Friday, April 30, 2010

Media: She's Really Gone?

TORONTO, ONTARIO - It hasn't sunk in yet. Barbara Budd's last night as co-host of As It Happens, the flagship CBC Radio One newsmagazine on weeknights, was tonight. Never again will we get to hear her distinct voice telling us the distance to Reading or that we have reached the dance portion of the program.

When I moved to Canada, one of my new co-workers tried to tell me that the "CBC had no 'names' amongst its hosts." "Are you kidding me?" I replied, "Barbara Budd is not a 'name'?" She was certainly a name to public radio listeners in the United States, at least in the relatively few markets that ran "As It Happens." To us, the quirkiness of the show was embodied in Budd herself, especially as she lent stability to the broadcast as co-hosts moved on to other assignments.

As discussed previously, Budd didn't leave the show voluntarily after 17 years, she was fired by the CBC as they move to replace announcers with journalists. The problem with that philosophy is that good radio is all about story-telling. Journalists certainly can tell stories, but when the task is also about stringing disparate stories together, I'd rather have a actor take on the task.

The reason Barbara Budd is a 'name' and is so beloved to her listeners is that she guided us through the serious and absurd stories of the day, providing the glue throughout a presentation that was appointment radio, informing and entertaining a nation. Apparently, the CBC is so focused on quality journalism that it has discounted the role of an announcer like Budd in creating good radio.

I suppose we'll still get to hear Budd's voice on occasion on the broadcast. Much as predecessor Alan Maitland's "The Shepherd" is played each year on Christmas Eve, we'll likely be treated to several repeat Budd readings each year. It won't be the same, though. I hope Barbara Budd finds a more lucrative position where she is appreciated now. I may not have been listening for 17 years, but I have been listening long enough to understand what we are losing. Thank you, Barbara. You will be missed.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Railfanning: The Allure of the New

Nearly-new VIA Rail Canada F40PH-3 #6452 arrived in Toronto, Ontario as a trailing unit on the "Canadian" on 29-April-2010

TORONTO, ONTARIO - The railroad enthusiast (or railfan) community usually gets quite excited about new things, and communicates their discoveries quite widely. In the past two days, I've been informed twice about approaching new locomotives for passenger service in time to go see them. One of the first VIA Rail Canada F40PH-3's, a rebuilt version of the F40PH-2's that VIA has used since 1986, returned to Toronto today on the transcontinental "Canadian" after a tour of crew bases across the country. Yesterday, two new GO Transit MP40PH-3C's, on delivery from MPI in Boise, Idaho, were noted at Lambton Yard in my neighbourhood as they made their way to GO's facility at Willowbrook Yard.

GO Transit MP40PH-3C's #631 and #632 sat nearly hidden in the Canadian Pacific's Lambton freight yards in Toronto, Ontario on 28-April-2010

Sometimes, there is good reason to be excited about new locomotives. Not only are they freshly painted and good looking--a rarity on modern North American railroads--but they may be undergoing acceptance testing. They may be used in ways that they will not for the remainder of their careers, and in some cases, they may prove to be so unsuccessful that they will not last very long and be disposed of, never to be seen in their original form again.

Yet, that's not likely to be the case in these situations. GO already has its original order of 27 MP40PH-3C's in regular service; this additional order of 20 will simply retire older F59PH's. There's no doubt that the new units will just go into commuter service. The F40PH-3's have been well-tested in service out of Montreal; the first one, the 6400, was different and is unlikely to be rebuilt after a recent wreck, but the production units like the 6452 which arrived yesterday will simply take the place of the unrebuilt F40PH-2's until there are none left.

In a sight not expected to be seen with these units again, GO Transit MP40PH-3C's #630, #631, and #632 crossed the Humber River in Toronto, Ontario in Canadian Pacific freight train #244 on 21-April-2010

I'm usually more interested in the locomotives that the new ones are about to replace. The new ones will be around for years, but the ones they replace will likely become extinct, or at least radically change in duties. In this case, that means GO Transit F59PH's and VIA Rail Canada F40PH-2's. Any chance to take pictures of those units will be taken very seriously until they are gone. By some accounts, that will occur at the end of 2010 for the F59PH's; if VIA's plans are executed, it will occur by the end of 2011 for the F40PH-2's.

"Shoot'em when they are new" and "shoot'em before they are gone" are sometimes competing mantras among rail photographers. In times like these, I am inclined toward the latter.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Culture: Rap Gets Bad Rap

TORONTO, ONTARIO - The World Cup visited Toronto today as part of its 83-nation tour leading up to the next football (that's soccer on this continent) championship in South Africa later this year. Probably most significant to local culture, the World Cup tour also brought the artist K'naan back to his second home of Toronto.

K'naan has achieved worldwide fame after the selection of his song "Wavin' Flag" as the anthem for the World Cup. Undoubtedly, the song was chosen for its own merits--the catchy melody and lyrics quite appropriate to a worldwide tournament--but quite possibly the more important selection was of K'naan the artist, K'naan the human being. Could a life story of growing up through the civil war in Somalia and then immigrating to Canada and using the spoken word and music to tell the story not be a more potent symbol for the hope of international sport, indeed the hope of the world?

Far from the gangsterism and misogyny that normally dominates rap, K'naan's lyrics can be amazingly poignant and mature. Take the chorus from the song "Take a Minute":
And any man who knows a thing knows
He knows not a damn, damn thing at all
And every time I felt the hurt
And I felt the givin' gettin' me up off the wall
His life story permeates his work; the lyrics to "Fatima" might seem a bit strange until it is realized that he is telling the story of his girlfriend murdered in Mogadishu, and then they become bone-chilling:
What did the Young Man say
Before he stole you away
On that fateful day Fatima
Did he know your name
Or the plans we made,
To go to New York City, Fatima
Some artists have talent and showmanship that contribute to the world, but have private lives that fall far short of their public image. K'naan is not one of those artists. When looking back to their coverage of ethnic tension in schools of Toronto's Rexdale neighbourhood, the CBC found footage of a younger K'naan trying to mediate between groups. This guy is the genuine article, and it shows in almost every interview. He'll admit to not being fully comfortable with the dance interpretation of "Wavin' Flag" used in Latin America, or that he will need to reflect when the World Cup tour is over. (Could a World Cup tour be any more appropriate for a man whose given name, Keinan, means "traveler"?)

K'naan himself may have unsurprisingly best summarized what he does, in "Take a Minute":
And that's the reason why, I could never play for me
Tell 'em the truth is what my dead homies told me
Ooh yeah, I take inspiration from the most heinous of situations
Creating medication out of my own tribulations
If all rap were like that done by K'naan, the genre would have a completely different reputation. Hopefully, it doesn't take the chaos of Somalia to create an artist like K'naan, because the world could use more of them.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Economics: Prepare for Electric Anger

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I received the highest electric bill I've ever received since moving to Toronto today. That would be bad enough, but prices are only going to go up. My case should be milder than average, so my prediction is that there is going to be outrage in the population over the increasing rates.

Part of the increase comes from the new Time-Of-Use rates that now cause electricity used at peaks--like dinnertime--to cost 9.6 cents per kilowatt-hour instead of the 5.6 cent flat rate seen before. I've managed to shift 66% of my electricity usage to times with the lowest, 4.8 cent rate, something most people will not be able to do, and my raw charge for electricity has still gone up by about 10%. Most people will see a larger increase from Time-Of-Use rates, as I predicted in my first posting on this topic.

However, there are huge increases elsewhere. The delivery charge compared with the same period last year is up 32%. The regulatory fee has almost doubled, up by 70%. The debt retirement charge is up by a similar amount, by 66%. Combine all this with slightly increased electrical usage over last year (I didn't realize 2009 was that warm), and my bill is up nearly 56% over the same period last year.

That's an outrage to an unemployed person trying to make ends meet. But, it gets worse. Right now, the electrical bill is subject only to the GST. As of 1 July, it will be subject to the HST, raising the cost by another 8%. Then, the provincial government has approved a 7% increase in rates. So, I can expect that--if nothing else happens--my late 2010 electrical bills will be 65% higher than in the same period of 2009. That's completely unmanageable, and there isn't even a carbon tax yet!

For those who think privatization is the answer, let me remind everyone what happened when my water heater rental was sold from a public utility to a private company. It used to cost $4.95. Two years after privatization, it costs $9.98, and will go up even more with the HST. That's more than doubling in two years--absolutely outrageous. However, as a renter, I have no recourse as I can't buy it and I can't convince my landlord to buy and amortize the cost in a rent increase. This actually makes Toronto Hydro look good by comparison.

There's going to be anger about electric rates in Toronto, and it will be an issue in the mayoral election. Just wait until the summer.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Media: Trend Away from Commercial, Not to CBC

TORONTO, ONTARIO - In the past year, there seems to have been quite a flow of broadcasting talent to the public broadcaster in Canada, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), at the expense of privately-owned media. Amanda Lang and Kevin O'Leary jumped ship from CTV's BNN (Business News Network) to the CBC News Network, blogger Kady O'Malley went from Maclean's to the CBC, and most recently, in Vancouver, Tony Parsons appeared on the CBC's local newscast after leaving the local Global BC organization.

These moves don't compare with the overall trend of the last generation which went the other direction, perhaps most notably when Lloyd Robertson jumped from the CBC to CTV in 1976, and nobody is expecting Robertson to jump back before he retires. While the CBC may have become somewhat more aggressive in recruiting outside talent instead of promoting its own, it seems more likely that the real change is elsewhere.

Advertising revenue for broadcasting has gone down by 8% between the recession and the incursion of the Internet. While that has led to the cuts at the CBC as well, the pressure is even greater at the private broadcasters. While there has not been any reported salary reductions for top talent, it's not hard for people to see the writing on the wall. With more unions in place, the CBC starts looking like a more secure employer, and hence a more attractive one.

Of course, at least on the television end of things, the modest trend has had not any impact on ratings. The only CBC show in the top 30 nationally last week was a hockey playoff broadcast. If a broadcaster, particularly in news, wants to be seen by the masses in Canada, they still have to be on CTV or Global, and that will probably remain true as long as television news is a popular information source.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Photos: Easter Parade

The Lindt Gold Bunny Smart car was a popular entry in the Beaches Easter Parade in Toronto, Ontario on 4-April-2010

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's update to my photo site features Toronto's Easter Parade. Unseasonably warm weather greeted the Beaches Easter Parade as it moved down Queen Street East through the Beach(es) neighbourhood of Toronto, Ontario on Easter Sunday, 4-April-2010.

Margin Notes: Cherry Trees, Media, Wappler

Japanese Cherry Trees were in full bloom at High Park in Toronto, Ontario on 22-April-2010

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I spend a remarkably small amount of time in High Park, despite its proximity to my residence and all the natural attractions there. One of those features are the Japanese Cherry Trees which I had never seen in bloom any of the years I have lived here. The trees were not in bloom when I walked through High Park on 16-April, but when I returned this Thursday, there they were; it wasn't as impressive as Washington DC, but it was neat.

* * * * * *

The High Park cherry blossoms were even mentioned this year on CBC's local Metro Morning morning show, but it was another CBC host that alarmed me this week. I realize he is on a book tour, but did any other Canadians get nervous when Terry O'Reilly of the Age of Persuasion appeared on NPR's All Things Considered on Saturday? All we need is to lose one of the more entertaining Canadian media voices to the United States...

* * * * * *

Speaking of things heard on NPR, I was surprised to find more evidence that Green Day's "American Idiot" album may be becoming one of the more influential albums of the last decade. It inspired what is arguably the best mash-up of all time, The Boulevard of Broken Songs by Party Ben, and now it's being turned into a musical, as reported on Weekend Edition Saturday.

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A White Fallow Deer enjoyed his afternoon snack at the High Park Zoo in Toronto, Ontario on 22-April-2010.

I doubt this White Fallow Deer buck was feeling alienated at High Park on Thursday. In fact, it rather looked like he was really enjoying some exquisite straw.

* * * * * *

If this were a more popular blog, someone would probably complain that I showed a picture of a buck instead of a doe. I have taken some heat in the past for not including enough female voices on my ideal radio schedule and my weekly radio picks. Thus, I want to point out this week that it was an absolute pleasure to listen to Jane Clayson sit in for Tom Ashbrook on WBUR and NPR's On Point. She's someone that deserves her own current affairs radio program.

* * * * * *

Finally, I would like to note the passing of Harry Wappler, the long-time weatherman at KIRO-TV in Seattle, Washington. I grew up watching Wappler's weather forecasts, and while many suspected that he actually liked rain, at his prime he tended to be notably more accurate than his peers. Seattle weather forecasts haven't been the same since he retired in 2002. While I was too young to see one of the all-time great Wappler bloopers the first time it aired, this forecast with J.P. Patches may have been the most-played Wappler moment on the air. Wappler was 73; those in Seattle may be able to catch a half-hour tribute tonight at 6:30.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Radio Pick: The Bishop's Man

The CBC made it two weeks in a row with this week's radio pick. One of the things that CBC Radio One's "The Current" has traditionally been quite good at is providing an overview of a subject. A great example came this week as Anna Maria Tremonti interviewed Patrick Wall, a former Catholic Priest. The 20-minute interview covered just about everything one needs to know about the ongoing priest sexual abuse scandal.

Listen to streaming MP3 of The Current "Bishop's Man"

Friday, April 23, 2010

Transport: Testing the Miniature Railway

The "locomotive team" of Dave Wetherald, Arno Martens, Michael Guy, and Mike Salisbury looked over the "Sweet Creek" locomotive as it sat on the miniature railway turntable in Toronto's Roundhouse Park on 23-April-2010

TORONTO, ONTARIO - The culmination of more than a year of effort came yesterday as the miniature railway in Toronto's Roundhouse Park was tested for the first time using its own steam locomotive, Toronto Railway Heritage Centre #3, named the "Sweet Creek." While the tracks had been tested using a volunteer-owned "diesel" locomotive on New Year's Day and the "Sweet Creek" itself had tested on an initial section of track last July, this was the first chance to see how the railway would perform in the form that will soon greet the public.

Mike Salisbury watched carefully as Michael Guy ran the "Sweet Creek" past the Toronto Convention Centre for the first time in Roundhouse Park on 23-April-2010

The testing came off as successfully as anyone could hope. The very first time we hooked up passengers cars for the trip around the approximately half-mile figure-eight, we ran a complete circuit without incident. A few minor issues were encountered that can be corrected in the track and on the locomotive itself, but it was clear that if we needed to run tomorrow, we could do so.

The first train run by the "Sweet Creek" through Roundhouse Park passed Don Station, which was undergoing restoration work on 23-April-2010

As always, a train in the park brought out kids from all over--but this test run brought out the adults as well, especially locals such as the Steam Whistle Brewing employees that had watched as the railway was constructed, mostly last summer and fall. They were out to offer their congratulations.

This view from 23-April-2010 will soon be publicly available--seeing the crossing shanty and the base of the CN Tower from behind a miniature steam locomotive in Toronto's Roundhouse Park

The first public event for the railway will be Doors Open Toronto on 29-30 May 2010. Come out and visit us then!

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Economics: Blame it on the MBA?

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Long-time readers of this blog known that I have little patience for business people making technical decisions and believe this contributes to a lack of innovation. Kenneth and William Hopper have considerably less patience with holders of the Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree. The authors of "The Puritan Gift" place at least partial blame on the MBA for the savings and loan crisis, the Enron debacle, and the recent global credit crisis.

The argument of the Hoppers is not hard to follow, whether one agrees with it or not. They believe that the Puritan principles brought to the United States defined its business culture from the 1620's until the 1970's and created its economic success. The Puritans believed in being self-sufficient and thus people that could do "hands on" work with a "can do" attitude would eventually "work their way up the ladder" of companies and make informed decisions when they made it to the management level. The advent of the idea of "professional management," while based in scientific principles, eliminated the need to "learn the craft of management or to acquire 'domain knowledge.' The holder of the MBA was deemed capable of exercising control over any kind of organization through the medium of its accounts department... The effect on the quality of decisionmaking (sic) in both the public and the private sectors was catastrophic."

The Hoppers don't address politics--at least directly--but its seems to me the best example of their argument lies in the first MBA president--George W. Bush. While he had some experience as a politician prior to running for president, it wasn't his initially-chosen profession and he had not worked his way up from dogcatcher. While not over-emphasizing the concept, he very much ran his cabinet like a MBA--bringing lots of subject matter experts to the table (e.g. Colin Powell and Christine Todd Whitman), but then ignoring them in favor of his own principles. Never mind the ideology of those principles, just look at the quality of decision-making that resulted. Few non-ideologues now regard many of the major decisions of his administration, including the war in Iraq and tax cuts, as quality decisions.

This certainly rings familiar to me. The most successful organizations I have been involved in--both companies and non-profits--were run by people that had worked their way up the ranks of their field, whatever that might be, and learned the craft of management. The least effective organizations were run by MBA's who liked to have specialists around to make it appear that they had qualified staff, but consistently ignored the recommendations of those people, justifying their decisions with short-term financial arguments.

Where I may differ from the Hoppers is the centrality of the MBA degree to their thesis about the loss of the "Puritan Gift." They cite as one of the Puritan principles "a moral outlook that subordinated the interests of the individual to the group." That probably comes as a shock to most Americans, who are taught to believe that their whole country is founded on individual liberty. That may be true for individuals acting on their own, but it is not the tradition of American leadership, which did act in the interest of the group. Did Washington or Lincoln act in their own individual interests over that of the country? Hardly.

I would argue that the loss of connection with this Puritan principle is more central to the decline in decision-making than professional management per se. I believe it is possible to be a MBA holder that listens to technical experts and then uses their own management skills to make a decision based on more than "financial engineering." What is needed are incentive structures--perhaps compensation packages based on longer-term results--to encourage MBA's to think that way, instead of the way that too many are making decisions today.

In any event, I believe the Hoppers are on to something. The United States came to dominate the world economy in part because of its "Puritan Gift," and if it isn't careful, it runs the risk of losing that gift, and with it the resulting economic strength.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Politics: Perks on Transit City

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I attended a community meeting put on by my local Member of Provincial Parliament (MPP) last night. Interestingly, I learned more about what was going on at the federal level than at the provincial level. While I went primarily to find out what my MPP had to say, the event was effectively one for the riding's New Democratic Party (NDP) at all levels, with an aligned city councillor and candidate for federal Member of Parliament in attendance. It was the city councillor, Gord Perks, who I thought stole the show with his presentation on transit.

Perks, who represents Ward 14, which is not my ward but is part of the same provincial and federal riding, has been a supporter of Mayor David Miller's Transit City proposal to bring light rail to many parts of the city currently served by buses. I learned that, at least according to Perks, the areas served by Transit City were chosen in part by identifying the low-income areas that did not have government services (things like employment offices) in their areas. I had thought they were mostly chosen for the purpose of creating a effective grid system based on where demand for transit already exists.

Where Perks really excelled was in rhetorical devices. The proposal by some mayoral candidates to privatize bus service clearly has really rankled Perks. He held up a neck tie, pointing it out as an example of a private-market item that some might call a "frill", and then held up a glass of water, clearly a publicly-delivered service. He asked the question whether transit was more like a neck tie or more like a glass of water, calling for people to treat transit as a fundamental service like water.

The only problem is that, even if one agrees with Perks on that point as I do, there's not a whole lot the city can do about transit funding. The city doesn't have the money to fund transit completely on its own, nor does it have the power to create new taxes or modify tax rates so that it can. All the action is at the provincial level, and the province just halved the money set to be spent on Transit City. While Perks pointed out that if Toronto had the same per-rider subsidy as the VIVA bus system in the adjacent York region that transit here would be free to riders, this statistic is an apples-to-oranges comparison--the whole point of VIVA is to try to drag a transit-unfriendly region into having a more transit-friendly infrastructure, and that obviously requires a big subsidy for a smaller number of riders than a system serving a dense area. Perks himself likes to draw a diagram showing the cost per rider near the center of a city as smaller than in the periphery, which in this case includes the York Region.

Yet, since this problem has to be solved by the province, not the city, it's not hard to understand his frustration. It's the same frustration experienced by every Toronto subway rider who has watched as ridership has grown over the years and the city has had no money to improve service to handle the load. The heat has to be put on the province to either put up money, or allow the city to raise the money itself. The Public Transit Coalition has been founded to do just that. Will it be enough? Time will tell whether transit in Toronto comes to be treated more like a glass of water, or a neck tie.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Culture: On Commercial Sports

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I've always had mixed emotions about commercial sports (I prefer that term to "professional" sports, as few sports besides the "major" leagues actually allow people to earn their living from the sport, but a lot of money goes into commercial sponsorship of minor-league and other seasonal sports such as powerboat racing). At times, I've considered them a complete waste of money and a sign of the misplaced priorities of North American culture, and at other times I've been considerably more sympathetic to the community-building nature of commercial sports. There are only two subjects that are safe to talk about with a stranger on public transit--the weather, and the local sports team.

The Christian Science Monitor seems to be equally conflicted. In a recent article, they tried to explore whether an emphasis on sports was a "great unifying force or a sign of misplaced priorities." I'm not sure the article actually made any progress, but some of the statistics they brought up surprised me.

$2.5 billion is bet on March Madness brackets by 30 million Americans. Basically, ten percent of the population spends money, much of it technically illegal, on a basketball tournament in which supposedly-amateur athletes compete. Try to tell me that NCAA basketball isn't a commercial sport.

6.4 million Americans play participatory soccer. That's as many as play touch football. If there were ever a marketing gap, it's between soccer and the established "major league" sports in the United States. People ought to be able to get excited about the commercial version of a sport they actually play, yet the soccer leagues can't seem to find a way to tap into that enthusiasm.

41% of all sports television viewing in the United States is of football (American football, that is), four times greater than baseball despite baseball having about ten times as many games. It's hard for baseball or basketball (much less hockey or NASCAR) to claim to be the American sport in the face of that kind of statistic, and not hard to see why advertisers emphasize football.

$114.10 is the average ticket price for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Only the Dallas Cowboys and New England Patriots have higher average ticket prices in the "big four" sports. Canada can't claim to be immune from this discussion.

What do any of these statistics mean with respect to what should be done with commercial sports in North America? I ultimately agree with the implicit position of the Christian Science Monitor that there are two ways of looking at the situation that have some validity. Ultimately, if we decide that commercial sports have any benefit at all, then the only way to maintain that benefit is to let them be commercial, which seems to have been the default position in all of North America for generations. It probably will remain that way, so all we can do is try to get what community benefit we can. Keep asking strangers about your favorite team, I guess.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Transport: Stuck in Toronto

TORONTO, ONTARIO - When the volunteers of the Toronto Railway Historical Association work on the track of the miniature railway located in Roundhouse Park across the from the CN Tower, it is not uncommon for a family to watch our activities. If we are working around a piece of full-size equipment, it is routine for us to offer to take a picture for them, move a fence to create a better photo angle, or generally engage in conversation.

Today, there were several families with young children who paid attention as we re-laid the very first track laid in the park to our contemporary standards and added the last switch on the mainline. One young boy was especially taken with the large steam locomotive, Canadian National #6213, behind a fence in the park. At some point, his family was invited inside the fence to pose with the locomotive.

It soon came out that the family was stuck in Toronto because of the current flight bans over Europe as a result of the volcano eruption in Iceland. (Is anyone else amused that almost no news agencies refer to the volcano by name, which is to say Eyjafjallajokull?) Having to stay here on an extra Monday, they were wondering what to do, and headed for the CN Tower, then noticed a roundhouse with a bunch of railroad equipment across the street.

The father seemed rather serene about the whole scenario. "These guys need to get to school," he stated, gesturing to his sons, "I need to get to work. But, we can't fly back right now." There are thousands of people in Europe and wanting to travel to Europe in the same predicament, many of them bleeding money from scarce accommodations where they are located and multiple re-booking fees.

Somehow, there seemed an irony in looking at historical transportation equipment--which never could have gotten them to their destination even when it was in operation--while waiting for the modern transportation system to become operational again. Hopefully, as winds and the eruption shift, the planes will start flying and start bringing the world back to normal.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Margin Notes: Parades, Signs, Slash, IMAP

It appeared that the same person was riding in Fire Support 7 in the St. Patrick's Day Parade on 14-March-2010 (left) and the Easter Parade on 4-April-2010 (right), both in Toronto, Ontario

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Some people make the case that all of the parades in Toronto are boring because the same bands, same vehicles, and same people appear in all of them. I think that perspective ignores the power of tradition in parades, but I did notice something interesting while processing pictures from the Easter Parade. It appears that the same woman was standing in the left door of the Fire Support 7 van in each parade, as shown above--with a green shirt for St. Patrick's Day and a pink shirt for Easter. Presumably, she works on that van. I found that interesting, not boring.

* * * * * *

I had never seen a sign like this one on Old Weston Road in Toronto, Ontario denoting the end of pavement on 4-April-2010

Certainly one of the interesting things I found on the day of the Easter Parade was the above sign in the Junction neighbourhood of Toronto. It apparently denoted the end of the pavement during railway crossing construction. I don't think I've ever seen this sign in the MUTCD (Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices) for the US or Canada.

* * * * * *

Speaking of standards, the way we describe internet addresses can sometimes be comical. Every time I hear Kathleen Petty give the web address for the CBC Radio One radio show The House, I laugh when I hear her say, "...slash the house" (as in sounds to me like what the small-government advocates would really like to do with the House of Commons.

* * * * * *

Speaking of the Internet, I have recently converted my primary POP3 (Post Office Protocol) e-mail account to an IMAP (Internet Message Access Protocol) account. IMAP is not exactly new--the first RFC is from 1988 and its origins date to Stanford in 1986, but I had never used extensively before. (For what it's worth, POP dates back to 1984.) I don't know why I didn't convert to it a decade ago--now I can look at my mail from a shell, web, or external client interface interchangeably. Why didn't anyone tell me to do this?

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Radio Pick: Privacy

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's radio pick again turns to Terry O'Reilly and the Age of Persuasion. Privacy is a hot topic in the Internet age, and Terry O'Reilly and company provide a marketing perspective on the topic. As usual, the 27-minute show was full of amusing examples--but this time there were some downright scary stories as well.

Listen to MP3 of The Age of Persuasion "Privacy"

Media: Down to One

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I went through the process of updating my web pages on radio stations today for the first time since 2006. There's nothing much to get excited about; the updates are minor and do not currently appear on my web site. They won't be publicly accessible until I migrate the domain to my new provider in the coming days. Yet, I cannot let the moment pass without some comment on the decline in radio in the twelve years that these pages have existed.

The first thing to note is the number of shows on my idealized schedule that are no longer on the air. In come cases, the host has died (in a surprising number of cases, tragically); in most cases, the show was simply canceled. The entire weekday evening schedule no longer may be heard except for the news programs and This American Life on Friday. This is not a coincidence; the money in broadcasting is during drive-time, and to a lesser extent, during mid-day. Audiences are not as large in the evening, so shows most appropriate to that time of day are not cultivated. The few stations that do produce live programming in those time slots instead of repeat programming don't spend much on it, usually providing a talk show host without a producer. Cheap shows generally aren't notable, and hence there hasn't been anything new and notable and hence the old shows remain in place.

There have been few shows to add in the past four years, period, all of them from public radio. The only commercial show to appear on the schedule now that wasn't there in 2000 is Dr. Joe Schwarcz's one-hour weekend show on scientific topics, and it existed in 2000; I just didn't know about it yet. Commercial radio isn't attracting or cultivating its talent in a way that I find interesting.

This leads to the change that stood out for me. The pages include listings of commendable radio stations in various genres, including commercial talk radio. These are stations that are so compelling that one can just turn them on and leave the dial there basically all day without getting tired of them. When I first wrote that page, there were several commercial talk radio station that I felt belonged on that list, from KABC in Los Angeles to WABC in New York.

Not anymore. There's one station left, KGO in San Francisco. All of the others run too many repeats, too many syndicated shows, too many unlistenable hosts with ridiculous fringe viewpoints that won't take intellectual discussion seriously. This isn't just a right-wing phenomenon; I haven't found any left-wing stations that do not demonstrate those disqualifying features, either, though perhaps with a few less repeats and additional listenable local hosts KPOJ in Portland, Oregon might make it. Balanced or moderate stations are hard to find, period.

KGO is the only commercial talk station I think I could leave on for hours on end and not feel desperate to change to something else. If anything, the station has improved in the past four years since my last update, with Gil Gross taking the afternoon shift, John Rothmann moving into late nights, and Brent Walters bringing a truly collegiate perspective to God Talk. Its news blocks aren't great, but the station clearly sets the standard for talk radio in North America.

I don't buy the argument that good commercial radio can't exist in the current economic and media environment. I agree that it's hard, but if KGO can do it, others can also. Program directors and talk show hosts need to spend some time listening to KGO's on-line stream and bring similar non-banal, non-radical discussions to their own markets. I suspect they would find their efforts rewarded with listeners and thus advertising dollars.

Meanwhile, I wonder if, before the next time I feel the need to update those web pages, something awful will happen to KGO and I'll have to eliminate my list entirely.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Technology: Actually using UNIX on OS X

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Way back in the late 1990's, when Apple announced that its next operating system would be based on UNIX but maintain the easy-to-use graphical interface that had differentiated the Macintosh from other consumer computers, I was very excited. I would be able to have the power of a UNIX shell, which I had come to appreciate in the university environment and later on commercial shell accounts, and still be able to do the bulk of my tasks with the near-mindless interface of the Macintosh most of the time--there was no compelling technical reason to use a Microsoft operating system, about which I had few good things to say.

Indeed, I have stayed with the Macintosh line of computers through the launch of Mac OS X to present day. However, I have almost never actually used the UNIX shell underneath Mac OS X. Partly, I felt little reason to explore it because work was always forcing me to do more with the Windows operating system that I really wanted to deal with, and I maintained a commercial UNIX account to host my web site, so if I wanted to do something at a UNIX command line I'd often just SSH to that account and do it there.

Now, as I am being forced to migrate from the FreeBSD-based web hosting account that I have used since 2000 because of a degradation of service, that has finally changed. It turns out that almost nobody offers already-installed UNIX clients to read e-mail anymore. I've been using Pine, written by a team at the University of Washington, to read my e-mail since my very first e-mail accounts at Stanford University and Delphi, and pretty much everywhere I've had an active e-mail account since. I've come to appreciate the minimum number of keystrokes required to read through mail using Pine.

While I haven't always used it, Pine supports the IMAP protocol for retrieving mail from a server. It finally occurred to me that with a IMAP-supporting server, there was no reason I couldn't run Pine on Mac OS X, and then I wouldn't have to run it on a remote account. I soon discovered that Pine has been succeeded by Alpine, and with help from an on-line tutorial from Paul Heinline, I had Alpine up and running on my home computer in a minimal amount of time. The hardest part was figuring out the correct security settings to use with my new IMAP e-mail provider, as they are appropriately stringent and far from Alpine's defaults.

So, now I am finally using the UNIX underpinnings of Mac OS X, going into the Terminal to run Alpine and check e-mail from my new hosting service over IMAP. I always knew that the architecture of Mac OS X was going to be a very nice thing to use, but it took me a decade to finally find a good enough reason to use it.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Media: The CBC Fired Barbara Budd

TORONTO, ONTARIO - After 17 years as co-host of the CBC Radio One program As It Happens, Barbara Budd is not stepping down on her own accord. The CBC decided not to renew her contract. In other words, the CBC has decided to fire Budd.

The story has been well-covered only by the Globe and Mail newspaper, which published most of the relevant details in this article. The CBC is trying to eliminate "presenter" or "announcer" positions and replace them with journalists. Budd's part-time position serving as the presenter for As It Happens was the next one targeted. She's sad, to say the least, comparing it with being told by a man that he no longer loved her in this interview with the Globe and Mail.

Unless a major change in the show format is forthcoming, which would be unfortunate, this move makes no sense at all. I listened to As It Happens (while in the United States, mostly on late-night delayed broadcasts) for months before I even realized that there was one host (presently Carol Off) who does the journalistic interviews and one host (Barbara Budd) who reads the introductions, and I'd like to think I'm not a particularly casual listener. It flows so well to the point that the distinct roles are not blatant in large part because Budd does such a great job with the transitions. Listening to a show with one of the less skilled fill-ins when Budd is away makes it all the more obvious just how well she does it. Does the CBC really believe that a journalist is going to do a better job at the announcing part of the job? Perhaps they have been spoiled by skills of the last two co-hosts, the legendary Alan Maitland and Budd.

Outside of As It Happens, the CBC policy of eliminating presenters has had, at best, mixed results. The policy reportedly led to Alison Smith coming to The World At Six, about which I have no complaints, but it also led to the hiring of Peter Armstrong to replace the retiring Judy Maddren on World Report. I rather liked Armstrong as a reporter, but he's almost unlistenable as an anchor. I perk up in the morning when I hear Martina Fitzgerald or Dzintars Cers (who, if I am not mistaken, is an announcer) filling in on that broadcast.

Many of the comments on the Globe and Mail articles imply that this is really about cost cutting. We'll know that's really the case if writer Chris Howden appears as the co-host. I'd probably hold my nose and accept the new reality in that scenario, as Howden is my favorite of the regular fill-ins. Others suspect this is about attracting a younger audience--exactly how a journalist would do that is beyond me. Presumably, though, neither alternative is what management is up to here.

The CBC seems to be blowing up one of their programs that actually works. To me, not having been around in the era of Maitland and Barbara Frum, the classic As It Happens era will always be that of Budd and Off. I hope this doesn't portend another program falling off my ideal radio schedule. Best of luck, Barbara--may your next employer treat you better than the CBC.

Before closing, I must give credit to public radio station KALW in San Francisco, California. They included information about Budd's exit in their station newsletter. I haven't noticed any other outlet that actually airs As It Happens say anything about the real story.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Culture: Okay, It's Spring

What appeared to be some kind of blue-eyed grass was found in the Lambton Woods area of Toronto, Ontario on 14-April-2010

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Officially, it's been spring for almost a month now. However, until very recently, it pretty much looked like winter to me. I didn't see much green, and only a few very precocious trees looked like they were even thinking about blooming. There were no flowers noted along the Humber River when I took a walk last Sunday. I mostly stayed inside as spring showers and clouds seemed to dominate the weather.

As the clouds cleared again today, I decided to head down to the Humber River and was surprised by how many signs of spring had appeared since Sunday. My first official flower picture of 2010 presented itself with some sort of blue-eyed grass or a related species was found in the Lambton Woods. Several trees that looked pretty gray on Sunday were later found to have sprouted white blooms.

A male Northern Cardinal was found along the Humber River Trail on 14-April-2010

The red-winged blackbirds have been out in large numbers for some weeks now, but some stay here essentially year-round so that wasn't terribly interesting. What surprised me is that a few paces from the flowers, I saw a male Northern Cardinal not far away. While I have seen males before, and gotten pictures of females, this was my first real chance at a photograph of a male. It didn't turn out well as he rapidly took off, but it was a sure sign of spring that the Cardinals are back.

The final Milton Line GO train of the day crossed the Humber River in Toronto, Ontario near sunset on 14-April-2010

One of my purposes in walking this part of the Humber is to take railroad pictures, and throughout the winter many of the Milton Line GO trains go by in the dark. Traditionally, the day that I can photograph the final train, which passes about 19:12, marks the real beginning of spring in my mind. Today, the train passed right as the sun shone directly on the Humber River bridge.

Canadian Pacific "Expressway" train #124 crossed the Humber River on 14-April-2010, its first recorded crossing in daylight of the year

I started thinking that the only sign of spring I hadn't seen was the eastbound Canadian Pacific Expressway train which only reliably passes in the daylight during the longest days of the year. As I walked out after seeing the GO train, I noted an eastbound signal lit at Humber on the north track. I went back to my old favorite photo location, and what showed up but an early-running Expressway.

There's no question about it--all the signs are there. It's spring.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Heritage: Lusty Lady to Clothe

The marquee of the Lusty Lady on First Avenue in Seattle, Washington was partially hidden during construction on 14-March-2006 that marked part of its decline. The picture was taken near an entrance to the Seattle Art Museum.

TORONTO, ONTARIO - One of the interesting aspects of visiting downtown Seattle, Washington in recent years has been the Lusty Lady. Located across the street from the Seattle Art Museum and adjacent to the luxurious Four Seasons Hotel, it has long appeared way out of place. Yet, its marquee was regarded affectionately by locals for its suggestive puns. A certain well-known local talk show host has claimed he knows people that would go to the Seattle Art Museum just as an excuse to check out the marquee.

Amongst the creative sayings to appear over the years were "We takeoff more than Boeing," "All Clothing 100 Percent Off," and "Out with the old, in with the nude." The marquee even inspired a blog site to "review" its messages. (The popularity of the puns in Seattle was to me yet more evidence that Seattle is really a Canadian city that just happens to be located south of the border.) The marquee phrases could originate with any staff member or even passers-by who stopped to make a suggestion--if it was used, they would receive a Lusty Lady t-shirt.

Yet, that fun is to come to an end. As reportedly widely but most skillfully by Erik Lacitis of the Seattle Times, the Lusty Lady will close in about two months. Apparently many more people enjoy the marquee than partake in the peep shows, especially since the closure of the once-adjacent headquarters of Washington Mutual. (I didn't know if the Lusty Lady was a strip club or even just a plain bar with an adult sense of humor; I was quite surprised to read it could earn enough money at that location as a twelve-booth peep show.) Income is reported to be down 60% since it peaked in 1998. The Lusty Lady is yet another victim of the financial crisis in the United States, and to a lesser extent the Internet.

Seattle's Museum of History and Industry claims it would "likely accept" the marquee if it were donated. The owners of the Lusty Lady, who share profits with the performers, have not yet stated their intention. Even if the marquee does survive at a museum, First Avenue in Seattle will never be quite the same. A lot of people will be watching for the last pun.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Culture: Losing Science

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I often cite Russia as the potential future of the United States if corporatist policies are allowed to dominate by both conservatives and liberals. The economic problems in Russia are not so much socialist policies--though the government has a close hand in many companies--as they are problems of lack of competition. Because large companies--usually backed by the government--so dominate market segments, there's really no chance at innovation by small companies; they would be crushed by the dominant companies.

Whether one believes that as a possible future in the United States or not, there's a new cautionary tale out of Russia. The Christian Science Monitor noted in a recent article that scientific research in Russia has slowed significantly. The amount of peer-reviewed papers being published by Russian authors is now not much more than one-tenth of that of the United States, less than one-third of that of China.

While lack of government funding has driven the decline in scientific output, with Russia allocating about 2% as much money as the US (on that basis, their output actually looks quite good!) for scientific research. However, the article points out that the problem is much deeper. Andre Ionin is quoted in the article as saying "the profession of scientist is not prestigious anymore, and the government does not define scientific tasks that would attract talented people." Only 1.6% of Russian students viewed science as a worthwhile career in a 2006 survey.

The money has not dried up in the United States yet, but it seems to me that the social standing of scientists and engineers has fallen. I won't rehash my own experience of watching my peers decide to pursue other professions after getting an advanced degree. Some--though certainly not all--TEA party activists have included scientists as part of the government workforce that "wastes their tax dollars," usually in the context of climate change research, the most common thing they call "junk science." Mainstream media have laid off their science reporters as they have slashed spending in general.

The Obama administration has been increasing science funding. However, as of yet there is no race-to-the-moon-style reason for the general public to get excited by science. Until we have reason to believe, like Bill Nye the Science Guy, that "science is cool," there is always the danger that the United States is just one unsympathetic administration away from heading down the road that Russia has gone in science.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Photos: Good Friday Procession 2010

The Knights of Columbus were noted on Grace Street in Toronto, Ontario during the Good Friday Procession on 2-April-2010

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's update to my photo site features the Good Friday Procession. Unseasonably mild temperatures this year brought out the crowds and the sunglasses at the annual event. This year's procession was captured as it made its way from Grace Street onto Dundas Street in Toronto, Ontario's Little Italy neighbourhood on 2-April-2010.

Margin Notes: Perspective, Ghandi, Napoleon

Dan Garcia peered through the number boards of a F7 locomotive cab that he was turning into a simulator at the John Street Roundhouse in Toronto, Ontario on 10-April-2010

TORONTO, ONTARIO - While not possible to apply in all situations, I've always been a big believer that how one manages to frame a subject in a photograph is often more important than the subject itself. A classic example presented itself yesterday in a volunteer session at the John Street Roundhouse. Seeing Dan Garcia at work on the locomotive simulator has become rather routine in recent months, but seeing him through the number boards of the locomotive--that made a nice photograph.

* * * * * *

I haven't been taking many photographs lately, as the record temperatures of last weekend gave way not just to spring showers, but actual wind-swept snow flurries as I walked through the neighbourhood Wednesday evening. Spring tends to be the season that can't decide what it wants to do--one day it's winter, one day it's summer, but it's not very often actually spring.

* * * * * *

Spring may traditionally be a time of hope, but not for Arundhati Roy, a recent guest on the Open Source podcast. Amongst her profound, but not particularly inspiring, comments was "Ghandi was India's first NGO... It took a lot of money to keep that man poor."

* * * * * *

Sticking with history, leave it to John Yemma, editor of the Christian Science Monitor, to point out in a recent column that what I have called Glitch's Razor actually originated with Napoleon, translated as: "Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence." From now on, I'll call it Napoleon's Razor.

* * * * * *

History sounds better than politics to me right now. Between discussions of a new Governor General in Canada, more maneuvering in the Toronto mayoral race, the recent scandal surrounding now-former Conservative cabinet minister Helena Guergis, and the prospect of a political fight over a Supreme Court nominee in the United States, I have discovered that I have no appetite for political stories at this juncture. Wake me up when a real campaign starts.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Radio Pick: Limits

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's radio pick returns to public radio. Science is one of the hardest topics to communicate to a general audience--particularly on the radio. Radio Lab found a way to talk about the scientific perspective on limitations by using very human examples, making it much more accessible in this 59-minute program.

Listen to MP3 of Radio Lab "Limits"

Friday, April 9, 2010

Heritage: Vimy Circle

TORONTO, ONTARIO - On this Vimy Ridge Day nationally in Canada, it seemed appropriate to pay a little attention to a monument to this day that was never constructed--Vimy Circle.

I first learned about Vimy Circle from "Unbuilt Toronto" author Mark Osbaldeston's presentation to the Swansea Historical Society in February. Vimy Circle, which would have been located at modern-day University and Richmond, would have been a large roundabout, surrounded by Romanesque architecture with a monument to the battle at Vimy Ridge in the center.

The latest issue of Spacing magazine included more information on Vimy Circle, which was part of a bold effort to change the street map of Toronto, including Federal Avenue from the front of Union Station up to Queen Street and several streets running at a diagonal through the city's grid. A post on the Toronto Before blog illustrates what it might have looked like, and where it might have been, though the best rendering I've ever seen appears in Spacing. It looks almost like something out of Rome or Paris, and would have lent a feeling of planned and revered civilization that Toronto sorely lacks, save perhaps at Queen's Park.

Why was Vimy Circle never built, along with all the other proposals of the day? It was put to a referendum just three months after the 1929 Black Thursday crash of the stock markets heralding the start of what became the Great Depression. Unsurprisingly in those circumstances, the referendum failed.

Yet, while Toronto does not have a Vimy Circle, events today in Ottawa prove that Vimy Ridge will not soon be forgotten in Canada.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Personality: Zare the Physical Type

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I've taken some heat for entries on this blog which a few have taken as an indictment of the entire "physical world" of personality types, in particular my assessment of Senator John McCain back in the 2008 US Presidential campaign. I guess I haven't written enough that healthy examples of all types are required to keep the world functioning well, and that people demonstrating the "high traits" of any given personality have a lot to contribute to the world. So, just to keep the physical types off my case for awhile, let me present how Richard N. Zare, a scientist that I clearly admire as an professor demonstrates a physical world view.

Earlier this year, Zare gave the Priestley Medal Address to the American Chemical Society, which was published in Chemical and Engineering News and is available on-line. The speech was entitled "Fostering Creativity," and in it Zare expresses his belief that "creativity can actually be taught, or at least fostered." (This, incidentally, is consistent with Bob Cooley's Genetic Personality Types theory, as Cooley's whole point is that while certain personality types may naturally be more creative, anyone can take on that trait more readily by becoming more flexible in the meridians associated with that type.)

Zare describes a "creativity cycle" that starts with inertia, where perhaps a problem is recognized, but one feels good about overall understanding anyway. Next comes irritation, in which the problem starts to seem very real and one decides to solve it. In perhaps the best image of his speech, Zare points out that, "It really is true that pearls come only from irritated oysters." Next often comes imitation, when analogies to ideas tried before are tried.

The next stage is key, and where personality comes in to this discussion. Zare calls it intuition, and I cannot improve upon his words: requires you to adopt an attitude of playfulness. You put forward wild hypotheses, and then you work to show how these hypotheses are ridiculous. Two extremes must be avoided. If you believe too much and do not question, you can easily delude yourself. On the other hand, if you are too critical, you do not dare to try anything. You need to become a "contented schizophrenic," believing and doubting at the same time.

The contented schizophrenic can accept a messy situation and even revel in its ambiguity. All that is needed is an unfettered imagination. You follow your hunches and see where they lead. You accept that most of the time you will fail--fail miserably--but you do not fear failure...
Zare is invoking all four worlds here. The wild hypotheses come from the thinking world, which specializes in non-linear connections between ideas. He views it as required, but it's not enough to get one to the solution. The extremes that he cautions against come from two other worlds. The process of believing too much and engaging in delusion comes from the down side of the emotional world, which can be more interested in feeling good about a situation than dealing with intellectual inconsistencies. Being over-critical and hamstrung from action come from the down side of the spiritual world, which is more interested in energetic harmony with the world than finding novel solutions.

So how does one get through the intuition phase and find a solution? Good, old-fashioned physical type action. Go with one's "hunches" and test things to find out what works. The duality of "fear versus doing" inherent in the physical world comes into play, with the "doing" overcoming the "fear." Not only does Zare describe a fundamentally physical-world process, he uses vocabulary straight out of the personality theory.

Zare's speech represents balance as well. Besides the upsides of the thinking and physical worlds, he goes on in his speech to cite the upsides of the two other worlds as part of the formula for problem-solving as well, citing spiritual-world practice to build confidence and passion from the emotional world as ingredients for creativity. Yet, it's the intuition stage that is clearly key.

Maybe it's my own spiritual-world bias that is attracted to the upside of the physical world, but I think Zare has brilliantly described not only creativity, but everyone's favorite buzz word these days--innovation. The best genuine innovators I have encountered in my life--Zare is amongst them--are physical types, because they do the "intuition" phase more naturally than anyone else. Lest anyone think I disparage physical types, the future of society depends on their creativity and innovation as described and exemplified by Richard N. Zare.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Heritage: Each One Remembered

Linda Granfield spoke to the Swansea Historical Society in Toronto, Ontario on 7-April-2010

TORONTO, ONTARIO - The announced topic of this month's meeting of the Swansea Historical Society this evening was war brides. Linda Granfield indeed provided a substantial amount of information on how young British women married, left for Canada in secret, entered through Pier 21 in Halifax, and became community leaders across the nation. It truly was another time--a guide book was provided with things that would be overwhelmingly offensive now, such as the statement "Canadian men love pie" followed by three pie recipes--apple, pumpkin, and lemon meringue. It's hard to imagine in modern times how after war rationing that seeing white bread and milk on a trans-Atlantic voyage would be overwhelming. Yet, Granfield has written extensively for school children, and thus history is very much living to her.

Friday is Vimy Ridge Day, the day when Canada celebrates its emergence as a military force on the world stage. Ninety-three years ago, Canadian forces led the capturing of a high ground in France, losing nearly 3600 men in the process. The day has been celebrated as a military coming of age in Canada ever since. This year, after the death in February of John Babcock, the last living of 640,000 Canadian (and Newfoundlander) veterans from World War I, the Government of Canada decided to hold special ceremonies on Vimy Ridge Day in Ottawa.

Yet, outside of the nation's capitol, it would be all too easy to ignore the event, and Linda Granfield felt that should not happen. She started the Each One Remembered campaign in an attempt to get poppies made in honor of each of the 640,000 soldiers. Linked off the web page is a PDF file of a poppy that could be coloured in with a simple crayon. She started to spread the word--in part through her network of war brides.

At last check, the count was only above 12,000, but it included the full geographic range of Canada from coast to coast to coast, and there's still time before Friday. All one has to do is download a poppy and print it out (or draw one!), then follow the link to report the effort. Then, watch the special ceremonies for this Vimy Ridge Day that will air on all broadcasting networks at mid-day on Friday. It's the least we can do to recognize the sacrifice that has led to the country we know today.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Transport: Changes on GO Georgetown Line

The final GO Transit mid-day Georgetown Line train for now, Bramalea-Toronto train #266, crossed Black Creek in Toronto, Ontario on 1-April-2010

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week, GO Transit introduced a variety of spring schedule changes, but arguably the most interesting ones were on the commuter rail Georgetown Line. The second line to see mid-day service after the Lakeshore Line, the Georgetown Line is set for major service expansion, including an express line from Union Station to Pearson International Airport.

For now, that means the end of mid-day train service on the line, replaced by expanded bus service, in order to allow construction crews greater access to the tracks of the GO-owned Weston Subdivision that carries the line from the Bathurst Street interlocking near Toronto's Union Station to Halwest near the Bramalea, Ontario station. Previously, a single train set did three round trips at mid-day spaced about 90 minutes apart, meaning a regular and repeated need to clear the tracks to let that train through.

As long-time readers of this blog know, I can be over-interested in the operational logistics of railroads. It's interesting that this service change eliminated only the train set and crew associated with those three mid-day round trips. The "shoulder" trips on the edge of rush hour remain, as those used different train sets and crews. What's especially interesting is that two VIA Rail Canada intercity trains, one each direction, are still scheduled to use the line about 11:00. So, the longest break in the action will extend from about 11:00 to 15:30 in the afternoon--I guess four hours is useful.

The morning schedule was basically unchanged, with four through trains from Georgetown to Union Station (which overnight in Georgetown) supplemented by three shorter-distance trains from Bramalea (which deadhead empty to Bramalea to start their runs). Thus, I didn't pay much attention to the afternoon trains, which I presumed had retained the old pattern (#281 running to Brampton, then deadheading back to Union Station to become a Stouffville Line train, four through trains to Georgetown #205, #207, #209 and #211, and a final train #269 running only to Bramalea and then returning to the Willowbrook Yard service facility for the night).

The afternoon schedule has actually changed significantly. The first train, #281, now leaves at 15:30 instead of 14:45 and runs all the way through to Georgetown (why it wasn't renumbered to #203 to match the through series is hard to explain), not returning to Union Station. The four through trains to Georgetown were left the same. That meant that the last one, #211, has nowhere to remain in Georgetown and has to return to Willowbrook Yard. Train #269 has been extended to Brampton, and still deadheads back to Willowbrook Yard. Thus, each evening there are two trains that head back empty over the line to Toronto.

The first "deadhead" of GO Georgetown Line train #211 back to Toronto passed a Canadian National work train at Dundas Street West on 5-April-2010

Last night, I happened to be walking in Parkdale and crossed the Georgetown Line as the first train #211 deadheaded back to Toronto. At the time, I thought maybe #269's schedule had changed more than I had thought, and it was only after I took a closer look at the new schedule that I realized it was #211, not #269. Such are the hazards of being a railfan after schedule changes!

Residents along the line, who are pushing for electrification, will see three fewer of "Dalton's Dirty Diesels" at mid-day, so they ought to be happy for now.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Margin Notes: Holidays, Pranks, Sidewalks, Cats

A history of Toronto Transit Commission streetcars in the form of Presidents' Conference Committee (PCC), Peter Witt, and Canadian Light Rail Vehicle (CRLV) cars were in the Beaches Easter Parade on 4-April-2010

TORONTO, ONTARIO - It has become an Easter tradition for me to head to the eastern part of Toronto that I so rarely visit for the Beaches Easter Parade down Queen Street East. While the record warm temperatures likely had a lot to do with the happy mood this year, the giveaways of chocolate and candy always seem to leave people feeling especially friendly, even for Toronto. Many more pictures from the parade will be forthcoming.

* * * * * *

Holiday traditions seem to be alive and well in Seattle, Washington. The amazing feat of raising $500,000 from mostly small businesses to ensure that Seattle will have an annual fireworks display on Independence Day, done by the Dave Ross talk show on KIRO-FM in almost exactly one day, has several points of interest. First, the process was started by Tom Douglas, who ironically had been fired by KIRO-FM as a weekend host of a cooking show recently, calling in to the Dave Ross show to suggest the effort and make the first pledge of $5000, showing that there's something to be said for maintaining relations with former co-workers. Then, while Starbucks and Microsoft stepped forward with matching funds for half the amount, just about everything else was raised from small businesses. This shows that providing more ways for small businesses to work together--whether for legal lobbying, purchasing of health care plans, or giving money to civic causes--can really enhance the public experience. Government ought to take note.

* * * * * *

The other major holiday last week was April Fool's Day, and I am usually on the lookout for the best jokes. However, this year was remarkably tame. In the broadcast media, probably the only truly notable prank was the BBC Today show reporting that Shakespeare was actually French. Another especially good joke was a post on a well-known railfanning site that Union Pacific, which has painted a number of locomotives in special paint schemes including a recent unit with Boy Scout logos, was going to do a rainbow-painted unit in honor of its gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered employees. It reflects poorly on the railfan community that the post was so poorly received that it had to be removed.

* * * * * *

A "Monolithic Sidewalk" sign was noted on Queen Street East at Victoria Park in Toronto, Ontario on 4-April-2010

This sign was no joke. While walking back from the parade, I found a number of "monolithic sidewalk" signs like the one above in Scarborough. While a monolithic sidewalk apparently means that the curb and sidewalk are poured as a single slab of concrete, what these signs mean is that there is no room to place snow between the road and the sidewalk without blocking the sidewalk, and thus crews cannot push snow to the side of the road. I guess the interpretation is that the snow removal crew is supposed to treat the sidewalk as monolithic with the road, but is that really the clearest way to mark such a situation?

* * * * * *

The monolithic sidewalk might be too small for more than just snow piles. A story on CBC television last week reported that nearly 60% of house cats in North America are obese, a rate higher than even that of their owners; dogs were not that far behind at 45%. Most veterinarians say it comes down to the same things as for humans--eat healthier food and get more exercise.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Photos: Winter in Toronto 2010

Etobicoke Creek in Toronto, Ontario was just barely thawing on 8-February-2010

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Winter is officially over, so it's time for a retrospective in this week's update to my photo site, though it wasn't a typical season. Mild weather in Toronto meant relatively few shots dominated by white, but there were murals in Islington Village, TTC construction scenes, and meetings of the Swansea Historical Society to capture in January, February, and March 2010.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Radio Pick: Saving July 4th

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's radio pick focuses on local radio. One of the lost axioms of radio is that it is at its best when it is truly local. Dave Ross demonstrated the power of local radio this week in Seattle. After doing a secondary monologue on the apparent lack of an Independence Day fireworks display in Seattle on his talk show, restaurateur Tom Douglas called in to suggest raising money from small businesses and made an opening pledge. After a call to the traditional organizers confirmed that the display could still occur, the fund-raising drive was on, and in about a day the needed $500,000 was raised. That was not only local action--it was good radio.

Listen to the Dave Ross Show "Saving July 4th"

Friday, April 2, 2010

Holiday: Good Friday Procession 2010

The Good Friday Procession prepared to get underway on Grace Street in Toronto, Ontario on 2-April-2010

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Traditionally, temperatures tend to be quite chilly for the Good Friday Procession in Toronto, Ontario. Last year, even though Good Friday fell eight days later than this year on the calendar, I found myself standing almost alone on the shady side of the College Street in Little Italy because most people preferred to stand in the sun to try keep warm. This year, there were actually people wearing shorts in the crowd, and I wasn't the only person wearing a short-sleeve shirt as temperatures reached a record 23 degrees.

Unleavened bread was carried in the Good Friday Procession on Grace Street in Toronto, Ontario on 2-April-2010

The Good Friday Procession is designed to put people in an appropriate mood for the Christian Easter holiday, telling the Easter story in all its details through Christ's crucifixion, everything from unleavened bread (seen above) to Barabbas being released and not Jesus. With a route mostly through Little Italy, the event is dominated by Italian-Canadian organizations.

The Malta Band performed in the 2010 Good Friday Procession in Toronto, Ontario on 2-April-2010

Much of the somber mood comes from the bands in the procession. This isn't an event in the streets with the Philippine Heritage Band playing loudly and receiving applause after each song. Much smaller community bands play more muted tunes followed by silence upon their completion.

The cross was carried to the Christ's crucifixion during the Good Friday Procession in Toronto, Ontario on 2-April-2010

Because of the many scenes from the Easter story presented, there are a lot of Christs presented. I didn't think to count portrayals of Christs over the course of the parade, but there must have been at least ten actors, most of them in some way molested by actors portraying Romans, plus a number of static representations.

Christ's body was carried to his burial during the Good Friday Procession in Toronto, Ontario on 2-April-2010

While the Good Friday Procession is certainly an impressive production, it doesn't exactly qualify as fun--that has to wait for Easter Sunday, as religious themes become overrun by secular bunnies and the parade instead has overt commercial content.

Even after just passing down Grace Street, there was already a sizable crowd following the Good Friday Procession on Dundas Street West in Toronto, Ontario on 2-April-2010

More pictures from the Good Friday procession will be in a future update to my photo site.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Culture: Should This Be a Holiday?

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I generally tend to believe that humor can add to productivity, but this date on the calendar often makes me wonder. Besides the antics that can distract from productivity that often occur on this date, it's difficult to take any gesture that is the least bit surprising seriously when it comes out on this day. It makes me wonder if the day should not just be declared a holiday.

April 1st is a day when one has to be alert when listening to the media. The best of the April Fool's jokes are those that are credible enough that a casual listener won't catch the details that make them incredible, and thus believes the story. I was listening with heightened alertness today when the story came up of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police's apology to Zofia Cisowski. Cisowski's son Robert Dziekanski died after being tasered by the RCMP as he entered the country at Vancouver Airport in 2007. The public apology came as part of an out-of-court settlement between Cisowski and the RCMP.

I actually wasn't certain that this was a real story. Considering the date on the calendar and the despicable behaviour of the RCMP in apparently covering up what actually happened that day, a public apology seemed out-of-character, and thus exactly the kind of thing that could be an April Fool's joke. Of course, nobody would actually be so cruel as to compound this tragic case with an April Fool's joke; both the settlement and the apology were very real, and should finally bring some closure to a very tragic event.

Yet, the very fact that I could have even suspected an April Fool's joke demonstrates the difficulty in doing anything on this day. It's risky to engage in business negotiations on this day, as any change in position might just be a joke. (That's not far-fetched--I once did that with a partner company to see how they would react and let the joke sit for several minutes before backing out of it. It was quite informative.) Can a personal e-mail be taken seriously on this day? I suppose that depends on the people in your life.

Combine those handicaps with some of the jokes I've seen played in the corporate world on this day, and it's a wonder anyone tries to do anything on April 1st. I've seen IT people set people's monitors to display upside down, desks moved across the office, and phone lines set to always call time as well as things that were much easier to work around.

We can always use another holiday. I would suggest that the impact on productivity would be minimal if April Fool's Day were made a holiday.