Sunday, February 28, 2010

Margin Notes: Winter, Celebrations, Birds

Snow fell in what looked like a significant snow storm as viewed from my bedroom window on 22-February-2010

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Winter finally came to visit the Golden Horseshoe of Ontario this week, but despite nearly a week of mostly snowy weather, the total accumulation on the ground has never exceeded four inches, rain showers keep clearing roads and sidewalks, and officially there are only about three weeks of winter left. I think Torontonians are going to make it through the winter in stride!

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I'm not sure that Torontonians would have taken a defeat in today's Olympic men's hockey final in stride. Celebrations broke out almost immediately after Canada defeated the US in overtime, 3-2, for the gold medal today which gave Canada a record 14 gold medals in the winter games. Having lived through local--not national--Super Bowl and World Series victories in New England, I can attest that I heard as many horns blaring for as long a time today as after any of the Patriots Superbowls or even after the Red Sox victory, and not only did people gather downtown at Yonge-Dundas Square, they gathered in neighbourhoods as well, including in my own Bloor West Village near Runnymede station, blocking traffic on Bloor and Runnymede. I haven't seen anything like this since Italy won the World Cup in 2006 and Torontonians of all ethnic backgrounds gathered in Italian neighbourhoods. It makes one wonder what would happen if the Maple Leafs actually won the Stanley Cup again... but I probably won't ever see that.

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A Hairy Woodpecker couple was noted flying around the Humber River near Dundas Street in Toronto, Ontario on 28-February-2010.

Maybe they were getting ready for a celebration, but I was surprised to see a Hairy Woodpecker couple near the Humber River today. It had been months since my last significant wildlife sighting, so it was a real treat that these birds decided to spend time in a tree not more than 30 feet from me today. Of course, maybe they were just curious why I wasn't at home getting ready to watch the hockey game.

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There weren't any doves by the Humber River today, but for the past few weeks, Dove for Men had been giving out free samples in the Skywalk near Union Station in Toronto, and I had collected a fair amount of product. I was actually somewhat disappointed that nobody was out to give out samples yesterday, and then I realized that the auto show was over, and that was probably why they had been there. It would be nice if their William Tell overture-based commercial would disappear now also.

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A different kind of musical connection was on my mind earlier this week when I stumbled onto a recording of Indeep's "Last Night a DJ Saved My Life" from 1982. What struck me is how much the musical style resembles today's rap--it had never occurred to me just how deeply disco influenced rap, a fact that has never been lost to musicologists. I guess I just wasn't paying attention.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Radio Pick: Paying Doctors

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I decided it was time for a shorter weekly radio pick this week. In terms of good story-telling, "How Should Medicare Pay Doctors?" has it all, at least in terms of health care policy--medicine, politics, economics, and lobbyists. Planet Money's David Kestenbaum and Chana Joffe-Walt did the best job I have heard of describing the history behind a current, comparative minor issue in medical pay, and they did it just a six-minute segment that aired on All Things Considered.

Listen to streaming MP3 of All Things Considered "How Should Medicare Pay Doctors?"

Transport: Fun with Reporting Marks

"BRAN" reporting marks, belonging to the Brandon Corporation, were noted in a passing Union Pacific train at Pendleton, Oregon on 29-December-2009

TORONTO, ONTARIO - With freight trains becoming increasingly lengthy in an attempt at efficiency, sometimes waiting at a crossing for a train to pass can be a significant wait. There's something interesting to do as the train passes, though. Look closely at the "reporting marks" on the side of each passing car. Registered with the Association of American Railroads (AAR), they indicate who owns the car, and sometimes can be quite amusing.

All of the following reporting marks are ones I have actually seen in the past five years or so:
  • ABOX - Used for certain (plug door) boxcars in a "Railbox" pool owned by the TTX Corporation
  • AJAX - Agramericas, Incorporated, not Colgate-Palmolive
  • BAR - Bangor & Aaroostook Railway, a defunct railroad in Maine
  • BRAN - Brandon Corporation, a freight car leaser
  • BS - Birmingham Southern Railroad, an Alabama shortline railroad
  • CAGY - Columbus and Greenville Railway, a Mississippi shortline railroad
  • CHEX - Equistar Chemicals, not General Mills
  • COP - Central of Prineville Railway, an Oregon shortline railroad
  • CORP - Central Oregon and Pacific, a regional railroad in California and Oregon
  • GRR - Georgetown Railroad, a Texas shortline railroad
  • ICE - Iowa, Chicago & Eastern, a regional railroad
  • KYLE - Kyle Railroad Company, a shortline railroad in Kansas and Colorado
  • MET - Modesto & Empire Traction, a California shortline railroad
  • OUCH - Oachita Railroad, an Arkansas shortline railroad
  • PAL - Paducah & Louisville Railroad, a Kentucky shortline railroad
  • RUT - Rutland Railroad, now part of the Vermont Rail System
  • SERA - Sierra Railroad Company, a California shortline railroad
  • SLGG - Sidney & Lowe Railroad, now used by Progress Rail Services, a rail car leaser
  • TOE - Texas, Oklahoma & Eastern Railroad, a short line
  • WE - Wheeling & Lake Erie Railway Company, an Ohio shortline
If one gets curious about a reporting mark seen while looking for a "fun" one, there are many sites on-line to find out what they mean. One of my favorites is Ian Cranstone's, which shows previous owners of the marks as well as the current owner, which often sheds light on what it originally meant. Have fun the next time you have to wait for a train to pass!

Friday, February 26, 2010

Media: Ratings in Trouble?

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Long-time readers of this blog will be aware that it has tried to follow the implementation of the Arbitron Portable People Meter (PPM) as the new technology to measure radio listenership has been rolled out in the United States in Canada. In the last update, the concerns of an influential program director in San Francisco were explored.

Since then, the PPM has hardly seen clear sailing. Of the 33 markets in the United States where Arbitron has attempted to introduce the devices, only three have been certified by a Media Rating Council audit. It has been outright rejected in 18 markets, including New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. Aribtron has successfully gone to court to force the Spanish Broadcasting System (SBS) to keep doing PPM encoding on its broadcasts, which the SBS had claimed it no longer needed to do because the PPM wasn't providing it with accurate data. In the middle of all this, Arbitron has changed Chief Executive Officers.

While the failed audits indicate a potential technical problem with the devices (or methodology), others have now opined that the PPM has simply highlighted deeper problems with the whole rating process. A well-known rating consultant, Mike Henry, has been particularly outspoken. As described in Michael Hood's BlatherWatch blog, Henry wants the US to go to the Canadian model, in which the Bureau of Broadcast Measurement is a non-profit organization controlled by the broadcasters. Rather than alienating its customers (both radio stations and advertisers), in Canada, they effectively control the process and thus have input at every stage of the ratings process.

For now, Henry's opinion seems to be in the minority. Unless Arbitron gets its act together, though, both technically and in terms of its relations with both radio stations and advertisers, his views may become mainstream, and there may be a lot of radio people visiting Ottawa to figure out how to structure a new system.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Politics: On the So-Called Summit

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Presumably, others will better cover the political aftermath of the so-called "Health Care Summit" held in Washington, DC earlier today, not that much appears likely to come of it. I want to offer just three points.

First, Wyoming senator John Barrasso obviously did not watch the NTV interview with Newfoundland and Labrador premier Danny Williams available at this web site. Williams made it very clear that he was satisfied with the provincial health care that had found his heart problem and offered him options for addressing it. He chose to take the option of going to the United States because he was in a hurry and wanted to minimize recovery time in order to get back to work. Basically, he was an elitist--he spent extra money to get a world-class procedure. Did the Wyoming Republican really want to emphasize costly, discretionary procedures, such as that obtained by Williams in the US?

Second, and following closely from that point, I don't understand why more isn't made of the fundamental contradiction in the Republican argument about quality of care. They go off about the United States having the best health care system in the world, and then say they want to focus on cost control. Why do the people that live and breathe the free market not seem to understand that "you get what you pay for." If one doesn't fundamentally reform the system (say, to a single-payer system that minimizes overhead), the only way to reduce costs in a fundamental way is to avoid expensive procedures and minimize payments to health professionals and providers. Yes, liability reform would help at the margins (and I wish the Democrats would include it in their proposals just to get it off the table, even if it isn't a panacea), but fundamentally, the only way to make the system less expensive while maintaining the health insurance industry is to pay less for it. Pretending that won't affect quality is disingenuous.

Finally, I am greatly disappointed with the media coverage of this event. Granted, I didn't sit through the hours of what might best be described as bickering, but most coverage sure didn't even try to get at the substance of the day. Even CBC radio and television, as well as the commercial networks, focused on the silly exchange between President Obama and Senator McCain in which they referred to the election being over. In video coverage, only the the PBS NewsHour chose to air any of the few moments of agreement during the day and generally tried to capture the strongest points raised by both sides. Is there really only one outlet for real journalism left in North America?

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Culture: Matching a Demographic

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Much like trying to predict the daily weather based on climatic projections, it's dangerous to try to extrapolate demographic information to an individual that in theory belongs to that demographic. I've always been amused by the fact that in many respects, especially in my mid-20's, I more closely followed the generic preferences of a female in my age group rather than a male. In terms of what music I preferred on the radio, how much and what I cooked and ate, who I voted for, and where I got my news, looking at predictions for the female "generation X" demographic much more closely matched my behavior than the male "generation X" demographic. Of course, I also listened to AM talk radio in addition to NPR and liked trains, which are almost unheard-of traits amongst females of any age.

So, I was again amused with the results of the recent Pew Research Center survey of millennials, the generation formerly known as Generation Y, currently age 18-29. The study showed, for example, that 26% of millennials consider religion "not important" to them personally, more than any other generation. I fit in there. 53% believe that government should do more to solve problems, the only generation where the majority believes that. I fit in there. More millennials consider themselves liberals than conservative, the only generation to do that. I fit in there. The similarities extend to lifestyle as well. 41% of millennials only own a cell phone and have no land line. I fit in there, too, as well as with television viewing habits. Could it be that I should actually consider myself a member of the millennial generation instead of my own Generation X?

Of course, the very idea of re-classifying myself as a millennial is crazy. Millennials self-define based on use of technology, and I only reluctantly use technology that I find useful, not engaging in non-professional social networking or owning a smart phone or e-book reader. Furthermore, I don't think much of tattoos or body piercing on anyone else, never mind myself.

Interestingly, Pew has posted a quiz on its web site which allows one to test just "how millennial" they are. I scored just 50%, more than the average Generation X'er, who would score 33%, but nowhere near the 73% mark expected of a true millennial. Sometimes the statistics hold true. I'm not a millennial female after all.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Travel: Catching Up

TORONTO, ONTARIO - When I left home for what proved to be five weeks of travel around the new year, the vast majority of the blog posts that occurred during that time were focused on the experiences I was having as I traveled. As a result, I gradually collected a list of things that I would have written about that were effectively "bumped" by the travelogues. Yesterday, I finally cleared that backlog.

That, of course, was not the only backlog from that travel. My mail was piling up for five weeks. I had five Christian Science Monitors and four Chemical & Engineering News issues waiting to be read, along with other mail. Only this morning did I finally clear the stack of newspapers, and now I can start working down the other reading stacks. Podcasts? I think I had 2.5 days worth of programming backlogged when I returned six weeks ago. It's down to about half that now. Railfanning notes? That's a complicated one since I still had material from 2005 to catch up on, but suffice to say I've only written up what I saw after the New Year on my recent trip. Pictures? Those paying attention will notice that I still haven't presented the pictures from Arizona yet.

The fact that one can spend a much longer time dealing with the aftermath of a trip than one spent traveling in the first place is a reality that I have long loathed. Some people deal with it by intentionally taking a few days of home vacation after traveling (in some sense, I have that but taking a job search seriously is much more like telecommuting to a job than being on vacation). Most of the time, one just has to gradually catch up as I have been doing. There's a reason why I preferred to only spend 25% of my time or less traveling (on business or pleasure); three-quarters of time was about enough to catch up and stay sane.

In any event, now that the blog is in some sense caught up, it may quite often be less than daily. It is clear to me that quality of writing and topics has suffered of late; I'll be writing only when I think I can present something well, even if it means a few days are skipped.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Politics: Gingrich the Answer?

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I write this piece today reluctantly, but the conclusion seems rather inevitable. If we accept the premise expressed last week that a thinking-world presidential candidate is mostly likely to restore balance to the United States, currently in an unhealthy emotional mode--and maybe such a premise should be rejected--the person who seems most likely to serve that role is Republican Newt Gingrich.

I really don't like Newt Gingrich very much. I've written here before about how he basically rejects my world view, like many in the right wing of the Republican Party. His constant references to Christian ideas and references to the United States as a Christian nation strike me as counter to the constitution. Furthermore, his personal life has been especially repugnant. I actually don't care much when politicians are not faithful to their spouses--the French seem to be doing just fine ignoring affairs--but Gingrich is especially hypocritical for enabling the investigations of Bill Clinton when he was being unfaithful at the time himself, and for the manner in which he reportedly divorced his first wife when she was recovering from cancer in 1981.

But, it's hard to deny that Gingrich clearly comes from the "thinking" world. He always focuses on the future, and can construct a vision of where the country should be going, whether one agrees with it or not. He did it once as a primary architect of the "Contract with America" in the 1994 election, and he is reportedly working on a similar kind of national platform for 2010, and certainly could come up with a visionary platform for his own presidential campaign in 2012. Furthermore, he eventually showed an ability to work with a Democratic president to pass legislation and budgets that created the only Federal surpluses of my lifetime. From a strictly political effectiveness standpoint, Gingrich stands pretty tall.

His negatives might also be a positive in some sense. If the country could elect someone as personally egregious as Gingrich, then "common" adultery could no longer be considered a major issue for future candidates. Furthermore, as an arch conservative, he might be the only kind of "thinking" world, professorial type that could be elected. The last serious candidate from the "thinking" world, Al Gore, was rejected as someone who was too nerdy to have a beer with. It's hard to imagine the same accusation sticking to Gingrich.

I'm not the only person to notice Gingrich's potential. Tom Schaller wrote a piece on just this weekend looking at Gingrich's electability. As much as I wouldn't like the outcome of a Ginrich presidency, at least it would hold the potential to break the country out of its emotional state with forward-looking, vision-filled ideas.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Margin Notes: Go Canada, God Talk, PC, CSM

A TTC Orion VII hybrid bus working the 35 Jane route was displaying "Go Canada Go" on 21-February-2009

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Toronto may be 3,200 kilometers away from Vancouver (that's 2,000 miles), but even here those games starting with an "o" there are an unmistakable presence. If one's routine involves interaction with TTC buses, it isn't possible to forget, as their route signs display "Go Canada Go" in tandem with their normal information, as shown above.

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My Sunday routine includes listening to KGO's God Talk hosted for almost two years now by San Jose State professor Brent Walters. While it airs from 6-9 am Pacific, I usually listen later using the Internet archive. It's almost like attending a college-level class on religion (after all, it is hosted by a professor), and now there are resource materials to go along with the program. The God Talk web site is now on-line, which contains a tremendous amount of interesting information related to the show's weekly topics. For those interested in a historical take on religion, it's worth perusing.

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My Sunday routine of late also involves a stop at the grocery store. Especially with my current limited budget, I almost exclusively purchase generic and store brands. A prominent store brand in Canada is President's Choice, available at Loblaw's and affiliated stores like No Frills. I had been familiar with this brand while living in New England, as it had been carried by Star Market until it was acquired by Shaw's. In any event, as a cheaper brand, I had been a regular customer, but now it seems to be going through a process of "up-scaling" the brand out of my range without noticeable improvement. Toasted O's have increased in price by $0.70 per 575 g box locally, so now I'm only buying Corn Flakes, which only increased by $0.10 and don't seem to have been modified. The Swiss chocolate I used to buy for $4.49 (on sale for as low as $2.99) was off my list anyway lately, but I may never buy it again as the regular price is now $6.99. So far, the salsa hasn't increased in price, but it was clearly reformulated so now I'm worried about that and all their other products... I sure hope they don't touch the generic No Name brand!

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I have a more positive opinion of recent changes at the weekly Christian Science Monitor. They didn't ask me, but apparently they asked readers what they thought of the paper, and more international news was demanded. Instead of being approximately half the 48-page weekly, it's now about 32 pages. There is a possibility of positive change in the world!

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Radio Pick: Olympic Medalist

TORONTO, ONTARIO - It was hard to choose a weekly radio pick this week since quite a number of programs would have been the pick in a less exceptional week. In some ways, the program I ultimately chose is the least remarkable, but as an example of a well-conducted live interview, I decided it was actually more less common than other possibilities also included below.

There has been a lot of Olympics coverage in the past week, but I thought the best moments came early in the week when the CBC's Anna Maria Tremonti interviewed Canada's first medalist, Jennifer Heil. Tremonti did a great job of interviewing in front of a live audience, finding ways to bring up issues like not getting a gold medal in tactful ways, and Heil handled herself and told stories in a truly inspirational way in the 22-minute segment.

Listen to streaming MP3 of The Current "Jennifer Heil Profile"

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Most people probably would have chosen the "Lucy" story this week. The Radiolab team out of WNYC in New York did a masterful job of presenting the story this week. A significant segment of the story aired on This American Life, but the full version is available from Radiolab. Be prepared to affected by the emotional power of this story about a chimpanzee raised as a human.

Listen to streaming MP3 of This American Life "Parent Trap"

Listen to streaming MP3 of Radiolab "Lucy"

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Finally, it isn't often that I hear a reasoned, civil defense of unions in the American economy. Usually, unions are bashed on the radio, or are over-glorified by equally-intellectually dishonest diatribes from the left. However, prompted by an e-mail from a listener, Dave Ross launched into a rare civilized argument in favor of unions on KIRO-FM from Seattle.

Listen to streaming MP3 of the Dave Ross Show "Defending Unions"

Transport: Solving a Railfan Mystery

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Of late, I have been spending some time updating the list of every railroad locomotive I have ever noted. The list is organized by railroad in alphabetical order. Since 2004, the first railroad listed has been Aare-Seeland mobil (ASm), which is what amounts to a regional transportation agency in an area along the Aare River between Zurich and Bern, Switzerland. A single locomotive of class Em3/3 (meaning diesel switcher with three powered axles of three total axles) with locomotive number 1 was listed as being spotted in Langental, Switzerland on 15 February 2004.

This entry has always bothered me, since it didn't make sense. Essentially the whole ASm system in meter-gauge. Their sole Em3/3 standard-gauge switcher was assigned to the interchange with the standard-gauge system at Niederbipp, Switzerland. It should not have been in Langental. Furthermore, my notes from the day state that the locomotive was green "and had no notable markings other than the Em3/3 class marking and a large 'M'". In every picture I have ever seen of an ASm locomotive, including the standard-gauge switcher (the best one is on the European Rail Server), it has been orange in color. Furthermore, the pictures did not indicate that it had the number "1", and I don't make up numbers. Had a green locomotive been repainted orange, it didn't seem likely that it would be renumbered from "1".

So, staring at the entry every time I opened the document since it was right at the top, I finally decided to do further investigation. After rather extensive Googling (notably, Bing was useless) I stumbled onto this picture. It's at Niederbipp, not Langental, but it shows a standard-gauge green Em3/3 switcher with a big "M" on the side. It was numbered 2 underneath the "M," but if there's a 2, there's likely a 1 also. I had almost certainly seen its sister locomotive.

Further research revealed that the locomotive was owned by Makies AG, a construction company that runs its own trains about 20 km southeast of where I saw the locomotive. I never turned up a picture of locomotive #1, but it seemed clear enough that my entry needed to be changed. Aare-Seeland mobil has been deleted, and Makies AG added. I no longer have to stare at a suspect entry.

"A" to "Z" in my locomotive listing now runs from the Achenseebahn to the Zillertalbahn. Ironically, both of these lines are narrow gauge railroads out of Jenbach, Austria! I wonder how many railfans have the same bookends, even if what is in between is very different.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Media: Just Like CBS

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Upon moving to Canada, I shortly discovered that I found many aspects of the CBC Radio One schedule comforting. This wasn't really a surprise; after all, I had long listened to CBC programming since first discovering what was then "Sunday Morning" (now "The Sunday Edition") and "Quirks and Quarks" while in college, and had just added more as time went on. What it took me some time to realize, though, was that one of the reasons that I found the CBC schedule so comforting was that it resembled the CBS radio news of my youth.

Once upon a time, CBS ran a fifteen-minute news program (which ran without commercials in some, mostly minor, markets) at 7 in the morning (Central and Pacific time, anyway; it ran at 8 Eastern and 6 Mountain, which is to say it aired twice, once for most of the country and once for the west coast) called the CBS World News Roundup. Apparently, this broadcast was inaugurated in 1938, hosted by Robert Trout. In my lifetime, it was hosted by Bill Lynch until his retirement. The broadcast in fact survives to this day, shortened in length to eight minutes of content on weekdays and available as a podcast hosted by Nick Young. The CBC has a similar broadcast, "World Report" which airs ten minutes (until recently, twelve) of news at the top of the hour in morning at 5, 6, 7, and 8 (9 on weekends). I just felt like I was listening to the World News Roundup.

In the evening, CBS used to have a similar broadcast that always had commercials but had over ten minutes of content, the World Tonight. Airing at 6 Pacific (6 Eastern, 5 Central and Mountain, so it was fed three times), it was hosted by Christopher Glenn until he moved to the morning Roundup. This show also survives as the World News Roundup Late Edition with Bill Whitney (now just seven minutes of content, fed once at 7 Eastern/4 Pacific). The CBC does even the CBS of the past one better, with nearly a half-hour of news in "The World at Six". Listening to Bernie McNamee is just like listening to Christopher Glenn.

It goes beyond the special news broadcasts, though. CBS used to air a Saturday morning show a half-hour in length (not carried in many markets) called "Seven Days" that summarized what had happened that week in Congress. That should sound familiar to CBC listeners--substitute parliament and that's pretty much the premise of the 48-minute "The House", airing at 9:10 Saturday mornings. I'm not sure when "Seven Days" was canceled, but the House is still running strong.

Of course, there's plenty that CBC does that CBS has never done in the modern era--everything from the news magazines ("As It Happens", "The Current", and "The Sunday Edition") to specialty shows like "Quirks and Quarks" and "White Coat, Black Art", and entertainment shows like "Vinyl Cafe" and "Definitely Not the Opera" (er, "DNTO"). One thing that CBS has always done well that CBC does not do is short-form commentary. Charles Osgood has been a staple my whole lifetime, but at different times, they've also run regular commentaries by Dan Rather, Judy Muller, Bill Whitney, Harry Reasoner, Charles Kuralt, Harry Smith, and in recent times Dave Ross. I wouldn't mind if CBC found a way to incorporate such two-minute features.

Presumably, CBS pioneered the formats and the CBC adopted them and improved them over the years. In any event, the CBC is keeping alive a radio feel that is largely gone from CBS, even if some of the programs survive, and I appreciate that.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Culture: Lack of Balance

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Eve Ensler was on my radar screen even before V-Day came up because of some of things she is saying on the book tour for her current book, "I Am An Emotional Creature". She claims that the United States needs to have more respect for emotions. To me, this underscored my long-standing position that the problem with the United States isn't that it is an emotional world country, but that it is unbalanced and thus unhealthy. That an emotional type like Ensler doesn't feel comfortable in a fundamentally emotional environment is an indictment of that environment.

If this were a thorough academic commentary, time would need to be spent describing how what I mean when I refer to the emotional world--derived from Traditional Chinese Medicine and the Meridian Stretching teachings of Bob Cooley--is not exactly the same as what Eve Ensler means. Most readers of this piece will probably be using the same meaning as Ensler. I don't think it matters much; the argument can be followed anyway.

I think Ensler's assessment of United States culture is accurate. The emotional world should fundamentally be founded on caring. If there's one thing emotional types can't stop doing, it's caring about people. Yet, the culture of United States is not about caring for other people--it's about blaming other people, or identifying them as "other." Rather than establishing and supporting social safety nets, the most political points in the United States are scored by eliminating or "reforming" safety nets. Is it any wonder that Ensler, a quintessential caring person, feels out of place?

One of the other fundamental traits of the emotional world is comfort with money. Indeed, the United States as a country has the "rainmaker" trait of drawing money to itself, and it had it even before it was the world's largest economy. Yet, for a generation the country has been unable to significantly curb its spending, and has created an irrational backlash from a segment that won't allow itself to be taxed, exacerbating the problem. An emotional type shouldn't fall to either of those extremes.

Why not? Because it should be balanced. The balancing type of the past-viewing emotional world is the future-looking thinking world. Visionary, future-looking leadership would put the anxiety of the emotional world in perspective and lead to better decisions. Yet, the public disdains thinking-type politicians as people with whom they would not have a beer. This is a consequence of the current anti-intellectual thread in the populace.

Meanwhile, thinking-world Canada seems to be doing pretty well in terms of caring for its fellow citizens and keeping its budgets in order, the core emotional-world traits. How can that be? Canada may be thinking-world, but it's balanced. Thinking world Stéphane Dion might be rejected politically, but in the same vote, thinking world Stephen Harper can be elected Prime Minister. Meanwhile, emotional-world artists are celebrated in the media, along with physical-world athletes. (Oddly, spiritual types seem to most often gain acclaim in Canadian media as artists, but that's a topic for another day.)

So how does the United States become a healthier, more balanced country? If it were instead a person, a meridian stretching trainer would try to stretch its body to make it more flexible, and then its "high", healthy fundamental traits would start to overpower the "downsides." How does a country become flexible? I suppose this means trying to do things from other worlds. But wasn't that what the Bush (43) administration was all about, macho, physical-world certitude and adventurism? It only works if both the physical world and the spiritual world (which are balancing) are both exercised, and I didn't notice the spiritual world getting an iota of attention in the past decade. So, instead that was just an unhealthy physical-world diversion.

Right now, the United States is an emotional-world country with an emotional-world president in Barack Obama, and it isn't healthy enough for emotional-world Eve Ensler. What it most needs is direct thinking-world balance. Be watching for visionary, thinking-world figures--perhaps not politicians--to start making an impact. I wish I knew where they might be--the United States desperately needs them.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Transport: Fare Incentives

TORONTO, ONTARIO - At this juncture, I ought to be traveling almost exclusively by rail. I have the time and I prefer traveling by rail anyway for environmental reasons, never mind the railfanning opportunities. Yet, whenever I have headed west farther than Michigan since becoming unemployed, it has been by air. How can this be? Simple. It's cheaper.

As hard as it is to believe, airfares--even relatively last-minute airfares--have been cheaper for every trip segment over 400 miles I have taken in the past two years, with one exception--Amtrak was slightly cheaper than Southwest Airlines for Sacramento, California to Portland, Oregon last December, so that segment occurred by rail. While I have never done a comprehensive analysis, this can't possibly be reflective of the actual costs. Even taking into account that rail travel takes longer, the fewer number of people involved in the infrastructure of running a train versus running a plane means the labor costs of going by rail can't be significantly higher, and everything else should be lower. Most significantly, the fuel costs should be radically lower--trains use just over one-third as much fuel per passenger-mile as an airplane according to the Sierra Club.

(I would have guessed a much larger difference, but that's still huge. Looking at the derivation--such as here--it seems to come from a passenger load on a train of twenty, which is too low by a factor of at least five for most Amtrak trains, even long-distance ones. It also gives a passenger load of 90 for aircraft, which would be a loading factor of less than 0.7 on a 737 when most airlines are averaging a load factor of 0.85, but that's a more mild underestimate than the rail underestimate. I have a feeling that all of these estimates were intended to favor the automobile).

Yet, it's actually not surprising that rail fares are often higher than air fares. Both the railroads (Amtrak and VIA Rail Canada) and the airlines use yield-management techniques on their fares to maximize revenues. Assuming their models are working properly, it's entirely possible that the demand for rail services is high enough that the railroad can charge fares higher than airlines and still maximize their revenues, whether from people that physically or emotionally cannot or will not fly, or those traveling to intermediate destinations. VIA Rail Canada obviously offers enough amenities and convenience that its regular fare from Toronto to Montreal is equivalent to the base fare on Porter Airlines (both about $144), though more discounts are probably available for the train.

I'd like to propose that the fact that rail fares are not cheaper than air fares means that our taxes on fuel are clearly not high enough, as it should cost less to transport a passenger by rail. However, if we believe the revenue-management software is actually working, it implies that airlines cannot actually charge more money for their tickets and earn more revenue. Raising the fuel taxes would decrease the airline profit margin, and at some point the airlines would simply stop flying a route because it would not be profitable.

Maybe that is what needs to happen. If the weakest airlines disappear from a route, the decreased supply would mean that the remaining airlines would be able to charge a higher fare and maintain profitability. Rail fares could also rise some because of increased demand from people that could no longer afford to fly, but not as much as the air fares. The impact would be modestly higher rail fares and significantly higher air fares.

In other words, there's no way I'm going to be able to financially justify taking the train unless it costs more than it does now. That may be the right outcome from a national policy perspective, but I'm not looking forward to that.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Politics: Why Canada Still Works

TORONTO, ONTARIO - There seems to be a growing consensus that the political system in the United States is broken. Commentator David Brooks noted recently "If the Republicans refuse to raise taxes, and Democrats refuse to cut spending, then that opens the door for a third party for the first time in my lifetime." If that party is the TEA party--which isn't what Brooks meant--then don't expect much change, as they are even more adamant about their economic positions than the Republicans. Short of a truly epic shift in power this fall, neither side will have the super-majority to get its legislation passed, as the other side will filibuster it in the Senate. Short of unprecedented leadership, the mess will last a substantial amount of time.

Meanwhile, look what happened this week in Canada. The Harper government has announced tightened rules for mortgages in this country. From the US perspective, Canada didn't even have a problem in this regard. There is no foreclosure crisis in Canada, in large part because regulations were never relaxed here in the first place. Yet, there has been long-term concern that people owed too much money, and of speculators acquiring properties just to "flip" them for a profit. As a result, the rules for qualifying for a loan have been tightened, and non-resident owners will be required to put at least 20% down (hardly a radical concept), amongst other new regulations.

The amazing thing is that the new regulations are coming from a Conservative government. That's right, a right-wing party has introduced regulation, and not under pressure from the other parties. Parliament is prorogued anyway, but that wouldn't stop the opposition parties from taking to the airwaves if they thought it was a bad idea. Instead, there is consensus that these steps are economically prudent, and nobody is speaking out against them.

This isn't the first time the Harper government has done something that would be unthinkable for a Republican administration in the US to do. The most notable example was the restructuring of Income Trust laws, which many would interpret as a tax increase (at the very lest, it devalued a lot of investments in companies that had converted to income trusts). That one was also clearly the right thing to do economically, and was unopposed in parliament.

Canada still has a tradition of good government. Conservatives will occasionally introduce regulations and raise revenues. Liberals will occasionally reduce government services. When there's a consensus about what should be done, a government will do it, whether they manage to score political points in the process or not. Fundamentally, it's a much healthier political environment, and I (for one) really appreciate that.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Culture: Careful What You Call V-Day

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This year, it seemed like I heard yesterday referred to as "V-day" more often than ever before. That would be one thing if people understood the activist significance of referring to Valentine's Day as "V-Day," but in most cases I think people were just trying to be clever. Those that are familiar with Eve Ensler's V-Day movement had to cringe whenever we heard it, as in that world, V-Day has a triple-meaning--a very serious meaning--of Victory, Valentine and Vagina.

I suppose I must be one of the few men in the world who was not dragged to see Eve Ensler's "The Vagina Monologues." In fact, I rather dragged a female friend, who clearly got a lot more out of the evening than I did. I just knew that Eve Ensler performing the play she had written probably wasn't going to happen in Boston very often, so it struck me as something I ought to experience.

To say that the performance was powerful would be a major understatement. Never mind a gender gap, understanding the cultural gap between the experiences of some of the women's stories that were presented and my own could be mind-blowing. I'll never react to a woman describing a lover as a "Bob" or hear TLC's Unpretty (played during the curtain call) the same way ever again. It's hard to believe some of the things still going on in the world today, and easy to understand why Ensler felt compelled to write the play.

As serious as the "Vagina Monologues" is, there has been some great satire over the years that has to be mentioned. The CBC once ran a brilliant commentary called the "Regina Monologues" (starting with "every country should have a Regina"). Comedian Kate Clinton probably had the best line of all, stating in her performances that "my vagina isn't interested in monologues, it's interested in dialog."

Indeed, Ensler has gone way behind monologues and dialog into a full-fledged movement against violence. With "V-Day" events now occurring regularly across the world, there is much greater awareness of the issue and resources available (including the 2004 film Until the Violence Stops) to address the issue.

That's what someone should be referring to when they refer to February 14th as "V-Day" instead of Valentine's Day. Anything else is representative of the ignorance that enables the very problems Ensler is trying to fight.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Photos: Eastern Washington and Oregon

An irrigation ditch in Kennewick, Washington took on a bit of its normal appearance as the sun melted the latest snowfall on 1-January-2010

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's update to my photo site features scenes from east of the Cascade Mountains. Highlights of time spent in eastern Washington and Oregon from 26-December-2009 to 7-January-2010 included a trip over Snoqualmie Pass, Kennewick, Washington under snow cover, a walking tour of Pendleton, Oregon, and aerial shots landing in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Margin Notes: Winter, Phrases, Generations

Late afternoon shadows helped maintain the thin snow pack in the Lambton Woods of Toronto, Ontario on 11-February-2010

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Snow flurries came down for most of the day on Wednesday, so I thought I'd go out and take some legitimate snow shots on Thursday. Nature was still laughing at me, as most snow cover had sublimed or melted before I went out to take photographs; the only passable winter scene I could find was in the Lambton Woods, which had been mostly shaded. It's cold, but not white, this winter in Toronto.

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While taking walks lately, I've noted that even postings outside restaurants looking for waiters now universally say "Experience Required" without exception. There is no such thing as a entry-level job in the current economy.

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US President Barack Obama continues to mention the economy in virtually all of his weekly radio and YouTube addresses. I'm surprised that conservatives haven't jumped on him for how he ends those addresses. The boilerplate "thank you and God bless America" has been replaced with a simple "thanks." For that matter, the progressives don't seem to have noticed, either.

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Words and phrasing can be interesting. My US tax forms arrived with a label stating "International Surface Airlift." Surface Airlift? This seems like an oxymoron, though perhaps it designates that trans-oceanic shipments are "lifted" by air over the ocean rather than going on a ship, but are otherwise moved on the ground.

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Another phrase I found entertaining recently was the latest title for an automatic software update--"iLife Support". I guess it's not enough to have life support anymore, we need to have iLife Support to keep our digital lives going.

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I guess I must be in the iLife generation, since when I heard "Behind Blue Eyes" performed for the Superbowl (in news coverage), I was somewhat surprised that it was a song from The Who. I was only familiar with the 2003 Limp Bizkit version, which I had known was a remake, but I had never investigated what was being re-made. Somehow, I suspect promoters wanted The Who to play that Pete Townshend song precisely because it had been widely covered and would be known to younger audiences.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Radio Pick: Hive Minds

TORONTO, ONTARIO - On what program in the course of an hour can such diverse items as E.O. Wilson talking about ant pheromones, the Borg from Star Trek, and Jason Lanier talking about Web 2.0 be woven together cohesively? To The Best of Our Knowledge, of course. The Wisconsin Public Radio program came up with another winner for this week's radio pick, a 53-minute program on Hive Minds.

Listen to streaming RealMedia of To The Best of Our Knowledge "Hive Mind"

Transport: The Sound of 645's

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Despite being located more than a kilometer from the Canadian Pacific tracks, soon after moving in to my current apartment, I discovered that I could hear trains going by, especially in quiet night and weekend hours. The rumble of the big diesel motors made a sound that, as a railroad enthusiast, I found quite comforting.

As railfans go, I'm not particularly auditory-oriented. The sound of a steam locomotive whistle (or even a well-tuned diesel chime horn) does make me smile, but the normal sounds of diesel locomotives working does not. I have friends who consider the noise of trains to be a fundamental attraction; they will travel miles to hear diesels that they like struggle up a steep grade, and get excited when they hear the same prime mover as used in a locomotive in other applications, usually a ship. Others can identify any train horn that they hear and know what locomotive they might be on.

Despite not really being attracted to the noise, I have been around enough trains that I can usually identify the most common types of engines by ear. Most locomotives produced by the Electro-Motive Division of General Motors (once the dominant locomotive builder, now independent) had either 567, 645, or 710 prime movers, which while certainly having a family "sound" are distinguishable. The 645, introduced in 1965, is the most common, used for example in the ubiquitous SD40-2 locomotive (featured in a previous blog post). The 645 stands for cubic inches of displacement for each cylinder--to put that in perspective, each cylinder in a typical sixteen-cylinder locomotive with a 645 has more displacement than the entire legendary General Motors 427 cubic-inch motor (which, in modern terms, was a humongous 7 liters). It isn't surprising that these prime movers create quite a rumble.

Last year, I began to notice that I wasn't hearing as many trains anymore. While the Canadian Pacific was running fewer trains because of the recession, that wasn't the primary reason. Most trains were being powered by newer General Electric locomotives that were much quieter than a 645; their sound didn't carry to my apartment. I no longer heard the comforting sounds of a train rolling by on a regular basis.

In recent weeks, the Canadian Pacific has apparently seen a surge in traffic, and they have had to bring older power out of storage, even activating SD40-2's from leasing companies to meet their demand. Suddenly, I am hearing 645's rumbling through the neighbourhood all the time--the majority of trains seem to have at least one. The comforting rumbles are back, and now I really appreciate it.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Culture: No Games Here

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I have no intention of writing about anything that happens at the certain games starting with the letter "o" in Vancouver, British Columbia for the next few weeks, even though all of Canada (and in fact the whole world) will be paying attention. I lost respect for the those games, whose name I am not even permitted to use since this is a commentary and not a news story, a long time ago.

While the commercialization of these games has been an issue my entire lifetime, I tried to look the other way until the games started demanding that the CBC, which once had rights for game coverage in Canada, take its programming off the Internet during the event. It couldn't be allowed for people from other countries to perhaps hear about game results from a Canadian audio stream. While the CBC eventually found a way to just take its "o" games and other news reports off the streams and allow unrelated programming (say, the science show "Quirks and Quarks") to go out on the Internet (this was in the days before podcasts when the live stream was the only way to listen), it became very inconvenient to try listen to, and I was resentful that the "o" movement had accomplished something no government had accomplished--censoring public radio.

However, it's even gone beyond that. It isn't just about protecting the sponsorship money that paid for exclusive national coverage of the games, which was bad enough. Now, the games demand that there be no criticism of the games in the host country at all. Journalist Amy Goodman was only allowed limited entry into Canada last December because border agents thought she might be speaking against the games, something she didn't intend to do. Vancouver's poet laureate Brad Cran is not participating in events around the games because he wouldn't sign an agreement to refrain from "any negative or derogatory remarks" about the games, which is now finally receiving media attention. The games appear to be an authoritarian, corporatist movement, rather than being about athletics and world peace.

Why do these restrictions exist? The game movement is funded mostly by broadcast rights fees (which in turn are supported by advertising on the broadcasts) and a program in which corporations pay $50 million to be official sponsors. Those corporations paying for any of this feel they need to have their investment protected, regardless of what it might mean to local laws. It strikes me that governments of democracies with free speech rights should not put up with such restrictions, which probably means that they should not even be bidding.

The purported goals of the "movement" around these games to bring people from across the world together is laudable and worthwhile, and I rather like seeing the world's best athletes compete against one another. So, despite my issues with the games in their current form, I'm not calling for them to disappear. Since corporate sponsorship seems to be the root of the problems with the games, that needs to eliminated. Until 1972, the games did not actively pursue corporate sponsorship.

I think the games should be funded by the United Nations. Part of each nation's UN dues would go to support some reformation of the current governing committee. Perhaps this might even make funding the UN more popular in more conservative circles, though I doubt it. Then, protecting commercial interests and stifling speech would no longer need to be a part of the games, the athletes could compete as they do today, and everyone could be proud of and enjoy the enterprise. Everyone, that is, except for the people looking at the black helicopters filming events from the sky.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Media: Accepting New Sounds

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I've had to get used to the concept that the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) changes its radio tones every few years. To my knowledge, CBS and ABC in the United States have changed their top-of-the-hour tones exactly once in my lifetime--there is hardly anything more stable in the world. I don't think NBC or Mutual ever changed their distinct chimes before those radio networks ceased to exist (interestingly, both were absorbed into the CBS radio newsroom). For that matter, the radio station of my youth, KIRO in Seattle, had the same set of theme music (different for each part of the day) from sometime in the early 1980's until 1994, definitely creating a lot of familiarity and comfort in those long-gone sounds.

The CBC is different. It changes its top-of-the-hour tones fairly regularly. The amazing thing is that every iteration (at least in the past fifteen years) is readily identifiable as a CBC theme, yet distinct. Perhaps because of this practice of changing periodically, the CBC may have the best ability in the world to create "sounders" that I have ever encountered anywhere in radio.

Yet, despite having known about at least two changes in the tones since I started listening regularly, it still came as a shock when the CBC introduced new tones in the fall of 2006. The CBC tones previously used had become symbolic of my move to Canada, and I didn't like them being withdrawn. Yet, within a couple hours, I came to appreciate the 2006 tones. They were more hard-hitting, yet readily recognizable as CBC tones. It took only a matter of weeks for me to accept them as the best set of CBC themes of my lifetime.

Thus, I again felt shock when a new set of tones took their place last fall. I wasn't as immediately accepting this time. Sure, they were clearly CBC, but they seemed more convoluted to me, and they were replacing my favourites. It has taken months, but it occurred to me in January that I had accepted these tones and looked forward to them at the top and bottom of the hour. I still like the 2006 version better, but I have to say that while the 2006 top-of-the-hour was better, the ancillary versions for special shows like The World at Six and The World This Weekend were a little strange. The 2009 version creates a clear mood across all the different variations that is much more consistent and cohesive. At some level, I do have to regard them as an improvement.

Perhaps the CBC is trying to teach a life lesson with these regular changes. Nothing stays exactly the same; change is constant. Some things improve, but there are good things ("silver linings") to find in even undesired changes. Will I still think that next time? Somehow, I trust the CBC to do a good job again.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Transport: The Wrong Metric

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Long-term readers of this blog know that the author is very big on setting up proper incentive structures and proper evaluative metrics before letting the invisible hand of the market do its work in a given market. It appears that freight railroading may not be using the proper metrics and thus investors are being grossly mislead about which are the leading freight railroads in North America.

The Association of American Railroads has long published its railroad performance measures which focus on train speed and terminal dwell hours as a metric of how efficiently a railroad is operating. This seemed to make sense; if trains were operating faster and getting through yards faster, then they should be reaching customers faster and thus providing better service. On the financial side, the operating ratio was viewed as a key figure, which seemed to make sense--if a railroad is spending less money to earn more money, then that railroad would seem to be operating efficiently.

Of course, one of the ways to reduce operating costs is to reduce money spent on improving infrastructure, maintaining existing infrastructure, and safety. Neglecting such expenditures hurts the railroad in the long run, so operating ratio seems like a typical Wall Street metric--making money in the short-term at the expense of the long-term. Still, even Wall Street should eventually notice eroding profits from lost business, regardless of operating ratio.

Railfans have been becoming suspicious of these metrics in recent years, as Canadian National (CN), which owns the former Illinois Central, Wisconsin Central, and Grand Trunk Western lines amongst others in the United States as well as its traditional Canadian routes, was cleaning up on the metrics. CN had a 63% operating ratio in the third quarter of 2009, way below the industry average of around 75%. Operating velocity and terminal dwell time were also much lower on the CN than on primary competitor Canadian Pacific. Yet, when railfans observe the two rivals, CP--while far from perfect--seemed to be actually operating like a real railroad trying to deliver freight, and CN has just been bizarre to observe, with schedules rarely held to in many corridors (despite supposedly being a "scheduled railroad"), trains taking traffic well beyond its destinations, and other operating fiascoes. It seemed that CN was mainly making its statistics look good by running exceptionally long trains, at the expense of train frequency and service quality, leading to lost business. Especially suspicious was the fact that CN had re-defined some of the metrics so that the AAR would no longer directly compare the CN's performance with the other "Class I" railroads in North America.

This all came to a head recently in a recent Trains magazine article by noted writer Fred Frailey. According to that article (not available on-line), CN's on-time car delivery to customers is only 60%. This statistic is not easy to find for all railroads. However, buried in this filing related to a proposed merger that never happened, BNSF's figure in 1999--hardly a recession year--was 91%. In intermodal service, BNSF touts 99% on-time delivery, and considering that it offers guaranteed carload service in many service lanes, one has to assume they are achieving at least their 1999 levels, or the guarantee would be too expensive.

Railroads are a service industry. They provide the service of moving freight from one location to another. If they can't do that on their intended schedule, then they aren't doing their job. There's a reason that Warren Buffet chose to purchase BNSF and not Canadian National, and it isn't just that CN is nominally a Canadian company. For a performance metric, on-time delivery seems to be a more appropriate metric than system velocity or terminal dwell time. The AAR should start reporting it publicly and consistently across the major railroads.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Media: Wikitruth

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I've written before on this blog about my frustration with people that take information on the Internet more seriously than actual primary sources. It turns out that the root source of this trend had already been written about extensively and I had just never bothered to read it. Well-known Boston technology writer Simson L. Garfinkel wrote an article in the MIT Technology Review (unfortunately not available for free) that's the best I've seen describing the Wikipedia standards for truth and the problems they create.

Wikipedia's standards for inclusion basically come down to verifiability. The best source of information in the Wikipedia world is a web page. The best web page is in the English language. So, if there's an English-language web page with the information, it can be accepted as a reference, even if the content is completely wrong.

The really disturbing thing is that people finding mistakes in the Wikipedia world cannot actually just fix them, as Wikipedia touts. If the article is on something that you have any sort of connection to--most profoundly an article on you, but also any organization you might belong to or anything you might be perceived as having a financial stake in--then you are considered a biased source, and you are not allowed to fix it and your English-language web page cannot be considered valid source material. This might make sense for subjective aspects such as whether a public incident constitutes a scandal, but it also means you can't correct your own birthdate, the number of children you have, or your profession. Is there really any bias possible in things that are just incontrovertible facts?

So, basically what the Wikipedia view world does is reinforce that whoever is most vocal in the media space speaks the truth. If one can get one's friends to post an apparently-unrelated-to-you assessment of your life that is actually completely fabricated, that would be accepted in Wikipedia as a valid source of information. But, if you can't convince a third-party to post on the web that information on someone else's web site about you is slander, then that slander is considered the truth, not the actual reality.

This personal aspect may not be of much concern to the average person, but the problem is much broader. If a web site decides to publish that the MD-80 was an Airbus aircraft, then Wikipedia can repeat that as truth. That might seem absurd, since it is common knowledge that it was a McDonnell-Douglas aircraft derived from the Douglas DC-9, and in this case those correcting the article (as long as they aren't associated with successor Boeing!) could cite other web sites with the correct information and the fix would be accepted. But, on more obscure topics, on which information is not readily found on the web, the information would become accepted truth. This is an especially large potential problem in science, as much scientific data is currently available on-line only through paid peer-reviewed journal sites and therefore isn't valid as Wikipedia references. As far as the Wikipedia world is concerned, the best peer-reviewed version of scientific truth doesn't exist.

It's not hard to understand where the phenomena I take issue with comes from in this world. People that turn to Wikipedia for information implicitly accept the Wikipedia version of truth, even if they would disagree with the policy. Generation Y and younger, growing up in an open-source and crowd-sourced world, have minds that work the same way that Wikipedia does, in which if they can find the information, then that's the information they will accept. There's no sense in further investigation to figure out the validity of the information--who has time for that?

The implication of this conception of truth in a world in which governments (not just those as aggressive as China) and commercial interests (the whole open access controversy is about commercial interests favoring certain web sources over others) increasingly control the Internet is profound. It may actually be harder to find accurate facts on the future Internet than it was before we had that resource and had to turn to things like researched encyclopedias.

One obvious action that will help is working to make scientific information freely available as quickly as possible so that it can be cited outside of research communities--that should be easy to solve, but the broader problem is not so easy. Garfinkel suggests not relying on crowd-sourced information such as Wikipedia, period. Yet, one wonders if there actually be any choice. If Wikipedia doesn't modify aspects of its policies on what constitutes valid information, it may have serious long-term negative consequences for society. I think the consequences are already appearing in the guise of people accepting the Wikipedia version of truth as their own world view.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Margin Notes: Frozen, Toyota, Comedy, Hitchcock

In a scene symbolic of the season so far, a TTC Subway crossed the frozen Humber River in Toronto, Ontario while the land was free of snow on 8-February-2010

TORONTO, ONTARIO - It's been a somewhat strange winter season in Toronto. While Washington, DC and other unlikely environs have been pummeled with snow, Torontonians have spent much of 2010 with either no snow on the ground or just a modest dusting. With the exception of one quite warm week, though, temperatures have been seasonal, below 0. Will it last? We're very cognizant that winter is far from over.

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Equally strange from the perspective of previous years is the quality perception being faced by Toyota as a result of accelerator and braking issues widely covered in the media. I'm surprised that only comedian and Renaissance man Harry Shearer seems to have beaten me to pointing out that Toyota's slogan from the 1980's seems to have taken on a new meaning--"Oh, What a Feeling!"

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Comedian Conan O'Brien performed his last show for NBC recently as Jay Leno will return to the Tonight Show after the Olympics, as widely covered in the mainstream media. One suggestion I've heard--that the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation should try to recruit O'Brien--seems to have merit. Sure, O'Brien is not Canadian (he was born in Massachusetts, where I'm not sure they even know that Canada exists), but his comedy tends to appeal to the kind of thinking-world audience that watches the CBC. A 10-to-midnight lineup of "The National," a shortened "The Hour" (sure, they'd have to rename it) and then a stand-up comedy show hosted by O'Brien would be quite cohesive and worth watching, in my opinion.

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On the radio side, the CBC had a big decision to make locally after Andy Barrie announced last Monday that he would be stepping down as host of "Metro Morning" after fifteen years. Before I even had a chance to lobby for him here, Matt Galloway was announced as the new host earlier today. Now, the question is who takes over Galloway's post on "Here and Now"--my preference of course is Karen Horsman, who probably doesn't even want it. Perhaps Robin Brown, who has been available since the cancellation of "The Inside Track"? I suppose as long as they don't hire a psycho, it'll be fine.

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The movie "Psycho" was the subject of a segment on a recent episode of To The Best of Our Knowledge. David Thomson pointed out something I had never realized before--in the famous shower scene, we never actually see a knife penetrate skin. Think about that artistry of director Alfred Hitchcock--would any modern moviemaker do that?

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Photos: Family Holiday Gatherings

Kathy Gleich, Terri Young, Marv Nelson, and Mayna Young were among the family gathered in Bellevue, Washington on 25-December-2009

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's update to my photo site features family holiday pictures. Pictures of family from gatherings on 24-December-2009 to 26-December-2009 are presented in this album from Kirkland, Bellevue, and Kennewick, Washington, including the McGrady and Gleich families.

Culture: Watching the Superbowl

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I didn't watch the Superbowl today, as the New Orleans Saints defeated the Indianapolis Colts 31-17 in Miami, a significant upset that was closer than the final score indicated. After all, I don't own a television. In 2004, in some sense watching the Superbowl was not optional--I was living in suburban Boston, and the local New England Patriots were returning to the Superbowl for the second time in three years. Furthermore, my neighbors included a German couple that had never watched a Superbowl before, and wanted to experience a classic American event.

I am hardly an expert in football, but I watched enough games growing up that I have a grasp on the rules. Explaining to someone not familiar with the game the meaning of a penalty for a "false start" by the offense or a "delay of game" is not hard to do. Others, like "offensive pass interference" or "illegal use of the hands" or even "holding" can be more challenging to explain. With twenty penalties called over the course of the game, they expressed the most frustration with these interruptions, no matter if I explained the reasoning well or not.

Items of strategy could also be hard to explain--the possibility of a onside kick, for example, was completely inscrutable to my friends. The idea of getting out of bounds to stop the clock (or remaining in bounds to run down the clock) was something they picked up on very quickly, though.

The real point of the experience, of course, was not so much to watch and understand the game as it was to have a party. A key part of the party was the snacks. If memory serves, we had nachos at the end of the first quarter, pizza rolls at halftime (probably the only time I have had them my entire adult life), wings and dip at the end of the third quarter, and chili after the game was over. We watched the commercials, but none--even including nine from Budweiser--was especially memorable. Amazingly, we managed to miss the infamous Janet Jackson "wardrobe malfunction" at halftime--I think I was preparing food and everyone else had wandered off for one reason or another.

This was one of the few Superbowls to that point in which the game was actually worth watching. After a scoreless first quarter, the Patriots led 14-10 at halftime, followed by a scoreless third quarter, and finally a wild fourth quarter in which 37 points were scored. With 1:08 left in the game, the score was tied 29-29, and New England gained possession of the ball. New England quarterback Tom Brady, who would be named Most Valuable Player, somehow moved his team down the field. In the final seconds, Adam Vinateri kicked a game-winning field goal, just like he had two years before.

My German friends had not only seen an excellent game and eaten a supply of American junk food, they were treated to all the cars in the neighborhood honking their horns in celebration. The local team had won the Superbowl!

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Radio Pick: Persuasion Fail

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's radio pick again comes from the Age of Persuasion. One of the things that radio does all too infrequently is take one back to nostalgic moments. In this week's 27-minute episode of the Age of Persuasion, Terry O'Riley brings up almost too many past marketing failures to count in such a short program--worth listening to just to see how much can be packed into a half-hour show, never mind the memories.

Listen to streaming MP3 of The Age of Persuasion "Persuasion Fail"

Travel: Fun with Foreign Place Names

TORONTO, ONTARIO - When traveling to Europe, I often would not be especially functional the first day because of jet lag. Often, I would use that day to travel by train to my actual destination, figuring I didn't need all my mental faculties to just ride a train. Such was the case in April 2002 as I took a Die Bahn train through Waldshut, Switzerland. In my less-than-alert state, and noting the valley in the area, I mused that the town must be "walled shut." Of course, that's not even how the town name is pronounced in German. When I later told a Swiss colleague about this joke, he mentioned that he would have never thought of that. Why would he; there was nothing in the etymology of the name or its pronunciation to lead one there--it was pure ignorance.

Having just updated my railfanning notebook index through the end of my European experiences, I decided to go back through the index and have some fun with German-language place names.

The following questions resulted:

Do people make friends easily in Chum, Switzerland?

Are the breakfasts good in Egghütti, Switzerland?

Do they skip generations in Grandson, Switzerland?

Do people often have bad hair days in Grossheringen, Germany?

Do only less attractive people live in Haag, Switzerland?

Do young lovers go to Kissing, Germany?

Do they ever buy anything in Liesing, Austria?

Do they build new houses in Neuhausen Bad, Switzerland?

Is it a good thing that Payerbach, Austria is not near Taxenbach, Austria?

Do they have good snacks in Pichl, Austria?

Do they overdose in Pill, Austria?

Do people have good manners in Rottenmann, Austria?

Do they have good alcohol in Rum, Austria?

Do people fall in love in Schmitten, Switzerland?

Are they early adopters in Tecknau, Switzerland?

Of course, after massacring all these place names, I would probably be sent to the Rathaus (city hall) for punishment. I've always thought that was a great name for a place where politicians work... nothing more than a house of rats!

Friday, February 5, 2010

Politics: Agreeing with Brooks Again

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Several times in the past, most notably in this entry, I have praised New York Times columnist David Brooks for taking a very real-world approach to his conservative views. I may disagree with Brooks on many issues, but I never get the impression that Brooks lives in a different world with different facts than the world I live in, something that often happens with other prominent people on the right in the United States.

One of the things that I think makes Brooks so valuable is that in the spirit of other, less ideologically-identified columnists like David Broder, he tends to take the pulse of the public extremely well, even when public opinion is turning against his preferences. He understood the depth of anger against the Republicans in 2008 early, and understood what Barack Obama was tapping into against Hillary Clinton.

I believe Brooks picked up on another trend last Sunday during the roundtable discussion on Meet the Press, which I haven't heard him discuss elsewhere. (Brooks seems to appear all over the place; I usually hear him at least on NPR's All Things Considered and the PBS NewsHour each Friday.) While discussing the current tide against Democrats in the United States, Brooks noted that people are turning to the Republicans because they are dissatisfied with government action. However, they don't really want no government action, they just want more effective government action. They distrust THIS government, but they want to trust government. By calling for preventing or undoing all Democratic initiatives, the Republicans run the risk of over-reaching as much as they claim the Democrats have.

I suspect Brooks is correct. The TEA party may want government completely out of their lives, but those people have already been voting Republican. The independents that determine elections--and elected Scott Brown in Massachusetts--want government to actually achieve something. The party that figures that out and manages to actually seem effective will probably do quite well this fall. Somehow, I doubt either party is listening.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Heritage: Unbuilt Toronto

Author Mark Osbaldeston prepared to give a talk on his "Unbuilt Toronto" book to the Swansea Historical Society on 3-February-2010

TORONTO, ONTARIO - For some reason, despite all the awards it has received, I had never bothered to read the book "Unbuilt Toronto." Thus, when author Mark Osbaldeston spoke at the Swansea Historical Society last night, the material he presented was all new to me, and made it all the more obvious to me why the book has won such profound praise.

While the book was organized by topic (unbuilt transportation, retail, etc.), in his presentation, Osbaldeston instead took a street segment, Queen Street West from Yonge to University, and chose to highlight all the unbuilt projects related to that area. Being in the core of downtown Toronto, that meant everything from a Queen Street subway for streetcars to a much larger version of the Eaton Centre to a wonderful monument traffic circle that could have been built near Queen and University to hide the jog in University that would have cost just five figures.

Much of the presentation focused on what would happen on the location that today hosts City Hall and Nathan Philips Square. Originally purchased by the city to create a civic square between (now-Old) City Hall and Osgoode Hall, the property languished for years as different proposals, many of them replacing Old City Hall, came and went. One was even an early version of a Public-Private Partnership, which would have built a new building on the Old City Hall site that would have initially contained retail space catering to downtown workers until the city needed additional space. Most surprising to me were the proposals to create a "Federal Avenue" (later going under other names) that would have run from the center of Union Station directly to the site on Queen. Imagine what it would be like today to look from City Hall or Union Station and see the other building!

Arguably the most visionary project was Buckminster Fuller's proposal for re-connecting Toronto with its waterfront, including an atrium in which University Avenue would have extended south, crossed the railway lands, and reached Lake Ontario. It seems amazing today that more than forty years later, Toronto is still trying to re-connect with Lake Ontario, making progress in fits and starts. This proved to be a major theme of Osbaldeston's presentation, that old ideas come back and are eventually implemented. The current Eglinton light rail designs resemble the original Queen designs, much of Toronto's retail did move north (just to Bloor, not College), and George Brown College is building a waterfront campus.

Yet, the bigger theme appeared to be that Toronto has (almost) always developed pragmatically. The Eaton's plans for a mega-city development did not proceed because there just weren't enough prospective tenants. The monument traffic circle on University wasn't built because the construction of the University extension was funded by a local improvement district that wasn't interested in such niceties. Most amazingly, the parking lot underneath City Hall was built first, to help fund the project, and all proposals for the design had to incorporate the already-existing garage!

Considering this reality, it's amazing that we have the significant buildings we do have in Toronto. Mark Osbaldeston did a great job of putting that in perspective.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Culture: So It's Not That They Are Gay

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Frankly, the spectacle going on in the United States right now about gays in the military is pathetic. Canada has allowed homosexuals to openly serve in its military since 1992, without any significant issues. For those of you who have issues with the effectiveness of the Canadian military (and if one is paying attention in Afghanistan, I really wonder why), then look to Israel, which has allowed gays and lesbians to serve since 1993 without affecting their effectiveness. In a time when having adequate soldiers to fight--particularly those with language and other specialized skills--is a central issue, turning away an otherwise-qualified and skilled individual because of their sexual orientation is bordering on insane. Does the United States not have as professional of a military as Israel or Canada?

Talk show host Dave Ross tried to understand what opponents of the repeal of the present "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy were really concerned about earlier this week on his KIRO-FM talk show in Seattle. Fifteen minutes into this podcast, he takes what I found to be a revealing call. The male caller stated that gays made him uncomfortable, calling himself a "guy's guy." When asked who else made him feel that way, he referred to "soft" office workers. Upon exploring the matter further, he admitted that "manly" gay men did not bother him. "It's not if you're homosexual or not, it's whether you're male dominant or not... it's effeminate guys."

While some small percentage of true homophobia does exist in this world, I suspect the attitude expressed by the caller is actually far more common; in many cases, it would effectively be indistinguishable from homophobia. There seem to be a fair number of people in the United States--almost all men--that just cannot handle any blurring of traditional gender roles, in particular effeminate men, gay or not. I really don't understand the psychology of the "guy's guys" that somehow feel threatened by effeminate men--the effeminate men are not likely to steal a mate from a "guy's guy," pose a physical threat, or threaten their social standing. Since there doesn't appear to be such an overt biological cause, it has to be an insecurity about themselves of some kind; I won't (and am not qualified to) speculate beyond that.

The amazing thing is that in the United States, compared with other countries, these insecure men apparently have more power than in other countries, as they've managed to keep gays out of the military, whereas they haven't in most of the rest of the developed world. It can't reflect well on the United States that this is the case.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Culture: Watch for Rising Violent Crime

TORONTO, ONTARIO - The "TEA" (standing for "Taxed Enough Already?") party movement in the United States is largely seen as having political consequences. It may elect specific candidates (some would say Scott Brown in Massachusetts), it may push the Republican Party to the right (remember the Congressional election in New York's 23rd District?), and it may lead to a radical shift in Congressional makeup this fall. What may be even more relevant to the average person is that it likely portends an increase in violent crime.

Some analysts were quite surprised when the murder rate in the United States did not appreciably rise when the recession took hold. Violent crime rates were thought by some to be mostly correlated to economic status; the more people seemed to have invested in a job and their general economic situation, the less likely they would be to resort to violence. However, that correlation doesn't seem to hold up, including in the recent period when unemployment and insecurity went up, and the murder rate and other violent crime statistics did not.

In researching his recent book, American Homicide, Ohio State professor Randolph Roth found instead that the correlation was with belief in government and trust of fellow citizens. As long as those two elements are in place, poverty and unemployment don't seem to matter, and neither do incarceration rates or tough-on-crime policies. If people trust the people around them and trust their government to act in their best interests, they don't seem to resort to violence.

In a recent CBC interview I've mentioned before, Roth pointed out that the effect might explain why the United States is so much more violent than its northern neighbour, with more than double the murder rate. Canadians generally trust their government--and their fellow Canadians--while those south of the border do not.

So, when Barack Obama was being viewed positively and talked about entering a post-racial era, the unemployment rate and other economic indicators didn't matter so much, the murder rate still went down. Now that the "TEA" Party is raising ire at government, we can expect it will go back up again.

What I find interesting is that Roth has gotten so little media attention for research that is intellectually interesting, correlated with other researchers in Europe, and potentially has a clear lesson to learn. Why not? Because the media makes money from people getting mad at government. It's good business to keep things the way they are--and that may be the most disturbing thing about Roth's findings.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Photos: Seattle, Washington

A Sound Transit Central Link light rail vehicle passed the tower at Sea-Tac Airport heading for its terminus at the airport on 23-December-2009

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's update to my photo site is part three of my trip to the west coast. Scenes from a visit to the Seattle, Washington area between 15-December and 25-December-2009 included a ride on the new Central Link light rail to Sea-Tac Airport, other transportation infrastructure and various scenery including mountains and Bellefields Nature Preserve in Bellevue, Washington.