Thursday, September 30, 2004

Annals of leadership

I came across a site named Bossholes that sort of reminds me of some lovely people for whom I used to work. Even if it doesn't have the same effect on you, it's a funny diversion for the 12.6 seconds you'll spend there.

And before you finish asking the question, allow me to confirm that I didn't deliberately go looking for this URL. I do not repeatedly mumble the names of my former leaders. I do not swear revenge against them. I do not leave thumbtacks under their tires in the parking lot. I simply stumbled across the site reference in a techie newsletter that relentlessly litters my inbox every day.

I suppose I could just cancel my subscription and never have to hit Delete ever again. But then you wouldn't know about Bossholes. And I wouldn't feel all self-important because a mail server somewhere thousands of miles away remembers my e-mail address. Sometimes, you just want to feel like you belong, right?

Raiding the Archives 8 - Reflecting...

As you can tell from my posts this week, I've been thinking a lot about loss. With that in mind, I dug into my archives and found a column that perfectly sums up what what's been running through my head for the past week or so. It was published two years ago last week, and it's as valid today as it was then because these things are just so timeless.

As I read through this piece - and others like it - I am struck by the following: No matter what happens in the future, you have the opportunity today to leave an impression on whoever crosses your path. Precisely what that impression will be is entirely up to you. But don't think that the most mundane of day-to-day activities are exempt. In reality, it is here where a person's true character can be ascertained, and where his/her true impact on the rest of the world can be measured.

As a result, I'll continue to choose to actually sweat the small stuff. It's in the shadows of these mini-moments that I find the richest sources for storytelling. I hope this article resonates with you as deeply as my crossing paths with Mr. Gordon all those years ago resonated with me.

Originally published Tuesday, September 24, 2002, in the London Free Press.

Decency defines a life well lived

It was supposed to be like any other weekday. Wake up, eat a quick breakfast, read the newspaper, then quickly log in to the computer to pick up my e-mail, check the weather and the news before heading into the office.

One of my online stops along the way is always the births and deaths page from a Montreal newspaper.

Living an eight-hour drive away from where I grew up makes it hard to keep up to date on what's going on "back home."

Although most folks prefer the comics, I find the "bees-and-dees" an ideal way to stay current.

The obit page is an interesting thing. Human nature compels us to look for familiar names, yet we hope we don't know them too well. Someone distant, a friend of a friend, might be OK. Anyone closer wouldn't be.

Today's news wasn't OK. I knew him.

His name was Joel Gordon. I worked with him at a Montreal radio station more than a decade ago, while working my way through journalism school. He was a few years older than I was, but close enough in age that he still remembered what it was like to break into commercial radio.

Unlike many of his colleagues, he never missed an opportunity to share his hard-won wisdom.

In a world where most on-air personalities would sell their own mothers to advance their careers, his devotion to simply doing the right thing for the right reason was a rare treat for someone just starting out.

From stopping me in the hallway to share an interviewing tip to inviting me into the studio to watch him edit a report, he epitomized mentorship.

His anti-competitive nature didn't stunt his career either. He was the longtime radio voice of Formula One coverage in Quebec and, at the time of his death, he was an integral member of the team bringing all-news radio to the Montreal market.

And he was gone. Forty years-old. Leukemia. Survived by his parents and brother. His tersely-worded obituary stared at me, plain Arial-font black letters on a white screen.

Thoughts cascaded into my mind: he died way too young; parents shouldn't bury their children; we can download video of last night's Friends episode in three minutes but we can't seem to find a cure for cancer.

None of that changes anything. A young man got sick and died. The rest of us are challenged to find the good in it.

And there was a lot of good in his life. For the relatively short time he was here, his impact on those around him was significant. He loved what he did, but never got carried away with the ego trip that traps so many members of the major-market broadcasting community.

In a world populated by loud-speaking, pyjama-and-T-shirt-wearing morningmen, he was the soft-spoken guy in the polo top and khakis who would almost fade into the background during station promotions.

But when the microphone was on, he was the consummate pro. He loved motorsports and he loved telling people about it. He raised the generic traffic report beyond its humble roots, scanning his "jam cam" traffic camera network and ridiculing Montreal's famously aggressive
drivers with wicked humour.

He empathized with long-suffering motorists, making the rush hour that much easier to take. He wasn't your usual voice. He made great radio.

The lessons of Joel's too-short life extend beyond radio wannabes. They apply to anyone. Whatever it is that you do, make sure you love it so much that you would do it for free it you had to. Enjoy it so much that it's obvious to everyone around you.

Success will follow no matter how much - or little - time you're given.

That he was able to cram than much into 40 years is testament to a life well lived.

Carmi Levy is a London freelance writer.


1 down, 1 to go

Yesterday was a great day for the space cadets of the world.

Burt Rutan's record-breaking SpaceShipOne dropped from the underside of the White Knight mothership and made it to the edge of space yesterday, but not after a heart-stopping few seconds during which the craft spun wildly as it accelerated straight up atop a column of flame. Pilot Mike Melvill shut down the rocket engine a few seconds early, and used the ship's reaction control system to slow the spin rate and prepare for re-entry. The ship then made a textbook descent and safely glided back to the same runway from which it had taken off earlier that morning.

In a sign of how far our media-centric world has evolved, I watched the event in a window in the corner of my computer screen while I continued my usual researching and writing exploits elsewhere on my monitor. The webcast included footage from all vantage points, including the wings of the vehicle and the cockpit. Here's an amazing photo montage from the Scaled Composites craft's first record-breaking flight to the edge of space last June.

For a geek, yesterday's flight was a totally cool thing to see, and easily qualifies as one of those where-were-you moments. It evoked the spirit of the aviation pioneers of the last century, whose daring and often sacrificial push into the unknown gave us routine air travel today.

My fingers remain crossed that the second qualifying flight for the Ansari X Prize - which could possibly go as early as this Sunday or Monday - has a similar happy ending, and that the future of private space flight helps make life back on the surface of the planet a little better.

Watching the convergence of brilliance at work yesterday, it was easy to believe that this is exactly how this unfolding adventure will play out.

Done deal

It's official: the Montreal Expos are leaving the city for Washington, D.C. Major League Baseball (major in name only, but that's strictly my opinion) made the announcement late yesterday. The Montreal Gazette is running a retrospective, entitled Montreal Expos: 1969-2004, in today's paper.

I'll leave you with a few additional worthwhile links before I (finally) stop talking about this seemingly endless, none-too-important-to-the-rest-of-us story. Then, we move on and go about the business of having a life:

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

'Spos - almost done

As a P.S. to my earlier post, the Philadelphia Daily News today ran a poignantly-worded summary of the Expos recent history. Entitled Expos' last home game on Wednesday before heading to D.C., it's a nice way to cap off the franchise before Major League Baseball makes the expected final announcement later today.

Google goes local

The search engine wars rage on. Google has launched Google Local - in American and Canadian flavors. Now, you have lost your final excuse for not knowing where to find a perfectly foamed mocha latte frapuccino on short notice.

Tuesday, September 28, 2004


Births, graduations, weddings, funerals.

These are some of the major milestone-type events that have the magical ability to reach into the past and pull together unbelievably diverse groups of people who would otherwise not have had the opportunity to get together. They mark transitions, both happy and sad, and give us the opportunity to checkpoint our own lives and catch up with those with whom we may have lost touch.

I attended a funeral for a former colleague earlier today. It was, as expected, a very sad event that gave the rest of us pause. I’m sure everyone who attended took time to contemplate who they are and why they’ve been put on this planet. I hope they came away from this tragedy with a greater appreciation for their impact on the people and the world around them.

I wish I had the power to ease the pain of loss. But I don’t. All I do is drop words on a page. Hardly the stuff of which comfort is born.

Yet the gentleman who passed away was, along with his wife, instrumental in my deciding to pursue a career as a writer. His wife, who I was lucky enough to work with, helped me see that writing could be more than just a fun hobby. She encouraged me to believe in my talent, to seek my dream and go for broke. He, on the other hand, was one of the few now-former colleagues who didn’t call me nuts when I announced my decision to become a full-time writer. He told me to do what made me happy.

He had a way of leaning back in his chair before sharing his wisdom with whoever came into his office. Whereas most folks with 30+ years experience would pontificate and expect you to bow at their feet, he was much more self-effacing, and preferred to allow others to bask in the glow of success. He was just as happy to stay late and do the work when no one else was around. Then he’d head off for a round of golf or a game of hockey.

He understood what life meant, and how to effectively balance work and home. It’s a lesson I hope the standing room only crowd took home with them after they said goodbye to a treasured friend.

Farewell to the Boys of Summer

Music has an incredible ability to define a particular point in time for most of us. Often, merely hearing an old song takes us right back to the time when we first heard it, and releases a flood of memories in the process.

Don Henley’s The Boys of Summer is just such a song for me. Released in 1984, it was the song of my first summer as a lifeguard at the local pool. It was playing in my head when I met the woman who would eventually become my wife. To me, the tune will always signify new beginnings, and bright sunshine reflecting brilliantly off of a perfectly clear swimming pool filled with folks soaking up another lovely summer's day.

For anyone not lucky enough to have been in my pool when I first started working there, the song became an anthem of the season that year. It also became an informal nickname for the Montreal Expos. The city’s major league baseball team was still big news back then. Three years after their heartbreaking loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL championship series – forever known as Blue Monday because it was Rick Monday whose home run ended the game, the series, and the Expos’ dreams – the team was still drawing respectable crowds to the gigantic toilet bowl known as the Olympic Stadium.

Now, after years of uncertainty, backroom backstabbing, annual talent fire sales, and a league administration whose main focus seems to have been aimed at killing the Expos’ chances of survival, the team is once again on its last legs. Now more than ever, it looks like major league baseball will soon make its final exit from the city where I dropped my first fly ball. It’s where I also dropped my last fly ball. And virtually every one in between.

You see, I wasn’t the world’s best baseball player. I spent most of my time sitting out in left field, picking buttercups and watching the contrails of aircraft overhead. Every once in a while, I’d hear some screaming from really far away. If I was lucky, I’d see a ball roll by. I’d chase it down, throw it back into the infield, then get back to my daydreaming.

Things weren’t much better at the plate. I was morbidly afraid of getting smacked in the face by a ball. So I did my best to stay away from the plate. This is, apparently, a Bad Thing insofar as hitting style is concerned. So I didn’t hit much. The occasional single, sure. Lots of walks. And once I made it to third base, but I think it’s because my spiritual twin was hanging out in left field that day.

Despite my lack of statistical success, I rather enjoyed the experience. I ended up with a rich set of memories that have stuck with me to this day. I remember the gravel-strewn, barely-playable field known as Churchill Park that was eventually turned into a strip mall. I remember the team whose coach made his son the pitcher because, well, he was his son. No one had to teach me the definition of nepotism after that summer. I remember the colors of the shirts we used to get every year – no full-blown uniforms…just shirts, which was fine by me.

Now that I’m an adult, I’ve wisely chosen to stay away from team sports. Individual pursuits where speed and stamina determine your ultimate success are much more my cup of tea. Based on this, you’d think I wouldn’t care about team sports. But I do. Yes, they can be trivial. Yes, we tend to blow their importance way the heck out of proportion, pretending to live and die by the exploits of our hometown heroes. But somehow, they persist despite the continued ridiculousness of massive salaries, arbitration, lockouts and strikes. Somehow, deep inside, we identify with our professional sports teams. They’re the signatures on the places we live, and we feel somewhat compromised if our city doesn’t have them.

Montreal is about to find out what that’s like. The team that fans forgot is now playing its final homestand in front of virtually empty seats – barely 4,000 showed up at last night’s game, for example. I sort of expected more folks to show up for nostalgic reasons – indeed, I would have popped down for a game if I still lived there – but I kind of understand why that doesn’t seem to be happening. People are tired. They want to move on. They’ve long ago accepted that Montreal isn’t a major league sports city. They’re OK with the fact that whoever plays on the God-awful artificial surface doesn’t have much impact on their day-to-day lives. Professional sport doesn’t loom large over the psyche of a city the way it once did.

The Boys of Summer are making their exit along with the season for which they were named. Like the windswept beach after Labor Day, there are few people left to notice. Maybe that’s the way it’s meant to be.

Adieu, Nos Amours. It’s been a good ride.

For some additional reading on the team’s swan song, check out the following links:

Monday, September 27, 2004

Annals of customer service

Reuters is reporting that customers of British cable firm NTL were shocked by an expletive-laden front-end message when they called to report problems with their service. Anyone else have similar stories to share? It's a big world...I'm sure there's an ocean's worth of similar stories.

Is the Force truly with us?

Just when you think the Star Wars phenomenon can’t possibly get any sillier, it does. Word from the ether is there’s a new flick out, and it's called Turkish Star Wars. It originates from, you guessed it, Turkey, and its producers should be lauded for their creative titling.

Based on the video clips available on the linked web site, it just might join Attack of the Killer Tomatoes and Plan 9 from Outer Space on the all-time list of cheesiest films. At least in the latter two cases, the humor was at least partly deliberate. I’m not entirely sure if that’s the case here.

Then again, George Lucas seems completely unable to understand how completely inane his movies have become. Not that it matters, because he’s made his billions off of the gullibility of a generation of doofii. But he nonetheless missed achieving the kind of cultural acceptance enjoyed by the significantly more skilled Steven Spielberg because, quite simply, George couldn’t string a worthwhile movie together to save his life. Or Jar Jar Binks’s life, for that matter.

I’m almost afraid to ask what comes next. What would George think? What would the Star Wars Kid think? What would Triumph the Insult Comic Dog think?

Better yet, does the world care about Star Wars any more?

Sunday, September 26, 2004

Anything but trivial

It's been almost 25 years since Trivial Pursuit first became part of our modern-day culture. Invented by two intrepid Canadian journalists (from Montreal!), it ignited the then-moribund board game market and defined the brain-teasing subcategory that has since dominated the field.

It also gave me ample opportunity to act like an arrogant showboat at more parties and get-togethers than I can recall. Come to think of it, that might explain why I stopped receiving invitations after a while.

Seriously, though, it was through this game and its successors that I learned that my head was a trap for the most mindless minutae known to humankind. It's an affliction that persists to this day, and comes in handy when I'm either looking for things to write about, or am scrambling to fill in a hole in something I've already written.

The Toronto Star ran a neat article, Trivia: It's 'who we are', in today's paper. If you've ever played the game, this piece will totally take you back. You never know: it may become a question in some future iteration of the game.

More than what it seems

Someone gave me this salt and pepper packet years ago. He picked it up from a flight - back when airlines actually fed you. I laughed from my belly before stashing it deep in my camera bag and forgetting it existed.

The camera bag bears a bit of explanation: it's my equivalent of a woman's purse (and before you ask, I'll confirm that I do indeed carry my wife's purse when she asks me to.) It's a lovely big blue Tamrac bag with zillions of little pockets and compartments. In addition to my precious Nikon and its assorted lenses and doodads, it's big enough to hold envelopes with pictures and the various papers I use to capture the semi-schizoid thoughts that were racing through my head the moment I tripped the shutter.

Despite my best efforts to keep it neat, there are some areas which seem to swallow really tiny things, which then don't resurface until years later. This condiment from the skies seems to have spent a few years in the cozy confines of The Bag, and recently made a reappearance when I rearranged a couple of foam inserts to accommodate the digital camera.

All I can think whenever I read this is how wonderful it must have been to work for a company whose leaders understood the need to inject a little humor into the world. It's just a silly little package. But it speaks volumes about those who facilitated its release into a supposedly conservative business environment. I hope those folks are still cranking out smiles to this day.

Friday, September 24, 2004

Big Brother, Redux

If your employer insisted on your wearing a leash while at work, would you continue to pursue your career there? What if the leash was a virtual, electronic one? Would that change your decision?

Read this to have yet another assumption about basic human behavior shattered forever.

Elmo - Wanted Terrorist

If you scan down the sidebar on the right-hand side of this site, you'll notice a new, Sesame-Street-themed addition to the ever-expanding list of graphic boxes toward the bottom. This one crosses those lovable pre-Muppets with the Department of Homeland Security's color-coded terror alert system.

Nothing like injecting a little humor into what would otherwise be a really depressing aspect of life in the new millenium.

Many thanks to Trillian for allowing me to completely rip off the idea from her site. On second thought, I didn't even get her permission. When she reads this, it'll be the first she knows of it. I'd better duck now.

Publish Day - Why E-mail is Useless

More good news from my world of words.

Looks like it’s a busy week for getting published. Processor Magazine has just published my tech opinion piece, Kiss Your Inbox Goodbye. In it, I prattle on about how e-mail’s utility is slowly being eroded by the rising tide of spam and related unsolicited garbage that clogs our inboxes like a relentless toxic sludge.

[Pause to collect myself. There, I am once again at peace.]

I’ve pasted the text of the article below. Alternatively, you can click the link above (or here, if you don’t want to move your mouse that far.) I do this because going to the web site will allow you to once again see the horrid pixellated filter that they applied to the picture we submitted for the byline. Yes, I’ve become Frodo (he’s a Lord of the Rings character, apparently.)

The site’s a bit of an adventure to navigate, but it offers PDF versions of the magazine’s print version – which is a pretty cool trick. Find this week’s print edition here. My article’s on page 28.

The opinions archive page is here. Lots more rants where those came from! Happy reading.

(And, yes, I’m still using e-mail despite my overt pessimism toward the technology. Even my annoyances have their limits as far as practicality is concerned.)

Info-Tech Insight
Kiss Your Inbox Goodbye

We gather here today to mark the passing of a once-promising technology known as electronic mail. In the beginning, it allowed us to quickly and inexpensively fling our written thoughts across the office and around the world with no effort beyond that required to click the Send button.

Email accelerated the pace of business, reconnected us with our far-away mothers, and generally restored the written word to an electronic image of its former glory.

But given humanity's propensity to destroy things that are unabashedly good, it didn't take long for rot to creep in. I'll spare you the gory details. All you need to do is open your inbox every morning, and the results are painfully clear: endless screens of badly spelled pitches for cheap drugs, penile enhancement, and dates with babes. Somewhere in that mess are a few real messages. So be careful as you wade through the crud because you don't want to delete that memo from your Executive VP. Oh, and don't let your kids see the smutty pictures, either.

Beyond The Point Of No Return

Survey after survey shows the problem is only getting worse. Antispam tools are the equivalent of a finger in the dike while the torrent of sludge continues to spill over the top. There's no stopping it, save for moving to another medium.

Beyond spam, email represents a threat to the organization's ability to properly store, secure, and use its repositories of knowledge. Individual users maintain huge amounts of data in poorly structured folder hierarchies on their PCs. Forget for a brief second the massive risk of having business-critical data locked — and not backed up — on a user's local hard drive. At the end of the day, we're squirreling away our knowledge in a tool that wasn't designed to be a knowledge database. This threatens business efficiency and effectiveness.

It's then fair to conclude that email's best days are behind it. The time to start planning a move away from email—and toward more enlightened tools—is now.

New Tools Show Promise

If your employees are spending more time sifting through emailed garbage than they are communicating with clients and each other, email has outlived its usefulness in your environment. Thankfully, new tools are evolving rapidly to fill what promises to be a giant vacuum. Here's a quick look:

Discussion groups. Before there was a World Wide Web, there was Usenet. Before there was an Internet, there were electronic Bulletin Board Systems. These both allowed users to post messages to public boards and facilitated rapid collaboration between disparate groups of users. These days, new Web-based group discussion tools, including free services from Yahoo! and MSN, represent great places to get your feet wet.

Blogs. Short for Web log, blogs are no longer merely venting tools for angst-ridden teenagers. Savvy businesses are starting to use this sequential electronic publication tool for sharing updated information with their con stituent base—and for getting rapid feedback from them, as well. Movable Type and Google's Blogger services are worth a look.

RSS. Also known as Resource Description Framework (RDF) Site Summary or Rich Site Summary, RSS is an XML-based method of distributing Web content. As a natural outgrowth of the blog phenomenon, leading-edge organizations use RSS feeds to distribute rapidly changing content to a wide audience. This content includes, but isn't limited to, news stories, project updates, discussion forum highlights, and corporate information. Even better, RSS readers don't have to surf to a Web site. Instead, their reader software consolidates their chosen feeds and serves them up. It's structurally beneficial, too, because it avoids the now-universal bottlenecks of worm-attacked Web sites and spam-infested email servers. Popular tools include Feed Reader, AmphetaDesk, and Radio UserLand.

Collaborative tools. Microsoft SharePoint and Groove Networks Workspace allow real-time group collaboration without the overhead of a clogged inbox. Remember Lotus Notes? These fulfill a similar function, only far more effectively. As an added bonus, they tie into your existing tools, like Microsoft Office, Outlook, and Messenger.

Turning Off The Spigot

Like all addictive drugs, email is a hard habit to kick. I'm not suggesting we abandon our inboxes tomorrow. Cold turkey may work for some soon-to-be-ex-smokers, but when you still conduct a huge chunk of business activity within this flawed medium, a phased withdrawal is more in order.

Smart organizations will begin investigating the aforementioned technologies now. Set them up in a test lab. If you're too small for a test lab, use an extra machine under your desk and play with your new toys over lunch. Take the time to learn how these tools can be used to allow you to share business knowledge within your organization and with the outside world. Don't waste any more time sifting through spam.

The mistake we've been making since the dawn of the Internet is assuming that email is electronic communication. It isn't. It's just one tool among many that lets us share. And it's beyond termi nallyill. It's dead. It's time to trade its technological corpse in for a newer model.

Send your comments to

Carmi Levy is a senior research analyst with Info-Tech Research Group, a London, Ontario-based research and professional services firm focused on providing premium research and advice geared to the unique needs of IT professionals of midsized enterprises. Levy holds a journalism degree from Montreal's Concordia University and has extensive experience in IT project management, helpdesk re-engineering, high performance team leadership, and process redesign.

Thursday, September 23, 2004

Why technology matters

I'm often criticized for being a tech-head. I spend my days - and often my nights - with my face practically buried in my computer monitor trying to figure out yet another obscure aspect of the technological world in which we live.

I do it for a number of reasons. Most notably, it's my job. By day, I write about the technology field, covering the sector for a leading research firm. It is immensely challenging and rewarding work that allows me to work with - and learn from - some of the brightest people I've had a chance to meet.

Beyond that, I enjoy it immensely. I loved doing puzzles as a kid, and this work represents an updated version of piecing together an incredibly complex picture so that others may see it and understand its meaning. I relish those so-called Eureka Moments, when something that previously didn’t work suddenly clicks into place in my brain.

Yet, folks who call me a geek often feel that technology can be trivial. Over the years, I’ve heard too many variations of “what’s your real job?” It gets annoying after a while, because technology really does matter.

Which brings me to an article, Ambulances not called to save boy, that I read at work today that completely drove home that very point. While editing a piece that I had written earlier this week on the need for the technologies used by emergency services – police. fire, ambulance – to more effectively interoperate with one another, a colleague said he had seen a story (this one) about how a deleted message resulted in an ambulance not being ready and waiting after firefighters pulled a nine-year-old boy from his burning house.

The child died. We’ll never know whether that process breakdown resulted in his death, but I can guarantee you the question will hang over his family forever.

As I did the additional research and worked the components of this story into my already-written article, I had trouble seeing through the tears. I couldn’t stop thinking about our son, who’s nine years-old as well.

God forbid our house ever burns down – it is, after all, my absolute worst fear. But if we ever find ourselves in that situation, I’d like to think that stupid errors in process wouldn’t keep the ambulance from getting there until it’s too late.

Breakdowns in process or technology just can’t happen when it’s your kid who needs saving.

That’s why technology matters. And that’s why it matters to me.

Apparently, Yes

The Internet is abuzz with all sorts of reports on the would-be Google Browser, which, for the sake of consistency with past Google products, I will dub the Growser.

The chatter seems to focus on a couple of notable points: Mozilla source code will form its base, and Google recently hired away some key Microsoft developers, including their top browser coder. This, coupled with the accelerating rate of Mozilla Firefox adoption, means we apparently live in interesting times – well, from a technical perspective, anyway.

Here’s a quick selection of some notable links:

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Is the Browser Borg Approaching?

Guess who registered the domain name Click here to find out, then take cover and enjoy watching the once-again-very-hot browser wars.

OMG, Guess Who's Online!

Once upon a time, I wrote for a little Montreal weekly tabloid called The Suburban. It was a fun gig while finishing up j-school, and it taught me the ins and outs of community-based journalism.

Mike Cohen has written for the paper for longer than I can remember, and through his e-mail list for ex-pats like me reports that the paper has launched its web site,

I've attached his mailing below. No, I haven't added an e to my name. My birth certificate still says Carmi.

If you're an ex-Montrealer, enjoy the new link to your hometown. If you aren't, it's still an excellent example of local reportage. Thanks for sharing the great news, Mike!

-----Original Message-----
From: Michael J. Cohen
Sent: Wednesday,
September 22, 2004 8:12 AM
To: Recipient List Suppressed:
Subject: Mike
Cohen's Columns--A new

Over the years, I have been pleased to e-mail my Suburban Newspaper columns out to more than 300 people, primarily ex-Montrealers. I credit Carmie Levy, originally of Chomedey and now residing in London. Ont. for the idea.

The one question I was asked repeatedly? When will The Suburban be available online.

Well, that day has arrived. As of today you can access the entire paper on our new website. Take a few seconds to register (FOR FREE) and you will have access to the paper and some bonuses.

I will still send those of you on my list reminders---with the hyperlink.

Normally, the Suburban online version will only be accessible by mid-day Wednesdays. Today, they have launched it early.

So please, log on to

And pass this website address on to as many people as possible

For my articles, look in index for
A) columnists---my city column
B) technology- two stories (a story on the website)
-How I joined the online revolution

Publish Day - Hockey Silliness

As many of you may know, the National Hockey League, the major professional hockey league in North America, is in the midst of yet another labor dispute. This time out, the owners have locked the players out because the players refuse to accept a salary cap.

Seeing as the sporting world typically lacks anything remotely approaching perspective, I thought I'd try to inject some into the debate through my just-published column, NHL labour tiff lacks perspective.

Interestingly, if you click on the league and players' association sites, you'd swear by reading them that nothing is amiss.

More importantly, the word doofus managed to make it into print. Cool!
NHL labour tiff lacks perspective
Published September 22, 2004
The London Free Press

I know it isn’t politically correct for a Canadian to dislike hockey, but these days, I truly wish the sport didn’t exist.

National Hockey League players and team owners have succeeded in poisoning their sport and compromising its future.

Sadly, they’ve taken down thousands of regular Canadians in the process. Zamboni drivers, concession staff, and restaurant workers are either already out of work, or soon will be. It’s not their fault the owners and players are too selfish to realize the damage caused by their greedy game of brinkmanship.

They don’t seem to grasp that they are partners in the business of entertainment. By pursuing a destructively adversarial relationship, they risk killing the goose that has been laying golden eggs for generations.

A little perspective is in order, because both sides clearly lack any. Hockey lives in a far more competitive world today than it did when there were only six teams in the league, two black-and-white channels on television and no computers beyond the monsters that sat in the basement of your bank's headquarters.

Kids today, the sport's future generation of fans, are busier today than their parents ever were. They shuttle between judo, soccer, and music lessons after school. Take away hockey and their time will easily be occupied by something else. NHL leadership should be lying awake at nights worried that these kids will never come back.

Dr. Glenn Rowe, who teaches strategic leadership at the University of Western Ontario’s Ivey School of Business, says compared to other sports, hockey is at higher risk due to declining fan interest and reduced revenue. The Wall Street Journal reports regular season hockey telecasts routinely draw fewer viewers than bowling, arena football, and poker.

“Hockey fans are very loyal, but there’s not a lot of them,” said Rowe. “Something has to give.”

The central issue is a proposed salary cap to prevent spiraling salaries and ensure greater team competitiveness and financial viability. Other leagues have successfully implemented caps, and they have thrived as a result. The National Football League, Major League Baseball and the National Basketball League spend, respectively, 64, 63, and 58 percent of total revenues on player salaries. The capless NHL, with lower viewership and revenue than all of them, is up at around 75 percent.

Rowe says the players may need a reminder of who pays their salary.

“Here you have players asking average fans to spend even more money so they can get richer,” he said. “Is this a realistic expectation on the part of the players? I don’t think so.”

In the overall scheme of things, hockey matters about as much on the celestial scale as a McDonald's Happy Meal and an empty Bic pen. Unbelievably overpaid "stars" blather on about the significance of their contributions to the world while the true heroes of our time are shut out of media coverage

Still, we continue to reward them by dropping hundreds of dollars at a shot to watch them play. Then we pay even more to wear their logos on our behinds and on gas-sucking flags that we hang off of our cars to show our undying devotion. I once even worked with someone who wore his favorite team's logo in the corner of his eyeglasses. I mean, come on people, get a grip!

I’m tired of the games surrounding this game. Life is more important than hockey. If we could first find jobs for all the regular employees, I'd be happy to have the entire league implode. It would allow the rest of us to get on with the business of appreciating true contributions to the advancement of humankind - as opposed to which cash-worshipping, classless doofus managed to get the puck into the net more often.

If I'm really that crazed about watching what should be a pure sport, I'll head down to the local rink this winter and watch kids playing because they simply love the game.

Carmi Levy ( is a London freelance writer. His column appears every other Wednesday.


Tuesday, September 21, 2004

All Dan, All the Time

Still with the Dan Rather thing, I just picked myself up off the floor after reading Mark Steyn's brilliantly biting piece, CBS defense of Rather hints at bigger story, in the Chicago Sun-Times.

Steyn is always a challenging, enlightening read. You'll come away feeling confident that, despite Dandy Dan's trashing of the profession, folks like Mr. Steyn can reaffirm our faith in all things wordy by crafting yet another beautifully-structured piece of writing.

Don't call him a journalist

I've never quite gotten the appeal of Dan Rather. His social distance from mere mortals coupled with his overall weirdness - who can forget "Kenneth, what is the frequency?" - has always made watching him deliver his newscast an exercise with little payback for the viewer. He's such a wackjob that he often becomes the news. In a media world with bazillions of alternative delivery methods, I think I'll take a pass on Dan.

Well, with his latest escapade in untruth, he's made the jump from just plain weird to pond scum of the journalistic ecosystem. The bottom line to this story is he based a story on documents that were later found to be forged (by bloggers, no less!) When it first became apparent that the docs were fake, he continued to insist they were real. Rather, who is also Managing Editor of the CBS Evening News, denied any wrongdoing until the evidence was beyond damning. Then he lamely apologized - "It was a mistake CBS News deeply regrets ... I want to say personally and directly I'm sorry." Apology not accepted, Dan. You're only sorry that you got caught.

Journalists are responsible for verifying that everything that goes into everything they deliver to the audience is true. And if they mistakenly include some bad material, we expect them to proactively dig deeper and get to the bottom of the story. We don't expect them to lamely hide behind PR mouthpieces, lazily denying accountability. Even I learned that in j-school, Dan. I remember the first day like it was yesterday. I lost count of how many times I heard variations on the phrase, "Check, double-check, triple-check, then do it again. If you get it wrong, it's your name on the line."

It was your job, Dan. You messed up. You failed to take responsibility for your actions, and for the actions of those you lead. In doing so, you tarnished the reputation of an entire profession that has worked doggedly for generations to build trust with its audience. Pathetic doesn't even begin to describe your conduct.

If you retire to your home on the range now, you just might clear the decks enough for those of us who still care about appropriate coverage to begin repairing the damage.

Monday, September 20, 2004

Could you work for Google?

I'm still on a bit of a tech bent. Maybe it's because I can't fall asleep, the cat insists on sitting in my lap while I write, and my allergy-affected eyes are squeezing out enough tears to make reading my screen something like trying to decipher the ceiling tiles while submerged at the bottom of a swimming pool.

In one of my optically comfortable moments, I came across the Google Labs Aptitude Test, which is theoretically administered to all applicants. Mind you, if it's Internet-posted, one would logically conclude that maybe it's time to change the nature of the test.

Anyway, if you think you're smart, or if you know someone who needs to be knocked down a peg or two, this link's for you.

Sunday, September 19, 2004

A9 - A New Spin on Search

Warning: I get a little technical with this post. I'm not sure what's gotten into me today. I believe my geek genes are fighting to come to the surface. has just released a new entry, known as A9, into the suddenly-once-again-hot world of search engines. We care about this because better search engines benefit all of us. They get us the information we need, when we need it, and they don’t require us to surf and reload zillions of pages to get it.

It’s like calling 411 when you’re looking for one specific phone number. The easier the process, the more likely you are to derive value from the service, and as a result the more likely you will be to use said service again. If 411 doesn’t deliver the goods and instead ends of wasting your time, you won’t be back.

Gee, sounds like a pillar of capitalism, doesn’t it?

For that reason, savvy marketers like Amazon are jumping on the bandwagon, trying to figure out how to graft uber-search capabilities onto their existing business models.

Interestingly, A9’s core is the familiar Google search engine. The difference is personalization: A9 allows you to save search results for multiple search streams directly on the site. No need to remember what search terms you used the last time you were online. No need to re-surf to the same sites again to confirm what you already looked up yesterday.

As always, there’s a catch. Privacy advocates are concerned about what happens to the personal info you leave on the A9 site. They’re also concerned about how A9 tracks your search activity. Although Amazon has promised to not sell this information to others, past experience in the Information Age indicates digitally personalized data, wherever it resides, is vulnerable on a number of fronts.

Despite Amazon’s good intentions, the potential is there for the data to be sold, hacked, or otherwise compromised. The big question is how much of a threat – if any – does this potential represent, and should this be a focus of our efforts to ensure our online security? The verdict is still out on that one, as it is with so many other elements of our rapidly-evolving world of technology.

Google experienced a backlash earlier this year when it launched its Google Mail service into beta. Critics said the software agents that scan your e-mail and serve up ads reflective of the content within them represented invasions of privacy. Now, as evidenced in the eWEEK article,'s Search Launch Triggers Second Thoughts, Amazon is experiencing a similar consumer response.

My take on online privacy is rather simple: the horse is already out of the stable, so we may as well stop whining and get used to it. The following article, The Fuss About Gmail and Privacy: Nine Reasons Why It's Bogus, is roughly parallel to my thoughts on this issue. The simple act of logging into our ISP and sending an e-mail leaves traces of our existence that can be easily read by the guy running the daily backups. Unless we sign a lease on the lovely cave next-door to Osama’s place, we’re going to be connected in some way – and in doing so, ghosts of our existence will exist outside the walls of our respective homes.

Until the day that someone absolutely assures us that there is no risk – which is as likely to happen as Osama getting one of my Gmail invitations – we may as well enjoy the groundbreaking functionality improvements offered by services like Gmail and A9.

Search well and prosper.

Saturday, September 18, 2004

Biting Saturday Night Satire

Many thanks to my friends, John and Barb, for ensuring this screamingly funny piece of writing ended up in my inbox. As happens frequently when I read something this amusing, I often wake up in the middle of the night and convulse in uncontrolled laughter while my long-suffering and extremely understanding wife elbows me and begs me to go back to sleep.

Well, this time, she and I shouldn't be the only ones to share in this experience. I want you all in on the fun. So here it is:

NHL players need YOU!

Since September 11, 2001, Americans and Canadians have come together as never before in our generation. We have banded together to overcome tremendous adversity. We have weathered direct attacks on our own soil, wars overseas, corporate/ government scandal, layoffs, unemployment, stock price plunges, droughts, fires, mad cow, SARS, high gasoline prices, and a myriad of economic and physical disasters both great and small. But now, we must come together once again to overcome our greatest challenge yet.

Hundreds of Professional Hockey players in our very own nation are going to be locked out, living at well below the seven-figure salary level. And as if that weren't bad enough they could be deprived of their life giving pay for several months, possibly longer, as a result of the upcoming lockout situation. But you can help!

For only $20,835 a month, about $694.50 a day (that's less than the cost of a large screen projection TV) you can help an NHL player remain economically viable during his time of need. This contribution by no means solves the problem as it barely covers the annual minimum salary, but it's a start, and every little bit will help!

Although $700 may not seem like a lot of money to you, to a hockey player it could mean the difference between spending the lockout golfing in Florida or on a Mediterranean cruise. For you, seven hundred dollars is nothing more than a month's rent, half a mortgage payment, or a month of medical insurance, but to a hockey player, $700 will partially replace his daily salary.

Your commitment of less than $700 a day will enable a player to buy that home entertainment center, trade in the year-old Lexus for a new Ferrari, or enjoy a weekend in Rio.

How will I know I'm helping?

Each month, you will receive a complete financial report on the player you sponsor. Detailed information about his stocks, bonds, real estate, and other investment holdings will be mailed to your home. Plus, upon signing up for this program, you will receive an unsigned photo of the player lounging during the lockout on a beach somewhere in the Caribbean (for a signed photo, please include an additional $150). Put the photo on your refrigerator to remind you of other peoples' suffering.

How will he know I'm helping?

Your NHL player will be told that he has a SPECIAL FRIEND who just wants to help in a time of need. Although the player won't know your name, he will be able to make collect calls to your home via a special operator in case additional funds are needed for unforeseen expenses.

Yes, I want to help!

I would like to sponsor a locked out NHL player. My preference is (check below):

[ ] Forward [ ] Defenseman [ ] Goaltender [ ] Entire team

(Please call our 900 number to ask for the cost of a specific team - $10 per minute)

[ ] Jaromir Jagr (Higher cost: $32,000 per day)

Please charge the account listed below $694.50 per day for the duration of the lockout. Please send me a picture of the player I have sponsored, along with an Jaromir Jagr 2001 Income Statement and my very own Bob Goodenow (Executive Director of the NHLPA player's Union) pin to wear proudly on my hat (include $80 for hat).

Your Name: _______________________

Telephone Number: _______________________

Account Number: _______________________ Exp.Date:_______

[ ] MasterCard [ ] Visa [ ] American Express [ ] Other

Signature: _______________________

Alternate card (when the primary card exceeds its credit limit):

Account Number: _______________________ Exp.Date:_______

[ ] MasterCard [ ] Visa [ ] American Express [ ] Other

Signature: _______________________

A Simple Lesson In Policy

A colleague included this little allegory in a recent presentation. It struck a chord deep within me, and I suspect it will with many of you as well. Anyone who, in the course of managing his/her career, has encountered seemingly illogical and downright stupid corporate policy that defies all intelligent explanation will relate to this. And if you don't, then please go back to your corner office and think about why the people you lead think you're such a dink.

Start with a cage containing five monkeys. In the cage, hang a banana on a string and put a set of stairs under it. Before long, a monkey will go to the stairs and start to climb towards the banana. As soon as he touches the stairs, spray all of the monkeys with cold water.

After a while, another monkey makes an attempt with the same result - all the monkeys are sprayed with cold water. Pretty soon, when any monkey tries to climb the stairs, the other monkeys will try to prevent it.

Now, turn off the cold water. Remove one monkey from the cage and replace it with a new one. The new monkey sees the banana and wants to climb the stairs. To his horror, all of the other monkeys attack him. After another attempt and attack, he knows that if he tries to climb the stairs, he will be assaulted.

Next, remove another of the original five monkeys and replace it with a new one. The newcomer goes to the stairs and is attacked. The previous newcomer takes part in the punishment with enthusiasm.

Again, replace a third original monkey with a new one. The new one makes it to the stairs and is attacked as well. Two of the four monkeys that beat him have no idea why they were not permitted to climb the stairs, or why they are participating in the beating of the newest monkey.

After replacing the fourth and fifth original monkeys, all the monkeys which have been sprayed with cold water have been replaced. Nevertheless, no monkey ever again approaches the stairs.

Why not? Because that's the way it's always been around here. And that's how company policy begins.

Friday, September 17, 2004

The Rock

When we bought our house, it came with a bunch of features that most homeowners in the 21st century tend to value: functional indoor plumbling, electrical service, a roof with no holes, and a basement that didn't flood every time it rained. But what really sold us on the place was the giant rock under the lovely dark red maple tree on our front lawn.

This fissure-crossed, fossil-laden piece of stratified material has become our outdoor platform of choice for family pictures, deep thinking, and long phone conversations. I've even done interviews from there (gotta love wireless phones, PalmPilots and foldaway keyboards).

It has also served as a launching pad for our kids as they learn to jump from heights that are gradually turning our hair grey. Yet somehow, they survive, they thrive, and they'll likely never forget this leftover hunk of primordial matter. I don't know what we'll do when we move someday. But wherever we end up, we'll need to have something like it, otherwise it just won't ever feel like home.

I took this closeup of its evolving network of cracks. Over time, it will be reduced to mere earth, much like rock has been de-evolving for eons before we came along. But for the snapshot in time during which it sits quietly in front of our kitchen window, it serves as the basis for timeless memories for three adventurous kids.

Raiding the Archives 7 - Unreality TV

As the ghostly excuse for the new television season gets underway, one thing is abundantly clear: reality-based programming still dominates large chunks of the broadcast landscape.

I know it's upsetting in a way our ancestors will never even come close to understanding. I hope you're not too upset by this. Please move away from the ledge, will you?

Seriously, in recent weeks, folks have been asking me whether I'm going to write about reality television because, frankly, they think this would be effective fodder for a Good Old Carmi Rant. I know they're being nice - and this is their friendly way of telling me I've devolved into an ornery writer with a huge chip on his shoulder. But writers have to have thick skin, so I simply smile and thank them for their idea before heading home and writing what I truly think about them in my blog.

[Pause for a good, soul-cleansing-yet-sinister laugh.]

There, I feel better. Let us continue.

Anyhoo, I wrote this almost two years ago as the fifth "season" of Survivor was winding down - meaning the last figurative knife was in the process of being forcibly inserted between the shoulder blades of the last-to-be-ousted contestant - and it seems to have held up well to this day.

May you watch Survivor - or whatever else that passes for entertainment in today's world of television - with the following happy thoughts in mind. And may we all collectively pray for the day when the wizards who control the dissemination of motion picture-based culture decide to return to more fundamental production values like writing, production, and acting. Perchance to dream.

Originally published Tuesday, December 17, 2002, in the London Free Press.

Survivor survivors moved on

Forget the winter weather outside. Yank the kids in from building that snowman. Put down your book and flip on the TV. Survivor: Thailand, the fifth edition of the original reality series, concludes Thursday.

What do you mean you don't care?

When the first Survivor hit the air more than two years ago, it built a massive following.

Viewers tired of the generic sitcom/cop show/talk show/newsmagazine drivel clogging the cable universe connected with a ragtag bunch of non-actors from all corners of America who spent an hour every week complaining about everyone else's laziness before voting one of them off the show.

"Voted off the island" became the catchphrase of the year. Water coolers echoed with conversations about nasty truck driver Susan and crusty old Rudy. Local bars and restaurants held Survivor parties. Rock & Roll Jeopardy host Jeff Probst became an unlikely anti-star.

The reality TV phenomenon was born. Admit it: you watched. At least once.

Which leads us to Hollywood's golden rule: if something works once, then it must be relentlessly ripped off. It doesn't really matter whether you copy yourself or copy someone else's show. Originality takes guts. Predictability demands something less. And nowhere is the law of diminishing returns more obvious - and painful to watch - than on TV.

As a result, successively smaller audiences have watched the Survivor franchise hopscotch from Malaysia to Australia, then to Africa and Marquesas before stopping (we should only be so lucky) in Thailand.

We can only watch so many innocent insects get eaten in the name of tribal immunity before we look for something more, um, substantial. Besides, the shock factor of drinking cow's blood wore off somewhere in Kenya.

And as we've tired of Survivor, we've also tuned out of the copycat shows, like The Mole, Temptation Island and The Osbournes, that were introduced in its somewhat tarnished wake and now litter the TV landscape.

OK, maybe The Osbournes are still around. But I see a short shelf life for Ozzy & Co. because even the masses of easy-to-please television viewers will eventually want to watch something somewhat more intellectually stimulating than listening to Rice Krispies after you've poured milk into the bowl.

Beyond the dumb factor, there's the minor issue of reality; rather, the lack of it. How real is it when these so-called Survivors' every move is captured by camera crews who live in luxurious villas on the other side of the hill?

I'm convinced the producers are secretly smuggling in burgers and root beer when the cameras are turned the other way.

There's a reason Canadians - with the exception of pseudo-Canuck Kel Gleason, who went down in an infamous scandal over beef jerky and an activity unsuitable for mention in a family newspaper - haven't been eligible to be on the show. We're simply not obnoxious enough to qualify.

We don't whine as loud. We have fewer tattoos and body piercings. We use terms like "bond" or "alliance" and mean them. We say please and thank you.

It won't be long before Survivor heads to the same TV dustbin that claimed the original island jigglefest, Gilligan's Island, a generation ago. Its contestants' 15 minutes of fame will wear off before we can reach for the remote.

On Thursday, the water cooler will be silent. London bars won't hold Survivor parties. Few will care who gets booted and who wins the million dollars (American!) Most conventional TV addicts will have already returned to the permanently-stuck-in-adolescence gang on Friends.

Despite all this, I'll be watching our beloved island buddies. Maligned and misguided as they are, part of me will miss these whiners who have virtually visited my home for the past three months.

The other part of me recognizes the displeasure my wife would feel if I didn't watch it with her.

Reality television, indeed.

Carmi Levy is a London freelance writer. He may be e-mailed at


Wednesday, September 15, 2004

The Stupidity of Sport

Looks like it's almost official: National Hockey League team owners will be locking the players out effective midnight, putting this season into jeopardy.

My brain is already percolating toxic thoughts on both sides of this most ridiculous of disputes. Toxic because no one in this community of idiots seems to grasp the concept that owners and players are together engaged in the business of entertainment. The games are nothing more than shows for a paying audience. By pursuing this endlessly and destructively adversarial relationship, they risk killing the goose that has been laying golden eggs for generations.

A little perspective is in order, because both sides clearly lack any at this point in time. Like all professional sports, hockey lives in a far more competitive world today than it did when there were only six teams in the league, two black-and-white channels on television and no computers beyond the monsters that sat in the basement of your bank's headquarters.

Kids today, who supposedly represent sport's future generations of fans, grow up with far more material things to do than our parents did. Between judo, soccer, and music lessons, their after-school time is also significantly more rigidly-scheduled than that of their ancestors. Take away hockey and their time will easily be occupied by something else. The National Hokey League (no, that's not a typo) folks should be lying awake at nights worried that these kids will never come back.

I'm going to be figuratively crucified for saying this, but in the overall scheme of things, hockey matters about as much on the celestial scale as a McDonald's Happy Meal and an empty Bic pen. One can make a similar argument for pretty much every major professional sport today. Unbelievably overpaid, under-brained, and uncultured "stars" blather on and on about the significance of their contributions to the world stage while the true heroes of our time are shut out of media coverage because the sports wrapup has to occupy its static 12-minute slot within the 6- and 11-o'clock newscasts. (For that, we can include in this blame-game the brain-dead news and program directors at every local television and radio station across the land for perpetuating this pox on modern culture.)

That these losers of society euphemistically known as professional athletes were ever considered role models by children is laughable in this day and age. It might have been true once. No longer.

The meaninglessness of it all is beyond staggering, yet we continue to reward these morons - owners and players alike - by dropping hundreds of dollars at a shot to watch them play. Then we pay even more to wear their logos on our behinds and on gas-sucking flags that we hang off of our cars to show our undying devotion to players who would just as soon run us over if they saw us in the street. I once even worked with someone who wore his favorite team's logo in the corner of his eyeglasses. I mean, come on people, get a grip!

As if to underscore our desire for self-flagellation, we whimper and whine when labor disputes keep our failed heroes from playing their little games for us. Why is that?

I really don't know, and I really don't care. I'm drawing my own line in the sand. I'm done. Life means far more than hockey, and I'd be happy to have the entire league implode if it means the rest of us can get on with the business of appreciating true contributions to the advancement of humankind - as opposed to which steroid-popping, cash-worshipping, classless doofus managed to get the puck into the net more often.

If I'm really that crazed about watching what should be a pure sport, I'll head down to the local rink this winter and watch kids playing because they simply love the game.

Rant over. For now.

A Little Boy Plays

This is one of my favorite pictures of all time. It's a simple snap that captures the innocence of a little guy at play. I took this one of our youngest, Noah, a year ago July when we went to the Pittock Conservation Area near Woodstock, Ontario to watch his aunt in a dragon boat race.

He was almost 3 at the time, and attention spans being what they are at that age, he couldn't possibly care less about what was going on across the water. Immediately beneath his feet, however, it was quite a different story. Another one of those little moments that speaks volumes.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

I've Become a Big Head

If you look over at the sidebar, you'll notice my hideous mug staring back at ya. Welcome to my head shot. It's one of the few pictures of me in existence, as I'd rather be in back of the lens than in front. As you can see, my hesitance to be committed to film (or CCD, flash memory, or whatever passes for photographic media these days) is clearly justified.

This particular pic is one of the files that the London Free Press uses with my columns. I know I look kinda goofy, but it gets the job done.

You can stop laughing now.


Racing the Moon

It's not like me to stare at the sky while I ride my bike home. For one thing, looking up means you're not looking at the more immediate threats to your well-being, namely the two-ton SUVs being driven by folks balancing cell phones in one hand and coffee cups from the drive-through in the other. (Speaking of which, I'll never understand how they manage to simultaneously steer while they engage in this seemingly masterful feat of multitasking. They must have grown a magical third arm when no one was looking.)

Beyond the obvious need for impact-avoidance, looking up does nasty things to your sense of balance while you're trying to pilot a gyroscopically-balanced machine on pothole-strewn roads. The next time you're on a bike, find a quiet spot and give it a try. If you're anywhere near as dexterously-challenged as I am, you'll find yourself grabbing desperately at your handlebars as you try to keep the bike from veering hideously off-course. For all my vaunted skills as an urban commuter commando cyclist, the looking-up thing eludes me. Oh well.

But on this ride home, I spotted a hot air balloon that had just taken off from a nearby field. One of the nice things about living in London is the relative frequent appearance of HABs in our skies. Since London is a fairly small city - around 25 km at its widest point - balloons can launch from around midtown, float to the hinterland and land anywhere in the farmer's fields that define the exurban landscape. Bigger towns would usually necessitate too much flight time and, correspondingly, fuel. And Toronto, a couple of hours east of here, is out because it sits next to Lake Ontario. Ever tried to land a wicker basket dangling from a bag of hot gas in a polluted body of water? Not so much fun, apparently.

When I turned for home, I ended up with a lovely tailwind out of the south. The balloon hovered over my right shoulder all the way to my house. I felt like I was racing the moon, and kept trying to resist the urge to peer up lest I become a hood ornament for the aforementioned caffeine-addled, communication-challenged SUV pilot.

Does it matter in the overall scheme of things that I was paced home by a wind-following balloon? Likely not. But it was another tiny, unique event that defined my day in the midst of what would have otherwise been an unending sea of chaos.

The next time something floats over your own shoulder, I hope you'll take the time to enjoy it as well. Just don't crash your velo in the process.

Monday, September 13, 2004

Balls of Color

I took this picture at a playplace near our house. It's called Adventures on Wonderland, and, big surprise, it's located on London's Wonderland Road. Creative, eh?

Anyhoo, this place is the current saveur du jour for our kids. It's the modern (read overcommercialized) incarnation of an indoor playground, and it lets the little people run loose for a while while their parents sit idly by in the futile hope that they'll burn off enough energy to sleep through the night. Yeah, as if.

This pic is from the giant ball pit. Colorful, isn't it? What you can't see are the billions of little bacteria that infest every surface of every lovely ball. Mmmm, makes you want to dip the little munchkins in disinfectant when you get home.

Sunday, September 12, 2004

Still with the Photos: Up in the Air

I've started taking the digicam everywhere. The underlying theory of photography is you can't get the shot if you don't have your equipment at hand. So to tilt the law of photographic averages somewhat more in my favor, I spent much of the weekend wearing the camera case around my belt.

Yes, when coupled with my cell phone, I look like the penultimate uber-geek. But it means I can capture scenes like one below. I had taken the two littlest ones on an expedition through the moonscape that is our construction-devoured neighborhood. After fording gravel-strewn roads and avoiding monster tractors, we made it to the nearby playground. When I wasn't pushing them in the swings or sitting in awe of their seemingly bottomless energy reserves, I noticed the clouds were becoming somewhat dense and causing all sorts of fascinating reflections across the blue sky. I unscientifically pointed the camera skyward and proceeded to fill the SD card.

Oh yes, I also took pictures of the kids. I'll post those to the Yahoo Photo site (I've also added the link to the sidebar). Now to explain to my wife why I seem to be using her camera more often than I use my own. Oops.


Finally figured out how to conveniently make pictures available on the web.

Click here to see what we're up to these days. I'll do my best to keep pictures of myself off of the site. Frightening!

Saturday, September 11, 2004

Three Years Later

I've written previously about Toronto Star Columnist, Rosie DiManno, and her amazing ability to articulate in words what a reader feels, and to do so in an amazingly personal, visceral manner. If my words ever approach the impact of hers, I'll be doing very well indeed.

Her perspective on 9/11, three years later, appears here. If you haven't yet familiarized yourself with her work, click here for a archive of her most recently-published work.

Tragedy on any scale leaves society - and the individuals who form it - a number of choices. At one end of the spectrum, we can choose to live in the depths of despair and thus relegate ourselves to an eternity of sameness. Or we can define the event as a turning point in history and choose to work to overcome the obstacles placed within our path.

With that in mind, time does little to ease the pain of those who lost so much on that day, and in the myriad other attacks that have punctured the everyday lives of innocents in the years since. But the fact that the righteous among us have chosen to stand against those who would wipe the achievements of humanity aside under the veil of endless hatred gives us hope that the future will be better than the present and the recent past.

It's lesson that has mattered countless times in history - the Holocaust, the Armenian and Rwandan slaughters, for example - and continues to matter today. May we never forget, and may we never be afraid to risk our own comfort to make right of what is morally wrong.

The Original Help Desk

Thanks, everyone, for your feedback on my cubicle-wall story. You've motivated me to dig up more jewels from the dusty archives and post 'em here.

This is one of my all-time favorites. I'm not sure where it comes from, but it's guaranteed to mist your eyes just a little bit. It's good food for thought as we move through what would otherwise seem like a mundane existence.

I suspect the lesson here is there's nobility in the mundane, and opportunities to make that tiny difference lie all around us.

The Original Help Desk?
Information Please

When I was quite young, my father had one of the first telephones in our neighborhood. I remember well the polished old case fastened to the wall. The shiny receiver hung on the side of the box. I was too little to reach the telephone, but used to listen with fascination when my mother used to talk to it. Then I discovered that somewhere inside the wonderful device lived an amazing person - her name was “Information Please” and there was nothing she did not know. “Information Please” could supply anybody’s number and the correct time.

My first personal experience with this genie-in-a-bottle came one day while my mother was visiting a neighbor. Amusing myself at the tool bench in the basement, I whacked my finger with a hammer. The pain was terrible, but there didn’t seem to be any reason in crying because there was no one home to give sympathy. I walked around the house sucking my throbbing finger, finally arriving at the stairway. The telephone! Quickly, I ran for the footstool in the parlor and dragged it to the landing. Climbing up, I unhooked the receiver in the parlor and held it to my ear.

“Information Please,” I said into the mouthpiece just above my head. A click or two and a small clear voice spoke into my ear. “Information.”

“I hurt my finger...” I wailed into the phone. The tears came readily enough now that I had an audience.

“Isn’t your mother home?” came the question.

“Nobody’s home but me,” I blubbered.

“Are you bleeding?”

“No,” I replied. “I hit my finger with the hammer and it hurts.”

“Can you open your icebox?” she asked. I said I could. “Then chip off a little piece of ice and hold it to your finger,” said the voice.

After that, I called “Information Please” for everything. I asked her for help with my geography and she told me where Philadelphia was. She helped me with my math. She told me my pet chipmunk that I had caught in the park just the day before would eat fruits and nuts.

Then, there was the time Petey, our pet canary, died. I called “Information Please” and told her the sad story. She listened, then said the usual things grown-ups say to soothe a child. But I was unconsoled.

I asked her, “Why is it that birds should sing so beautifully and bring joy to all families, only to end up as a heap of feathers at the bottom of a cage?”

She must have sensed my deep concern, for she said quietly, “Paul, always remember that there are other worlds to sing in.” Somehow, I felt better.

Another day I was on the telephone. “Information Please.” “Information,” said the now-familiar voice. “How do you spell ‘fix’?” I asked.

All this took place in a small town in the Pacific Northwest. When I was 9 years-old, we moved across the country to Boston. I missed my friend very much. “Information Please” belonged in that old wooden box back home, and I somehow never thought of trying the tall, shiny new phone that sat on the table in the hall.

As I grew into my teens, the memories of those childhood conversations never really left me. Often, in moments of doubt and perplexity, I would recall the serene sense of security I had then. I appreciated how patient, understanding and kind she was to have spent her time on a little boy.

A few years later, on my way west to college, my plane put down in Seattle. I had about half an hour or so between planes. I spent 15 minutes or so on the phone with my sister, who lived there now. Then, without thinking what I was doing, I dialed my hometown operator and said, “Information Please.” Miraculously, I heard the small, clear voice I knew so well, “Information.” I hadn’t planned this, but I heard myself saying, “Could you please tell me how to spell ‘fix’?” There was a long pause. Then came the soft spoken answer, “I guess your finger must have healed by now.”

I laughed. “So it’s really still you,” I said. “I wonder if you have any idea how much you meant to me during that time.”

“I wonder,” she said, “if you know how much your calls meant to me. I never had any children, and I used to look forward to your calls.”

I told her how often I had thought of her over the years, and I asked if I could call her again when I came back to visit my sister. “Please do,” she said. “Just ask for Sally.” Three months later I was back in Seattle. A different voice answered “Information.” I asked for Sally. “Are you a friend?” she said. “Yes, a very old friend,” I answered. “I’m sorry to have to tell you this,” she said. “Sally had been working part-time the last few years because she was sick. She died five weeks ago.”

Before I could hang up, she said, “Wait a minute. Did you say your name was Paul?” “Yes.” “Well, Sally left a message for you. She wrote it down in case you called. Let me read it to you.” The note said, “Tell him I still say there are other worlds to sing in. He’ll know what I mean.”

I thanked her and hung up. I knew what Sally meant.


Never underestimate the impression you may make on others.


Growing Roots, Building Connections

As I read the blogs created by other people, I realize my sidebar is significantly more bare than most. As I learn more about how this stuff works, I find myself adding more little "toys" to the space on the right-hand side of the screen.

The latest addition is a simple one: I've registered this site with My direct link is here. I've stuck a text link - Registered! - at the bottom of the sidebar.

What does it do? I'm not sure. Will it enhance my life in unimaginable ways? Doubtful. Will my wife and kids like me more? piece of HTML code comes close to a simple hug when you first wake up, the sun is just barely brightening the sky and the world is otherwise quiet.

Still, if you have any suggestions for cool sidebar tricks, I'm all ears.

Friday, September 10, 2004

Peter's Laws

Years ago, I came across this lovely little list of life's lessons. So taken was I with it that I printed up a copy and posted it outside my cubicle at the MegaCorps where I worked. It was soon joined by other one-page "happies" that made for light reading while folks waited for me to get off the phone.

Although my initial intention was to provide an ever-changing selection of reading material for friendly visitors, the raison d'etre of my literary rogue's gallery eventually took on an additional, less altruistic role: I figured it would also teach a subtle lesson or two to the bean counters who regularly made the rounds of the cube farms to make sure we were still sitting there at the appointed hours. Maybe it would even teach them to smile.

I'm not sure if I managed to pierce the foggy depths within which most of these drones lived, but works like this one continue to make me smile to this day. I hope they have a similar impact - smiling and thinking - on you. Enjoy.

Peter's Laws
The Creed of the Sociopathic Obsessive Compulsive
  1. If anything can go wrong, Fix it! (To hell with Murphy!)
  2. When given a choice -- Take both!
  3. Multiple projects lead to multiple successes.
  4. Start at the top and work your way up.
  5. Do it by the book...but be the author!
  6. When forced to compromise, ask for more.
  7. If you can't beat them, join them, and then beat them.
  8. If it's worth doing, it's got to be done right now.
  9. If you can't win, change the rules.
  10. If you can't change the rules, ignore them.
  11. When faced without a challenge, make one.
  12. "No" simply means begin again at the next highest level.
  13. Don't walk when you can run.
  14. Bureaucracy is a challenge to the be conquered with a righteous attitude, an intolerance for stupidity, and bulldozer when necessary.
  15. When in doubt: THINK!
  16. Patience is a virtue but persistence to the point of success is a blessing.
  17. The squeaky wheel gets replaced.
  18. The faster you move, the slower time passes, the longer you live.

Bad Squirrel

Came across this hilariously written account of an encounter between a motorcyclist and a squirrel. I know it has little to do the yin and yang of this blog. But it might make you smile. In which case, it was worth posting.

Going Spacey, Again

It's been a weird week in space.

First, the Genesis spacecraft did the world's longest recorded celestial swan dive before unceremoniously impaling itself in the Utah desert.

The voicetrack that accompanied the commentator as the craft spiralled out of control was classic NASA: "We have a negative function on the atmospheric deceleration device," or something like that. It's a good thing that I was not at the microphone during this event, because they would have had to beep me out more often than they did when I was on Reach for the Top all those moons ago. (Yes, Jeopardy's Alex Trebek was a Quizmaster way back when.)

Thankfully, no one died - well, except for the rare split-tailed armadillo who got lost on his way to the Taco Bell and ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time. It looks like the crash didn't ruin the science mission. And then Wheelson graced us with the funniest posting I've read in months. My stomach still aches.

Then the International Space Station - remember the ISS? - popped back into our sand-covered malaise. To bring y'all back up to speed, Gennady and Mike are still in orbit, this despite the fact that the folks down in Mission Control got so bored watching them go round and round that they rerouted the comm feed to their PDAs so they could take a field trip. To the Taco Bell.

While they were out, the oxygen generation system imploded again, forcing the astronauts to don plastic bubble-head devices and remain as still as possible so as to minimize their oxygen intake until they re-enter the atmosphere in a Starfleet shuttle pod. Okay, that last part was a joke. But the oxygen system really is broken.

At least I know where they can get a partially-used parachute. Really cheap.

Thursday, September 09, 2004

Adios, Floppy

The end is near for the venerable floppy disk. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of technology likely knows this by now, as it's been a long time coming. Still, stories like Floppy disk nears obsolescence are starting to show up in mainstream, non-techie media with increasing regularity. I'd better catalog my remaining disks quickly!

Blogs go Legit, Again

The evidence continues to grow that blogging is evolving into more than a disconnected world of informal discussion. yesterday published Net Notes: Companies turn to blogs to track buzz, in which reporter Michael Bazeley explored how blogs are now being used by companies to more effectively tune into their respective markets.

It also touches on the whole pay-no-pay discussion that's made the rounds in recent weeks. I initially wrote about it here last month. To make a long story short, would you trust what you read in a blog if you knew the writer was being paid? Does commercial gain necessarily compromise editorial bias? Will any move toward increased commercialization of this medium fundamentally change the way it works?

Lots of food for thought here. As Linda Richman would say, "Discuss."

But What KIND of Education?

If your inbox is filling up with exhortations from Nigerian scammers and you feel like all hope of honesty in the online world is lost, this link to the University of Nigeria should cheer you up.

For extra fun, show it to folks while trying to maintain a straight face. Then track how long it takes before they realize the site is a joke. Great fun on otherwise-yawn-inducing days. Not that there are many of those around here, mind you.

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Mall Rats

I'm no fan of big box developments. Over time, I've come to loathe their impact on the urban landscape. Like the malls that came before them, they encourage a car-based existence that makes no room for any other mode of transportation (have you tried walking to your local Wal-Mart recently?) Worse, they essentially pave over the majority of our cities with nary a thought toward what this does to our overall quality of life.

The Los Angeles Times recently ran a piece called Up Against the Mall. Staff Writer Julie Tamaki outlined the clash of old and new retail forms, and what it could mean for similar developments elsewhere. Although this is but one fight, the implications for all of us are infinitely portable. As such, this article is a good place to start.

Publish Day - To the Dogs

The big issue in London over the past few weeks has been the possibility of a ban on pit bull dogs. A spate of attacks in recent weeks has once again got everyone's fur standing on end. Seeing as I'm never afraid to add my two cents worth to a rabid public debate, my latest column, Dog owners must be held accountable, appears in today's London Free Press.