Sunday, May 31, 2009

Margin Notes: Scenter, Urban Decay, McCrepes

A sign at Yankee Candle in South Deerfield, Massachusetts declared itself the "Scenter of the Universe" on 31 May 2009

WARE, MASSACHUSETTS - Those familiar with Massachusetts' state capitol, Boston, know that it thinks of itself as the "Hub of the Universe," inspiring creative derision from the rest of the world. One of the better plays on that title was noted today at the Yankee Candle store in South Deerfield, Massachusetts. While "Scenter of the Universe" refers to the scented candles sold inside, the one-letter difference from "center" is hard to miss.

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The other sign outside Yankee Candle touts its Christmas store, and indeed I was impressed with the international Christmas traditions represented in the store. My favorite from visiting German holiday markets, Rauchermen or dolls that burn incense and appear to be smoking a pipe, were prominently featured, as well as a few things I hadn't heard of before. The best of these was the glass pickle ornament--with its green color, it is hard to find in a tree and thus the person who found it first in the morning would get a special gift. Apparently, this tradition died out early in the 20th century.

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Amtrak's Lake Shore Limited passed an old mill building in Worcester, Massachusetts that had been re-occupied sometime in the five years before 30 May 2009

I was concerned yesterday that I was going to find the city of Worcester, Massachusetts to look like it had died out early in the 20th century, as it had been showing signs of serious urban decay when I had last visited in 2004. I found a mixed bag; downtown looked terrible in many places, including the former Common Outlet mall that apparently closed in 2006 and now had only its parking lot in use. However, Union Station looked as good as ever since its 1999 rehabilitation and now featured the bus station as well as train service, and a western neighborhood that was starting to feel unsafe five years ago had actually been revitalized with new businesses.

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Rain started to fall on the Cultural Survival Bazaar in Amherst, Massachusetts on 31 May 2009

Unquestionably impressive was the Cultural Survival Bazaar held this weekend in Amherst, Massachusetts. The bazaars are held to fund programs to maintain the cultures of indigenous people around the world and feature very interesting crafts for sale from four continents. I really appreciated the Senegalese food I had for lunch and some of the stories told on stage by local Native Americans.

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I should have known better than to think that I would have a cultural experience with food at the McDonald's in Montreal, Quebec's Central Station on Friday morning. With little time during my layover, I decided to head for McDonald's, wondering if there would be a different menu in Quebec and became excited when I saw "McCrepes" listed. Thinking it would be something approaching the crepes sold on the street in Paris, I ordered one. Of course, it was an item right off the American menu--McGriddles (which I have never liked) are called McCrepes in Quebec.

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What exactly did this bumper sticker mean, found on a car in Northampton, Massachusetts on 31 May 2009?

The college town of Northampton, Massachusetts is always a cultural experience, yet sometimes not an easy one to explain. Progressive bumper stickers are expected, but there was at least one I didn't understand. What exactly is "Eat a Pizza with Satan" supposed to mean?

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Radio Pick: The Skinny on Skin

WARE, MASSACHUSETTS - This week's radio pick comes from the CBC's Quirks and Quarks science show.

As the time of year when we need to protect ourselves from sunburn gets well underway, the CBC's Quirks and Quarks, not only provided a feature on the microbes that live on our skin, but closed with a question about tatoos and skin cancer in this 53-minute program.

Listen to MP3 of Quirks and Quarks "The Skinny on Skin"

Transport: Ten Years After Conrail

The only former Conrail locomotive seen in Worcester, Massachusetts ten years after the Conrail break-up was CSX DASH8-40CW #7340, once Conrail #6148, on 30-May-2009

WARE, MASSACHUSETTS - Ten years ago on Monday, Conrail ceased to exist as we knew it. The once government-owned company created in 1976 to run a series of bankrupt railroads in the eastern, especially northeastern, United States, profitable since 1981 and privatized in 1987, was split up between its two main competitors in the east, CSX Transportation and Norfolk Southern.

Living in Boston at the time, Conrail was my local railroad, so while I had done little railfanning in Massachusetts at the time, I decided I needed to head out to see the last weekend of Conrail. While 1 June fell on a Tuesday in 1999, many fewer trains would run on Sunday and Memorial Day, so I picked 29 May 1999 as my first and last day-long Conrail experience. On the advice of other local railfans, I headed out to Worcester, Massachusetts and took in the action.

On the last weekend of Conrail, a SD80MAC led the Framingham, Massachusetts to Selkirk, New York train through Worcester, Massachusetts on 29 May 1999

I wasn't disappointed, with a nice parade of trains, a variety of locomotives from B23-7's to SD80MAC's, and quite a few railfans out for the experience. The day went so well that I decided to return to Worcester regularly to document any changes that new owner CSX would implement. Amongst other times, I returned three months later, six months year, one year later, two years later, and five years later, always on a Saturday to try to make any comparisons more meaningful. It seemed my duty, therefore, to show up again ten years later to again survey the changes.

Taken between any two of my visits, the changes in operating practice generally seemed rather subtle (except, perhaps, for the invasion of new CSX AC6000CW locomotives in 2001). Taken over the course of ten years, the changes seemed dramatic. Except for a few run-through units, all the locomotives in 1999 were in Conrail blue. In 2009, all the units were in a CSX paint scheme, and only one, a DASH8-40CW pictured above, was of Conrail heritage. In 1999, there were three eastbound intermodal (piggyback or container) trains noted passing through Worcester in daylight hours. In 2009, there was just one. Guilford (now Pan Am Railways) no longer ran an interchange train into East Worcester Yard; all interchange was taking place at Ayer. The overall freight train count was 16 in 1999 and just six in 2009.

Physically, except for a few old blue signs, it was hard to tell that the line had ever been Conrail and not always CSX (to say nothing of the Boston & Albany and the companies that came between it and Conrail). Operationally, the Conrail Boston Line dispatcher had become the CSX NA Dispatcher and a new call-in radio channel was in use, even if the dispatcher was still in Selkirk, New York. All of the train symbols had changed immediately after the merger and had been modified over the decade.

One of the few physical signs of the Boston Line's Conrail heritage still visible in Worcester, Massachusetts on 30 May 2009 were the white-on-blue signs marking "CP 45", a major junction in Worcester, 45 miles from Boston

Passenger service had changed over the ten years as well, with the "Bay State" Amtrak trains to New York via Springfield discontinued, Amtrak "Lake Shore Limited" schedule changes, the MBTA expanding its weekend round trips to Worcester from Boston, the re-opening of Union Station and the closing of the small former Amtrak station, and the coming of intercity buses to Union Station as an intermodal terminal.

It's the ability to make these kind of comparisons that justify my note-taking while railfanning. I have the notes to prove that a lot has changed in the past decade in Worcester, Massachusetts since the end of Conrail.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Transport: My First Amtrak Derailment

WARE, MASSACHUSETTS - I've been on board a train that derailed before. The most dramatic incident was a special Massachusetts Bay Railroad Enthusiasts Excursion in fall 2003 on the Washington County Railroad near Fairlee, Vermont. Running along the Connecticut River at a speed near 25 mph, passengers on "The Dartmouth" excursion suddenly felt vibrations not unlike an earthquake after a rail either spread or turned over after the passage of the locomotives on the normally freight-only line. The engineer was immediately advised by the conductor of the situation and brought the train to a safe halt. My car was leaning substantially toward the river, but was not in any actual danger of moving any farther, and nobody was injured in the incident. Passengers were bussed back to White River Junction, and the excursion was re-run successfully in the spring of 2005.

However, before today, I had never been on a normally-scheduled Amtrak train that derailed. After taking a VIA Rail Canada corridor train from Ottawa to Montreal to start the day (a train that averaged 58 mph, including stops, for its 115 mile journey), I left Montreal on Amtrak train #70, the "Adirondack," operated as far as the United States-Canada border by VIA crews on track owned by Canadian National. It had been a slow trip after departing on time, with dispatching issues and slow orders placing the train nearly a half hour behind schedule as we approached the border.

Not even one mile into the United States, before reaching the junction with the Canadian Pacific line that would take us to Schenectady, New York, and short of the location where United States Customs and Immigration would normally inspect the train, we were operating in yard limits at less than 10 miles per hour when I didn't like what I had just heard or felt. I thought I heard a noise like a wheel falling off a rail and felt too rough of a ride. After a few more feet, the engineer stopped the train.

On the radio, he said, "Head end to #70, I think you need to walk the train." "Why?" "You'll see." Sure enough, when the conductor walked the train, he found that three of the five cars in the train were at least partially off the rails, and reminiscent of the "Dartmouth" incident, my car had all of its left wheels off the track and was leaning noticeably, though not enough to require evacuating the car. As soon as a derailment was verified, I knew that my train ride for the day was over. In general, when wheel sets touch the ground, they have to be replaced before the car can return to revenue service, so this train wasn't going anywhere, at least with passengers on board.

Customs and Immigrations agreed to walk about a quarter-mile to clear the train where derailment had occurred. In the meantime, the crew announced a "mechanical failure with the train" (I'd say it was a mechanical failure of the track) and scrambled to deal with situation. Buses were called, then upon arrival refused to run up the access road to where the train was located, instead staying at the Rouses Point, New York station. By the time the crew improvised, carrying luggage on railroad pickup trucks while most passengers walked the quarter-mile to the buses, we had spent nearly four hours in Rouses Point.

Despite the delay, the direct run on the buses to Albany-Rensselaer where through passengers would be placed on a train again nearly made us on schedule again. The crew with the exception of the lounge car attendant (and I'm being charitable to her by leaving it at that) clearly tried hard to minimize the disruption as a result of the incident, and I give the conductor particular credit for his coordination efforts; he was so busy I never got a chance to ask his name. Ultimately, the blame for the derailment has to fall on Canadian National for not maintaining their tracks well enough to handle a passenger train traveling at less than 10 mph.

It certainly was not just another routine day on the railroad.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Politics: Nixonian Indeed

OTTAWA, ONTARIO - It's hard not to pass through the epicenter of Canadian politics without paying some attention to recent happenings here. The talk of much of Canada in recent days has been the announcement by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty that the budget deficit for 2009 will be $50 billion, a substantial increase since the last official estimate in February, which was $19 billion.

In many ways, I have some sympathy for the current government in general and Jim Flaherty in particular. It is his job (and that of the government as a whole) to be a cheerleader for the economy to encourage people to behave as normally as possible. They have to balance not overstating a deficit--which would cause unnecessary panic in financial circles--and underestimating the deficit by so much that their competence is called into question. Unfortunately, they appear to have taken the latter course and missed the mark so widely that the opposition is rightfully questioning their competence. The general consensus is not that the deficit is necessarily too large in a severe recession--most of those who think that are Conservative supporters anyway--but that the government doesn't seem to have a clue how big it will actually be.

So, the opposition in general and Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff in particular have been having a field day criticizing the government. The government's reaction has been more than a little odd, increasing their running of attack ads against Ignatieff, many of which focus on his time spent outside of Canada. Besides alienating the substantial number of immigrant voters in Canada, which makes the whole tactic somewhat questionable, this play to patriotism also seems to head straight toward the old adage about patriotism as the last refuge of scoundrels. By trying to make the patriotism of the opposition leader an issue, the Conservatives may be marking themselves as scoundrels.

Then there's the recent statement by Prime Minister Stephen Harper that he is happy that Ignatieff is the opposition leader because of the tapes he has of the Liberal. It's not entirely clear what that meant. Ignatieff has responded by calling the statement "Nixonian." Funny, I think accused Harper of being Nixonian in one of my first blog entries. I rather hoped it wouldn't prove to be the case, but now it seems to be an increasingly common opinion.

The Harper government is in a tough position in this economy and I suspect most voters understand and appreciate that. But, missing deficit estimates by nearly a factor of two and not offering much of an explanation while making questionable accusations and implied threats to the opposition is not a good strategy for winning the confidence of voters. The government needs to start trying a new strategy, or their worst fears may be coming in the next election.

Photos: Doors Open Toronto 2009

Mayor David Miller's desk at City Hall in Toronto, Ontario was just one of many sights to be seen during Doors Open on 24-May-2009

OTTAWA, ONTARIO - This week's update to my photo site features Doors Open Toronto. A limited chance to experience Doors Open on 24-May-2009 included visits to the Shamrock Bowl five-pin bowling club, the Tollkeeper's Cottage on Davenport Road, the Wychwood Barns, and City Hall, along with other sights in between around the city of Toronto, Ontario.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Media: Internet Credibility

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I suppose I'll get myself in trouble with this post. It always happens when I either point out how people blindly accept what they hear in the media as true (an extreme case was described here) or try to account for it in my actions. If there's one thing people don't want to hear, it's that they might need to think more about the credibility of information entering their brain.

I've gotten especially frustrated with various Internet discussion boards of late, from Google groups (a modern interface for what we used to call USENET newsgroups) to specialty websites like to closed-to-the-general-public distribution lists on Yahoo! groups. Despite the different potential participation, from anyone in the world to paying subscribers to hand-picked members, the same effect occurs--reliable sources are ignored in favor of those that speak loudest.

Specialty hobby sites are an especially interesting case because, by necessity, there are professionals on these sites that have to post using a pseudonym to avoid endangering their jobs. Oftentimes, these people are mid-level executives that have real, reliable information on both past and future events. A friend and I that both regularly read Trainorders recently discussed how some really valuable posts by people we knew to be high in management at major railroads had been largely ignored as posters believed to be college students posted contrary information and kept posting it with such confidence that any casual reading of a thread would conclude that the college student's version of history was correct.

The issue was acute because my friend at the time was trying to get the word out about what had actually gone on with the cancellation of a major excursion. People in the organization that he belonged to were having to spend a lot of time posting to various sites with their side of the story. In this case, I suspect their efforts were successful with those who were actually reading the threads in question. However, two days later, a new thread was created by someone who clearly hadn't bothered to read any of the previous threads, as often happens on the Internet, and the whole process started over again.

Back some months ago, a poster asked a question that I knew the answer to, having been an eye-witness to the event. Someone had already posted the correct answer, so I simply e-mailed him to say that I knew that poster was correct since I had actually been there. Nobody had posted contradictory information on the thread. The response I got back was, "I'm going to put two versions on my web site since I found another story on a web site." I found out what web site, and the webmaster was someone who was five years old when the event occurred and had apparently gotten the information from a newsgroup archive from the era. To the member of Generation Y that I was corresponding with, a random web posting was considered equivalent information to someone they had actually communicated with that had been an eyewitness.

I don't know how many times I've asked a member of Generation Y whether they needed information on something and heard "no, I found it on the Internet" and it turned out to be incorrect information that didn't even match what was on the Internet's own Wikipedia, much less more reliable non-Internet sources. In some cases, these were facts with political consequences, like economic figures, that the person was going to use in a letter to their political representative or a newspaper (er, more likely a comment on a newspaper web site). It's not hard to see the danger of this mentality. Start a loud enough campaign and post confidently to a variety of Internet forums, and one's falsified version of facts will suddenly start being spread and viewed as reliable information.

The Internet was supposed to be the ultimate democratic enterprise in which anyone could express ideas and the best ideas would rise to dominate, no matter where they came from. Instead, much as in a free, unregulated economy the best marketing actually wins out over the most useful products, what seems to happen on the Internet is that those ideas that are promoted most aggressively win out. This is especially disturbing when the matter at hand is not one of opinion or philosophy, but of historical fact. Everyone, not just Generation Y, needs to better learn how to evaluate the accuracy of information they find on the Internet.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Culture: Doors Open and Beer

TORONTO, ONTARIO - One of the delightful things about living in a multicultural city that is a destination for tourists from all over the world is that one never knows what kind of interaction might be coming next in a public space. Doors Open has long been one of my favorite events, giving me an excuse to explore all over the city and see things that I wouldn't normally see.

I spent Saturday helping the Toronto Railway Historical Association shepherd people in and out of the John Street Roundhouse on board a train, including a brief stint operating the heritage turntable. One of my fellow volunteers was new to the organization, so there was plenty to talk with him about in the breaks between my task of positioning the turntable for the passenger moves.

With the first fourteen stalls of the roundhouse occupied by the Steam Whistle brewery, he turned the conversation at one point to beer. It turned out that one of joys of immigrating to Canada for this northern African had been the exposure to both domestic Canadian beer and the beers of the world available here. "I can't stand Moroccan beer," he stated, "It's so much better here." I told him I had a similar experience--except that I was visiting Konstanz, Germany, and comparing the beer there to common United States brews.

That wouldn't be last time I would end up discussing Steam Whistle during Doors Open. As I walked down Bay Street heading back to Union Station after touring the City Halls on Sunday, I was approached by a pair of Japanese students. It turned out they were going to school in Boston, were visiting Toronto for a weekend, and needed directions. Their requested destination? The Steam Whistle brewery.

As I was headed that direction anyway, I offered to lead the way, and decided to be a tour guide along the way, pointing out the significance of Bay Street to Canadian finance, the former status of the Fairmont Royal York Hotel as the tallest building in the British Empire, and some of the history of Union Station. They listened, but I think they really just wanted to get to the beer samples--only when I went into why it was called Steam Whistle and how they gave tours of the brewery did they start to ask questions.

The moral of the story? In Toronto, one can meet people from anywhere in the world. To have a conversation with them, start talking about the Steam Whistle brewery.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Economics: We'd Call It Socialist

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Imagine for a moment that a person has a novel device that they'd like to manufacture. It's not a trivial thing, so it will take some serious process engineering to figure out how to make it in any more than limited quantities. It will be expensive, so standardization and mass production will be needed to really bring down the price. Even then, there may not be enough people around that can really afford it. So, the entrepreneur decides that it makes sense to pay his own workers enough that they should be able to afford it, thus creating a sustainable economy.

What would we call such a person today? Probably, that entrepreneur would not be called by that name, but instead a socialist. Commentators in the Wall Street Journal would probably use the term "marxist." That person would not be able to get a loan from a bank to create such a business, at least if the business plan were presented as a detailed version of the above outline. Such a business plan would be flunked out of most business school classes.

Of course, the opening paragraph was a simplification of Henry Ford and the Ford Motor Company. I'm not sure if Ford could have gotten a bank loan even in that era, instead relying on a set of private investors to start what became today's Ford Motor Company (which was about his third attempt at creating an auto company, depending on what one counts). In the early 1900's, there was plenty of skepticism about Ford's ideas, much as there would be today.

Yet, clearly, the model worked. The company prospered, skilled workers preferred to work there because of the wages, and the United States became a country based on the automobile. Furthermore, the whole nation's economy worked, and the country helped to win two world wars. Ford's ideas about production in manufacturing and labor relations became known as "Fordism" and, indeed, were one of several inspirations for Karl Marx. The Fordism model didn't really decay until the 1960's and 1970's, when the service economy started its ascendancy and the manufacturing economy started its decline.

It drives me crazy when conservatives go off about how pure "capitalism" made the country great, and dismiss any aspect of "Fordism". Did not Fordism made a contribution to the very era that most of them seem to most idolize, the period immediately after World War II?

It is true that in a service-based, globalized economy, Fordism cannot be simply or effectively applied by a single company in most sectors. However, its dismissal as dangerous "socialism," as is commonly heard, makes little sense in most contexts--socialists wouldn't have run Ford anything close to the way it was run.

In any event, there seems a certain irony that the only North American car manufacturer not running to the government for financing has been the one founded on what we today would like to call socialism--the Ford Motor Company.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Culture: Indianapolis 500

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I didn't watch the Indianapolis 500 today. In fact, the last time I actually sat at a television and viewed any portion of the race was 2006. The tradition of watching what most still consider to be the premier automobile race in North America on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend has substantially disappeared from my life, and it probably will never return.

My earliest memories of the race were watching the television (inevitably on ABC) coverage of the event while visiting my grandparents in the Tri-Cities, a family tradition for Memorial Day weekend. I especially remember the dramatic 1985 battle between Danny Sullivan and Mario Andretti. The tradition of watching the race continued in college, as my freshman roommate and I would get together to watch the race in subsequent years, no matter where we happened to be living.

Growing up on the West Coast, the start of the Indianapolis 500 seemed rather early in the morning. More precisely, the start of television coverage of the Indianapolis 500 seemed too early. At least one year, the coverage started at 8:30 in the morning, when the race didn't actually start until 10:00. In my undergraduate years, that meant only race fans would be in the lounge and there would be no controversy about what channel to choose for television--nobody else would be trying to watch anything. More than one year, I remember wishing I had known when the race actually started so I could have stayed in bed a little longer.

Somewhere after the break-away of the Indy Racing League (IRL) in 1996 that greatly reduced the average caliber of the drivers for several years, I started to lose interest in the race. The fact that rival CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams) went bankrupt and merged with the IRL, restoring the unity of North American open-wheel racing, hasn't changed my level of interest. The high profile of a female driver, Danika Patrick, hasn't helped (mostly because of her hyper-sexualized media appearances). Visiting "The Brickyard" itself while on a job interview trip to Indianapolis in 2004 didn't make much difference. Even some close racing in recent years--including just a 0.0635 second margin of victory in the last race I watched in 2006--hasn't helped.

A big part of the estrangement is that while Indy cars never seemed as relevant to the cars on the street as NASCAR, open-wheeled gas (er, formerly methanol and now ethanol) guzzlers seem to me more like reinforcement of the dying automobile industry than they seem to be about taking automobiles into a new "green" era. Until the racing series can convince me otherwise, it seems like just another marketing technique. Racing has always been supported by advertising and always will be, but to really interest me, it has to offer something more in addition to the advertising.

For as long as I live in Toronto, the fact that the second day of Doors Open always falls on the same day as the Indy 500 means that I will spend the day visiting buildings for free instead of watching television. Someday, (unlike this year, as I had seen a previous Hélio Castroneves' victory) I won't even have heard of the winner when I hear it reported. When that happens, I will know that I have grown away from the Indy 500 for good.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Radio Pick: Reza Aslan on The Conversation

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's radio pick comes from KUOW in Seattle.

Ross Reynolds and The Conversation have again been impressing me lately with program flow from topic to topic that has been at times brilliantly caller-driven (including calls from witnesses to a major transit crime and a "brothel" raid) and bringing up topics not addressed elsewhere. A good example this week came in an interview with Reza Aslan, an Iranian-American author and commentator who has been getting air time, but only rarely has really gone into his future vision for Islam as in the final segment of this 52-minute program.

Listen to streaming MP3 of The Conversation "Can You Win a Cosmic War?"

Friday, May 22, 2009

Politics: What's Wrong with Arizona State?

TORONTO, ONTARIO - On 13-May, United States President Barack Obama gave the commencement address at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona. However, unlike at the other two universities where he gave speeches--including his controversial speech at Notre Dame--Obama did not receive an honorary degree at Arizona State. This strange decision is yet another in a line of odd executive decisions that have led some to ask what is wrong with institution.

In his speech (read the full transcript here) Obama actually embraced the logic of Arizona State's decision--that his most important work was yet to come. In his normal conciliatory manner, Obama used that as a theme of his speech to graduates, saying their most important work was also yet to come.

Whether true or not, the optics of the decision were terrible. Few civil rights activists have forgotten that Arizona voted in a 1990 proposition to not observe the Martin Luther King, Junior holiday, well after it had been proclaimed a Federal holiday starting in 1986. With that history, many feel that Arizona has a special responsibility to be supportive of civil rights (or face repercussions like the relocation of the Super Bowl that occurred in 1991), and having a public institution seem to slight the first African-American President of the United States was not the way to uphold that responsibility.

Administrative issues at Arizona State that have been thought to be political issues have been in the news before. I distinctly remember a controversy in 2006, reported in Chemical & Engineering News, in which Chemistry professor George R. Pettit had his research group fired by the university. The university claimed it was because Federal funding had been lost. Pettit and several of his colleagues complained that the university was trying to gain control of his research, which had done under the auspices of the Pettit-headed Cancer Research Institute since 1975. They claimed the university wanted the research, which included several promising drugs in clinical trials, under the university's new Biodesign Institute. Less charitable outsiders claimed that the move was downright political, even precipitated by the anti-science bias of the Bush administration, with the university making it impossible for the group to order the chemicals it needed for research and hence make meaningful grant applications. The consensus among scientists seems to be that whether the move politically motivated or not, Pettit was being academically violated and his work had been significant. The Journal of Natural Products was so impressed with Pettit's work that they dedicated an issue to his work in 2008. Peace was apparently reached since Pettit is still teaching courses at Arizona State.

It's hard not to see a pattern here. The administration at Arizona State is apparently either blind or doesn't care about how their decisions look outside or even inside the university. I'm not familiar enough with the institution to understand how that came to be, but as a general rule, when administrations act in such an unconstructive manner, it means they believe they are above accountability. The citizens of Arizona, through their legislature, likely need to do something about that, or Arizona State University's reputation will suffer more from future hard-to-explain decisions, and I won't be the last to ask, "What's wrong with Arizona State?"

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Economics: Canadian Discrimination--Of Course

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Canada was abuzz this week with the revelation that people with foreign-sounding names are discriminated against here, according to a University of British Columbia study widely reported including by CBC Online. "White-sounding" names on résumés are 40 percent more likely to be called for an interview than those with South Asian or Asian names and otherwise-identical résumés; mixed names (first name "white-sounding" and last name "foreign-sounding") fall in the middle. In fact, the magnitude of the problem is--gasp--similar to that in the United States when otherwise-identical "white-sounding" and "black-sounding" candidates are compared.

This is utterly unsurprising. No Canadian province has the kind of record-keeping laws on job applicants that are in place in the United States. I've written about this before in the context of why I don't recommend that women migrate to Canada. As pointed out in the article, this means that employers are likely in violation of human rights laws. However, without evidence, how can this ever be proven?

I'm generally not a big fan of creating bureaucracy, but this is one area in which the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has the right idea. If companies are required to compile data on how they disposition different candidates, then it not only provides a mechanism to determine if there is conscious discrimination going on, but also helps people realize if unconscious discrimination is occurring.

It's actually not that burdensome to a hiring manager, at least in my experience. It may be somewhat of a burden on human resources departments, but that's one reason why such departments exist.

Yet, in all the hand-wringing about the UBC study this week, I haven't once heard a call for increased record-keeping. If it can be done in the United States, it can be done in Canada.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Margin Notes: Green Desert, Arnold Palmer, FM

Manastash Ridge south of Ellensburg, Washington showed a rare green face on 13-May-2009

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Canada's largest city is now enveloped in the green of springtime as it should be in mid-May, but I was surprised last week to find Manastash Ridge between Ellensburg and Yakima, Washington substantially green. This area, used by the US Army as a proving ground, is normally quite brown and desert-like. I guess I had never passed through at right time of spring before, as I could not recall it ever being anything close to green before.

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While eastern Washington and Oregon are hardly as green as a golf course even in spring, the drinks served there think they are on a golf course. While having lunch in Bend, Oregon on 8-May, I first heard someone order an "Arnold Palmer" drink. I had no idea what it was, but I found out later in the day at the Madras, Oregon location of the Black Bear Diner--it's half iced tea, half lemonade, and the taste didn't impress me very much.

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While I may not have eaten at In'N'Out Burger this trip, I did manage a meal at Burgerville last Saturday, and while I had more traditional items, I was very impressed to find an asparagus and tomato melt sandwich on their seasonal menu. Considering how remarkable and in tune with its region that Burgerville continues to be, I have my doubts In'N'Out Burger will ever be able to expand into the Pacific Northwest, even if it wanted to.

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It's becoming almost unremarkable to have a major AM radio station start simulcasting or move to FM, but another major example took place on 15-May, as Seattle's only clear-channel, 50,000 watt station, KOMO Newsradio at 1000 AM, started simulcasting on 97.7 FM. Despite a transmitter northwest of Shelton on the Olympic Peninsula, I found that the FM signal came in reasonably clearly on the Eastside. Unlike the recent move of KIRO programming to FM, KOMO intends this to be a permanent simulcast on both AM and FM, meaning that Seattle news will still boom in at night as far away as Las Vegas, Nevada.

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The "Bellevue Financial Center" in Bellevue, Washington still wore the Washington Mutual brand on 14-May-2009, but most other locations had already turned into Chase

Another transition is taking place rapidly on the West Coast. Former locations of Washington Mutual have substantially transformed into the Chase locations. I don't think I saw a single remaining "WaMu" in California, and one of the few remaining locations in Washington state was my "home" branch in Bellevue, Washington pictured above.

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A variable speed limit sign greeted travelers westbound on I-90 across Mercer Island, Washington on 15-May-2009

A new feature has been added to I-90 between Bellevue and Seattle, Washington--variable speed limit signs. I've seen a variety of variable speed limit signs over the years from Snoqualmie Pass in Washington state to the Autobahns around Cologne, Germany, and these may be the best-looking signs I've seen. They still have the traditional white background and could be mistaken for nothing other than a normal speed limit sign. Unfortunately, when they display anything other than 60 mph, that means that there's a traffic jam to navigate.

Monday, May 18, 2009

History: Mount Saint Helens Day

BELLEVUE, WASHINGTON - So far, I've managed to get through the day without hearing a mention of Mount Saint Helens in the media. Normally, 18-May, the date in 1980 when the largest eruption of the mountain in the modern era occurred, killing 57, receives a lot of attention at least in the states of Washington and Oregon. I have personally used it as context for a math competition nine years later and a double-header of steam locomotives twenty-seven years later.

The direct impact of the nine-hour eruption on my personal life was relatively minimal. I remember being able to see the ash cloud rising even from a high spot near I-90 in the Enatai neighborhood of Bellevue, but on that day none of the ash headed our direction, and I did not know anyone in the path of the debris flow containing an estimated three million cubic meters of material that ran principally down the Toutle and Cowlitz Rivers to the Columbia.

It was a different story for my grandparents and my aunt Meri's family, who were fishing at Williams Lake near Cheney in eastern Washington state at the time. They received substantial ash fall from the eruption rivaling the peak 25+ cm fall near Lind, Washington in a surreal experience in which it was completely dark during daylight hours. They listened to (amongst other sources) Mike Fitzsimmons' famous 56 hours of eruption coverage on KXLY 920 AM out of Spokane, Washington. The day after the ash fall, they were told not to disrupt the ash, as it was not known what it contained, but my grandfather was among those that did not heed the advice and cleaned off the roof of their trailer and walkways anyway. A jar of this gray ash is one of my most cherished possessions.

Roads back to their Tri-Cities home were closed for several days, but eventually they were able to take the old highway via Washtucna, rather than the traditional route via US 395 which headed right through the peak ash fall area. Ash was still very much blowing in this area, and the position of air filters in vehicles proved very important. Those with air filters close to the ground tended to get clogged filters very quickly, while those in a higher or more protected position tended to have fewer problems. Air filters for cars and nose masks for people were very popular items during the entire series of eruptive activity in eastern Washington, where the ash was normally blown.

Next year will mark the thirtieth anniversary of the Mount Saint Helens eruption. Rest assured that everyone will be remembering it then.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Photos: Toronto Railway Historical Association

Volunteer work afforded the opportunity to look at the catwalk at the John Street Roundhouse in Toronto, Ontario on 10-January-2009

BELLEVUE, WASHINGTON - In advance of Doors Open next weekend, it seemed appropriate to present the collection of work done at the John Street Roundhouse in Toronto, Ontario by the Toronto Railway Heritage Association since the beginning of the year. Highlights in the update to my photo site include interior work on the roundhouse, construction of the Sweet Creek steam locomotive, construction of the speeder trailer, and the operation of the turntable.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Radio Pick: Scott Simon on Miss California

BELLEVUE, WASHINGTON - This week's radio pick comes from NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday.

I've avoided paying much attention to the controversy over Miss California. However, Scott Simon has made the one point about Carrie Prejean that I believe was worth making--in what started the whole thing, her answer to what seems to have been a planted question about gay marriage during the pageant, nobody seems to have listened to what she actually said. This kind of analysis has been sorely lacking in most of the rest of North American media--and the comments about Scott Simon's commentary reflect that.

Listen to MP3 of Weekend Edition Saturday "The Difference Between Listening and Hearing"

Friday, May 15, 2009

Transport: Intermodal Solutions

PORTLAND, OREGON - My Amtrak Cascades corridor train was delayed in departing Seattle, Washington earlier this evening, waiting on a connecting bus from Bellingham that was scheduled to arrive a half-hour before the train departed, but because of traffic ended up delayed nearly 45 minutes. The time allowed for some reflection on the concept of intermodal transportation.

One thing that European countries seem to understand that the United States, with its emphasis on individual corporations and entities does not seem to understand, is that people want to get from point A to point B as easily as possible. They may prefer certain amenities or carriers along the way, but the main thing is being able to get from their origin to destination without major inconveniences along the way. In Switzerland, for example, the extensive passenger rail system is not only set up for easy connections between intercity and local (S-Bahn) services operated by the Swiss Federal Railways (SBB), but also other rail carriers like the Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn (MGB) and the Bern-Lotschberg-Simplon (BLS)--and also the Post Bus system and ferries like the Schifffahrtsgesellschaft des Vierwaldstättersees (SGV). Go to the SBB web site and try, for example, a trip from Zurich, Switzerland to Friedrichshafen, Germany (home of the Zepplin museum) and all the intermodal possibilities appear.

The same sort of integration does not exist in any form in North America. Not only is there no easy way to compare Greyhound, Amtrak, and Southwest Airlines on a trip from, say San Diego, California to Sacramento, California, but there isn't even a good interface to compare all airlines, as many discount carriers like Southwest and Allegiant don't appear on the major travel search sites. Even if such a comparison site were available, there is no easy way to connect between services in most places. Bus and train stations are in different locations, and if a connection to an airport is available at all, it's via a city bus service, adding yet another leg for travelers.

Individual systems are making progress in this regard. The state-subsidized Amtrak California system provides integrated connecting train and bus service. It's not a coincidence that on this trip I used an Amtrak California bus from Sacramento to Oroville--it ran more frequently than Greyhound and departed from a more convenient location in Sacramento (of course, because of laws to protect Greyhound, I had to buy a ticket from Davis to Oroville and not ride the train from Davis, but it was still cheaper than Greyhound). Around Toronto, Ontario, GO Transit operates an integrated rail and bus system throughout the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area, but integration with local transit systems is sorely lacking. In the San Francisco Bay Area, has long provided a multi-modal trip planner that has become quite useful, but fare integration has yet to follow suit in the manner that it has in Europe.

It's not rocket science to set up an integrated trip planner so that getting from Newark, Delaware to Amherst, Massachusetts could be done most efficiently by the traveler. Nor is it rocket science to set up a fare collection system to properly reimburse the individual carriers along the way so that the traveler would need to purchase only one ticket. However, setting up connections between different modes of transportation is a much harder infrastructure problem, and someone needs to have the authority to run the integrated resources. Unfortunately, that someone is most logically government, something that Europeans are willing to accept but still seems to be anathema to North Americans. So, likely North Americans will continue to lack the convenient public transportation systems that exist in Europe.

For the record, despite leaving Seattle 23 minutes late, thanks to relatively low freight traffic levels and quality dispatching from BNSF (including veteran Centralia South Dispatcher Earl W. Johnson), my Amtrak Cascades train arrived in Portland only 12 minutes late. The train reached its final destination of Eugene, Oregon only 5 minutes late, according to It definitely made sense to wait for the bus.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Politics: Mis-Alignment of Incentives

BELLEVUE, WASHINGTON - I'm a big believer in establishing proper incentive structures to try to achieve an outcome. Usually, this involves a financial bonus of some kind. The effectiveness of this kind of structure shows up in situations like the expansion joint project in the reversible lanes of I-90 between here and Seattle--the contractor had an incentive to re-open the lanes early, and it looks like they may be open as soon as tomorrow instead of taking the full three weeks allotted for the project.

It seems to be increasingly clear that one of the major issues in the political system of the United States is that the incentive structure for politicians is not in-line with the long-term interests of the country. The number one goal of politicians is getting re-elected--and what it takes to get re-elected may be completely at odds with the long term interests of the politician's constituents.

I'm not talking about partisanship--that tends to be self-correcting. When a politician does something that benefits their own political party over another, they tend to eventually go too far, anger the public, and find themselves in the political woodshed. Just ask any Republican that lived through the last two election cycles or any Democrat that remembers 1994. Partisanship may make the political system relatively inefficient in terms of delivering effective policies, but it doesn't represent a serious, systemic problem in incentive structure.

The problem instead is more one of time scale. Politicians try to look as good as possible--or make their opponents look as bad as possible--in time for the next election, or in time to fund-raise for the next election. The problem is most acute in the US House of Representatives, which is completely re-elected every two years. Members of the House need to show results in each two-year cycle or risk being defeated. Never mind if investment in infrastructure that will take more than two years to build or a change like health care reform with potential short-term inconveniences but clear long-term benefits is the optimal solution. The politician in the House of Representatives has little reason to vote for such a policy, as odds are they won't be around past the next election to be able to talk about the benefits.

The Senate was supposed to be the systematic antidote to this effect, with six year terms allowing Senators to think in the long-term interests of the country. In practice, though, one-third of the Senate participates in each two-year election cycle and Senate races have become ridiculously expensive (five of the races in the last cycle involved more than $20 million in spending), so Senators do not find themselves that much more free to look to the long-term than Representatives. The increasing level of partisanship in the Senate in the recent era to nearly that of the House reflects how the two bodies are not as different as they once were.

So even if this thesis is accepted and it is agreed that the interests of politicians and the country are not in alignment in the long-term, how can be problem be solved? Is it really possible to have longer terms and avoid corruption in the course of those terms? While the Canadian Senate and its life-time appointments might seem to indicate that it is possible, I have little reason to believe the Canadian model is transferable to the United States. A more practical solution seems to be the restoration of the Senate to its traditional role of looking to the longer-term, and that's probably only possible with campaign finance reform, a topic for another day.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Margin Notes: Gambling, Hubby's, Griffey

Floyd Gleich posed with his check outside the lottery office in Yakima, Washington on 11-May-2009

BELLEVUE, WASHINGTON - Gambling has been in a theme in my life recently. On Monday, I drove my grandparents to the Washington State Lottery regional office in Yakima, Washington to redeem a secondary prize from the Lotto game. While my grandfather was eager to get his check, I was most eager to finally meet my cousin's one-year old son (pictures forthcoming).

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The next day, I found myself at the Wildhorse Casino near Pendleton, Oregon, observing amongst other things the slot tournaments. While I immediately caught on that teaching people to pound the "play" button as rapidly as possible was advantageous to he casino if people proceeded to do that at "real" machines, my grandfather caught the larger point. Since these machines could be programmed to win constantly for three minutes, that meant that the slot machines really could be calibrated to pay off at whatever level the casino wanted.

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Also in Pendleton, Oregon, we happened to run into Monty Gilbert, the son of the founder of the world-class Hubby's Pizza in Kennewick, Washington. For pizza lovers like me who have visited Hubby's but don't live in the Tri-Cities, the Gilbert family suffered a tremendous tragedy when Ed and Patricia Gilbert's boat was struck by a drunk boater, killing Ed as reported in the Tri-City Herald. Monty reported that his mother continues to "do as well as possible in the circumstances."

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Much as Hubby's Pizza has changed little since its opening in 1976, I certainly had flashbacks when I saw Ken Griffey Junior on television playing again in a Seattle Mariners uniform. "The Kid," one of three superstars (along with Edgar Martinez and Randy Johnson) who legitimated the Mariners in the early 1990's, still swings exactly the same as he did when young. Seeing him on television hitting a home run into the Subway $25,000 sign in the Minneapolis Metrodome on Sunday as the Mariners rallied to beat the Twins 5-3 was a reminder of when the Mariners first became credible as a winning team.

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Also on television, an ad from Kia for its Soul subcompact (available on YouTube) has mystified me. The most rational take on the the ad I've yet heard comes from my cousin-in-law Cynthia who said, "It tells me that the car is so small you have to be a hamster to fit in it."

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Media: Hard to Call it the Tricycle Herald

KENNEWICK, WASHINGTON - I have an interesting relationship with the Tri-City Herald newspaper. It was the first newspaper to ever publish my picture in 1986--which was nice, except for the fact that the word "geeks" appeared in a headline immediately above my head. It was pretty hard to avoid the conclusion that the editors had decided I was a geek.

When I actually lived in this area for a summer in 1996, the Tri-City Herald was my daily paper, as it was for everyone else that rode our bus to work, and we talked about what was in it on a regular basis. Our bus driver regularly referred to it as "the Tricycle Herald" which just seemed the perfect moniker for a newspaper that felt less substantive than the stuffy big-city papers from the New York Times to the Spokane Spokesman-Review.

Fast forward more than a decade and a very different picture appears. The Tri-City Herald hasn't changed much. It still runs thorough stories on the local community, and in the Internet era has even become a national source on topics of elevated interest locally, such as nuclear waste storage (because of the local Hanford Nuclear Reservation) and the sport of unlimited hydroplane racing (because of the annual race held the last weekend of July). Furthermore, it runs a healthy dose of opinion and news stories from other McClatchy chain papers (the Herald was acquired by McClatchy in 1979) and gives substantial space to local letters to the editor.

In contrast, most bigger-city papers are badly struggling and many are mere shells of their former selves, with radically fewer employees and pages of printed matter available each day. The Tri-City Herald no longer seems like a borderline-juvenile operation, but compares favorably to newspapers serving much larger areas. The big city papers--those that still exist, anyway--are usually little larger than the Tri-City Herald and don't seem to have much more content.

So why is the Herald faring better than other papers? I presume the fact that the area is growing in population (not much over 100,000 in 1996 to more than 225,000 today) doesn't hurt, but I suspect it's a comparative lack of alternatives--Internet sites like Yelp are not as commonplace in Tri-Cities. In fact, in casual conversation, it seemed that the most popular web site with local information was the Tri-City Herald's. Likely, as the area grows, other sites will move in and the Herald will come under a similar stress to that faced in larger cities.

This outlook underscores that not all is well with the Tri-City Herald as it is under the same pressures to reduce costs and staff as other McClatchy chain papers. At least one staffer left to become a political spokesperson fearing layoffs. Still, in the current media landscape, I don't feel comfortable dismissing it as the "Tricycle Herald" anymore.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Heritage: The Toaster That Never Stops

A 1940's era GE toaster was still in daily use in Kennewick, Washington on 11-May-2009

KENNEWICK, WASHINGTON - "They don't make them like they used to." Anyone who has watched an electronic (or electronically enhanced) product cease functioning just days after its warranty expired understands that sentence. Nothing in my life, though, stands as so symbolic of the truth of that statement than the toaster still used by my grandparents in this south-central Washington city.

I've lost track of how many toasters I've already owned in my relatively brief life. I seem to remember purchasing one for $20 at Sears in Cambridge, Massachusetts once--I'm pretty sure that one only lasted two years, since I didn't have it by the time of my last move in Somerville, Massachusetts in 2004. The current toaster I own must be at least the fourth I've purchased in the last twelve years, and considering that I purchased it nearly three years ago at Sears Canada, it's probably about ready to stop functioning.

Contrast that with the toaster I have had the pleasure of using at my grandparents' house since my arrival a few days ago. The chrome toaster was purchased not long after World War II--my grandfather isn't certain exactly when they bought it, but he's pretty sure they had it when their twins were born in 1948. So, it's clear that the toaster has been in operation for at least sixty years--as long as my paternal aunt and uncle have been alive.

Not only has it lasted an amazing length of time, but it works extremely efficiently. I haven't timed it, but it clearly makes toast in less time than any toaster I have ever owned. The process to clean it is reasonable, and I suppose its only flaw is that it is possible to burn toast if the operator sets the darkness control to too high of a setting. That's a pretty minor issue since it is easily avoided--nobody questions that my grandparents have received their money's worth out of this device.

If it ever stops working, there is agreement in the family that it needs to be preserved, with several volunteers to ensure it will have a new home. General Electric built a good product in the late 1940's, and we will keep it around to remind people that "they don't make them like they used to."

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Margin Notes: Mountains, Flowers, Shoe Tree

Mount Shasta loomed above Weed, California on 7-May-2009

KENNEWICK, WASHINGTON - For people not from a mountainous region, the volcanic mountains along the Pacific Coast of the North America are an almost inconceivable attraction. To me, they are markers of a native region. So far on this trip, I have seen Mount Lassen, Mount Shasta, Mount McLaughlin, Mount Bachelor, Mount Washington, Mount Jefferson, Mount Hood, and Mount Adams. Tomorrow I will probably see Mount Rainier. While not particularly tall at 14,179 feet, Mount Shasta stands as my sentimental favorite, likely because of its proximity to Interstate 5 and the fact that it is the first tall mountain encountered in California.

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California poppies lined the side of Interstate 5 near Redding, California on 7-May-2009

Noted in close proximity to several freeways in California (take note those in the northeast--these actually are "free"ways) including Interstate 5 were California's state flower, the California Poppy. This part of spring does seem to be the best time to find these orange flowers blooming.

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Shoes grow on trees! A shoe tree was noted outside Moro, Oregon on 8-May-2009

In fact, spring is such a great time to see plant life that even shoe trees can be found in bloom. What, you've never heard of a shoe tree? You mean that humans made up the above tree along US 97 in north-central Oregon? I thought I had found a new source for shoes!

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A typical thorough sign greeted hikers at the beginning of the Quail Run Trail in Reno, Nevada on 4-May-2009

Spring is generally a great time to go hiking, as long as the snow has melted. Nowhere in my previous experience, though, is so much information provided to hikers than in Reno, Nevada. Signs like the one seen above at the the head of the Quail Run Trail provide a wealth of information on the everything from the length of the trail to the hardness and stability of the surface. It would be great if all trails could have this kind of information.

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One of three Southwest Airlines planes painted as an orca whale for a Sea World advertisement took off from Reno, Nevada on 4-May-2009

With an airport in the middle of the valley, Reno is a place where watching airplanes is possible from a surprising number of locations. While hiking last week, I happened to catch one of three "Shamu" planes of Southwest Airlines that are pained up like an orca whale. Who says whales can't fly?

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Radio Pick: Fatwa Background on FSRN

KENNEWICK, WASHINGTON - This week, I've managed to find a rare example of a news program that can be cited as my radio pick of the week. Free Speech Radio News correspondent Aya Batrawy included one of the best explanations of fatwas that I've ever heard in a story on Egyptian censorship that was the final five-minute segment in the Thursday program. This kind of context is all too rare in modern radio.

Listen to WAV file of Free Speech Radio News "Egypt To Censor Religious Statements"

Friday, May 8, 2009

Economics: No More "Too Big to Fail"

KENNEWICK, WASHINGTON - With all of the outrage being expressed on radio talk shows across the political spectrum over the financial situation in the United States, one aspect that I have been surprised to hear expressed only very infrequently has been the concept that a business that is "too big to fail" is too big to be allowed to exist. In other words, the government should not allow a company to grow so large that poor decisions at that company would have a devastating impact on the overall economy, so that the only alternative would be to spend government money to avoid the collapse of the company.

I believe I first heard this concept on the radio on the Dave Ross Show from KIRO-FM, but early in the bailout cycle it was expressed by several progressives. I hadn't heard the idea again until Gil Gross of KGO in San Francisco brought it up again this week. (For the next week, this hour of the Gil Gross program is available in the KGO archives.)

As on the Gil Gross show, right-wing economists insist that this is not a valid perspective. They claim that there is no analogy between the size of a company and monopoly status, which they usually agree is a good reason to break up a firm. The obvious example they use is General Motors--it clearly did not have anything near market dominance in recent decades and there is little reason to believe that without its economies of scale that it would have performed any better in marketplace. They claim that a bank's quality of service has little to do with its size and everything to do with its management.

It seems to me that they are missing the point. I agree that there can be solvent banks of large size providing good services to consumers and businesses. That isn't the point. The point is that if they do fail--or make such bad decisions that they are on the road to failure--they don't just bring down themselves, they drastically impact the financial system for everybody, not just the investors in that bank.

This seems to me to be a much simpler case of those who normally argue for free markets effectively arguing against them. By arguing that banks should be allowed to become as large as the market will allow, they are effectively arguing that it is okay for the government to rescue large banks that make poor decisions, since that is the political reality when a Goldman Sachs-size company is on the verge of collapse. If the financial institutions had not been allowed to become that large, then it would be politically possible to allow the free market to work and allow companies making poor decisions to collapse. The free market is actually enabled by regulation on institution size, not inhibited by it.

There is no reason that a company needs to be allowed to become "too big to fail". It is amazing that there is no talk of trying to prevent this outcome, another sign there doesn't seem to be much seriousness about preventing a repeat of the current economy.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Media: The Plight of Travel Radio

KLAMATH FALLS, OREGON - While approaching this 20,000-person Oregon town near the California border this evening, a radio program ended and it was time to scan the radio dial to find something else. Starting on AM, I found a strong local signal at 960 AM, running the top of the hour news from ABC. Staying tuned in to see what would come on next, the result was silence. Yes, at five minutes after the hour, KLAD 960 AM had an entire minute of "dead air" before Kenny Rogers' "The Gambler" started to play.

We can speculate what was supposed to be on during that minute. Perhaps a local commercial was supposed to air, perhaps a weather forecast was supposed to be played off a tape, perhaps the song was supposed to start immediately after the news. In any event, the "Country Legends" station provided neither local information for a resident of or traveler to Klamath Falls nor its formatted entertainment.

This kind of failure is all too common in radio today. I remember listening to KONA-AM out of the Tri-Cities, Washington on Thanksgiving day once and hearing an entire half-hour of the network feed, including dead air (silence), sports and feature feeds, and actuality (quote) feeds without narration. The lack of production values are not limited to AM; the same thing can happen on FM, and silence isn't any better in stereo.

There was once a time that traveling afforded the opportunity to hear local information and styles not found in big-city radio. I fondly remember hearing a combination of Navajo and English near Tuba City, Arizona in 1991, songs I hadn't heard before on a music station (then KFMJ-FM) in Grants Pass, Oregon in 1984, and surprisingly in-depth farming news on KREW-AM out of Sunnyside, Washington in 1989.

Those times are gone. If a somewhat rural station happens to have good production values, it is likely voice-tracked out of a larger market and has no local character. If it isn't listenable, then it's likely as pathetic as KLAD was tonight. There are likely exceptions out there, but I can't remember the last time I found one. Now, when traveling, if I can't receive a quality big-market signal (say, KCBS and KGO out of San Francisco or WBZ out of Boston), then I often don't even bother scanning the dial, or if I do, I only do it once. Regardless, I almost always end up deciding to listen to a podcast instead.

So, what was the chosen program today at 19:05? There were only two other local and strong stations on the AM dial in Klamath Falls, both conservative talk stations. With Sirius satellite radio available, I chose the BBC's World Today on channel 141. There's a reason why satellite radio sells in vehicles.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Politics: Consensus on Wedge Issues

PLACERVILLE, CALIFORNIA - One of the things that has long driven me crazy about politics in the United States is that politicians of both major political parties have tended to campaign on hot-button or wedge issues that energized fundraising and voter turnout, but were unlikely to be acted upon by those politicians. Meanwhile, important issues--often related to the economy--would not be campaigned on, and since action is rarely if ever actually taken on the wedge issues, effectively a lot of political energy that could have gone toward issues that could have been acted upon was wasted.

In the current political climate, this may be finally starting to change. A combination of changing demographics and the current focus on the economy has led to a growing consensus on the wedge issues used by both Republicans and Democrats. The example that people seem to like to focus on is gay marriage. Statistically, gay marriage is a non-issue for younger people; those below 30 overwhelming favor the legalization of gay marriage even in so-called "red" states. So, there are a lot of people saying that it is only a matter of time before a clear consensus exists in favor of gay marriage ( even reports a plurality in favor already nationally). The issue is unlikely to be useful to Republicans for anything besides energizing their base; it won't be a winning issue on election day.

However, it's not just Republican wedge issues that are going away. Democrats in the mountain west and elsewhere are running on a platform of gun control. There are now enough of them elected that despite the Democrats' clear numerical advantage in both the House and Senate and having the presidency, there has been no serious effort to bring forth significant gun control legislation. This wedge issue is effectively gone as well; those with a relatively broad interpretation of the second amendment have won.

Even the quintessential wedge issue, abortion, may be fading. Republicans seem to be reaching the realization that not taking seriously their pro-choice candidates has helped decimate their ranks of moderates. Meanwhile, President Obama continues to use conciliatory language towards those who don't believe in abortion. The net effect is that neither party talks much about abortion and the status quo of widely varying accessibility of abortion by state and region continues to exist.

Canadians haven't wasted much time on any of these topics in recent years. Abortion and gay marriage are clearly legal, and while gun laws get some attention, especially from the Conservatives, the reality faced by gun owners hasn't changed much after three years of a Conservative government. If the trends in the United States are toward a growing consensus on these issues (even if each consensus is very different than the Canadian one), then maybe that will be one stop toward "good government" that is demanded by the Canadian populace in the United States. In any event, one hopes that the focus on more important things, like the economy, will not just be a passing fad but will instead prove a permanent part of the US political culture.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Heritage: 70 mph Behind Steam

The "Western Pacific" heritage diesel sat next to Union Pacific steam locomotive #844 near the Western Pacific Railroad Museum in Portola, California on 5-May-2009

RENO, NEVADA - Steam locomotives running on "mainline" freight tracks are not common in North America. Thanks to liability concerns and the small number of operational steam locomotives that are large enough to pull a long passenger train, the number of such runs in a given year is often small. At one point earlier this year, it looked like there might be only two the entire year of 2009 in the United States. (The picture looks much rosier now; while one of those anticipated trips was canceled, it appears that the total this year will be similar to last year.)

Union Pacific steam locomotive #844, built in 1944, led the passenger special near Scotts, California on 5-May-2009

Opportunities to ride on such excursions on routes not regularly traversed by Amtrak trains are even rarer. Thanks to an invitation from the Western Pacific Railroad Museum, I was able to ride on just such a trip segment today, as a Union Pacific special ran from Portola, California to Winnemucca, Nevada on the former Western Pacific line which today is normally traversed only by freight trains.

The "Walter Dean" dome car was amongst the rolling stock that we were allowed to enjoy during the trip, seen with the end of the train from the vestibule near Scotts, California on 5-May-2009

Union Pacific excursions are always a joy to ride because of the immaculate passenger equipment the railroad maintains for its business and excursion fleet. Included in the train today were a dome car normally assigned to the business car fleet and a coach that was the first car I had ever car hosted in fourteen years ago, and thanks to the small number of passengers, I spent virtually all my time either in the dome car or a vestibule, enjoying the ability to watch the steam locomotive by sticking my head out the side of the train.

Union Pacific steam locomotive #844 crested the grade at Sand Pass, Nevada without diesel assistance on 5-May-2009

That view was especially rare today not only because the steam locomotive was running unassisted up mountain grades (both Sand Pass and Antelope Hill), but because there were sections of 70 mph running on the line. There was no question that the steam locomotive was handling the train, and there was no question that it could make track speed. I had never ridden behind steam at 70 mph before, and I had never felt the wind in my face at that speed on a train before. It was truly an unforgettable day.

My thanks goes out to the Western Pacific Railroad Museum and the Union Pacific Railroad for making the experience possible.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Politics: Biden Too Much Like Cheney

PORTOLA, CALIFORNIA - During the Bush administration (before this blog was started), I was well known for criticizing the government for trying to scare the populace. Vice President Dick Cheney, especially, seemed to never cease talking about the potential threat of terrorism and how we should always be thinking about that threat. Meanwhile, other threats, including the state of the financial system and hence the economy, were not at all on the average person's scope of vision, to say nothing about what was happening in other aspects of foreign policy or foreign wars.

I have a sense that the Obama administration seems to be either intentionally or through incompetence doing the same thing--distracting the voters from more important issues by scaring them about something that they don't really need to be concerning themselves about in their daily life. The distraction is the H1N1 influenza A virus that everyone has been focused on for nearly two weeks now--foremost the comments last week by Vice President Joe Biden stating that he wouldn't enter a confined place like an aircraft or a subway because of the risk of contracting the virus.

The distraction seems to be pretty real. Instead of a focus on the late data about the "stress tests" on the banks, what's going on with the automotive industry, or what's happening in Afghanistan, news shows are focusing instead on the virus--even as it becomes increasingly clear that the virus may be of about the same threat level as the "normal" flu.

There is nothing productive about living in fear. Just as we should not change our lifestyle or forgo rights as a result of terrorism, there is no reason to radically change our lives as a result of a disease. There may be prudent things to do, such as avoiding close contact with those who may have encountered the virus, but that's very different from letting the virus direct the average person's behavior on a daily basis.

There is no excuse for inciting fear. While the CDC may have been making prudent declarations, there is no way not to find Vice President Biden's comments irresponsible. His comments deserve the same kind of criticism that was leveled against Cheney's constant incitement of fear--let's hope that Biden's were an insolated incitement, and not the beginning of a pattern of distracting the public with reasons to be fearful.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Photos: Toronto, Early Spring 2009

A number of people walked along Lake Ontario in the Beaches neighborhood of Toronto, Ontario on 12-April-2009

RENO, NEVADA - This week's update to my photo site features scenes around Toronto from early spring. Photographs taken between 17-March and 27-April-2009 included historical society meetings, scenes in the Beaches neighborhood, a trip on GO Transit to Milton, the changing of light bulbs along the Gardiner Expressway, and scenes near the Rogers Centre.

Margin Notes: Traffic, Signs, AuNaturAlice

RENO, NEVADA - One of the joys of this city of more than 200,000 is that traffic is practically non-existent except at the height of the morning and afternoon commutes. No so in Sacramento, California when I visited last week. I discovered that traffic on the US 50 freeway westbound backs up in stop-and-go traffic all the way to El Dorado Hills (about 25 miles); it took me more than an hour to cover that distance during the morning rush hour on Thursday and there were no accidents involved. Interstate 80, once considered an east-west bypass of Sacramento, was backed up in both directions the same morning, and eastbound had been slow nearly all the way to Roseville the previous afternoon. Even the slowing economy hasn't led to much improvement in the traffic conditions around Sacramento.

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The sign at a McDonald's in Carson City, Nevada showed over 99 billion served on 3-May-2009, a mark that has been out of date since 2007

The slowing economy is not to blame for the fact that McDonald's is no longer longer updating its "billions served" signs that remain on many of their restaurants. I remember being amused to see the number of "billions served" increasing regularly on the sign at a long-closed Bellevue, Washington location. Today, I finally took a picture of a sign showing "over 99 billion served" at a Carson City, Nevada location. It turns out that these signs have been showing that figure since 2007, even though McDonald's passed the 100 billion mark later that year. Apparently, it is more interesting from a marketing perspective to keep saying "over 99 million" than to keep counting above 100...

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Nevada seems to be using these blue and black signs to designate a location where traffic may enter a controlled highway unexpectedly, as seen along US 395 in the Washoe Valley on 3-May-2009

Another odd sign was noted today along US 395 south of Reno. When traveling, I try to note new things that highway departments are using that I haven't seen in other places, and soon after crossing into Nevada from California, I started to note these blue and black signs. It appears that they are marking locations such as median pull-outs on divided highways where traffic may unexpectedly enter or leave the roadway. Exactly why these signs are necessary, and how Nevada chose blue and black for them, are things I wouldn't mind learning more about.

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Where else but Nevada would this be the most important civic sign? Directions to the marriage license office were noted in Carson City, Nevada on 3-May-2009

A final interesting sign noted in Nevada was the above sign pointing to the marriage license office in Carson City. The state of Nevada is still noted for easy access to marriage and divorce, and the highway department apparently is empowered to make it even easier for visitors to take advantage of these "services." I can't think of anywhere else in the world where such a sign would be seen.

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One would think that Nevada would be the place where the term "au naturale" might gain a new meaning, but actually it was in Denver, Colorado earlier this week that I first heard a new variation. I've heard of radio stations calling versions of music sung without electronic aids "unplugged" or "acoustic", but Alice 105.9 in Denver has a new term--AuNaturAlice. I'm a little surprised that a station targeting a female demographic would use such a term, but they seem to have been using it for some time.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Radio Pick: Authenticity on Age of Persuasion

RENO, NEVADA - This week's radio pick again comes from CBC Radio One's Age of Persuasion. I don't like making a habit of choosing the same program every few weeks, but host Terry O'Riley is really having an excellent season. This week's 27-minute program provides insight into how anecdotes can be used to support a theme, in this case lessons on authenticity. Tiger Woods and Sea Monkeys are among those taking center stage along the way.

Click the listen link on this page to hear The Age of Persuasion "The Real Deal: Authenticity"

Friday, May 1, 2009

Economics: This is Not the Great Depression

OROVILLE, CALIFORNIA - I have often been a critic of governments for trying to put too rosy of a spin on the economic situation. Unemployment statistics, for example, do not tell anything near the real story of how the labor market actually feels, as the count does not include those who are underemployed, have temporarily or permanently given up looking for work, or who are ineligible for unemployment (in Canada, Employment Insurance) after losing their jobs. I have never been personally counted as an unemployed person even when I have spent many months unable to find a job.

Yet, comparisons made with the Great Depression in the current situation--at least as it exists today--just don't hold up very well in terms of the state of affairs of most people. The conversations I have had in the past two days with my great aunt--who live through the Great Depression--have made this clear. While there are more "tent cities" than many governments wish to admit, the amount of "Hooverville"-type homeless encampments is apparently nowhere near what it was during the Great Depression, though hard statistics on that seem to be hard to find. There are not hobos riding trains around the nation--and not just because law enforcement on illegal train riding is better, or people are using a different mode of transportation--there simply isn't the same phenomenon of "boomers" moving from place to place.

The labor market in general hasn't taken on the volatility that occurred during the Great Depression. People aren't jumping from short-term job to short-term job to the Civilian Conservation Corps back to a short-term job again the way that was quite common in the 1930's. The pattern today is much more the recession pattern of people taking part-time and underemployment to sustain themselves, which is a step above in stability.

All this being stated, it needs to be noted that if things continue to go sour in the economy, it is entirely possible that the current situation will begin to more closely resemble the Great Depression. Just as the Swine Flu (er, H1N1 virus) has the possibility of starting a pandemic, the current downturn without proper precautions could become something much worse. Just don't try to convince me that we're already there.