Friday, July 01, 2016

A bike commuter's worst nightmare

The scene: A couple of weeks ago. I'm riding my bike home from work. It's a gloriously sunny, not-too-hot-not-too-cool late afternoon and I'm cruising westward along the Springbank Park bike path. I'm taking the long way home, a lazy Thames burbling quietly below the gentle riverbank to my right, a thickly wooded uphill to my left, and a deep green canopy of forested perfection overhead.

I'm moving at around 25 km/h - fast enough to pass the occasional dogwalker or hand-holding couple, but slow enough that I can enjoy the view and feel the perfectly efficient meshing of pedals and gears through the balls of my feet. This is why I became a cyclist, and why I prefer 2 wheels to 4 when I'm deciding how to get to work in the morning.

The path isn't terribly crowded. In fact, as I roll idly along, I wonder why, given the perfect weather, there aren't more people on it. But just as soon as that thought pops into my head, it pops out. Their loss, I figure. Besides, I rather enjoy being mostly alone out here.

Up ahead, I see something to the left side of the two-lane path that catches my attention. A tiny shadow, some jerky movement. I can't quite make it out just yet, but I figure it's a squirrel or some other critter. No biggie: Between the Canadian geese, chipmunks, seagulls and black squirrels, among others, this showpiece of a park is delightfully overrun with wildlife. It's another reason to slow down and enjoy the experience instead of powering through at max speed like I might have once done.

I ease back on the pedals to bleed off speed and position myself to safely pass the approaching whatever-it-is. As the energy bleeds off and the distance shrinks, I can just make it out. A chipmunk. Standing in the middle of the oncoming lane - basically my 11-o'clock - with its head pointing right. As rodents are likely to do, it's jerking this way and that, somewhat unsure of what to do next.

I feather the brakes to further chop my speed. I'm down under 15 km/h by now - barely making steerage - and he's skittering from left to right as I initiate a drift to the right. Whatever's going through his (her? I can never tell) pea-sized brain, he (we'll call him a he, because I'm going to assume a female chipmunk would have a better sense of where she's headed) can't seem to decide on a direction. You'd think the relatively slow approach of a relatively large pink machine with 170 pounds of helmet-wearing Canadian geek-journalist-digital-guy on it would be enough to prompt an immediate excursion in the opposite direction. If this is what you think, you'd be wrong.

After watching this directionally-challenged rodent feint toward either side of the path for what seems like an eternity, I'm rapidly running out of space, time and options. I'm now dangerously close to the woodsy right-hand edge of the path, [this close] to falling off the asphalt. My handlebars catch the overhanging branches and flip them into my forearms and elbows like playing cards in a little kid's trike. I have nowhere else to go.

I hold my breath, hoping he breaks left. He does not. At the last possible millisecond, he dives under my front tire. I feel the sickening lurch as rubber meets rodent. The front end of the bike hops up and over, and I imagine that's the feel of his spine breaking, resonating up the frame and into my fingers at the tips of the handlebars. I say a word that I wouldn't be able to say on-air. It might have been more than one such word, come to think of it.

I coast for a second, ticked with myself that I couldn't avoid crushing this misguided little guy, trying to keep myself on the straight-and-narrow as I edge myself back into the middle of the lane and get back on the pedals.

Just in case, I throw a look over my right shoulder, only to be greeted by another moving shadow. I catch one last sight of my very much alive would-be-victim's little form running into the bushes and down the bank toward the water. Whatever happened in that split-second under my front tire, he clearly managed to survive and escape. It's a bicycle commuting miracle. Or something like it.

Tough little guy, I think to myself as I say a silent prayer and continue on my way.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

6:56 p.m.

Breaking bread
London, ON
June 2016
We're taking a closer look at time this week (click here if you'd like to share your own - the more, the merrier) and I thought my iPad's lock screen made a worthwhile subject.

Because it's always perfectly synchronized to the network it's connected to, my iPad has long been my go-to timepiece when time is of the essence. Like when I'm working to deadline, or about to go to air, or trying to squeeze a few more minutes of getting-stuff-done before I have to stop and jet off to my next priority.

I could say the same thing about my smartphone, or my laptop. I still wear a watch, because I love the tactile feel of having one on my wrist, but the iffiness of the time they keep (I typically set them a few minutes ahead so that I'm never caught late) means it works better as a general guide than a precise measure that aligns with everyone else around me.

It may not seem all that romantic to grab the time off of a touchscreen festooned with a picture of toast (long story, another time) but when I absolutely need to know the right time, right now, it's the best tool for the job.

Your turn: What's your favorite timepiece? Why?

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

On shooting like there's no tomorrow

"One should really use the camera as though tomorrow you'd be stricken blind."
Dorothea Lange

Wise advice indeed, and I think I'll follow it today. Because you just never know when it could all be taken away.

I hope you'll consider doing the same.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Thematic Photographic 375 - Time

And the clock strikes...
Deerfield Beach, FL
December 2014
We spend so much of our lives, awake and asleep, governed by time. We set alarms before bed, rush to meet deadlines during the workday, then count the minutes until our meetings are over and we can return to the comforts of home and family. We settle on specific activities based on the blocks of time within which they'll realistically fit. Everything we do is ultimately governed in some way by the relentless ticking of a second hand or its digital equivalent.

While we often find ourselves wishing we could speed up or slow down those infernal hands, we always seem to end up back where we started, with the stark realization that we have no control over its passage.

But we can still have fun with time as a theme, right?

Your turn:  Thematic is our weekly theme-based photo learning, exploration and enjoying thing. Pick a pic or two or ten that evokes - or merely suggests - this week's theme - time - then post it (them) to your blog, website, Facebook page or other social media presence. Leave a comment here letting folks know where to find it. Pop into other participants because these things are more fun when shared. Click here if you'd like more background on how Thematic works.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

12 years a blogger...

Hard to believe, but 12 years ago today, I posted my first entry here at Written Inc. - And so it begins - and kinda sorta officially became a blogger.

My kids were a lot smaller then, I had fewer flecks of grey in my hair, less pronounced smile lines around my eyes, and a slightly shorter recovery time following a 60km spin on the bike. We still had a cat then, and our dog, Frasier, wasn't even a fleck in space, and wouldn't need rescuing for another few years. My wife is lovelier than ever.

Somewhat more sobering, folks who are gone now were still alive then, and on day 1 of this blog, I hadn't yet figured out how to get myself to the front of the line, fast, at the local ER. I often find myself reading entries from years ago, and as you can likely imagine, wandering back through the archives is something of an exercise in time travel. And like all forms of travel it has both its happy and sad moments. Just like life, come to think of it.

Which was the entire point when I first decided to put virtual pen to virtual paper. I'm a writer, so I write. And compared to the writing I do professionally, with its understandably imposed rules and voices, this is the one place where the rules and voices are entirely mine.

So if you're still wondering why I'm still at it 12 years later - long after emergent social media platforms like Facebook siphoned off most of the blogosphere's early audience and energy - it's because this remains the one space where I get to share pretty much anything I want. I wanted this to be my playground when I started it, and it pretty much still is. Sure, I'm active on Facebook (here), Twitter (here) and even Instagram (here), and the technologist in me is grateful that they came along when they did.

But this humble little blog remains something of a genteel, online version of home for me, the thing I can always pop into when I need a moment to reconnect - with myself and with others - through my words. It isn't the shiny new thing anymore, but that's hardly the point. So if you're OK with it, I'll keep at it for the forseeable future.

Because writing, like so many other forms of creative expression, is life to me. If I can't string words together, or otherwise share in bits, pixels or sound waves the strange things that bounce around inside my head, then this life thing suddenly becomes a lot less fun, and a lot less meaningful. I almost lost that gift once, and I remember at the time swearing to myself that I'd do everything I could to regain, then hold onto the seemingly inexplicable gift of being able to string words into coherent sentences. It may seem simple at first glance, but in the end, it's anything but. And infinitely precious.


Your turn: Do you still blog? Why are you still at it? Let us know where to find you.

Lost #Toronto alleyways: 1st in a series

Toronto, ON
March 2016
The scene: I'm in town for a large-ish organizational gathering - think hundreds of people in one place for a couple of days, endless rows of perfectly-aligned straight-back chairs and a stage filled with lots of speakers, giant screens and enough videos to make YouTube jealous.

I've learned a ton and have met some incredible people, but when I end up with an hour between this and my next gathering, I reach for my camera and head for the door. A meandering walk through the new-to-me neighborhood will be good for the soul.

I begin to notice the alleyways that criss-cross the area. Almost without exception, they're dead-silent. Given the wear on the ground and the walls, I'm guessing this place has seen more than its fair share of action. But not today. Still, the tomb-like feel of a place barely removed from the non-stop street behind me strikes me as an amazing study in contrasts. Anyone looking to escape the chaos of the surrounding city would do well to camp out in a lawn chair for a couple of hours.

But I have no lawn chair. Just a camera to record the delightfully urban-rough surfacing of the place before I pack it all up again and head back inside. For now, anyway, the story of this mysterious place will have to remain untold. Perhaps I'll bring that lawn chair on my next visit.

Your turn: What goes on in alleys like this?

Friday, June 24, 2016

Brexit exposes the ugly side of democracy

"The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter."
Sir Winston Churchill
Compared to the alternatives, democracy is the best we've got. But let's not kid ourselves: It can be ugly.

And as the wave of support for Donald Trump and the just-completed Brexit campaign where British voters decided to leave the European Union prove, a vote driven by thinly-researched, read or understood populist sentiment carries just as much weight as a well-considered, thoughtfully debated one. No one ever said the masses had to give their ballot much cogent thought.

Still, we could be living in North Korea, so perhaps not all is lost.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Life is an endless blur

Trails of light
Deerfield Beach, FL
December 2014
Thematic. Lightbulbs. Here.
Every once in a while, mysterious things seem to spontaneously show up on my camera's memory card. I can't tell you what I was thinking as I shot this - or if I was thinking at all. I can't even remember where this image might have been taken. It just popped up one night as I was reviewing photos from a day in a very warm, happy place far from home.

Perhaps I accidentally tripped the shutter as I was putting the camera away. Or a dog got to it. Whatever it was, I guess vacation makes you lose your ability to compose, shoot, or even remember. Still, I thought the effect was kind of neat.

Your turn: What is this?

Monday, June 20, 2016

Thematic Photographic 374 - Lightbulbs

Neon brilliance
London, ON
August 2015
There's a compact fluorescent bulb in our upstairs bathroom that's been burned out for longer than I dare admit. It's a somewhat specialized bulb, so what I really should do it take it over to the hardware store to match up a replacement. Instead, I consign my wife to darker-than-necessary moments when she's getting up and ready for the day. She's prettier than I am, so she deserves more light than I'm giving her.

Bad Carmi.

I'm posting this week's theme, lightbulbs, as a reminder to myself to a) replace the damn bulb and b) shoot more pictures of lightbulbs, too. Because they're somewhat fascinating, being their own sources of light and all. And challenging to shoot. That they make an oddball topical choice just seals the deal in my book. Oddball always makes for a fun time through the lens.

Your turn: Take a pic - or many pics - reflective of this week's theme (lightbulbs, remember?) then share on your blog or website. Leave a comment here letting everyone know where to find it. Visit other participants to keep the fun going, and repeat through the week if inspiration strikes again. For more background on how Thematic works, click here. And please accept my thanks for participating. Because this little photo thing of ours brings me great joy. Strange, that.

The twisted yellow pipe of destiny

London, ON
June 2016
For one last kick at the metallic Thematic can, head here.
Click photo to embiggen.
There's something surreally lovely about the pipes that bring us things like water, gas and other vital fluids. Most of the time, we ignore their very presence, simply assuming that whatever's keeping our modern lives in perfect balance will always be there, silent and perfect.

As rare as they are, sinkholes that eat downtown streets, gas explosions that level entire city blocks and even not-so-tiny leaks that turn basements into spontaneous swimming pools are evidence that sometimes, these vital conduits can and do fail.

I'm guessing this particular segment of pipe isn't anywhere near the point of failure. But I'm no expert. So I'll say a quiet thanks to whoever built this in the first place, and whoever maintains it to this day. I'm thinking they don't get nearly the credit they deserve.

Your turn: Who's your unsung hero?

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Father's Day. Father Time.

Father's Day is a day that spawns mixed feelings in me. On the one hand, it's an important reminder to slow down and appreciate the things we have, the things that matter, and the people who make our lives rich and fulfilling. Coming from - and maintaining - a strong family is what gives most of us the strength to navigate the world and make our mark. Without that foundation, that one place where you know everyone roots for you and drops everything to be there for you, it's a lot tougher to make your mark. And arguably not as meaningful.

On the other hand, it's a day designed to sell cards and gifts, a commercialized affair little removed from Mother's Day and Valentine's Day, where the act of buying and giving has, for many, replaced the act of simply being together. The buildup to days like this can also cloud the other 364 (0r 365 during this leap year) days of the year, when connecting with each other is just as important as it is today. Every day matters, but we often forget that simple reality as we work up, to and past manufactured holidays like this one.

I'm also sensitive to the fact that not everyone enjoys the same family constructs so perfectly depicted in the ads. Some folks hated their dads. Some never knew them. Some lost them. Or lost them early. Or under additionally tragic circumstances. And days like today may stir up more sadness than anything else, as they shift focus to what was lost, or never was.

My own father is no longer with us, but he's been gone long enough - almost 7 years - that I no longer feel sick in the pit of my stomach in the days leading up to Father's Day. Yes, I miss him, and yes, I wish he could see all that's happened since and all that we are now. But at the same time, the years have allowed me to better appreciate the role he played in helping me get to my current place in the universe. We're all going to die someday, and I accept that he did the best he could to give the most to his next generation. Can't ask for much more - and it isn't as if we even have the right to ask in the first place.

So today we all slept in. And bounced around the house in our jammies when we finally woke up. And played with the dog. Then went out for breakfast. And sat around and enjoyed the simple act of being together. Because in the end all I wanted was time. And togetherness. Which is all I wanted - and got - today. Come to think of it, it was all I wanted yesterday, too, and will hopefully be what I get tomorrow.

Whatever you're celebrating, make it happy. And don't stop celebrating just because of what the calendar may say. Every day is special. Every day is a gift. Indeed, the gift is the day itself, not anything that needs to be bought.

Friday, June 17, 2016

On Millard, Smich and every other cretin in our midst

Of all the animals, man is the only one that is cruel. He is the only one who inflicts pain for the pleasure of doing it.Mark Twain
It's been a brutal week in the annals of crime. A madman mowed down 49 people at a gay bar in Orlando. Another madman shot and stabbed British MP Jo Cox to death in Leeds. In a German courtroom, a 94-year-old former SS sergeant, Reinhold Hanning, was found guilty of 170,000 counts of accessory to murder at the Auschwitz death camp and subsequently sentenced to five years in prison.

Here in Canada, Dellen Millard and Mark Smich were both found guilty earlier today in the murder of Tim Bosma. Not far away, Michael Rafferty, who with his then-girlfriend Terri-Lynne McClintic sexually assaulted and killed Tori Stafford in Woodstock in 2009, announced he'll be appealing his conviction.

I'll never understand what happens in the minds of people that allows them to cross the line and deliberately end the lives of others. Maybe I'm too naive for my own good, but with every new case that hits our collective radar, I continue to shake my head at the potential for humans to inflict pain and suffering on others.

I recognize that they're the minority, that most of us on this planet are good, kind and caring people. But the very fact that the potential for such darkness exists at the fringe of our species - or, in the cases above, in our own neighborhoods - makes me wonder if there's some higher-order reason for any of this.

Because I can't imagine that any of these people - members of the LGBTQ community, an elected official and mom of two, six million Jews, a young husband and dad, and a girl who loved butterflies and her brother - deserved to have their lives cut short for any reason. I can't imagine why the human condition includes such cruelty, and why we haven't done a better job of somehow dealing with it.

Because there is no justice when a life is taken simply because someone decided that this should be so.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

The fences that separate us

Chain link
London, ON
June 2016
For more in-the-metal-themed Thematic, head here.
The scene: It's an unseasonably warm and brilliantly sunny spring day. I've dropped our daughter off at, ironically, a photo shoot. We're just far away from home that it makes more sense for me to stay out while she works. So I'm glad I heeded my wife's advice to take my own camera along and do some shooting of my own.

After dropping her off, I wander outside the community centre into the tree-lined park that surrounds it. This bucolic, rectangular slice of green is tucked away in the middle of a city block such that the only people who know it's here are the folks who either live nearby or Google Mapped it. The perimeter of the park is lined by the back yards of half-century-old homes, sitting in the shade of similarly old trees. It feels like I've found a hidden jewel in the middle of yesterday's vision of suburban utopia, a secret spot that no one else seems to have discovered.

Aside from a still-closed outdoor pool, an empty wading pool, a just-as-deserted playground and a dusty old baseball field, there isn't much here. The blinding midday sun is the exact opposite of Golden Hour. It's overwhelming, whitewash-like and, frankly, oppressive. The large stretches of grass punctuated by trees and bushes don't really grab my eye's attention, and I assume my photo-walkabout is going to be a bust.

But then something weird happens. I head for the biggest tree and sit down underneath, its shade serving as a perfect shelter from the ridiculous sun. I let the breeze tickle my sandal-clad toes as I lie down on my back and stare up and around. For the first time in what seems like days, I let myself relax. I'm not watching a clock, answering a call, responding to a text or otherwise engaging with the outside world. I'm just chilling.

I'm not sure how long I spend under this tree, but when I get back up and continue my meandering through the park, I see the formerly boring elements - empty swimming pool, chain link fence, tired baseball diamond - differently. They're still boring, routine, mundane, past their prime. But now that I've slowed my brain down a bit, I no longer dismiss them outright. I slowly take them in, look for angles I might have missed previously, consider the options, wonder what stories they could tell - or have yet to tell.

A couple of hours later, our daughter is done working, so we head for home. And I secretly find myself looking forward to her next gig so I can wander the neighborhood and slowly uncover the stories buried in its otherwise unremarkable features.

Your turn: Where did you take your last walk? What did you see?

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

On the surprising connection between kindness and wisdom

"Kindness is more important than wisdom, and the recognition of this is the beginning of wisdom."
Theodore Isaac Rubin
Dear People of Planet Earth: Please read the above, and learn.



Monday, June 13, 2016

Thematic Photographic 373 - In the metal

Give me strength
Toronto, ON
August 2015
I was waiting for my train back to London when I noticed the steel structure over my head. I had spent the day in the big city, sitting behind a mic talking to Canadians across the country. I was feeling pretty good about my place in the world, and was looking forward to seeing my family at the other end of the tracks.

Union Station is in the middle of a massive rebuild, and I wasn't sure if the perfectly aged steel supports were going to survive the reno. So I stole a few pictures before my train rolled up and I climbed aboard.

Your turn: This week's Thematic theme, in the metal, celebrates anything made of metal, or anything that resembles or reminds us of metal. Simply take a picture that supports the theme, post it to your blog, website or even Facebook page (here's mine ... feel free to friend me!), then leave a comment here letting folks know where they can find it. Visit other participants to spread the photographic goodness as far and wide as possible. Head here if you're new to the Thematic thing. And please enjoy yourself. Because that's why Thematic exists in the first place. Thanks gang!

Microsoft's $26.2b LinkedIn gamble: I'm not impressed

The tech world was buzzing this morning with news that Microsoft had made a $26.2 billion U.S. offer to buy LinkedIn. The move seems to position Microsoft to make inroads in the fast-moving enterprise social market - think Facebook, only for businesspeople - but I'm not entirely convinced that this is a smart move.

Lots of reasons why I'm not drinking the megadeal Kool Aid. First and foremost, Microsoft has a history of writing large cheques on splashy acquisitions, most of which either never go anywhere (Skype) or quite literally crash and burn (Nokia, aQuantive).

While acquisitions can be an effective means of establishing presence in fast-evolving tech sub-sectors like enterprise social (it's faster to buy an existing, substantive and successful player than it is to develop the technology and eminence on your own), the cultural challenges of integrating a player like LinkedIn into its day-to-day operations and strategic vision are monumental, and Microsoft wouldn't be the only tech titan to run into headwinds on the integration front.

LinkedIn's more recent difficulties with flatlined user and revenue growth, which decimated its share price prior to today's announcement, reinforce the belief that Microsoft is paying a serious premium for a second-rate target. It's hard to see where the $26.2 billion U.S. in differential future value is going to come from - or why Microsoft felt compelled to offer such a massive premium for LinkedIn when no one else was apparently ready to make a similar deal.

We're 13 years into LinkedIn's history, and a similar amount of time into the social and enterprise social timelines. The company and the enterprise social media sub-sector are closer to middle-age than anything else, and you'd think the offer size would reflect the fact that this company's and its market's best days may no longer be ahead, but behind.

So, yes, I'm a bit cynical. But I'm hardly alone: Microsoft shareholders pushed its stock price down following the announcement this morning.

I discussed my concerns with BNN's Michael Hainsworth in a live interview earlier today. Here's the link.

Your turn: Do you use LinkedIn? If so, why? If not, why not?

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Orlando: Another city, another number

It's become a fill-in-the-blank thing.

The only things that change from one massacre to another are where it happened, how many people were killed and injured, and what motivated the attacker or attackers to turn their guns on pure innocents. Today it's Orlando, Florida, and the number is 50. Was it a hate crime against the LGBTQ community? Was it radical-Islam-infused terrorism? Mental illness? Some or all of the above?

As always, the pro-gun-nut lobby trots out its usual litany of arguments - guns don't kill people, people kill people, none of this would happen if everyone carried a gun, blah, blah and ad nauseum blah - to defend their gawd-given, constitutional right to bear arms. And as usual the entire thing descends into an online and in-person mess of arguments, counter-arguments and mean-spiritedness.

Before long, the headlines fade. Until it happens again. And again. And again. Endlessly.

The following quote, attributed to Steven Denn, feels appropriate to share at this time:
"You can never make the same mistake twice because the second time you make it, it's not a mistake, it's a choice."
Well, America, this is way beyond your second time, and it's pretty clear that as a country, you have decided to choose to live with this.

You choose to allow anyone with a pulse to have ridiculously easy access to military-grade weapons so that they can mow down complete strangers for reasons that make sense only to them. You choose to allow racism, homophobia, xenophobia and other forms of discrimination and hatred to be validated right up to the top of your political system. You choose to use centuries-old frameworks to justify policies that place the most vulnerable members of modern society in increasing peril. You choose to allow elected officials - and wannabe-elected officials - absolute freedom to spew hatred and misinformation. You choose to put precious few resources into addressing the fundamental issues - caring for the mentally ill, tolerance-in-curriculum, political reform, legislative reform - that would begin to rein this scourge in. You choose to do nothing beyond arguing about it through your laptops and smartphones, "praying for Sandy Hook/San Bernadino/Orlando/wherever" and installing a colorful tribute icon in your Facebook profile picture.

Because while you were busy arguing over bathrooms and Confederate flags instead of looking for ways to better understand and live with each other, you made it easy for gun-toting idiots to learn their murderous craft, hone their trigger-happy skills and figure out even more efficient ways to crank the death toll even higher. You widened the cracks through which the violently-inclined mentally ill could slip. You created the conditions within which mass shootings would become epidemic.

Orlando is only the latest chapter in a book that seemingly now has no end. Prepare for more, America. Because you chose to allow this to happen by failing to do anything constructive about it.