Sunday, January 31, 2010

Margin Notes: Winter Views, Cards, Emergency

Osgoode Hall was visible at the end of York Street in Toronto, Ontario, as viewed from the Skywalk between Union Station and the CN Tower on 30-January-2010

TORONTO, ONTARIO - The disappearance of leaves in the winter reveals a variety of views that cannot be seen the rest of the year. Despite having walked through the Skywalk between Union Station and the CN Tower dozens of times in the winter, I had never noticed that one can look north up York Street and see Osgoode Hall in the winter. Yesterday, the sun was shining on the headquarters of the Law Society of Upper Canada so that it was hard to miss.

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I am intentionally missing the fact that this is my 600th blog post, seeing as I haven't found anything insightful in the past 200 posts worth writing about. Maybe there will be something to say by the 750th post, which at the present pace will come sometime in late spring or early summer.

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Some of the temporary track work on the Toronto's Bloor-Danforth subway on the Keele viaduct was noted on 23-January-2010

By that time, the Bloor-Danforth subway in Toronto should be operating at speed again over the Keele viaduct. Trains have been operated at restricted speed over the viaduct since structural problems were discovered last summer. Repairs are well underway, but the temporary track work intended to reduce the weight of the structure remains in place, as shown above. I was especially amused that the plywood-against-structure technique used to hold the tracks in place was the same method we had used in constructing portions of the miniature railway in Roundhouse Park.

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We're not doing much work on that miniature railway in the middle of the winter. The end of January is the time I put away my holiday card materials for the year, figuring I shouldn't have to re-send any additional returned cards (though last year I did get one returned well into February). The final tally this year is 97 cards sent, two returned to sender. I received just 22 cards, but that doesn't count reply e-mails, and I don't care if someone takes until the summer to check in with me, as a former boss did last year. I appreciate hearing how people are doing any time; thank you for writing!

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I can appreciate amusing radio at any time, too. Someone alerted me this week to a bit of hilarity from radio history, before I was born. The Emergency Broadcasting System apparently had a bad day on 20-February-1971, resulting in this amusing air check from Bob Sievers on WOWO in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Radio Pick: The Wonders of Physics

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's radio pick technically breaks the rules, as this program first aired in 2009. For some reason I passed it over at the time, and it was the best program I heard in the past week on its re-run. In exploring physics, Wisconsin Public Radio's premier interview show To The Best of Our Knowledge brought out insights from Richard Muller's reasoning on why a president should understand physics to the idea that all chemists are gangsters. There is just enough scientific "inside baseball" to hold my attention in the 53-minute program while being presented in an accessible way for a general audience--a feat not easy to attain.

Listen to streaming RealMedia of To The Best of Our Knowledge "The Wonders of Physics"

Transport: Most Common Place Name

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Recently, I finally finished updating the index of my railfanning experiences to the end of 2005. (Can you tell it hasn't been a priority?) More than a decade of serious ralfanning took me to a lot of places, each of which gained an entry in the index. I noted a place name in essentially two cases: When I saw a train or other significant railroad "thing" there, or when I passed through that place on a train. The sample size is large enough that the place names that are repeated makes for an interesting study. For the sake of this discussion, place names that are spelled differently are not counted (e.g. Bern, Switzerland is not considered the same as Berne, Washington even though the one in Washington was named after the one in Switzerland).

Place names that appeared twice were quite common. The list includes Adeliade, Afton, Albany, Alexandria, Argo, Athol, Aurora, Avon, Ayer, Ballard, Bannock, Batavia, Battle Ground, Bayview, Bell, Bellevue, Belmont, Berg, Berkeley, Bethel, Bingen, Bradford, Brunswick, Canaan, Charlotte, Cliff, Clay, Cold Springs, Comstock, Croydon, Edgecomb, Elmhurst, Erlenbach, Exeter, Gardner, Guilford, Georgetown, Glenwood, Goble, Glacier Park, Green River, Halifax, Harrison, Hermosa, Indian Creek, Jamestown, Jordan, Kent, Laufenberg, Las Vegas, Lawrence, Lindsay, Little Falls, Lombard, London, Ludlow, Midway, Milfod, Millersburg, Monroe, Morrisville, Mount Vernon, Newcastle, Newton, Niles, Norwood, Oneida, Park, Pine, Pinkerton, Portland, Providence, Quincy, Radnor, Riverdale, Rockland, Rockwood, Rosemont, Ross, Salem, Selma, Soda Springs, Somerville, Stratford, Syracuse, Tacoma, Thompson, Thornton, Trenton, Verona, Washington, Waterbury, and Wellington. I may have missed others that are considered part of a larger place (Glacier Park, Washington is a siding I have listed under Orillia, Washington, and arguably both Glacier Park and Orillia should be listed under Kent, Washington as they are both within the city limits of Kent).

Twenty-two names appeared three times. They are:
  • Brookfield - Connecticut, Illinois, and Wisconsin
  • Bristol - Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Washington
  • Burlington - Iowa, North Carolina, and Washington
  • Cannon - California, Pennsylvania, and Quebec
  • Clifton - New Jersey, Ontario, and Oregon
  • Essex - Connecticut, Montana, and New York
  • Harrisburg - North Carolina, Oregon, and Pennsylvania
  • Hinsdale - Illinois, Massachusetts, and Montana
  • Hudson - Colorado, New Jersey, and New York
  • Huntington - Massachusetts, Oregon, and West Virginia
  • Lowell - Indiana, Massachusetts, and Washington
  • Marysville - California, Kentucky, and Washington
  • Newark - California, Delaware, and New Jersey
  • Norwich - Connecticut, North Dakota, and Vermont
  • Plymouth - New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Washington
  • Ramsey - Idaho, New Jersey, and Wyoming
  • Richmond - California, Virginia and Vermont
  • Russell - New Hampshire, Illinois and Massachusetts
  • Summit - Pennsylvania, Utah, and Vermont
  • Wilmington - Delaware, Illinois, and Massachusetts
  • Winona - New Hampshire, Minnesota, and Ontario
  • Woodford - California, New South Wales, and Virginia
Five names appeared four times:
  • Auburn - California, Massachusetts, New South Wales, and Washington
  • Fairfield - California, Connecticut, Iowa, and Oregon
  • Hamilton - Massachusetts, New Jersey, Ohio and Ontario
  • Springfield - Illinois, Massachusetts, Oregon, and Virginia
  • Westport - Connecticut, New York, Oregon, and Vermont
I had thought that Springfield would be the overall winner, as it was a name so generic that it was used for the generic town in the Simpsons, but it didn't even make the top three.

Three names appeared five times:
  • Ashland - New Hampshire, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Oregon, and Virginia
  • Lincoln - California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Nebraska, and New Hampshire
  • Riverside - California, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois and Vermont
And the big champion, appearing six times? Chester. I have been to the Chesters in Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts, Montana, Pennsylvania, and Vermont. I had no idea that Chester was the most prolific railroad place name in my experience.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Media: Looking Back on Changes

TORONTO, ONTARIO - In 2009, the (arguably) most intellectual evening newscasts in Canada and the United States, CBC's The National and The PBS NewsHour (formerly the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer) went through major re-formatting. Now, after some months in which the broadcasts have stabilized, I would contend that neither re-format has proven to be especially profound and both broadcasts remain the worthwhile presentations that they have been for years.

The National made its changes first, in late October, and the first day was not well-received on this blog. Visual changes aside, the story selection and emphasis on man-on-the-street interviews was disturbing--the amount of hard news and "real" (perhaps "traditional" would be a better term) journalism had clearly declined, and I wasn't the only blogger complaining about the changes.

A survey of the last week of programming reveals a different story. The "streeters" are basically gone, except when the story is actually about public opinion (e.g. on a change in political polls) and thus have journalistic relevance. Originally touted as a weekly feature, the "Analysis with Wendy Mesley" pieces have proven to be less frequent, bumped at times by real news like Haiti, and have tended to be more relevant, particularly in the political sphere, such as exploring the accountability of the prime minister. The puff pieces like whether NASA should be funded (hardly a burning issue for Canadians) seem to have quietly disappeared.

In fact, I daresay that if one compared a National program from August with a recent program from January, the only significant difference that would be seen would be the visual appearance changes. I don't find Peter Mansbridge walking the set to be distracting (or enticing, for that matter), or the new color scheme incorporating blue to be that significant. Guests--if not reporters introducing a story--are now allowed to sit down again (Rick Hillier was especially awkward standing up). Differences of style rather than substance don't really bother me. Ratings are apparently still down (though a MacLeans article points out this may have as much or even more to do with new monitoring devices to determine ratings than with the broadcast), so this story may not yet be over.

The PBS NewsHour made its changes officially on 7 December, but as has often been the case on this show, many of the changes were gradually introduced, including the placement of the news summary after the top story of the day, something that prompted a margin note from this blog last August. The major changes in December were a mild (compared with the CBC's) visual makeover and the re-introduction of two anchors each evening, just like the program had prior to Robert MacNeil's retirement in 1995. The second anchor besides Jim Lehrer rotates amongst the program's senior staff. Hari Sreenivasan now reads the news summary instead of one of the anchors.

I never detected any serious change in editorial selections or tone as a result of the re-formatting, or any change in the journalistic value of the newscast. What has changed significantly has been the on-line integration of the broadcast. Whereas the podcast had been spotty in delivering the complete program (and, in fact, the program as presented on-air was not available on-line, just most segments), the On-Line NewsHour, as it is called, is now if anything more valuable than the broadcast itself, with additional coverage of some stories and often extra interviews with analysts. The full broadcast is readily available. As someone who was traveling for most of the early weeks after the change, I really appreciated the improved on-line NewsHour.

So, a few months into the changes, I rate the CBC changes as a long-term wash after short-term negatives, and the PBS changes as a clear improvement.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Transport: Deciphering "High Speed" Funding

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Those hoping for high-speed rail in the United States are likely a bit confused by where the $8 billion in Recovery Act money designated for high speed rail will be spent. President Obama and Amtrak-riding Vice-President Biden announced today that only two true "high speed" projects would receive funding, in California and Florida. However, a number of other states will receive money to incrementally improve their conventional services. What's going on here?

Cynics would say this is only about politics. While certain "blue" states (California, Illinois, Maine, Washington, and Wisconsin) are being rewarded under this view with significant project funding, swing states are over-represented, with Florida getting the only complete high-speed system funded, North Carolina getting a significant grant, and Ohio getting perhaps the most unexpected grant, $400 million to improve infrastructure for new corridors within that state, which sees only Amtrak long-distance service at odd hours presently. "Red" states? There is just a small grant to Texas and some spillover money for Missouri from the Chicago-St. Louis corridor that will go to states that did not vote for Obama.

I'm not going to argue that politics played no role here, but there may actually be a policy strategy here that makes sense which I have yet to see presented elsewhere. For a long time, advocates have been arguing that a demonstration corridor was needed to show what a high speed rail corridor could do. Orlando to Tampa, Florida has apparently been selected as that demonstration corridor, and in that regard, it's an interesting choice. It's long enough--80 miles--to show the speed advantages of high-speed rail, but short enough to be relatively inexpensive to build, and it has the interesting advantage of competing mostly just with the automobile--few fly for that short of a distance, and Amtrak runs only long-distance trains between the two cities. The only inexplicable part is that the Federal money will only pay for about half the cost of the project--Florida will have to come up with the rest of the money on its own, and in its current budgetary situation that's far from certain.

The bulk of the rest of the money went mostly to states that have already demonstrated an ability to effectively improve existing service. The California money may be designated for the high-speed system supported by Governor Schwarzenegger, but California has been the national leader in using state funds to create meaningful corridors, with the greatest success achieved in the "Pacific Surfliner" corridor from San Diego to Los Angeles and on to the Central Coast, and the "Capitol" corridor between San Jose and Sacramento. Washington received a significant grant which fits right into its incremental approach that has already shaved a half-hour off the travel time between Seattle and Portland, Oregon and increased the number of corridor trips from one to four in the past fifteen years. Maine fought almost single-handed to create and improve the Portland to Boston, Massachusetts "Downeaster" corridor which also runs through New Hampshire and now may get to extend its corridor to Brunswick, with a goal of reaching the capitol in Augusta.

From a policy perspective, that just might make sense--get a demonstration corridor going, encourage the states that have invested in rail by reinforcing the investment, and hope that by setting this precedent, other states will start to invest. It's hardly a bold move, but perhaps it sets the stage for a further round of investment someday if the demonstration corridor becomes popular. The Obama administration is all about hope, isn't it?

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Philosophy: "Only One Way to Win A Race"

TORONTO, ONTARIO - In the run-up to tonight's State of the Union speech by United States President Barack Obama, Tom Schaller wrote a column on exploring the idea that progressives need to win every battle to accomplish anything, whereas conservatives only need to win one battle to kill everything the progressives want to accomplish. Schaller compared the situation to terrorism (society needs to win all the time, the terrorists only need to win once), but what I was reminded of was a statement made by the greatest living driver in unlimited hydroplane racing, Chip Hanauer: "There's only one way to win a race, and a thousand ways to lose it."

I generally admire Hanauer, respecting his intense, hard-working style and having been amazed by some of the things I had seen him accomplish in the cockpit over the years. However, this statement bothered me from the second I heard him utter it. The guy had won about twenty-five races at the time (he went on to win 61 before retiring)--and there was no way each of those wins was in any way the same.

Just take some of his seven straight Gold Cups (1982-1988), a feat which is not likely to ever be approached. Was his 1984 victory in the Tri-Cities, in which he had to kick the steering wheel to get around the corners and only took the lead after his "old" boat, running for a different team, went dead in the water similar in any way to his 1987 victory in San Diego when staying out of the salt from other boats' roostertails was the key, or to his 1988 victory, which came in a boat that he had not even started the day in? It seems to me that Hanauer knows about 61 ways to win races, not one.

Even adding one word to his statement, "There is only one way to win a GIVEN race, and a thousand ways to lose it" might have more credibility, but I still don't buy it. Perhaps there was only one way for him to win the 1989 Seattle race over a clearly superior Budweiser entry by making a better start and boxing his opponent into a tight inside lane, likely the best driving performance I have ever seen. Yet, in the 1986 Tri-Cities race, with the rival Budweiser not even able to start, Hanauer arguably made mistakes at the start and still managed to outrun the second-place Squire Shop handily; he didn't need to drive the perfect race. No human being--even the extraordinarily disciplined and talented Hanauer--is capable of perfection.

As introspective as he is, I bet Hanauer doesn't even agree with his statement anymore (maybe he didn't believe at the time, but knew it made good television). He would probably phrase it something more like, "There are many more ways to lose a race than there are to win it," and I can agree with that. It doesn't take much more imagination than putting oneself in the cockpit instead of Hanauer, and those 61 victories would have turned into 61 losses.

Which brings us back to politics, an endeavor more filled with human imperfection than probably any other. No human being, even Barack Obama, can maneuver perfectly in an arena that is defined as the art of compromise. Asserting that progressive legislation can be stopped by any conservative victory along the way is as absurd as saying there is only one way to win a hydroplane race. There may be many more ways to fail to pass legislation than there are to pass it, but there is more than one way. The President started his new sales job tonight--now it's up to the congressional leadership to figure out how listen to the public and pass meaningful health care legislation. It's not an easy task, but I daresay there may even be more than one way to do it.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Politics: Thorium

TORONTO, ONTARIO - By some accounts, the world's current problems of energy production and nuclear proliferation could be solved by a Norse god. Okay, not exactly the Norse god of thunder, Thor, but the chemical element named in his honor, thorium. A fair number of scientists believe that relatively-abundant thorium can create power using a cycle that is useless for nuclear weapons and produces much less toxic waste than the currently-employed nuclear reactors.

Quite a number of thorium-advocacy web sites can be found on the Internet; just look at the links list in the left panel at the Thorium Energy Alliance web site. The sites all tell a compelling story. By most estimates (though nobody seems to be certain), thorium is at least four times as common in the earth's crust as uranium, and has the advantage of being commonly found in a single isotope, thus not requiring much purification. Thorium itself is not fissile, or spontaneously useful as an energy source, but if it is bombarded with neutrons, it can be cheaply converted to uranium-233, which is a very useful nuclear fuel. While uranium-233 can be used in nuclear bombs in pure form, in the thorium fuel cycle (especially if properly designed), it is contaminated with other isotopes and hence cannot be easily extracted to use in weapons. Plus, the decay products of the reaction are such that the waste remains radioactive for only a couple hundred years, instead of tens of thousands.

The groups would have it appear that thorium solves pretty much all the problems associated with nuclear power. The fuel is more common and easy to process. The waste produced is not nearly as dangerous and decay on a time scale in which we have confidence in our own engineering. Concerns about nuclear weapons proliferation are much diminished (if not gone entirely) from diverted materials. Furthermore, most proposed thorium cycles could not "melt down" in the way that other nuclear reactors have done. So why don't we use it?

In the early nuclear era, the answer actually had a bit to do with the weapons capability--the United States and the Soviet Union both wanted to invest in technology that would allow them to build their stockpiles. However, the most compelling reason right from the start was that there was more knowledge about uranium and plutonium, so the least risky way to proceed was to build on that knowledge.

There has been some exploration along the way, including experiments in Canada in the 1960's and more recently in India. In 2008, US Senators Harry Reid (D-Nevada) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) introduced a bill to fund more research in the United States, but that bill never made it to the floor, a victim of focus on immediate economic matters and that fall's election.

Assuming the promise of thorium comes even close to being realized, whatever nation does the work to commercialize the technology economically will be well-positioned in the coming century. As India and Russia start to put money into thorium, it behooves the rest of the world not to be left behind.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Media: The Power of Search

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Recently, a friend referred me to a paper he had written that had been published in a journal, providing me with the bibliographic information for the paper. It turned out that the Toronto Public Library actually had access to this journal on-line, so I didn't even need to go to the library to read it. However, as I tried to find the exact issue containing his paper in the on-line interface, I found that the sorting was not what I would have expected and it appeared that maybe the issue I was supposed to be looking for by volume number and issue number was somehow missing. Then, I decided to try the search box, entering the title of the paper and the author's last name, and it came right up. I never did find the link to the issue, but it didn't really matter since I already had what I wanted. I would even speculate that the library had put effort into making the search function work well, and figured everyone would use that so didn't bother much with the drill-down interface.

The quality of electronic searches in the Google era can be astounding at times. I should have seen the phenomenon coming when I did a research paper as a university freshman years before Google was founded. Most of my peers in the class used a number of sources for their paper that could be counted on their digits (perhaps including their feet). In the course of the project, I discovered that I had access to the LexisNexis through the university, and since I was writing about a topic related to health care reform, a hot topic at the time, there were hundreds of relevant references to read and sort through in the news articles and transcripts of the times. In the end, I cited more than fifty references in the paper. The instructor was blown away and didn't know what to say.

Today, a student approaching a similar assignment wouldn't even need access to LexisNexis or an equivalent service; he or she could just use Google News. There's rarely a need to head for the card catalog anymore, or to peruse the printed meta-indexes of scientific journals so common in the past.

One doesn't even need to keep files organized on one's own computer anymore. I still keep careful indexes of the railroad locomotives I see, but if I want to know if I've already seen a specific one, I no longer go to the indexes first. Apple's "Spotlight" search is so good that I just put the locomotive's reporting marks in the search field and I get a list of all the files with those reporting marks in them, and since those files are named using the year in question, I know approximately when I last saw the locomotive without even opening any of the files. Sometimes, that's all I want to know.

Of course, the problem with these searches providing exactly what one is looking for is that serendipitous discovery rarely happens. The article on new health technology in a magazine next to the article on health care reform doesn't appear in the search results. The author's articles on topics other than health care reform don't come up either, in most cases. The research effort becomes a niche media exercise, much like deciding only to watch FOX News or MSNBC.

As the e-reader brings search into the education process through digital textbooks annotated with searchable notes as discussed recently on this blog, the capability may bring a lot of convenience. However, it also brings the danger of losing the critical thinking involved in understanding where a concept belongs in the big picture, the kind of thing one discovers when trying to find information without the help of a search engine.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Photos: Portland, Oregon Transit

A MAX Green Line light rail train arrived at the Portland State University station in Portland, Oregon on 14-December-2009.

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's update to my photo site focuses on Portland, Oregon. New transit infrastructure was the focus of a visit to Portland on 13-14-December-2009. Experiences included the new Westside Express Service (WES) heavy rail to Wilsonville, the Portland Tram up Marquam Hill, and the Metropolitan Area Express (MAX) light rail to Clackamas Town Center.

Margin Notes: Walks, Power, Cooking, Q

The CN Tower loomed in the distance as seen near Lambton Park in Toronto, Ontario on 24-January-2010. The newly-rebuilt Dundas Street bridge over the Humber River is in the foreground.

TORONTO, ONTARIO - It was very nice to return to my normal Sunday routine today, which I had not followed since 29-November. I slept in, listened to CBC Radio One's The Sunday Edition from 9 to noon, took a walk out to the Humber River to watch the Expressway train go by, and then it started raining, so I came back to my computer. I could do that every Sunday.

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I have taken a fair number of two-hour walks to downtown Toronto from where I live in the past year or so, a distance of about ten kilometers or six miles. To put this in perspective in previous places I have lived, that walk would be equivalent to:
  • My parents' home near Beaux Arts Village, Washington all the way to Interlake High School in Bellevue, Washington
  • Safeco Field in Seattle, Washington, all the way to the far end of the University of Washington's main campus in Seattle
  • My grandparents' house near downtown Kennewick, Washington all the way to the Columbia Center Mall in Kennewick, Washington
  • Stanford University's central campus all the way to the downtown Mountain View, California Caltrain station
  • South Station in Boston, Massachusetts all the way to the Alewife subway station in Cambridge, Massachusetts
Perhaps needless to say, I have never taken any of those walks. In some cases, I have never even walked half that distance from the starting point.

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After taking a walk, it's time to cook a meal. Thanks to the new Toronto Hydro usage web site I talked about previously, I now know based on the spikes at mealtime that it costs me about $0.50 in electricity to cook dinner off peak, and about $1 on peak, which helps puts eating out in perspective.

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I had been thinking recently that I hadn't eaten chicken cordon bleu for a long time, and considering that I hadn't seen it pre-prepared in the frozen foods section for less than about $7 a serving in some time, I was thinking about getting ingredients to make it myself--something I haven't done in probably seven years. Then, I noticed a No Name brand "Ham and Cheese Stuffed Breaded Chicken Breast" for sale for less than $2 a serving. The difference between that and chicken cordon bleu is lost on me and I thought it tasted pretty good, so I guess I won't be on the spot to cook it after all.

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Jian Ghomeshi will be on the spot this week. His CBC Radio One show, Q, is apparently being sampled on public radio in the United States this week. So far, the stations I have noticed advertising the trial are KALW in San Francisco, which will run the show at various times of day during the one-week run, and North Country Public Radio in New York state, which will run it at 1 pm. Personally, I have a hard time seeing what kind of station in the United States would run a show that is so fundamentally focused on Canadian culture, no matter how good it is, but it will be interesting to see how it goes.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Radio Pick: Google in China

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's radio pick is a bit odd, being if any below average in production values. TVO's Search Engine with Jesse Brown has previously been cited on this blog as an exceptional example of niche media. This week, the podcast was a nice demonstration of the influence of the Internet on media more broadly, as it interviewed Watson Meng, editor of Boxun, a Chinese citizen-journalism news site. His take on the Google-China dispute from the past week is interesting, but like anything else on the Internet, can it be trusted in this 10-minute podcast?

Listen to streaming MP3 of Search Engine "Google vs. China"

Politics: Elections Have Consequences, Eh?

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I stayed out of the "one year evaluations" of United States President Barack Obama that ran on the anniversary of his inauguration earlier this week because everybody seemed to be doing various takes on the theme and the concept is entirely arbitrary. However, I was amazed to find in the media that I normally peruse that nobody did the obvious--tracing the consequences of the election in terms of what was different in the country as a result of the election of Barack Obama instead of John McCain. Perhaps they were too astounded at what they found--near as I can tell, the election had little consequence to the average person. John McCain would have accomplished very similar things in his first year in office as Barack Obama has accomplished.

It's true that John McCain's first act in the White House would not have been to announce the closing of the detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. In fact, he was rather public about the measures he would have taken with respect to the detainees there, which would have focused on completing prosecutions and figuring out where detainees could go before making a closure announcement. John McCain, as a torture victim, had spoken out vociferously against the torture practices under the Bush administration and would have taken actions to change policies that, in the end, would likely have resembled what Obama has actually done. He even called Obama's closure decision "wise," implying that he would have done it, just not as quickly. Obama's promise to close the facility by the end of the year did not come true thanks to a variety of factors. So, it's hard to find profound differences in outcome between the Obama administration and a hypothetical McCain administration on Guantanamo.

The biggest problem facing the country when Obama took office was the economy. Considering that the Obama administration has largely acted to stabilize the financial system and increase investor confidence along the lines of what the late Bush administration had already done, it's hard to imagine that McCain would have done much differently. The first major legislation to come out of Congress in 2009 was the stimulus package. Considering John McCain's anti-pork, balanced-budget stance over the years, it is clear that negotiations between congressional leaders and the president would have been different under McCain. However, the final stimulus package actually passed contained quite a number of temporary tax incentives as well as what many considered special-interest spending. It's unlikely that McCain would have opposed a stimulus package in concept, and it's unlikely that Congress--assuming the same Democratic-controlled chambers--would have accepted a substantially smaller package, so while the exact contents of the package may have been different and likely more focused on traditional infrastructure projects, I don't think the average citizen would have noted much difference. Like Obama, McCain would not have broken up big banks and would have re-nominated Ben Bernanke as Fed Chairman.

The war in Iraq? John McCain would have put a different spin on it, but it seems likely that he also would have drawn down troops there so they could be used elsewhere, including Afghanistan, as circumstances permitted. The war in Afghanistan? John McCain was a major advocate of the surge in Iraq, so it seems likely that he would have supported a similar policy in Afghanistan. Again, the spin would have been different, and he probably would have found a different way to put pressure on the Afghans to take more responsibility than to set a withdrawal deadline, but it's hard to see much difference there.

McCain's domestic priorities would clearly have been different than Obama's, but as of this juncture, no major legislation from the Obama agenda has been passed, and the landmark health care bill is in serious jeopardy. With a Democrat-controlled Congress, it would probably have been hard for McCain to advance a domestic agenda as well, so again, it's probably a wash--no major domestic legislation.

That leaves the symbolic weight of having the first African-American president. No matter how much he spoke against torture and about returning to "true American principles" on the world stage, John McCain could not have possibly changed perceptions of the United States in the rest of the world the way Obama has done. I think it's safe to say that John McCain would not have received the Nobel Peace Prize. Yet, foreign perceptions have little practical consequence to the average US citizen, and Al-Qaeda continued its campaigns against the United States anyway.

There's a lot of time left in the Obama presidency, at least three years. But, six months ago, I questioned whether there would be an Obama legacy. At the one year mark, I could have published virtually that same blog entry again. By 2012, it may be very obvious how the 2008 election was consequential by electing Barack Obama instead of John McCain. Right now, though, I'm having trouble seeing that the consequences were the least bit profound to the average person.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Media: Want an e-book backlog?

TORONTO, ONTARIO - More and more people I know are purchasing e-book readers. While most media attention has focused on the Amazon Kindle, most people I know are actually purchasing models by Sony or simply reading e-books on laptops and other general-purpose devices like the iPhone. I've wondered what the inventors of a century ago would have thought if they were told that someday a phone would be used to read a book. I suspect their response would be "why?" which is the same question I still ask. While there are some clear answers to that question, I'm still not eager to enter the digital book era.

In December, the Christian Science Monitor ran an extensive article on the rise of the e-book. The article emphasized education, as this is the place where the advantages of the e-book become most clear. Those of us who hated toting textbooks around see the advantage of being able to access seven or eight classes worth of texts in a single device likely lighter than any of the individual texts. The ability to take electronic notes and share them with others is also clearly valuable to anyone who had trouble finding something they knew they had highlighted but couldn't find (the electronic search function is wonderful) or ever had to look through someone else's illegible margin notes.

Many of these advantages do carry over to the world beyond the classroom. When going on a long trip, it would be very nice not to have to carry physical magazines and books to read, particularly when flying. I have already reaped the benefits of digital photography in that regard, as photo albums used to be a significant portion of my carry-on. While I rarely take notes on what I read anymore, being able to use the search function to quickly find a passage of interest is clearly of value. Other niceties, like not losing one's place on a page (or the page entirely) when transferring between subways would clearly also be a benefit.

Yet, I look at the stack of physical reading materials representing my current reading backlog--a combination of alumni magazines that I plan to at least skim if not read fully, magazines and newspapers that stacked up during my recent five week trip, and books that include gifts from the 2008 holiday season, and I shudder about an electronic backlog. I've commented on this blog before about how podcasts changed the dynamic of audio listening, and not necessarily for the better as there was no longer any excuse to miss programming. With e-books and periodicals costing money, the digital book dynamic would not be exactly analogous to the digital audio one, but just like one can carry around days of podcasts, one can carry around many weeks worth of reading materials without really noticing how big the backlog has become. With the physical stack of backlogged material on my dresser, it's easy to say "No! I don't have time to read it!"

I'm not a sentimentalist that needs to feel paper under my fingers and turn pages (though maybe I would miss that if I actually left it behind). When e-readers become as easy to pull out in the subway as the latest edition of Chemical and Engineering News, then it will be very hard not to convert. However, until I get figure out a way to better regulate my digital life and prevent digital backlogs, I do not plan to cross the next digital barrier in my life.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Politics: A Gift to the Democrats

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I suspect few of them have realized it yet because they are still in shock over the election of Scott Brown to the Senate from Massachusetts on Tuesday and its effective end of the current health care reform effort, but the Democrats in the United States were handed an enormous gift by the Supreme Court today. If they respond properly, they have a much-needed way to press a "reset" button with the public and get a second chance to advance their agenda.

In a 5-4 decision, the court used a case involving an anti-Hillary Clinton documentary, called Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, to overturn a long series of precedents about campaign finance. Key aspects of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance legislation, formally known as the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, upheld by the court in 2003, were overturned. Corporations and unions will now be allowed to spend unlimited amounts of money to express support of candidates for political office through advocacy advertising. They will only need to disclose that they are doing so.

The conservative wing of the court, bolstered by Bush appointees Roberts and Alito (joining Bush Sr. appointee Thomas and Reagan appointees Scalia and Kennedy), ruled that it was a violation of the first amendment to limit corporate speech during an election, which meant that corporations should be able to spend money like any individual. In doing so, they equated not only money with speech (a year ago, I was complaining about the similar equation of money and freedom on this blog), but also corporations with individual citizens.

That's where the political opening was created. Regardless of what the law currently states, people intuitively understand that corporations are not really equal to people. Large corporations, in particular, have financial advantages that even rich individuals cannot match. The argument Republicans have chosen to voice, that the court ruling "helps the middle class" by helping to lessen the impact of rich individuals (read "elites") is absurd on its face--how exactly do these Republicans think those rich individuals got their money in the first place? People intuitively understand that the court ruling reinforces the ability of moneyed interests to influence the political process.

I've argued before on this blog that the first thing that the Obama administration should have done was proceed with bi-partisan campaign finance reform (even if the extent of bi-partisanship was John McCain, though I think others would have followed) before pursuing progressive agenda items like health care reform. With health care reform in need of re-thinking with the loss of a Democratic super-majority in the Senate, even if it isn't completely dead, this is an opportunity to try a completely different set of tactics.

While John McCain has been less strident in his criticism of the court decision than the Democrats, he has expressed "disappointment." Furthermore, McCain has already met with newly-elected Massachusetts senator Brown and talked about how both are interested in solving problems. It's time for Obama to invite these two men--McCain, his former opponent and the longest-standing advocate for campaign finance reform, and Brown, who better than any other individual at this juncture encapsulates the feelings (not just anger) of independent voters--to the White House and figure out how they can work together on campaign finance reform measures that will hold up to court scrutiny. I think the two Republicans will do it--McCain feels too strongly about campaign finance reform to say "no" even if his party wants him to, and Brown would have the opportunity to prove to his electorate that he was the kind of problem-solver that he claimed to be.

If they agreed and then came up with interesting ideas, it probably would even be a true bi-partisan effort, with other Republicans supporting the effort and some Democrats not doing so. That would change the mood in Washington, and then who knows what could happen. If McCain and Brown refused, then the Democrats would at least have identified a wedge issue that will resonate with independents--"the Republicans don't even want to do anything to prevent corporations from buying elections."

Considering how the administration has behaved in its first year, though, they probably won't do anything with the gift they have just been handed. Like the super-majority the Democrats once had in the Senate, it will likely go to waste.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Culture: Pedestrian Deaths Unsurprising

TORONTO, ONTARIO - The plight of pedestrians in the city of Toronto is finally receiving some attention as ten pedestrians have been killed in the last eight days. While I'd rather be a pedestrian in Toronto than anywhere else I've been lately, the spate of deaths does not surprise me, as driving patterns in Toronto are atrocious.

One thing that definitely made me feel at home after returning to this city after five weeks away was how nice it was to walk around here. Unlike some places (this is mostly you, suburban Arizona and El Dorado County, California), there are reasonably-sized sidewalks on all the streets that I want to walk down, pedestrian request buttons at crosswalks are generally well-maintained and responsive, and streets are well-lighted at night even on residential streets. It may not be environmentally sensitive, but the street lights are a really nice feature in the winter months when any evening errand will be in the dark. Never mind crime rates, which I rarely think about anyway, the well-lighted, clearly well-designed sidewalks made me feel safe as a pedestrian.

The feeling of safety was tempered somewhat, though, by how terribly people drive in this area. It's far from the worst in the world; I'd rather deal with drivers in Toronto than Boston, Massachusetts (where I admit there is a method to the driving madness but it's a rude, uncivilized method that I disdain), New York city, or my personal least preferred location, Hartford, Connecticut (where if there is any method to their sheer madness, I never figured it out). When I was growing up, people used to disdain California drivers, but now I'm not sure one can tell the difference in driving style between any California city and those in the Pacific Northwest, and that style, flawed as it may be, is much safer than how people drive in Toronto.

I have issues with how people make turns here. It is rare to see people check all relevant directions for pedestrians or bicycles before making a turn. If there's no vehicle in their way, they just go, often without fully stopping at a stop sign or red light. People also turn into adjacent lanes to those occupied by other cars, not taking into account that the other vehicles may be changing lanes (because people aren't great at using their turn signals here). Most of the accidents I have seen have come from some combination of lane changes and aggressive turning behavior.

The other major problem is that people exceed the speed limit here too often. It's not uncommon to see vehicles going 70 km/h on streets signed for 50 km/h, or people going 50 km/h on streets signed for 30 km/h. (They don't obey the limit on the high end, either; I once had to pull over on highway 69 because I was going the speed limit, probably 90 km/h at that location, and had a line of fifteen vehicles behind me that wanted to exceed the speed limit.) That problem would be somewhat ameliorated if appropriate trailing distances were observed, but people don't do that, either. The remainder of the accidents I have seen have resulted from people following too closely and not stopping when the leading vehicle did. I once "caused an accident" myself when I was using a crosswalk when I had a walk signal and a van intending to make a right turn (I believe he was even signaling!) through the crosswalk stopped to allow me to proceed and was rear-ended.

So, having seen the results of this borderline-uncivilized driving behavior first-hand on a regular basis, it doesn't surprise me that pedestrians are being killed. Drivers that don't look properly when they turn, speed, and follow too closely are likely to kill people. As 8-80 Cities (who advocate safe urban features for those under age 8 and over age 80--what a concept!) activist Gil Penalosa argues, there is a need to enforce speed limits through traffic calming and enforcement and generally raise awareness, since pedestrians hit at higher speed are more likely to die.

I'm not against any of Penalosa's suggestions, but to me there's a broader problem with driving in Ontario. I have been told that people used to at least observe speed limits before the Harris government in Ontario slashed traffic enforcement after taking office in 1995, and then it became a free-for-all on the highways. Things have only partially recovered in the years since Harris stepped down as premier in 2002. That's what needs to change.

It's time to start enforcing traffic laws again, strictly. It needs to happen anyway, and if it does, then there will be fewer pedestrian deaths. That's the real root problem, and it's time to address it, if you pardon the phraseology, head-on.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Politics: Surprised by Brown? No Way

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Am I surprised that Republican Scott Brown has won the special election for the Massachusetts senate seat formerly held by Ted Kennedy today? No way. It's typical of how the Massachusetts electorate behaves, if one really pays attention instead of making assumptions based on how it normally ends up voting--for the Democratic nominee.

The rest of the world doesn't understand Massachusetts, thinking of it (amongst other misperceptions) as an entire state politically resembling Berkeley, California, and thus a stronghold of the Democratic Party. I'm not sure that assessment even holds up in Massachusetts locales analogous to Berkeley like Cambridge and Amherst. Massachusetts is a very strange place politically; arguably one needs to live there to understand it. Having lived in the Boston area for eight years while trying to become politically active, I think I have a pretty good idea how things really work.

First of all, Massachusetts isn't so much a Democratic Party-loving state or even a liberal state so much as it is a one party state, with that one party being the Democrats. The history of how that came about deserves an explanation longer than this blog post, but the net effect is that there is arguably more diversity in ideology amongst Massachusetts Democrats than is typical around the nation, most particularly in social ideology--there have been a lot more pro-life Democrats holding local and statewide offices in Massachusetts than most outsiders would probably believe. In a one-party system where that one party effectively controls the state legislature and has some diversity in viewpoints, there is little incentive for politicians to run under other political party banners. As a result, people even in what would normally be considered conservative areas tend to elect Democrats. Democrats have generally held 70-90% of the seats in the state Senate and state House in the past quarter-century.

At the statewide level, though, the dynamic is a bit different. Republicans have been able to get elected to the Senate and governorship in Massachusetts. Between William Weld, Paul Cellucci, Jane Swift, and Mitt Romney, a Republican was the governor (or acting governor) of Massachusetts from 1991 to 2007, and Massachusetts sent Republican Edward Brooke to the Senate from 1967 to 1979. How can that be?

At the governorship level, it comes down to the open selfishness inherent in the Massachusetts electorate. Few will come out as say so, but much of Massachusetts politics revolves around not letting other people get a better deal than what the individual voter is getting. Government programs seem to go on forever in Massachusetts because as long as they don't represent a better deal for someone else, voters will allow them to persist. As soon as a voter thinks that someone else is getting a better deal (or "their deal" is taken away), then they get angry and try to get that deal removed. Politics works this way everywhere to some extent, but it is much more crassly and transparently practiced this way in Massachusetts.

A good way to try to accomplish this--protect the government programs that benefit oneself and put an end to programs that benefit others--is to elect a pork-oriented Democrat for local offices (including to the state House and Senate) and elect an anti-tax, small government Republican to the governorship. Hence, this equilibrium, however inefficient, was established and maintained for more than a decade.

As a final major element, it is not a coincidence that the famous "all politics is local" quote is attributed to Massachusetts representative Tip O'Neill. In Massachusetts, this adage rules more than any other. There is a famous painting in the Boston Public Library that shows a view west from Boston showing Worcester, Springfield, and then San Francisco with nothing else in between. Massachusetts voters don't vote for representatives based on national issues, even when they are hot (like health care), but on what that representative can do for the district. Remember the Big Dig? That was all about Massachusetts senators and representatives bringing home pork. Similarly, Thomas Menino has been mayor of Boston since 1993 in large part because he makes sure potholes--both literal and figurative--are fixed in the city's neighborhoods.

In the quotes from the public that voted for Scott Brown today, I heard elements of all of this. Some cited a "lack of checks and balances" at the national level with the Democrats controlling the Presidency and Congress, echoing the balance that Massachusetts had for many years with Republican governors. Some talked about health care reform "moving too quickly" or "being done in secret"--but what I heard there was classic selfish "why should I potentially pay for someone else get what I already have?" since Massachusetts already has essentially universal health care coverage; they're not overwhelmingly concerned about whether others get it. It's the same as the painting that doesn't see the rest of the United States before the Pacific Ocean.

What I didn't hear in any significant amount was criticism of President Obama or the Democratic Party in general. This looks like a classic Massachusetts election, and Martha Coakley (never a charismatic figure in my experience, even long ago) proved a hapless candidate out of touch with the locals, while Scott Brown proved a master campaigner, hitting all the right notes of being local, providing balance, and not promising what he would do for the country in general. He is to be congratulated for understanding Massachusetts politics and capitalizing on it--and he will be rewarded by being the state's new senator.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Photos: Holiday Trip 2009, Part I, California

A pond was frozen near Diamond Springs, California after a rare snow storm on 8-December-2009.

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's update to my photo site begins coverage of my trip to the west coast. It started on 7-December-2009 with a visit to the Placerville, California area, which had received a rare snow fall. Snow scenes from around Placerville, night scenes from Sacramento, and scenery from a trip on Amtrak's Coast Starlight from Sacramento to Portland, Oregon are included in this album.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Margin Notes: Names, Introductions, Passings

TORONTO, ONTARIO - One of the most clever transit marketing brands I've ever encountered is Tempe, Arizona's "Orbit" free shuttle buses. The Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, and Jupiter routes serve portions of the city, mostly near the Arizona State University campus, with "Forward" buses running clockwise and "Back" buses running counter-clockwise on the routes. I particularly like the signs on the "Earth Back" route which seem to promise bringing one back to Earth. However, the planetary analogy is not perfect--the routes are not concentric loops and instead radiate out from the Tempe Transit Center, and one route (Mars) didn't start at the same place as the other ones. The routes are changing effective 25-January-2010, and will soon all serve the Tempe Transit Center, so I see no reason not to rank "Orbit" up with other great transit names I blogged about recently.

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Jimmy Winkelmann certainly thought he had a great name when he came up with the South Butt line of clothing as a comedic take on the ever-present North Face brand. However, as Winkelmann started making enough money off the South Butt to pay his way through college, the North Face has decided to sue. If the humorous but legally questionable response to the lawsuit posted on the smaller company's web site is any indication, saying that people can tell difference between a face and a butt may not be enough to save it from at least having to change its visual imaging.

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CBS News has changed its audio imaging at the beginning of the CBS Evening News with Katie Couric, as was immediately apparent to me upon seeing the show while traveling. Since Couric's premier as anchor, the voice of legendary newsman Walter Cronkite had been voicing the introduction. Leave it to the CBC's As It Happens to point out that perhaps having a deceased person do the introduction was a bit too much gravity for the broadcast. Whatever the reason, the introduction to the CBS Evening News is now voiced by actor Morgan Freeman. There's nothing wrong with Freeman's voice, but I didn't recognize it. I recognized Walter Cronkite's. That doesn't strike me as an improvement.

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The Dave Ross show on KIRO-FM in Seattle has also changed its introduction, again, and this time I think it is an improvement. Now, the theme music is the Don Henley song "Dirty Laundry". This may be the perfect song for a talk show, with lyrics like:
Kick'em when they're up
Kick'em when they're down
Kick'em when they up
Kick'em all around
I make my living off the evening news
Just give me something-something I can use
Please love it when you lose
They love dirty laundry
Is there a more perfect description of a radio talk show? Using this song for a talk show theme ranks right up there in my mind with using Gary Numan's "Cars" as the theme for traffic reports, something I first heard on WMMB-AM in Melbourne, Florida.

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I may not miss the old Dave Ross theme, but I will miss Mike Pulsipher, who died last Sunday. For most of my childhood, Pulsipher was a CBS news anchor, amongst other things the host of the Saturday edition of the World News Roundup. If you heard continuous live coverage on the radio of the Gulf War in 1990, most likely you were listening to Pulsipher, who did an amazing job when I was listening. After I moved to California, he turned up as the afternoon anchor on legendary local news station KCBS in San Francisco, and remained as an afternoon or evening anchor there until his retirement about two years ago. Ever the trooper, I remember one afternoon when I was visiting the area in 2005 when Pulsipher worked his own shift as well as that of Jeff Bell and Patti Reising, right through 2 pm to 9 pm practically solo. With anyone else, I would have been listening for a screw-up in the marathon; with Pulsipher, I kept listening because I knew it would stay good, and it did. He was 61.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Radio Pick: Animal Minds

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I'm slightly reluctant about this week's radio pick because it raised far more questions than it gave answers, which is not my preference for a science show. Yet, it's hard to deny that this 59-minute episode of Radio Lab told some very compelling animal stories in an engaging way, even if the explanation for the behavior is unclear. Stay tuned to the end--the final story about a seal trying to feed a human may have been the highlight of the whole show.

Listen to streaming MP3 of Radio Lab "Animal Minds"

Dining: Today's Frozen Pizza

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I still vaguely remember the first time I had a frozen pizza when I was a kid. I don't remember the circumstances, and I don't remember the brand (though I suspect it was Totino's), but I do remember the taste and texture. Considering that the restaurant pizza I was used to at the time was Pizza and Pipes or Pizza Haven (Shakey's would have been premium to me then), I can't imagine how bad I would consider it today, as even then I thought it was awful. The crust was bland and a little tough, the sauce was borderline sour tasting, the cheese had a texture as if it had been beaten with a meat tenderizer, and the pepperoni topping was made up of eighth-inch cubical squares instead of slices. The concoction made Spaghetti-O's seem gourmet by comparison.

In the intervening decades, much has changed in frozen food. Food engineers didn't stop with the original frozen pizzas; they have worked to improve and surpass the best on the market. After sampling some still very sketchy frozen pizzas when I was a graduate student, I went years without having one, then was shocked when I tried one again while living in Boston. I knew it was going to be different when I looked at the crust and it actually looked like real dough. The crust came out much tastier--and much less greasy--than most corner-restaurant pizzas, the toppings were nearly indistinguishable from average pizza, and the sauce actually had a good taste.

Even more impressive, these new-generation frozen pizzas were less expensive than going to a pizza restaurant, even for carry-out. My tradition of ordering pizza for delivery soon became an emergency rarity. Why spend on the order of $20 to get a pizza delivered from a Pizza Hut or a Domino's when with minimal planning a $5 pizza could be kept in my freezer that tasted just as good, and other than preservatives was likely more healthy?

Today, there are a wide variety of what I call "quality" frozen pizzas--and surprisingly, many of them are store brands. I consider No Name frozen pizzas to be every bit the equal of Kraft Delissio, for example. President's Choice even makes a passable frozen Chicago-style pizza. The cheapest brand names may still be awful, but there are very edible options available.

People find it odd that someone who seems to like pizza as much I do almost never eats at cheaper pizza chains like Pizza Pizza or 241 Pizza (that's "two-for-one," in case you're as slow as I am). The reason comes down to the fact that I consider the best of the frozen pizzas to be better than these restaurants, or at least cheaper. If I'm going to eat pizza in a restaurant, I want it to be significantly better than what I can get out of the freezer, and thus I end up going to Italian restaurants or premium pizzerias like Hubby's or Bianco's that I have highlighted this year.

Of course, considering my current policy of not eating out unless I am traveling, I might not be eating much pizza for the foreseeable future.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Politics: Back to Reality in Canada

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I have to admit that I found the recent political polls showing the Conservative and Liberal parties neck-in-neck in Canada greatly comforting. It's not because of my policy and ideological biases, but because I just didn't see around me what polls had been showing in October--which was an imminent majority government for the Conservatives. While few except Liberal partisans seemed to be especially impressed with Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, in particular his move to prompt an election last fall, neither was I hearing much affection for Stephen Harper. As Richard Colvin's parliamentary testimony seemed to credibly mark the present government--as well as its Liberal predecessor--as war criminals for turning over Afghan detainees to be tortured, rumblings against the government seemed to be mounting more than movement in the polls. Either political sentiment in Toronto was radically different than the rest of the country--a common contention, but one that didn't seem to fly in this case considering the interest in conservative potential mayoral candidates--or something was out of whack.

The zeitgeist on the drop in the gap between the Conservatives and the Liberals from 15 points to less than two in less than three months is that the prorogation of parliament is the main cause. The Harper government had been slowly losing credibility, in part for the lackluster economy but increasingly for what was coming out in the Afghan inquiry, and prorogation--which amongst other things ended the Afghan inquiry--was a "straw that broke the camel's back," solidified the mistrust of the Harper government, and brought it back to Earth in the polls. Perhaps what I was sensing in the Toronto electorate was just slightly ahead in time compared with the national trend.

This explanation seems consistent with the fact that no single other party has substantially gained from the drop in popularity of the Conservatives. While the Liberals are up by 3 points in the Ekos poll, voters are also moving to the New Democrats, the Greens, and the Bloc Quebecois (each up by 1 points in Ekos). People may want to move away from the Conservatives, but they aren't convinced where else they should go. Basically, the polls are back where they were at during mid-year, before anyone claimed to want an election or prorogation--and they are back in equilibrium with what I think I'm hearing around me.

My impression of Canadian voters is that they are in many ways more demanding than their neighbours to the south. If a party isn't working to the benefit of the country--whether for partisan reasons or incompetence--it isn't long before they pay for it in the polls--whether the ballot box or the research firm. I was starting to wonder if maybe somehow Stephen Harper's Conservatives had somehow broken free of this accountability this fall. The latest polls indicate that they have not.

What these polls really seem to mean is that all the political parties in Canada will need to work harder to gain the support of the public to improve their electoral position before another election (which doesn't seem likely to be called anytime soon). Having all parties on their best behavior can't be a bad thing.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Culture: Weight Flows South?

TORONTO, ONTARIO - A recent story on CBC Television's "The National" highlighted what was regarded as disturbing news that Canadians have gained weight over the past 30 years. Digging a bit deeper into the study done by Statistics Canada, it comes out that the average waist measurement of a Canadian male aged 20-39 is 35.7 inches, up from 33.2 inches in the early 1980's. For women, the average waist size is now 32.6 inches, up from 30.3 inches previously. StatsCan provides the numbers however one wants to look at them (body mass index, weight, waist size, etc.), but with average heights constant, waist sizes pretty much tell the story.

Yet, if one wants to really see over-sized individuals, head south of the border. The first thing I noted upon leaving Canada last month and landing at the Dallas/Fort Worth Airport was how large people in the airport seemed to be compared with what I was used to in the Toronto area. Indeed, United States residents, on average, have a higher Body Mass Index (BMI) by about 5%. What was really striking during my recent travels, though, was the regional variation observed.

To be honest, I didn't notice notice much difference in size of people in northern California, Oregon, or Washington state as compared with Ontario. However, as soon as I headed south to Arizona, I felt like I was encountering another species. Several times, despite some wide sidewalks, I couldn't pass two people walking abreast--and I wanted to pass, since these wide individuals were probably walking half as fast as I wanted to go. Oddly, statistics don't back up this observation. While California, Oregon, and Washington are tied in BMI at 26.3, the same as Canadian men, Arizona is actually lower at 26.2.

I don't know how that can be. The low-density development everywhere except the very core of downtown Phoenix, combined with poor accommodation of pedestrians and extreme heat for most of the year, makes it very believable that people would not get their exercise outside and would drive everywhere. I can understand why most people I know in the Valley of the Sun have a gym membership in order to get exercise. I guess the people that go to the gym are the ones pushing the average BMI lower, and aren't the ones I ran into in public places like the light rail route, college basketball games, and restaurants.

The impression that I was left with--from the larger people in Arizona and in the airport in Texas, was that weight seems to do what one would expect based on gravity--go down, or in this case south. Gravity actually draws one toward the Earth, not toward the equator, you say?

Well, I took a nearly two-hour walk to downtown Toronto this evening, and I rather enjoyed it. If we all did that regularly, there would be a lot less concern about BMI's and waist sizes.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Economics: Time-of-Use Rates

Toronto Hydro now provides extensive data on one's electrical use; the graph above shows my own electrical use during the second half of November during off-peak (green), mid-peak (yellow) and on-peak (red) periods each day

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I returned home to find many fliers in my mail about the new Time-of-Use rates being implemented by Toronto Hydro, the local electrical utility. I knew that new meters had been installed last September (I was taking great amusement in seeing how much less electricity I had consumed than my neighbours since then, as we had all started over at zero, making it easy to compare), and I had rather been looking forward to the new rules, until I saw the actual rules.

I thought I did a decent job of using electricity at off-peak times, as I regularly cook dinner after 7 or even 8 pm and start laundry in the late evening, often doing it between 8 and 10 pm or later. However, that actually doesn't help much. Under the new Time-of-Use rules, the only time that power is discounted on weekdays (to 4.4 cents per kilowatt hour) is between 9 pm and 7 am. The rest of the day, power costs significant more than it has in the past. In fact, in the winter months, the highest rates (9.3 cents per kilowatt hour) will be imposed between 7 and 11 am and between 5 and 9 pm. Don't want to pay exorbitant rates for cooking dinner? You'll have to eat before 5 pm (when electricity costs 8.0 cents per kilowatt hour, still more than it used to before the change) or after 9 pm.

After seeing how the regime was going to work, I was not surprised to log into Toronto Hydro's web site, which is a nice new feature of the change, and discover that my typical electrical bill for a two-month period will go up from $63.96 to $67.04.

A graph provided by Toronto Hydro showed that my electrical costs will be increasing based on my usage during off-peak (green), mid-peak (yellow), and on-peak (red) periods during October and November

As I was someone who was already reasonably responsible with my electricity usage, I can only imagine how much the new rates may be hurting the average person (though considering that fact that dinner at 5 pm and 8 pm is the same under the new system, maybe everyone is having about the same impact as I will see). Except for pushing laundry even later into the evening (or getting up extremely early to do it), I scarcely see how I can improve the improve the situation. Is it really realistic to wake up at 5 am in order to bake cookies? I will just have to live with higher electricity rates.

One incontrovertibly cool thing about the new meters is the ability to log in on-line and see one's electrical usage the next day, when one might still remember what happened the previous day. For example, I was able to log in today and clearly see the time when I turned on an additional space heater in my apartment.

This graph showed my electrical usage yesterday, 12-January-2010--note the prominent spike (on-peak, no less) when I turned on an additional space heater about 9 am

I had high hopes for Time-of-Use rates reducing my electrical bill and creating more awareness of electrical usage. However, aside from the cool Internet interface for viewing electrical use, I doubt many people will find they can move much of their use outside the "on-peak" periods.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Margin Notes: Arizona Edition

The Sugar Bowl in Scottsdale, Arizona was photographed from the Scottsdale Trolley on 9-January-2010

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I went to the Sugar Bowl on Saturday. The game wasn't being played on Saturday, you say? I went to the Sugar Bowl restaurant in Scottsdale, Arizona with my cousin and his family. Dating from 1958, the establishment serves food as well as wonderful desserts and was featured in the Family Circus cartoons, penned by local resident Bil Keane. Their specialty is ice cream, and I can concur that their reputation for fine dairy products is well-deserved.

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Scottsdale struck me as the quintessential car-centric suburb. Other than the Scottsdale "trolley" (actually a bus) that moves tourists between Old Town and the Fashion Square mall, there was no sign of any public transit in the town on a Saturday afternoon, though the Valley Metro system map reveals that there actually is bus service. I guess that's why there is parking everywhere--it didn't seem particularly pedestrian-friendly, either, outside of the sidewalks of Old Town.

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Of course, pedestrians aren't especially well-behaved in Arizona. I found the prevalence of jaywalking to be disturbing. I grew up in the Seattle area back when there still was Jaywalking School and strict enforcement, so I regard jaywalking as a warning about lack of civility; I don't think it's a coincidence that there's a lot less jaywalking in Toronto than New York or even Chicago. It's not just people trying to catch a light rail train, it seemed to be universal across downtown, and even in Scottsdale.

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Yet another hazard for pedestrians is double right-hand turn lanes. The Valley of the Sun seems to have more double right-hand turn lanes than I've seen anywhere else, including other car-centric places like southern California and suburban Houston, Texas. I find it rather disconcerting to make a right turn on red from other than the far-right lane, but it clearly is legal in Arizona (unless the intersection is signed "No Right Turn on Red").

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A gecko was noted in the art along the highway 101 freeway near Scottsdale, Arizona on 9-January-2010

The car may be over-emphasized in the Valley of the Sun, but at least the freeways are attractive. All kinds of desert-themed art and different pastel colors appropriate for the desert decorate the freeway system around Phoenix. Lizards of various kinds, like the gecko above, are a common theme, as are Native motifs and succulent plants. Take one look at a freeway and it's obvious that it's in Arizona.

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Art was noted on a streetlight along Central Avenue in Phoenix, Arizona on 8-January-2010

The art extends to city streets as well, with quite a number of street lights near downtown Phoenix, Arizona decorated with various scenes. The Native themes around the Heard Museum and Phoenix Art Museum were especially interesting, including the one above.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Travel: Coming Home

TORONTO, ONTARIO - "Where are you coming from today, sir?" the immigrations officer asked me as I handed him my customs form and citizenship documents. I suddenly didn't know what to say. This is always the first question asked as one enters Canada at Pearson International Airport in Toronto, but I hadn't thought about it this trip until that instant.

Was I coming from Cleveland, Ohio, where my last flight originated? Phoenix, Arizona, where I started the day? Sacramento, California, the farthest I had been from Toronto? Seattle, Washington, the area where I had spent the most time? After a long pause, I finally looked up at the officer and said, "I'm sorry. I've been so many places in the United States this trip that I barely remember where I was this morning."

While I had been dazed by his question, he had apparently seen enough of my declaration to realize that I had been out of the country for five weeks and that my home address was in Toronto, less than eight miles away. "That's okay, sir, you're almost home now. You can sleep in your own bed tonight."

That statement really stunned me. Entering Canada is normally a reasonably pleasant experience compared with entering the United States, if for no other reason than the polite language used even when being thoroughly questioned. A statement that could have come from my grandmother being voiced by a burly officer of African descent, though, was almost more than I could process. I thanked him, and he sent me off to collect my checked baggage with no further questioning.

It may have been snowing lightly outside, but it's supposed to be snowing in Toronto in January. Riding the subway for the first time in over a month was quite comforting. Once upon a time on a trip home from the airport, I had seen an inter-racial, teen-aged couple sharing headphones, a scene which has become a iconic vision of multi-ethnic Toronto to me. Today, there were just commuters heading home from work, but most of them struck me as in less of a hurry than the drivers on Arizona freeways over the weekend.

Soon, I was taking great pleasure in cooking in a kitchen where I knew the location of everything I needed, and in doing just my own dishes afterward. I had never been away from my legal domicile so long in my life, and it made everything about returning worth cherishing. Indeed, the immigration officer was correct--I suspect I will enjoy sleeping in my own bed tonight.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Culture: Visiting the Heard Museum

The entrance to the Heard Museum in Phoenix, Arizona was observed on 8-January-2010

TEMPE, ARIZONA - A high priority for me during this visit to Phoenix was a visit to the Heard Museum. A Phoenix Point of Pride, the museum had been founded in 1929 by Dwight B. and Maie Bartlett Heard to house their collections, and has since become one of the foremost centers to experience Native cultures, particularly those of the southwestern United States, in the world.

A portion of the original 1929 building remained a part of the Heard Museum in Phoenix, Arizona on 8-January-2010

While the museum has greatly expanded from the original house-sized building and features contemporary (including commissioned) Native art, the permanent exhibits still focus on the collection provided by the Heards and other donations made over the years from tribes that live or lived in what is now the state of Arizona. A large portion of the museum displays a portion of the permanent collection of art from the desert, Colorado Plateau forest, and high desert tribes.

A display of a Hopi Katsina dance was but a small portion of the Hopi Katsina collection at the Heard Museum on 8-January-2010

Where I spent most of my time, though, were in two other exhibits. A large hall was dedicated to the twenty-one tribes that have reservations within the state of Arizona, and each had a display on their history, many of them with hands-on exhibits related to their history or art. Another amazing exhibit was on the Indian Schools, telling the story of how Native children were taken from their families to centralized facilities for education for generations. Some of the stories told in this exhibit, including the story of how an Indian School football team once defeated all but one of the Ivy League schools in a season, were rather unexpected.

The entrance to a special exhibition on Native artist Allan Houser showed the contrast between his traditional and abstract pieces on 8-January-2010

The temporary exhibitions were also quite interesting. I never knew that there was more to Henry Fonseca's career than his "Coyote" era of artwork, and an Allan Houser exhibit did a great job of showing how the same artist could create pieces on the same subjects in radically different forms.

A purple heart earned by a Navajo during World War II had been incorporated into this bracelet seen in the Heard Museum on 8-January-2010

Some had warned me that the Heard Museum could be an all-day activity, and I have to admit I was skeptical that it was large enough for this to be the case. The warnings were correct; I certainly could have used more than the four hours I spent inside.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Radio Pick: Marketing the Unpleasant

TEMPE, ARIZONA - Despite my travels, this week's radio pick comes from the CBC. Terry O'Reilly is back with another season of the excellent radio show on marketing, The Age of Persuasion. The 27-minute program made quite an impression in its first show of the season, taking on the task of how to promote unmentionables. Especially interesting was a process I watched in my own life, how HIV changed what content was acceptable on the air. This was a well-done retrospective, a great example of how to make history interesting to start the year.

Listen to streaming MP3 of The Age of Persuasion "Marketing the Unpleasant"

Dining: The Longest Wait for Pizza

Pizzeria Bianco was lit up by the sunset in Phoenix, Arizona on 8-January-2010

TEMPE, ARIZONA - Many people regard Pepe's and Sally's on Wooster Street in New Haven, Connecticut as the ultimate pizza experience in North America--something I did a number of times while living in New England. One has to arrive well before opening time or expect to wait in line for a long time, potentially hours (the longest I ever waited was two and a half hours at Sally's), before being seated and treated to exquisite thin-crust pizza from a wood-fired oven. The pizza was so good that Frank Sinatra would send his driver to Sally's to take it back to New York on the nights he didn't have time to go New Haven himself. Because of the long lines, the experience is somewhat rushed (though not quite as much as at the borderline-rude service at the similar Regina Pizzeria in Boston's North End), and one has to pay in cash. Some would describe the experience as an adventure.

The wood-fired oven at Pizzeria Bianco was in service in Phoenix, Arizona on 8-January-2010

When I heard that a similar phenomenon was occurring across the United States in Phoenix, Arizona of all places, I knew that on my next visit, I had to see what it was all about. Since moving to the 1929-era Baird Machine Shop building in Phoenix's Historic Heritage Square in 2004, Pizzeria Bianco has garnered accolades as one of the world's best pizza restaurants--and has the lines to match. On Friday, I arrived about 16:45 to find a line of about 80 people already waiting for the 17:00 opening; apparently one has to arrive at 15:00 to be seated in the restaurant's 42 seats when it opens. Rather than having to wait in a line as occurs at the New England restaurants, at Bianco's, they take your name and allow you to wander in the general facility, including their bar next door. In January, this was pleasant enough with mild temperatures, but in the summer with temperatures above 100 degrees Fahrenheit, that could be a different story. I went with my "brother" cousin and his family, so the ability to let the kids run around in the courtyard was the only thing that made the wait possible to contemplate. What a wait it was! I was told it would likely be three hours when our name was taken, and the estimate was accurate--the total wait was about three and a quarter hours, the longest I had ever waited to get into a pizza restaurant and start looking closely at the wood-fired oven.

Three varieties of pizza from Bianco's were captured on 8-January-2010, the Margherita, Biancoverde, and Wiseguy

So how did the pizza stack up? We had ordered a variety of pizzas from the menu, from a "basic" Margherita (Mozzarella and sauce) to a "Wiseguy" with sausage, Mozzarella, onions, and no sauce. Bianco pizza may have the best thin crust I've ever experienced. The dough was well-composed and well-treated in the wood-fired oven. All of the ingredients were believably local and fresh, and the sausage and salami had great flavor. Yet, I can't put it above the Pepe's and Sally's, or the best of the Chicago pizzerias like Giordano's. The sauce may be fresh and well-presented, but I just didn't find it interesting. Having just eaten last week at Hubby's and its tangy sauce, perhaps the difference seemed more acute.

Bruce Carson enjoyed a slice of Bianco's pizza on 8-January-2010

Pizzeria Bianco is excellent pizza; it belongs in the high echelons that sites like my favorite Pizza Therapy place it. It might even be worth waiting for--though more than three hours is really pushing it. But the world's best pizza? Not in my opinion.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Transport: Riding Valley Metro

A Valley Metro light rail train sat at the end of the line, Sycamore and Main in Mesa, Arizona, on 8-January-2010.

TEMPE, ARIZONA - Continuing my tour of new light rail systems on the west coast that included Portland's MAX Green Line and Seattle's Sound Transit Central Link, the first thing on my agenda today was to ride the length of the Valley Metro system here in the Valley of the Sun. The light rail system opened on 28-December-2008, just after my last visit, so this was my first chance to ride the 20-mile system. While the 50 vehicles in the fleet looked quite distinct in appearance with their silver and bridge green paint, upon closer inspection I realized that the Kinki-Sharyo cars were actually of almost an identical design to those I had just experienced on Central Link in Seattle. An attractive paint scheme and well-designed skirts go a long way toward creating a nice image.

The interior of the Kinki-Sharyo cars used on the Valley Metro light rail cars was observed from the raised end seating on 8-January-2010

The best comparison for the Phoenix light rail system is likely that to the one in Portland. Most of the line runs in the middle of major streets, with no apparent priority signaling. Stations are spaced reasonably far apart, except perhaps at the far northwest end of the line, where they seemed closer together. So, the speed advantage of the system is mainly at rush hour, not when I rode at mid-day.

Two Valley Metro light rail vehicles were noted at the northwest end of the line, 19th and Montebello, in the middle of the street in Phoenix, Arizona on 8-January-2010

The most annoying thing about the system is that most of its stations, particularly in suburban areas, are located in the median of major streets. Often, reaching them requires crossing in two crosswalks, and vehicles making left-hand turns are usually given the right to make their turns first in the cycle, before pedestrians can proceed. It leaves the impression that pedestrians and transit riders are just an afterthought, as they take up to three minutes just to get across the intersection to their platform, potentially missing their train in the process.

This view of the Tempe Town Lake was taken from a passing Valley Metro light rail train on 8-January-2010

Still, with a day pass costing just $3.50 (compared with C$10 in Toronto) and well-placed stations in the downtown core and at the Arizona State campus in Tempe, the system seems to be doing its job, and I appreciated the scenery at Tempe Town Lake and the views downtown and along Central Avenue. A sign on a new residential unit on Apache Boulevard touted that it was "on the rails," implying some degree of popularity of the system.

The Campus Suites advertised their "on the rails" status in Tempe, Arizona on 8-January-2010

Future expansions of Valley Metro light rail are planned to the northwest, northeast, west, south farther into Tempe, and east farther into Mesa, but only a four-mile extension to the northwest is currently proceeding, with an expected opening date in 2012--but if I visit Phoenix again, I suspect I'll be riding it before then.