Thursday, April 30, 2009

Media: Not Even CBS Now...

PLACERVILLE, CALIFORNIA - During my undergraduate years in California, I had a number of peculiar radio listening habits. One was that at the top of the hour, I would almost invariably tune in KCBS All News 740 (which then wasn't also at 106.9 FM) to listen to the top of the hour news from the CBS radio network. While CBS did feel like my "home" network because of my many years of favoring CBS affiliate KIRO in Seattle, that wasn't why I tended to hit that button for the top of the hour.

The station I was most likely to be listening to was KGO, the Bay Area's perennial ratings leader as a talk station. KGO was (and remains) an ABC radio network affiliate. In that era (the early 1990's), ABC had started the practice of including "person on the street" comments, usually toward the end of their newscasts. Supposedly, this practice was to make the newscasts more engaging to the listener, but I have always found this practice repugnant. First, it takes away time from actual reporting during what is already a short (three and a half minutes in the case of ABC, four minutes in the case of CBS) top-of-the-hour newscast. More importantly, it was fundamentally an injection of opinion into what I wanted to be an objective newscast. ABC was doing this often enough that I decided I didn't want to hear ABC news anymore, so I got in the habit of switching over to CBS at the top of hour, and it became such a habit that even if I was listening to a station other than KGO I would often punch the KCBS button at the top of the hour.

The "infection" of the common person's opinion may have started in my listening experience with ABC, but it hardly stopped there. Earlier this decade, no less than the British Broadcasting Company, the venerable BBC, started to read e-mail and text messages that came into their news shows during those very shows. I found this practice to be even more disturbing than the edited "person on the street" comments, as clearly these comments had undergone even lesser editorial evaluation because of the obvious time constraints, and thus they became especially vulnerable to corporate public relations departments and special interest groups sending in comments to get their viewpoint on the air during a news program. To this day, I wince whenever I hear any sort of "instant feedback" on a program that purports to be a hard news program, which means that the BBC can bother me just as much as the US commercial networks.

I was reminded of all this deterioration when listening to the CBS network news on KCBS All-News 740 as I drove around California's central valley today. While it had been many years since I had been able to hold up CBS as a model network, it was dramatic just how far its standards had declined. In a newscast earlier today, one report sounded like it was a press release from a certain well-known motorcycle company that doesn't deserve any additional publicity, talking about how sales to female customers had risen from 4% to 12% over the past decade and describing how they wanted to further target women. Exactly how was this news, and exactly how was this not free publicity for the company was beyond me. I just couldn't imagine how the greats of CBS past and present, from Murrow to Schieffer, must have been cringing, wherever they might be at.

So far, the one network that I can say I have not heard stray from providing editorially uncompromised hard news on their news program is one that my tax dollars go to support, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. (National Public Radio's transgressions in this regard have been few and far between as well.) Here's hoping that the CBC will not change its practices, and there will be at least one place to turn for untainted news.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Margin Notes: Travel Transitions, Static Media

SACRAMENTO, CALIFORNIA - Traveling by airplane can be jolting. I will never forget being amazed that all the license plates changed states after taking a two-hour flight for the first time as a child. In recent years, the transformations that I have been more likely to notice have been those in atmosphere. The change in pace between the airport in Toronto and the airport in Chicago can be dramatic (and Chicago is hardly the fastest-paced US city); people just move faster and more deliberately on the United States side of the border. The pacing difference is not as pronounced between Toronto and Denver, but what I really noticed today upon landing in Denver was that people in the US airport were physically larger on average... and Colorado is actually one of the states with the lowest obesity rates!

* * * * * *

As I have written about before, there's a dramatic difference in atmosphere when making a transition between Air Canada and United. I far from idolize Air Canada, but in many ways it is reflective of its home country--quite likely to get one to the destination, perhaps a bit late but rarely egregiously so, no exceptional customer service but rarely any memorable substandard moments either, and general bilingual calm on board the aircraft as both crew and passengers follow rules in a civilized manner so the common goal of reaching the destination in some degree of comfort is achieved. United, in contrast, seems to be most reflective of the worst of the United States--smiles from employees are the exception rather than the rule, there's an assumption by the crew that passengers are always trying to get away with something against the rules (and indeed some are), and there's a general feeling that each person just wants everyone else to get out of their way. This time, though, there's no lost baggage or egregious lateness to complain about, so they actually exceeded expectations. Any way one looks at it, though, it's jarring to go from bilingual, sedate Air Canada to unilingual, stressed United.

* * * * * *

An aerial view departing Denver showed the proximity of Boulder, Colorado to the mountains on 29-April-2009; the snow-capped Front Range was to the left, and the town of Boulder to the right in the same frame.

Dramatic transitions could be found outside the aircraft as well. The flight path out of Denver to Sacramento provided a nice view of Boulder, Colorado. The home of the University of Colorado is well-known for its proximity to the mountains, and the aerial view above makes the point--the snow-capped mountains of the Front Range and the city of Boulder could be placed in the same frame. Even that distorts the situation, as there are plenty of mountains without snow closer to the town.

* * * * * *

When I last visited Boulder in 1998, I rather enjoyed the radio dial there, which is effectively the same radio market as Denver, with true community radio stations and an interesting mix on the commercial portion of the dial. I was surprised to find all of the stations I spot-checked during my brief layover at the airport still having basically the same format, from talk station KOA (though the "50,000 watt blowtorch of the Rocky Mountain west" is long gone) to adult contemporary station Alice 105.9 (which then called itself "Alice 106"). In a volatile industry, this was a surprising observation.

* * * * * *

Leni Schwendigger's "Deep Time/Deep Space, a Subterranean Journey" was viewed from the train concourse at Denver International Airport's Terminal A on 29-April-2009

A surprising observation in Terminal A of Denver International Airport was this railroad-themed sculpture by Leni Schwendigger entitled "Deep Time/Deep Space, a Subterranean Journey." For a trip that will feature some significant railroad activities, this was an appropriate piece of art to encounter, even if it was at an airport. Of course, the piece was a play on the trains that run between the terminals at the airport, which I must add have amusing organ-style sound effects of trains as they arrive and depart at their stations.

* * * * * *

The inter-terminal trains are one element of what makes Denver a quite functional airport for connecting between aircraft; were it not for the winter weather and the major airline with a hub there, I would try to connect there more often.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Transport: Lambton Yard Closed

In a scene probably not to be seen again, a long string of power for local trains rested for the Good Friday holiday at Lambton Yard in Toronto, Ontario on 10-April-2009

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I didn't realize when I selected my current residence that I was moving walking distance from an active railroad yard, but it turns out that Canadian Pacific's Lambton Yard was located not far to the north. The base for a series of local trains and a common set-out and pick-up location for local traffic taking heat off the more modern Toronto (Agincourt) Yard to the east, Lambton has provided a nice bit of entertainment to this railfan.

All that changed on Saturday. Because of the economic downturn, Canadian Pacific has decided to close Lambton Yard. All of the local trains formerly based at Lambton have been moved to Toronto Yard, there will be no yard switch crew, and many trains that formerly worked at Lambton will just pass by on the mainline. The last run of the Lambton Transfer job pulled all of the locomotives used for local runs out of the yard on Saturday.

No longer an active office, the Canadian Pacific Lambton Yard Office stood with only inactive company vehicles around on 27-April-2009. Previously, this view would have normally been blocked by rail cars in the yard.

I headed out to see what had changed on Monday. Perhaps a transition is not complete yet, but while the yard office is definitely closed and there are no locomotives sitting nearby, the yard tracks themselves are not completely empty. Over the course of the day, the trains that normally had work at Lambton did stop to make set-outs or pick-ups. Even the local jobs came out from Toronto Yard and stopped to work at Lambton Yard before continuing on to their normal work. Had I not heard what was going on, I would not have noticed that the local trains were originating at Toronto Yard instead of Lambton.

Canadian Pacific has tried to shut down Lambton Yard before and failed. However, in the current economy and traffic downturn, they just might manage to move all its work to Toronto and also Obico Yard, to the west. The yard jobs, both the switch crews and yardmaster shifts as well as the crews of the Lambton transfer trains, may be gone forever.

All this drives home the old railfanning adage--shoot what's there, because tomorrow it might not be. In the case of Lambton Yard, what I took pictures of as recently as Easter weekend may now be impossible to see again.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Politics: Guns and Freedom

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Freedom of religion is enshrined in the constitutions of both the United States and Canada. Among libertarian thinkers in the United States, though, there has at times been a movement for "freedom from religion." (The lower prevalence of evangelical faiths in Canada and the fact that "conscience"--and thus non-practice of religion--is given equal status as "religion" in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms seems to have kept such movements from appearing here.) The thinking is that not only should a person have the right to practice any religion they choose, including none at all, but they should also be free of the impact of others' religions.

Sometimes I think the same kind of logic should be applied to gun control. The argument that concealed weapons laws lead to lower crime rates--which seems to be backed up data--combined with growing insecurity in the society seems to have effectively ended the gun control debate in the United States. As gun sales have soared over fears that the Obama administration would implement gun control, the political reality is that many elected Democrats are now pro-gun and the political prospects for gun control are almost non-existent. The details of state and local laws may be up for debate, but there's no chance for any significant change in the interpretation of the right to own firearms stated in the second amendment.

It all reminds me of a joke that was told when I was living in Texas, working at a chemical facility in Lake Jackson, Texas. People sometimes drove into nearby Freeport for lunch. The joke told during safety training was that if you drove into Freeport, you'd be stopped at a checkpoint and they'd ask if you had a gun. "If you don't have one, they'll give you one" was the punchline.

That's the danger of current direction of attitudes about firearms in the United States. Owning a gun is gradually going from being a right to an effective necessity. In some parts of the country, the social expectation is that if you don't have a gun to defend yourself, then you deserve whatever crime happens to you, regardless of the legalities of the situation.

While I do not generally have an issue with others having a gun, even concealed ones, I don't want to carry one myself. Fundamentally, I'm too lazy--not just to safely secure one, but to learn how to use it properly in the first place. I want "freedom from guns."

I suppose with my philosophy that I am living in the right city. The current mayor of Toronto, David Miller, is so committed to gun control that he had the private gun range located above the great hall in Union Station closed. Historically used to train railroad police, this facility actually allowed people who do have guns to learn to use them properly, which last I checked was what anyone should want and is not automatically at odds with a desire for tighter gun laws. However, Miller didn't want any appearance of Toronto as a gun-friendly city in any way, and the unusually-located range was closed. In David Miller's Toronto, there's not only freedom from guns, there's also freedom from gun safety, which is not what I had in mind.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Photos: Tour of the Guelph Junction Railway

The "Guelph Junction Express" provided this view of a pedestrian bridge over the Speed River in Guelph, Ontario on 25-April-2009

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's update to my photo site features yesterday's "Tour of the Guelph Junction Railway." The Guelph Historical Railway Association-sponsored, Ontario Southland-operated train covered not only the 18.5-mile mainline between Guelph Junction and Guelph, Ontario, but also all of the major industrial leads off the mainline. An incomplete tour of Guelph was also started before a thunderstorm ruined photographic conditions.

Margin Notes: Headache, CBC, Arizona, Railfan

An interesting ad was noted at Yonge Dundas Square in Toronto, Ontario on 20-April-2009

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Is life giving you a headache? A creative billboard in Toronto's Yonge Dundas Square may be something that you relate to. Yonge Dundas Square has turned into Toronto's answer to New York city's Times Square, with many eye-catching advertisements all over the background, and the one pictured above featured what appeared to be a wrecking ball hitting someone in the head. Not obvious from the picture is that the ad blows in the wind in a manner that makes it look like the head is throbbing from the headache. My congratulations go to Tylenol for that one.

* * * * * *

Just a few blocks from Yonge Dundas Square was the location where The Boxmasters, whose members include Billy Bob Thornton, performed one of their few Canadian performances. The band decided not to continue with a tour in Canada after their well-publicized appearance on the CBC Radio One show "Q" in which Thornton, well, didn't come across very well. In case you missed it, the video of the appearance is here. While the incident was widely publicized, my favorite part of the exchange was not--when Thornton claimed that Canadian audiences were "like mashed potatoes without the gravy," interviewer Jian Ghomeshi countered that Canadians actually use lots of gravy, including on french fries.

* * * * * *

While that interview may have reflected well on Ghomeshi and the CBC, there's one thing about the CBC Radio One Metro Morning show that has started to annoy me. Before I moved to Canada, I don't believe I had ever heard the song Seven-Day Fool. I now think I've heard just about every rendition of the song ever done in history; it seems like they play it at least once a month on the program. It's a good song, but it wore out its welcome on the show long ago--have the music producers spent too much time in the sun?

* * * * * *

I'm beginning to think all politicians from Arizona have spent too much time in the sun. Something has to explain why former governor Janet Napolitano, now United States Secretary of Homeland Security, and senator John McCain both accused Canada in recent days of allowing in terrorists from the 11-September-2001 attacks. In reality, none of the terrorists entered the United States from Canada. Why Arizona politicians can't seem to understand that is beyond me.

* * * * * *

Had McCain become President of the United States, rail passenger service would not have been supported. In contrast, the Obama administration is aggressively pursuing both short-term improvements to the present system and high speed corridors for the future. President Obama even used the term "railfan" to describe vice president Joe Biden, a regular Amtrak passenger and long-time rail passenger network supporter. I didn't think I'd live to see a US president to use the word "railfan."

* * * * * *

A mallard duck couple gave careful consideration to the turntable at the John Street Roundhouse in Toronto, Ontario on 22-April-2009

Meanwhile, rail preservation in the Toronto area continues to move forward. I personally spent some time last week operating the turntable at the John Street Roundhouse as tracks were re-laid between the turntable and the roundhouse building. Much to my surprise, a mallard duck couple spent about half an hour waddling around the turntable as if they were checking it out for something. I was starting to wonder if Engineer Michael would need to take the place of Officer Michael (see Make Way for Ducklings), but they finally wandered off and did not return.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Radio Pick: Blogging and Politics

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This was a poor radio week in general in my opinion, and it was difficult to find a worthy new show for the weekly radio pick. On the last day of the week, the CBC finally came through with an edition of "The House" that wouldn't have been considered most weeks, but did have some compelling content. Garth Turner isn't popular in many circles, and he openly admits that he is finished in politics. Yet, he still has an interesting perspective to present on the future of blogging in politics and on the state of party politics (even using one of my favorite words, "sheeple"), providing a highlight to a 48-minute show that also featured a look at how this recession is not hurting women as much as men and a nice summary of the way those in the US couldn't get their immigration facts straight this week.

Listen to The House "Blogging in Federal Politics"

Transport: Rare Miles on the Guelph Junction

An unusual combination of an Ontario Southland RS-18u and RS-23 led the special excursion organized by the Guelph Historical Railway Association at Corwhin, Ontario on 25-April-2009

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I have to admit that I'm a bit of a rare mileage buff when it comes to riding trains. I ended up riding two of the Amtrak Coast Starlight detours over Tehachapi Pass last year mostly because each used a different route down the San Joaquin Valley to reach Tehachapi Pass. To me, though, it's not about the rare miles per se, but about the new sights to be seen. Sure, I log the miles in a ledger, but I'm not in any hurry to ride the "GO Subdivision" locally here around Toronto, even though that would be easy miles to rack up, because it parallels the VIA Rail Canada route and thus doesn't offer any new scenery.

So, had I previously seen the Guelph Junction Railway, operated under contract by the Ontario Southland Railway, then today's "rare miles" excursion probably would not have been that attractive. The special event, organized by the Guelph Historical Railway Association, took the standard "Guelph Junction Express" route and added the industrial leads and wye tracks operated by the railway, along with photo run-bys, to create an event attractive enough to railroad enthusiasts that it sold out in advance, even in the depressed economy.

The rare views on the excursion mostly consisted of industrial scenes like this one taken as the train ran down the North Lead in Guelph, Ontario on 25-April-2009

Industrial leads don't exactly have compelling scenery, as shown by the view above. While it was certainly interesting to see the businesses still connected to the tracks in Guelph, including a major rail contractor and a coatings facility that had a long-retired tank car, it wasn't exactly the kind of thing one would want to highlight in a photo album.

Some of the train load of railroad enthusiasts watched as the train backed up toward their location after a photo run-by near Corwhin, Ontario on 25-April-2009

The normal route of the Guelph Junction Express, including sections along the Speed River and along the Eramosa River as well as farms and limestone outcroppings provided plenty of scenic interest to the day. Plus, the stop at Guelph Junction with a chance to look at the Ontario Southland's fleet of equipment added quite a bit of railroad enthusiast interest.

While the "rare miles" may not have been that much of a draw, the "Tour of the Guelph Junction Railway" had plenty to recommend it as an enthusiast's excursion.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Philosophy: On Music

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I had the experience tonight of hearing octogenarian Elsa Denzey play the piano. After this event, part of the "All and Everything" Conference taking place here in Toronto, she answered audience questions, and while one of her answers was intended to be about the specific pieces she had played, it seems to apply in a much broader context: (This may be partially paraphrased, rather than her exact words, as I am writing from memory.)
I think the most important thing is to listen to the vibrations in the music... Every person listens differently. Some hear more, others hear less. People can say that that this part should be played this way or that other parts need to be done another way, but it doesn't matter. We have to play the music the way we feel it. It's always an individual experience. Even if we play it exactly the way we feel it, people still hear it differently than we do. We all just have to be honest about what we hear and feel.
This unexpected moment of wisdom, a jewel following what had already been an enjoyable session, reminded me of a time in high school when I was covering the 1997 Bellevue Jazz Festival (in Washington state) for our internal television station and intended for airing on a local cable access channel. I was probably the worst choice in the world to host the program, as I knew nothing about jazz. (For that matter, I still know very little.) After a solo by a student from Mercer Island High School that received the loudest applause of the night, there was no question that I was going to interview the soloist for the show.

The tape has apparently been lost to history, but I wish I had it. I asked the most banal, Larry King-style question that even at the time I knew was ignorant, something to the effect of, "how do you know you to do that?" but as sometimes happens with such questions, it elicited a beautiful response. After perhaps two seconds in which the soloist (whose name I also do not recall) got over the shock of the stupid question, he launched into probably the best elucidation of the process of playing jazz that I have heard to date. The impact of his now-lost words were at least as powerful as the Denzey quote above in the context of jazz. I was a fool for not immediately getting a copy of the show, just to be able to review his response--and all the more reason to write this blog entry to preserve Denzey's words for posterity.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Economics: No Farther Than Janitors

TORONTO, ONTARIO - While much of the attention to lowering labor costs involves moving operations to locations where employees are paid less than in the west, in particular China and India, the process of downward pressure on wages is visible even within North America. In my experience, one need look no farther than janitors. The work place where I stayed the longest--five years in the same building in Medford, Massachusetts--provided a nice lesson in what is happening at the "bottom" of the United States economy through the progression of janitors.

For better or for worse, at virtually every job I have ever held, I have tended to work late enough often enough that I have come to know the hired janitors. While I came to know each of them by at least their first name, for their protection I am including none of their names here, and have made other details about them and their employers more vague than I actually remember as well.

The janitor that was working in our portion of the building when I first started there had been born in Massachusetts. He was well along into his career but still more than a decade away from retirement. He did a good job and, to the best of my knowledge, did not have any performance issues of consequence. Yet, when the new management team hired after I started took a look at the situation, one of the early decisions they made outside of the core business was that janitorial services were too expensive, and the man was let go as a contractor in favor of a new janitorial contracting service that offered lower rates.

This new contracting service first brought in a new team of janitors that happened to be ambitious immigrants from an Asian country. In time, I had a number of conversations with the leader of this team, and discovered that in order to get this and two other similar jobs, he had to sign up with the service we had contracted with which cost him first a large sum to join in, and then ongoing affiliation fees not to mention a significant portion of what we were paying. In his case, he had to take out a loan to pay the up-front fees and one of the three jobs was basically paying off the loan over five years, and he was living off the other two. Furthermore, he was at the mercy of the service--if they decided for whatever reason to cut off all his jobs, then he had no recourse, and would lose all the fees he had paid.

This was a real fear. His team made several mistakes in executing our service, and when we complained, soon enough his team was gone. I never saw him in the building again, though I did have later contact with him and discovered he was trying to branch out into light electronics repair and end his janitorial work.

In his place, the new team was a woman working alone. She happened to be an immigrant from a Latin American country, so I rapidly earned her friendship by speaking Spanish to her one night. After the previous team, her story was a familiar one--our establishment was her fifth assignment for the contracting service, and she needed at least two of them just to pay the fees to the contractor. The line between her situation and indentured servitude was largely a legal rather than a practical distinction. Unlike the previous team, her work was almost perfect, and she would be our janitorial service until the work place was closed.

After the shut-down of that workplace began, I will never forget a night that worked late not so much because I needed to but because I wanted to make sure I spoke to the janitor one more time. Sure enough, she came through at her normal time and when I started to talk to her, I learned that while she knew something was up because of changing garbage patterns and reduced waste from the labs, nobody had told her that the business was closing. While she was in tears for losing a job and effectively about a third of her actual net income, she thanked me for at least providing her a bit more notice that the end was coming than she would have otherwise received.

Clearly, this was not a job that no United States native was willing to do--there was a man doing the job at the outset who would still have been doing the job had there not been cheaper alternatives available. The real issue appears not so much that those alternatives involved immigrants per se, though clearly that was the case, but that they involved exploited workers. The vast majority of even the reduced rates that we were paying were not going to the people doing to the work, but to the service that had them in near indentured servitude where they were in constant threat of losing their work and financially were not in a position to leave the situation. The topic of immigration reform is a much broader topic, but this example clearly makes a case that the only real beneficiary in this situation was the company exploiting them--the workers that they displaced had been hurt and they themselves had minimal benefit as their lives were little better than where they had come from--only hope for the future and lack of adequate funds to go back were keeping them here at all.

So, there's no need to look at China or Mexico for reasons why companies think they can reduce the cost of labor--they're doing it with their janitorial services right here in North America.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Technology: It's Not a Panacea

TORONTO, ONTARIO - In the revolution that ultimately ended the Soviet Union in 1991, much was made of the impact by technology in preventing the success of the attempted coup against then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Fax machines played a large role for Russian leader Boris Yeltsin to organize opposition to the coup--the coup leaders couldn't keep information to themselves or adequately monitor the opposition, and thus the coup ultimately failed.

In the past few days, similar lauding of technology has surrounded the video of Susan Boyle singing on the "Britain's Got Talent" show. The audience had been unkind to Boyle, in part due to her non-traditional appearance for a singer, until she started to sing. Through YouTube, Susan Boyle is now known around the world. Technologists are pointing to this as a triumph of meritocracy through the Internet.

There's an issue with that interpretation, though. The Boyle appearance took place in February. Not until it actually aired on television on 11-April did the YouTube video start to take off. So, while YouTube certainly introduced Boyle to a broader worldwide audience, pretending that the Internet was some sort of meritocracy that discovered Boyle is a fallacy. The television gatekeepers did that--had they chosen not to air Boyle, nobody would be writing about her now. Technology may have been an intensifier, but it didn't fundamentally change this situation.

For better or for worse, this applies to most lauding of technology. We'll never know for certain, but I suspect that even the fax machines in the Soviet Union in 1991 were not actually necessary. They may have made the process easier or faster, but the dynamics against the success of that coup would have played out, and the coup would have been undermined at some point--much of the military, for example, reportedly felt more loyalty to Yeltsin than any other leader. That feeling was the key.

The single image that stands out most strongly to me from my entire life is the photograph taken by Jeff Widener of the man staring down a column of tanks in Tiananmen Square, China, during the June 1989 standoff. That was all about the power of the human condition--that man wasn't using technology at all, just his own courage and body. When crises occur, those will always be the most important elements, no matter how much technology might help. No amount of technology will change that.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Media: The Free Daily's Impact

TORONTO, ONTARIO - A visitor from the Boston area recently noticed that the free weekday "Metro" paper he found on the subway here in Toronto looked exactly like the "Metro" distributed in Boston. There's good reason for this reaction. As a quick perusal of Metro's worldwide website reveals, similar such papers the world over are all related through at least partial ownership by Luxembourg-based Metro International. Everywhere it is published, Metro seeks to provide a very basic summary of the news of the day that one can read completely during an average public transit commute, supported exclusively by advertising.

When I first moved to Boston, the most common newspaper seen during the subway section of my commute was likely the Boston Globe, with the Boston Herald not far behind and the New York Times and Wall Street Journal also often noted. (In the brief period when I subscribed to the International Herald-Tribune, I was a real oddball.) After the introduction of Metro in 2001, that quickly changed, and the free Metro paper soon became the dominant paper seen in the subway, well ahead of the Globe and the Herald.

Granted, Metro itself only publishes in three United States markets (New York, Boston and Philadelphia), and only a handful of additional cities have a similar product from another company (and the public transit infrastructure where such a paper makes sense). Yet, the impact of these papers seemed so obvious in Boston, where the Globe's very existence is now threatened, that it is surprising that the trend hasn't seemed to have gotten much attention in the current hand-wringing over the future of newspapers.

Turning all the daily papers into smaller, advertising-supported papers that can be read on a public transit commute or work break time obviously does not represent a way to save today's newspapers. It does nothing to solve the problem of how to fund investigative journalism. However, just because what may be learned from the success of Metro International is not obvious (at least to me) does not mean that it should not be thoroughly explored, which it does not yet seem to have been.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Photos: Beaches Easter Parade, 2009

An "Easter Dog" walked in the Beaches Easter Parade, complete with bunny ears, on 12-April-2009

TORONTO, ONTARIO - The latest update to my photo site features last Sunday's Easter Parade in Toronto, Ontario. The Toronto Beaches Lions' Club sponsored the 2009 Beaches Easter Parade down Queen Street East in the Beaches neighbourhood on 12-April-2009, Easter Sunday. The parade featured a typical lineup of city services, local business, and lots of bunny ears on everything from human and dog ears to semi-tractor trucks.

Heritage: Remembering Godfrey Humann

Godfrey Humann, then 93, operated his South Shasta Lines model railroad near Gerber, California on 30-April-2006

TORONTO, ONTARIO - As a youth, I was a regular reader of "Model Railroader" magazine, the only railroad magazine of any description carried at my local Bellevue Public Library. Most readers of that magazine become entranced by a particular featured layout. In my case, it was the South Shasta Lines, an O-scale model of the Southern Pacific's Shasta Division between Gerber and Dunsmuir, California, modeled by a man named Godfrey Humann who lived near Gerber.

Humann died last Wednesday at the age of 96; his obituary just ran in the Red Bluff Daily News. The South Shasta Lines continued to operate with open houses in even numbered years right through to his death. I only was able to see the layout once, at the tail end of a business trip to Nevada in 2006, but I was one of the 91,000 people that had the privilege of watching it operate.

The real engine house at Gerber, California did not survive into the diesel era, but Humann's model lived on, as in this model scene captured on 30-April-2006

Humann had migrated to California to farm, but in 1950 he also started his model railroad. The South Shasta Lines was soon shown to visitors, and it became internationally known for its detailed depiction of the Southern Pacific in the steam era. While features that survived on the modern railroad, such as a double-deck bridge shared with Highway 99 (now I-5) over an arm of Shasta Lake, the bridge over the highway at the south end of Red Bluff, and depot at Redding, were readily identifiable, Humann's depiction of long-gone locations like the Gerber engine house and the original Dunsmuir station became the historical record of the line.

The South Shasta Lines' premier "Blue Bonnet" passenger train met a freight led by a "Challenger" steam locomotive on 30-April-2006

Yet, the South Shasta Lines was about more than preserving history as remembered by Humann. Anyone who visited the model railroad knew that Humann greatly enjoyed operating his railroad and talking about all aspects of it with visitors. He was clearly having fun every minute of it. The fact that he chose to name it the South Shasta Lines and run rolling stock with that road name, rather than Southern Pacific, emphasized that it was about fun. While much of the South Shasta equipment was based on Southern Pacific prototypes, the Southern Pacific never ran a "Blue Bonnet" passenger train on the line, nor did they run "Challenger" locomotives. Nobody was amazed more than Humann when the Union Pacific, which now owns the line, ran its "Challenger" over it in 2005--he was still talking about that during my visit in 2006.

One of the famous aspects of the South Shasta Lines in its later years was a DVD that showed Humann sitting in the cab of his model "Challenger," which underscored the detail of his 1/48th of full size models. When asked about the video, Humann would just smile proudly and say, "It's a secret how we did that. I won't tell."

A 1912 Russell steam tractor, purchased from its original owner in Portland, Oregon, was seen at the Humann farm near Gerber, California on 30-April-2006

It wasn't a coincidence that the South Shasta Lines never entered the diesel era. Humann loved steam, and not just steam railroads. In odd-numbered years, he traditionally operated his steam tractors and ran threshing contests at his farm instead of operating the model railroad. These events were nearly as popular as the miniature trains.

While I only met Humann once, he left quite an impression. He was a man that knew how to preserve pieces of history, and have fun doing it. He may be gone, but he can still be a role model for those trying to do the same thing.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Radio Pick: Peace of Mind on TTBOOK

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's radio pick again focuses on happiness, this time for content as provided by To the Best of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio.

The concept of Gross National Happiness as a replacement for the Gross Domestic Product (as advocated by Bhutan among others) has gotten a reasonable amount of publicity in recent years, but the best explanation of the science behind happiness and the rational for Gross National Happiness was aired this week as part of the "Future Perfect" series on Wisconsin Public Radio's To The Best of Our Knowledge. The key segment of the 53-minute program was the second, in which Richard Layard, Robert Biswas-Diener, Sonja Lyubormirsky, and Satish Kumar all weighed in with their opinions.

Listen to streaming MP3 of To The Best of Our Knowledge "Our Peace of Mind"

Friday, April 17, 2009

Economics: Generation Y and Unemployment

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Earlier this week, the propensity of Generation Y to use electronic devices and some of the potential social consequences were explored. There's another potential consequence of the constant activity and engagement of Generation Y--and that's on their attitude about employment.

Traditionally in the United States, at least as I was taught and observed in my childhood, unemployment was viewed as a one of the worst possible states in life. People who were unemployed not only felt shame about their condition, but were fundamentally bored. They needed to find a new job in order to have something to do.

Of course, at some level, this view was absurd even then. Only two generations ago, one spouse in a couple generally did not work, instead staying home as a homemaker and primary caregiver to children. I can't recall ever seeing a bored homemaker. Sometime after the women's equality movement, there seemed to be some shame in the choice of being a homemaker, but many people (women and men) never bought into that viewpoint.

Into the contemporary environment, enter Generation Y. Presumably, they have been raised with the same biases against unemployment that I had as a child. However, they also come to the work world completely wired and never bored. It doesn't seem possible that they will actually be bored when unemployed, and in this recession, many of them will be discovering this first-hand. If the societal wisdom about unemployment being boring proves untrue, will they also continue to view unemployment as shameful? Or will they decide that maybe it isn't such a bad state, as long as it is not permanent?

The Christian Science Monitor article cited yesterday on the "10 Ways the New Economy Will Look Different mentioned as item 6 that the economy will be fundamentally more volatile, with employers more willing to use preemptive layoffs even before a recession, and employees generally having less security. There seems a potential synergy here--if Generation Y doesn't feel shamed or bored when unemployed, they may find the less secure employment environment more tolerable than their elders.

The key, of course, is that the period of unemployment can't go on forever. The biggest challenge may be finding ways to help people find new jobs and new careers in these periods of transition. That may be the biggest challenge of a new economy. Generation Y may be pre-disposed to handle the rest of it.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Personality: Not the End of Consumerism

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Canadians are rather amused by the drop in consumer spending in the United States. It's not that consumer spending hasn't gone down in Canada--it has--but Canadians have simply never spent as much money as their American counterparts in the first place. Some say it's Scottish heritage; I argue that regardless of origin it comes down to the national personality being from the "thinking world" and valuing ideas more than image--the desire to impress one's neighbors simply isn't as high here. The contrast is so strong that even the first issue of the new Christian Science Monitor weekly featured an article on the relative thriftiness of Canadians.

In that same issue, the Monitor presents "Ten Ways the Economy Will Be Different" in the United States, starting with "Value as the new Virtue". The argument is that the economic crisis will cause United States citizens to permanently end "the era of bling," the end of conspicuous consumption. Instead, it is argued, people will look for value in their spending.

Certainly, this is what is happening in the short term. People don't have as much money because of job losses, reduced work hours, or losses in financial markets and thus are not spending as much money. The same changes have taken place in Canada, and the impact is the same, reduced spending and increased emphasis on value for the money.

I don't buy it in the long term. Fundamentally, the United States personality is from the emotional world, emphasizing image and feelings, and it always has been. Right back to the self-promotion of Paul Revere and Benjamin Franklin, the United States has been most susceptible to marketing, and somehow that survived the Great Depression and gave us another era of marketing-driven consumption after World War II that some call The Age of Persuasion.

I have talked to Americans of personality types from all four worlds, and most people, from all worlds, claim that they are comfortable not spending as much money right now because other people are not spending money now. If "everyone" started spending money again, they would feel pressured to start spending also.

It's only a matter of time before people start having enough money to spend again, and marketers adjust to the new reality and find compelling sales pitches for the times (which, indeed, may emphasize value). The era of "bling" exactly as we knew it might be over, but the fundamentals of consumer spending to keep up with one's neighbors will be back. It's in the personality of the United States. When that happens, Canadians will still look south in wonderment and continue to be thrifty.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Culture: Is the Real Opiate Digital?

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Karl Marx is widely quoted as saying that "religion is the opiate of the masses." A number of people, notably Wes Moore, have tried to make the case that television is the opiate of our times. I'm afraid we've moved well beyond that--the new opiate of the 21st century is the Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) and other portable digital devices.

The use of digital devices by "Generation Y" can be a sight to behold. They text and instant message their friends frequently. They use Twitter and announce what they are doing or discovering to a potentially wide set of followers (or perhaps just a few friends), or update their Facebook status. When not typing, they're actually speaking to someone on their cell phone, or listening to music on their iPod or other portable music player. In the process, they achieve an average level of multi-tasking unknown to previous generations.

While much has been made of the potential of this technology to spread useful information rapidly (imagine how different 11-September-2001, less than eight years ago, could have been if Twitter had already been widespread), like most technologies with great potential, it is usually used for much more mundane uses that have little societal value. I don't just say that as an older technophobe--ask most people who are constantly texting how important their messages are, even to them, and they'll usually say that most of them aren't--but the sense of connection and the rare texts that are socially valuable make the lifestyle worth it.

People of my generation have accused me over the years of being a freak for always keeping occupied and not getting bored--even dump me on a sandy beach without a book or a radio and I'll derive the law of cosines in the sand. People of generation Y don't make that accusation, since they are always occupied with their digital life themselves (though they think I'm a freak for other reasons, like not having a Facebook account).

The constant activity makes it all the more likely the Generation Y will miss something important going on in the world around them. Even if a hyper-connected person notices, their messages about it may simply become noise in the sea of banal exchanges. Yet, the very sense of connection that leads this generation to engage in this behavior keeps them satisfied anyway--and hence the Marx line about it being an opiate, something that provides a false sense of happiness, seems applicable.

There could be some good news in the proliferation of digital devies among the young. Many young people over the centuries have cited "boredom" as the reason for committing crimes, from vandalism to robberies. If a digital device keeps them from getting bored, maybe that will keep them away from crime. Somehow, I'm not holding my breath to see a judge sentence a young offender to mandatory use of a publicly-provided PDA.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Transport: Georgetown Line Upgrades

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Coming on the heels of the news last week that GO Transit will purchase the Canadian National's Weston Subdivision, which is the first 17 miles of GO's Bramalea/Georgetown commuter rail line out of Toronto's Union Station, Metrolinx today released the Draft Environmental Project Report (EPR) on what it plans to do to upgrade the line. The document is accessible through the Metrolinx Consultation Portal. With GO and Metrolinx planning to merge, the GO purchase of the line pretty much guarantees that what Metrolinx plans to do will actually be built, assuming funds are available.

So far, the usual suspects (Steve Munro, Transit Toronto, and Metronauts) have not weighed in on the document. Perhaps this is because there really isn't anything new in the plan that hasn't been seen before, but I found some of the technical details and their long-term implications interesting.

The EPR covers the portion of railroad between Bathurst Street (just west of Union Station, and the end of the current GO-owned Union Station Rail Corridor) and Highway 427, just short of the junction with the CN freight line at Halwest west of the Woodbine race track. Throughout most of this distance, the current double or single-track Weston Subdivision will be expanded to four tracks to accommodate both more frequent GO and VIA service on the line, but also the every-fifteen minute service to be run by a private company between Union Station and Pearson Airport (once called "Blue 22", now the Union-Pearson Air Link).

The interesting design details are all found under Appendix E, so those interested in such things may wish to go directly to the plans presented there. On the four track main, the line will have to be taken below the current grade to achieve grade separation at three locations--Strachan Avenue, the current Canadian Pacific crossing at West Toronto, and the area of Weston station. The grades for these depressions are shown as no more than 2.0%, so these will not present a significant hindrance to any passenger operations, but may present a deterrent to running freight on the corridor in the event future traffic patterns changed for some reason.

I was most interested in the design chosen for the branch between the corridor and Pearson Airport. The option chosen for this single-track line is one with tight curve radii and 3.0% grades, making it unlikely that full GO commuter trains will ever run into the airport, as I would like to see someday. I suspect the private company wants to make sure that this is not an option so that there will be no competition with their expensive express trains to Union Station that will stop only at Weston and Bloor. Since I expect this service will not actually make money and that SNC-Lavalin will eventually want out of those operations, it would appear that the best we can hope for would be shuttle trains between the airport terminal and the Woodbine commuter rail station--and for that eventuality, the extension of the existing airport tram system would be considerably more convenient and likely cheaper. At least a rail shuttle to GO Woodbine would be functional.

Part II of the EDR is supposed to come out in May, then the comment period runs until 30 July. After that, the project proceeds in whatever form is approved.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Politics: Obama Can Elbow

TORONTO, ONTARIO - The recent inclusion of President Barack Obama in Esquire magazine's "List of Men" as part of its recent "how to be a man" issue, juxtaposed with the question of how he would respond to the pirate hostage crisis, has resulted in an inordinate amount of discussion in recent days about whether Obama is masculine enough. With Obama having authorized lethal force against the pirates and even libertarians like Jon Keller praising his actions, I expect that the debate is over.

Why there was ever a debate is completely beyond me. Sure, his rhetoric usually lacks bravado and is often humble and realistic, which some view as weak. Those that seem to still want a cowboy leading their nation don't seem to understand the basic playground wisdom that the truly self-confident, particularly those with power to wield, don't need to use bravado. They can behave exactly the way Obama tends to behave and gain a lot more influence than if they went around threatening all the rival males around them.

The silliness of it all reminded me of a past politician in a similar mold, former Senator Bill Bradley. When he ran for President in 2000, his then-wife Ernestine was very active in the campaign, and it didn't take much effort now to find the story she liked to tell in a Boston Globe article:
As a person, Bill was always gentle and kind and soft-spoken, always considerate, and I would say to myself, "My gosh, I hope they are not going to push him over." Then when I saw him playing basketball, using these elbows and everything else, I felt very good and thought, "That man is OK!"
Bradley didn't need to show to bravado, he just got the job done, including throwing a few elbows when playing basketball.

I probably don't need to point out that Barack Obama is also a pretty decent basketball player (and, in fact, Michelle Obama has been quoted as saying that she had her brother play basketball with him as a sort of evaluation technique when they were dating). He knows when to use his elbows. The situation with the pirates was one such example, and out they came. Anyone that has been paying attention should not have been surprised.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Photos: Good Friday Procession

Roman soldiers abused Jesus on the walk after his arrest as portrayed in the Good Friday Procession in Toronto, Ontario on 10-April-2009

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's update to my photo site features my full set of photos from the Good Friday Procession which took place in the Little Italy neighborhood of Toronto on 10-April-2009. The event featured its traditional depiction of the story of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ including the abuse of Jesus after his arrest, appropriately reverent music, the chanting of St. Rochs and other social clubs, and this year, even politicians walking in the procession.

Holiday: Beaches Easter Parade

The mounted unit from the Toronto Police opened the Beaches Easter Parade in front of Fire Station 227 on Queen Street East on 12-April-2009

TORONTO, ONTARIO - If a procession like the one on Good Friday is solemn and for adults, then a parade is lighthearted and for children. Indeed, I suspect that fully half of the spectators for the Beaches Easter Parade in Toronto today were under the age of 10, and likely most of the rest were children at heart.

A child blew a bubble from the sidewalk of Queen Street East during the Easter Parade on 12-April-2009

One of the other principal activities for kids on Easter are Easter "egg" hunts for candy, but a much easier haul of candy comes from attending the parade. A substantial portion of the groups in the parade gave out candy, everyone from Lick's restaurant to Lindt chocolates (which were probably most popular with adults). While I let those shorter than me scramble for any thrown candies along the parade route, when a pre-teen walking the parade for a bank personally offered me a caramel candy, I thought it more polite to take and enjoy the small confection.

Bugs Bunny provided some appropriate flavor to the Ashbridge's Bay Yacht Club's contribution to the Easter Parade on 12-April-2009

A parade should have its traditions, and the Easter Parade is no exception--besides police and fire vehicles, old Toronto Transit Commission streetcars, the Shriners, and Scouts Canada, this parade always features interesting local businesses and clubs like canoeing and yacht clubs, each using lots of pastel colors to decorate their vehicles, floats, or dogs. This year, the Ashbridge's Bay Yacht Club had a Looney Tunes theme on their entry, with Bugs Bunny at the helm.

Bike Solutions provided stunt bicyclists to the Easter Parade who attracted a lot of attention on 12-April-2009

The Toronto Beaches Lion's Club sponsors the parade each year and does a great job of mixing the most entertaining entries throughout the lineup. Two particularly engrossing entries this year were a leaping leprechaun for the O'Connor Irish House and a group from Bike Solutions doing tricks on their bicycles.

The moment all the kids were waiting for--the Easter Bunny brought up the rear of the Beaches Easter Parade in Toronto, Ontario on 12-April-2008.

In any good parade, there has to be an attraction to promise to the children to convince them to keep paying attention until the very end. In the case of the Easter Parade, that attraction is obvious--the Easter Bunny, and one chance at candy.

More photos from the parade will appear in a future update to my photo site.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Radio Pick: Brand Loyalty

TORONTO, ONTARIO - The CBC made it two in a row for the first time this year on my weekly radio pick.

I suppose it shouldn't be surprising that a marketing expert can produce excellent radio, but Terry O'Reilley continues to both spin compelling historical stories explaining how marketing has developed, and to do so with excellent production values. The "Age of Persuasion" is interesting to listen to even if one doesn't care about marketing, and few in the series have been as compelling as this week's show on brand loyalty, featuring such gems as the Molskine notebook and the Harley Davidson motorocycle in a 27-minute program.

Click the listen link on this page to hear The Age of Persuasion "Brand Loyalty"

* * * * * *

An honorable mention this week goes to WBZ Newsradio 1030 in Boston and commentator Jon Keller. In a Good Friday commentary, Keller explained why following the logic recently invoked by Brown University in its cancellation of Columbus Day celebrations, there wouldn't be many holidays left.

Listen to Jon Keller At Large "No More Holidays"

Margin Notes: Ignatieff, GO, KIRO, CBC, Earth

Federal Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff walked in the Good Friday Procession in Toronto, Ontario on 10-April-2009

TORONTO, ONTARIO - In yesterday's post, I wrote about the distinction between a procession and a parade. One other element of a parade that I wouldn't expect in a procession is a political leader walking and waving to voters. However, the Federal Opposition Leader, Michael Ignatieff, was seen walking in the Good Friday Procession as pictured above. Walking without any significant security team or any identification, I wasn't sure at first that it was the Federal Liberal Leader. Ignatieff does represent a Toronto riding, but it still struck me as surprising and borderline inappropriate to find him marching in the procession.

* * * * * *

Borderline inappropriate is how some are viewing the merger of Metrolinx, the transportation planning agency for the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (or whatever we're calling it this week), and GO Transit, the operator of regional transit in this area. Some people I generally trust, such as transit advocate Steve Munro, have been especially critical of the elimination of politicians from the combined agency's board. I have avoided comment on this subject in part because I have nothing to say that can't be read elsewhere, and in part because I'm keeping an open mind until we see the new organization starts taking action--if the new board starts ramming ill-advised public-private partnerships through, I'll be calling for a change, but if they behave responsibly, perhaps this might actually turn out to be a good idea.

* * * * * *

I've also avoided comment on the recent demise of KIRO 710 AM in Seattle, which has morphed into a sports station as ESPN 710, while the traditional KIRO programming is now on 97.3 KIRO-FM. I mainly avoided comment because the last hour of the simulcast, with veteran KIRO broadcaster Dave Ross and reasonably seasoned KIRO broadcaster Dori Monson, was pathetic. Ross seemed reluctant to do the hour at all, Monson seemed to want to focus mostly on his personal experience, and there was quite limited discussion of the history of the station--and almost no old audio. I may have more to say about the old KIRO, but it won't reference the nearly-unlistenable final hour of programming.

* * * * * *

The absence of compelling radio seems to be infecting Canada as well. My weekly radio pick tends to be somewhat distorted in that it highlights an exceptional program and thus sometimes rewards inconsistency as opposed to day-in, day-out quality. However, it's hard to miss that the CBC, which accounted for one-third of my picks in 2006, more than half in 2007, and just under one-third in 2008, had only gotten TWO picks all year before this week. Perennial contributors to the list such as The Current and The Sunday Edition (the #1 and #2 programs in terms of times cited in 2007) haven't appeared at all this year, and last year's #1 program, As It Happens, only appeared as a result of an April Fool's joke. With the additional cuts still coming, this can't bode well for the future of the CBC, no matter that its baseline level of quality still exceeds that of any other single network.

* * * * * *

One thing out of the CBC that I did find compelling recently was an episode of the Comedy Factory podcast pointing out that the recent Earth Hour was taking attention away from Earth Day. The skit speculated that next would come Earth Minute, and finally Earth Second. For those that don't wish to forget Earth Day, it's on April 22nd.

* * * * * *

A new discovery for me this week--the planters at the east end of Bloor West Village were bi-lingual on 10-April-2009!

I believe the planters along Bloor Street near Kennedy Avenue in Toronto were installed on a previous Earth Day, and I finally noticed something about them this week. On one end of the planters, facing west, is engraved the word "BIENVENUE". A little searching revealed that "WELCOME" is also engraved, facing the street to the north. Why wouldn't there be bi-lingual planters in Canada?

Friday, April 10, 2009

Holiday: Good Friday Procession

The St. Francis of Assisi Band mourned its way down College Street in Toronto's Little Italy to start the Good Friday Procession on 10-April-2009

TORONTO, ONTARIO - The word "parade" connotes a celebration of some sort, so it is not a coincidence that the "Good Friday Procession" in Toronto is a "procession," not a "parade," though from a helicopter it would probably be hard to tell the difference. Running through the heart of Little Italy, the procession tells the story of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ on one of the holiest days, Good Friday, in the calendar of the religions that consider him their savior.

While the elements of a typical parade are present, with bands, floats, and groups marching in formation, the tone is completely different from a parade. The St. Francis of Assisi Band, starting the content of the parade behind the flags, marched in a mournful manner, playing dirge-like music to establish the event as one of religious reverence rather than celebration.

Soldiers taunted Jesus on his march to see Pilate as portrayed in the Good Friday Procession in Toronto, Ontario on 10-April-2009

All parades have their traditional elements that one comes to expect each year, and the Good Friday Procession has its traditions as well. One is the women of St. Roch's Church in Weston, who sing and chant their way down the route in Italian and Latin. Short quotes from the New Testament of the Bible are carried between segments of the procession to tell the story of Jesus' crucifixion. The tradition that gets the most attention, though, is the portrayal of Jesus being abused by Roman soldiers as they take him to be judged by Pontius Pilate and King Herod. A bloodied Jesus appears to be beaten and otherwise harassed as he walks, causing cringes and even screams from the crowds along the sidewalks as he passes.

Followers of Jesus followed him to the crucifixion as portrayed during the Good Friday Procession in Toronto, Ontario on 10-April-2009

Many of the groups marching in the Good Friday Procession are churches and social clubs from the area, so more than in Toronto's parades, there was a constant stream of people ducking out of formation to say hello to friends along the parade route. Those costumed in Biblical-era costumes, though, were not observed to break character as they passed my location along College Avenue.

Crowds poured into College Street in Little Italy following the Good Friday Procession in Toronto, Ontario on 10-April-2009

More complete photo coverage of the Good Friday Procession will appear in a future update to my photo site.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Politics: Canadian Lack of Anger

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Two days ago, the anger in the United States, mostly as a result of the financial crisis, was pondered. The contrast with the public mood in Canada is stark. I suppose there are some angry people around here, mostly those mad at the United States for "creating" the crisis, but they aren't nearly as vocal or influential in the culture as those getting attention from the media in the United States. Furthermore, this isn't just Canadians being reserved. We have far less to be angry about in Canada.

First of all, it's hard to make a case that the Canadian government or people contributed much to the creation of the global financial crisis. Canadian banks are sound; the "Big Five" have all continued to report profits, even if they are lower than previous quarters. Sub-prime mortgages were not widespread here, the bundling of mortgages together was not nearly as widespread, and the regulatory scheme turned out to be much smarter than those in Europe, with the net effect that the financial system only had a crisis here as a result of a credit crunch caused by lack of knowledge about exposure to bundled instruments from the United States. From a financial perspective, Canada can hold its head high as being one of the a scant few industrialized nations that actually had a sound system.

Of course, with trade with the United States dominating the Canadian economy, and the automobile industry a particularly large part of the Ontario economy, the things Canada did right have mattered little and recession looks to be nearly as severe here in Ontario as anywhere in the world, and no province is proving immune.

Yet, Canadians are not angry about it, largely because governments at all levels have reacted responsibly to the situation. The Conservative government may have had to be dragged into the concept of a stimulus plan, but in the end they issued a stimulus package that looked like something the Liberal Party would have written, making it inevitable that the Liberals would back the government budget. (Most of our anger seemed to have been directed at the Harper government's initial refusal to understand that a recession was imminent, and at the opposition parties for creating a politically untenable response to the non-responsive budget.) The system worked and Canada got a politically and economically centrist reaction to the situation.

Meanwhile, the same outcome has proven to be true at the provincial level in Ontario. The Liberals of Dalton McGuinty have used the crisis as the time to implement changes in the tax system here that the Conservatives could have authored, lowering business taxes, and harmonizing the provincial sales tax with the Federal good and services tax. It would be unthinkable in the United States for two levels of government to both copy the responsible elements of the opposition platform. The lack of vocal opposition to the legislation at both levels of government underscores that everyone understood that something needed to be done and saw the merits in the government proposals.

As the tradition of good government lives on Canada, that makes it hard to be angry with politicians--we might have issues with specific details, but it's hard to argue that anyone is trying to ruin the country or the province.

So, instead of anger there is a resignation and an incipient fear about how long the recession will last and how the rest of the world will respond to the crisis--will other countries take actions that will lead to the global economy improving, and thus improve the situation in Canada? It's that unease about our lack of control of our own destiny that dominates the mood here, not anger at our own government or corporations. In the big picture, it feels like a much healthier place to be.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Transport: Union Pacific's First SD40-2

Union Pacific's first SD40-2 locomotive, #3123, sat at the diesel shop in Roseville, California on 26-April-2006

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Even most railroad enthusiasts think my practice of doing thorough write-ups of my railroad observations is insane. In terms of efficiency, the research I try to do into the things I see when I later go to write them up doesn't hold up very well. Most of the time I end up confirming that locomotives or cars that I thought were mundane were indeed unremarkable. Every once in awhile, though, I discover that I have seen something significant without realizing it.

Recently, I was looking through the pictures from a trip on Amtrak's California Zephyr over Donner Pass between Reno, Nevada and Sacramento, California that I took in 2006 and had never finished writing up. Besides passing some phenomenal scenery, the route also passed the former Southern Pacific, now Union Pacific, diesel shops in Roseville, California. When passing Roseville, I tend to snap a lot of photos to get as many locomotive numbers as possible and most of them are never used in my write-ups. One picture from that trip, of a tattered-looking locomotive from the 1970's, Union Pacific #3123, was about to be passed over as boring until I suddenly had a thought--"3123, that must be an early SD40-2."

Sure enough, a little research on Don Strack's excellent website revealed that not only was it an early example of the SD40-2 model on the Union Pacific, it was the very first. It was built in February 1972, being stamped with frame number 7334-01. Union Pacific would eventually order 686 of the locomotives itself, and through merger with companies like the Chicago and Northwestern and Missouri Pacific would eventually roster more than 1000.

The SD40-2 model was not just important to the Union Pacific. 3,957 SD40-2's were built, not counting variants, used by every major railroad in the United States. The "SD" in its designation actually stood for "Special Duty," as the Electro-Motive Division of General Motors (EMD) used to designate its six-axle locomotives, which to that point had indeed mostly been used for special duty. With the SD40, though, the six-axle locomotive became the standard instead of the four-axle, and with the "-2" electrical upgrades, the SD40-2 became the reliable, fuel-efficient standard locomotive of the era. There were more powerful locomotives and faster locomotives in EMD's own offerings, but it was the SD40-2 that was the best seller. The last variant was not built until December 1988--the run of production lasted a full 17 years, unheard of in the industry.

The 3123 was not the absolute first SD40-2 locomotive. That honor goes to Kansas City Southern #637, built in January 1972. But, as the first locomotive of what would become the largest fleet of SD40-2's under one flag, the 3123 was hardly a locomotive to be ignored. It received special attention in my write-up and the picture at the top of this post will appear in the "published" pages on the day--something that would not have happened had I not done a little extra research.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Politics: Lots of Anger All Around

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Using talk radio as a barometer never leads to an accurate view of the electorate, but I've been struck in recent weeks by the continued anger being expressed by callers to talk shows of all political persuasions in the United States. From KUOW's "The Conversation" (usually drawing left-wing Seattleite callers) to the syndicated Glenn Beck Program (usually drawing those far on the right), people are calling in expressing anger toward the Federal government. It may have peaked during the revelations about the bonuses paid to executives of AIG, but it hasn't subsided much.

On the left, there's anger that the Obama administration has sold out to corporations and isn't using government power enough, and that it isn't different enough from the Bush administration in foreign policy. While public figures on the left like columnist David Sirota and economist Paul Krugman have been pretty calm if clear in their criticisms, callers to talk shows have not. I've been surprised at the number of left-wing callers to talk shows saying that they wish they had not voted for Obama, and that they were already disappointed and--yes--angry with him, usually for his commitment to the war in Afghanistan, but also over the economy. Even a month ago, these callers were rare; they are rapidly becoming the left-wing mainstream.

On the right, the anger is all-encompassing. People are echoing the opinion of talk show hosts like Rush Limbaugh that the nation is threatened by socialism as embodied by the Obama administration. Some actually fear the government, leading in part to a run on both weapons and ammunition sales that started the day Obama was elected and still continues to this day according to a report on NPR's All Things Considered today. Listening to right-wing callers to shows like Limbaugh's, the reaction is visceral to anything the Obama administration does, whether it is bailing out a financial institution, orchestrating the removal of the CEO of General Motors, or Obama himself giving a speech to a foreign audience--it's ruining the country.

The right-wing movement is coalescing into what are anticipated to be enormous rallies on Tax Day, April 15th, which according to their organizing web site will be taking place all over the country. One of the prominent Tea Party backers, talk show host Glenn Beck, has been so over-the-top that he has even drawn a brilliant parody from Stephen Colbert. Yet, listen to callers to the talk shows, and Beck seems like a downright moderate.

The promise of the Obama administration was that it would go beyond the "red state versus blue state" dynamic of the past decade. With the anger upwelling on both sides, either this is the first step toward achieving that goal as people express their emotions, or it's the beginning of the evidence that the endeavor is utterly impossible because they can't get over those emotions. As always, time will tell.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Economics: Beware of Fundamentalism

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Pretty much everyone agrees that the main flaw of communism is that it did not account for human nature, that human beings are fundamentally self-centered and greedy. While communism might work quite efficiently on paper, in practice, individuals do not necessarily do what they are told society needs them to do, withholding resources for the their own use or not doing assigned work, and those assigned to make decisions for the society could become especially corrupt in assigning resources to their own friends and family rather than what would actually most benefit the society as a whole.

Proponents of capitalism have long claimed that their system was superior precisely because it was centered around self-interest. In a market environment, people would have to act in their own self-interest and be greedy, resulting in innovation, and this would lead to advances that would result in economic growth and the advancement of society. Thus, there is a supreme irony that what has occurred that is making some people question the veracity of capitalism now is that it didn't properly account for human nature. In the absence of regulation, people withheld information and over-sold various financial instruments, leading to a distortion of the market, and the very greed that made communism unworkable and was supposed to make capitalism work instead led to a global financial crisis.

Of course, this doesn't mean that capitalism is fundamentally flawed and needs to be abandoned for something else (and I'm still waiting for a serious suggestion for those making such claims as to what exactly would replace it). Instead, it points out that the real enemy here amounts to fundamentalism--those that believed so strongly in the core beliefs of free-market capitalism that they were blinded to the realities around them. They believed so strongly in eliminating regulation to create a free market that they did not realize that the lack of regulation had actually resulted in a market that was far from free. In order for a market to function properly, there has to be accurate information about what is being sold at what price so that the purchasers can make a decision that is in their self-interest. Some will buy cheaper products of lower quality, while others will buy more expensive products of higher quality, but nobody should buy more expensive products of lower quality; the market should force the prices on those products to lower, or if there is constricted supply and these products are necessary to meet overall demand, then the prices of the higher-quality products should rise higher than the lower-quality products.

What the fundamentalist needs to understand is that when human beings are involved, the establishment and maintenance of a truly free market actually requires regulation. If not for regulation, people will be greedy and withhold or distort information--pretending that bundled sub-prime mortgages, for example, were of no more risk than normal mortgages, or that milk was really pure when it was actually contaminated. Proper regulations--not regulations that constrict the market, but those that make it transparent and reliable--actually make markets more efficient and allow them to do what they are supposed to do.

Fundamentalists refused to believe that human beings would destroy communism, so sure enough it was destroyed. Fundamentalists are now refusing to believe that lack of regulation contributed to the current financial crisis and are calling for further deregulation. If allowed to prevail, capitalism might face a similar fate as communism--but fortunately they don't appear to be prevailing.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Photos: Boston Fourth of July, 2005

Boston mayor Thomas Menino and representatives of the US Military honored revolutionary leaders in the Granary Burial Ground in Boston, Massachusetts on 4-July-2005

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's update to my photo site again dives into the archives to feature the morning of the 4th of July, 2005 in Boston, Massachusetts. As occurs each year in Boston, a parade started at City Hall, honored revolutionary leaders buried in the Granary at their grave sites, continued to the Old State House for a reading of the Declaration of Independence, and then proceeded to Faneuil Hall for more speeches, finishing about the time the USS Constitution started its turnaround cruise to Fort Independence.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Radio Pick: As It Happens Hockey Prank

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I can't let the week of April Fool's Day go without citing an on-air prank as my radio pick of the week. For the most part, I was disappointed with the April Fool's stories I heard on the radio this year. However, for the second straight year, the CBC's As It Happens pulled off a very good one. After all the talk about "pansification" of hockey this year and admonitions on the show that they were unable to run their intended April Fool's prank because of recent news stories related to the environment, their story on the banning of away-team jerseys in the National Hockey League was very nicely done, about half-way through the 24-minute second segment of the show. As always, the follow-up on the show was almost better than the original joke, the second story in the 24-minute second segment the following day.

Listen to streaming Windows Media of As It Happens "Hockey Jerseys", and listen to streaming Windows Media of follow up to As It Happens "Hockey Jerseys"

Friday, April 3, 2009

Heritage: No Generation Gap in Swansea

George Jardine presented to the Swansea Historical Society with musical accompaniment from Flo Thompson on 1-April-2009

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I have to admit that I wasn't especially looking forward to this month's Swansea Historical Society meeting. The newsletter stated that George E. Jardine would be speaking about his book, "Becoming Me: As I Think It Happened, Growing Up in West Toronto in the Mid-Twentieth Century". I figured I might pick up a few historical tidbits, but would likely have a hard time relating to his stories, since I am only a recent arrival in Toronto.

Yet, as Jardine started to read some excerpts from his memoir, I did start to find some things I could relate to. In the first section of his presentation, he spoke of various early experiences, including his time spent listening to the radio for entertainment and of the value of radio drama. When he broke to take comments and solicit the reminiscence of others in the audience, I was surprised to find everyone focus on the radio topic, speaking of their favorite shows and sharing how they still listened to such shows. It is no wonder my favorite Imagination Theater radio show is so popular--just about every person in the room had a favorite radio drama.

George Jardine spoke about his experiences growing up in West Toronto to the Swansea Historical Society on 1-April-2009

During his second section, he spoke of various activities around West Toronto including going to the West Toronto train station and the various places he could go on a day trip from Toronto by train in that era. Again, that was the aspect that the audience latched on to--the various places they had gone by train, the punctuality of the trains of the era, and how they missed that form of public transportation. Clearly, the people in this room thought about the same way I did about the utility of railroads as transportation!

After a break for a sing-a-long of "No Man Is An Island" based on the John Donne poem, Jardine continued into other portions of his life, including some opinions based on his life experiences. None of it drew the kind of audience response that radio dramas and railroad sections had done.

The audience at the Swansea Historical Society rose to sing along with speaker and author George Jardine on 1-April-2009

There may be a generation gap between many other members of the Swansea Historical Society and me, but there's no generation gap in our attitudes about radio and railroads, and it took George Jardine's presentation to make that clear.