Monday, November 30, 2015

First, horseless carriages; now paperless newspapers

Recently a fellow told me newspapers are dead. He was quite adamant. No one reads newspapers anymore, he said. He was, of course, overstating his case but there is a core of truth here. The big offset presses of the world will not be pumping out millions of newspapers indefinitely. At some point the rollers will stop rolling, the ink pots will go dry and fleets of trucks will be parked and sold.

But newspapers are more than just newsprint stained with ink, newspapers are also bricks and mortar, newspapers are businesses. Think of The London Free Press. But the soul of the local paper is not found in the large Goss offset press. No, the soul of the paper is found in the staff -- the journalists who gather the news, the editors who massage the information and the computer experts who make everything from the digital collection to the online delivery possible.

Reportedly, most newspapers today get no more than 15 percent of total revenues from online sources. That said, the Los Angeles Times claimed in 2008 that online income had grown to the point that it was enough to cover the cost of the paper's entire news staff, both print and digital.

Jeff Jarvis wrote in the guardian:

So in the LA Times revelation, I see hope: the possibility that online revenue could support digital journalism for a city. The enterprise will be smaller, but it could well be more profitable than its print forebears today and - here's the real news - it would grow from there. Imagine that: news as a growth industry again.

I'm a news junkie. I admit it. I still get the daily paper delivered to my door. But, I also get daily news feeds from many online sources. I first began experimenting with the paperless newspaper more than twenty years ago. Using my Apple Mac hooked up to an unbelievably slow modem, I used GENIE, General Electric Network for Information Exchange, to download text data. GENIE wasn't free but it wasn't outrageously expensive either: about $9 a month and $3 an hour after the first four hours.

About a year after I joined GENIE, I became a Crayon.net subscriber. Crayon stands for Create Your Own Newspaper. I say stands for and not stood for because Crayon is still in existence today. GENIE, on the other hand, is long gone.

As a boy, my grandfather introduced me to two magazines he felt were worth a read: the Atlantic Monthly and Harper's Magazine. The Atlantic Monthly was born in 1857 and is still going today in both print and online editions. The online edition is known simply as The Atlantic and costs about half as much online as at the store. If, like many readers, you choke at the idea of paying for articles online, a lot of the content is available free online.

Harper's Magazine was first printed in 1867. It has successfully skirted some rough financial shoals and is still on sale in stores today. Like The Atlantic, it is also found online. I don't believe there is a charge for the online edition. I believe both the magazine and the Harper's Magazine Foundation are supported by purchases made from their online store.

What I find most interesting here is that Atlantic Media, the folk behind The Atlantic Monthly, a publication with a history going back more than a century and a half, is experimenting with a free, business-oriented, online paperless newspaper called Quartz. I get an e-mail every day announcing what is new.

And there are more paperless newspapers testing marketplace acceptance. Think Politico and Vox.com.

Traditional newspapers are in trouble but often their problems are amplified by the decisions of their new owners. Think of The London Free Press. To fill the daily news hole, the small, southwestern Ontario daily must run stories from Windsor and other cities located hundreds of kilometers away. Why "must" they do this? Staff cutbacks.  Everyone agrees that local stories sell papers but chain-owned newspapers can no longer afford to cover all the local stories they once would have covered.

And why the severe slashing of news staff and others? To free up money to service Post Media's massive debt ($650 million) which, in large part, is owed to a number of U.S. and Canadian hedge funds specializing in distressed assets. Gaining control of the majority of English-language daily papers in Canada was not cheap and it may not have been too bright either.

The Fisher brothers, builders of horse-drawn carriages, switched to building horseless carriages, car bodies, and stayed in business. Whether Post Media will be able to make the successful transition to a paperless newspaper is an open question. But organizations more focused on providing news rather than servicing debt may well keep journalists and their support staff, the soul of the daily paper, busy pumping out news for interested readers as has been done for generations.

And despite the fact that the baby boomer generation is aging and departing (yes, dying), the generations following are, contrary to popular opinion, still interested in news.

There is a growing body of evidence showing that the conventional wisdom about Millennials’ consumption of news is wrong. Millennials engage news sources differently than past generations to be sure, but the label “newsless” is largely inaccurate.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Music of Boomer Generation not simply pop-rock

Baby Boomers: humbug. I no longer doubt there was a post Second World War baby boom. There was; I readily admit it, but, and it is a big but, there is no perfectly homogeneous, generational wave of Baby Boomers rippling through our society. We are as diverse a group as should be expected being we span a period of some 19 years -- 1946 to 1965 in Canada.

What inspired this post was the other night I asked a friend if they thought the music of the baby boom was the music listened to by boomers or was it the music written and performed by boomers themselves? Many like to claim that early rock and roll is the music of the boomer generation. My problem here is that this music was often written and sometimes even performed by the Parents of the Boomers generation. I do not want to be defined by music dumped on my generation by my parent's generation.

One expert on this topic likes to say that classic rock radio delivering a steady string of moldy oldies, supplies an uninterrupted audio lifeline for aging boomers -- a soundtrack-of-your- life, so to speak. The expert wrote that he had fond memories linked to many old rock songs. A check of the release dates of some of the songs mentioned uncovered mismatches between the dates of the memories and dates when the songs were popular. But I can understand having problems with one's personal soundtrack. I'm finding at 68 years of age linking songs to events in my past has gotten rather iffy and it is becoming more and more difficult with each passing year.

Still, I do have some early, very early, memories linked to songs. You may be surprised to learn that these songs are not early rock and roll tunes. Neither my wife nor I have any strong memories attached to Blue Suede Shoes, the 1956 hit for Carl Perkins. But we do have memories linked to How Much Is That Doggy in the Window. I was six when that was a hit for Patti Page and I used to listen to it with a little girl I thought was kinda cool. We were friends and we enjoyed her Patti Page record together.

I have more memories attached to Perry Como's crooning than I have to early rock and roll. I grew up with Perry Como. First on radio and then on television. I can still recall sitting in front of our large, white Coronet television watching The Perry Como Show with my family.

And my memories of our Coronet television set are as important as my memories of Perry Como. Coronet sets were made right in my hometown and at one point one out of every three sets in the area carried the Coronet name. When the set went on the fritz, my mother would pick up a new tube at the nearby drugstore. If a new tube didn't fix the problem, our neighbour who owned a television sales and repair business, would stop by on his way home and do whatever was needed to get the black and white picture back.

But, I digress -- I told my friend I didn't believe top-40 radio was anywhere near the whole story when it came to the Baby Boomer music story. I have lots of memories linked to songs by artists who got little or no pop-music airtime. My friend disagreed. My memories meant little to her. I clearly was standing alone in left field. Look at the sale figures for records at the time, find the biggest sellers and you find the music of the generation.

Maybe -- but I don't think so. Think: Pat Boone. Why Pat Boone? Well, only Elvis Presley and Fats Domino surpassed Pat Boone in record sales in the early days of rock and roll. I pray no one believes the early covers released by Pat Boone represent the music of the boomer generation. That music sure doesn't represent me.

That said, even I must admit to memories attached to some of Pat Boone's soft-pop period songs. Love Letters in the Sand recalls slow dances at weekly sock hops in a darkened public school gym. But I have even more memories attached to songs, often by lesser known artists, that come complete with memorable moments.

Which brings me to the answer to one of my question: Is early rock and roll really the music of the Boomer Generation? Answer: No. The music of the Boomer Generation is a rich, all-encompassing mix, composed of all the music from our still unfolding lives, pop music and otherwise. Pop fare may be the most common music thread but the other threads may be brighter, more colourful and more demanding of attention. In many cases, the music released by artists not among the top 40 hit makers reverberates with a resonance that ripples through the years.

Who would have thought a song with the unlikely title Fresh Garbage should be rated among the music of a generation, the Boomer Generation? But I am sure I am not alone in having wonderful memories linked to that early song by the California progressive rock group Spirit. Found on the album of the same name, the late '60s song was actually given a fare amount of air time on what was often referred to as FM underground radio or alternative rock. Fresh Garbage may not have sold in the numbers needed to propel it into the top 40, I don't believe it was ever released as a single, but as an album it was most certainly a hit -- even by my friend's definition.

I think of Spirit and I think of 1970 and I think of Berkeley, California; I think of roaring my Morgan roadster down narrow, twisting, mountain roads above that famous college town and I think of Rebekah Wilcher and her incredible family. Her mother, Ida, an artist and her father, Denny, an early environmentalist and both strong, left-wing activists. Google Denny Wilcher and be amazed. He is one of my heroes.

There is no easy, one-size-fits-all, music road taken by an entire generation. There may be paths more often taken, (sounds a bit boring, yes?), but there are a lot of well-trodden alternatives. If you insist on having one, big, all-encompassing, answer to: What is the music of the Boomer Generation? Go for it, but make sure your answer has room for Spirit, Captain Beefheart, Karen Dalton, Teegarden and Van Winkle, Savoy Brown, Paul Butterfield, Vanilla Fudge, Cat Mother . . .

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

TODs are not new

Kidlets production of Squirm
Monday I took my granddaughter to Covent Garden Market where the Original Kids Theatre Company is located. Fiona was taking part in the Kidlets production of Squirm. And the kids, by the way, were simply great. Loved every minute of the performance.

What does my granddaughter's appearance in Squirm have to do with urban transit? More than you might think. To get Fiona downtown on time I picked her up at her school in northwest London and scooted her to the theatre using Riverside Drive. I had her downtown in less than fifteen minutes.

What I find interesting in this story is that at no point did anyone suggest taking the bus. And no one even thought this strange. But it is.

When I was a boy, everyone I knew lived close to a bus route. The schools with which I was familiar were all close to bus service. Few families had two cars and it was not uncommon for a family not to have a car at all. Taking a child from school to a downtown event would have demanded a bus trip.

Even in the '50s, taking the bus would have taken a bit longer than taking a car, if one was available, but the difference was a matter of minutes and not a choice between being on time or being late.

Between my boyhood in the '50s and my senior years today a lot has happened in urban growth and most of it has been centred around our use of the car. Many believe the car-oriented approach to urban planning has to change and the City of London gives lip service to this argument but, for the most part, only lip service.

A New Urbanism development was slated for the southeast corner of the Colonel Talbot and Southdale Road. It never materialized. London politicians, and worse London urban planners, like to talk the talk but time after time they fail to deliver on the promise.

Take all the talk about TOD (Transit Oriented Development). You'd think that TOD is something new; it isn't.

TOD is prominently featured in Smart Moves, the 2030 Transportation Master Plan. Smart Moves claims that London urban planners have determined the northeast corner of the intersection of Oxford Street West and Wonderland Road North will be the focus of a major mixed-use, transit-oriented, development. To underline the depth of their support for this they have included some art in the Smart Moves presentation. 

The off-the-shelf graphics are inadequate. Anyone familiar with TODs would realize this does not represent a world-class TOD. The city often likes to boast that they are tackling something that will be "world-class."

Unfortunately, the city is often wrong. Consider the fact that a development is going up on that very corner today and it is not at all as envisioned. Some TODs in the States and elsewhere are absolutely amazing and this didn't just happen. They were nurtured, coaxed and guided oh-so-carefully to completion. They were planned.

In many ways, where I lived in the '50s could be thought of as an early form of TOD. Transit, commercial, residential and even industrial were all mixed. The major road through my neighbourhood was what was then known as a King's Highway. Such a highway, four lanes and street parking plus a centre boulevard, easily supported my fully mixed-use neighbourhood.

And back then mixed use really did mean mixed. There were lovely apartments above many of the commercial businesses lining the King's Highway. I had school friends who lived above some of those stores. This was a common feature of business districts built in the early part of the last century. My aunt in Brantford lived above a store and many friends in art school in Detroit walked to school from their apartments above nearby stores.
Come to think of it, the present development at the Oxford and Wonderland corner could be thought of as TOD. Without these two major thoroughfares I doubt the forest of high-rise apartments would have sprung up in this location.

But the apartments sit bunched together separated from the commercial. To the best of my knowledge there is no industrial located here.

This intersection earns no praise for imaginative planning and I doubt it will be visual winner in the future no matter how good the transit system.

To learn more about TODs:

A key point of the PowerPoint presentation above is that the TOD value come more from the actual mixed use neighbourhood created and not simply from the transit itself. Think: Quality. Look at the pictures posted from the London intersection. Do you immediately think "quality"?

Creating a successful TOD is complex, difficult. Just adding rapid transit is not enough.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Canadian health care may not be as poor as the CBC would have you believe

This morning Heather Hiscox used a story about a B.C. man who has been unable to find a surgeon to operate on his pineal gland as her program hook to hold listeners and keep them from slipping away during the commercial break.

It was a good hook but proved to be a poor story. Heather Hiscox is a bright lady. I knew her at Western many years ago. She is a trained journalist. She has a Masters degree from the London, Ontario, university. Why can't she read this bumph before taking it to air and spike it rather than reading it.

Is Hiscox really nothing more than a talking head, a television personality? Has she forsaken her journalist roots? Here is a link to the story, headlined on the Web as B.C. man sells everything to pay for brain surgery in U.S. after being denied in Canada - Canadian system maintains surgery unnecessary for certain patients.

The U.S. study to which the CBC story links begins by stating "Surgical indications for patients with pineal cysts are controversial." A quick search of the Web uncovers an American doctor, Derek A. Bruce of the Children's National Medical Center, who posted the following on the Web:
I have never in my career, 43 years, found it necessary to operate on a pineal cyst. . . . The incidence of asymptomatic pineal cysts at autopsy is 10%. . . . Do not operate on this lesion until you are completely convinced that it is causing progressive hydrocephalus with symptoms.
Does the fellow in the CBC story need surgery on his pineal gland -- a gland buried deep in the brain. Maybe. It is a possibility. But another possibility is that the Canadian surgeon who said "it's not ethical to cut into your head for no reason" may be voicing a solid concern -- a concern shared by many American doctors as well as Canadian ones. Maybe this surgery IS unnecessary for certain patients.

I understand that American doctors face more threat of being sued for malpractice than Canadian ones. The fact, reported by the Los Angeles Times, that the doctor slated to do the surgery on the Canadian man "has been sued for malpractice about 17 times in his career" may mean nothing. And the fact that a judge said the U.S. doctor was "more interested in marketing than he was in medicine" may also mean nothing.

Still, the judge did find that the doctor "committed fraud when he performed an inappropriate surgery." Read the L.A. Times story, L.A. surgeon ordered to pay Maryland couple $800,600 in malpractice case, and make your own decision.

There is a story here. There may be a number of stories here. And one of the stories may find that a multitude of Canadians have undergone brain surgery at great expense south of the border for questionable reasons.

The other story may be that the resistance to doing pineal gland surgery is misplaced and it is time for more neurosurgeons to offer this option to their patients. Whatever, the story is not the one emotionally presented by the CBC reporter

Friday, September 11, 2015

Mandatory flu shots for healthcare workers: Good or bad idea?

Are mandatory flu shots for nurses and other health-care workers a good or bad idea? The answer depends on the newspaper article and the reporter one consults. If you read The London Free Press you can be forgiven for believing mandatory vaccination is a critical weapon in the fight against the deadly flu virus. But do a Google search and you may find the answer is not so clear cut.

For instance, a report in the Cochrane Library states there is no evidence that vaccinating health-care workers prevents flu or its complications ( such as death due to lower respiratory tract infection) in individuals aged 60 or over. There is no evidence of a pressing need to institute compulsory vaccination of health-care workers caring for those 60 and over.

The Globe and Mail reports Dr. Michael Gardam, director of infection prevention and control at the University Health Network in Toronto, thinks the growing trend toward mandating flu shots to health-care workers is a bad idea.

According to the Globe article:

It turns out that the evidence in favour of mandatory vaccination policies is far from conclusive.

Just for the record, I personally like the flu shot. I get mine annually and as early as possible. I have heart and lung problems. I don't feel like sitting on the fence waiting for the definitive answer. If the shot doesn't help me, I am not worried that it may hurt me. In all the years that I have had the shot, I have never had a bad reaction and, it may be coincidence, but I have not had a serious bout of flu either.

This post is not an attack on the flu shot. I simply believe newspapers should strive to be more balanced.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Seniors are not embracing downtown living en masse

How truthiness is spread by the media. Image edited in Photoshop.

There is a myth, almost an urban legend, that aging baby boomers in high rise apartment filling numbers are forsaking their suburban homes to relocate in city centres. My local paper tells me the move to downtown is "typical of what's happening in other cities." But is it typical?

Joel Kotkin wrote in Forbes / Business a couple of years ago:

Perhaps no urban legend has played as long and loudly as the notion that “empty nesters” are abandoning their dull lives in the suburbs for the excitement of inner city living.

But there’s a problem here: a look at Census data shows . . . that rather than flocking into cities, there were roughly a million fewer boomers in 2010 within a five-mile radius of the centers of the nation’s (U.S.) 51 largest metro areas compared to a decade earlier.

If boomers change residences, they tend to move further from the core, and particularly to less dense places outside metropolitan areas.

It must be admitted that Joel Kotkin is not a promoter of downtown living at the expense of the suburbs. Kotkin has an agenda but, with all that out in the open, one must acknowledge that Kotkin may be right. Now, Kotkin is American but the figures in Canada tell a similar story. Using Stats Canada numbers only made available to researchers, a Concordia University study found "seniors prefer the suburbs."

Lookout Crt. view the equal of those from many apartments.
Capital preservation is a big goal of many retirees, if not most. It is not a fear of death that occupies the minds of many seniors but a fear of living -- a fear of living so long that they out live their wealth.

My home in Byron has three bedrooms, three full bathrooms, and a lovely view of the city from the side of the glacial moraine on which it is built. My property taxes, heating and cooling plus water and electricity costs amount to about $8610 a year ($717.50 per month). This is small change in comparison to the $25,200 a two bedroom, two bath apartment in a new luxury downtown London high rise might run.

This was a bad year for us financially. Our furnace failed last Christmas and we had to cough up some $8700 come March. We replaced both the furnace and the central air. This summer we had to have some extensive remedial brick work done. This cost about $1650. Still, even an expensive year in our home only set us back $18,960. We saved $6340 over living in a beautiful new apartment in the core.

From my Byron home I can walk to a couple of grocery stores, to three drug stores, an LCBO and more but I admit I often drive. I burn 17-cents of diesel fuel when I drive to the nearby No Frills and back. Am I an aberration? Not according to Stats Canada which reported:

Seniors do not use public transit more often as their main form of transportation as they get older. Nor does occasional use increase with age. Rather, the proportion who had used public transit at least once in the previous month declined with increasing age . . . 

I opened with one urban legend (seniors are moving downtown en masse) and I'm closing with another (many seniors choose to use public transit over the car.) Sadly, urban legends which feel true are all too often spread by an unquestioning media. Stephen Colbert had a word for this: "Truthiness."

Sunday, August 9, 2015

The United States is not healthcare nirvana.

A recent newspaper story introduced a young girl with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome to tens of thousands of readers across Ontario and possibly Canada. The story originated at The London Free Press and was carried by many other papers owned by the same chain. The young teen has found it impossible to get treatment in Ontario and the province is balking at paying the out-of-province treatment costs — costs that can easily surpass the 100 thousand dollar mark.

If you didn't see the story, you must be wondering "What exactly is Ehlers-Danlos syndrome?" Answer: It is a group of inherited disorders affecting connective tissues — mainly skin, joints and blood vessel walls. According to the paper, the disorder "affects one in 5,000, only some of whom suffer the worst symptoms." The paper goes on to claim that this translates into about 100 Ontarians with Ehlers-Danlos with 20 of those having symptoms so severe their lives are consumed seeking help from doctors who don’t know what to do.

A little bit of quick, ballpark math says that a province with population of some 13 million must contain about 2600 people touched by the genetic disorder. It is interesting the reporter only discovered 100 known Ehlers-Danlos patients in Ontario. A little googling reveals why: The condition is under diagnosed. Doctors, both in Canada and the States, lack familiarity with it and there is no consensus regarding diagnostic criteria — this revelation is from the American Journal of Nursing.

But what really troubled me was the claim "there is speedy treatment south of the border." Not true. The wait time to see a specialist is often months and if the doctor does not accept insurance, or the patient is uninsured, the cost of treatment in the States may be prohibitive. One American with the disorder wrote, "I do not have insurance, nor can I get it privately. Testing and surgery will have to wait."

Read a comment taken from the newspaper's own Internet site:

"I'm in the US and recently was diagnosed with EDS after being told for 30+ years, on and off, it was all in my head too. I'm so sorry that you have to endure the ignorance of the medical community and the additional pain that comes with all that. I have been waiting for a list of experts from my insurance company in the US for 2 months now ever since my diagnosis. From what I am told, all the"true experts" in EDS are on the East Coast. I live on the West Coast 3000 miles away...like another country away and my insurance may not cover the referrals. This syndrome is probably not as 'rare' as it has been made out to be, just rarely diagnosed. It's time that doctors become aware and learn how to treat it. Keep fighting and keep having faith."

The treatment for Ehlers-Danlos is expensive. The newspaper got this fact right. And the costs are never ending. This can be a painful, genetic disorder keeping sufferers awake at night while giving medical insurance actuaries nightmares. To further complicate the financial picture, the Stateside specialist the young Canadian is seeing is an out-of-network provider.

About Health has this to say about out-of-network specialists: An out-of-network provider is one which has not contracted with an insurance company for reimbursement at a negotiated rate. Some health plans, like HMOs, do not reimburse out-of-network providers at all, which means patients are responsible for the full amount charged by the doctor. Other health plans offer coverage for out-of-network providers, but the patient responsibility is higher than it would for an in-network provider.

Read the Barbara Calder story in The Wall Street Journal: How U.S. Health System Can Fail Even the Insured. Calder has Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome but despite having health insurance she spent a year battling numerous roadblocks just to see a specialist who could diagnose her condition.

According to The Wall Street Journal:

Mrs. Calder's difficulties mirror those of millions of insured Americans who get lost in the U.S. health-care system's giant maze. For many, the journey is frustrated by coverage limits, denied claims and impersonal service.

When Barbara Calder finally succeeded at getting an appointment with a specialist, she learned the doctor had an eight week waiting list. Unfortunately, her husband had lost his job and their insurance was coming to an end. The couple could not afford the $1,267 a month in premiums.

Ontario has to do better. Our health care system needs improvement. In this, the newspaper position is dead-on. But health care heaven is not to be found just an hour or two down the highway.

Just as Canadians seem to be going to the States for treatment, Barbara Calder has been looking outside her home turf for medical help. According to the journal, Barbara Calder has been lobbying her husband and her children to move to Belgium, where she once lived, arguing that they could get good care there cheaply through the country's universal health-care system. One of the leading researchers of EDS is a Belgian geneticist working at the University of Ghent.

Calder's bright hopes for finding help in Belgium might come as a surprise to EDS patients living in the small, European country:

Every day is a kind of fight against the pain, the fatigue . . . but also against the institutions when you try to obtain support to cope with the disease".Florence Simonis, president of the Belgian GESED (Groupe d'Entraide des SyndrĂ´mes d'Ehlers-Danlosa support group for Ehlers-Danlos patients). She suffers from Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (EDS) herself.