Sunday, December 31, 2006

A Final Holiday Guffah

With the holiday season coming to a close, and plenty of plans to start off the new year in a positive fashion, one sometimes need to look back at the holidays for a smile.

The Christmas season always brings a smile to my face. Usually it happens with the misunderstanding of something such as Christmas carols.

During the Christmas season I heard a story from my church where one young lady was singing the second verse of Away in a Manger which she sang as:

"The castles are lowing..." The music director stopped playing during the rehearsal of the song before the church service started and said "The cattle are lowing..." The young girl replied "O...Ok....cattle...got it."

To end this post, I link to Mary P. with the best story of kids misunderstanding a christmas carol.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Transit Trip Planner

York Region Transit has been promising since their October 2006 newsletter to create an online trip planner for people wishing to plan out a route from point "A" to point "B". The fare increase coming in January 2007, which according to media reports will raise an additional two million dollars for YRT, will also provide funding for new technologies including the online trip planner. Now, as a YRT transit rider, I wait for this come to fruition.

Toronto also has one in the works as well. However, I would think the Toronto one might even happen before the York Region transit one due to the fact the TTC (Toronto's transit agency) is attempting to team up with techno geeks at Google to accomplish this. Google already has the experience in this trip planning with trip planners already created for U.S. cities like Burbank and Tampa. So the technological expertise of Google is already there and all that is really needed is for the TTC to turn over the needed maps and schedules to Google. Once Google acquires these necessary items, the techno geeks can start working on creating the interface.

Why will the Toronto one happen before the York Region one? Knowing the bureaucrats running York Region Transit, they will try and do it themselves instead of handing it over to a company like Google to do it for free. A company like Google, who already has experience in doing this, would have completed this task probably as little as three months. But of course, for York Region Transit, this would make too much sense and thus would not be possible to do. Thus, I don't the promised York Region's transit planner until at least six months to a year from now.

Are there other cities in this world that have great transit planning technologies?

New York City currently has four transit planner

SUBWAYblogger takes a look at the four of transit planners that New York City has complete with links to the planning websites themselves. I've used Hopstop.com while during my time in New York City and found it to be pretty reliable and convenient to use.

What would York Region and Toronto need to include in their trip planning systems?

Here is a list of needed features the trip planners would require:

1. A clean and easy to read map in order to clearly show the directions visually to the user. Hence why Google would be a good company to do a transit planner considering they have the Google Maps technology already in existence.

2. Integrate the system maps and schedules of TTC, GO Transit, YRT, Missisauga Transit, Brampton Transit and Durham Transit. This is to ensure a full Greater Toronto Area transit systems are available to transit riders. Currently it takes flipping between websites, schedules and maps of at least two transit agencies to complete an inter regional transit trip. This only leads to frustration. With all of these transit agencies in one easy to use trip planning system, it will be easier to use transit across borders (e.g. Mississauga to Toronto, etc.).

3. Clearly worded instructions on directions of where to go. Basically clear instructions on how to get from point "A" to point "B" which means the instructions need to include what station or intersection to transfer at and what route (and direction!) one needs to get on. Also, these instructions need to include what time the connecting bus is expected to arrive at the stop.

4. Indicate the fares required to complete the trip. If one is crossing from Toronto into York Region, a rider needs to currently pay two fares in order to ride the TTC and York Region. These fares need to be clearly listed of how much each fare will be for the individual transit agency (e.g. YRT $2.75 TTC $2.75 for a total of $5.50).

5. The route taken needs to have the shortest travel time possible. With the schedules included in the trip planner, connection times between buses can be optimized for riders. There is nothing more frustrating than to realize that you have to wait half an hour for a a connecting bus to arrive. Hopefully, the mapping system can avoid this and suggest another route that may take longer distance wise, but at least the overall travel time is shorter.

6. Take a look at the New York City's and other versions of trip planners. Why should Toronto and York Region "re-invent the wheel" when ideas have already been thought of and implemented? The inventors of the planners should take a look at hopstop.com's options of walking routes, less connections, etc. These options will further assist the transit planner technology to be even more useful to people.

7. Use of GPS technology should be . GPS units on transit vehicles will provide real time arrival times (i.e. is the bus going to arrive on time?) and assist planning an appropriate route. For people with PDAs (i.e. Blackberries) the trip planner could quickly re-map the route one is taking in case unexpected problems (i.e. accident or heavy traffic) occur.

These are just some of the possible suggestions that York Region Transit and Toronto should investigate for their respective online trip planning gizmos. Their own transit planning gizmos? Why can't the transit agencies of the Greater Toronto Area get to together and provide Google with the required information to do an excellent online transit planner? Because that would be thinking and, as we all know, bureaucracies would never do that!

Footnote: Google explains how the Google Transit Planner came about here on the Googleblog.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Mental Note...

When going to the store to buy milk to make Macoroni & Cheese, always make sure you have Macaroni and cheese first.

This is very important! Otherwise you will be left to swill milk without Macaroni & Cheese.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Total Weirdness

There are two kinds of weirdness I felt over the past week:
1. On December 24th I was at my church's ten o'clock Christmas Eve Service. It is a tradition that near the end of the church service, the lights of the Sanctuary (the place where the worship service occurs) are dimmed, each member of the congregation has a candle lit and the carol "Silent Night" is sung. On this night as the pipe organ was finishing, the town clock, located across Yonge Street and a little to the north, chimed off the eleven o'clock hour. The bell was the only thing that could be heard after the organ finished and there we were, 150 people holding candles enjoying the silence with the bell tower quietly chiming off in the background. It was eerily weird. I still want to know if the minister and the organist had this planned or whether it was an eerily weird coincidence.

2. Here's an excerpt from Joe Warmington's column from today's Toronto Sun that totally gave me a "that's totally weird" moment:

" 'It was actually supposed to be Gretsky,' laughs Walter. 'My dad did the 's' backwards and it become a 'z.'" - Walter Gretzky, father of current Phoeniz Coyote Head Coach & Member of the Hockey Hall of Fame Wayne Gretzky.

This column also gave me a "who knew?" moment as well.

Some things are just kinda of weird. But at least there are different kinds of weirdness which, in itself, is kinda weird as well.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

The loss of someone special....

"That voice on the subway!" "Who is it?" "What will they say next?" "How will they make this trip more interesting?" A first timer might ask.

"I love that voice everyday. I even wait for that train to show up because I love that voice!" A regular might recall.

But all that is disappearing on subway trains accross North America as transit agencies relieve conductors and drivers of subway trains from the responsibilities of announcing stops.

In New York City the new subway cars announce the stops in both a female and male voice. Usually, the female voice announces the stop and the male voice announces the connecting trains and services at the stop (an mp3 example can be found here). This new automated system works remarkably well for New York City because the automated voices are clear and match up with what is being shown on the automated scroll signs. That way both the blind and hard of hearing people can know where they are going on the subway.

However, the automation removes the uniqueness of the some of the conductors that people enjoy. For example, in New York City when at Atlantic Avenue on the 2 train, (click the above link to here the automated announcement) a conductor will give the transfers available and then announce "connection is available to the

Loooooooonnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnngggggggggg

Island Railroad." This announcement usually makes the riders smile and giggle. However, with the automated system this is lost.

New York City has gone one step further with the automated announcements. Unlike VIVA in York Region that uses a computer voice to announce the stops, New York City had paid two real life radio announcers to do the announcements for each stop and connections. The New York City announcements have been much more successful than the VIVA version. Why? Because by hiring people the annunciation is properly done in New York City. Whereas, VIVA had been struggling with the announcement at Richmond Hill Centre (one of its major stations) with the a simple announcement like this "Next stop Richmond Hill Centre, passengers can transfer to VIVA Blue, Purple and Pink Routes." However, this announcement turned into" Next Stop Richmond Hill Centre, passengers can transfer to VIVA Blue, Purple and Pink crews." Another example is "Golf Links Drive" which the VIVA voice turned it into "Goolf Links Drive."

With automation comes problems like those experienced by VIVA require a lot of time and frustaration to solve issues like those mentioned above. However, with New York City they seemed to have automated voices correct through the use of radio personality voices. However, with the automation of announcements some of the "personalization" of announcements have been lost. As conductor's announcements of upcoming stops is gradually phased out, this personalization will become a part of transit history.

No longer will you hear from fellow passengers "this conductor has the best voice!" or "That conductor sounds like he is announcing the stops via an old rusted tin can and string system." Its a shame really. But first timers on New York City subway will at least be grateful because they will know where they are going due to the clear automated voices telling what stop it is and which of the over twenty train routes they are able to transfer to.

Footnote: Click here to try these out for yourself using the AT&T demo of the voices. Funny examples include the word "Aurora" (which is one of the towns VIVA goes through). To here the "VIVA voice set the language to "U.S. English" then the voice to "Crystal". Don't forget to type in your message!

Saturday, December 09, 2006

A fairly busy but good week at work and musings on the holiday season

Leading up to Christmas at work is very busy and stressful. There are so many deadlines my company is trying to meet during this busy shopping season.

From the time I walked in the office door until I left every day I was working steady. There were demos being planned, customer surveys being done and regular merchandising being done. All of this is just part of the merchandising industry during the biggest shopping season of the year. To say the least, I sleep well every night, just to get up and do it all over again the next day.

Do I have my own Christmas shopping done? Yesiree! Now I just have to wrap it all and send it.

I even got extra items like an electric toothbrush and shaver as I will be doing demos this coming weekend for one of our clients. I love these demos as I get to interact with different people and show them how a product I know well works and benefits them. On the plus side I get some product afterward and paid very well.

Even better in this industry is the gifts you receive from the clients. From Fedex I received a new key chain (of course it says Fedex on it, but that works for me) as well as a new watch from one of the clients our company merchandises for. I needed a new watch, my old Timex was looking a little battered. The one I got actually looks pretty good and sturdy for the day to day beatings that I seem to inflict on the time pieces that reside on my wrist.

I look forward to this coming Christmas season as it is really the first time I will have my own apartment to celebrate Christmas in. I already have Christmas lights in my window to make my apartment feel more "festive". Will I have anything else to decorate my "humble abode?" Probably not as I really don't have room to store a Christmas tree or anything else when not in use. Perhaps I could just hang a picture of a picture of a tree on a wall or something. Even better! I should tape a video of a Christmas Tree and loop it on DVD for my T.V. HOW FESTIVE! Oh the fun of apartment dwelling!

Monday, December 04, 2006

The First Snow

The first major snowfall in Aurora is now coming down. The traffic on Yonge Street (pictured below) is slowing down.



I looked out my apartment window to see a sheet of white snow. I love how snowstorms sneak up on you in the winter sometimes. At one moment it is clear blue sky and the next a sheet of white.

Ottawa is well known for this phenomenon happening. When I was in first year university in Ottawa I used to love watching from my 20th floor residence room the snow storms advance from the Gatineau Hills to the north, southward until I could barely see across the street.

Also in Ottawa I used to enjoying the quiet the snow used to bring to the downtown. I loved walking around the National War Memorial and the Parliament Buildings hearing the snow pile up. The scraping sound off in the distance of snow plows trying to keep up also added to the poetic sounds in a strange sort of way.

I do a lot of thinking while walking in the snow. In Ottawa, I used to think about university term papers I was writing (some of them can be found here) on these walks. The questions that wandered through my mind in terms of the paper writing included: "Where am I going with this?" "Do I have enough info to write this?"

History has been made with walks in the snow. Just ask Pierre Trudeau who made a famous walk in the snow. Will there be more history to be made in the future with walks in the snow? Probably because "history repeats itself."

Canada is made of snow, or is that "snow makes Canadians"? People are considered "unCanadian" if they cannot deal with the snow.

So I guess I, like Trudeau, am Canadian because I love the snow!

That is until February rolls around....

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Chapter 11: Union Station

In case you are wonderin' what is going on with this post....click here.

"If Toronto is a sort of amalgam of New York and Chicago, Montreal can be understood as the best of Boston and New Orleans, a combination of old-world charm and modern technology." -Alan F.J. Artibise, "Canada as an Urban Nation" quoted on page 161.

Fiorito calls Toronto bland in chapter 11 and then proves it by going on to tell about how various facets of Toronto are merely 'mediocre'.

Is Toronto mediocre?

Since Toronto is supposed to be an amalgam of New York and Chicago, as the above quote from Fiorito's book would suggest, lets start there. Since I have never been to Chicago, but do know New York City quite well since I lived there for a year, lets compare Toronto to New York.

1. Transit: New York City has a kick ass subway system that moves millions of people a day (1.4 billion trips in 2005 according to Wikipedia) into and out of the city. The system not only connects with commuter trains (Metro North and the LOOOOOOOOONNNNNNGGGG Island Railroad), Staten Island Ferry, annoucments of transit connections (announcement: "This is Times Square-42nd Street...Transfers available to the 1, 2, 3, 7, A, C, E, N, Q, R, W and Shuttle to Grand Central"), but also has express trains that moves people quickly past smaller "local stations" that the majority of people would not want to stop at. Sure the subway system is more than 100 years old, but it was built right from the beginning with switching redundancies between lines which helps to detour trains during construction on weekends as well as helping to keep the trains moving when there is a medical emergency. Medical emergency? Max ten minute holdup in New York to get things back on the move.

Toronto's subway system is becoming antiquated and useless. The system needs to expand big time! York University is Canada's largest bus station with GO Transit, TTC, YRT, VIVA and York University transit buses feeding passengers into, out of and through the campus. There is a proposal for a subway extension through the university grounds, but this is starting to become bogged down in political blame and bureaucracy between the municipal, provincial and federal levels of government.

Perhaps one comparison between New York City and Toronto on the transit issue is how many people does each subway station serve (i.e. divide the population by the number of subway stations).

New York City has 468 stations serving aproximately 10 million people (living within the 5 Boroughs of Staten Island, Queens, Brooklyn, Manhatten, and the Bronx) whereas Toronto with a population of 2.5 million (within the former cities of Scarborough, East York, York, North York, Toronto and Etobicoke) has 69 subway stations. So on a per capita basis:

New York: 10,000,000 / 468 = 21,367.52 people

Toronto: 2,500,000 / 69 = 36,231.88 people.

What does this mean? There are more stations in New York serving the population than Toront. Considering that many trains in New York don't stop at the smaller subway stations (i.e. Express trains) and better connections to connecting transit, as well as the ease of their fare system it is no wonder why New York's subway system just totally rocks and Toronto's looks just plainly mediocre. Not only that, New York's transit system (subway, trains and buses) combined gets you everywhere. Toronto's transit system is so disjointed, confusing and stuck in traffic that the only thing one gets is to be late for work.

How to fix Toronto's subway problem?

Simple: 1. Complete the Sheppard Avenue line Eastward to Scarborough Town Centre and Westward to Downsview (and not further) to connect to the current Scarborough RT (and future Bloor-Danforth line extension). 2. Extend the University-Spadina line to Major Mackenzie Drive and Jane Street in order to service the booming new development in that corridor as well as finally give York University subway access. 3. Demo the Scarborough RT (because the system is coming to the end of its life span and no replacement parts are easily accesible as well as demand oustrips capacity) and extend the Bloor-Danforth line out to at least where the Scarborough RT currently ends. 4. Extend the Yonge Street line north to at least Bernard Avenue (one block North of Elgin Mills Road) to reduce congestion on Yonge Street. 5. Twin the Yonge Street line with an Express Tracks and local tracks like the 2/3 line in New York City. This would probably catch Toronto up on it subway stations and provide far better service.

2. Sports: The Toronto Blue Jays keep increasing their payroll year in and year out in an attempt to keep up and hopes (!) of surpassing the New York Yankees in terms of bringing in on field production. The Jays are hoping to eventually get back to winning the World Series for the first time since 1992 and 1993 dynasty years. So far this can only happen if The Boston Red Sox (like in the 2005 season) and New York Yankees are plaqued by injuries allowing Toronto to inch by them into second place in the East and into the Wild Card spot.

The Toronto Maple Leafs have been trying to get back to winning a Stanley Cup on a regular basis since 1964. If that doesn't spell out a history of mediocroty what else will?

The Toronto Raptors are just plain losers considering this team has been around for at least ten years and has spent more time on the wrong side of the scoreboard than on the right. This barely even qualifies as mediocre.

3. Architecture: Toronto has hints of great architecture but more often than not this has been subdoed by the mediocre cement and/or glass buildings that surround them. The hints of great architecture include the new Ontario College of Art and Design on McCaul Street (page 162), Queen's Park, ROM, the CN Tower and others. But these buildings are surrounded by boring buildings like Metro Hall, Toronto Convention Centre and other office buildings. These buildings hold back or even block the amazing sightlines to the spectacular buildings. The rising condo buildings along Toronto's waterfront are starting to imped the spectacular view of the famous Toronto skyline of office towers, the CN Tower and Rogers Centre (SkyDome). In fact, Rogers Centre is almost totally blocked out by the condo towers depending on which angle the skyline is viewed from the Toronto Islands. It is sad really that such great architecture is being glossed over by mediocre utilitarian buildings.

Toronto is a unique city. It just wants to be like New York, but it has to come to the realization that it is not. Perhaps if Toronto found its own niche market like London, like Paris, like New York, like Berlin and others, then perhaps Toronto could become great. But until then, Toronto will have to sit it the realm of mediocrity.

Torontoist: An Open Letter to Toronto's Drivers

Torontoist: An Open Letter to Toronto's Drivers

An interesting posting (click above) that reflects my feelings on car drivers.

Will someone come up with a funky graphic to link to this for one of those blog campaigns? Is there a blog campaign against bad drivers? If not, why not, there is ones for Liberals, Conservatives, bloggers that hate either of the two preceding political parties, cyclists, little old ladies crossing streets, etc....

It's a Cavalcade of Lights!

I went on a walking adventure last night of Downtown Toronto last night.

I started by taking the subway to Union Station and beginning there. Union Station is a great place to start considering it is practically the centre for everyone's adventure in Toronto.

From Union Station I walked up to the Great Hall of Union Station (the VIA Concourse). I have been trying to take a picture of this hall for months now. But the pictures never seem to pan out. I finally have a decent shot though. I'm still not totally happy with it because it doesn't should the full view of the greatness of this hall. Here is what I have so far:




In this picture there is room behind me, so I guess I should move further back in order to capture more of this grand hall. I compare this hall to New York's Grand Central Station's main hall. This is where people are coming and going from outside Toronto. Down the stairs, in front of you in the picture above, is where arrivals from VIA rail arrive and another concourse for both GO Transit and TTC Subway. When one surfaces up this stairwell the grandeur of the hall you are looking is revealed! It is a site to see. Too bad I just can't seem to get a good picture of it that I'm happy with.

On with the treck though....

I walked out the front of Union Station and westbound on Front Street to John Street. I then walked north along John Street to Queen Street West. On the South East corner is Toronto's famous CityTV and Much Music studios. I then walked Eastward along Queen Street West and entered Nathan Philips Square.

Unfortunately, I couldn't get great pictures of the Cavalcade of Lights display in focus. I decided this was a great opportunity to try the "night time" function on my camera. \

Note to self: A novice digital camera operator should not fool around with the functions when trying to take night pictures. It is best to leave it on "Auto" mode and let the camera do its own work. There is, though, some out of focus shots I thought were decent in the Toronto section of the Scrapbook area on my website.

After visiting Nathan Philips Square and Toronto's City Hall, I continued Eastward on Queen Street West to Yonge Street. I then headed northbound on Yonge Street to Yonge & Dundas Street where Dundas Square is located. Here is what I found sitting near the corner:

An interesting rendition of a Christmas Tree is what I found!

After visiting Dundas Square, I continued further north on Yonge Street to Rosedale where I picked up a Steamed Cider at Starbuck's.

Now that I was warmed up again, I was eager to continue northward on Yonge Street. However, in Rosedale, on the railway bridge that crosses Yonge Street I found this view:

The tree seems to be like a shooting star coming from the bridge with a trail of blue stardust glistening behind it.

I furthered my treck further up Yonge Street to Eglington Avenue. This was the farthest I had ever walked before up Yonge from the Downtown Union Station / Rogers Centre area. According to Google Maps, I walked, not including my side excursion to Toronto's City Hall, eight Kilometres.

I forgot to mention, one of the purposes of this adventure was to test out my new winter jacket I bought myself earlier that day at Mark's Work Warehouse. In case you're wonering, the jacket kept me perfectly warm!

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Friday, December 01, 2006

TTC Picks on a Pregnant Woman

Mike Strobel - Heavy-handed behaviour by TTC officers leaves single mom convinced there has to be a better way

Say it ain't so....as the Toronto Sun's Mike Strobel reports, a pregnant lady with her own four year old son in tow, on her way home has been picked on and threatened with being arrested by the TTC's Rent-a-Cops (a.k.a. Goon Squad).

Apparently, the pregnant woman had produced a December Metropass (monthly transit pass) while going through the turnstiles at a Toronto Subway Station at the end of November in order to show she paid her fare. The woman had mistakenly left her November Metropass at home, but did have the receipt for the November pass with her.

When asked further about her fare by Toronto's finest Transit "Fare Hosers", she easily explained what happenned and then produced a receipt for the November pass. This would seem to be a simple mistake of a pregnant woman with obviously quite a bit on her mind.

Toronto Sun columnist, Mike Strobel put it best of what any sensible person of authority would have done. Which would be to say to the lady: " 'Okay, ma'am, please be more careful next time,'... "

Then tell her four year old son, Johnny, that everyone makes a mistake and this time we will let this one slide.

But sadley this was not the case. The "Goon Squad," who obviously has nothing better to do than intimidate and harass a defenseless pregnant lady, decided to confiscate the legally paid for December Monthly Pass and issue her of a hefty ticket. The Rent a Cops did this instead of moving on to more important crime prevention matters like patrolling the stations in order to prevent something like a recent situation where someone was recently killed by a brick at the Jane Street station on the Bloor-Danforth line.

No, that would be too easy.

Here's an even better idea!...according to the TTC: First you accuse a lady, who has basically proven she has paid her fare and her son's fare, of not paying a fare. Then you let this same "fare beater" ride the subway anyway. If you believe someone hasn't paid their fare, why would you let them board the subway? This must be TTC bureacratic reasoning at its best, because who can figure out this logic? In fact, there isn't any logic in the TTC's actions in this case at all.

If the TTC, and other transit agencies, want to continue to increase ridership they must become a little more accomodating. This dooen't mean opening the fare gates to allow passengers to ride for free. This means in this pregnant woman's case to simply write her a warning for this simple mistake and let her and her son go on their merry way. If this particular lady tried to pull this stunt again, then the TTC should hand her the ticket.

The TTC needs to remember that we are all human, and humans make mistakes. But apparently at the TTC no mistakes are allowed by their customers. Especially pregnant customers who have a four year old in tow. Apparently, customer's mistakes, like this one, only provides the opportunity for the TTC's Goon Squad to pick on defensless pregnant ladies. Perhaps the TTC's should really learn which ones are the "goons" in this case, it's the ones wearing the uniforms! SHAME ON THE TTC!

UPDATE! : Mike Strobel's column today (Saturday) in the Toronto Sun provides an update on the situation. Strobel notes that Sun readers have come forward offering to pay both the fine and the new December pass. Strobel figures that with the offers from the readership be taken into account, the pregnant lady could easily ride for a couple of years on the TTC for free. Congratulations to the readers for stepping up. That is what Toronto is all about.

The TTC even stepped up to the plate and returned the December TTC back in, what they called, "an act of compassion." The TTC should do even more by waving the the fine and offering up a free January monthly pass as compensation. But that would be common sense and, as we all know, transit and government bureaucracy doesn't have a lot of common sense. If the TTC was a business and treated it's customers like this, they would be bankrupt in no time. Instead, because the TTC is a government agency they are able to still operate and be bankrupt in another sense, in this case it is morally bankrupt.

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