Saturday, October 31, 2009

Radio Pick: Capitol Steps

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's radio pick comes from the Capitol Steps. Four times each year, they release a radio program with updated clips from their latest performances, and this year's Halloween release includes a variety of topical comedy, including "Runaway Balloon" (set to "Beautiful Balloon"), "Not Easy Being [Environmentally] Green" and a great swipe at Northwest Airlines during the Hugh-Jim Bissell (pronounce it; you'll get) skit in a 28-minute program.

Listen to MP3 of Politics Takes a Holiday "Halloween 2009 Edition"

Culture: Trick-or-Treaters Here

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I still remember trick-or-treating in the neighborhood (there is no "u" in neighbourhood there) where I grew up. I remember having dinner and then setting out in the dark (no daylight savings time on the last day of October then) to ring the doorbell of every house with a Jack-O-Lantern displayed, which would be the vast majority of the homes. This was already an era of safety in trick-or-treating, so I don't recall ever being offered a candied apple (or any other fruit), just candy or maybe a granola bar if the household didn't want to contribute to cavities. If there was a choice, and there were Snickers bars, that would be my first choice. I was partial to the Mars-M&M line of candies in general at that age.

Often I would go alone, with my mother or father staying at the street as I went up a walkway to the house's door and just escorting me between houses, but a few years I went with friends. One year in particular was especially memorable, as a friend and I went through much of his large Surrey Downs neighborhood and probably had the largest haul of my lifetime. Then, some older teenagers on bicycles attacked us and made off with most of his candy. Because I was using a plastic bag, they couldn't get a good hold on my bag and I don't think I lost anything. Apparently in the dark, my friend didn't notice this and offered to give me some of his remaining candy. I just looked at him funny and muttered something about getting that backwards. When we got back to his house, he was so surprised that that he declined any portion of my candy, and I ended up with all of that huge loot after all.

In my high school years, safety became such a concern that trick-or-treaters vanished from the streets of Bellevue, Washington. I remember one night that my parents only received two rings at the door the entire evening. The lure of going to the mall, where one could safely go to all the stores looking for candy without worrying about walking around in the dark or teenagers on bicycles trying to steal their candy, had cleared the streets of the long-standing tradition.

Since moving to Toronto, I have never been home on Halloween evening. Either I was working so late that by the time I returned to my neighbourhood that I did not get home until children were home from trick-or-treating, or I have been out of town traveling. This year, though, I was around, and was surprised to find the sidewalks busy with trick-or-treaters. Furthermore, the costumes were all things I recognized--rabbits, pirates, ghosts, firemen, even a postal carrier. It was almost like going back in time twenty years. Halloween is still celebrated here.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Transport: A Real Freight Move

The Toronto Railway Heritage Centre's Canadian Locomotive Works/Whitcomb diesel #1 moved a canning machine bound for Steam Whistle Brewing past Canadian National steam locomotive #6213 on 30-October-2009

TORONTO, ONTARIO - The full-size railroad tracks at the Toronto Railway Heritage Centre were conceived as museum tracks in Roundhouse Park. During the construction phase of the park, they have seen frequent use as the centre's collection has been moved around to keep out of the way of work in the roundhouse stalls and out in the park itself. That doesn't mean, however, that they cannot be used for freight moves, and the first such move in the history of the park occurred this morning.

Steam Whistle Brewing, the occupant of stalls one to fourteen of the John Street Roundhouse, purchased a new canning machine, and the dimensions of part of the machine did not allow it to come in through the main loading dock. The doors facing the turntable pit, however, did open wide enough to allow the machine to enter by that route. However, heavy road equipment cannot use the patio in front of those doors--the only way in was using the railroad track from the turntable.

The canning machine for Steam Whistle Brewing rode the turntable at the Toronto Railway Heritage Centre with locomotive #1 on 30-October-2009

Thus, a Toronto Railway Heritage Centre crew prepared the turntable and its 1950-era, 50-ton diesel switch engine at dawn this morning. Soon, custom-made rail car frames for the move were delivered to the site and placed on track #33 in Roundhouse Park. A forklift moved the canning machine onto the rail cars, and then they were coupled up to the locomotive. Uneventfully, they were pulled onto the turntable and the turntable spun around to push the load to the brewery at stall #8.

The canning machine disappeared inside stall #8 of the John Street Roundhouse in Toronto, Ontario, soon to be installed at Steam Whistle Brewing on 30-October-2009

The final leg of the journey did not go as smoothly. The custom rail car was not designed for the historic, imperfect realities of the Heritage Centre trackage, and did not handle the small elevation change leaving the turntable. It had to be jacked up and then pulled into the building using a forklift inside. Still, the move was completed and the canning machine's installation was underway by mid-morning. The Toronto Railway Heritage Centre's first freight move was complete.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Media: Not Enough Female Hosts?

TORONTO, ONTARIO - One of the clear themes in early comments about the new CBC News Network on cable television was that people were surprised that all of the mid-day hosts were women, with Heather Hiscox, Anne-Marie Mediwake, Suhana Merharchand, and Carole MacNeil back-to-back. Relatively few people complained, but just about everyone noticed. The CBC in general has tended to be quite good at putting many women on the air--the flagship Radio One program As It Happens has had all female regular hosts since 1997, and the national morning news magazine, The Current, has been hosted by a woman, Anna Maria Tremonti, since its inception in 2002.

Unfortunately, the CBC is the exception in this regard. One of the few comments I've ever actually received about the Ideal Radio Schedule that I first posted in 1998 and have updated over the years is that outside of news shows, the only women on the schedule are talk show hosts Christine Craft and Lynn Samuels, both in weekend slots. Why? While an idealized schedule, my idea was to take the best of actual programs on the air (or previously on the air), and in the real world, the vast majority of programs are hosted by men.

Take KGO Newstalk 810 in San Francisco as an example, regarded by many (including me) as one of the best talk stations in the world. Its only female general talk show host is Pat Thurston, who appears overnights on the weekend. (Joanie Greggains also hosts a fitness show on Saturday mornings, and Craft frequently fills in, but that's it.) The entire rest of the schedule is all men.

The situation is worse elsewhere. WABC in New York? All men except for Monica Crowley's show on Saturday. WLS in Chicago? No solo female hosts. KFI in Los Angeles? All men. (Bryan Suits no longer has Kennedy as a co-host.) KIRO in Seattle? All men. Even liberal network Air America has no female radio hosts on their network (they do air Rachel Maddow's MSNBC television show). Is it any wonder that my ideal schedule has so many men on it?

Anyone that says that there is no gender discrimination in the media in the twenty-first century just has to spin the radio dial a bit to get ample counter-evidence. Outside of the CBC, it's still a man's world, and I just don't see how that could possibly be a good thing.

At this point, the next time I update my ideal schedule I plan to add only two personalities, Martina Fitzgerald and Connie Sinclair (yes, from the broadcasting family). Both are news reporters from the CBC. See a pattern here?

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Culture: Junction Post Office Saved

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I am ashamed to admit that in this post, I neglected to talk about the most surprising thing I learned at that community meeting event. Canada Post had told Man Gi Ju that they were pulling the post office from his store in The Junction neighbourhood of Toronto and moving it across the railroad tracks to a near-by Shoppers Drug Mart in a line of big box stores. Ju was at the meeting describing his situation and collecting signatures on his petition for Canada Post to reverse the decision.

While Ju's post office is not my home branch and in fact is one that I have not used, I signed the petition after listening to residents speak on Ju's behalf at that meeting. I appreciate The Junction as a neighbourhood, and it is entirely possible that I may someday live closer to it and want full facilities available--the last thing I would want to do is walk over to St. Clair and its Wal-Marts and Office Depots in order to get postal services. As one community activist put it, "Canada Post is doing exactly the opposite of what is happening in the neighbourhood--increased livability and more locally-owned stores."

By the time I thought to write about this again last week, I found out that the crisis was over--public pressure had already resulted in Canada Post doing a complete reversal and offering Ju a new five-year contract. The whole situation has now been well-summarized in this post on BlogTO. It seems clear enough that Canada Post backed off to avoid some very bad publicity.

Torontonians--and I suspect Canadians in general--are very good at this kind of neighbourhood-level pressure. I can't say I was surprised to find out I was behind the curve in reporting on this situation as someone from outside the neighbourhood, and that it had been resolved to the neighbourhood's satisfaction, at least as expressed by its Business Improvement Area staff. Member of Provincial Parliament Rosario Marchese mentioned last night that he was amazed at how organized condominium owners had become in his riding--a recent meeting had 180 of 200 condos represented. People may live in condominiums designed to keep out the world--and even their neighbours--but they still form communities.

It's no wonder so many Canadians liked Barack Obama--we understand community organizers and seem to know how to push them and subsequently follow them. On that, many United States residents have a lot to learn.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Politics: The HST Will Hit Renters, Too

Parkdale-High Park Member of Provincial Parliament Cheri Dinovo spoke at Swansea Town Hall on 27-October-2009

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I've mostly kept silent about the upcoming implementation of the HST, or Harmonized Sales Tax, that will occur next July in the province of Ontario. While it is a regressive tax, in a time of deficits and as a general believer in appropriate taxation, I did not think it appropriate to take a stand against a tax. Also, while all Goods and Services Taxes are fundamentally regressive, they are also a tax on consumption, which in an environmental era strikes me as an appropriate thing to be doing; rather than not have a HST, I would like to see the costs that poor and middle class people incur because of the HST be accounted for in reduced income taxes in their tax bracket. Granted, Ontario is not doing that in its implementation of the HST (at least on a permanent basis), but that still wasn't enough to get me upset.

The HST will have items that are currently not subject to the Provincial Sales Tax but are subject to the Federal Goods and Services Tax be subject to the Harmonized Sales Tax including both rates. Thus, the tax will affect me. Items such as Internet access, postage stamps, prepared foods under $4, and many services will all cost 8% more than they do now, and depending on my tax bracket in 2010, it's extremely unlikely that I will come out ahead.

Trinity-Spadina Member of Provincial Parliament Rosario Marchese spoke at Swansea Town Hall on 26-October-2009

This evening, my local Member of Provincial Parliament for Parkdale-High Park, Cheri Dinovo, held a town meeting mostly informing condominium owners about how their condo fees will be going up by 8% as a result of the HST. Since his riding has more condominiums, her colleague from Trinity-Spadina, Rosario Marchese, spoke to the issue at length, whereas Dinovo mostly focused on the HST itself.

What I did not realize until this evening is that as a result of the HST, landlords will be able to claim an extraordinary circumstance and apply to raise their rents by the amount that the HST is costing them, and there is no question that the requests will be granted. While not all rent money goes to services currently exempt from provincial taxes so the increase would not be 8%, depending on circumstances it might be quite high, on the order of 4-5%. So, renters may actually be hit more than even condo owners as a result of the HST. Nobody in the media seems to be talking about that.

Still, for the same reasons that I've held all along, I remain unconvinced that I really want to oppose the HST--I'd rather work on making the income tax more progressive, particularly at the high end.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Media: Initial Reaction to CBC Changes

TORONTO, ONTARIO - The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's Radio One network was one of the attractions of moving to Canada for me. World-class news coverage and documentaries, filled with Canadian humor and sensibility, had been a part of my media diet ever since I had discovered some of the few programs from the CBC that were distributed to and aired by a handful of public radio stations in the United States. At the time, I had no idea of the quality (that existed then) of the summer programs, Radio 2, or "The National" nightly news program on CBC Television. All I knew was that they didn't interrupt programming to beg for money like public radio and television in the United States.

Today, the CBC launched a large number of changes on all its platforms. Changes on Radio One have been relatively modest. Peter Armstrong did not sound like a radio professional in his debut as host of World Report, making a variety of minor mistakes, but he may well improve with time. A significant change that I view very positively is an extension of local news into the evening. I never understood why the last local news broadcast in Toronto--the nation's largest city--ran at 5:30 pm, with more than a twelve hour gap until the next broadcast. I usually came home from work without hearing a single report on the CBC focusing on local news. Now, a short local update has been added after The World at Six, and the same kind of locally-produced hourly news as heard during the day has been extended into the evening.

Much of the controversial change today has been on what had been called CBC Newsworld, its cable news channel. The re-launch as CBC News Network has been pilloried for looking as entertainment-based, shallow, and repetitive as CNN. Not having watched it before or after the change, I can offer no comment, but I was quite interested in what would happen to The National, the flagship nightly news broadcast, and I'm afraid what I saw echoes the complaints about the cable channel.

While the lead story was about the swine flu, which seems a perfectly reasonable editorial decision, what struck me as the second most significant event of the day, a parliamentary protest in Ottawa, was relegated to well into the broadcast, even after a story on the popularity of Prince Charles and the royal family in Canada. I actually have no problem with the story on the royal family being in the broadcast, as the information was somewhat surprising and has implications, but including it toward the front of the broadcast? More disturbing, in a program reduced to just 42 minutes because of the addition of a local newscast for the final five minutes, was time devoted to stories on what people do while driving and how people are making money of the swine flu, both of which served little or no news purpose at all. Meanwhile, international stories like the war crimes trial of Radovan Karadzic received just a cursory mention. It's hard not to conclude that the dumbing down of the CBC to match United States networks is in full force on television. In their promotions, the CBC had talked about making their television news more "transparent," which didn't give me a clear indication of how that would change the broadcast. They apparently meant "vacuous," not "transparent."

So, after one day, the changes on CBC Radio One seem perhaps a net positive, but on CBC Television seem a major step toward irrelevancy that if they prove to be typical going forward probably mean that I will no longer partake of "The National" as it will be a waste of time.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Photos: Canadian International Air Show, Part I

The Blue Angels performed in the Canadian International Air Show over Toronto, Ontario on 7-September-2009

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's update to my photo site features the Canadian International Air Show. The first of two parts features CF-18 and F-16 solo performances, solo acrobatic pilots Mike Wiskus and Matt Chapman, the US Navy Blue Angels, and more. Coverage will continue next week including the Snowbirds.

Margin Notes: Autumn, Start Menu, Dr. Abdullah

Fall colors surrounded the Humber Marshes in Toronto, Ontario on the morning of 25-October-2009

TORONTO, ONTARIO - The fall colors are now near their peak in Toronto, Ontario as seen above--unfortunately, the weather hadn't been conducive to viewing them until the skies cleared just today. If the forecast is to be believed, all the leaves might be gone before another sunny day appears here, so most people may be reduced to looking at pictures of colors from other regions on their computers.

* * * * * *

Some computer users are delighted that the Windows 7 operating system was released on Thursday. Leave it to the CBC's Jian Ghomeshi to point out in his "Q" monologue that the "Start Menu" has been eliminated. Ghomeshi mentioned that Microsoft had paid big money (about $10 million) to use the Rolling Stones single "Start Me Up" to promote the Start Menu. What he didn't mention--but was pointed out back in 1995 by technology talk show host Leo Laporte--is that the choice of music was especially appropriate because of the lyric "You make a grown man cry" which Windows 95 certainly did to many grown men.

* * * * * *

Also notable on the radio in the past week is that National Public Radio in the United States has started doing some of its hourly newscasts from NPR West in Culver City, California. Since the launch of the network, its hourly newscasts had originated in Washington, DC. In addition to the top-of-the-hour afternoon newscasts last week, the bottom of the hour newscasts from Anne Taylor during All Things Considered were also "from NPR West."

* * * * * *

NPR is one of several news organizations that suddenly seemed to start calling the second place finisher in the recent controversial elections in Afghanistan "Dr. Abdullah Abdullah." Previously, many of them had simply called him "Abdullah Abdullah." Is the fact that incumbent Hamid Karzai is now tainted by the rigging of the election suddenly now making it "necessary" for the media to paint Adbullah as more credible, instead of as a borderline extremist as he was originally portrayed? Personally, I had never understood why more attention had not been paid to Abdullah, the former foreign minister, in either a positive or negative light since it became clear from polling that he was the likely second-place candidate.

* * * * * *

I increasingly consume media whether from NPR or elsewhere through podcasts. Long-time readers of this blog may recall my lament that I could never catch up on podcasts from about a year ago. Well, for the first time I can remember since October 2007, I had a completely empty podcast directory in iTunes yesterday. It will be interesting to see how long that lasts.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Radio Pick: Making New Words

TORONTO, ONTARIO - The staff of Wisconsin Public Radio's To The Best of Our Knowlege created a hard choice for me this week, as both of their weekly hours was worthy of selection as my weekly radio pick. In honor of the recent death of William Safire, the show on language received the nod. Everyone will probably learn something from this 53-minute program, from how US and British English diverged from Patricia O'Connor, why Klingon seems to be attractive as a language from Arika Okrent, or how a parrot pushes the definition of language from Irene Pepperberg.

Listen to streaming RealMedia of To The Best of Our Knowledge "Making Words"

Culture: "Coming to Get You Worley..."

TORONTO, ONTARIO - My mind is known for making bizarre connections. Someone can mention a number significant in railroading, say "231," and my mind will drift off to a certain diesel locomotive that I was involved in saving. Mention being the "King of Pain" and 1983 song by the Police will be in my mind until something else pushes it out.

Sometimes, this can lead to quite a bit of amusement. One of the previous residents of my apartment had the last name of Worley. To this day, I'll occasionally receive mail addressed to this individual that I have to return to Canada Post.

It just so happens that an episode of The Adventures of Harry Nile, a radio drama series from Jim French Productions, once included a character named Worley. Worley was a war veteran that was receiving calls on his answering machine in the middle of the night with the message, "We're coming to get you Worley, so start sweating." When Nile investigates, he discovers that Worley was actually so guilty over something had happened in wartime that he was sleepwalking and calling himself from phone booths to leave the message each night, and what he really needed was counseling.

Whenever my mind sees that relatively-rare name on mail, I can't help but think of that Harry Nile episode. And the fact that mail could just as easily deliver a threatening message as a telephone answering machine makes the whole thing somehow slightly less irrational. "They're coming to get you Worley, so start sweating."

I guess that makes my life more interesting than just sighing over misdirected mail.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Politics: California Leading? Ugh

TORONTO, ONTARIO - For essentially my entire lifetime, the state of California has been viewed as the leading edge of culture in the United States. Just about every trend that has swept the country, from strict emission standards for vehicles to the use of wireless Internet access to moving well beyond one's region every few years has been credited to the state. If you wanted to look to the future, the zeitgeist stated, looked to what was happening in California. For the sake of the future of the country, we'd better hope that's not the case in politics.

While reading a Andrew Gelman entry on that seemed pretty obscure on the political ideology of a Republican candidate for Congress in the state of New York, I found a graph by Boris Shor on the ideological makeup of state legislature that struck me as the buried lead of the story. Take a look by following this link and scrolling down to the graph.

The graph shows the ideological positions of each member of state legislatures grouped by party. In quite a few states, there is overlap between Democrats and Republicans, meaning that there are centrists in both parties to potentially work out compromises. In a handful of states, there is no overlap, but nowhere is the gap wider than in California, which is at the bottom of the graph. Nearly the entire span of either party separates the parties apart. No state has more conservative Republicans in its legislature than the most conservative Republicans in California, and only New York and Maryland have any Democrats that are more liberal than the most liberal Democrats in the state assembly in California.

That's pretty much all one needs to know about the dysfunction in California government. The parties are so far apart that there is no room for compromise, and really no ground on which to even have a conversation. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is not shown on the chart, but based on the legislation and budgets he has supported in the past two years, I suspect that he falls somewhere in that gap. He can't reach the Democrats, and he certainly can't reach the Republicans, the party of which he claims to be a member, as he is not nearly as ideological as his colleagues in the assembly. It's no wonder they can't pass a budget.

The United States Congress also isn't plotted on the graph, but believe it or not, there is overlap in ideology between the the two parties there--and it's no secret how polarized the two bodies there have become, and how difficult it is to gain bi-partisan support even for apple pie. If California continues to be a trend setting state, then it's only going to get worse at the national level, and there's no way that would be a good thing.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Culture: It's Action, Not Attitude

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Barbara Ehrenreich is currently on a book tour for her latest book, Bright-Sided. A simplified version of the thesis that she presents is that a culture of positive thinking has blinded United States culture from identifying and addressing the root causes of major problems, allowing things like the financial collapse in 2008 to happen because people that warned that it might happen were told they were "too negative" and ignored--or even punished.

Anyone that knows me will not be surprised to find that I agree with pretty much everything that Ehrenreich posits. The United States does have a real problem with a "positivity" culture that eschews realism. Never mind the economy (but listen to what happened to dissenting figures in this episode of This American Life if you want to see her opinion supported), I've seen friends decide not explore the root cause of their personal problems and instead just take a more positive attitude, only to find similar events happening again--and blame themselves for not being positive enough. To me, excessive "positivity" is just another aspect of the extreme individual focus of culture in the United States that completely ignores any problems or disadvantages that occur at the community or group level--or just through chance. If you don't like your own life, it's your fault, and you shouldn't expect any help from anyone to change it. If you don't like someone else's life, then you're putting the blame in the wrong place if you think society caused them problems--it's their own fault, and you shouldn't help them. Those are the messages that constantly bombard anyone in the United States that is "negative."

Ehrenreich--who presents the historical roots of the trend thoroughly in her book--started exploring this topic as a result of her struggles with breast cancer. Everywhere she turned, she was told to be more positive about the disease. While Ehrenreich has discovered that medical studies have shown that it actually makes no difference what kind of attitude one takes during treatment on its success, the convention wisdom is that it does matter. Besides some early studies that seemed to indicate this, the convention wisdom exists because it tends to match our experience--everyone can think of a story about someone that seemed to give up emotionally and died shortly thereafter, or someone that badly wanted to live and recovered when doctors thought they were terminal cases.

What Ehrenreich points out, almost as an aside to her core points, is that what really seems to make a difference is taking action. Someone who has emotionally given up may decide not to take action--not telling a caregiver when their condition changes, or proactively asking what to expect during a treatment, whereas someone with fight in them will probably take every action that they have the energy to do. The same thing applies in economic self-help situations. Someone who has given up likely won't do anything to change their situation, whereas someone who is "more positive" is probably taking actions to try to find a job or whatever assistance can improve their situation. Yet, a person who expresses dark humor or muses on their long odds but still listens to their doctors or networks to find a job may be just as likely to work their way out of the situation as the overtly positive individual. What people ascribe to attitude seems to have a lot more to do with action.

There have been a long list of business situations in which I have said something to the effect of "X is unlikely to work--we can try Y or Z." Every single time I've done that, I've been accused of being too negative. Almost every single time, X has failed before too long. The smart bosses let me work on Y or Z in the background while telling their own bosses we were focused on X, and in some cases we salvaged the situation. The less intelligent bosses actively prevented me from doing anything other than working on X and watched their enterprises devolve into big trouble, sometimes too late for Y, Z, or anything else to do any good. Needed action wasn't taken, and "positivity" didn't save those situations any more than it saved the US economy in 2008 or the war in Iraq in 2003.

Sadly, Barbara Ehrenreich will likely be ignored--maybe even punished economically for questioning positive thinking. A culture that has been based on marketing since its inception (think Paul Revere and Benjamin Franklin) will always find careful evaluation threatening and reject it. And, sadly, I don't see that there's any action I can personally take to prevent that.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Politics: Crombie and Miller

David Crombie spoke during the Heritage Toronto "Great Toronto Roast" at the Carlu on 13-October-2009

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Having seen him at various community events around his native Swansea, I knew that former Toronto mayor David Crombie is a great story-teller. Thus, it came as no surprise when he included some wonderful anecdotes during the Heritage Toronto "Great Toronto Roast" last week. My favorite was that he described being asked to write a letter to the Pope. He didn't understand why he was being asked, but upon being told that the Vatican viewed countries as transient and cities as the real constant in human organization, he proceeded--and took great pride in addressing a letter to "His Holiness" and getting to sign it "His Worship."

What had strangely escaped my mind until hearing Crombie speak that evening were the similarities between Crombie and current mayor David Miller. Somehow, the fact that Crombie was mayor from 1972 to 1978 made him seem out of a completely different era that couldn't possibly have anything in common with the contemporary mayor. Yet, in listening to Crombie lay praise on Miller's contributions to transportation and neighbourhood planning, it became clear that they had much in common.

Mayor David Miller spoke before the formal beginning of the Heritage Toronto "Great Toronto Roast on 13-October-2009... since a mayor can't roast a city, "but a city can roast a mayor," as host Albert Schultz put it.

Both Crombie and Miller have progressive, urbanist views of their city. Crombie was mayor in the era of Jane Jacobs and control of development, famous for a 40-foot height restriction; Miller in the era of defeating big box stores and managing the shape of the waterfront. Both emphasized transportation, with Crombie in an era of subway expansion; Miller in the Transit City era of light rail. Interestingly, Crombie would go on to be a Progressive Conservative Member of Parliament, while Miller is associated with the New Democrats--but that may be more indicative of their eras than their policies.

As for Mayor Miller's announcement during the event that he planned to push for Old City Hall to become a museum for the city of Toronto, that sounded familiar to Crombie. "I'll have a gift for the mayor," Crombie said, "As soon as I find the plans we had to do that in 1974."

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Culture: Tough to be an Urban Dog

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Not far from where I live, there is a hydro corridor (that's a power line right-of-way for those south of the border) that serves as an unofficial off-leash area for dogs. It's a great place for this, as it is well-fenced except at a narrow entrance, and there is really no reason that anyone without a dog needs to use the corridor as there are parallel streets with sidewalks. The only reason I have ventured back there is that the Canadian Pacific railroad tracks run parallel to the hydro corridor, and there's a decent photo location near the middle of the stretch.

In the morning, from about 8 to 9 am, a significant group of people gathers with their dogs for a play session that can be pretty incredible to watch; I've rarely seen so many canines expending so much energy so quickly. The dogs pay so much attention to each other that everything else around, including electrical towers and people, are little more than obstacles.

After that groups disperses, though, there are rarely more than three dogs in the vast expanse of the hydro corridor, even on the weekend. The situation is very different than during the morning session. Rather than enjoying a play session with members of their own species, the dogs at mid-day seem to be desperate for attention. They'll bark, run right past you, run in circles in front of you, anything to get your attention. From Miniature Poodles to Retrievers to Great Danes, the behavior is basically the same.

The pet guardians (that's what we're told to call owners now), some of whom drive their pets to this location, may be trying to give their pets some exercise, but what the dogs really want to do is play with someone, human or canine. They are crying out for attention and social interaction. I hate to ignore them when I'm waiting for a photographic opportunity, but I'm not there to play with dogs, and when I ignore them, they soon start to ignore me.

I am far from a dog expert. I've never been in a residence that owned a dog, or had to care for one for any length of time, so maybe I'm completely mis-interpreting what I see in their eyes at the hydro corridor. But, based on the contrast between the morning play session and the rest of the day, it's hard not to reach that conclusion--and it sure looks like disappointment in their eyes when I won't pay any attention to them.

It must be tough to be an urban dog. There's no yard to play in at their guardian's residence, and when they get taken to the unofficial off-leash area at the hydro corridor, they can't even get strangers like me to play with them. I suspect there are a lot of Toronto dogs that wish they had been born on a farm.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Politics: Coming Around on Carbon

Member of Parliament Gerard Kennedy spoke at a town meeting at Runnymede Public School in Toronto, Ontario on 17-October-2009

TORONTO, ONTARIO - One of my favorite Canadian stories to tell outside this country is about a day in 2007 that I decided to attend an event in my neighbourhood put on by then candidate-designee Gerard Kennedy to promote his "Carbon Challenge" within the community. The public meeting was held in St. Pius X Catholic School, a building I had never entered before. It turns out that Kennedy wasn't particularly familiar with the building, either. By chance, I encountered him walking with an aide from the subway station to the school--and it took the three of us several minutes to find the door that we were supposed to be using to access the auditorium. Kennedy had been a serious candidate for the leadership of the Liberal Party just months before (in the convention that anointed Stéphane Dion), and not only was he so human that he wasn't sure how to get in to his own event, but he had arrived by public transit! The thought of, say, John Edwards, being in a similar situation in the United States was unthinkable.

Now Kennedy is the Member of Parliament for the Parkdale-High Park riding in which I live and the Critic for Infrastructure, Communities and Cities. Some things do not change, though. While the door to a Town Meeting event he held this Saturday at the Runnymede Public School may have been well-marked, it was clear that he was not operating with an extravagant budget. The projector for his presentations was balky and never really worked correctly, and there were issues with the handouts. Volunteers outnumbered paid staff by a large margin. The Liberals might be one of the two major parties in Canada, but they are clearly not rolling in money.

I attended the meeting largely to hear Kennedy's take on what is happening in parliament and in politics generally, and while some of his statements reflected the Liberal party line widely seen elsewhere, he did say a number of interesting things. On a very local issue, he offered a different take on the recent Metrolinx policy on the Georgetown Line commuter rail expansion (which has been well-covered in substance by Steve Munro). He thinks the specification of "Tier IV diesels" as mandatory for Georgetown Line trains, a technology that is not commercially available, serves as a step toward revising the plan to call for electrification, which obviously is an available technology. "I don't think this issue is completely in stone yet," he stated.

Most interesting to me was his take on what has always been a key issue for him, the environment. During the 2008 campaign, a key issue in the riding was the difference between the climate change initiatives between the Liberals and the New Democratic Party (NDP). The Liberals had offered the infamous Carbon Tax, which while really an interesting and more widely-based reform of the nation's tax structure addressed carbon dioxide emissions through direct taxation, whereas the NDP favored cap-and-trade measures on carbon dioxide emission which would be compatible with what then-candidate Obama was proposing in the United States. The NDP argued that cap-and-trade would have the same impact as a carbon tax in a manner that would be more compatible with other programs around the globe, an argument rejected by the Liberals, who claimed that industry could game a cap-and-trade system.

While he made it clear that the Liberal Party position with respect to the upcoming Copenhagen conference has yet to be determined, Kennedy stated on Saturday that "the minimum acceptable outcome from Copenhagen will be a cap and trade plan." At another point, he pointed out, "in effect, cap and trade properly implemented is a tax on carbon." I happen to intellectually agree with these statements, and it was nice to see a leading Liberal politician use such language which he refused to use during the campaign.

And the zeitgeist on the next Federal election as assessed by Kennedy? "It looks like we won't have an election until after the Olympics, at the earliest."

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Photos: Toronto Summer Round-Up 2009, Part II

A protest of the Harper government's Employment Insurance policies took place along the route of the Labour Day Parade on 7-September-2009

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's update to my photo site is part II of the summer round-up from Toronto, Ontario, featuring festivals and parades. Included are the Etobicoke-York Heritage Fair, the Junction Arts Festival, the Ukrainian Parade, the Polish Festival, the Labour Day Parade, and more.

Margin Notes: Moose, Dogs, and Leaves

A Ronald McDonald moose was found outside the McDonald's Canadian headquarters near the Don Valley Parkway in Toronto, Ontario on 15-October-2009

TORONTO, ONTARIO - In 2000, Toronto launched a "Moose in the City" project (its web site still exists) that placed 326 moose decorated by artists throughout the city. Surprisingly few of them still exist nine years later, but I stumbled onto one outside the McDonald's Canadian headquarters building this week. Personally I found it a bit disturbing to find Ronald McDonald with four legs.

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A resident was noted to have placed a water dish for the canines in the neighbourhood near Jane and Annette in Toronto, Ontario on 6-October-2009

It turns out that St. Paul, Minnesota does not have a monopoly on providing its four-legged friends with water. Earlier this month, a water dish for dogs appeared in my own neighbourhood on Annette Street. So far, I have yet to see it patronized by any local canines.

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Perhaps it's getting too cold for dogs as it did freeze in the past week, but one thing I have not understood is that as soon as the temperature dropped to 10 C, a significant number of women started appearing in downtown Toronto with winter boots and sunglasses on. There was no snow on the ground or in the forecast, there were clouds in the sky blocking the sun, and frankly it wasn't even cold enough yet for me to wear a winter jacket. I don't understand the fashion statement. This morning, though, I wouldn't have questioned the look at all--the sun was out and shining brightly, but it was close to freezing. I guess they were just weeks early.

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Canadian Pacific "Expressway" train #122 to Montreal crossed the Humber River in Toronto, Ontario on 18-October-2009

The autumn colors are not early in Toronto. While the leaves are starting to turn, the scene along the Humber River has yet to reach peak color, as demonstrated by the shot above of a Canadian Pacific trailer train crossing the river earlier today.

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The Canadian Pacific has announced its Holiday Train schedule for 2009. Tuesday, December 1st looks like the big day in Toronto, as both the US and Canadian trains pass through town.

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Another railroad seems to be doing a good job of reaching me in advertising. BNSF (which doesn't stand for Burlington Northern Santa Fe anymore) is now an underwriter of the PBS NewsHour. They were already on my good side for their reasonableness in allowing steam operations and other special events, but they moved up another notch by supporting about the only decent television news program in the United States.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Radio Pick: Other People's Money

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's radio pick continues a series of picks on health care. Sometimes good story-telling and analogies can really help to gain insight on a complicated issue. One of the best story-telling shows on the radio today is This American Life from Chicago Public Radio, which this week teamed up with NPR News for a Planet Money report on the health care system in the United States. Analogies with "food care" (think "universal food coverage") and with the growing pet insurance industry really drove home some points about health insurance reform in the United States in this 59-minute program.

Listen to streaming MP3 of This American Life "Other People's Money"

Media: 20 Years Ago Today

TORONTO, ONTARIO - One of the reasons that I kept this blog going in 2009 was the fact that I knew I had a lot of twenty year-old material that could be recycled. In 1989, prompted originally by extra time at home provided by snow days, I ended up recording 395 audio commentaries of about two minutes in length, a practice that I kept up, if less prolifically, for four more years until I became an undergraduate. My model for these commentaries were The Osgood Files, a set of four, two and a half minute commentaries that Charles Osgood had been producing for the CBS Radio Network since 1987 that continue to this day. (Osgood had been doing reporting and commentaries in some form for CBS since 1971.) I called my flagship commentaries "The Glitchon Files," usually recorded in the morning before school.

By chance, 1989 turned out to be a pretty incredible year to be doing commentaries on the news, with the Tiananmen Square Massacre in China, the invasion of Panama, and the fall of the Berlin Wall among major world events. Most of the time, I would write up my script ahead of time and then record it (I once even did a commentary on my routine for doing a commentary), but sometimes I would simply take out my tape recorder and try to do a coherent summary of a breaking event as information came in about it. Most often, I would do this for a report that I only did certain days that I called "Highlight," recorded in the early evening.

Such was the case twenty years ago today. Just one hour after what came to be known as the Loma Prieta earthquake took place, I did a "Highlight" report without a script, the core of which was the following:
At 5:03 pm Pacific Daylight Time today, an earthquake hit and shook up all of northern California, especially the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Area. The quake was felt as far as Sacramento and 120 miles away in Fresno and has caused major damage. A fifty foot portion of the Bay Bridge has collapsed in the double-deck section. Candlestick Park itself where the baseball game was to take place seems to be structurally sound; we know that because there were so many reporters there to cover the World Series. It seems ironic that everyone was there ready to cover the world series and then another very newsworthy event occurred. There are many fires including the Berkeley Library which is on fire which is unfortunate considering what a university library contains. There are several fires in northern and northwestern San Francisco, and the Ferry Building, one of the buildings that survived the 1906 earthquake is still intact, except for its flag pole. It is unknown at this time if anyone has been injured, but it seems inevitable. There were people spotted in the bay but a Coast Guard cutter has picked them up. It's a very sad day in the San Francisco Bay Area.
The report seems rather disjointed and incorrect in its emphasis twenty years later until one considers that it was filed just an hour after event from a location about 850 miles away.

Much of the information I had reported came from the radio station that at the time called itself KCBS Newsradio 74. Local station KIRO in Seattle had chosen to directly broadcast the feed from KCBS for quite some time, giving people in the Seattle area the same information that those directly affected by the quake were receiving. Television images of the collapsed section of the Bay Bridge, and what later proved to be the collapsed "Cypress structure" of I-880 in Oakland were repeated throughout the evening, as the sun soon set on San Francisco within a couple hours of the earthquake.

While this blog in many ways is the reincarnation of "The Glitchon Files," one of the nice things about this medium is that it is much easier to cite sources in the Internet era, as many may simply be linked to, and others can be referenced with less distraction than in an audio commentary.

I've missed most of the major event anniversaries from 1989 to present again in this blog in favor of contemporary thoughts. However, don't expect that this entry will be the last to draw on my old material--there will be 20-year old material through 2013, and then it will all start being 25 years old.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Heritage: Hurricane Hazel Night

Newspapers from 1954 covering the ravages of Hurricane Hazel in the Toronto, Ontario were on display at Hurricane Hazel Night at the Lambton House on 16-October-2009

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I walked along the Humber River near my residence earlier today and found the water level to be lower than average for this time of year. That was not the case fifty-five years earlier, as Hurricane Hazel caused the Humber to rise to record levels and leading to the loss of dozens of lives. Those events were commemorated at Hurricane Hazel Night at the Lambton House earlier this evening.

Technically speaking, Toronto was not hit by a hurricane on 15-16-October-1954. The storm which had been Category IV Hurricane Hazel was an extratropical storm that had merged with a cold front and stalled right over the Greater Toronto Area after traveling more than a thousand miles across land from the Carolina Coast of the United States. Still, it was a hundred year storm for the Toronto area with sustained winds of 80 mph (reports were not in the metric system then) and 5.4 inches of rain collected at Malton Airport in 24 hours.

The editions of the Toronto Star on 16- and 17-October-1954 showed some of the damage from Hurricane Hazel, as seen on 16-October-2009.

Much of that water flowed into the Humber River, causing serious damage all along the river's length, with the most serious losses of life in Woodbridge, Weston, and along the border between York and Etobicoke (the latter three all parts of Toronto today). The Humber was the chosen focus by historians Madeleine McDowell and Michael Freeman, who made the presentation tonight at the Lambton House. They set out to record the human stories that occurred along the Humber River during the hurricane, many of which appeared on a DVD produced some years ago. Portions of that DVD and some more recent interviews were presented tonight.

One of the best-known stories was told on the DVD by a fireman working on that night. A teenage couple that Friday night had been caught by the rising waters of the Humber not far downriver from Dundas Street, and a group of five volunteer fire-fighters had gone out to try to rescue them. The rising waters trapped those fire-fighters, and another team from Etobicoke tried to go in to rescue them to no avail, barely escaping themselves. The first fire truck was found after the waters receded near the Old Mill, and metal from the truck was used for a plaque that now sits where the truck was consumed by the flood waters.

The original broadsheet from 16-October-1954 was compared with a 2004 reproduction at Hurricane Hazel Night held at the Lambton House on 16-October-2009

Another of the displays this evening were all the major Toronto papers from the days after the Hurricane. I was especially drawn to a story covered in several papers of a man, identified in the Star as lineman Gerard Elliott, age 33, who was hanging from a willow tree over the Humber during the storm. While police radio traffic reported in the Globe and Mail made it sound like nobody thought he would hang on, somehow he did until the water receded enough for him to safely drop out of the tree and wade to safety; he was a survivor. 81 other people across Ontario were not as fortunate. Bodies washed down the Humber were found all the way on the New York side of Lake Ontario.

One of the things I had wondered about was what routes were actually open with all the damage from the storm, and this was well-covered by the newspapers. With all bridges below Highway 7 out except St. Phillips, Dundas Street, and Bloor Street (and a hastily-constructed Bailey bridge for buses and pedestrians at the Lakeshore), traffic was a mess for a week (and beyond) and the Canadian National reported 14,000 people taking trains across the Humber into Toronto instead of the normal 1,000.

The Lambton House is always collecting more stories about what happened during Hurricane Hazel. If you have a story to share, please contact the Madeleine or Michael at the Lambton House. And, rest assured that there will be another Hurricane Hazel night to collect stories next year.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Culture: Sticking Out and Blending In

Journalist Jan Wong spoke during Heritage Toronto's "Great Toronto Roast" at the Carlu on 13-October-2009

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Controversial journalist Jan Wong appears rather frequently in local media here in Toronto. For that matter, she appears in national media in Canada rather frequently as well, with recent stints as Friday host of CBC Radio One's "The Current" and recent interviews on CBC Television's flagship newscast, "The National." From all these appearances, I have to admit I thought I had an idea of who Jan Wong was, and I wasn't expecting her presentation at the "Great Toronto Roast" put on by Heritage Toronto last Tuesday night to be something that would resonate with me. I was wrong.

Wong opened her speech by noting that she was the only non-performer in the "Roast" (I guess a politician like former mayor David Crombie counts as a performer), which seemed right out of her highly self-aware persona. Of course, this discounted the fact that journalists are trained to tell stories, and telling stories was supposed to be a major portion of the evening.

Wong was the only of the "roasters" to spend a lot of time on the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) during her presentation. Considering the number of Torontonians that use the TTC, and that the TTC operating subsidy is about 15% of the city's operating budget, depending on the year, this emphasis was appropriate during a roast. There was a certain irony, though, in a rather physically small individual choosing to roast the fact that TTC seats are only seventeen inches wide, smaller than most other North American transit systems. Furthermore, she pointed out, the other cities that use seventeen inch seats (such as Montreal and Boston) do not usually have three seats together as is common on Toronto subway cars, meaning that only Torontonians are faced with having to be in the middle of three small seats.

What really resonated with me, though, was a story she told about her time working at the Globe and Mail newspaper. She noted that she was a visible minority, and thus people were always greeting her within the building. At lunch time, she would often take the relatively-short walk to Chinatown. She would run into the same people from the Globe and Mail in Chinatown, and they would ignore her completely. While she stuck out within the building, in Chinatown she was just part of the background.

In Toronto, one doesn't have to be a visible minority to understand this concept. The predominance of ethnic neighbourhoods means that even someone like me can stick out like a sore thumb in the Corso Italia or Little Portugal just as easily as they can in Koreatown or Chinatown. It isn't just about ethnicity, either. I've gone from wearing steel-toed shoes and overalls into wearing dress shoes and a suit often enough to know where I'm going to fit in or stick out in both attires.

That ability to move between blending in to the background and sticking out may be greater in Toronto than even other large cities. It took Jan Wong to point that out during the "Great Toronto Roast."

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Media: Remembering Jingles

TORONTO, ONTARIO - People claiming that broadcast media do not influence them clearly must be very different people than I am. The number of advertising jingles that I know in their entirely from more than twenty years ago is downright scary.

Just as a short list of the top of my head, I remember 30-second jingles used by Safeway, Oberto meats, Cooper tires, and even Ford Motor Company's "Buckle Up!" safety promotions run around holiday weekends, all in the 1980's. Perhaps you consider this to be insane, but if you are at least 30 years old, I bet you can sing the Oscar Meyer jingle.

Furthermore, if you can sing any music that was popular in the 1980's, I fail to see how that is significantly different than remembering a commercial jingle from a cognitive perspective. As a significant listener to commercial radio in that era, I probably heard the advertising spots more than I heard the music, so it isn't surprising that I would remember the ads if I remember the songs.

I can't seem to remember any ads that I've heard here in Ontario in the past few years. There's a simple explanation for that--I listen to almost no commercial radio these days (except through commercial-free podcasts or downloaded files in which commercials can be skipped), only public radio, and hence I don't hear any advertisements. Since I don't own a television, I don't see television ads very often, either.

That fact should be putting a scare into advertisers trying to reach my demographic. There's no sure way to do it anymore--television channels at best reach niche audiences. If television has problems with niches, the Internet is that problem squared. While public radio underwriting in the United States may reach us, the announcement is generally not memorable the way a jingle used to be. Newspapers? You're kidding, right?

No wonder there seem to be billboards on every possible space in this city and wrap ads on everything that moves in this world. They have to reach a general audience somehow--and if my brain is any indication, they'll be trying to belt out noise pollution with jingles at passers-by before long, hoping we'll remember.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Culture: "That's My Toronto" Reality

The performers in Heritage Toronto's "Great Toronto Roast" posed on-stage after the performance at the Carlu in Toronto, Ontario on 13-October-2009

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Tonight was Heritage Toronto's annual awards and lecture night, held at the Carlu in downtown Toronto, Ontario. Instead of a lecture, to mark the 175th anniversary of the city of Toronto, it was decided to "roast and toast" the city. The event turned out to be quite entertaining, with some news made (Mayor David Miller announcing the intention to create a city museum in Old City Hall and Special Achievement Award winner Steven A. Otto donating $250,000 to the Friends of Fort York). More coverage will be forthcoming on this blog in the coming days.

The "Great Toronto Roast" itself was divided into six vignettes. One of the six speakers and performers was comedian Freddy Proia. His underlying theme was "that's my Toronto," telling stories and what we hope are made up comedy bits from growing up in Scarborough and living across the city, each ending with the line "that's my Toronto." Some of the bits were especially funny, such the GPS navigator that changes its mannerisms based on the ethnicity of the neighbourhood that it is passing through, or his tale of breaking a table at a restaurant on the Danforth.

Freddy Proia preformed at the "Great Toronto Roast" at the Carlu in Toronto, Ontario on 13-October-2009

One of his bits compared having dinner at sunset in the "360" restaurant high on the CN Tower with a beggar using a Tim Horton's cup to beg for money at Yonge-Dundas Square. "That's my Toronto," he stated. Only minutes later, the event ended, and the multitudes dressed in suits and reasonably expensive dresses headed for the exits of the Carlu. After a ride down seven stories in an elevator and an escalator ride down one more level toward the subway, I found myself in a different world. The dress shoes had given way to beaten-up sneakers, and the very Tim Horton's cups described in Proia's act were pointed at me by two people who looked like they hadn't showered in some time.

That's my Toronto, indeed. There was no denying it.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Politics: Where's the New Media?

TORONTO, ONTARIO - A year ago, the mainstream media stood in awe of how then-Senator Barack Obama was using social media on the Internet to move his presidential campaign forward. Even the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's magazine, Technology Review, came out with a feature article explaining how Obama's campaign had set up its infrastructure and how its use of social media had been different than that of his rivals. That article speculated how "MyBO," Obama's analog of MySpace, and other resources might be used if he won the presidency to create a new level of citizen engagement in presidential initiatives. Obama may have become the 44th president of the United States, but eight months into his presidency there is no sign of any effective use of social media, and arguably right-wing opposition has been much more effective in its use of modern technology.

What happened? There's no surprise in the reality that governing is different--and much harder--than campaigning. A key aspect of Obama's effective use of social media was calling people to action--tweets and other text messages from the campaign told their supporters what to do to help support Obama. When it was time to unite the party after Hillary Clinton suspended the campaign, word went out to invite Clinton supporters to unity parties. When it was time to counteract specific Republican disinformation, accurate information was sent out with instructions in how to spread it. People are willing to take such actions in a time-limited campaign, but not so willing to do so in their daily lives. So, it was clear that less advantage could be taken of the social networks built by the campaign during the administration--but using it less often is different than barely using it at all, which is what has seemed to happen. Practically the only outward change over previous administrations has been that the weekly radio address has appeared on YouTube.

The biggest factor seems to have been the strategy taken by the administration for passing legislation. Most prominently on the issue of health care, but really for every legislative initiative except some of the early, emergency economic measures, the Obama administration has made the decision to let legislators hash out the details of the legislation into a form that could actually pass Congress. Where many presidents would have proposed legislation and then let Congress change it, Obama has acquiesced to the reality that most details are hashed out by Congress anyway and let them do it from the start under the apparent idea that it would cost the President less political capital and that it would make the legislation more likely to pass. This may yet prove to be an effective legislative strategy (or perhaps a failure), but in taking the initiative away from the administration, the onus for building support for legislative specifics is also taken away, and thus there is no reason to exercise the citizen's network utilizing social media.

However, one of the most effective things about the Obama campaign's social media was that there was centralized messaging emanating from the strategists (through text messages and the web site), but the implementation of citizen action was largely taken care of by the people out in the field deciding on their own how to take the supportive actions. The campaign would say to contact five friends and inform them about Obama's economic plan, say, but it wouldn't specify how to contact them or exactly what to say. Without the centralized messaging, the network isn't empowered to do anything. Without specific legislative initiatives, there is no centralized messaging.

Most dramatically in the health care debate, this has left the door wide open for opponents to activate their own networks, whether social media-based or very old-fashioned. When the opposition started gaining traction with their points, Obama's network was left to sit on its hands with no message to spread in response. The result has been that the Obama "magic" has been seemingly completely absent.

There seem to be two obvious ways for the Democrats to re-capture the buzz of the campaign. If all the initiative is to be left to Congress, then the Congressional leadership needs to develop its own social media networks to help it pressure its own members and take advantage of the activism and concern that does exist in the country, even if it will be less intense than during a quadrennial campaign. Considering that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi can't seem to agree on anything, this doesn't seem to be a realistic possibility.

The other option is for the President to get back involved in the process directly, start fighting for specifics in the legislation, and activate his network to pressure Congress to back up his positions. Arguably, the President may have been waiting for the right moment when the legislation was well enough formed to proceed with strategy. The trade-off is that every day of waiting allows the opposition to keep spreading its message.

One big story in the wake of Obama's election was whether or not he could keep his BlackBerry mobile device. The Secret Service did not find it secure enough, but Obama wanted it to avoid being in a media bubble. In the end, a compromise was reached in which the President was able to use a specially-secured mobile device, but the upshot seemed to be that something had been lost in the battle and the modifications. If the President does not want that story to become symbolic of his use of social media, he needs to start activating social networks before his legislative initiatives suffer any more than they already have from the networks' absence.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Photos: Last Heritage Toronto Walks, 2009

The Heritage Toronto walk through the Beach(es) made a stop at Ivan Forrest Park on 4-October-2009

TORONTO, ONTARIO - With the Heritage Toronto walking season now complete and the annual Awards Ceremony coming up on Tuesday, this week's update to my photo site completes coverage of Heritage Toronto walks from this season. Two walks, one through the Davenport neighbourhood on 13-September-2009, and the final one of the year, through the Beach(es) neighbourhood on 4-October-2009, are presented.

Heritage: Homemade Movies

A projector was prepared to show home movies shot in and around what was then the Village of Swansea now in Toronto, Ontario, at the meeting of the Swansea Historical Society on 7-October-2009

TORONTO, ONTARIO - The Swansea Historical Society opened its 2009-10 season of meetings on 7-October-2009 with a presentation on home movies. In recent years, the historical value of home movies has been realized because of the details that they include in the coverage of everyday life in an era or specific neighbourhood, and because of their durability as a medium.

Groups have sprung up across the world to assist in the preservation of home movies, and the primary group around Toronto is Homemade Movies. Two representatives of that group visited the Swansea Historical Society and came with a variety of movies from around Toronto in the 1950's which were supplemented by those of members.

One of the home movies was of the Royal Visit to Toronto in 1959, which compared with official movies of this event that I had seen was a nice reminder of just how perplexing parades can be to the common person trying to stand on the sidewalk and just take in the event. Two major fires in Swansea were shown, dramatically showing the extent of the flames and volunteer firefighters at work. In another film, the grocery store in Bloor West Village, now a No Frills, was shown not only to be a Loblaw's but to have streamline moderne architecture in that era. There was even an appearance of a new Ford Edsel in the movie, backing out of a driveway and heading down Kennedy Avenue in Toronto.

A Keystone Commander projector from the 1950's once owned by Jimmy Nelson was on display at the Swansea Historical Society meeting on 7-October-2009

For those interested in seeing more historical home movies or in preserving their own movies, Homemade Movies and the Revue Cinema in Toronto are putting on a Home Movie Day on Saturday, 17-October-2009. See the flyer link for more information.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Radio Pick: Frist and Dean on Health Care

TORONTO, ONTARIO - In a week of "progress" on health care reform in the United States, it seems appropriate to pick out for my weekly radio pick an intelligent discussion of the topic aiming for finding compromises. Such a conversation occurred when doctor-politicians Bill Frist and Howard Dean appeared on WBUR's On Point. Not only was the discourse civil in the 45-minute program, but the two actually appeared to agree or be in striking distance of agreeing on a number of points, something rare in radio coverage of the topic of late.

Listen to MP3 of On Point "Frist and Dean on Health Care"

Friday, October 9, 2009

Politics: An Anti-Muslim Government

TORONTO, ONTARIO - One thing I neglected to mention in my post earlier this week on the best place for Muslims to live is that while I crossed paths with quite a number of Muslims in the United States and had conversations with them about the impact of their faith, I have never had such a conversation in Canada. In fact, I suspect that no Canadian Muslims are reading this blog, either, since neither public nor private comments were generated pointing out that the post missed a major point--Canadians as individual citizens may be less fearful and more accepting of Muslims than their southern neighbors, but the government has clearly demonstrated a bias against them in matters of diplomacy and citizenship.

The examples of this apparent bias just in the past two years could fill a week of these posts. Omar Khadr remains the only western prisoner remaining in the Guantanamo Bay detention camp run by the United States. Would the Canadian government really have ignored court rulings saying that they had to seek Khadr's extradition if he had been of European descent? I doubt it. Most recently, Suaad Mohamud was arrested in Kenya for trying to return to Canada because officials suspected she was really her sister. It's unthinkable that the same thing would have happened to someone of European descent. For more examples, just check out this essay from the Ryerson Free Press.

Opposition leaders have tried to force the government to act or explain itself in cases including those of Khadr and Mohamud to no avail. Some, including the editors of the Ryerson Free Press, have suggested that Muslims (and also all those of Arab descent) are treated as less than citizens by the Canadian government. Whether true or not, certainly a number of Muslims do feel that this is the case.

Of course, it wouldn't take all that much to change the situation. No laws need to change. A new government--or even this the current Conservative one, if it so chose--could make a point of publicly stating that there is only one kind of Canadian citizenship that includes Muslims, take action on open cases like Khadr, and then the attractiveness of Canada for Muslims would shine through. Michael Ignatieff, the Liberal Party leader, has used similar language in some recent speeches. However, with the current plunge of the Liberal Party in the polls, a change in outward stance of the government is not likely.

So, regardless of the suitability of the society on a day-to-day basis, the perception (and perhaps reality) that the government is biased against Muslims probably ensures that they prefer the United States or other countries over Canada, completely debunking my thesis from the post earlier this week.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Heritage: The Last Walk of the Year

Heritage Toronto's final walk of the year, through the Beaches (or Beach) neighbourhood, started at the Beaches Library on 4-October-2009

TORONTO, ONTARIO - All good things must come to an end, and the series of more than fifty walks this spring, summer, and autumn put on many weekends by Heritage Toronto ended this past weekend. The final walk of the year was through the Beach or Beaches neighbourhood on Sunday, 4-October-2009, led by librarian and local resident Barbara Myrvold.

The Beaches Exchange, now an apartment building, had once been the main telephone exchange for the Bell Telephone Company, viewed on 4-October-2009

Perhaps the most contentious issue in the neighbourhood is its name. Originally, it was the Beaches, as the three communities of Balmy Beach, Kew Beach, and Woodbine Beach (later, there was Scarboro Beach) were separated and distinct. Later, after the public beach area was unified with the Eastern Beaches Park in 1932, there was a concerted effort to codify the unity by calling the area the Beach, but both names remain in use to this day. Even an apartment building that was once a telephone exchange has changed names back and forth between the Beaches Exchange and the Beach Exchange. As it is an older name, I'll prefer the Beaches name for the remainder of this posting about a heritage walk.

Of course, "The Beach" matched the local practice of considering local locations by a singular "the" name as if there were no others in the world. "The Boardwalk," "The Club" (for the Balmy Beach Club), "The Cottage" (for the Kew Williams House), and "The Goof" (for a local restaurant) were just a few of the examples pointed out.

A style of multiplex essentially unique to the Beaches in Toronto was demonstrated by 52-54 Glen Manor Drive on 4-October-2009

Besides the presence of a beach not separated from the neighbourhood by a large thoroughfare or railroad tracks, the Beaches has a unique feel within Toronto because of some distinctive architecture. There are a preponderance of two-story row houses with columns in front and covered porches, a sight not often seen elsewhere in Toronto.

The Leuty lifesaving station was a symbol of the neighbourhood, constructed in 1920 and temporarily isolated by beach construction on 4-October-2009

Of course, the neighbourhood is called the Beaches for a reason, and much of the tour focused on the history along the Lake Ontario shore. Besides the establishment of the Eastern Beaches Park that really defined the shore line as one public space in 1932, the walk covered the Kew Beach Park Boat House, the Scarboro Beach Amusment Park, the Alfresco Lawn Houses, and the Boardwalk. The Boardwalk remains wood to this day (unlike a similar feature in the western beaches) largely because parents complained that a plastic test section woke up their children sleeping in strollers.

The Heritage Toronto walking season ended on 4-October-2009 as Barbara Myrvold wrapped up the Beaches walk at the W.D. Young Memorial Fountain, dedicated to a physician that did of influenza.

A well-planned event, the Beaches walk ended exactly on time in Kew Gardens. It's time to turn to other pursuits until the spring arrives with a new season of Heritage Toronto walks.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Culture: Polarized Opinions Not Just in Politics

TORONTO, ONTARIO - The recent David Letterman controversy over his inappropriate work relationships and victimhood at the hands of a blackmailer was not something I planned to comment about here. However, WBZ analyst Jon Keller put his finger on what really bothered me about the episode in his Tuesday commentary--the audience reaction. Why in the world was his studio audience laughing about something that was fundamentally despicable on several levels and was not at all funny--as Letterman himself pointed out at one point?

In my opinion, Keller rightly blamed the laughter as Letterman partisans "circling the wagons" around their favorite entertainer. However, rather than considering it "idiocy" as Keller passed it off, I think it is symbolic of a broader cultural phenomenon. Much as North Americans now choose their news and other media sources and only believe what those sources say, whether true or not, the same thing is starting to happen in the cultural realm. We are choosing the music, comedy, and other entertainment figures that we believe in, and then defending whatever they do--or deciding we don't like a certain figure and pile on every potentially negative story about them.

The phenomenon isn't surprising. As politics has become polarized, and the line between politics and entertainment has become blurred, it naturally follows that entertainment would become polarized. From the left, Michael Moore has led the way, making highly politicized movies that often played fast and loose with the truth in the name of story-telling. From the right, Glenn Beck may be the epitome of the trend. Five years ago, Beck used to promote his radio show as being the "fusion of entertainment and information." That information was always somewhat political, but has turned much more so in recent years, and the promotion of the show as "entertainment" has disappeared while the entertainment element has actually become more prominent.

The parallels between sports and entertainment also make the phenomenon quite understandable. We are used to rooting for teams or individual players, and against all of their rivals. As the language of sports is used more and more in entertainment--I doubt Beyoncé and Taylor Swift considered themselves "rivals" until the media chose to portray them that way at this year's MTV Video Music Award--it becomes natural to choose "sides" amongst entertainment shows and personalities.

Thus, in late night television, there are Letterman people, Leno people, Ferguson people, and O'Brien people, amongst others. The Letterman people are a subset of those that go to the tapings of his shows, and they are the ones that would defend whatever he would do and will laugh even at what the rest of the world considers to be creepy statements.

Keller also rightly drew parallels with the Roman Polanski case--defenders don't seem to care about the details and implications of what he did thirty years ago, and his detractors also don't care about the details of the rape and furthermore don't care about what the victim now thinks. Everyone I've heard or talked to who has an opinion about the case seems to base it entirely on their view of Polanski independent of the case, or of their view of statutory rape, independent of the case.

This polarization in culture is just as dangerous as polarization in politics. North Americans are losing their critical thinking skills, unable to see nuances in a situation and come to conclusions on a case-by-case basis. We've seen what it has done to politics in the United States in the complete inability of the two parties to come to any agreeable compromises in the Senate. Before long, politics and religion won't be the only topics that people can't talk about in polite conversation--and that will make life much less fulfilling, and much harder for anything to get done.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Blog: New Web Site Colors

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Regular users of my personal home page may have noticed that I changed the color scheme this week. Considering that the style sheet (which defines various aspects of the appearance) used on my personal site was more than ten years old, I had been contemplating a change for some time and decided to finally do it.

The old scheme (see the Internet Wayback Machine for a 2007 rendition) was actually based on the corporate colors of US Genomics, my employer at the time. As I served as the webmaster for the company in that era, I had a variety of software widgets and tools set up to work with compatible colors, so it was simply easier for me to use the same set of colors for my personal web page. At the time, Cascading Style Sheets were a relatively new method for establishing the basics of a page's appearance, and I actually used them on my personal site before they ever appeared on the company web site.

One of the ideas of the Cascading Style Sheet was that they made it quite easy to change the look of multiple web pages without having to modify any of the pages individually. Thus, it is remarkable that I didn't even bother to take advantage of that capability for more than a decade, which is certainly an eternity on the Internet.

When I first started thinking about changing the appearance of the page long ago, I was just going to change the background color to a nice shade of gray instead of green, change the logo at the top of the page, and keep the rest of the color scheme the same. However, for some time I have been looking for ways to incorporate the "monad" or "yin-yang" symbol into more of my work.

The "monad" is significant to me as it was used as the corporate symbol of the Northern Pacific Railway which employed my recently-deceased paternal grandfather for nearly four decades. However, its origins actually lay in 11th century China, where philosopher Chow Lien Ki used it to demonstrate the concept of yin and yang in balance. The traditional Chinese version included a dark dot in the light area and a light dot in the dark area, to show that not only were yin and yang parts of the same thing, but parts of one were in the other. The embodiment of this concept of balance, which I find to be almost completely lacking in modern North American society, has made the monad very attractive to me as a personal symbol. The Northern Pacific Railway Historical Society has put on the web a pamphlet published by the railway explaining more of the history and meaning, and the story of how it came to be used as a corporate logo.

When I sat down to change my web page, it was clear to me that I wanted the top graphic to incorporate the NP "monad" logo. The easiest way to make that work was to adopt the diesel locomotive paint scheme used for freight service by the Northern Pacific, which was mostly black with yellow stripes and white and red highlights. That is the color scheme that appears today on my web page.

The actual monad appearing on my home page right now is derived from a picture of the Northern Pacific logo taken at the Northern Pacific Museum in Toppenish, Washington. In the future, I may switch to a more stylized version incorporating the center dots--but the red and black colors used by the Northern Pacific will remain in any event. It's my way to call for understanding of the concept of yin and yang in today's society, and to honor the memory of my grandfather.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Culture: Real Best Place for Muslims to Live?

TORONTO, ONTARIO - In a recent opinion piece in the Christian Science Monitor, George Washington University lecturer Dr. Merve Kavakci made the case that the United States may be the best place in the world for Muslims to live. Kavakci pointed out that Muslims are able to exercise their religion more freely in the United States than many Muslim countries. As he put it:
Think about it: In Turkey, where the vast majority of the population is Muslim, you will not find a lawyer with a beard or a student at a university wearing a head scarf, but you can find plenty in New York City. In Tunisia, you won't see a religiously dressed physician at university hospitals – but you can in Alabama.
Most of Kavakci's arguments focused on the legal rights that Muslims--and everyone else--has in the United States. Yet, I'm not so certain that I'd really want to be a Muslim in the United States. Last Sunday, God Talk with Brent Walters from KGO Newstalk 810 in San Francisco spent three hours discussing Islam. Following up on an idea that had come up many times previously on his weekly show, he opened with the question "Why is it that people are afraid of Muslims in the United States?"

The callers were revealing. Even in an area regarded as one of the most progressive in the United States, nobody questioned the premise of the question--it was accepted that Muslims were feared. Some callers demonstrated gross misunderstanding of the faith that Walter tried to address, most significantly the idea of the "infidel." Christians and Jews, as "people of the book," are not "infidels" to the Muslim. The underlying theme brought out many times over the course of the broadcast was that radical leaders were defining many faiths--not just Islam--inappropriately in the media, leading to broad misunderstandings.

The discussion rang true to me. There were Muslims in several of my dorms during my undergraduate years at Stanford University. It was clear to me that they had to constantly fight to be understood. Even as someone sensitive to their struggles, I sometimes contributed to the problem. As the editor of a weekly news summary that was fairly widely distributed on several college campuses, I would sometimes (usually very late on my Saturday night deadline) use "Muslim" when "Islamist" or a non-religious term like "radical" would have been the appropriate term, and there were multiple times I needed to send out a correction. The culture was so strong that I had to be on constant alert to not repeat mistakes made by other media organizations.

At the time, other than the individual efforts of the Muslims I knew, there seemed to be little organized effort to promote mutual understanding. That came out as a theme in the God Talk show on Sunday as well--Walters himself was trying to educate his audience, but he could point to few other places in the media where that was taking place. If I were a Muslim in the United States, the fact that the majority population feared my faith and efforts to promote mutual understanding were so few and far between, that would disquiet me, if not downright scare me.

There is at least one high-profile effort to promote mutual understanding in Canada. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation runs a situation comedy entitled Little Mosque on the Prairie. The premise of the show is the struggle of Muslims to live a substantially non-Muslim world in the fictional town of Mercy, Saskatchewan. While the show is fundamentally a comedy, and rarely delves deeply into the cultural struggles, that's rather the point. The show is showing a variety of Muslim and non-Muslim characters interacting and learning about each other, showing that everyone's struggles are fundamentally similar. That probably does more to reduce fear of Muslims in Canada than anything other than interacting with Muslim neighbors could do.

Thus, I would take Kavakci's thesis and extend it one point further. The best place for Muslims to live just might be Canada--where they have the same civil rights they also enjoy in the United States, but there are at least some efforts to ensure that they will not be feared and might be better understood by the population at large.