Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Education: On Jaime Escalante

TORONTO, ONTARIO - The passing yesterday of legendary high school mathematics teacher Jaime Escalante has prompted an outpouring of memories about his impact on students in East Los Angeles and later Sacramento. Most people were introduced to Escalante through the 1988 movie Stand and Deliver, which dramatized how he had taught Advanced Placement Calculus at Garfield High School. In the wake of the movie, Escalante went on speaking tours, and I had the opportunity to see him speak at Stanford University.

There was a surprising low-level hostility in the audience at Stanford. A significant portion of students felt that Escalante had sold out by going to Sacramento to teach instead of continuing to teach in East Los Angeles, not knowing the school politics that had caused him and a supportive principal to leave Garfield. Escalante probably didn't win any of them over, as he focused on his recipe for success rather than his conflicts in the school district.

Walking away from that speech (and likely influenced by the movie), I was left with a two-point vision of why he had been so incredibly effective, with the first point different than Escalante would have stated. Exceptional teachers have to be able to express understanding of students, culturally and emotionally. A Bolivian like Escalante had the cultural and language skills to reach inner-city Hispanic students. It wouldn't have been impossible for someone of another background to do the same thing, but it would have been much more difficult, possibly prohibitively so. Every student may have the capacity to exceed expectations, but not everyone has the ability to motivate them to do so.

The second point has come to be uncontroversial, if not universally implemented. Expectations are incredibly important. If students are not faced with high expectations, they will not overachieve. Some may need more motivation and need to work much harder to reach for the high expectations, but every student has a better chance to succeed when they are expected to succeed. Almost without exception, this is a part of the formula at every school where students demonstrate high levels of academic achievements.

Jaime Escalante became a legend because he was the right person to reach young adults and set high expectations for a generation of students. The fact that even a legend wasn't allowed to continue working his magic said more about the educational system than about Escalante. (And the fact that he couldn't afford health care in his final days said more about the health care system.) Now, we have just memories of Escalante, and a movie to inspire us, rather than a passionate individual.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Transport: Yet Less High Speed Rail

TORONTO, ONTARIO - When the initial announcements were made in January, this blog addressed the fact that much of the high-speed funding in the United States is not actually going to high-speed projects. Well, now it turns out that even less of the money will go to high-speed projects than was first thought.

Recently, the San Jose Mercury News reported that Caltrain will electrify its commuter line between San Francisco and San Jose, a project estimated to cost $1.23 billion. This seemed like an impossibility, considering California's near-Greek financial status and a similar shortage of funds at the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board that runs Caltrain. Yet, the "Murky News" revealed that there is funding available for the project--using funds designated for high-speed railways.

The preferred routing for California's high-speed route between San Francisco and Los Angeles uses the Caltrain right-of-way between San Francisco and San Jose, and the line would need to be upgraded for electric power and higher-speed running (currently, the limit on the line is 79 mph, lower in a number of locations) in order to host the high-speed service. Thus, Caltrain qualifies to use a portion of the high-speed funding for its upgrade.

As a practical matter, this is probably a very good use of stimulus funds. Caltrain is already one of the best commuter rail systems in North America, with rush-hour "baby bullet" trains running between San Francisco and San Jose in under an hour (try driving it in that!) and regular service throughout the day. Converting to electric propulsion will reduce emissions and noise in the residential areas along the line and allow for faster service that will be cheaper to operate (allowing the operation of more trains). It will also allow eventual extension of the line deeper into San Francisco through a tunnel which realistically could not have hosted diesel trains. The peninsula will have a truly world-class commuter rail system that, if supplemented with other transit connections, will attract riders and have an impact on highway mobility.

Yet, the idea of a high speed rail initiative was to link cities not currently connected with a viable alternative to the automobile and commuter aircraft, not to upgrade a commuter rail service. I'm personally in favor of the Caltrain electrification initiative--and have been since the mid-1990's--but think this smells like dishonesty in federal funding (and state funding through the high speed rail bonds). Maybe it's time to stop pretending there is such a thing as high speed rail funding, and just start calling it "Rail Transformation Funding" or something along those lines. Caltrain will be transformed, but it won't be high-speed any more than the existing "baby bullet" express trains are high-speed. Selling the funding as something else just breeds the anti-government cynicism that is already far too prevalent in the United States. It's time to stop feeding it.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Culture: Do I Have a Personality?

TORONTO, ONTARIO - There's been a fair amount of attention paid recently to a study that claims that the octopus has no personality. While not exactly a pressing issue of the day, it came as a surprise to those of us that went to an aquarium just enough as children to think we knew something about marine life--and had learned that octopuses (yes, that's the plural in my dictionary) did have a personality. At the Seattle Aquarium, for example, the octopus was the only cold-blooded creature that tended to be named by its caretakers. It turns out, as is often the case when dealing with specialists, that researchers don't have the same conception of personality as the general population.

Personality certainly isn't an easy thing to define. This web page shows some attempts to put it in meaningful words. To the average person, it basically comes down to how interesting an individual seems to be. Someone that does exactly what society would expect in every situation and doesn't speak very often is usually regarded as having no personality. Someone that dresses, speaks, behaves or just moves in a way that is different than average, that in some way is distinctive, is regarded as having a personality.

Scientists have decided to define personality differently when studying animals. For them, to make the concept quantifiable, they chose to define it simply as "consistency in behavior." Thus, the octopus that behaves differently in different situations is labeled as having no personality, as occurred in the study. That's the opposite of what the aquarium employees meant, when the octopus seemed to be playing games with them and varying its antics when they wanted to clean the tank, they thought that was personality.

In fact, as I am not the first to point out, applying this definition is not only different than the popular use of the word, but actually almost exactly reverses its use. The boring guy who always does the same thing? By this definition, he has personality. Someone who dresses differently depending not just on one outside factor but based on everything that goes into mood, has no personality. By this definition, I clearly have no personality, as my behavior can surprise even my oldest friends.

Technical people often create definitions that do not match popular perceptions. The lesson of the headline about the octopus is that, when dealing with specialized fields, we can't (as generalists) assume we know what a headline or even a summary means. The terms used may have a very different, specific meaning. I suppose if we did claim to understand, even when we really didn't, by definition we could claim to have a personality.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Photos: St. Patrick's Day Parade

A leaping leprechaun made his way down Yonge Street during the St. Patrick's Day Parade in Toronto, Ontario on 14-March-2010.

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's update to my photo site features the St. Patrick's Day parade. Perhaps it was the late-breaking weather, but one of the prime spots for watching the St. Patrick's Day Parade in Toronto, Ontario--the turn from Yonge Street to Queen Street--was remarkably uncrowded, allowing better-than-usual coverage of the event on 14-March-2010.

Margin Notes: Selling Out, Red Robin, Gelato

A sign with a very strange message was found on Dundas Street West in Toronto, Ontario on 17-March-2010

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I have to admit I never really understood the phrase "keeping it real," as "real" is just too hard to define. In light of the above sign seen at an art gallery on Dundas Street West here in Toronto, I think I've lost all hope of understanding what it means to anyone.

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Maybe my sanity would have been intact had I taken the subway home that day instead of walking. A subway train I was on yesterday on the Yonge-University-Spadina line apparently had a new automatic stop announcement system, using a male voice instead of a female one, that included the street names on the University stations, announcing, "This is Osgoode station, Queen Street West" instead of "Arriving at Osgoode, Osgoode station." It didn't seem to be a live operator doing the announcements. I like the idea of including the street names, but if this proves to be a permanent change, I will miss the more pleasant old voice.

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Residents of Seattle are mourning the closing of the original Red Robin restaurant near the University Bridge. I never actually ate there, but I found it refreshing that while the chain is closing that location, they solicited memories of the establishment and are quite forthcoming about its origin as a tavern on their history web page. For a family-friendly restaurant, that's pretty honest.

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After eating a burger, it's time for dessert, and increasingly across the world, that means gelato. People keep encouraging me to go back to school but I don't think what they had in mind was Gelato University. Yes, there's actually a university in Italy for learning the business of gelato. Unfortunately, I think the market for gelato in Toronto is close to saturated.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Radio Pick: NUMMI

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I've been hoping to feature an episode of This American Life sometime that was not a collaboration with NPR's Planet Money, but then they produced another collaboration of note that I feel I must cite as this week's radio pick. Story-telling, documentary, economic analysis, news value--this week's episode of This American Life had just about everything. The 59-minute program on NUMMI, a soon-to-close auto manufacturing plant in Fremont, California was really about General Motors, sociology, culture and many other issues.

Listen to streaming media of This American Life "NUMMI"

Friday, March 26, 2010

Culture: A Bad Week for Free Speech

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This wasn't a good week for the concept of free speech in the United States or Canada. Yet, when the dust settles, I would still rather be on this side of the border.

Canada probably looks the most unintelligent this week, largely because of a letter from University of Ottawa President Allan Rock. Rock warned invited speaker Ann Coulter, a conservative known for expressing over-the-top views for the sake of self-promotion, that some of the things she had said in the past might result in criminal charges if stated in Canada. Besides not doing a good job of describing Canadian law, Rock's letter was pathetic because it handed Coulter publicity--and a nice excuse to cancel her University of Ottawa speech because of "safety concerns" and create even more publicity. Coulter's speeches in London, Ontario and Calgary, Alberta were not canceled, and police did not find any reason to arrest her. By all accounts, there wasn't any consideration--serious or otherwise--given to doing so, short of her inciting a riot.

It is absolutely true that Canada does not have free speech protections as stringent as found in the United States' First Amendment. Here, any statement which could be construed as incitement against an identifiable group is not protected, as enforced by human rights tribunals. More importantly than in law, there is tradition of civility in the culture here, and anyone deviating from that tradition would not be taken seriously in public life, whether saying legal things or not. Rock was trying to allude to this in his letter, but didn't do a very good job of it.

Meanwhile, in the United States, Democrats are accusing Republicans of inciting people to violence. A number of Congressional Democrats have been threatened and their property vandalized in the wake of the passage of health insurance reform. Democrats have cited references to passage of legislation as "Armageddon" and phrases like "it'll be the death of you all" as evidence that Republicans are inciting the threats and violence.

Technically, even under the First Amendment, incitement to violence is not permitted. Yet, it happens all the time in the United States, and nothing happens. Talk shows hosts not worth naming but with significant audiences have been known to call for the "eradication" of liberals, not just liberal thought. The left is not immune--they used the similar tactics against the right more than a generation ago.

So, in the end we have the ugly side of too much speech in the United States and the ugly side of too much potential censorship in Canada. Yet, Canada looks stupid largely because of the actions of one Canadian, as amplified by a team headed by a US author. The United States looks stupid because of a broad movement.

It's not hard to choose sides in this one. Canada goes back to being normal as soon as Rock stops writing and Coulter leaves the country. A lot more will have to happen for the United States to return to civilized behavior.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Media: Patterns that Follow

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I've spent a surprisingly large proportion of my life getting up at twenty-four minutes after the hour. That's right, not at half past, but twenty-four minutes past the hour. Why? CBS Radio distributes "The Osgood File," a two-minute feature from Charles Osgood, at twenty-five minutes after the hour, four times a day (actually, seven times if the four times zones are accounted for, but there are only four new Osgood Files each day). So, I would set my clock radio to come on just before Osgood would start.

Once upon a time, most radio stations ran the features right off the network feed, so pretty much everywhere I went in the Pacific Northwest, I could listen to Osgood at the same time (on KIRO from Seattle, KXL from Portland, KREW-Sunnyside in much of central Washington, and KXLY from Spokane). By the time I went away to college, that had started to change, with stations delaying the feature up to fifteen minutes. KCBS in San Francisco (which originally delayed Osgood to half past) was running it about thirty-six minutes after the hour, so during college I could sleep in another six minutes and just wake up at half past to the headlines. Yet, when I moved to Boston, WBZ was still running the feed live, so I was back to my old routine. I'm obviously listening to the CBC (and getting up at standard times) in Canada, and commercial radio has so degraded that if I ever move back, I probably won't be listening, so getting up at twenty-four after the hour is probably an artifact of my past now.

Yet, other media traditions are still following me around. My parents purchased a gift subscription to the Christian Science Monitor for me in high school, and it might have been the best gift they ever gave me. The problem with the Monitor is that it was and is not hand-delivered, but comes by the postal service. That wasn't so bad when I lived in suburban Seattle or even eastern Washington state, where service was pretty predictable (if slow), but it was terrible on-campus at Stanford University. On occasion, an issue would come two weeks after the issue date, and I would regularly receive the Monday and Tuesday papers on Thursday (if I was lucky, Wednesday would also arrive the same day). I got to know my local postmaster exceptionally well in this era, as we had a near-constant "publication watch" in progress to track what was happening which never really solved the problem.

The United States Postal Service largely cleaned up its act in the late 1990's in terms of service reliability, but it was lost on me as about the same time I decided the Boston Globe was the correct paper to receive while I lived in that metropolitan area. Yet, I did miss the forward-looking, in-depth world news of the Monitor, so when I moved to the world city of Toronto, I decided that the weekly "International" edition of the Monitor should be back on my reading list.

The only problem is that Canada Post hasn't gone through a phase of becoming more reliable. In fact, it seems to be getting steadily worse. Today, on March 25th, I finally received the March 15th Christian Science Monitor--along with the one dated the 22nd. If I thought it would do any good, I'd request a publication watch. However, if it didn't do accomplish anything down south, it's even less likely to do so here. Some life patterns just won't go away.

Of course, I still listen to Charles Osgood--off a podcast. Maybe it's time to get a iPad and finally receive the Monitor when it is released.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Politics: That Sounds Familiar

TORONTO, ONTARIO - When Toronto Mayor David Miller made his "significant announcement" earlier this month, revising the city's budget projections, he followed up with verbiage about how the city was trying to dig itself out of deficit. The plan involved three basic elements, raising taxes by a modest amount (his announcement that day meant property taxes would rise less than expected), restraining growth in spending, and then hoping for economic growth to kick in and start raising tax revenues.

That sounded quite familiar. Just the day before, I had heard Washington state governor Chris Gregoire say almost exactly the same thing. Washington state, while in far better shape than most states fiscally, still is having trouble balancing its budget, and the state legislature actually suspended a citizen's initiative requiring a two-thirds majority to pass new taxes in order to make it easier for the majority Democrats to pass a budget including some tax increases. Governor Gregoire explained the general budget balancing strategy, saying that there would necessarily be spending cuts in some areas and restrained growth in other areas, that some taxes would be raised (mostly eliminating exemptions and the imposition of "sin" taxes), and then the "third leg" to return to surpluses would involve economic growth.

That politicians at different levels of government most of a continent apart seemed to be reading from the same playbook seemed significant. Indeed, what they are arguing makes sense. Raising taxes too much discourages growth, but so does slashing spending, as jobs are inevitably eliminated in the process. Doing a little of both and hoping that the economy recovers enough to grow out of the hole that has been dug does seem a reasonable strategy, and both Miller and Gregoire could point to a list of economists saying that was the right strategy to take.

The three-pronged strategy certainly seems to make more sense than the alternative offered by those to these leaders' political right. If Republicans had their way in Washington state, there would be slashed budgets including the end to the state's Basic Health system that more than 100,000 rely on as their only way to purchase health insurance because of pre-existing conditions or because they are self-employed or employed by a small business that does not offer insurance. The strategy of simply lowering taxes and hoping for growth to make up the difference certainly didn't seem to work in the second term of the Bush administration.

Yet, there's a certain similarity in the rhetoric from the conservative opposition across the continent as well. Listen to a TEA party activist being asked about policy and every other word out of their mouth is "no." They want to say "no" to taxes, any additional government programs, and even existing government benefits. Meanwhile, while she is normally quite eloquent in explaining her policy positions, Wildrose Alliance Party leader Danielle Smith in the province of Alberta was asked a series of questions by CBC comedian Rick Mercer (see about 3:15) and was reduced to just saying "no" to every permutation of energy and climate policy proposal that Mercer could offer until he got to recycling. For the first time, the ideological similarity between the Wilrose Alliance and TEA party was somewhat revealed, since normally they come across quite differently.

These correlations can only go so far. Somehow, I have a hard time seeing Jim Flaherty telling Stephen Harper that he was about to talk about a "big f*#@ing deal"... (or, if we insist on correlating the Liberals with the Democrats, Bob Rae saying that to Michael Ignatieff...)

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Culture: Visualization No Small Matter

TORONTO, ONTARIO - In the emotional-world culture of the United States, how things appear is exceptionally important. Scientists, who spent most of their time trying to figure out the substance of the world, don't commonly take the time to worry about the visual presentation of their work to the public. Fortunately for them, there are a small number of people like Felice Frankel.

I had the privilege of taking an Independent Activities Period (January) class from Frankel at MIT some years ago. Titled "What Color is your Pixel?" it focused on improving the visualization of scientific data. If I walked away from that short course with one message, it was that while there might be principles to follow that were discussed at length, fundamentally data presentation is an art. People are going to feel differently about what looks the best, and even about what is most accurate.

Yet, in the whole class, there was little in the way of suggestions for Frankel's work. It wasn't because we were afraid to question the instructor. Take a look at any of her published works, most notably the series of books in which her photographs appear with text by George Whitesides (who merits a whole separate essay of praise), and try to improve them. My favorite, "On The Surface of Things", will get just about anyone excited about an aspect of science that too often is ignored in technology products.

I rather wish I had taken that class before I encountered much more amateurish advice at a certain other famous university. I will never forget the industrial engineering class that recommended the "Big D method" (make the data points bigger) and the "Big L method" (make the regression line through the data points bigger) to make a graph more convincing to an audience. Those methods may have their place, but I suspect Frankel would look at the overall context of the graph (whether on a poster, presentation slide, or other media) first, rather than effectively distorting the data.

Frankel and Whitesides have been getting publicity of late for their latest work, "No Small Matter", on nanotechnology. I have yet to see the book, and I'm not sure if Paul Solmon's extrapolations to general innovations in this report from the PBS NewsHour (which alerted me to it) are valid, but I'm sure I will be in awe. I have little doubt that Frankel has again done scientists a major favor in making nanotechnology a little less scary and fundamentally more alluring to the general public.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Politics: Time for Stability

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Now that the highest hurdle to health insurance reform in the United States has been overcome, everyone should have a pretty clear outline of what will happen as a result of the legislation. (That doesn't mean, of course, that Republicans will not persist in mis-characterizing it.) We know what kinds of things happen soon (such as children not being denied coverage for pre-existing conditions) and what kinds of things happen in 2013 and later (such as the taxes on more comprehensive health insurance plans). That means businesses can now start planning based on the new health insurance reality, and I believe the Obama administration should continue to provide some certainty to business by providing more details on what it intends to push in legislation for the remainder of the legislative session.

In interviews with various small business owners and entrepreneurs in recent months on various shows, most of whom opposed health insurance reform, there was actually a clear undercurrent of opinion that the better interviewers started to reveal. What the businesspeople really objected to was the legislative uncertainty. They didn't know what the health care legislation was going to look like or what it might cost them, but even beyond that, they didn't trust what the Democrats would do next. Would it be climate change legislation that would include a carbon tax, direct or implicit? Would it be financial reforms aimed at big banks that would cause them to further reduce credit available to small business? Would be it additional union rights, that might even cause problems for a growing small business? If they just knew what might be coming, they could at least plan for it and make intelligent decisions on whether to continue or grow their businesses.

Considering that the biggest wildcard, health insurance reform, is largely settled and that the Democrats have comparatively limited ability to advance a legislative agenda without a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate and no expectation for any cooperation from any Republicans at all, there is an opportunity to map out some degree of certainty. The administration--presumably in concert with Congressional leaders--can now decide its basic road map for the balance of 2010, announce some policy positions, and provide some certainty.

A likely scenario seems to be passing some financial accountability reforms. None of these would directly impact small businesses, except insofar as they impact credit markets. Politically, this really stands out as a sore thumb--essentially nothing has been done yet to prevent another replay of 2008 in the coming years. Then, focus could be on the economy--it wouldn't be called a stimulus package even if it involved some spending. The "laser beam focus on the economy" might be a bit late, but would likely help the Democrats' narrative for the elections in the fall. All other large legislation, such as climate change and card check, would not be pursued.

Maybe the Democrats would come up with a different plan, and start with the economy. In any event, if they really want to improve the economy and gain the trust of business, they need to start injecting certainty. Their limited ability to pass legislation makes it more palatable for them to aggressively pursue a limited agenda, rather than a broad one. The more we all can see what is coming, the more rationally we will all behave for the rest of the year.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Margin Notes: Photos, Chetzy, Weather

Are these locomotives hungry, or did we invite them for dinner? Two locomotives owned by the city of Toronto, Ontario were posed just outside the Leon's furniture store in the John Street Roundhouse for a photo shoot on 20-March-2010

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I spent the first half of the day yesterday orchestrating the movement of Toronto Railway Heritage Centre equipment for a photo shoot at John Street Roundhouse, and then putting the pieces back in their places afterward. It took a team of five of us to move the three locomotives and various maintenance equipment into the appropriate positions outside Leon's furniture store for a requested photo shoot from inside the store. It certainly led to a unique sight, with three very distinct locomotive faces peering inside the store, as if they were shoppers wanting to be allowed inside.

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Speaking of transportation pictures, the new Washington state ferry "Chetzemoka" has been launched at Todd shipyards in Seattle, Washington. A variety of photos are posted on this thread on the West Coast Ferries Forum. It seems believable that the vessel may enter service on the Port Townsend-Keystone route this summer, allowing the state to return the "Steilacoom II" leased from Pierce County.

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It's hard to look ahead to summer when the temperatures are heading downward again in Toronto. After temperatures reached 18.5 C on Thursday (that's 65 F), there were actually snow flurries on Saturday and it is expected to freeze tonight. Spring may have officially started yesterday, but it already visited and has decided to leave for awhile.

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Whether it feels like spring or not, Earth Hour is coming next weekend. From 8:30 pm to 9:30 pm local time across the world, various cities and civic groups are calling for people to turn out lights and other energy-using appliances and walk with their neighbours for an hour on Saturday, 27-March-2010.

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Graffiti or art? This painting was located on a pedestrian bridge over the Humber River in Toronto, Ontario on 11-March-2010

This guy isn't going anywhere, nor is he going to do anything for Earth Hour. This resemblance of a monk has been painted on a bridge pillar at the Humber River for some time now, and has been the subject of debates of whether it is art or graffiti. One thing it isn't--unless there's a new gang centered on Buddhism--is an example of tagging.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Radio Pick: Paul Herlinger Tribute

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's radio pick comes from commercial radio for a change. Imagination Theater ran a tribute to recently-deceased radio actor and writer Paul Herlinger. The two episodes are truly radio drama classics. The first stands as one of my all time favorites, "The Glory Hole," and the second is one of the best-written episodes, "The Helmet." Both live up to the title of the program, Imagination Theater.

Listen to streaming MP3 of Imagination Theater "The Glory Hole and The Helmet"

Friday, March 19, 2010

Media: The Janitor is Listening

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Like anyone who writes for anything smaller than the local newspaper, I often wonder if anyone bothers to read what I write here. Sometimes I'm tempted to place a paragraph of grammatical nonsense (some would say this whole thing is topical nonsense) in the middle of an article to see if anyone bothers to say anything in a comment or personal e-mail.

This isn't my first experience with very small media. As a senior in high school, I spent one semester on the air about an hour or two a week on my high school's radio station, KASB 89.3 FM in Bellevue, Washington. (There were only three people in my on-air class, so generally speaking I was on Tuesdays and most Fridays.) A part of a vocational educational program in broadcasting, the station's claim to fame was that it was the last 10 watt mono (not stereo) FM station west of the Mississippi River. That meant the station was not only less powerful than a light bulb, but its signal went about as far as the light from one. I once proposed a promo "From I-90 to 520, from Lake Washington to 405... this is KASB" but it was rejected because that eight square-mile area might have exaggerated where we could be heard.

Yet, that didn't mean people weren't listening. The signal could be certainly be heard on campus. One day I ended up filling in on the air when I normally would have been at lunch, and two people in my next class complimented me for a piece I had done on the air. Even on a normal day, though, I could count on at least one call when I gave out the station's studio phone number. Gary the Janitor would call in at least once a week, always with the same request, "Can you play Alice in Chains?"

At the time, we only had one Alice in Chains song on a cart (yes, this was when radio stations still played things off tapes), Them Bones, and in the normal broadcast studio, we couldn't play things off a CD even if we wanted to (there was an auxiliary studio where that was possible, but it was usually in use during the day). The song matched the station's alternative-music format quite well (in fact, it was used on a "Nothing's Harder Except Your Head" promo). So, I'd check the logs to make sure the song hadn't been played yet that day (and at 9:30 in the morning, it usually would not have), and if it hadn't, I'd get it on the air.

A lot has changed at KASB since I was on the air. The station has changed frequencies to 89.9 FM and now has a 60-watt signal that can be heard beyond the city limits of Bellevue. Still, I bet students are wondering if anyone is listening. They needn't worry--I'm sure Gary is, if nobody else.

I can see the comment coming up now... "Can you write about Alice in Chains?"

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Culture: I Am Not a Carbon Sink

TORONTO, ONTARIO - On his radio show last Sunday, Dr. Joe Schwarcz showcased the idea that people on a weight-loss diet may be contributing to global warming. The idea was that the weight people were losing was being partially returned to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, which is a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming. Schwarcz cited a study estimating that if all obese North Americans lost 40 pounds that it would increase global carbon dioxide emissions for the year by about 0.1% percent. While noting that this was a relatively small amount, Schwarcz noted that it was measurable, and therefore was worth discussing.

Then, on Tuesday, CBC Radio One's The Current spent its last half-hour exploring the idea of whales as a carbon sink. It was noted that dead whales sink in the ocean and therefore decay quite slowly. It takes a long time for the carbon that is part of the whale to be converted into carbon dioxide, and then that carbon dioxide has to rise toward the surface and enter equilibrium with the atmosphere before it adds to the greenhouse effect. Thus, not only are whales a carbon sink in the sense of having a large mass, but they are a much better carbon sink than a land mammal that would be as large because a land mammal would return its carbon to the atmosphere more quickly.

This kind of thinking has gotten out of control. I am not a carbon sink. Neither are you, no matter how much you weigh. Neither is your dog, an elephant at the zoo, or a whale. We are all living beings that should be trying to live our lives in a productive manner. If that means we should lose weight to remain healthy, then we should do that. A minuscule contribution to climate change should not be a factor in our decision. To me, the entire carbon sink concept--whether involving a living being or not--is a distraction from the core problem that needs to be solved, that of emitting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

I view all of these topics as a matter of balance. If we're putting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than natural processes mitigate--which pretty much all scientific analysis indicates, whether people want to believe it or not--then we're emitting too much carbon dioxide and need to cut back, whether it leads to climate change or not. If we're killing more whales than are being born each year, then our whaling is out of balance and needs to be cut back, whether it's affecting the carbon mass in the ocean or not. If we're eating more calories than we are metabolizing, then we are out of internal balance and need to modify our diets, whether that makes us less of a carbon sink or not.

It amazes me that most people in the United States simply have no understanding of the concept of balance and how it applies to everything from their bodies to macroeconomics to global climate. It's one of the most basic concepts in the world, and Native populations were masters of it. Do we need classes in it?

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Holiday: St. Patrick's Day Parade 2010

The Toronto Police Colour Guard carried the first flags in the St. Patrick's Day Parade in Toronto, Ontario on 14-March-2010

TORONTO, ONTARIO - The streets lining the route of Toronto's St. Patrick's Day Parade are never as packed as for the Santa Claus Parade, but there are usually certain locations along Bloor Street, the corner of Yonge and Queen, and near the judging stand that are packed. However, this year stormy weather ceased only a couple hours before the start of the parade, and I was surprised to arrive just ahead of the parade and find the prime photo location where the parade turns from Yonge to Queen not at all crowded this year, affording my best chance to photograph the parade yet.

French football star Thierry Henry was portrayed playing against the Republic of Cork in the World Cup, with the referee in the background about to give him a red card on 14-March-2010

The hallmark of the St. Patrick's Day Parade is the representation from the various counties of Ireland. Some contribute floats, some contribute bands, some contribute dancers, some just contribute their colours--and then there's the County of Cork. Every year, they introduce some humorous gag. This year, venting Irish anger at the controversial elimination of Ireland from the World Cup qualifiers by France, they presented a match between France and the Republic of Cork in which a referee gave a red card to French star Thierry Henry every block of the parade. The spectator response was huge!

The Optimists Alumni Drum Corps were dressed in bright green in the St. Patrick's Day Parade in Toronto, Ontario on 14-March-2010

Parades always have bands, and bagpipes dominate the bands seen on St. Patrick's Day. Yet, no Toronto parade would be complete without the Philippine Heritage Band or the Falun Dafa Band, and they joined other more traditional marching bands like the Optimists Alumni Drum Corps seen above.

An Irish wolfhound was dressed for the day as it walked in the St. Patrick's Day Parade in Toronto, Ontario on 14-March-2010

People always find ways to express themselves during parades that they wouldn't in most other contexts, whether it be bizarre clothing or accessories, face paint, or behavior. Yet, it's always the dogs that I find are probably most embarrassed by what their owners make them do on St. Patrick's Day. Did this wolfhound really want to wear bright green?

The County Kerry float may have best symbolized the St. Patrick's day experience for many, complete with dancing and a bar right on the float on 14-March-2010

Of course, I've left out a main theme of the day--drinking. More than one county this year included a bar right on their float, as in the County Kerry example above. I had to wonder as I walked home if I was the only person not bound for a bar.

More coverage of the St. Patrick's Day Parade will be in a future update to my photo site.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Blog: Making Staple Connections

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I used to think that the whole key to writing commentaries was finding unusual connections between things around me, and then presenting them. Sometimes this created insightful material, and sometimes it was just entertaining. Take this audio commentary that I did right about 21 years ago, the "Glitchon File" for 11-March-1989, transcribed from the original hand-written script:
One of the very serious problems facing Odle [Middle School, in Bellevue, Washington] this year is theft. Particularly in the far sector of the school where Tech Ed [shop], Home Ec[onomics], and PRISM [Program for Intellectually Stimulated Minds; a gifted program] classes are held, there has been a rash of missing items. Students have lost money and calculators. [A teacher] lost her Feudal game and $20. The third copy of "Motel of Mystery" has still not been returned.

Perhaps the most interesting case of theft involves the missing staplers. First one of the PRISM staplers disappeared. However, knowing the organizational reputation of [the PRISM teachers] passed this one off as misplacement. A week went by, and soon their were no staplers in [PRISM] rooms 401 or 402. One turned up under thousands of papers; there are still no signs of the other two. Other teachers have noticed staplers missing as well, so the accepted theory is that a Stapler-Maniac or a Great Stapler Thief is hoarding them somewhere, perhaps using them to gain staples for his own usage.

Now, take [a PRISM student], learning with her own style at Sammamish [High School]. Apparently, some high school students got tired of her denseness and decided to do something. Their decision was to throw staples at [her]. They began to gradually bombard her back. [She] isn't stupid, and she noticed the incoming bogies. However, her response was exactly what the goofballs wanted--she raised her hand and announced that staples were being thrown at her.

[The teacher] didn't want [the student] picked on, and he also didn't want unsafe behavior during class. So immediately after class he had a talk with none other than [someone with the last name of] Stapleton. He inspected Stapleton's bag (no staples, though he could have used them all), drilled him with questions, and then released him to his next class.

How does this all tie together? Is Stapleton the Great Odle Stapler Thief, stealing staples so he has ammunition to throw at [other students]? I certainly don't know, but when [a PRISM teacher] sees people using more staples than they need to, she doesn't think "there goes another tenth of a cent" anymore, she thinks "There goes another stapler."

Monday, March 15, 2010

Politics: No Money for Coffee

TORONTO, ONTARIO - There's finally a political group in the United States that has as its fundamental principle something I've been saying for years--that the political system is broken and needs to be changed. It actually has more followers on Facebook than the TEA Party. Yet, you've probably never heard of the Coffee Party, and you probably won't hear much about it. While the movement has some other issues, the fundamental reason it will not take off is that no outside money will get behind it.

The Coffee Party's first problem is that it is not about taking a stand on any issues. It's not opposed to any legislation, nor is it pushing any specific legislation. It is explicitly non-ideological. It's about having civil discourse on political issues. That's exactly what isn't happening in the United States, especially at the national level, and probably exactly what needs to happen. But, it's not interesting to the media. There are no soundbites that result. There may never be a coherent and simple message coming out of these discussions. Since the whole idea is to be civil, there won't be anyone yelling or trying to interrupt other political events. As far as the media is concerned, there is nothing that will warrant coverage of anything that the Coffee Party ever does.

All that could be overcome if the Coffee Party could advertise and get its message out through commercial means, instead of free means. They're not going to have the money to do that. No corporation in its right mind would ever donate money to a movement whose outcome is unclear. Even months from now, if some sort of centrist political position comes out out of the Coffee Party that a corporation could support, it will be more financially efficient for them to lobby the two major parties to support that position than to support a grass-roots group with no legislative power. It might be somewhat worthwile from a public relations standpoint, but dollar for dollar, they're better off taking their money elsewhere.

The Coffee Party claims that it doesn't like comparisons with the TEA Party, but they are hard to avoid. The TEA party is angry, perhaps intellectually incoherent and with unclear goals but clearly against health care legislation, economic stimulus legislation, and anti-government. It is full of soundbites, uncivil language and disruptive activities, and thus is a boon to the media that cover it. Because of its known positions that are in alliance with corporate interests, it doesn't even need direct contributions--events can be run in parallel with other organizations, such as conservative think-tanks, that are corporate-funded. Unless subsumed by the Republican Party, which seems the most likely outcome, the TEA Party could continue for a very long time.

While the Coffee Party may have more friends on Facebook, I don't know if more people showed up for coffee parties in the first coordinated meeting day last Saturday than for TEA Party events. The media in the United States largely ignored the event. The Coffee Party itself doesn't seem to know based on a perusal of its web site today. The Coffee Party might be the one party that has something positive to offer to the society at large today, and it is likely to just be ignored like it was on Saturday. Short of radical changes in the role of money in society, I don't see how that changes.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Photos: Arizona

A view of downtown Phoenix, Arizona was observed from East 16th Street on 8-January-2010

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Updates to my photo site continue this week with a wrap-up of my trip to the west coast. A visit to the Valley of the Sun around Phoenix, Arizona from 8-11-January-2010 allowed for exploration of the new Valley Metro light rail system, the Heard Museum, a meal at Pizzeria Bianco, and family time with Bruce Carson, Julie Malloy, and their children Brett and Marina.

Margin Notes: Parade, Hockey, Basa, Granny D

The Toronto Police's pipe and drum band helped lead off the St. Patrick's Day Parade on Yonge Street in Toronto, Ontario on 14-March-2010

TORONTO, ONTARIO - What had been very rainy and windy weather for much of the weekend around Toronto calmed down just a couple hours before the start of today's St. Patrick's Day Parade. I've decided it's worth attending the parade just to find out what the County of Cork representatives come up with--this year, it was a soccer match between the "Republic of Cork" and France (which defeated Ireland in a very controversial World Cup qualifying game), complete with French star Thierry Henry receiving a red card. I think this beats last year's "first foreign overseas visit of President Obama to the Republic of Cork."

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While many cities held their St. Patrick's Day Parade today (the actual date is of course Wednesday), it's apparently never too early to celebrate the patron saint of Ireland, nor can it be done too often. For example, our friends at Steam Whistle Brewing in Toronto, besides participating in the parade today, started their public St. Patrick's Day bash at 2 pm yesterday, and were on hand for Achilles Canada St. Patrick's Day Run this morning, amongst other events running through Wednesday.

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A snowman in honor of Canada's Olympic hockey teams was noted still standing on Annette Street in Toronto, Ontario on 8-March-2010

Canadians scarcely needed another reason to celebrate, as some are still basking in the glow of the victories of both the men's and women's hockey teams in... well, you know where. A snowman honoring the gold medals was found still standing a few blocks from my home this past Monday--though rains finally swept it away later in the week.

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Rain swelled the levels of the Humber River this week, but I didn't see any fish. Lately, I've been eating basa fish from Vietnam which has often been on sale. I thought it tasted pretty good and reminded me of catfish. It turns out there's a good reason for that--it's basically another species of catfish, but the Louisiana catfish lobby prevented it from being labeled as a catfish to avoid "customer confusion." I think this may actually play to Vietnam's favor--I agree with the customer surveys that show the taste of basa is actually preferred to catfish.

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It's been a long time since I've taken a picture of a fish. I finally processed the last pictures from my trip to the west coast over the winter holidays, and there were 1944 pictures in total--and that doesn't even count most of the railroad photos that I deleted shortly after they were taken. No wonder it took so long, paring it down to the 541 photos that will ultimately appear on my photo site.

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A woman that walked all the way from the west coast to the east to raise awareness for campaign finance reform died this week. The passing of Doris Haddock, better known as Granny D, was not well-covered by the major media. In 1999 and 2000, the then nearly 90 year old walked all the way from California to Washington DC. Some credit her with raising awareness that led to the passage of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance legislation in 2002--legislation that was recently largely gutted by the Supreme Court. Haddock was 100 years old.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Radio Pick: Callers on AfroReggae Favelas

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's radio pick comes from WBUR's On Point. Ideally, a call-in talk show is driven by the callers, in which they add as much to a conversation as the guests. This is all too rare in today's radio landscape, but there was a wonderful example this week from On Point in a show about Brazilian Favelas. The music discussed may not be widely appreciated, but the variety of insightful calls made the show, so much so that even featured guest Damian Platt chose to comment on it near the end of the 46-minute program.

Listen to streaming Windows Media of On Point "AfroReggae and Rio's Favelas"

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There were a few notable runner-ups this week. The CBC's Anna-Maria Tremonti did an an excellent interview with Lionel Tiger on God and the Brain, expressing a lot of interesting ideas about the role of religion in the human species.

Listen to streaming MP3 of The Current "God and the Brain"

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For those who want to hear compelling documentaries, This American Life again demonstrated why it is a leader in story-telling this week with an excellent show on Saving The Day.

Listen to streaming media of This American Life "Save the Day"

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Finally, I couldn't stop laughing at the CBC Comedy Factory's annotation of the Canadian National Anthem--which we learned this week will not, in fact, be modified. It is the last three minutes of the podcast.

Listen to the CBC Comedy Factory "Annotated O Canada"

Heritage: Bloor West Loblaw

TORONTO, ONTARIO - More by coincidence than design, this year's Swansea Historical Society Calendar (still available at Swansea Town Hall for $8) includes the locations of past locations of the Loblaw grocery stores in what today is called the Bloor West Village neighbourhood of Toronto. A look at the locations today presents an interesting microcosm of the village.

The first location of Loblaw in the Bloor West Village of Toronto is now a variety store on the right side of this building seen on 4-March-2010

The first location of Loblaw was at 2428 Bloor Street West, just east of Jane Street, and appears in the background of the November 2010 calendar page. Labeled as "Loblaw Groceteria," the location likely opened during the large expansion of Loblaw in the early 1930's explained on the Loblaw history page. The location has now become a long-standing variety store on a portion of the block which has been most affected by the recession.

The second location of "Loblaws" in Bloor West was about a block west of the original location, a building that was without a tenant on 4-March-2010

Sometime after World War II, Loblaw moved into a new building west of Jane Street at 2450 Bloor Street West. While the "Loblaws" sign is now gone, the remainder of the facade looks almost exactly as it appears in the background of the March 2010 calendar page. The building is currently vacant, last occupied by a short-lived electronics discount store that closed in 2009.

The third location of Loblaws remains a grocery store, a franchised No Frills location near Kennedy and Bloor observed on 4-March-2010

By the late 1950's, Loblaw had again moved to a larger location. The streamline moderne architecture of the previous location carried over to new location well to the east near Kennedy at 2187 Bloor Street West. That location today remains a grocery retail outlet in the Loblaw family, as it became a No Frills in the late 1970's. It now operates as Nicholson's No Frills after the No Frills locations were sold to franchisees in the 1980's.

The closest Loblaws to Bloor West Village is now the Humbercrest Loblaws on Dundas Street West west of Jane, seen on 11-March-2010

To recapture the upscale customers in the area, Loblaw subsequently opened a new location which is considered to be in Etobicoke at 3671 Dundas Street West, west of Jane Street. The Humbercrest Loblaws remains open to this day, continuing a tradition of serving the Bloor West area which has now extended for three-quarters of a century.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Culture: It's The Fault of Software

TORONTO, ONTARIO - While I do not discount Henry Petroski's contention discussed earlier this week that the role of engineering is not understood and appreciated in North American culture, I probably differ from him in assessing the origin of that gap. I contend that engineers themselves created the problem by their behavior in engineering software.

A major component of the problem seen by Petroski is that engineering functions as the afterthought after scientific discovery that concludes a product is possible. The work necessary to turn that discovery into a reliable, marketable product seems inevitable instead of a challenge requiring skilled labor, time, and money. There is a small degree of truth to this--I've often joked that "any engineering problem is solvable given enough time and money--though you may not like the solution." Underlying the joke is the fact that skill and experience is required to minimize the time and money spent, and that within reasonable limits of each, there may not be something that meets the requirements for the product to have a market. That's why product engineers stick to processes of varying rigor (depending on the product) that avoid spending too much time and money on something that will likely not satisfy the market demand.

Of all the engineering disciplines, software is the one in which that ultimate failure is least likely in most applications, especially applications intended for mass consumer markets (as opposed to those running safety devices). Thus, for those markets, the processes developed for general product development have increasingly not been followed. I know software developers that not only don't use ISO or IEEE standards for quality processes or risk analysis, but they've never even encountered them anytime in their education or careers. The business people liked the shortcuts, since they appeared to save money and time. The result is software hitting the market from major companies that wouldn't have passed muster as an internal beta test version under most robust quality processes. The world became the beta testers of poor-quality software.

Gradually, this lack of discipline has extended to engineering fields beyond software. My personal educational exposure to concepts of risk management and quality processes was minimal, though I've had plenty of exposure in industry. The result is a similar, if less extreme, version of the same impact on the quality of product reaching the consumer. That gives the average person little reason to respect engineers.

Clearly, the general public is capable of appreciating good engineering. The success of Apple, which emphasizes ease-of-use and general user interface (or "user experience") issues in its products, demonstrates that engineering done well can make money and gain widespread adoption. Respected engineering has long influenced the automobile industry--not just in high-performance sports cars but in the traditionally well-engineered Japanese vehicles. I know people that wouldn't even look at other manufacturers after they were impressed with their Honda or Toyota.

In fact, it doesn't surprise me at all that it's starting to look like the root of Toyota's current quality problems may actually come down to poor safety features in its software. Just like engineering looks like an afterthought relative to basic scientific research, software can look like an afterthought relative to hardware engineering. Under pressure from cost-cutting management, it's easiest to try to take shortcuts on the quality of software. As Toyota may be learning the hard way, this is a serious mistake. Quality systems need to apply to every last aspect of a product; the quality of the overall product will be that of its weakest aspect.

Of course, engineers usually understand that. It's the accounting-trained businesspeople that want to cut costs in a way that inevitably leads to trouble. That may be the biggest problem for engineers trying to gain understanding and respect for their craft--as long as management imposes product decisions that ignore engineering input, there's little opportunity for them to demonstrate why they should be respected. The only way to break that circle is education, and considering who runs business schools, I don't see how it will happen. Henry Petroski may have a long battle.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Economics: Bicycling for Jobs

TORONTO, ONTARIO - It happened again today. For at least the fourth time since the recession began, I was walking down a major arterial in suburban Toronto when a bicyclist stopped to talk to me. It's always a man, carrying far too little on his back to look like he's taking a long trip, but always claiming to be on one, and appearing appropriately exhausted. He always claims to have heard about work somewhere relatively far away, and asks the best way to get there. Then, after asking if I know about any work locally, he pedals on.

This time, the man said he was coming from London, Ontario (180 kilometers away), and was heading to Belleville, Ontario (another 180 kilometers away). He asked me if the street he was on, Dundas Street West, would take him to Scarborough, where he claimed to have someone to stay with for the night. He asked how far it was to downtown, and how far it was to Belleville. I tried to answer these questions. He asked if I knew of any jobs around, or if I was working. When he found out I was unemployed, he accepted my wish of good luck and continued eastbound.

I've also encountered men with similar stories on Airport Road, Bloor Street, and other places on Dundas Street. They're always riding bicycles. They're always headed east, sometimes claiming to be going not nearly as far, perhaps just to Whitby, though I've heard Belleville before. I've heard origins from Windsor to Kitchener. They always inquire about local jobs (the man on Airport Road was especially interested in hearing how to get a job at Pearson Airport). What these men never do is beg, or make any specific request of the person they have found.

I don't know what to make of this phenomenon. I've had enough encounters now, in different places around Toronto on different days of the week, that I can't pass it off as a one-time phenomenon. If the whole thing is a made-up story for begging, it's not a particularly effective one, as they haven't gotten a thing from me other than directions and a wish of good luck. If this is all for real, then there are a number of quite desperate men out there who do have a bicycle that they're willing to ride hundreds of kilometers on the rumor of a job with not much more than the clothes on their back and their wallets. They apparently don't have access to a car or any other transportation. At least one has mentioned leaving his wife behind. All claim there are no jobs where they started. All of the incidents have been since the fall of 2008 when the recession began; I lived here for more than two years before the first encounter.

I've never had an encounter like this in the United States, either. There are certainly migrant workers all over the United States, but they don't tend to move by bicycle. Is this something peculiar to men in Canada down on their economic luck? I'd certainly like to know; next time, I guess I need to ask questions.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Culture: Engineers vs. Scientists? Really?

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Yesterday, the main point of Henry Petroski's book, "The Essential Engineer: Why Science Alone Will Not Solve Our Global Problems" was discussed and supported. There's an underlying tone, though, in Petroski's interviews, especially this one on KUOW's "The Conversation" with Ross Reynolds, that implies that Petroski doesn't care much for scientists and in fact seems to want to pit engineers against scientists. This strikes me as a very strange position to take that is neither necessary nor productive.

In the course of the KUOW interview, Petroski makes the case that "scientists have bigger egos than engineers" and are more interested in recognition. At one point, he even accuses scientists of "stealing" the Nobel Prizes, which he correctly states were intended to be for achievements in the previous year, after a group of chemical engineers decided they were more interested in making things than judging awards, and scientists stepped in to shape the awards to favor scientific accomplishments instead of engineering. I can't speak to the Nobel Prize origin, but I can evaluate egos of scientists and engineers I have encountered in my life, and there have been a number of engineers with significant egos and plenty of scientists with much smaller egos than accomplishments (for example, Richard Zare, to cite a somewhat public figure). I could make a personality-based argument that Petroski might be right on average, but the variation in each pool is so large that classifying the group of scientists as having bigger egos than the group of engineers is not useful in interacting with individual scientists or engineers.

Petroski also makes the bizarre argument that engineers aren't paid enough. He mostly meant in relation to lawyers and managers, but tell that to scientists! Chemistry and chemical engineering are arguably the closest science and engineering degrees, and yet chemical engineering graduates make on average $10,000 a year more than chemistry graduates. Interestingly, the gap between the two is considerably less in Europe; one of the disadvantages of working in Europe when I was investigating the possibility was that I would have taken a significant pay cut, to the approximately the same level paid to scientists on both sides of the ocean. Furthermore, because of the salary gap, in the United States engineering tends to attract people interested in money--I'll never forget how many of my chemical engineering peers at MIT who suddenly became very interested in investment banking when they realized how much more money they would be paid, while I had no interest that kind of career at all.

As mentioned yesterday, I have experienced poor management from scientists in development situations which Petroski emphasizes as a problem, as they seemed to think a product would appear instantly once they had shown something was feasible once or twice. However, that really had less to do with the fact that the people involved were scientists than the fact that they were poor managers. I've also worked with scientists that understood how to get out of the way of engineers as they moved a program along toward commercialization and just supported the engineers as needed. The key to product development is not to have an engineer be in charge, but to have a functional team that listens to one another. I'd like to think that when I was managing scientists that I gave them the room to do their research projects and provided a framework for that work to feed into the product pipeline, and more than one scientist told me that they preferred working for me since I was less prone to micro-manage their activities. Any manager that is smart enough to hire competent experts--both scientists and engineers--and listen to them in the development process will likely find a stream of products headed out to customers.

In the end, the goal of most technology companies is to make products that generate a profit. In most cases, they need both scientists and engineers to get the job done. Both need to feel valued, and Petroski has a point that engineers probably feel less valued right now in many companies, regardless of salary. However, just because engineers should be more valued doesn't mean that scientists should be less valued. I don't find it constructive to pit scientists and engineers against one another. Furthermore, the development process works best when they interact efficiently, and that's what managers--whether scientists, engineers, or MBA's--should be seeking to achieve in their companies.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Politics: Understanding Innovation

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Who was the best engineer in the history of the world? Unless you are a railroader and thought of Casey Jones, likely you were dumbfounded, and perhaps came up with Leonardo Da Vinci or Thomas Edison after some thought. Engineers are not normally glorified in the United States culture the way sports figures, politicians, businessmen or even scientists are (bet you can think of a few of those), which is part of the argument made by Henry Petroski in new book, "The Essential Engineer: Why Science Alone Will Not Solve Our Global Problems." More importantly, Petroski argues that engineering needs to be more valued because science alone won't solve our problems. The arguments that Petroski is making on his current book tour deserve some attention, and I will respond to some of the points he is making in subsequent posts. For today, I want to focus on his core point, that engineering needs more cultural and political emphasis in the United States.

Petroski claims to be driven to write his most recent book as a result of the Obama administration's emphasis on promoting science as a means to innovation. In his view, the government doesn't seem to understand the difference between science, famously described as "describing what exists" (in ever-increasing levels of insightful detail), and engineering, "the creation of things that have yet to exist." The process of innovation, almost by definition, necessarily involves engineering, the creation of something new. Scientists could come up new explanations as revolutionary as Copernican astronomy, nuclear physics, or the periodic table of elements, and it would have no significant impact on the economy unless an engineer created something with it.

Strictly speaking, of course, Petroski is correct. However, in theory, scientists could perform the innovative task of engineering and do the invention themselves, just as engineers often have to do scientific research in order to come up with an idea that works. As much as he tries to draw a bright line between the two professions, the best engineers I know are good scientists, and the best scientists I know occasionally dabble brilliantly in engineering.

Yet, from a cultural perspective, I think Petroski is right. There seems to be a belief in the United States, in particular in its business culture, that the scientific discovery is the key part of the whole process, and the engineering is just an inevitable afterthought. The Nobel Prizes are the only technology prizes most people have ever heard about, and they are awarded on the basis of scientific discoveries, describing how things work. Many engineers haven't even heard about the engineering prizes, for actually making things, that do exist.

Personally, as a trained engineer (furthermore, one who has always tried to emphasize product development and commercialization), I have run into this lack of understanding of engineering repeatedly in my career. Whenever a non-engineer is placed in charge of the day-to-day product development process, a company is lucky to ever get a product out the door. Scientists seem to think that once they demonstrate something a few times in feasibility that a perfect product will shortly be finished by engineers at minimal expense. The details of devices that use their discovery (in the case of medical diagnostics or consumer goods), or manufacturing processes to mass-produce their discovery (in the case of pharmaceuticals) are regarded as annoyances instead of the barriers that will determine a product's commercial success. On the other hand, when engineers run the show, the problems to overcome those barriers are enumerated, attacked, and generally overcome close to original budgets and time lines.

The real problem, as I'll explore further in a future post, is not scientists that don't understand engineering, as usually they are happy to hand off commercialization problems for engineers to figure out, but business people. They are the ones that not only don't seem to understand the difference between science and engineering, but don't want to spend any money on the commercialization process because they feel they've already spent too much money on scientific research. When they start cost-cutting in the development process and products fail to appear as scheduled, they blame the very engineers that in many cases told them there weren't enough resources to finish the job. Innovation, just like scientific discovery, doesn't come for free, but business people seem to think it's a place to save money.

Petroski is right that the Obama administration, while talking about innovation, has put funding mostly into basic research through the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. To fund commercialization resulting from government-funded scientific research (the actual innovation), small companies will still need to turn to private sources, whether they be partner companies, venture capitalists, or potential customers--and that's especially hard to do in a recession. Yet, it's almost more the cultural factor than the funding that needs to be addressed--getting the MBA's of the world to understand that they will need to emphasize commercialization in their companies if they want to be innovative. Nobody in the Obama administration is even saying things along these lines, so Petroski feels he needs to stand up and talk about it.

Interestingly, Canada has recognized that it has a much larger innovation gap than the United States, and it has responded completely differently. Noting that its academic institutions and basic scientific research seem to stack up on such measures as patenting, the current government has decided to focus on commercialization in its economic initiatives. In other words, Canada sees that its scientists are doing their jobs, but their engineers don't seem to be able to turn the discoveries into innovations that make a difference in the marketplace. I haven't yet heard Petroski's take on the Canadian initiatives, but I suspect he would say that Canada is doing exactly what he feels the United States should do.

Of course, as an engineer in Canada who has tried to make a career out of commercialization, I sure haven't seen the emphasis make any difference in my job search so far.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Culture: The Context of Numbers

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Anyone who has spent time at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) understands that things are numeric there to an extreme degree. All buildings are numbered, which is not all that uncommon, but while many buildings were named, everyone called them by their numbers, not the names. One didn't become a Physics major; one joined Course VIII. (I wasn't in Chemical Engineering; I was in Course X.) In perhaps the most extreme example, on one of my first days on campus, I sat down in a computer lab, and noted that the IP (Internet Protocol) address for the computer was for the MIT domain (since released), 56 for the building number, 129 for the room number, and 2 for the computer number. It was almost too organized for me to stand.

While numeric literacy was certainly widespread on campus, the ability to understand the context of numbers was remarkably rare. The classic mathematician's view that there was some sort of absolute truth in numbers seemed to be widespread. Even something fairly accepted in scientific circles, like that a given part per billion of a given substance in the atmosphere might be a problem or not depending on what else was in the atmosphere, seemed to bother people, who would have rather set an absolute maximum for that substance, regardless of what else was there.

A really great example of the importance of context was highlighted by a Nate Silver post on last week. Silver explains it better than I could, but in short form, the absolute popularity of the health care plan put forth by the Democrats in the United States had not changed since November. However, since the political landscape had significantly changed in that time, Silver argued that the same numbers were viewed completely differently by lawmakers and could result in a very different vote taken by Congress, even though public opinion was, at least in quantifiable terms, the same.

I don't know what it is about the human condition that prefers absolutes to context-sensitive evaluation. From politics to atmospheric science to (famously) quantum mechanics, most of the world simply doesn't exist in absolutes. If people would keep that in mind, I suspect they would make much better decisions in many aspects of their lives.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Margin Notes: No Tracks, CN, Chrome

Tracks were conspicuously missing from Roncesvalles Avenue in front of the streetcar mural in Toronto, Ontario on 4-March-2010 as construction on the road continued in other blocks

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Some deceiving spring weather has allowed exploration by foot which is not normally tenable in early March here. Among the sights I have encountered was the above scene on Roncesvalles without streetcar tracks in front of the well-known streetcar mural. Construction was ongoing a few blocks in either direction, but right there (and for that matter, in front of the famous Solarski Pharmacy) it looked like streetcars were just a thing of the past. Rest assured, they'll be back next year.

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If Canadian National (CN) keeps running its business as it has, it may want to start removing all its tracks. According to a parliamentary study as reported in the Financial Post, a mere 13% of customers report a high level of satisfaction with CN's service. This reinforces that the 61% on-time delivery rate mentioned earlier on this blog is not acceptable. However, CN's main competitor, Canadian Pacific, is not exactly a model, either, with just 25% of customers reporting a high level of satisfaction.

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The British press sure didn't think people had a high level of satisfaction with those games recently concluded in Vancouver, British Columbia whose name began with "O". I find it a bit odd that they decided to name the games after me, though--the "Glitch Games." I wasn't trying to be associated with them, really.

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I try not to be associated with the fawning praise that the technology press tends to bestow on products from Google, and what I have to say today may help. As most readers of this blog know, I am far from an early adopter of new technology, but after I start hearing early adopters raving about things, I tend to try them. So, I downloaded the Google Chrome browser this week to see how it compared with Mozilla Firefox, which I tend to use the most, and Apple Safari, which I use on occasion. While I will admit that on some java-based media sites it did appear to be somewhat faster, it wasn't a huge difference and my Internet connection seems to be the limiting factor so that all three of the browsers seem to be about the same speed on most activities. So, the fact that Chrome has so many fewer features than Firefox or Safari, including security customizations that I sometimes use, means that I am putting it aside and sticking with the browsers I know.

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Google Chrome may be faster at certain things, but being faster may no longer be culturally preferable. There seems to be a growing movement for pacing oneself, for slowing down. Hence, there is actually a drink for sale in Canada called Slow Cow which touts itself as a relaxation beverage. So, now we have a full spectrum of drinks, from Slow Cow to Red Bull.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Radio Pick: Passing the Baton

TORONTO, ONTARIO - There wasn't much question what should be the weekly radio pick this week. Last shows often have substantial value with retrospective segments or other rare audio. Andy Barrie's last show and Matt Galloway's first show as permanent host of CBC Radio One Toronto's Metro Morning was special even in this genre, as discussions included big issues like the evolution of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and the medium of radio in general, in addition to personal moments. About an hour of the best clips have been posted to show web site from the three-hour program.

Listen to streaming Windows Media of Metro Morning "Passing the Baton"

Friday, March 5, 2010

Culture: Sherlock Holmes

Doug Wrigglesworth spoke to the Swansea Historical Society in Toronto, Ontario about Sherlock Holmes on 3-March-2010--note the sticker on his computer

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I can't claim to be all that familiar with Sherlock Holmes. Most of what I know has come from listening to Imagination Theater, a Seattle-based radio show that presents Holmes dramas, many of them newly-written with the permission of the estate of Dame Jean Conan Doyle, on a regular basis as part of its weekly hour-long shows.

Some people know a LOT more than I do. It turns out that there are hundreds of Sherlock Holmes societies across the world, populated by people known as Sherlockians. There are thousands of Sherlockian web sites, including a Who's Who where Doug Wrigglesworth, the speaker at the Swansea Historical Society meeting on Wednesday night, could be found.

Wrigglesworth pointed out that a lot of stereotypes about Holmes have no foundation in the actual "canon," the writings of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He's never mentioned to have worn a deerstalker hat, prominently carried a magnifying glass, or have stated, "Elementary, my dear Watson!" Instead, these images have Holmes have come from later illustrations and performances. The image of Holmes with a calabash pipe, for example, came from actor William Gillette wanting to use it because its center of gravity made it easier to wear during performances--and placed the tobacco as far as possible from my lungs. Some things do come from the canon, though. The Sherlock Holmes Society of Canada is known as the Bootmakers of Toronto because label on a boot in the Hound of the Baskervilles was labeled as being from Toronto.

While many Sherlockians join the multitude of societies for the love of the character, the storytelling (especially the interaction with Dr. Watson), or just the social aspect of the clubs, Wrigglesworth pointed out that there is an intellectual aspect to the field. Holmes fundamentally used the scientific method in his investigations, and Sherlockians try to do the same in their attempts to understand Conan Doyle's sometimes inconsistent writings. For example, a medical doctor Sherlockian actually wrote a paper explaining how it was possible that Holmes' war injury could have been both a shoulder and a leg wound, as it is referred to as each in different stories. Perhaps most fundamentally, Holmes profiles suspects, and that kind of scientific technique is increasingly finding favor with police forces around the world.

Wrigglesworth hadn't heard John Patrick Lowry's portrayal of Holmes on Imagination Theater, but he heartily endorses the BBC's radio Holmes--how could it a true Sherlockian say anything else?

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Politics: Harper's Thinking World Budget

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I've avoided weighing in on the personality of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper in the Chinese meridian-based system that I like to use. I've actually long suspected that he was in the thinking world, but since Canada itself has a thinking-world personality, it could have just been a cultural overlay. I've been fooled about a number of people in that way. However, in light of the Conservative government's budget released today, I'm finally convinced that Harper must indeed be coming from the thinking world, though I still won't commit on a specific personality type within the world.

It's been clear since he came on the political scene in Canada that Harper's strength has been strategy, and not charisma. Some would say he completely lacks charisma. The attention placed on trying to create a more human image for Harper, notably the sweaters of the 2008 election campaign, underline this weakness. Yet, personality theory teaches us that the traits of the "balancing" type are in the "subconscious" of the a given type, and those traits can come out with effort when the individual is healthy. Harper's famous piano performance with Yo-Yo Ma of "With a Little Help from My Friends" demonstrated that he does have an emotional-world performance side that can come out, implying that he does reside in the balancing, thinking world.

The hallmark of the thinking world is that it thinks in terms of the future, often making decisions for the sake of a long-term vision that completely ignore contemporary reality or lessons from the past. While a case could be made that many political decisions Harper has made follow that pattern, seeming to have a tin ear to the opening days of a recession or to the historic importance of the arts in Quebec for example, never has the trend been more clear than in the present budget. Instead of spending money on programs (such as additional stimulus spending or Employment Insurance reform) to ensure that the country exits the recession, instead the bulk of the limited new spending in the budget is designed to grow high-technology businesses to create a stronger economy years down the road. While entrepreneurial students have plenty to be excited about in this focus, the currently-unemployed have something to be upset about. It's not hard to argue that this is the correct long-term strategy for Canada, but if the opposition parties are clever, they will be able to use this against Harper in the short term.

The thinking world is also known for being proactive, which means that sometimes they try to solve problems that don't even exist. Though there are a number of more crassly political possibilities for the move to remove gender-specific language from the national anthem, this could also reflect the proactive, thinking world view. Harper may have created a problem that actually did not exist and tried to solve it.

The good news for Stephen Harper is that the opposition leader, Michael Ignatieff, also seems to hail from the thinking world. The odds that Ignatieff will be able to focus on the present and poke holes in the budget based on the current conditions in a compelling manner seem long. That, in fact, may be part of what the future-looking Harper is counting on, just as much as he is counting on an improving economy.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Culture: What Rail Says About a Country

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Let's accept for the moment part of yesterday's premise that the appropriate way to experience a country is by train. What would we learn about North America by doing so?

In Mexico, we'd learn that we can't experience the country by train. With a few exceptions including tourist trains, long-distance and even corridor passenger rail does not exist. Passenger service was ended in 1997 as the national railway was prepared to be privatized. Bus service, some of it reasonably luxurious, has moved into the market once occupied by rail. So, what we learn about Mexico is that the gap between the rich (traveling by private vehicles and air) and the poor (traveling by bus) is so substantial that the middle-class niche normally occupied by rail is not large enough to justify infrastructure investment in long-distance passenger service in a country that does not have a lot of money to spend on transportation.

In the United States, we'd learn that there is a great deal of variation across the country. In the northeast, traditionally where the most people lived until recent generations and where national lawmakers still live, rail service is actually reasonably useful and modern. Amtrak operates high speed service on the corridor between Boston, Massachusetts and Washington DC. However, even where population density is approaching such levels in the west, state governments have had to step up and fund corridor service on their own. California, Washington, and even Illinois have had to pump state money into creating corridors that have started to rival in ridership the Northeast Corridor which is federally funded. Meanwhile, long-distance service languishes with outdated equipment and little respect from host, freight railways, with on-board service from Amtrak that is uneven at best. First class sleeper service is laughable by international standards. Many cities, including large ones like Phoenix and Las Vegas, have no service at all. Unless one lives in a privileged area (where a state pays for corridor service or the federal government funds service), one is almost on one's own in riding a train, rather like many Americans feel treated by their government in general.

Canada presents a similar but distinct picture. In the main population corridor between Windsor, Ontario and Quebec City, Quebec, service is frequent and reasonably modern with good on-board service. However, it is far from world class, with no high-speed service though operator VIA Rail Canada clearly tries to do the best it can. Long-distance service is infrequent, with several routes (including the solitary transcontinental train and the train to Gaspe, Quebec) only running three times a week, but when it does run, it provides world-class service, not only to sleeping car passengers but in coach for the common person as well. Furthermore, in remote areas where service is needed, service still operates, including remote areas of Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba and British Columbia, in some cases under provincial or even Native administration. Yet, especially in the west, there are major cities, foremost Calgary, with no service at all where people have to turn to other modes. One gets the impression that Canada does not have unlimited resources, but does a good job of reaching all classes of society with what services it does have, where it does have them.

There may be something to the idea that one can learn a lot about a country from its rail system. The differences between Mexico, the United States, and Canada are reflected in what rail service is available in each country, and what it is like to ride them.