Saturday, February 28, 2009

Radio Pick: Bad Bank on TAL

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's radio pick comes from Chicago Public Radio's This American Life.

The economic crisis gripping the United States has been described as "so complicated
that anyone that claims to know how to fix it is lying." That doesn't mean that people shouldn't try to understand the complexity, and there have been remarkably few tools available to assist such attempts. NPR's Planet Money team continues to provide remarkable insights into
the realities of the situation, presenting them on a variety of public radio programming but in full form in this week's 59-minute episode of This American Life. Why isn't anyone else doing this kind of understandable reporting?

Listen to streaming MP3 of This American Life "Bad Bank"

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This week, I have an honorable mention to offer. CBC's Terry O'Reilly and the Age of Persuasion continues to offer considerable insight into the history of advertising and marketing, and this week offered an excellent 27-minute show on how advertisers have commandeered holidays--a fitting reminder as St. Patrick's Day and Easter approach. Follow the links on the CBC page to listen.

Media: Paul Harvey, Good Life!

TORONTO, ONTARIO - For decades, virtually anywhere in the United States, at high noon it was possible to tune one's radio dial and find Paul Harvey's "News and Comment" on the ABC Radio Network. Harvey, a legend who worked in broadcasting for more than 75 years, died today at the age of 90.

Harvey's longevity in broadcasting was unprecedented. Entering the field at age 15, the first "Paul Harvey News and Comment" was broadcast on ABC on 1-April-1951, beginning a run that would last more than a half-century until his recent last commentary. Multiple generations of families grew up listening to Paul Harvey; my parents have childhood memories of him just as strong as my own of hearing him on KOMO and KONA-AM.

While he probably came to be better known for his "Rest of the Story" features on a single topic, my personal favorite was always the noon edition of "News and Comment," a fifteen minute summary of the news of the day opening with "Hello Americans, this is Paul Harvey. Stand by for News!" Along the way, commercial messages would be introduced by "Page Two" through "Page Five" but would often be voiced by Harvey himself, a practice which was often controversial for its potential blurring of news and advertising.

Like any famous broadcaster, Harvey was often parodied. His distinctive style making creative use of pauses and tone changes and well as a full slate of mannerisms ("US--U.S.", "who would want you to know his name" while not giving it, and more) provided ample material. During the O.J. Simpson trial, Harry Shearer did an imagined phone call of Harvey calling Simpson during the slow speed chase, ending with (what else), "O.J.--Good day!" My all-time favorite was heard on KGO in San Francisco by Brian Copeland and Chicago C. Barkley in which "an attempt at reaching out to minority audiences" resulted in "P. Diddy Harvey," who offered "word up for news!" and reported on the "the movie you sneaked into most often last weekend."

It was on KGO that I first heard Harvey referred to as an "ultra-conservative commentator," which I felt said more about the person making that description than about the ABC legend. Harvey was conservative, but more in the sense of being quaint and not in an aggressive sort of way. His conservatism came through in features like "this is not one world," with which my disagreements have already been documented on this blog, but also in much gentler ways like a day when he spent several minutes describing how rap star André 3000 of OutKast insisted on bathing every day.

Harvey ended each "News and Comment" broadcast with a story those in the business call a "kicker"--an amusing story worth waiting for the end of a broadcast to hear. I often stole Harvey's kickers to close my own news compilations, citing him as a source. There was a certain appropriateness to this as Harvey himself relied on a network of mostly midwestern colleagues and friends to help him find such stories. A Google search for "Paul Harvey and Ron Dettinger" returns as one of its top results one of my News Beyond the Farm reports from 1995, closing with a Dettinger story.

Of course, after the kicker Paul Harvey always ended with the same words, in his distinctive cadence--"Paul Harvey, good DAY!" Perhaps now, the most appropriate close is to say, "To Paul Harvey, good AFTERLIFE!"

Friday, February 27, 2009

Music: BNL as a Spiritual Band

BNL performed at the CBC's Sounds of the Season fundraiser in Toronto, Ontario on 5-December-2008

TORONTO, ONTARIO - On Wednesday, BNL founders Ed Robertson and Steven Page announced that lead singer Page would be leaving the band to pursue a solo career and perhaps acting, and the band would continue without him. In light of the rough year that the band has had, the news could not be called a complete surprise, but the announcement still was widely reported throughout Canada. The band, known for its playful lyrics and performances, remains clearly beloved in its native land.

Like many North Americans, I was first introduced to BNL in 1997 as their hit "The Old Apartment" rose in the charts. Their songs have made a significant contribution to my life, with two songs ("Pinch Me" and "It's All Been Done") in my my lifetime top 25, a feat matched only by Billy Joel.

What drew me so strongly to the band was not their playfulness, though, but the fact that many of their lyrics seem to be straight out of the "spiritual world", which is rare in popular music. As discussed here before, the "spiritual world" is one of four identified worlds in the Meridian Flexibility System, focused on energy, harmony with the world, prone to suffering, and with a "timeless" perspective (as opposed to future, past, or present-focused). The vast majority of popular music comes from the "emotional" world, though I have highlighted at least one artist from the "physical" world.

Perhaps the most obvious example comes from the song "It's All Been Done". The very title implies that life is just repeating itself. The group sings:
I knew you before the west was won
And I heard you say the past
was much more fun
You go your way, I go mine
But I'll see you next time
Alone and bored on a thirtieth-century night
Will I see you on The Price Is Right?
Could lyrics possibly be more "timeless"?

Yet, just about every BNL song has at least one "spiritual" element. "If I Had A 1,000,000 Dollars" has this line:
If I had a 1,000,000
We wouldn't have to eat Kraft dinner
(But we would!)
Most types would give up macaroni and cheese (that's Kraft dinner if you're not Canadian) given a chance; only those with a suffering element of the "spiritual" would continue to delight in it.

Even the hit "One Week" which on the surface seems like a present-focused "physical" number has a spiritual line:
Five days since I laughed at you and said
"You just did just what I thought you were gonna do"
Is that not be straight out of the "pericardium" (a "spiritual" type) playbook of wisdom and laughing at self-destructive behavior?

There also seems to be a real theme of having a "physical"-type partner to deal with, the expected partner of a "spiritual" type, running not only through "One Week" but many BNL songs. Take this passage from "Call and Answer":
But I'm warning you, don't ever do
Those crazy, messed up things that you do
If you ever do
I promise you I'll be the first to crucify you
"Crazy, messed up" is a common description of "physicals" by "spirituals"--and judging them is a common "spiritual" practice.

The apparently-bad news at BNL could a boon for those enjoying "spiritual" lyrics. Both BNL and Page could separately now create such songs with such themes; this seemed to happen with Page's previous side venture, The Vanity Project in 2005. I look forward to more lyrics like this low-energy gem from "Pinch Me":
I could leave but I'll just stay
All my stuff's here anyway.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Economics: My Microsoft Hypocrisy

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Some in the technology community have been excited by the news earlier this week that Microsoft (which I normally write as Micro$oft) would be making limited versions of the main Microsoft Office applications available through a web browser, which would make them available to Linux and iPhone users for the first time. The news was buried in reports about a version of Office to be released later this year. I didn't care. I finally weaned myself off of Microsoft products for all personal use more than three years ago and have relied on OpenOffice and other competing products like MacOS (instead of Windows) and Firefox (instead of Internet Explorer) ever since.

Perhaps it was living in California at the height of the "vaporware" era, in which Microsoft would announce a product equivalent to one that had already been announced by a startup, causing that company to be unable to get financing, and then never actually release such a product. Perhaps it was talking to people that worked as programmers at Microsoft and hearing about a work environment that encouraged extreme hours and juvenile behavior. Perhaps it was simply the fact that with the exception of Office and Flight Simulator pretty much every Microsoft product I've ever seen was buggy, inelegant, and did not offer features superior to those of its competitors. Perhaps it was being paid to be an IT administrator and discovering that the only way I could keep most Windows desktop computers working efficiently was to wipe their entire hard drives and re-install everything once every six months, a process that cost me many weekends. For whatever reason, I've never had much respect for Microsoft.

There has been a fundamental hypocrisy in my position about Microsoft that hasn't been lost on me, though. Every single job I have ever held in the western Washington state has been a direct result of Microsoft, based for most of my life in Redmond, Washington. A software buying position? It wouldn't have existed in the area had Microsoft not been around. Software packaging? Microsoft literally provided half the work for that facility. Quality systems? Not only was Microsoft a prime customer for that company, but the position would never have existed in a form in which I could have done it without Microsoft Office, and Office skills were the key to landing that position.

Furthermore, it's not much of a secret that Microsoft founder Bill Gates is a railroad enthusiast. A favorite hobby store in Kirkland, Washington likely would not exist without his business. And, some of the most impressive railroading events in the Pacific Northwest in recent years would not have happened without Gates doing some things quietly behind the scenes.

I benefited greatly from Microsoft's success early in my adult life, and in some sense ever since. I just wish the company had earned its fortune in a manner of which I could be proud, instead of in a manner that has led me to reject its products in the marketplace.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Media: The Editorial Problem

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Last week, this blog discussed possible ways to resolve the content-creation void that has increasingly resulted from news media cutbacks and may soon worsen substantially as newspapers shut down their operations. While this strikes me as the hardest problem to resolve in order to maintain a functional news media, as it will inevitably be quite expensive, it isn't the only one. Another significant issue is maintaining relevant editorial decisions such that people still have access to sources that can give them a real indication of what stories are actually important.

One of the most wonderful things about reading a newspaper is that someone (usually a group of editors) has decided what should be in that paper. They have decided what belongs on the front page, what goes below the fold, what goes on page B19, and what doesn't make the cut at all. If the editors do their job well, then their readership has the information they need to make intelligent political decisions. To this day, I continue to be amazed how the reporters and editors of the Christian Science Monitor manage to anticipate international stories that will become important before the rest of the world media takes notice, something I first encountered in 1993 stories about the war in Bosnia. I trust their editors so much that I read the international news section of that paper completely, regardless of whether I think I am interested in a story, because over time that has proven to provide a full grounding in world events.

The most gratifying thing about reading a newspaper occurs not when reading the whole paper, but when one picks out a story about something with a strong interest, but then notices an adjacent article about something completely new. Maybe a diagram or a quote draws attention, and then suddenly the whole article seems worth reading, and turns out to be a real education. That's the power of editorial content--providing the possibility of such serendipitous discoveries.

The whole model of news on the Internet is counter to that kind of event. Editors are considered elitist, even nefarious. People subscribe to RSS or keyword feeds of things that they are interested in, and don't see any other stories. One problem with this phenomenon is that people tend to end up reading only the news that matches their world view, but that can just as easily happen when one chooses a newspaper or network that generally matches their point of view editorially as well. The more dangerous issue is that stories offered up on default gateway pages--the only chance for serendipity--are supposed to use "crowd sourcing" as a form of editorial triage. The more reads a story gets, the higher it appears on the default pages.

I understood the danger of this kind of evaluation back during my only real editorial experience, compiling a summary of news from the outside world for my undergraduate dormitory. I included a section called "They're Talking About It," or stories that I didn't think met editorial muster, but had been so thoroughly covered in the mainstream media that one needed to understand them to be conversant with the outside world. Details of the O.J. Simpson trial, celebrities giving birth, and bizarre crime stories like that of Loreena Bobbitt dominated that section. In a "crowd sourcing" situation, those stories would be tagged as amongst the most important, when in reality they were probably best ignored.

The good news about the editorial problem is that it is not hard to replicate the editorial selections of a newspaper on-line--it's as simple as providing an editorial gateway, and plenty of those exist already in the form of the home pages of newspapers. Furthermore, the job is actually easier since there is no space limitation to worry about. Editors can set an appropriate bar and on slow news days, there will be less news, and on the busy days, there can be more to read.

The main problem is making sure that the editors that make the decisions about those pages can be paid. It would seem that advertising may well be adequate to fund that, unlike in the content collection problem. A secondary problem is making sure that the average person can find those pages, which seems to be a non-issue in the current era since most of these sites are newspaper sites. When a generation grows up without newspapers, it may become more difficult.

There probably will be a need for media literacy in formal education--which is a good idea anyway. A class could point out various editorial sites, go over their reputations in terms of quality and political viewpoint, and have students explore those sites and see if they agree with the reputations. Hopefully, after going through some exercises like that, the students will at least have been exposed to possibility of learning through serendipity, and won't simply rely on whatever the contemporary version of RSS feeds will be in that future era.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Heritage: Model Railroad Club of Toronto

A freight train crossed a suspension bridge at the Model Railroad Club of Toronto on 22-February-2009

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Normally, model railroads are only historical to the extent that they attempt to preserve in miniature something that no longer existed (at least in the same form) in present world. However, the Model Railroad Club of Toronto, now in existence for 72 years, has itself become historic, operating in the same building in the Liberty Village area of Toronto for 62 years.

A diesel switch engine rode the timetable at East Davidson after switching the yard at the Model Railroad Club of Toronto on 22-February-2009

At the encouragement of other local railroad enthusiasts, I finally went to the club's open house on Sunday. It was amazing to think that construction had started 62 years before, and that some of the trains running through 7000 square feet of space had been doing so longer than I had been alive. The layout depicts the fictional Ontario Central Railway, but Canadian Pacific and Canadian National prototypes also were very common.

Rock climbers were noted on some of the scenery near Point Derus at the Model Railroad Club of Ontario on 22-February-2009

Being in O-scale, which is 1:48 of normal size (contrasted with today's more common HO scale at 1:87 and N scale at 1:160), the layout has a high level of detail compared with many other model railroads. The number of scale people on the layout, engaged in all kinds of activities from directing traffic to climbing rocks, was quite remarkable. While large objects like a ship in a harbor and huge grain elevators might gain attention, it was these small details that really make the room something special.

A 1950's-era power supply still remained on the shelf at the Model Railroad Club of Toronto on 22-February-2009

While the railroad is continually upgraded--members don't want the layout declared a historic site since they would no longer be able to do that--much of the technology that runs the trains still dates back to earlier eras. While the signals are now computer controlled, much of the "last scale mile" of wiring is practically original, and older components abound behind the scenes. I was shown electrical components that I barely recognized as they had been supplanted by solid-state electronics for most of my lifetime.

Some of the crowd enjoying the show at the Model Railroad Club of Toronto were photographed on 22-February-2009

Unfortunately, if you'd like to experience a bit of modeling history for yourself, you'll have to wait until next year. The next set of open houses does not occur until February 2010; watch the club's web page for details. More photos from the club will be in a future photo site update.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Economics: Buy What You Know--If You're Normal

TORONTO, ONTARIO - The stock markets in North America today plunged about 3-4% today, placing them at the lowest levels in somewhere between five and fifteen years, depending on the index in question. While many are wringing their hands that the bottom has not yet come, with my retirement many decades away (if it ever comes), I am doing my best to ignore the state of the stock market. As I learned a long time ago, I have no particular expertise about picking stocks, and I never will.

A long-standing piece of advice for the stock market has been "buy what you know." In other words, if there was a product or service that you used that you thought was really exceptional, you should buy the stock of the company behind that product or service. If the product were really that good, then other people would clearly be buying it as well, the company would make a profit, and you'd get a nice return on your investment through solid dividends. A corollary to that rule, less consumer based, was that if there was a company you knew was a leader in an industry you knew well, a company that you'd like to work for, then you should invest in that company, since as an industry leader it would be likely to make money.

Not long after I entered the job market and thought I had some money to invest, I tried to follow that advice. The trouble was that I didn't really know anything about any mass consumer products of any kind. So, I was reduced to using the corollary. The industry that I thought I knew well was advanced biotechnology, drug delivery techniques, microfluidics, and so forth. There were two companies that I would have liked to work for that I expected to be industry leaders that I decided to invest in.

I happened to do this not all that long before the technology bubble burst in the early 2000's, but the general movement of the market doesn't explain all the money I lost on those two stocks. They lost about twice as much of their value as the average biotech stock of the era. Furthermore, both of them stayed much lower and did not recover nearly as much as their peers as the decade proceeded.

So what was wrong? It wasn't that I was substantially wrong about the companies. Both are still in existence today, though each has changed its focus somewhat over the years. Both are still companies that I would work for if given the opportunity today, and in fact I interviewed at one of them last October. Each has proven to be a market segment leader of some kind or another.

What went wrong was that "what I knew" was not relevant to the market at large. I'm intentionally not naming these companies for a variety of reasons, but the odds are you haven't heard of either company. The things they could do well could get a technologist trained in the field like me excited, maybe even a venture capitalist excited, but really making a killing by producing revenue like the markets care about--they weren't positioned to do that. They were positioned to make modest profits off useful niche products, but investors don't get excited about that. In fact, most investors don't consider this kind of company to have any value whatsoever--the risks of competition or technology failure are way too high for the modest returns that can be returned.

In an analogy with the consumer realm, it was as if I had known about a product that I wanted to use and was tremendously useful to me, but my mother and my friends would never want to buy it as they had no idea what I was doing with the product. The product might have a tremendous appeal to someone like me, but there weren't enough people like me to provide a large enough market for the product to make huge profits.

Basically, the bottom line was that I was too weird for "what I know" to make any difference in my ability to pick stocks well. This was obvious in the consumer realm, but I had to learn it the hard way in the industry realm, to understand that the corollary of the "buy what you know" rule didn't apply to me any more than the main adage did.

And the original about $2000 that I invested in those companies? Had I not sold the stock when it was worth about $1000, it would only be worth about $400 today.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Photos: Lewis and Clark Explorer, 2005

The Columbia Queen, offering luxury cruises up the Columbia River, was docked at Astoria, Oregon on 11-September-2005

This week's update to my photo site continues a foray into the archives that started last week. That trip concluded with a ride on the Lewis and Clark Explorer to Astoria, Oregon on 11-September-2005. Following the Columbia River, the train crossed three movable bridges and many scenic locations. During an afternoon's layover in Astoria, there was a chance to see the mouth of the Columbia River, Fort Columbia on the Washington side of the river, and get a complete tour of the historic city of Astoria provided by J Michael Kenyon and Joan Stout before the return train ride. The 2005 season would be the Lewis and Clark Explorer's last, and the tracks have been out of service since a flood early in 2006.

Margin Notes: Obama Visit, Presidents, Models

Very large snow flakes fell on Toronto, Ontario on 18-February-2009

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Just when the rains of last week had cleared most of the snow off the ground, guess what showed up? Some of the largest snowflakes I had ever seen were included in the snowfall on Wednesday as pictured above. When it was all over, we had a fresh coating of white. As a consolation prize, freshly-fallen snow is always prettier than old, dirty snow.

* * * * * *

Today, as I walked around the neighborhood, the sun came out while the snow was still falling. While I looked around, I was unable to find a "snowbow."

* * * * * *

The weather was especially miserable on Thursday as United States President Barack Obama made his first foreign trip to Canada's capitol of Ottawa. Fortunately, nothing needed to take place outside. Prime Minister Stephen Harper--who had been almost absent from public view this year--looked very good during his joint press conference with Obama as well as in follow-up media interviews. He appeared to be someone that Canadians could be proud to call their leader. His best line? "When you disagree with the United States, it doesn't matter if you're right or you're wrong, you lose."

* * * * * *

Amazingly, though, no less than National Public Radio managed to get Prime Minister Harper's name incorrect that day. During an hourly update at 15:00 Eastern, the NPR news announcer stated that "Obama met with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Hadley." Hadley, by the way, was a National Security adviser to President Bush.

* * * * * *

While most of the media attention on the visit focused on the meeting with Harper, the more significant meeting may have been that between Obama and Canadian Governor General Michaëlle Jean. This was the first meeting between black heads of state of the two countries. Also of note was that Obama reportedly had a constructive meeting with opposition leader Michael Ignatieff.

* * * * * *

The best quote I heard surrounding the Obama visit to Canada was a wag who noted that the biggest security threat was that "Obama might be crushed by an enormous group hug."

* * * * * *

Between the US President's Day holiday and the Obama visit, it seemed like Shopper's Drug Mart had presidential envy this week. Their advertising this week touted a "Presidential Sale." Sure, they tried to claim that it was about special deals with the presidents of the companies making the various products that were on sale. I think their advertising agency had something entirely different in mind.

* * * * * *

The way the economy is going, Shopper's Drug Mart might soon need much deeper discounts. In a piece about Family Dollar stores on National Public Radio's All Things Considered this week, Target was referred to as a "high-end retailer." Last I checked, Tiffany's was a high-end retailer, not Target. If Target is high-end, only dollar stores must count as a normal retailers now!

* * * * * *

The engine facility at East Davidson on the O-scale Model Railroad Club of Toronto in Toronto, Ontario was viewed during a public show on 22-February-2009

I thought I must be going to a high-end train show when I saw that the Model Railroad Club of Toronto was charging $8 adult admission to their show. Perhaps it wasn't a bargain, but considering how impressive this 62 year old, 7000 square foot model railroad was in person, I wasn't complaining. There will be more on the Model Railroad Club of Toronto in future posts.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Radio Pick: BBC Coverage of Canada

TORONTO, ONTARIO - General daily news programs are often neglected on this feature because their value diminishes soon after their presentation. I listen to the British Broadcasting Corporation's World Service for on average about an hour a day, every day, and yet in more than two years of doing this feature, I had yet to cite their often excellent reporting, as presented on their Global News Podcast. It is time.

This week, residents of both Canada and the United States had a hard time missing the story that US President Barack Obama took his first foreign trip to Canada. The coverage in the Canadian media was of course especially thorough, but the most interesting context came from farther away--the BBC. This context piece on the events in Ottawa demonstrates how the BBC presents the daily news in a very useful form every day, not just when I finally get around to highlighting it. The story in question is about 14 minutes into the 25 minute podcast.

Listen to MP3 of BBC Global News "Obama To Visit Canada"

Transport: The Last BN Unit

This would be the last picture of a "pure Burlington Northern" locomotive I would ever take outside of a museum--long-stored C30-7 #5545 sat quietly at Pasco, Washington on 28-November-2008

TORONTO, ONTARIO - It was reported on various railroad enthusiast boards this week that two long-retired locomotives had been moved from Pasco, Washington to Alliance, Nebraska to be stripped of parts, probably in advance of scrapping. In some sense there was nothing unusual in that move that apparently started on 22-January-2009. To me, though, it was quite significant in that the move meant that I had probably seen my last "real BN" locomotive ever, outside of a museum.

When I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, seeing a freight train meant one thing--seeing Cascade Green, the primary color in the paint scheme of the Burlington Northern Railroad (BN). While the BN had been only been formed by a merger in 1970, by the time I started paying attention to trains, everything on the BN was painted in Cascade Green. At one point I even wrote that my blood flowed Cascade Green.

BNSF GP39V #2974 demonstrated "patched" Cascade Green paint, still common to this day, while GP39E #2917 demonstrated "pure BN" paint at the Rhodes control point in Seattle, Washington on 11-March-2006

In 1995, the BN ceased to exist as it merged with the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe to form the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF). While the BNSF has been slow to repaint locomotives from its predecessors, unlike the BN, it was reasonably efficient at applying "patches" to locomotives to eliminate the old names and apply "BNSF," sometimes also renumbering the unit. The last time I would see an unpatched BN locomotive in regular service would be on 11-March-2006, when the Crew 2 Local in the Seattle area had one such unit mixed into its consist.

Burlington Northern GP39E #2917 was in the Crew 2 transfer train from Tacoma, Washington to Seattle, Washington as seen at the Rhodes control point in Seattle on 11-March-2006. It would be the last unpatched BN unit I would ever see in service.

While my days of seeing "pure Green Machines" on the mainline had ended, a nice reminder of the past still awaited me whenever I visited the Pasco, Washington freight yards. Stored there--apparently since 2002 though I did not see them until late 2005--were a pair of old coal-hauling locomotives (#5545 and #5549) built by General Electric in October 1978 that had been declared surplus and stored. These units, still in full Burlington Northern paint, never seemed to move, and even the pigeons that seemed to haunt them in 2005 apparently started to ignore them as the years went by.

Burlington Northern C30-7 #5549 seemed very popular with the pigeons in Pasco, Washington on 22-November-2005

I last saw those units in Pasco, Washington on 2-January-2009. I didn't even bother taking a picture, as they looked the same as they had for years and the lighting was not very good. With those units now moved off to probable oblivion, I likely won't see another. My picture at the top of this post from last November will probably stand as my last non-museum Burlington Northern picture. Another piece of my childhood is now just history.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Politics: So That's Why I Like David Brooks!

TORONTO, ONTARIO - For some time now, I've been surprised how often I listen to New York Times columnist David Brooks and think he has a good point even when I disagree with him--and I don't always disagree with him. The conservative Brooks appears each Friday with liberal E.J. Dionne on National Public Radio's All Things Considered and with liberal Mark Shields on the Public Broadcasting Service's News Hour with Jim Lehrer, and sometimes on other programs as well.

Today, Brooks finally made it really obvious why I can stand him. In his appearance on All Things Considered, he responded to a question about the Obama's housing plan by explaining the Republican position, but then saying this:
I guess my counter-argument would be that we are not only individuals. We have a system--a system we all share. And the system right now is so unsteady that we have no individual responsibility in our own system because the economy is so unsteady. Sometimes, if you deserve a job, you get laid off, and if you don't deserve a job, you don't get laid off. The government's fundamental responsibility right now is to make sure that the system is stable.
In other words, David Brooks understands the need for balance between individualism and communal responsibility. If things are too out of balance, then not even basic conservative principles work anymore.

Just on Monday, this blog focused on how Barack Obama understands the same point from the liberal perspective. David Brooks has now made it clear that he understands it from the conservative perspective, and not only that, but he sees it as essential to his own conservative viewpoints being applicable. His world view requires a degree of balance just as much as Barack Obama's world view.

I've said for some time that I could work with conservatives if they were all like David Brooks. Now, I understand why. I may disagree with Brooks on the best way to run the economy or the role of taxation, but he understands that the playing field has to be fair in order for free market principles to function properly, and that government on occasion may have a role in ensuring that this is the case. He actually thinks through the practicalities of a given situation, instead of just relying on an ideology.

More Republicans used to be able to think like Brooks. They used to be able to see when compromise in the short term actually helped their position in the long term. Now, one needs to look no farther than the California budget battle to see how too many Republicans behave, refusing to compromise on taxation no matter the circumstances or the lack of balance inherent in a situation.

I daresay that if Republicans took their cues from David Brooks instead of Rush Limbaugh, the United States would be in a lot better shape right now--and in the long term, a healthy United States economy is one in which free market principles have the best chance of succeeding.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Media: Humanity from the CBC

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This morning, those of us in Canada's largest city found out why we have been without our #1-rated morning radio host since November. On CBC Radio One's Metro Morning, guest host Jane Hawtin announced that Dr. Mary Barrie had died yesterday. Her husband, normal morning host Andy Barrie, had gone on leave to care for her during what proved to be a terminal battle with cancer.

The fact that the CBC had allowed Barrie to go on leave for four months--and potentially much longer than that--is striking. Sure, media organizations prefer to hang on to top-rated talent, but I couldn't think of a single similar case in the United States. National Public Radio never gave Bob Edwards any extended leave the entire time he was with the organization, if I am not mistaken, and I have a hard time imagining them doing that for anyone else, either. I suppose they have allowed Liane Hansen to take extended leave in a similar somewhat situation to Barrie's, but she hosts a Sunday-only program, not a daily program on weekdays. Commercial radio is even worse--it's hard to imagine KCBS allowing Stan Bunger to go on extended leave, or WBBM allowing Felicia Middlebrooks to disappear.

In general, Canadians take families much more seriously than those in the United States. On holidays like Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas, people expect to be with their families, and companies expect them to travel as needed to reach them. At some level, it didn't surprise me at all that the CBC would allow Barrie to take leave; that kind of family-first attitude is the norm in Canada rather than the exception.

I would even go further and say that Canadians fundamentally treat each other more humanely than Americans. When I became unemployed, my landlords immediately engaged in a dialog about what would be appropriate to do with rent increases. In a similar situation in the United States, a landlord basically told me to move out at the end of the lease and raised the rent substantially for any further renewals to make it clear that I was no longer a desirable tenant. Perhaps the relative strengths of the housing markets was a factor, but I have a feeling I would have gotten the same treatment now in the US, and the same treatment in Canada in an upturn.

If money is involved, Americans cut each other no slack, no matter if family is involved or not. In Canada, sympathy and empathy still exist--though as American influence continues, one wonders for how long.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Media: Time for a Literal Fourth Branch

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Here in the Golden Horseshoe of Ontario, it's sometimes easy to forget that of the ten largest cities in Canada, three of them are located here. Toronto, at about 2.5 million, is the largest city in the country, Mississauga, at 668,000, ranks sixth, and Hamilton, at over 500,000, ranks ninth. One certainly wouldn't know that looking at the media. When's that last time that a story out of Mississauga or Hamilton led the news? Outside of CHCH television--which was put up for sale by Canwest Global this month and may be shut down if a buyer is not found--and CHML on the radio, both Mississauga and Hamilton are completely engulfed by Toronto media. Mississauga does have its own newspaper, the Mississauga News, but it is published only three times a week. Hamilton has a six day a week paper, the Hamilton Spectator. Neither paper is strong financially. Each city puts up with this lack of local media in classic Canadian fashion, just suffering through it without major complaint.

The rest of us may soon better understand how people in Mississauga and Hamilton feel. Newspapers across the world are folding under the advertising revenue strain brought on by the Internet and the economic downturn. Those that survive are shadows of their former selves, with much less content. The full stock market tables may not be missed, but how about that weekly column on one's own neighborhood? It's likely gone along the high school sports scores. The mainstream media are increasingly jettisoning expensive local coverage in favor of less expensive national pieces.

Few would question the value of vibrant reporting (the term "press" seems to be on its way to being an anachronism). Newspapers have been called the "fourth estate" and the "fourth branch of government" (after the executive, legislative, and judicial branches) for a reason--it's hard to have an accountable government without investigative journalism keeping it honest.

So, in the face of modern economic realities, how does one maintain the fourth estate, especially at the local level would it would seem to have no chance at all of being self-sustaining? It seems to me we already have the answer in the form of the public broadcasters in most European countries and other places around the world including Canada. The BBC and the CBC are government-funded, but the firewall between them and government is so profound that few would accuse them of significant bias. For $30 per person per year in Canada, Canadians get full-service radio and television networks.

Setting up another, competing news-gathering organization, likely out of the remains of a failing newspaper group, would probably be a bit more expensive than $30 per year in order to have an adequate degree of local focus in places like Hamilton and Mississauga, but it would seem to pay off in healthy democracy. People would still need to pay for a print newspaper that would be produced, but the content-gathering is the key and the content could be made available for free on the Internet, much as the CBC is free to those with a radio or television. By being a separate organization, competition between the CBC and this government-funded newspaper would maintain an active journalistic competition. Much as private broadcasters compete with the CBC, private newspapers and other media organizations could keep providing additional alternatives if they could afford to do so.

If that sounds too socialistic to ever take hold in the United States, there's another option to look at that already exists. The listener contributions that fund public radio could serve as a model for a non-profit newspaper. Those that could only afford to subscribe could do that, but those that believed in the newspaper could give more. Grants could serve as an additional source of funding. There are newspapers in the United States looking at this kind of model, with some hoping for an endowment from which they could maintain a stable source of funding that could not be construed to have a bias, as a way to keep operating in the present environment.

Some might say that even that idea is not viable. If so, it's time to come up with another idea. One way or another, the future of investigative and local journalism needs to be addressed.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Blog: Lessons from the First 200 Posts

TORONTO, ONTARIO - The blogger software has been nice enough to inform me that this is the 200th post to this blog. Amongst other things, this means that I have spent approximately 200 hours writing at a computer for public consumption since 8-September-2008.

So what have I learned in the past five months or so?

* Most new readers to the blog are attracted because they are using RSS feeds for the keywords that a given blog entry cites. While I have made no effort to track reader behavior, I suspect most people read at most the given entry that came up via RSS, discover that this blog is varied in topic, and never return unless their key word comes up again.

* A surprising number of people have RSS feeds for their own names, and actually read at least one entry in this blog as a result of those feeds. Undoubtedly, there have been people cited in this blog that have read at least that entry without my ever knowing it, while others have posted comments or took other actions that caused me to find out. The message here: If you want to reach a public figure, write about them in a blog. They just might read it!

* If one writes about the band sometimes known as BNL, but using the full form of their name, it will attract spam. Furthermore, it won't just be run-of-the-mill spam, but really explicit spam of a sexual nature. So, it's best just to refer to them as BNL.

* Conservatives (that would be a lower case "c" were it not at the beginning of the sentence) are far more organized than liberals in responding to material on blogs. Look back at the few political comments that have been made on this blog. Every single one has come from a clearly conservative viewpoint (the only possible exception would be the comments on rank-order voting, which while hard to place exactly on the political spectrum, were probably to the left of my perspective--that was a better example of a RSS feed for a topic again more than political standpoint). I have criticized liberals, in particular the Liberal Party in Canada, and not one comment has resulted. This was not a particular surprise, but it was interesting to see this impression of the blogosphere confirmed.

* It's hard to predict what kinds of posts will get a positive response. Some, like the recent post on modern art, felt like they would get a positive response when written. Yet, some posts that I did essentially on a lark, like Glitch's razor and From Chemical Statistics drew rather surprising levels of responses both privately and publicly. On the other hand, I never received a direct response to Help with the Best Music of 2008, which I thought would at least draw some of my friends into private e-mails.

I still have nine topics back-logged on my scratch pad, so I think I'll keep writing on most days. We'll see what I learn in the next 200 posts.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Politics: Can Obama Restore Balance?

TORONTO, ONTARIO - In the midst of the battle to get a stimulus package passed in Congress, relatively few people took notice of the speech that US President Barack Obama made on Thursday, the 200th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln. In the speech, Obama cited the influence of Lincoln on his own philosophy--and demonstrated that, despite his recent failures to achieve bi-partisanship, he conceptually understands what it will take to bring the United States back to balance again.

It's not news that Obama admires the nation's 16th president or that an earlier president from Illinois influenced the present one. One only needs to read excerpts of Obama's autobiography for that to become clear. In the campaign, though, it seemed more like rhetoric. The current stimulus package makes it seem much more real.

A key passage from Lincoln that Obama cited on Thursday was the following:
The legitimate object of government is to do for the people what needs to be done but which they cannot, by individual effort, do at all, or do so well, by themselves.
Obama has, in many places, written and spoken on the concept of balance between individualism and communal responsibility, and stated that Lincoln was a master of that balancing act.

For too long, the United States has been unbalanced in favor of individualism. All attempts to introduce any degree of broader responsibility have been derided as socialism, communism, and impediments to real growth in the economy, threats to the very concept of freedom itself. It took essentially a generation, but the consequences of being so extreme toward individualism have now become clear--when things go wrong, not just the very weakest but a sizable percentage of people suddenly don't have anything left to try to recover, dragging the whole system down.

On the other hand, that same individualism is what has made the country so great--it allows entrepreneurs to take risks and innovate, to advance not just their own lives but give the whole world new technologies. The key is to keep things in balance--allow individualism as much as possible, but establish regulation and safety nets so that the whole system doesn't fail when some of risks taken by the entrepreneurs turn out to be failures.

Obama not only talks about this in conceptual terms, but the philosophy could be seen at work in the stimulus package. Tax cuts--that most sacred of individualist financial measures, the minimization of money taken from individuals--were part of the package. That could be seen as a political move to try to gain Republican support in a bi-partisan outreach, but it could also be seen simply as recognition that individualism still needs to be encouraged going forward. It's consistent with the philosophy of balance. Similarly, spending by the spender of last resort--the government--was included in Obama's package. That could be seen as a set of pork projects for politicians, but it could also be seen as a way to demonstrate that the government can have a direct role in protecting the health of the economy when it is in crisis--a move back toward balance.

Republicans in general would have had a lot more credibility in opposing the package that Obama will sign tomorrow had they focused their criticism on the nature of the spending in the package, questioning whether it was effective stimulus. There likely were ways to improve how the money will be spent--Obama himself admitted that the bill wasn't perfect. Instead, many--especially in the House--simply stated they wanted nothing but tax cuts and didn't want the government to spend any money. They were sticking to the individualist game plan, and wanted nothing of communal responsibility. They remained out of balance.

The sad part is that the concept of individualism has been so ingrained in the United States for the past generation that the Republicans may have actually made the superior political choice. Barack Obama may the taking his cues from Abraham Lincoln and trying to bring things back into balance, but the country may no longer be receptive to balance. It will be very interesting to see how far Obama can move the United States back toward communal responsibility again.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Photos: Pacific Northwest 2005 from the Archives

Union Pacific's "Challenger" #3985 crested the Cascade Mountains at Cascade Summit, Oregon on 7-September-2005

TORONTO, ONTARIO - For this week's update to my photo site, I have gone into the archives to present previously-undisplayed pictures from 2005.

With Union Pacific announcing that it will send a steam locomotive west for the 140th anniversary of the Golden Spike this spring, it seemed a good time to go back to the archives for my favorite chase of a Union Pacific steam locomotive, the "Challenger"'s first trip over the former Southern Pacific between Klamath Falls and Portland, Oregon in September 2005.

The same trip also involved visiting family and friends around Seattle, Washington including visits to the Woodland Park Zoo and Ballard Locks and a ride on Amtrak between Seattle, Washington, and Portland, Oregon.

Margin Notes: Don Rowing Club, Lancers, Cosby

The Don Rowing Club's boathouse on the Credit River in Mississauga, Ontario didn't look terribly appropriate on 10-February-2009

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Some scenes that look quite natural in the summer look rather ridiculous in the winter. A case in point is the Don Rowing Club's boathouse, located along the Credit River not far the GO commuter rail Lakeshore Line in Mississauga, Ontario. With the river frozen over, it looked far more like a skatehouse than a boathouse in the photograph above.

* * * * * *

A 2009 Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart was on display in the Skywalk between Union Station and the Convention Centre in Toronto on 7-February-2009

Because of the cold, this is a time of year for indoor events. Ever since I moved to Toronto, Mitsubishi Motors has sponsored "canvas" advertising in the Skywalk between Union Station and the CN Tower, mostly located where the pedestrian corridor crosses the railway corridor. For the Canadian International Auto Show running through next weekend at the Convention Centre (no, I didn't go, and why would I?), Mitsubishi has decided to park a pair of Lancers in the Skywalk, one of them a racing variant. It's a little disconcerting to walk over fake skid marks on the pedestrian walkway.

* * * * * *

When I was growing up, my parents mused about getting me a Dodge Lancer after I got my driver's license, but I was never interested. There was overlap between Mitsubishi and Dodge use of the "Lancer" nameplate from 1985 to 1989 (funny how nobody has ever tried to sell me on a Mitsubishi)--I can't think of any other non-numerical name shared amongst automakers off the top of my head.

* * * * * *

Turning to other forms of transportation, I have been outspoken on this blog about a lack of satisfaction with Air Canada's partner airlines in the United States through the Star Alliance. Somehow, I completely missed the fact that Continential Airlines announced last June that it was withdrawing from the Skyteam alliance and joining the Star Alliance. It hasn't happened yet, but at least there's some hope on the horizon--I'd rather fly Continental than either of the two airlines that I have heavily criticized here.

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An Orion VII hybrid bus worked the 82 Rosedale bus at Maclennan Avenue on 5-February-2009

Perhaps I am being elitist about my airline choices, but it seems to me that the Toronto Transit Commission is being a bit elitist in its bus assignments. The 55 Warren Park in my neighborhood and the 82 Rosedale (serving one of the most affluent portions of the city) both require one bus. I have taken some delight in seeing historic "Fishbowl" buses on the 55--but that indicates that it is getting very old buses. In contrast, the 82 had a nearly-new Orion VII hybrid bus when I rode it recently. Is that really fair?

* * * * * *

Comedian Bill Cosby seemed very concerned with fairness when he was interviewed on KGO's Brian Copeland Program out of San Francisco last Sunday. Wondering how this impacted his viewing habits, Copeland asked him, "What do you watch on TV?" The response was classic Cosby:
I don't know. At age 71, it's not even important... the Weather Channel. The Weather Channel is dramatic, it changes every half hour, there's nobody swearing even when the weather is terrible, and we have black weather people who aren't walking with a swagger and bopping back and forth --- you know, it's the weather channel, period. It's very, very fair.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Radio Pick: Annoying Music Show

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's radio pick comes from NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday.

Sure, a show on Abraham Lincoln or Charles Darwin could have been selected this week, but what really stuck with me was Jim Nayder's appearance on Weekend Edition Saturday. Nayder occasionally takes his Chicago-based "Annoying Music Show" nationwide on the program, and this 8-minute episode was one of his better segments. Highlights included the "Taco Bell Canon" (somebody had to do it), "When a Man Loves a Chicken", and a Welsh men's choir singing "Feelings"--it's even worse than you're imagining, but a great example of how to do comedy on the radio.

Follow the "Listen Now" Link to Listen to streaming media of Weekend Edition Saturday "Annoying Music for Valentine's Day"

Holiday: Happy Freedom from Valentine's Day

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Alec Graven likely knows more about Valentine's Day than I do. The nine-year old author of "How to Talk to Girls" notes in his debut book that "about 73 percent of regular girls ditch boys." Lest that seem alarming, "98 percent of pretty girls ditch boys." (One wonders if he has watched a certain Tina Fey movie too many times.) Considering that I suspect men are at least as likely to "ditch" their partner as women, that would explain the high divorce rate and a lot of what I see around me in the world.

I have never celebrated Valentine's Day, at least since the first time I actually fell in love. Instead, I have always celebrated Freedom from Valentine's Day. A female friend once sent me the following note on Valentine's Day:
I'm wearing Halloween socks with spiderwebs on them to symbolize the complications and entrapments caused by relationships. Since I don't have one I can make fun of everyone else.
Needless to say, I thought she had the right idea. As I listened to my male friends complain about how difficult it was to meet the expectations of their significant others on this day, I just enjoyed not being saddled with that kind of responsibility. There is a real freedom in that.

It's hard not to view Valentine's Day as a over-commercialized day, with prices on anything potentially romantic, from roses to stuffed animals to dinner at cozy restaurants, going up substantially in price. (It's not hard to explain in personality terms, either, as cupid resembles the "small intestine" personality type in the "emotional" world that is most concerned with appearances and very sensitive to money--how could the day be celebrated be any other way?) Reservations have to be made far in advance at anyplace remotely nice, and if chocolate is forgotten, then expectations have not been met and the day is a failure.

My real problem with the concept of Valentine's Day is not the hyper-commercialization or even the expectations that someone else may have. It's the whole idea that there should be a single day to cultivate a relationship. I've always been of the opinion that every day in a relationship should be a celebration of that relationship. Of course, I've never really been in a position to test this idea around the fourteenth of February, but it seems to me that not many people (including women) are much enjoying the celebration of Valentine's Day, and would rather receive chocolate on, say, the day forecast to be the coldest day of the year or some other time that the their partner realizes they might appreciate it.

So, when I say I prefer the concept of Freedom from Valentine's Day, I'm not really calling for freedom from relationships as my friend once seemed to be. In reality, I'm really advocating working hard at a relationship on a daily basis, a constant effort that makes having to express all one's emotions on a single day--Valentine's Day--all but redundant. To achieve Freedom from Valentine's Day may actually require a whole lot more effort than Valentine's Day itself.

Which brings us back to the precocious Alec Graven, who advises: "Whatever happens, don't let it make you crazy... That's it. I am all out of ideas."

Friday, February 13, 2009

Culture: So Barbie was a Prostitute!

TORONTO, ONTARIO - The first time I ever appeared on a cable television program, that being the local "Current Events" show produced in Bellevue, Washington and run on local access channel #28, I was on a student panel commenting on various stories in the fall of 1991. One of my fellow panelists--who just happened to be my cousin--talked about a story related to body image that was in the news, and used a Barbie doll to help make her points about unrealistic ideals presented in American culture. Barbie's measurements, she pointed out, were physically impossible for any real woman to attain.

For those who have thought all along that Barbie originated in some sort of male sexual fantasy, author Robin Gerber argues that there's some real truth to that thought. Gerber is on a book tour promoting her book "Barbie and Ruth" about the woman behind the Barbie doll, and appeared on WBUR's "On Point" yesterday. Ruth Handler, who created Barbie fifty years ago in 1959, apparently based Barbie on the European doll called "Bild Lilli."

As well described in a Wikipedia article, Lilli originated as a comic character in 1952. She was a character that was very sassy and open about sexuality. Gerber claims in her book that Lilli even talks in some of the comic strips about taking money for sex. In essence, the author claims, Lilli was a prostitute.

The popularity of the comic led to production of a doll, "Bild Lilli," in 1955. Originally intended as a novelty item for men, it was such a novel doll design that girls decided they wanted to play with it. Before long, it was for sale as a rather expensive general toy in Germany. While traveling in Europe, Ruth Handler found the doll and used it as the model for Mattel to copy for Barbie.

So, if Barbie was based on Lilli, and Lilli was a comic character that was a prostitute, then Barbie was based on a prostitute. Somehow, I doubt anyone is surprised by Gerber's claim. In 1964, Mattel purchased the rights to Lilli and stopped production of the German doll. Nominally, this was to prevent competition for Barbie, but one wonders if burying the history wasn't at least an intended side effect.

For a 50 year-old, Barbie seems to have aged pretty well, appearing almost the same as she did in 1960--just one more thing unrealistic thing about one of the best selling toys of all time.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Economics: No Government Job Creation?

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Do a Google news search for "government cannot create jobs" and the results right now are pretty amusing. There are columnists and letters to the editor all over the United States repeating a quote that seems to originally have come from Antony Davies, an associate professor of economics at Duquesne University that has been picked up by the Heritage Foundation, amongst others. Davies stated:
It is time for voters to wake up to the fact that government cannot create jobs. It can only shift jobs from one part of the economy to the other. It is entrepreneurs who create jobs, and it is consumers who judge whether those jobs are the best jobs to be created. The government contributes best by establishing a rule of law and protection of property rights that allows entrepreneurs and consumers to act in their best interests.
One has to give the right wing credit for a very coordinated campaign to spread their message, but the problem is that their message isn't consistent with what I learned in school.

Claiming that government cannot create jobs is absurd on its face. Do we really think the private sector would replace all the government positions that currently exist if we suddenly dissolved the government and eliminated taxes? Hogwash. We've seen from how the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) funds in the United States have been used in the United States how such funds would be used--they would be hoarded by the companies to hedge against a lack of credit in the best case, in the worst case used to pay bonuses for executives.

More directly, their premise assumes that government spending to create jobs will result immediately in higher taxes. Whether it is advisable or not, that is not what is happening right now. Instead, the government is going into debt to spend money now, so it isn't taking money away from the private sector in a direct way. In time, these moves may result in inflation or the devaluation of the currency, and they certainly may result in increased taxes in the future, but those are all delayed effects. The immediate effect of government spending by going into debt is potentially to stimulate the economy and create jobs. It is not necessary to be a hard-core believer in Keynesian economics to understand that. Basic training in macroeconomics should be sufficient.

Voters did speak in the last election. They wanted action on the state of the economy; they wanted the economy to be stimulated by government spending. They may not have really wanted a package like the one that it appears to be on the verge of passing the Congress, but they wanted something. Trying to convince them that they didn't really want anything is futile.

Personally, I wish the Canadian government would get going and start spending some money on public transit, so I might have a fighting chance to get one of the resulting jobs that they can't actually create.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Politics: Reminder of Why to Avoid Massachusetts

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I'm not going to defend artist Shepard Fairey, or pass judgment on him either way. I don't know if he's criminally responsible for graffiti or not; I don't know if he's in violation of copyright or not. However, the news of his arrest in Boston while he was en-route to the opening of an exhibit featuring his works at the Institute for Contemporary Art reminded me why I want nothing to do with the mentality of people in the state of Massachusetts if I can avoid it for the rest of my life.

Shepard Fairey has become best known for the abstract image he created of Barack Obama in red, white and blue with the word "HOPE" below that eventually became an icon of the President's campaign. The image itself has created controversy, as the Associated Press claims that his use of one of their photographs as a starting point did not constitute fair use.

However, that legal situation may be the least of Fairey's concerns. Long before creating the "Hope" work, he was known for graffiti stencils including the word "obey" and Andre the Giant. Boston Police claim that they have evidence that, in 2000, he personally stenciled at least two locations in that city with graffiti, leading to charges that they used to arrest him last Friday.

Quite possibly, Fairey deserved to be arrested. However, as I listened to coverage of recent events on CBC Radio One's The Current this morning, I was mostly feeling glad that I didn't live in Massachusetts anymore.

This is how things work in Massachusetts. It's likely that Boston Police had other opportunities to arrest Fairey before the opening night of his exhibit, probably back as far as 2000. However, at that time, there was likely not public pressure on them to make the arrest, and they likely focused on things they considered more important. However, now that Fairey has become prominent and even a role model, resentment about his perceived hypocrisy has grown into anger that has likely been directed into pressure on the police department to arrest him. I doubt there's much fault to find with in the police department in this case, regardless of the eventual legal truths that will be revealed. It's the political climate that has changed since 2000 and has led to a prominent artist being arrested.

What happens in Massachusetts is that people take a dislike to someone (or a group), don't say much about it, then wait for an advantageous event that allows them to get the public on their side and take out their dislike in either the courts or the media, or both. It happens all the time. His rivals had been after Massport Executive Director Peter Blute for a long time, then set up the 1999 "booze cruise" (which the Boston Herald just happened to be around to photograph) to embarrass him into resigning. Politicians had wanted Amtrak out as contractor for commuter rail around Boston for months if not years before the death of a man by heart attack on a train allowed them to rally public support to get rid of Amtrak--and the change in operator has done nothing to prevent the same event from happening again, but they got their revenge on Amtrak. On a smaller scale, I've seen neighbors that disliked someone wait for a minor incident that amounted to an accident and then, as a group, all individually call city inspectors to create trouble for that person and put their renovations so far behind schedule that they ended up nearly bankrupt.

There are two things that always bothered me about these kinds of events. First of all, they are completely unconstructive. Rather than presenting a positive alternative to something that is going on, they try to drag down a person. Nothing positive ever comes out of these sequences, and whomever becomes the target can have their life ruined. More importantly, they don't deal with the root cause of the dislike. Those against Peter Blute were apparently mostly upset about his plans for a third runway--plans that Massport didn't drop when Blute was succeeded. Quality of service on commuter rail has gone down since Amtrak was replaced by the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad by almost any standard, but I wouldn't blame that on the new contractor--the real problem is the equipment provided by the local agency.

If Fairey really committed criminal acts--and he may have--then he should have been arrested a long time ago, perhaps made to do restitution for any damage caused. It's so typical of Massachusetts for such an arrest to wait until it creates maximum damage to the person--and do nothing about vandalism, the real problem at the heart of the community resentment. It's really tiresome to see yet another unconstructive Massachusetts drama.

For all I know, somebody in the Boston area has some old grudge against me, and if I ever become prominent and pass through town, they'll find some way to cause serious trouble for me while I'm visiting. Considering how things work in that region, it would be almost be more surprising if someone weren't waiting for such a chance.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Arts: Modern Art Generational Divide?

TORONTO, ONTARIO - For most of my life, I have been less than impressed by--and in fact have sometimes avoided--modern art exhibits. It's not like I hadn't seen any; I have been exposed to special exhibits at institutions from the diminutive Bellevue Art Museum (in Washington state) to the Museum Ludwig in Cologne, Germany, and in permanent collections in places like the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. However, I failed to find anything aesthetically engaging in works by Andy Warhol and marveled at how Novartis had wasted money (in my opinion) on "rusting" sculptures by Richard Serra at their world headquarters in Basel, Switzerland. These pieces really did nothing for me.

Thus, I saved the modern art areas at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) here in Toronto for last during my recent visit, figuring I could skip them if I ran out of time. I did have time, so I headed up the Frank Gehry-designed "fanciful circular" staircase up to the fourth floor of the tower. On that level, which covers contemporary art in the 1960's to the 1980's, I found what I have come to expect from such exhibits--Andy Warhol in one corner, bizarre and graphic depictions of civil rights protests in another, and utterly incomprehensible and visually uninteresting abstract pieces in another. I almost didn't want to bother walking up the steps to the fifth floor to see more of the same.

Yet, when I arrived at the "top" of the AGO, I discovered that fifth floor focuses on contemporary art from the 1990's to present day, and I found myself actually enjoying a lot of it. In one room, a long line of old books and papers formed a visually-appealing 25-foot line across the room, with the smallest pieces of paper on one end and the largest on the other. A set of three slide projectors beamed strange messages onto a wall, but that made sense when one read the explanation and realized that they were the contrived reactions of three different family members to another's vacation pictures. With that background in mind, that display became downright funny. Heading into another room, a sculpture headed for the ceiling made entirely out of backpacks, an object that I related to and appreciated. Another piece of art explored globalism by creating a model city of souvenirs collected from around the world--and a guide around the side noted the cost in the local currencies of the various trinkets. Suddenly, I was actually experiencing what people had always told me modern art was supposed to be--accessible, somehow familiar, and thought-provoking about things that were relevant in modern times.

When I eventually headed back down the stairs to the main floors of the AGO, I was very glad that I had made it all the way up to the fifth floor and the truly contemporary art. I immediately started to contemplate why I had never had an experience like that before--was it because these artists were concerned with the contemporary world that I was living in, instead of the 1960's and 1970's that I had never experienced? Was it purely generational--I was now old enough that artists that had my common cultural experiences were gaining recognition? Or is the AGO somehow unique in its selections and my resonance is actually more with the institution and not with "contemporary art" from recent years per se?

I haven't found those answers yet, but if not for the interesting division of the contemporary art exhibit at the AGO, I might not have ever asked the questions.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Politics: Behind Canadian Closed Doors

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I am often accused of only criticizing things in the United States, and not taking on the problems that exist in Canada, that I am somehow so biased in favor of Canada that I can't see anything wrong here. I actually have plenty to say about things that need to be improved here, and I will start today by pointing out that way too many political decisions are made behind closed doors here.

The issue became a bit more apparent than usual at the Metrolinx open house that I attended last week. Sure, it bothered me that the involvement of a private company in the Air Rail Link was hidden in that open house, but even more disturbing was how that came to be in the first place. The original "Blue 22" proposals of the 1990's, of which the Air Rail Link is a direct descendant even if the name has changed, apparently came from lobbying by SNC-Lavalin of the provincial government--not any sort of organic, grass-roots desire for an Express service to the airport. In fact, everything I've read indicates that the idea of building an Eglinton subway all the way out to the airport was greatly favored by the general public at the time, and some have accused the provincial government of scuttling the Eglinton subway specifically to make sure that couldn't happen. (In this view of history, Mel Lastman was a simply an opportunist in getting a subway built along Sheppard Avenue after Eglinton construction was stopped.)

But, it's not just transportation decisions that take place behind the scenes. Look at the anointment of Michael Ignatieff as leader of the Liberal Party. That process wasn't even transparent to members of the party, who watched as the other candidates quietly stepped aside "for the good of the party and the good of the nation." Perhaps in the circumstances it was indeed at least good for the Liberal Party, but as Canadians wring their hands about why there is no Barack Obama in Canada, they need to look no further than these kind of back-room deals that favor party elites and make it hard for any organic movement to take hold. I'm not sure Canadians want potential leaders going door to door in (say) Regina and Whitehorse the way American politicians campaign early in Iowa and New Hampshire, but there are plenty of intermediate solutions that would allow for the garnering of grass-roots support and allow it to be tallied--and the parties are in direct control of these rules so they have only themselves to blame.

Then, there's the tradition of keeping budgets secret until they are presented to parliament. Sure, there's plenty of opportunity for the opposition to rip apart the budget after it is presented, but this tradition just reeks of secretive back-room deals in the development of the budget--and the opposition really can't stop a bad budget in a majority parliament. It doesn't help when the current Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, has a reputation of making all the decisions himself and not even listening to his own party members--witness the contradictions this week in statements by Harper and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty. It's hard to trust the budgeting process in these circumstances.

The campaign finance reforms of recent decades have undoubtedly helped, and Canadian government is undoubtedly less secretive than when I was born, but it wasn't that long ago that the Sponsorship Scandal occurred. Canada still has a long way to go in having a truly open and accountable government--it would seem that only the tradition of "good government" and the willingness of the citizenry to punish parties that have misbehaved have made the system more functional overall than that of its neighbor to the south.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Photos: Winter in Toronto

The one-time high-level Toronto Suburban Railway bridge from its line to Guelph was a low-level pedestrian bridge over the Humber River when observed on 9-January-2009

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's update to my photo site focuses on winter scenes in Toronto, Ontario.

Early scenes from winter in Toronto between 9-January-2009 and 7-February-2009 included wildlife and ice formations along the Humber River Valley, construction of the West Toronto grade separation, and meetings of the Swansea Historical Society and the West Toronto Junction Historical Society.

Margin Notes: Krieghoff, Bikes, Cranes, 'BZ

Kennedy Park near Bloor and Runnymede in Toronto, Ontario looked quiet on 4-February-2009

TORONTO, ONTARIO - The works of Dutch painter Cornelius Krieghoff have been mentioned on this blog before. This winter, I think I have grown to understand his fascination with winter in what was then Lower Canada, even if I am in what was then Upper Canada. The scene at Kennedy Park in my neighborhood looked like an urban version of a Krieghoff painting to me, but no man with a dog walked by to complete the scene so I was left with the emptiness above.

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An anti-war message adorned a bicycle along Bloor Street West in Toronto on 3-February-2009

Not far away from Kennedy Park on Bloor Street, I found the above bicycle parked in the snow at dusk. The concept of a bumper sticker or rear-window sticker certainly is not new, but I think this is the first time I've seen a readable message on the rear of a bicycle. Appropriately, the bicycle was not far from an open house on the Georgetown South rail corridor covered last week.

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VIA Rail Canada train #84 from Sarnia, Ontario passed the construction cranes at the West Toronto diamonds on 2-February-2009

One of the minor questions I asked at that open house was whether the construction going on at the West Toronto diamonds was really going to lead to a four-track right-of-way on the current CN Weston Subdivision underneath the CP North Toronto Sub. As shown in the photograph above taken on Monday, it sure looks like the retaining walls being constructed leave room for only two tracks. Perhaps these are only for the purpose of making a "shoo-fly" track for use during the construction, but I wonder.

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My eyes weren't deceiving me on the world wide web earlier this week. Starting on Monday, CBC Television's The National started using their High Definition format on the Internet archive of the program, instead of the traditional television format. Of course, most of the advantages of HD are completely missing on the web, but it still struck me as an interesting change--television as we knew it is changing north of the border, as well.

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Another media organization deserves credit for doing some things correctly. Last month, I criticized twice WBZ Newsradio 1030 out of Boston, Massachusetts for ending their overnight talk show and not replacing morning sports reporter Gil Santos. Apparently, audience complaints have paid off, as WBZ has re-hired Steve LaVeille for the overnight slot and Walt Perkins will take Santos' morning sports slot. While the lack of overnight news reporting and an incredibly obscure time slot for Lovell Dyett (4:30 am Sunday) have been noted by Scott Fybush's Northeast Radio Watch, at least it now appears that WBZ is trying within the confines of decreasing ad revenue to maintain its brand, and it should be commended for that. Perhaps there is hope for the radio business yet.

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Is there hope for the concept of "read dating"? The combination of speed dating and book clubs came to Seattle last week at the University Book Store. In an interview with KUOW's Ross Reynolds before the Thursday event, spokesperson Stesha Brandon noted that plenty of women that expressed interest in the eight-minute one-on-one book discussions, but no men had said they would come. Apparently they did, as a blog posting on Friday implied that the event was a success. I have a feeling that the over-age-30 restriction placed on the meeting may have had something to do with that--unless the plan is to share things read on a Kindle or iPhone, I have my doubts the concept would work with members of Generation Y.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Radio Pick: The Day the Music Died

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's radio pick comes from the Brian Copeland Program on KGO Newstalk 810 in San Francisco.

Thanks in large part to Don McLean, 3-February-1959 has come to be known as "The Day the Music Died." Just before the 50th anniversary of the day that Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J. P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson died in a plane crash, KGO talk show host Brian Copeland teamed up with the San Francisco Chronicle's radio columnist Ben Fong-Torres to co-host a two-hour program featuring a variety of interesting interviews with survivors of that day, including THE Peggy Sue, THE Donna, and the Big Bopper's son. If you don't understand what the fuss is all about, this show will provide a proper perspective on the events of that day.

Listen to MP3 of the Brian Copeland Program "The Day the Music Died"

Heritage: Neil Ross on Canadian Humour

Neil Ross presented the history of Canadian Humour to the West Toronto Junction Historical Society on 5-February-2009

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Few things are held more dearly in the Canadian psyche than the distinct Canadian sense of humour. Yet, few people seem to know how it developed. Neil Ross tried to rectify this with his presentation "Nation of Irony Mongers: Roots of the Canadian Sense of Humour", made in front of the West Toronto Junction Historical Society last Thursday as a preview of a series of two-minute radio features that will be airing on the CBC in the coming weeks.

I was pleased to find Ross start with native humour. He pointed out that most First Nations and other native peoples in Canada had much of their humour based on the trickster, often the coyote, but sometimes embodied in other animals, most notably the raven on the west coast. The notion of the trickster made its way into European-Canadian humor straight-away, and still lives on to this day even on the Rick Mercer Report.

Many comic devices that have made their way to the rest of the world through the United States actually originated in Canada. Most notably, the "pie in the face" gag originated in Newfoundland; Ross recounted how Doc Kelley originally improvised food dripping off someone's face, and seeing what laughter it brought, followed it up in a subsequent act with the first true pie-in-the-face routine to a riotous response.

This being a local historical society meeting, Ross emphasized local comedians Greg Clark and Jimmy Frise, both of whom lived in the Bâby Point neighbourhood just to the west. An audience member actually knew the exact houses that they lived in, and Clark had apparently moved during his time there. The columnist (Clark) and cartoonist (Frise) duo made the Toronto Star incredibly popular between 1920 and 1947 through a strip named Birdseye Center.

My favorite story about Clark and Frise told by Ross, though, was that they once decided to invoke the trickster heritage and purchased a bench exactly like the park benches in High Park in Toronto. They brought their bench to the park, sat on it, and waited for a police officer that they had an issue with to walk by. They then proceeded to walk off with the bench, prompting the officer to confront them. Only when they were about to be arrested did they pull out their sales receipt from the purchase of the bench.

The first three episodes of the "Nation of Irony Mongers" have been posted to the West Toronto Junction Historical Society web site. They will air during the local morning programs on CBC Radio One; the time locally here in Toronto on 99.1 FM is not yet known, but should start next week during Metro Morning.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Politics: Death to Traffic!

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Travel writer Rick Steves is more willing than many of his peers to talk about the political implications of what he learns when he travels. While his most out-spoken political position may be on the legalization of marijuana, two stories he told on various radio shows and on a blog about his trip last spring to Iran say more about potential relations between the US and Iran than anything heard in the news.

While taking a van around the capitol not after his arrival in Tehran, Steves found himself in a traffic jam. Iran is not immune to western-style slow-downs; this back-up was so bad that cars in a portion of the highway would not move for minutes at a time. (Traffic engineers sometimes call this "level of service F"--I always wondered what they would call it at Stanford, where "F" grades are not allowed, but I digress.) Passengers in a car next to the van noticed that there was a foreigner inside. At one point, they rolled down their window and handed over a bouquet of flowers for the van's driver to give to Steves--they wanted to apologize for their traffic. Can you imagine that happening on the Gardiner Expressway, the 101, or even I-35W in Minneapolis?

Perhaps the most frightening vision of Iran in the American psyche is that of Iranians chanting "Death to America!" But what does that phrase really mean? Steves gained considerable insight in another traffic incident. When caught in yet another traffic jam, his "local guide" (they didn't like the term "government minder") suddenly blurted out "Death to traffic!" Seeing a confused look on Steves' face, he explained, "Because we can do nothing about this traffic, we can all say 'Death to Traffic'." In other words, he didn't literally mean he wanted to kill all the other drivers, but to succinctly express frustration with something that was beyond his control. It rather puts the frightening "Death to America!" saying in context--it's an expression of frustration with something beyond their control, the actions of the United States government.

Somehow, I suspect if I say "Death to Cold!" that people around here won't understand that I just mean to express frustration about something beyond my control. Yet such simple explanations could go a long way to changing impressions about people in a culture that Americans have had little reason to try to understand.

For more of Steves' impressions in Iran, read his Iranian travel blog.