Friday, December 31, 2010

Culture: Employed Lifestyle

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Today is not only the last day of calendar 2010, but the last day of my working for my employer of the last two months.

Regular readers of this blog may not even have been aware of the fact that I was working again. I made no announcement on this forum. Careful re-reading of the last two months of entries will reveal only a few very oblique references to e-commerce, but also a lack of references to being unemployed, which were never especially common here in the first place.

It wasn't that I wasn't proud of what I was doing, that I wasn't enjoying the customer service position, or that I was anticipating that I would be switching jobs so rapidly, which wasn't at all obvious to me until well into December. Instead, I had long structured many aspects of my life such that returning to a regular 9-to-5 job, as this one was, would have minimal impact on my activities. Sure, I wouldn't be going railfanning in winter daylight hours, or listening to daytime radio live, but little else needed to change. This blog had for many months generally been written in the late evening intentionally so that my routine would not need to change when I became employed. Sure enough, I started a job, and the impact on my blogging was nearly imperceptible.

One thing that I learned in the past two months is that, indeed, I could have a very comfortable lifestyle in Toronto working a 9-to-5 job. A look at this blog will see that I attended not only events at the CBC (a very short walk from where I was working) but also evening community events around the city. My social life, such as it is, was not suffering as a result of the position. My weekend activities had no need to change whatsoever.

I had long suspected that commuting by subway to downtown, which took me only about 45 minutes each direction, would be far more sustainable than my previous mostly-bus commute into the suburbs, which could take 80 minutes on a bad day. Even when the subway was disrupted, as happened at least three times I remember in the past two months, it never took me much more than an hour to complete the commute. During the winter, especially, it was quite nice to be mostly underground.

Fundamentally, the job that I held for my first two years in Toronto always felt unsustainable, even in the beginning. The hours and the commute were always draining; I slept in significantly on Saturday by necessity. For the last two months, I've instead been getting up earlier on Saturday for volunteer work than on weekdays. There's no way I could have done that before.

I could have kept going in my recent job for a long time; I could easily imagine staying with that employer for years. However, when one is aggressively pursued by an employer in a potentially-growing industry, it's pretty hard to ignore and turn down an attractive offer.

My cushy, predictable lifestyle is over, at least for the foreseeable future. I will now be in field service, with unpredictable travel. I have no idea what this will mean for the publishing schedule of this blog. Yet, I am satisfied that I have demonstrated that blogging can be part of a sustainable lifestyle. It's not inconceivable that I might miss that.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Culture: 20 Years, 59 Million Later

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Twenty years ago, I filed the following Student's Notebook report from Bellevue, Washington:
This year, the US Census Bureau started out with a rather aggressive attempt to make sure everyone was counted. The bureau sent out extensive forms to each permanent residence, requiring the forms to be returned by April 1st, but later extending the deadlines well into June and making radio commercials to prod people into sending in the materials as early returns were pathetic.

Meanwhile, local bureau employees were supposed to take to the streets to count the homeless. Though their attempts were well-documented, urban special interest groups contested the figures almost from the start, claiming the bureau had mis-counted by as much as one-half.

The census takers also had the duty to visit households where forms had not been returned. These visits resulted in rumors that some houses had been counted twice, or that others had sent in two forms and been visited but still hadn't been tallied.

Regardless of the objections, the census bureau has now released its final figures, subject only to appeals. Our population in the United States is now 249,632,692, an increase of 23,086,887 from 1980, meaning that each of the 435 seats in the House of Representatives should have 572,466 constituents.

Here in Washington state, our population has gone from 5,346,818 in 1980 to 6,216,568 now, meaning that our state has earned another seat in the House of Representatives, to be carved out of Rod Chandler's 8th and John Miller's 1st congressional districts.

The states that really will gain in influence, though, are California (7), Florida (4), and Texas (3). Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia also gained seats. New York lost 3, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania 2, and Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Montana, New Jersey and West Virginia all lost a single seat.

What does this mean in political terms? The gains were primarily made in Republican areas, but in the primarily Democratic Hispanic population. We'll have to wait and see.
Change the exact numbers, to a population of 308,745,538 in the United States and 6,724,540 in Washington state, and the number of seats changing hands (Texas gained four seats, Florida two, Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, South Carolina, Utah and Washington one, while New York and Ohio each lost two seats and Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania each lost one), and the story looks almost exactly the same in 2010.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Margin Notes: Travel, Fountain, United, Flags

The International Fountain at the Seattle Center puts on impressive shows, though in this 27-December-2010 view it was far from its peak 120-foot height

TORONTO, ONTARIO - As a final follow-up on my recent visit to the Seattle Center, the most interesting scene at the Seattle, Washington tourist attraction is likely the International Fountain. This isn't the fountain I remember from my youth, but a 1995 installation by WET Design that shoots water up to 120 feet in the air in patterns coordinated with music. It may not be the Bellagio in Las Vegas (also a WET installation), but it's worth seeing if you're at the Center--and it even keeps performing in the rain.

* * * * * *

While rain may be the defining characteristic of the Puget Sound region, militant secularism is another. Thus, perhaps it is not surprising that I think I heard "Merry Christmas" or even "Happy Holidays" uttered less often in public that in any time in my lifetime. People were definitely shopping, celebrating, and giving to the Salvation Army, but they weren't greeting each other much when I was around.

* * * * * *

The holiday spirit did not seem to be missing at Customs and Immigration. Both entering the United States and returning to Canada were far more straight-forward than usual in the past few years--some of the basic questions weren't even asked, and the US agent was even polite for the first time in recent memory.

* * * * * *

A United 777 in the new paint scheme prepared to depart Denver, Colorado for Zurich, Switzerland on 22-December-2010

While I also have no complaints about United Airlines for the first time in recent memory (I still had frequent flier miles to use), I encountered a United plane in the post-Continental merger paint scheme for the first time. Frankly, I thought the 777, bound from Denver to Zurich, looked terrible. When the same paint scheme was used by Continental, at least the airline name was in a serif, sophisticated font. The sans serif, all-caps font used by United with the colors looks terrible to me.

* * * * * *

As a final transportation note that I keep neglecting to make on each trip to the Pacific Northwest, the city of Kirkland, Washington deserves credit for the pedestrian flags it places at crosswalks. A holder on each side of the street is filled with flags that pedestrians can use to signal that they want to cross the street and stop traffic. It seems to work quite well--though I still think that Toronto's directions to simply point at the other side of the street seems to accomplish the same thing without all the infrastructure used by Kirkland.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Culture: Seattle Consensus

An outdoor portion of the Fun Forest in Seattle, Washington near the Space Needle was observed dormant on 27-December-2010; the site will now apparently be split between KEXP studios and a Dale Chihuly glass museum

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I've long stated that Seattle rarely recognizes just how much it was culturally influenced by native peoples. The environmental influence often receives recognition, with Chief Sealth of the Duwamish tribe's famous speech taught in Washington state schools, whether he actually gave it or not. The far greater contribution, in my opinion, is primacy of consensus in decision-making. Building consensus--no matter how much it slows down progress--is more prominent in Seattle politics than anywhere else I've spent time in the United States, sometimes to an almost comical extent. A member of one of the Salish tribes inhabiting the area three hundred years ago might well recognize the process.

A case in point has surrounded the Fun Forest at the Seattle Center. Seattle Center itself was created for the 1962 "Century 21" World's Fair, and its various infrastructure largely re-purposed afterward. The Fun Forest has been a set of indoor and outdoor amusement rides that have existed outside the Center House for my entire lifetime. As the years have gone on, revenues at the Fun Forest have declined, and it was announced in 2009 that the Fun Forest would close before the end of the year.

Instead, the Fun Forest was still open earlier this week (though it will close within days) as debates have gone on within the city of Seattle about what would take its place. In the end, two alternatives emerged--new studios for world-famous alternative radio station KEXP 90.3 FM and a new Dale Chihuly glass museum. Exactly why Seattle needs a Chihuly museum when the Museum of Glass exists in nearby Tacoma has never been clear, and parodies of the proposal included the well-publicized Sir Mix-A-Lot proposal.

So what was the Seattle solution, after nearly a year of talks? Earlier this month, Seattle mayor Mike McGinn announced that the city would build both, along with a kid's playground as a partial replacement for the Fun Forest. If every problem could be solved this way, Seattle would do it. If it could build a replacement Alaskan Way viaduct, a tunnel, and a surface solution all at the same time, it would. When the city really has to make a choice, it takes even longer than when it does a grand compromise as with the Fun Forest site.

Somewhere, I think Chief Sealth and his peers are smiling.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Holiday: Winterfest

A model train passed a scene including a school yard at the Winterfest display at the Seattle Center House on 27-December-2010

BELLEVUE, WASHINGTON - For as long as I can remember, there have been two significant model railroad displays around Seattle, Washington during the holidays. One is in a store window at the Bon Marche (now Macy's), where one puts a hand on a designated spot on the window to make a train move, and the other has been in the Center House at the Seattle Center.

People gathered around the Winter Train and Village display at the Center House in Seattle, Washington on 27-December-2010

Much has changed in the Center House over the years. The Bubbleator, left over from the 1962 World's Fair, has been gone since the 1980's. Shops on the lower level have given way to the Children's Museum. Yet, there's still a Pizza Haven (see photo above) near the walkway to the Monorail (another World's Fair holdover, this year decorated for the Harry Potter exhibit at the Pacific Science Center), and the "G gauge" setup of the Winter Village still appears during Winterfest.

A train based on a Colorado narrow gauge prototype passed exited a tunnel at the Winterfest display in Seattle, Washington on 27-December-2010

Winterfest itself has varied over the years. The ice skating rink (in recent years in the Fisher Pavilion) and Winter Village train display have been staples, but there have been various other activities over the years. Back when KING television was a sponsor instead of KOMO, there was a "Holiday Sleigh Ride" in which local television personalities would introduce you riding Santa's Sleigh--easily my favorite VHS tape of my family.

A model of Seattle's King Street Station was where the controls of the Winter Train display were located on 27-December-2010

The train display itself has been interactive in recent years. For a $2 donation, one can become an engineer for a few minutes of one of two trains that run through the display. The trains aren't the only things that move, either, as a hot air balloon regularly takes off from the village for a trip through the sky, and ice skaters rotate through the center of the well-detailed town, amongst other scenes.

Both of the model trains operating at the Winterfest display in Seattle, Washington passed the Engine House on 27-December-2010

Winterfest continues through 31-December-2010 at the Seattle Center, with ice skating extended through 2-January-2011; see the web site for details.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Photos: Holidays in Toronto, Part II

A portion of the Toronto, Ontario Christmas Market was found in an alley of the Distillery District on 9-December-2010

BELLEVUE, WASHINGTON - This week's update to my photo site features more coverage of the holidays in Toronto, Ontario. The German-style Toronto Christmas Market, the Trail of Lights in Downsview Park, making mulled wine, store windows, and more scenes taken between 3-December and 20-December-2010 are shown.

Culture: Pole Position II

Gunnar Stenseth continued a holiday tradition of playing Pole Position II in Bellevue, Washington on 26-December-2010

BELLEVUE, WASHINGTON - It's hard to claim anything other than a spoiled childhood when there was a full-size arcade video game in your room. Granted, my mother won it in an Atari contest in 1983, but it's still not normal to have such an expensive and physically large toy completely at one's disposal.

When she won the contest, there was a choice of three games--one was a Star Wars game of some kind and I don't recall the third, and I remember going to a local video game parlor to try them out. There wasn't much question that Pole Position II was going to be the choice. Not only did both my father and I prefer racing games, but it was pretty clear that there was a timelessness to a driving game, while the other games would be somewhat dated.

Fortunately, I do not know how many hours of my life have been spent playing the game, because the number would be scary. It rains in the Puget Sound region, and many a rainy summer day was spent driving the four virtual race courses--Fuji (from the original Pole Position game, with a mountain in the background), Test (a basic oval), Seaside (with an amusement park background), and Suzuka (in many ways the most twisting, challenging track). After many years of trying, I would earn the Pole Position on all four courses in qualifying, and would earn over 64,000 points on each course after the four-lap race.

While driving might be a universal game theme, some of the details of Pole Position are quite strange. In what kind of real race are all the other cars so slow that you pass them going more than twice their speed? How can be that all the sets of cars on the course take on the same lane configurations, so that if one remembers what the last set of cars looked like, the ones around the next corner can be anticipated? And how is it that when driving the Suzuka course, which crosses over itself, there is no sign of this crossing in the scenery at all? Never mind the fact that one immediately receives a new car in the same track position after having a catastrophic, explosive wreck with another car or a roadside sign, at least until time expires!

Three complete races led the leaderboard on the Pole Position Fuji racetrack on 26-December-2010

Over the years, the game has fallen largely into disuse, and it has spent many years with its accelerator pedal in disrepair. Today, though, the game proved to be in mint condition when younger members of the family decided to give it a try. When it was idle for a moment, I decided to jump on, and was shocked to manage a 60,000-point race on Fuji in my first attempt. A couple races later, I not only had driven from the Pole Position on Fuji, but I had broken 63,000 points, which would have been respectable even in my prime gaming days. At the other end of the score board, a five-year old "nephew" had a score well under 10,000. If the game lasts, he might be beating me someday.

A quarter-century later, Pole Position II is still providing the same entertainment it did on day one.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Radio Pick: Monetarily Assured Destruction

As much as I'd like to cite a holiday program this week, the clear stand-out program was a podcast from Open Source at the Watson Institute, Christopher Lydon's interview of political economist Mark Blyth. Blyth presents the concept of "Monetarily Assured Destruction" amongst other reasons why the coming year may not be economically inspiring, but won't be nearly as bad as it theoretically could be in this wide-ranging 27-minute interview.

Listen to MP3 of Open Source "Mark Blyth on 2011"

Friday, December 24, 2010

Holiday: Garden d'Lights 2010

What has become the premier scene at the Garden d'Lights in Bellevue, Washington, the pond scene, was captured on 22-December-2010

BELLEVUE, WASHINGTON - It seems that all really good free things come to an end, and such is the case with the holiday season Garden d'Lights in Bellevue, Washington. Since 1994, the ever-growing light display had been free, but this year, outside of a few early-season dates, it cost $5 for adults and reservations were needed as total admissions were limited to keep the Botanical Gardens from becoming overcrowded, as had happened on several nights in the 2009 season.

An octopus was targeting a starfish for lunch in the aquarium scene at the Bellevue Botanical Gardens in Bellevue, Washington on 22-December-2010

The display now features more than 500,000 individual lights in dozens of scenes that stretch throughout nearly the entire Botanical Gardens complex. The display is always different each year, so while one can expect listeria at the covered walkways and a pond scene on the upper lawn, some of the better animals like the monkey and the slug could be found in different locations, and there were plenty of new scenes throughout the park.

A gardener watered potted plants near gourds at the Garden d'Lights in Bellevue, Washington on 22-December-2010

While the original idea behind the Garden d'Lights had been to highlight plant life as a winter nighttime extension of the Bellevue Botanical Garden's daytime and mostly fair-season mission, the most popular parts of the Garden d'Lights have mostly become the animals. Some years, kids were given a list of animals to find hidden around the displays, and certainly the rabbit with its carrot and the spider with a fly caught in its web have become perennial favorite scenes, with new ones added each year.

A turtle was one of the prominent animals scattered about the Garden D'Lights in Bellevue, Washington on 22-December-2010

Still, the bulk of the lights in the Garden d'Lights are devoted to plant representations, with quite a variety, from desert succulents to both the blue and pink versions of hydrangeas, with just about any flower imaginable seen somewhere in the gardens. I wish some of them could be labeled just like the various real plant species in the garden have signs with their names that can be seen in daylight.

A typical scene with a variety of plants was seen along the hillside of the Garden d'Lights in Bellevue, Washington on 22-December-2010

The size of the garden was expanded significantly this year to include new portrayals of salmon jumping in a rapidly-moving stream. This display was especially appropriate considering the Botanical Gardens' proximity to Kelsey Creek, a stream that is alive with migrating salmon at certain times of year.

Salmon jumped up a creek in a new display for 2010 at the Bellevue Botanical Gardens' Garden d'Lights on 22-December-2010

With all the new displays, even with the $5 charge, the Garden d'Lights still compares favorably with other similar displays. It remains open through 1-January-2011--remember to make reservations if you wish to go!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Holiday: Northwest Christmas Music

BELLEVUE, WASHINGTON - It rained here today. It didn't just rain for an hour; it rained for essentially the whole day. This is normal in Seattle during the winter, which is to say during the holiday season. Thus, holiday lore about a "white Christmas" does not seem particularly relevant in the Pacific Northwest--and neither is it especially welcome, since the region is so unprepared for its occasional snowfalls that if there is a white Christmas, everyone's plans are generally ruined.

This sentiment is reflected in the regional holiday music that has gained popularity over the years. Probably the quintessential Seattle Christmas song is Brenda Kutz White's Christmas in the Northwest. Originally released in 1985 as a fundraiser for Children's Hospital in Seattle, it eschews the idea of a white Christmas, noting that the holiday "Is a gift God wrapped in green." The ideas of sharing--relatively emphasized in the Pacific Northwest at any time of year compared with the rest of the country--and dreaming is mentioned several times. The song has been released multiple times, remains commercially available, and is consistently one of the most requested songs on the local all-Christmas radio station, Warm 106.9 FM.

While not as widely distributed, there is another Seattle holiday song that more directly addresses the weather. Released in 2003, the Pysht River Troubadours' Let's Have a Seattle Christmas does nothing except describe the downpours. It includes the line "There's so much water, it won't drain." There are references to the weathermen on each of Seattle's major television stations, the late Seattle Mariners baseball announcer Dave Niehaus, and even that Santa will need to trade his reindeer "for a Husky-powered hydroplane," which may the ultimate in local references. To me, nothing captures the local climate reality better than this song.

The song regarded (at least by Amazon--which as a locally-based business ought to know) as the most popular in the Pacific Northwest radio history actually has nothing to do with the region or its weather. Recorded in Swansea, Wales in 1981 by the Cory Band and the Gwalia Singers, Stop the Cavalry had been written by Jona Lewie about soldiers away from their families at wartime. It seems to have been lost to history who first played the song in Seattle, but by the mid-1980's, it had become a holiday staple on just about every station from KOMO to KLSY. If one wants to establish credibility as a northwest resident in past quarter-century, it's Stop the Cavalry, not Christmas in the Northwest, that one should bring up as the unique holiday song of the region.

Personally, especially on a day like today, it's "Let's Have a Seattle Christmas" that really resonates--"Get out the lifeboats and the dinghys, Captain, it's a Grand Tsunami... 'cause it doesn't just rain on Christmas, it's every day, every day, every day."

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Culture: Opposing Transit

BELLEVUE, WASHINGTON - Walking around this mostly-affluent suburb of Seattle today, I was surprised to see a substantial number of "No Trains in Our Neighborhoods" signs. What was especially strange was that many of these signs were located more than a fifteen minute walk away from the closest proposed light rail alignment. I can understand some opposition to light rail, but the flavor in Bellevue is really hard to explain.

Sound Transit plans to build the East Link light rail line from the current north-south Central Link near downtown Seattle to Bellevue and Overlake. Based on the timetable voted for by the public in November 2008, construction would begin in 2013 and the first segment of the line to Bellevue would open by 2020. One of the first steps in the planning process was to determine the design and alignment of the line.

The alignment preferred by Sound Transit would stop at South Bellevue Park and Ride and then head north roughly along Bellevue Way and 112th Ave SE to downtown Bellevue. As urban rapid transit systems go, the route has relatively low residential density. However, it's still higher than an alternate alignment (B7) that would avoid South Bellevue Park and Ride, head east to I-405, and then north along the currently-dormant railway right-of-way toward downtown Bellevue. While it could serve a Wilburton Park and Ride lot, there are almost no residences within walking distance of stop(s) on that route, and it adds trip time over the preferred alternative.

The opposition to the preferred alignment comes from an anticipated decline in property values as a result of the line construction, because of increased noise and crime. As far as I know, such a decline in property value has never occurred after the construction of a modern transit line. Instead, property always increases in value, especially near the station locations. I haven't seen statistics yet, but I would be pretty surprised if crime rates have increased in the Rainier Valley or near the Tukwila station as the result of the arrival of light rail. As a result of gentrification (driven by the rise in property values), it would actually be expected to go down. Beyond these arguments, it starts to get really absurd, like an actual web site comment claiming that light rail advocates did not understand the damage that would be done by taking the space for two tennis courts away from the Bellevue Club (an institution whose membership rates are so high they don't release the rates publicly).

Even if any of these fears were justified, they only would affect residents within at most a radius of a few blocks of the tracks, if that. The anti-light rail signs appear throughout essentially all of the South Bellevue, including households a substantial distance from the preferred alignment. There's no way a house along 108th Ave SE south of Bellevue is going to be affected by a light rail line running on an elevated right-of-way more than a block and a steep hill away, more than a half-mile away from the nearest station.

There are some reasons to oppose transit systems. The arguments being observed in southern Bellevue have to be amongst the most pathetic I have ever observed.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Holiday: Processing Cards

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I was late with holiday cards this year, much more so than usual, for a variety of reasons. As I was struggling to get the last of my set destined for the eastern United States finished earlier this evening, it struck me just how detailed the tradition has become for me--right down to the exact pens that I use.

The process begins with updating my address book. I suppose the very first step is making a fast check of that spreadsheet and counting up how many holiday cards I need to order. I then make up the cards and have them printed. In the old days, that meant taking a negative to the photo drop-off location at the grocery store, but in the digital era (for me, that's since 2005), that's meant going to one of the on-line photo sites to put the card together.

Then, after checking alumni web sites for any changes amongst my more distant past peers, I usually send out several dozen e-mails to people that I either know or suspect may have moved over the course of the year. While some of us could be counted on to move regularly during graduate school, I haven't noticed much decrease in the number of people moving as my friends have aged. When I think I've gotten most of the address update replies, I print out the spreadsheet.

The next step is writing up my holiday letter. Once upon a time, I used to have several distinctly-written versions based on the intended audience (e.g. former high school teachers) and didn't do much customizations to those forms. In recent years, I've just had one version, and have attempted much more customization, which usually works out pretty well for the first several dozen and not so well with a week to go until Christmas.

When it comes time to actually send the letters, I group by geographic area and work through the list. Cards bound outside North America come first (those are all late this year--sorry), followed usually by Canada, the eastern United States, and the western United States last, though the order can vary based on where I'm actually located when doing the cards. If I remain in Canada until late in the season, then those for the western United States go first and the Canadian cards are last, since they still have a fighting chance to be delivered on time.

When I choose which card I'm going to do next, I customize the holiday letter if I'm doing one (those I see in person or otherwise communicate with frequently and know what I'm up to generally don't receive a letter), send it to the printer, and then pull the same blue Eppendorf pen I've been using since at least 1999 to do the inside of the card. After signing the letter with the same blue pen, I then switch to the same black pen I've also been using for at least a decade to hand-address the envelope. It occurred to me this year how amazing it is that I've been using the same pens for this purpose for an entire decade and through multiple geographic locations. That may reveal just how infrequently I use the pens outside of the holiday season. For that matter, I'm still using the same printer toner cartridges that I've been using since 2006--five years of holiday cards on the same toner strikes me as a pretty good record.

Once postage is affixed, I use a pencil to put a check mark next to that line of the spreadsheet, and move on to the next card. The process is repeated dozens of times, over many nights, until I'm finally done. This year, that probably won't happen until tomorrow night.

A friend recently asked why I still do printed cards and letters, considering all the on-line services I could use for the same purpose that would be much cheaper and much easier. Besides tradition, I still have too many older relatives that really can only be reached by postal mail or phone. It still isn't really an accepted practice to send on-line holiday greetings to business colleagues, either. So, until those two things change, I'm sticking with the traditional process, no matter how much work it turns out to be.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Media: Air Farce New Year's Preview

One of the monitors showed the title screen for the Air Farce's only 2010 appearance, the New Year's Eve show, during a taping on 16-December-2010

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Originally a radio satire show, long a weekly television show, the Royal Canadian Air Farce has been reduced since 2008 to a single annual appearance--an hour-long special that airs on New Year's Eve. When an e-mail went out to past attendees about the 2010 taping, I responded in about 45 minutes and figured I had a chance of getting a seat. I was at least 30 minutes late--the shows had been filled in less than fifteen minutes, and supposedly there were enough ticket requests to fill 21 shows. Yet, the high demand apparently scared potential rush ticket seekers away last Thursday night--there were only five of us, and we were all allowed in!

Original cast members Luba Goy and Roger Abbott chatted with the crowd between scenes during Air Farce taping on 16-December-2010

Not only was I allowed in--I ended up in the front row! I had the best possible photo angles of the set, right in front of the house band when they came on stage, and I was close enough to smell Luba Goy's perfume. Goy, one of three remaining cast members from the radio show still with the program along with Don Ferguson and Roger Abbott, clearly was enjoying doing the show again. All three original cast members made a point of talking to the audience as much as possible between skits.

Alan Park played President Obama and Luba Goy played Secretary of State Clinton in an Old Spice commercial parody on 16-December-2010

For those used to the fast-paced humor of The Daily Show or even the CBC's own This Hour Has 22 Minutes, the Air Farce has a completely different feel. Rather than a series of one-liners, the show takes its time to develop and deliver humor, whether in the form of a long parody of the Old Spice commercials with President Obama in place of Isaiah Mustafa, or a scene about the planning of next year's royal wedding.

Director Pat McDonald spoke with Alan Park between takes of a bed bug skit during the Air Farce taping on 16-December-2010

Attending a taping is so much more interesting than just watching the show not only because of the art of television can be observed, but because the humanity of it can be observed, as things go wrong and re-takes occur, and people have to wait. Nobody on television will see Penelope Corrin trying to hide a recycling bin with her skirt (or Alan Park pretending to be groping Corrin from a distance). At an Air Farce taping, much of that humanity is centered around director Pat McDonald, whose admonishments that "This is still funny" before a re-take, or "This one really made me laugh in rehearsal" delivered in his dry style helped set the tone for the audience. It's hard to imagine an Air Farce show without him.

The "Ground Crew" of David Matheson and Maury Lafoy had donned heavier clothing during taping of the Air Farce on 16-December-2010

There's substantial down time in a live taping while sets are moved and costumes adjusted, and to fill that time for the audience, they play the pre-recorded "Farce Films" to be used during the show. This year, a number were filmed at Roundhouse Park, a treat for me. Most of the time, though, was filled by the Air Farce house band, called the "Ground Crew," consisting of David Matheson and Maury Lafoy. While it is amazing that the whole cast and crew manages to come back together for just one show a year, the consistency of the "Ground Crew" with their old performances from the regular show run was amazing, singing such standards as "Raccoons" and "The Lake's Largest Johnson"--with only holiday songs added to mix to match the time of year.

The final "F-Bomb" of the Air Farce show was dropped during the taping on 16-December-2010

Without giving away the ending, suffice to say that the crew was worried enough about splattering the audience that those of us in the front row were asked to hold a plastic sheet in front of us to catch any flying debris. The camera zoomed in on those of us holding the plastic, so if the footage from Thursday and not the second taping on Friday is used, I will likely appear on television.

The Air Farce New Year's special will air at 8 pm on 31-December-2010 on CBC Television, with a repeat at midnight.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Margin Notes: Mulled Wine, Birds, Joe Canadian

Proud Bavarian Matthias Oschinski poured rum on the sugar cone as part of the process of making mulled wine at his apartment in Toronto, Ontario on 17-December-2010

TORONTO, ONTARIO - One of the highlights of my visit to the Toronto Christmas Market (covered previously) was the mulled wine, which was a really nice (and warm) treat in the cold weather. When my friends Karimah Hudda and Matthias Oschinski invited me over to actually make their own mulled wine, there was no way I was going to turn that down. Friday night, I was treated to how it is actually done in Germany, prominently using bags of spices, a cone of sugar, a special copper pot, and of course red wine, amongst other details. A native Bavarian, Matthias had expressed minor dissatisfaction with the offering at the market, and after drinking his version, I understood why--the spices were much more nicely accented, leading to a taste that isn't quite like anything else I've ever had. I can understand why Matthias and Karimah make mulled wine an annual tradition.

The blue, alcohol-based flame surrounded the sugar cone as mulled wine was prepared on 17-December-2010

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An annual tradition for most North Americans around this time of year is shopping, and malls know that. It surprised me when visiting the Eaton Centre here in Toronto this fall that it looked like their construction project involving flooring and railings wasn't going to be complete in time for the peak holiday season. Sure enough, when I went to shop there on Friday night, the crowds were having to work their way around the construction. What in the world were they thinking when they scheduled that work?

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I'd also like to know what the CBC was thinking when it named the new co-host of the flagship As It Happens show on Radio One. When the CBC fired Barbara Budd as co-host earlier this year, it claimed it wanted to replace presenters with journalists. So who did they hire? Jeff Douglas, best known as the actor that portrayed "Joe Canadian" in the famous Molson Beer "I am Canadian" commercial. Granted, Douglas has done significant documentary work, promises to push social media for the show, and I rather like him, but it sure doesn't look like the point of replacing Budd was to find a journalist. It makes the whole process look rather cold.

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A small bird braved the elements at Toronto's Lambton Park on 19-December-2010

The weather has been cold in Toronto for the past week, and it has looked like a winter wonderland for about the past week. I went out in the elements today and spotted a Cardinal, but as is usually my luck when male Cardinals are around, I didn't manage to get a decent picture. I had to settle for a LBB ("little brown bird") instead, shown above at Lambton Park.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Radio Pick: War Against the Internet?

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's radio pick is technically an audio pick as it comes from a podcast. I have largely found the coverage of the Wikileaks story to be at best burying the lead, but Jesse Brown and TVO's Search Engine had their pulse on it. In Brown's monologue and an interview with David Weinberger, the core topics about the consequences for free speech and the Internet in general are more fully explored that I had heard elsewhere in this 18-minute podcast.

Listen to MP3 of Search Engine "War Against the Internet?"

Friday, December 17, 2010

Culture: Ode to a Phone

My first cell phone, a 2005-era Nokia 6010, sat retired on 17-December-2010

TORONTO, ONTARIO - In this day and age of throw-away technology, in which electronic devices are considered obsolete after two years at the most, it is remarkable when devices last much longer than that. I try to use things for as long as possible, but it seems like I go through about a portable radio or MP3 player each year--which is why I never get a particularly expensive one.

One device that I did get a decent amount of use from was the first cell phone I ever purchased. After several years of carrying a company "roving" cell phone on business trips, I decided that for a vacation to the Pacific Northwest in the fall of 2005 that I wanted to have a phone of my own. Not knowing how long I would want to hang on to it, I went with T-Mobile pre-paid and had to actually buy the phone, a basic Nokia 6010, and decided to get a Seattle number so my relatives could call me as a local number.

That arrangement worked so well that I have kept the SIM card for that account ever since, even after I moved to Canada. It's actually cheaper to maintain the US account and get domestic rates while in the United States--the cost can be as small as $25 per year--than to rove into the United States on a Canadian phone.

Furthermore, I was so used to how the Nokia phone worked that I didn't like the new, basic Sony Ericsson phone I had to buy when opening a Canadian account. So, I had my Nokia 6010 unlocked and have been switching SIM cards at the border ever since, using a Canadian provider in Canada and a US provider in the United States ever since.

Thus, the Nokia 6010 has been my cell phone essentially continuously for more than five years. The amazing thing is that it is still in relatively good physical condition (see the photo above) and seemed to function as new. Sometimes a SIM card wouldn't be quite seated correctly upon a change, but that was always readily addressed by putting in the phone again.

Finally, this past summer, one of the buttons on the phone quit working. It's not a particularly important button, being the upper left button mostly used as the "back" button in the menu system, not for dialing or anything especially important. Thus, for a time, I didn't let it bother me very much. However, I knew it was only a matter of time before something else broke--a five year old cell phone is living on borrowed time.

A few weeks ago, I spotted an especially good deal on an unlocked Nokia 2720 on an eBay auction and put in what proved to be a winning bid. About the only thing that had annoyed me on the Nokia 6010 was occasionally having a button pushed while the phone was in my pocket, or alternately, having to unlock the keyboard before every use. Thus, a very basic flip phone seemed like what I wanted as a replacement, and the Nokia 2720 was what I settled on.

Thus, my first cell phone has now been relegated to backup status--but only after more than five years of quality service. I will be happy if my new cell phone lasts even two-thirds as long as its predecessor.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Holiday: Trail of Lights 2010

The entrance to the Downsview Park Trail of Lights was viewed on 15-December-2010

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Considering that the holiday season occurs around the shortest days of the year, it is not surprising that outdoor lighted displays have become popular just about everywhere in North America. Amongst these, Downsview Park's Trail of Lights here in Toronto seems to be rather struggling to find a defining identity.

Snowflake arches were found along the Trail of Lights at Downsview Park in Toronto, Ontario on 15-December-2010

When I last visited in 2008, the Federal facility had created its light display for pedestrians, and the two-kilometer walk seemed stuffed full of displays. However, two kilometers was apparently felt to be too long of a walk for the average person, and the trail was instead opened to vehicles in 2009. This year, it went to a hybrid format, with driving days on Thursday through Sunday and "Walk-Through Wednesdays" for pedestrians.

A flower bloomed after watering along the Trail of Lights in Toronto, Ontario on 15-December-2010

With the majority of nights devoted to the automobile, the layout of the trail was clearly car-oriented, with distances that felt quite long between the displays. It seemed far more like a winter hike through the snow that happened to have some lights along the way than a holiday light display. I happened to choose a particularly cold night to visit yesterday, with the wind chill reported as -15 C while I made the circuit, and that made it less than pleasant.

A squirrel jumped between trees on either side of the Trail of Lights in Toronto, Ontario on 15-December-2010

Many of the displays have motion involved, whether deer or squirrels jumping across the trail, a Jack-in-the-Box springing up, a bucket coming up from the bottom of a well, or a volcano erupting. Some of the best scenes were sports scenes, with a baseball pitcher striking out a batter, a football place kicker scoring points, and a soccer player scoring a goal. I was disappointed, though, that the displays were almost all the same as two years before, so there were no pleasant surprises to be found along the trail.

A long exposure captured all the positions of the football player kicking a goal at the Trail of Lights in Toronto, Ontario on 15-December-2010

The price also seems quite steep--$8 to walk through as an adult pedestrian, and $25 per carload. At least as a pedestrian, it takes more than a half hour to walk the route, without stopping for pictures or admiration. In a car, it would take far less than that. Considering all the free displays and events in the Toronto area, it's not surprising that there was quite light patronage during my visit.

Santa and his reindeer were found along the Trail of Lights in Toronto, Ontario on 15-December-2010

The Trail of Lights remains open (except Mondays and Tuesdays) through 2-January-2011 from 6-11 pm. The entrance is not far from Keele Street in Downsview Park, so those taking the TTC can use the Keele bus, Shephard West bus, or the Downsview Park bus. For more information, see the official web site.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Culture: Eye for Eye Plus Some Turning Cheek

TORONTO, ONTARIO - If I didn't know better, I would think that the staff of WNYC's Radiolab also recently read Francis Collins' "The Language of God" and wanted to explore the topic I raised in my blog entry about altruism not being so clearly counter to evolution. This week's podcast (and show), entitled The Good Show, explored the idea of how goodness might have a biological basis.

While much of the show could be summarized as exploring different forms of Richard Dawkins' selfish gene theory, the key final segment focused on the work by Robert Axelrod. He decided to set up mathematical models of different one-on-one competitions in which cooperation was most rewarded, but one of the individuals could defeat the other. Various strategies were tested for participants, ranging from the "Jesus" participant that always cooperated to the "Lucifer" participant who always tried to defeat the other party. It turns out that a "tit for tat" participant, who cooperates if the other party cooperates but attacks if the other participant attacks, survived in basically any environment, even if surrounded by mostly "Lucifers". Indeed, as long as there were at least a few "tit for tat" participants that could find each other and cooperate, they would rout out even the "Lucifers" over the course of generations.

Granted, this is a greatly simplified model that assumes that cooperative behavior is beneficial and that the behavior of individuals is consistent. However, this implies that if a population of "Lucifers" has a few mutations into "tit for tat", the mutants that have some goodness in them can thrive. Furthermore, Axelrod found that the ideal participant seemed to be the default "tit-for-tat" but adding about 10% of its decisions as being always cooperative ("tit-for-tat" with 10% "Jesus")--that allowed the potentially-cooperative individuals to better find one another and gain the advantages of the cooperation without making them too vulnerable to "Lucifers" that would take advantage of their demeanor.

Radiolab makes the comparison of "tit-for-tat" with the Old Testament "eye-for-an-eye, tooth-for-a-tooth" and "Jesus" with the New Testament "turn the other cheek." However, from the standpoint of Collin's book, I think this may be the "moral code" in mathematical form. The reality of the human being "moral code" is not that of the "Jesus" stance from the Axelrod experiments. Human beings don't feel the need to be nice to people that attack them--they only tend to be nice to other people that are nice back. The "10% Jesus" represents a default stance to offer kindness until the other entity proves not to be worthy of cooperation. I think Axelrod has come up with a reasonable mathematical approximation of the "moral code"--and furthermore, demonstrated that under natural selection, it wins out.

Granted, the Axelrod experiments were simplistic simulations, and don't explain pure altruism. Yet, I don't think it's a large logical leap to go from the Axelrod experiments to the idea that the "moral code" (at least the "tit-for-tat with 10% Jesus" form) could have evolved. Furthermore, knowing that most animals have a range of traits, it's not hard to believe that the average human might be "tit-for-tat with 10% Jesus" but that certain individuals would be "Jesus" (seemingly pure altruism) or "Lucifer" (seemingly pure evil) with many along the spectrum in between.

This Radiolab episode has solidified my stand that Francis Collins is probably not correct when he makes the assertion that natural forces cannot explain the "moral code." It seems to me that Robert Axelrod has come close enough that it doesn't take much imagination to come up with a plausible evolution process.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Politics: The Passing of Richard Holbrooke

TORONTO, ONTARIO - American diplomat Richard Holbrooke died yesterday at the age of 69. I never met Holbrooke; I may have never even met anyone who met Holbrooke. Yet, at more than one juncture in my life, I would have cited him as one of the individuals that I admired most in the world.

I obviously chose not to enter diplomacy, or even public service of any kind, in my life. Fundamentally, I considered my own personality to be ill-suited to diplomacy--I'd much rather express my opinion than try to convince a foreign entity to get in line with a policy with which I might not fully agree. Based on all accounts (especially good ones have come from Fouad Ajami and HDS Greenway), Holbrooke may have had a similar personality--he was certainly known for forcefully expressing his opinion, in particular to people above him like a series of presidents.

What Holbrooke often accomplished, though, was saving lives. Obviously, his work in Bosnia in brokering the Dayton peace accords may have been his best moment, but it was more typical than atypical of his career, being exceptional perhaps only in its scope and visibility. To me, there are few higher callings than bringing peace to the world, and Holbrooke has done more in my lifetime toward that end than almost any other single individual.

While there has been plenty of praise of Holbrooke in the United States after his death, there has probably been more from the rest of the world. The news of his death led both the BBC and the CBC this morning, and one CBC reporter probably put it best: "There aren't a lot of American diplomats respected by the world, but Richard Holbrooke was almost universally respected across the world."

Holbrooke never served as the nation's chief diplomat, the Secretary of State (though Greenway notes that Al Gore and Hillary Clinton probably each intended to place him in that role), but that very fact was one of the things that made him so admirable--he found ways to make the most of whatever position he was placed in, and better the world from it.

I chose to take a very different path in life than Richard Holbrooke. His passing makes one ponder if it would not have been more meaningful to have tried diplomacy, even if it would have meant only having a small percentage of the impact that Holbrooke had on the world.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Culture: Growing T-Shirt Sizes

TORONTO, ONTARIO - One of the annoying things about living in Canada is the lack of availability of retail items compared with the United States. If one prefers men's pants with an odd-numbered waist size in Canada, for example, forget it. Almost no retail stores will stock these sizes, and not many more on-line retailers will allow special ordering. Compare that with the United States, where even the most basic discount store will have these sizes. Apparently human waists only vary in two-inch increments in Canada; either that, or the belt manufacturers have some unusual hold on retail distribution.

What's really surprised me, though, is that sizes seem to be getting bigger. Canadians used to pride themselves on not being as physically large as their counterparts south of the border, but in recent years that difference has been decreasing, and now it seems that this reality is being reflected in sizes.

In the United States, I used to buy undershirts that were labeled as "large" size, 38-40. That might seem a bit big for someone my size, but considering that undershirts tend to be all cotton, they shrink to an appropriate size for me in one washing, and then last a very long time. After moving to Canada, I discovered that undershirts here are rarely sold in numerical sizes, but simply small, medium, large, and extra large. Figuring that all my stock from the United States said "large," that's what I bought.

However, the Canadian large is significantly larger than the 38-40 to which I was accustomed. They're definitely too big, perhaps the size I might wear on an outer shirt, but not as an undershirt. That purchase has been relegated to layering in the winter months. So, not too long ago, I decided to try the Canadian medium. Again, it wasn't marked with a numerical size, but I figured if the large was too big, the odds of medium being appropriate would have to reasonable.

Wrong. The medium-labeled undershirts were not significantly smaller that the larges I had purchased a few years before. Even after washing, they still were bigger than the "large" shirts in my collection, some of which are now nearly a decade old, that I had purchased in the United States. The only possible explanation is that the sizes are getting larger in response to average body size here. It's a very good thing I didn't try to buy "large" again.

In the interim, I had taken to buying undershirts while visiting the United States. I may return to this practice, as at least as of a couple years ago, the US "38-40" large was still the same size it had always been. The weakening US dollar also encourages this practice; the last time I bought undershirts in the US, the loonie was worth more than the US dollar, and that may happen again soon. If Canadian retailers want my business, they need to start selling my size--or at least keeping their sizes the same.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Photos: Holidays in Toronto, Part I

Toronto's City Hall was green with the reflection of fireworks during the Cavalcade of Lights on 27-November-2010

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Coverage of the holidays in Toronto, Ontario continues this week on my photo site with the Cavalcade of Lights concert and fireworks on 27-November-2010, the visit of the Canadian Pacific Holiday Train on 29-November-2010, and the CBC Metro Morning "Sounds of the Season" live broadcast on 3-December-2010, along with other scenes around town.

Margin Notes: Holidays, Devil, Pinkos, Osgood

One of the scenes in the store windows at The Bay in Toronto, Ontario was captured on 9-December-2010

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Once upon a time, the store displays in big cities were a major draw of the holiday season, with people coming from outlying areas not only to shop, but to see what might be in the windows. I've been pretty disappointed with the store windows in Toronto the past few years. It's tough to complain about The Bay, since at least it has holiday displays unlike some retailers that do nothing, but they've mostly been repeats of winter scenes (like the one above) and Santa's shop for the past few years. The recession is over--it's time for some displays!

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A rather naughty Santa Claus was noted along Jane Street in Toronto, Ontario near Bloor on 11-December-2010

Of course, the quality of the display does matter. One of my neighbours has chosen to set up a rather naughty scene in his front yard in which Santa Claus periodically lowers his trousers to reveal "Ho Ho Ho" on his behind. I'm not really certain that one is the best to place on a busy street, and I hesitated before placing it on this blog, but near as I can tell no children are reading here anyway.

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One might say that the devil is behind that display. My favorite customer service request of all time may be the following: "Please remove the devil from all Tampa [items]." (A reference to the re-naming of the Tampa, Florida baseball team from the Devil Rays to the Rays.) It seems to be the business should retort, "What? You're paying me to do exorcisms now?"

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The devil apparently has been exorcised from local mall owners in the Toronto area. At the beginning of the season, there were several news articles on different malls that had banned the Salvation Army from ringing its bells at donation locations. Well, one by one, the malls bowed to public pressure and changed their policies. The last hold-out, the Eaton Centre in downtown Toronto, reportedly changed its policy this week, and the signature bells of the season are again ringing all over. (Never mind that too few people bother to carry change anymore.)

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That kind of controversy sounds just like the kind of thing that new Toronto mayor Rob Ford would get involved in. Conservative sports anchor Don Cherry received quite a bit of publicity for insulting anyone that disagrees with Ford at his inaugural this week, calling them, amongst other things, "left-wing pinkos." As a result, liberal councillors have been wearing pink, and Spacing magazine is having trouble keeping up with the demand for pink buttons. It's going to be a long four years.

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Speaking of conservatives, has anyone else noticed that CBS commentator Charles Osgood seems to be taking over from the late Paul Harvey of ABC as the conservative voice of short-form radio? Listen to the 06:25 broadcast on Tuesday, the 06:25 broadcast on Wednesday, or the 07:25 broadcast on Friday and tell me if there isn't a right-wing slant in the presentation.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Radio Pick: Engineering Search

TORONTO, ONTARIO - CBC producer Ira Basen has been written about in this feature before; pretty much everything he's been involved in has been gold from my perspective, so it's not surprising that he has again earned my weekly radio pick. His latest effort documents how Google became so dominant in search and the Internet in general, airing originally as a 30-minute documentary in the second hour of The Sunday Edition and appearing about 36 minutes into the podcast.

Listen to MP3 of The Sunday Edition "Engineering Search"

Friday, December 10, 2010

Transport: Only the Downtown Relief Line

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Canada's largest city now has a mayor that intends to cancel the light rail-based Transit City plan and instead build a much smaller distance of subways. Never mind the politics involved, which have already started to become intense, or the philosophy of subways versus light rail, on which my position is essentially the same as Steve Munro's, not the mayor's--for the sake of argument, let's accept that we're going to build subways. The ones everyone is talking about are not the subways that should be built--Toronto should start with the Downtown Relief Line, which nobody is talking about.

While the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) has not specified its plans for subway expansion in the Rob Ford era (and rightfully should have some time to come up with them), the basic outline does not seem to be in much dispute. The Shepherd subway--yes, the one that was designated for shutdown in the political theater of a TTC funding crisis not long ago--is to be "completed," probably to a connection with the Spadina subway at Downsview in the west, and probably to Scarborough Town Centre in the east. Instead of replacing the Scarborough Rapid Transit line with light rail, as currently planned, it would be replaced with an extension of the Bloor-Danforth subway.

The problem with this expansion--and with Transit City, for that matter--and more importantly, the currently under-construction expansion of the Spadina subway into Vaughn and the proposed Yonge subway expansion into Richmond Hill, is that they funnel even more people than today onto the north-south subways through the downtown core. A visit to the platforms at Bloor and Yonge at rush hour will make it very obvious that the Yonge portion of the subway is at capacity. The University portion is only modestly better--it is not unusual for northbound trains in the afternoon rush hour to be crush-loaded after Osgoode station and leave people on crowded platforms at St. Patrick, Queen's Park, and Museum before reaching the transfer point at St. George. The least bit of a service disruption and either of these lines resembles Tokyo. They can't handle more people.

There is a solution to this problem, the long-proposed Downtown Relief Line. The line would provide an east-west underground route through the downtown core, likely under King Street but perhaps under Front or Queen, that would turn north on either side of downtown and head up to meet the Bloor-Danforth subway, probably at Dundas West in the west and Pape in the east. A fair portion of the riders of the Bloor-Danforth subway line that currently have to transfer to the Yonge or University subways to reach the downtown core could instead transfer to this line, freeing up capacity on the two existing lines. With effectively four routes out of downtown instead of two, additional traffic on the two existing lines could be accommodated.

Per kilometer, the Downtown Relief Line would undoubtedly cost more than the Shepherd Line or the Scarborough extensions. But, it would clearly carry a lot more people, and would actually open the useful possibilities for transit expansion in the rest of the city, as there would be capacity where many transit patrons are headed--the dense downtown core. With the Downtown Relief Line in place, a Scarborough extension of the Bloor-Danforth line, for example, might actually create a more attractive option to commuters (who might not be crushed loaded after their transfer at Yonge station) and thus make more sense.

Yet, nobody is talking about the Downtown Relief Line. Not former mayor David Miller or most Transit City advocates (Steve Munro himself rather regularly does point it out) nor the subway advocates like Rob Ford. The political scene is so focused outside the pre-1998 "old" city of Toronto that one of the key problems in the system, with serious consequences for the attractiveness of transit as an option to average people, is being completely overlooked.

I can get behind some new subway construction in Toronto--but only if it starts with the Downtown Relief Line.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Holiday: Toronto Christmas Market

The entrance to the Toronto Christmas Market, sponsored by Lowe's, was observed on the evening of 9-December-2010

TORONTO, ONTARIO - One of the delights of the holiday season in central Europe are the Christmas markets in most towns of any size. These outdoor markets attract crowds with their outdoor huts of all kinds of gifts and foodstuffs. On business travel, I've had the privilege of being able to see Christmas markets in such places as Basel, Switzerland and Konstanz, Germany, and really enjoyed doing some Christmas shopping there.

Some of the vendors at the Toronto Christmas Market were observed in their authentic huts on 9-December-2010

When I heard that Toronto was going to have a German-style Christmas market this year, I was initially quite skeptical. While placing it in the Distillery District, which has a rather European atmosphere with its older brick buildings and small alleyways at any time of the year, seemed a good fit, I wasn't convinced that any such event in North America would be able to capture the feel of the European markets.

A choir performed German and North American Christmas favorites at the Toronto Christmas Market on 5-December-2010

When I arrived at the opening of the market last Friday night, however, I was pleasantly surprised. The shops looked straight out of Germany. Furthermore, the place was packed--it was barely possible to move around the central area around the stage and Christmas tree in order to explore the entire market.

Look closely at the turkey at the center of the Leonard Cakes store at the Toronto Christmas Market--it's actually a cake on 9-December-2010

There are only thirty stores at the Toronto Christmas Market, many fewer than a typical German market, and I was initially unimpressed, but after talking to some of the vendors, I changed my views. There were German-heritage businesses from as far away as Peterborough, Ontario, businesses that are normally on-line deciding to take up a holiday booth, and an interesting collection of entrepreneurs including a children's book author--all in all, very similar to the kind of mix found in Europe. Undoubtedly, as words gets around, there will be a larger number of more varied vendors next year.

One of several beer gardens at the Toronto Christmas Market, associated with a very fine German beer, was noted on 9-December-2010

While I might have been happy, the real test was the opinion of a native German. I had the opportunity to go to the market on Sunday with a group headed by a relatively-recent German transplant. He was duly impressed. He even managed to find the mulled wine, which was available at one of the beer gardens though it wasn't particularly promoted. While it wasn't as spiced up as it should have been, he was still quite happy that an effort had been made to offer it.

A puppet troupe performed for passers-by at the Toronto Christmas Market on 5-December-2010

Children have plenty to do at the Christmas Market as well, with roving entertainers, a real Gingerbread House to observe, a maze to walk through, and an "Elves' Workshop" where they can draw or write a letter to Santa. For more information on the Toronto Christmas Market, refer to its website but plan to visit soon--the market closes after this Sunday, 12-December-2010.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Media: The Death of FSRN?

TORONTO, ONTARIO - One day in the spring of 2001, I decided to scan the dial while walking home in the 6 pm hour. Normally, I would have been listening to WGBH TV channel 2 from Boston, Massachusetts for the airing of what was then called the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, but something caused me to turn to something else. I tuned in WMBR 88.1 FM out of Cambridge, the MIT radio station, expecting to find the Pacifica Network News, which I normally listened to off the Internet later in the day. I thought I had found it, but then I realized that the host was Verna Avery Brown, who hadn't been with Pacifica since late 2000--and that the show was just packed with content, which the Pacifica news had ceased to be. At the end of the half-hour, I discovered that I was listening to Free Speech Radio News, and it immediately replaced the Pacifica Network News in my listening habits.

FSRN was started by the reporters that had gone on strike against an increasingly corporate Pacifica in 2000. A worker-run cooperative, FSRN was a whole new way of doing radio news. Taking advantage of the Internet for gathering content and for producing the program in distributed locations, and decreased satellite feed costs for distributing the program, FSRN enlisted reporters all over the world to file stories when news of significance was happening locally. The program was so packed with content, clearly more substantive than the Pacifica Network News had been even before the strike, that it began attracting a serious following and direct donations from listeners.

By April 2002, the FSRN collective had effectively won. Verna Avery Brown became a leader at the Pacifica network, the Pacifica Network News was canceled, and FSRN effectively took its place on the network, with Pacifica providing much of its funding. Since then, FSRN has continued to provide coverage using local reporters based all around the world, leading to quite interesting coverage of world events. It's been a staple of my radio listening ever since I discovered it, and I was one of many thousands of individual financial contributors to the broadcast.

The recession changed all that. When people like me became unemployed, they quit contributing to FSRN. Pacifica starting running into financial difficult, and started making late payments to the FSRN cooperative. In the end, when Corporation for Public Broadcasting funding to Pacifica came through, FSRN would again be caught up. However, Pacifica is now in such a dire situation that it couldn't catch up with its commitments to FSRN or other programming (leading, amongst other things, to the current controversial situation with morning show at network-owned KPFA in Berkeley, California, in which the network canceled the station's top local fund-raising show).

As a result, starting on Tuesday, FSRN is no longer what it used to be. Reporters are no longer being paid to file stories, and none are airing. The program consists of the permanent staff doing two-way interviews with experts and a lot of filler talking about the crisis. If you are unfamiliar with FSRN's programming, don't listen to a show from this week--pick something out of the archives from the first ten years of its existence and listen to that. If money is not raised quickly, the program will no longer air at all after 20-December.

In its page on the crisis, FSRN reveals that it can air a week's worth of programming for $3600. (Imagine what the cooperative could do with the CBC's funding!) Will this programming resource really disappear for the equivalent of the salary of one business executive? Unfortunately, in the next two weeks, we may find out.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Culture: Disagreeing with Francis Collins

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I recently finished reading the The Language of God by Francis S. Collins, the well-known geneticist that amongst other things led the government portion of the Human Genome Project. I'm probably one of the few readers who started the book without any wonderment about the fact that a prominent scientist like Collins could be religious--I've long held that there isn't necessarily a conflict between the two, and on Collins' key points in the book on the potential harmony, I essentially found myself in agreement. Instead, I read the book to find out what had compelled him to have faith--and found it quite unconvincing.

The key part of Collins' argument for the existence of God is the idea of the "moral code," or the nearly-universal tendency of human beings to exhibit a degree of selfless altruism. I agree with him when he points out that it is contrary to evolutionary theory in that "it cannot be accounted for by the drive of individual selfish genes to perpetuate themselves" since many exhibiting this behavior die before reproduction. Clearly, something other direct natural selection as described by Darwin or even Richard Dawkins' selfish gene theory is at work in creating this behavior.

Yet, I found Collins quite quick to dismiss possible explanations. He completely discounts the possibility of selflessness being a positive attribute in mate selection. He cites studies of "nonhuman primates that often reveal just the opposite--such as the practice of infanticide by a newly dominant male monkey, in order to clear the way for his own offspring" but fails to recognize other studies often held up Robert Sapolsky at Stanford that show "Alan Alda" male chimpanzees having reproductive success simply by being around females more often, rather than by being the alpha. It seems that even amongst non-humans, there are multiple paths to reproductive success, and altruism might actually help in attracting mates in some of them, thus potentially perpetuating itself.

What really surprised me, though, is that a geneticist would overlook the argument that a mutation that created altruism might also create another trait with a more clear evolutionary advantage and thus be perpetuated even though it might be harmful itself. The most common example of this kind of situation is sickle-cell anemia being linked with malarial survival--the same mutation that causes the sickle cells affords that person malarial resistance, which might actually be a net positive trade-off in survivability. Considering that we have yet to determine the chemical mechanism of altruism, it seems a bit presumptuous to assume that we will not, and that it might not be linked to something else that confers emotional strength, disease resistance, or some other clear advantage.

Furthermore, I find it rather ironic that Collins spends an entire chapter pointing out how new scientific discoveries are rendering the arguments made by intelligent design advocates moot--such as gaps in the fossil record (many of which have now been filled in by later discoveries). Could not the same process of continued discovery and improved theories eventually render his own arguments about the "moral code" being divine look unnecessary if a scientific explanation eventually comes forward? I don't know if that will ever happen, but the fact that Collins doesn't even seem to see the possibility is rather disappointing.

While I've never met him, the ideas expressed by Francis Collins in his book suggest to me that he is exactly the kind of deeply religious person with whom I could get along. He thinks about his beliefs in profound ways, applies critical thinking to his faith, and reconciles it with the world around him. I might reach a different conclusion based on the same facts, but there would be no arguing about the facts themselves, and any argument about the conclusions would be educational. People trying to reconcile science and religion should find value in his perspective, and more importantly can respect his leadership in trying to point out that reconciliation is not such a difficult task. In the end, that's why I was so disappointed in his reasoning in favor of faith--it doesn't offer much challenge to those who start out from an atheistic perspective.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Economy: Putting a Very Public Face on It

TORONTO, ONTARIO - At long last, the mainstream media in the United States has started to focus occasionally on the long-term unemployed. I found it especially significant to hear a systems engineer from California as a guest on the NPR talk show On Point when it explored the topic, as that could have easily been me with slightly different life decisions. Yet, it was another radio show that provided an example that may resonate with just about anyone that's lived in northern California in the past generation.

On Brian Copeland's Sunday morning talk show on KGO in San Francisco, he took a call twenty minutes into his third hour from a Mike in Vallejo. The Mike was soon revealed to be Mike Pechner, the well-known meteorologist who worked at rival KCBS in San Francisco for forty years. I even knew Mike Pechner's name before I moved to the area from listening to the station at night from Seattle and while visiting the area--for people that grew up listening to KCBS for news, Pechner was an absolute institution. Probably nobody was more closely identified with morning weather forecasts in the Bay Area than Pechner, certainly not for as many years as Pechner was on the air.

Furthermore, I had met Mike Pechner. Besides being a radio personality, he is a railroad enthusiast, a member of many of the fan groups that I also participated in while in the Bay Area and especially active surrounding any railroad in the north bay where he made his home. He has been an outspoken advocate of the restoration of service in that region, all the while providing expert forecasts to railfans who wanted to check out train action on Donner Pass around snowstorms.

So, needless to say, I perked up when it became clear that it was Mike Pechner calling in. It turns out that since he was laid off by KCBS, he has become a member of the long-term unemployed. He described how he has unsuccessfully tried to pursue alternate careers to broadcasting but that his age--he is now 64--was proving to be a major problem. About the only way he had found to earn a partial living was substitute teaching--but with the rash of teacher layoffs in California, this was becoming less and less frequent.

Anyone that has met Mike Pechner knows that he is a hard worker--and I suspect most people who heard him on the radio don't have much difficulty imagining that. While I haven't seen him since I moved out of the area, I had heard second-hand even before this radio call that he is nearly as vigorous today as I remember him from a decade and a half ago. He is a classic example of an older worker with a lot to offer the world--but in this economy, he's just another member of the long-term unemployed.

If a man that more than a generation grew up listening to as their weatherman can end up without a job for more than two years, just about anyone can. Besides being a quality radio conversation between two pros in Pechner and Copeland, this segment of a radio program provided the most compelling example of just how bad this economy is for so many people. If everyone in northern California had been listening to the Brian Copeland program and heard the call from Mike Pechner, there would be almost nobody there left not supporting the extension of unemployment or some other assistance to the long-term unemployed. I encourage everyone to listen to it before it disappears from the KGO archives next Sunday.