Saturday, July 31, 2010

Radio Pick: BBC Interview of Carren Strock

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's radio pick comes from the BBC. It's not often that a hard news program presents a concept that one hasn't heard before. The weekend version of the BBC Newshour sometimes does just that, this week presenting Carren Strock's views on female sexuality. What makes this interview especially interesting is listening to how host Julian Marshall handles the fact that the other guest doesn't provide a sharp counterpoint to Strock in the second half of this 48-minute podcast.

Listen to MP3 of the BBC Newshour "Carren Strock"

Friday, July 30, 2010

Culture: Supporting Local Business?

TORONTO, ONTARIO - For all my verbal and written glorification of neighbourhood businesses in Toronto, my credibility in supporting these businesses is rather suspect. After all, I buy almost all of my groceries at supermarkets, only occasionally picking up some produce at one of the family businesses in Bloor West Village. My credibility in some other sectors is better, but I would overall have a very hard time if someone accused me of hypocrisy in this regard.

Today, I needed a small Torx screwdriver that I didn't have, so I decided to see if I could avoid going to Home Depot to get it. One of the few specialty stores that Bloor West Village doesn't have is a hardware store. However, there is a hardware store a bit north of the neighbourhood that I had never actually gone inside before since it is only open during weekday business hours. Being unemployed, I figured I'd have the chance to actually give them some business.

However, after I walked over there, I found the business closed. Hours were not posted in the window, but there appeared to be plenty of inventory inside. I think the owner must go on vacation in the summer, and his customers must know that, so no sign is necessary. So, I still haven't been inside that hardware store.

There is a hardware store in the Junction neighbourhood, so I kept walking that direction. That store was open, and someone even tried to help me. However, the guy seemed to have never heard of a "Torx" or even a "star" screwdriver before, and while there were Torx screwdrivers in the store, the size that I needed wasn't available. They weren't going to get my business either.

It was starting to look like I would have to go to Home Depot after all, but there is another, Canadian-owned business nearby in the Junction neighbourhood. So, I headed to Rona. Finally, I found a T9 Torx screwdiver there in a set that I figured was worth having.

I had managed to avoid Home Depot, but I hadn't managed to give business to a local owner, just a Canadian chain. No wonder so many small business advocates end up hypocrites.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Heritage: Exhibition Grounds

Tour guide Steve Collie demonstrated how a microphone was not required on the bandshell stage at the Canadian National Exhibition Grounds in Toronto, Ontario on 28-July-2010

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Last night there was a rare weekday Heritage Toronto walk. When I intended to leave to walk there, a thunder squall went through. By the time it cleared, I barely had time left to make it to the walk, and it seemed that many other people were actually discouraged by the weather, as there were practically more volunteers on hand than visitors. Yet, by the time the introductory speeches were finished, the rain had stopped completely, and within minutes the sun would come out. It turned out to be a very nice night for a twilight walk.

Steve Collie spoke about the Scadding Cabin, the oldest building in Toronto built in 1794 and moved to its present location in 1879, seen 28-July-2010

The Canadian National Exhibition grounds have a lot of history in their own right, from the location of Fort Rouillé, the French fur trading post from the 1750's whose outline is highlighted, to a battle in the war of 1812. History has also been transplanted there, most prominently the Scadding Cabin, the oldest building in Toronto, which was moved to the exhibition grounds for the first fair in 1879 and remains to this day.

The architectural elements from demolished sports buildings had been incorporated into Bimo Field, as pointed out during the Heritage Toronto tour on 28-July-2010

Yet, most of the heritage that people care about comes down to the buildings, including the surviving George Wallace Gouinlock structures in the Beaux Arts style from the early 1900's, to structures designed by Chapman and Oxley in the 1920's. Even some of the demolished buildings live on, with the murals and architectural features re-created in the Bimo Field entrance and stone re-used as benches.

Even the Bailey Bridge over Lake Shore Boulevard, observed 28-July-2010, had a historical connection discussed in the Heritage Toronto walk

The joy of Heritage Toronto walks is the set of random things that are difficult to learn elsewhere. On this night, I was surprised to learn that the Bailey Bridge over Lake Shore Boulevard had been donated in 1945 immediately after World War II, but it had taken seven years to decide where to put it--it was then installed in about 90 minutes in 1952. I hadn't heard that the flagpole (the latest version only recently removed) had been struck by lightning in 1930 and a time capsule ended up being opened just months after its placement.

The sun had set by the time the Heritage Toronto tour reached the 1929-era Automotive Building (now the Allstream Centre) on 28-July-2010

While most Heritage Toronto walks can go over time easily, this one had a natural closing time enforced by the sunset. By the time we reached the Princes' Gates, the sun had gone down and it was time to wrap up a rather unique tour put on by the Exhibition Place Archives.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Economics: It's Already Happening

TORONTO, ONTARIO - In general, I try to not to make points on this blog that appear elsewhere, usually with more supporting data and better writing. After all, this blog is called "Way Out In The Margin," not "The Main Story," and while I style myself as a generalist, I could never claim to be in the mainstream in any way.

Yet, occasionally, I think that not only the mainstream media, but even the blogosphere misses some really obvious points. Today, the left-wing-pretending-to-be-centrist NPR talk show On Point, produced at WBUR-Boston, ran an hour on pension envy. This phenomenon, not limited to the United States, has caused private-sector workers to become resentful of public-sector workers that may have a relatively-secure retirement because they will have a pension, whereas the private-sector workers have to rely on their own contributions to tax-advantaged accounts to get them through.

This show, as well as a number of commentaries I've seen on the same topic, seems to miss the most important point. They point out that public-sector compensation hasn't significantly changed in real-dollar terms (in fact, including benefits it has declined by some measures). It's private-sector compensation, in real-dollar terms, that has declined to the point that it has fallen well behind the public sector. In other words, the standard of living in the United States is already falling.

For years, we've been hearing that the standard of living in the United States was going to decline if citizens didn't personally save more money and the Federal government didn't get its deficit under control. Sorry folks, but it's already happening. It's become so normalized that people just accept that it is a given, and get upset at those it's not happening to--a subset of public-sector workers.

Of course, technically speaking, I am incorrect. Because the cost of living has declined, most actual measures of standard of living have not actually declined yet. Furthermore, the real difference will not be seen until the Baby Boomers--many of whom no longer have pensions--actually retire and have significantly less income than the generation before them. Then, it's going to be really obvious that a lot of elderly people will not be able to maintain the standard of living that they had while working.

Interestingly, in today's On Point show, the social security system was barely mentioned the entire hour. It says something about how far the debate has moved that not only is it accepted that private-sector jobs don't provide for retirement, but it's completely off the table to suggest using social security to do anything about the issue--instead, people assume that social security will decline or even go bankrupt. Social security was intended to be the main retirement pillar for everyone, or at least one leg of a three-legged stool with pensions and personal retirement accounts. Nobody talks about that stool structure anymore, either.

While I don't like writing about obvious things, I also don't like writing about things without offering a solution. In the case of retirement, I don't see any--all the potential solutions to this issue, like changing social security, are political suicide. The capitalists have already won, the workers have lost, and the workers have only themselves to blame for accepting the new reality.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Culture: A Weasel Friend?

A weasel stopped by to say hello along the banks of the Humber River in Toronto, Ontario on 27-July-2010

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I spend a fair amount time along the Humber River, which runs not far from my residence. The Humber once marked the western edge of Toronto, and amongst other honours holds the title of being the only Canadian Heritage River accessible by subway, at the Old Mill stop. While the river is one hundred kilometers in length, running from the Oak Ridges Moraine to Lake Ontario, I am most often found in the segment between Bloor Street and Scarlett Road in Toronto. Sometimes I'm just walking for exercise and pleasure, sometimes I'm hoping to take pictures of a Canadian Pacific train crossing the river north of Dundas Street, and sometimes I'm actually on my way somewhere and managed to work the scenery of the river into my route.

Over the years, I've gotten used to seeing wildlife along the river, and these sightings sometimes have made the margin notes of this blog. I've seen ground hogs, beavers, a deer, a salmon that managed to make its way past all the weirs, and all kinds of species of birds, from Cardinals to Great Blue Herons. Yet, lately, I haven't seen anything particularly interesting. It seems like the time I've spent around dusk near the river during past summers has been most conducive to seeing something new, so I was starting to wonder if all the wildlife has left town.

Earlier tonight, I was along the shore of the Humber, waiting for the evening Expressway train to pass at sunset, as it often does this time of year. I was thinking about my lack of wildlife spottings, listening for any interesting bird calls, and watching for any motion amongst the branches. The water itself attracted my attention, though. I thought I saw some bubbles surfacing downriver, and wondered if maybe I had missed a duck diving in the area.

Pretty soon, I noticed strange wave patterns near the shore on my side of the river, slightly closer than the bubbles had been, but no noise. Ducks are never that quiet when they dive, so between that and the fact that I hadn't seen a duck in some minutes, I figured I was probably dealing with a quiet mammal. Soon, there was another wave pattern emanating just slightly closer to me. Whoever it was, he or she was headed my direction.

As I focused in on the shoreline in front of me, I wondered what it might be. The waves didn't seem to be big enough to be from a beaver; it seemed to be a pretty small animal. I had yet to hear a noise at all, and more waves were noticed, now perhaps only eight meters away. I started to watch the shore line about four to six meters away, figuring I'd be able to see whatever it was from there.

Suddenly, I looked a little closer and found a little face looking at me from not much more than a meter away in some bushes. The little guy was so wet that I wasn't sure what I was looking at, especially as it soon sat up and seemed to give me a closer inspection. I started to take pictures, which was tolerated for about fifteen seconds, and then the animal apparently tired of the attention and almost noiselessly slithered away inland.

Studying the pictures afterward, I think what I must have seen was a weasel, probably a long-tailed weasel. I did manage to get a picture of a portion of its tail as it disappeared into the underbrush, and it was definitely a furry tail, not that of a rat. He or she was pretty small, not more than the size of a domestic cat, perhaps even smaller.

My wildlife drought was definitely over; I had never seen a weasel along the Humber River before, and I had not been visited that closely along the river even by birds in a long time. I wonder where the weasel was going--will he be back to say hello again?

Monday, July 26, 2010

Technology: Apple Keeps a Customer

TORONTO, ONTARIO - My computer problems may have been solved for less than $100. With an appointment made, I decided to take a trek out to the Apple Store at Sherway Gardens mall today to talk to the Genius Bar about my 2005-era iBook, which had the non-functional trackpad. After I presented the history, the Mac Genius had some ideas for workarounds, and after more than fifteen minutes of trying, he managed to get a mouse fully working by forcing the setting to disable the trackpad (which was very difficult to do without the trackpad itself or an external mouse working). That gave me a backup computer that I could use.

Then, he agreed with my assessment that my 2008-era MacBook probably did have a failing drive, and pointed out that any 2.5" serial ATA-drive could be installed. So, I went across the street to Tiger Direct and purchased a $10 mouse (for the iBook) and a new $65 hard drive which is twice the size of the drive that had been installed--that's almost a justifiable upgrade, never mind the need for repair.

First, I satisfied myself that the backup computer was working. It's rather funny how many settings just worked, even after two years of sitting in the closest. One of the first things I did was to tune in the KUOW internet stream, and the old RealPlayer software and old URL worked just fine and the audio started playing. I had forgotten how much I liked the feel of that iBook. Furthermore, as a G4 machine, it can still run in Classic mode, so I was able to launch Word 5.0 for the first time in two years. I now have the project of going through the process of printing all my old Word documents (which don't open properly in newer versions of Word or OpenOffice) to a Postscript file, and then opening them in Preview (which automatically converts them) and saving them as PDF files that I can open on more modern computers. It's a slick process on the old computer, essentially impossible on my newer machine.

Once that was in place, I changed hard drives in my MacBook and started the long process of installing the system software, performing updates, and re-installing all of my software, settings, and documents. The process went smoothly, and I am actually writing this blog entry on the new computer. There so far has been no sign of the issues I was having, so it appears that the problem was indeed the hard drive--and now I have one with a lot more space available.

I still don't think the logic board (or perhaps cable) in my iBook should have ever failed, and the hard drive in my Macbook shouldn't have failed. But, if I can fix all my problems for less than $100 (even including my transit fares yesterday) and Apple will provide in-person help with the issues at the Genius bar, that's better than any other computer manufacturer would do. Apple probably saved itself from a lost customer today.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Photos: Railway History in the Foothills

The two icons of the Snoqualmie Valley, 4167-foot Mount Si and the south fork of the Snoqualmie River, were observed from a Northwest Railway Museum train west of North Bend, Washington on 26-June-2010

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Coverage of a trip to the Pacific Northwest in June 2010 continues on this week's update to my photo site with railway history in the foothills of the Cascades Mountains experienced on 26-June-2010. Seattle Public Utilities held a "Treasure Tour" of railroad history in the Cedar River Watershed around Cedar Falls, Washington, and a ride was taken on the Northwest Railway Museum's line between North Bend and Snoqualmie, Washington, followed by a shop tour.

Margin Notes: Signs, Holmes, Indians

Yet another very strange advertisement was found on Front Street in Toronto, Ontario on 25-July-2010

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I've said before on this blog many times that one never knows what one will see on the streets of Toronto, and the sign above is another classic example. Found near the west end of Front Street at Bathurst, it actually advertises a sommelier service, so there's no need to check out the link.

* * * * * *

A new bar for private events was observed on the mezzanine at the John Street Roundhouse in Toronto, Ontario on 25-July-2010

Of course, many of us that spend time in Roundhouse Park here in Toronto think that Jesus just might drink beer if he were here, not wine. After all, Steam Whistle Brewing offers free samples to visitors from their home in stalls 1 through 14 of the John Street Roundhouse. If in the area, I strongly advise stopping by to check out their pilsner brew.

* * * * * *

Roundhouse Park was inside the G20 security zone last month, and the aftermath of that event has been decidedly low-key in Canadian public opinion. In his Spacing magazine column last week, John Lorinc presented a case for why Canadians aren't worked up about the G20, but are talking about long census forms, a nice complement to some of this blog's recent writings about Canadian character.

* * * * * *

From the alternate media to the mainstream, I have to admit that Ian Hanomansing's stint on CBC Television's The National last week sometimes confused me. Hanomansing's voice is so much like that of Hari Sreenivasan of the PBS NewsHour that I sometimes wasn't sure which program I was listening to--newscasters of Indian origin are making a strong impact at both networks.

* * * * * *

When listening to public radio, I sometimes learn things that I'm pretty certain I never really needed to know. On last week's To The Best of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio, one hour was an excellent show on autism, but I'm not sure I needed to hear Sherlock Holmes described as autistic. First public radio tells me that Holmes may have been gay, now it tells me he was autistic. What are they going to come up with next?

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Radio Pick: Financial Rhyme

TORONTO, ONTARIO - A short-form program has made my weekly radio pick for the second week in a row. Bill Radke is best-known for the wit he brings to broadcasting, honed as a stand-up comedian, host of the canceled satire show "Rewind," and even as local host of Morning Edition at KUOW-Seattle. Some say his talents are wasted on a hard news show like the Marketplace Morning Report, but he manages to make one minute a week count--the Friday "Marketplace Minute" commentary. This week's, available as a video podcast, is one of the best he's done yet.

Watch MP4 of Marketplace Morning Report "Marketplace Minute"

Friday, July 23, 2010

Technology: Computer Issues

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Regular readers of the blog will have noticed that it has been behind in publication essentially since I returned to Toronto more than three weeks ago. There's a simple explanation--my computer suffered a major failure just before my flight back, and I've been fighting it ever since. This blog is my lowest priority (well, maybe captioning pictures is even lower in priority) of computer activities, so if I have to spend time maintaining the computer, then I don't spend time blogging.

To be frank, I'm not very happy with Apple Computer right now. I've had some great Macintosh computers in the past, and some great service experiences with Apple over the years. My first laptop, referred to yesterday, was a Powerbook 5300cs that I would ultimately take all the world. It never had a serious performance failure, and when the case cracked, I took it to the local service center for repairs and even though it was way past warranty, they fixed it with all new parts for no charge. In an era in which I was seriously thinking of switching to Linux or even Windows to save money, that action won me over as a continued Apple customer.

My next computer was another great one. The iBook that I purchased in 2000 lasted for five years with no serious issues--in a time when most people figured on getting no more than four years out of a desktop computer, I managed to get five years out of a laptop. In fact, I probably could have gotten more out of it, but at the time I was financially secure and decided I was pushing my luck with it and decided to get a new one.

Since then, my experiences have not been as good. The 2005 iBook G4 that I purchased had a quirk right from the start, not being able to see wireless networks as well as my older machine. That could be an issue when traveling, but otherwise that computer was fine until suddenly in summer 2008, a full year before I had any intention of searching for another machine, the trackpad slowly stopped working. First, the button started sticking, then it wouldn't work at all, and then it wouldn't move the control icon.

A Genius at the Apple store tried to work with the issue for quite some time, but it appeared that the problem was the logic board--a mouse plugged in to the computer suffered from the same issues, so there was no bypassing the problem. Already, that computer design was obsolete and four years old (even if my system was less than three years old), and Apple actually couldn't offer to get me a logic board, no matter what I was willing to pay. I would have to find a service dealer that could find one. I decided I didn't want to deal with that and just bought a new MacBook--that basically put me back on my original four-year cycle. I figured I'd get the old computer fixed when I had disposable income again.

Unfortunately, the 2008 MacBook has been a lemon. A portion of the casing chipped within months, before I had even done any traveling with the machine. That was a purely cosmetic problem, and I suspect Apple probably would have fixed that under warranty, but I didn't want to be without a computer during a job search, and never had that addressed. Then, starting about six months in (as I now realize), the hard drive started to fail. It would just randomly corrupt a set of files. Usually, they would just be data files, and I would have to go back to my backup and restore files. Sometimes the files would be new since my last backup, and I'd lose a few pictures or have to spend a couple hours recreating work.

However, starting last fall, occasionally system files would become corrupted. This was a much larger problem. I've had to completely re-install the system software four times since, as the computer would not boot after these events. After the process was done, I'd discover that all my data files on the computer would be intact, so I had mostly lost a lot of time through these incidents.

Since the failure before my latest return to Canada, though, things have been much worse. The system software apparently didn't install properly the first time, as I could not run System Update. About a week later, I pulled an all-nighter re-installing it again, and this time it at least updated with the latest security patches. However, last night, it completely lost my default profile. Fortunately, I had the foresight to see that coming and had backup profiles already available, and I write this piece after logging in to one of those alternate profiles. However, who knows who long it will be before this profile becomes corrupted.

Most of this time, I haven't been sure what was the actual root cause of the problem. I thought there might be a specific program or even a virus causing the file corruptions. However, the presence of "I/O Errors" in the system log concurrent with the events and their random nature even after I turned off suspect services like Spotlight seems fully consistent with a genuine hardware failure.

This means that I need to buy and install a new hard drive, and I don't like doing that without a backup computer to use. I have little choice now, so if this blog disappears for an extended period of time, it's pretty clear what's going on--my computer died and I'm trying to fix it.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Technology: Naming Hard Drives

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Thanks to my ongoing computer problems, I've been spending a lot of time looking at backup files from previous computers, and seeing the names of computers and hard drives that I haven't used in years. Different people in my life have different systems for naming their computer hard drives. While quite a few just use a default name or their own name, I have encountered some interesting ones. One friend names them after favorite novels. Another uses the name of Greek gods or other ancient figures appropriate for the computer's use. Then, of course, there are MIT Athena computers, which are famously named for hacks that took place on campus--I'll never forget logging in to "scrubbingbubbles" or "cathedral7".

The first time I ever had the opportunity to name a computer was when my parents purchased me my first Macintosh, an SE/30. I decided that an appropriate name for that computer might be "Seattle Terminal," after the Burlington Northern Seattle Terminal Dispatcher that controlled most of the mainline railroads within Seattle that I spent a lot of time listening in high school on a radio scanner. I thought it was a nice subtle pun, since "terminal" could refer to a computer.

When I went off to college, I purchased a Mac Centris 650, and since I didn't know the railroad dispatchers in the San Francisco Bay Area at the time, I didn't continue the tradition and simply named that hard drive "LCG Railroad". In retrospect, it probably should have been named "Centralia South" after the Burlington Northern dispatcher district in Washington state that was one of many on the Amtrak trip between Seattle and San Jose that I would take a number of times, and indicated my geography--I would be spending most of my time south of Centralia.

My next computer was a Macintosh Powerbook 5300cs purchased with my summer earnings. Well-ensconced in the Bay Area, I named it after the Amtrak-employed dispatcher on the line that ran past Stanford University--"San Jose Control". A number of railfans in the Central Coast Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society that noticed me with that computer were terribly amused by that name, and most other people just thought it was a little strange.

When I switched jobs in 2000, I rewarded myself with a new iBook. Living in Boston, I named that one after my favorite dispatcher in the area, who by that time worked for CSX (before 1999, it had been Conrail) but still was known as the "Boston Line" dispatcher. A few years later, "Boston Line" morphed into the shorter but much more obscure "NA", so my hard drive effectively became a tribute to fallen flag of Conrail and how it ran run its railroad.

At some point, I purchased a firewire backup drive, and still living in Boston, I named that one after the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad's dispatcher that controlled the line that passed where I worked, "Boston West". When I purchased a new iBook in 2005, I was expecting to be transferred to a position in Europe, so I named that hard drive "Boston East" after another Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad dispatching desk, with the geographic significance fully intended.

Of course, I ultimately moved to Toronto instead of Europe, so now Canadian "Rail Traffic Controller" (or RTC; there are no "dispatchers" here) names dominate my hard drives. A backup drive that I purchased became the "CN YB RTC" after the Canadian National RTC that controls their main freight line through Toronto, and when I had to buy my current MacBook in 2008, it was named "Cherry Street Tower" after my favorite of the Toronto Terminals Railway towers that control the Union Station Rail Corridor.

It looks like that hard drive is dying and will need to be replaced; its replacement will likely be called "Scott Street Tower" after the next tower to west in the Union Station Rail Corridor, and I suppose if it ever needs to be replaced, I'll move on to "John Street Tower". That still leaves a lot of local RTC names to use; I haven't even touched any of the Canadian Pacific desks, to say nothing of more CN desks. Likely, by the time I run out of those, GO Transit will start dispatching its owned territories, and there will be new names to use.

In any event, it looks like it's going to be a long time before I have to come up with a new system for naming my computer hard drives.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Culture: Don't Look to Canada for Action

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Sometimes I think the average person in the United States doesn't want to admit there are any problems in the world involving externalities. Climate change isn't real, the supply of oil will never actually run out, the oceans won't become too acidic, and economic failures in other counties will not have a significant impact on the US economy.

That isn't the case in Canada. While there is a growing minority of climate change skeptics, particularly in the west, the average Canadian still believes that the world is warming, that petroleum supplies are decreasing (thus making the oil sands in Alberta more important), the oceans are something to worry about, and pretending that other countries can't affect one's economy would be insane when enormous United States economy next door dwarfs one's own.

Ask Canadians to do anything about any of these things, though, and there's not likely to be much of a response. Canadians admit that they use more energy per capita than other developed nations, but nobody seems to be serious about doing anything about it. There's a recognition that the electoral system unfairly disadvantages smaller parties and favors regional parties, but there's not much clamor to actually do anything about it. Pretty much any politician will admit that the health care system needs reform, but it's been almost eight years since the Romanow commission now, and nothing of consequence has passed.

For all their denial about issues, when people in the United States finally agree that there is a problem, they generally take action. They might argue significantly about the appropriate action to take (think health care reform), but doing nothing in the long-term is almost never on the table.

This contrast actually fits with the personality of each country. Canada, coming from the thinking world, focuses on ideas. It likes debating ideas, even bad ideas, and in the end likes to choose the best ones. However, the process can be long, as first there's a debate about whether a problem exists, and then at least one debate about what (if anything) to do about it. There's no premium here for action; the most respect seems to go to those who come up with the best analytical process for making the decision.

In the United States, the emotional world reigns supreme. When people's emotions are strong, they demand action, or at least sympathy. The action doesn't even have to be effective necessarily. Look at how President Obama was pilloried for not showing emotion and taking enough action in the ongoing oil spill crisis. Arguably, he might actually have been taking the most effective course by pressuring BP, including the creation of a contingency fund, but that wasn't what people wanted--they wanted Bill Clinton feeling their pain.

While Canadians could use a little more impetus for action, deriving it from the emotional neediness as occurs in the United States is probably not the best way to get it. Instead, Canada would do well to tap the physical world, which lives to take action in present, regardless of ideas, energy, or even emotion. Of course, what I would expect to happen is that we might actually debate that, take a few years to decide we have a problem, and then spend a few more debating how to access the physical world. Such is the joy of thinking-world culture.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Politics: Social Compact as Humpty Dumpty

TORONTO, ONTARIO - In a rather amusing op-ed piece in the Christian Science Monitor, William Polk makes the case that we can learn a lot about the world from the Humpty Dumpty children's rhyme:
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king's horses and all the king's men
Couldn't put Humpty together again.
Polk makes the case that Humpty Dumpty is the social compact in a society, and all the king's horses and all the king's men is the power of the government, usually military but also civilian. He uses a wide variety of examples, from Afghanistan to Haiti, to point out that the presence or absence of a social compact--whether Humpty Dumpty is sitting on the wall--determines whether a country survives a crisis, regardless of government action.

I think Polk has made a point that is too often overlooked. The strength of the social compact is a key factor in the resilience of a country, and how well its government is able to deal with adversity. One of several key points in why Canada is recovering much faster from the recent recession than the United States is that the social compact here--reflected in both trust of government and tolerance of very different people--is stronger than in the United States. In the past, I have made similar points, but focused instead on trust in government. Even in the piece cited, though, it's clear that it is a broader issue also involving trust of fellow citizens in general, so Polk's use of the "social compact" terminology describes it better.

This is also precisely why I get frustrated when people on the political extremes try to break the social compact by portraying categories of fellow citizens--whether an ethnic group or a specific occupation (think bankers)--as the "other" that doesn't deserve the same respect accorded to members of one's "own group." (Both the left and the right do this, but the right tends to be more successful at it.) They're pushing Humpty Dumpty off the wall, whether they realize it or not, and they really don't want to see what happens when that happens. All they need to do is look at Afghanistan or Somalia and they'll get some idea.

We need more reasons to look out for other people in society, not fewer. If we don't, all the king's horses and all the king's men--read government action--won't get us out of trouble like they could otherwise. The sad thing is that this is what those on the far right seem to want--a lack of social compact and a lack of government intervention in any aspect of one's life. I'd just like them to give one example of a country around the world where that actually works and creates a nation in which they would actually like to live.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Heritage: Queen's Park Tour

Queen's Park, built in 1892, is the seat of government for Ontario, and the focus of a Heritage Toronto walk on 17-July-2010

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Many of Heritage Toronto's walks are done in concert with the organizations in charge of the sites in question that can offer quite a perspective, and the Queen's Park walk held Saturday was a classic example. David Bogart, the Communications Officer of the Legislative Assembly staff, led the tour around the grounds and then inside the building.

David Bogart showed a picture of a tree planting; the tree had grown to have more than a foot-wide trunk by 17-July-2010

Officially, the walk was to focus on the monuments around the grounds of Queen's Park, many of which are quite remarkable. While we had to take a slightly different route in order to avoid the noise of an ongoing protest, there was a lot of information presented on the history of the grounds, which had once featured quite different ornamentation including a significant fountain at its south end. The use of historical pictures juxtaposed against the present state effectively helped tell that story. The recent visit of the Queen, covered on this blog, added additional contemporary interest to some of the sites.

The view from the second floor of the West Wing of Queen's Park showed the grandeur of the building's interior on 17-July-2010

While the walk officially ended outside and was worthwhile in its own right, Bogart next led us inside on a special version of the normal Queen's Park Legislature tour. This part of the tour really impressed me, as various aspects of government and politics came to life, from the portraits of past premiers to the mace serving as the symbol of the Speaker's authority--both the present and the original mace used in Ontario were visible on this day.

A view toward the Speaker's chair was taken from the middle of the Legislative Chamber for the province of Ontario in Toronto on 17-July-2010

The obvious focal point of the interior tour was the Legislative Chamber itself. While I have rarely watched the television feed of Provincial Parliament on the Internet, news clips of the debate do not do the room justice. The way the press and visitor galleries peer into the room, the skill with which the television cameras were hidden in the walls, the and the ornamentation around the Speaker's chair all seemed much more impressive in person to me.

A small glass pane in the floor outside the Legislative Assembly showed some of the damage done to the building in a 1909, seen on 17-July-2010

Having an expert tour guide to point out things like the location of the Executive Council Chamber, the offices of well-known Members of Provincial Parliament, the significance of the placement of royal portraits, and details that might otherwise be missed like the subtle display of 1909 fire damage, really made the visit special. The "real walk" may have been outside, but most of what I will remember was inside, thanks to David Bogart of the Legislative Assembly staff.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Photos: Iron Goat Trail

The western portal of the original Cascade Tunnel near Wellington, Washington was the eastern end of the Iron Goat Trail on 23-June-2010

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's update to my photo site features the Iron Goat Trail. The Great Northern abandoned its original 1893 alignment over the top of Stevens Pass in Washington state when it opened a new, 7.8-mile Cascade Tunnel in 1929. The original line from Scenic, Washington to the original, 2.3-mile Cascade Tunnel (from 1900) is now the Iron Goat Trail for hikers. A trip on most of the trail on 23-June-2010 featured wildflowers and mountain scenery as well as historic railroad infrastructure.

Margin Notes: Will Power, Oil, Blog, Ferry

Will Power approached the start-finish line during a testing session in Toronto, Ontario on 16-July-2010

TORONTO, ONTARIO - It turns out that I took only one picture of the car that would win Honda Indy Toronto--Will Power's #12, sponsored by Verizon. (What was I thinking? The guy was the points leader!) It's been said many times, but Will Power has to be one of the all-time great race driver names, right up there with Lake Speed.

* * * * * *

The Indy race was a nice distraction from real news in the world, much of which centers on the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Is anyone else amused by the fact that the local accent there makes the word "oil" sound a lot more like "Earl" to my ears? I'd hate to have that name and be living in that region right now; everyone would be watching for me, wanting to clean me up, and despairing that my peak had probably passed.

* * * * * *

I was questioning my own hearing at another point earlier this week, as a story on the radio started talking about "vets." As I pictured military veterans, it seemed to make no sense in the context of the story. Was I losing my hearing? No, the story was just talking about veterinarians.

* * * * * *

That story proved to be graphic enough that it almost needed censoring. One thing I learned in my recent travels is that if you are reading this, it's not in a public library. Libraries across the United States censor pretty much every low-traffic blog, including this one. Yet, high-traffic ones with sexual allusions and swearing (yes, I mean you Blatherwatch) are not censored. I'd love to figure out that algorithm. I think there's a real free-speech issue there--the little guys can't have their say to the whole public.

* * * * * *

One of the libraries that censors this blog is the one in Kennewick, Washington. The city of Kennewick had a moment of pride this week when Washington State Ferries announced that the third of the new 64-car Kwa-di Tabil class ferries will be named the "Kennewick." The second will be named "Salish" and the first, of course, now in sea trials, is the "Chetzemoka." Hopefully, this completes the class of boats which have been nicknamed "Tub Toys" and the next ferry to be built will be a more generally useful 144-car model.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Radio Pick: Americans Running America

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's radio pick turns to short-form radio. Dave Ross is one of the masters of the radio commentary. Filling in for Charles Osgood this week, listen to how he works in a variety of actualities to create an amusing set of juxtapositions that develop a politically untenable position that, viewed in pieces, would seem to be popular in this two-minute commentary.

Listen to MP3 of The Osgood File "What If Americans Ran America"

Friday, July 16, 2010

Culture: A Free Motorsports Day

Danika Patrick (front) and Justin Wilson (rear) sped out of the pits to start the afternoon testing session at Honda Indy in Toronto, Ontario on 16-July-2010

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I hadn't been to a motorsport racing event in a long time--fourteen years, by most standards. I've seen some Indy car, NASCAR, and powerboat racing on television in the interim, but never paid that much attention to any of those circuits. When I found out that a day of testing at the newly-restored Honda Indy race in Toronto, Ontario was going to be free for spectators, I decided that I had to go check it out.

Canadians Paul Tracy (15) and Alex Tagliani (77) crossed the start-finish line during the Honda Indy practice session in Toronto, Ontario on 16-July-2010

Despite the free admission, the grandstands at the Canadian National Exhibition grounds were not at all crowded the entire day. It was possible to wander from stand to stand and all along the track almost unimpeded all day. The best part of the free admission was that it included the pit paddock--we could wander through right up close to the vehicles and watch the crews work on them, a privilege that seems far more common at Canadian race sites than American ones (I have never forgotten that the pits were free at the 1996 Kelowna, British Columbia hydroplane race, unlike the rest of the races on the circuit that year). I especially enjoyed the opportunity to watch the inspectors pour over the cars at the completion of the session.

The fastest car of the practice session, driven by Ryan Hunter-Reay, was already quite disassembled minutes later in the pit paddock on 16-July-2010

There are always crowd favorites. It was obvious throughout the day that Danika Patrick--no longer the only female driver, but still the best-known one--was getting the most media attention. The Penske team maintains its high profile, with Will Power atop the season points standings and Helio Castroneves posting the top speed for much of the practice session. Yet, it was the Canadian drivers, Paul Tracy and Alex Tagliani, that seemed to draw the most interest amongst the spectators. Which one was the most popular was not so clear--Tracy is truly native to Toronto, but Tagliani was driving a beautifully-painted car sponsored by Hot Wheels and thus attracted most of the children in attendance.

Crowd favorite Alex Tagliani's Hot Wheels-sponsored car awaited inspection after the testing session at Honda Indy Toronto on 16-July-2010

The Indy cars weren't the only racing vehicles on the track. The NASCAR Canadian Tire series is also featured this weekend, offering up a fleet of vehicles with Canadian sponsorship and mostly Canadian drivers. Plus, the Indy car lights, the Acura Sports Car Challenge, and the Castrol Canadian Touring Car championship also took the track while I was in attendance for practice sessions.

Jeff Lapcevich's Canadian Tire series car had the quintessential Canadian sponsor--Tim Horton's, on 16-July-2010

Some lap-based racing things are nearly-universal; green flags indicated time to race, black flags to get off the track, and the checkered flag meant the testing session was over. It didn't take me long to figure out how to convert lap speed in seconds to speeds in miles per hour, based on the length of the track (it was clear this was a road track--since even the Indy cars were only turning in slow unlimited hydroplane speeds). It was almost enough to get me to pay to come back to watch the race on Sunday--except that I have other commitments.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Politics: No Party in Touch

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Last week's excellent program "The House Goes to Quebec" on CBC Radio One made an interesting and potentially very important point--the majority of the population of Quebec supports the general position of more autonomy but not independence for the province, and no Federal party supports this position. The Bloc Québécois (BQ) officially supports full sovereignty for Quebec, while the Liberals, Conservatives, and New Democrats (NPD in French) all officially support the current constitutional arrangement.

While there are a variety of reasons why the current situation exists, and exactly what elements of "increased autonomy" would be a tenable political position is somewhat debatable, what this clearly represents is an opportunity. A party willing to take into its platform the unrepresented position has the potential to make serious inroads, in large part by blunting the appeal of the BQ. On the surface, it would seem that the opportunity is open most to the Conservatives--the main risk of taking on this position would be backlash in the west, and it seems unlikely that an Albertan or British Columbian would run from the Conservatives over increased rights for Quebec. Furthermore, once the Conservatives take on such a position, the risk for the Liberals or New Democrats to follow suit would be greatly reduced, and very rapidly the unrepresented position could suddenly be represented by the three national parties. Personally, I'll be watching for the Conservatives to potentially make such a move after the BQ has already weakened--perhaps after current popular leader Gilles Duceppe steps down.

It might seem unlikely, but some are making the case that a similar situation exists in the United States. Amongst others, Matthew Dowd has argued that voters want collective solutions to current economic problems, but do not trust the Federal government. Thus, the collective solutions must come from what might be called activist government at the local and community levels. Personally, I think this is a ridiculous idea from a pragmatic perspective--how exactly are local governments going to solve the immigration problem?--but he has a point that no political party supports this position. The Democrats have been pushing Federal-level solutions, and the Republicans have been trying to reduce the involvement of government at all levels, even state and municipal levels.

Again, the opportunity here seems to be on the right-wing side of the ideological spectrum. It would not be hard for Republicans to drop their current anti-government position and return to their more tradition position of favoring local government over the Federal government. At most, they would be alienating the TEA party faction of their coalition, and these voters realistically would not be likely to run to the Democrats. By emphasizing "community" in their rhetoric and a platform of empowering local government, they could attract independent voters that essentially share Dowd's vision (however misguided it might be). In fact, I daresay they could decimate the Democrats for a generation if they did this and managed to implement it effectively.

However, I don't see this happening. The Republicans lack leadership in general and are dead-set on attracting the TEA party supporters. Likely, they will have enough success in doing so that there will be no incentive to change course, no matter how much more successful another course might be in the long term. Quebec might have its actual preferences reflected the conceivable political future, but community-focused and Federal-mistrusting citizens in the United States probably will not.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Culture: Festival of Fire

A longer exposure lent a different appearance to the fireworks during the Festival of Fire at Ontario Place on 10-July-2010

TORONTO, ONTARIO - When I moved to Toronto not that many years ago, the Festival of Fire was a major multi-night event around Canada Day in the summer. On a string of closely-spaced nights, fireworks lit up the sky over Lake Ontario at Ontario Place, with each night dedicated to a different country (inevitably including Canada on 1-July and the United States on 4-July), and a finale at the end. If Wikipedia is accurate, the tradition dates back to 1987, when it was known as the "Symphony of Fire" and was sponsored by Bensen & Hedges tobacco. When it was no longer legal for tobacco companies to sponsor such events starting in 2000, it morphed into the "Festival of Fire" that I came to know.

Some planet-like ringed fireworks surrounded a standard ball during the Festival of Fire in Toronto, Ontario on 3-July-2010

As the economy has cooled, sponsorships have waned and the number of nights in the Festival of Fire has gradually declined. This year, it was down to just three nights, consecutive Saturdays surrounding Canada Day. I was out of town for one of the performances, so this year I saw only two shows in the Festival of Fire, a far cry from when I used to feel okay missing any given night since there were so many.

A long exposure made a ring-shaped firework with rockets following look almost like a flower during the Festival of Fire in Toronto, Ontario on 10-July-2010

The best seats for viewing the Festival of Fire are inside Ontario Place, but there are places to view the displays for free. This year, I establish a routine of walking along Sunnyside Beach at dusk east to Marilyn Bell Park and setting up near the windmill to take in the show. At 10:30, it's time to tune in the simulcast on CHFI 98.1 FM and before long the sky lights up.

Two hearts appeared as the simulcast played Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On" during the Festival of Fire in Toronto, Ontario on 3-July-2010

The simulcasts have been a mixed bag in recent years. It's hard to argue with selections like "What a Wonderful World" or "My Heart Will Go On" coordinated with heart-shaped fireworks, but some other songs just befuddled me. How P!nk's "So What?" (which was used on 3-July) makes any sense at all with any fireworks show is beyond me--that can't even be blamed on Canadian content considerations.

A red star appeared during the Festival of Fire above Lake Ontario in Toronto on 10-July-2010

The Festival of Fire has become synonymous with specialty fireworks. Hearts, rings with things inside them, and even star-shaped fireworks all appeared this year along with more conventional shapes. Colours varied, with more half-and-half coloured shells appearing this year.

The finale of the Festival of Fire reflected in Lake Ontario as viewed from Marilyn Bell Park in Toronto, Ontario on 10-July-2010

For me, part of the interest in the Festival of Fire is figuring out how to photograph it. I'm never satisfied with my camera settings; just when I zero in on a good exposure time for a series of fireworks, the style shifts and the settings clearly aren't working anymore. For the finale, though, the sky is so bright that it's often clear--speed up the shutter to near-daylight settings. Then, it's all over until next year.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Heritage: York Township Walk

Historian Madeleine McDowell led the Township of York Heritage Toronto walk along Eglinton Avenue on 10-July-2010

TORONTO, ONTARIO - It took some time after I moved to my present residence in Toronto to realize that prior to amalgamation in 1998, it was located in the City of York. Thus, having missed the Heritage Toronto walk covering the central area of the former township in previous summers, I decided that this year I had to attend the event.

The York Memorial Collegiate Institute, the Township's memorial to the Great War (World War I), still served the Toronto District School Board on 10-July-2010

The walk leader was my near-neighbour Madeleine McDowell, who opened with a "chauvinist" speech about York's history of progressive policies likely related to the township's status as a home for the working class. Another lifelong resident chimed in at one point to talk about how much of York was once "the wrong side of the tracks" compared with Toronto.

This 19th-century farmhouse still survived along Eglinton Avenue, the only remains of the Cain family farm still visible on 10-July-2010

It seems hard to believe, but there was actually farming going on in York as late as 1951, when the Parsons Farm finally stopped operating. The only real evidence of farming, though, is a farmhouse still used as a residence along Eglinton Avenue that was once part of the Cain family farm (shown above).

On a hot day, the Heritage Toronto Township of York walk gathered in the shade along Kane Avenue to discuss the Silverthorn Public School on 10-July-2010

Inevitably, some of the tidbits that come up on these walks amaze me. On this walk, the fact that much of Silverthorn neighbourhood was originally electrified by the street railway and thus retained the railway's 25 Hz supply, rather than the continent standard of 60 Hz, until 1950 rather blew me away. It was also hard to believe that it had once been possible to buy a house in the neighbourhood for $5 and $10 a month.

The Silverthorn Junior Public School, originally constructed in 1917, had an interesting history including outhouses on this hillside observed on 10-July-2010

Exploring the area around the one-time civic centre of York provided insight into how the township had once been quite distinct from its neighbour, Toronto.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Margin Notes: World Cup, Perks, Blog, Media

A car was decorated with many Spanish flags on Dundas Street West near the Humber River on 7-July-2010

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Not that there weren't many Dutch fans and plenty of red, white, and blue striped flags on cars, but I have to say that the Spanish fans here really came out for their team, long before the final match yesterday. The most flags I saw on a single car before yesterday is pictured above, and I will not soon forget the Spanish flag draped across the hood of a red pizza delivery vehicle waiting for its next call at the local Pizzaiolo outlet as two Spanish-speaking individuals waxed its sides.

* * * * * *

Now that the World Cup is over, it would be nice if I could finally get K'naan's "Wavin' Flag" out of my head, particularly the World Cup duet version with Spaniard David Bisbal. Somehow, I suspect it's still going to take awhile.

* * * * * *

The World Cup helped Toronto get over its recent memories of violence during the G20 summit. Whatever one thinks about his politics, I have to give Ward 14 city councillor Gord Perks a lot of credit for the most thoughtful and surprisingly balanced views he presented on the event, in particular this essay presented in his weekly newsletter, and a subsequent follow-up. The world needs more politicians with communication skills like Perks, regardless of ideology.

* * * * * *

One might wonder if humans are even a thinking species considering what one did to this traffic cone on Dundas Street West in Toronto, Ontario observed on 1-July-2010

I suspect a G20 protester may have had something to do with the message on this traffic cone seen above near Dundas and Dufferin in Toronto, Ontario: "We are not the only species that can think." My question is whether the message was written by a human or a raccoon.

* * * * * *

The previous item seems like something that might be reported on CBC Radio One's evening news magazine As It Happens. Sometimes in the summer, the fill-in hosts really impact the quality of the show, but I have to say this week's team of Peter Armstrong and Chris Howden was absolutely first-rate. I've criticized Armstrong's work as an anchor of World Report, but he's great in an interviewing role. Perhaps when Michael Enright retires we can get him on the Sunday Edition?

* * * * * *

Speaking of radio people, it was quite nostalgic to have Lynn Neary fill in this weekend as host of Weekend All Things Considered on NPR (which, by the way, no longer stands for National Public Radio, but has become another acronym-turned-non-acronym that stands for nothing). I still consider Neary the quintessential host of the program, a role she held from 1984 to 1992.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Photos: Trip to the Pacific Northwest, Part II

The Twin Sisters near Wallula, Washington were viewed across the Columbia River from Amtrak's Empire Builder on 20-June-2010

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Coverage of a trip to the Pacific Northwest in June 2010 on my photo site continues with a trip down the Columbia River Gorge on board Amtrak's Empire Builder on 20-June-2010. The train was taken from Pasco, Washington to Portland, Oregon for a visit to the Brooklyn Roundhouse.

Culture: World Cup Celebration, 2010

Spanish fans began their celebration at John and Wellington Street as a big-screen television showed their team reacting to their win in the FIFA World Cup on 11-July-2010

TORONTO, ONTARIO - As the FIFA World Cup Final moved to extra time today, I found my way to the outdoor viewing area the CBC had set up outside their headquarters at John and Wellington Streets here in Toronto. The crowd was well-mixed, though the Spanish fans seemed to be just a bit louder than the Dutch. A group of friends with one very clear fan of The Netherlands stood in front of me. A Canadian moment occurred when Spain scored what would prove to be the only goal of the match. One of her friends leaned over to her and said, "I'm sorry."

A group of Spanish fans walked Spadina Avenue in Toronto, Ontario after Spain's World Cup victory, chanting "España, España, whoo whoo whoo" on 11-July-2010

When Spain held on for the victory, the obvious thing to do was to walk over to College and Bathurst Streets where the main Spanish celebrations had occurred as the team had advanced in the World Cup. Within minutes, cars with sunroofs were already noted flying the Spanish flag in the streets. As I turned up Spadina Avenue, I walked for a time behind what appeared to be a Spanish family who chanted "España, España, whoo whoo whoo" and broke out into continuous cheering whenever a vehicle adorned with the Spanish flag passed by.

In what will likely be the iconic image from Spain's World Cup victory for Torontonians, fans danced on top of a TTC streetcar on College Street near Bathurst on 11-July-2010

Sure enough, by the time I reached College and Bathurst, abut the closest thing to a riot that ever occurs in Toronto was in progress. People adorned with Spanish flags were dancing on top of a TTC streetcar, on top of transit shelters, and on top of buildings. Besides flying yellow and red flags, fans blew into vuvuzelas, the controversial background horn of this World Cup. Like all World Cup celebrations here, it was all just good fun and peaceful. People dressed in the Dutch orange colors wandered past the heart of the Spanish celebration without incident. The worst damage appeared to be windshields that cracked when people slipped reaching the roofs of vehicles.

A Spanish fan blew into a vuvzela--the horn which may be the symbol of this World Cup--as he approached the heart of the celebration on 11-July-2010

For the second straight World Cup, my favorite moment in the aftermath of the final match came from a man of Chinese descent. While following the Spanish flags down Spadina Avenue through Chinatown, we came upon a Chinese man selling vegetables along the street. He had a stern look on his face, and seemed nonplussed as group approached. After the "España, España, whoo whoo whoo" chant, though, he vocalized a long, powerful "whooooo!" (probably the loudest noise I heard this day that didn't come from a vuvuzela) and smiled. He had the World Cup spirit after all.

The lineup of cars, many of them sporting Spanish flags, along College Street stretched as far as the eye could see near Ossington Avenue during the World Cup celebrations on 11-July-2010

As I walked home from the heart of the Spanish World Cup victory celebration, traffic--much of it consisting of vehicles with Spanish flags--backed up on College Street from where police had closed it at Grace Street all the way past Dovercourt, a distance of about a kilometer. This part of Toronto was coming to a halt, but considering that the World Cup final comes just once every four years, how could it not? "España, España, whoo whoo whoo!"

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Radio Pick: Quebec Political Primer

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Sometimes, the shows from the normal CBC schedule atrophy during the summer. Not so with the political program The House this week, earning it status as my radio pick of the week. Guest host Tim Duboyce offered the best primer on Quebec politics that I've ever heard, featuring a rare interview with Premier Jean Charest as well as shorter perspectives from the other three major parties and independent analysis in a 48-minute program. This show should be in the Canadian citizenship package.

Listen to MP3 of The House "...Goes to Quebec"

Culture: Chief Diaz Woes Unimaginable

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I have sometimes made the case that Seattle, Washington is a really a Canadian city that happens to be south of the 49th parallel. Every once in awhile something happens to completely undermine this idea, and the recent controversy over the promotion of John Diaz to become the Chief of Police in Seattle provides a stark example.

Seattle's Police Chief position had been vacant since the popular incumbent, Gil Kerlikowske, was tapped by the Obama administration to become the United States' national Drug Czar in early 2009. John Diaz had been selected to become acting chief as a nationwide search was undertaken. A committee narrowed the field to three candidates, Sacramento (California) police chief Rick Braziel, East Palo Alto (California) police chief Ron Davis, and Diaz, in May 2010.

This spring also just happened to be a time of rising racial tension in Seattle. In an especially well-publicized incident, two African-American students out of a group of five were handled overly roughly by a lone officer after they resisted arrest following a jaywalking infraction. One of them was punched in the jaw. (And where else but civilized Seattle could a jaywalking infraction become a racial incident?) Some African-American community leaders were outraged at the actions of the department, which "merely" immediately opened an investigation into the incident.

The incident started to play into the chief selection process. The lone African-American candidate, Davis, had been criticized for lacking experience with a large department since East Palo Alto has less than forty officers (though he had previously worked in the leadership in much larger Oakland, California), and seemed the clear third-place candidate behind Diaz and Braziel. Because of the tension with the African-American community, Diaz, who happens to be Hispanic, also seemed an untenable candidate politically for Mayor Mike McGinn, and many thought Braziel was the only universally-acceptable candidate. While stating they preferred internal candidates, a police officers union spokesman stated that Braziel was "head and shoulders" above Davis in their estimation.

This is where Seattle could not be mistaken for a Canadian city. There is no such thing as a African-American community with any degree of homogeneity in large Canadian cities. There are multiple Black communities, mostly based on country of ancestry, just like there are multiple communities of most races, mostly based on country of ancestry. Finding monolithic culture in Canadian cities is difficult. It is hard to imagine how a single incident could energize enough communities to influence a city-wide political race or decision, particularly not on racial grounds. It may not be an uniquely American phenomenon, but it's not a Canadian one.

To everyone's surprise, in early June, Braziel withdrew from contention, stating that he wanted to remain in Sacramento. Mayor McGinn, left with only two candidates to choose from, angered African-American leaders by selecting Diaz. Diaz, for his part, is saying all the right things about more dialog with community leaders. In his first interview, aired before I left the Seattle area on KIRO-FM's Dave Ross show, I found Diaz to quite impressive and downright funny with his lines about his wife "taking eighteen months to decide to marry him" and that "my friends tell me that I'm inarticulate in two languages."

I suspect that if it were Toronto instead of Seattle, everyone would be heaping praise on John Diaz.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Culture: World Cup Celebration, 2006

College Street in Toronto's Little Italy was packed with people after Italy won the World Cup on 9-July-2006

TORONTO, ONTARIO - With the final two matches of the FIFA World Cup set for this weekend, it seems an appropriate time to look back to four years ago today, when Italy defeated France to win the 2006 World Cup held in Germany. I had recently moved to Toronto at the time, just in time to really experience the World Cup. My first residence was in the Little Italy neighbourhood, so I had become a fan as Italy advanced through the tournament. While I had chosen to watch the final match at an Italian restaurant closer to my present residence in the Kingsway area, after Italy had won, I knew I had to head for my old neighbourhood to join the celebration.

Even the chihuahuas wore the jerseys of Team Italia on the day of the World Cup final (9-July-2006) in Toronto's Little Italy

Approaching from the east at Bathurst Street, traffic was still moving on both College and Bathurst, and there were plenty of vehicles decorated with the Italian flag cruising the streets in celebration. The police had already closed College west of Bathurst by the time I arrived, and walking west into the heart of the neighbourhood, the crowds steadily grew.

A replica of the World Cup was making only very slow progress down College Street toward the celebration as it stopped to allow people to pose with it on 9-July-2006

In what can only be described as a Toronto moment, I soon passed an older Chinese man towing a replica of the World Cup (not the only one seen this day) on a wagon toward the celebration. He made only very slow progress, as people were constantly asking to pose with his artwork. When asked why he was such a fan of Italy, he just stated, "Chinese love Italians!" On this day, everyone loved Italians.

The CHIN building in the middle of Little Italy was decorated with probably the largest Italian flag on the day Italy won the World Cup, 9-July-2006

By the time I reached College and Clinton, the corner withe Cafe Diplomatico, the restaurant where I had eaten my first meal after moving to Toronto, it was difficult to move. The streets were packed with people in Italy's blue jerseys or wrapped in the green, white and red of the Italian flag. In classic Toronto fashion, there was no incipient crime, just a group of very happy people on the streets.

The intersection of College Street and Clinton Street in the heart of Little Italy was ground zero for celebrations in Toronto, Ontario after Italy won the World Cup on 9-July-2006

I stayed for probably only half an hour, having to go to work the next day. The celebration would go on for hours; the police did not even try to re-open College Street until late that night. Furthermore, Little Italy wasn't the only place for celebration--Toronto has multiple Italian areas. By all accounts, the Corso Italia was even more packed on St. Clair Avenue, and the party there went on even longer. It was truly a happy day and a popular 2006 World Cup victory in the multi-cultural city of Toronto.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Economics: Ultimate Frisbee Not The Answer

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This blog has long been interested in creative approaches to change the incentive structure in the corporate world, which currently is, to over-simplify in one word, perverse. Therefore, discouraging creativity by criticizing new proposals in this regard is not something this blogger delights in doing. Yet, analyzing a not-completely-serious proposal to have CEO's play ultimate Frisbee offers some insights worth noting.

In a Christian Science Monitor opinion piece last month, well-pedigreed UN employee Christine Bader suggested that having "bankers and other titans of industry join a weekend ultimate Frisbee game in their local park" would "benefit us all" since "they'll spent a few hours in a world where there are no designated enforcers but everyone follows the rules--not just in letter, but in spirit." As someone who played (not very well and not very often) ultimate as an undergraduate myself, I know Bader isn't being misleading about what happens in that sport. Players do call penalties on themselves, and it does work to create an environment that is rare if not unique in western culture.

The problem is that I think business people already know how to operate this way. In essence, an ultimate Frisbee game is the exercise of a duopoly (or, perhaps more accurately in a league of teams, of oligopoly, but the same principles apply). There are only two teams. If one team doesn't cheat, it simplifies its future by not giving the other team any reason to cheat. With a gentleman's agreement (please just consider that a gender-neutral term, though women don't seem to need such things in the first place) to play by the rules that each team has agreed to, the sport can be enjoyed by all.

In too many industries, business are operating in a duopoly, or limited oligopoly. Think of railroads, where depending on what part of North America one is situated, the two choices might be BNSF and Union Pacific, CSX and Norfolk Southern, or Canadian Pacific and Canadian National. Think of beverages, where it's basically Coke and Pepsi. Think of high-speed Internet access, where it's usually the local phone company and the local cable provider. Businesses in these industries don't tend to play dirty with one another. The railroad duopolies compete for business, but they also make deals with each other all the time--the biggest one may have been CSX and Norfolk Southern deciding to carve up third competitor Conrail between themselves in 1999. They may not exactly call penalties on themselves, but they tend just not to commit competitive infractions in the first place.

Why do such situations persist? One doesn't have to go beyond Economics 101. Duopolies may not disadvantage their customers as much as a monopoly, but neither do the supply and demand curves meet at the same point as they do in a pure market. Customers end up paying more for products and services in a duopoly situation. Since the situation is legal, businesses realize this a pretty good situation to be in compared with a true market, and while they may fight to protect the duopoly or oligopoly, they don't tend to do anything that would place it too far out of balance where it might become a monopoly and start receiving public attention.

Too many people don't understand that most narrowly-defined markets in the western world are not really "free" markets in the economic sense of the word; they are oligopolies. Some, because of barriers to entry or other factors, always will be. There's not necessarily anything wrong with that--in fact, in cases like the Canadian banking system, it may actually be an optimal situation--but it is not widely admitted. By pretending that a market is "free" when it really isn't, it distorts the debate about what level of regulation might be appropriate for the market, and sometimes leads to poor political decisions.

So, I would contend that the bankers and other titans of industry wouldn't actually have to adjust all that much to the environment of ultimate Frisbee. They would just have to think of the other team as their duopoly partner and they'd get in to the mind set right away.

Getting them to think of the spectators first--somewhat analogous to their customers in this conceit--might be considerably more difficult. If anyone has any ideas on how to do that, I'm listening.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Culture: The Shriners Parade

The flags of all the nations where the North American Shriners are active were carried behind an iconic miniature car from Scarborough, Ontario in the Shriners Parade in Toronto, Ontario on 6-July-2010

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Within the course of an hour, the same street played host to a motorcade carrying the Queen of England away from a public appearance and to a Shriners Parade. From probably the most formal environment in the entire world, it went to a notoriously informal environment. Where else could that happen except on University Avenue in Toronto?

The Drum Corps of the local Rameses Shiners group played "It's a Small World After All" in the Shriners Parade in Toronto, Ontario on 6-July-2010

I didn't head downtown to see the Shriners Parade, but realizing that it would be taking place within a block of where I was located after seeing Queen Elizabeth II in just an hour, it just made sense to stay. If there's anything that can be counted on in a public appearance of the Shriners, it's fun and visual spectacle.

The Morocco Shriners from Jacksonville, Florida brought their bucking vehicle to the Shriners Parade in Toronto, Ontario on 6-July-2010

As Freemasons, the Shriners are a somewhat insular private group, but their primary purpose, the support of hospitals for children, is a very public and worthy cause. As one of their slogans goes, "No man stands so tall as when he stoops to help a child." They are a group ultimately committed to public service. I wasn't surprised when a Shriner offered me a Coke as we all waited for the parade to begin--I declined but offered to take their group picture.

One of the things the Shriners are known for are their distinct red hats, and this walking "Fez" was likely the largest in the parade in Toronto on 6-July-2010

The Shriners had come to town for their annual convention, so the parade featured not just the local Rameses Temple members from Ontario that are a fixture in local parades, but groups from around the continent. While groups from the northeastern United States were especially prominent, Shriners from as far away as Florida, Texas, and Alberta also had sizable contingents in the parade.

The Boumi Shriners from Baltimore, Maryland combined the middle eastern theme with the miniature car tradition to create these magic carpets in the Shriners Parade in Toronto, Ontario on 6-July-2010

The Shriners have local organizations, but certain themes pervade all the groups. The middle eastern imagery is universal; almost all the groups had an "Oriental Band" performing in the parade. Miniature cars are a common activity; variations went from Indy Cars to stocks cars to flying carpets. Trains, outhouses, and clowns--basically anything a child might find funny--appeared again and again. There were unique entries in the parade, though--a leaping jeep, a double-ended car, a Ghostbusters replica, and a Blue Brothers police sedan were among the highlights.

Which way were they going? A double-ended car made its way down--or maybe up--University Avenue in Toronto, Ontario during the Shriners Parade on 6-July-2010

A motto of the Shriners is "Having fun and helping children." They certainly demonstrated that they knew how to have fun during their parade on Tuesday.