Friday, July 31, 2009

Politics: Will There Be an Obama Legacy?

TORONTO, ONTARIO - It is still quite early in the Obama administration--barely six months have passed since he was sworn in to office as President of the United States--but one thing has become increasingly clear to me. So far, no lasting legislation that will lead to an "Obama legacy" has been passed, and with his legislative priorities conceivably to be thwarted by Republicans and "blue dog" conservative Democrats, a distinct possibility seems to be emerging that there might not be one.

For good reason, most of President Barack Obama's attention has been focused in the early days of his presidency on economic matters. His landmark achievement to date has been the passage of a substantial stimulus package. However, this stimulus package will not have a long-term legacy, since most of its spending takes place in 2010 and then ends. In fact, the only way it will have a long-term legacy is if Republican spinmeisters succeed in pinning the entire national debt on the Obama stimulus. Republicans have for years tried to dodge the reality that the national debt ballooned under the Reagan administration and that the Clinton administration had been the most fiscally prudent in my lifetime, but Obama has now given them the opportunity to place all fiscal blame on the Democrats.

The president's foremost other domestic initiative, health insurance reform (I actually find the administration's re-phrasing from "health care reform" to accurately reflect what they are trying to do, whether it was crafted as spin or not) did not appear to be headed for a passable consensus before the summer recess started. A distinct possibility exists that nothing will pass, or that reforms that do pass will not have a significant impact on the functioning of the health care system for those who are currently not well-served by it. (See Nate Silver's analysis for details.)

Meanwhile, the nation's foreign policy has changed little since the previous administration. Grumblings in the editorial pages throughout Latin America are complaining that Barack Obama hasn't changed their realities, that the United States continues to be a cultural beacon, but not helpful to them politically, and the war in Afghanistan has intensified.

In his early days with a Democrat-controlled house and senate, President Clinton passed the Family and Medical Leave Act. The North American Free Trade Agreement, the Brady Bill, and later welfare reform were all elements that clearly help to create a positive legislative legacy for Clinton. President George H.W. Bush left the Americans with Disabilities Act and the re-authorization of the Clean Air Act as positive parts of his legacy. Most presidents have been able to start their legacies in a first or single term.

The very election of a multi-racial individual as President of the United States, and Barack Obama's demeanor in office (admitting mistakes, emphasizing consensus) will of course be legacies in themselves. It matters to the rest of the world that someone other than a white person could be elected to the presidency, and that the US president uses a rhetoric of respect in dealing with other nations instead of arrogance. However, in my opinion, it would be a shame if that proves to be the only legacy of the Obama administration, and I'm starting to wonder if it will be.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Transport: Bicycling in the Heat

TORONTO, ONTARIO - The temperature at Sea-Tac Airport near Seattle, Washington reached 103 degrees Fahrenheit (39 degrees Celsius) today, the highest recorded temperature in the history of the weather station, which became the location of record for Seattle in 1945. When I was growing up in that area, the highest temperature ever recorded was just 99 degrees.

One of the days on which 99 degrees was reached was 23-June-1992, which I remember specifically because it was the day before my family departed on a California vacation. On that day, I chose to say goodbye to some friends, traveling by bicycle. First on my agenda was to talk to the crew of the local freight train that passed through town. Wanting to get an early start, I bicycled ten miles to downtown Renton, Washington and met the train there--which was a good thing, since on that day they didn't come north to my home town. A railroad strike was set to begin the next day, and I wanted to get their take on the situation.

When the train went to switch the Boeing aircraft plant in Renton, I set out on a twelve mile bicycle ride up to Clyde Hill, Washington to check in with a friend. The temperature likely wasn't 99 quite yet, but there were a number of hills on any reasonable route northbound from Renton, and my water bottle was long-since empty, refilled at a public fountain, and empty again by the time I arrived at my destination. By the time I headed home on a final three-and-a-half mile leg, the heat was out in full force and I wonder in retrospect how I made it.

The key to bicycling in the heat, of course, is drinking water along the way. Planning a route with public fountains to refill one's water bottle, and taking as many water bottles as possible are keys to keeping going. Having rags that can be dipped in water and wrapped around one's head can also be of significant value.

In coverage of this week's Seattle heat wave on local public radio station KUOW, it was mentioned to also "spray water on one's head--that's what the vents in your helmet are for." Personally, I always thought the vents were for general ventilation, so this comment was a bit of a surprise to me. On my day of bicycling in the extreme heat, I don't recall splashing water through my helmet--I guess I wasn't as prepared as I thought I was on that day.

After living in Boston, where the streets are substantially more unsafe for bicycles and the weather precludes bicycling for up to three months a year, I abandoned bicycling in favor of walking and public transit. On 35 degree days and warmer, riding in air conditioned transit vehicles, that decision seems pretty sound.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Margin Notes: Travel, Safety, Left Turns, Border

A Halo Burger in Flint, Michigan was noted on 25-July-2009

TORONTO, ONTARIO - One of the things I like to do when traveling is try out regional chain restaurants that I had not experienced before. On this recent trip to Michigan, Bob Evans and Big Boy did little for me, but I was impressed with Bill Thomas' Halo Burger, a small chain centered around Flint, Michigan. While it doesn't stack up to In'N'Out Burger in the southwest or Burgerville in Oregon, I have little doubt that it is the best burger in Flint. I also give credit to Luigi's Restaurant in Flint, which serves thin-crust pizza. While not quite Pizza Therapy material, it is likely the best pizza in Flint.

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The amphitheater at Flint, Michigan's Riverbank Park was only sparsely populated during the "Keep On Keepin' On" Festival on 25-July-2009

While exploring Flint, I stumbled onto the "Keep On Keepin' On" Festival, billed as an "Afrikan American" community event, at Riverbank Park along the Flint River. I was there mid-evening, and was surprised to find not more than a few dozen people enjoying an interesting mix of Rhythm and Blues and techno music. Furthermore, for all the talk of racial polarization in Flint, at least a third of the people in attendance were clearly not African-American.

* * * * *

It was interesting to hear the BBC Newshour include a feature reported from Flint, Michigan while I was visiting the region. While the racial divide at the river reported by the BBC was evident driving around town, the reported tensions were not apparent to a visitor--at various businesses, I was served by people of all races and noticed mixed clientele. It is common not to see such issues in a short visit, but I literally saw no sign of them except for the geographic separation.

* * * * *

Various people had expressed concern about staying in Flint as a high-crime area. A webmaster of a prominent railroad enthusiast website actually commented "I got the feeling our cars would be gone in the morning" when referring to the neighborhood where I stayed. Well, my car was not gone any of the four mornings and I saw no sign of crime. The level of fear of the poor in the United States can just be ridiculous.

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A typical Michigan left turn signal was noted in Flint, Michigan on 24-July-2009

Not quite ridiculous, but an interesting quirk of Michigan traffic signals is the use of a specific traffic light labeled above as "Left" instead of a left arrow. While the above example is from Flint, I saw the same kind of signal in Owosso and other towns, so it appears to be an acceptable convention throughout the state of Michigan. The only advantage that I can see is that it is likely cheaper in initial capital cost, and it isn't that confusing for visitors.

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After noting the extreme rudeness of the US border officials while entering the country, it's worth stating that my return to Canada was completely different. The agents were polite, asked about virtually nothing except what I was bringing back to the country, and the whole experience using the Tunnel Bus took no more than two minutes, compared with nearly ten entering the United States. If the US is trying to discourage foreign tourism, they are doing a good job.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Transport: Reacting to a Steam Locomotive

A lone photographer on a ladder was noted in the middle of a field near Baldwin Road outside of Owosso, Michigan on 26-July-2009

TORONTO, ONTARIO - One of the joys of riding behind a steam locomotive is watching the reaction of people along the tracks. Whenever a large steam locomotive moves, a hoard of railroad photographers generally chases the train, and their antics can be anything from amusing (such as the man on a ladder seen above) to horrifying (such as the man reported to be steering with his knees at high speed while chasing an all-day Train Festival excursion earlier last weekend in central Michigan).

A van with an open door paced former Nickel Plate #765, a large steam locomotive, as it ran back to Owosso, Michigan along King Road on 26-July-2009. The train had slowed to about 25 mph by this time.

These railroad fans who knew that the train would be operating are not nearly as much fun to watch as locals who did not know that the train was coming. Some just drop their jaws. Others are seen breaking into a Steve Martin-style "What the @#!% is that?" routine. Children can even run in fear, or, fortunately more commonly, jump for joy. Inevitably, just about everyone waves.

Rafters on the Deschutes River near Tuscan, Oregon reacted to the passage of the "Daylight" steam locomotive on 16-September-2006.

Even locals that have heard that train is coming--and perhaps have even set out lawn chairs as they waited for it to come by--can be entertaining. The children, especially, can have unpredictable reactions. Quite a number seem to be captured with the awe that inspires many of them to be future crew members of steam locomotives, or at least future passengers of the trains.

Will she be a future steam engineer? Two children joined an older family member in watching the passage of Nickel Plate Road #765 through Bannister, Michigan on 26-July-2009

A few people, of course, are completely oblivious to the passage of the special train. They are so intent on what they are doing--whether it be fishing, digging for clams, or just household chores, that they pay no attention to the rare event unfolding before them. I find these people the hardest to explain--is a short wave not at least called for when a steam train goes by?

Two fishermen in the Black River near La Crosse, Wisconsin were practically oblivious to the passage of Milwaukee Road #261, a large steam locomotive, on 16-September-2008.

One of my all-time favorite scenes while watching steam locomotive observers was not captured in a photo. A man had set up for a photograph of the "Deschutes River Daylight" returning from Bend to Portland, Oregon in September 2006. As the steam locomotive passed, he apparently lost his balance and fell straight into a ditch. I never heard who it was, or whether his shot taken before the fall turned out.

One never knows what one will see from a steam train, but the people will always be entertaining.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Travel: The Fifty Cent Tour, For Real

"Transcending"--a monument to the labor movement by David Barr, was noted in Detroit's Hart Plaza from the People Mover on 27-July-2009. The buildings in the background are across the Detroit River in Windsor, Ontario.

TORONTO, ONTARIO - It has become an idiom in the English language that "fifty cent tour" means a guided tour of something, usually a town or some other physical space. However, while inflation might have made the original phrase "nickel tour" turn into a "fifty cent tour," the phrase hasn't kept pace in the 20th century. I was not aware of any tour that could be had for just fifty cents in all of North America, until I passed through Detroit, Michigan today.

A Detroit People Mover train approached the Renaissance Center station on 27-July-2009. All Detroit People Movers wore advertising schemes.

Detroit has a People Mover system, an elevated transit system running throughout its downtown core that opened in 1987. The system is familiar to those from Vancouver, British Columbia or Toronto, Ontario, as it is extremely similar to Vancouver's Skytrain and Toronto's Scarborough Rapid Transit. The Urban Transportation Development Corporation-built vehicles operate as an automated system in an almost three-mile loop around Detroit.

The scoreboard at Comerica Park, home of the baseball Detroit Tigers, and Ford Field, the home of the football Detroit Lions, were visible in the same view from the People Mover on 27-July-2009

While the system has thirteen stations in an approximate circle around the downtown area, it isn't widely patronized. Probably the largest problem is a lack of connecting transit--why park somewhere downtown and take the People Mover when one could just park closer to one's actual destination in the first place? The system runs at somewhere around 3% of its capacity, more a tourist curiosity than a real transportation system.

The main branch of the Detroit Library System was viewed from the People Mover on 27-July-2009

Indeed, when I boarded the People Mover today, only four people were on the car I boarded, and as I made one complete loop of the system, I was alone in the car for most of the journey. Yet, for a fare of only fifty cents, the People Mover was a great opportunity to quickly see central Detroit. The route offers views of historic buildings like the Wayne County Center, central library, and Old Mariner Church, sports stadiums like Comerica Park, Ford Field and the Joe Louis Arena, and architecture like the Renaissance Center and Rosa Parks Transit Center. It even offers views of the Detroit River and Windsor, Ontario on the other side.

The Ambassador Bridge connecting the United States and Canada, Michigan and Ontario, Detroit and Windsor was noted from the Detroit People Mover on 27-July-2009

The Detroit People Mover may not have proved to be a very useful system, but it does offer about the only real fifty cent tour in existence.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Photos: Summer Walks in Toronto

A Heritage Toronto walk through the Fairbank neighbourhood stopped at the former site of the Fairbank Lumber and Coal Company on 5-July-2009

FLINT, MICHIGAN - While I have gone on fewer guided walks (especially those sponsored by Heritage Toronto) this summer, this week I do present two on my photo site--the Swansea Historical Society's 6-June-2009 walk along the western waterfront, and Heritage Toronto's 5-July-2009 walk through the Fairbank neighbourhood of Toronto, Ontario.

Travel: Three Days, Three Rides

A one-eighth scale model of a Pennsylvania Railroad diesel approached the loading location at the Train Festival in Owosso, Michigan on 24-July-2009

FLINT, MICHIGAN - Just about every possible aspect of railroading made an impression during the now-completed Train Festival in Owosso, Michigan this weekend. From purchasing railroad memorabilia to observing model railroads to operating a steam locomotives to taking night photos of trains, it was all possible, assuming one bought a ticket early enough since many events sold out. Train riding was obviously one of the options available. In my three days at the Train Festival, I decided to ride a train a day, and as it worked out, the trains became larger each day.

In a view taken from a trailing passenger car, the miniature Pennsylvania diesel paused near a whistle sign featuring a Keystone logo during the Train Festival in Owosso, Michigan on 24-July-2009

I spent a good portion of Friday checking out the Train Festival grounds, and one of the prominent features was a one-eighth scale miniature railroad. Both steam and diesel locomotives were operating on the route, and I ended up taking about a five minute ride behind a Pennsylvania Railroad diesel across the grounds.

Little River "Pacific"-type steam locomotive #110 powered the hourly runs during the Steam Festival; the peppy engine approached Main Street in Owosso, Michigan on 25-July-2009

On Saturday, I stepped up to full size trains. Throughout the festival, an excursion train ran hourly about four miles out and back, hauled one direction by a Great Lakes Central diesel and the back to the grounds by Little River Railroad 4-6-2 ("Pacific") #110. The eight-car train provided interesting riding options including cars from the original Chicago bi-level gallery commuter coaches from the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy. The brief ride was just a warm up for the next day.

Nickel Plate Road "Berkshire" #765 accelerated during a photo run-by at Ithaca, Michigan on 26-July-2009

On the last day of the festival, I rode the all-day excursion behind a "super power" steam locomotive, Nickel Plate Road #765. The 2-8-4 "Berkshire" easily handled the sixteen car train on a nearly 40-mile trip to Alma, Michigan and back. Included in this trip was a stop for multiple photo run-bys, allowing those riding the train to get pictures instead of just non-paying chasers (which I had been the previous two days). It was a fitting highlight to a complete railroading experience.

For more coverage of Train Festival 2009, visit the steam forum at including a thread I started.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Radio Pick: The Language of Reform

FLINT, MICHIGAN - This week's radio pick comes from a show that I rarely hear. The language used in political campaigns is especially tuned in the United States, and specifically the language used in the health care (or is it health insurance) reform was explored by NPR's "On the Media" this week. The important program often explores such topics; my only regret is that the great sense of humor of hosts Bob Garfield and Brook Gladstone is sometimes muted by the subject matter. The fact that Joe Pesca was substituting in this week's 53-minute show seemed to make no difference in quality, and allowed for a nice foray into sports as well as politics.

Listen to MP3 of On The Media "The Language of Reform"

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An honorable mention this week goes to Wisconsin Public Radio's "To The Best of Our Knowledge". That show's second hour this week focused on travel. The first segment of the 53-minute show, with Rick Steves quite fully explaining his idea of travel as a political act and Mark Johnson talking about the "Playing for Change" project was simply exquisite.

Listen to RealMedia of To The Best of Our Knowledge "Travel"

Heritage: Historic Owosso

The writing studio of James Curwood, built in 1922 in Owosso, Michigan, still stood as a museum on 25-July-2009

FLINT, MICHIGAN - While most of the attention in Owosso, Michigan this weekend is focused on the ongoing Train Festival and its heritage railroad equipment, Owosso itself offers quite a heritage on display.

The first home of a European built at the city's present site along the Shiawassee River was constructed in 1836--and it still stands today. The cabin of Elias Comstock has been moved twice, but today stands only a few hundred meters (er, yards) from its original location, in a park along the river. Just as few cities in Michigan can claim never to have been a village before a city, Owosso can not only claim city-only status, but can claim that its first permanent building still stands.

The Comstock Cabin from the mid-1830's had been moved, but still stood in Owosso, Michigan on 25-July-2009

Standing not far from the Comstock Cabin is the unusual appearance of the Curwood Castle. Constructed as a workshop by novelist James Oliver Curwood in 1922, he wrote in the tower of the building. Upon his death, the structure was donated to the city. Before the establishment of the Steam Railroading Institute, the Curwood Castle was the primary tourist attraction in Owosso, as it contained the city museum besides being interesting in its own right.

On 25-July-2009, a Tim Horton's occupied the plot where Thomas Dewey had been born in Owosso, Michigan

Perhaps the most interesting piece of history in Owosso to a Canadian was the birthplace of Thomas Dewey. The well-known politician who would almost become President of the United States was born near the Shiawasse River--on a site that is now occupied by the most Canadian of institutions--a Tim Horton's restaurant. One wonders what Dewey would think about that.

Most of the steam locomotives will leave after this weekend, but Owosso has its interesting heritage on display every day.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Media: The Evening Newscast

FLINT, MICHIGAN - As late as 1990, KOMO radio in Seattle, Washington still ran "The News at Ten" each weeknight at 22:00 (10 pm) which functioned in the same way as late-night television news continues to function to this day--a way to find out what was happening in the world before going to sleep. Dennis Shannon, now with KONA-AM out of the Tri-Cities, Washington, was the last regular host of the program before it was replaced with the syndicated Tom Snyder talk show. The program had been a regular part of my day, and I would go to sleep after listening to the nearly half-hour program.

While I thought this kind of program was quite useful, it didn't just disappear off KOMO. Other than 24-hour news stations, news after dinner didn't draw listeners, and it has disappeared off the North American radio landscape.

At least, that's what I had thought. News/Talk 760 WJR out of Detroit still has a program airing along the same lines. The Big Story airs at 19:00 (not quite as late as the tradition, but after rush hour) and seems to be mis-named. Rather than focusing on a single big story for an hour, it actually runs material on all the big stories of the day in depth. It seems to be a true hour-long newscast.

WJR is not some fringe station. Besides being a clear-channel station, it has local personalities like Paul W. Smith and Mitch Albom who have a national profile in the United States. If WJR can run a news hour, then other radio stations of record can do it as well. I wish a few more of them would give it a try.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Margin Notes: Travel, Running Lean, Ford

VIA Rail Canada train #71 sat at Windsor, Ontario after its arrival from Toronto on 23-July-2009

FLINT, MICHIGAN - Quite a number of companies seem to be running way too lean during this recession. VIA Rail Canada, normally a master of customer service, couldn't seem to get enough staff people to organize a high passenger loading from the Special Olympics earlier today. At every stop from Toronto to Chatham, Ontario (except Ingersoll and Glencoe), there were Special Olympics athletes boarding the train, and getting them on board took more than ten minutes in virtually all cases. Even after making up some running time, this meant my train to Windsor, Ontario was nearly an hour late, almost completely because of increased "dwell time" at the stations.

* * * * * *

Another company clearly running lean is Enterprise Rent-A-Car. An employee at the office I visited today said, "We're not buying any cars--we don't know what's going to be around in a year, and so everything we have is out on the road." As a result, I had to wait a bit longer than desired to pick up a reserved car, but I've waited longer for less honest reasons at other rental car companies in the past, and the desk employee was clearly working hard to find one. For the incredible daily rate I was getting, that was all I asked.

* * * * * *

On board the train, VIA employees were clearly trying hard. As much as I prefer getting up and going to the café car as one usually has to do on Amtrak, it is rather nice to be served at one's seat as VIA does on its corridor trains. With the train running late, I decided to eat on-board, and purchased a "sandwich combo" and soft drink. While value for the dollar may be debated, it's hard not to view VIA food as high-quality; I've always said it is because the Quebecois will not put up with bad food so VIA has no choice. For whatever reason, the turkey sandwich was the best I've had in a long time, and it came with cheese and carrots.

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The salad dressing on-board my VIA Rail Canada train on 23-July-2009 had an interesting brand name

Apparently "FOB" doesn't have the same connotations in Canada as it does in immigrant communities in the United States. The dressing (actually dip for my carrots) that came with my lunch had the brand name "FOB"--I guess "fresh on board" doesn't conjure up images of "fresh off the boat" here. Maybe they were trying to evoke the political FOB--"friend of Bill" [Clinton].

* * * * * *

I don't think being a political FOB would have helped much at the border. The United States border agents were excessively rude, but more disturbingly, they seemed rather incompetent in retrospect. They never asked me if I had anything to declare (which I didn't)--if I had, unless I had offered that information on my own, they would have never known. Are they so busy worrying about terrorism that they've forgotten about commerce?

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Ford's global headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan were noted on 23-July-2009

Once on the United States side of the border, I was clearly in Ford country (well, after leaving the Renaissance Center and its GM offices, anyway). I drove on the Ford freeway, I found "The Henry Ford" (with its plethora of museums and attractions practically on the order of Disneyland), and while enjoying Michigan Avenue in Dearborn, I drove past Ford's world headquarters.

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A Joe Ricci dealership was found in Dearborn, Michigan on 23-July-2009.

The car dealerships on Michigan Avenue also don't seem to end in Dearborn. Among them, I found a familiar name--Joe Ricci, known to boat racing fans across the nation as the sponsor of an unlimited hydroplane in 1985 and 1986.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Transport: Triple-Headed Steam

Triple-headed Canadian Pacific steam locomotives--at 1/8th the size of the original prototypes--left the station at the Richmond Hill Live Steamers' International Meet in Richmond Hill, Ontario on 11-July-2009

TORONTO, ONTARIO - In the era of the diesel locomotives, the concept of multiple locomotives at the front of a train is not terribly exciting. As all trailing locomotives can be controlled from the one in the lead, needed traction and physics are about the only factors determining how many locomotives can work at the front of the train, and in certain mountainous portions of North America, six diesels at the front of a train is completely unremarkable.

Back in the steam era, things were different. There was no such thing as "multiple-unit" operation of steam locomotives; each one needed to have its own crew. Double-headers were generally restricted to "helpers" on severe grades, and triple headers were extremely rare. Even in the preservation era, triple-headers are an uncommon event, with the only major example in recent years involving the Milwaukee Road 261 and two Chinese-built steam locomotives combining for a triple-header in September 2006.

The triple-headed live steamers crossed a trestle at the Richmond Hill Live Steamers tracks in Richmond Hill, Ontario on 11-July-2009

I think the last triple-header I personally had seen may have been at Expo '86 in Vancouver, British Columbia as some rearrangement was done after "Steam Parade"--the last until this month, that is. The "International Meet" at the Richmond Hill Live Steamers on 11-July-2009 had brought out three live steamers (these were all one-eighth the size of the original locomotives on which they were based) representing Canadian Pacific steam locomotives. The operators decided it would be a great experience to triple-head the three engines.

Indeed, the sight of the three locomotives working together all around the extensive trackage of the Richmond Hill club was something to see. In any scale, a triple-header of steam locomotives is a memorable sight to behold.

No guarantees of a triple header, but the next scheduled public event at the Richmond Hill Live Steamers is the weekend of 12-13-September-2009; watch their web site for details.

The triple-header headed for another bridge during the Richmond Hill Live Steamers "International Meet" on 11-July-2009

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Politics: Another Lesson from 1994?

TORONTO, ONTARIO - During the 1994 push for health care reform in the United States, Representative Jim Cooper, a then-relatively junior Democratic Congressman from Tennessee, impressed me by bringing forth an alternative to Clinton administration's reform plan. Cooper's bill, which some dubbed "Clinton Lite," more closely approximated the "managed competition" model that I thought at the time was most logical reform path. More importantly, Cooper's bill had at least limited bipartisan support. Some people believe that if President Clinton had shifted course and put his weight behind the Cooper bill instead of sticking with the plan his administration had proposed that the bill might actually have passed, and the United States would have a very different health care environment today.

Much has been made of the Obama administration's careful attention to past mistakes in health care reform initiatives in today's effort. His administration has tried to control the language, referring to a "public option" as the core of his vision, responding to the past attempts by opponents to talk about "governments" and "mandates," implying a government-run health care system that has never polled well in the United States. Rather than presenting his own plan to Congress as Clinton did, Obama has left it up to Congress to actually write the legislation. Finally, Obama has looked back to the Lyndon Johnson administration's fast passage of Medicare after an election as a model for the timing this time, which is why he is pushing so strongly right now for passage of a bill.

Oddly, Jim Cooper this time around has called on Obama to slow down, perhaps not heeding the lesson from 1965. However, Cooper may again be seeing through the practical politics of Congress. He does not support the bill that seems to be emerging from the House leadership, but instead that of Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon. In many ways, Wyden's proposal, called the "Healthy Americans Act," is reminiscent of the 1994 Cooper bill as it emphasizes health care plan portability in a private system without the "public option" that Obama has been touting. As described on Wyden's web site, the emphasis is on requiring private companies to accept people into their plans, and on cost containment, an element that does not seem to be emphasized in what is emerging from the Democratic party leadership. Most importantly, though, the Wyden bill has bi-partisan support. As pointed out by political blogger Nate Silver, the Healthy Americans Act not only has drawn support from centrist Republicans, but from all over the political spectrum.

The Healthy Americans Act of 2009 may be the Cooper bill of 1994--an alternate proposal that could pass if the president throws his weight behind it. It would require Obama to give up on the "public option" that he has been touted, but considering that the worst problem with the US health care system is cost containment and most analysts think the Wyden bill addresses that better than other proposals, there seems to be reason for him to change course. Has Obama learned this lesson from 1994? We'll have to see.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Margin Notes: Refuse, Swearing, Mix, Steam

TORONTO, ONTARIO - The Toronto city workers' strike continues, and the garbage continues to pile up throughout the city. I thought I heard a garbage truck while walking down Jane Street last week, and looked to see what indeed looked like one with "Miller Disposal" on the side. I was immediately suspicious that the mayor, David Miller, was somehow profiteering from private refuse removal. However, minimal research revealed that the Miller Group has been a going concern in Vaughn, Ontario for many years, including a waste removal service, and does not appear to have any connection with the mayor whatsoever.

* * * * * *

With the northern lanes complete, construction had shifted to the southern lanes of Dundas Street West over the Humber River in Toronto, Ontario on 20-July-2009

It isn't just residential garbage that is being collected near the Humber River during the strike. Work continues on the Dundas Street West bridge over the Humber River about two kilometers north of the garbage collection site, creating lots of construction waste. Considering that the second half of the bridge is just starting demolition, much less reconstruction, Dundas Street West is a long time from returning to four lanes over the Humber River.

* * * * * *

Drivers undoubtedly take to swearing in the backups that occur in crossing the Humber River bridge at rush hour with the reduced lanes. Swearing is effectively banned from the airwaves in the United States, but not necessarily in Canada. If someone swears during an interview (and it's not profane in nature), the actual quote will run on the CBC--there were a couple recent examples including on the Sunday Edition. Every time I hear it, I'm pleasantly surprised that Canadians don't feel the need to censor real daily life in this country.

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My recent blog entry on Michael Jackson reminded me of another radio story about Sir Mix-a-Lot. The entertainer had an opportunity to substitute for Dave Ross on a KIRO radio talk show in Seattle right about two years ago. The Seattle left-wing blog on talk radio, Blather Watch, noted that "Mix," an African-American, was attracting a number of African-American callers, and wrote a blog entry entitled "Breaking: Black People on KIRO!" Author Michael Hood even speculated that listeners might think they were listening to Canadians. (Somehow knowing that at the time KIRO had an African-American talk show host in Carl Jeffers just made the whole thing that much more funny.)

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A 1/16th scale steam locomotive passed a 1/8th scale steam locomotive at the Richmond Hill Live Steamers near Richmond Hill, Ontario on 11-July-2009.

They say Carl Jeffers can "turn your radio into molten plastic" but it will be steam of a different kind this coming weekend in Owosso, Michigan. Eight steam locomotives will be the featured attraction at Train Festival 2009. Interestingly, there were actually more steam locomotives gathered in one place in Ontario not long ago--they just weren't full size. The Richmond Hill Live Steamers hosted an "International Meet" on 11-12 July 2009 on their miniature railway track of two different sizes. Further coverage of the International Meet will appear on my photo site in the future.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Photos: Summer Fireworks around Toronto, 2009

Red and white fireworks gave a patriotic flare to the Canada Day fireworks at the Mississauga, Ontario Civic Centre on 1-July-2009

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's update to my photo site focuses on recent fireworks displays. With the city strike canceling some of the displays in Toronto, I decided to take in the Canada Day fireworks at the Mississauga Civic Centre on 1-July-2009, including some of the day-long festivities beforehand. Toronto still had a number of shows, including the finale of the Festival of Fire over Lake Ontario observed on 4-July-2009.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Radio Pick: Swimming Pools and China

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Readers of this blog will not be surprised about my radio pick of the week. Jesse Brown scored again on the TVO podcast about the Internet, Search Engine, which this week not only took on a ridiculous analogy of the Internet to a swimming pool from an editor of the National Post, but also provided valuable coverage of the impact of technology on the violence between Hans and Uyghurs in China. The sixteen-minute podcast features both captivating story-telling and insightful interviewing to make a compelling and edifying show.

Listen to MP3 of Search Engine "Like Iran, Minus the Technology"

Friday, July 17, 2009

Media: Where to Turn in Times of Crisis

TORONTO, ONTARIO - It seems like I should be writing about Walter Cronkite this evening. Cronkite, the anchor of the CBS Evening News from 1962 to 1981 and the authoritative newsman of that era, died today at the age of 92. However, it's not really possible for me to write anything of meaning about Cronkite; I was still in grade school when he did his last broadcast on the Evening News. The closest I can come are some comments on authoritative news sources which partially reflect Cronkite's legacy at CBS.

Back in the era when there were three choices for the evening news in the United States--my family didn't get cable until well into the 1980's and we somehow ignored the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour on PBS--my family almost always watched the CBS Evening News, anchored at the time by Dan Rather. The reason was simple--my parents remembered Cronkite and the quality of news on CBS in the 1960's and 1970's, and turned to CBS rather than ABC or NBC for that reason.

The decline in the CBS news organization became apparent in 1986, however. When the United States chose to bomb Libya that year as punishment for Libyan support of terrorism, only NBC had a correspondent in Tripoli to report the news. Steve Delaney reported by phone on what he was observing in what would become the seminal reports on the bombing from the United States perspective. Not long after, NBC's Tom Brokaw surpassed the evening news ratings of CBS' Dan Rather, who in short order would also fall below ABC's Peter Jennings. CBS' perennial number one status achieved under Cronkite would not return to this day, and the competition would be between ABC and NBC for the rest of the 1980's and 1990's. My family continued to watch the CBS Evening News on a daily basis throughout this era, but if we heard about breaking news on the radio, we didn't tune in CBS anymore, but instead first tuned to NBC.

The war with Iraq in 1991 symbolically changed the media landscape forever. By then, all of the major networks had cut back on foreign correspondents. CNN, the Cable News Network, rose to prominence by having the last US correspondents in Baghdad, amongst other things. NBC may have had the best-known reporter of the conflict, "Scud Stud" (and Canadian) Arthur Kent, but CNN was always there with the latest coverage, no matter the hour of the day. The authoritative place to turn in times of crisis moved from broadcast networks to cable, from NBC to CNN. (Arguably, it was the success of CNN during the 1991 conflict that led to launch of NBC's own cable news channel, MSNBC, in 1996.)

Personally, though, I've never preferred to turn to television for breaking news, instead favoring radio. When the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 came, I did not run for CBS, NBC, CNN, MSNBC, or any other television source, but instead for the BBC World Service internet stream. Too many other people around the world had the same idea and I could not connect to the server. Instead, I found I could connect to the CBC Radio One stream out of Toronto. Sunday Edition host Michael Enright, a familiar voice, was hosting special coverage that cemented in my mind that a Canadian perspective was valuable and trustworthy in a time of crisis. Enright later revealed that part of the apparent awe and disbelief he exuded during that broadcast had been because he had misplaced his glasses that morning and thus was unable to view many of the images being broadcast, making it all the more important for him to ask reporters on the air to describe what they are observing. However it happened, it was compelling and appropriate radio.

Now, with the Internet a primary news source for many, tuning in an Internet radio feed seems passe. Instead, many people now just go to their favorite news web site. Much as I didn't watch CNN regularly but did tune it in during a crisis, I rarely go to, but when crisis hits, that's usually my first stop--unless it's a Canadian story, when I would be more likely to turn to,, or some other Canadian site.

Walter Cronkite lived to see these transitions away from CBS, then away from broadcast television to cable, and finally to the Internet. I wonder where he turned for breaking news in the final years of his life.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Culture: Free Stuff in the City

TORONTO, ONTARIO - One of the joys of spending time in areas of a large city with substantial pedestrian traffic is that marketers see opportunity in such concentrations of people. While canvas advertising may be the most common--and most annoying--result, there is always the possibility of free stuff being handed out. For example, the area outside the Rogers Centre--particularly on the days of Blue Jays games--sometimes brings out giveaways. A recent Coca-Cola Zero giveaway was just the thing after a morning of physical labor volunteering at the John Street Roundhouse across the street.

Today, I was probably equally tired and equally thirsty as that Coke Zero giveaway day as I started walking toward Union Station through Toronto's Skywalk. As I walked along, I thought I noticed quite a number of people with popsicles in their hands. That looked like a pretty good idea to me, and I wondered where they were selling such things. Getting closer to Union Station, it seemed to me that a higher percentage of people walking the other direction seemed to have the pink popsicles.

At the Great Hall in Union Station, I took the stairs to the lower level as is my practice except at the height of rush hour. I wondered if that would be the end of the popsicle trail, as they might have been coming from something on Front Street or even Bay Street. Instead, I found that just about everyone on the lower level had a popsicle. Clearly, I was getting close, and I started looking around for the source. I entered the GO Transit concourse, finding more people with popsicles, but no unusual activity. I turned down the vendor lane at the west end of the concourse just to see if the giveaway was there, and saw nothing. So, I decided to head for my destination, the subway.

Exiting the Union Station building, I found the scene. A number of marketers were handing out the bars in the outdoor section between the TTC subway station and Union Station proper. While I was walking against the flow of traffic, one of them found me and gave me the free treat. It turns out that they weren't popsicles per se, but Del Monte Frozen Fruit bars, apparently paid for by Del Monte and Visa. I had found the free stuff.

The bars definitely were frozen. Noting how solid they were, I decided to put mine in my bag and have it when I exited the air conditioned subway that I was about to enter. Sure enough, by the time I started walking out of the subway station, it was just starting to melt, and was a great treat. Free stuff in a big city is a great thing.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Politics: Making Sense of Clarence Thomas

TORONTO, ONTARIO - United States Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas was for some time dismissed by some as a clone of conservative "firebrand" Antonin Scalia, as the two seemed to vote the same way on case after case. As Thomas' eighteen years on the court have progressed, however, it has become clear that Thomas does not vote in lock step with Scalia. In fact, Thomas is arguably the most conservative member of the court, to the right even of Scalia. Some have found his dissent from the other eight justices on the 1965 Voting Rights Act in a 8-1 decision this June as the ultimate symbol of Thomas' conservatism.

At some level, the explanation for Thomas' opinion in the Voting Rights Act case is not hard to understand. In his written opinion, he makes it clear that he believes that "The violence, intimidation and subterfuge that led Congress to pass Section 5 and this court to uphold it no longer remains." He does believe that such circumstances existed in 1965, and hence the law was originally constitutional; he just doesn't believe that circumstances justify it anymore.

On the other hand, the other justices did not face that constitutionality issue head-on--they did not offer an opinion of the constitutionality of Section 5, and instead ruled more narrowly on the specific issues of the case. That's what Antonin Scalia did. From that perspective, it is perplexing why Thomas felt the need to face the "difficult" question when the case didn't require it, and none of his colleagues wanted to "go there," as we like to say colloquially these days.

Listening to coverage of Supreme Court Justice nominee Sonia Sotomayor on NPR's On Point, I finally heard something that caused it all to potentially make sense. Wendy Long, who had served as a clerk for Thomas, mentioned that one of the things Thomas likes to do in reasoning out a case is to reverse it. Flip the parties involved, apply the same logic, and see if one's opinion still makes sense. If it doesn't, then the opinion is likely wrong and needs to be revisited; if it still works, then it probably is right.

It's not hard to see how that might have applied in the Voting Rights Act case. Ask whether faced with the same facts if white people might need the protections involved and just about anyone would probably answer no. Thus, the logic behind the law doesn't make sense by the Thomas methodology, and he felt he had no choice but address its constitutionality. Whether one agrees with that methodology or not, it's possible to understand it.

What remains perplexing to me is that the methodology of reversing the parties in the case and evaluating an opinion on that basis is fundamentally a method of removing context. It's basically saying that if context matters, then something is wrong with the law or opinion. That's hogwash--of course context matters. It matters if a crime is a first offense or part of a long pattern of crime. It matters if the majority is trying to squelch the rights of a minority instead of squelching everyone.

Thomas clearly believes that himself--his explanation in the Voting Rights Act case is all about context, changed context in his opinion. I guess the explanation is that Thomas must simply have a much higher standard for introducing context as a justification that most people (as demonstrated by his methodology), rather than simply rejecting context out-of-hand.

One thing is for certain--Thomas is not a clone of Scalia, or someone whose ideology is predictable and easily understood. While I may disagree with most of his opinions, I can't dismiss them as lightweight or unsound. I just don't see the world the same way that he does.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Media: Get the Economists out of the Internet

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I get very wary when economists weigh in on something other than economic policy. Economists try to put a value on a human life to justify environmentally or otherwise egregious actions by companies, try to convince us that proper health care is unaffordable, and perpetuate the idea that government is to be disdained by not considering government spending to be part of certain macroeconomic activity figures. Yet another example has come up of late in Canada, as Terence Corcoran, editor of the conservative National Post newspaper, has argued in a column that the Internet is like a swimming pool, and that the people that built the pool should be able to manage it however they want--in other words, "Net Neutrality" should be scuttled and Bell and Rogers should be allowed to only allow their products to work at normal speed on the Internet. Corcoran thinks this will lead to greater competition and hence better Internet service for Canadians.

I'll mostly defer to TVO's Jesse Brown, host of the Search Engine podcast, for the refutation of the swimming pool argument. Extending Brown's arguments, if the Internet is a swimming pool, Bell and Rogers at most built some of the ladders into the pool, not the entire pool. They have some right to the management of those ladders, but seeing as the pool itself was publicly funded and should be--whether it legally is at this point or not--a public utility, then government regulation of the entrances to the pool--the private ladders--is entirely rational.

I definitely agree with Corcoran that the primary reason that Internet access in Canada is worse than in most other developed countries is because of a lack of competition. In some cases, there isn't even a choice between Bell and Rogers--only one actually offers service to an address. Only in a selected few places are there any other broadband choices besides Bell and Rogers. It is absolutely true that the reason Bell and Rogers can get away with customer-unfriendly practices is a lack of competition.

The main reason for the lack of additional players is that there are too many barriers to entry. While some are political, the main thing is the simple cost of building the "last mile" to where people want service--only large companies like Bell and Rogers really have the ability to invest in that. The way to get more competition is not to increase the profitability of the connectivity providers at the expense of "Net Neutrality"--which is really what Corcoran is arguing--but to work on those barriers to entry. One way to is allow re-selling, which commonly occurs on DSL lines in the United States and is allowed in certain circumstances in Canada, and other ways involve subsidies or new technology. None of those require the scuttling of "Net Neutrality," or the treatment of all Internet traffic as equivalent, rather than favoring certain content, such as services that the connectivity provider owns.

The whole competition aspect really has nothing to do with "Net Neutrality," no matter how Corcoran tries to argue that it does. The only reason people like Corcoran want to do away with "Net Neutrality" is that it allows Bell and Rogers to force people to use more of their products and hence make more money. The real competition occurs when there is "Net Neutrality" and people have real choices, not when their access only works when using their connectivity provider's products. How this aspect of the issue is missed by supposedly free-market-loving individuals has never ceased to amaze me.

These kind of strange economic arguments that in the end would benefit only large businesses and not actually create purported competition are yet another reason why I want to keep the economists out of debates about the Internet. Now, how about debating additional economic stimulus packages by the government?

Monday, July 13, 2009

Culture: Zare as Priestley Medalist

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Back in June, Stanford Chemistry professor Richard N. Zare was named the recipient of the 2010 Priestley Medal, the highest honor of the American Chemical Society, granted to those who have made a lifetime contribution to profession of chemistry. While his scientific contributions certainly make him deserving of this award, what really makes Zare such an amazing human being to me is that he understands what it means to be human and demonstrates it on a regular basis.

In my first quarter at Stanford University, I had the privilege of taking Chem 32 (which has since morphed into Chem 31X), an "introductory" chemistry course, from Professors Zare and James P. Collman, who had originated the course in 1992. The course was designed for people with a strong background in chemistry and was not really an introductory course at all, but a vehicle to introduce talented students to advanced concepts to get them excited about chemistry, as was befitting its title "Frontiers of Chemical Science." I would soon learn that the style of this course was reflective of its founding professors--they wanted people to be excited about things.

Unlike some scientists, though, Zare recognizes that there is much more to life than technical work. There was a debate about grading systems going on during my time on "the farm," and I distinctly remember an article in the Stanford Daily in which Zare, while advocating the return of a stricter system, made a point of proposing that each student be given the opportunity to wipe one course off their transcript. "People have deaths in their families, or fall in love," he was quoted as saying. Professor Zare was always displaying empathy.

Zare is the kind of person that can see through a person's actions to what they are feeling and figure out a way to constructively direct them. I once actually received a phone call from him--just minutes after e-mailing him about a summer research opportunity. As I recall, I hadn't included my phone number anywhere in the message, but he had taken the time to look up my number in the university directory and give me a brief call to tell me who to follow up with and encourage me to actually do it. In the end, I ended up working for a different professor in the department that summer, but I'll never forget the motivating phone call.

When Stanford inaugurated a lecture series called "What Matters to Me and Why," in which faculty gave talks over lunch about their personal beliefs rather than just their academic interests, it was entirely unsurprising that the first lecture in the series was given by Zare. Nobody better embodied this kind of sharing of humanity.

When Richard N. Zare gives his Priestley Medal speech next year, I'm sure in the introductions that there will be a lot of focus on his educational contributions in addition to his technical contributions to many sub-fields of chemistry. I just hope that the audience doesn't miss that Zare is a tremendously human person, which is the main reason he is one of the people I most admire in this world.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Photos: Trip to the West Coast, Part III

The Interstate Bridge carrying I-5 between the states of Washington and Oregon framed Mount Hood as viewed from an Amtrak train on 16-May-2009

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's update to my photo site finishes coverage of my spring trip to the west coast of the United States. The final portion of my trip was spent in the states of Oregon and Washington from 8-May to 17-May-2009. Most of the time was spent visiting my eastern Washington Gleich relatives in Kennewick and Yakima, Washington, and western Washington McGrady relatives in Bellevue, Washington, but time was also spent hiking around Bend, Oregon and Wallula, Washington, and a fast trip was taken to Portland, Oregon to work on a diesel locomotive.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Radio Pick: My Life So Far

I have mixed feelings about this week's radio pick. While I am already characterizing the summer CBC Radio One lineup as the weakest in my memory, there are some old stand-bys. One of these is Global Perspectives, in which English-language broadcasters from across the world contribute documentaries on a theme, which this year is "islands." The CBC aired its own contribution this week, which was a 27-minute re-packaging of a feature that had aired on the now-canceled Outfront program on the lives of native youths at Alert Bay, British Columbia called "My Life So Far". The re-packaging came across as quite cohesive, and in fact may be the best example of recycled content I've ever heard, though unfortunately only the original segments are available for review on-line.

Click on "Listen" Link on this page to listen to Global Perspectives "My Life So Far"

Friday, July 10, 2009

Heritage: Fairbank Walking Tour

Walk leader Madeleine McDowell held up a photo of the Toronto Beltline Railroad crossing of Dufferin Street as it appeared nearly a century before the Heritage Toronto walk through the Village of Fairbank on 5-July-2009

TORONTO, ONTARIO - The present day "mega-city" of Toronto is not just the agglomeration of six municipalities that occurred in 1998. Those six municipalities were themselves made up of many smaller entities, many of which even long-term residents of Toronto may be ignorant about. The village of Fairbank was one such entity that I personally knew almost nothing about, but that was rectified by the Heritage Toronto walking tour on the village held last Sunday, 5-July-2009, led by longtime Heritage York historian Madeleine McDowell.

The 1855 Parsons Farmhouse was still a residence along Stayner Avenue in Toronto, Ontario on 5-July-2009, though now it was surrounded by other homes

In the 19th century, Fairbank was just a set of farms near the crossing of the Base Line (now Eglinton Avenue) and the Third Concession Line (now Dufferin Street). It gained its name because of a view that extended from some of the high ground all the way to Lake Ontario and the breeze that tended to keep it cooler in the summer--hence, a fair bank. One of the 1855 farm houses still remains in its original location, though now it no longer is surrounded by a farm but by a dense residential area.

Fairbank United Church, observed on 5-July-2009, had opened as Fairbank Methodist Church in 1889

While the local area gradually grew with new schools and churches constructed throughout the century, the arrival of the short-lived Toronto Beltline Railroad in the 1892 symbolically marked the beginning of Fairbank as a suburb. While the railroad was closed by 1894, as the years went on more and more people decided to live in areas like Fairbank with clearer air, more affordable housing, and generally more relaxing living conditions than downtown Toronto. A move to the suburbs had started.

Mary Watson listened to the Heritage Toronto talk at Watson Park in Fairbank on 5-July-2009. Her great-grandparents had helped found Fairbank and their home had once been on the park site.

One of the real treats of the walk was the presence of Mary Watson. Watson's family has lived in Fairbank for more than a century. Watson Park, in fact, was land donated by her family. She presented the history of the Fairbank United Church, which had been built in 1889 as the Fairbank Methodist Church.

Fairbank may not be one Toronto's better-known neighbourhoods, but it offers a lot to learn about the history of the city.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Transport: United Breaks Guitars

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Long-time readers of this blog know how I feel about United Airlines. (If a refresher is needed, read the last item here, here, and here.)

So, I was not at all surprised to hear about the following on YouTube:
Watch "United Breaks Guitars"

I'm feeling exactly as sorry for them as they felt for my issues and for the guitar, which is to say not sorry at all.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Radio Pick: The Burrito Analogy

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Since the audio file will only be available until Sunday morning, I'm going to do an extra radio pick this week. Brent Walters, a professor at San Jose State University, does a weekly Sunday morning talk show called "God Talk" on KGO Newstalk 810 out of San Francisco that focuses on religious and moral issues in a newstalk format, using his historian's perspective to shed light on many issues. In an excellent hour on mis-perceptions about the historical Jesus Christ, Walters opened with a "burrito analogy" for how religious traditions have been distorted. Whether one accepts the analogy or not, it's an interesting perspective, and exactly the kind of thought-provoking material that should be more common in talk radio.

Listen to a MP3 of God Talk "The Burrito Analogy"
(This link will only be available through Saturday)

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Media: No Twittering on the Air

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I've long been a critic of running opinions from the general public on news programs, whether on radio or television. Talk shows are one thing--they are entirely based on the opinions of the host and the audience in many many cases, and everyone knows that. However, opinions have no place in a short-form or long-form newscast. While one might say that "experts" interviewed in an analysis section of a news shows are just offering opinions, those experts are vetted by the news staff and their position or background is presented, so those paying attention are either informed of the expert's bias or can easily research the expert's bias based on the affiliation presented. In the end, the news organization still has a degree of editorial control and a responsibility to present a balanced view of the news item, so the interviewing of an expert doesn't bother me.

What does bother me is including "man on the street" interviews or, even worse, "instant feedback" from e-mail or other electronic media. In the latter case, there's often no way to find out who actually submitted the feedback. It could be an employee of a company affected by the news items, a marketer trying to sell something, or a political operative trying to shape public opinion instead of just a common citizen. There's no way that a news organization can check on such a submission during a show, but even the venerable BBC Newshour has started to include e-mails sent during its one hour show as part of its presentation. I find this almost inexcusable.

Twitter, with its 140 character limit for messages, has now taken the instant feedback phenomenon to a new low. Not only is the potential source of the opinion suspect, but the message itself may be unreadable in broadcast media. I've heard reporters on the CBC, BBC, and other media outlets reading a tweet that barely made any sense when read aloud and trying to explain the bad grammar or abbreviations in it to the audience. (I'll give the CBC credit that I've only heard them do this on Cross Country Checkup, which is a call-in talk show where opinions are legitimately presented, but it still sounded terrible.)

This should be a sign for the news organizations that they've gone too far. Not only are they presenting things that I think are inappropriate on a newscast, but those items are now not even comprehensible. Writing is important in broadcast media, and good writers can make or break a broadcast. ("As It Happens" on the CBC would not be such an iconic show without its excellent writing staff.) Presenting someone's attempt to jam an uninformed opinion into a 140-character tweet detracts from the writing on the remainder of a show.

Of course, unless the inclusion of tweets in a broadcast starts affecting ratings, the networks will probably keep presenting them, and I'll keep flinching.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Margin Notes: Garbage, Fireworks, News Hour

The strike by city workers in Toronto, Ontario affects both the primary topics in this photo taken on 1 July 2009--garbage is not being collected, and the ferries to the islands being advertised are not running

TORONTO, ONTARIO - The city worker's strike continues in Toronto. Talking to friends, it is affecting more than just the garbage collection pictured above and the cancellation of city events written about here on Canada Day. City inspectors are not inspecting buildings, parking tickets cannot be paid, and pretty much everything the city does except transit is affected in some way. It looks like it's going to be a long summer here as no movement has been reported in the ongoing talks.

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Hearts were coordinated with the "I love you" lyrics in "What a Wonderful World" during the Festival of Fire in Toronto, Ontario on 4 July 2009

One of the signs of a normal summer is the Festival of Fire over Lake Ontario. The Festival of Fire generally features the most innovative fireworks seen around Toronto in the summer. While I found the accompanying soundtrack broadcast on CHFI quite unimaginative this year--what place does "Mambo Number Five" have in a fireworks display ten years after it was a hit?--I must give them credit for nice coordination of heart-shaped fireworks with the lyrics "I love you" from "What a Wonderful World" as sung by Ray Charles in the middle of the 4 July 2009 show.

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Unusually-shaped fireworks were included in the Festival of Fire presentation over Lake Ontario in Toronto on 4 July 2009

On the other hand, I couldn't figure out what the fireworks shown above were supposed to be during the Festival of Fire. Were they supposed to be a human face? A baseball? One set was fired off during Elton John's "Circle of Life," so maybe they were just supposed to be circles.

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The "Roundhouse" sign was erected on the coaling tower at the John Street Roundhouse in Toronto, Ontario on 3 July 2009

Not a circle but a half-circle was the shape of the new "Roundhouse" sign that was erected on the coaling tower of the John Street Roundhouse on 3 July 2009. The sign joins other signs advertising the Leon's furniture store that is scheduled to have its opening ceremonies in the higher-numbered stalls of the roundhouse on Wednesday.

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That event will likely receive some local press coverage, but it certainly won't appear on the News Hour with Jim Lehrer on the Public Broadcasting Service in the United States. Traditionally, the News Hour opened with a news summary. Sometimes, during a crisis covered for most of the show, it would move these headlines to the end of the show. For the past few months, it has moved the headlines to random times in the middle of the show after the lead story. I don't understand this practice--the top story is no longer in the context of the rest of the news of the day, it's not possible to tune in for the headlines specifically, and the show generally feels like it has no flow on many broadcasts. They should drop this practice and either air the headlines at the beginning of the show (my preference) or move them permanently to the end of the show. That formatting would at least make some sense.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Photos: Trip to the West Coast, Part II

Mount Rose loomed in the distance in a view looking across Lake Tahoe from South Lake Tahoe, California on 6-May-2009

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's update to my photo page continues coverage of my spring trip to the west coast. While traveling around northern California and the Reno/Tahoe region of Nevada between 1-May and 8-May-2009, a variety of scenes were encountered, from a kayaking course and jets taking off from Reno, Nevada to the state buildings and museums of Carson City, Nevada, to the ski slopes around Lake Tahoe to the home of my Great Aunt Pauline near Placerville, California, to the mountains of the Sierra Nevada and Cascade ranges.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Radio Pick: News 2.0

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's radio pick is a special presentation from the CBC.

Ira Basen has long been one of my favorite CBC producers; pretty much everything he has touched, from "Quirks and Quarks" to "The Hidden City" to "Spin Cycles" has made for excellent radio. His latest effort is a two-part series on the reality and future of news in the Web 2.0 world which has been titled "News 2.0". The second fifty-four minute segment aired this week on the Sunday Edition and right from the first story explaining how a blogger ended up greatly affecting a stock price, the impact of technology on news is explained in a compelling manner.

Listen to MP3 of The Sunday Edition "News 2.0 Part Two"

Friday, July 3, 2009

Media: Michael Jackson and Niche Media

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Generally speaking, on this blog I don't bother to express my opinion about topics if my opinion is well-represented in the so-called mainstream media or even elsewhere in the blogosphere or niche media--though in the later case I am more likely to link to that external coverage as many readers of this blog may have missed it. That's why I have avoided any comment on the death of Michael Jackson eight days ago, apparently of a heart attack at the age of 50--the level of coverage was almost nauseating and other people with far greater credentials than me had weighed in with pretty much everything I had to say.

Surprisingly, at least to me, the person I heard in many hours of Michael Jackson coverage who was most closely aligned with my views was the rapper Sir Mix-a-Lot, who appeared on the Dave Ross show on KIRO-FM out of Seattle a week ago today. During the interview, which can be heard at this link, "Mix" made points including the following:
  • Michael Jackson's death represented the death of pop music, in that he may have been the last great crossover superstar spanning and combining genres
  • Michael Jackson did not just transcend race, but transcended culture, bringing people all over the world together with his music, not just people of different races
  • Michael Jackson's death caused everyone from convicted violent felons to juvenile girls to cry
  • The Man in the Mirror was the quintessential Michael Jackson song
"Mix"'s first point was echoed over in the niche media at Scott Fybush's Northeast Radio Watch. In his weekly publication, Fybush pointed out that nearly the entire radio dial could do Michael Jackson tributes and not break their individual formats--and indeed even some that were arguably breaking format ran tributes anyway. The story was that big, and Jackson inspired that much emotion.

Yet, I fear that "Mix" was right that there are no more "pop" artists that have connected with the world the way Michael Jackson did--and extrapolating Fybush's point about hyper-niche programming of contemporary radio, it may not even be possible for another Michael Jackson to exist. Everyone is listening to just the music they are attracted to on their portable music players--and if they listen to the radio at all, they are most likely to tune to a station with an extremely well-defined format. Could a young Michael Jackson even get airplay today? It's not clear.

Whatever his flaws--and books will probably be written about them, both real and accused--Michael Jackson was fundamentally all about bringing everyone in the world together. It's a shame not only that the world has lost a media star with that perspective, but that it is entirely possible he will never have a successor.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Culture: Closed for Canada Day?

Patriotic colors dominated this scene from the Canada Day fireworks display at Civic Centre in Mississauga, Ontario on 1-July-2009

TORONTO, ONTARIO - As much of the media would have it, Canada's largest city did not celebrate Canada's birthday. Because of the city worker's strike, most city events including those on Canada Day have been canceled. To the rest of the country, this was further evidence that Toronto doesn't care about anything outside of the 416 area code.

Yet, that's not what I saw in the behavior of Toronto residents on this Canada Day. The city-sponsored events, most notably the fireworks displays over Ashbridge's Bay and Mel Lastman Square in North York may not have been taking place, but there are multiple layers of government in this country and provincial, federal, and private events went on. The provincial capital at Queen's Park hosted its normal suite of day-long events. The federally-administered Downsview Park went about its entertainment including a fireworks display. The privately-sponsored Festival of Fire at Ontario Place went on with its fireworks display, and the Toronto Blue Jays held some Canada Day-related events at their game, including after-game fireworks. All of these events were well-attended by Torontonians and tourists alike.

Admittedly, though, I chose to venture outside Toronto for my Canada Day fireworks fix. Having seen the Downsview Park display last year and with two other dates to see the Festival of Fire, I decided this was a good year to venture to neighbouring Mississauga--the sixth largest city in Canada that nobody outside of Ontario seems to have heard of. The inducement of free rides on Mississauga Transit--normally expensive at $3 a ride--was another reason to give it a try.

The diversity of faces at the Civic Square was a nice reflection of Mississauga itself--all the races of the world mixing freely--quite similar in fact to what I've observed in the past on Canada Day at Downsview Park in Toronto. The fireworks themselves are set off on top of City Hall, not unlike the North York display. The emcee for the day, made it clear on a regular basis that we were in Mississauga, and that the city was prouder of Canada than its larger neighbour.

The 25-minute display itself was worth seeing; my only real complaint was that Mississauga Transit did not run any extra buses over its normal holiday schedule out of Square One after the display--I guess it's free for a reason.