Monday, May 31, 2010

Economics: Not Just Pay

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This evening on the PBS NewsHour, an interesting discussion was aired on the public reaction to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Science educator Bill Nye, energy expert Amy Jaffe and technology forecaster Paul Saffo weighed in on why the spill was being perceived in the way that it is by the average citizen.

A fair portion of the discussion focused on the lack of public confidence in engineers, and the idea that "poor engineering" has been a hallmark of the United States for a generation. Bill Nye took it back "all the way back to the Ford Pinto" and emphasized the two space shuttle disasters as destroying the pride in engineering that had once existed in the country following the NASA missions to the moon in the 1960's and 1970's. Jaffe pointed out that many mathematicians and engineers are going to Wall Street and financial firms instead of working in engineering, a phenomenon I have written about before on this blog.

Yet, I think there is a separate trend here being highlighted in talking about the quality of engineering. It's not just that higher salaries are luring qualified "quantitative people" away from engineering, it's also that the corporate environment in United States (and apparently in Great Britain, if BP is any indication) explicitly eschews good engineering in favor of cutting corners to achieve short-term financial results.

As I think about my personal experiences in engineering, both in the companies I have worked for and in partner companies that I came to know and companies that friends have worked for, there have been two kinds of companies that actually emphasized making a well-engineered product that would meet market demand (and hence make money in the medium to long-term). The first were privately-held companies, both large and small, in the United States whose executives did not have to worry about what happened to a stock price each quarter. The second were foreign companies, based in either continental Europe or Asia.

Venture-funded and publicly-traded companies in the United States often do wonderful research on advanced technologies, but once feasibility is demonstrated, the product development process is short-changed. Everything is about shipping a product, regardless of how well it works, and meeting quarterly forecasts for raw revenue. In an odd market distortion, customer satisfaction with the product is an afterthought, something that can be addressed down the road. The barrier to entry for competitors is often so high that only huge companies can realistically enter the market and compete, and companies figure that in the meantime, they can drive up their stock prices by shipping inferior product. (This probably also explains the exceptions to the generality I've made here--companies that buck this trend like Apple are in competitive consumer markets where the barrier to entry is not so high and ignoring customer satisfaction is fatal.) It's not that their engineers can't make a better product for their customers; they are not allowed to do so.

The same pressures apply to safety, as seen most dramatically in the Deep Water Horizon disaster. Engineers knew how to deal with a situation such as what has happened--but it required spending money on a remote-control shut-off valve that would have been effectively mandatory in Brazil and Norway. Call it a regulatory issue or a corporate issue, but don't call it an engineering issue--the problem was foreseeable and a solution was available that would have had only a very small impact on the overall cost of the operation.

There's also a self-perpetuating effect within these companies. As engineers observe that quality and ethical practices are regarded by their employers as unimportant or even downright undesirable, they respond by no longer even trying to follow such practices. The culture of the companies becomes one of emphasizing short-term financial returns over any other consideration.

The net effect is that the public sees a shoddy product or safety disaster, and they begin to regard engineers in society as incompetent and incapable of doing things correctly. The United States has gotten to this point, as the panel tonight on the NewsHour expressed. Until the corporate environment in the country somehow changes, I don't see the impression ever changing back.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Photos: Doors Open at Roundhouse Park

Roundhouse Park in Toronto, Ontario was more crowded than usual during Doors Open Toronto on 29-May-2010

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's update to my photo site features the grand opening of the Toronto Railway Heritage Centre. Doors Open Toronto 2010 was the scene for the first public opening of the full range of displays at Roundhouse Park in Toronto, Ontario. A wide range of activities were available, from locomotive simulators to hand car rides to the newly-restored Cabin D and Don Station to the ever-popular miniature railway on 29-30-May-2010.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Radio Pick: Negative Advertising

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's radio pick again comes from the CBC. There's a lot of stereotyping of negative advertising in the mainstream media, so an inside take on its art from a practitioner in the industry turned out to be quite informative, not blowing away the stereotypes but adding a lot of nuance. The clips from past famous examples of negative ads alone would make this 27-minute show from Terry O'Reilley and company worth listening to without any other reason.

Listen to Flash audio of The Age of Persuasion "Negative Advertising"

Friday, May 28, 2010

Transport: GO Electrification Study

The audience was less than impressed with a technology comparison slide at the GO Transit electrification study town meeting at the Lithuanian House in Toronto, Ontario on 26-May-2010

TORONTO, ONTARIO - The first public meeting for the GO electrification study held Wednesday evening at the Lithuanian House near The Junction in Toronto, Ontario drew a who's who in area transit advocacy. Everyone from local city councillor Gord Perks to the Clean Trains Coalition's Mike Sullivan to the influential Steve Munro was noted in attendance. They were there in part because the general public knew little about this study, which we learned will be taking place throughout 2010. After two and a half hours, I'm not sure anyone left the room satisfied.

Unlike a previous study that focused only on the Lakeshore line, this study is system-wide in scope. Rather than just dispositioning the idea of electrification as a yes or no based on economic models, it is intended to provide a blueprint for how recommended options might actually proceed. In order to do that, it makes a variety of assumptions, foremost that Union Station will be able to handle the expanded schedules anticipated for all lines in 2020, the approximate "medium term" that is the focus of the study. Furthermore, it looked at a variety of options including diesel multiple-units, electric multiple-units, and even hydrogen locomotives, as well as the use of electric locomotives.

That all might seem well and good, but there are some bizarre aspects to the study. The baseline for the study is the use of the MP40PH-3C diesel locomotives that GO has been placing in service since 2008, upgraded to so-called Tier IV emissions standards. However, no passenger locomotive meeting the Tier IV emissions standard has yet been produced, nor is there any certainty that the MP40PH-3C fleet will be able to be upgraded to meet the standard. So, the baseline assumption, far from being a well-characterized option, is essentially all guesswork--not exactly a firm foundation for any study.

Then, there were a number of things that the study managers seemed to not realize that would seem to be quite relevant to the study. Steve Munro pointed out that the potential need of a second, below-ground level of platforms at Union Station would likely make electrification necessary regardless of what the study determined. Mike Sullivan pointed out that the bi-level coaches used by GO were originally designed to be converted to electric multiple-units, which could radically change the economics of transitioning to that option. A GO manager was crucified by the audience for displaying ignorance of the sound levels produced by diesel locomotives, claiming that sound walls would have to be built regardless of the technology chosen.

Most people in the room were quite concerned about the "Air Rail Link" or ARL between Union Station and Pearson International Airport, which uses the Georgetown Line right-of-way for most of its distance. Despite the fact that service will be run by a private operator and not GO, electrification of that line was included in the scope of the study. However, because of the 2015 timeline for opening, study project director Karen Pitre actually stated that "I don't think it's practical" for the ARL to be built as an electrified line if so recommended by the study, implying that it would have to be a subsequent upgrade.

This meeting will likely be one of only a few public meetings during the study; GO and Metrolinx are instead trying to get public feedback through the web site for the study, This was pointed out as inaccessible to many residents along the rail lines who are not web-savvy, including seniors.

I was left with the impression that the people doing the electrification study are sincere and possibly even positively disposed to the implementation of electrification on GO Transit. However, with the base case chosen, the lack of Metrolinx authority over the ARL, and the lack of broad forums for public feedback (never mind the political realities that might ignore whatever the study says), the study may prove to be all for naught--just like the earlier Lakeshore electrification study has been.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Economics: BP in the Emotional World

TORONTO, ONTARIO - When referring to Meridian Personality Theory, I have been known to refer to countries as having personalities. It's not just people and nations that can be classified in this way. Companies often exhibit personalities that can be determined, even when the company employs thousands of people. A case in point comes out of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico--BP is proving to have quite a "bladder" personality.

This thought was already forming in my head when I heard the skit on CBC Radio One's The Current this morning (at the end of the third segment) making fun of the names that BP has used for its attempt to stop the leak in the Gulf of Mexico. All of them have a masculine, even macho theme, including "Top Hat," "Top Kill," and "Junk Shot."

Yet, this is really nothing new. The company has been trying to control its image for quite a long time. In 2001, BP ceased to stand for "British Petroleum" in favor of "Beyond Petroleum," coinciding with a new, green-and-sun logo. While it did increase investment in alternate energy, there is no question that this was a pittance compared with its traditional petroleum business. By the company's own numbers cited here, investment in petroleum projects out-stripped alternative energy 25:1 since 2001.

The macho theme was also not new. Besides the "Deepwater Horizon" that has now become infamous, other names used in the Gulf of Mexico included "Horn Mountain," "Mad Dog," "Atlantis" and "Thunderhorse." So, this naming convention comes up whether the company is in crisis or not--it's a part of its culture.

What personality type does this sort of thing? While macho traits are generally associated with the "physical" world, the emphasis on image is not--that's a trait of the "emotional" world. Managing one's image in the interest of self-promotion without any regard for the underlying reality is most likely to occur in a "downside" or less than healthy "bladder" type within the emotional world.

As for whether this personality is well-suited to actually solving a problem like a leaking underwater oil well, it's actually not bad. "Bladders" are known as people that figure out ways to get things done, usually involving deals with others. So, while the "bladder" type might not be the one to actually fire the "junk shot" at the well, they might be just the type to find the right person or organization to do that. Or, at least, so we can hope.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Culture: In Defense of Ecumenism

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I've stated before on this blog that I think leadership and culture have a lot to do with whether people get along with one another or fight, and that Canada is a classic example of what happens leaders and tradition encourage people to figure out how to live together.

Therefore, I don't have much patience with people that insist on emphasizing differences between people, because I find that it just tends to undermine attempts to create, well, peace and order (if not good government). I don't know what his underlying agenda in doing so might be, but Stephen Prothero of Boston University provided a classic example in a recent Christian Science Monitor commentary.

I don't really disagree with any of the facts that Prothero presents as he argues that it is a "dangerous myth" to believe in a unity of religious faiths. It is true that religions offer distinct solutions to distinct problems, as he explains. Why wouldn't that be the case? To me, he undermines his entire presentation with this sentence: "The world's religious rivals do converge when it comes to ethics, but they diverge sharply on doctrine, ritual, mythology, experience, and law."

Isn't that the whole point of the ecumenist movement, that despite different cultures (which is really what his five enumerated areas represent), the underlying ethical standards are largely the same? Is it really "ignorant" to realize that religious cultures are very different in expression, but hold some things--what people like me would argue are the really important things--in common?

The statement that really kills me is this one: "Yet we know in our bones that the world's religions are different from one another." Really? (Never mind that most of what I know resides in my head, not my bones, since we must allow literary devices.) I have the exact opposite "gut feeling"--it seems to me most religions basically exist to help individuals cope with what they experience in their lives, providing a moral compass no matter what is around them, and that is fundamentally similar.

Prothero asserts that my perspective is ignorant, and that "like all forms of ignorance, it makes our world more dangerous." However, his version of dangerous seems to be that it prevents discussion and learning that would otherwise make the reasons for religious conflict more clear. I don't see how believing in a unity of ethics leads to a lack of dialog. It seems to me people don't talk to people that are different when they are told by leaders that the "others" are a threat, not because they think the "others" are the same.

Interestingly, if Prothero's real purpose is to create more discussion of the differences between religions, I completely agree with him. I don't expect a "magical" detente between Christians and Muslims, for example--I expect people to talk to one another and do a lot of hard work. I agree with him that the problem is often ignorance, but I believe that by dialoging and debating with people from other perspectives, one is far more likely to regard the "other" as members of the same human race and therefore not to be feared or attacked. Exactly how that is "dangerous" is beyond me.

I daresay Stephen Prothero needs to spend some more time in Canada and see some practical examples of peace, order, and good government.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Politics: Schieffer Has a Point

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I often credit Bob Schieffer of CBS with the best two minutes of political analysis each week in his commentary at the end of Face the Nation. This week's commentary did it again, bringing up a point that he is hardly the first to express but seems to be largely forgotten in the mainstream media--every time a radical change occurs (a "game changing event"), the opposing political party tends to over-react toward the other extreme and while it might do well in one election, soon finds that it has gone too far from the mainstream and enters an electoral wilderness.

Of course, the reason nobody is echoing Schieffer's message is that neither side wants to acknowledge the historical precedent. The Republicans--at least the Conservative activists--don't want to believe there is a precedent, preferring to believe that this is a "new" era. The Democrats also don't want to look at other historical precedents--like the fact that major legislation (like health care) had never been passed without significant public support before--but more importantly, they are secretly hoping there is historical precedent in this instance and don't want to discourage the Republicans from heading far from mainstream voters. There's no incentive to make Schieffer's point.

People on the left and the right don't want to believe that there is anyone left in the center anymore, but that's still where most elections will be won or lost. The politically median citizen still matters, and they rightly feel alienated by both major parties in the United States right now. Some will not vote, but some will choose between the lesser of perceived evils, and the farther candidates go from the center, the harder it will be for them to attract votes. Contrary to what activists wish to believe, the median voter is not a member of the TEA party--median voters in Oregon and even Arizona have now voted for higher taxes. They may not trust government, but they'd still prefer that it start functioning better.

Canada has a similar problem. The Conservatives can't seem to bring themselves to the true political center, occasionally reverting to their right-of-center Reform origins and simultaneously keeping their poll numbers in check. The Liberals can hardly claim the center when there seems to be serious consideration of a coalition with the unabashedly-left New Democrats. Where is a "Red Tory," once the symbol of the political center in Canada, supposed to go now? Most find the federal Conservatives too far right, and the Liberals too far left. A few I know have actually gone to the Green Party, but that party has yet to win a single federal seat.

This isn't brain surgery; this is Politics 101. All the major parties in North America need to quit acting like they are applying their learning from Politics 457C and get back to the political center. Whoever figures that out first may be pleasantly surprised at the next outcomes at the ballot box.

Postscript: I guess I'm not the only one thinking like Schieffer. See Ed Kilgore's post today on

Monday, May 24, 2010

Holiday: The Beginning of Summer

Part of the Ontario Place fireworks on 23-May-2010 were observed above Lake Ontario in Toronto

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I don't care what the calendar says. To me, and to most of the country of Canada (or at least those seeing similar weather in southern Ontario), summer started this weekend. This was the first three-day weekend of the summer season, with today as the first holiday, Victoria Day.

The weather has gotten downright warm. I had to turn on the air conditioning this evening to get my Galilean thermometer to read less than 26 C (that's about 79 F). It's been relatively warm, and substantially dry, since mid-month. Spring showers are already a thing of the past.

For some, this is the weekend to open up one's cottage in a rural area. As I walked through my neighbourhood in the past week, a number of "cottage sales" were noted at various stores. A particularly notable one was at a cheese store, proclaiming that it was time to buy "cottage cheese." I'm surprised I hadn't seen that one before.

Not being one of the wealthy with a cottage, I instead took in a city activity yesterday, attending the Ontario Place fireworks from a public park rather than paying to attend the seasonal opening of the amusement park. My route walking there took me along Sunnyside Beach, and more so than in previous years, I saw the diversity that makes Toronto such an amazing place--everything from bathing suits to hijabs, skin colors from pale to dark, and a smattering of languages from around the world were all observed along Humber Bay.

Now, it's time for community and street festivals that represent the diversity of Toronto all summer long--as well as other unwelcome seasonal activities, like road construction. Everything cannot be idyllic for an entire season.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Photos: Roundhouse Retrospective

The interior of the John Street Roundhouse was viewed on 15-May-2010, as preparation for Doors Open 2010 continued.

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This weekend, during Doors Open Toronto on 29-30-May-2010, the Toronto Railway Heritage Centre will open with rides on the new miniature railway and tours of the museum stalls of the John Street Roundhouse. In anticipation of that event, this week's update to my photo site shows some of the work performed in Roundhouse Park from January to May 2010, including the miniature railway, a Toronto Hamilton & Buffalo caboose, locomotive simulators, cranes, and more.

Margin Notes: Lower Bay, Google, KIRO-FM

This view was obtained as a detouring Bloor-Danforth subway train pulled up to a red signal at Lower Bay in Toronto, Ontario on 22-May-2010

TORONTO, ONTARIO - It may be the first long weekend of the summer in Canada, as we celebrate Victoria Day tomorrow, but TTC subway crews are at work all weekend. Serious track work is taking place on the Bloor-Danforth line which is causing a weekend-long diversion of that subway line through the long-closed and usually bypassed Lower Bay station. I couldn't resist trying to get some photos while riding a detouring train, but they didn't turn out nearly as well as when Lower Bay was open during Doors Open 2007... and as a reminder, Doors Open in Toronto is next weekend.

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One of the famous adjustable-arrow Canadian traffic signs was noted on the Bloor Street bridge over the Humber River on 21-May-2010

Another local transportation project that is just getting underway is the refurbishment of the Bloor Street bridge over the Humber River, originally constructed in 1924. As I walked across the bridge on Friday, I noted the adjustable-arrow sign used by construction crews, and realized I'd never commented here about these signs. There is no such thing in the United States--people would change the direction of the arrow. Here, I've never of that happening, and few construction signs don't have an adjustable arrow.

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There used to be a real distinction between the US and Canadian Google home pages. After the recent overhaul of the Google interface, the "Search Only Pages from Canada" button on the version of the home page disappeared. Sure, the option is still available through the left results menu, but I rather liked the old arrangement, where I could easy pick whether I wanted the world or just Canada before executing the search. I guess this way they receive more ad revenue.

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Anyone that doubts Google's Stanford heritage needs to look no farther than the code name for the latest Google cell phone operating system (Android 2.2), Froyo. Anyone at Stanford in the 1990's and beyond will remember having FroYo (frozen yogurt) at the CoHo (Coffee House). It may be a Google convention to name their operating systems after desserts, but I'm sure they could have found something with less Stanford connection (Fondue comes to mind as a potentially more direct successor to Eclair).

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One person likely not thinking much about dessert right now is KIRO-FM's Gregg Hersholt in Seattle. According to his Facebook page, this will be Hersholt's last week with the station after 26 years, and it wasn't voluntary. I first heard Hersholt as the news anchor with Dave Dolackey on the afternoon news, and remember him making a comment in the early 1990's when working Christmas day about "troopers like us being rewarded some day." Hersholt was eventually rewarded by becoming the morning anchor upon the retirement of legend Bill Yeend. Considering that Yeend ended up un-retired on KOMO and the revolving door that seems to exist between KOMO and KIRO right now (Hersholt's former co-host Jane Shannon is now on KOMO), don't be too surprised to find Hersholt show up on the KOMO staff before too long. As to what will happen with the KIRO-FM morning show, I'll go out on a limb and predict that it goes all-talk (Kirby Wilbur is available and experienced in the time slot, amongst other possibilities)--which would be a sad day for those who remember the quality news blocks that used to be a staple of the station in the 1980's.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Radio Pick: Mexican Drug War

TORONTO, ONTARIO - It's been a long time since I cited Dispatches as my weekly radio pick, and this week they really earned it with a joint investigation with NPR News into the Mexican drug war. Good production values combine with in-depth reporting to provide a solid example of investigative journalism in the first segment of the 54-minute show.

Listen to streaming MP3 of Dispatches "Mexican Drug War"

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For those looking for something more humorous, check out Harry Shearer's parody "At Loggerheads" on the religious makeup of the United States Supreme Court, found fifty minutes into this week's LeShow.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Transport: Gerard Kennedy on Metrolinx

Member of Parliament Gerard Kennedy and the Clean Trains Coalition's Mike Sullivan both addressed a question at a community meeting on 19-May-2010

TORONTO, ONTARIO - For his latest community meeting held last Wednesday at Bishop Marrocco/Thomas Merton Catholic Secondary School in Toronto, Ontario, Gerard Kennedy chose as his topic the federal role in public transportation. This might seem an odd selection in many ways, as really the only role of the federal government in local transportation is funding, and as a member of the opposition Kennedy has little influence on that. However, the meeting still had a number of remarkable moments rather revealing of both the MP and his audience.

Kennedy is the infrastructure critic in parliament, so he presented developed opinions about transportation-related topics. There seems to be a general consensus on the political left that Metrolinx's plans for a line to the airport are not to be stopped entirely, but should include electrification (for noise and pollution benefits, as well as lower operating cost) from the beginning, and that the line should be public, rather than run by a private operator. Kennedy expressed no deviation from that consensus.

His critique largely focused on two areas. First, he emphasized that the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA), a federal organization, needed to be pushed to be involved in Metrolinx projects from the beginning, rather than an agency of last appeal when Metrolinx's obligations to the community were not met. He pointed that the CTA had been ruled to have jurisdiction over rail projects, and thus all Metrolinx/GO Transit commuter rail projects. The experience in the Junction over pile driving in 2009 may have gone on too long, but at least the court cases surrounding it made this clear, and Kennedy wants to leverage the ruling to make Metrolinx address issues before construction starts on other projects.

The second thing is that Kennedy wants a body of all levels of government jointly having responsibility for political oversight of these projects, so that the various levels cannot just claim that others are responsible. This might seem like a typical politician's proposal with little chance of becoming reality, but Kennedy genuinely has a point. Since (to cite Parkdale as an example) Gord Perks at the city council level, Cheri DiNovo at the provincial level, and Kennedy at the federal level do largely see eye-to-eye about what should happen with the corridor despite their different party identities, it would make sense to have a body in which they could wield their various powers to ensure the end they would like to see would be met.

This proposal provoked a great deal of discussion from the audience, with a lot of discontent expressed at the lack of coordination between DiNovo (from the NDP) and Kennedy (a Liberal) in particular. At some level, if Kennedy was telling the truth that he would have attended last month's public meeting put on by DiNovo (covered here) had he not been traveling, it's really a shame that he was traveling, since that would have changed the whole tone of the accusations from activists in the audience who are never seeing the two of them in the same place.

The harshest words from the public were aimed at Metrolinx, with one person accusing the provincial agency of being "diabolical." Kennedy did not exactly defend them, saying "they are not necessarily diabolical... they haven't behaved in way that is very responsible." Anyone who lives within earshot of the Junction--which means even me--would call that an understatement.

As for the broader picture beyond Metrolinx, Kennedy called for a national public transit policy for all cities, saying that the federal government "needs to be more than a funder--we must bring something more to the table." Sharing standards and expertise were suggested as part of that formula, and Kennedy reminded the audience that the Liberals have called for more of the gas tax revenue to be directed to municipalities.

Kennedy always seems to have a out-of-the-blue remark that I find interesting in his meetings. This time, it was in response to a question about climate change. "It looks to me like the Obama administration is going to use the EPA to regulate carbon," he said, "We may have a price for carbon by the new year in Canada as a result." We shall see.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Media: The Early Days of Streaming

TORONTO, ONTARIO - A friend wrote to me recently raving about a WiFi radio. The concept of a WiFi radio is pretty simple--being able to tune into any radio station in the world that has an Internet stream, instead of being limited to local stations. All one needs is the WiFi radio and either a wireless or a wired Ethernet connection to the Internet, and one can tune in anything from KGO in San Francisco to ABC Newsradio in Australia to RPR-1 in Germany, and everything in between.

Personally, I don't find the concept of a WiFi radio that interesting, since I already have a computer and can tune in any of these stations on the computer, and then use a low-power FM transmitter to broadcast it to any radio in my residence. I've been doing that for more than a decade, and I don't see how a WiFi radio improves over that arrangement. In fact, it would actually be a step backward, as the radio sits in only one location and the FM transmitter goes to every room.

It wasn't that long ago that we had no such options. I remember when I was the head teaching assistant of an Analytical Chemistry lab at university that had an evening section. Some of the experiments were rather tedious, so sometimes the evening section leader and I would let students stick around and continue an experiment, and we'd work on our own homework. The lab did not have a radio, but it did have a computer. So, one night approaching midnight, I decided to try to find some music.

Google didn't exist yet, so I went to Yahoo for radio station listings (in fact, I think Yahoo may have still been at, a few buildings away on campus). There weren't a lot of music options--the most popular station with students in that era, for example, Alice@97.3, was not on-line, but eventually I found something that the handful of remaining students could stand.

It was WZYP, a hit music station out of Huntsville, Alabama. 104.3 on the FM dial there, it had a Real Audio stream on the Internet that enabled us to hear it in California. The music was enough to keep us awake, and the overnight disc jockey (DJ), whose name has disappeared from my memory, kept us entertained with his southern accent alone.

The moment that would etch itself into my memory came when the morning DJ came on the air (er, the Internet) and announced "It's 5 AM in Huntsville--Good morning!" Being two times zones over, it was 3 AM in Palo Alto. That was significant, however, since only a minority of students actually went to bed before midnight--according to the unofficial "Pacific Stanford Time," the day actually started at 3 AM. WZYP was telling us we were in all-nighter territory.

It wasn't long before the students wrapped up their experiments and went home, and the teaching staff followed. I don't think I've listened to WZYP since the night labs, as more familiar stations eventually came on-line. Yet, by being one of the first music stations available on-line, WZYP earned a place in my life story, and I doubt I'll ever forget it.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Politics: Britain Understands Politics

TORONTO, ONTARIO - The results of the primary and special elections in the United States yesterday, as well as a community meeting held tonight in my local parliamentary riding lead me to one conclusion--too many in North America have forgotten the purpose of politics, and it's time to look back to Britain for a reminder of how things are supposed to work.

There seem to be almost as many spins on the various electoral results in the United States yesterday as there are analysts, but I believe that it is fairly safe to say that no moderates in either major political party did well. On the Democratic side, Arlen Specter lost in a Pennsylvania senate primary to the more liberal Joe Sestak and Blanche Lincoln heads to an Arkansas senate runoff with the more liberal Bill Halter that she seems likely to lose. On the Republican side, more conservative "Tea Party" candidates did well all over, from Rand Paul in Kentucky to Art Robinson in Oregon.

This is hardly a new trend in the United States. The current highly partisan environment, in the nation's capitol and elsewhere, has been growing for at least two decades. The result has been essentially no bipartisan legislation of any kind except in economic emergencies and growing disillusion with government in general by people of all political stripes. Politicians who dare to actually talk to people of the other party and find common ground can't even receive their party's nomination anymore--just ask Bob Bennett in Utah.

While Canada hasn't decayed nearly as far, the concept of working together seems to be pretty rare here as well. At a community meeting tonight, my local Member of Parliament, Gerard Kennedy, was asked about the prospects of a coalition of left-wing parties in the next election. "People seem to have strong identities as Liberals or New Democrats," Kennedy stated, "They focus on those identities and not commonalities. That's a big problem for sitting down at the table" to even discuss a coalition. While far from calling for inter-party unity on the left, Kennedy did seem to be less than satisfied with the status quo. "We have a cultural issue here in Canada. We're more focused on identity than in finding commonalities."

Great Britain has its own problems--mostly economic--but the election there this month proved that politicians there at least understand that politics is about finding commonalities--usually called "compromises"--and getting things done. The Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats may not be natural partners, but they found enough in common in just five days to form a government that they intend to last for a normal 4-5 year election cycle. Conservative leader David Cameron and Liberal Democratic leader Nick Clegg figured out how they might work together, and as a result their country has what it needs to address those economic problems (and they are rewarded as being Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, respectively).

I'm not the first to say it, but as many people as possible need to be saying it. North American politicians need to re-learn what Cameron and Clegg demonstrated in Great Britain. Being elected means having a responsibility to govern the country, whether as part of a ruling government or majority party or as part of an opposition or minority party keeping them honest. To best represent the country as a whole, they need to speak to one another and act on their commonalities. If they aren't doing that, they aren't doing their jobs. Most politicians in North America are not doing this job, and voters need to be upset about that, not whether their representatives are ideologically pure.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

History: 30th Mount Saint Helens Day

TORONTO, ONTARIO - A year ago on this blog, I predicted that today, on the thirtieth anniversary of the main eruption of Mount Saint Helens, there would be substantial coverage of the event. Not so, it seems, at least in the international media. Dig deep enough on the major news sites, and there will be retrospectives, but with plenty of news in the realm of politics, economics, and even a volcano in Iceland, there didn't seem to be much room to talk about something that happened thirty years ago.

That the world did not know how to handle the ongoing eruption at Eyjafjallajokul in Iceland should not have been surprising to anyone that lived through Mount Saint Helens. Major volcanic eruptions happen regularly somewhere in the world, yet each new one seems to lead to reactions as if nothing like it had ever happened before. In the case of Mount Saint Helens, it was mostly about what was in the ash. People were advised to wear masks and not disturb the falling ash downwind of Mount Saint Helens, as it might be toxic. It turned out not be. In the case of Eyjafjallajokul, it was about how close planes could fly to the ash plumes--something that airlines in some parts of the world already knew well.

A lot of things about Mount Saint Helens turned out to be different than they appeared. Farmers in eastern Washington state were concerned that the ash from the volcano that had fallen on them would ruin their crops. In reality, the ash turned out to be great fertilizer, and the areas with the deepest ash--near Ritzville and Lind, Washington--turned out to have banner crops in succeeding years.

One of my most lasting memories of Mount Saint Helens came not on the day of the eruption, but a few years later. The main state highway that had led to Mount Saint Helens and Spirit Lake along the Toutle River, highway 504, was nearly completely obliterated by the mudflow following the eruption. While that road was being rebuilt, forest service roads were re-established south from US highway 12 through the Gifford Pinchot National Forest to the area of devastation. My parents took me on a trip over these roads to see the barren areas, the trees looking like toothpicks leaning in unison, and what was left of the mountain. Even in the mid-1980's, just a few years after the eruption, there were already some signs of life growing up through the near-moonscape.

Perhaps that's the real lesson of Mount Saint Helens--humans need to be prepared for the unexpected from nature, as the deaths of 57 people on 18-May-1980 remind us, but many things are not as bad as first feared, and life always comes back.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Economics: Enforcing the Law Is Redistribution?

TORONTO, ONTARIO - If one wants to learn why the rest of the world hates economists, one need look no farther than a recent column by David R. Francis in the Christian Science Monitor. The Monitor is not exactly a right-wing newspaper like the Wall Street Journal, but this column looks like something off that paper's editorial page. Do economists see anything in the world except money, even laws?

In recounting how "wealth redistribution" is coming to the United States--a common refrain on the political right, as if the rich actually wanted a flat tax with no loopholes--Francis starts by citing the Medicare tax hike that will start in 2016 as a result of health care reform. That's fair enough, and a legitimate debate could take place on the fairness of that tax increase affecting the richest 1 percent of all families.

But, Francis then runs off more examples. The first two have nothing to do with changes in tax policy. The first is citing the increase in auditing by the Internal Revenue Service by 33 percent of those making between $1 million and $5 million. Basically, the argument is that because the auditing is taking place, people making between $1 million and $5 million will be paying more in taxes. This completely overlooks the fact that they were supposed to already be paying these taxes, and were breaking the law by not doing so. Apparently, like a surprising number of economists, Francis considers it legitimate to evade taxes, and considers it "wealth redistribution" to enforce the law!

The next example is exactly on the same lines. He cites the increased "cracking down" on overseas tax shelters "used mostly by the affluent" as more "wealth redistribution." It's apparently okay for the rich to hide their earnings overseas and enforcing the law that already exists to prohibit this practice is no different than a targeted tax increase.

Francis' last two examples return to tax policy (the fate of the Bush tax cuts and a mused increase in the top income tax bracket). I don't mind debating tax policy with people more economically conservative that I am don't believe in the same level taxation or degree of progressiveness in taxation that I happen to believe in. That's a legitimate debate worth having, even if too often it plays out like the promotion for the Lang and O'Leary Exchange here in Canada--"Shouldn't we just lower taxes?" "I like to drive on a road that is paved, so no."

Laws are not subject to such debate. Unless they are under court challenge for constitutionality, which neither of Francis' examples happen to be, there is nothing to debate. They are the foundation of the cohesiveness of the country, and they should be expected to be enforced. It's not acceptable to disobey the law, and it's not "wealth redistribution" to enforce the law. The fact that many economists don't see things that way is exactly why so many non-economists have so little respect for the profession. Francis' column has added to that impression.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Photos: St. Clair West and Wildflower Walks

A story board mural of "Little Red Riding Hood" dating from the beginning of the depression was found in the Kid's Zone at the Dufferin/St. Clair branch of the Toronto Public Library during a Heritage Toronto walk on 8-May-2010

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's update to my photo site features two more walks from last weekend. A Heritage Toronto walk around St. Clair and Dufferin led by librarian Barbara Myrvold took place on 8-May-2010, including a visit to the murals at the local library branch. The annual Aggie's Wildflower Walk to see how many species from the original "Canadian Wild Flowers" book were still blooming in Magwood Sanctuary, led by Madeleine McDowell took place on 9-May-2010.

Margin Notes: Blue Jay, Electric Car, Podcasts

A Blue Jay was found where else--Toronto, specifically Lambton Park on 16-May-2010

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Despite the name of its baseball team, I don't see the actual blue jay bird very often in Toronto. The last time I captured a picture of one was in 2007. So, I was quite pleased today when one flew right in front of me in Lambton Park and landed in a nearby tree, affording the above photo opportunity. Perhaps coincidentally, the Toronto Blue Jays defeated the Texas Rangers today.

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After taking nice nature walks along the Humber River or High Park and seeing collections of birds and other wild life, I really dislike walking along streets with noisy vehicles. Thus, earlier this week, I was quite pleased when I watched a Ford Escape hybrid take a near-silent turn onto a street and proceed with barely a sound. I think I'm going to really like the electric car era when it finally arrives.

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The first new sidewalk stencil I have discovered in 2010 was this Rafat General Contractors one on Humbercrest Boulevard on 16-May-2010

I was avoiding walking along busy Jane Street when I cut along Humbercrest Boulevard today. There, I stumbled upon my first sidewalk stencil of 2010--a patch of concrete sidewalk that was probably poured on Friday. Rafat General Contractors gets the honor of being the first name I photographed in concrete in 2010.

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My first sidewalk stencil came almost a month earlier in 2010 than 2009, but my observation skills are still pretty slow. I just now realized that the BBC Newshour is available as a podcast. What I consider to be the premiere world news program has apparently been available for months. Getting a downloadable BBC news program on the weekend had long been one of my primary desires for electronic media. The only programs that I regularly listen to now that don't have a downloadable version with at least the bulk of the broadcast are the NPR news magazines (like All Things Considered and Weekend Edition Saturday) and CJAD/CFRB's Dr. Joe Schwarcz science show. In fact, I think my biggest complaint now is that one can't get Jian Ghomeshi's monologue for Q except on the live broadcast.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Radio Pick: Fatima Bhutto

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's radio pick comes from the CBC. I normally avoid book tour interviews as they tend to be over-publicized, but one came up this week of a different nature. Fatima Bhutto of the famous Pakistani political family offered an interesting perspective on that family and on the country in this 24-minute interview with guest host Gillian Findlay.

Listen to streaming MP3 of The Current "Fatima Bhutto"

Friday, May 14, 2010

Culture: Canadians Can't Sing, Either

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Examples of poor performances of the national anthem in the United States, the Star Spangled Banner, are quite common. This is hardly surprising; the melody is derived from a drinking song ("The Anacreontic Song" which was used to determine sobriety--if one could still sing it properly, one was sober) and is notoriously difficult to sing--just about everyone decides they should have started to sing it lower. Get the lyrics right, and few will complain if one misses a note.

Up here in Canada, with a national anthem having a melody that is not exceptionally difficult, a song specifically commissioned as a patriotic song, one would think there wouldn't be any problem singing "O Canada." However, that apparently is not the case. A recent study from the University of Victoria has found that only 67% of high school choral students made it through the song with two or fewer errors, and just 46% made it through without melodic errors. Lest the fact that the song was originally written in French and translated into English be blamed for the lyrical deficiency, the lowest level of proficiency was actually found in Quebec, where the original lyrics were being performed.

The lyrics of "O Canada" are a little strange. The CBC Comedy Factory brilliantly satirized some of these points in a recent podcast (skip to the last three minutes). Do hearts really glow? More significantly, Prime Minister Stephen Harper (a Conservative, no less) suggested after [those games in Vancouver] that perhaps "thy son's command" might be a sexist lyric, but a public outcry against that idea ended any initiative to change it earlier this year.

I think Jian Ghomeshi may have been onto something with his monologue on CBC Radio One's Q today; the fact that choral students were tested may have actually skewed the results more poorly than they would have been otherwise. Likely, in choirs, most of the focus is on things that are more difficult to sing than "O Canada." Students likely spend more time trying to get the "Star Spangled Banner" right, and aren't normally practicing their own anthem.

Still, this study is a wake-up call for Canadians. It wouldn't hurt for all Canadian students, not just choir students, to sing the national anthem more often and learn it correctly. I figure that I sang the US national anthem less a dozen times in high school, so likely Canadians sing it similarly few times. Find an excuse to do it once a week, and I wouldn't be surprised if proficiency improved significantly.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Economy: Flexibility Key to Hiring--Right

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Sometimes, there is little to do except at laugh at employment columns in trade magazines. It's hard to blame reporters when they write things that are completely contrary to my experience in industry and those of the peers with whom I network. All the reporter can do is interview people in industry--and those that are allowed to talk will say what their employers want everyone to believe. In many cases, the leadership of those companies might well believe what they are telling their spokespeople to say, even when the reality down in the ranks of their company is different.

The one that really floored me recently was when Chemical & Engineering News focused an entire article around the concept of flexibility as a key to finding a role in the biotechnology industry. "Candidates who have [core skills] coupled with strong communication, information technology, or leadership skills, along with an affinity for teamwork 'may actually find themselves in a power position.'" Yeah, right.

Talk to most recruiters these days--certainly the ones that I talk to--and you'll get a very different story. Rather than hiring flexible employees with broad skills that can adjust to new roles as business needs change, companies these days let go of old employees and hire new ones with previous experience in the new needed areas. With so many unemployed people and a healthy recruiting industry, the new expert can be found quickly and it's actually considered the most cost-effective way of proceeding. The "old way of thinking" is expunged from the company, which is perceived as having more intangible value than people who understand where the business has been.

Granted, recruiters are most often retained by companies that want to fill a hard-to-find niche, but they are also retained to find talent, period. One of my favorite recruiters knows that I am perhaps the quintessential twenty-first century-style Renaissance worker, able to move in to fill "white spaces" in technology companies and get things done. Of the dozens of jobs related to the field in which I used to work that he has seen in the past year, only one employer would even entertain talking to "a talented generalist" at the phone screen stage. This is a job market all about experience, not about flexibility or the ability to learn and adapt. In an extreme case, I am aware of one employer that was so dead-set on finding someone with the absolutely perfect background with about six elements involved--I had four or five, depending on interpretation--that the position stayed open for more than six months, and apparently was still unfilled when a radical corporate restructuring took place.

It's not just me. The people I know that have changed positions during the recession have mostly done so on the strength of specific experience, the only exceptions being those who have started their own businesses. I can cite at least two other very flexible workers that I know who want to change positions but cannot get interviews and are effectively stuck with their present employers.

Interestingly, the Chemical and Engineering News article didn't miss this reality entirely, but just seemed to misplace its emphasis. A key "flexible" candidate they highlighted was described by her new employer as having the "correct technical background" (read "experience"). They note that "there's no substitute for technical excellence." They seem to use every euphemism for experience except the word itself.

Don't be misled by the rhetoric. Being flexible is not an asset in today's job market; being specialized in a hot niche is an asset. It's all about experience, and I really feel sorry for recent graduates who have none at all.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Culture: Gee, Andy Rooney Sounds Like Me

TORONTO, ONTARIO - For some reason, Andy Rooney's commentary this week on 60 Minutes seems to be getting a lot of attention. Rooney, who has made a career out of curmudgeonly commentary on the legendary newsmagazine program, has appeared at the end of the show since 1978. Considering the long list of everyday annoyances that Rooney has taken on over the years, it wouldn't seem that a commentary on modern popular music would draw much attention.

Yet, the video has apparently gone viral. I don't why the Millennial generation finds it amusing that Rooney pronounces Lady Gaga as "Gah-guh" instead of "Gah-gah"; most 91 year-olds, no matter how cool, don't pronounce all modern things accurately. My now-deceased grandfather of the same generation insisted on contracting cellular phones as "cella" phones instead of "cell" phones. Everyone knew what he meant, and everyone knew Rooney was talking about the performer born as Stefani Germanotta.

Most ironic to me, his commentary read almost like the very first commentary I ever did. Clearly, the topic is low-hanging fruit; I wrote mine at age 13, not 91. Rather than claiming that I was the typical American kid--I always knew better than that--I instead made the case that my increasing lack of familiarity with popular music meant that I was "gradually becoming out of style." However, this still puts me in the realm of Rooney--did I really think I was ever in style, and did he ever really think he was an average guy? We both went on to express utter estrangement with the most popular music artists of the day.

So what does this all mean? Did it take Andy Rooney 91 years to reach the same degree of cultural alienation that took me only 13? Did he have so much more good material in his head that it took him 78 years before he was down to the topics that I had to start with? Is life really all a matter of symmetry, and my (or anyone else's) earlier writings would be expected to mirror Rooney's (or anyone that lives that long's) later writings? Or am I just jealous that Rooney's commentary went viral and my similar commentary never saw the light of air?

One thing is for certain. When I wrote by hand my expression of disaffection with popular music and recorded it on an analog cassette tape on a snowy New Year's Day as a teenager, the last thing I ever imagined is that someday I would be typing out on a globally-accessible forum how a major television personality had expressed the same sentiment I had that morning. I can only imagine how different Rooney's first writings may have been!

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Politics: US Headed for Greece

TORONTO, ONTARIO - There are some pretty bizarre "truths" floating around about the need to bail out Greece (and potentially Portugal, Spain, Ireland, and Italy), most of them centering around socialism. While the degree of entitlement spending is an element of the problem in Greece and cutting it will have to be part of the solution, it's absurd on the face to claim that it is the root cause. There are plenty of countries with bigger social safety nets who are not in danger of needing bailout (look at basically any country in northern Europe--and no, I don't count Iceland as part of Europe; it deserves a whole separate analysis).

It doesn't take a Nobel Prize in economics to understand the basics of the problem in Greece. Corruption is rampant--listen to any coverage of the Greek economy, and it soon turns to envelopes stuffed with cash in quite a variety of contexts. As a corollary that is not surprising when corruption is common, trust in government is almost non-existent, and hence people openly don't pay taxes. It's not hard to understand the mentality that leads one to deal with corruption in daily life and reject contributing to generic corruption. When the government doesn't receive the expected income from taxes, it's very hard for it to impose measures that allow it to deal with a financial shortfall such as has occurred in the current worldwide economy. All it takes are a few added factors--say, an financial firm helping a government to falsify its books--and a situation like the one in Greece comes to pass.

Greece isn't going to get out of its problems just by cutting public spending. It will require a cultural transformation. People will have to pay taxes. People will have to report and not participate in corruption. People will have to believe in government. Exactly how that's going to happen when the government has just demonstrated that it certainly did not deserve trust in recent times, I really have no idea. Whereas there does seem to be some hope of restored faith in government in most of the other countries currently on verge of crisis in Europe, it's hard to see how it happens in Greece, and thus it's hard not to expect Greece to have to leave the European Union and go through an extended period of economic collapse.

Those in the United States should not be sanguine about what is happening in Europe. The call for evading taxes has been on the rise in the United States my entire life. The attitude of the editorial page of the largest-circulation newspaper, the Wall Street Journal, regularly glorifies the concept of avoiding taxes. Some readers of the paper have been known to argue that it is patriotic to NOT pay taxes. It's not a long conceptual road from that attitude to the inability of government to collect taxes as has happened in Greece, especially when government is completely ineffective. I've made this argument before--California is in deep financial trouble precisely because it cannot act to resolve it; its government is too divided to agree on a plan to resolve its problems, not because there is no conceptual way to do it. Combine lack of government will with tax evasion and getting out of a bad financial situation is close to impossible. California in particular, and the United States as a whole, are heading that direction.

Funny how socialist countries that do have functional governments, minimal corruption, and near-universal tax compliance seem to be doing just fine.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Heritage: Aggie's Wildflower Walk

Madeleine McDowell examined a plant with her cane in the the Magwood Sanctuary in Toronto, Ontario on 9-May-2010

TORONTO, ONTARIO - In the 1860's, what is now the Warren Park neighbourhood of Toronto was a relative wilderness adjacent to Lambton Mills. In 1865, a newly-widowed Agnes Dunbar Moodie Fitzgibbon was left nearly-destitute, and with her oldest daughter not in good health, chose to move the area. There, she was inspired by the spring flowers to make the first Canadian botanical book. With text written by her author aunt Catharine Parr Traill, Agnes Moodie illustrated "Canadian Wildflowers," and the two went to great lengths to ensure that the book was published entirely in Canada in 1868.

A portrait of Agnes Moodie after she re-married (in 1870) to a military man named Chamberlain was found in the Lambton House in Toronto, Ontario on 9-May-2010

Thus, the area around Warren Park holds a special significance in Canadian history. While residences have displaced much of the wild space present in the 1860's, park space remains along the Humber River and the Magwood Sanctuary still exists at the foot of Bâby Point. It is in the Magwood Sanctuary that direct descendant of the plants illustrated in "Canadian Wildflowers" still grow.

A wild ginger flower was found in the Magwood Sanctuary in Toronto, Ontario during the wildflower walk on 9-May-2010

It has become an annual tradition for an "Aggie's Wildflower Walk" to take place on Mother's Day to explore the area to see what species from "Canadian Wildflowers" still exist in the area. Quite often, the bulk of the interest comes in the Magwood Sanctuary, as was the case this year. With an early spring, some of the expected wildflowers were past their peak. Ontario's provincial flower, for example, the trillium, had largely faded from white to pink, but was still present. Amongst the interesting species found were Jack-in-the-Pulpit, May apples, wild ginger, celandine, and a wide variety of violets. Most interesting, oak trees were sprouting out of the ground at the edge of sanctuary, creating a new generation of trees descended from those that were there in the 1860's.

White trillium, and other flowers faded to pink, were found in the Magwood Sanctuary during Aggie's Wildflower Walk on 9-May-2010

Upon completion of the walk, the group returned to the historic Lambton House, and were treated to tea from our guide for the walk, local historian Madeleine McDowell. Sometimes it's hard to believe the history in one's own neighbourhood--especially when it is growing in the ground.

More photos from Aggie's Wildflower Walk will appear in a future update to my photo site

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Photos: Jane's Walk Weekend, Day Two

The story behind this garbage truck mural at Christie Pits Park in Toronto, Ontario was part of the "Dark Age Ahead" Jane's Walk on 2-May-2010

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's update to my photo site features the second day of Jane's Walk weekend, Sunday, 2 May 2010. Walks I participated in were the "Skyscrapers of the Financial District" with Kristine Williamson, "The Laneways of Runnymede" with Madeleine McDowell, and "Dark Age Ahead--The Wizard of Ossington" with HiMY SYeD.

Margin Notes: Hail, Tortillas, Orbison, Chevy

A Heritage Toronto walk gathered in front of the Regal Road School in Toronto, Ontario minutes before a storm squall including hail fell on 8-May-2010

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Heritage Toronto walks are advertised as taking place no matter what the weather, but Saturday was the first time I experienced hail during one of their walks. Toward the end of a great walk through St. Clair West led by well-known librarian Barbara Myrvold, a storm front moved through with severe gusts of wind and a nice dumping of rain, which briefly turned to hail before switching back to rain.

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The rain had subsided enough by the end of the walk that I returned to St. Clair West to check out a new store called La Tortilleria. It's not the only place in Toronto that makes its own tortillas, but there are apparently now four locations of this chain where one can pick up a kilo of tortillas for $3. That would seem expensive in California, but for Canada, that's not a bad deal for a big stack of fresh, warm tortillas.

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In California, sunglasses are needed for the sun, but I learned from the NPR piece that was my weekly radio pick that Roy Orbison became known for them simply because he lost his normal glasses before a notable performance. Before that piece aired on WNED-AM in Buffalo, New York (which comes in weakly here in Toronto), afternoon host Mark Leitner allowed the filler music from NPR to play during what should have been a local station break. The music was an instrumental section of Orbison's "Pretty Woman." At some point, Leitner, who is more known for cliche than creativity, broke in by saying "Mercy!" (a lyric in the song) and then proceeded with an abbreviated local insert. That had to be the best recovery I've heard on a NPR station in years.

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Toronto Police's 1957 Chevrolet sat outside 22 Division on Bloor Street West in Toronto on 6-May-2010

I doubt the Buffalo police department parks its historic vehicles outside and unguarded very often, but Toronto does it. While walking in the Bloor and Kipling area of Toronto on Thursday, I stumbled upon the 1957 Chevrolet well-known from parades and other special events just parked along Bloor Street near a police station. In fact, I really can't imagine seeing that in any sizable United States city.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Radio Pick: Roy Orbison's Great Voice

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's radio pick comes from National Public Radio. Summarizing one person's influence on music and culture in eight minutes is a challenge, but Eric Westervelt managed to so a great job of capturing the essence of Roy Orbison and including stories about him that I had never heard before in this segment of the newsmagazine All Things Considered.

Listen to streaming media of All Things Considered "50 Great Voices: Roy Orbison"

Culture: Crombie on Walking

Member of Provincial Parliament Cheri DiNovo presented a certificate to Swansea Historical Society President Norm McLeod for the 25th anniversary of the organization on 5-May-2010

TORONTO, ONTARIO - The Swansea Historical Society reached a remarkable milestone this week--25 years of existence. The packed room at Swansea Town Hall included about a dozen people who had been with the organization from the very start, including President Norm McLeod. The event drew media figures, politicians, and other notables--Member of Provincial Parliament Cheri DiNovo even presented McLeod with recognition from the province.

The choice for speaker on this historic night was pretty obvious. David Crombie had grown up in what had been an independent village of Swansea (it was not annexed to Toronto until 1967) and went on, amongst other things, to be mayor of Toronto from 1972 to 1978, leading some in Swansea to say that "We took over Toronto; they didn't take over us." Crombie remains immensely popular in his home neighbourhood, and was well-received despite a double-booking that led to his late arrival to anniversary meeting.

Though often described as a "red Tory," Crombie was a Progressive Conservative when in Federal politics, so it seems a bit surprising to hear him say things that could have come out of the mouth of present mayor David Miller, who is closely linked with the New Democratic Party (NDP). Crombie pointed out that the things that define the neighbourhood--parks, trails, roads, and buildings like Swansea City Hall--are all public infrastructure, and that we should not lose sight of the government's role in enabling the building of communities that hold everyone together.

David Crombie spoke to the Swansea Historical Society during its 25th anniversary meeting on 5-May-2010

The bulk of Crombie's speech, though, focused on walking. He described how his uncle used to walk a significant distance to work each day (it would take me well over an hour to walk the route), and how the culture of Swansea was walking, since east-west public transit lines ran only at the far south end and north of Swansea proper. It was this background that made the ideas of Jane Jacobs--which Crombie had substantially embraced as mayor--so compatible with Crombie's world view.

Today, Crombie continues to structure his life around walking everywhere he can, taking transit for trips that are too long. When he needs to clear his mind, he will return to Swansea and walk through High Park and Rennie Park. He embraces the legacy of Jane Jacobs by leading a Jane's Walk through Swansea each year. He strongly encouraged everyone in attendance to walk at least two kilometers a day to help maintain their health.

Is it any wonder why I feel so comfortable in Toronto and Swansea? David Crombie made it all very clear with his speech emphasizing the past and present of walking in the neighbourhood of his youth and his city of today.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Economics: Why I Boycott Purolator

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Companies that want to do business with me in Canada take note--as a result of my experiences this week, I will continue to boycott any entity that requires using Purolator for shipping. They seem to have no clue about customer service, and seem to behave more like a monopoly like their 91% owner Canada Post--except that unlike the postal service, they aren't a monopoly.

Purolator claims to be a more convenient courier than their major competitors because they won't deliver a package requiring a signature--which is most of their business--without an "appointment." Personally, I think this is ridiculous--why should one have to call the company--paying for the call--just to schedule a delivery time. I'd much rather watch the on-line tracking provided by the other major carriers and anticipate delivery that way--and I'll note that if delivery is missed, one can call most of the other couriers and schedule an appointment if desired. It's optional with them, not mandatory like it is with Purolator.

Where Purolator fails beyond the realm of acceptability in my opinion is that they refuse to deliver to my address, even by appointment. This is a bizarre policy that they won't explain to me. When I call to make an appointment, they say they won't deliver to me and that I have no choice but to pick up the package at their facility in Etobicoke. All other carriers--including their owner Canada Post--have delivered packages to me requiring a signature without issue. "That's our policy" is all they tell me. The first time I encountered this issue, they actually returned the package to the sender before I managed to get to their Etobicoke facility to pick it up, I and had to beg my way out of double-shipping charges. From that point onward, I have avoided anyone that ships by Purolator.

A shipper recently lied to me about how a warranty shipment would be sent out, and it went Purolator. I received the same explanation--"We won't deliver to your address--it's our policy." So, this week I had to walk over five kilometers to the Purolator Etobicoke facility, and carry the parcel five kilometers home with me. How they expect people to carry packages that they were contracted to deliver for five kilometers or more is beyond me. In this case, it was especially ludicrous since the shipment was only coming from nine kilometers away in the first place. Purolator didn't even move the package halfway from its origin to its destination. They call that a service?

So, be forewarned--if you ship by Purolator, you will never receive business from me again. And as for Purolator, as far as I am concerned, they provide no services and I have no interest in ever dealing with them again.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Transport: Pedestrian Infrastructure

Dylan Reid of Spacing Magazine pointed out the grooves designed to help the sight impaired find the crosswalks at King and Bathurst in Toronto, Ontario on 1-May-2010

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Arguably, there are some Jane's walks that should almost be mandatory introductions before taking any of the other walks. One is to go through the neighbourhood where Jane Jacobs chose to settle in Toronto, the Annex, including her home and a running commentary comparing her writings to features of the neighbourhood. The next is to walk the proposed route of the Spadina Expressway, which Jacobs famously led the effort to stop. This year, I think a third walk qualifies as a needed introduction--the King West pedestrian infrastructure walk led by Dylan Reid.

A rare functional and complete example of the infamous privately-owned garbage bins was found on King Street West in Toronto, Ontario on 1-May-2010

Reid, a senior editor at Spacing magazine, has served as co-chair of the Toronto Pedestrian Committee and thus has gained quite a bit of insight into how the city addresses pedestrians. Some on the walk were highly critical of the city, pointing out that only pedestrians have to put up with privatized infrastructure, citing the often non-functional garbage receptacles and poorly designed transit shelters that are supplied by a private contractor that gets to put advertising on them. Yet, in some ways, that is the least of the issues pedestrians face in the city.

An example of a nice 2.1 metre-wide "clearway" was found on King Street West in Toronto, Ontario on 1-May-2010

One of the plethora of tidbits that came up over the course of the walk was that pedestrian spaces are supposed to be at least 2.1 metres wide. However, there are many examples of shelters, restaurant patios, planters, and other obstacles that cause the sidewalk to be much narrower. Furthermore, at locations such as jogs in streets and at the edge of parks, the city has generally done a poor job of designing "desire paths," or the shortest routes to where pedestrians will want to go, leading to unofficial routes across grass or private property, leading to not just livability concerns but safety concerns.

A "desire path" was noted for pedestrians to walk across the grass at Clarence Square Park directly to a crosswalk on 1-May-2010

One of the liveliest conversations of the walk came up in discussing crosswalk signals. It turns out that though Toronto has installed countdown timers across the city, the laws have not been updated. A pedestrian has the right-of-way in a crosswalk if they entered it when the "walk" signal was still lit, regardless of how long they take to cross. But, if they enter during the flashing stop, they could receive a ticket, even if they clear the intersection before the countdown expires. Provincial law would need to be updated to change that. Furthermore, the default pedestrian activation system used by Toronto (called "PS2MVG" for "Pedestrian Signal 2 - Minimum Vehicle Green") will automatically do a countdown regardless of whether an opposing path is desired--and if no vehicle or pedestrian requests an opposing move, it will return to the default pattern and turn green again after the countdown. This practice is incredibly annoying for pedestrians, who stop at the flashing stop only to receive a green and be able to continue--cars face no such needless delays.

Dylan Reid closed the King West pedestrian infrastructure walk at Clarence Square in Toronto, Ontario on 1-May-2010

Jane Jacobs emphasized walkability as a key to creating a livable city. The King West Pedestrian Infrastructure Jane's Walk was a great way to learn more about how a city becomes friendly to pedestrians, and to how well her chosen city is doing in that process.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Culture: El Cinco de ?

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I could have gone through the entire day today without being aware that it was El Cinco de Mayo. None of the neighbourhood restaurants in Bloor West Village showed an outward sign of the holiday (a few bars apparently had specials inside), and nobody I interacted with here had any plans for celebrations. The Mexican restaurants I passed in my walks over the weekend weren't advertising anything special upcoming for today.

For someone who has spent time in California, this seemed very strange. There, El Cinco de Mayo gets even more attention than the actual Mexican Independence Day on 16-September, especially from those not of Mexican descent. Most of them have never heard of Mexican Independence Day, but tend to party every El Cinco de Mayo. How can this be?

El Cinco de Mayo actually celebrates the victory of the Mexicans over the French in the Battle of Puebla, in 1862. The triumph was quite unlikely, as the Mexicans were outnumbered, but the success was short-lived--the French would go on to rule Mexico for a few years after 1864, imposing the rule of Emperor Maximilian I. Outside of Puebla, the date is not especially prominent in Mexico--the bigger deal is Mexican Independence Day (which actually celebrates what amounts to a "Cry of Independence" in 1810 which eventually led to final independence from the Spanish in 1821).

So how did El Cinco de Mayo become the primary Mexican celebration in the United States? Historians seem to indicate that it dates right from the period of French rule in the 1860's--Mexicans in California used the date to celebrate a victory over the French as a protest against continued French rule in their homeland. By the time the French were gone in 1867, the holiday traditions had been established, and gradually grew to present day.

Here in Toronto, though, most Mexican immigrants are not from the United States nor Puebla, and thus the more important day, as in Mexico, seems to be 16-September. Then, one can find celebrations at local restaurants and community centers, just as on the national days of the other many categories of immigrants in this multi-ethnic city. If one wants to party on El Cinco de Mayo, a better bet is to find a "Tex Mex" or American chain restaurant--there will probably be celebrations there. I guess Canadians just don't need the same excuse to party that Americans do.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Margin Notes: Jane's Walk Moments

A black cat sat on a porch on Roxton Road in Toronto, Ontario, not long after the Jane's Walk passed the Il Gatto Nero restaurant on 1-May-2009

TORONTO, ONTARIO - There are always moments on a Jane's Walk that just don't seem like they should have happened. A mild example came on my first Jane's Walk on Saturday. After the Garrison Creek walk passed the the Il Gatto Nero restaurant in Little Italy at College and Crawford (which, for the record, is about the only restaurant in Little Italy that didn't impress me when I sampled it while living in the neighbourhood), we soon passed a house with a gatto nero (black cat) sitting on a porch.

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I didn't draw my camera in time for a surreal moment during the pedestrian walk on Saturday led by Dylan Reid. As the group was gathered along King Street West listening to a discussion of street furniture, a Hummer--I kid you not--pulled up alongside, waiting for traffic to clear. The woman in the passenger seat had her window rolled down, and immediately reached over to turn off the car radio in order to hear what was being stated, then seemed very disappointed after the light turned and the Hummer had to move on.

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The Grange Park Jane's Walk gained entry into the courtyard of the Phoebe Street Apartments on 1-May-2010

The Grange Park Jane's Walk was not planned to go beyond the borders of the park originally, but thanks to popular demand, Max Allen led us through the neighbourhood, and thanks to quick, impromptu negotiation by a local following the walk, we gained entry to the gated courtyard at the center of the Phoebe Street Apartments--appropriate, considering that under the original agreement with the city, this was supposed to be a public space anyway.

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A street hockey game was stopping to clear the laneway for the passage of the Lanes of Runnymede Jane's Walk on 2-May-2010

My favorite moment of the whole weekend came during the Lanes of Runnymede walk. Leader Madeleine McDowell had warned us that the walk would be like street hockey--when someone yelled "car!" it was time to clear the road. So, what do we encounter on one of the first laneways but an actual game of street hockey. As if we were a car, the young players removed the net from the laneway. I happened to be near the head of the group at the time, so I thanked the child that had held the net to the side and he asked me, "What is this, anyway?" It probably was the most people to wander down that laneway at one time in its history.

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A man worked on his very Greek house on Shaw Street in Toronto, Ontario as a Jane's Walk stopped to discuss the scene on 2-May-2010

Probably the best moments are the chance meetings with people in their own communities as the walk goes by. In my final Jane's Walk, we happened upon the owner of the above house working on his ornate Greek decorations. Why does he do it? "Why not?"

Monday, May 3, 2010

Photos: Jane's Walk Weekend, Day One

Ward 19 city council candidate Karen Sun led a Jane's Walk near Stanley Park in Toronto, Ontario on 1-May-2009

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's update to my photo site begins coverage of Jane's Walk weekend. The walking season opens each year with Jane's Walk weekend, with 120 walks across the Toronto, Ontario area. I only managed to make six; on Saturday, 1-May-2010, these were Garrison Creek led by Karen Sun, pedestrian infrastructure led by Dylan Reid, and the Grange Park neighbourhood led by Max Allen.

Culture: When Songs Become Culture

TORONTO, ONTARIO - There are moments when one realizes that a song has become not just a pop hit, but a part of the culture of the times. When then-presidential candidate General Wesley Clark claimed to listen to OutKast, "Hey Ya" moved from crossover break-out to cultural icon of the time. When U2 performed "Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out of" in the secretive post-September 11th concert in 2001, despite the fact that it was actually about suicide, it became the song symbolic of the time after the terrorist attack, more important than its modest commercial success would imply.

I take more stock of more casual moments to realize that a song has "made it" beyond the radio. Once, in spring 2003, while riding a local train near Zurich, Switzerland, a pair of teenage girls boarded the train, started horsing around, and one exclaimed, "Chihuahua!" At that point, I knew the hit by Swiss German rapper DJ BoBo (from whom, I oddly have only two degrees of separation) used in a Coca-Cola campaign had become at least a Swiss cultural phenomenon. (It never made it in North America outside of the owners of that breed.) When I was walking down Dundas Street West in Toronto in the summer of 2006 and heard Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy" coming out of two different car radios not in simulcast, I knew that song had become the symbolic song of that summer and the World Cup soccer tournament ongoing at the time, as each car was flying a flag of their favored national team.

I had another of those moments yesterday. While walking down a very low-traffic street in my neighbourhood, returning after a Jane's Walk, I passed a family playing in their front yard. As two children circled after one another, seemingly chasing one another, the mother sang out loudly, "When I get older..." Immediately recognizing the tune, I sang back, "I will be stronger..." and then one of the children completed the phrase "They'll call me freedom, just like a wavin' flag" before breaking up in giggles while rolling on the lawn.

These, of course are the opening lyrics of K'naan's "Wavin' Flag", which had long-since became a global phenomenon when it was selected as the song for the 2010 World Cup, as discussed last week. Yet, in my mind, that moment yesterday will be the moment that the song became something more than pop music, a cultural touchstone of 2010.