be achieved by gaining the votes of other parties on a case-by-case basis by governing competently.

If a government fails in a confidence vote, then the matter goes back to the Governor General. The Prime Minister who has lost the confidence can recommend a course of action, but ultimately it is up to the Governor General whether an election is called or another party is asked to try to form a government. The latter scenario is rare, but if a smaller party can somehow gain enough votes to win confidence votes on an ongoing basis, then it can be a legitimate government. The key is gaining that confidence.

So, the statement heard many times over the past week that "the government is being stolen" is not really true. Assuming that the current government has lost the confidence of the house--and a vote has not occurred, so we don't know that for certain--then that government has lost its right to rule, and it is up to the Governor General to decide what happens next. That's how the system works.

Another comment that comes up a lot is "whatever party wins the most votes has the right to govern." That's not true; it's actually much more complicated than that. By convention, the party with the most votes will get the first chance to form a government, but the most important point is that such a government needs to maintain the confidence of parliament.

Exacerbating the problem is that Prime Minister Harper has made statements that are at best misleading if not downright false about what can happen in parliament. During his televised address last week, Harper stated, "The Opposition does not have the democratic right to impose a coalition with the separatists they promised voters would never happen." Actually, they do--ignoring the subjective issues of whether it is a good idea for the country and whether it constitutes a good political move for the Opposition. Legally, if the Government has lost the confidence of the parliament, the Opposition does have the right to attempt to form a government, assuming the Governor General asks them to do so, and they are well within their rights to inform the Governor General that they are prepared to do so. It's up to the Governor General to decide.

Canada is not a direct democracy--if it were, we could legislate completely by national referendums. It does not have a US-style presidential system--if it did, we would probably be stuck with Stephen Harper for a fixed term, no matter what happened during a fixed term, just like the United States was stuck with George W. Bush once he was elected.

The beauty of the parliamentary system is that it allows greater reactivity--if circumstances change significantly, or the government does something that turns out not to be in the national interest, that government can be disposed of without having to wait for a fixed election. Furthermore, by being based on confidence, it fundamentally calls for the government to work with the opposition and gain their confidence, acutely so in a minority parliament. When parties actually do talk to one another, the compromises are likely better than what any party would come up with on its own.

Canada is in a crisis now because the Conservatives didn't work adequately with the Opposition on their Fiscal Update. The course taken by the Opposition in reaction to that lack of cooperation may have been suspect and impolitic as well, creating a bigger crisis than necessarily needed to exist.

Whether or not the proposed Liberal-NDP coalition is a good idea, and whether or not it has perceived political legitimacy are completely different matters from the legitimacy of the process. From a purely legal perspective, a coalition could happen in the Westminster system. Canadians, whatever they think of this specific coalition possibility, should not be questioning the legitimacy of the process that has led to its proposal.

Photos: Autumn in the Greater Toronto Area

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's update on my photo site features autumn scenes around the Greater Toronto Area. The album includes a trip to downtown Hamilton, extensive coverage of the village of Swansea including a Heritage Toronto Walk, meetings of the Historical Society, and dedication of a mural on Remembrance Day, attending a Royal Canadian Air Farce taping, visits of the Royal Canadian Pacific and Spirit Train, the Federal election, progress of the Toronto Railway Historical Association, model trains at the Toronto Train Show and Scarborough Model Railroaders, and more.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Margin Notes: Pirates, Police, Duceppe, Calendar

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Just about everyone has heard about the increasingly bold attacks by Somali pirates to take over just about any type of ship off the eastern coast of Africa. What I cannot believe that I had not heard until reading an opinion piece by Katie Stuhldreher in the Christian Science Monitor was that the whole piracy crisis started with violation of local fishermen's rights by foreign fishing vessels. Of course, a Somalia with a functioning, legitimate, and adequately powerful government is a pre-requisite to returning the region to some degree of normalcy, but I had no idea how the pirates' self-legitimacy was traced to loss of fisheries.

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This exhibit at Toronto's Police Museum on 5-December-2008 introduced the visitor to cannabis paraphernalia

I checked out anti-crime measures on a much more local level this week by going to the Toronto Police Museum on College Street between Bay and Yonge. This was a worthwhile visit, as amongst other things I learned that the Toronto Police first used a one-way radio in 1935, and had two-way radios starting in 1946, which both struck me as quite early. Other highlights included an early semaphore-like traffic signal and a 1920's-era jail cell.

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Another thing I finally did in my third holiday season in the Toronto area was to take the Neighborhood Bus Tour of the Cavalcade of Lights. I don't recommend doing it--just walk down Yonge Street, through Yorkville, and around Nathan Phillips Square, and the majority of the lights on the tour will be seen. The tour guide I had didn't even provide any notable quotations.

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The quote of the week had to go Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe, who may be the only leader who will come out of the current political crisis strengthened in any way. Asked about whether he would support a Conservative budget in January, Duceppe stated (in English), "Well, if my grandma had wheels, she'd be a tractor." Apparently, this is a French saying to point out the absurdity of a premise. Duceppe's grandmother didn't have wheels, and the Conservative budget won't be supported by the Bloc.

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Speaking of Duceppe, much has been made about the fact that Canadians outside Quebec do not have the opportunity to vote for his party. I would like to see someone run a poll to find out how many people WOULD vote for a Duceppe-led party outside of Quebec. I would not be surprised if there would be a measurable amount of people that would look past the separatist portion of his beliefs and decide that Duceppe is a more realistic and effective proponent for social justice than the Liberals or even Jack Layton of the New Democratic Party.

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Layton and Liberal leader Stéphane Dion appeared together at the pro-coalition rally in Toronto on Saturday. One wonders when Dion's final public appearance as a party leader will be. As Chantal Hébert stated on The National, "Cats may have nine lives, but Stéphane Dion has nine deaths." He might only be on number four or five, though my count is closer to twelve.

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Twelve, of course, being the number of months in a year. It's time to think about calendars for the year 2009. While I recommend supporting groups such as the Friends of the 4449 steam locomotive or the Swansea Historical Society in Toronto by purchasing their calendars, I do make my own railroad calendar each year with a photograph for each month that I took in that same month of the preceding year. My 2009 calendar is finished and a preview is available. If you'd like one, contact me and I'll make sure you're in on the less expensive bulk order. It was a little weird to find my 2008 calendar essentially everywhere I went on my November trip to Washington state.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Radio Pick: Going Going Gone on TBOOK

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's radio pick comes from Wisconsin Public Radio.

As I try to ignore the "war on Christmas" at this time of year, I look instead for things that we all have in common, and To The Best of Our Knowledge provided such a nugget this week. I never thought of it this way before, but post "peak-oil" and other environmental disaster scenarios represent a "ecological apocalypse" similar to religious visions of apocalypse according to Colin Beaven. A variety of views on eco-revolution were presented in a 53-minute program.

Listen to To The Best of Our Knowledge "Going, Going, Going Gone"