Monday, November 30, 2009

Radio Pick: Taliaferro Defends Woods

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This one won't make my weekly radio pick in part because it will be gone from the archives by Sunday, but if you want to hear a fundamentally entertaining hour of talk radio, check out KGO's Ray Taliaferro doing a rare fill-in for Pat Thurston and defending his "brother" Tiger Woods. It's not intellectually fulfilling and some of callers are remarkably oblivious to Taliaferro's shtick, but in terms of pure hilarity, I hadn't heard an hour like this in a very long time. Taliaferro may be 73, but he is still capable of excellent radio.

Hat tip to VanMan on the ba.broadcast newsgroup for alerting me to this hour

Listen to MP3 of KGO's Ray Taliaferro defending Tiger Woods

Culture: Put the Swiss Flag on It

In a classic Swiss scene out the window of a train near Stans, Switzerland on 22-May-2006, a mountain loomed in the distance and a flag stood in a yard at center

TORONTO, ONTARIO - It's hard to make light of the referendum results in Switzerland yesterday. The 57% of Swiss that voted to ban minaret construction, and the 68% of voters that declined to approve a weapons export ban, have probably tarnished the international reputation of their country more than they realize. Yet, I'm so tired of heavy news about torture, war criminals, police killings, and troop deployments that seem so inappropriate for this season that I am going offer a flippant suggestion--the FOUR minarets in all of Switzerland would have prevented all this had there been a Swiss flag flying right next to them.

As the former employee of a Swiss company, I've spent a fair amount of time in Switzerland. I've been in all 26 cantons. I probably would have moved to Zurich had I been offered a position there. It may not be the most welcoming country culturally (proven this week), but much like Canada, it knows how to leave people alone, and thus attracts exiles from around the world. In fact, the cultural emphasis on personal freedoms rivals that of the United States in some ways. It may have expensive food prices, but it still enjoys a high standard of living, and is a clean, beautiful place to live. And, as a railroad enthusiast, it's close to heaven. I ended up passing through all the cantons in part because I was trying to ride all the legendary railways in the country.

In all those travels around Switzerland, one thing that was remarkable--even to a United States citizen who sees plenty of flags--is that the Swiss flag is everywhere. Even in the most remote area of the Alps, the classic scene out the window of a train is of a large home with a flag in front of it. (I could have taken many pictures like the example at the head of this entry.) It is hard to go a kilometer anywhere in the country without a reminder of what country one is in.

I was once wandering the main hall of the then-new corporate headquarters of my former employer in a Zurich suburb with a German colleague. Noting the five or six dozen Swiss flags of various sizes lining the passageway, he turned to me and said, "International company." I never felt more relieved in my life than when I was able to tell an elderly woman at an investor demonstration that indeed, the core of the product I was showing her was manufactured in Switzerland, about 20 kilometers away, and not where I worked in Boston.

So, really all the Muslim community in Switzerland needed to do was ignore the separation of church and state and fly a flag with their minarets. The Swiss People's Party wouldn't have been able to touch them.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Photos: Roundhouse Park Progress, 2009

Dave Wetherald and Arno Martens moved the final pre-fabricated switch into position in Toronto's Roundhouse Park on 8-November-2009.

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's update of my photo site is a round-up of pictures taken at work sessions of the Toronto Railway Historical Association. Progress from May through November 2009 at the Toronto Railway Heritage Centre at the John Street Roundhouse in downtown Toronto, Ontario included the construction of the vast majority of the miniature railway, the first revenue freight delivery, testing of the miniature steam locomotive, and the start of caboose restoration.

Margin Notes: Lights, Winter, Pretzels, Palin

The Toronto Railway Historical Association's Whitcomb diesel #1 was nicely lit by new LED lights at the John Street Roundhouse in Toronto, Ontario on 28-November-2009

TORONTO, ONTARIO - As the John Street Roundhouse and surrounding Roundhouse Park here continue to look more and more like a legitimate public attraction, LED lights have been installed outside the roundhouse doors that shine toward the center of the turntable. The result is a very attractive illumination of the Toronto Railway Historical Association's switching locomotive, Whitcomb #1, sitting at the center of the turntable as seen above.

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The early winter scene at the Humber River in Toronto, Ontario was observed as Canadian Pacific Expressway Train #122 passed on 29-November-2009

Such views are possible earlier and earlier in the evening as the winter solstice approaches. It may not technically be winter yet, but in terms of foliage, it already looks like winter. Compare the Humber River in mid-October with a view taken earlier today, with same train passing.

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The winter season is a travel season for many people, and some of you may have noticed the overhaul of the Amtrak web site in the United States. As I looked at various travel possibilities, I found one thing very confusing, the symbol used when snack service was available on a given train. It took me a long time to figure out that the symbol was supposed to be a pretzel--not a butterfly, a Mardi Gras mask, or Sarah Palin's hair.

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I've been avoiding any mention of Sarah Palin since I just don't think she warrants attention at this time, but the CBC satire show This Hour Has 22 Minutes did make her relevant to Canadians. In a piece of ambush journalism (18 minutes into the program), the show managed to get Palin to state that she thinks the Canadian health care system needs more private enterprise. Sigh. I suppose that's her advice for Dubai and Somalia as well?

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Radio Pick: La Marseillaise Changed the World

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's radio pick comes from The Sunday Edition from the CBC.

I have to admit that I've always had a soft spot for the French national anthem, La Marseillaise, not because of any particular affection for France but just because the melody is quite fun to play on the viola. So, when Robert Harris chose to feature it on The Sunday Edition's "20 Pieces of Music That Changed the World", I had to pay attention, and this was a Harris classic. In a 30-minute conversation with host Michael Enright, he not only spoke to the musical elements but to national anthems in general. There should be more such discussions of music on the radio.

Listen to streaming MP3 of The Sunday Edition "Music That Changed the World 18: La Marseillaise"

Politics: What Has Harper Done?

TORONTO, ONTARIO - In the United States, President Obama has gotten a lot of negative press lately for a lack of accomplishments in the office. The epitome of the criticism came nearly two months ago on Saturday Night Live skit, featured in this Fox news report. Fred Armisen as Obama describes his successes as two--jack and squat. However, while Obama may have little to show for his administration to this point, even his opponents would never say that he has been lazy and not trying to advance his agenda. Between the economic collapse, two wars, health care reform, climate change initiatives, and other measures, there is no question what Obama has been trying to do, whether he has accomplished it or not.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been in office far longer than Obama and in fact has been elected twice, in 2006 and 2008. Yet, I cannot think of single significant accomplishment of his government since the 2008 election. A stimulus package was passed, but based on what was happening a year ago (refresh your memory if needed), that only occurred because otherwise the opposition would have toppled his government, not by the government's own initiative. What else? Nothing comes to mind. Go back to the 2006-2008 government, and there are some symbolic domestic measures (declaring Quebec a "nation" and the apology for the native residential schools), but no other notable legislation. It seems to me that far more so than Obama, it is the Harper government that has exactly two accomplishments--jack and squat.

Furthermore, I can't point to what significant legislation the government has even been trying to get through parliament. There's no climate change legislation, or energy policy. There's no change in tax policy. What exactly is this government trying to do? Based on the last publication from my local Member of Parliament, just about everything on the legislative docket is a crime bill of some kind. Liberals claim this is to "scare the public before the next election," but whatever it is, the government itself isn't talking much about it.

It is a major indictment of the opposition Liberals that they have not been able to articulate a vision of doing ANYTHING that might be more popular than the apparent do-nothing stance of the government. It should be easy to build opposition to a government without obvious accomplishments, but they haven't yet done it. Considering how pathetic that is, it is little wonder that the public continues to favor the ruling Conservatives.

For Stephen Harper and the Conservatives, though, the record should be ominous. A government without significant legislation to point to, and no clear articulated vision to advance in the future, can only run on a record of competence and fear of the unknown competence of the opposition. Inevitably, all governments make mistakes and seem incompetent--when that moment comes, the fear seems insignificant. If it continues on its current course, the Harper Conservatives will face such a moment someday--and they will have nobody to blame but themselves.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Media: Remembering YPAHMTS

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Thanks to all the repeat programming that I don't need to hear again around the holidays, I've been spending some time digitizing old radio shows that I had recorded on tape for posterity. In many cases, it became really obvious why I decided to keep these programs. A case in point was the Soundprint episode Young People Against Heavy Metal T-Shirts (YPAHMTS).

For those who would rather read the story of YPAHMTS than listen to the radio show, refer to this article by Matthew Thompson. In it, he explains how the fake movement started, how a variety of media including the Australian Broadcasting Corporation took it seriously, and how even some of his friends helping perpetuate the ruse started to believe in it. Having pulled my own, much less compelling deception in the same era, the story didn't surprise me at all.

To me, the key passage of the whole saga was this:
All the media attention and the talkback response was a crash course in human nature. If an idea comes along that requires patience and thought, most people will skim straight over it, missing the main points, or they'll switch to something else that offers instant drama. Without the discernment and attention span to think matters through, the average punter's focus is stolen by triviality after triviality. You can go a hell of a long way by using an entertaining delivery of emotive words - regardless of the inherent content. If you can do this, you'll find it easy to manipulate and distract people - make them think it's more important that we debate tax reform in Australia than consider what it means to have our government and some of our large corporations happily splitting the profits from the near genocide of the East Timorese people with the Indonesian government.
Insert your favorite contemporary triviality and profundity into the last sentence, and that paragraph could have been written today.

If all this doesn't seem disturbing enough, note that the whole YPAHMTS saga took place more than a decade ago, before the impact of broadband media and the decimation of newspapers and even broadcast media. One might say that bloggers would uncover the ruse much more quickly today, but in the meantime--and it would take some time--I suspect the broadcast media would give it even more play, seeing how it would be an easy topic to produce and their lack of resources makes them fundamentally lazier in choosing topics.

Whether or not the exact YPAHMTS experience could take place today is really not the point. Thompson's fundamental point that vacuous stories told skillfully distract from real issues is an age-old truth, but with the general population more and more distracted by electronic devices and the media having fewer resources to try to break through with substantive, in-depth stories, it is an increasingly serious concern for which I continue to see no solutions, even hard-to-implement ones.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Culture: Cooking for Thanksgiving

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Most United States citizens are already in recovery mode from an enormous Thanksgiving meal. The traditional meal of turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and whatever family recipes supplement the societal conventions lends itself to over-eating and even indigestion. I've only cooked a Thanksgiving dinner once, twelve years ago when I was a graduate student in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and it was the first big group meal I had ever cooked.

The meal came about since I decided it was pointless to travel back across the continent for four days. There were plenty of other folks in my first-year graduate student class in chemical engineering who also had too far to travel and decided to stay, so I ended up with a group of five, which at the time was as many as I thought I might be able to handle.

Somehow, I found a turkey that wasn't too enormous for the group--and for the half-size oven in my dorm room. I suppose it would have made more sense to get a duck, but the Star Market in Allston, Massachusetts had a small turkey with the some of the dark meat removed (or something like that, I don't remember the details) that seemed a reasonable size to me at the time. However, it was so small that my recipe for stuffing was really too large for the bird, and some of it ended up having to be cooked separately.

My memory has faded for more than just the physical reality of the turkey. I know I consulted my mother about how to cook the turkey, but she couldn't teach me how to make gravy remotely and I've paid enough attention at holiday meals since then to understand just how pathetic my effort at the time was; it was a wonder that it tasted like gravy at all and I remember it was quite thin. I also remember that I tried a stuffing recipe that included sausage (I still have it inserted in my copy of Joy of Cooking acquired that Christmas, in fact) and I chose such lean sausage instead of the Jimmy Dean Sage sausage in the recipe that I decided that didn't turn out well, and I vowed to do more traditional stuffing if I ever did a Thanksgiving meal again. Probably the only dishes that were without issue were the mashed potatoes and salad.

Mostly I remember spending the whole day in the tiny dorm kitchen, logistically trying to get everything done. I remember listening to pre-recorded holiday programming on The Connection, which aired on WBUR 90.9 FM from ten to noon at the time, and I distinctly remember tuning in KGO-AM over the Internet at noon and listening to the Thanksgiving charity show hosted live by Bernie Ward as he interviewed people cooking a meal for people just as I was doing.

When people came over for the meal, I remember that it seemed pretty well-received. The turkey turned out amazingly well for a novice; I remember thinking that the white meat, especially, seemed quite moist and tasty. I wasn't brave enough to cook a dessert yet, so we had to settle for ice cream that one of the guests brought. Nobody told me they were sick in the days afterward, so I chalked it up as a success and decided to do it again someday.

By the next year, I was working at a start-up in the Boston area. I ended up working on Thanksgiving Day, so I wasn't cooking a Thanksgiving meal, and instead started doing large dinners on St. Patrick's Day. In fact, I would work on Thanksgiving Day until I started a tradition of leaving the country for Thanksgiving in 2001.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Transport: Walking in to San Jose Airport

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Today, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, is traditionally the busiest travel day of the entire year in the United States. According to AAA estimates, 38.4 million people will travel at least 50 miles over the weekend, 2.3 million of them by aircraft, and about 1.7 million today alone. When I was an undergraduate, I developed a very specific routine for my Thanksgiving travel, flying from San Jose to Seattle on the Wednesday evening and returning on Sunday morning, fairly typical for college students. What was not so typical is that my routine included walking in to San Jose Airport.

The first time I traveled using San Jose Airport for Thanksgiving, I decided to include my first trip on Santa Clara County's light rail system, which had an "Airport" station that I knew to be several blocks from the airport. However, the trouble started well before I even reached the public transportation system, as I found I could not walk very far with my wheel-less suitcase before my hands could not take it anymore. Fortunately, a good samaritan offered me a ride to the train station, and I was able to stick to my schedule--and I've never traveled with without wheels since. I took Caltrain all the way to the end of non-rush hour service at Tamien station, transferred to light rail, and rode up to the Airport station. The light rail had been slow in the rain and was late, so I missed the connecting bus to the airport and the next one would not run for an hour. I decided I'd better walk in to the terminal on Skyport Drive. Even having to rest from my non-ideal suitcase along the way and fighting the fact that there were no sidewalks, I probably made it to the old Terminal C in fifteen minutes, and did catch my flight, which was quite delayed.

The next year, besides having wheeled luggage, I decided the smarter way to get to the airport was to deboard from Caltrain at the Santa Clara station--which has a view of the airport runway--and take what was then the #65 bus to the terminal. While my train was on time, the bus ran about twenty minutes late, and then ran into traffic that was backed up all the way past the end of the runway. After realizing that I could walk faster than the bus was moving and starting to worry about catching my flight, I requested that the driver let me off. I walked along Airport Boulevard from the far southeast end of the runway to Terminal C, looking back to see that I was indeed a fair distance ahead of the bus, and again had no problem catching my delayed fight.

The third year, I left campus behind my intended schedule and thus was one train later than I really wanted to be in arriving at Santa Clara, placing me one bus later heading to the airport. On this year, traffic at the airport was not nearly as bad, but I could see that there was a backup around Terminal A, which the bus would serve before serving Terminal C. Again worried about making my flight, I convinced the driver to let me off in the backup on Airport Boulevard right at Skyport Drive, which was a much shorter walk in to Terminal C than the previous two years, but probably saved me at least twenty minutes of sitting in traffic to reach the terminal I wanted. The move may have been traditional, but it was unnecessary, as my flight was delayed over an hour.

My final year of college, I followed the same travel pattern as the previous two years, using Caltrain to Santa Clara and the now-#10 bus into the airport. Airport traffic was again ridiculous, and the bus--now just a shuttle between Santa Clara Caltrain and the light rail Airport station through the airport--was almost half an hour late. When it ran into traffic along Airport Boulevard, I again got off well back along the runway and walked into Terminal C--this time to find that my flight was delayed two hours.

After that experience, I decided I'd had enough of traveling on the busiest travel day of the year. When I moved to the Boston area the next year, I didn't even try to go home for Thanksgiving, and I would not be with my family for US Thanksgiving again until I was no longer living in Boston.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Politics: Chemistry in Trouble

TORONTO, ONTARIO - The profession of chemistry is in trouble, and it knows it. A well-known pollster in the United Kingdom, Market & Opinion Research International (now Ipsos MORI) has been tracking public opinion of the chemical industry there since the 1970's. There has been a steady, continuous decline in favorable ratings and a steady, continuous rise in unfavorable ratings, with the ratings crossing and more people viewing the industry unfavorably in the mid-1990's. I have yet to see a contradictory survey from any other country, and while "chemistry" polls somewhat better than "chemicals," the trends for "chemistry" are the same. Amongst other things, this has resulted in a steady decline in students studying chemistry in the United Kingdom (a trend not as pronounced in North America) to the point that several universities have eliminated their chemistry departments. It all led to considerable hang-wringing about the future of chemistry played out in the editorial and letters pages of Chemical and Engineering News off-and-on in recent years.

It doesn't matter if chemistry remains the "central science" (how arrogant is that?) in an increasingly multidisciplinary scientific world. It doesn't matter if trends toward "green" energy and "green" industry in general require the skills of chemists and chemical engineers. People don't trust them, and thus won't trust their solutions, either. Whether because of "mad scientist" depictions in entertainment and literature dating back centuries, because of major plant accidents, or because of poor high school teaching making people fear even the basics of chemistry, the problem has gotten to the point that scientists' opinions are only given the weight of non-scientists in policy debates on industry regulations (never mind things like climate change) that really should be based on the science.

The industry isn't doing itself any favors. In the recent debate in city of Seattle, Washington over whether to charge a $0.20 tax on plastic bags, the American Chemistry Council (ACC)--which was once the industry group called the Chemical Manufacturers' Association--gave $1.1 million to the opposition to the tax by their own admission. There was no other purpose to the donation other than to bolster plastic manufacturers--how exactly a tax on bags in one US city was going to do that much damage to the industry is beyond me. Toronto has a $0.05 fee on plastic bags and I haven't noticed much change in behavior from a public that already tended to reuse and recycle bags, very similar to the current behavior in Seattle.

The industry may have won at the polls with an anti-tax argument during a recession, but the public image of the industry was tarnished in the process. Rather than making a scientific argument, they relied on a "taxing is bad, recycling is good" campaign which alienated environmentalists and made it seem like they only cared about their production numbers, not the environment.

As someone with a chemical background (who didn't much care either way on the bag tax, since as stated above I felt the impact would be minimal), I can't fight against this kind of action with any effectiveness. Even very public chemists like Dr. Joe Schwarcz of the McGill Office for Science and Society in Montreal can't counteract these impacts.

The only way these trends would turn around is if a large group of scientists--perhaps the American Chemical Society (ACS)--stood up and took a stand counter to the ACC when it was tarnishing its image, preferably with respect to federal legislation, perhaps in the coming debate over cap-and-trade climate change legislation. However, I don't see that happening. The ACC can outspend the ACS even if they take opposite positions, and with almost-identical names and acronyms, the public will never be able to tell the difference at worst and will be confused at best.

So, near as I can tell, the public will continue to see the chemical industry as self-serving, the public standing of chemistry will continue to fall, and all this means that the "green" advances which may be developed by chemists may be slowed (by lack of government funding) or ignored by a distrusting public. That isn't good for the future of North American society or the world.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Media: Stating the Obvious

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Sometimes it is nice when the obvious is reported as news. In a recent issue of Chemical and Engineering News, an article cited the Chemjobber blog (right there making me wonder what passes for news these days) which noted that the number of industrial positions advertised in the mid-September issue of the trade magazine for chemists and chemical engineers had dropped from nearly 60 in 1989 and just over five in 2007 to ZERO in 2009. It had occurred to me about mid-September that I hadn't responded to an employment ad or pointed a friend to an ad the entire calendar year of 2009. During the turmoil in which the business I was working for was shutting down in 2005, I don't think a single week went by when I didn't at least forward someone a lead from the magazine's classified ads.

An interesting graph that they didn't print, and I am too lazy to generate myself, would be a graph of industrial positions advertised each month that were outside the United States and Europe. It is my impression that the number of these positions (mostly, but not exclusively in China) has remained essentially steadily since the onset of the current recession. So, when it was broadly reported recently that China's growth rate may be 8% for 2009, that didn't really strike me as big news, either. Yet, the obvious had not yet been reported.

There's no big message here. While it is true that print advertising is suffering relative to on-line job boards, in technical fields, trade journals have been relatively inert to the phenomenon compared with newspapers. The number of academic jobs advertised in Chemical & Engineering News has "slowed too" according to the magazine's director of advertising sales, but not nearly as much. (Funny how the article didn't quantitate that.) If the academic advertising decline served as a baseline for the move away from print, then the trends observed are simply reflective of the current job market. The market isn't as bad in China, so the decline in ads isn't as great. It doesn't necessarily mean that the whole chemical industry is moving to China.

We complain a lot about how the media try to sensationalize stories and try to make them mean something profound. If I did that more often (and I have done it--look through the archives), this blog would probably be more widely read. Sometimes, though, it's refreshing just to see something obvious reported at face value, for the record.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Photos: Santa Claus Parade, 2009

The celebrity clowns walked with a VIA Rail Canada Train in the Santa Claus Parade in Toronto, Ontario on 15-November-2009

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's update to my photo site features the Santa Claus Parade. The 105th annual Santa Claus Parade took place in Toronto, Ontario on 15-November-2009. From a viewpoint on University Avenue, a long stream of floats, bands, and other sights delighted children until the long-awaited moment when Santa Claus arrived.

Margin Notes: Creepy Parade Flu in Mushaboom

In a sign of the times, this sign directing the audience to Ontario's site on the flu was in the Santa Claus Parade on 15-November-2009

TORONTO, ONTARIO - For those who were not already completely blind to any mention of H1N1, public health authorities tried again in the Santa Claus Parade in Toronto last Sunday. The above sign--in the format normally used to introduce floats--was by itself in the middle of the parade. For a second or so, I was wondering what the "flu float" was going to look like!

* * * * * *

Had there actually been a "flu float," it was likely to be creepy. A girl that appeared to be about six years old on a staircase behind me at the parade yelled out "that's creepy" as the McDonald's float came into view. She wasn't close enough to ask exactly what she found to be creepy about the float, but if here parents were anti-commercial, they had to be proud of that reaction.

* * * * * *

I heard no such reaction when the Disney "Princess and the Frog" float came into view. Disney is making much of the fact that the heroine is African-American and in fact is the first fairy tale hero from the United States (New Orleans, to be exact). However, the well-publicized plot in which she turns into a frog herself after kissing a frog (instead of turning the frog into a prince)--that's creepy! Furthermore, it will disappoint all the unattractive men in the world who can now give up any hope of ever being kissed by an attractive woman, lest she risk becoming equally unattractive.

* * * * * *

The Santa Claus Parade had marching bands from all over Ontario and New York, but no group from Mushaboom, Nova Scotia. Somehow I had managed to not realize that the hit song from Feist was named for the small town. It made a bit more sense to listen to the song with that fact as context.

* * * * * *

If anything about Mushaboom had been mentioned on Friday night's The National newscast from the CBC, it would have been hard to understand the context. Did anyone else notice how the video graphics seemed to be completely disjointed the entire hour?

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Two transformers bound for Ontario Hydro crossed the Humber River in Toronto, Ontario on Canadian Pacific's Streetsville Local on 16-November-2009

Hopefully not ever disjointed were a pair of huge loads bound for Ontario Hydro's facility near the interchange of the 403 and the 407 west of Mississauga, Ontario. After sitting in a local yard for a week, the loads headed out last Monday in a Canadian Pacific train for delivery to their destination, making for an interesting sight as they crossed the Humber River.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Radio Pick: Covering the War

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I've often expressed the opinion that To The Best of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio is the premier interview show in English-language radio, and their ongoing series "Boots on the Ground" on the war in Iraq is reinforcing this opinion. This week's show, focusing on press coverage, serves as my weekly radio pick. It features interviews with embedded reporter Brian Palmer, film-maker Deborah Scranton, and Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez by three different journalists. The editing of each of these interviews in the 53-program is simply exquisite--pay attention to how they use various clips to make the conversation flow.

Listen to streaming MP3 of To The Best of Our Knowledge "Covering the War"

Holiday: Santa Claus Parade 2009

A larger-than-life truck headed down University Avenue in Toronto, Ontario during the Santa Claus Parade on 15-November-2009

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I haven't been able to bring myself to write an entry on the Santa Claus Parade this week, even though the event was last Sunday. It's just too early to kick off the "holiday" season. Sure, the last major holiday in Canada before Christmas, Remembrance Day, may have passed, but it's still more than a month to the Christian holiday, and I don't think a season of goodwill amongst people can last more than a month.

A young clown in Toronto's Santa Claus Parade apparently was looking for something in his bag on 15-November-2009

Somehow the commercialization of the parade also seemed more pronounced this year. Sure, companies have always sponsored and sometimes emblazoned the floats, but I honestly wondered this year if the kind of parents who don't let their children watch commercial television could even consider taking them to this parade.

The Queen's University performance squad formed a human pyramid on University Avenue in Toronto, Ontario during the Santa Claus Parade on 15-November-2009

It would be easy enough to present scenes from the parade and avoid the most commercial aspects--one could just avoid the floats and feature the marching bands representing local law enforcement and universities from near and far, and supplement that with scenes from the crowd.

A Lego hard hat was worn by a member of the University of Toronto Engineering Marching Band in the Santa Claus Parade in Toronto on 15-November-2009

Yet, some of the best scenes from the parade had a commercial element--a member of the University of Toronto Engineering Band made his hat from Legos. He may not have been sponsored, but there was a Lego-sponsored float in the parade with larger-than-life (instead of smaller-than-life) Lego figures. Is there a meaningful distinction between the two?

A Lego-sponsored float headed down University Avenue in Toronto, Ontario during the Santa Claus Parade on 15-November-2009

The parade isn't called the Santa Claus Parade just to avoid religious connotations or even because of the lost tradition of Santa climbing into the Eaton's store after the parade--it's called the Santa Claus Parade because he is the figure that everyone really wants to see. It's hard not to look at that in a benign way, and somehow that presence makes the whole thing more palatable.

Santa Claus greeted the spectators at Toronto's Santa Claus Parade on 15-November-2009

Full coverage of the Santa Claus Parade will appear in a future update to my photo site.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Personality: Oprah the Heart

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Today, daytime television talk show host--and cultural phenomenon--Oprah Winfrey announced that the Oprah Winfrey Show will end at the conclusion of its current contract, taking her off terrestrial television in 2011 after a full quarter-century. Usually known by just her first name, Oprah has arguably become the most influential person in United States, creating interest in a product by merely mentioning it on her show. Her influence came from an exceptionally entertaining and engaging show, enabled by her ability to get people to speak openly. Those that understand the Meridian Stretching-based Genetic Personality Types do not find this surprising--Oprah is clearly a "heart" type, perfectly suited for this kind of show.

Wait a minute, you say. Didn't you write in a previous essay that the last Republican Presidential nominee, John McCain, was a heart? How can it be that Oprah and McCain are actually the same type when they seem very different? I argue that there is diversity within types--environment and experience do matter and people of the same type are not interchangeable--but if one looks at motivations for decisions and behavior, Oprah and McCain actually share more than one would casually infer.

The "heart" is considered the "most surface" of the "physical" world, meaning that the traits of the "physical" world are most openly and obviously displayed in behavior. A big sign of the "physical" world is a ruling duality between love and anger. Where McCain's anger seemed to appear more often than not, for Oprah, the love end of the duality came out most freely. It was her passion for the topic of the day that made the show so engaging to the point of infectiousness--if Oprah liked something, you wanted to like it too.

Yet, this wasn't just caring, which is centered in the "emotional" world. People from that world often make others quite comfortable by expressing their caring, but it is the "physical" types that readily use the rapport established to persuade others to do things. In Oprah's case, the tears she would shed could convince the interviewee to answer the more probing question, getting them to say things they would not normally confess in public. That's what made her early career.

Physical types are also known for living in the present, often ignoring lessons learned in the past or future consequences of actions. Those that followed Oprah's attempts at stabilizing her weight see how this played out. The present-focus also showed in her opinions--Ben Shapiro once accused Oprah of having "unpredictable and mercurial attitudes toward the major issues of the day"--right on the expectations for a "heart" type, known for the flip-flop when in politics.

While Oprah has announced that she will be focused on her own cable network after her show winds down in 2011, that very living in the present perspective makes me believe that exactly what she will be doing on that network two years from now might be very different that what she might think today. Whatever it turns out to be, if it puts her empathy and persuasion to use, it is bound to be successful.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Economics: So They Are Disappearing

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Longtime readers of this blog may remember an entry I did earlier this year in which I noted that I saw few of my peers educated in science and engineering actually working in the field, and questioned why anyone would. Well, researchers at the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University have collected the data that back up my anecdotal experience.

In a report released last late month, Professor Harold Salzman of Rutgers and B. Lindsay Lowell of Georgetown were intending to research whether United States educational institutions were actually producing the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) graduates at an adequate rate, which many have been questioning. They did not find a drop in the number of people studying STEM, but to their credit they did find and note another phenomenon--the top quintile of students was substantially abandoning STEM careers for finance and other, more lucrative careers--exactly the phenomenon I described in my undergraduate class, except in that case, it extended through the top three quartiles of a small class.

Yet, the researchers didn't seem to emphasize what strikes me as most significant finding in their report. Burying this in their section on the top quintile, they state, "All quintiles shared in an across-the-board decline from the 1993/96 to the 1997/00 cohorts" in taking a first job that was in the STEM area after graduating with a STEM degree. In other words, students in the late 1990's quit going to work in STEM roles--and the data indicate the decrease was nearly a factor of two in the case of the top quintile, statistically significant but lower in magnitude across the board.

In its conclusion, the report states, "Highly qualified students may be choosing a non-STEM job because these other occupations are higher paying, offer better career prospects such as advancement, employment stability, and/or prestige, as well as less susceptible to offshoring." This is exactly what I have personally been observing; I couldn't have summarized it better.

At one point in graduate school, I remember having a conversation with a chemical engineering colleague who had just talked to a graduate that had been working in investment banking for about a year, and had just gotten a raise in salary to something in six figures before bonuses (I don't remember the exact amount). He was clearly excited. "That's a lot of money," he said. Sure enough, that's the career path he chose--leaving chemical engineering along with the majority of our peers.

Frankly, I don't see STEM careers becoming any more attractive or lucrative, so my guess is that STEM retention will stay low for the foreseeable future.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Transport: Farewell, Milwaukee 261

Former Milwaukee Road 4-8-4 #261 tip-toed through the wye at Duluth, Minnesota on 2-June-2007

TORONTO, ONTARIO - A long-rumored decision became official today. In a press release, the National Railroad Museum in Green Bay, Wisconsin announced that Friends of the 261 Chief Operating Officer Steve Sandberg had decided that the organization would not sign an additional lease for former Milwaukee Road steam locomotive #261. Instead, the engine will return to the museum in a cosmetically restored state. After fifteen straight years of excursions ending in 2008, the 261 may never steam again.

Restored steam locomotives, like all steam boilers in their class, are required to be re-certified every fifteen years in a process that often costs well into six figures. The 261's "boiler time" was known to be up in September 2008, so the annual fall trips of the 261 were scheduled earlier than autumn foliage that year to get them in before the locomotive would need to be disassembled for the work. Always nervous about these certifications, I made the decision to travel to Minnesota to ride the last trip, chasing a trip the day before. That decision seems pretty wise now, as I had my chance to enjoy one of the premier mainline steam locomotives one last time.

Former Milwaukee Road #261 was on its home rails at it crossed the Mississippi River at Hastings, Minnesota on its next-to-last run on 13-September-2008

Things started to go sour before the boiler work had made much progress. The National Railroad Museum made it clear that they wanted much more money (double in the first year) than in previous leases for the locomotive, and would only agree to a 10-year lease, rather than 15 or more. The Friends of the 261, officially known as Railroading Heritage of Midwest America, Incorporated, were already struggling to maintain a working organization that ran excursions with the existing lease, prior to the recession. They stopped most work on the locomotive while negotiations proceeded, but the museum didn't budge much. Those hoping for eventual resolution were not heartened when the museum, running a national convention in August, could not come to terms with the Friends of the 4449 and the Friends of the 261 to bring the "Daylight" locomotive #4449, then stored at the 261's shop in Minneapolis, to the convention.

Rumors have been flying for some time about what the Friends of the 261 might do if terms could not be reached on the 261. Most of the speculation surrounds locomotives at the Illinois Railroad Museum, including "sister" former Milwaukee Road 265. Whether the highly mechanically skilled and business savvy Sandberg organization will tackle another locomotive remains to be seen, but at the very least, one can expect guest locomotives from other organizations to be visiting the Twin Cities in the immediate future. The 261 may be finished, but the organization and its marquee rolling stock (including a former Milwaukee Road full dome and "Skytop" observation car) is not.

My final picture of former Milwaukee Road #261 would prove to be this one at Harrison Street in Minneapolis, Minnesota on 14-September-2009, as the locomotive pulled away from its last train and headed for the shop, its fires to be cooled for the final time

This blog has a certain attachment to the 261, as the first time blog entries were made outside of Toronto was on the trip to ride what proved to be the 261's final run. In one of the first margin notes, I stated that I was looking forward to the return of the 261 to the rails. Now, I'll just have to state that I'm looking forward to whatever Railroading Heritage of Midwest America, Incorporated comes up with for its future.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Personality: Obama in the Emotional World

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Back during the 2008 presidential election in the United States, readers of this blog may have found it strange that I chose to weigh in about the personality of Republican nominee John McCain, but not the personality of Democratic nominee--and now President--Barack Obama. This wasn't because of any political bias on my part, but simply because McCain's personality was clear to me, while Obama's was not. About a year later, I think I've seen enough evidence to be confident in classifying Obama as a "central" or "sexual" type within the emotional world.

This topic came up recently because of Ralph Nader's comments about Obama's personality during an appearance on the Open Source podcast. Nader described Obama as having a "harmony ideology personality. He's conflict-averse... He loves to be loved." When I heard that, I realized that Nader was basically describing a "sexual" type. While "harmony ideology" can be found in just about any world besides the physical world, the idea of "loving to be loved" is central to the "sexual" type. They are the "stars" of the world, used to being the center of attention and affection, and will take actions to further that kind of position. When one "sexual" type once had a conflict with an unhealthy person, she complained to me: "I don't understand. Everybody is supposed to like me!"

Obama's legislative technique seems to back up this assessment. Rather than take principled positions, his tendency has been to set a broadly-agreed upon goal and try to get everyone on board to achieve it. In the health care debate, the White House cut deals with stakeholder groups, then has let Congress work out the unpopular details. During the legislative phase, there has been an emphasis to try to get support from Republicans. There may have been good political reasons to do these things, but it's happened often enough now that that I take it as a pattern consistent with a "everyone should love me" (and my ideas), "sexual"-type perspective.

The expert who developed the personality theory that I use, Olympic trainer Bob Cooley, was willing to make the categorization of Obama as a "sexual" type long ago. Amongst other things, Cooley reflected on how Obama appeared as different things to different people during the campaign, which is often the sign of a "sexual" type finding ways to be attractive to a wide range of people.

So why didn't I follow along? The main problem was that Obama really doesn't look like a "sexual" type. "Sexual" types tend to be very round people--both men and women. Bill Clinton, deep in the emotional world in terms of type, would be believable as a "sexual" type based on appearance. Obama doesn't look anything like Clinton. There were other things, but most of those could be explained away. Appearance was the sticking point. The fact that Obama smokes could be a partial explanation of his physical stature, as smoking can lead to a more slender figure, and certainly the fact that he stays in shape would partially explain it as well. Yet, I've still never met another "sexual" that looked like Obama, including those that smoked.

That may be the point. I've never met a "sexual" type who is as successful as Obama (who is?), and it is a well-documented phenomenon that more successful people tend to take on more traits of their balancing type, including physical appearance. Some of us have argued that Obama looks like a "brain" type, and that is the balancing type of the "sexual" type.

So, in light of a long string of behavior that appears to be "sexual" type in nature and with counter-evidence seemingly all explained away, I give in. I agree that Barack Obama is most likely a "sexual" type, an appropriate type to be president of a country that shares his emotional world.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Culture: Positivity and Self-Esteem

TORONTO, ONTARIO - When I first heard about Barbara Ehrenreich's research questioning the emphasis on positivity in United States culture (discussed earlier), one of the first things that came to mind was the "self esteem" movement. Now, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman have offered some additional criticism of that movement that, at least in my opinion, supports Ehrenreich's assertions and matches my personal experience.

In their new book "NutureShock", Bronson and Merryman argue that in reaction to issues created by the World War II generation providing only conditional love to their children, the Vietnam generation tried so hard to love unconditionally that they actually failed to do communicate that to their children. As a gross simplification, by saying, "We love you! You are so smart!" all the time to their children, the kids actually linked being smart to the love, effectively thinking that they were loved because they were smart. The problem becomes acute when it becomes obvious to the child that in a given situation, they weren't so smart, and they thus expect not to be loved. The parents that said "We love you for who you are" avoided this particular problem.

The root of the problem here was providing positive feedback to the child (being "smart" or just "good at" something) regardless of whether they had earned that exact praise. At some point, the child starts seeing the gap between the feedback and the reality, and the feedback starts to becoming meaningless. The culture of positivity that Ehrenreich so disdains had entered into parenting, and prevented it from being effective.

I distinctly remember, in elementary school, being subjected to "self esteem" exercises in which we were supposed to write positive phrases about our performance and our selves regardless of the reality of the situation. It didn't matter if it was clear that my peers were much better at playing soccer, for example--I was supposed to write about how well I played soccer. Not just how I might have improved recently at a specific soccer skill, which might be truthful, mind you--we were directed to broadly reinforce that were good at everything we were doing, even if it were blatantly, obviously untrue. I could complete the exercises, but I never believed anything I wrote on those exercise sheets. The supposedly-intended objective of making the children feel better about themselves was not accomplished, because my actual skills hadn't actually improved, and I knew that. Furthermore, my peers (most of whom just kept quiet about their deficiencies and thus were not subjected to the "self esteem" exercises) knew that.

Interestingly, in the first grade, a gym instructor (whose name I shamefully cannot remember) actually took a different tact with me which was far more effective. When I accurately stated "I can't do that" with respect to a physical skill, he held me after class to practice the skill until I actually could do it. I still usually wasn't nearly as skilled as my peers, but it allowed me to change language to "I'm not very good at that" or "I don't like doing that" from the flat "I can't," and basically coerced me to participate in the game in question. However, from the second grade onward, I can't remember any instructor doing anything analogous to what that gym teacher had done; it was all "self esteem" exercises for the rest of primary school.

In a recent CBC interview, Po Bronson didn't have anything much better to say about self-esteem exercises than I do. Bronson makes the argument that the "self-esteem movement" capitalized on the trend to provide unconditional love and furthered its distortion. Children were not given feedback commensurate with their achievements--in effect, self-esteem exercises were confusing them.

The only coherent message a child could get out of "self esteem" exercises (at least as constituted when I experienced them) was that adults only wanted to hear positive language, and the reality doesn't matter. Basically, positivity was being taught--Ehrenreich's thesis incarnate. It was certainly the message I got from the exercises, which I considered to be madness. As both Ehrenreich and I would experience, indeed, adult culture in the United States largely does work that way, with a positive attitude far more important than real skills or accomplishments.

Bronson argues that we should be providing accurate feedback to our children, and encouragement to keep developing skills regardless of their state at a given time. Statements of unconditional love should be made, but they should be simple, not based on compliments that may not be true.

However, it will probably take a generation of "true" unconditional love and accurate feedback for the culture of positivity to decline in the United States. It will take a lot more than Bronson and Merryman's book to initiate a real shift in the culture. I suspect it will take more than a generation for "positivity" to be subdued and its results in the business culture (like housing bubbles) to subside, if it ever happens.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Photos: Remembrance Day at Fort York

The Colour Guard was part of the recessional after the Remembrance Day ceremony outside Fort York in Toronto, Ontario on 11-November-2009

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's update to my photo site features Fort York. A Remembrance Day ceremony at the Strachan Avenue Military Cemetery near Fort York was followed by a tour of the Fort York National Historic Site commemorating the war of 1812 in Toronto, Ontario on 11-November-2009.

Margin Notes: Horses, Penguins, Superfreak

An equestrian police officer exercised his mount in Trinity-Bellwoods Park in Toronto, Ontario on 11-November-2009

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Today was the day of the Santa Claus Parade in Toronto, Ontario. Last year, it snowed during the parade; this year, the forecast called for clearing skies and 15 degrees C, but instead we had cloudy skies and a somewhat chilly breeze. Just a few days earlier, it had been sunny when I captured equestrian police officers from Toronto practicing--perhaps for the parade--in Trinity-Bellwoods Park while walking to Rembrance Day ceremonies.

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An inflatable penguin drew attention to the linuxcaffe at Harbord and Grace in Toronto, Ontario on 15-November-2009

While walking back from the Santa Claus Parade today, I decided to walk down Harbord Street for the first time in many months and discovered the linuxcaffe near Harbord Park. It was pretty hard to miss with a large inflatable penguin out front--a nice touch that probably confuses everyone not familiar with the Linux operating system and its mascot.

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A nice touch on the radio this week came from KUOW in Seattle. When the authors of "SuperFreakonomics" were interviewed on The Conversation, the segment was introduced with Rick James' Super Freak. In all the book tours interviews I had heard, this was the first time I had heard that connection made.

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CBC Radio One most likely wants us to ignore a connection with one of its overnight programs. A largely-overlooked aspect of CBC Radio One's recent programming changes is that the overnight schedule now includes The World from Public Radio International at 1 am Tuesday through Saturday. While I'm sure the CBC would like to emphasize that the program is co-produced with the BBC for a North American audience, it is hard to miss that PRI is an American entity and the other co-producer is public station WGBH in Boston--the program's regular host is American Lisa Mullins (Marco Werman is currently substituting while Mullins is on sabbatical). For a network that has gone out of its way to avoid American programming, The World is a strange choice--is this the first foothold for public radio programming from the United States on the CBC?

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A final "faces on places" location within walking distance from my residence is at 20 Jerome Street, observed on 15-November-2009

It's all Canadian content as far as I know on Jerome Street in Toronto. In a recent post, you may recall that three "Faces on Places" locations were identified by Terry Murray within walking distance of Swansea, and I finally got around to walking by the third today. 20 Jerome Street features impressive terracotta tiles--and quite a few faces.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Radio Pick: Off and MacIntyre

This week's radio pick comes from the CBC. Somehow, I had managed to be ignorant of the fact that two of the CBC's finest journalists, Caroll Off and Linden MacIntyre, were married. When MacIntyre won the presitigous Giller Prize this week, the fact came out when Off was asked to interview him in the first husband-and-wife interview in As It Happens history. The interesting exchange started about 21 minutes into the half-hour first part of the program.

Listen to streaming Windows Media of As It Happens "Giller Winner"

Transport: Un-Canadian TTC

TORONTO, ONTARIO - The Toronto Transit Commission has not even officially decided to raise fares yet. It may at a meeting on Tuesday. However, on 4-November-2009, after rumours had been swirling for some time, the TTC made the highly un-orthodox move of issuing a press release that it was going to recommend a fare increase of about 10%. Furthermore, the press release announced an intention to increase the "multiple" for pass prices from 48 rides to 50 rides, making the price of a standard adult "Metropass" over $125.

The need for a fare increase, while pathetic if viewed from the perspective of where the TTC's funding comes from (a topic for another day), is not widely questioned. In current economic times, the options are basically to reduce service or raise fares, and on that point the TTC staff are probably correct that the public would prefer a fare increase to the rollback of service improvements.

However, the TTC's actions since reaching that conclusion are at best sloppy and at worst inexcusable. By announcing their fare increase proposal in a press release, they made it seem like a sure thing and created a run on tokens, which currently cost $2.25 when purchased in bulk. As a result, it is now impossible to buy tokens (no station I've visited in the past four days has had any), which means that all non-pass holders must pay the full $2.75 cash fare. That's more than multiple-ride users will be paying ($2.50) once the fare increase goes into effect. In fact, that's an immediate double fare increase, when no fare increase has even been approved. And who uses tokens? Mostly the poor, who cannot afford the major cash outlay or a Metropass each month, or who do not take 48 rides to justify such a purchase. In other words, the TTC has decided to take out its financial frustrations on those who can least afford it.

While a fare increase is likely, some of the details may not actually play out as the staff recommended. TTC Chairman Adam Giambrone has already gone on record as saying that he does not wish to increase the "multiple" on a Metropass, which is already higher than those on most North American systems (in Boston, for example, the multiple is about 35 or lower, depending on how it is computed). As transit activist Steve Munro has repeatedly pointed out, penalizing the system's best customers, the pass holders, is counter-productive on several levels.

Frankly, in a country more concerned with equality and the environment (by its citizens, if not its government) than most, it is un-Canadian of the TTC to take advantage of the poor and penalize its most active customers. I'm not usually one to call for firings at public agencies, but it is clear that at least someone on the TTC staff doesn't understand the transit agency's mission, and needs to be replaced for what has happened in recent weeks.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Culture: Friday Night Lives

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This autumn, National Public Radio has been running a series on the Friday afternoon editions of All Things Considered called Friday Night Lives on high school football. It may be hard for some readers of this blog to believe, but I once had a role in the Friday night football culture--at the concession stand.

At my high school, the Math Club ran the concession stand for all sporting events. Some events were staffed by other clubs who gained the proceeds from those events, but the overall administration of the stand and all the ordering of supplies was done by the Math Club (mostly our adviser), and we had the stand at the vast majority of marquee events, including the football games on Friday night. When the football stadium at our school was rebuilt between my sophomore and junior years, only our Math Club adviser received a key to the new, very nice concession stand.

Of course, the process of running the concession stand, even when fully staffed, was engrossing enough that it was usually impossible to follow the game. We'd usually know what was happening, but it was more because of conversations with customers than what we would see with our own eyes or hear from the public address announcer. I believe I was first assigned to the popcorn machine my sophomore year. The machine made excellent popcorn, but was terribly cantankerous and required a combination of art and experience to operate. Once I learned its idiosyncrasies, it was my normal assignment for the rest of high school, and trying to get ahead of demand before the end of the first and third quarters and for halftime was a constant struggle.

The anchor of the concession stand was the coffee machine. It needed to be warmed up so it was often the first thing to be turned on. One year we decided to sell coffee for $0.25, figuring that our costs were in the realm of $0.10. People kept remarking about what a good deal it was. Eventually, we decided to raise the price to $0.50--and sales did not perceptibly change. In the Starbucks era, even a $0.50 plain coffee seemed like a bargain, and I suspect coffee is the biggest money-maker at concession stands across the country.

Besides coffee, sodas, and popcorn, the bulk of the sales were of candy. It was at the concession stand that I first tried a Milky Way Dark and decided that dark chocolate was an okay thing. In general, those working the concession stand could buy things for half price, so rather than $0.50 for each candy bar, I only needed to pay $0.25--I'd probably still eat Snickers bars if I could get them for that price!

The money raised at the stand went to fund the Math Club's activities for the year, including trips to regional and state competitions, and even airfare for the active club members and chaperones to the national convention during the summer. I actually only attended one national convention--in Princeton, New Jersey--and did not attend the convention in Hawaii after my senior year. That year I had worked all the football games and the vast majority of the basketball games, so our adviser was shocked that I did not want to go to Hawaii. However, I had viewed working the stand as part of the duties as club president, and a duty to the school. A lot of people would have been very grumpy if they had not been able to get their coffee and candy at halftime, and in my "uniform" of clothes (that happened to be school colors), I was always there to serve them.

Indeed, the concession stand is an important part of Friday Night Lives, but it won't be covered in the NPR series.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Politics: Campaign Finance First

TORONTO, ONTARIO - While we STILL don't know the full contents of what health care reform bill will (or will not) pass Congress this year, some elements seem to be showing up in most "viable" proposals. Unfortunately, some of these provisions are, as Newt Gingrich would say, "singularly bizarre."

Take the idea for enforcement of the concept that all United States residents will be required to purchase health insurance. It appears that all "viable" proposals have this being done through the income tax system--if a person doesn't buy insurance, he or she is "fined" (exactly how that is distinct from a "tax" on an income tax form is unclear) based on income, and can go to jail for not paying just like for any amount owed to the Internal Revenue Service. To a Canadian, this is absolutely absurd. We have lines on our provincial income tax returns that, in the case of Ontario, are a very simple tax based on one's income that goes to pay for the health care system. The United States is going to great lengths to make health insurance not look like a tax, when the net effect is little different.

Of course, the United States is not heading toward a single-payer system like the one in Canada. Yet, if the most dire predictions of Republicans are correct, it might as well be. If the Federal government has to approve all these health plans--an element of the "viable" plans--then they argue that it will de facto define what a national health plan will be, inhibiting competition in the marketplace. At some level, this is a rather strange argument--isn't the whole problem that too many people don't have adequate health care plans, or there would only be talk about cost control, not about how many people are uninsured? A Canadian would say that that's rather amusing--a single-payer system could solve both those problems by covering everyone and mandating cost levels.

So why isn't a single-payer system even on the table in the United States? Or, better yet, a managed competition system resembling the Swiss system or the Enthoven proposal in 1993, which would still be market-based but not hold all the questions and strange aspects that seem to be infecting the "viable" proposals? It seems pretty simple--health insurance lobbyists want to ensure the viability of their industry, which would disappear entirely under single-payer and would have its profits effectively limited under a Swiss or Enthoven-type regulated model.

If the health care system is still a mess when this is all over, people will be looking for when the mistake was made. I go back to the argument I first heard from David Brooks that I've written about before--Barack Obama needed to do campaign finance reform first before any major initiative like health care reform. Brooks' predicted result of Obama favoring "legislative pragmatism" over "policy pragmatism" seems to be reflected in the "viable" proposals being quite sub-optimal from a policy perspective. It didn't have to be this way. The mistake was not doing campaign finance reform first.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Holiday: Remembrance Day at Fort York

Remembrance Day ceremonies were held at Strachan Avenue Military Cemetery next to Fort York in Toronto, Ontario on 11-November-2009

TORONTO, ONTARIO - There is no shortage of Remembrance Day ceremonies in Toronto. As CBC radio put it this morning, "there are even ceremonies at the CN Tower and the zoo." I decided this year that I didn't want to listen to politicians, so immersing myself in the oldest history of Toronto seemed the right way to spend the late morning, at Fort York. What better place than the site of a battle (in 1813, with the Americans) could there be to honor veterans?

Soldiers in World War I costumes entered the Remembrance Day ceremony at Strachan Avenue Military Cemetery in Toronto, Ontario on 11-November-2009

The Fort York Remembrance Service actually took place at Strachan Avenue Military Cemetery, active from 1863 to 1911, a location I hadn't even known to exist in the corner southeast of Strachan Avenue and the Canadian National tracks. It turned out to be a very nice setting for a very traditional Remembrance Day service.

The Reverend Dr. John D. Hartley led the Remembrance Day ceremony at Strachan Avenue Military Cemetery in Toronto, Ontario on 11-November-2009

The elements of the ceremony were quite simple and classic. Fort York head Richard Haynes and the Reverend Dr. John D. Hartley traded off in a brief historical perspective, the singing of the national anthem, the Lord's Prayer, a reading of "In Flanders Fields," two minutes of silence, singing of "God Save the Queen," and a recessional. Considering the increasing diversity of the armed forces, I have to wonder how much longer the Lord's Prayer will be featured so prominently in these ceremonies.

The Colour Guard exited the Strachan Avenue Military Cemetery during the recessional from Remembrance Day ceremonies on 11-November-2009

The only problem with such a basic ceremony is that I left after a half-hour feeling like I hadn't done enough to commemorate veterans--but it's not like listening to politicians speaking would have helped that any. I just wore my poppy for the rest of the day.

More photos from the Remembrance Day ceremony will be featured on a future update to my photo site

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Politics: Will Health Care Reform Happen?

TORONTO, ONTARIO - In an unusual Saturday session, the United States House of Representatives actually passed a health care reform bill, the so-called Affordable Health Care for America Act, on 7-November-2009 by the narrow margin of 220-215. Much of the media discussion has focused on the immediate challenges for the health care reform effort, namely trying to find a compromise bill that can actually pass both the House and the Senate. However, I think the long-term challenges for the bill to actually be implemented may be much greater, and I find it surprising that nobody is talking about that reality.

The first thing that strikes out at me is that the bill passed by the House has most of its provisions actually take effect in 2013. Having time to transition into a new system, rather than creating problems by shocking the system, makes sense. However, looking at what has happened with recent credit card legislation is instructive--credit card companies used the time before the new rules took effect to drastically hike fees and rates on customers. Health insurance companies, who have in a very real sense only been held in check by the threat of reform, will no longer have any reason to hold back on increases, and will try to make all the money they can before 2013.

Of course, there are two elections before 2013. If Republicans are smart, they will campaign in 2012--however untruthfully--that health care premium increases in 2010, 2011, and 2012 were the fault of health care reform and promise to repeal the legislation. It seems entirely conceivable to me that this could be an effective campaign theme and lead to Republican majorities in the House, Senate and retaking the White House in 2012. While it would be very difficult for the Republicans to get a filibuster-proof 60 seats in the Senate by 2012, a clear landslide in their direction would probably bully the Democrats into not filibustering, and repeal could occur.

Even if the Democrats hang on to at least one chamber and prevent repeal of the legislation before it takes effect, there is another method that the opposition will undoubtedly use. Christian Scientists will be supported in what, based on the current legislative language, will be an inevitable effort to have the act declared unconstitutional. They will argue that it is unconstitutional for the government to require them to purchase an insurance policy that is of no use to them, as they do not partake of most health care services. Whether a valid constitutional argument or not, I would fully expect the current conservative-dominated Supreme Court--likely still to be in place when a hypothetical case might get there--to use the case as an excuse to issue a very narrow ruling overturning the legislation.

Those on the right go to great lengths to support their positions politically, showing in my lifetime a take-no-prisoners, no-compromise attitude that liberal Democrats frankly do not understand. If supporters of health care reform think they will not face that kind of action-oriented opposition even after legislation is passed, they are insane. They need to ensure that in their immediate efforts of trying to write legislation that can actually pass both chambers that the resulting language will stand up to a court challenge and cannot easily be reversed in early 2013. Otherwise, all their current efforts will have proven to be an incredible waste of energy.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Media: Sesame Street Turns 40

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Today, the media world is abuzz with recollections of the fall of the Berlin Wall twenty years ago, and this is my 500th blog post, so it seemed obvious what I should write about. However, I'm going to take my cue from Google, which has been running special banners for the past few days, and instead write about the 40th anniversary of Sesame Street, which premiered on 10 November 1969.

I grew up with the Children's Television Network's Sesame Street, watching it as early as I can remember. At the time, KCTS Channel 9 in Seattle, the local PBS affiliate, ran it in the afternoon, right before Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. I think it aired at 3 pm, so the hour-long show was over before my father came home from work.

There probably isn't a single aspect of basic skills (from counting to the alphabet to vocabulary) or culture that I didn't learn more about from Sesame Street. This was educational television at its finest. Originally targeted a four-year olds, I'm sure I started watching before then, and I know I was still watching the show long after that age. Even if I had learned most of what they were teaching, the narrative story lines and the characters were so compelling that I remained glued to the television set when it was on.

Every child that watched Sesame Street probably chose a favorite character. Mine was Snuffleupagus, a woolly mammoth-like imaginary friend of Big Bird. I'm not sure why I liked Snuffy, perhaps it was simply that he looked rather like a dinosaur. I'm sure that Snuffy was the inspiration for the cast of imaginary friends that I made up and abandoned over the years. I have to admit that I was quite disappointed to read that Snuffy had been proven real in the television series after I stopped watching, apparently out of fears that adults not believing Big Bird when he talked about Snuffy would make kids think that adults would not believe them if they talked about being abused.

I didn't think much of Oscar the Grouch, but I have to admit that this recent Garbage News Network skit with CNN's Anderson Cooper, Dan Rather-Not, Walter Cranky, and Oscar was absolutely hilarious.

Like many children of the era, the Sesame Street show I remember most distinctly was the show about the death of Mr. Hooper. Apparently Will Lee had died of a heart attack on 7 December 1982, and the episode in which they talk about his death did not air until 24 November 1983, but as a kid it seemed like the two could not have been more than a week apart. I didn't really understand death even after that episode, but it did have a very similar feeling to the days of actual deaths in the family that I had experienced.

Sesame Street may be targeted at three-year olds, be more dominated by Elmo than Big Bird, and air in the early morning now, but it still may be the single most influential television show on who I am today, and that may be true of many people around the world. That's truly amazing.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Photos: Autumn in Toronto, 2009

Autumn colors were still quite prominent at Carlton Park in Toronto, Ontario on 2-November-2009

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's update to my photo site features autumn scenes from around Toronto, Ontario. Fall colors were seen in the Don River and Humber River ravines, politicians held community meetings, Heritage Toronto held its annual awards night at the Carlu, and more.

Margin Notes: Autumn, Royalty, Salish Sea

The leaves were almost all off the trees in the Lambton Woods of Toronto, Ontario by 6-November-2009

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Most of the leaves are off the trees here in Toronto, as the season of fall colors comes to an end. The view above was from almost exactly the same the location as last week, showing the progression toward winter scenes instead of the fall.

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Already gone from Toronto as well are Prince Charles and his wife Camila, who goes by the title Duchess of Cornwall. Their events in Toronto last week were surprisingly poorly publicized, and I managed to miss all of them. The growing consensus amongst my acquaintances is that Canada is likely to maintain Queen Elizabeth II as head of state until she dies or abdicates, but then will move to the Governor General directly being the head of state instead of being the representative of the Royal Family. Time will tell.

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The West Toronto Railpath crossed Dupont Street on a well-marked bridge days after its opening on 2-November-2009

Yet another event that I missed recently was the formal opening of the West Toronto Railpath on 31-October-2009. The path parallels the Parkdale Rail Corridor to the east from Dundas Street to Cariboo Avenue (north of Dupont but short of Rogers Road), and actually is rather useful between intermediate points even if its overall utility to the transportation system in Toronto is rather questionable.

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I also missed the announcement of the name of the first of Washington State Ferries' new fleet of 64-car auto ferries. As desired by activists, the ferry will be named the Chetzemoka, after a local native leader. A previous wood-electric ferry that had also served the Port Townsend-Keystone route more than a generation ago had also carried this name. Here's hoping for more appropriate old names for the other two vessels on order.

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Yes, I also missed until this week the fact that body of water to be plied by the Chetzemoka is likely to gain a new name. In recognition of its status as an integrated ecosystem, the inland sea waters of southern British Columbia and Washington State are to gain the name "Salish Sea." Considering the fact that nobody seems to know where the boundaries of Puget Sound, Admiralty Inlet, or even the Strait of Juan de Fuca are located, this strikes me as a very reasonable idea.

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About the only thing I didn't miss this week was the 20th anniversary of Liane Hansen hosting National Public Radio's Weekend Edition Sunday...and frankly I didn't find it very interesting. I have no objection to ginger recipes, but why was there an irrelevant and irreverent message from the Car Talk guys? More retrospective features (Hansen has done plenty of good interviews over the years) would have been nice.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Radio Pick: Master Interview of Nader

This week's radio pick was a show I almost didn't listen to. Ralph Nader has been on a book tour recently for his fictional work "Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us," which has arguably been over-promoted. As often happens with well-known authors on book tours, I've heard too many interviews with him lately. Yet, just like the last time Christopher Lydon interviewed him back in 2007 (when Open Source was still a radio show), Lydon managed to get Nader talking about other things and create an interesting show. You may not agree with Nader's ideas about the difference between personal freedom and civic freedom, or his analysis of President Obama's personality, but pay attention to how Lydon gets him to talk about those things in this 38-minute podcast. This is a master interviewer at work.

Listen to MP3 of Open Source "Ralph Nader's Flight of Fancy"

Heritage: Faces on Places

Author Terry Murray spoke at the Swansea Historical Society meeting on 4-November-2009

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's meeting of the Swansea Historical Society featured as speaker the medical journalist and author of Faces on Places, Terry Murray. While I had attended a Heritage Toronto walk that included many of the places downtown that she featured in the book, I definitely wanted to attend the meeting to find out what faces she had found on places closer to where I live.

I was not disappointed. While a history of some of the installations that had interested her in this topic and some of the adventures she had while documenting sculpture in Toronto made for an entertaining presentation, there was local content. Over the course of the evening she mentioned at least three places within walking distance of my residence where there was sculpture that either I had never noticed before, or never looked at closely.

A montage of the "reading, writing and arithmetic" sculptures on the side of Swansea Public School, sculpted by Murray Brown in 1953, was captured on 7-November-2009

I set out on an unseasonably warm autumn day today to take a look at two of the places she had talked about. The first proved to be right along Windermere Avenue. During an expansion of Swansea Public School in 1953, the sculptor Murray Brown was apparently commissioned to do another version of the "reading, writing and arithmetic" sculptures that were common in Scarborough at the time. (Neither Scarborough nor Swansea was then a part of Toronto.)

Four gargoyles were found on the north face of the tower at Morningside-High Park Presbyterian Church in the Swansea neighbourhood of Toronto, Ontario on 7-November-2009

Terry Murray's real passion is for gargoyles, sculptures that not only decorate a structure but serve the function of draining water away from them. She did find gargoyles in Swansea at the Morningside-High Park Presbyterian Church. As the building is a community icon, opened in 1917 and serving as a polling place amongst other civic uses, I knew how ornate the church was, but had never paid attention to the higher portion of the tower, where the gargoyles are located. I combined the four on the north face of the tower into a montage above.

For more on gargoyles and other building sculptures around Toronto, see Terry Murray's blog or find a copy of her book.