Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Media: Why I Don't Twitter (Much)

TORONTO, ONTARIO - A friend once told me that he didn't think podcasting was such a big deal, because if you could download the files, then subscribing to a podcast was just a different interface to do something that was already possible. That was largely true for engineers like my friend and me, since we did download MP3's and other sound files of programs before podcasting had been invented. However, my answer to him was that the new interfaces available in iTunes and other programs designed for receiving podcasts were so easy that people who previously didn't know how to download files could have them automatically delivered to their computers. Indeed, podcasting has now allowed millions of people that previously would not have listened to all kinds of programming to listen at their leisure. The phenomenon even prompted me to write on this blog about people effectively becoming their own radio program directors using podcasts.

Twitter is a similar kind of advance. It was already possible to set up a mailing list to reach a group of people via e-mail (in fact, it's been possible almost since the inception of the Internet), and if those recipients had a "smart" phone, they could receive those messages on their mobile device rather than just via e-mail. (Similarly, properly equipped individuals could send to their lists from a mobile device.) Twitter just makes it orders of magnitude easier, especially from a subscriber's point of view. Managing whether one wants to "follow" the "tweets" or messages from a given person is almost trivial using the Twitter interface. The ease of use of the interface is why Twitter has become the hottest thing in technology in 2009, with even National Public Radio's 92-year old Daniel Schorr sending "tweets" (albeit reportedly with help).

Besides the interface, the other distinguishing characteristic of Twitter is that messages are limited to 140 characters. Some people consider it a challenge to write something meaningful in 140 characters, but in general I consider it hopeless. Most of the time, I probably don't provide enough context and explanation for my ideas in this blog--trying to express such ideas in 140 characters is essentially impossible. Markos Moulitsas tried about a week ago, tweeting "Geithner is starting to look like Obama's Rumsfeld." If there was every anything that needed a full essay expanding an idea, it was that one. As talk show host Dave Ross pointed out, his next tweet three hours later was "At park, my 2yo is beating up on 5yos. She doesn't take crap from anyone. My 5yo, on the other hand, gets beat up"--which clearly didn't need more explanation, but nobody outside of his family really needed to hear about.

I see the point of Twitter in following a breaking event--getting the perspective of someone watching a sporting event, for example. Tweeting that you are okay after a major earthquake might be an efficient way to avoid having to call all your friends and relatives. If following a steam train to take pictures of it, following someone tweeting the location of the train would be useful. My life simply doesn't have those kinds of events going on very often, so this blog makes much more sense as a forum to share with the world.

So, technically, I'm on Twitter. But, unless there's some sort of real-time event going on, don't expect me to be sending tweets--or following anyone. And, remember, you can subscribe to this blog using a RSS feed, if you are so inclined--that will provide far more information than following me on Twitter.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Economics: Why Would One Go Into Science?

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Recently in various media, Roche's head of global pharma research, Lee E. Babiss, has been quoted as to why the Swiss-based pharmaceutical company has opened an R&D center in China. In the United States and Europe, Babiss has stated, "many kids are not choosing to go into sciences. That is the primary reason we went to China. So many of the young people we were hiring were from China, so we thought 'Why should they have to come to us? Let's go to them instead.'"

Roche happens to be one of the world's large corporations that I actually have reasonable respect for after seeing how they treated their technical employees at their headquarters site in Basel, Switzerland and in Nutley, New Jersey, and how they handled the swallowing of Syntex in California. They're not perfect, but I think they have their priorities better placed than most international corporations with more than 10,000 employees. So, when Roche implies that they are not finding talent in the United States and Europe, I take that statement at face value.

There really should be no surprise about the statement. Most of the most intelligent people I know did not go into science or engineering, or got out of those fields as quickly as possible. In the group of twelve people that graduated in my class of chemical engineers at the undergraduate level, only three of us planned to stay in the field. (If someone else ultimately did, I've lost touch with them and don't know about it.) Of those three, one went into academia and remains in research, one went straight into industry and rapidly transitioned into product management, and I did a graduate degree and went into industry, into a career track like one that Babiss claimed was not often being chosen. Notably, two of the three of us in the group choosing to pursue the field were in the bottom quartile of the class. So, less than one-fifth of the class even tried to make a career out of the field, mostly from the group of weaker students, and only one remains employed--I'm looking for new career.

What did everybody else do? A smattering pursued eclectic dreams like sailing and made a career out of those, but just about everyone in the top two quartiles intended to go to business school or directly into financial fields, and near as I can tell have been very successful in doing so. At the graduate level, the pattern of my colleagues was similar. There was a greater percentage intending to stay in academia that have done so, but again many of the top students simply used their chemical engineering degrees as a way into the financial industry, with a good portion also heading into consulting or other business-related fields successfully. The exact pattern that Roche was seeing, that the best and brightest don't go into technical jobs in industry, was clearly there.

It's not hard to see why. While science and engineering salaries may certainly be higher than the national average, they are way below the compensation packages available to investment bankers, business school graduates or in management. There is little room for advancement in technical positions other than going into management. What's worse, people running the companies view their technical employees strictly as expenses--not as resources, since those in research and development (R&D) technically aren't making anything. When demands come for greater return on investment--whether for corporate survival during a recession or just from investors in boom times--it is easy to justify cutting the expensive R&D employees, and the jobs disappear entirely, or at least get moved to China or India where they can be done less expensively.

Some of the people I know that went into the financial industry or to business school are also out of work in this economy, but they have financial reserves that are five to ten times what mine were when my last job ended and they can live off the interest from their wealth even at current interest rates. Those that went into academia are all employed, if blocked from advancement in the current conditions. They will be okay. Clearly, the people that made the decisions to go into finance, business, or academia made smart decisions.

Meanwhile, those of us that tried to become the R&D workers that Roche claims it can't find in the United States and Europe have been laid off and some of us may never work in the industry again. Is there any wonder that "many kids are not choosing to go into sciences?" Taking a rational view of the job world, why would they?

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Margin Notes: Earth Hour, Trains Restored, CBC

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Toronto Hydro's figures are out, and power use was down 15% during Earth Hour last night. On today's Dr. Joe Show on CJAD and CFRB, host Dr. Joe Schwarcz read a letter pointing out that in areas were power comes primarily from hydroelectric and nuclear power, Earth Hour actually results in increased carbon emissions, as candles emit carbon dioxide and the sources of electricity do not. Somebody seems to have missed the point that the event is designed to raise environmental awareness, not reduce carbon emissions--as a joke on This Hour Has 22 Minutes put it a few weeks ago, the event would delay the end of the Earth "by one hour." Perhaps the most amusing take on the event was on blogTO, which had the headline "Earth Hour Makes Like the TSX: Power Use Drops 15%". There's nothing like the economy to keep things in perspective.

* * * * * *

As people continue to look for signs of what is happening with the economy, some very strange indicators are being cited. I've been known to cite the amount of traffic I see on freight trains and the operating pattern of railroads. The Canadian Pacific had apparently stopped running its daytime "Expressway" trains carrying trailers between Toronto and Montreal earlier this year, leaving only the overnight "Expressway" trains running. However, I saw train #122 from Toronto to Montreal starting its journey just after daybreak on Friday morning, so the daytime trains are back--and there were quite a number of Canadian Tire trailers on the thirty-platform train, implying that the retailer may be seeing some strength in the economy.

* * * * * *

CBC/Radio-Canada has certainly been affected by the economy, announcing cutbacks this week that included 800 layoffs. One question raised by the cuts is what CBC Radio One will broadcast in the early afternoon. If regional noon shows will only be an hour long, that opens up the 1-2 pm hour in many markets, and if "The Point" is being canceled, that opens up 2-3 pm or 2-3:30 pm, depending on the market, leaving at least a ninety minute hole in the afternoon. My guess? The current 11 pm programs (repeats of weekend programming from Quirks and Quarks to Writers and Company to Vinyl Tap) will be run at 1 pm, introducing them to yet another audience. Then, from 2 onward, a national program will be made up of "best-of" morning shows from across the country. In Toronto, it would be nice to hear the best interviews from Rick Cluff, Jim Brown, Kathleen Petty, Don Connolly and other regional and local hosts around the country, and we can share Andy Barrie. All it would cost the CBC is a little production time.

* * * * * *

Public radio stations in many areas in the United States are reminding listeners what it costs to listen to them through fund-raising drives. One interesting comment heard during KUOW-Seattle's fund drive last week was "Conversation" host Ross Reynolds saying that when he hears legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg, he thinks of tote bags, a common premium for giving to public radio. Come to think of it, I'm surprised NPR hasn't sold Totenberg Tote Bags.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Radio Pick: Happiness on the Conversation

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I admittedly have a soft spot for good radio production pieces--it's one of the reasons I still tune in the Boston Marathon coverage on the WBZ-AM stream each year, if possible, just to hear the concluding summary the station produces to end the show. I normally avoid programming during public radio fundraising, but KUOW inserted such a well-produced montage of past coverage about happiness on "The Conversation" that I kept listening to the show. The eight-minute piece starts about twelve minutes into the program--skip the fundraising, but enjoy the montage as my radio pick of the week.

Listen to streaming MP3 of The Conversation "What Is Happiness?"

Culture: MIT and the Talking Frog

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Some time ago I tackled the idea of what it meant to be "of" a given university and considered what defined the culture of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). An old joke came up this week that probably defines MIT better than any description. It goes:
A MIT student was walking through campus when a frog jumped on to the walkway in front of him. To the student's surprise, rather than hopping on toward the Charles River, the frog instead turned and spoke to him:

"You smart man, come kiss me and I will become a beautiful princess and grant you three wishes."

The MIT student bent over, picked up the frog, put it in his pocket, and kept walking to class.

As he turned off the Infinite Corridor, he decided to take the frog out of his pocket. The frog again spoke:

"You are such a tall man, please kiss me and I will become a beautiful princess and be your girlfriend."

The MIT student put the frog back in his pocket and continued to class. After the class was over, on the way to his lab, he decided to take out the frog once more. The front spoke for the third time:

"You are a handsome man. Kiss me and I will become a beautiful princess and make you happy forever."

The MIT student put the frog back in his pocket and finished walking to the lab, did a series of experiments, then started walking home for dinner. Along the way, he took out the frog, who spoke for the fourth time:

"I don't understand you. I have promised you wishes, to be your girlfriend, and to make you happy forever. What do I have to do to make you kiss me?"

"Look," said the student, "I go to MIT. I don't have time to worry about wishes or for a girlfriend. But a talking frog, that's cool!"

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Media: New Financing Model for CBC

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Today, the consequences of the $171 million shortfall at CBC/Radio-Canada became known. $125 million in assets will be sold and leased back, and about 800 jobs will be eliminated, evenly divided between English and French programming. Fewer episodes of many popular CBC Television series will be ordered, sports and children's programming will be curtailed, certain regional news programs will be shortened, and five radio programs will be canceled entirely: The Inside Track, Outfront, The Point, In the Key of Charles, and The Signal. Noontime regional programs on Radio One will be shortened from two hours to one (which has little impact on areas like Manitoba where the program is already just an hour long).

The move did not come as a result of a funding cut by the government. While suspicions persist that the Conservative government would love to eliminate the CBC, Federal funding remains unchanged at about $1.1 billion. In fact, the government confirmed today that the "special transfer" payments of $60 million a year would continue, preventing further cuts beyond those announced today. What the government refused to do was to provide special "bridge financing" to the CBC during the recession. The CBC had requested such advances on future subsidies as a way to avoid cuts during the recession.

The reason that the CBC is having to cut back is the same reason that most mass media, from newspapers to broadcasters, are suffering right now--reduced advertising revenue. That's right, advertising purchased for airing during CBC Television (and its French equivalent) is down by about $171 million a year as a result of the recession, and, as a result, everything from one-person news bureaus to Robin Brown's long-running radio show on the human side of sports will disappear.

Radio people--where I usually count myself--are upset by the fact that reduced television advertising revenue is resulting in cuts to radio, especially at a time when Radio One is achieving record listenership in many markets. They are probably mollified by the fact that a rumored introduction of advertising to the radio stations will not take place, but with even surviving programs subject to cutback ("The Current" reportedly has had its budget cut by 10%) there will be a loss of quality across the board. The argument goes that the cheaper radio network should be subsidized and more expensive television should be budgeted out of its own advertising.

I don't believe that the CBC should be pitting radio versus television (or against cbc.ca, which is the only division not facing cuts), but the whole organization needs a whole new form of financing that isn't so dependent on ad revenue or politics. On that point, I agree with many conservatives. I completely disagree with their solutions, which are usually subscription services or voluntary payments in the manner of public radio in the United States in which the CBC becomes like any other media product. Part of the CBC-Radio Canada mandate is to promote Canadian culture, to teach Canada about itself--including its history, which seems to have gotten little attention of late. It can't do that in a fee-for-service-type environment.

What the CBC really needs is an endowment. To create an endowment that will be able to provide $1.7 billion a year will take years, but that's all the more reason to start to build it. Part of the money should come from the government, but much as public radio has received significant endowment gifts in the United States, foundation and other contributions can be solicited. If it is made clear that the purpose is to create a stable, permanent Fourth Estate and Canadian cultural resource, the money will come, even if it takes ten years. CBC-Radio Canada needs to remain a crown corporation for the sake of accountability, but the bulk of the budget should not come from government, nor from advertising that takes a nosedive in a recession.

Could this really be pulled off? I'm not sure, but what became clear today is that the current system is broken, and it can't just be blamed on the current government. Something needs to be done to secure the future of CBC-Radio Canada, and it needs to be done before another round of cuts become necessary.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Transport: Remembering Buffy the Train Slayer

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Three years ago almost to the day, I took Amtrak's Coast Starlight on an overnight trip from Seattle, Washington to San Jose, California. In that era before the economy started to slow down, the Starlight was known for being consistently late, in large part because of congestion caused by freight train traffic. This trip would prove the most delayed of any I had ever taken on the Starlight before or since, and a major reason was someone called "Buffy the Train Slayer."

There were actually many reasons that the Coast Starlight was delayed during that era. The railroad lines used by the train south of Portland, Oregon were historically owned by the Southern Pacific which merged into the Union Pacific in 1996. The UP integration of the SP was extremely problem-prone, some related to deferred maintenance under the SP, some simply related to high traffic volumes and other, more normal factors. Even ten years later, the UP was playing catch-up. The highest-volume lines had been prioritized for upgrading and repairs, and the line plied by the Coast Starlight was not one of them. At one point in 2006, there were four hours of "slow orders" on the Starlight route, or speed restrictions on tracks that required passing over them at lower speed than normal for safety reasons. With four hours of lost time, there was no chance of running on time, even if no other delays were encountered, even accounting for slack in the schedule--there wasn't four hours of slack.

Usually, though, there were other delays. Some were Amtrak's own fault because of inadequate maintenance, as a locomotive would fail or a car would have a problem and have to be set-out enroute, or a relief crew would not arrive as expected to meet a late train. However, the largest single factor was what Amtrak called "freight train interference." On lines owned by freight railroads, such as nearly the entire route of the Coast Starlight, the freight railroad controlled dispatching and decided which trains would get to go first. In early 2006, there were more freight trains than Union Pacific could really run on the Sacramento to Portland portion of the Coast Starlight route. It was a major headache for the train dispatchers that were trying to set up the routes for all the trains.

Some were more skilled than others, and a certain dispatcher that worked second trick (afternoons) on the "Dispatcher 68" desk that controlled the line between Portland and Oakridge, Oregon gained a reputation for not getting trains over the road quickly. It wasn't just Amtrak crews and passengers that noticed. Freight crews didn't reach their destinations within their hours of service mandated by Federal law and had to be relieved frequently. Track maintainers became frustrated with the dispatcher with initials "SKR" since they couldn't get time on the track to make repairs. The situation became so famous that it began to be written about on-line and known worldwide.

In one particularly egregious incident, an Amtrak Cascades train from Eugene to Portland, Oregon took six hours to go the approximately fifty miles between Salem and Portland scheduled for not much more than one hour. Railroad enthusiast John Bauer happened to be on board that train and like many people had gone to the bistro car to pass the time while the train wasn't moving. Someone there asked the conductor what was going on, and he said something about the dispatcher really "stabbing" the train. As Bauer told the story:
Passengers took it from there with "What was that movie about a slayer?" "It was the Vampire something wasn't it?" "Yeah, that was Buffy the Vampire Slayer." "Well, how about this being Buffy the Train Slayer?"
The name stuck. The dispatcher with initials SKR became known as "Buffy the Train Slayer" worldwide.

I had never experienced "Buffy" before the trip three years ago, but I wouldn't soon forget. The train had encountered heavy freight train traffic on the BNSF Railway between Seattle and Portland, but still left Portland and entered "Buffy"'s territory only 3 minutes late. The first sign that all wasn't quite right should have come with a ten minute delay for a meet at a siding called Gervais, but on a busy railroad that isn't necessarily a big deal. When I first realized we were in trouble was when the dispatcher contacted our crew south of Salem to communicate two unforeseen speed restrictions and gave her initials as SKR in the process. I knew of "Buffy" and her reputation, and I now knew that my train's progress was at her mercy.

All still seemed reasonable until just we were stopped by a red signal just short of the Eugene station, running about a half hour late. Twenty minutes later, the northbound Coast Starlight pulled out of the station and we were allowed in. This seemed a bit odd, as the station stop at Eugene usually took ten minutes or less, and we proceeded to pull out of the station about an hour late. However, I didn't know what "Buffy" had in store for us next.

The next siding past Eugene station was Judkins, and there was a relatively short northbound freight in the siding. "Buffy" instructed us to back into the south end of the siding behind it. We followed the instructions and waited, with no indication of how long we would be there. In an hour, a northbound train passed, but we still didn't get a signal to proceed. Only after another twenty minutes passed and another train went by did we finally continue southbound, now more than two hours late. After two more bad meets, we finally left "Buffy"'s territory, about three hours late.

It didn't get better overnight, as we encountered the bulk of the "slow orders," but likely also faced more freight interference. This underscores the fact that while "Buffy" had become notorious, in many ways she was simply a reflection of Union Pacific policies at the time that did not prioritize Amtrak trains. She was basically doing her job as directed by Corridor Managers above her, in some sense the scapegoat for a situation she didn't really create.

The next day there were further delays, including the addition of a private car to the train at Oakland and a major delay while we had to wait to use a bottleneck section of track just north of San Jose while three shorter-distance passenger trains were allowed to run first. Final arrival in San Jose was seven hours, twenty minutes late for what should have been a twenty-four hour trip. It was the worst timekeeping I had ever experienced on Amtrak.

Things have changed in the past three years. "Buffy the Train Slayer" changed territories in late 2006 and no longer dispatches the Coast Starlight route in Oregon. Union Pacific has repaired the vast majority of the slow orders on the route. The economy has slowed and the number of freight trains on the route has decreased markedly. Most significantly, the Union Pacific now has a policy of trying to earn incentive payments from Amtrak and makes a real effort to run the trains on time. In 2008, I took three trips on the Coast Starlight, all of which reached their destinations on time or early. In February 2009, the Coast Starlight ran on-time 91% of the time, well above Amtrak's nationwide average and better by 10% than any airline. Less than a quarter of the delays were attributed to "freight train interference." It all makes "Buffy the Train Slayer" seem like a distant memory.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Culture: Canadian Tolerance of Intolerance

TORONTO, ONTARIO - One of the things that Canadians take great pride in is that they are more accepting of individual differences than their southern neighbors. For example, Canada legalized gay marriage on 20 July 2005 nationwide after most provinces had already taken that step, and hasn't looked back even under a Conservative government. At the height of war in the former Yugoslavia, Serbs and Croats living in Toronto have told me, there was minimal tension between sizable communities of each ethnicity here. As a Serb put it to me, "Over there, people are told to hate each other and they do. Here, people are expected to get along, and we do." However, there is a flip side to the Canadian tolerance--practices that would be illegal in the United States are effectively tolerated here. In a sense, there is a tolerance of intolerance.

When I first started looking to hire an employee here in Canada, I was ready to proceed the way I was used to going about such a process in the United States. In other words, I was going to set up a clear disposition of all résumés, make a spreadsheet to keep track of the declared race, gender, and other status of all applicants to be able to provide statistics if asked, and generally be very formal about the process. "We don't do that here," I was told by my bosses. Instead, "just look for the most qualified candidate and phone screen them"--they didn't want the records around of how the process had gone. "Just shred the résumés of candidates you aren't interested in." I doubt the process of the only hire I have made here would have come out any different no matter how I had proceeded--the clearly best candidate, found by a recruiter, happened to be someone we would call a minority female in the United States--but there is a reason that the US has such laws. If I had a prejudice, conscious or otherwise, there would be no record of this here, no way to demonstrate a pattern. Just because my workplace did appear to be following the conservative ideal of just looking for the most qualified candidates--and had a diverse work force to show for it--didn't mean that a company next door might not throw out all applications from, say, people with "too many vowels" in their names.

In the United States, bosses that engaged in overtly sexist behavior would have been sued for harassment or forced out by their employers over fears of a lawsuit by the time I entered the work force. While I have not personally observed any behavior here that would lead to dismissal in the US, I have definitely heard stories from people I have talked to here, both male and female, describing such behavior. The people in power involved might not be advancing their careers they way they might have generations ago, but they weren't losing their careers, either. They were being tolerated.

Practices that even a super-majority of Canadians say are repugnant, such as polygamy, are effectively sanctioned by Canadian tolerance. The settlement of Bountiful, British Columbia has become a magnet for polygamists from the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints (Fundamentalist Mormons). Not only do polygamists live in that community, but people drive up from the United States to conduct polygamist marriage ceremonies there. Despite the publicity that the location has received, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police have taken minimal action, all of it since 2005. The public outcry against the settlement just doesn't seem to be there; people are inclined to leave it alone unless there are specific allegations of abuse.

People have been surprised to hear me say that I would not recommend that women of my generation immigrate to Canada from the United States. It seems contrary to my general attitude about the two countries. However, as a white male, I am not directly affected by the potential impact of what would be considered outdated practices in the US that seem to take place here. As a landlord put it, "You didn't seem like much of an alien." Women could be affected.

However, just because the old dinosaurs and isolated practices are being tolerated in Canada now doesn't mean that they always will be. The Canadians of my generation that I speak to are at least as progressive in their perspective as their peers in the United States, if not more so. When Generation X and Generation Y enter more positions of leadership in Canada, boorish behavior and discrimination will not be tolerated whether there are explicit mechanisms in place to ensure that or not.

Change may be slower here, but things do move inexorably forward. In less than a generation, I expect I will be able to recommend to women that moving to Canada could be a wise decision. Right now, though, I can only recommend it to men.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Economics: Anything Can Happen

TORONTO, ONTARIO - A big trend lately seems to be the excuse that "nobody saw the financial collapse coming." A variation on the theme--much more reasonable in my opinion--was President Barack Obama's admission on 60 Minutes yesterday that he was surprised at the rate at which jobs have been lost. No, I didn't predict the financial collapse, and I certainly didn't predict its rate. However, I get very tired of people being surprised by these kinds of events. Unpredictable things happen, and especially when there's some reason to believe that some underlying fundamentals are not in order (for example, the housing market), one should not act completely surprised when they do.

Recently, I had reason to go back and listen to a portion of the Year in Review for 1991 that I produced early in 1992. I made these hour-long programs yearly for a time in the early 1990's. I closed each of the programs with a short poem on the year, and for that year it was the following (excuse the bad poetry):

At the beginning of 1991,
The world stood ready for war.
Nobody knew how soon it would be done
Nor that casualties would stay a low score.

Few dreamed that the Soviet Union would end,
That Mikhail Gorbachev would be out of work,
That to Russia foreign aid we would send
Or that for free enterprise they’d go berserk.

Who could have possibly foreseen
Abandoning a base in the Philippines,
The economy staying slow and lean
And that a judge would be accused behind the scenes.

If this past year has taught us one thing
It has taught us to respect unpredictability.
Perhaps of these events someone should sing
That the new world order requires adaptability.

So keep both eyes peeled
As you face this new year 1992,
May all your ills be healed
And, the best of luck to you.
A lot can happen in a year. The Soviet Union can cease to exist, or world financial markets can go into a free-fall. Don't say now that something unthinkable can't happen in the remainder 2009, or act surprised if it does.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Photos: St. Patrick's Day Parade

The Durham Irish Association Band played during the St. Patrick's Day Parade in Toronto, Ontario on 15-March-2009

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's update to my photo site features Toronto's St. Patrick's Day Parade. Green-clad crowds (including dogs) gathered along the streets of Toronto, Ontario on 15-March-2009 for the annual parade. Besides bagpipes and leprechauns, highlights included Barack Obama references, a man periodically rising from his bed, and the colour parties of each Irish county association.

Margin Notes: Journalism, Pope, Meat, Radio

GO Transit train #257 sat dwarfed by the construction cranes at West Toronto after hitting a vehicle at the Old Weston Road crossing on 17 March 2009

TORONTO, ONTARIO - How often have you read or seen a news item about an area in which you have some expertise and were simply appalled at how many mistakes were in the newspaper article or broadcast report? For those with some knowledge of railroads, this happens all the time. However, I'll give a bit of credit to my local Bloor West Villager. On Tuesday, a mid-day GO commuter rail train had a grade crossing incident at Old Weston Road near the West Toronto "Junction." I happened to be in the area, found out what was happening, and checked out some of the trains stopped as a result of the incident. When I read the paper on Friday, the article on the incident, while not lengthy, was an accurate piece of journalism which confirmed what I had suspected and hoped--that no one was injured in the collision.

* * * * * *

I wish I could say that people will not be injured by Pope Benedict XVI's statement earlier this week that AIDS is "a tragedy that cannot be overcome by money alone, that cannot be overcome through the distribution of condoms, which even aggravates the problems." To my knowledge, no credible public health authority in the world agrees with the Pope's position against condoms, certainly not in Africa where the comment was aimed. It is very unfortunate that this Pope is proving to be completely out of touch with the reality of the world.

* * * * * *

I don't seem to be the only one to have noticed the reality of seafood prices being matched by the price of other meats. On CBC Radio One's local Metro Morning show this week, it was noted that lobster and bologna were the same price. That was an easy choice for the show's host.

* * * * * *

Another effective follow-up to an entry on this blog airing on CBC Radio One came on today's Cross Country Checkup. The very last caller, from British Columbia, claimed that Shaw had told him that it would cost $60,000 to provide his residence with broadband Internet access. That really drives home the need for affordable rural broadband technologies I wrote about earlier this week.

* * * * * *

In order to hear the Marketplace Morning Report here in Toronto, I need broadband Internet. There might now be some reason for me to actually tune in. Longtime KUOW-Seattle host Bill Radke will now be the fill-in host of that show, as reported in BlatherWatch. Radke was probably the most memorable Morning Edition host KUOW ever had, and his "Rewind" comedic week-in-review show was nationally syndicated in the United States for several years.

* * * * * *

Much darker news in radio comes out of New York, where ABC News freelancer George Weber has been found murdered. No details have been released. I have fond memories of listening to Weber as an evening talk show host on KOA out of Denver and KGO out of San Francisco. As just a small example of his humor, I remember one of his first nights on KGO filling in on the 7-10 pm shift. At 8:10 he made a grand pause and asked, "What time is it?" KGO is 810 AM, and that number is obviously featured prominently in the station's liners. So, Weber played the "810" portion of a liner, then stated, "I've been wanting to do that for a long time." For many years at KOA, Weber's show ended at midnight with a "Goodnight America" segment in which people could call in and say goodnight to anyone. Weber was 47. Goodnight, George.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Radio Pick: Facing Time on TTBOOK

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's radio pick returns to the public radio realm.

It seems like every time I turn on my radio I hear something about the "slow food" movement, but leave it to Wisconsin Public Radio's inquisitive "To The Best of Our Knowledge" to find a proponent of the "slow time" movement and bundle that together with explorations of time travel and the relation between time and music. This 53-minute episode is another example of why this program is the best interview show on the air.

Listen to streaming RealAudio of To The Best of Our Knowledge "Facing Time"

Friday, March 20, 2009

Culture: American Feeling Language

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I had occasion to go to my local post office today. Like many post offices in urban Canada and contrary to the normal US practice of having dedicated buildings even in small towns, it wasn't a building of its own. Instead, it was a short walk away from my residence in the rear of a card shop where I found my unflappable postman smiling at the counter. I think he must work long hours six days a week, as no matter when I have visited this location, he's been there, morning and evening. I'd ask him, but except for questions about postal practices (which he can describe with great precision), he seems to find a way to duck all my questions.

The post office always reminds me of some of the differences in language usage between Canada and the United States, as the most obvious example always comes up. In Canada, there are postal codes. In the United States, there are zip codes. They serve exactly the same purpose, but the name used in Canada describes exactly what it is, whereas the name used in the United States is designed to evoke a positive emotion. A "zip" code implies that it will actually help one's letter "zip" to a destination, that it will actually get it there faster. Considering the average delivery time in Canada as compared with the United States, perhaps Canada Post ought to try renaming the code.

Taking a look around the postal section of the store, there was another good example. Canada sells "permanent" stamps that will always be good for postage, even if postal rates go up in the future. In the United States, the same kind of stamp is sold as a "forever" stamp. "Permanent" sounds very solid and reliable, but not very warm. "Forever" implies a promise or positive emotion, being more associated with romance or friendship than the post office. Clearly, the United States Postal Service has a much better marketing department than Canada Post.

The pattern goes well beyond the post office. In the realm of railroading where I often roam, one of the devices that allowed the caboose to become obsolete was the trackside detector that senses overheating wheels or dragging equipment, one of the things humans in the caboose used to do. In Canada, if the "scanner" does not find a problem, it announces on a railroad radio frequency, "no alarms." In the United States, a "detector" announces that the train has "no defects." Clearly, the mechanized device cannot possibly know if the train really has no defects at all, it just knows whether it found anything or not. "No alarms" is much more accurate, but it feels a lot better to the crew to hear that there are "no defects," so again the US practice wins out in emotion.

Oddly, the attention to emotion doesn't seem to extend to taxes. One would think that the Internal Revenue Service would use the same marketing prowess used by the post office to find a way to make people feel good about paying taxes. I haven't noticed that. In contrast, while Revenue Canada pretty much uses the same terminology as the IRS, every year it sends a letter saying "thank you for paying your taxes" and notifying of one's RRSP savings limit for the year. The IRS could try it--but then again, they might have to spend too much money on "forever" stamps.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Media: The Rural-Urban Divide

TORONTO, ONTARIO - The more I talk to friends that have some knowledge of the media, the more convinced I am that I will have to give in about having a physical newspaper to carry around, even once a week. Besides the capital and operating costs of operating a printing press, and the transportation costs of distribution, all of which are dooming the physical newspaper, there's an environmental aspect to it--even using recycled paper, it's not ecologically responsible to use that much energy and paper to create a hard copy of the newspaper.

Fine, I give in. I will miss the physical newspaper, but I can tote my laptop around if a e-Book device doesn't satisfy me, and I will be able to read the electronic version of a newspaper. That's okay for someone living in a place like Toronto, where it seems like free WiFi internet informally covers the whole city (except exactly where one wants it at a given time)--at the very least, a hot spot to go and download the latest news is never that far away. With time, that will probably only get better, as cellular phone networks and wireless broadband Internet become even more integrated.

However, how does that help someone in, say, White River, Ontario? In a community of just several thousand people dozens or more kilometers from the next closest town, how does someone there get the latest newspaper? In theory, the Internet was going to make it irrelevant where someone was located--a person could be reading a web page from across the same room as the content creator or from the South Pole. In a world of streaming media and large file sizes, though, that only works if the South Pole has a broadband Internet connection.

If we don't want to leave rural residents behind, we need to take more seriously the development and deployment of technologies that bring data--whether it's being delivered by the TCP/IP protocols that dominate the Internet right now or any other future data transmission protocols--to rural locations. Rural residents are used to waiting to get news because of their remote locations, but with the Internet, it's either there instantly or it isn't ever there. Perhaps they won't have quite the bandwidth available in a huge metropolitan area (that may be the cost of being rural), but if there's a free (or low-cost utility-style) network available in the cities, it needs to be available wherever people are living, at least if it's a place that justifies electricity delivery. Internet access needs to be a utility, treated like electricity. It's becoming that essential to living in the modern world.

While the replacement of newspapers may have pushed me over the edge to such advocacy, it runs much deeper. If future workplaces will require being able to use technologies currently available on mobile devices, then rural children will be at a severe disadvantage to learn the skills necessary to contribute to that workplace if they can't use such devices. It might seem like it would be nice if children from outside the cities didn't text message all the time, but it might mean that they wouldn't know how to sell products when they grew up.

The technologies developed for rural areas may benefit cities as well--they likely will be able to be deployed in less dense suburbs as well as the countryside. As this is clearly a technical challenge--at least from the standpoint of accomplishing at a reasonable cost--it will inevitably advance the technology, likely providing performance gains for us all.

Canada, as a nation that is substantially rural outside of the Windsor-Quebec corridor, faces a potentially larger urban-rural divide than most countries if it cannot bring broadband to its rural residents. I have constantly complained about the lack of vision in government policies of both Liberal and Conservative governments in recent years. Here's a chance for such vision: Provide government incentives for the development and deployment of rural broadband. It will pay off in terms of a level playing field for all citizens, and it would give Canadian companies a chance to sell that technology to the rest of the world, where it will also be needed.

And, it will let us all read the newspaper at the same time, when the newspaper on newsprint is gone.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Politics: No Such Thing as "New Politics"

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Anyone remember all that discussion about "new politics" that people were talking about around the election of Barack Obama as the President of the United States? What happened to that fundamental change in the way that politics was practiced in the United States, the "no more red and blue Americas, just a purple America"? It's hardly surprising that it seems to have gone by the wayside. Probably since ancient Greece, and certainly in my lifetime, there has never been any such thing as "new politics," only varying degrees of skill in practicing classic politics.

Some tried to paint the very election of Barack Obama as representative of "new politics" for its use of technology to reach new voters, especially younger voters, but to me it was just a classic get-out-the-vote campaign. Twitter, generic cell phone messaging, and the extensive use of the world wide web may have been new, but it wasn't conceptually any different than the first phone banks used more than a generation ago, or the first application of customer relations management software to politics. While the number of new voters registered may make a significant difference in a number of (at least formerly) swing states like Virginia and Nevada going forward, that doesn't represent new politics--it represents very efficient execution of a classic political strategy.

In the end, it probably wasn't even Obama's impressive "ground game" that won the election. Just as in 1992, when the Clinton campaign "focused on the economy like a laser beam," the collapsing economy in the United States so damaged the Republican brand that even a perceived "maverick" within its ranks could not stand against the news. With a 4% margin of victory in the popular vote and a structural advantage in the electoral college, the approximately 2% that the highly successful "get-out-the-vote" campaign probably gained turned out to be superfluous. The oldest factor in the book--the state of the economy--was the single most important factor in the election.

Yet, the "new politics" was not supposed to be about the election, but about how Obama governed after the election. He went out of his way to try to open dialogue with the Republicans, inviting them to the White House, and speaking of bi-partisanship from the day he was elected right through the first few weeks of the the administration. In return, there were zero Republican votes for the stimulus package in the House and only a handful in the Senate. What happened? There was no "new politics"; the Republicans were still operating in a classic political space. There was no political advantage to be gained by voting for the package in the House, as they could not stop its passage there. If it works, the Republicans could claim they were trying to improve it; if it fails, they could say they were opposed the whole time. In the Senate, there was only an advantage to voting for it if something was gained in return, in this case the reduction in the size of the package by about 20%. If it works, the Republicans could say they improved it, and if it fails, they can say they were substantially opposed.

Even Obama's attempts at bi-partisanship weren't really "new politics" but just very shrewd classic politics. By reaching out, he appeared less ideological at a time when voters were tired of ideology. As a popular president, he conceivably could leverage that popularity and pressure the opposition somewhat toward compromise. He had very little to lose--if the Republicans refused to even talk, they would definitely look bad. In the end, though, it was all about what basic political advantage could be gained through compromise, and right now, there isn't much advantage to either side to actually do any more than talk. It's no different than it ever has been.

I was very pleased to see "new politics" disappear from the lexicon so rapidly in the United States. As far as I am concerned, there isn't any such thing.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Holiday: St. Patrick's Day Traditions

TORONTO, ONTARIO - The tinge of orange in my beard reveals that I have significant Irish ancestry, though admittedly most of the year I basically ignore that fact. The only exception is on St. Patrick's Day, when even those who aren't Irish claim to be. Today, as March 17th, may officially be St. Patrick's Day, but to me the observed St. Patrick's Day is the nearest Sunday, when the parades are traditionally held.

While living in the Boston, Massachusetts area, with its high concentration of those of Irish ancestry, I developed a routine on observed St. Patrick's Day. It would actually begin on Saturday night as I would bake Irish-American soda bread and sweet potato pie in preparation for the following day. On the day itself, I would take the Red Line Subway to the Broadway station to watch the St. Patrick's Day Parade. While most people watched the parade from somewhere along Broadway in the ethnically very Irish South Boston, over the years I learned that the really interesting things occurred as the parade worked its way back through the side streets of South Boston toward the Andrew subway station. In some places, it would feel like crashing a block party, as people had their buffets out on the sidewalk.

The parade was a long one, and even walking counter-current to the route back toward Broadway, it could go on for nearly three hours. When all of the floats and South Boston politicians had passed, I'd rush back to the subway and head straight back home to start cooking. More accurately, I'd start boiling. The New England boiled dinner that I adopted as the St. Patrick's Day meal couldn't be simpler--everything was boiled. I'd put the corned beef in a big pot and start boiling, then peel and chop up the vegetables, and then realize that I didn't have enough time to get everything done, and would inevitably put the vegetables in other pots in order to have everything finished by the time people started showing up about 6 pm.

The first time I did corned beef on St. Patrick's Day, it was 1999 and I had only one friend over. The next year, after I moved to a room in a house near Davis Square in Somerville, the event began to grow as my housemates and landlord all came, as well as a few friends. I think the peak year was 2003, when about twelve people came over for the full meal, ending with sweet potato pie, and 2004 had nearly that attendance.

However, I suspended the event in 2005 because I had moved to a place without a good dining venue, and a business trip was scheduled too close to observed St. Patrick's Day. In 2007, after moving to Toronto, I decided to see if I could revive the tradition. I was pleased to find the Toronto St. Patrick's Day parade to be a pretty significant and fun event, probably only half the length of the Boston parade but still big enough to be a real draw. The bonus of a somewhat shorter parade starting at the same time was that I had more time to cook--the tricks I had learned cramming in Boston were not necessary.

So, Sunday was ninth time I celebrated St. Patrick's Day. In that time, I've learned how to improve the recipe I had for Irish-American soda bread into something that I actually like to eat, that I should buy corned beef at St. Lawrence Market and not from the grocery stores in Toronto (groceries stores carry briskets year-round in Boston), and that leaving the cabbage in the boiling pot used for corned beef for a longer period of time than most cookbooks recommend really does help the taste and texture.

Next year, I'll be ready to do everything right for my tenth St. Patrick's Day celebration.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Margin Notes: Obama, Hats, Radio, Ice

It sure looked like Barack Obama was visiting Toronto on 15-March-2009, but it was really just the Republic of Cork's entry in the St. Patrick's Day Parade

TORONTO, ONTARIO - President Barack Obama's popularity may be fading slightly in the United States, but he's still as popular as ever in Canada--and apparently in the Irish city of Cork. The "Republic of Cork"'s entry in the St. Patrick's Day Parade in Toronto held yesterday was an attempt to simulate what Obama's participation in the annual parade would look like. As the vehicle passed, the chant "Yes We Can!" could be heard with a bit of a brogue.

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An enthusiastic attendee of the St. Patrick's Day Parade in Toronto, Ontario on 15-March-2009 modeled the "pint" hat

The new fashion for St. Patrick's Day this year seems to be a dark, nearly black top hat that upon closer inspection looks more like an oversize pint of Guinness with a layer of foam on top. A limited number of these hats were seen around the parade route in Toronto yesterday. Many more photos from the parade will be appearing on my photo site soon.

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Coverage of the parade was almost non-existent on CBC radio; coverage of cultural events beyond "Big City, Small World" on Saturdays is almost non-existent on the CBC on the weekend. Has anyone else noticed that CBC's "Nightly Review" of earlier programming that airs at 8 pm local time on weekdays has been playing material strictly from "The Current" of late? Once, the "Review" replayed segments from both the "The Current" and the now-canceled "Sounds Like Canada." After the new show "The Point" debuted, the "Review" was airing some segments from "The Point," but not lately. Is my original opinion of "The Point" proving widespread? Will that show--or for that matter, "The Current," survive what seems to be inevitable cutbacks at the CBC?

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Elsewhere in the radio world, some follow-up is due on KALW's attempt to get public input on its noon time slot. It auditioned four different shows as a potential replacement for a canceled national show, and General Manager Matt Martin asked for listener feedback on a blog. However, with no clear winner and not much passion for any of those alternatives, Martin took a suggestion and decided to introduce different weekly programs on each day. I applaud both Martin's methodology and the ultimate decision, which is in line with the KALW tradition of presenting diverse programming. I will continue to look to KALW as an example of a station that actually understands what it means to be a public radio station.

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In a final note from the audio realm, I knew I must be in the target demographic for the CNET News Daily Podcast because of their two advertisers--Amtrak's Acela Express high speed trains between Boston and Washington, and CBS Radio's newsradio stations (like WCBS in New York, KCBS in San Francisco and WBBM in Chicago). Those are products that I tend to use whenever I'm in a position to do so--though neither is accessible to me here in Toronto.

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A strange ice formation was noted above the Humber River in Toronto, Ontario on 13-March-2009

Easily accessible to me in Toronto is the Humber River. When walking along the urban refuge on Friday, I noted a number of these unusual ice formations pictured above. They seemed to have formed from a combination of flooding conditions and near-freezing temperatures, but they certainly struck me as unusual--and they were a reminder of the fact that while spring may start officially on Friday, winter is not over yet!

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Photos: More Winter in Toronto

An icicle looked out of place above the Humber River in Toronto, Ontario on 13-March-2009

TORONTO, ONTARIO - With spring set to start by the time my photo site will be updated next week, a hopefully-final look at winter in Toronto, Ontario seemed to be in order. Scenes from February and March 2009 included frozen waterways, ice-entombed branches, neighbourhood sites under fresh snow, snow removal from the streets, an update on the Sam the Record man site, and more.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Radio Pick: Keller on Old Sturbridge Village

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's radio pick comes from morning commentator Jon Keller from WBZ Newsradio 1030 in Boston, who is available on a podcast.

Keller had an especially good group of essays this past week, covering such issues as the possible end of the Boston Globe newspaper and why people are leaving Massachusetts (which in fact makes a nice companion piece to one of the entries on this blog). However, my favorite was one describing a rare tourist attraction that has increasing business during this recession, Old Sturbridge Village. His near-ode to the institution and its relevance to modern life in this two-minute commentary was a nice reminder that the art of the short-form radio broadcast did not die with Paul Harvey.

Listen to Shockwave Audio of Keller at Large "Where Tourism Is Up"

Holiday: Happy Pi Day

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Happy Pi Day! Yes, the United States Congress has seen fit to declare March 14th Pi Day, after the number pi (π) that is the ratio of circumference to diameter of a circle in Euclidean space. Indeed, the United States is basically the only country in which this would even make sense, where the common nomenclature for March 14th (3/14) resembles the first few digits of Pi (3.14...); most of the rest of the world views this date as 14/3.

The day of celebration of a mathematical constant seems an appropriate day to recount the story of when I knew that I was not a mathematician. For most people in the United States, that's probably the day they were born (or at least the first day in class when they were confused by a math problem), but for me it came as a freshman in high school. There actually might have been some reason to believe I might be a mathematician, as I had been an active member of the math club in middle school and in fact had won a trip to the national Mathcounts in the eight grade.

I had many good math teachers and professors over the years, but clearly one of the best was my pre-calculus and calculus teacher in high school, Richard Beishline. He clearly loved math, and loved teaching math. Between his passion and his practice of keeping a stash of Tootsie Rolls around to reward good questions and good performance, he was a very popular instructor.

One day, Mr. Beishline wrote the equation e^iπ=-1 on the backboard. The famous equation, sometimes called Euler's Identity, relates three fundamental constants in a very elegant form. After writing it, Mr. Beishline just stared at it, clearly admiring its beauty. I was completely unimpressed, despite never have really thought about the identity before.

To me, π, e, and i were all things that were defined by human beings, even if they had significance in nature. If they were defined by human beings, then why shouldn't there be some relation between them. That the relation was so simple might be surprising, but that some relation existed seemed unremarkable to me. In that instant, seeing how the real mathematician, Richard Beishline, was able to admire an equation that he had probably seen hundreds of times and it couldn't hold my admiration for even a single interaction, I knew I must not be a mathematician.

I need to quit writing now as I have a sweet potato pie in the oven--I didn't really make it because it was Pi Day, but because the St. Patrick's Day Parade is tomorrow in Toronto, and I traditionally prepare a sweet potato pie for St. Patrick's Day dinner. That it worked out that way this year was a complete coincidence.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Politics: Does Ignatieff Have the Right Image?

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Poll numbers right now in Canada seem to look pretty favorably on Liberal Party leader Michael Ignatieff. While varying somewhat, the general consensus seems to be captured by what is now a month-old Harris Decima poll: Ignatieff's personal approval ratings are better than for any other party leader, including the Prime Minister, and people have more faith in his judgment than that of any other party leader, including the Prime Minister. Many Conservatives think they should be hitting him harder with personal attack ads the way they went after Stéphane Dion. I'm not so sure that's necessary--Ignatieff may be the embodiment of the exact Liberal stereotypes that will keep the Liberals from enjoying much of a revival.

It wasn't so long ago that the Liberal brand was badly damaged. The arrogance of the idea of it as the "natural ruling party" had seemed to come to life in the sponsorship scandal, and the party had come to be viewed as elitist, out of touch with the average Canadian, and dishonest. Somehow, Paul Martin managed to hold on to a minority government, but then in 2006, it fell out of government in favor of the Conservatives.

So what does Michael Ignatieff look like? Like Dion before him, he's fundamentally an academic--and an academic that spent time at elite places like Harvard University, no less. While far more eloquent, he has a propensity to use impressive vocabulary. He was elected essentially by acclamation within the party, without a real contest. Could he possibly have a more elitist air?

Just look at how he is portrayed on the CBC's satire show This Hour Has 22 Minutes. Gavin Crawford plays Ignatieff as a squinting know-it-all who believes he has a lock on being a future Prime Minister of Canada. In the 3-March-2009 show (see the video), Ignatieff even appears with Crawford in person to tell him to be "more smug." With the history of the Liberal Party, might this not be more damaging than the bumbling image in which Dion was portrayed?

I give Ignatieff significant points not just for that appearance and others on 22 Minutes (including with the Single Female Voter), but a variety of other public appearances that indicate he does have a real sense of humour. Perhaps Ignatieff will prove to be the leader that the polls currently seem to indicate people believe he may be, and the caricature will be nothing more than an amusing side show. Considering the public mood that is not very tolerant of personal attacks, though, if I were a Conservative, I wouldn't be worried about their lack of aggressiveness in attacking Ignatieff. His developing elitist image may be exactly the kind of figure they will want to run against by the time of the next election.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Media: Return of Full-Service Radio

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Those in the radio industry continually complain that there is too much competition from other forms of media, everything from the Internet to satellite radio, leading to an ever-decreasing audience. Music radio, especially, claims to be suffering from the phenomenon of people preparing their own play lists on their iPods and other portable music players and just listening to that instead of their broadcasts. In response, some radio stations have changed their formats to emphasize music and de-emphasize their personalities. I think they've missed the point. In the case of commercial music radio, they will never be as good as a commercial-free iPod. What I would suggest that they do is play to the strength of radio rather than try to imitate the competition. I would suggest that it's time to bring back the full-service radio station that plays meaningful blocks of music--but also provides the information needed to get through the day.

As far as I am concerned, the radio industry accelerated the iPod phenomenon by not playing enough music on supposedly-music stations, especially during the morning commute. When car-pooling to work not far from Houston, Texas in the summer of 1998, it was not uncommon for the group I was with to scan the dial and find NO music on the entire FM dial, except maybe classical on one public station. The music stations were all either in a commercial break or having their hosts talk about something banal that they thought was entertaining. This phenomenon was quite widespread; I distinctly remember a morning while traveling through Denver, Colorado in 2003 when I similarly failed to find a single song on the air at about 8 in the morning. If there's no music there, then no wonder people would turn somewhere else to get it.

However, now that the iPod phenomenon is widespread, there's really no way for commercial radio to directly compete. It needs to offer something else for the listener. Watching human behavior in the modern environment implies an old solution. I know people that, upon getting in their cars, tune in a local newsradio station to get traffic information, perhaps staying tuned for weather and headlines, and then they switch back to their portable music players. Radio can do that without all the button pushing by bringing back a format I grew up with--the full-service radio station.

Less than a generation ago, there was at least one full-service radio station in nearly every market, usually on AM. In Chicago, it was WGN. In Seattle, it was KOMO. In Portland, Oregon it was KEX. Smaller markets had them as well--the Tri-Cities in Washington state had KONA, and even Sunnyside, Washington had KREW-AM. Many were ABC affiliates, carrying that network's news at the top of the hour and Paul Harvey at noon, but others were CBS, NBC, or even Mutual affiliates (notably, all of those three networks have since been merged into Westwood One's CBS).

When tuned to these stations, one would usually hear the network news at the top of the hour, local news at the bottom of the hour, weather a few times an hour, sports at least once an hour on the weekend, and in between non-offensive music, usually adult contemporary (or "light rock"), with minimal DJ interjections. It might not be one's favorite music, but it tended to be acceptable to a wide audience. One could relax with the music, yet still be informed if a major news story suddenly developed.

Growing up, I remember leaving a radio on KOMO for hours on end, especially on the weekend--I could tune out during the music if I was doing something that required a bit more concentration, but if big news broke, I would still know about it. It was also quite nice during that afternoon commute--the traffic information came on a regular basis, but there was also the music that one could use to keep nerves down. Admittedly, I grew to be a regular listener of hard news programming, but KOMO was a resource that I always appreciated and while perhaps a day might go by that I wouldn't listen, there certainly was never a week.

Yet, the radio industry changed, and the full-service radio stations saw their ratings decay. Niche formatting was the order of the day. KOMO introduced evening talk in 1990, and by 1995 would go full-time newstalk, then later full-time news. In the northwest, KEX and KONA held out a bit longer as full-service stations, but by the end of the decade, they were newstalk as well and the music was long gone.

In Europe, such a phenomenon never really took hold. All across continental Europe, one finds music stations that provide news at the top of the hour. Near the British base in Bonn, Germany, one could (at least in 1998) even find one broadcasting in English, as the British Forces Bases Service used a full-service format, including local news and weather.

Lately, I've been longing for a full-service station here in Toronto, something that I could just leave on during the evening, but still get the weather forecast for the next day and any breaking news if it happened. The same format could serve commuters well during a rush hour. Doing it on FM instead of AM would make the music sound better and potentially keep people from running to their iPods--while driving, the less effort required, the better.

Considering how poorly many radio stations are doing during the recession, I'm surprised a full-service revival hasn't been tried. Actually, I think we all know the answer to that--it would cost too much to have one live voice behind the microphone 24 hours a day--and that's simply pathetic.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Economics: Market Forces and the Electric Car

TORONTO, ONTARIO - The Christian Science Monitor recently ran a capsule with an interesting headline, Who Killed the Electric Car? Henry Ford. Rather than present some conspiracy theory about the pulling of the General Motors EV-1 from the California market, this article was a look back to how electric automobiles had an impact on the vehicle business from about 1830 to 1930--that's right, 1830 to 1930.

That electric propulsion was contemplated for personal vehicles at their infancy should not have been a surprise. The dominant form of overland transportation in that era, the railroad, may have been dominated by steam locomotives, but there were notable installations of electric power by the late 19th century. After New York city banned steam locomotives, all railroads to that hub adopted electric power, and it powered long-distance trains for hundreds of miles on the Milwaukee Road in Montana, Idaho, and Washington as late as the 1970's.

The Monitor pointed out that battery technology was advanced enough that the Electric Carriage and Wagon Company of Philadelphia built an entire fleet of taxis for use in New York City in 1891. Other details of early successes appear in a variety of on-line articles including at about.com. In 1916, Clinton Edgar Woods even invented a hybrid car that ran on an internal combustion and an electric motor, almost three-quarters of a century before the Toyota Prius.

So what caused the electric car to fade into history? The reasons should sound familiar. While the short range of a battery might have been fine for a jaunt from uptown to midtown Manhattan, as roads outside of cities became more passable, people wanted to drive farther, and the battery-powered vehicles could not take them there. Yet, what really killed the electric car wasn't the desire for longer trips, but cost. When Henry Ford used the assembly line to bring down the price of cars powered by internal-combustion engines, there was no longer a compelling reason to buy an electric car. Ford's cars sold for between $500 and $1000. Electric cars sold for more than 50% more than that. By the Great Depression, it was all over for electric vehicles.

All of these problems remain today. A purely electric car cannot take long trips unless the batteries are exchanged regularly, a concept that is occasionally proposed but unlikely to be implemented with hybrid technology able to extend the range of vehicles more easily. Any electric car, hybrid or otherwise, costs substantially more than a gas-powered car, in most cases by about that 50% figure from the previous era.

Clearly, until the price issue and the range issue are addressed, the common person will not purchase an electric vehicle. While fuel cell technology presents a long-term promise to replace petroleum, in the interim there's a basic economic problem that isn't going to be solved by simply providing tax incentives to purchase a fuel-efficient vehicle such as electric one. Attempts to convert from a gas tax to a mileage tax using GPS technology won't help, either, as that also serves to lessen the incentive to use an efficient vehicle.

While I certainly favor such things as higher gas taxes, income tax deductions for the purchase of fuel-efficient vehicles, investment in quality alternative forms of transportation like intercity rail and public transit, that's just playing with the margins. It's clear that the fundamental problem needs to be addressed head-on. The United States government needs to invest much more in technology research to find improved personal transportation technologies that can be commercialized down the road that will actually be competitive with the internal combustion engine. The longer it fails to do so, the more opportunity there is for places like China or Canada to develop a technology instead.

Only with more investment will there be a fighting chance for personal transportation to end its dependence on the non-renewable resource of oil. The market killed the electric vehicle before, and it will do so again until it is actually competitive.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Photos: Trip to California, October 2005

The Caltrain station at Mountain View, California was observed close to sunset on 13-October-2005

TORONTO, ONTARIO - When digging through my archives, I discovered a small set of photos from a brief trip to the Silicon Valley of California for a job interview on 12-13-October-2005. While these photos are more properly merged with similar subject matter in 2006 albums, for this week, I'll present these photos of San Jose and scenes along the Caltrain commuter rail line on their own for the first time on my photo site.

Margin Notes: Stock Tips, iPhone Envy, Earth

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Canadians probably had an eerie feeling this week as they watched US President Barack Obama at a press conference on Tuesday say that "Profit and earning ratios are starting to get to the point where buying stocks is a potentially good deal if you’ve got a long-term perspective on it." Back in October during an interview with the CBC's Peter Mansbridge during the campaign, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper stated that he believed there were "probably some great buying opportunities out there." The statement was heavily criticized for being out-of-touch with average Canadians--and we all know what's happened to North American stock markets since October. Obama's quote was not substantively different than Harper's--draw your own conclusions about the validity of the advice and whether the same criticisms apply.

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Unfortunately for the Republicans, their public statements sound even less rational than Obama's. While Rush Limbaugh could perhaps be expected to stick to ideology, the same basic message was being voiced by Newt Gingrich today on NBC's Meet the Press as well as by other Republicans at a time when they probably should be listening to moderates in their ranks; I've already praised David Brooks enough. A caller to the Dave Ross Show on KIRO-FM in Seattle summed it up best: "When I listen to Republicans, it's like a Miller Lite commercial, except instead of 'Tastes Great' and 'Less Filling' they're saying 'Lower Taxes' and 'Less Government.'"

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I don't know if Bill Gates and his family would take the side of lower taxes or less government (or if they are even Obama supporters), but a CNET report this week broke the news that Melinda Gates and their children have iPhone and iPod envy. The family has reportedly decided not to buy any Apple products in favor of Microsoft products, but are increasingly jealous of friends' iPhones. Then, of course, there are those of us that don't even have a "smart" phone of any kind.

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Interestingly, cell phones do not need to be turned off during Earth Hour, which for those planning ahead is scheduled for 8:30 pm local time on Saturday, 28-March-2009. This year, organizers are characterizing the act of turning off one's lights for an hour to be a "vote" for Earth instead of global warming. Considering that most people don't vote in any election and not voting is equivalent to a vote against Earth, I'm expecting the planet to lose this one.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Radio Pick: Tribute to Paul Harvey

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's radio pick comes from the ABC Radio Network in the United States.

In the wake of the loss of broadcasting legend Paul Harvey, the ABC Radio Network that he aired on for more than half a century has been putting together a great series on what made the man and his broadcasts such an institution in the United States. Voiced by a person many regard as the best fill-in Harvey ever had, current KGO talk show host Gil Gross, and written by long-time Harvey writer Stu Chamberlain, the series has been a fitting tribute to a man that has influenced multiple generations.

Listen to MP3 of News and Comment "Tribute to Paul Harvey"

Heritage: Boom Times in Swansea

The cast of Boom Times Cabaret stood after their performance at the Swansea Historical Society on 4-March-2009

TORONTO, ONTARIO - No, Swansea hasn't escaped the worldwide recession. Instead, for one evening during the meeting of the Swansea Historical Society on 4-March-2009, the boom times of the neighbouring onetime city of West Toronto were re-lived through the "Boom Times Cabaret: Heart of the Junction Talk Show" presented by the West Toronto Junction Historical Society (WTJHS).

The show, which has been performed since the celebration of the centennial of West Toronto becoming a city in 2008, features conversations with historical figures from the early 1900's, played by modern residents. Neil Ross plays journalist A.B. Rice as host, and interviews the other cast members, portraying a variety of figures from Chief of Police Josiah Royce to principal Mary Cherry to coroner and mayor G.W. Clendenan. I was especially pleased to see local historian Madeleine McDowell playing the Junction's first librarian, Elizabeth MacCallum--an arm in a sling wasn't enough to keep her away.

The amount of historical information--both large things and small details--that one picks up from events like this always amazes. I actually didn't know the origin of the name of Clendenan Avenue--it turns out it was named after D.W. Clendenan, who had purchased much of the land around the Junction before the boom. It wasn't named after G.W. Clendenan, but I learned that the historical figure in the show had lived at the location on Dundas Street that now features the "Junction Stage" that looks like a train station.

Between McDowell's portrayal of librarian MacCallum and Kristen Buckley's portrayal of Cherry, there was a definite feminist theme to the show. To modern audiences, it is shocking to learn how little MacCallum was paid, but heartening to learn that she was chosen as the first librarian when she believed they would find a man instead. Cherry had to go through a period as "acting" principal since the job was expected to go to a man, but became so locally popular that the woman who held the key to local playgrounds and opened them up for the public was eventually given the job outright.

The performance also included the poem Last Call (Before the Junction Goes Dry), a fitting tribute to an area well known for its historic aversion to alcohol.

For those interested in more historical re-enactments from the same team that prepared Boom Times, there will be a repeat of Amalgamation Night 1909 on its 100th anniversary on Friday, 1-May-2009. Watch the WTJHS web site for further details as the time approaches.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Economics: Meat Prices

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I am old enough to remember when ground beef was usually $0.99 a pound (and, growing up in the United States, it was per pound, not per kilogram). Even when I was in college, I would be upset if a pound of hamburger was more than about $1.29. In that world, less expensive fishes were still pretty expensive (at least five times the price of beef), and pork, turkey and chicken were somewhere in between, though usually closer to beef.

From that world, what I saw in the grocery store this week was utterly unrecognizable. I rarely purchase beef of any kind anymore, but had I wanted to, ground beef was going for $2.99 a pound. Sometimes low grades might be on sale for $2.49--but there's no way even that's consistent with inflation. Figuring 3% inflation for 20 years (which it hasn't been since the last time I paid a dollar a pound), ground beef should be more like $1.89.

Yet, steak, which I once considered to be extravagant at around five dollars a pound, hasn't gone up by a similar amount. This week, Loblaw's has AAA strip loin steak on sale for $5.99 a pound. That's still much more expensive than ground beef, but not so expensive when looks around the rest of the meat section.

For many years, I had substituted ground turkey for ground beef. These days, I practically might as well substitute steak. I could not find ground turkey of any grade for less than $4.99 a pound, and extra lean was $6.99 a pound. That's typical around here, and one of the reasons I now usually go with ground pork. Pork is the cheapest white meat. Ground pork often goes for $3.99 a pound, and pork chops usually sell for about the same price or a bit more.

Contrast that with chicken breasts. It is not uncommon for chicken and turkey breasts to go for as much as $9.99 a pound. This week, several stores have turkey breasts for $7.99 a pound and seem to think they are providing a real deal. Sometimes previously-frozen chicken breasts will go for $5.99 a pound, and when that rare event occurs, I stock up. Whole chicken or drumsticks will sometimes dip as low as $3.49 a pound but are usually $5.99 or more. As if those numbers aren't enough to make one's head spin, meats in my local store are usually marked only in kilograms, and the price per kilogram is approximately double the price per pound. One has to really pay attention to figure out what is actually a good deal.

Which brings things back to fish, which I prefer to eat once a week and was something I thought I might have to give up while unemployed. Well, apparently not in favor of chicken. For the past three weeks, either Atlantic salmon, trout, or catfish has been cheaper in price than chicken breasts at my favorite store. Last week, trout was going for $5.49 a pound. The clerk at the counter commented, "I don't think it's been that cheap, ever." My response was, "Not this decade, anyway" before I realized that she was younger than me, and quite possibly had never seen it this cheap. It proved to be quite tasty and have excellent texture, so I was an extremely happy camper.

Just about every week, there's some kind of fresh seafood that I like for under $9.99 a pound, often significantly less. As long as that continues to hold true, I'm not likely to increase the amount of chicken or turkey in my diet--and as long as it stays the cheapest white meat, pork will be the staple meat in my freezer and refrigerator on the five days a week that I'm not eating seafood.

The whole thing definitely makes me understand the economic appeal of vegetarianism, to say nothing of the health and environment appeals.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Media: The First Crack in the PPM

TORONTO, ONTARIO - In an earlier post, a promise was made to monitor the performance of Arbitron's new Portable People Meter (PPM) in rating radio stations across the continent. The PPM, a device to be worn by the people in the listener sample that "hears" what radio station is playing in their environment, is replacing the old practice of having people fill out diaries of what they have listened to over the course of a day.

The first really interesting quirk appears to have been identified by attentive broadcast professionals. As reported on a variety of USENET newsgroups (yes, those pre-World Wide Web things still exist, and not just on Google groups!), an interesting set of data has been published with overnight results from the San Francisco market, which has been converted from diaries to the PPM.

The data shows that, in January 2009, KUIC 95.3 FM has the largest average number of listeners in the Bay Area from midnight to 5 AM at 4,000 people, 11.4% of the total audience (which says something about the estimated number of people listening to the radio overnight around San Francisco). According to Arbitron, KUIC attracts a higher average audience with its adult contemporary format (which we used to call "light rock") than the traditional market leader, KGO Newstalk 810 AM, which provides a local talk show throughout this time period, and KCBS All-News 740 AM and 106.9 FM, which provides live, local news throughout the night.

What's wrong with this picture? I lived within 35 miles of San Francisco for four years and I never listened to 95.3 FM. It wasn't because I disliked the station--it was because I couldn't receive KUIC in Palo Alto. KUIC is licensed to Vacaville, California, has a transmitter located to the northwest of that city, and puts a better signal into Sacramento than San Francisco, where it has only fringe coverage. The station web site makes it clear that it is focused on serving Solano County, something it likely does very well. However, Solano County has just under 400,000 residents--about half that of the city of San Francisco alone.

In the overall ratings for the San Francisco market in February 2009, KUIC placed 26th, with about one-quarter the audience of market-leading KCBS (which, by the way, is pretty impressive for a station aimed at Solano County). While ratings can vary by time slot, there is no way that more people are actually listening to KUIC overnight than KOIT-FM, a San Francisco station with a similar format that puts a signal over many more people, which shows as having about one-third of KUIC's audience. This is clearly a sampling error.

Furthermore, the cumulative statistics in the very same survey seem to show more normal results. KCBS leads the way with nearly 83,000 different people tuning in overnight at some point, followed by Spanish-language KRZZ at about 55,000, KGO at about 43,000, public radio KQED at about 41,000, and KOIT at over 37,000. KUIC is well down the list at 11,700. How can that be? It implies that a good portion of people are spending a much longer time listening to KUIC than any other radio station. Statistically, there's no other way to explain this than the sample size in the overnight period is way too small, and one or two security guards that happen to be tuned in to KUIC all night (or have their dogs wear the PPM and leave their radio on KUIC while they're asleep, or some such anomaly) are skewing the results.

Some would find this quirk to be absolutely unremarkable. The overnight figures are not terribly important to any radio station, and they would say that critics of the PPM must be digging pretty deeply to come up with this example. It may indeed be a very unimportant quirk. However, it may demonstrate that the small sample sizes that come with the PPM will prove a problem in developing meaningful results in other time slots, even when a few more PPM's are hearing radio stations--especially in markets much smaller than San Francisco.

I would say the jury is still out on the PPM, but there is reason to be a bit cautious in evaluating its data.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Environment: CFL's Not Panacea

TORONTO, ONTARIO - An interesting report aired tonight on CBC Television's "The National" from correspondent Reg Sherren. Sherren cited research at the University of Manitoba that indicates that the purported energy savings from compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFL's) are not actually 75% in northern climates. Instead, they may be as little as 17%.

How can that be? Regular incandescent light bulbs are less efficient in large part because much of the energy that they consume does not turn into light. Instead, much of it is converted into heat. In the winter when the heat is on, this is actually a good thing--adding heat to the room, if not terribly efficiently, and thus decreasing the load on the furnace, space heater, or other heating mechanism. In the summer, it's a terrible thing, as the additional heat adds to the load placed on air conditioning units. Sherren even noted a BC Hydro study that showed that CFL's may actually add to greenhouse gas emissions in British Columbia, since while electrical use will decrease, the resulting increase in the use of fossil fuels for heating would actually cause more greenhouse gases to be emitted.

While I will give the CBC and Sherren some credit for trying to be balanced in this report (they didn't say NOT to buy CFL's, for example), this kind of reporting seems to miss the big picture it claims to pursue on several points.

First of all, CFL's last longer than incandescent bulbs, so there is a net positive to the environment right there from decreased waste and resource consumption. Second of all, even if there is only a 17% reduction in overall energy consumption instead of the 75% advertised in Winnipeg, that's still a 17% reduction. How can a 17% reduction not be a net positive? If the BC Hydro study is accurate, that's a call for retrofitting houses with better insulation and more efficient furnaces that operate on cleaner fuels, not an argument to stick with inefficient light bulbs.

Of course, if one lives in Phoenix, Arizona then all of this discussion is academic--there's no question that compact fluorescent light bulbs will offer something close to their advertised advantages. It's only in northern climates where the contribution of incandescent bulbs to heating is significant that the effects the CBC has reported on matter at all.

There's nothing wrong with revealing that the marketing on a product, including CFL's, is misleading. However, reporters have a responsibility not to similarly over-sensationalize the reality. This report probably didn't quite cross the line, but if anyone walked away from it wondering if they should be installing CFL's in Toronto, where air conditioners run in the summer, let me make it clear: Of course you should buy CFL's.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Economics: Generalists in Gladwell's World

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I happened to catch a repeat of an interview with the author Malcolm Gladwell recently, talking about his book "Outliers". Amongst a variety of interesting theses in this book is the idea that about 10,000 hours of work is required for greatness in essentially any topic. Bill Gates may be an exceptional human being, but he spent 10,000 hours programming before Microsoft became a success. Michael Jordan may have been an extraordinary athlete, but he didn't win a NBA title until he had played basketball for 10,000 hours. As Gladwell has it, even Paul Harvey probably wasn't a great broadcaster until he had been on the air for 10,000 hours.

The 10,000 hours figure seems to ring true in academic circles. It amounts to something less than five years of full-time work, which is just about the time that is generally required to earn a PhD, the standard marker for becoming an expert in a field. Yet, not everyone with a PhD would claim greatness--the 10,000 hours seems to be a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for greatness.

At some level, that's comforting for those of us that really don't want to spend 10,000 hours on anything. Some of us know it would be downright unhealthy for us--focusing on the details of something for 10,000 hours could lead to serious mental issues that would at best be difficult to get beyond. If there's no guarantee of such a commitment leading to greatness anyway, then we have our excuse for not devoting such an extended effort on any one thing. The "generalist" might be the exact person who can't achieve greatness anyway.

So that leads to the age-old question--if only a small number have both the talent and the 10,000 hours to devote to becoming great, what becomes of the rest of us? That seems to be a function of the overall society. In a country with relatively even income distribution, then one might be within in a middle class and living an acceptable life. In a country with larger income inequality, then the non-great are more likely to end up poor no matter what they do, and might not have such a great existence.

Such a conclusion seems to mesh with Gladwell's perspective. In part of the rest of "Outliers," he points out ways in which chance and opportunity have more to do with creating the great amongst us than raw talent--things like sports players statistically being more likely to be born in certain times of the year, and people being the right age during transformations in the economy. This kind of argument tends to lend more sympathy to those of us that do not achieve greatness for whatever reason. Maybe we could have been contenders if we had just been born at a different time--and maybe those that do become great have a certain responsibility to the society that gave them the opportunities that they seized. What starts as a conservative argument about hard work morphs into a pretty liberal perspective.

In this era of pragmatic figures like Barack Obama, such perspectives with elements of conservatism and liberalism like Gladwell's may gain more traction. The truth often lies at the intersection of competing beliefs.

As for blogging, I guess I still have about 9,800 hours to go to achieve greatness, and I might get there in a quarter-century. Somehow I'm not expecting that to happen.