Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Media: How Much Edge is Appropriate?

TORONTO, ONTARIO - For all the time I spent in Seattle, I spent less than two hours listening to the alternative to National Public Radio's dominant Morning Edition, American Public Media's The Takeaway, which airs there early (5-7) on KUOW2 91.7 FM and somewhat longer (5-8) on KBCS 91.3 FM. Besides sleeping in, I wanted to see how the commercial stations I had grown up listening to--KIRO (now FM) and KOMO (now AM and FM) were sounding in their morning shows, which wasn't terribly enlightening--KIRO continues its slow decline and KOMO sounds pretty much like it has since Bill Yeend moved to mornings there in 2003.

I was rather impressed (see the 27-April-2008 entry at the linked page) with the debut of The Takeaway. However, as I predicted at the time, I have more locally-relevant programming to listen to in the morning, and I'm not really the targeted audience anyway, so I haven't been listening to the program for the past two years. I couldn't even tell you when Celeste Headlee replaced Adaora Udoji as co-host (okay, I read it was September 2009, after Udoji decided to become a full-time mother in May 2009).

In my brief sampling this trip, the program seemed essentially the same to me. The near-constant "sounders" of FOX-style sound effects didn't really add anything to the program for me, for example, but neither did they annoy me. They took on hard news, and the pacing was appropriate for Generation Y.

What really stuck in my mind, though, was a comment in the bottom-of-the-hour newscast. After reporting that Senator Orrin Hatch had stated that he probably would not have voted today for Thurgood Marshall to be confirmed on the Supreme Court, the anchor commented: "That sounds like something the senator needs to deal with internally."

My first reaction, probably much like the reaction of much of the show's target audience (educated 20-somethings and 30-somethings) was "That's about right." But, then I began to analyze whether that was really an appropriate thing for the news anchor to say. He wasn't really criticizing Hatch--the comment wasn't "what a dumb thing to say" and in fact was actually pretty astute analysis--Hatch does need to grapple with whether taking the position that Thurgood Marshall was not qualified for the Supreme Court is consistent with his principles, never mind its political viability. While it's not an idea that while I have not seen specifically polled, it would seem to be a minority opinion even among Republicans (a majority of whom do identify him as a "civil rights icon"), never mind the population at large.

Yet, by making the comment at all, the implication is that Hatch's mental state or judgment is questionable, which is not a proper journalistic thing to do without explanation. Even an introductory phrase would have done the trick, something like "Considering Marshall's popularity in the general population, the senator may be expected to engage in further introspection on this position."

The Takeaway may be trying to be "edgier" by making such comments after news stories, but it's in danger of losing its journalistic integrity in the process.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Culture: Where's That on American Television?

TORONTO, ONTARIO - It's always nice to fly Air Canada back to Canada. For all its flaws, the airline is unmistakably Canadian--scrupulously bilingual, invariably polite. Leaving an airport in the United States, the level of ambient stress observed actually goes down, instead of up, upon boarding the plane.

Because of a personal computer failure, I turned to the on-board entertainment system on the Embraer 190 aircraft on my flight for diversion from my reading. I had no technical issues with the system itself, as it worked fine with adequate volume and screen controls. Content, however, left quite a bit to be desired. I've never seen the "Map" feature actually working on an Air Canada Embraer--I don't understand why they don't just take it off the menu. While the CBC was available as an option, what was labeled as "News" was actually a compilation of outdated feature pieces, most annoyingly a Adrienne Arsenault story on K'naan that has aired on The National at least twice. I like K'naan as much as the next Canadian, but seeing the same exact feature three times was too much even to me.

Thus, I decided to turn to entertainment programming. While not a regular viewer, I have seen the critically acclaimed Being Erica and thought it was a decent show. The concept of the show is that main character Erica Strange, played by Erin Karpluk, gets to re-live portions of her earlier life to gain insight on her adult life. I decided to watch the only episode available on the plane, Cultural Revolution (which is available online).

There was too much emphasis on sex in the episode for my taste, but the theme of the episode was... well, downright Canadian. Erica thinks she isn't taking enough risks, so she is allowed to go back in time to take a big risk she passed on, joining her risk-taking friend Jenny on a spontaneous trip to Taipei. The clear theme of the show was that one has to choose which risks to take, and that excessive risk-taking, as personified in the character of Jenny, might actually require less courage than never taking risks. The theme is driven home most directly when Erica, who has just decided not to take a risk and become a "sex book" author, tells Jenny that in her friend's case, it would be more courageous for her not to go to Los Angeles to move in with a guy she had just met.

There are plenty of shows on United States networks that would not glorify Jenny's decision. Going to the point of actually showing the hero making a risk-averse decision and glorifying that as having courage, though, is not something that I could even see "The Cosby Show" doing, never mind anything on the air now. Certainly, it would not have appeared on any of the shows that I watched on my nearly three-week stay in the United States.

Between the ambiance of Air Canada and the themes of Being Erica, I knew I would soon be back in Canada.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Heritage: Northwest Railway Museum

The excursion train (at left) had tied up for the day at the historic Snoqualmie, Washington depot on 26-June-2010

BELLEVUE, WASHINGTON - If the family history is correct, I took my first excursion train ride at what was then the Puget Sound & Snoqualmie Valley railroad between Snoqualmie and Snoqualmie Falls, Washington. The heritage railway had come to be on a former Northern Pacific branch line when the Burlington Northern abandoned it in favor of access to the area above Snoqualmie Falls using a former Milwaukee Road line from Cedar Falls. I hadn't actually ridden the line since, despite its extension to North Bend, so this year it was time to finally rectify that.

Recently-restored Northern Pacific boxcars sat outside the Conservation and Restoration Center of the Northwest Railway Museum on 26-June-2010

In the intervening time, the organization has become the Northwest Railway Museum and focused its efforts on restoring what had been a very publicly decaying fleet of rolling stock and displays. A major step in that effort was getting grant money to build a Conservation and Restoration Center along the excursion line east of Snoqualmie. Equipped with a drop pit and a growing collection of classic tools, the facility is now the site of a lot of work on the locomotives and cars at the museum. Soon to be added to the complex is a four-track train shed, nearly half a football field in length, which will be able to store in climate-controlled conditions the entire current active fleet of the museum.

The new train shed at the Northwest Railway Museum was nearly ready for occupancy when viewed near Snoqualmie, Washington on 26-June-2010

Thanks to the kindness of a museum volunteer that I had worked with on other projects in the past, I was able to tour the new facilities and see the projects that were underway. The 1951-era Fairbanks-Morse H-12-44 diesel is well along to returning to operation, and I was impressed with the progress on former Spokane, Portland, and Seattle coach #218, built in 1912 and well along to returning to its 1920's appearance. Before long, the unique "Messenger of Peace" chapel car will be taking its turn in the facility.

The interior of former Spokane, Portland, and Seattle passenger car #218 was under restoration at the Conservation and Restoration Center of the Northwest Railway Museum on 26-June-2010

The reason to come out to the Northwest Railway Museum, though, is mostly to ride the train, currently hauled by former Army RS-4TC diesels. The 9.0-mile round trip from North Bend to Snoqualmie Falls and back makes for a leisurely 70-minute ride. While the line may be best known for its tree-obscured view of Snoqualmie Falls, the best views are of the Snoqualmie Valley below the falls (which featured a Peregrine Falcon watching the train on my trip), and of Mount Si (famous from the "Twin Peaks" television show), visible from many locations on the line.

Mount Si appeared beyond the south fork of the Snoqualmie River as viewed from a Northwest Railway Museum excursion train on 26-June-2010

The real treat for younger riders was hiding, though--Thomas was on hand for his upcoming visit in July. For more information on the excursions and the Day Out with Thomas, see the Northwest Railway Museum web site.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Margin Notes: Marquee, Signage, Flowers

What will likely be the last marquee messages at the Lusty Lady in Seattle, Washington were observed on 11-June-2010

BELLEVUE, WASHINGTON - Remember the Lusty Lady marquee? The Seattle institution will close today, so the current marquee featuring "The Rear End of An Era" and "Bare Thee Well Seattle" will likely stand as its final ribald configuration.

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A full-color pavement marking for Interstate 405 was noted in Bellevue, Washington on 24-June-2010

A sign that is not intended to disappear soon is a new style of pavement marking guiding motorists to Interstate 405 on 112th Ave NE in Bellevue, Washington. The markings, rather than just using white, are using a full-color interstate shield in blue, red, and white as shown above. I wonder what the marking will look like after a few tens of thousands of cars pass over it.

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Complicated traffic circle signs are proliferating in the Pacific Northwest, including this example at 104th Ave SE and SE 10th Street in Bellevue, Washington on 10-June-2010

Traffic circles or roundabouts are increasingly common in the state of Washington, a trend encouraged by traffic engineers at the state highway department. As a result, increasingly complicated signs are warning motorists of their existence; the above example from a residential roundabout in Bellevue is actually relatively simple.

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Flowers inside glass jars were noted along Bellevue, Washington's pedestrian corridor on 24-June-2010

Another strange sight was found along the Bellevue Pedestrian Corridor, a set of flowers inside jars. The jars were laid out along the NE 6th Street corridor east of 106th Ave NE last week, with no sign of explanation. Does anyone know what this was all about?

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Radio Pick: E-Mail a Dinosaur?

BELLEVUE, WASHINGTON - This week's radio pick turns to short-form radio. I've long admired John Moe since his days on the staff of Seattle's public radio station KUOW. In the era of this feature, he has been working on American Public Media shows that I didn't find particularly enticing. However, he's now doing the five-minute daily "Future Tense" broadcast on technology, a very good outlet for his Generation X humor exemplified by a look at the future of e-mail that aired this week.

Listen to MP3 of Future Tense "Is E-Mail Going the Way of the Dinosaur?"

Heritage: The Milwaukee in the Watershed

The bridge which once carried the Milwaukee Road over the Cedar River just west of Cedar Falls, Washington was observed during a Seattle Public Utilities tour on 26-June-2010

BELLEVUE, WASHINGTON - The Milwaukee Road has always been a sentimental favorite in the Pacific Northwest. The Pacific Coast Extension of what was then called the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railroad was completed across Washington state to Tacoma and Seattle in 1909. By electrifying most of its mountain sections starting in 1914, it became more interesting in many ways than its competitors, and it would offer such named trains as the "Columbian" and the "Olympian Hiawatha." It was a sad day in the minds of many when the Milwaukee abandoned its Pacific Coast Extension under bankruptcy in 1980. Subsequently, most of the abandoned line from Montana west became part of public trails, with one of the exceptions located not far from Seattle.

In order to connect its crossing of Snoqualmie Pass with the existing Pacific Coast Railway for a route into Seattle, the Milwaukee had to apply to the city of Seattle to cross the city's Cedar River watershed. Thus, when the line was abandoned, the twelve-mile section of the line from between the historical sites of Cedar Falls and Landsburg along the Cedar River became part of the publicly-inaccessible watershed.

A comparison between an old photo and the contemporary reality revealed some of the same trees at the Cedar Falls, Washington town site on 26-June-2010

Seattle Public Utilities, which runs the Cedar River Education Center near North Bend, Washington remedies that situation with occasional "Treasure Tours" of "Railroad History of the Cedar River Municipal Watershed." This morning, one of these tours provided a chance to see these lost miles.

Tour leader Clay Antieau stood at the site of the former Cedar Falls, Washington station of the Milwaukee Road on 26-June-2010

Much of the interest focused on the Cedar Falls town site, where the Milwaukee switched trains for the Everett and Enumclaw branch lines, and had one of its power substations for the electrification. The tour began by inspecting the substation foundation, as well as former housing sites and the station site. The station, which appeared as the stand-in for Essex, Montana in the movie "Continental Divide" has been moved to become a private home in Covington.

The Taylor Creek Trestle of the Milwaukee Road's Enumclaw Branch was viewed from the mainline at Bagley Junction, Washington on 26-June-2010

The tour ventured farther into the "western watershed," visiting the site of a bridge over the Cedar River, Bagley Junction with the Enumclaw Branch and a Northern Pacific branchline to Taylor, and exploring a portion of that Northern Pacific branchline as it climbed away from the river. Being a wilderness area, a fair amount of wildlife was encountered, including a number of deer and a pair of elk.

A deer assumed a very unusual pose as it kept its eye on the railroad history tour in the Cedar River watershed on 26-June-2010

The railroad history tour is just one of a number of special tours that afford opportunities to explore protected areas of the watershed for a nominal fee. See the Seattle Public Utilities web site for more details. As one of the railroad enthusiasts on today's tour put it, "It's not quite the Olympian Hiawatha, but it's pretty close."

Friday, June 25, 2010

Culture: The Longest Oral Report

BELLEVUE, WASHINGTON - The recent record tennis match between John Isner and Nicolas Mahut at Wimbledon, which finished yesterday after 11 hours and 5 minutes of play over three days, prompted me to think back of things of excessive length in my own life. Probably the most epic thing that happened in my high school career was an oral report that "lasted" five calendar days.

Considering the amount of diary-style writing that I did in that era, it is surprising that I could find no previous summary of this event to recycle in this blog post. However, after some digging, I was able to find the outline of what I'm reasonably certain was the oral report in question--it was on Greek Science and Math. My "Humanities II" class taught by Karlene Johnson was doing a unit on the influence of the Greeks on modern culture, and I imagine that I probably lobbied to get the topic of science and math--though maybe nobody else wanted it. The report was supposed to last 25 minutes or less so that we could get through 2-3 reports in each class period.

However, unsurprisingly, I found enough to material on the influence of Greek science and math for the report to run much longer than that. Based on the time stamp on the file, I suspect that I began the report on Thursday, 11-October-1990. I remember discussing doing a longer report with Mrs. Johnson and expecting the report to run a full class period. Whether because of questions or lack of adequate practice timing runs on my part, it wasn't finished in a single class period. Based on the outline I unearthed, the report began with this introduction:
How many of you hate (or hated) memorizing theorems in Geometry? {Hands} You have a Greek mathematician, namely Euclid, to blame for introducing the axiomatic structure. How many of you can't believe that everything is made of atoms which are mostly empty space? {Hands} Once again, you have a Greek scientist, this time Democritus, to blame for being the first to come up with that abstract theory. A large, disproportionate amount of intellectual advancement took place in a relatively short period in the Greek culture, particularly in science and mathematics. Much of this knowledge is still accurate, useful and relevant today, especially their geometry and other forms of math.
From there, I went into a section with background on the state of science and math in other ancient cultures, then focused on math with an emphasis on Thales, Pythagoras, Hippocrates, Zeno, Plato, Euclid, Archimedes, and Apollonius. I next turned to science, moving by topic through physical sciences, astronomy, music, and geography. I then tried wrap it together with a section on how it meshed with contemporary Greek culture, and I suspect I was ready to talk about the end of the "Golden Age" when time ran out on that class period.

The next day, something must have happened in school that required class discussion, as I recall that most of the period was taken up with that discussion and I didn't get in front of the class until the final ten minutes or so. (Since nothing profound seems to have been in the news at the time, I assume it must have been a hot issue in the school that distracted us from the curriculum.) In any event, I didn't finish that period, either, and since it was Friday, that meant the report would have to wait through the weekend.

As I recall, I had a quiz associated with my report, so to be fair with it, I likely reviewed topics that would be on that quiz before finishing the report when I resumed on Monday, 15-October-1990. Then, I gave the quiz, and finally finished with the following conclusion:
Despite the great accomplishments of Greek science and mathematics in general, the entire community became caught up in impossible problems which led to a dormancy in the field of mathematics. Some of today's phyicists, in searching for one unifying force in the beginning of the universe instead of the four tangible around us, are looking at the works of the ancients to build upon for their own ideas. One can hope that they can learn from the downfall of the Greeks and not expend all their effort in their possibly fruitless search.
After five calendar days, and probably at least 90 minutes in front of the class, my oral report was done. If memory serves, I received a good grade. More significantly, though, I had developed a reputation for giving oral reports that lasted forever. As a result, the next school year, my "Humanities III" teacher, Susan LaFollette, would tell me that my first oral report had to be completed in one 53-minute class period or I would fail. If I recall correctly, I finished that one in about 43 minutes, much faster than five-day oral report record.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Heritage: The Iron Goat Trail

The double-track concrete snowshed constructed at the site of the Wellington, Washington disaster still stood over the Iron Goat Trail on 23-June-2010

BELLEVUE, WASHINGTON - Since 1929, when the "new" 7.8 mile Cascade Tunnel opened underneath Steven Pass, the Great Northern, Burlington Northern, and BNSF railways have been avoiding the worst of winter weather by passing underneath the crest of the Cascade Mountains at an altitude of about 2,900 feet. That wasn't true when the Great Northern was first constructed in 1893, employing switchbacks to travel over the full height of Stevens Pass at about 4,000 feet. To bypass the switchbacks, the "original" 2.6 mile Cascade Tunnel was opened in 1900 underneath the summit, but the approach to this first tunnel still faced severe winter operating conditions.

The western portal of the original Cascade Tunnel was viewed near the historic site of Wellington, Washington on 23-June-2010

Those conditions were most ferocious in the winter of 1910. A severe snowstorm struck the Cascades in February. Two trains, one passenger and one mail, from Spokane to Seattle, Washington were first stranded east of the tunnel and then proceeded through the tunnel to Wellington, where they were again trapped on 23-February-1910 as eleven feet of snow fell in one day and the maintenance crews could not keep up. On 28-February-1910, the snow turned to rain and conditions became precarious. In early morning hours of 1-March-1910, an avalanche came down Windy Mountain and destroyed both trains, killing 96 people. It was the most deadly avalanche in the history of the United States. For more on the Wellington Disaster, see the article on HistoryLink.

In the wake of the Wellington disaster, concrete snowsheds were built at the site of the avalanche, the town of Wellington was renamed Tye, and most importantly, the Great Northern decided to build a new, lower tunnel. In 1929, the original Cascade Tunnel line was abandoned, saving 9.5 miles of distance, an hour of operating time, and avoiding most of the conditions that had led to the disaster.

Kathy and Chuck Gleich posed at milepost 1713 (from St. Paul, Minnesota) on the Iron Goat Trail near Wellington, Washington on 23-June-2010

The disaster and the railroad was far from forgotten, however. In 1976, the Stevens Pass Historic District was designated by the state of Washington, and the Volunteers for Outdoor Washington subsequently constructed the Iron Goat Trail mostly on the original railroad right-of-way between the west portal of the "new" Cascades Tunnel at Scenic and the portal of the "old" Cascades Tunnel near Wellington. The trail is fully accessible in many sections, and offers the opportunity to see how the Great Northern was constructed and re-constructed in over 35 years of service.

An adit to one of the "Twin Tunnels" along the original Great Northern route over Stevens Pass was viewed from the Iron Goat Trail on 23-June-2010

The Iron Goat Trail offers the opportunity to see the remains of support structures at Wellington, tunnels, and snowsheds along the route, as well as the views that passengers would have seen when taking the route prior to 1929. Some of the structures are quite interesting, including the extensive concrete snowsheds built on the site of the Wellington Disaster in 1911, collapsed wooden showsheds, and an adit (horizontal shaft) into one of several tunnels on the route. Interpretative signs are located throughout the route.

Indian Paintbrush were amongst the spring flowers in bloom along the Iron Goat Trail in the Cascade Mountains of Washington state on 23-June-2010

In this 100th anniversary year of the disaster, my family did not walk the trail near the winter anniversary, but instead did it in the spring, affording the opportunity to view wildflowers along the trail, including trillium, Indian paintbrush, and lupin. For its historical significance and a glimpse of mountain railroading the way it was a century ago, the Iron Goat Trail is a significant resource less than two hours from Seattle.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Culture: Webbing Between Toes

BELLEVUE, WASHINGTON - I often say that the Pacific Northwest is the nicest place in the world--on the 50 days of year that the Olympic and Cascade mountain ranges are visible. The problem is the other 300 days or so, when it's raining or thinking about raining. I may not be quantitatively accurate, but if you've ever lived in the Pacific Northwest, you understand the sentiment. When I was in the Seattle area in late 2005 and early 2006, I lived through 40 straight days of precipitation. Anywhere else, it would have been considered Biblical. Here, it was just a little longer streak than normal--and mild in many ways, since at least it wasn't snowing.

For native Pacific Northwesterners, plain gray and rainy weather in the winter doesn't get much attention unless it's a record streak or big storm; it's to be expected. When it doesn't go away in the spring or even in the summer, then it becomes tiresome. Most television meteorologists here joke that summer doesn't start until July 12th. The audience doesn't laugh; it plans a trip to Hawaii as soon as school is out.

In this context, 2010 has been even worse than normal. Down south in Portland, Oregon, it has been the wettest June in history, and not by a trivial margin. On June 16th, the total precipitation in Portland had reached 4.24 inches since the beginning of the month. The previous wettest June in Portland took place in 1984, when 4.06 inches fell the entire month. One meteorologist described it as "truly amazing." Most people I talked to in Portland last Sunday called it truly depressing. In fact, everyone I interacted with spoke about lack of motivation to do anything--and the record-setting month wasn't over yet. It rained during my visit.

Meanwhile, Seattle finally ended another streak. Today, after 272 days of cooler temperatures, the mercury finally reached 75 degrees Fahrenheit here (that's 24 C). That's a long time to wait for a hot day, even in Seattle. The previous record had been 254 days, set in 1999 and 2000. Suddenly, people here were in a very good mood. No statistics are available, but the very Seattle phenomenon of calling in sick on the first sunny day was taking place in full force.

I guess summer came before July 12th after all--but not before the Pacific Northwest gave its residents another spring of growing webbing between their toes. (The Ducks aren't the mascot of the University of Oregon for nothing.) After all, as the common joke goes, in the Pacific Northwest, we don't tan, we rust.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Heritage: Finding Sites in Connell

BELLEVUE, WASHINGTON - While I have visited the town of Connell in central Washington state (that's Eastern Washington to people on "the coast") a number of times in my life, I have usually been passing through on my own or with relatives who never actually lived there. On the other hand, as a site central to the lives of each of my paternal grandparents, I had heard plenty of stories about the town. There had always been a bit of a disconnect, as I was not certain where events I had heard about took place. When I had the chance to visit Connell with my grandmother last week, I was able to learn some of the actual locations and connect the dots.

All that remains of the old high school in Connell, Washington was the former gym, apparently used for storage on 15-June-2010

Perhaps my biggest confusion came from the location of the high school. Today, Connell High School is located on a hill west of town, and the other grades of school are also moving to the same hill. My grandparents had always described the high school as "on the hill," but it wasn't the same hill. The high school of the first half of the 20th century in Connell was located east of downtown. When my grandmother and I explored last week, we found that only the old gym remained; there was no sign of the other school buildings. Considering that the school dances were held in the gym and my great-grandfather had worked out of that gym as the janitor, I'm not sure a better remnant could have survived.

The one-time Klinger's Hall in Connell, Washington had been the site of the non-school dances in the town during the Depression, observed on 15-June-2010

Dances at the school had restrictions on them, so a number of social events took place instead in the downtown area at a place that was once called Klinger's Hall. My grandmother could remember walking up the long set of steps to the second floor of this building, which still stands, for dances on Saturday night.

This parking lot was once the location of a gas station owned by one of my great uncles, observed in Connell, Washington on 15-June-2010

One thing I had tried to figure out in the past was the location of a gas station that had been run by a great-uncle for a time. Based on descriptions relative to the railroad station and houses, I thought it was on one of two lots that currently are parking lots, but wondered if I was correct because there was a long-closed gas station across the street and a couple other sites that appeared to be former gas stations in town. My grandmother verified that the stories had been told correctly, and the gas station was on the parking lot pictured above.

There's a lot of value in oral histories, but sometimes it isn't easy to match them with the physical world. A chance to travel through Connell, Washington settled many of the discrepancies for me in the oral histories of my family.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Margin Notes: Gravestone, Wildlife, Radio

The grave of Charles and Florence Harper was observed at Mountain View Cemetery in Connell, Washington on 15-June-2010

BELLEVUE, WASHINGTON - After attending the reunion of the descendants of Charles and Florence Harper last weekend, it seemed only appropriate that I would also visit their grave site, located at Mountain View Cemetery above Connell, Washington. Their gravestone sits prominently above town, along with that of many of other family members including my grandfather.

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Eastern Washington state, besides being the home of many of my relatives, is the realm of rural radio. Paul Harvey once reigned supreme across the AM dial at noon, but with his passing, ABC is now distributing Mike Huckabee. This trip was my first chance to check out the short-form news and commentary broadcast, airing in Harvey's old time slot on KONA-AM in the Tri-Cities, and I have to say I just didn't find it interesting. Where Harvey kept me tuned in for the rest of the story or the humorous story on "page five," Huckabee didn't have any hooks that I noticed, and if I want conservative commentary, there are plenty of other sources for that.

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Another radio voice that I heard for the first time this week on his new assignment made a much more positive impression. The five-minute Future Tense from American Public Media is now hosted by John Moe. Moe distinguished himself in a variety of assignments at KUOW in Seattle, most notably the business show "The Works," before moving to St. Paul to join the national network, including a stint as host of "Weekend America." Future Tense has long been a technology show hosted by Jon Gordon, and Gordon finally got a promotion, leaving the slot open for Moe, who brings a Generation X sensibility to the show--exactly the kind of technology show for which I had been searching! (Goodbye, Natali Del Conte--I'm sure you'll keep getting Loaded.)

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A ground hog watched me carefully from his secure position in Schlagel Park in Pasco, Washington on 17-June-2010

I didn't have to search to find wildlife in Pasco, Washington's Schlagel Park last week. In addition to quite a variety of water fowl, I encountered a large Garter Snake and the ground hog shown above kept a close watch on my activities near the shore of the Columbia River.

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Former Amtrak SDP40F #644 showed off its restored Amtrak light package in Portland, Oregon on 20-June-2010

My return trip to western Washington was routed through Portland, Oregon so I could check in on progress at the Brooklyn Roundhouse as the various groups that make up the Oregon Rail Heritage Foundation prepare to move to a new home. In addition to seeing plans for the new facility, there was quite a bit of progress to see on the Alco PA and, dearest to me, the restored Amtrak lighting package on SDP40F diesel locomotive #644 seen above.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Culture: Small Town Conversations

BELLEVUE, WASHINGTON - The Tri-Cities are hardly a small town. The 2010 census will likely show the combined population of Kennewick, Pasco, and Richland, Washington (for census purposes West Richland is also included) to be more than 250,000 people. Yet, in some ways, the traditional downtown areas still feel like the small towns they were not much more than a generation ago.

I don't find it the least bit odd that my grandmother gets into conversations pretty much no matter where we go in the Tri-Cities. After all, she's lived the vast majority of her adult life in Kennewick, so she should know a lot of people. Indeed, I've rarely gone to a grocery store or discount store with her without running into a distant family member, someone she used to volunteer with, or someone she used to see at high school sporting events.

On the other hand, there's basically no reason for me to end up in a conversation in the Tri-Cities, as I've only lived in the area briefly, and most of the people I worked with in that time have also moved away. Yet, seemingly whenever I headed to downtown Kennewick or Pasco, I ended up in a conversation. I've been asked about my computer, my camera, my shirt from California, and my handbag. I've met an information technology professional that grew up and works in Kennewick, a historian from Sacajawea State Park, and someone from western Benton County that just happened to be looking for honey at the Pasco Farmer's Market on Saturday.

Furthermore, each of these people was very willing to talk about the local businesses in the downtown areas that they trust. In downtown Kennewick, especially, there are a long string of specialist business that these locals I have met claim even to have lower prices than the chains out by Columbia Center. I haven't personally verified most of these claims, but I do remember visiting T&L Office Supply in Kennewick back in 2006, and not only were their prices competitive at that time, but the proprietor made a special order of something I wanted that I ultimately had my grandparents pick up much later. So, I can't contradict the claims, and I can back up at least one of them.

Those of us who live in Toronto should understand this concept--community isn't about the size of the local population, it's about what individuals carve out of it. Just like the neighborhoods of Toronto form their distinct communities and identities, so can the downtown areas of the Tri-Cities.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Radio Pick: Social Contract

KENNEWICK, WASHINGTON - This week's radio pick focuses closer to "home" as I travel. Living within listening distance of Buffalo radio stations, I hear a fair amount about New York state politics--and am sometimes shocked that only the largest scandals make the national media. The best story-telling I've heard about New York politics in the recent Spitzer-Paterson era came this week on that show of story-telling, This American Life. In addition, the 59-minute show featured another informative Planet Money segment.

Listen to streaming media of This American Life "Social Contract"

Heritage: Household Appliances

KENNEWICK, WASHINGTON - When someone has lived in a house for more than sixty years, they are bound to have retained some items that have since become historically significant. My grandmother has been living in the same house here basically since World War II. In the past, this blog has featured her toaster, which remains in daily use. On this trip, I encountered some additional items of similar vintage.

A pot in continuous use for at least sixty years sat on my grandmother's stove in Kennewick, Washington on 19-June-2010

The pot above certainly looks its age, no longer smooth in finish. Not long after my grandmother had moved into her present home in the 1940's, her parents-in-law visited. She made a roast, and the pot she used was so large--big enough for a turkey--that her mother-in-law noted that she needed a smaller one. The next time they visited, they brought the pot, which was not new at the time, meaning that it is entirely possible that it pre-dates World War II. It hasn't left the house since, and remains my grandmother's moderate-size workhorse pot to present day. Probably hundreds of meals have been cooked in it, the most recent chicken and dumplings.

An electric hair dryer from the immediate post-World War II era was noted with its original box in Kennewick, Washington on 19-June-2010

While I had certainly seen that pot before, I don't think I had ever seen a gem I
stumbled upon in the basement while looking for light bulbs. Sitting in what was apparently its original box, it was a Kenmore electric hair dryer. Purchased by my grandfather as a gift for my grandmother at Sears Roebeck, it was silver in color, streamline moderne in shape, and rested on its own silver base plate. While used for its intended purpose for many years, it had survived as a tool to help defrost the basement freezer periodically, stored between uses where I found it. While it still worked, it seemed unlikely to ever be used again, with so many more modern devices around to do the same tasks. I returned it to its place on the shelf.

I suspect the toaster and the pot will remain in the family indefinitely. The hair dryer might be in the East Benton County Historical Museum someday.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Culture: Fixation on Experts

KENNEWICK, WASHINGTON - As I have so often cited in this blog, New York Times columnist David Brooks had an insight today in his appearance on NPR's All Things Considered that I think runs beyond politics to general North American culture. When critiquing President Obama's response to the oil spill, Brooks faulted the general trend of the Obama administration to bring in a panel of experts, often from academia, to figure out what to do in a situation instead of empowering the people at the scene or on the front lines of a crisis situation.

Indeed, a number of commentators have joked that in response to the President's"angry" statement last week, he would open a commission on posterior kicking to not only to select "whose ass to kick" but also determine who was the most qualified person to actually take that action (could it be anyone except Kenneth Feinberg?) and then evaluate the effectiveness of the punishment. That's a far cry from an on-site boss reprimanding or even firing employees on the spot when something has gone wrong.

I think this runs far deeper than the Obama administration. I think it is cultural in North America. Ever hear of an apprenticeship lately? The idea of people learning how to do jobs from people that have done them for years seems to have become anathema to management. Now the way to do things is to eliminate the expensive, experienced people who know how to do things and re-define jobs so that they can be done by cheap workers with no experience. To make sure that experienced workers and their trade skills aren't advantaged, new rules are implemented to slow down the experienced workers and ban the way they have been doing things efficiently since those techniques might pose a "safety risk" to the new, unexperienced employees that might not understand them. The new people can be trained in new practices that make the "old heads" shake their heads.

A classic example is in a realm that I have been hearing stories about recently, railroading. Trainmen today still need to learn a rulebook, but it isn't the same rulebook that I found in the museum I visited yesterday. The new rulebook has some changes based on technology (obsolete dispatching practices no longer appear and rules about contemporary ones do appear), but mostly it is longer to include bans on practices that railroaders had used since the earliest times.

While it could be argued that longer, heavier trains make a new emphasis on safety necessary and certain old "efficient" techniques might be unsafe in the modern environment, it seems that the emphasis on trade skills is alarming to the "old heads." I remember encountering a local train about fifteen years ago with a very experienced conductor and brakemen and an engineer that was completely new to the line, having ridden it on a dinner train only once. The conductor didn't consider this engineer qualified, and the train did not go outside of yard limits on that line that day as a result. I remember him telling me, "Twenty years ago, this would have never happened--they would never send out an unqualified engineer, even on a branch line."

It would be nice if the oil spill reminded the culture that the people who work on things on a day to day basis on this continent know something about what they do. However, it seems far more likely that it will be used as justification for a whole new round of theory-based changes in an industry that already knew how to conduct its operations safely but chose not to for financial reasons. Considering that this kind of thinking seems to be coming from the very top, I don't see anyone being able to challenge it.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Heritage: Washington's Oldest Steam Locomotive

The "Blue Mountain" still exists at the Washington State Railroads Historical Society in Pasco, Washington, pictured on 17-June-2010

KENNEWICK, WASHINGTON - The Washington State Railroads Historical Society Museum in Pasco, Washington is not especially well-known in the world of railroad museums. Yet, the Tri-Cities (if broadly defined to include the Hanford site) attracted as many class I railroad systems that served Washington state as Seattle, lacking only the Great Northern. (Spokane, the capitol of the "Inland Empire," is the only area to be served by all of them--the Northern Pacific, Union Pacific, Great Northern, Spokane, Portland and Seattle, Milwaukee Road, and Spokane International.) As a crossroads of various lines, the area offers a rich history of railroads, so perhaps I should not have been surprised to find that the museum here offered a rich collection of artifacts.

Railroading history in Washington territory--it wasn't a state until 1889--started with the Walla Walla and Columbia River Railroad. When originally constructed in the 1870's, the area was so remote that it couldn't even get rails--one of the metal straps that originally served as temporary rails survived to be displayed in the museum. Amazingly, that line still exists--it was eventually purchased by the Union Pacific, which leased it to the shortline now known as the Palouse River & Coulee City--it is the only remaining rail route to Walla Walla.

One of the locomotives from that line--a 1878 Porter 0-6-0 steam locomotive, delivered via the tip of South America--may be the highlight of the whole museum collection. Gradually being restored to its original configuration, the "Blue Mountain" is believed to have traveled more miles as freight than in revenue service, having gone to Nome, Alaska after brief stints in Washington state before lines were converted from its narrow gauge to standard gauge.

My favorite artifact was a numberboard from Northern Pacific 4-8-4 #2626. Constructed as "the Timken engine" #1111 (the "Four Aces"), the steam locomotive had been constructed as a demonstrator for Timken roller bearings. After its tour of a substantial portion of the country, it was purchased by the same railroad that had popularized the 4-8-4, the Northern Pacific, which renumbered it to 2626. Always a popular engine, it powered a number of excursions at the end of steam and thus it was a minor scandal when the Northern Pacific scrapped the engine instead of donating it to a city or preservation group. The numberboard in Pasco is one of a very few parts from the locomotive that has survived.

The museum has a firm grounding in very local history as well, with an extensive display of photos from around the Tri-Cities. I thought I knew quite a bit about railroad depots in Kennewick, since my granfather worked in one of them for more than thirty years, but I had not been aware that the Spokane, Portland and Seattle had a depot on East 3rd Avenue, in addition to the Northen Pacific and Union Pacific depots downtown.

The Washington State Railroads Historical Society Museum is open Thursday and Friday afternoons and 9-3 on Saturdays from April to December, located right across from the modern-day BNSF rail yards at 122 North Tacoma Avenue in Pasco.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Politics: Didier, Perot, and the Tea Party

KENNEWICK, WASHINGTON - Media in Washington's largest city, Seattle, seemed surprised to find out last weekend that the passion in the Republican Senate race here is behind Clint Didier, not Dino Rossi. Rossi, who has performed strongly in two straight governor races (some say he actually won in 2004 and think the recount was fraudulent), entered the race against incumbent Democrat Patty Murray late, and is the only potential Republican nominee to poll competitively with Murray--some polls have even shown him ahead. Thus, the talking heads considered him a shoo-in for the nomination.

These people obviously haven't been east of the Cascade mountains lately. There are Clint Didier signs everywhere, and I haven't seen more than a handful of Rossi signs. The professional athlete-turned farmer-turned politician seems to be the darling of eastern Washington, and while I hardly take up politics with everyone I meet, I've yet to hear anyone have a bad word to say about him here. He claims Rossi is part of the establishment that needs to be removed from government. Former Alaska governor and vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin has endorsed him, and he won't talk to the mainstream media, in particular Seattle media, though his web site leaves little doubt where he stands on issues--he is a classic Tea Party candidate.

I recognized some of the patterns of Didier's support from the time I last lived here in the Tri-Cities, in 1996. Then, during a presidential race ultimately resulting in the re-election of Bill Clinton, this area was a stronghold of support for independent candidate Ross Perot. I was amazed at the depth of feeling about Perot here; supporters felt even the Republican party stood for too much government, never mind the Democrats, and they wanted Ross Perot to change how government worked, to make it more like the businesses they knew. In many ways, the Tea Party movement had already started here as a big libertarian streak in the Perot movement.

The support for the Tea Party and Clint Didier is especially interesting in the Tri-Cities because incumbent Murray has basically single-handedly saved the local economy by ensuring funding for activities on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. A number of people here are in jobs that would not exist had Senator Murray not secured funding.

Of course, with Washington's "top two" primary system, only two candiates will advance to the general election, regardless of party. Senator Murray seems a shoo-in to earn one of those slots. Whether the Tea Party enthusiasm for Clint Didier will prevail over the conventional wisdom and electability in the form of Dino Rossi remains to be seen. However, that electability concern seems large in this race--while Rossi has a clear chance to unseat Murray, I have yet to see a poll in which Didier even comes close. Washington state may be another state where a Tea Party-supported candidate costs the Republians a chance to defeat an incumbent Democrat.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Transport: Relaxed Autos, but only Autos

KENNEWICK, WASHINGTON - Away from the largest urban areas, the western United States is dominated by the automobile. In most of the west, there is no alternative, no sidewalks, no bike lanes, certainly no public transit. The Tri-Cities are an exception of sorts in that Ben Franklin Transit is a reasonably usable system, with a balance of local and intercity routes with timed connections making it possible to make it from just about anywhere in Richland, Kennewick, or Pasco to anywhere else in an hour or less.

Yet, the traditional forms of "green" transporation are essentially unknown here. I have not seen a single bicyclist in four days here, even a recreational one. One would think that this would be the ideal season for bicycling in this climate, as the skies have been clear and the temperatures have not yet become oppressive; when I once lived here, I used a bicycle reasonably frequently.

Pedestrians don't seem to be allowed here. I only intend a small amount of irony in that statement. On at least four occasions, I have had an automobile completely ignore my presence in a sidewalk and just shoot through the interchange without even looking at me, sometimes even after the location where they would have hit me had I continued on my intended course. People obviously do not expect any pedestrians here, and feel they do not ever have the right-of-way.

Interactions between drivers, though, are actually more relaxed than I remember them here in the past. On multiple occasions, a car in front of me has failed to move for at least five seconds after receiving a green light. Nobody honked, nobody seemed to get upset, and eventually the driver would notice that they had a favorable signal and would move through the intersection.

This seems counter-intuitive, as the Tri-Cities have definitely grown since I lived here more than a decade ago, and one would expect that the mood would become more tense with more people. A possible theory is that part of the population growth has been amongst people from Mexico, and the laid-back nature of Mexico may be influencing driving habits here. Or, perhaps the roundabouts that have proliferated here on both city and state roads have forced people to figure out how to be polite to one another in vehicles.

In any event, some of that patience and politeness needs to be applied by drivers to people that do not happen to be in another vehicle.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Politics: The "Top Two" Primary

KENNEWICK, WASHINGTON - While the talking heads in the mainstream media have focused on the victories of principally self-financed, conservative female candidates in last week's California primary, those looking at the longer-term have pointed out that the most significant result from that election may have been the passage of Proposition 14. I've long been in the chorus that has pointed out the extreme polarization of politics in the Golden State, though I've stopped short of calling it "ungovernable." Proposition 14, by establishing a "top-two" primary, is the first significant step passed by the voters to try to address that polarization, though the experience in this state, Washington, which has had a "top-two" primary for about a year, indicates it might not help very much.

Both Proposition 14 and a similar measure passed by the voters of Washington state have thrown out the party-based primary system. Traditionally, the primary election has served as a public nominating system for each political party. Exactly one Democrat, exactly one Republican, and a single representative of each smaller political party (if they fielded a candidate at all) would move on from the primary to the general election. Under the "top two" primary (which some have called a "jungle" primary), only the two highest vote-getting candidates move on to the general election, regardless of party. Those two candidates might be two Democrats, two Republicans, or even two independents. The parties--especially the smaller parties, which are no longer guaranteed a general election ballot line--hate this system, as it moves control of the process out of the parties and directly to the public. As a result, proponents of the "top two" system say it will result in more moderate, broadly-acceptable candidates appearing as choices for voters in the general election, instead of extreme candidates favored by party activists.

The "top two" primary came to be in Washington state not because of extreme polarization, as Washington (at least for statewide races) had a history of fairly moderate politicians by national standards. It instead came about because the long-standing "open" primary, in which voters could vote for any candidate in the primary regardless of party, had been abolished in favor of a "closed" primary in which voters had to declare their party affiliation and take a ballot with only the candidates from that party. The parties had pushed for the "closed" system on the basis of preventing the "distortion" which took place when only one major party had a primary race, and voters from the other party would vote for the candidate in the contested race they perceived to be the weakest in the general election. This was a relatively rare situation, and voters instead viewed the new system as decreasing their choices. The "top two" primary passed handily as a result, and has since been upheld by the US Supreme Court.

Yet, despite the new rules, there have yet to be any races in Washington in which the "top two" system has clearly changed the results. One Democrat and one Republican still have appeared on the general election ballot. Those candidates haven't been noticeably more moderate in their ideology, or ones clearly not favored by their parties. In contrast, states that have implemented "clean elections" reforms involving public matching funds, most notably Maine, have seen clear effects.

Because of its history of "open" primaries and relative lack of polarization, Washington may not be indicative of how the "top two" primary will play out in California. However, I daresay the result was most significant in its symbolism, that the voters protested the polarized system by voting for Proposition 14. If they had really wanted significant change, they would have needed to vote for campaign finance reform.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Photos: Toronto Spring 2010

The spring foliage was just appearing around the maple leaf in Toronto, Ontario's High Park on 29-April-2010

KENNEWICK, WASHINGTON - This week update to my photo site looks back at spring in Toronto, Ontario. Spring scenes from April through June 2010 included waterfront scenes, cherry blossoms in High Park, the High Park Zoo, road and building construction, community meetings, the Victoria Day fireworks, and more.

Margin Notes: Reunions, Travel, United

Nearly fifty of about sixty attendees of the Harper family reunion appeared in this group photograph in Kennewick, Washington on 12-June-2010

KENNEWICK, WASHINGTON - Yes, the purpose of this trip was substantially reunions, between the PRISM program reunion on Friday night and a Harper family reunion here in Kennewick yesterday, whose group picture appears above. About 60 of the 180 descendants of Charles and Florence Harper were in attendance, even if all of them were not in the photograph.

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Amongst the activities at the Harper reunion was a trivia contest in which I learned, besides many things about family members, that the family's long-time center of Connell, Washington had once been known as Chickensaw Flats as well as its old railroad name of Palouse Junction.

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Emirate Airlines Airbus A380, registration A6-EDC, was at Terminal 1 of Pearson International Airport in Toronto, Ontario on 9-June-2010

Modern travel is more likely to occur by plane than by train, and the largest commercial plane current in the skies is the Airbus A380. I finally managed a photo of one of the new planes as an Emirates Air A380 sat at the gate in Toronto, Ontario as I departed last Wednesday.

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The menu at the Billy Goat Tavern at O'Hare Airport in Chicago, Illinois alluded to a Saturday Night Live sketch on 9-June-2010

I changed planes for the first time in some years at Chicago's O'Hare Airport, which meant the revival of my tradition of getting my one hamburger a year (okay, I make it to In'N'Out often enough that it's more than once a year now) at the Billy Goat Tavern's airport food court location. Billy Goat is the establishment made famous by a John Belushi Saturday Night Skit in which they repeatedly state "Cheezborger, cheezborger, cheezborger," "no fries, chips" and "no Coke, Pepsi." Never mind that the airport establishment claims "No Pepsi, Coke."

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Besides being able to partake in a Billy Goat cheezborger, about the only good thing about flying United Airlines is that one can listen in to Air Traffic Control conversations on the audio system. However, that was not to be on my Seattle-bound flight, as that channel was rapidly taken over by a feed of the Stanley Cup finals. I almost thought I was still in Canada, but in reality taking off from Chicago just meant that there were Blackhawk fans on-board. They were happy, as the Blackhawks finished the job on Philadelphia that night.

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The Air Traffic Control feed did come back in time to hear the hand-off from the Salt Lake Center to the Seattle Center, which as usual took place about one hour from landing at Sea-Tac Airport, the sure sign that one has almost made it to the west coast.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Radio Pick: Art Thiel on Pac-16(?)

KENNEWICK, WASHINGTON - This week's radio pick comes from a new source. Saturday morning has become the morning for sports on public radio in the United States, in the case of some programs the only day of signifiant sports coverage. The Saturday coverage runs from local segments to hour-long programs, and in the former category Seattle Post-Intelligencer columnist Art Thiel's conversations with KPLU's Kirsten Kendrick show the best of the genre, often offering insights beyond sports as was the case this week in a five-minute segment.

Listen to MP3 of Art Thiel Conversation "Big College Football News"

Friday, June 11, 2010

Education: PRISM 25th Anniversary

Four of her former students from the very first PRISM (then EGP) class surrounded original instructor Betty Skibo during the PRISM 25th Anniversary Celebration at Stevenson Elementary School in Bellevue, Washington on 11-June-2010

BELLEVUE, WASHINGTON - Not much more than 25 years ago, my parents received a letter from the Bellevue School District--one which they kept and I managed to find yesterday--announcing the beginning of a new gifted program that fall that I would be eligible to attend at Stevenson Elementary school. That first year of the program was sucessful enough that it was expanded to middle school the following year, and would eventually be further expanded to high school.

The original name for the program--the Exceptionally Gifted Program or EGP--was stigmatizing enough that the students and staff of the middle school program at Odle Middle School actively searched for a different moniker in 1987. There was an unwritten rule that the name had to be an acronym, but the process seemed to involve coming up with names first and the words of the acronym later. The most popular suggestions were SPECTRUM and PRISM--unfortunately, I cannot remember who originated them--and I was the one who came up with the acronym for PRISM--PRogram for Intellectually Stimulated Minds. With the acronym in hand, PRISM became the leading suggestion, and it would stick--none of us in the room that day would have believed that it would still be in use 23 years later.

For that matter, with movements toward mainstreaming occurring in the district, few would probably have believed that the program itself would survive, but it has. At the elementary level, it has now outlasted the building in which it has been housed. Stevenson Elementary School will be closed next year as it is rebuilt, and when it re-opens, the PRISM program will not return; it will instead move to Spiritridge. So, to celebrate the end of PRISM at Stevenson and the retirement of two long-term PRISM teachers, Paula Fraser and Shelley Perkins, a 25th anniversary celebration was held at Stevenson tonight.

Publicity was relatively late in spreading to the diaspora of the original class from Stevenson Elementary, but the most important individual from that year was there as an honored guest. Betty Skibo, the first teacher ever in the PRISM program, attended with her husband. Four of her original students, three "fifth graders" and one "third grader" (well, we were in fall 1985) also showed.

The event included words from a good portion of the elementary-level PRISM teachers that attended, a slide show covering a good portion of the program's existence, and essays from three present students that were mind-bogglingly well-written. Yet, the best part of the event might have been seeing that the original PRISM rooms were still in use by the program and looked remarkably similar to what they did 25 years ago, and the grounds of the school had also changed very little (they just looked a lot less steep from a physically taller perspective).

When the 50th anniversary of the PRISM program takes place in 2035, undoubtedly many more things will have changed.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

History: South Africa 21 Years Ago

BELLEVUE, WASHINGTON - Today, I had the opportunity to watch a brief video program that I had helped produce as a student twenty-one years ago on contemporary South Africa. While the basis for the video was unmistakably the Alan Patton novel "Cry, the Beloved Country," it also clearly used current news reports in 1989 as a source. It was almost unfathomable to believe the contrast with reports coming out of South Africa today as the World Cup begins.

Today, it seems hard to believe that in 1989, apartheid was still the law of the land in South Africa. While some of the "SOS News" video included incidents closer to the 1940's setting of the book, including a bus strike and Black South Africans walking four hours to work, a "point-counterpoint" segment (a very clear parody of KIRO-TV's feature of the 1980's, and I have to proudly say that I portrayed the late Walt Crowley, bowtie, mannerisms, and all, while Ryan Phillips did a very good John Carlson) dealt with then-current issues on how apartheid would either be continued or dismantled.

It would not be until a year later that the African National Congress would be legalized and Nelson Mandela would be released from prison. It would not be until 1994 that democratic elections would be held, won by the African National Congress. It would not be until 1995 that the now-legendary Truth and Reconciliation Commission would be created. And, of course, it would not be until 2010 that the world would converge on South Africa for soccer's World Cup.

None of that was reflected in this video project for the obvious reason that it hadn't happened yet. Seeing how different things were through this amateur production really drove home just how quickly change can happen in this world. Even in my own lifetime, I have produced a program on a world situation that is now completely history, history that people who are adults today never experienced at all. Will the situation in the Middle East today seem equally quaint in 21 years?

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Culture: World Cup Lessons?

TORONTO, ONTARIO - As the excitement builds toward the FIFA World Cup which begins in South Africa on Friday, the contrast with a certain sports event that took place earlier in the year in Vancouver, British Columbia which I am not allowed to mention by name is rather profound. I think those games of ancient origin need to take a few lessons from the World Cup.

First of all, despite the World Cup going on, I'm not anticipating any serious disruptions in my media habits. Sure, live broadcasts of the certain matches will air on certain radio and television networks preempting normal programming at times, but no network is disappearing from the Internet because of rights issues. My favorite news program is not going to disappear off my podcast feed or local public radio station because it might contain sports content, even when it doesn't.

I haven't heard any complaints about elitist ticket prices and procedures either. Sure, it helps when the games are played in stadiums seating tens of thousands of people, but I know a handful of people that traveled to the last World Cup in Germany and just moved about the country to attend games and never had any trouble getting in to a stadium until the quarter-finals--and frankly, the group matches are said to be more fun to watch anyway.

The World Cup really seems to be what that other thing is supposed to be--embracing the common fan, making the games accessible on a variety of levels, exploiting national pride to bring the world together, fostering ties amongst rivals from around the world, and hence bringing the human race a little closer together.

It's not like the World Cup isn't commercial. There are official sponsors, and plenty of promotion. The cup itself didn't just tour the world with K'naan singing "Wavin' Flag" for nothing. But, the World Cup doesn't pretend to be more important than everything else in each of those countries, and it doesn't go to extreme lengths to protect its brand. Frankly, it doesn't need to--people get excited enough about the tournament on its own merits. I suspect the other quadrennial event would find the same thing to be true.

Of course, maybe I just have a Toronto bias in my opinion. Being a city where people from all the participating nations openly display their flags throughout the tournament and enjoy the games together without serious conflict, maybe Toronto is just an unusually World Cup kind of place. After all, where else but Toronto would one find a person of joint Mexican-South African descent who would compose a song about the first match of the tournament between Mexico and South Africa? Indeed, Amanda Martinez is traveling to South African with her family (from each country) to perform the song.

Still, even if my perspective is a bit warped, I think a certain international committee has some lessons to learn from this single-sport event.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Politics: No Body, No Drama

TORONTO, ONTARIO - The current oil spill crisis in the United States has led to a substantial amount of criticism of President Barack Obama for not showing enough emotion. This lack of emotion has been a hallmark of the President throughout his life; he has long been known as "No Drama Obama." Yet, in an earlier post, I classified Obama as a "central" or "sexual" personality type, which is in the so-called "emotional" world. How can this be?

Personality expert Bob Cooley has long contended that the ability to feel emotions is directly related to body size. A skinny person has no body to hold emotions, and thus tends not only not to express emotions, but not even feel them. In contrast, people with much more mass can feel deep emotions. Think of public features known for emotion, say Oprah Winfrey or Bill Clinton, and one won't find a stick figure.

Whether there is a cause and effect relationship or merely correlation is not clear. Certainly, science has not provided a ready explanation for how body mass would lead to increased emotion. Could it be that the hormonal manifestations of emotion are reinforced by more body tissue?

In any event, I have mentioned that Obama does not look like a typical person of his type; they tend to have a larger build. His build is such an anomaly for the type that it caused me to not believe it for a time. So, if Cooley is right and skinnier people show fewer emotions, it should not be surprising that the President does not show much emotion.

This whole "show emotion" controversy reached a new level in Obama's recent appearance on the NBC Today show. When asked by Matt Lauer whether he should "kick butt," he responded: "I don't sit around just talking to experts because this is a college seminar; we talk to these folks because they potentially have the best answers, so I know whose ass to kick." It still sounds he's giving a college seminar to me, even if he's swearing.

Maybe what he really needs to do is gain weight.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Media: Remembering Himan Brown

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Somehow, I missed the news for several days that Himan Brown died on Friday at the age of 99. I knew Brown as the producer of CBS Radio Mystery Theater, and last heard him on a National Public Radio reincarnation of Mystery Theater in 2000, but he was far more than that--he was the premiere radio drama producer of the 20th century.

CBS Radio Mystery Theater itself ran from 1974 to 1982; I heard it on re-runs later in the decade until CBS stopped nightly distribution of the series at the end of 1989. I don't remember the first time I heard the program, but I definitely remember that it became part of my routine almost immediately. The program was so well-produced that it was completely engrossing, and the plot twists could be genuinely shocking. My local affiliate, KIRO in Seattle, ran three hours on Saturday night and two hours on Sunday night, and I would religiously head to bed and not turn the radio off until the show was over.

E. G. Marshall was the host of Mystery Theater, but Brown was the driving creative force and its link to the golden days of radio, dutifully credited at the end of each show. Yet, that was far from Brown's peak accomplishment. He did his first radio drama work in 1929, and would go on to work not only through the golden era but well beyond, producing a long list of shows including Dick Tracy, Flash Gordon, and the Inner Sanctum Mysteries. The Inner Sanctum introduced the creaking door that would be an icon of the later Mystery Theater. In all, Brown produced over 30,000 dramas including 1,399 Mystery Theaters.

When Mystery Theater went out of distribution, its popularity was still so strong that many CBS affiliates tried substitute programming. Most notably, KNX in Los Angeles played other famous radio programs during its 9 PM "Drama Hour," audible at that after-dark hour up and down the west coast. KIRO in Seattle had its own Jim French go back into the production of new dramas.

Indeed, radio drama continues on. Jim French Productions does an weekly Imagination Theater hour, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation produces a weekly half-hour episode (currently running Afghanada), the British Broadcasting Corporation probably still has the highest output in the world, and there are others. However, all of these other shows have their own tone and feel; the unique style of Himan Brown has been silenced forever.

Then again, considering the plot twists inherent in Mystery Theater, can we really be sure he won't come back? Pleasant dreeeeaaams, hmmmmm?

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Photos: Swansea Historical Society Walk

The former Sons of England Benevolent Society Hall on Beresford Street in Swansea had been a private residence since 1971 as seen on 5-June-2010

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's update to my photo site features yesterday's Swansea walk. The 25th Anniversary of the Swansea Historical Society was celebrated on its annual walk by passing through the "The Heart of Swansea" on 5-June-2010. Denise Harris led the walk through what is now a neighbourhood of Toronto, Ontario, prepared in cooperation with society president Norm McLeod.

Margin Notes: Inukshuks, Flags, Webs, Ladders

Inukshuks are everywhere! One was found at the base of the CN Tower in Toronto, Ontario on 3-June-2010

TORONTO, ONTARIO - In the wake of those games held out in Vancouver earlier this year, Inukshuks seem to have proliferated. Used as a symbol of those games, the stone landmarks used by Arctic peoples have become the latest fad. Now, there's even one at the base of the CN Tower in Toronto, noted above.

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The World Cup is coming! A Brazilian flag was displayed on this vehicle parked on Windermere in Toronto, Ontario on 5-June-2010, a sight soon to become widespread in the city

A more mobile sight is set to take over Toronto. As the World Cup (of soccer) is set to begin on Friday, people have started to follow the tradition of showing their loyalties by displaying flags on their cars. I saw my first such "World Cup car," a fan of Brazil, during the annual walk through the Swansea neighbourhood of Toronto yesterday.

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A well-formed spider web was found near the coupler of a diesel locomotive at the Toronto Railway Heritage Centre in Toronto, Ontario on 26-May-2010

Not everything moves. Some of the diesel locomotives at the Toronto Railway Heritage Centre have remained in the same location for weeks on end, and as we prepared for the centre's opening at the end of May, one of my fellow volunteers came across the above nearly-perfect spider web near the coupler of the locomotive.

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An old LaFrance ladder truck was visible through the open door of Toronto Fire Station 422 on Jane Street on 1-June-2010

Another thing that may not have moved since I moved to Toronto is the above old LaFrance fire truck at Fire Station 422 on Jane Street near Dundas. The truck has been visible through the doors, and I have long waited for the doors to be opened so that the truck could be seen. On the evening of 1-June-2010, one door was open, affording the view seen above that revealed, amongst other things, that the truck has a flat tire. No fire fighters came out to greet me, so I couldn't get a closer tour or any additional information.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Radio Pick: Irrationality

TORONTO, ONTARIO - The CBC continues its streak in my weekly radio pick. Most of us realize that human beings are irrational, but few of us have thought about how this might actually be beneficial from an evolutionary perspective. Author Dan Ariely of Duke University talked about our "stupid brains" in this 18-minute interview, with insights for laypeople and scientists alike.

Listen to MP3 of Quirks and Quarks "The Upside of Irrationality"

Media: Watch it on HD

TORONTO, ONTARIO - As long as twenty-five years ago, there was an interesting phenomenon amongst unlimited hydroplane racing fans. Enthusiasts of the sport that would attend every race that they could over the course of the year would not attend race day in Seattle, Washington. Why? It wasn't the weather or ticket prices. The Seattle race was always televised, and the coverage on the local station was often so good, and the views from the television camera so much better than what could be seen from the shore, that the fans thought the experience was more engaging at home on television than along Lake Washington.

In twenty-five years, a lot has improved in television technology. Large-screen televisions are far more commonplace for average consumers. Analog television has been replaced with digital television that makes the picture even more clear and real to the viewer. Watching television feels even more like actually being somewhere than it ever has before, and now the same phenomenon that was occurring long ago with unlimited hydroplane racing is happening to other sports.

The Toronto Blue Jays, the only major-league baseball team in Canada, is now receiving record television ratings. Despite being on a cable channel, the games are often viewed by more than 500,000 people (as cited in the Toronto Star). Meanwhile, the in-person attendance at the Rogers Centre is about as low as it has ever been. According to TSN, opening night aside, the team has averaged just 14,853 fans in its first 25 home games. Attendance has exceeded 20,000 only twice, in a stadium that holds nearly 50,000.

Clearly, the team doesn't have a popularity problem. Besides the record television ratings, their on-the-field record has exceeded expectations, competitive in the American League East and the wild card race. It just seems that the fans prefer their in-home television experience to the experience in the Rogers Centre.

Perhaps this isn't so surprising. Traffic and parking are huge problems in Toronto and around the Rogers Centre in particular. The amenities of the Rogers Centre pale in comparison with more modern stadiums from the new Camden Yards in Baltimore to Safeco Field in Seattle. Ticket prices effectively went up this year with the end of some package deals and most promotions.

Yet, the Blue Jays might really be canaries on this issue. As home entertainment technology improves (think live baseball in 3D), this phenomenon isn't going to be limited to Toronto. For that matter, it will not be limited to baseball. It is not inconceivable that within a decade, for most fans, the experience at home will be better than the experience in person. The whole business model for sports may need to be re-evaluated--and the teams and sports that anticipate this and create a new sustainable model will be the ones that will still be around in a generation.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Politics: The Leader Matters

TORONTO, ONTARIO - A recent Angus-Reid survey on the Federal political parties in Canada has gotten relatively little attention. The headline result is hardly surprising--the Conservatives continue to hold a party-preference lead with 35%, with the Liberals trailing at 27%, and the New Democratic Party (NDP) at 19%. What's interesting, though, is that they also looked at what would happen if the latter two left-of-center parties merged (the New Liberals?)--and the results are not necessarily what one would expect, and very dependent on the leader of that new party.

On the surface, one might think that a Liberal-NDP merger would simply combine their support to create a solid 46% preference, well ahead of the Conservatives even if some modest defections from the combined party from purists took place. That isn't what would happen at all, according to the survey. If current Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff were to head the party, it would only poll at 34%, with the Conservatives up to 40%. That might sound like centrists amongst the Liberals abandoning the new party because of its history with the NDP, but that doesn't seem to be the case.

If current NDP leader Jack Layton led the new party, it would actually be ahead in the polls at 43%, leading the Conservatives at 37%, not that far from the simple combination prediction. Furthermore, the combined party is strong in much of the country in this scenario, including a 10-point lead over the Bloc in Quebec. One could make the case that this is the baseline for Liberal-leaning voters that could not stand the influence of the NDP--marking that group as only something like 2-3% of voters.

So what's going on with the Ignatieff-as-leader numbers? It's not having NDP defections because a Liberal would be leading the combined party. With Liberal Bob Rae as leader of the new party, there's a 38% tie between the new party and the Conservatives. Considering that Bob Rae has significant baggage in Ontario as a result of his time as premier and is hardly a "generic Liberal," this implies that the generic NDP defections would be less than 8% (and one would not expect them, for ideological reasons, to run to the Conservatives).

It pretty much has to come down to individual leadership. Whether because of Conservative advertising or his own actions, Ignatieff is not positively viewed by the electorate, and that clearly matters to voters more than the ideology of the party that he leads. On the other hand, Layton is apparently viewed quite positively (at least by those leaning left). I've long held that political leadership is important, and this poll seems to demonstrate that quite strongly.

While a Liberal-NDP merger or even formal coalition is far from likely at this stage, the Conservatives have to be taking note of this poll. I could imagine that we might start seeing some negative advertising directed at Jack Layton. This would be a dangerous game--Layton has publicly spoke about his ongoing battle with prostate cancer and any negative advertising would be seen as picking on a physically weakened man who is widely expected to only lead his party for one more election.

A far more interesting topic may not be who would lead a combined Liberal-NDP alliance if it formed tomorrow, but who would lead it in the future after Ignatieff, Layton, and the other current players move on. Could it be Liberal Ken Dryden? The NDP's Thomas Mulcair? There will be a search for leadership in Canada, whether for the Liberals and NDP individually or as one, as well as for a new Conservative leader someday. The country will only benefit if competent and effective leaders emerge.