Saturday, January 31, 2009

Radio Pick: Wacky Liberal Dave Ross

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week I delve into commercial talk radio in the United States for the first time this calendar year for my weekly radio pick.

The election of Barack Obama as President seems to have emboldened liberals around the United States, and some of them are saying things that never would have made the mainstream media even six months ago. Dave Ross, traditionally considered a moderate at KIRO-FM in Seattle, went over the liberal deep end this week by spending the better part of an hour arguing that private companies wasting money was just as bad for the economy as the government wasting money. Such audacity made for radio that simply wasn't heard on the mainstream commercial dial until quite recently, making this 39-minute clip something notable and worth checking out.

Listen to MP3 of the Dave Ross Show "Private Companies Waste Money"

Politics: It's all Bud Selig's Fault

TORONTO, ONTARIO - As some people search for the correct place to put the blame for the economic crisis gripping the world, there's a pretty good explanation going around. I first heard it on the Brian Copeland Program, and its origins seem to date back at least to a Gail Sheehy column in Vanity Fair in 2000. The thesis? It's all Bud Selig's fault.

Back in 1994, Bud Selig, then owner of the Milwaukee Brewers, was the acting commissioner of Major League Baseball after the owners had ousted Fay Vincent in 1992. It was thought that the owners were going to find a permanent commissioner and George W. Bush, then an owner of the Texas Rangers, was a potential candidate. As reported in Sheehy's column, Bush wanted to be the commissioner of baseball more than anything else in his life, and when he was approached by Texas Republicans about running for governor, he initially put them off, thinking that he was in line to become the commissioner.

Bud Selig had other ideas--he wanted the permanent position for himself. The temporary commissioner held on to his post during the 1994 strike, had himself elected permanent commissioner in 1998, and now will apparently serve until 2012--if he even steps down then, since he had previously agreed to step down in 2008.

As revealed in Vincent's 2002 autobiography, it was only after former commissioner Vincent told Bush that Selig had no plan to propose Bush as commissioner that the future president took the governor's race seriously. Bush defeated Ann Richards in the Texas governor's race in 1994, went on to run for president in 2000, and we all know what happened from there.

Had Bud Selig stepped aside to let George W. Bush take the job he had always wanted, that of commissioner of Major League Baseball, he would not have run for governor of Texas. He would not have been in a position to run for president in 2000. World history would have been different in the ensuing eight years.

So, need someone to blame for the economy? Try Bud Selig.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Travel: Reaching Davos

A Rhaetian Railways train between Chur and St. Moritz, part of the "back route" to Davos, traveled along the Rhein near Reichenau, Switzerland on 16-February-2004

TORONTO, ONTARIO - The World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland has been in the news this week, largely for the lack of "rich people" there and for a spat between Israeli President Shimon Peres and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan which left Erdogan saying, "From now on, Davos is finished for me. I will not come back." The statement seemed symbolic of concerns that the forum, first held in 1971 to bring together political and business leaders, might indeed be on the wane if people decide not to show up. The very inaccessibility of Davos that led its selection for the forum may contribute to this trend.

There aren't very many places in Switzerland that cannot be reached by a single-seat ride on a train (that means no connections) straight out of the train station at Zurich Airport. A number of those places are in Switzerland's largest canton, Graubünden, located in the southeastern corner of the country. Graubünden not only features Switzerland's only national park and resort towns like Davos and St. Moritz, but has a fourth official language beyond German, French, and Italian--Romansch, a Latin-related language I once heard spoken in the canton at Scuol.

Unlike much of the country that is served by the standard-gauge Swiss Federal Railways (SBB), most of Graubünden is served by the metre-gauge Rhaetian Railway. The fastest way from the airport to Davos Platz (the most prominent of the stations in Davos) takes just under three hours, involving changing SBB trains at the Zurich main station, and then transferring to the Rhaetian Railway at Landquart for a trip through Klosters into Davos.

A Rhaetian Railway train climbed out of the Rhein valley toward the Albula Pass over a high viaduct on 17-February-2004.

While that route does head through the Alps, for those willing to spend another half hour and endure another transfer, there's an even more scenic way to get to Davos. By staying on the SBB train to the canton's capitol of Chur and transferring to the Rhaetian Railway there, one can take a "back route." By boarding a train for St. Moritz, one can run past the headwaters of the Rhein, turn into the mountains, and cross the famous Landwasser Viaduct, a curved structure 65 m above the Landwasser River, heading straight into a tunnel that opened in 1902. Just above the Landwasser Viaduct, one transfers at Filisur to a train that runs up the valley to Davos.

A Rhaetian Railways switch engine sat in Davos, Switzerland on 17-February-2004. Note the road name on the locomotive--"Viafier Retica" is Romansch for "Rhaetian Railways"

I first visited Davos at about this time of year, mid-February 2004, and found skiers traveling between the slopes and their hotels dominating the Filisur to Davos shuttle trains. If the World Economic Forum does ever fade away, there will be no need to feel sorry for Davos--skiers will happily take the place of the politicians and businessmen, even if they are a bit more frugal.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Media: I Miss "The Connection"

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I am not qualified to comment on the death of John Updike. I've never ready any of the "Rabbit" novels and while I have read some of his poetry and short stories, none of them made any particular impression on me, which says less about the late author and more about my lack of literary enthusiasm in general. Yet, his death has brought out literally the best of broadcasting as a tribute to Updike. The CBC ran Al Maitland reading "A&P" on As It Happens. The calls to On Point's tribute brought out the best in story-telling by callers describing how human he could be.

What really made an impression on me, though, was a show brought out of the past. Christopher Lydon dipped into the archives to re-run an interview he did with Updike on 4-December-2000, after "Rabbit Remembered" was released. Upon seeing the subject of the podcast, I expected that it would be another retrospective with critics or other authors. Instead, I heard US3's Cantaloop and I was taken back in time. I first heard WBUR's "The Connection" at Boston's Logan Airport, waiting to take a plane back to the West Coast after my first visit there in 1997. I was blown away--the show simply operated on a higher intellectual level than anything I had heard before, even on public radio.

After I moved to Boston, I had ample opportunity to experience "The Connection" and learn what made it so unique. It didn't take long to understand. Sure, the intellectual community of Boston, nearly unique in the United States, made a difference in the pool of callers. But, if it were that simple, then commercial talk radio and other shows that have originated on WBUR in Boston since would have had the same qualities, and I can't say that any have. No, there was real genius in producer Mary McGrath and host Christopher Lydon's pacing of the show--they understood when to weave an informed caller into the show, when to have Lydon ask an intelligent question of a guest, or when to bring in an additional guest. It was truly an experience to listen--you learned from the guests, you learned from Lydon, and you learned from the callers, and the pacing kept one's attention for each self-contained hour of the show. That we got to hear two such hours each weekday was a bonus of living in Boston.

A contract dispute in 2001 caused WBUR to dump Lydon and McGrath; a show called "The Connection" with the same theme music continued onward, and actually was a worthwhile show under Dick Gordon, a former CBC host, but it wasn't the magical show that had existed previously. There has been a void on the intellectual side of my radio listening almost ever since.

Starting in July 2005, the Lydon/McGrath team did return to the air with a new show. The original incarnation of Open Source completely satisfied me, as four hours a week of Lydon-led discussions actually could lead to higher quality than the ten hours a week of The Connection, but that show lost something when it no longer took live calls, and since July 2007 it has been reduced to occasional podcasts that obviously do not have direct listener interaction. A podcast is better than no Christopher Lydon at all, but it's not the same.

I miss "The Connection."

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Personality: Confused by Bloom's Taxonomy

TORONTO, ONTARIO - In middle school, I was introduced to the concept of Bloom's Taxonomy as a way of evaluating the complexity of intellectual activity. When participating in the Future Problem Solvers activity, we were always evaluating our work in terms of the levels in the taxonomy.

The six levels of Bloom's Taxonomy were rank-ordered from the most basic to the most sophisticated. As I learned it, the levels were:
(1) Knowledge - Basically, the regurgitation of information
(2) Comprehension - Demonstrating the ability to understand the information, such as placing it into a new context or expressing it in different language
(3) Application - Using the information to solve problems or to gain insight into a different situation
(4) Analysis - Looking for patterns in the information or otherwise breaking it down into sub-concepts or finding hidden meanings
(5) Synthesis - Using the information to come up with new, creative ideas
(6) Evaluation - Judging and comparing ideas, recognizing their relative value

Most of the time, we were operating at the application or analysis level during Future Problem Solvers, and most of the discussion was about whether our presented ideas rose to the level of analysis, or simply represented the application of information that had been given to us.

Above that, though, I never understood why evaluation was at the top of the taxonomy, and synthesis was considered less sophisticated. I rarely had any problem evaluating ideas and opining on their relative worth, knowing whether this judgment was objective and could be backed up with evidence and informed logic, or was simply subjective. On the other hand, I found synthesis to be very difficult. It was very rare that I would come up with a truly original idea that wasn't just an application of existing information. If I could ever come up with any synthesis, I had no problem with the evaluation of it, but often I could never get past the synthesis and would only get credit for analysis.

When I learned the personality theory related to Traditional Chinese Medicine and Meridian Stretching, the reason for this paradox became apparent. Benjamin Bloom must have come from the "thinking world," which looks toward the future and thinks analytically and proactively. Thinking types are known for bringing disparate ideas together and seeing how they can work together to do something exciting, especially if it is in the future. In other words, they know how to synthesize. On the other hand, to other types, they seem to have no filter. They have lots of ideas, some of them quite useful, but others that are almost useless, and they don't seem to have any way to tell the difference. In other words, they are not great evaluators. From a "thinking" world perspective, the taxonomy makes sense--synthesis is comparatively easy, but evaluation is comparatively hard.

On the other hand, the "spiritual world" takes a timeless perspective and tends to be reactive instead of proactive. It thinks logically rather than analytically, and thus needs ideas to follow closely from one another, rather than jumping between disparate ideas. For those coming from the "spiritual" world, synthesis is hence quite difficult--they have to be practically force-led the logic behind new ideas, rather than a grand vision. On the other hand, because of their embrace of logic, they have a much easier time evaluating ideas. They can dissect ideas to the point that they can tell which are superior, and only focus on the ones that are useful. Evaluation for them is second nature, but synthesis is hard. Needless to say, I come from the perspective of the "spiritual" world.

An obvious conclusion is that efficient problem solving would involve both "thinking" types and "spiritual" types. The "thinking" types would come up with a long string of ideas, and the "spiritual" types would evaluate them and decide which ones are worthwhile. The partnership could conceivably be quite powerful.

For the other two worlds in this personality system, the "physical" world which is present-focused and active, and the "emotional" world which is past-focused and retroactive, I suspect there is some influence of the balancing worlds (most "physicals" are balanced by "spirituals" and hence would have a subconscious that could evaluate better than synthesize, and most "emotional" types are balanced by "thinking" types are hence have a subconscious better suited to synthesis) but that they substantially find both synthesis and evaluation difficult.

I understand that there is now a revised version of Bloom's Taxonomy floating around that reverses the positions of synthesis and evaluation such that synthesis is the highest function. I suspect the revision must have been done by a bunch of "spiritual" types!

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Philosophy: Being "Of" Stanford or MIT

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Not long ago, in a job interview, I was asked if I felt I was more "of" Stanford University, where I earned an undergraduate degree, or more "of" the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where I earned a graduate degree. While I had little doubt about my answer, the question does require one to evaluate what being "of" either of those universities means.

While some would say that there may be a difference between "techies" (those studying science and engineering) and "fuzzies" (those studying everything else) at Stanford, I never actually found that to be true at the undergraduate level. Instead, there was simply a very healthy level of curiosity about all subject matters. Many people tended to choose their majors late or change majors as they explored different possibilities, sometimes even across the techie/fuzzie divide. Such exploration was encouraged by policies such as late course dropping deadlines and the ability to take most classes "Pass/No Clue" (actually "No Credit"--there was no "F" grade at Stanford). Department boundaries themselves were loose; it was not uncommon for professors to hold appointments in multiple departments, or switch departments.

Underlying it all was a very clear sense of humanity. I will never forget when famous Chemistry professor Richard Zare publicly stated that he thought students should be allowed to remove one grade from their transcripts "because sometimes people fall in love."

The end result when I graduated was that Stanford graduates tended to be very interdisciplinary in their thinking, willing to draw connections between things that traditionally did not go together, and were very open to any new ideas. Many were quite entrepreneurial and willing to take risks. They wanted to live their lives fully, and wanted others to do so as well.

The vibe at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was completely different. Departments had very clear boundaries that were not crossed lightly. Once a major was chosen (though that process seemed pretty open), that put one in a group of people that was comparatively isolated. But, what really distinguished MIT was focus on quantitative data. Everything at MIT has a number. I remember sitting a computer in an Athena cluster and marveling that the IP (Internet Protocol) address of the computer in front of me was 18{for MIT}.{building number}.{room number}.{node number}. The order of the whole thing was almost out of control. It's not a coincidence that the original modern concept of hacking--one that includes the ethic of doing no lasting harm--originated at MIT. People really did just enjoy technology there, whether they were just studying how it worked or were hacking it. A student from MIT could credibly sing Kip's Wedding Song from the movie Napoleon Dynamite, honoring technology.

Underlying it all was a fundamental brutality. The "look left, look right, one of the three of you will graduate" routine had been history for decades, but it hadn't been completely purged from the culture. It wasn't a very human place. I'm not sure I heard anyone talk about their feelings the entire time I was on campus.

The end result was graduates who could become very focused on whatever technical task was before them, really analyze what the underlying technologies were doing or could be doing, and then find creative ways to use technologies to do the original task--or something much more exciting and valuable. It is a much more intense, goal-oriented culture.

Compared with the average North American, I might care more about technology, but I didn't care nearly enough to fit in at MIT. I'm not interested in technology that doesn't help me do something practical in life. So, I'm not visionary enough to be a MIT-style entrepreneur. On the other hand, I often don't see boundaries between disciplines. Bringing disparate ideas together to get something done, Stanford-style, is something I could do every day if given the opportunity.

I answered that I was "of" Stanford.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Economics: Resources, not Commodities

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I was reading a story in the newspaper recently about how one of President Bush's acts as a lame duck president was to preserve a significant portion of the Pacific Ocean as the Mariana Trench Marine National Monument. In the article, it noted that any activities in new National Monument would need to be evaluated to ensure that they were of a sustainable nature.

That stopped me dead in my tracks. In other words, it is necessary to declare a place a National Monument or grant it some other protected status in order to have potential uses checked to ensure that they are sustainable? Normal places can just be exploited for non-sustainable uses? What are we doing in all these environment impact assessments if we aren't evaluating whether the use in question is sustainable, and rejecting it if it is not?

This is a basic lesson taught to us by nature. One doesn't have to be Chief Sealth (or Governor Ingalls Stevens, or whoever actually wrote the famous environmental speech) to understand that everything needs to be sustainable in order for life to continue. Predators that hunt too much of their prey go extinct themselves as they have nothing left to eat. Cut down all the trees and there won't be enough wood left to built anything the next year (never mind the local climate change or loss of species that might also result). Even viruses that are too deadly burn themselves out because they eventually have nothing left to kill; the successful ones are the non-lethal ones. It's a basic concept of balance.

Somewhere along the way the human race seems to have lost sight of the basic concept of balance and decided that it can do whatever it wants with what it finds in the world. Over time, people have come to believe that technology will advance in such a way that it will always account for the exploitation of resources that the species has engaged in. Technology certainly helps the process of sustainability, but it doesn't directly address the fundamental problem--that people aren't leaving an equivalent world for successive generations.

It's not like this concept is incompatible with capitalism. Most remaining forestry companies practice the concept of sustainability, cutting down approximately the same amount of trees each year to maintain forests for wildlife and, probably more important to them, so that they will be able to continue to cut down a similar amount of trees for the foreseeable future. This hasn't stopped them from making money--and indeed they use technology to make it cheaper to remove the trees they do remove and to more efficiently grow new trees, improving their profits.

The key seems to be thinking of things--everything from the oceans to an iPhone--as resources instead of commodities. That is, things that can be cultivated for the sustainable uses that we can get from them in their present form, and then returned to the environment for transformation into other things if they can no longer provide their original function--in such a way that they can be replaced with an equivalent item. An ocean clearly cannot be replaced, so we can't cause it to be modified significantly from its present form. An electronic device can be replaced, so we need to think of it in a holistic resource cycle that includes the materials from which it is made, and to which it should be separated when it no longer functions. This concept is not beyond the grasp of the average person, but it requires them to think not as a consumer, but as a guardian of the world around them. That's a major change in mind-set, but it has to occur if the human race is to sustain the planet.

In the meantime, it is things like the Mariana Trench Marine National Monument declaration that remind me that we need the Green Party and environmental pressure groups to keep things from disappearing before we all learn this basic lesson.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Photos: Trip to the West Coast, Part II

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's update to my photo site continues coverage of my winter vacation.

The second portion of a trip to the West Coast of the United States between 24-December-2008 and 3-January-2009 included McGrady family gatherings for the holidays in Bellevue and Kirkland, Washington, a visit with my grandparents in Kennewick, Washington, and winter scenes in Seattle, Bellevue, and Kennewick, Washington.

Margin Notes: Winter, Inauguration, Bags

Even in Toronto! An enclosed walkway between the Rogers Centre and the Convention Centre was deemed necessary during a cold spell on 24-January-2009

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Yes, it's still cold here. In fact, it's so cold that the Metro Toronto Convention Centre decided to set up an enclosed walkway to the Rogers Centre sports arena by 24-January-2009, something I had never seen before but apparently happens on occasion each winter. Sure enough, a few minutes after taking the above photograph I ran into a woman in the Skywalk between Union Station and the CN Tower asking where the Convention Centre entrance was located; she called the Skywalk "a dead end." "It's not really a dead end," I noted as I guided her to the indoor walkway. "But I would have to go outside!" she protested. Once she was safely on the escalator in the heated Convention Centre entrance, I proceeded back outside from the Skywalk to my next destination.

* * * * * *

She was likely going to a jewelry convention, but there were a number of events in Toronto this weekend to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the birth of Scottish poet Robert Burns, starting with the dinner put on by The Robert Burns Club of Toronto on Friday night. On Saturday, a bunch of us were trying to figure out why they didn't schedule it for his actual birthday which was today, January 25th. We decided it must be that, with all the other events this weekend, they wanted to be first to make certain that people would still be willing to eat haggis.

* * * * * *

I didn't see any haggis at the Loblaw's grocery store this week, but I did happen to be at Loblaw's on 12-January-2009, the very day when they started to charge five cents for each plastic bag requested. I've been bringing my own bags to the store since shortly after moving to Toronto, so this didn't represent a change for me, but many more affluent customers at the Humberview Loblaw's did seem annoyed. When she saw my bags, my checkout clerk stated, "I see you're a good boy." It's been a long time she I've heard anything like that.

* * * * * *

I bet Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court John Paul Stevens hasn't heard anyone call him a "good boy" in a long time, either, but he looked pretty good compared with Chief Justice John Roberts after Stevens correctly led US Vice President Joe Biden in his oath-taking, whereas Roberts started what turned into a meltdown in the oath-taking of President Barack Obama to the extent that it was felt wise to have Roberts and Obama repeat the whole procedure later. Stevens, now 88, will likely step down during the Obama administration, so this will be the last time he will serve in this capacity, and it was great to see him on stage. As for Roberts and Obama, I thought the episode was a nice reminder that they are both human.

* * * * * *

An apparent highlight of the inauguration ceremony on Tuesday was the performance of "Air and Simple Gifts," composed by John Williams and performed by Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, Anthony McGill, and Gabriela Montero. The symbolism in the diversity of the performers was stunning, and as I practically cried over the fact that such a team could only be put together in the United States, I found it all the more remarkable that these musicians could pull off such a great-sounding performance in the weather conditions. As now has been widely reported, it turns out that they didn't. The musicians were pantomiming to a recording that they had made in more ideal conditions. After all the controversy and accusations against the Chinese for faking aspects of the Olympic Opening Ceremonies last year, I didn't find this revelation amusing at all. The whole theme of the beginning of the Obama administration was that the nation's lofty goals could be achieved while following our principles. Apparently, those principles include faking emotional performances which doesn't bode well for more important things to be done by the administration.

* * * * * *

A beaver swam down the Humber River in Toronto on 20-January-2009

I assure you there is no fakery involved in the above image. While its tail wasn't visible in this view, there was a beaver swimming in the Humber River near Dundas Street for a brief time on Tuesday afternoon. This marked the first time I have a seen a wild representative of the national symbol during my time here in Canada, and it was a sight to behold; I hope I see it again.

* * * * * *

TTC "Fishbowl" bus #2419 turned left from Dundas Street onto Old Dundas Street in Toronto on 20-January-2009 while working the 55 Warren Park route

In the past, I've made a point of taking about how happy I am to see any of the TTC's aging "fishbowl" buses, some nearly as old as I am, still in service, especially in my neighborhood. The above photo is proof that they continue to be assigned to our local 55 Warren Park run. Long live the fishbowls!

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Radio Pick: Discovery Process on Radio Lab

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's radio pick comes from the latest season of Radio Lab from WNYC and NPR. It has an official release date of 12-December-2008 but was the current podcast this week, so it qualifies for my selection this week.

The process of scientific discovery is something that too few of us ever experience. This episode of Radio Lab provides some real-life examples of how it happens and describes what motivates scientists. Be forewarned--this 59-minute show should probably not be heard on a weak stomach, but (to cite just one example) the tale of Jerry Coyne and the botfly larva is one that quite graphically explains how many scientists think and cannot be found anywhere else on the radio.

Listen to MP3 of Radio Lab "Yellow Fluff and other Curious Encounters"

Friday, January 23, 2009

Culture: A Canadian Snowball Fight

TORONTO, ONTARIO - In his parody song "Canadian Idiot", Weird Al Yankovic included the following lyrics:
Always hear the same kind of story
Break their nose and they'll just say "sorry"
Tell me what kind of freaks are that polite?
I really have observed Canadians apologize to tables after they banged their knees against them.

Yet, even after more than two years of living here, I am still sometimes pleasantly surprised at just how polite Canadians can be. Today, I was walking home from the grocery store, loaded down with stuffed bags when I started to come up behind a group of teenagers. It was a typical group of Toronto teenagers, with a wide variety of races represented, and they were engaging in that most typical of winter pastimes--a snowball fight.

A pair of girls were across busy Jane Street from the bulk of the group, and they were the primary target of the other kids, though they would sneak attacks on the same side of the street. I noticed first that one of those girls and at least two of the guys in the main group had throwing arms worthy of major league baseball as their snowballs crossed the street at high velocity and definitely were hitting a strike zone around their target if not the exact body part they were targeting. Before long, I also noticed that they were taking great care to send their volleys when there were significant breaks in traffic; the closest thing to a surprise attack was to throw right after a car had cleared the scene.

As they were walking slowly and paying far more attention to the snowball fight than their unknown destination, assuming they had one, I came up behind them relatively rapidly. But, when I was within about ten meters and a snowball landed on the ground behind a trailing person, one of the others turned to me and said "sorry," even though it had splattered nowhere near me. Then, the whole group instinctively and without coordinating conversation stepped off the cleared portion of the sidewalk, some taking advantage of the break to pack more ammunition, and allowed me to pass. Another said "excuse us" as I went by. I was so surprised by their courtesy that I didn't know what to say, and just muttered, "Thank you."

Only after I was about ten meters in front of them did the next cross-street volley ensue, and I was probably twenty-five meters in front of them before snowballs started flying down the sidewalk again. This group was clearly having a lot of fun, but they weren't interested in their fun getting in the way of anyone else. It was so Canadian, I almost wanted to sing "Oh, Canada!"

Then again, when I arrived home minutes later, I probably looked like a frostbritten hose-head.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Politics: Cosby as the Role Model

TORONTO, ONTARIO - On inauguration day earlier this week, CBC Television's "The National" ran an interesting report by Leslie MacKinnon on how Hollywood had helped pave the way for Barack Obama, the first non-white person to be elected President of the United States. The report presented a variety of racial milestones from Jackie Robinson to an African-American president on 24. It did mention The Cosby Show, but I think it understated the influence of that sitcom and its role in making the election of Barack Obama possible.

Apparently The Jeffersons had been presenting a Black family on CBS since 1975, but I don't remember ever watching it, and its relatively anemic ratings probably mean I wasn't the only young person in that era that didn't. In contrast, in looking over the episode list in preparation for writing this entry, I must have seen almost all of the Cosby Shows. I distinctly remember that it was appointment television--if it was 8 pm on Thursday night, you tuned in NBC and you watched it. When upstart FOX placed "The Simpsons" against it for the 1990-1 season, there was some question, but Cosby generally won out across the country.

We didn't tune in because it the cast was made up entirely of Black people (in the days before African-American was the preferred term). As pointed out earlier this week, there simply weren't many Blacks in the community in which I was raised. We tuned in because it was funny. Bill Cosby and the rest of the cast were entertaining, and the scripts described family experiences that it seemed like anyone could have when children were growing up. There wasn't anything especially "Black" about it.

If anything, the presented fictional Huxtable family was higher class than most of the families that I was familiar with, being headed by doctor and clearly reasonably wealthy. That was the key to the impact of the Cosby Show. Where other portions of the media might have served to have whites feel in some way superior, the Cosby Show caused people like me to look up to Black people. Why wouldn't one want to raise children the way the Huxtables raised theirs? So, if one could view a Black people as role models for parenting or economic status, then why couldn't one view a Black person as a credible politician or world leader? The leap for a Cosby Show viewer was not that large.

That Bill Cosby and Barack Obama seem almost interchangeable in their commentaries about how to eliminate racial divides that exist in the United States is likely not a coincidence. The Cosby Show demonstrated how to live responsibly--in a way that no person would question--and Barack Obama's family has lived such a life for real. Do we not see Phylicia Rashād (Clair Huxtable) in Michelle Obama? Do we not see Keshia Knight Pulliam (Rudy) in Sasha Obama? One hopes that Malia will not behave like Tempestt Bledsoe (Vanessa) in the White House!

Barack Obama understood that he was elected on the shoulders of giants. It may not be fully appreciated that Bill Cosby is one of those giants.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Media: Some Public in Public Radio

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Back in December, National Public Radio announced the cancellation of two daily shows, Day to Day, and News and Notes. With the last day of each show coming in March, public radio stations across the country that carry these programs need to decide how to change their schedules.

I happen to remain a contributor to KALW, the lesser-known of San Francisco's two news-focused public radio stations. It has run News and Notes on its daily schedule since the program's origins as the Tavis Smiley Show; the show currently airs at noon on weekdays. General Manager Matt Martin has been a leader in using the Internet to solicit feedback, and faced with the need to replace News and Notes, he turned to the medium again to gather listener opinions.

First, KALW narrowed candidate programs for the time slot to four shows that do not otherwise air in the San Francisco market that might be appropriate for a mid-day time slot. It's an interesting list:
* The Story with Dick Gordon, a great example of a show emphasizing quality audio and storytelling hosted by a one-time CBC correspondent
* Tell Me More with Michel Martin, the only show on the list with a focus on diversity somewhat similar to News and Notes
* To the Point with Warren Olney, a faster-paced news and analysis program
* Here and Now with Robin Young, a show designed to be a noon newsmagazine

In what may be a first in public radio, Martin has set up a blog for listeners to provide feedback on the four shows. Not only is the concept interesting, but the blog has been set up in an intelligent manner--rather than functioning as a poll in which people would have to vote for one show, they have the opportunity to comment on one show, all four, or anything in between. The comments will likely prove much more valuable in making a decision than a poll or a single-thread blog.

Not living in San Francisco, what KALW decides is not especially important to me. I remain a contributor mostly because I have found how the station has operated over the years, including its program selections, to be very informative. The use of a blog to choose which program to place in an open time slot is yet another example of why I pay attention to KALW. More public radio stations should consider similar forums as they evaluate what to do with their schedules come March.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Education: Race and Washington D.C.

TORONTO, ONTARIO - As a white person that grew up in a substantially white suburb, it was difficult to truly relate to the significance of the events in Washington, D.C. today. Tens of thousands of African-Americans cried, wept, and cheered, saying that the sacrifices of their parents and grandparents and generations before had finally paid off in an African-American taking office in the most powerful and respected position in the country. They were intermixed with tens of thousands of people of other backgrounds who were equally excited by new president Barack Hussein Obama and his words heard around the world on this day.

Interestingly, Washington D.C. in a very real sense provided my first exposure to the realities of race in America. The number of African-Americans in my classes in elementary school and middle school could be counted on one hand. I had one elementary school teacher that was Black, but she never talked about her race; she was just our teacher (and a good one, at that). Asians and Latinos were more numerous, but again any substantive difference on the basis of race was never discussed.

In middle school, I had the opportunity to travel to the national Mathcounts competition in Washington D.C. For the first time, I saw an area in which literally half of the residents were African-American. I had never seen anything like it before, but it wasn't any different than seeing the Washington Monument--I had read and seen on television that large numbers of Black people existed, and now I had seen them in person.

One day, while riding Washington's Metro subway system, I was careless with my backpack. In approaching my seat, I moved such that the backpack was flung right into the face of a man in a suit on an adjacent seat. It hit him hard enough that it actually knocked his glasses off. As statistics would predict in Washington D.C., the man happened to be Black. I apologized; the man said he was okay and soon got off the subway. For the remainder of the trip, I was worried that I would forever be tagged as a racist because I had nearly injured a Black man on the Washington Metro. That such an act had nothing to do with racism was something that at the time I had no way to understand.

Eventually, I would have more significant interactions with African-Americans. In my undergraduate years, I had my first boss at a part-time job that happened to be Black. I had a roommate one summer who was a football player that happened to be Black. Each of them actually talked about what it meant to them to be of something other than the race of the majority, and I started to better understand the social context of race and what a day in which a non-white would become the President of the United States might mean.

Yet, I'm not certain that the blatant ignoring of race that occurs in Washington state was so bad from an educational perspective. I wasn't taught that people of "other" races were in any way different than I was, and my early experiences actually served to reinforce that idea--none of the African-Americans I met through high school seemed significantly different than anyone else around me. Some coverage of racial experience in high school instead of waiting until college probably would be wise, but the baseline experience--at least in a place like suburban Seattle--probably did more to prevent the genesis of a racist perspective than any formal instruction could have done.

Now, above all, it may be role modeling by President Obama that leads the way in educating young people about how African-Americans are not fundamentally different than anyone else.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Philosophy: Money as Freedom

TORONTO, ONTARIO - On this day on which the United States celebrates civil rights leader Martin Luther King Junior, many people spend a lot of time contemplating whether or not they are truly "free at last" regardless of their race. Unfortunately, I have the distinct impression that freedom in the United States is viewed differently than how I learned it, and now means freedom with respect to money, not personal freedom.

The definition of freedom that one finds in the dictionary--which I think is the same "freedom" fought for in the US Revolutionary War as well as part of the fight for "equality" during the civil rights movement--is usually something to the effect of "the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint." Indeed, on paper this would seem to be the emphasis of the Bill of Rights, the first set of amendments to the US Constitution.

Yet, there doesn't seem to be much resistance when the right to act or speak is infringed in the US (to my knowledge, freedom of thought is still pretty secure). The most extreme examples may have occurred since the attacks of 11-September-2001, but the groundwork for tolerance of such measures was already there, ready to be exploited. Want to take a picture of transportation infrastructure? "You can't do that; it might get into the hands of terrorists" is the new line, but I was first detained for photography in 1993, way before anyone thought domestic terrorism was a real threat. Want to take a soda on an airplane or to a public concert? "It might be a bomb." I first remember having a beverage taken from me in 1997--and that was clearly for commercial reasons as the same product was for sale beyond the entrance of the park, but even then it was for "security." Want to criticize the government's war effort? "You must hate freedom." Does that explain why even in 1994 a fake news report that I did for a relatively small audience came close to getting me kicked out of a university?

I would bet that had I actually been arrested instead of just detained for taking pictures of a railroad junction in 1993, kicked out of a university for an April Fool's report that President Clinton had been assassinated in 1994 (which was considered a "fundamental standard" violation) instead of ultimately just being ostracized by many peers, or arrested for trying to bring in orange juice to a public concert instead of just having it confiscated, that almost no Americans would care except for the the American Civil Liberties Union--and the ACLU has such a negative image with the public at large that it actually contributed to the defeat of "card-carrying member" Michael Dukakis in his presidential bid in 1988. If one's behavior is the least bit out of the mainstream, Americans usually don't rise to its defense.

So if matters of personal freedom don't excite Americans, what does? Threats to their ability to use money, better known as taxes. Nothing gets Americans more upset than a proposal to raise an existing tax, or impose a new tax. They cry "socialism" and "you're impinging on my freedoms" and claim that the government is trying to control them and keep them from doing what they want. They look at places with higher taxes and declare that citizens of countries like Germany and Canada are just a bunch of controlled beings doing the will of their governments, not really free.

The concept of money as freedom has been taken to extremes at times. The Supreme Court of the United States in Buckely vs. Valeo actually equated money with speech in political campaigns. I decided things had gotten out of control when people in Washington state started asking their representatives to stop the anti-trust investigations of Microsoft, citing the impact of the reduced stock price on their personal finances and ability to retire.

The irony of all this, of course, is that the whole point of money was to ration freedom. Because not everyone could have every object or service, a way had to be devised to manage their distribution. The system of trading one good or service for another that eventually developed into modern money was the answer to this need. Unless one views that whole system--which includes government and taxes--as illegitimate, then it should be pretty hard to argue with a straight face that it's a terrible thing that everyone has to pay taxes.

So, those making the argument are correct--taxes do inhibit their freedom. Of course they do; that's how the capitalist republican system of civilization works. So, rather than get all worked up about taxes, how about paying attention to freedoms that don't generally collide with capitalism--personal freedoms. It's not a coincidence that I feel more "free" to do what I feel like doing on the streets of Zurich, Paris, or Toronto and find more free entertainment in those places than I do on the streets of Chicago or New York--there's more emphasis on personal freedom in places with less financial freedom.

The amazing thing to me is that the two are not mutually exclusive--bigger government and higher taxes are not necessary for personal freedom to exist. A Libertarian would argue that smaller government is actually better for personal freedom. The United States could have the best of both worlds, but it puts so much energy into maintaining individual financial freedom that other freedoms tend to be lost in the shuffle. Maybe in this current financial crisis, that will start to change.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Photos: Trip to the West Coast, Part I

A pair of snowmen were noted near Enatai Elementary School in Bellevue, Washington on 23-December-2008

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's update to my photo site features scenes from the west coast of the United States.

The first portion of a trip to the west coast for the holidays included a ride on the Altamont Commuter Express through the Niles Canyon and over Altamont Pass from San Jose to Stockton, California, a walk around Stockton, a visit to my great aunt Pauline near Placerville, California, a visit to my cousin Bruce Carson, Julie Malloy, and their children in the Phoenix, Arizona suburbs, and a look around Bellevue, Washington under a thick covering of snow between 17- and 23-December-2008.

Margin Notes: Cold, Missions, Delays

A duck sat on the ice covering the Humber River near Dundas Street in Toronto, Ontario on 9-January-2009

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Yes, it's been quite cold around here. On Wednesday, the arctic air moved in, and highs didn't exceed -10 C and lows didn't exceed -18 C again until today; the wind chill was -30 C or below twice when I woke up this week. It's pretty bad when it's so cold outside that even in a properly-heated apartment moisturizer is required because the air is so dry. On Saturday, I talked to people that were driving one block to avoid having to walk outside--I'm sure people out in the prairies, where -20 C would have been an improvement on their high temperatures for much of the week, are laughing at us right now.

* * * * * *

No laughing matter was the power outage that affected 22,000 households in Toronto at the height of the cold weather late Thursday, with some customers out of power for a full day. A sprinkler malfunction at a Hydro One substation near Bloor and Dufferin is being blamed for the outage. Interestingly, in this week's Bloor West Villager newspaper, Hydro One ran an advertisement essentially apologizing for how long they had taken to restore power following the storm on 28-December-2008. "We regret the inconvenience the storm-related outages caused our customers. We thank them for their patience and resilience." I wonder what they will say next week?

* * * * * *

One thing I'm really looking forward to in the next week is the end of retrospectives on the George W. Bush presidency. The only thing I found amusing in any of the coverage this week was Republican strategist Ed Rollins making what may have been a Freudian slip in referring to the famous 2003 sign on an aircraft carrier, referring to it as the "Mission Impossible" sign instead of "Mission Accomplished." Clearly, that's what the sign should have said.

* * * * * *

An appropriate GO Transit car to see this week was the one with the Maple Leafs wrap ad, noted at Willowbrook Yard in Toronto on 17-January-2009

A moving sign caught my eye this week. While out watching trains in the cold, GO Transit commuter equipment passed in front of me including the car decorated with a wrap ad for the Toronto Maple Leafs. In a white environment with the next snow storm already approaching on the horizon, seeing a car advertising hockey seemed entirely appropriate.

* * * * * *

Commuter trains were about the only form of transportation I used on my winter vacation trip this year that operated on time, other than local city buses. Not one of my airline flights went off as scheduled, but clearly the worst was my return trip to Toronto. I've been relatively kind to US Airways in the past on this blog, but they've made my do-not-fly list now (along with United and Alaska). For my red-eye flight from Seattle to Philadelphia while Seattle was receiving yet another snow shower on 4-January-2009, we could not leave Seattle because US Airways didn't have de-icing equipment available. We had to wait until Southwest Airlines was done with their flights for the day, then their contractor's equipment was "borrowed" and literally sat next to our plane for about half an hour before they found someone to operate it and de-ice our wings. The flight finally took off nearly three hours late, and one of the few things the airline did right the whole experience is that they had a new boarding pass waiting for me upon arrival since I had missed my connecting flight. The only problem is that the flight was soon canceled, and no further flights were available until the next day. The only thing I could get a phone agent to do was book me on a United itinerary via Washington DC--the only airline actually worse than US Airways that could have been accessed. Amazingly, those flights actually got me to Toronto close to their schedules, but my checked luggage that I had paid an extra $15 for did not arrive for another two days because United failed to transfer it in Washington DC. What really amazed me is that the only airline employee that smiled at me the entire trip was one flight attendant on the Washington-Toronto flight. That's it. Both US Airways and United need some serious help, and Air Canada needs to join a different alliance.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Radio Pick: Recession Marketing

TORONTO, ONTARIO - The only significant change in the CBC Radio One schedule in the New Year has resulted in this week's radio pick.

Everyone right now would like to know what to do in a recession. There are some tips on
how advertisers should behave during a recession. Yes, the CBC has brought back Terry O'Reilly's quite entertaining "Age of Persuasion", and this 27-minute episode will not only provide nostalgic clips from the past, but teach us what smart marketers are probably doing during this recession based on some great historical examples. This show is a great example of how to use audio to present history and educate.

Follow this link to listen to The Age of Persuasion "Recession Marketing"

Friday, January 16, 2009

Politics: Global Air Poisoning?

TORONTO, ONTARIO - It's been a cold week here in Toronto with the wind chill reaching -30 C when I woke up this morning. It's been a cold week all across northern North America, the kind of deep freeze that sometimes happens in the winter. In this era, though, whenever temperatures dip significantly below seasonal levels, a bunch of right-wingers starts claiming that this is evidence that "global warming" is not occurring. Never mind that for at least a decade, scientists and other informed people have been trying to explain that a more appropriate term for what it happening as a result of increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is "climate change" that will result in more extremes in many places, but on average result in overall increased average temperatures. Clearly, this communication campaign has failed. People can't or won't distinguish between climate and weather, and many don't accept the idea that increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere matters. A new communication tactic is needed, and I suspect the prospect of air smelling like rotten eggs--maybe call it "global air poisoning"--might be more convincing.

Even if one doesn't believe that the causes are man-made, the observation that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are increasing can't be regarded as a good thing. There are many impacts besides the well-known "greenhouse effect" of trapping heat inside the atmosphere. One of the more disturbing effects is that the increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere raises its level in the oceans as the two are in equilibrium. More carbon dioxide in water means greater acidity--carbonic acid is formed. The acidity of the ocean is reportedly already going down, to the extent that the phenomenon rates its own Wikipedia page.

So what? As water becomes acidic, it becomes harder for organisms that have an aerobic-based metabolism--basically, things we are used to from animals to plants to algae that exchange oxygen for carbon dioxide or vice versa--and easier for things that have a sulfur-based metabolism. These are things that for the most part live only in the deep ocean right now next to thermal vents. This is a good thing, because the bacteria based on a sulfur metabolism process sulfur oxides into hydrogen sulfide (instead of turning carbon dioxide into hydrogen oxide, better known as water). Everyone knows what hydrogen sulfide is--it smells like rotten eggs. Humans can detect it in the parts per trillion range. In higher concentrations, it basically kills off aerobic organizations, and some think a volcanic-based spike of hydrogen sulfide is what led to the Permian extinction.

The more carbon dioxide goes into the atmosphere, the more acidic that the oceans become, and the closer we come to allowing the anaerobic, sulfur-based organisms to gain a foothold in the ocean. As the Science Daily article linked above puts it:
In the end-Permian, as the levels of atmospheric oxygen fell and the levels of hydrogen sulfide and carbon dioxide rose, the upper levels of the oceans could have become rich in hydrogen sulfide catastrophically. This would kill most the oceanic plants and animals. The hydrogen sulfide dispersing in the atmosphere would kill most terrestrial life.
To me, hydrogen sulfide in the atmosphere is more disturbing than climate change, which is disturbing enough. Hence, I would suggest that those of us concerned about the changes taking place in the atmosphere quit talking about "climate change" and try calling it something like "global air poisoning" that encompasses both ideas.

Of course, basing environmental arguments on increased hydrogen sulfide probably won't work, either. People won't be able to smell the increased levels of hydrogen sulfide, so they won't believe that it is happening even when levels start to increase, if they ultimately do. By the time people would smell anything, we'd be on the verge of death and it would be too late to decisive action. So, if the scare factor doesn't work--and if it were going to, I would think that rising sea levels should have done that trick--it isn't going to help.

Still, the language of "climate change" doesn't seem to be working. Perhaps "global air poisoning" can lead us to some other terminology that will be ideally be more accurate and more effective. "Global atmosphere change" maybe? I'm still thinking.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Transport: Gauging the Recession

Conrail Local CD-10 crossed the Charles River at Cambridge, Massachusetts behind B23-7 locomotive #1980 on 2-October-1997, a sight never to be seen again with the end of Conrail in 1999 and the retirement of the B23-7's soon thereafter

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Railfans often say that they know what is happening in the economy simply by looking at the traffic they are seeing in the trains that are going by. When trains start becoming more frequent and longer, and leased locomotives start supplementing those of the railroad being observed, the economy is experiencing an up-tick. When trains become fewer in number, become shorter, and locomotives start to line up in storage lines, a recession is coming or has already arrived.

Around Toronto, the railroads are showing the signs of recession. Most leased locomotives that had been supplementing Canadian Pacific power for most of 2008 have disappeared, and a series of SD9043MAC locomotives that had been regulars on transcontinental trains have been placed in storage. A number of trains no longer run, foremost the famous "frame train" from St. Thomas to Oshawa, Ontario that used to provide dedicated service for truck frames.

The most interesting report of declining traffic on the railroad has come out of my old stomping grounds in Massachusetts. According to postings on the bulletin boards at, CSX has stopped running the Selkirk, New York to Boston, Massachusetts mixed freight trains, known in CSX days as Q420 eastbound and Q421 westbound. I was first introduced to these trains before CSX took over the "Boston Line" and these trains were still run by Conrail under the symbols SEBO and BOSE. I liked to pretend that "SE" stood for Seattle instead of Selkirk and that the trains would make a transcontinental run across the nation.

Indeed, some of the traffic in those trains was coming from the Pacific coast. Western produce (from California and Washington state) rode in refrigerator cars from western railroads on the Q420/SEBO trains into Beacon Park Yard in Boston, where they were transferred to a local train, known in Conrail days as the CD-10 ("CD" meaning Chelsea-Danvers) for the final few miles to the New England Produce Center in Chelsea, Massachusetts, where it was distributed to local grocery stores. It was this local, which became the WABP-10 (or B721) local after CSX took over in 1999, that ran through the MIT campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and provided my railfanning staple during my time there.

CSX Local B721 (WABP-10) crossed the Charles River into Cambridge, Massachusetts on 30-September-2001 behind GP40-2 #6204, bound for New England Produce in Chelsea, Massachusetts

Now, this produce traffic will instead ride train Q436 out of Selkirk to Framingham, Massachusetts, where it will be transferred to the WABP-10. Instead of going on duty at Chelsea in the afternoon, the WABP-10 will start at Framingham in the morning, drop off Boston traffic (mostly garbage containers) at Beacon Park, and then continue on the Chelsea and return to Framingham in the evening.

Ten years ago, this would have been a ridiculous operating plan. In those days, the SEBO/Q420 could have more than fifty cars, way too many for a local job to handle. The CD-10/WABP-10 itself might have upwards of 20 cars, creating a full day's work to switch the Chelsea industries and make a run out to Beacon Park and back. There was no way that the crew would have had time to run out to Framingham and back in a twelve-hour shift. That CSX thinks it can get away with this operating plan is a sign that traffic has decreased significantly.

Perhaps CSX will prove incorrect, the work won't get done on a daily basis, and the abolished train will need to be brought back. But, the changes to my old favorite train, the Chelsea Local, demonstrate that the railroad thinks the recession is real.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Philosophy: "The Farm" Arrogance

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I sometimes get very frustrated when I read the Stanford University Alumni magazine "Stanford". It's not that I don't think highly of Stanford. In fact, the best times of my life so far took place while I was living "on the farm," as the campus is colloquially known. It's that sometimes the writing in the magazine reminds me of the people one encounters on campus that think Stanford is the greatest place on the planet and that the whole world should be like Stanford.

I'm not sure I disagree all that much with their first premise, though I suppose I'd like to see better cuisine at "the greatest place on the planet," better surrounding geography than "the dish" (a satellite dish that rests on a hill visible from a surprising proportion of the campus), and maybe a better transportation system in and out when one actually has to leave. Yet, even if it probably isn't the "greatest" place, it's a very good place. In the final analysis, people should think the place they live is the greatest place whether it is or not anyway, right?

It's the arrogance and lack of realism in the second premise that has always rubbed me the wrong way. First of all, the world can't all be like Stanford because its population is self-selected. Through student admissions and job interviews, the university effectively chooses who it wants to be there, and then those that come to be there get to perpetuate the selections. I don't have a problem with how that process occurs (How could I? They let me in!), but that can't be done in the real world. In a broader community, the people that aren't desired in a given place can't just be told to cease to exist. They have to be somewhere, and right there, by definition, wherever they are will not be like Stanford. Stanford has become what it is by virtue of its selectivity. The world cannot be so selective, short of an ethical code that I wouldn't spend one second contemplating.

Furthermore, this idea that the world should all be like Stanford is in conflict with the very commitment to diversity that makes Stanford what it is. In order for Stanford to be such a great place, it has to bring together people from stunningly different backgrounds--those from East Los Angeles and Hollywood, Israeli Jews and West Bank Palestinians, rural farmers and inner-city renters. If the rest of the world were all like Stanford, "the Farm" could not exist!

There are plenty of other arguments against trying to turn the world into Stanford, but there's one other aspect that strongly annoys me. It is simply arrogant of people of this mind-set to suggest that the rest of the world should want to be like Stanford. There are other great universities in the world--some, like the University of California at Berkeley, aren't even that far away. While I personally would rather be at Stanford than Harvard or Oxford or Berkeley, I don't think there's anything fundamentally wrong with someone that prefers Princeton, the Max Planck Institute, or Foothill Community College. Those institutions have plenty to offer to the world, and I don't want them to change in a way that would diminish their unique character.

Part of the reason that Stanford can foster such an attitude is that it physically is isolated from the rest of the world more than an average university. The main portion of campus doesn't spill out into a surrounding community as at most North American universities. Instead, the Stanfords very consciously placed the campus about a half-hour's walk or more inside the property that they owned. In fact, the story goes, when Palo Alto--whose downtown area now sits just down Palm Drive from the main entrance to campus--started allowing saloon-type businesses that the Stanfords did not approve of, they decided not to build Palm Drive and instead built roads radially from the main quad toward the surrounding communities of Menlo Park and Mayfield (which was later annexed by Palo Alto and is now known as the California Avenue area of Palo Alto). Only after Palo Alto established more control over the atmosphere in its downtown area was Palm Drive upgraded and the radial streets faded away, with only traces remaining today.

The reason that this seemingly-benign love of Stanford bothers me so much is that the attitude is paralleled in the United States at large. Americans seem to think that their country is the greatest country on the planet, and that every other nation should want to be like the United States. Again, it's hard to take issue with the first premise. While the Chinese, Swiss, Brazilians, and just about every other nationality on the planet including Canadians would argue with that, there's nothing wrong with thinking highly of one's own nation.

The problem is the second premise. The arrogant view that the world wants to become the United States not only offends many people across the world, but has led the United States to pursue misguided policies like trying to impose US-style democracy on Iraq in hopes that it would take over the Middle East. Maybe someday all of the world's nations will have representative governments of some kind, but the US needs to look no farther than Canada and Mexico to see that other styles of government can function just fine.

To a large extent, the United States has a self-selected population, native peoples and forced slaves excepted--it wouldn't exist if not for the rest of the world. As with Stanford, the physical isolation of the United States, oceans away from most of the rest of the world and bordered on two sides by substantially peaceful nations not all that different than itself in a broad view, helps to foster arrogance. Many Americans haven't experienced the greatness of other places or had any opportunities to interact with foreign people to understand how others' preferences might be different than their own.

In the end, we are all world citizens whether we want to be or not. There is a great deal of diversity in the world, and we should experience, celebrate, and foster the aspects of that diversity that we come to appreciate. Only because of that diversity can special places like Stanford University and the United States exist. No matter how much we like them, we should be humble about them, not arrogant.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Media: Now Santos Too?

TORONTO, ONTARIO - It isn't pretty to watch the decline of a once-great radio station. Now, as a follow-up to the earlier story that it would no longer be live and local all day and all night, WBZ 1030 AM in Boston has quietly announced that morning sports reporter Gil Santos will be retiring and will be not be replaced.

The move leaves WBZ, supposedly a news station in one of the most sports-crazy areas of the United States and flagship station for the Boston Bruins National Hockey League team, without any sports reporters at all on weekdays. Previously, Alan Segel and Tom Cuddy had been involuntarily removed from the schedule. Presumably, this means that in a month, news anchor Ed Walsh will be reading sports news at :15 and :45 after the hour in the morning, much as Diane Stern is currently reading sports in the afternoon.

As always, the best coverage of this change has come from Scott Fybush's NorthEast Radio Watch, a premier resource for broadcasting information in the region. In the October 12th edition of NorthEast Radio Watch, Fybush not only thoroughly covers the story, but offers substantial commentary on all the changes at WBZ, including the following:
The trust listeners have placed in WBZ for generations may not be as easy to quantify on the books as, say, the stick value of a clear channel at 1030 on the dial or the real estate adjoining the Harvard campus. But whatever value that trust once had - and whatever investment in the "WBZ Radio" brand could have been transferred from an aging AM facility to newer media - is instead being rapidly eroded.
Fybush has highlighted the most important point. This week on CBC's radio's Age of Persuasion, host Terry O'Reilly pointed out several examples of companies that spent money developing their brands during times of recession or other stresses like a war, and how those firms reaped significant benefits afterward. The most amazing story to me was about a company that kept advertising its margarine brand during World War II in Britain even though all sales were generic by law. After the war was over and the restriction was released, that brand completely dominated market share.

In radio, personalities are a big part of building a brand. I used to listen to KIRO every morning when I was growing up in the Seattle area, and I did so mainly because of local hosts Bill Yeend and Dave Stone. Now that Yeend has moved to KOMO and Stone is retired, I haven't found myself tuning in KIRO during morning drive when I visit Seattle.

When I lived in Boston, the chemistry between news anchor Gary LaPierre and Gil Santos made WBZ worth listening to in the morning, and Santos' sports commentaries at about 12:27 during lunch were a fixture of my time in region. LaPierre has retired, but Santos still worked well with Ed Walsh when I listened while visiting the area, and I still preferred that position on my radio dial.

That Santos would retire was inevitable. The mistake that WBZ is making is eliminating his position, rather than letting someone like Cuddy, Segel, or even a fresh talent take on the reporting and commenting position to develop his (or her) own relationship with listeners. By instead eliminating these features, they are weakening their WBZ brand at a time of stress--which Terry O'Reilly teaches us is exactly the time to consolidate brand loyalty.

I suspect the next time I visit Boston, I'll be tuning in public radio WBUR in the morning. For now, at least, they still have a significant news staff and substantial local reporting in the morning--something that is increasingly not true at once-stalwart WBZ.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Politics: Appeal of Japanese Culture

TORONTO, ONTARIO - The international press has given increasing attention to the popularity of Japanese culture worldwide. Everything from glasses worn by Sarah Palin to children's cartoons on television (animé) to comic books (manga) have originated in Japan, prompting some to consider Japan to be the first real rival to the "soft power" of United States culture that spreads through movies, television, the Internet, and many other subtle means. What is the appeal of Japanese culture? University of Tokyo professor Roland Kelts thinks he knows. In a recent article in the Christian Science Monitor, Kelts noted "The Japanese model is of self-denial and the sublimation of selfish desires for the sake of group harmony. This is becoming a multipolar world. The desire to be a part of something harmonious rather than the leader of a pack is growing."

For all my attempts to categorize United States culture as being out of the "emotional world" as described by traditional Chinese medicine, that isn't the face that is presented to the world through Hollywood and, for that matter, the George W. Bush administration. Instead, that image (and the very fact that it is just an image argues that the reality is still in the "emotional world") is that of the "physical world." A macho leader, whether it be John Wayne or the 43rd president, does what he feels is best when he feels it is best, and the opinions of others don't matter much. This is the present-focus and force-using perspective of the "physical world." Someone doesn't like John Wayne's style? He'll probably end up shot. The United Nations doesn't support what the US wants to do? The US government will just do it anyway--it can always veto any action against it in the Security Council, which never proves necessary anyway. Even when the leader is a woman, she comes across macho--say Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft in "Tomb Raider" or former secretary of state Madeleine Albright telling leaders in Haiti that they can leave "voluntarily and soon, or involuntarily and soon." The view presented is of a clear choice of good and evil, with good always prevailing.

This is the image of the United States that has been perpetuated outside of the country, no matter how divorced from the reality within the country that this image may be. The United States is seen as a "physical world" actor on the world stage, doing whatever it wants, whenever it wants, and unafraid to use force to achieve its objectives, always convinced it is on the side of good.

The world that generally balances the "physical world" is the "spiritual world". The "spiritual world" operates in a rather timeless state, in which the past and the future share the stage with the present. Rather than taking action based on an individual's desires in the present, the "spiritual world" tries to achieve harmony with the others around them to avoid conflict. Furthermore, actions are taken with a view to the future--if it would cause trouble in the future, it won't happen, and the past provides clues about this. The "spiritual world" presents a completely different, holistic contrast to the viewpoint of the "physical world".

Japanese culture, as described by Kelts, meets the definition of the "spiritual world". It tries to achieve harmony and has shades of gray instead of black and white. This is not surprising, since the "national culture" of Japan is generally regarded to be in the "spiritual world," specifically that part of the world associated with the "large intestine" organ in traditional Chinese medicine. As a balancing perspective to that of the macho "physical world" presented by the United States, it is not surprising that Japanese culture would be turned to as an alternative.

Of course, the "physical" and "spiritual" worlds are supposed to be in balance according to theory. It should be expected that both US and Japanese culture will both influence the world, ideally at the same time, in order for the world to achieve a healthy state. The difference--as seems to be reflected in the US media--is that the "physical" world doesn't seem to understand that need for balance, and tries to maintain its hegemony. Meanwhile, the "spiritual" builds up toward the balance. If theory holds, it's likely a better time to be invested in Japanese culture worldwide than it is to be invested in Hollywood and other purveyors of "physical" culture.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Photos: West Coast Holiday Scenes

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's update to my photo site features holiday displays in Arizona and Washington state in December 2008. The displays included the Arizona Temple in Mesa, Arizona; the Toyland Display in Seattle, Washington; Gingerbread Village at the Seattle Sheraton; Celebration Lane in Bellevue, Washington; and the Garden d'Light in Bellevue, Washington.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Radio Pick: Samuel Johnson on On Point

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's radio pick was heard on WBUR's "On Point".

Generally speaking, radio shows on long-deceased authors do not interest me. However, a caller about 35 minutes into this 53-minute show described how he had acquired the giddiness about Samuel Johnson that author Jeffrey Meyers and analyst Jack Beatty had been expressing from the top of the show, and I suspect that most listeners will share that giddiness after hearing about Johnson's modern relevance. This show was a great example of how to make a literary figure accessible and interesting to a general audience.

Listen to streaming MP3 of On Point "Samuel Johnson at 300"

Music: Bedingfield Third Again

TORONTO, ONTARIO - While traveling through the Pacific Northwest in September 2005, I was introduced to a British singer that I had never heard before. Natasha Bedingfield at the time had a single out called These Words. The song was noticeable because the lyrics clearly came from the "physical world."

Most music, by its very nature, features "emotional world" lyrics, focusing on feelings, what other people think, lamenting about the past, and occasionally even focusing on money, all things centered in the "emotional world" in traditional Chinese medicine. While examples of lyrics from the other three worlds certainly exist, even in pop music, there is little question that the "emotional world" dominates the charts.

Yet, Bedingfield's song was clearly "physical world" in perspective. Her time sense was on the present, not the past. While she did sing about expressing her feelings, the premise of the song was that she was having trouble doing so--and physical types are often known for having difficulty with vocabulary and preferring to express themselves with their bodies, not verbal language. This section is typical:
I tried to focus my attention
But I feel so A.D.D.
I need some help some inspiration
Whoa...But its not coming easily
As a "spiritual" type, I am usually drawn to things from the "physical world," and this song was no exception. Despite being handicapped by having only four months to work its way up my iTunes play count, it rapidly shot toward the top. By year's end, "These Words" was third in my play count for 2005 with 22 plays, trailing only Australian singer Natalie Imbruglia's "Shiver" (which I had first heard in May) at 25 plays and D.H.T.'s cover of "Listen to Your Heart" at 23 (the Roxette original stands as one of the most significant songs in my life).

Bedingfield had started to get attention from that hit, but she shot to the top of the charts in the United States in early 2006 with her next single, "Unwritten". This song bordered on a "physical world" anthem, clearly focused on the physical experience of life with refrain lyrics like:
Feel the rain on your skin
No one else can feel it for you
Only you can let it in
No one else no one else can
Speak the words on your lips
Drench yourself in words unspoken
Live your life with arms wide open
Today is where your book begins
The rest, is still unwritten
This song spent all of 2006 near the top of my iTunes play count. At the end of the year, though, it again finished third, with 19 plays. Ahead were Aqualung's "Brighter Than Sunshine", also advantaged by getting its first play in January, at 20 plays, and Missy Higgin's "Scar" the clear leader at 28 plays.

By 2007, I was inclined to seek out new music by Bedingfield, and when her joint effort with Sean Kingston, "Love Like This" was released in October ahead of her next album, I soon discovered it. Yet, by virtue of entering the playlist toward the end of the year, it again finished--you guessed it--in the third position, with 13 plays. Ahead of it were breakout hits "LDN" by Lily Allen at 14 plays, and "Young Folks" by Peter Bjorn and John at 15.

In 2008, Bedingfield's new album "Pocketful of Sunshine" came out, and the title track made my iTunes playlist. In a lackluster year for music in my opinion, it amazingly ended up third on my year-end playlist at 11 plays, behind new artist Yael Naïm with "New Soul" at 12 plays and my choice for artist of the year, Leona Lewis and "Bleeding Love" at 17 plays.

So, the big question for 2009 is: Can Natasha Bedingfield make it five years in a row, and place a song at THIRD place on my annual iTunes play count? It seems unlikely, but I wouldn't have guessed that it would have happened three years in a row, much less four.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Transport: Blame it on Lawyers

TORONTO, ONTARIO - During my trip over the holidays, not a single leg occurred as scheduled. Every single air leg was re-scheduled or canceled as a result of winter weather or general airline incompetence. A road trip to visit my grandparents took much longer than it normally would have because all the mountain passes were closed, necessitating a detour through the Columbia River gorge for the second straight year. Even my warm-weather leg from Sunnyvale to Placerville, California was subject to delays--my bus from Stockton to Sacramento was held for a late connecting train, which itself had been held in Bakersfield for a late bus from Los Angeles.

The transportation meltdown has been especially pronounced this season in the Pacific Northwest. A series of snowstorms battered Washington and surrounding states for the second half of December, resulting in many of the delays that I experienced, and now that everything is melting, flooding has caused an even wider paralysis--until just a few hours ago, Interstate 5 and the BNSF Railway had been closed between Seattle and Portland for several days. The only realistic way to get between those two cities was by air (and, for once this season, the airlines were operating normally), since the mountain passes were closed as well.

It seems a legitimate question why Interstate freeways--originally conceived as a part of a national defense system--should be so vulnerable to flooding. There are perpetual flooding candidate locations along I-5 in the Chehalis, Washington area where the lanes could be raised and flood culverts installed if it were chosen to spend the money to protect against these rare events (that seem to be not-so-rare as the years pass). In this time of fiscal stimulus, perhaps that kind of project can be made "shovel-ready" in time to capture some Federal dollars.

On the Amtrak side of the equation, the passenger carrier is at the mercy of the freight railroad that owns the line, which in Washington state means BNSF. For many years, the BNSF had a policy that after any weather-related incident which disrupted the track structure--usually a mudslide--the line affected could not have passenger trains operated on it until no further incident occurred for 48 hours. In other words, freight trains could operate for almost two days before another passenger train would be allowed, leaving passengers stranded. The policy has had an adverse impact not only on Amtrak but on the Sounder commuter trains that operate between Everett, Seattle, and Tacoma, Washington.

Clearly, if other trains are operating, then it would be physically possible to operate the passenger trains--in fact, it must be safe, or the railroad would not put its own train crews at risk. Even if the freight carrier is allowed to clear a backlog of profitable freight trains before running passenger trains again--an argument whose legitimacy could be argued when taxpayer dollars have been spent to upgrade the tracks to handle additional passenger trains--that rarely would take two days. Something else is causing the BNSF to not allow the passenger trains to operate.

It turns out that something is liability. If BNSF allows the operation of a passenger train and a weather-related accident occurs, then it is open to lawsuits, and their lawyers determined that the 48-hour policy was required to demonstrate commitment to a safe operating environment. Never mind the people that cannot get to work because their commuter train isn't operating for two days while the trains carrying their garbage to the landfill are running. At some points, the BNSF has claimed that it was a Federal Law as reported in this article (or maybe the reporter just made a mistake), but no such law seems to actually exist.

There are plenty of other reasons to be upset with trial lawyers. I am still amazed about the things that I was able to do in Australia on tourist railroads and even in public parks that would never be allowed in the United States because of the potential liability. Specialized doctors quit their practices because they can't afford the insurance, we can't swim while a boat race is occurring, fences have to be placed in unsightly locations to prevent people from entering property and injuring themselves ("no trespassing" signs are not enough), we can't run excursion trains unless covered by Amtrak's insurance policy, the list could go on for paragraphs. The fact that public transportation is being shut down when it is needed most--during times when other forms of travel may not be practical--is yet another reason that legal reforms are required in the United States.

The "California Zephyr" may never be trapped on Donner Pass the way the "City of San Francisco" was in January 1952 thanks to modern policies necessitated by liability concerns, but routine travel in the wake of seasonal weather will be impeded.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Politics: National Personalities Inverted?

TORONTO, ONTARIO - In previous posts, I have made the case that the United States demonstrates a view of the world based in the "emotional" world of personalities, Canada demonstrates a view of the world based in the "thinking" world of personalities, and that each perspective has an impact on the political environment of each country. There's apparent disconnect in time perspective inherent in that thesis, though, that deserves some attention. Because of the attraction of each world for its "balancing" world, the apparent time perspectives of the two political environments appear inverted.

The time perspectives associated with the "emotional" and "thinking" worlds are well-known. The "thinking" world looks to the future, often to the detriment of the present and ignoring lessons from the past. I've seen "thinking"-type people in professional situations work so hard at setting up a company for a future business situation that the company ends up near collapse because business wasn't strong enough in the short-term to survive to see the situation for which the thinking type was planning. In contrast, the "emotional" world looks to the past, often so informed by what happened in the past that it can't see how an environment might change in the future, therefore missing opportunities that can arise. It isn't hard to see how these two perspectives can balance one another--the "emotional" world reminds the "thinking" world that they may be looking too far forward, and the "thinking" world drags the "emotional" world out of the past and helps them see how things can be different in the future.

As someone who is a newcomer to Canada, I am not as familiar with past Canadian political history as the average Canadian. I've read about the National Energy Program, the Meech Lake Accord, and the Clarity Act, but I didn't personally experience any of them, and thus they don't mean much to me. Effectively, I'm incapable of providing an "emotional" world perspective on Canadian politics, because I haven't "felt" the history.

Yet, Canada is supposed to have a "thinking world" perspective looking toward the future, so at some level I thought it wouldn't matter that much. So, imagine my surprise during the recent controversy over the Financial Statement in late 2008, when all of the sudden the Bloc Québécois was actively trying to ruin the country of Canada, the Liberals were trying to force the National Energy Program on the west, and the Conservatives were again the Reform Party of western separatists, if we were to believe all the rhetoric coming from the various sides. The disconnect with the reality I had been observing for the past three years couldn't be greater. The Bloc might care more about Quebec than the rest of Canada, but I hadn't heard a word about separation or destroying the country out of them. The Liberals might have favored a "Green Shift," but comparing that with the National Energy Policy was a bit of a stretch, and the last thing in the world I would have ever expected from Prime Minister Harper or any Conservative Member of Parliament was a call for the west to leave Canada. Shouldn't the future-thinking people of Canada be expecting a better vision of the future and leaving all that baggage behind? Instead, they were entertaining completely "emotional," past-based perspectives.

Meanwhile, the politicians in the United States seemed to be about nothing except the future. Barack Obama tried to become a post-racial, post-partisan candidate basing his whole campaign on "hope" and "change." This wasn't exactly a new strategy. George W. Bush had campaigned to be a "uniter not a divider" and for a vision of bringing democracy to the world; it was his inability to deliver that caused his decline in popularity. Bill Clinton had been all about a "third way", a new vision of politics. George H.W. Bush had the "new world order." Ronald Reagan was about "morning in America." Where were the battles and controversies of the past resurfacing? The United States seemed more capable of looking to a future vision than Canada, and not hindered or informed by its past.

So how could this be? The answer seems to be in the attraction of one world for another. Because they are balancing worlds, the "emotional" world and the "thinking" world are attracted to one another. Someone coming from the "emotional" world, like the average voter in the United States, is attracted to "thinking" world arguments about the future, as provided by presidents from Reagan to Obama. Someone coming from the "thinking" world, like the average voter in Canada, is attracted to "emotional" world arguments, as politicians in the latest political crisis all tried to provide.

When push comes to shove, though, politicians cannot simply try to balance the populace. Advertising campaigns based on image and feelings still work better in the United States than Canada, whereas abstract analytical argumentation still has a greater impact in Canada than the United States. It takes a very healthy individual to be able to take on the perspectives of each world as circumstances require and lead effectively. For each country's sake, we should hope that both Barack Obama and Stephen Harper prove to have such skills.