Monday, June 29, 2009

Margin Notes: Upsetting Scenes, CBC, KNX

The garbage collection site at Étienne Brûlé Park in Toronto, Ontario was quiet--and not particularly smelly--on 28 June 2009

TORONTO, ONTARIO - The largest city in Canada is now entering the second week of a strike by city workers. In rather extensive tours of the city the past few days with my visiting aunt and uncle, there were a few places where the lack of garbage collection was apparent, but it wasn't nearly as bad as I might have guessed. One reason may be that the city has opened nineteen locations to collect garbage across the city. I was surprised to find that one of those locations was my local Étienne Brûlé Park near the Humber River. However, when I walked by the location for the first time on Sunday since it opened, I found that that despite a reasonable amount of collected material, it didn't have a bad smell nor did it really disrupt the use of the park much for locals, as it mostly took up a parking area. Of course, the bad smells may be coming if the strike goes on for too long.

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One thing that has a bad smell to me is the CBC's summer schedule. Most years, the programming on CBC Radio One during the ten weeks of summer features a variety of innovative new shows or old summer favorites, some of which go on to become permanent additions to the schedule. That's not likely this year. If I am reading the web page correctly (and that should be clear in the coming week), then only six summer shows are producing new content this year, and only one of those (Socket) is a new series never heard before. Other shows are things we've heard in previous years, and in some cases, it appears that the old series are being rebroadcast (including the excellent "Hidden City" and "White Coat, Black Art"). I know the CBC is in budget trouble, but at the rate things are going we're going to be listening to "As It Happens" repeated continuously before long.

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More non-news out of the radio industry came out of Los Angeles. I thought I was going to be reporting that another major AM station had started a FM simulcast. However, it turns out that the only change at KNX 1070 AM is a simulcast on a digital subchannel of smooth jazz KTWV 94.7 FM. That's nice, but considering that almost nobody has a digital radio, that's about as consequential as if I decided to re-broadcast KNX to my neighborhood--just about nobody will hear it.

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A crew cleaned the Monument to the War of 1812 on the Toronto Waterfront on 27 June 2009

Fortunately, just about nobody will see the vandalism that apparently occurred on Douglas Coupland's controversial Monument to the War of 1812 located near Fort York in Toronto. By chance, I caught the cleaning crew already well into their mission on Saturday, so I don't know if it was American hooligans upset by the message of the sculpture or what.

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The Frankenstein Museum and Burger King were engaged in a bit of co-marketing at Niagara Falls, Ontario on 26 June 2009

Some might consider the scene above upsetting, but I found a certain appropriateness to the Frankenstein Museum and Burger King mixing their signs in the tourist-crazy zone of Clifton Hill in Niagara Falls, Ontario. Somehow I can just see Frankenstein saying "Sometimes you've gotta break the rules."

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Photos: Union Pacific Steam

Union Pacific's Western Heritage Express crested Sand Pass, Nevada with steam locomotive #844 providing the only power on 5-May-2009

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's update to my photo site goes back a couple months. The early portion of a trip to the west coast of the United States in spring 2009 focused on following and riding the Union Pacific "Western Heritage Express" between Roseville, California and Winnemucca, Nevada via the former Western Pacific route through the Feather River Canyon between 29-April and 5-May-2009. The experience included riding the train from Portola, California to Winnemucca where the steam locomotive was unassisted and ran at 70 mph. Also included are aerial views from the westbound flights and scenery along the route.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Radio Pick: Women in Iran

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's radio pick comes from The Current on the CBC for the first time this year. There have been many interesting angles on the elections in Iran in the past week as evidence has mounted for fraud. Arguably, the most interesting aspect of the situation, besides what happens next, is not what happened during the election but how the situation of the past few weeks was created. Host Anna Maria Tremonti took an interesting tack by looking at the influence of women in Iran in this 22-minute segment, introduced by a nice piece of satire.

Click the "Listen to Part One" Link on this page to listen to The Current "Women in Iran"

Friday, June 26, 2009

Transport: Parking in the Median

A car was parked in the median of Queen Street near the Centotaph in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario on 26-June-2009

TORONTO, ONTARIO - While visiting Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario today, it was noticed that delivery trucks tended to park in the middle of Queen Street to make their deliveries. Drivers making a fast run into stores on the street would also park their cars in the median for a minute or two, then rush back and drive away. Whether technically legal or not, the practice was clearly commonplace, and seemingly functional.

Locations with parking in the middle of a street usually exist because of some unusual history or geography on a street. Burnett Avenue South in Renton, Washington once had a railroad right-of-way in the middle of the street. When the railroad was abandoned, the city decided to turn the space into parking. There is parking in the middle of Lake Shore Drive West in Toronto largely because of substantial space created by bridges and other obstructions that caused the lanes in each direction to be separated by some distance.

There seems to be little advantage to having parking in the middle of a street--it creates vehicles exiting and entering from the "fast" and unexpected side of the street and it creates a challenge for those who have parked to get to either side of the street except perhaps in a one-lane situation like Niagara-on-the-Lake. The only positive seems to be using geography--like the area around the Cenotaph in Niagara-on-the-Lake or in the Lake Shore Drive situation in Toronto--that cannot be used for flowing traffic.

The strangest thing about the median parking in Niagara-on-the-Lake is that there is parking on each side of Queen Street. It would seem to me that what the city needs to do is re-designate some of that parking to short-term (e.g. 15 minute) parking to allow its use for the purpose used by the vehicles in the median and then physically barricade the median so that it cannot be used for that present purpose. Until something is done, there will be interesting scenes on Queen Street in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Culture: What's So Great About a Rainbow?

A rainbow appeared over Speedy Auto Service on Dundas Street West in Toronto, Ontario on 25-June-2009

TORONTO, ONTARIO - My outdoor activities were curtailed twice today by thunderstorms. A squall passed through right about lunch time that in many places would have been strong enough to create flash flooding. Here, it just created a lot of puddles and mud. Later in the day, another line of thunderstorms passed through, this time with the added impact of leaving a rainbow behind.

I think some people lose sight of the fact that in order for a rainbow to be seen (and seen is the right verb, since a rainbow doesn't actually physically exist in any given location) that there has to be something (usually rain droplets) to refract the light and form a the visually-apparent spectrum. In other words, there has to be rain, and hence the name "rainbow."

It is only a romantic notion that the appearance of the rainbow means that the storm is over--though this certainly is a possible scenario. That is usually true in the northern hemisphere in the afternoon when a weather system is moving west to east, with a rainbow seen to the east. The same conditions in the morning, forming a rainbow in the west, mean that the storm front is headed in one's direction.

A much prettier scene was found as a rainbow formed about Lake Zurich near Uznach, Switzerland on 20-May-2006

Personally, I'd rather not have the rain and miss the rainbow--and to me, the fact that people tend to fawn over rainbows indicates their preference for appearance over practicality.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Economics: Name Any Big Company...

TORONTO, ONTARIO - It occurred to me recently that I could not think of a single large (say, 1000 employees or greater) company for which I have any degree of loyalty. In contrast, there are a multitude of smaller companies, too many to list, from the C. Crane Company for electronics to Bob Slate Stationers for notebooks to my local barber for which I do have great deal of loyalty. Is there any wonder I generally favor legislation making things hard for large businesses and easier for small business?

One thing that really brought the concept home was an Internet outage that I suffered this past weekend. My Internet access was completely non-functional for most of Sunday because Bell mis-configured a server and didn't seem in any hurry to fix it. While some individual Bell contractors (and they were contractors, not employees, another point of contention) have impressed me, their Internet service definitely has not. A previous outage occurred because an employee arbitrarily decided to physically pull out my connection, and it took two weeks to get it restored--and no compensation was offered. This time, when I called, there was no sympathy offered on the phone and in fact the first person I talked to claimed that there was no record of any service to my residence in the past five years; apparently access to records was part of the server problem. Frankly, if I had any other options for true high-speed access, I'd dump Bell in an instant. However, I don't have any other options (other than companies re-selling Bell service), so if I want high-speed access, I have to put up with them.

Contrast that with past experiences with small Internet providers like the now-defunct in Brazoria County, Texas, and in Massachusetts, or Best Internet in the San Francisco Bay Area, all of which were always responsive and creative in their problem-solving in then-state-of-the-art dial-up service, and I almost long for the days of modems. Each of these companies has been forced out of the access business or purchased by a larger provider, and all of them no longer offer the kind of service that I always appreciated.

It might seem like I would have loyalty to the Ford Motor Company, as all of the vehicles my family and friends have purchased from Ford since the 1990's have been reliable vehicles that have stood up well with time. However, because most of their money in recent years was made from oversize sport utility vehicles (Jay Leno didn't joke about their new model, the "Ford Extinction," for nothing), I actually don't have any warm feelings for them. While I have respect for their ability to make it through the current hard times in the industry better than their domestic competitors, I'm not one of those guys who would go to a Ford dealership and not look anywhere else.

People might think I have loyalty to Coca-Cola, as I have long professed a taste preference for Coke over Pepsi, regular or diet. Furthermore, arguably my favorite soft drink, the European-bottled orange flavor of Fanta (which is not the same as what is offered in North America), is a Coca-Cola brand, Minute Maid orange juice is a Coca-Cola brand, and who doesn't like polar bear advertisements. But, on mass-market consumables, price is king. I might choose a Coke product if everything had the same price, but there are currently no Coke products in my refrigerator.

I could go on, but it raised a question--is there actually anything wrong with any of these companies, or is the nature of a large company with multiple product lines just fundamentally set in a manner that picky consumers can't be satisfied? For example, is it impossible to create a relationship between a large staff and an individual consumer? I don't think that's the case. A few different policies about notifications and changing terms and I would have been extremely loyal to Washington Mutual Bank, now defunct, even though I probably could not have named a single one of their employees. Some large consumer electronics and computer manufacturers could have easily gained my loyalty had they not had quality issues with the products I purchased. There's nothing inherent about a large company that makes it impossible for them to instill loyalty.

Yet, the very fact that I can't come up with a single large company that I am loyal to, whereas I can roll off plenty of small ones, says something. If people wonder why I favor legislation to favor small companies, it's no harder to explain than I haven't had enough good experiences with large companies.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Margin Notes: Canadian Symbols, Construction

A very Canadian billboard was noted along Dundas Street West in Toronto, Ontario on 16-June-2009

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Continuing last week's theme of never knowing what you'll see next in Toronto, I found the above billboard in the Lambton neighborhood of Toronto last week. Research revealed it was an attempt at a viral marketing campaign, but ignoring that, wasn't the message quintessentially Canadian?

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A beaver was noted swimming up the Humber River in Toronto, Ontario on 16-June-2009

There is nothing more quintessentially Canadian than a beaver swimming down a river, and that's what I found when taking a walk along the Humber River last week. This was probably the beaver that built a partial dam near the Canadian Pacific bridge over the Humber, but even if it was someone else, it was a nice surprise.

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The beaver undoubtedly pronounces in Canadian fashion, which seems to include a complete inability to use a soft "a". I've never gotten used to "pasta" pronounced as "PASS-tuh"--the word is Italian! The recent news about Chrysler has really driven me crazy, though, as no less than Peter Mansbridge of the CBC has taken to saying "Fee-AT" for the Italian carmaker "Fiat" which should be much closer to "FEE-aht". Plenty of Italians live around here--can we just listen to how they pronounce things?

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Speaking of the CBC, there is still no information on the summer radio schedule, though apparently it doesn't start until next week. Clearly, they must know what it is; Dispatches, today, for example announced that it will move to Thursdays at 1 pm and Sundays at 7 pm. How hard can it be to release this information?

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It's hard to include much information in a 140-character tweet on Twitter, but those of us that write lots of pictures captions in Shutterfly actually ought to be decent at it. With a long-time 120-character limit lifted only some months ago (that I still mostly observe), those used to writing photo descriptions ought to find Twitter's limit a snap. I'm still not enticed, though.

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A pile driver rested for the weekend at Old Weston Road in Toronto, Ontario on 21-June-2009

The noise in the Junction neighborhood of Toronto continues to not be enticing. I stopped by to look at progress in the railroad grade separation yesterday, and indeed it looked about 30% done as shown on a progress sign. It's going to be a long summer for those living anywhere near the Junction.

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I finally noticed my first 2009 sidewalk stencil this week, noted on York Street near Union Station in Toronto on 20-June-2009

The construction season that can make the summer seem long results in lots of freshly poured concrete, and in Toronto that means new sidewalk stencils. Amazingly, it took me until this Saturday to notice my first "2009" sidewalk stencil, found as a result of the York Street work near Front Street that took place over a month ago. Now, I'm back to looking for old sidewalk stencils... anyone seen any pre-World War II dates?

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Photos: Basel and Mulhouse 2005

Construction of the light rail system in Mulhouse, France was proceeding just outside the medieval city walls on 2-July-2005

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I have been in the digital age of photography for almost exactly four years after acquiring a Nikon D50 in late June 2005. The first trip I took with my digital camera, a business trip to Europe, has never been presented here. So, on my fourth anniversary of digital photography, my photo site is featuring the missing album with scenes from Basel, Switzerland and Mulhouse, France, including the Basel Zoo, the old town of Mulhouse, La Cité du Train, the French national railway museum, and scenery between Basel and Zürich, Switzerland.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Radio Pick: Embracing New Media

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's radio pick features Terry O'Reilly and the Age of Persuasion for the fourth time this season.

One of the things that radio can be good at is recounting history. This under-used capacity has been utilized by the CBC's Age of Persuasion. There are some great moments in this 27-minute show, from the "You had me at ahoy" joke to descriptions of how some radio personalities didn't transition to television.

Click the listen link on this page to hear The Age of Persuasion "Embracing New Media"

Friday, June 19, 2009

Politics: The New Orange County?

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I could hardly believe my eyes recently when reading the politics site when I saw the headline "Placer is the new Orange." What I suspected to the be the meaning proved to be accurate--the article by Tom Schaller made the case that while California's Orange County had been symbolic of the conservative movement in the Nixon and Reagan eras, it has become a "purple" county that almost voted for Barack Obama. Instead, it is Placer County with its exurban and rural, low minority population that most closely matches the demographics of the Republican party and has the voting pattern to show for it.

Interestingly, the town of Placerville that has been in my by-line on three trips since this blog began is not in Placer County, but in El Dorado County immediately to the south--which has very similar demographics, and is home to the Mountain Democrat newspaper that is decidedly not Democratic in the sense of supporting the Democratic party. However, that doesn't mean that I haven't spent time in Placer County, which includes the effective Sacramento suburb and major rail yard location of Roseville as well as much of the I-80 Donner Pass route over the Sierra Nevada mountains--I have been to places like Roseville and Auburn within the past few years. Furthermore, Sacramento media dominates both Placer and El Dorado Counties, so the 4th District Congressional race cited in Schaller's article was one I followed reasonably closely.

The concept of carpet-bagging really was a factor in the Congressional campaign between Democrat Charlie Brown and Republican Tom McClintock. Arguably the best ad on either side in the entire race came from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, showing how McClintock had moved around the large state of California to his political advantage. It's still available to watch on YouTube. While Brown campaigned more like Montana senator Max Baucus than San Francisco representative Nancy Pelosi anyway, his portrait of McClintock as not really being from the district seemed to resonate most strongly with the people I talked to in the region.

Of course, McClintock won despite that in a district that went solidly for John McCain, and indeed the region seems to be one especially interested in gun rights with significant anti-immigrant sentiment. Yet, the very fact that Roseville has the largest population in the county and is a suburb of Sacramento is indeed symbolic of what some say is the impending fate of the Republican party. As more left-leaning residents move farther out in the suburbs, the demographics of Placer County will change. If the Republican Party doesn't broaden its appeal, it will not only have lost its hold on Orange County, it will lose its hold on Placer County as well--on that point, I agree with Schaller completely.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Culture: Policing and Livability

TORONTO, ONTARIO - On an hour of today's On Point radio show from WBUR in Boston, there was a lot of hand-wringing by the United States citizens on the show questioning why few US cities had made a number of most-livable lists in various magazines and web sites. The answer had to be in the criteria used, and in several cases it was revealed that statistics for violent and other crimes had been weighted heavily. Even the safest of US cities fares relatively poorly in these statistics, so it was not surprising that they fared similarly poorly in livability.

Indeed, while following night-time equipment moves recently, several of us remarked that there were few urban places where we could feel so safe in the middle of the night as on Toronto's waterfront. Granted, there were plenty of police escorts on the route itself, but many of us thought nothing of leaving the slow-moving event and walking alone blocks away to buy a refreshment or scout out an upcoming photo opportunity--when someone announced such an intention, we didn't feel the need to offer to go with them or even tell them to be careful. There was really no need. I don't think I would have felt the same even in relatively safe US cities like Portland, Oregon, because of the possibility of running into drug activity.

The event that really drove home the fact that things are different here in Toronto came relatively early in the night, though, when a parking enforcement officer was noted near the Canadian National Exhibition grounds. Several of the observers became concerned that they might technically be parked illegally and started to head for their vehicles. However, a policeman who happened to be standing near us, waiting to escort the next leg of the move, told us not to bother. "Let me go tell him to find somewhere else to work," he said, "It's the middle of the night, none of you is causing a problem and this is a city-approved event. The parking regulations are irrelevant now, and his time is better spent looking for real problems." The conversation occurred, and indeed to the best of my knowledge nobody parked reasonably received a ticket all night.

I just can't imagine that happening in the United States. The process of thinking through the intent of a law and then acting on the intent rather than the letter of the law is just not done south of the border--indeed, lawyers there would argue that constitutes a policeman acting as a judge and is therefore illegal. Here, intelligent selective enforcement--only when there is a actual problem threatening order--appears to be relatively common and accepted, even expected.

While one might think of drug laws in that regard, to me the most prominent example comes up on Canada Day. As people wait for the fireworks, particularly at the beach at Ashbridge's Bay, it is rare that someone in the crowd doesn't have illegal fireworks. As soon as they are fired, a pair or more of police officers always saunters over to the perpetrator, and after a conversation, those will be the last illegal fireworks coming from that part of the crowd. I've never overheard one of the conversations so I don't know if it's a safety lecture or if threats of consequences are involved, but I've never seen anyone arrested, I've never even seen the police pull out a notebook to write anything down, and it always seems to be effective. Perhaps US officers do the same thing on the Fourth of July, but here it's the norm--this is basically how the police appear to behave every day.

In fact, one of the most amazing things about police in Toronto is that they normally aren't visible. In California these days, it isn't possible to go to a strip mall without seeing at least a private security guard and sometimes a police officer, usually at a prominent location as a deterrent. If more than about 25 people are in one place, there will probably be a police officer watching. Here, unless there is a huge gathering as on Canada Day or at an outdoor concert, there probably won't be a visible police presence--yet the moment something happens, it's amazing to watch how fast they suddenly appear. A constant deterrent is not perceived as necessary, but the fast responses instill confidence in citizens that the police are available when needed.

Does all this help to make Toronto an especially livable city? I'd say so. The crime criteria used to rank cities may not sit well with those in the US, but conceptually, I have a hard time arguing with it.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Transport: Eight Gauges

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I have to question to attitude of the urban legend debunking site because of their treatment of the relation of the width of the horse's ass to the space shuttle. They categorize the urban legend surrounding that relationship as "false," yet immediately in the text they admit that "isn't exactly false," that the Roman chariot width was based on compatibility with horses, that the dimensions of later transportation forms including the railroad were derived from roads used by Roman chariots, and that space shuttle designers did take into account transportation limitations, including the use of railroads, as part of their supply chain. So, while I agree with them that it is clear that the relationship is "trivial" and "unremarkable," calling it false is nearly as misleading as calling it true, especially since most people don't bother to read their well-developed explanation.

The question of gauge, or the distance between the two rails of a railroad that lies at the heart of that urban legend, is a pretty interesting thing to contemplate. It's a real triumph of standardization that such a thing as "standard" gauge exists in the railroad world, no matter how closely it actually follows from the width of a horse's rear end. What's really made it happen is the need to interchange equipment--pointed out in the Snopes essay surrounding the US civil war--to serve wider markets, and the sale of equipment worldwide, pointed out by Snopes as a 19th century matter between the US and England, but much more powerful in the post-World War II era of globalization when second-hand equipment can end up anywhere, whether it's NightStar equipment from Europe ending up in Canada or used American diesels ending up in Australia (and vice versa). A good portion of the world's railroads really does use "standard" or "Stephenson" gauge--4 feet, 8.5 inches, or 1435 mm between the rails--Wikipedia estimates it at 60%.

Gauge has been on my mind since I recently realized that I had experience with an odd gauge without even realizing it. The Mount Washington Cog Railway in New Hampshire uses 4 foot, 8 inch gauge for obscure reasons; 1422 mm instead of the 1435 mm standard. I managed to ride that line in 2003 without noticing that it wasn't standard gauge. But, considering that it doesn't interchange its equipment with anyone else, it's not surprising that its odd gauge has survived.

This led to the question of just how many different gauges have I actually experienced? (This doesn't count transit systems, miniature railroads and non-historical tourist operations like Disneyland.) I've been working on the log of all my miles on railroads in my lifetime, so this actually wasn't that hard figure out. The answer turns out to be eight. Those are:

(1) 4 foot 8.5 inches/1435 mm: Standard gauge experienced on many railroads in North America, Britain, Europe, and Australia
(2) 4 foot 8 inches/1422 mm: Mount Washington Cog Railway (US)
(3) 3 foot 6 inches/1067 mm: Zig Zag Railway (Australia), Huntsville and Lake of Bays (Canada)
(4) 3 foot 3.37 inches/1000 mm: 6 different railways in Switzerland and Austria
(5) 3 foot/914 mm: Roaring Camp & Big Trees, Durango & Silverton, Sumpter Valley, and Yosemite Mountain and Sugar Pine (all US)
(6) 2 foot 7.5 inches/800 mm: Wengernalpbahn, and Pilatusbahn (both Switzerland)
(7) 2 foot 5.9 inches/760 mm: Zillertalbahn (Austria)
(8) 2 foot/610 mm: Maine Narrow Gauge and Edaville (both US)

That may seem like a lot, but I have never experienced any of the major "broad" gauges wider than standard gauge--the 5 foot 6 inch used in India (remember, BART doesn't count), the 1668 mm used in Spain and Portugal, the 5 foot 3 inch used in Ireland, Brazil, and Australian Victoria, and the 5 foot used in Russia and the former Soviet Union.

I guess I don't go where horses used to have larger posteriors.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Economics: Real Meaning of "Disruptive"

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Some weeks ago, Christian Science Monitor language columnist Ruth Walker explored the meaning of the term "disruptive" and its application to technology, going so far even as to wade into the argument between John C. Dvorak and Clayton Christensen about what constitutes a disruptive technology. (Anyone who has ever heard an argument with Dvorak on any topic knows that's pretty much a hopeless exercise--just listen to an episode of "This Week in Technology".) I think they all missed the point. The use of the term "disruptive" has only one real purpose in today's economy--to try to turn off all the economic rules.

I'm not saying that what Dvorak or Christensen would consider "disruptive technologies" have not existed, or won't exist in the future. Clearly, there have been technologies that create what can legitimately be called paradigmatic or disruptive change in the world, from the wheel to sliced bread to the Internet to more incremental things like color television, the personal computer, or the facsimile machine. Few would dispute their impact on society.

My point is that truly disruptive contributors usually don't go around touting "disruptive technology." They just take their technology and try to show how it can be used. Tim Berners-Lee was trying to figure out a better way to share information amongst scientists when he proposed the World Wide Web, not change the world. Steve Jobs--who has since taken to over-using the term "disruptive" (for reasons discussed below)--was trying to figure out a better way to listen to his music when his company came up with the iPod.

I've had the privilege in my life of working for a series of companies that were working with either genuinely disruptive technology or potentially disruptive technology, in areas from microfluidics to genetics to diagnostics. If there's one thing I've learned from these experiences, it's that people turn off their normal judgments once they see the "cool stuff" and see that it could potentially be disruptive. Suddenly, risks that make no business sense are taken, follow-on investments are made in companies that would have been considered failures in more mature fields, and delays and inefficiencies that would never be allowed in the product development processes for, say, a new consumer item are ignored or viewed as excusable. The big potential return from the hoped-for disruption outweighs all other consideration until, at some point, it finally becomes clear that the market for the technology just isn't as large as people thought. The technology may even work, but if the early adopters don't consider it the best thing since sliced bread (whether because someone else also has something like sliced bread, the toaster and sandwich haven't been thought of yet to use the sliced bread, or people just seem to be satisfied with tearing bread), the normal rules come into play. By those rules, it's obvious that development should stop--or at least radically change--and it does.

I'm clearly not the only one that has seen this effect. Entrepreneurs, and even mature companies like Apple, tout the products that they are working on as "more disruptive than iTunes" in an attempt to more easily access money or publicity (which leads to money, even if in the case of Apple it's mostly money that doesn't need to spent on advertising). It's hard to blame the companies for doing this, as it's pretty clear that it has been working.

Personally, I blame the investors that have poured their money into the "disruptive" companies. The average investor--even the exceptional one--isn't equipped to evaluate technology for its future impact. Probably only a handful of people actually are; I'm certainly not one of them. But, looking back at one of my former employers more than a few years ago, a number of signs were there that investment was not likely to pay off--staff scientists skeptical of the reliability of the technology, other companies reaching commercialization in similar markets, and a lack of a clear market to dominate. (I'll grant that the latter is a bit tricky, as the nature of disruptive technologies is that they create their own markets that didn't exist before--but they tend to at least displace or extend something that already exists, and if that something is not clear, that's a problem.) Yet, a second round of financing went through anyway at a significantly increased valuation of the company. The company lived on, but the fundamentals did not change, and those investors did not get their return.

So, when I hear the word "disruptive," I run--or at least start doing a lot of research to see how plausible it might be. That company is probably trying to avoid the normal rules and scrutiny. On the other hand, if a company spends most of its time talking about how its technology can be used and backing it up with a business plan that would pass muster internally at General Electric, well, that sounds interesting and potentially like fun due diligence.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Margin Notes: What You Might See in Toronto

Kurt Perschke's Red Ball found its way to 567 Queen Street West in Toronto, Ontario on 13 June 2009

TORONTO, ONTARIO - One of the fun attractions here in Ontario's capitol during the Luminato arts festival has been Kurt Peschke's Red Ball. The large display has been positioned at different notable locations around town since the start of Luminato. I finally caught up with the Red Ball on Saturday, finding it at 567 Queen Street West nestled between two buildings. You just never know what you might see in Toronto...

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You also apparently don't know what you might hear on the radio in Toronto. If I'm not mistaken, the CBC will begin its summer schedule on Radio One next week for the ten-week summer period. You'd never know that from looking at the CBC web site, which only has the 2008 "Radiosummer" schedule hidden away and nothing about any impending changes. I haven't heard a word on the air, either. Considering the normal quality of the programming which is excellent, I don't understand why it is never promoted ahead of time. What's going to be on the air next week? I don't have a clue.

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A Filipino rap group performed at the Singing Idol contest at Nathan Philips Square in Toronto, Ontario on 13 June 2009

I wouldn't have guessed what I would hear at Nathan Philips Square in Toronto on Saturday, either. As I walked past City Hall, I was surprised to hear foreign-language rap emanating from the performance stage. It turned out to be a Filipino Rap group performing in the Singing Idol contest. You never know what you're going to see in Toronto.

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The new Greyhound livery was noted on an Ottawa-bound bus near Toronto's Old City Hall on 13 June 2009

Just a few meters away from the rappers, I found a bus paint scheme that I didn't recognize. It turns out that Greyhound adopted a new livery earlier this year based on their 1950's scheme that I hadn't seen yet despite being at several bus terminals and riding one of their buses in May. What really surprised me, though, is that they seem to be trying to invoke luxury which is absolutely absurd; there is no lower-class mode of long-distance transport in North America that I have experienced than Greyhound. Furthermore, it is so different from their existing schemes that I didn't recognize it as Greyhound, even with a dog on the side. I suspect this isn't going to prove very effective from a marketing perspective.

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A sign on Queen Street West provided directions to the Secular Free Thought Centre in Toronto, Ontario on 13 June 2009

Marketing can take place in different ways on city streets. While walking down the streets of Hollywood right about one year ago, I found signs relating to Scientology omnipresent. Not so in Toronto. Here, we have signs leading one to the Secular Freethought Centre. Indeed, you never know what you're going to see in Toronto.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Photos: 6213 Move

The 6213 turned off Bremner Drive and arrived at the John Street Roundhouse in Toronto, Ontario on 10 June 2009

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's update to my photo site features the the Laurie McCullough Building Moving Company's historic move of former Canadian National 4-8-4 steam locomotive #6213 from the Canadian National Exhibition grounds to the John Street Roundhouse in Toronto, Ontario. The locomotive's tender moved first, overnight on 4-June-2009; the locomotive itself moved early on the morning of 10-June 2009. Full coverage of each all-night move is provided.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Radio Pick: Canadians in Afghanistan

TORONTO, ONTARIO - As the regular season winds down, this week's radio pick turns to the CBC. Some of the best reporting of the realities "on the ground" in Afghanistan in recent years has come through the extended reports on CBC Radio One's Dispatches program. This week, new correspondent James Murray opened the show with a look at how quintessential Canadian sensibilities exist even in the military and make reporting difficult in this 53-minute program.

Listen to MP3 of Dispatches "Quiet Canadians"

Friday, June 12, 2009

Politics: Why I Won't Be A Republican

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Just in case there was any doubt after the George W. Bush administration, Newt Gingrich has provided me all the reason I ever needed to not be a Republican. In a speech on 5 June, Gingrich told a Republican fund-raising audience:
I am not a citizen of the world! I think the entire concept is intellectual nonsense and stunningly dangerous.
Considering that anyone other than a government immigration official that asks me about my citizenship will hear that I consider myself a World Citizen before a United States citizen or potential future Canadian citizen, it's not surprising that I find Gingrich's statement to be anathema. If anything, the past decade has taught us that we are world citizens, whether we want to be or not.

Legally speaking, of course, Gingrich is correct that there are no world citizens. The concept of citizenship requires that (1) the citizen has obligations to the sovereign of which that person is a citizen, and (2) the sovereign has obligations to the citizen. As the planet is not legally a sovereign body, it is not possible for either of those relationships to exist in a formal form. However, the second sentence is where Gingrich and I diverge immutably--the idea of world citizenship is "stunningly dangerous." I would argue that NOT feeling obligation to the world as a whole is what has proven stunningly dangerous.

I could cite holes in the ozone layer, climate change, or other environmental issues to make the case that what happens in the rest of the world fundamentally matters to those living in the United States (or any other country). Each of these issues is an example of something where an individual has an obligation to the planet at large to not adversely impact it (and ensure that others do not as well) or extreme consequences may be faced. Arguably, the other side of the obligation, that of the planet to the citizen, is not as clear--though I would say that if one lives in an environmentally responsible manner then one should expect that the planet will behave in a predictable fashion and provide expected food supplies, a breathable atmosphere, and so forth, though admittedly that's hard to enforce.

However, I believe the most compelling example of the need for the world citizen perspective is the event that conservatives have been focusing on since it happened--the 11 September 2001 attacks on the United States. Most people in the United States were surprised to the point of emotional overload by the attacks, and completely rejected as unpatriotic people like me who had been paying attention to the rest of the world and understood that such an attack was conceptually possible, even if the details were unexpected. While the world citizens could see the danger and the insular thinkers either could or would not, what the world citizens were missing any mechanism to do something about the threat.

I distinctly remember a conversation I had later in 2001 with a local landlord in Massachusetts--a friend of my own landlord--who had spent time in the Middle East, studied Wahhabi Islam as it existed in Saudi Arabia, understood the hatred felt by radicals in the movement, and tried to warn people in the United States about it. He found that almost nobody was capable of understanding how the concept of hatred was different and thus couldn't process the information. After the attacks, he gave up. He had felt an obligation to pay attention to the world and an obligation to identify the danger to others, but his perspective was too foreign to be accepted, even in supposedly-liberal Massachusetts. What was missing was actually two-fold, (1) acceptance of the world citizenship model of having obligations to pay attention to and identify problems outside one's own country, and (2) any mechanism for creating accountability of the world to the citizen, which could be accomplished through existing sovereign nations with some creative use of the United Nations structure.

It was not feeling obligation to the world as a whole that created danger in the run-up to the 11 September 2001 attacks. It was actually the opposite--it was an abdication of any awareness of or responsibility for what was happening in the rest of the world that made the impact of the attacks so profound to United States citizens that had no idea it might be coming.

The real fundamental irony to me is that while Gingrich and other leaders are guiding the Republican Party into a stance of diminishing the importance of the rest of the world, they support free trade policies. To use a famous Gingrich phrase, I find it "singularly bizarre" that they think free market principles should apply to the whole world, but see no reason to have any obligations to the world as a whole or any expectations from the world. If one is going to have free trade--and my stance on that is a bit nuanced for complete treatment here but substantially supportive--then I think one has an obligation to make sure the playing field really is fair, and that means establishing international mechanisms to enforce that--exactly the kind of the obligations that Gingrich is dismissing.

In the speech, after stating that he was not a world citizen, Gingrich went on to state:
I am a citizen of the United States because only in the United States does citizenship start with our creator.
As the forum was supposed to be about Christianity, the bulk of Gingrich's remarks expanded on that statement. From my perspective, that statement could draw a whole rebuttal essay in itself--apparently the language in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution doesn't mean the same thing to Gingrich that it means to me, and apparently Gingrich likes his interpretation that the United States is fundamentally Christian the same way that Iran is fundamentally Muslim. It blows my mind that such an obvious parallel doesn't seem to bother him, and gives me yet another reason to not be a Republican.

It's easy in the Obama era for someone of my generation to reject Republican principles, so in that sense my position is completely unremarkable. However, by so directly diverging from what I consider to be fundamental to my being, the concept of world citizenship, Gingrich is making it impossible for me to even consider being a Republican (something, I would point out, that Stephen Harper's Conservatives have not done in Canada). I suspect I'm not the only one.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Economics: Not the End of Capitalism

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I am often amused by some of the hand-wringing which has come out of some United States commentators in recent months about how "we may need to enter a post-Capitalist world" and that "the end of consumerism means the end of the economy as we know it." Their belief seems to be that the entire United States economy was based on out-of-control spending for goods, that the era of such spending has ended forever because it is unsustainable, and this means that the entire United States economy will never recover.

Have these people never traveled outside the United States? The degree of consumerism in the vast majority of the rest of the developed world never rivaled the spending rates in the United States--just look at the savings rate in countries like Germany and Great Britain as compared with the United States. Yet, somehow the economies in these countries were sustainable, and last I checked they were all based on capitalism, even they might have had a few more socialist elements.

One need look no farther than Canada for an example. The vast majority of Canadians never spent like their southern neighbors. The average Canadian kept (and probably still keeps) their car for five years instead of two and tended to shop for value rather than prestige in their purchases. One of my most interesting experiences in moving here was in finding out how differently salespeople behaved. I was amazed to find a furniture salesperson accept my preference for the cheapest, on-sale sofa bed in his store after looking at everything available, saying, "You're making the right choice. It's clear from the look on your face that you don't think the others are anything special." This was not a unique experience. When shopping for a GPS, a salesperson showed me several more expensive models and when I chose the cheaper one, he told me, "Based on how you say you're going to use it, you're making the right choice." Here, if the salesperson makes a sale at all, they're happy, not just if they sell the most expensive item with the highest commission.

Clearly, the Canadian economy has been traditionally been functional. Despite the reduced consumerism, business went on and people made money from their enterprises. If the United States economy does reduce its level of consumerism--and that hardly seems inevitable--then it will probably resemble the level in the Canada. Based on the Canadian model, there seems little reason to think that will mean the end of capitalism, or even the end of economy as it has been known. A few weaker or more frivolously-oriented businesses that might have survived before might not, but it will hardly be a paradigm shift. The hand-wringing can end; how about directing that energy to campaign finance or health care reform instead?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Heritage: Moving Locomotive 6213

The move of the 6213 was underway as the locomotive was maneuvered onto Newfoundland Drive on the Canadian National Exposition grounds in Toronto, Ontario on 10 June 2009. The CN Tower marked its destination in the background.

TORONTO, ONTARIO - The long-awaited move of former Canadian National steam locomotive #6213 to its new home took place overnight last night. The 1942 Montreal-built locomotive had been on display at the Canadian National Exhibition grounds since soon after its donation to the city of Toronto in 1960. With the Toronto Railway Heritage Centre at the John Street Roundhouse rapidly becoming a reality, the time had come for the 6213 to move to the roundhouse.

The front end of the 6213 was the tail end of the move on Newfoundland Drive in Toronto, Ontario in the wee hours of 10 June 2009

Whitby, Ontario-based Laurie McCullough Building and Moving won the contract to move the locomotive. Its tender had been relocated the previous week, as covered previously on this blog. The locomotive, with its longer length and much heavier weight, presented a greater challenge, but Laurie McCullough pulled off a largely uneventful move.

While the locomotive did not ride through the Prince's Gates as the tender had done, it did pass nearby on Lake Shore Boulevard West as observed on 10 June 2009

One of the consequences of the width of the trailer was that it was decided not to route through the Prince's Gates, instead reaching Lake Shore Boulevard West via Newfoundland Drive, necessitating a complicated tight turn out of the parking lot. While some estimates foresaw the need for five tight turns along the route, entering Newfoundland Drive and the transition from Rees Street to Bremner Boulevard near the roundhouse proved to be the only two such situations.

Toronto Transit Commission crews were on hand to raise the de-powered streetcar catenary at Bathurst Street for the passage of the 6213 on 10 June 2009

Among the other complications encountered along the way were the streetcar wires at Bathurst Street, raised out of the way by the TTC, and the need to add a number of wheels to the trailer to traverse Lake Shore Boulevard West's westbound lanes over Spadina Avenue. The 48 wheels used for most of the trip were expanded to 80 for the trip over Spadina, then removed before making the maneuver onto Rees Street.

The 6213 looked almost like a Southern Pacific cab-forward as it crossed Spadina Avenue in Toronto, Ontario on 10 June 2009

While the wheel transitions and the tight turns helped to draw out the process into an all-nighter, it never dragged as the crews were constantly in motion pushing the activities forward. As the sun started to come up with the destination in sight, some in the crowd were surprised to realize so much time had passed.

The giant Cito Gaston poster on the side of the Rogers Centre seemed to approve of the Laurie McCullough crews re-aligning the wheels of the 6213's trailer on 10 June 2009

A surprising number of people turned out to observe the move. At least forty people were on site as the move began before midnight, and about a dozen followed it for the entire night, all the way to the roundhouse. The majority were either Toronto Railway Historical Society volunteers or members of the Toronto Locomotive Preservation Society, the group that has diligently maintained the locomotive during its nearly fifty years on the exhibition grounds. Global and CityTV were also each around for at least portions of journey.

After sunrise, the 6213 was sitting beneath the coaling tower at the John Street Roundhouse in Toronto, Ontario on 10 June 2009

In the coming days, the locomotive will be eased off the trailer onto the roundhouse tracks and become part of the collection at the roundhouse. For more coverage of the 6213 move and the roundhouse, see the Toronto Railway Historical Association web page.

More photographs from the locomotive move will appear on a future update to my photo site

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Politics: The Parties To Blame?

TORONTO, ONTARIO - In a recent article, the Christian Science Monitor (yes, it still publishes a weekly and on-line) explored whether France, with its strong secular traditions, would elect a "French Obama." The conclusion reached by staff writer Robert Marquand seemed to be that the French people were willing to elect a visible minority to high office. However, there seemed little reason to believe that they would ever get the chance, as the political parties are structured in such a way that it is almost impossible for a minority to rise to a party leadership position.

To a Canadian, that should sound familiar. With the United States such a close neighbour, our engagement with US politicians is higher than anywhere else in world. Canadians are not only willing to vote for a "Canadian Obama," they're downright eager. When polled, many of them would have rather voted in the US election than their own last fall, and some even traveled south to the United States to campaign for Obama.

Yet, the problem here is the same as that cited in France. None of the major political parties--even the New Democrats, considered on the far progressive end of the spectrum--have seriously flirted with a dynamic, visible minority candidate. Women are visible, from former Prime Minister Kim Campbell to Green Party leader Elizabeth May, but even the female leaders have been Caucasian. Our Head of State, Michaëlle Jean, might be a very popular person of color, but she didn't get to that post by leading a political party in an election, but through an appointment.

What's the problem? In France, it apparently comes down to raising money. The Christian Science Monitor reports that fundraising requires the support of senior officials in the parties, who see little incentive in giving minorities a chance. In Canada, it may not be so explicitly traced to finances as it is to the backroom dealing that creates an "old boys network" to rise to party leadership. Michael Ignatieff, remember, wasn't elected by the public at large or even by the general Liberal party membership to be the Opposition Leader, but by default as alternate candidates chose to step aside for lack of broad backing.

So how can it be that the Democratic Party in the United States is somehow different? (The Republicans, for that matter, seem reasonably diverse compared with Canadian parties as well, no matter what one thinks of people like Michael Steele and Bobby Jindal.) I'm not sure that it actually is, but that the culture is different. The very racial tension that has so poisoned the atmosphere in the United States probably gets some credit for the rise of minority politicians. By forcing racial groups to band together politically and form effective blocs, they not only create their own power bases, but also attract the attention of the parties. Barack Obama has not been shy about saying that he stood on the shoulders of everyone from Martin Luther King, Jr. to Jesse Jackson, Sr.

Canada, where racial polarization has been much less powerful, and France, where the secular tradition allows people to pretend that there is little racial tension, probably should not be asking where they can find their Barack Obamas. They need to find their Jesse Jacksons, Gary Lockes, Bill Richardsons, Colin Powells, and Sonia Sotomayors first.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Heritage: Swansea Historical Society Annual Walk

Walk leader Denise Harris talked about the Argonauts Rowing Club as Brian Katz held up a picture of their lost 1921-era boathouse during the annual Swansea Historical Society walk on 6 June 2009

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Thousands of people walk along the western beaches of Toronto, Ontario every day, and I've tended to take visitors on walks there myself. Likely few of them are aware of the density of history on this stretch of Lake Ontario, but they would be had they gone on the annual Swansea Historical Society walk, this year entitled "Along the Boardwalk of Humber Bay," on Saturday.

The brick building near the center of this view across Humber Bay from the Humber River was the Argonauts Rowing Club, the starting point for the Swansea Historical Society walk on 6 June 2009

The walk technically began in Parkdale, not Swansea, at the Argonauts Rowing Club, founded originally in 1872. In the first of many revelations of the day, I learned that the Toronto Argonauts of Canadian Football League fame were a spin-off of the rowing club in 1957--and in fact, one of the few things saved in a 1947 fire at the club's boathouse was the Grey Cup.

The Sunnyside Bathing Pavilion still faced Lake Ontario near the former site of the Sunnyside Amusement Park on 6 June 2009

Much of the history centered around the Sunnyside Amusement Park which operated in a location now occupied by roadways near the foot of Ellis Avenue from 1922 to 1955. The amusement park was a focal center of attracting residents to the western beaches, and led to the construction of other nearby buildings that survived the dismantling of the park, including the Bathing Pavilion and the Palais Royale dancing club. Both of those structures are going concerns after various changes over the years and are impressive sights along the waterfront today.

The Joy Oil Station sat in Sunnyside Park in Toronto, Ontario, the last example of its design in Canada on 6 June 2009

While the walk stopped at many locations including the breakwater, the Royal Canadian Legion, the Boulevard Club, Budapest Park, and the Sir Casomir Gzowski memorial, my favorite location was the relocated Joy Oil Station. The distinctive 1937 structure, the only one of 31 still in existence in Canada, had been relocated from Lake Shore and Windermere in 2006 and was under restoration--maybe someday people will again be able to go to the throne (restrooms) in its turret.

A "definitely British" Lion was the focal point of the Queen Elizabeth Way memorial, which had marked the beginning of the QEW at the Humber River until 1971, now located nearby in Toronto's Sunnyside Park on 6 June 2009

The final stop on the walk was the Lion Monument to the Queen Elizabeth Way (QEW). I had no idea that this monument was tucked away near the Boardwalk in Sunnyside Park not that far from the Humber River. From 1940 to 1971, it had marked the eastern end of the QEW nearby. While I knew that the QEW was significant as the first truly limited-access highway in North America, this monument was a surprise--even more so that sculptor Frances Loring had completed the lion on-site herself, and that the crown of the monument had temporarily disappeared after its move.

There's more than a nice walk along Humber Bay through the western beaches of Toronto--there's a lot of history, too. My thanks to the Swansea Historical Society for bringing that history to light.

More photos from the Swansea Historical Society annual walk will be in a forthcoming update to my photo page

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Margin Notes: Detours, P3's, Pile Drivers

A detouring Montreal to Calgary Canadian Pacific train passed underneath the CN Tower in Toronto, Ontario on 7 June 2009

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Because of two derailments, one on the Toronto-Montreal mainline at Oshawa, Ontario on Friday and one on the Ottawa-North Bay mainline at Hodgson, Ontario on Wednesday, the Canadian Pacific has been detouring its priority traffic on the Canadian National between Toronto and Brockville, Ontario this weekend. This means that Canadian Pacific freight trains have been passing through the Union Station Rail Corridor in Toronto for the first time since I moved here. After missing two detours on Saturday, I finally caught what apparently was the next-to-last westbound detour today at Bathurst Street, led by a locomotive in the "Olympic" scheme. The sight will probably not be seen again unless there's another derailment.

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The Canadian Pacific was at the center of what stuck me as the quote of the week from host Kathleen Petty on CBC Radio One's The House yesterday. In a discussion about the possible sale of crown corporations, the Canadian Pacific came up, and Petty responded to the dialog by saying, "That sounds like a P3!" [That's a Public-Private Partnership, for those not up on the latest terminology.] I had never thought of transcontinental railroads as a P3 before, and considering the mess that many of the transcontinental railroads in the United States created from their land grant "P3's" in the gilded age, it certainly doesn't make me feel any better about contemporary P3's.

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Railroads continue to annoy residents of The Junction neighborhood of Toronto as a result of the current project to create a grade separation between the GO Transit Georgetown Line and the Canadian Pacific North Toronto Subdivision to enable expanded GO service on the Georgetown Line. The pile driving on the project is so loud that I can often hear it more than 2.5 kilometers away, and a friend has reported being able to hear it 3 kilometers to the north. I find it very hard to believe that the noise cannot be better mitigated than that.

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The Swansea Historical Society annual walk, "Along the Boardwalk of Humber Bay," stopped on the 1994 Humber Bay Arch Bridge in Toronto, Ontario on 6 June 2009

I don't think the project can be heard on the other side of the Gardiner Expressway, but that was the location of this year's Swansea Historical Society walk. I had no idea how much I didn't know about the shores of Lake Ontario between the Argonaut Rowing Club and the Humber River--from the fact that the Toronto Argonauts Canadian Football League team started as an adjunct to the rowing club to the presence of the Lion Memorial to the Queen Elizabeth Way near the Humber River. More coverage of the walk will be forthcoming in a future entry.

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After all the time I spent earlier this year in California where Spanish speakers represent a significant portion of the population, imagine my surprise this past week when a bank teller at my local branch here in Toronto started speaking to a customer in Spanish. Being used to overhearing--and mostly understanding--such conversations in California, it took me a couple seconds to realize that I was in my own neighborhood in Toronto. There's no denying that Toronto is a thoroughly multi-cultural community.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Radio Pick: Restricting Braille on Search Engine

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I've been remiss in following up on the state of Search Engine, the one-time CBC radio show hosted by Jesse Brown that had since become a podcast with no staff other than Brown himself, and finally was canceled entirely, which reflects just how quickly downhill the CBC is going as a result of its budget problems. Brown has found a new home for the podcast at TVO, a nice reminder that TVO is more than just a public television station in Ontario. This week's Search Engine podcast is my radio pick for the week.

A great example of niche media, Search Engine provides very interesting coverage of the Internet. This week, host Jesse Brown's second story described how western governments have been trying to pass legislation to inhibit the translation of documents into Braille, which has to be one of the most absurd anti-copyright initiatives I've ever heard, and I've only heard about it on this 14-minute edition of Search Engine.

Listen to MP3 of Search Engine "Who's Copying Who?"

Friday, June 5, 2009

Photos: Trip to Massachusetts, Spring 2009

CSX train Q427 from Ayer, Massachusetts to Selkirk, New York passed St. Vincent's Hospital in Worcester, Massachusetts on 30 May 2009

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's update to my photo site features my recent trip to Massachusetts. Between 28 May 2009 and 2 June 2009, I managed to view scenery along the way, visit Worcester, Massachusetts' Union Station, spend a day viewing Pioneer Valley sights like the Quabbin Reservoir, Sugarloaf Mountain and Northampton with the Maserati family, explore the Keystone Arches Trail in the Berkshire Mountains, and see the State University of New York Albany campus with local resident Mark Johnson.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Heritage: Moving the 6213 Tender

The move of steam locomotive #6213's tender paused under the Prince's Gates at the Canadian National Exhibition grounds early on the morning of 4 June 2009

TORONTO, ONTARIO - The last major element of the Toronto Railway Heritage Centre's collection started its move to the centre's John Street Roundhouse site across from the CN Tower early this morning. The tender of the 6213 locomotive, long on display at the Canadian National Exhibition grounds, was transported to the roundhouse tracks by truck in what turned into an all-night adventure.

The TTC had to raise its streetcar wires, turned off for the overnight period, in order to allow the passage of the tender through Bathurst Street as the CN Tower loomed in the distance on 4 June 2009

The nighttime move was necessitated not only to avoid traffic, but also since the TTC streetcars do not run after 01:30. The streetcar wires needed to be de-powered and temporarily raised to allow the passage of the tender past Bathurst Street as it headed down Lake Shore Boulevard West.

The 6213's tender entered the westbound lanes of Lake Shore Boulevard West heading east as part of its trip early on the morning of 4 June 2009

Another interesting aspect of the routing was that the move had to run eastbound on the westbound lanes of Lake Shore Boulevard over Spadina Avenue. The clearance to go under the Gardiner Expressway was only large enough via this route, and not via the eastbound lanes. It is the bridges on this part of Lake Shore Boulevard that have delayed the transport moves, as they were re-inspected to ensure that they could handle the weight of the tender and the locomotive.

The Toronto Railway Heritage Centre's Whitcomb diesel #1 started to pull the tender off the trailer onto the roundhouse tracks at daybreak on 4 June 2009

While the move itself went quite smoothly, with the trailer positioned at the end of track #34 at the roundhouse by 03:30, it took some time to properly set up the track ramp from the trailer to the roundhouse, so it was 05:30 before the Toronto Railway Heritage Centre's Whitcomb diesel switcher started to ease the tender off the trailer. With some hiccups along the way, that process was not completed until about 06:30, and the tender was not tied up for the day on track #33 until after 07:00.

The tender of the 6213 was on the John Street Roundhouse's turntable to be rotated so that its coupler was facing the turntable at first light on 4 June 2009

With the tender move completed, the next step will be to move the locomotive itself, which may occur as soon as next week. Watch the Toronto Railway Historical Association web site for advance information.

More pictures of the move will be forthcoming on my photo site.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Economics: Sin as an Irrelevant Concept?

TORONTO, ONTARIO - In an hour of the On Point radio program on Monday discussing the bankruptcy of General Motors, guest Allan Meltzer of Carnegie Mellon and the American Enterprise institute made the statement: "Capitalism without failed companies is like religion without sin--it doesn't work." While I ironically agreed with much of his assessment of the government intervention in the auto industry, this kind of statement is exactly why I often lose respect for the right wing in the United States--they often don't see how their cultural perspective gets in the way of their own ideology, even when their logic is actually sound.

On its face, Meltzer's statement could be easily seen as culturally arrogant. Many non-western religions do not contain a concept of sin, at least in explicit terms, and thus practitioners could hear their religion being called non-functional. Buddhists, for example, who fundamentally believe in enlightenment by being freed from desire and hence suffering, would find it pretty hard to believe that an explicit system of divine moral codes is necessary as the foundation of religious faith. What a number of non-Abrahamic faiths tend to share is not a set of moral rules, but a sense of achieving balance with world, which is often situational rather than absolute.

Yet, that's not what really bothered me about the statement, as an educated person from a faith without an explicit concept of sin should still be able to understand the meaning of the statement. The concept of feeling "bad" (out-of-balance if not guilty) for doing the "wrong thing" (whether categorized as a sin or not) is a nearly universal concept, so the use of what sounded to me like Catholic vocabulary should be not be taken as an insult by people from other cultures when Meltzer likely would be just as happy with a more general concept in his analogy.

What bothered me was that the mind-set of sin seems in conflict with the free market economics Meltzer was trying to espouse. Human beings are expected to feel guilty (or "bad") when they realize that they have done the wrong thing and then make some effort to repent or otherwise be forgiven (or come back in balance). Corporations and businesses have no capacity to feel guilty, or really to feel anything at all. If they do the wrong thing, there is no incentive to repent--in fact, unless laws require them to do something, the boards of public corporations have a legal responsibility to their shareholders to NOT do anything that would reduce profits. Only in the most direct of consumer markets--where customers can become upset with a company and boycott its products--can the free market actually lead to changed behavior, and in some sense that kind of emotional behavior is even against the view of a rational free market, in which consumers base their decisions on the qualities (cost and utility) of the products in the markets alone.

The right wing often seems to think that a free market without government regulation actually will be self-correcting, that corporations will somehow "repent" for any "sins" that they commit. Yet, without laws and regulations holding the companies accountable for actions against the interest of society, that correction won't occur. This fundamental conflict between free-market and Christian thought is not necessarily unresolvable, but is rarely acknowledged and I suspect leads to problems making laws that adequately reflect either perspective or a balance thereof.

Again, I don't think any of this has much, if anything, to do with the government rescues of Chrysler and General Motors, which are about direct government intervention and not regulation. Yet, by invoking Christian rhetoric that points to what I consider a fundamental disconnect, I am led to wonder about quality of the rest of his logic, even if I started out inclined to find it sound (and, ultimately, do find it so). Such is the real danger of invoking the concept of sin in an free market economic context.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Margin Notes: Scooby, Pledge Drives, Transport

A "Spirit Zone" sign at the University of Albany featured the Great Dane mascot as seen on 1 June 2009

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I had no idea that Scooby Doo was going to become a theme of my latest trip. However, the generation-old cartoon has had quite an influence on regional universities. In the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts, each school in the "Five Colleges" consortium is commonly associated with a Scooby Doo character in folklore. Smith College is Velma, Mount Holyoke is Daphne, Amherst is Fred, Hampshire is Shaggy, and of course the University of Massachusetts at Amherst is Scooby himself. Yet, it's the University of Albany (part of the State University of New York system) that actually has a Great Dane that looks much like Scooby Doo as its mascot, as seen above.

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While they may not air cartoons, one of the joys of traveling in United States for me is usually getting to hear local public radio stations. There was little joy in this latest trip, as the public radio stations serving the areas where I spent the most time--WFCR 88.5 FM Amherst (and affiliated WNNZ 640 AM) and WAMC 90.3 FM Albany--were both in fund-raising mode. WFCR's pledge breaks were bad enough, but WAMC's were prolonged and borderline disturbing. WAMC president and CEO Alan Chartock hosts many of the pledge breaks himself, and had no problems making comments like "we've been doing that for the past eight years, not just the past year," and "we criticize Democrats too; you just heard that in the last report." It's statements like that which allow right-wingers to paint public radio as a left-wing atrocity and discredit the balanced programs that do appear on public radio stations such as the major NPR news magazines.

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I ended up listening to a lot of WAMC yesterday when I was in stopped traffic on the Berkshire Extension of the New York Thruway after an accident shut down the westbound lanes near the Canaan, New York tolls for nearly an hour. After about twenty minutes without moving, just about everyone had shut down their engines and I was treated to the surreal experience of listening to birds chirp on an Interstate highway (the eastbound lanes were behind a grove of trees and almost inaudible).

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The incident on the Thruway underscored the misguided nature of a statement I had made to a friend in Albany after the derailment experience on Friday. I claimed that since I would be driving a rental car on Monday, I would be in more control of my schedule. Driving presents only an illusion of control--in reality, one is just as much at the mercy of those around them in a car as in any other form of transportation. Real freedom comes from having choices, instead of having little choice except to drive as is the case in most of North America, and surprisingly even in much of the urban Albany area.

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Bicyclists enjoyed the trails along the Erie Canal near Fairport, New York on 2 June 2009

Farther west, there are locations in which a true multi-modal scene could be seen in New York. The New York Thruway toll road (I-90), the Erie Canal, the bike path along the Erie Canal, and the former New York Central railroad (now CSX) could conceivably be placed in the same frame at many locations between Amsterdam and Syracuse, New York.

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The platforms at Buffalo, New York's Central Terminal, effectively abandoned since 1979, were viewed on 2 June 2009 from Amtrak's detouring Maple Leaf on the Loop Lead

Amtrak's Maple Leaf traverses the old New York Central between New York City and Buffalo, and an unexpected pleasant surprise occurred as the train approached Buffalo today. It turned out that the train was detouring over the CSX Belt Subdivision around Buffalo because of track work. While the detour meant skipping the Exchange Street station and views of the Peace Bridge, it meant rare miles for me and a different view of the derelict Buffalo Central Terminal train station as the train traversed the Loop Lead to enter the Belt Subdivision.

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The ridiculous immigration inspection of the Amtrak Maple Leaf at Syracuse, New York that was taking place last year has apparently ceased. An immigration agent was boarding the train to make sure no illegal aliens were on board the train bound for Canada. (The agent was also supposed to ensure US residents had correct paperwork to enter Canada and re-enter the United States, but never checked my identification and spent a lot of time talking to Hispanic-looking people on the train both in my experience and in other reports.) Exactly why the United States cared was a bit beyond me, and why the inspection occurred in Syracuse and not closer to the border (say, in Buffalo) was really beyond me. The only inspection on the train today was the Canadian inspection upon entry to Canada at Niagara Falls, Ontario.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Heritage: Keystone Arch Bridges

Amtrak's Lake Shore Limited, powered by a P42DC locomotive built in 2001, crossed a Keystone Arch Bridge in Chester, Massachusetts completed one hundred sixty years earlier in 1841, on 1 June 2009

ALBANY, NEW YORK - Nestled in a somewhat remote part of the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts lies a series of engineering landmarks. The Keystone Arch Bridges of the Western Railroad, the oldest arched railroad bridges in the United States, still stand along the West Branch of the Westfield River, two of them part of a hiking trail, and one of them amazingly still in use on the CSX's Berkshire Subdivision mainline.

I became aware of these engineering gems when I first rode the Amtrak "Lake Shore Limited" route between Boston, Massachusetts and Albany, New York on a Massachusetts Bay Railroad Enthusiasts Fall Foliage Flyer special in 2001. Two of the arched bridges are visible from the current line, which bypassed all but one of the Keystone Arch Bridges in a 1912 line relocation, and the history of the bridges figured prominently in the route guide.

The Keystone Arch Bridge "B" in Becket, Massachusetts, bypassed in a 1912 line relocation and now traversed by the Keystone Arch Bridges Trail, was viewed from Amtrak's Lake Shore Limited on 14 May 2008

The bridges were built as part of the Western Railroad, chartered in 1833 as part of an effort to connect Boston to the Hudson River to try to win back traffic that was headed to the ports around New York instead of Massachusetts Bay. The Western Railroad would be the longest (150 miles) and highest (crossing the Berkshires at an elevation of 1458 feet at Washington Summit) in the world when it opened in 1841. The eastern approach to the summit followed the west branch of the Westfield River, requiring a series of bridges especially around the West Branch Gorge. The Friends of the Keystone Arches web site describes how George Washington Whistler and Alexander Birnie surveyed and built the bridges to last, obviously quite successfully.

The West Branch of the Westfield River featured clear water 70 feet beneath the Keystone Arch Bridge "B" in Becket, Massachusetts on 1 June 2009

In 1870, the Western Railroad became part of the Boston and Albany, the name under which it would operate for most of the line's existence. The Boston and Albany was part of the New York Central system, and has since been part of Penn Central, Conrail, and today is part of CSX.

The Keystone Arch Bridge Trail crossed 1841-era Bridge "A" in Becket, Massachusetts on 1 June 2009

Since 2001, the Keystone Arch Bridges have been more accessible thanks to the Keystone Arch Bridges Trail. The 2.5 mile trail in Chester and Becket, Massachusetts parallels the Westfield River partially using the rights of way of the old Pontoonsic Turnpike horse-carriage route and the original Western Railroad. The highlight of the experience is walking over the "A" and "B" Keystone Arch Bridges with their views of the West Branch of the Westfield River far below; it's hard to believe that the robust bridges have stood for more than 170 years.

The view from Keystone Arch Bridge "A" in Becket, Massachusetts included this look down the west branch of the Westfield River toward the West Branch Gorge on 1 June 2009

The Keystone Arch Bridges Trail is accessible from Middlefield Road from Chester, Massachusetts. The sight of modern freight trains and Amtrak crossing the 1841-era "Double Arch" bridge in Chester, Massachusetts was a sight worth seeing in 2009.