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Monday, November 30, 2015

First, horseless carriages; soon, 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

I find it odd that baby boomers neither wrote nor performed the early music so linked to their generation. If the music of a generation is the music created by that generation then boomers should not take any bows for early rock and roll.

Take Johnny B. Goode: this is the number one top '50s hit on a list compiled by Boomers LifeJohnny B. Goode was written and performed by Chuck Berry. Berry was not a boomer. He was born in 1926. He was in his thirties when Johnny B. Goode was topped the charts.

Number two on the list is the Elvis Presley hit Jailhouse Rock. Written for the movie of the same name by the famous song writing team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, both writers were born in 1933. The two were responsible for many of the early rock and roll hits. And Elvis, of course, was not a baby boomer either.

The third song, Rock Around the Clock, was written by Max Freedman and James Myers who were born in 1893 and 1919 respectively. That's right, Max Freedman was 61 when Rock Around the Clock was released. As for Bill Haley himself, the band leader was born in 1925.

My point is that life flows and as it flows it changes. What's happening today is a result of what happened yesterday. But yesterday does not determine today. If it did we could tell the future and we can't. The past influences the present but it doesn't determine it.

And so I say humbug to much of the baby boomer talk. I don't doubt there was a post Second World War baby boom. There was and it was 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 that we span a period of some 19 years -- 1946 to 1965 in Canada.

Early rock and roll is music written and sometimes even performed by the parents of the boomers generation. I do not want to be defined by music gifted to my generation by my parents', and even my grandparents' generation.

One expert on this topic claims classic rock radio supplies an uninterrupted audio lifeline for aging boomers -- a soundtrack-of-one's-life, so to speak. The expert wrote he has fond memories linked to lot's of old rock songs. But his links are suspect.

A check of the release dates of some of the songs uncovered mismatches between the writer's memories and the dates of the songs' popularity. The writer's personal soundtrack is damaged, stretched and distorted like tape in an aging eight track. I am not surprised. At 68 years, I'm finding that linking songs to events has gotten rather iffy and is becoming more and more iffy 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. Think of How Much Is That Doggy in the Window: I was six when that was a hit for Patti Page. I used to listen to that song with a little girl I thought was kinda cute. We would sit and listen to her Patti Page record together.

I have more memories attached to Perry Como's crooning than I have to early rock and roll and no wonder. There was no rock and roll to speak of when I was a very young boy in the early '50s. I grew up with Perry Como. First on radio and then on television. I 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, Windsor, Ontario. At one point, one out of every three sets in the Windsor area carried the Coronet name. When a tube failed my mother would pick up a new one 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 put life back into the small, black and white screen.

But, I digress. I told my friends that I didn't believe top-40 radio was 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 friends didn't and so they disagreed. They seemed to think that record sales numbers told the whole music-of-the-baby-boom story.

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 doesn't represent me.

That said, even I 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 evening-dark school gyms. But I have more memories attached to other songs, often by lesser known artists.

So, is early rock and roll really the music of the Boomer Generation? The simple 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 is only a small part of the mix. It may be the most obvious musical thread but the other threads, though smaller, may be brighter, more colourful and more demanding of attention. In many cases, the music released by lesser known artists still reverberates strongly if only one listens.

I'd place a song with the unlikely title Fresh Garbage among the music of my generation, the boomer generation. And I am sure I am not alone in having wonderful memories linked to that early song by Spirit, a California progressive rock group.

The late '60s song received a fare amount of air time on FM underground radio or alternative rock radio. 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 Spirit album numbers made Fresh Garbage a hit.

When I think of Spirit , 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. Both were strong, left-wing activists. Ida had a picture of herself protesting the war in Vietnam with Joan Baez. 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 a path most often taken but there are a lot of other well-trodden alternatives. If you insist on having one, all-encompassing answer to the question asking what is the music of the boomer generation, go for it. But please make some room in your answer 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. Using my car, 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 in the '50s everyone I knew lived close to a bus route. All the schools were on bus routes. Because very few families had two cars and some families did not have a car at all, taking a child from school to a downtown event usually involved a bus trip. (When I was born in the late '40s there was only one car for every five people living in Ontario.)

I admit that even in the '50s taking a bus took a bit longer than taking a car, if a car was available, but the difference was a matter of minutes and not a choice between being on time or being late.

Since my boyhood 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 slated for the southeast corner of the Colonel Talbot and Southdale Road never materialized. London politicians, and worse London urban planners, like to talk the talk but time after time they fail to deliver.

Exhibit 6 seems impossible considering today's activity.
Take all the talk about TOD (Transit Oriented Development). You'd think that a TOD was 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 despite claims by the city planners to the contrary.

Two story commercial with no residential being built on site.
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 planned, nurtured, coaxed and guided to completion.

In some 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. That road was four lanes wide, plus on-the-street parking and a centre boulevard. It easily supported my fully mixed-use neighbourhood. Buses moved relatively unimpeded along that road.

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.

And there was also a lot of industrial included in the mix. It was not uncommon for people living in my neighbourhood to walk to work, to walk to stores and even to walk to church. If your doctor was in the Medical Arts building, you probably took the bus to see your doctor. The main library was downtown, the locally owned department store, Bartlet, McDonald and Gow, was also downtown, and, of course, the biggest and best movie theatres were all in the city core. Taking the bus was an integral part of living in the city.
Apartments north of the intersection are a wee bit boring.
Come to think of it, the present development at the Oxford and Wonderland corner could be thought of as a poor attempt at a TOD. Without these two major thoroughfares I doubt the forest of high-rise apartments would have sprung just north in this intersection.

But the apartments sit bunched together separated from the commercial. In many parts of the world, small stores would fill the first floor of many of these apartments but not in London.

This intersection earns no praise for imaginative planning. I doubt it will be an absolute visual delight 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"?

Simply adding rapid transit, bus or light rail, is not enough to instantly create a successful TOD.

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