Monday, August 31, 2009

Politics: Jack E. Robinson III

TORONTO, ONTARIO - One of the interesting side stories brought up by the death of Massachusetts senator Edward M. Kennedy was the bizarre candidacy of Jack E. Robinson III against him in 2000. Robinson was a businessman who could finance his own campaign. However, as an African-American and the son of a former president of the Boston chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), on paper he looked like far from the average Republican, perhaps someone who might at least make a dent in the hold Kennedy had on the minority vote in the state.

Unfortunately, Robinson was not an average candidate in terms of his personal past as well. He tried to preemptively clear the air by releasing an 11-page personal history with his explanations of all of his potential shortcomings, from allegations of drinking and driving, carrying illegal weapons, sexual misconduct, and even plagiarism. The document caused Republican governor Paul Cellucci (later an ambassador to Canada) to drop support for Robinson before he had even been a declared candidate for a week.

Robinson took a call from WBUR radio reporter Toni Randolph to talk about Cellucci's action as he was driving a rented car in Boston on 21-March-2000. Admittedly, though, it was not Robinson but a 17-year old driver that was at fault as that teenager drove his car into the opposing lanes and collided with Robinson. The sounds of the collision could be heard on the radio, and then Robinson stated, "I just got in an accident... Boy, everything is happening to me. Cellucci is withdrawing his support, and people are sliding across the highway at me." The report filed by Randolph was aired on NPR's now-canceled Weekly Edition, and a low-fidelity audio file is still available (it was 2000--did you expect a high bit rate?).

In typical Massachusetts media fashion, Robinson was even accused of leaving the scene of the accident (even though it wasn't his fault) as he tried to find a safe place to park farther down the street. After that week, nobody took his candidacy seriously. In November, Libertarian Carla Howell would come within 30,000 votes of Robinson, with both of them mustering about one-sixth of the votes that went to Kennedy.

Robinson did not give up on politics following the loss to Kennedy in 2000, perhaps a bit too attached to the example of Mitt Romney, who had lost to Kennedy in 1994 and went on to win the Governorship in 2002. He ran for Secretary of the Commonwealth in 2004 and for the 9th district Congressional seat in 2006, losing soundly in each case with about a quarter of the vote. There were no car accidents to report in either of those races, however.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Photos: Trip to Michigan, Part III

The 1952 Oscar Meyer Wienermobile, prototype for the original fleet, was in the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan on 27-July-2009

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's update to my photo site finishes up my trip to Michigan on 23-27-July-2009. This update includes the town of Dearborn, Michigan and the exhibits at the Henry Ford Museum, a tour of downtown Detroit, Michigan using the People Mover, and views from a VIA Rail Canada train from Windsor to Toronto, Ontario.

Margin Notes: Drill, Repel, Jackson, Bicycles

A drilling rig installed a post near the CN Tower in Toronto, Ontario on 27-August-2009

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Are they drilling for oil near the CN Tower? (And if so, who are "they" with the black drilling rigs?) It sure looked like it for some of this week, as the above drilling rig roamed about the area south and east of what until recently was the world's tallest free-standing structure. However, after a "drilling session" next to one of the paths, a post was found left behind, so apparently that's all the exercise was about--why a drilling rig was required for that is not clear. File it under you never know what you'll see in Toronto.

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A man repelled down a support column of the Canadian Pacific bridge over the Humber River in Toronto, Ontario on 26-August-2009

Even mundane places can provide surprises. While waiting along the Humber River for rail photography possibilities near sunset last Wednesday, I was surprised to see a man repelling down one of the bridge's support columns above the Humber River. I'm sure the Canadian Pacific would not have been happy to know he was engaging in that activity.

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This Union Pacific concession car, named the "Sherman Hill" as it passed through Carkeek Park in Seattle, Washington on 18-May-2007, will soon be re-named for Reed Jackson.

Out west on another railroad, the Union Pacific decided to name one of the cars in its excursion fleet after the recently-deceased steam program conductor Reed Jackson. The "Sherman Hill" concession car has been renamed the "Reed Jackson". While this is certainly a classy move on the part of Union Pacific, I have to admit that it would be a bit weird to me if I were working on their train. The concession car is often a focal point of on-board services, and I remember many times in 1995 being told "go to the Sherman Hill and get {something}." It would be distracting to be told "go to the Reed Jackson and ..." as my mind would drift off the memories of Jackson--and I barely knew him. I have a feeling the on-board crews may have to just call it the "concession car" now in day to day operations.

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Sometimes when hauling things from the concession car to the end of the Pacific Limited train, I wished I could have been riding a bicycle. That's one area where a bicycle is not allowed, and apparently the drive-through lanes at the Burgerville chain was another. The Vancouver, Washington-based burger chain with most locations in Oregon has apologized to a cyclist for not serving her at their drive-through window. Long-time readers of this blog know that I have been a fan of Burgerville and see no reason why they should not serve bicycles at the drive-through; it matches their green image.

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It certainly helped my self-image to be reading Ruth Walker's column in the Christian Science Monitor and find her citing the same episode of WNYC and NPR's On the Media that was my weekly radio pick a couple weeks ago. I guess I may be operating in the media bubble after all.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Radio Pick: Categories on Revision Quest

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's radio pick comes from a summer show. A constant debate related to affirmative action is whether disadvantage groups are actually better off simply assimilating into the general society, or whether there is value in having specific programs or awards for the disadvantaged group. Revision Quest and host Darrell Dennis took on this debate with respect to aboriginals. The cognitive dissonance of arguing for assimilation on a show that clearly exits because of special aboriginal funding just added to the whole effect.

Click here and scroll to the August 24th program to hear Revision Quest "Categories"

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An honorable mention this week goes to WBUR's On Point, which produced the best show I heard this week on the death of Senator Ted Kennedy. The local angle was explored well in this 45-minute program.

Listen to On Point "Remembering Teddy on Home Turf"

Heritage: Marlborough to Summerhill Walk

Walk leader Derek Boles held up a picture of Benvenuto, a mansion owned by developer Simeon Janes and railway magnate William Mackenzie that stood near Avenue Road from 1890 to 1924, during the Marlborough to Summerhill Heritage Toronto walk on 22-August-2009

TORONTO, ONTARIO - One of the best ways to become acquainted with neighbourhoods in Toronto is to take a Heritage Toronto walk to find out how it started and how much it has changed. A classic example of this process occurred with the Heritage Toronto walk entitled "Marlborough to Summerhill" held last Saturday, 22-August-2009, as it introduced me to an area I had never explored before.

The 1916 North Toronto Station served the Canadian Pacific for just fourteen years, but had been a liquor store for almost eighty when seen on 22-August-2009

A clear highlight of the area, something never seen from the subway which is underground in this area, is the former Canadian Pacific North Toronto station. Opened in 1916 before the "new" Union Station was built, it is located right at Yonge Street and the Canadian Pacific tracks. Its classic Beaux-Arts architecture is accentuated by a clock tower based on the Campanile of St. Mark's in Venice, Italy. Closed in 1930 (except for troop trains and a royal visit), it survives as the Liquor Control Board of Ontario's largest store, beautifully restored in 2003.

The first floor of this building along Yonge Street north of the Canadian Pacific tracks had originally been a basement before the street was lowered in the 1910's, seen 22-August-2009

While the North Toronto Station is hard to miss, other aspects of the neighbourhood require much more careful observation. Yonge Street at the station was lowered as part of the grade separation with the railroad, and several surviving buildings have had their original basements serve as their first floors ever since--something that would not likely be noticed unless it was pointed out.

This detailing on a Business Depot store on Yonge Street revealed its heritage as the Pierce Arrow Garage and Showroom on 22-August-2009

Another building certainly had a story to tell. The motifs on the columns of what is now a Staples Business Depot seem strange until it is revealed that the building was constructed in 1929 as H.E. Givan's Pierce Arrow Garage, and then the flying wheel and car in the man's hand make sense. The building actually served the longest, for forty years, as CBC's TV Studio 4, and there is essentially no sign of that incarnation.

Derek Boles spoke about the original North Toronto station site, now on primarily residential Marlborough Avenue, as the tower of the 1916 station loomed in the background on 22-August-2009

The neighbourhood is actually primarily residential, and the walk covered that as well, pointing out such things as the original prices of railway worker housing, the home where author Don DeLillo once lived, and how the Olive Farm Dairy had once mixed in with the houses. How living on the streets had changed over the years could be easily imagined.

More pictures from the "Marlborough to Summerhill Walk" will be in an upcoming update to my photo site.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Politics: Explaining Hatch

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I've been inclined to be quite sympathetic to Utah senator Orrin Hatch over the years. Hatch, a Republican, has been in the United States senate since 1977, nearly my entire life. I was impressed with his polite and constructive demeanor on various political talk shows and during Supreme Court confirmation hearings in my teenage years. Thus, when my high school government class went through the inevitable exercise of simulating the senate, I chose to be a Republican senator from Utah. I made it so obvious that I was channeling Senator Hatch that at one point, our teacher actually called on me as "Senator Hatch" before correcting himself. (I'm probably not exaggerating much to claim that only the teacher, Dave Sherbrooke, and I appreciated what I was doing--I doubt any of the other students in that class had watched the Clarence Thomas hearings as most of the politically astute people in my class year had a different schedule that year.)

Besides the fact that he seemed to be a genuinely reasonable person, Hatch impressed me with some unconventional positions on issues over the years. Despite representing a very conservative (and very racially white) state, his positions on a number of issues have not been predictable. He has been one of the most outspoken senators in favor of stem cell research and other advanced medical technologies--a position contradicting the position of the Mormon Church, of which he is a member. He has favored loosening of immigration laws, being an original supporter of the H-1b visa (admittedly useful to some Utah companies) and of college education for the children of illegal aliens, certainly not a popular position in Utah. He even favors an amendment to the constitution that would allow naturalized citizens who have lived in the United States for twenty years to run for president. Most remarkably, despite some tough questioning during confirmation hearings, in the end he voted for both Clinton nominees for the Supreme Court.

Thus, it surprised me considerably when in the past six months or so, Hatch has seemed increasingly partisan and sometimes downright mean. He has spoken out forcefully against Democratic bills on health care reform (though it should be noted his statements have been factually accurate, unlike those of some Republicans). Most significantly, he voted against the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor, the first time he had ever voted against a Supreme Court nominee.

What was going on? It should have been obvious already, but the death of Senator Ted Kennedy brought it into focus. Hatch was a close friend of Kennedy, dating back to the early 1980's when the two started working together on legislation. Hatch, in fact, had been instrumental in passing the original State Children's Health Insurance Program (S-CHIP) in 1997. Kennedy and Hatch made deals all the time, and kept them. Without a healthy Kennedy in the Senate, that pull on Hatch was no longer there. Combine that with the increasingly polar climate in the Senate, and it's not hard to understand the change in Hatch's behavior.

This underscores that every senator who is capable of working across the aisle matters. As each additional remaining one disappears to death or retirement, the Senate becomes a more partisan place. Even those who are fully capable of behaving differently, like Orrin Hatch, no longer have people across the aisle with whom to compromise. The US senate is in a downward partisan spiral--here's hoping some of the remaining veterans like Hatch stick around long enough to perhaps see a reversal of the trend.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Culture: Future Immigration will look Canadian

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Assuming the United States ever gets its health care situation sorted out in a meaningful way, another major issue that it needs to take on is immigration. Pretty much everyone agrees that the immigration situation in the United States--legal and illegal--is a mess, but there is not much more agreement about what to do about it than there is in health care. Interestingly, there does seem to be consensus that somehow acculturation needs to be at the core of any reform, that immigrants need to better integrate into US culture. Some take this theme to borderline racist extremes, such as a recent Robert Harrison column in the Christian Science Monitor that claimed Hispanic immigration should be curtailed in part because the verb structure of the Spanish language doesn't emphasize personal responsibility. (As a side note, I have studied enough Spanish to understand exactly what he was getting at and still think the argument is absurd, and that shame should assign itself to him.)

The problem with this emphasis on acculturation is that it is no longer realistic to expect the same kind of near-complete acculturation that took place as late as the middle part of the last century. No longer does a person move to a new place and only partake in the local culture and media. Technology has completely changed how people can maintain ties to their former culture. Not only does the decreasing cost of air transportation make it more affordable to visit a previous country, but the Internet has made it possible to take in the media of a former country, almost as if one were living in it. It is possible now to be truly bi-cultural, interacting with both one's local culture and one's former culture.

A new model for handling immigration will take precedence because of these changes, and Canada has a big head start on most of the world. For the past generation or so, Canada has encouraged immigrants to bring their cultures with them and build ties to others from their former country in Canada as well as with other Canadians. The city of Toronto, with its string of ethnic festivals all summer long, may represent the epitome of this style immigration, but it is present in any city in Canada with a significant immigrant population. People are allowed to be whatever they used to be--and Canadian. The two perspectives are not seen to be conflict.

One of the things that has amazed me in talking to Canadians that I interact with is how strongly they maintain ties to former cultures. I knew immigrants to the US that went back to their former countries on occasion, but here it is almost expected that people fly across oceans a couple times a year to visit relatives. Many move back and forth for extended periods when that is legal. Communities congregate around institutions, whether they be formal cultural centers or just a store with goods from a given country. A non-Canadian cultural identity is a daily presence in many people's lives.

The situation has existed long enough that quite a number of bi-cultural marriages have resulted. A co-worker once casually stated that interracial relationships were "unremarkable." The first family of Canada, Governor General Michaƫlle Jean and her husband Jean-Daniel Lafond are an interracial couple that serve as a role model. The result is lot of Canadians with very nuanced identities, a concept explored by the CBC Radio program Mashup. The difference with multiracial folks in the US? There seems to be a much greater desire to hang on to the various individual identities here, rather than just being "Canadian" and nothing else. These Canadians do not just have two identities, but three or more. The lack of complete acculturation is lasting more than one generation.

For those that don't like this perspective, I suspect it's going to be hard to fight. It's not possible to legislate that one partake only in the media of a new country and not in the media from a previous country. It might be possible to legislate minimal travel and some communication restrictions, but that would only encourage the best and brightest to immigrate somewhere else where travel and communication restrictions did not exist. Like it or not, immigrants are going to be increasingly bi-cultural. Countries will need to figure out how to make this work--as Canada seems to be trying to do--or they will face constant tensions and immigration problems.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Politics: Yes, I Voted for Ted Kennedy

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Senator Edward Morris Kennedy died today at the age of 77 after a long fight with cancer. Once upon a time, I voted for Ted Kennedy. I was living in Massachusetts when he ran for re-election in 2000. Unlike 1994, when he faced Mitt Romney, Kennedy did not face significant opposition in 2000, and breezed to his seventh election to the Senate; my vote mattered little. He would be re-elected one more time in 2006.

Why did I vote for Ted Kennedy? Probably his only serious opponent that year was actually Libertarian Carla Howell; the Republican nominee, Jack E. Robinson III deserves an essay just describing his sometimes-pathetic antics. Yet, even if there had been powerful opposition, I would have voted for Kennedy anyway.

It wasn't because I was voting for the Kennedy legacy. Upon moving to Massachusetts, I wondered how often I would run into people that would vote for the senator and his family just because of the past. A few days after my arrival, I did hear a caller to a talk show on WBZ-AM express support "because I just think of everything [Kennedy's mother] Rose has been through and what this family has done for the country," but that was the only time I heard such a thing in eight years of living in the state. In fact, I would say it was far more common for people to disdain the younger Kennedys--but not Ted Kennedy.

People like me voted for Ted Kennedy because he actually did a good job of representing Massachusetts. While other politicians were also instrumental in procuring federal funds, Kennedy played his part in bringing home the bacon on such items as the Big Dig highway construction project or more funding for drug interdiction in Springfield. Even those on the right knew they were getting something from having Kennedy as their representative, and they were not inclined to vote against him.

People also just genuinely liked Ted Kennedy. He would show up at the hospital when ideological opponents were ailing. This underscored one of Kennedy's key traits--he may have been liberal, but he was not partisan (at least by modern standards). He understood how to reach out to all sides to get legislation passed. The list of Republicans that he worked closely with to pass various legislation reads like a who's who list of national Republicans in the post-Reagan era: Bob Dole, Orrin Hatch, John McCain, and even George W. Bush. The biggest symbolism of Kennedy's passing may be that of the death of bi-partisanship, as he was one of the few remaining masters.

I once saw the junior senator from Massachusetts, John Kerry, have a beach ball thrown at his head at an "Earthfest" free concert along the Charles River as he worked his way through the crowd after giving an environmental speech. Nobody would have ever thrown a beach ball at Kennedy, even if they were diametrically opposed to him politically. He was too respected.

Yes, I voted for Ted Kennedy. There will be no more opportunities to vote for him, but one can hope there will be others in the Kennedy tradition to vote for someday. As he was known to say, "The dream shall never die."

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Politics: What Health Care Do You Want?

TORONTO, ONTARIO - There is a sizable contingent of people in the United States that claim to be satisfied with their health care plans, if we believe the polls. I simply don't understand that. Have they not noticed the decrease in the quality of their medical plans (or increase in cost) in the past decade?

The last time that I was actually satisfied with my health care plan prior to moving to Canada was in 1998. I was still in college and underage, so I was covered by a parental health care plan. As I was living outside of my parents' home state, an inter-HMO agreement for students was invoked and I found myself covered by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts. One form submitted set up this coverage. I then received a welcome package in the mail, and with one phone call selected a primary care physician. I only visited that doctor once in a year (I think related to an upcoming foreign trip), and that visit cost me $5 in co-payments. My parents probably didn't get their money's worth for covering me that year, but had anything serious happened, co-payments would have been minimal and I'm certain the medical system around Boston would have treated me well.

In the private sector, I never had a decent health care plan. I never paid very much for myself (most of the time, I paid nothing, and I think not more than $120 a month at my last job in the US in 2005), but that was not true of my peers with larger family. A peer at my last job was paying nearly $1200 a month to cover a family of four. Compare that with a maximum charge (for people making more than $200,000 a year) in the province of Ontario of $900 per person per year; most people pay about half of that.

Far more galling than the cost was decreasing amount of benefits. Well removed from the $5 co-payments of my youth, my last health care plan had a $5000 annual deductible that had to be met before it would pay anything. Prescription drugs, of course, were on a separate deductible of similar magnitude (I don't remember the exact number). Basically, unless I was hospitalized at some point during the year, the plan wasn't going to pay anything. It amounted to catastrophic health insurance (and, in fact, it wasn't really that, as I believe it had a $100,000 cap over which it paid nothing).

I thought this plan was pretty awful. However, when I talked to a nurse during a physical in 2005, I found out that she had a $1000 annual deductible. My plan may have been with a Paid Provider Organization instead of the Health Maintenance Organization (HMO) that had run the 1998 plan that I liked, but HMO benefits had declined, perhaps not quite as dramatically, based on conversations I've had with friends and family, even those who are public employees.

Does anybody remember what health care plans were like as late as the 1990's? Perhaps a few people working for large businesses still have such plans, but certainly not the 84% of insured people who claimed to be satisfied with their plans in a recent poll, never mind the 18% of those under 65 who don't have any health insurance at all. Have people lost their minds, or have their expectations been so lowered that they are happy to have any insurance at all? I don't understand.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Media: Tell Me A Story

TORONTO, ONTARIO - The death last Wednesday of CBS superstar producer Don Hewitt, who has been influential since the early days of television and whose seminal project, 60 Minutes, continues in his format to this day, has set a lot of people thinking about his influence on the industry. Admittedly, I have mixed feelings, but in my final analysis I have to conclude that Hewitt and 60 Minutes have been a clear positive influence; the decline in the medium lies elsewhere.

It would be hard for me to criticize 60 Minutes too much as I have watched or listened to it essentially my entire life. Not only has it been a staple of my Sunday nights, but it is a touchstone with virtually everyone else in my life. I can ask anyone from my grandparents to old high school friends living across the United States about a story that just ran on 60 Minutes and the odds are that they have watched it and have opinions shaped in part by what they have seen. No other weekly hard news-based program has that kind of power with so many people that I know.

How can that be? As has been said many times in recent days, it all comes down to Hewitt's mantra: "Tell me a story." 60 Minutes tells good stories. Every week I look for a quality radio program to share, and the most likely candidates are shows like This American Life and As It Happens that tell good stories. I may not pick those shows every week, but they are only rarely not good radio. 60 Minutes is good television for the same reason, how it tells stories. It was Hewitt that worked unceasingly to make sure that it did.

Some, including Hewitt himself, have pondered whether 60 Minutes ruined news on television. First, by showing that a news program could make money, it may have started a death spiral for the standard nightly newscast. I think that argument is crazy--if 60 Minutes had never been tried, I suspect news departments just would have been cut faster. Secondly, by emphasizing stories rather than facts, it distorted journalism into entertainment. This is a more serious charge, and it has substance to it. Anyone who was in Washington state in the 1989 will not forgive 60 Minutes for single-handedly creating the ALAR scare, which the apple industry to this day claims cost it $100 million. A long list of people have similarly been made out as villains because it made a better story.

Yet, the genius of 60 Minutes is that it is fundamentally based on journalism. When they make large enough mistakes, they correct them explicitly themselves. Smaller ones are addressed by other journalists reporting on other programs or other media such as newspapers or these days on web sites that refute the stories told on 60 Minutes. Newspapers make mistakes as well for a variety of reasons, and these also get corrected in the media space by competitors. I don't think 60 Minutes can be faulted for being in error on occasion just because its format is more susceptible to bias than the front page of a newspaper, especially in an era of explicitly biased media like political bloggers, Fox News, and MSNBC.

The decay in the quality of television, particularly its journalism, didn't come from 60 Minutes or similar programs on other networks like 20/20 or Dateline. It came from entertainment programs masquerading as news like Inside Edition and Hard Copy. (I don't even fault Entertainment Tonight--I mean, the title says that it isn't a serious program, and it arguably doesn't pretend to be.) It came from cable networks with way too much time to fill who turned to contrived debate and opinions, sometimes borrowing from talk radio, and placed it on supposedly-news channels. The worst segments on 60 Minutes compare favorably from a journalistic perspective with any segment of the now-canceled programs Crossfire and A Current Affair.

The 60 Minutes special on Don Hewitt that aired last night solidified this opinion in my mind. Seeing Hewitt work on storytelling, even his arguments with Mike Wallace over what facts to include, showed me that he may represent style over substance, but he was dead in the water without the substance. There's nothing wrong with selling sizzle with the steak, as long as it is steak and not hamburger, and if that is Hewitt's legacy, I find that to be a positive one.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Photos: Trip to Michigan, Part II

Little River Railroad #110 approached Main Street in Owosso, Michigan with an "Hourly Excursion" on 25-July-2009.

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's update to my photo site features the excursion trains at the Train Festival in Owosso, Michigan. An "Hourly Excursion" train ran about four miles out of Owosso behind Little River Railroad's diminutive Pacific #110, and "All-Day Excursions" ran to Alma, Michigan and back behind either the City of Portland, Oregon's "Daylight" #4449 or former Nickel Plate Road Berkshire #765. Scenes from 24 to 26-July-2009 include a walk around downtown Alma, Michigan during an excursion layover.

Margin Notes: Wasps, Cold, Music, Bicycles

A wasp nest was located on an electrical meter along Marlborough Place in Toronto, Ontario on 22-August-2009, a sign of "wasp summer"

TORONTO, ONTARIO - There has been a lot of talk in Toronto this summer about wasps, replacing fruit flies as the most common insect conversation around town. The mild winter apparently led to an increase in survivors that have multiplied this summer. Indeed, I've noticed wasps hanging around my front door and even flying around the construction site at Roundhouse Park. What I hadn't seen were any of their nests, until I discovered a really obvious one (pictured above) on an electrical meter on a house on Marlborough Place during a Heritage Toronto walk on Saturday.

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Derek Boles, the Toronto Railway Heritage Association's historian, spoke about the Canadian Pacific North Toronto station (in the background) during a Heritage Toronto walk on 22-August-2009

That Heritage Toronto Walk was the "Marlborough to Summerhill" walk led by Ed Freeman and Derek Boles. A major highlight of the route is the former Canadian Pacific North Toronto station, now known as Canada's largest liquor store, the Summerhill LCBO. Boles has literally written a book on the structure, so it was quite informative to hear him speaking about the building. More pictures from this Heritage Toronto walk will be forthcoming on my photo site in a few weeks.

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The Summerhill LCBO does sell Coors Light, but probably not many Torontonians are eager to buy that beer this week. The company has just pulled a series of billboards in British Columbia proclaiming that its beer is "Colder Than Most People From Toronto." If people from Toronto are cold, then what are people from Boston and New York? Approaching absolute zero?

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Zero seems to be the number of songs standing out as classic "summer songs" this year. The role played by the Beach Boys' "I Get Around" in 1966, OMC's "How Bizarre" in 1997 or Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy" as recently as 2006 seems to be still up for grabs this year. At least, that's what Maura Johnston told NPR's All Things Considered today, and I have to agree. Johnston notes that a key aspect is how the song sounds coming out of a car passing by, which rules out several candidates and led her to believe that Michael Jackson may even deserve the honor for this year posthumously.

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A whole family of six rode a set of connected human-powered wheeled vehicles down Queen's Quay in Toronto, Ontario on 21-August-2009

Cars do not seem to be the classic transportation in Toronto this summer; I've been pleasantly surprised at the number of bicycles noted. It's still not Amsterdam or even Portland, Oregon, but my impression is that there are a few more, and one this week rather shocked me. I've seen tandem bicycles for two people before, sometimes with a trailer for a child, but I had never seen a family of six moving with a single human-powered wheeled vehicle before as I did on the Toronto waterfront this Friday, shown above. I suspect this took considerable customization to achieve.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Radio Pick: Reality Check on Afghanistan

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's radio pick focuses on content, and how it was developed. Sometimes there are moments in radio when an idea is expressed that becomes a distraction that one thinks about afterward repeatedly. Rory Stewart's comment toward the end of this 45-minute On Point program on Afghanistan was one of those moments for me--calling Afghanistan the angry cat and Pakistan the tiger in a room, with the United States deciding to focus on the angry cat, and describing why Al Queda is better off in Pakistan anyway. It was an informed perspective worth contemplating in a program well-directed by host Tom Ashbrook.

Listen to On Point "Reality Check on Afghanistan"

Blog: Post #400

TORONTO, ONTARIO - When I reached blog post #200 back in February, I vaguely promised to repeat a look at lessons learned after another two hundred posts. has kindly reminded me that this is post #400, but I'm afraid I don't have nearly as many interesting things to say this time.

One of the lessons that I appeared to have learned in February has proven not to be true. I actually wrote out the band name Barenaked Ladies in this post and it was not spammed. Maybe the spammers aren't searching for the band's name since Steven Page left the band? has informed me that I have a mere three formal followers of this blog, and I have no idea who two of you are. Neither is following a terribly long list of blogs, so both of you seem to be genuinely interested in something that I had to say (about exactly what I have no idea). Apparently it is rare in cyberspace to even know one of your followers, so I suppose I should feel fortunate to know any of you in real life.

There are various indications that even though informal followers are out there, the vast majority of the readership has searched for a specific topic and reads only one post, sometimes even leaving a comment months after the post was made (note the August comment on this February post). Some posts have risen fairly high in Google searches (witness a search for "UP conductor Reed Jackson" showing this recent memorial post as #5), so I suppose this phenomenon is not surprising.

A consequence of the one-post readership is that I'm not inclined to split this blog into different topic-based blogs as the technorati recommend. While I'm sure I have topic-based readers, the title line is for you. If you don't want to read my political and economic posts, or my railroad-related posts, just watch the first world in the title of the post and you'll continue to know whether to skip a given post.

Despite my lack of things to say in this post, I'm still looking at a list of post ideas that I haven't done yet, and I've proven in the past two months that I can keep posting even after working a full day, so this blog will continue at least to its first anniversary, now just weeks away.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Politics: A Libertarian Country

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Right-wing commentators in the United States like to assert that the US is a conservative country, and therefore any attempt at progressive change is doomed to failure, and that furthermore left-wing parties (read: Democrats) are inherently not mainstream and will never maintain power for long in favor of right-wing parties (read: Republicans). The biggest mistake the Republicans can take, in favor of those with this point of view, is to diverge from conservative principles.

There's a major problem with this assertion, and it relates to the definition of conservative discussed last week. If "conservative" is taken to mean "traditionally disposed to preserve existing conditions, institutions, and to limit change," then the United States clearly can't be a conservative country. Any country founded by a revolution didn't start as conservative place; a revolution is by definition a very major change. The United States has continued to change throughout its history, from major events like ending slavery or becoming a world military power to comparatively minor events like states legalizing gay marriage. Its economy is famously adaptable and changing, one of the country's greatest strengths in the world.

So what do the right-wing commentators really mean? It seems to me that they mean that the United States is a libertarian country. A common definition of "libertarian" is "favors minimal government and maximum individual freedom." This matches United States history much more closely. The emphasis on individual freedom is clear from reading the Declaration of Independence and the preamble to the Constitution, and anyone who has lived in another country and the United States is amazed at the comparative emphasis on individuals over community that exists in the United States. The emphasis on minimal government also originates in the founding of the country, as the whole structure of government was designed to minimize the power of any one individual or even branch of government to avoid the kind of tyranny thought to have brought on the colonies by Great Britain. It continues to be reflected today in the visceral mistrust of government demonstrated by protesters in the current health care debate. I would go so far as to say that it would be hard to deny that the United States is a very libertarian country.

The next time a conservative starts going off about the US being a "conservative" country, listen carefully for what they actually mean. If they mean that it believes in minimal government and individual over group rights, then they really mean it is a "libertarian" country and it is hard to argue with them. If they really mean that is a country that wants to preserve its existing institutions and is ill-equipped for change, then they have their terminology correct, but they fundamentally don't understand the country.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Culture: Caloric Restriction

TORONTO, ONTARIO - With a lot of attention being paid to health status as a result of the health care reform mess in the United States, alternative ways to maintaining health into old age have been receiving attention. Probably the most promising concept for living a longer, healthier life is caloric restriction, covered in detail by recent article in Chemical and Engineering News.

The idea of eating fewer calories specifically designed to provide all necessary nutrition has proven to be effective in extending life span in a number of species, and according to some anecdotes by practitioners, shows promise in humans. Something about the lower caloric intake seems to change the metabolic mechanism to a famine-type regime in which the body does not age at the same rate as covered by the Chemical and Engineering News article.

Excitement around the idea has become so great that a society has formed to help people practice caloric reduction. Their web site seems extremely thorough in its warnings about the risks involved and the effort required to actually engage in caloric reduction, a point also made in the Chemical & Engineering News article. It isn't easy to plan and execute a diet that actually provides adequate nutrition with a level of reduced calories required to make the scheme work.

Personally, I can't imagine engaging in caloric restriction because I like relatively high-calorie foods too much, and I travel enough that it would be difficult to maintain a regimen during those periods. Plus, I feel like I spend enough time preparing food as it is, and would rather decrease that time, not increase it.

That latter point is a broader cultural phenomenon in North America, especially in the United States. Comedian (more accurately, Renaissance man) Brian Copeland has been known to say that people in the United States are so impatient that "we won't eat Minute Rice because it takes too long." Until that cultural attitude and lack of discipline changes, there is basically no chance that caloric restriction and the attention to diet that it requires will become anything more than a fringe movement, even if it does prove to be effective.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Heritage: Deer Park Walking Tour

Volunteer guide Ed Freeman showed a picture of what St. Clair Avenue in Toronto, Ontario looked like before the first streetcar line was built during a Heritage Toronto walk through Deer Park on 16-August-2009

TORONTO, ONTARIO - On non-holiday weekends "during the thaw" between April and October, Heritage Toronto offers free walks to learn about different areas of this city of 2.5 million. On Sunday, I took the opportunity to explore another neighbourhood I had never heard of before--Deer Park, the area around the modern intersection of Yonge and St. Clair.

The name Deer Park, like many in the city, derives from the name of farm once located on the northwest corner of Yonge and St. Clair. It's not hard to imagine that a 40-acre estate in this location would have attracted deer in the nineteenth century, considering how many deer traverse Toronto's park lands to this day.

Glenn Gould once lived in the streamline moderne Park Lane apartments, which had been constructed on St. Clair West in Toronto, Ontario in 1938, observed on 16-August-2009

There are always interesting details to learn from these tours. While many know that musician Glenn Gould lived in Toronto, I had not been aware of his most significant residence. He didn't live in Cabbagetown (as it seems like everyone who didn't live in the Annex lived), but along St. Clair Avenue West not far from Yonge Street in the Park Lane Apartments, a building that would be part of the Deer Park tour anyway just for its 1938-era streamline moderne architecture.

These steps near Avoca Avenue in Toronto, Ontario were constructed as part of an amusement park in the 1860's, as seen during a Heritage Toronto walk on 16-August-2009

Sometimes the details are about surprisingly commonplace things. I had walked by the steps shown above while taking strolls through the Vale of Avoca along Yellow Creek, not knowing that they dated all the way back to the 1860's. As explained by volunteer tour leader Ed Freeman, Charles Thomson built the amusement park to try to make up for lost revenue after the building of the Ontario, Simcoe, and Huron railroad devastated his stagecoach business.

A mural on the outside of the Post Office on St. Clair East depicted the entirety of Canada; this panel photographed on 16-August-2009 featured the prairies and the Canadian shield

Similarly, I had gone to the Federal office building just east of Yonge Street on St. Clair several times without noticing that the exterior of the building includes a mural intended to depict Canada. It moves from Victoria on the left, right through the Rockies, prairies, Canadian shield and CN Tower before finishing with Halifax on the right. It's a nice touch to an otherwise unremarkable building.

More photographs from the Deer Park Heritage Toronto walk will be included in a future update to my photo site.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Politics: The Novelty Candidate

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Today was election day in Washington state's King County. For the first time in that county, however, no polls were open. The county has joined the growing movement of having all ballots sent out and returned in surface mail. King County residents who just realized that they didn't mail their ballot are out of luck--a handful of collection centers have already closed for the evening, and it's too late to get the ballot postmarked on 18-August-2009 (or earlier).

A primary election in Washington state's relatively-new "top two" system in which the top two candidates, regardless of party affiliation, move on to the general election, today's ballot included a slate of candidates for King County Executive, the top office in the county vacated by Ron Sims' move to the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. Among those candidates was "Goodspaceguy."

Seriously, "Goodspaceguy" was on the ballot, and not for the first time. He had run for the Senate previously, as Michael Goodspaceguy Nelson, in 2006 (see the voter guide). What's "Goodspaceguy" all about? In his own words:
Let’s spread the life of Spaceship Earth out into our Solar System! With help from NASA, let’s start the seeds of several small and growing orbital space colonies in orbit around Earth, around the Moon, and around Mars...Also, we should replace war on our Spaceship Earth with world-wide free trade.
There's more, but the theme is clear, and exactly how he could accomplish that as King County Executive is especially unclear.

"Goodspaceguy" is hardly the first novelty candidate. For my entire voting career, "Mike the Mover" has been on the ballot for one race or another. The former Michael Shanks was trying to promote his moving business by running for office according to an article in the Seattle Times back in 2004. He ran in at least eighteen elections, always with a great tag line--"I'll send {the incumbent} packing."

Unfortunately, with an open ballot, it hard to keep such people off the ballot if they legally change their names. One cost of democracy seems to be perennial candidates (think Lyndon LaRouche or Pat Paulsen), "straw men candidates" run simply as a tactical move by parties, and the novelty candidates. I suppose if their presence in the race generates interest in the serious candidates, they can even be a net positive.

Rest assured, though, that while I generally don't reveal who I voted for, I will say that I've never voted for a novelty candidate.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Transport: Remembering Reed Jackson

Union Pacific conductor Reed Jackson was in his element--talking with passengers in the theater car "Idaho" during the "Puget Sound Steam Special" excursion at Orillia, Washington on 19-May-2007

TORONTO, ONTARIO - The railroad and railfan community is mourning the loss of Union Pacific conductor Reed Jackson, who died on 11-August-2009 after surgery to remove a brain tumor. In the past two decades, Jackson had become the public face of the Union Pacific Steam Program, one of the railroad's major public relations efforts. He was 55.

According to Hal Lewis, who served as Train Manager for Pacific Limited, a consortium of railroad historical groups that operated trains in conjunction with the Union Pacific steam program, Jackson was added to the team in the early 1990's by program head Steve Lee to reduce Lewis' workload. Indeed, it was on a Pacific Limited trip, the "Portland Rose" excursion from Denver, Colorado to the Pacific Northwest, that I first met Jackson in 1995. That train was more than 2500 feet long, so he tended to be in the theater car at the end of the train in case a reverse move were necessary. I had the pleasure of relieving the normal car host in that car during some of her breaks, and thus I had the privilege of watching Jackson interact with ease with the passengers on the train, a number of whom were from foreign countries.

It's an obscure scan, but conductor Reed Jackson was at left in this view of the "Fox River" theater car during the "Portland Rose" Pacific Limited trip as it passed Shoshone, Idaho on 17-September-1995. I was about to relieve veteran car host Anita Kratville, at center, for her lunch break.

Jackson was a perfect choice for the Steam Program Conductor--his easy-going manner and ease in speaking with the public made him popular with everyone from Union Pacific's partner organizations to the press to members of the general public surprised to find a steam locomotive stopping in their home town. The impression that he made in his meticulously-prepared uniform created memories for thousands of people that never learned his name, as well as those of us who came to view him as an integral part of seeing a Union Pacific steam train.

According to the blog of former Union Pacific colleague Jim Burrill, Jackson started with the Union Pacific as a brakeman out of Denver, Colorado in the 1970's and later served as conductor on Amtrak's "San Francisco Zephyr" which then ran on the Union Pacific between Denver and Ogden, Utah. He was thus a passenger service veteran when appointed to the Steam Program.

Indeed, Jackson was known for his professionalism. One of my favorite Reed Jackson stories occurred during the "Puget Sound Steam Special" in May 2007. The train made a stop for engine servicing in Everett, Washington and the engineer of the lead locomotive wanted to "highball" or depart. Jackson was heard on the radio saying, "Just as a reminder, I'm the conductor of this train and for safety reasons I'm the one that determines when we can leave." It wasn't long after the acknowledgment from the engine that Jackson gave the official "highball."

In what turned out to be my last picture of him, Union Pacific conductor Reed Jackson (at left) rode a vestibule with Ed Dickens as the Western Heritage Express moved to a spot in Portola, California on 5-May-2009

It is said that there is a "great railway in the sky" where railroaders go after their deaths. Reed Jackson must surely have marked up as a conductor on that railroad now. This world has certainly lost a great ambassador with his passing.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Photos: Trip to Michigan, Part I

Some of the four-day attendance of 36,000 at the Train Festival in Owosso, Michigan wandered between steam locomotives, model railroad pavilions, and railroad maintenance equipment on 24-July-2009

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's update to my photo site begins coverage of my recent trip to Michigan on 23-27-July-2009. This set includes a trip on VIA Rail Canada from Toronto to Windsor, Ontario, a look at downtown Flint, Michigan, scenes around Owosso, Michigan, and scenes from the Train Festival grounds in Owosso including non-excursion equipment, the miniature railway, and model railroad pavilion.

Margin Notes: Names, Changes, and Details

TORONTO, ONTARIO - It seems like the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation is even worse than other broadcasters in using events in the news as an excuse to play related popular music. Boy George in the news? Run some Culture Club. Something about celebrity theme parks? Run Dolly Parton. Since the 6-August-2009 death of iconic movie director John Hughes, I've lost count of how many times I've heard Simple Minds' "Don't You Forget About Me", used in his movie "The Breakfast Club," after a story on Hughes. Yes, it's a great song--I've had it at #166 in my all-time list, but his other movies had soundtracks. Couldn't someone have played "Holiday Road" by Lindsey Buckingham (from the National Lampoon's Vacation) or Oingo Boingo's title track from "Weird Science"?

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Most of the press coverage (including the CBC) of the New Democratic Party convention in Halifax, Nova Scotia this weekend has focused on the failed motion to re-name the party the "Democratic Party." While for the sake of accuracy, I liked the idea of re-naming it the "Social Democratic Party" instead, but if the desire to keep the NDP initials was strong, a suggestion I heard from a Conservative was to re-name it the "Neo-Communist Dinosaur Party." I guess that would make the former Progressive Conservatives the "Petrified Corporatists." (I was always disappointed that when the Reform and Progressive Conservative parties reunited they didn't adopt the name "Conservative-Reform Alliance Party," or CRAP--which was actually proposed.)

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A new sign went up at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre as viewed from Bremner Boulevard in Toronto, Ontario on 15-August-2009

There may not have been a change in party names in Halifax, but there have been changes near Toronto's waterfront this week. Lower Simcoe Street finally opened underneath the railroad tracks west of Union Station on 14-August-2009, allowing traffic a route to the waterfront between York Street and Spadina Avenues, and just to the west along Bremner Boulevard, the Metro Toronto Convention Centre finally received a clear exterior sign facing south.

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The new playground equipment for Toronto's Roundhouse Park had been installed by 15-August-2009, but the Grand Trunk Railroad didn't exist in 1929

Above portions of the Convention Centre, Roundhouse Park is rapidly approaching its re-opening. Amongst the recent construction milestones was the installation of new playground equipment in the park's southeast corner. Appropriately enough, some of the equipment looks like a locomotive, but the markings are interesting. "GTRR 1929" seems to pay homage to the Grand Trunk Railroad and the 1929 opening date of the John Street Roundhouse, but the Grand Trunk didn't exist in 1929. Apparently, it was simpler legally to use the name of a defunct line rather than still-existing Canadian Pacific that built the roundhouse.

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Ed Freeman, leader of the Heritage Toronto walk through the Deer Park neighbourhood, held up a 1920's picture of the bridges carrying St. Clair Avenue East over Yellow Creek on 16-August-2009

Exploring fine details like that are one of the joys of going on Heritage Toronto walks. Today, I had the pleasure of walking through the Deer Park neighborhood and learning details like where Glenn Gould lived (in the Park Lane Apartments on St. Clair) and where the railings on Avoca Avenue came from (the 1890-era bridge over Yellow Creek, dismantled in the 1920's). More coverage of the walk will be forthcoming in a future post.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Radio Pick: Real Death Panels

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's radio pick is a short-form piece. In the recent mainstream media explosion over the "death panel" misinformation being spread by opponents of health insurance reform, very few have made the point that such death panels already exist, they just aren't run by the government. It was left to talk show host Dave Ross to report on this insurance company reality, brought out in this minute and a half commentary that ran on the CBS radio network.

Listen to MP3 of Dave Ross Commentary "Real Death Panels"

Friday, August 14, 2009

Transport: Not Seeing What's There

St. Lawrence and Hudson SD40-2 #5560 led Canadian Pacific "Expressway" train #124 over the Humber River in Toronto, Ontario on 14-August-2009

TORONTO, ONTARIO - In a past post, I mused on the fact that it is not uncommon for a railroad enthusiast to not even realize the significance of what one is seeing in front of them until doing some later research. Sometimes, though, the disconnect is much simpler--not even seeing what is right in one's viewfinder, with obvious significance, until looking at the picture later.

I had such an experience tonight when I followed my occasional routine of heading down to the Humber River in Toronto to take pictures of whatever Canadian Pacific trains might pass through in sunset light. Since recent changes resulting from the poor economy, this has not been a very fruitful activity, as several trains that used to fairly reliably pass in that general time frame no longer run.

Tonight, the only train to pass was one of the remaining common trains, Expressway train #124 which runs overnight trailers from Hornby, Ontario west of Toronto to Montreal, Quebec. It showed up after ideal light but before complete darkness, and I was able to get a passable picture, seen above.

In a more obvious situation, St. Lawrence and Hudson SD40-2 #5560 was in westbound Expressway train #121 at Scarlett Road in Toronto, Ontario on 5-May-2008.

At the time, I was somewhat disappointed as looking through my viewfinder, it looked like the lead locomotive was in a Candy Apple Red paint scheme, in contrast with the second unit which had an older Action Red paint scheme. They didn't match, and since the train had been operating with matching Action Red units, I wasn't happy with the change on the front of the train.

Upon processing my digital photos tonight, however, I discovered that the lead unit was indeed in Candy Apple Red, but was not a Canadian Pacific unit. It was painted in the St. Lawrence and Hudson paint scheme. There were only four such SD40-2 locomotives remaining in service on the Canadian Pacific, so this was a quite rare train that I had captured!

The St. Lawrence and Hudson was a 1996 attempt by Canadian Pacific to make the eastern half of its system east of Chicago and in the northeastern United States more efficient. It was thought that the railroad was intending to sell off this portion of its system, but instead the performance on this portion of the railroad improved so dramatically that just a year later, it was decided to keep the entire St. Lawrence and Hudson in the Canadian Pacific system. As a relatively brief experiment, it was surprising that any sign of the St. Lawrence and Hudson remained more than ten years later at all.

GP9u's #8212 and #8219 showed the difference between the St. Lawrence and Hudson and Canadian Pacific paint schemes at Lambton Yard in Toronto, Ontario on 21-June-2006. The yard is now closed, and #8212 was repainted back to CP paint in 2007.

Sometimes, it's not just obscure things that the railroad enthusiast misses when looking through a viewfinder. Sometimes, it's the obvious.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Politics: Conservatives Afraid of Free Markets?

TORONTO, ONTARIO - At least since the Reagan-Thatcher era, it has been the conventional wisdom that free markets and conservatives are inextricably linked. If one comes from the "right" side of the political spectrum, one was expected to favor letting the market solve all economic problems while at the same time trying to keep government from growing and standing up for "traditional values." However, there's a psychological disconnect inherent in that pairing that occasionally reveals itself in ways amusing to those coming from other perspectives. In reality, those who call themselves conservatives do not necessarily have to favor free markets.

One definition of "conservative" is to be "traditionally disposed to preserve existing conditions, institutions, and to limit change." Conservatives generally want things to stay the same. New ideas, things that might improve things, make them at best uncomfortable, in some cases quite defensive. If "traditional values" remain in place without modification, the conservative is happy.

In contrast, the free market provides incentive for change. The only way to get ahead in a truly free market is to innovate. When someone comes out with a better (or cheaper) product or service, then they can make a greater profit, which is the driving motivation. With every innovation comes change. So, by letting the economy take a free market form, it is almost guaranteed that there will be constant change. To a dictionary-definition conservative, that isn't a good thing.

Of course, at least in North America, there is a common thread between the definition of conservative and the free market. Belief in both is consistent with belief in lesser government. Smaller government has a lower ability to distort a free market. Before the Depression, government was much smaller in the United States. Notably, this isn't necessarily the case in other parts of the world, where government has been traditionally larger and it would almost match the definition of conservative more closely to defend traditional government institutes. Especially in the United States, though, the limited-government argument is the link to bridge the inherent conflict between the anti-change conservative and the pro-change free market.

It might seem like a conservative would want all ideas to be out in the open, as in a free market, and then have the best ideas (which from their perspective would be the conservative ideas) win out in that marketplace of ideas. When people who self-identify themselves as conservative want to repress new ideas (often about topics relating to sex), this can seem strange--why not let the ideas die on their own in the marketplace of ideas? It may seem a strange phenomenon to those who are not conservative, but it really is just the anti-change fundamental nature of the conservative coming out, something that happens especially commonly with fervently religious conservatives.

Just because I see and understand the paradox doesn't stop me from tweaking my conservative friends--when they seem to want to suppress ideas, I love to invoke the libertarian mantra, "The best solution to bad speech is not banning the bad speech, but more speech." But, of course, libertarianism is not the same as conservatism--and that's a whole different discussion for another time.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Culture: The Oldest Sales Technique

TORONTO, ONTARIO - While the comparative sexual repression in North American culture is well-documented, a billboard that I saw in Cologne, Germany while I was living in the area briefly in 1998 still surprised me. An advertisement for local radio station RPR-1 (Rheinland-Pfalz Radio One)'s morning show displayed a table with breakfast food laid out, with a pair of breasts in the background, key parts of that anatomy barely hidden by a tall glass of milk and a mug of coffee. (Don't think about that too much.) The campaign, seen throughout the area, definitely attracted my attention the first time I saw it, though I was already a RPR-1 listener and I doubt I would have listened to the station as a result of the ad had I not already been one.

As a result of that experience, I was not surprised by the story running through the European media recently of a billboard campaign in the Berlin, Germany area. Christian Democrat (Canadians think "Conservative" and US residents think "Republican") candidate Vera Lengsfeld features her own cleavage and even more revealing cleavage of Chancellor Angela Merkel in the ad, with the slogan, "We have more to offer."

In an interview with the BBC (about eight minutes into the program), Lengsfeld was quite straight-forward about why she had come up with this advertising campaign. Her campaign felt that she needed to attract attention in order to get people to pay attention to her party's policies. Considering that she is running in a district considered quite left-wing, this supposition is probably right--whether she chose an appropriate way to get it or not is another matter. Indeed, in the interview, Lengsfeld wanted to change the subject to Christian Democrat (CDU) policies and the interviewer kept asking about the social implications of the ad.

While my initial reaction to the ad was that it was sexist and inappropriate, after hearing Lengsfeld speak, I'm a bit more sympathetic. Neither Lengfeld nor Merkel is young or resembling a model, so it's not like the ad is actually sexy (at least in my opinion). Making the point that the CDU has female candidates strikes me as a legitimate point to make, even if how it is made obvious that they are female candidates is decidedly low-brow. It clearly has had its desired impact as not only are people around Berlin talking about it, but I'm writing about it on another continent. Furthermore, it's hard to deny that the ad is genuinely funny. (Anyone who doesn't consider completely absurd the idea of Christian Democrat Angela Merkel as a sex object lives in a different state-of-mind than I do.)

It is said that using sexuality is the oldest sales technique in the world, and it has remained in use because it works. The fact that this idea is still controversial in 2009 should be the story here--not Vera Lengsfeld.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Politics: A Health Care Mess

TORONTO, ONTARIO - In case you missed it, Nate Silver has one of the most amusing explanations of the difference between the Canadian and British health care systems I've ever seen. The only problem with making this distinction is that it isn't particularly relevant. As much as I personally might like a Canadian-style single-payer system, no current bill in Congress (of consequence, anyway) proposes one any more than they propose a British-style, government-run health care system. All are modifications of or additions to the existing privately-run health insurance systems.

As plenty of others have pointed out, the problem in trying to defend the attempt at health insurance reform in the United States is that there is no single proposal or even set of clearly leading proposals to defend. While a few things (like a government-run health care system, or a single-payer system) are clearly not in any bill, it really isn't clear what provisions will be in what passes through Congress. Thus, it is not possible to defend provisions--or even decide if the overall package is worth defending. At this point, it is possible that a bill that would genuinely improve the situation for most US citizens will emerge, but it is also possible that a really bad bill might emerge.

For reasons already discussed, the Obama administration has made the decision to let Congress write the health care legislation. In doing so, they have run into what New York Times columnist David Brooks warned about before the process started--that genuine health care reform could only take place after campaign finance reform, as otherwise special interests would ruin the process. About a month ago, Brooks expanded this idea to contrast "legislative pragmatism" with "policy pragmatism," making the case that trying to create legislation that would pass was at odds with creating policies that would actually work.

Perhaps much as Obama has tried to learn from the failure of the Clinton administration to pass health care reform, during this August recess his administration will come to see their own potential failure in favoring legislative pragmatism. If Obama rises above the current legislative mess, says something to the effect of "Congress did the ground work, but now it's time for me to build on their good work and present a bill we can all rally around," then perhaps a coherent, defensible bill that might pass will still emerge. However, that takes leadership from the White House that has yet to be seen in this administration. For the sake of actually improving the health care insurance system, instead of just expensive fiddling with it, I hope that happens.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Margin Notes: Stolen Interviews, Signs

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Just when you thought I would quit writing about the city workers' strike which has now been over here in Toronto for more than a week, I realized that I neglected to tell one story. On the day that workers were set to vote on the tentative deal, I heard on the CBC Radio One's local morning show that Mayor David Miller was going to speak about the deal in the 08:00 hour. I was somewhat disappointed, as I was headed to work and would not be able to hear it. On that day, I happened to choose to walk to work on a route that passes the CBC headquarters building. I was surprised to find on the sidewalk Mayor David Miller being interviewed by a CTV reporter. Apparently the CTV reporter also heard that Miller was going to be on the CBC and staked out a position at the exit to catch him as he left. Amusingly, the camera was positioned so that it would not be obvious they were outside the CBC building.

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The sign board at Union Station in Toronto, Ontario was showing only networking information on its south side as observed on 6-August-2009

On days when I do not walk by CBC headquarters, I walk through Union Station in Toronto. As I pass through, I look up at the train arrival and departure information to see if anything is unusual is happening. When I looked up last Thursday, I found the sign was not giving train information. Because of a malfunction, it instead was displaying what at first resembled a stock market ticker until I realized that it was actually networking information. Interestingly, the failure only affected the east-facing screen, the west-facing screen was normal. By the next day, the east-facing screen had been reset to a largely vacant screen instead of the mess shown above, but it still remained that way as of today.

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A sign warned to "Post No Spam" along Jane Street in Toronto, Ontario on 5-August-2009

Less formal signs can be reflective of changing culture. I found the above sign on a garbage container along Jane Street near St. Clair Avenue in Toronto. Apparently "spam" no longer just refers to unsolicited commercial e-mail, but to any unwanted commercial advertisement--or maybe the poster really trying to discourage people from posting spam to the Internet, and really didn't mean what was once signed as "Post No Bills."

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The street signs at the intersection of Jane and St. Clair in Toronto, Ontario were noted on 21-June-2006

That intersection of Jane and St. Clair in Toronto has been made famous. For those who are unaware, the lyrics in the Barenaked Ladies song "Jane" were in honor of the intersection. According to Wikipedia:
Steven Page recalls that co-writer Stephen Duffy saw the intersection on a map and remarked that it sounded like the most beautiful intersection in the world; "I didn't wanna break his heart to tell him it wasn't."
Page of course is correct--and I wonder how much even less attractive it might become when the Light Rail Transit lines on Jane and St. Clair someday meet there.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Photos: International Miniature Railway Meet

A double-header of miniature Canadian Pacific locomotives passed the coaling tower at the Richmond Hill Live Steamers on 11-July-2009

TORONTO, ONTARIO - On 11-July-2009, a consortium of local miniature railway groups in Ontario sponsored an International Meet held at the Richmond Hill Live Steamers facility north of Toronto, Ontario. Highlights featured on this week's photo site update included a visit from a Kingston-based steam locomotive and a double-header and then a triple-header of Canadian Pacific prototypes.

Media: Please Stay Awhile, Mr. Raz

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Today, Guy Raz will complete his second weekend as permanent host of the weekend version of National Public Radio's All Things Considered. A cynic would say that means he's already established himself as a long-term host of the show, which has seemed like a revolving door for hosts since Lynn Neary left the show in 1992 after eight years at the helm. Based on the quality of the program the past few weekends, I'm hoping he sticks around for awhile.

I started listening to Weekend All Things Considered well into the the Neary era of the show. To this day, I still consider her the signature host of the program--in part because nobody has come close to matching her tenure. In the seventeen years since she left the program, "permanent" hosts of the program (that I remember) include Katie Davis, Daniel Zwerdling, Lisa Simeone, Steve Inskeep, Jennifer Ludden, Debbie Elliott, and Andrea Seabrook. In between these "permanent" hosts, a large number of fill-in hosts have been heard, most notably Jacki Lyden. As NPR's own press release upon Lisa Simeone's assumption of the chair in 2000 put it, "During the national search for a permanent host, NPR senior correspondent and alternate host Jacki Lyden has been Weekend All Things Considered's most reliable and regular presence." Nine years later in 2009, during the period between Seabrook's reassignment as Congressional correspondent and the announcement of Guy Raz as permanent host, who did much of the fill-in work? That's right, Jacki Lyden again. Arguably, Lyden, not Neary, should be considered the standard host of the program.

So why has the chair been so hard to fill? Many weekend hosts have moved on to more attractive positions. Neary spent time filling in on the weekday edition of the show before becoming NPR's religion correspondent and today covers books and publishing, as well as filling in on various NPR newsmagazines and Talk of the Nation. Daniel Zwerdling (the longest-term host since Neary, from 1993 to 1999) moved into television before returning to radio. Steve Inskeep became host of Morning Edition. Others returned to reporting assignments that they preferred.

Interestingly, neither Katie Davis nor successor Daniel Zwerdling appears in the Wikipedia entry on weekend hosts of All Things Considered. Could this be because Davis sued NPR in 1995 for gender-based discrimination after NPR found only a minor position for her after installing Zwerdling in the host chair she had held for a about a year and a half?

The instability in the position has long-since become tiresome. Here's hoping that Guy Raz will stick around for awhile.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Radio Pick: Natives in the Military

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Traditionally, the CBC has offered a large selection of special programming in the summer that has filled my weekly radio picks for most of the season. Not this year. In a limited selection of new programming, the only program that has impressed me has been a second season of "Revision Quest," a show that "kicks some ass-umptions about aboriginal life in Canada." Comedian Darell Dennis hosts a comical but often profound look at issues affecting natives--such as what they should be called. This week's 27-minute broadcast focused on the military, asking the question of why so many natives have fought for a country that treated them so poorly.

Click here and scroll to the August 3rd program to hear Revision Quest "Natives in the Military"

Friday, August 7, 2009

Politics: Nobody Knows What Happened

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Yesterday, I was asked what I thought about President Bill Clinton's recent trip to North Korea. I didn't have much of an answer. We really don't know what happened. The only facts that are clear are that Clinton did travel to North Korea and met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, that Kim subsequently pardoned US journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee who had been held for five months and sentenced to hard labor for entering the country illegally, and that Ling and Lee returned with Clinton to the United States. It is entirely possible that there isn't anything else to the story other than those facts. It is also entirely possible that Clinton also made specific promises to North Korea that prompted the subsequent actions by Kim. We don't know, and we may never know. It may not end up mattering very much--the only thing that clearly matters is that the two US citizens are no longer in a North Korean prison.

That's why I was so upset that the BBC decided to interview former United Nations ambassador John Bolton after Clinton's return to the United States. True to the form that made Bolton so controversial when he was nominated to the UN post by then-President George W. Bush (and notably never confirmed--he served only as a recess appointment), Bolton claimed in a Washington Post op-ed piece that the Clinton visit was "poorly thought-out gesture politics" "rewarding dangerous and unacceptable behavior." Bolton believes that now all nuclear states will take US hostages and use them to gain the audience of former US presidents to get whatever it is they wanted from the United States. To Bolton, who denies the label neoconservative but seems to think like one, the action diminished the strength of the US and severely damaged its ability to deal with rogue states like North Korea.

The only problem with all this is that the Obama administration claims that Clinton traveled as a private citizen. While it would be reasonable to assume he had an official mandate, it is not inconceivable that he simply traveled because it had been communicated that his presence would be required to get the incarcerated US citizens released, so Clinton made the trip and they were released. We don't know that it wasn't that simple. I don't know if it was or not, and neither does John Bolton.

The day after the BBC ran the Bolton interview, they aired angry feedback from listeners that thought the inclusion of Bolton was inappropriate. In this case, I have to agree--Bolton is basically a discredited figure after his failure to win Senate confirmation to the UN post. While criticism of the Clinton trip to North Korea was appropriate to air, turning to a figure with limited credibility like Bolton was not the right way to bring it out. I'm used to being disappointed with John Bolton--I'm not so used to being disappointed in the BBC.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Economics: New Ethical Era? I Doubt It

TORONTO, ONTARIO - In the past few weeks, the mainstream media (what we used to call "the press" even though most didn't use printing presses) seems to have taken renewed attention in changes toward progressive policies in the business world. Two aspects of this supposed trend, both well-covered by the Christian Science Monitor, are the "B Corporation" and the "MBA Oath." Put all this together, and it might sound like North America business climate is headed for a new era of ethics, an ethics redefined beyond human interactions to integrity in interactions with the planet as well. However, I'm not expecting any of it to take hold--outside of very limited situations, there's no way to make money off being a "B Corporation" or living up to the "MBA Oath", and in the United States, if you can't make money off it, it probably isn't going to happen.

The "B Corporation" concept is particularly intriguing, as on the surface it seems to resolve the recognized problem that the modern corporation by law cannot make decisions based on anything other than shareholder return. If a corporation were to decide to do some environmental mitigation just because its CEO decided it was the right thing to do, if it impacted profit at all (as it would), he could be removed by the board for not living up to fiduciary responsibility--and this has happened. One analyst last week pointed out that Google probably didn't want to take legal action against Yahoo and Microsoft for their recent marketing agreement, but would be forced to legally--their own shareholders would sue them if they didn't at least try, in a case in which it probably would even be most profitable for Google to just keep improving and promoting their own products. "B Corporations" are supposed to resolve the issue by including in their charters that they will make decisions based not only on the interests of their shareholders but also their employees, business partners, and even the environment.

That sounds good, but the article points out that the concept is legally untested--shareholders may still sue a "B Corporation" for following its charter, or even having the charter in the first place, and conceivably win. Even if it stands up legally, the article points out that some of the few hundred companies with such a charter did it in part to help raise money. If "B Corporations" prove to be less profitable than traditional corporations, as seems likely, then there's the distinct possibility that such money will not be there in the future, and that investors will avoid "B Corporations" because they don't have a good enough return on investment. In a climate in which profitable radio stations are letting go employees because investors aren't getting a 15% return at the parent company, it seems incredible to believe that the same investors would tolerate a "B Corporation." At best, it seems like a possible arrangement for niche and quasi-public sectors.

The "MBA oath" offers a solution at the individual, rather than corporate level. In the wake of MBA's being blamed for everything from Enron to bundled mortgages to the actions of the Bush presidency, it was felt by some MBA candidates that some concrete action was needed to rehabilitate the meaning of the degree. Their solution was to pledge to "act with utmost integrity" and to "strive to create sustainable economic, social, and environmental prosperity worldwide." That sounds good, but as one critic put it, "Those who are morally strong don’t need the oath, those that are not won’t honor it." In the article, it is pointed out that some taking the pledge have been accused of doing it strictly to help them find a job in a difficult job market. I have a hard time seeing past those criticisms--for a supposed "accountability" measure there doesn't seem to be any consequence to violating the pledge, not losing one's degree or anything else. It seems to be the ultimate in the kind of substance-less promise that caused the MBA degree to get its current reputation in the first place. Then, there's the whole issue of profitability again--how does one make more money for a company by following the pledge? It doesn't seem possible.

I hate to be one to discourage any steps toward more holistic and broad thinking in the business world, but neither the "B Corporation" nor the "MBA Oath" seems to be an effective measure. To get real change, it will need to happen at a much more fundamental level in laws affecting all companies and individuals within them. That takes political will, and I don't see that happening when the United States Senate can't even reach consensus on a Supreme Court nominee. Some may think a new ethical era is starting, but I'm afraid that I just don't see any evidence.