Sunday, October 31, 2010

Photos: Trip to California, October 2010

The city of San Francisco, California was partly obscured by clouds when viewed from the air on 18-October-2010

TORONTO, ONTARIO - A short update this week to my photo site features pictures from a recent trip to the state of California. The trip mostly offered the opportunity for aerial photographs across the landscape of the United States and Canada, but also a few shots on the ground in Roseville and Placerville, California on 18-21-October-2010.

Margin Notes: Halloween, Snow, Hawk, KPFA

The Toronto Railway Heritage Centre's miniature train paused in Roundhouse Park amongst gravestones and ghosts in the "graveyard" on 31-October-2010

TORONTO, ONTARIO - With no trick-or-treaters passing by after dark, the Toronto Railway Heritage Centre's run on Halloween night turned instead into a ghostly night photo session on the miniature railway. The train was posed at various decorated locations in the park, mostly notably a "graveyard" scene with headstones, ghosts, and artificial fog. More coverage of this event will be forthcoming in a future post.

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One of the first snow showers of the season brought snowflakes to the Halloween scene at Don Station in Toronto, Ontario on 31-October-2010

While the evening was cold and mostly sunny, today didn't start that way. I walked out of my residence into a snow storm, and the snow showers didn't subside until the afternoon, including the one captured above with the holiday decorations at Don Station in Toronto's Roundhouse Park.

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What may have been a red-tailed hawk flew high above the Don River in Toronto, Ontario on 27-October-2010

Just four days before, temperatures had been approaching twenty degrees, and I was treated to some wildlife I don't often see in the city as I spent time along the East Don River, including various woodpeckers and a chipmunk. The clear highlight was what appeared to be a red-tailed hawk which circled above the river for nearly a half-hour that day.

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Some might accuse the executives of Pacifica radio in the United States of being worse than hawks. The Pacifica network owns five stations across the country, and on Thursday announced plans to replace a quarter of paid staff at KPFA in Berkeley, California with volunteers, resulting in an outcry. Picketing is planned for this coming Thursday. The workers' perspective is covered here. KPFA has a long history of such disputes, and this blog will be watching this one.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Radio Pick: This Party Sucks

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's radio pick provides a preview of sorts to next week's election, but far more so into the sociology of political parties. Leave it to the documentary team from This American Life to look at both political parties and raise questions about how either is organized enough to mount a successful campaign in a 59-minute broadcast.

Listen to streaming media of This American Life "This Party Sucks"

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I don't normally pay much attention to interviews of actors, but two of them deserve honorable mention status this week.

Melissa Block's interview with Noomi Rapace, the Swedish actor who plays Lisbeth Salander in the movie versions of Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy, is worth listening to at a minimum for her description of putting the character to sleep and physically purging her. The featured aired on Friday's All Things Considered.

Listen to streaming media of All Things Considered "Noomi Rapace"

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Similarly, Scott Simon's interview with Sir Michael Caine was remarkable, if nothing else, for the story of how he met his wife. This feature aired this morning on Weekend Edition Saturday.

Listen to streaming media of Weekend Edition Saturday "Michael Caine"

Friday, October 29, 2010

Media: Changes Twenty Years Ago

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Lest anyone think I haven't had some practice commenting on changes in radio and lamenting the future of the medium, try to think back twenty years and read my Highlight report from 29-October-1990, which came from a decidedly Seattle-centric perspective:
Today, for the first time, I saw a Judy Muller feature, on elder surfers, on ABC Television's World News tonight. Muller used to be a regular CBS radio commentator, and I enjoyed her features nearly as much as Charles Osgood's. When she left CBS last August, my radio listening enjoyment decreased considerably. In fact, in my opinion, radio in general has been getting worse all year. Stay tuned. [An Audi commercial played in the original audio version of this essay.]

I used to really enjoy listening to the radio, at virtually any time of the day or night. All my weekend nights would be spent listening intently to the highly professional Mystery Theater. However, as of January 1st, the Mystery Theater went off the air and its replacement six months later, the KIRO Mystery Playhouse, just doesn't stack up in suspense and quality endings.

At the end of the summer, more little changes occurred. Judy Muller left CBS radio, and several Seattle-area FM station changed their format, to less likable combinations of present-day music and classic rock'n'roll. Just when I had adjusted to these losses, more changes happened.

KOMO radio abandoned its weeknight program October 22nd in favor of Sally Jesse Raphael and Tom Snyder shows. I like being able to consistently hear Tom Snyder, but I will miss the excellent local news of KOMO's News at Ten.

This Monday, National Public Radio abandoned their evening Heat program with John Hockenberry. Though I wasn't a consistent listener, whenever I did tune in, I was always impressed by the quality of the satire on Heat.

The final straw is coming this Thursday, November 1st, when my favorite radio station, San Francisco's KCBS, will go to an all-news format. No longer will I be able to hear Art Finley's Nightbeat, in my opinion the most entertaining talk show on the air between 8 and 11 pm.

Change is inevitable, but I don't understand why all these reformattings and dropped programs are usually very negative and at best are quite mixed. At least Judy Muller will have an opportunity to be creative on ABC TV.
Twenty years later, it's interesting to see where some of these individuals have ended up. Judy Muller is still a television correspondent for ABC News. The KIRO Mystery Playhouse, produced by Jim French, has since become the syndicated Imagination Theater and still produces a one-hour show each week. KOMO radio dropped talk in favor of all-news, though its daytime format now includes talk shows from 9 to 3. John Hockenberry worked for NBC television for a time, but returned to public radio and now hosts the youth-focused morning show, The Takeaway. KCBS is still an all-news station, and now simulcasts on FM. Art Finley retired as a news anchor in 1995, and reportedly lives in British Columbia.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Transport: Leaves? Oh, come on...

GO Transit's Barrie-Bradford Line train #801 departed Toronto, Ontario on 28-October-2010 with a locomotive on each end--an unusual practice designed to deal with fallen leaves

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Earlier this week, GO Transit, the local commuter rail operator in the Great Toronto-Hamilton Area, made the news by canceling a train because of leaves on the tracks. While loose leaves on the track certainly can lead to adhesion problems, this is far from a new problem and there are plenty of known mitigation techniques for the seasonal phenomenon--it's pathetic that GO would have to cancel a train because of leaves.

The cancellation of the train on Tuesday was especially ironic considering that GO had already taken action to ensure continued service on one of its lines. Starting last week, GO started placing engines on each end of the first two trains that ran on its Barrie-Bradford Line in the morning and afternoon commutes. Normally, GO runs its trains in a push-pull fashion with one engine on the east end of the train; these trains ran with an engine on the west end and the east end; I photographed one of these trains earlier today as shown above. The idea was that with double the power available on the train, any problem from leaves would be overcome, and indeed trains on that line have been operating normally.

However, no such precautions were taken system-wide, with is not necessarily surprising, since GO does not have two locomotives for each of its trains. There are plenty of other ways to avoid the issue, though. Network Rail in Britain goes out of its way to trim trees along its right-of-way, but perhaps most relevantly, operators in the northeastern United States use water to blow the leaves off the tracks.

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority's "Spray Train" was noted in action on the Lowell Line in Medford, Massachusetts on 26-October-2005

Both the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) around Boston, Massachusetts and Metro-North, the operator from New York, New York to east of Hudson River and Connecticut destinations, use this technique. The MBTA's "Spray Train" was photographed above five years ago, and Metro-North's version is known as "Waterworld". Each uses high-pressure streams of water aimed at each rail to clear the immediate vicinity of flying leaves.

The MBTA "Spray Train" worked its way back to Boston at Medford, Massachusetts on 26-October-2005

Falling leaves are an annual event in Ontario. GO Transit may not need "Waterworld" to run its trains in the autumn, but it needs to do better than it did this week--there's no excuse for canceling trains because of leaves.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Politics: Don't Be Certain About Senate

TORONTO, ONTARIO - The prevailing wisdom on the upcoming Federal elections next Tuesday in the United States is that the Republicans will take over control of the House of Representatives, and the Democrats will retain control of the Senate. While many responsible observers emphasize the volatility of the situation--the Republicans could pick up more than 70 seats in the house, or fewer than 40 such that the Democrats maintain control--the election is getting close enough now that big movement is unlikely. Looking at the discrete races involved in the Senate, it strikes me that scenarios in which the Republicans take over are being discounted--because of potential defections.

The election website that I pay the most attention to, Nate Silver's, now hosted by the New York Times, currently places the chances of a Republican takeover of the Senate at 12%, compared with 83% in the House. Certainly, 12% is far from zero. But, in his extensive model, Silver only accounts for the elections themselves, in which he projects 52.1 Democrats and 47.8 Republicans as having seats. The model doesn't account for what happens with some sitting senators.

After Scott Brown's win in the Massachusetts special election earlier this year, the Republicans have held 41 seats in the Senate to the Democrats' 59. To take control of the chamber, they need 51, as the tiebreaker, vice president Joe Biden, is a Democrat. Most analysts have seats in North Dakota, Arkansas, and Indiana as certain takeovers for the Republicans. That brings them to 44. If the election were held today according to FiveThirtyEight's models, Republicans would also gain seats in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Nevada, Illinois, and Colorado. That takes them to 49. Assuming that Democrats indeed hang on to contested seats in West Virginia, Washington, and California and the rest of the "safe" seats don't result in any surprises, the Republicans would be two seats short of control.

I'm not certain that, in such a scenario, the Democrats would actually hang on to their majority. Democrat Ben Nelson of Nebraska has a very conservative voting record, and there is persistent speculation that he could be convinced to switch parties. He may face a challenge in the Democratic primary in the next election cycle (though considering the TEA party movement he might well face one in a Republican primary as well--there's little room for centrists anywhere, as Arlen Specter learned in Pennsylvania). Considering that he was accused of holding health care legislation hostage for special preference for his state, it does not seem difficult to imagine that he could be enticed to the Republican side if it were the majority.

However, that only gets the Republicans to 50. They would still need one more defection, and it's pretty obvious who that might be. "Jolly Joe" Lieberman of Connecticut has already shown that he is willing to ignore the Democratic party, running as an Independent (later "Independent Democrat") in his last election after losing in the Democratic primary. He almost became the Republican nominee for vice president with John McCain in 2008--most reports say McCain wanted him and Lieberman was willing to do it, but the Republican establishment wouldn't accept it. Some incentive concerning the pharmaceutical industry in Connecticut, and it would be easy to believe that Lieberman would caucus with the Republicans instead of the Democrats, and with both Nelson and Lieberman, the Republicans would have control.

This scenario seems entirely plausible to me. The Democrats can still maintain control by winning more seats than currently predicted (as finding more than two senators who would be willing to change parties seems far-fetched), but if things play out and eight senate seats change party hands, I strongly suspect it will result in Republican control of the Senate, not the slim Democratic majority it would seem on the surface.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Culture: Some Morbid Tales

TORONTO, ONTARIO - With Halloween approaching, this seemed a good time to dig up one of my favorite audio commentaries from my childhood archives. "Some Morbid Tales" was written for the 29-June-1989 Glitchon File:
In Pasco, Washington, near Interstate 182, there is an old graveyard, originally built near a grove of trees due to its proximity to the Northern Pacific railroad. The only way to reach this cemetery is via a small lane that goes from the funeral home to Oregon Avenue.

So, when people went to this shady location to pay their respects to lost friends or relatives, they passed a yellow, diamond-shaped sign reading "Dead End." Of course, this was referring to the street, but people were nonetheless quite disturbed since some people rested in their dead ends at the end of the street.

The city of Pasco changed the sign in the 1970's to read "No Outlet." For those that believe in souls, this seems equally disturbing.

For a person who died far from his hometown cemetery, there was only one outlet before the early 1960's. Their body had to ride home on the railroad, as special cargo in a baggage car. The corpse was usually accompanied by a relative who would ride the train with a normal ticket.

Since the body was an unusual article for the railroad to carry, they turned to their old fashioned way of doing tings. Attached to the coffin would be a fill-in card with instructions on it, called a skeleton ticket.

Needless to say, people were again offended by this use of a skeleton ticket for a skeleton, so the railway made a new type of ticket for coffin traffic.

However, in the 1950's, it was still possible to have a corpse transported using a skeleton ticket to Pasco, where a hearse would take it down a dead end street to a cemetery.

After hearing all this, don't go out and change your will to state that you want to be cremated. I'm sure the airlines do something offensive with ashes. Remember, no smoking on domestic flights under two hours.
As a footnote, on my last visit to Pasco, Washington earlier this year, I drove by the entrance to the City View Cemetery. There is no longer a "No Outlet" sign or a "Dead End" sign along Oregon Avenue at its entrance.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Politics: Shifting of the Guard

TORONTO, ONTARIO - So, let me get this straight. One major Canadian city this month had an election based almost entirely on the discussion of progressive-minded local issues, resulting in a wide-open race of quality candidates that ended with the election of a fresh figure who happened to be Muslim, but nearly nobody cared about that. Another major Canadian city this month had an election based almost entirely on anger that attracted an underwhelming pool of candidates, none of them with any sort of positive vision to take the city forward, and resulted in the election of a candidate who makes racist comments and would like to end immigration to the city. The first city was Calgary, and the second was Toronto?

Even before this month, I was not particularly inclined to knock Calgary. Despite the fact that it consistently elects Conservatives to the Federal parliament (as did the entire province of Alberta except for one Edmonton riding), it was in many ways much more progressive than Toronto as a municipality. Perhaps because it is the headquarters of many companies operating in the contentious tar/oil sands, it has probably provided more leadership in renewable energy than any other major city, even if the claim that its light rail system runs entirely on clean energy is somewhat overblown. The fact remains that it has been building a light rail system and seems serious about continuous improvement of its public transit infrastructure.

This month may have marked the moment when Calgary took the mantle from Toronto as the most attractive Canadian city to the outside world. (Montreal and Vancouver would dispute the duopoly, but I'll leave that for another time.) As Rob Ford made the case that Toronto has no more room for immigrants and still won election as mayor in a city where half the population was not born in Canada, Calgary did the unthinkable in North America and elected Naheed Nenshi, a Muslim, attracting worldwide attention. Furthermore, in quintessential Canadian fashion, the world took more notice of Nenshi's religion than the people of Calgary, who just wanted someone to move the city forward, of any background.

The people of Toronto, by electing Ford, have sent the immigrants of the world a message that they are not welcome here. While it is doubtful how much of Ford's agenda will actually be realized in what initially appears to be a very divided city council, he wants (among other things) to cut social services, arts funding, and end streetcar service. Facing such a climate, why would an immigrant not choose, if at all possible, to head instead for a city with a lower unemployment rate, an apparently more stable (if resource-based) economy, and which at least symbolically accepts them rather than rejecting them.

Toronto often seems to be hand-wringing about whether it is a world class city. Its residents just voted not to be, and I expect that it will not recover from that for a generation, if ever. In contrast, the residents of Calgary decided to behave like they lived in a world-class city. In a decade, the nation and the world may wonder what happened for Calgary to overtake Toronto, much as Toronto once surpassed Montreal. They'll look back, and say the real transition started with these two elections.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Photos: Ukrainian Festival

The local Buduchnist Credit Union marched in Ukrainian colors during the Toronto Ukrainian Festival Parade in Toronto, Ontario on 18-September-2010

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's update to my photo site features the Toronto Ukrainian Festival, held in my home neighborhood of Bloor West Village on 17-19-September-2010. Highlights included the parade and opening ceremonies on 18-September-2010.

Margin Notes: Chill, Houses, Grover, KGO

Wilson Lau ran the steam locomotive at the Toronto Railway Heritage Centre on 24-October-2010, with the chilly air resulting in a nice plume of steam

TORONTO, ONTARIO - There has yet to be a low temperature below freezing this season in metropolitan Toronto, but temperatures have been creeping down, enough so that steam locomotives are much more spectacular. Locomotive #3 put off nice plumes of steam in the chilly weather all day today--and probably will again in its final weekend of operations for the season next Sunday, including the evening runs for Halloween--see TRHA web page for details as they become available.

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It's not cool temperatures but flooding that is the concern in New Orleans. A new floating house has been developed that normally sits at ground level but will rise to float if flooding occurs, as has been widely reported. Why weren't these brought to North America long ago?

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Perhaps everyone has been too busy watching Sesame Street's parody of the recent Old Spice commercials, "Smell Like A Monster." For those that have missed Grover imitating Isaiah Mustafa, check it out on YouTube, or check out this amusing re-mix.

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That skit will apparently not be a permanent fixture on Sesame Street, but KGO radio has made an interesting change in the San Francisco Bay Area. For some years, KUOW Seattle has made a practice of saying that various features would be coming up in "X minutes." As I heard while visiting the area, KGO hosts including Ronn Owens and Gil Gross have started saying that a topic will be coming back in, say, "3 minutes" before a commercial break, or "6 minutes" after the news. It sounds very weird on a commercial radio station.

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As a final note from my trip west, I should credit Virgin America airlines for actually delivering an orange juice shortly after I ordered it on the return trip, unlike on the initial trip. Apparently, the ordering system works after all.

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Finally, those into airline call signs may find it amusing to learn that Virgin America, a Burlingame, California-based airline, uses the call sign "Redwood." If you initially missed the double entendre, then you should be congratulated for having a clean mind.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Radio Pick: Naheed Nenshi

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's radio pick comes from the CBC. In a time when the German chancellor speaks about giving up on multi-culturalism, Toronto may vote for a anti-diversity mayor, and Juan Williams gets fired from NPR for saying he is afraid of Muslims, there's something to celebrate in the election of Naheed Nenshi as the first Muslim mayor of Calgary. Furthermore, his election had everything to do with issues, not his background, as he told Anna Maria Tremonti in this 27-minute segment of The Current.

Listen to MP3 of The Current "Naheed Nenshi"

Friday, October 22, 2010

Media: The Rim-Shotter

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Part of the bargain of private broadcasting is putting up with commercials. In an era in which the "spot load" on some stations has exceeded 20 minutes per hour (compared with a maximum in the industry of 18 minutes per hour that seemed to exist for years), though, the quest for a station with more programming and fewer commercials can be enticing. In the days before satellite radio and portable digital media devices, one way to satisfy this quest was to listen to "rim shot" radio stations, or weak stations from outside the market whose signals just barely enter a metropolitan market.

Sometime in high school while living in the Seattle area (and after the demise of i107.7), I decided to carefully go through the dial on a great receiver my parents had in the living room and discovered KISM 92.9 FM from Bellingham, Washington. At the time, it had an Adult Album Alternative format, which for some reason had yet to appeal to me on "the Mountain" (KMTT 103.7 FM) but really impressed me on KISM, serving as my introduction to artists like the Crash Test Dummies and Suzanne Vega. The most compelling attraction, though, was that it played fewer commercials, being in a smaller market. The reduced spot load was the main reason that one radio spent a lot of time on KISM--though it was the only radio in the house that could get that signal clearly (and in stereo). In fact, I would keep tuning in KISM when I returned to Seattle until it re-formatted to Classic Rock in 1999.

Having found one "rim shot" station, I later spent time scanning the dial for other stations that receiver could pull in. "Mix 96 FM" (KXXO 96.1 from Olympia, Washington) turned out to be my preferred light rock station when I was in heartache, both for a larger playlist (I can't think of a Seattle station that played Roxette's "Almost Unreal") and a much lower spot load than local adult contemporary stations. I also sampled another Bellingham station, "the soft rock KAFE" (104.3 FM, since moved to 104.1 FM) when I tired of local radio.

It took me years in the San Francisco Bay Area before I found a "rim shot" station. One evening while riding Caltrain back to Palo Alto from San Francisco, I was scanning the dial and discovered KKIQ 101.7 FM, out of Livermore and Pleasanton. Running a hot adult contemporary format, it didn't have a strong signal on the peninsula, but once more, its reduced spot load relative to the San Francisco and San Jose stations caused it to displace KEZR as my preferred music station for quite some time.

When I moved to Boston, it took much less time for me to find the rim-shotters. Once I got used to "Mix 98-5" (WBMX 98.5 FM, now 104.1 FM), WBOS (92.9 FM, now reformatted), and "Magic 108" (WXKS-FM at 107.9 FM), I very rapidly discovered that WXLO, a hot adult contemporary station out of Worcester, Massachusetts at 104.5 FM, had a smaller spot load, and made it my preferred station. I also spent time listening to WHEB 100.3 FM out of Portsmouth, New Hampshire when it had a Top-40 format, and of course the most significant rim-shotter of all in Boston continues to this day to be "The River" 92.5 FM, WXRV out of Andover, Massachusetts (formerly Haverhill, Massachusetts).

In the age of digital music, though, I haven't bothered to find the "rim shot" stations around Toronto. When one can listen to "The River" (WXRV), Alice (KLLC), or any number of preferred stations off the Internet, never mind listening to one's own collection of MP3's with no spot load at all, there's not a lot of incentive to scan the dial.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Travel: Looking Down

The town of Verdi, Nevada, not far west of Reno, was viewed from the air on 21-October-2010

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Over the years, I have often been surprised at what I have managed to recognize as I looked down from the window of a commercial airplane. While I have experienced a fair portion of the western United States, especially, on the ground, my mind doesn't seem to have much difficulty realizing that scenes that I had seen only from the ground before were appearing outside a window five miles above them.

The first time I really surprised myself was on a flight from Denver, Colorado to Seattle, Washington. The plane had gone above the clouds shortly after departing Denver. When the clouds cleared and I looked down, I immediately recognized the location as being Baker City, Oregon, not exactly a common destination in my life, in the middle of the Blue Mountains crossing of Interstate 84. As the flight path would essentially follow that freeway to the Columbia River, it was pretty straight-forward to verify that, indeed, I had correctly recognized Baker City, as LaGrande, Pendleton, and Herimston followed.

On another occasion, I had been engaged in reading something interesting when the descent toward Sea-Tac Airport south of Seattle, Washington caused me to look out the window. Within seconds, I realized that I was looking at Index, Washington, with its railway loop away from US Highway 2 along the Skykomish River. As Gold Bar, Monroe, and Everett soon followed, it became clear that I once more had been correct.

It hasn't only happened on the west coast, but just about anywhere I've been on the ground. On a flight back to the United States from Europe, I once looked down to recognize Acadia National Park in Maine, picking out Cadillac Mountain and thinking that I was glad I had not noticed the planes above when I had been there.

Downtown Sacramento and West Sacramento, California (note the Capitol building in the lower left) were viewed from a flight on 21-October-2010

So, it should not have been terribly surprising to see some familiar scenes from a window seat today. Leaving San Francisco, the plane entered a cloud bank, but it cleared in time for a view of Sacramento, then I started to read after Roseville, throwing a glance out the window to recognize that I was looking at Verdi, Nevada. It would have been nice to visit Cabela's or shoot pictures of trains crossing the Truckee River, but the plane had long since reached cruising altitude, so I went back to reading.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Politics: State of Confusion

SOUTH SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA - I've avoided commenting on politics in this most populous state of the union so far, but before departing it's hard not to make at least a few observations about the campaign that just about everyone I encounter wishes would just be over.

The Republicans were surely hoping for synergy when they nominated Meg Whitman, former CEO of eBay, for governor and Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, for the senate. People impressed with accomplished businesswomen might decide to vote for the two as a block, as part of a campaign for change in the state. However, what seems to be happening based on some conversations I have had is that the faults of each seem to be rubbing off on the other, causing people that might support one of the candidates decide instead to support neither. Incumbent Democrat Barbara Boxer--er, actually one of the outside-funded groups unleashed by the Citizens United Supreme Court case--has been running ads pointing out how Fiorina moved jobs overseas during her time at HP. However, I've heard people talking about Whitman as a foreign outsource advocate, when I haven't seen any ads accusing her of that. Similarly, while it is Whitman who has been accused by Democratic nominee Jerry Brown (yes, the infamous Governor Moonbeam who is again running for the post) of various legal indiscretions related to hiring an illegal immigrant, I've heard people say Fiorina is a hypocrite on immigration. If the polls are any indication, nominating two similar candidates may be backfiring on the Republicans--mud is sticking to both of them at the same time.

There is one thing that supporters of both Brown and Whitman seem to agree on--no matter which is elected governor, they won't be able to single-handedly lead the state out of its current politicized mess that leads to nearly four months without a budget. More systematic change will be necessary--and there's not much agreement on what that means.

With all the money floating around in the various races this election all over the United States, it is interesting that one of the more controversial propositions here in California, Proposition 19 on legalizing marijuana, has very little money going in to the either side. Moneyed interests apparently have little at stake with respect to whether pot is legalized. Furthermore, there doesn't seem to be much of a consensus amongst those in law enforcement on what impact the legislation would actually have--some seem to think it would reduce overall crime, while others think it may lead to trafficking to the rest of the country and thus new problems. Granted, I have not visited a college campus, but I have not heard any discussion of this proposition outside of one KGO radio show. Will many young voters really turn out to support this proposition and thus advantage Democrats that this demographic might be more likely to support? I haven't caught a whiff of it.

Personally, I mailed in my absentee ballot while on this trip. So, for me, this election is all over except waiting for the returns, which will not start to flow until very late on the first Tuesday in November.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Culture: Symbolic Family Feud

PLACERVILLE, CALIFORNIA - I've written in the past about watching game shows with my great aunt here. One of the shows that airs on the Game Show Network (GSN) is the slightly dated version of Family Feud with Richard Karn (I have yet to see the latest version with Steve Harvey). While I remember the show since the days of Richard Dawson, this was the first time I realized just how symbolic Family Feud is of culture in United States.

The basic goal of Family Feud is to come up with the answers that match those of a game show survey of one hundred people. In other words, the idea isn't to come up with the "correct" answer (not that there really is a correct answer to "a thing you check before you go to bed"), but the answer most likely to be stated by average citizens. According to the logic of the show, it's best to think like the average person, not to think more creatively or unconventionally.

Following this way of thinking, if everyone thinks something that is factually incorrect, then matching that incorrect perception would be rewarded. Now, Family Feud would never ask "Who was responsible for the terrorist attacks on 9/11?" but if they did, answering "Saddam Hussein" would probably earn points for one's team. More realistically, if people had answered "September" to "A month with 31 days" (an actual survey inquiry on a recent show), then that would also be rewarded, despite being incorrect. Granted, the games are often won and lost on some of the less common responses, with perhaps 6-10 of the 100 responses as the most common answers are usually easiest to figure out, but even figuring out those are basically an exercise in thinking in a mediocre fashion.

Think about the reward structure in a lot of fields--sales and finance, for example. They are basically about understanding how the average person thinks. Sales may be based on the fundamentals of what a product has to offer, but it's mostly about connecting with average person in the marketplace. Finance may be based on the fundamentals of the individual businesses, but the real money is made from predicting how people will react to those fundamentals in the securities marketplace.

Those that do well at Family Feud likely will be rewarded for applying those same skills in money-making professions in the United States.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Transport: Flying Virgin America

The interesting colors of a Virgin America plane interior were noted on a flight on 18-October-2010

PLACERVILLE, CALIFORNIA - Flying on airlines with few flights out of a given airport often leads to a completely different experience than flying out of an airline's hub. Once, when I was flying Continental Airlines out of the Zurich, Switzerland airport, I encountered the same employee three times before boarding the flight--at initial check-in, at an intermediate security checkpoint, and at the gate. This particular person--employed by Swissport, if I remember correctly, under contract to Continental--happened to be Dutch, and spoke impeccable English. However, when she asked me whether I "had purchased anything from an official store," I had no idea what she was talking about--any store at the airport, just the duty free store in the immigration area, or what. We both had a good laugh about that in our final interaction at the gate.

I knew I was going to have one of those kinds of experiences as I took my first flight on Virgin America today out of Toronto, as with only two flights a day, Virgin hardly has big presence at Pearson International Airport. As I walked up to the check-in counter, there was a boombox playing rather aggressive mood music for the early morning. It didn't take long to deduce that it was tuned to Virgin Radio in Toronto, at 99.9 FM, CKFM-FM. Despite the fact that the radio station is owned by Astral Media and not the Richard Branson conglomerate behind the airline and merely leases the rights to the Virgin name on-air, it has been adopted as the official radio station for Virgin America airlines in Toronto. The boom box would appear two more times, at the gate desk and in skybridge heading for the plane.

The other major different thing about the airline was interior decor of its Airbus planes. Rather than having any sort of normal white lighting, the ceiling of the plane is lighted blue and the overhead bin lights are red, to create not only an illusion of sky above, but red, white, and blue to match the flag of the United States. There is something fundamentally odd about an airline that is ultimately British in hertiage displaying the American flag on its winglets and in its color scheme.

As for the much-touted system to order food and drinks at one's seat at any time, I didn't find it impressive at all. I put in an order for a (free) orange juice quite early in the flight, but was never visited by the flight attendants until the beverage cart came by serving the whole coach section, and then they asked what I wanted, rather than delivering an orange juice.

I have no complaints about Virgin America after one flight, but neither am I finding anything about which to rave.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Photos: Autumn Heritage Toronto Walks

The Heritage Toronto Riverdale walk stretched out on First Avenue in Toronto, Ontario on 2-October-2010

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's update to my photo site starts coverage of the autumn season in Toronto, Ontario with the final two Heritage Toronto walks attended this season. The Old Town Toronto walk took place on 12-September-2010, and the final walk of the season, the Riverdale Library to Library walk, took place on 2-October-2010, ending in time for the ceremony re-opening the Riverdale Library for its 100th anniversary.

Margin Notes: Autumn, Steam, Residue, Halladay

The view outside my own bedroom windows showed nice autumn colors in Toronto, Ontario on 15-October-2010

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I'm always amused when the picture outside my own bedroom windows demonstrates something better than things I waked all the way across town to see. In this case, the state of autumn colors this week was best shown by the view out my window on Friday morning.

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Some of the wreaths from the Canada Day re-dedication of the Chinese Railway Workers' Memorial in Toronto, Ontario were still in place on 11-October-2010

It might be fall, but that wouldn't be obvious at the Chinese Railway Workers' Memorial in Toronto, Ontario. The memorial was the site of a Canada Day--that's 1-July--re-dedication ceremony, and wreaths from that ceremony were still sitting at the monument one week ago. Cleaning up the site is obviously a priority for Toronto workers.

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A timed exposure captured the departure of the Toronto Railway Heritage Centre's miniature train on a night test run on 11-October-2010

Speaking of railways, there are few things more thrilling than riding behind a steam locomotive after dark. The Toronto Railway Heritage Centre will be running after dark on Halloween, from about dusk to 8 pm, providing a chance to get such an experience, if on a smaller scale. For more details, watch the TRHA web site as the 31-October-2010 date approaches.

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The Toronto Railway Heritage Centre is near the Rogers Centre, where Roy Halladay used to pitch for the Toronto Blue Jays baseball team. When Halladay recently pitched a perfect game in the playoffs for the Philadelphia Phillies, the positive buzz around Toronto was nearly as large as if he had done it for the Blue Jays. I'd like to make the case that it is the civility of Toronto fans, but I think this would have happened even in rapacious Boston. Halladay is such a personal class act that it is easy to cheer him on, even if he's playing for another team. This blog would like to add some belated congratulations to Halladay for his accomplishment.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Radio Pick: Jill Lepore

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's radio pick actually comes from a podcast. Sometimes it is worth listening through a long interview just to get one key idea out of it. I suspect this masterful interview of Harvard historian Jill Lepore by Christopher Lydon might cause this same feeling at different moments for different listeners--for me, it was when she tied the rise of the TEA party to the death of newspapers. There's plenty more deep material in this 51-minute podcast.

Listen to MP3 of Open Source "Jill Lepore: Tea Party Time"

Friday, October 15, 2010

Media: Remembering WBOS

TORONTO, ONTARIO - When I arrived in a new town, I used to scan the dial searching for new radio stations to sample. When I arrived in Boston, Massachusetts in 1997, I knew where I was going to get news (WBZ 1030 AM and WBUR 90.9 FM), but the only music station I had really sampled during a brief visit had been "Mix 98 5" (WBMX), a hot adult contemporary station and one of the best I had encountered to that time along with Chicago's WTMX and the long-defunct i107.7 in Seattle.

Pretty rapidly, I settled on three music pre-sets, WBMX, top-40 "Kiss 108" (WXKS-FM at 107.9), and a station that was a little different, WBOS 92.9 FM. I would soon learn that since 1989, WBOS had officially had an "Adult Album Alternative" format with a wide playlist, but it was a little different than any "AAA" station I had encountered before. While it was willing to play deep cuts and older music, the contemporary portion of its playlist was little different than WBMX. Because of its greater variety, I tended to favor it more and more the longer I lived in Boston. One of their better promotional slogans was "We play the father and the son," referring to Bob Dylan and his son Jacob (of the Wallflowers). Their "EarthFest" free performances around Earth Day often brought artists like Edwin McCain and Abra Moore to play at the Hatch Shell along the Charles River. I considered these free events one of the highlights of living in Boston.

However one describes it, I soon discovered that WBOS was the official pizza joint station in greater Boston. Whether in East Boston, Cambridge, or Dorchester, I'd walk into an inexpensive restaurant serving pizza and I'd find WBOS in the background. It became a bit of running joke in my group of friends that the pizza world would be in upheaval if WBOS ever re-formatted.

The WBOS "AAA" format never received great ratings, and was constantly rumored to be going away. It didn't help that another "AAA" station, "The River 92.5" (WXRV) was on a near-adjacent frequency, and was generally regarded as the better-programmed station, just with a weaker, "rim-shot" signal into Boston proper. Serious proposals to make WBOS into an FM talk station (in 1999, which instead went to 96.9), smooth jazz (in 2000) and a "Jack" station (in 2005) never came to fruition, as the format would always have a good ratings book right before its owners were intending to make the change, allowing the format to survive.

The handwriting was clearly on the wall in 2005 when the station started emphasizing music over DJ's (which it had always done to some extent) and a digital signal. When I heard the slogan "the same music sounds different on WBOS," I knew it was only a matter of time before the station would be gone. WBOS as I had enjoyed it during my stay in Boston disappeared in February 2008, as the station flipped to modern rock. The WBOS calls live on, but the station is now marketed as "Radio 92.9." WBOS is yet another station from my past pre-sets that is no longer on the air as I recall it--and I have no idea what station is played in area pizza parlors now.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Politics: The UN Loss is a Big Deal

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Earlier this week, Canada lost out to Portugal in a bid for a seat on the United Nations Security Council. This was the first time in the history of United Nations that Canada had failed to be voted in to a Security Council seat. While it is true that a long list of reasons contributed to the lack of international support for Canada's candidacy, the bottom line is that it where Canada was once viewed as a "Honest Broker," it is now isolated. It's not so much that we lost--shifting dynamics in the world may have favored Portugal in any event--it's that it wasn't even close, and much of the blame falls squarely on the Harper government.

It wasn't so long ago that Canada was viewed positively by many of the nations in the world as a fundamentally internationalist country. It once had the most peacekeepers deployed under UN auspices--now it ranks 12th, with almost all of its foreign deployment under NATO, not the UN, in Afghanistan--a change that started under Liberal governments (and the extent to which peacekeeping leadership was a myth in the first place is a whole separate topic). More importantly, there was a reputation of Canada as the honest broker, willing to listen to less developed countries, willing to take environmental leadership, willing to stand up to the United States, and willing to compromise on issues. That has largely disappeared under the Conservatives--Canada was basically absent on climate change, its support for right-wing elements in Israel has exceeded that of the United States, and off the top of my head I can't think of single issue in which Canada has stood up to the United States on the behalf of the world in the past four years. The epitome of the anti-internationalist attitude of the present government was when Harper decided to go to Tim Horton's instead of a UN meeting.

While he clearly should not have said so publicly, especially before the vote, Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff is fundamentally right--this Canadian government hasn't earned the right for Canada to be on the security council. In its defense, the government tried to blame Ignatieff, and when it was pointed out that the foreign delegations didn't even know about his statements, they stated that principle was more important to them than the UN seat.

They're missing the point. Why did I start to have positive emotions about Canada in the first place? It wasn't because of bilingualism, which I thought at the age of 11 was rather strange. It wasn't because of multiculturalism, which I appreciate now but didn't understand then. It wasn't because of the more civilized culture, which was not at all obvious in comparing Seattle and Vancouver. It was precisely because Canada seemed to be viewed positively by the whole world, that it had an internationalist stance that matched my ideals, and that its government would publicly stand up to the United States on occasion when it seemed warranted that earned my attention.

Harper's foreign policy has changed all that. Now those with internationalist ideals won't be attracted to Canada. To the outside observer, Canada now seems like an environmentally-irresponsible, resource-based economy that happens to have more financial regulations and nationalized health care. The United Nations vote was a wake-up call from the rest of the world that Canada's international image has changed.

I speak with enough Canadians to know that the Canadian people haven't changed, only their government. The vast majority of the people I encounter liked the old image that Canada had, and don't think much of the current one. Yet, they won't give more than a moment's thought to the UN vote this week. It will take political leadership to talk about what that vote really reflects. If Michael Ignatieff chooses to make this issue in the next election, it won't be enough to win the election unless it is accompanied by more bread-and-butter economic issues, but I suspect it will hit a nerve in the Canadian populace.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Culture: To Err is Medicine

Dr. Brian Goldman, host of White Coat, Black Art, spoke at the "To Err is Medicine" Town Hall in Toronto, Ontario on 12-October-2010

TORONTO, ONTARIO - The CBC Radio One medical show White Coat, Black Art held its first public Town Hall last night at the Glenn Gould Studio in Toronto, Ontario. Held in co-operation with the University of Toronto's Mini-Med School, the forum was focused on the issue of "minimizing and managing medical errors."

Having been to a number of CBC events, this one has to rank as an odd one. For one thing, Glenn Gould Studio was not even close to being filled for an evening event--normally one has to be there quite early to get in the door. Secondly, the "star"--show host Dr. Brian Goldman, entered the studio so quietly and rapidly that he was sitting down before most of the audience even noticed him, which meant no introductory applause. I guess such stealthy movement comes with the pressures of the profession.

The event was nominally for the taping of a single broadcast of White Coat, Black Art, which runs only 27 minutes. The forum went on for nearly two hours of discussion, so it will be interesting to see how the material is edited down for what will surely be at least two episodes of the program, which airs at 11 am Saturday and 11:30 am Monday on CBC Radio One nationwide and is available as a podcast.

Despite the longer-than-expected discussion, the message of the evening could really be reduced to just one sentence: Communication amongst health professionals, families, and patients needs to be improved, whether through technology or changes in culture. Everything else that came up could be considered an elaboration or sub-point of that single idea.

A clear message, expressed in one way or another by every member of the expert panel, was that every patient should have an advocate, ideally a family member, who looks out for them during any interaction with the medical system. That individual makes certain that information known to the patient actually gets to new members of the medical team, who otherwise not realize something that would affect their assessment of the situation.

The expert panel consisted of Lianne Jeffs, Dr. Barry McLellan, Pam Marshall, and Dr. Kaveh Shojania for the "To Err Is Medicine" Town Hall on 12-October-2010

One of the more entertaining sequences of the night occurred when the panelists discussed past medical mistakes in their histories. Lianne Jeffs, the Director of Nursing and Clinical Research at St. Michael's Hospital, Pam Marshall, the Executive Director of Patient Relations and Legals Affairs at The Scarborough Hospital, Dr. Barry McLellan, President and CEO of Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, Dr. Kaveh Shojania, Director of the University of Toronto Centre for Patient Safety, and Dr. Goldman all told stories. Marshall described her reaction to each as "verklempt," a word I hadn't heard outside of Saturday Night Live in years.

Dr. Shojania made amongst the most interesting points of the evening. He stated that doctors need to pay attention to "little voices" and red flags telling them that a situation might not be what it seemed, rather than following training that tells them to be strong and forge ahead. He noted that doctors can become "second victims" when a mistake occurs--he almost left the field as a result of the mistake he talked about. Finally, he took a firm stand against "half apologies" after a mistake occurs, supporting the relatively new legislation in Ontario that allows doctors to make a full apology without invoking legal responsibility.

There seemed concern that the audience might bring up too personal or too involved stories, but all stories were quite brief and led to precise questions. One medical student, starting a second career, asked what I thought was the best question of the whole night--why can the steel industry have a greater focus on the safety of human beings than the medical industry? A point was made that medicine has learned much about communication from the aviation industry.

A question I don't expect to find as part of the final program revolved around using foreign-trained physicians to help reduce the workload on residents and other health professionals. The two doctors were so instantly dismissive of the idea that it couldn't help but reinforce the impression that doctors are only interested in preserving their status and have no interest in doing anything about the foreign credential issue. A foreign-trained physician happened to be sitting right in front of me, and her disgust at their reaction was quite obvious.

While the discussion seemed productive, I walked away at the end of the session yesterday with one primary thought--it seems preventing medical errors is not brain surgery; there are plenty of ideas on how to do it. It would be a shame if the country had to wait for the old doctors to retire before new ideas are implemented.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Media: Say Goodbye to KGO?

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I've raised alarm bells about this before, but I think this time it's a genuine possibility. One week ago, KGO radio general manager Michael "Mickey" Luckoff resigned from his post after 35 years of running the San Francisco radio station. The era of greatness in talk radio on KGO, already slowly decaying, may have finally come to an end.

Under Luckoff's management, KGO has been the premier talk radio station in San Francisco, but also in the opinion of many, the top talk radio station in the entire country. With a focus on live and local hosts and a fair helping of news (and having the San Francisco 49er football broadcasts for many years didn't hurt), KGO led in the ratings for 30 of Luckoff's 35 years. The loss of the 49ers, combined with KCBS' move to an FM simulcast, have dropped KGO in the ratings in recent books, but many industry analysts and this blogger still consider its talk product the finest on commercial radio.

The station has long been able to attract incredible talent in talk radio. In my listening years, it has brought in Gene Burns from Boston and Gil Gross from New York, and recruited professor Brent Walters to its Sunday morning show on religion. Walters and KGO's Brian Copeland are the only commercial talk show hosts I now listen to regularly, downloaded from KGO's daily archives. A large part of why the station has been able to attract talent is that Luckoff stood behind the product and the station's hosts.

Luckoff didn't just resign for an early retirement. As reported widely in the local media, Luckoff had nothing good to say about the present owners of the 50,000-watt, clear channel station. Since Las Vegas-based Citadel took over the former ABC owned and operated radio station across the country three years ago, other heritage stations like WABC in New York and WLS in Chicago have seen their local on-air staffs decimated and ratings erode. Luckoff had said he would stay on--just as he did when Disney purchased ABC--as long as he could continue to put the same quality product on the air.

He has made it clear that he no longer believes that to be true. Luckoff has felt that Citadel was trying to undermine his management for some time, and he had his resignation ready for nine months before giving two weeks' notice last week. It has not leaked out what finally caused him to leave, but the fact that a man long regarded as one of the most professional in the business has so openly criticized his employer implies that it had to be a severe transgression. The tension was further heightened when Luckoff was invited to speak on the station's Ronn Owens program, but was banned from appearing by Citadel.

Speculation on discussion groups is that Luckoff's departure means that KGO will do what other Citadel stations have done--allow local hosts to run out their contracts and then replace them with syndicated programming. From virtually all live and local, KGO may end up looking like sister station, conservative KSFO, which has exactly one local show on weekdays, during morning drive.

Still, there is some reason to believe that won't happen. Program Director Jack Swanson remains in place, and he has presumably had a lot to do with KGO's successful recruiting and retention of hosts. (This blogger has respected Swanson since meeting him when he was still with Seattle's KING Newstalk 1090 in 1992.) Citadel has already appointed a new General Manager from within KGO, former sales director Diedra Lieberman, rather than bringing in someone from the outside. While there is speculation that Lieberman might be a weak manager, if she can put Swanson in a position to keep going his job while dealing with Citadel better than Luckoff was able to do, the on-air quality might be maintained.

Just the same, there was panic earlier today when KGO left the air for nearly an hour. Alas, it was not an internal revolt in support of Mickey Luckoff, but an internal equipment failure. We can only hope that without Luckoff, the mighty KGO will not be, as predicted by one Internet wag, "reduced to stick value in a year."

Monday, October 11, 2010

Culture: With a Name Like Smucker's...

TORONTO, ONTARIO - On a lazy harvest season holiday such as this one, a certain mood is established. The air has a taste of nippiness, but one can still feel the warmth of direct sunlight. While there's some urgency of the harvest, there is far more anticipation of celebration and feasting, and a feeling that this is a time to savor the beautiful autumn colors and fresh food before the season turns.

I almost hate to admit this, but what captures this time of year most strongly for me is not a piece of folk or popular music, but the commercials of the Jerome Monroe Smucker Company. Throughout much of my lifetime, Smucker's has run radio and television advertisements that perfectly capture the harvest season. With a distinctive piano music background and a voice-over by the legendary Mason Adams, the commercials were fundamentally relaxing and exuded positive emotions not just for the brand but for the fruits that went into their jams, jellies, and other products, and for the season as a whole. Each ended with the well-known tag line, "With a name like Smucker's, it has to be good," first coined by Wyse Advertising in 1961.

The quintessential harvest-era Smucker's commercial came out in 1989, in my opinion. It ran on radio and television, with morning orchard shots (complete with prominent dew) in the television version and just the music and Mason Adams in the radio version:
The sun rises early on harvest day,
Casting lengthening shadows across a ripening orchard.
An orchard filled with sweetening fruit,
Fruit good enough for Smucker's Simply Fruit,
With all the fruit, all the flavor,
Half the sugar of regular jams and jellies,
Only eight calories per teaspoon.
With a name like Smucker's, it has to be good.
Written out, it doesn't seem that special. When voiced by Adams, it sounded like poetry.

Beyond their advertising, I found other reasons to feel good about the Smucker's brand. It supported quality news by advertising in the Christian Science Monitor, the short-lived World Monitor television show, and the CBS World News Roundup. It received ratings as one of the best employers in the United States.

This season, one will not be able to find the old Smucker's ads, even this time of year. In 1994, they switched advertising agencies as the company tried aggressive growth strategies, and Mason Adams died in 2005, with a mention of his voice-over work in his New York Times obituary. The company still advertises, but it no longer resonates the mood of the harvest season.

For me, though, Mason Adams still runs through my head whenever it is time to pick berries or take to the apple orchards--days epitomized by the fall sun, days like today.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Photos: Last Look at Summer in Toronto, 2010

Flowers were in full bloom at the James Gardens in Toronto, Ontario on 11-August-2010

TORONTO, ONTARIO - As the environment looks more and more like fall, this week's update to my photo site takes a final look back at summer in Toronto, Ontario. Featured scenes and events include the "Howards of High Park" Heritage Toronto walk, wildlife along the Humber River, the Labour Day Parade, and more.

Margin Notes: Llamas, 10s, Radke, Random

What appeared to be a family of llamas wasn't moving very rapidly at the High Park Zoo in Toronto, Ontario early on 9-October-2010

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This weekend is the Thanksgiving long weekend in Canada, and people are spending relaxing time with their families--if reduced traffic levels in the early morning and people walking today along the Humber River amazed by the scenery are any indication. From a walk through the High Park Zoo early yesterday morning, the llamas seem to be having a similar weekend, not moving very much and lingering over breakfast.

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Those in the United States who listen to NPR received an introduction to Canadian Thanksgiving, courtesy of CBC satirist Rick Mercer. Mercer appeared on Weekend Edition Saturday yesterday, a nice nod by Scott Simon and staff toward their northern neighbour.

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Today is also 10-October-2010, or in simpler terms, 10-10-10. Numerologists are going a bit crazy about that arbitrary concurrence, with perhaps the largest phenomenon a large number of couples getting married on a "lucky" date--Toronto City Hall alone has twenty ceremonies today. I'm thinking the bargain was to get married on October 9th or October 11th this year.

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Speaking of "10s" (and, no, that's not a Too Beautiful to Live reference), Free Speech Radio News has turned ten years old. The independent half-hour news broadcast that started with a strike against the now-defunct Pacifica Network News has now demonstrated for a decade how much quality can be produced on a shoe-string, Internet-leveraging international newscast.

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Luke Burbank (of the aforementioned Too Beautiful to Live) isn't the only person from public radio make a transition to commercial radio, in particular KIRO in Seattle. Now, Bill Radke (once of KUOW, American Public Media, and Marketplace Morning Report) is leaving Los Angeles to do the morning news on KIRO-FM in Seattle starting 1-November-2010, co-hosting with Linda Thomas. Based on Radke's move, I'll now make a prediction, obvious from this item a couple weeks ago--John Moe will be on the KIRO-FM staff within in a year.

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The street sign at the east end of Random Street at Kipling Avenue in Toronto, Ontario was noted on 7-October-2010

If this entry ranging from llamas to John Moe seems especially random, perhaps that's because I live in Toronto--which even has a street in Etobicoke named "Random Street" that I first encountered last week, as demonstrated above.

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Steps leading to an escalator? The Broadview subway station in Toronto, Ontario could use more accessibility work as seen on 2-October-2010

One of the most random things I saw in Toronto in the past week was an escalator at the Broadview subway station that could only be accessed by going up three steps--what exactly were the people at the Toronto Transit Commission behind that thinking?

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Radio Pick: The Soundtrack to War and Peace

TORONTO, ONTARIO - The CBC's streak was broken this week, as Wisconsin Public Radio earned my radio pick of the week. While it has certainly taken on political connotations in the last century, I had no idea about the contemporary politics that shaped Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Harvey Sachs provided insightful background on that toward the end of a 53-minute show that once again showed that the team at Wisconsin Public Radio may be the best interviewers in the world.

Listen to MP3 of To The Best of Our Knowledge "The Soundtrack to War and Peace"

Friday, October 8, 2010

Media: Remembering Alice@97.3

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I wasn't planning to start a series on music radio stations, but after last week's entry, I happened to scan the dial here in Toronto yesterday and settled on "Boom" 97.3 (CHBM) for a time. After a liner announcing "the greatest music of all time," they played Alanis Morissette's "Head Over Feet." I realize it's Canadian Content, but one of the greatest hits of all time? Not even in Canada. Still, it was amusing for me to hear "Head Over Feet" on the 97.3 frequency, as likely the first station I ever heard that song on was "Alice@97.3" in the Bay Area.

For most of the time I attended college in the San Francisco Bay Area of California, the music stations on the radio were not particularly impressive--they seemed remarkably unimaginative in format. Then, in my junior year, I started noticing more and more dormitory radios tuned to a station on 97.3 FM, KLLC. Launched in 1995, "Alice at 97.3" played many songs I had not heard before, some of them quite hip-hop leaning for my taste, but in any event far from the conservative formats of other music stations.

Little did I know, but the format had actually originated in Denver, Colorado in 1994 as "Alice@106" (later the branding changed to 105.9), KALC. According to Wikipedia, Frank Wood, Chuck Finney and Gregg Cassidy came up with the idea, which took the base of a "hot adult contemporary" format and added alternative music to it. The format has had various labels applied over the years, including "female-oriented modern adult contemporary," "modern contemporary hit radio," and perhaps my favorite, "warped adult contemporary" from founder Wood. The use of a female name was not a coincidence--the format emphasized female artists (a popular move in the mid-1990's) and more closely targeted a female demographic, resulting in later years in such community events as breast cancer research fund-raisers.

Whatever one calls it, "Alice" attracted student listeners, many of them hungry for more unusual songs. While the station played Alanis Morissette, Sarah McLachlan, Donna Lewis, Tori Amos, Erasure, Collective Soul, and Duncan Shiek, it also played what was then reasonably cutting-edge stuff like Dog's Eye View, Alisha's Attic, and Abra Moore. The iconic songs of "Alice," though, were downright weird. People could not stop talking about White Town's "Your Woman" or Geggy Tah's "Whoever You Are" (which eventually end up famous from a Mercedes-Benz commercial in 2001).

Over the years, "Alice" seemed to gradually drop some of its alternative bent, becoming much closer to the "hot adult contemporary" or its current official classification "Adult Top 40", while still courting the female audience. Still, when I was visiting the Bay Area in 2005, I heard them play "Your Woman" one lunchtime and knew that I was listening to the same "Alice" of my undergraduate years. i107.7 may have been the radio station of my youth, but "Alice@97.3" was the radio station of my college years.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Economics: The Immigrant Gap

TORONTO, ONTARIO - In theory, having a college degree should go a long way toward avoiding unemployment. According to statistics released this week, people with at least an undergraduate degree in Canada have a 3.4% unemployment rate, compared with 8% overall. However, if the unemployment rate of 8% feels too low, that's probably because you have migrated to Canada. Migrants with at least an undergraduate degree have a 13.4% unemployment rate, 4.1 times the rate for born Canadians.

Three factors seem to have been identified as leading to the large discrepancy. Language skills, problems with recognition of foreign credentials, and lack of Canadian work experience are cited. Only the last factor could possibly be at work in my case, and I suspect in this economy that it is by far the largest factor. Near as I can tell, this is a completely experience-driven market--employers will only consider candidates that were doing exactly the same job for several years at another company. Want to sell oneself on the basis of flexibility or education? Good luck. When there's no reward for taking risks in the labour market, the safest thing for an employer to do is hire someone that's already done the job.

The "immigrant gap" in the unemployment rate made the news because Canada is expected to grow only on the basis of immigration by 2030, and the figures on the surface seem to suggest that the country does not know how to integrate the educated immigrants that it will need in the future. As Amanda Lang of the CBC put it, if the current underemployed or unemployed immigrants were working at their potential, there would be $6 billion more flowing through the Canadian economy.

Yet, this may not actually be an immigrant problem; the immigrants like me may be closer to canaries in a coal mine. Because immigrants as a class almost by definition have the least Canadian work experience, they will be hurt the most in an experience-based economy. I've told the story on this blog before about a hiring manager that was so intent on finding the perfectly-matching candidate that a senior position was left open for nine months--until a corporate re-organization eliminated the whole group as under-performing. That was a Canadian hiring manager.

With unemployment high, stories like that are extremely rare right now--so many people are out of work that employers have many "perfect" résumés. When the economy starts to expand at historical averages or better in the future, successful employers will have to get over the perfect-experience mentality, take some risks in order to get rewards.

In the meantime, those of us with experience in fields that may never hire again have a pretty bleak outlook--even going back for more education doesn't help, as unless that results in a blockbuster internship, the fundamental problem hasn't changed--a lack of experience. That's true whether we are immigrants or not.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Heritage: Library to Library in Riverdale

"Library to Library in Riverdale" walk leaders Barbara Myrvold and Gerald Whyte spoke in front of St. Matthew's Anglican Church in Toronto, Ontario on 2-October-2010

TORONTO, ONTARIO - For its final walk of the 2010 season, Heritage Toronto provided a slightly different theme--walking from "library to library." As pointed out by Librarian and Historian Barbara Myrvold, it was really more like "libraries to library." The starting point was not only at the location of the first public library in Toronto east of the Don River, in the still-standing Poulton Block, where a branch existed in an expansion of the building in the rear from October 1888 to June 1910. Practically across the street was a contemporary library location, the Queen/Saulter Branch in the 1913-era Ralph Thornton Community Centre, built in 1913 as Postal Station G, which has existed since 1979.

The Eastern Branch of the Toronto Public Library had been in the rear section of the Poulton Block, observed on 2-October-2010, from 1888 to 1910, when the current Riverdale Branch opened

The walk was through the Riverdale neighbourhood, which has gone through a variety of names in the past, including Donmount and Riverside. The portion south of Queen Street had been annexed by Toronto in 1834, and the remainder had been annexed as Riverdale in 1884. People think of Toronto as not having any numbered streets, but that's not the case in Riverdale, where a series of numbered avenues do exist, laid out south of Gerrard Street starting with First Avenue.

There is a First Avenue in Toronto, as proven by this street sign in the Riverdale neighbourhood seen on 2-October-2010

Riverdale had once been prominent enough to justify its own station site on the Grand Trunk Railway, and the site of that station from 1896 to 1932 was part of the tour. That location is now part of Bruce Mackay Park--honouring the educator who helped provide the inspiration for the popular Degrassi television series. There is no Degrassi High (or Junior High) in Toronto, but there is a Degrassi Street traversed as part of the Heritage Toronto walk.

The large size of the final Heritage Toronto walk group of the year was demonstrated at the former site of the Riverdale railway station on 2-October-2010

Most of the historic buildings on the Riverdale walk had brick facades, but it was pointed out that many of them north of First Avenue had been built with a brick facing and wood framing. In a classic Heritage Toronto serendipitous moment, it was interesting to find evidence of that fact in the form of a house undergoing refurbishing on the north side of First Avenue just a few blocks after that statement had been made.

Ongoing work revealed the wood framing behind the brick outer layer on a First Avenue house in Toronto, Ontario on 2-October-2010

The walk ended at the Riverdale Library in time for its one hundredth anniversary celebration, covered earlier. It's time for indoor heritage activities for the rest of the year.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Culture: High Park Harvest Festival

A group of children worked on carving small pumpkins at the High Park Harvest Festival in Toronto, Ontario on 3-October-2010

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Nighttime lows are closely approaching the freezing point. Days are shortening. The leaves in the trees are starting to turn. As hard as it is to accept, harvest time has arrived, and in the city of Toronto, that means time for the annual High Park Harvest Festival.

A singing group performed for children during the High Park Harvest Festival in Toronto, Ontario on 3-October-2010

For the most part, the High Park Harvest Festival is designed to help children learn about what harvest times were like during more agrarian times. Activities for children included bobbing for apples, making apple cider, carving pumpkins, story telling, horse-drawn cart rides, and performing groups.

Apple peeling was the first step in making cider, a part of the High Park Harvest Festival in Toronto, Ontario on 3-October-2010

Connections to the First Nations are always associated with harvest time in North America, and in High Park, the scene was no different. The primary performers around Colbourne Lodge were from the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation, playing their drums and dancing in the field.

A pair of First Nations dancers performed during the High Park Harvest Festival in Toronto, Ontario on 3-October-2010

If all the harvest activity reminds one that's it is time for the feast, that's not a coincidence--Thanksgiving is celebrated in Canada next Monday.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Heritage: Riverdale Library Turns 100

The Riverdale Library branch at Gerrard and Broadview in Toronto, Ontario re-opened for its 100th anniversary on 2-October-2010

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Only three library branches in the 99-branch Toronto Public Library system have made it to age 100--Annette, Yorkville, and now Riverdale. The Riverdale Library, designed by city architect Robert McCallum in the Georgian Revival style, opened in 1910 and was renovated in time to open for its 100th anniversary this past Saturday.

A series of cakes helped celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Riverdale Library in Toronto, Ontario as seen on 2-October-2010

While the Riverdale branch was the last of four libraries built in Toronto using funds from Andrew Carnegie, it doesn't look like a typical Carnegie Library. Because of the shape of the property (a former garden of the Don Jail Governor's House), the entrance is at the corner (of Gerrard and Broadview) instead of the middle of the building, adding yet more interest to a building that would be notable for surviving this long serving its original purpose regardless.

City Librarian Jane Pyper and City Councillor Paula Fletcher held up the certificate honouring 100 years of service at the Riverdale Library on 2-October-2010

Ceremonies to honour the milestone were held on Saturday at the library, immediately after a Heritage Toronto walk which started at a previous library site (to be covered in a future post). A variety of dignitaries from Toronto Public Libraries and the city were on-hand to speak about the first one hundred years and about the new features that had been added during renovations.

A variety of Chinese food provided by the local Chinese Chamber of Commerce provided refreshments after the formal ceremonies at the Riverdale Library on 2-October-2010

Being Toronto, there was of course a strong multicultural element to the event. The Riverdale branch is located near Toronto's "second" Chinatown, and the local Chinese Chamber of Commerce sponsored the catering of the event. The diversity of faces was typical of Toronto, with all kinds of skin tones found wandering the library, from the new children's section to the new bank of computers near the entrance to the new self check-out stations.

Self check-out, like at this station, was one of the new features of the Riverdale Library when it re-opened on 2-October-2010

The Riverdale Library is now open for its normal business hours, and seems well-positioned to serve its community for another century.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Photos: Honda Indy Toronto

The ever-popular Danika Patrick in Indy car #7 raced Justin Wilson in car #22 out of the pit area in Toronto, Ontario on 16-July-2010

TORONTO, ONTARIO - This week's update to my photo site goes back to the heat of July and automobile racing. For a day of testing and qualifying on 16-July-2010, Honda Indy Toronto opened its gates for free, affording the opportunity to watch the NASCAR Canadian Tire series and various other stock car classes as well as the stars of the show, the North American Indy Car series.

Margin Notes: Population, Harvest, CBC, Ross

The population of Hamilton, Ontario was "you" according to this public art noted on the MacNab Street South pedestrian underpass beneath the Canadian Pacific tracks on 28-September-2010

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Sometimes, an idea appears that it's hard to believe hasn't been seen before. I had a feeling like that after encountering the above piece of public art during a brief visit to Hamilton, Ontario--the idea of the population of something being "you" (or, in the case of Toronto, you and 2.5 million friends) seems so obvious, but I could not remember seeing it before.

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A horse-drawn cart was offering rides inside High Park in Toronto, Ontario on 3-October-2010

Closer to home, when I took the above photo during the Harvest Festival in Toronto's High Park, I couldn't decide if I liked the bicyclist that got in the frame. Was the contrast between modern clothing and technology and the horses interesting, or had a picture out of another era been ruined? I honestly don't know; maybe readers will weight in.

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It was easy to answer a question on an employment questionnaire this week. Asked to rate the desirability of various activities, I encountered a listing for "operating a merry-go-round at a community event." Considering that I had spent the previous afternoon giving rides on a 1929 historic turntable for visitors to the Toronto Railway Heritage Centre, analogous in many ways to a merry-go-round, that one was easy: "Very satisfying."

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As explained at length in a previous post, I no longer find the Dave Ross Show on KIRO-FM satisfying, and looking at the logs (I didn't actually listen) last week, there's another reason why. A main reason to tune in had been the regular guests David Sirota, Thomas Frank, and Carl Jeffers. All three of them seem to have been canceled in favor of lifestyle talk.

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While not as fatal as programming decisions at KIRO-FM, sometimes programmers at the CBC mystify me. In the fall schedule for CBC Radio One, I can't figure out Saturday morning. Both the new show "Day Six" (airing at 10) and "The Irrelevant Show" (airing at 11:30) offer a lighter take on the world. Yet, programmers have scheduled "White Coat, Black Art," a serious show on medicine, in between at 11:00. Especially since I imagine much of the audience of "White Coat, Black Art" also tunes in to the serious "Quirks and Quarks" science show at noon, why in the world isn't the order "Day Six," "The Irrelevant Show," and then "White Coat, Black Art" and "Quirks and Quarks"? There's a reason I'm mostly listening to these shows by podcasts these days!