Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Google Dorks, Unite!

The Google Hacking Database is a great resource for anyone who wants to explore the privacy-busting power of a modern search engine. Paste the entries into Google and see what confidential and/or otherwise sensitive material you can uncover. It is frightening from a socio-technological perspective, but it also represents a cool way to spend those otherwise-idle 45 minutes before the kids wake up on a Sunday morning.

Oh yes, the term, Google Dork, as defined by this site, is as follows: "An inept or foolish person as revealed by Google." Welcome to the new age, everyone.

Monday, August 30, 2004

More Photo Fun

London has these weird sunsets sometimes. The sky gets this incredibly yellowish tinge that literally bathes everything in an eerie tone. We had one of those nights this past week. Of course, by the time I stopped ruminating about the possible root cause of this phenomenon, fed the cat, finished my butterscotch pudding, read the kids a bedtime story, grabbed the camera and headed out the door, things had darkened appreciably. Still, the sky looked pretty unreal, and I feel privileged to have captured another one of those fleeting photographic moments.

A Peek at Us

Now that I've figured out how to upload pictures to the blog, I'll forewarn you that I may be a bit photo-happy for the next little bit. Here's a rare picture of our entire brood. To help people remember what we look like, we've evolved a family tradition: I hold the camera at arm's length, say a little photographic prayer and squeeze the shutter. Now that we're digital, we'll probably do it more often.

In case you've forgotten the family visuals, here's the lowdown:

  • Bottom left: Noah, the happiest boy we know.
  • Above him, in the orange shirt: Zach, aerodynamic in his reversed cap.
  • In the middle, the woman responsible for it all: my wife, Debbie
  • In the pink flowers: Dahlia (coincidence, you think?)
  • Unshaven doof on the right: me.

Sunday, August 29, 2004

For the Love of Pontification

I've been quoted again. This time for Processor.com, that American tech paper for which I pen opinion pieces (yeah, it's incestuous, but someone's gotta do it.)

Anyhoo, here's the link to my musings.

Blogging for Dollars?

I came across this interesting paradigm-questioning post in Ozzilyn Bean's blog. It got me thinking about the implications of commercial interest on different media types. Here's my perspective:

Every new technology seems to start with an idealistic premise. Think back to the heady early days of the Internet - pre- AND post-Web - when everyone sat around their 14.4 and 28.8 Kbps modems and sang kumbaya because they were so enthralled with humanity's newfound ability to send a text greeting to someone halfway around the planet.

It didn't take long before money entered the picture. And, with much ado, the commercial nature of the new medium soon predominated. (Think dot-com here and you're on the right path.) In a way, it is inevitable, and I don't say that in a purely perjorative fashion. It's more a point of fact: sooner or later, someone or something has to pay the bills.

And so it goes with blogging. A grassroots technology is evolving into a commercially viable medium - or FORM of medium...still figuring that one out. AdSense is likely the first of many such models that wlil be launched in the coming years. Most will crash and burn. Some will succeed and redefine how we incorporate this new toolset into our day-to-day lives.

Although the implications of commercial interest on free speech can be dire, they are no different in the blogging world as they have been on any medium which experienced a similar transition in the past.

We sure do live in exciting times. Bring it on.

Happy Birthday, Internet

Where were you 35 years ago today? If you're reading this, the piece of history in this link may be of interest. I apologize for not having any cake to mark the occasion. Maybe for double-chai next year.

A Foggy Morning in London

We woke up this morning to another typically murky morning in this burg. So I did what any other digital camera newbie would do: I walked outside our front door and took this morose view of our street. Enjoy.

Saturday, August 28, 2004

Letters Keep Pouring In

Maybe it isn't a torrent, but this morning's Free Press includes another letter in response to this week's column. London's Betty Howard has become my new best friend (with apologies to my existing cadre of best friends...though maybe you should write letters, too.) Here's what she wrote:

Canada's Olympians win respect, admiration

Regarding Carmi Levy's column, Olympic victories go beyond medals (Aug. 26):

I was incensed with the negative reporting on the Olympic athletes who had problems on the field at Athens. All of these athletes deserve praise for their trials as well as wins. Also, being chosen for such honourable games is a badge of honour to be respected by us all.

Levi's (sic) article was commendable and truly gave the respect and admiration due to those athletes. Whether they win or lose, in my book they have already won.

Thank you, Team Canada, and all athletes who participate in the Olympic Games at Athens.

Friday, August 27, 2004

Technology: Bad for You

Further proof that the acceleration of technology holds the potential to bring us nothing but misery if we choose to rush headlong into the future without considering the implications. Wired.com - another one of my favorite technology-meets-culture resources, has this review of Dear Valued Customer, You Are a Loser, by Rick Broadhead.


It's official: the soft launch period of this blog is now over, as I just sent an e-mail to everyone on my mailing list letting 'em know this site exists. If you're one of the new folks, welcome. Start reading from the bottom and gradually work your way up. That'll get you from June to today without too much difficulty.

Please be liberal with your comments. Pro, con or neither, my only fear is indifference.

Glad to have you along for the ride. I hope you enjoy the experience...and I'll do my utmost to make it fun.

Sayonara, Dream Team

My dream has come true: that travesty of Olympic competition, the U.S. men's basketball team - arrogantly called The Dream Team, won't win gold in Athens. Would this qualify as their worst nightmare?

Reached Another One

As a writer, nothing pleases me more than hearing back from a reader. It still amazes me that that my mere words can prompt others to think, act, or even change. So imagine my pleasant surprise when I opened today's London Free Press, flipped to the Letters to the Editor page and saw this letter from a gentleman named Michael Cornell:

Pen pushers set ‘em up, knock ‘em down

I am disappointed at the tone of Steve Simmons’ front-page column, Woe Canada (Aug. 25).

Why should he be woeful when he and his fellow media pen pushers have elevated our athletes into semi-gods, leaving us mortal genuflectors in anticipation of nothing less than gold medals?

Our athletes have done nothing less than we could expect of them. They have united in peace with the youth of the world and they have performed to the best of their ability. Pray that the rest of us could perform in a similar manner in our more mundane day-to-day lives.

The column that should have been on the front page was Olympic victories go beyond medals. Instead, it was secreted to page A7, in the opinion pages.

Carmi levy should be complimented.

Thursday, August 26, 2004

I Scream, You Scream...

By now, you've likely heard the Edvard Munch's famous painting, "The Scream", has been stolen, along with his "Madonna", from the Munch Museum in Oslo, Norway. If this means nothing to you, here's a bit more background on this masterpiece and the late artist.

This latest crime has rekindled the debate over what constitutes a masterpiece, and why we value them so ridiculously anyway. I came across this well-written op-ed piece on the subject, and it made me smile. While reading it, I recalled being told by one particularly self-righteous "connoisseur" of art that real culture encompasses, and is limited to, looking at masterpieces hanging in world-famous museums. He then rhymed off the names of the masters he had seen at said museums, likely not understanding or appreciating any of the subtle genius that led up to their respective creation.

Of course, anything that did not fit his narrow definition of true art was, by definition, not worth discussing.


This begs the question, of course, of why anyone would steal a priceless painting in the first place, let alone an armload of 'em. It's like stealing a Rolls-Royce in that it's about as inconspicuous as P. Diddy at the opera. It's also not as if you're going to find a thriving parts market for the thing anyway. You've got to wonder about the criminal mind. Aside from being an incredibly wonderful song by Canada's own Lawrence Gowan (aka "Larry Gowan" or simply "Gowan"), there's little I understand about what makes a scofflaw tick. Thank goodness.

I guess I'll have to satisfy myself with staring at masterpieces on the web. And if I happen to stare at a non-masterpiece by a non-famous, non-dead, non-hanging-in-a-stuffy-museum artist, I guess it'll have to be our little secret.

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Publish Day - Olympic Thoughts

My latest missive was published in today's London Free Press. You can find the article here. I wrote it because I believe our perspective on sport has become rather warped. Specifically, those who criticize Olympic athletes for not bringing home a medal are the ones least likely to get off their own couches and actually participate.

The image of an increasingly sedentary society that refuses to appreciate the virtues of elite sports is one that has bothered me for some time. It is my hope that such people will read the article and see the opportunity to change themselves for the better. I realize, however, that the epidemic of obesity will not be so easily quelled.

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

The Good Doc

Went to my Doc to have my parts checked out. I'm happy to report I'm still alive, and barring the grille of a semi loaded with Garden Claws bound for Wal-Mart, I should still be alive for quite some time to come.

Back I go to writing. Lots and lots of writing. Vacations are great, but you end up with so much work when you get back - remember, deadlines don't move just because you go away - that the post-time-off honeymoon period is almost non-existent. At least we still have the pictures.

Monday, August 23, 2004

Raiding the Archives 4 - Of Pucks & Books

So here I am, sitting at the kitchen table while my daughter eats pancakes and our youngest hums the ABC song while he plays with his Buzz Lightyear pillow. I was rooting around the SD card and found the next article from my London Free Press archives. I'm going to try to e-mail it from here - hopefully all the technology-gnomes will speak the same language and deposit the results firmly on my blog. Cross your fingers.

I rather enjoyed writing this piece, since it represented an early foray into self-righteous edginess (also known simply as the rant). It was also the first time I really ticked people off. We were out of town when this was published, but upon our return friends told us that announcers on at least two radio stations lambasted me for taking an anti-arena stand and made fun of my piece.

Agree or disagree makes no difference to me: it was a rush just knowing I had kicked up such a fuss. My only challenge after this article was coming up with more of the same. Enjoy...and may your literary journeys be fulfilling.

One more thing before I forget: here are the links to the two facilities mentioned in the article. The arena was eventually named the John Labatt Centre. Since beer and literature are apparently less well-suited to each other, the big book place remains known simply as Central Branch of the London Public Library.

Originally published Friday, August 23, 2002, in the London Free Press.

Arena likely to be white elephant

The hype surrounding the October opening of the London Entertainment and Sports Complex - read the arena - has to a certain extent eclipsed the impending inaugural of London's "other" downtown big-ticket building, the library.

Don't get me wrong: I like my sports just as much as anyone else. When life's getting you down and you need a mindless escape from the pressure, sitting in the stands watching a bunch of athletes whacking each other around while trying to get a small frozen piece of rubber into a net sounds like great fun. But it doesn't enhance my future. For that, I'll go to the new library, which opens Sunday, for a more meaningful experience.

I often talk about things in terms of "stuff," which refers to any large-scale, physical, taxpayer-funded entity that generates heated opinions.

For the most part, the common thread linking all this stuff is the ease with which we can live without any of it. Do we really need an arena? Will our lives come to a crashing halt if we don't have it? Probably not. I'd rather have a sewage system that works. Even the most ardent hockey fans likely won't care about the arena when they're ankle-deep in sludge following a severe rain storm.

Likewise, would the now-rejected water spout have increased tourism in London? Hardly. Say what you want, but I just couldn't see breathless families from Brampton speeding into town in their minivans, desperately looking for Old Faithful. We're not talking substance, folks. We're talking gimmickery.

The never-ending arguments for and against spending money (I hesitate to use the term "investment," because that would imply some sort of return in our lifetime) remind me of an old episode of The Simpsons: A crowd of concerned citizens descends on city hall to discuss the merits of a proposed monorail system versus the need to repair crumbling Main Street. After a song-and-dance routine by a crooked monorail salesperson, the crowd buys into the ruse and the monorail gets the go-ahead. Elected officials are swayed by the mindless mob, leaving the downtown to rot.

Sure, it's a cartoon. But the scenario is frighteningly similar to today's London. A $42 million project, 75 per cent funded by you and me, has received the green light without any obvious concern about the long-term potential for their to be any return. If private industry is so sure about the success of the project, I'd suggest they foot the bill. If they're not, I'd like to see the detailed cost/benefit analyses outlining when we can expect an acceptable return on our public "investment."

If I'm going to risk hard-earned tax dollars on anything, it'll be on things that actually return value to society within a reasonable time frame, such as better schools, libraries and communications and transportation infrastructure.

I realize investing in our kids or the pipes and cables that connect us all isn't as glamorous as putting up a big building. But where will we be when the Knights pack up and leave town one of these years?

The worst-case scenario is starkly obvious: we'll have yet another big box to admire, a still-empty downtown and another never-ending mortgage. Rational thought seems to once again be giving way to crowd-driven emotion, and it's tiresome when it's our money being spent.

That other building, the library, at least promises a return beyond the merely monetary. I'll be able to use it every day. It won't cost me an arm and a leg to use. Most importantly, I'll be able to use it to hopefully instill in my children the same love of reading and learning that the libraries of my childhood provided to me. No arena ever taught me that much.

As a means of minimizing our collective risk, I advise our city to invest in peanut futures, because until our obsession with stuff gives way to intelligent management of public funds, I fear we'll be left with yet another white elephant long after the hoopla dies down.


Sunday, August 22, 2004

Home Again

Just finished unpacking the car after the return drive home. It's good to be home. Our cat, Shadow, missed us so much that he hasn't stopped meowing - angrily, I believe - since we got home. He stops long enough for the kids to pat and hug him, though, so he's just playing the guilt card. Who would have thought a cat could be so cunning.

It took us over 11 hours to cover a distance that, when we had fewer kids and better traffic, we have done in under 7. It took us this long because kids will be kids. Here are some snippets:
  • We stopped at the Big Apple in Colborne, Ontario. Actually, our youngest calls it "The Big Red Apple," and I'm inclined to go with his nomenclature. It is what you would imagine: a giant red apple. To add to its kitschy, tourist-trapping potential, they have built a petting zoo, duck pond, games area, and restaurant/pie factory around the apple. So congested is the commercial activity that it's often difficult to see the huge faux-fruit that started it all. Still, the kids had a great time, we snapped tons of pictures (God bless digital cameras, because you just don't care about film!) and I'm sure this will stick in their mind just as the wacky things our parents did when we were young remain to this day in ours.
  • The Big Apple is not the same as the Apple Route. On a previous trip, this subtle difference seemed to evade my brain. Our lovely and unplanned tour of apple orchards eventually came to an end when we saw Lake Ontario straight ahead, and a kindly lady gave us directions to get us back on our way.
  • Children have to pee at the very moment the minivan passes the point at which you can no longer safely take the exit off the highway. This inevitably kicks off an exploratory journey through the regional highways immediately north and/or south of the main highway. You see a lot of stuff you wouldn't otherwise see, and as long as the little people don't piddle, it's actually a pretty cool experience to get off the superhighway and get a close-up look at the amazing country you so clearly miss when you whizz by it at 120 km/h. Time pales next to the richness of a low sun scattering golden light off a farmer's field perfectly cropped with hay bales at precise intervals. You tend to remember the image longer than the precise time you pulled into the driveway.
  • Songs that you really loved when you first heard them - read Shrek and Shrek 2 soundtracks - will invade your nightmares by the time your children have listened to them for the 542nd time. But it makes them happy, so you continue to hit the repeat button, hoping it doesn't wear out from overuse.
  • Time matters little when your little people are enjoying the ride. They won't be little forever.

Saturday, August 21, 2004

Better, Not Older

We visited my great aunt today. She was always the coolest aunt of my grandparents' generation, and seeing her whenever we visit Montreal helps us reconnect to where we came from.

I always worry about bringing the kids to visit elderly relatives. They're so full of happy energy that I wonder if they'll simply overwhelm whoever we see. Yet as crazy as they can be when they get going, they somehow know how to adapt themselves to any situation. Instead of bouncing off the walls, they go soft and cuddly, even a little shy at first. They pose for pictures without even being asked. They're on their best behavior for as long as we're there.

Before long, the visit is over and we're left to wonder how she'll fare until our next drive in. Life gets harder as you age, and you wish you could do something to help loved ones make it easier. But you can't. And that short visit with the perfectly-behaved kids will have to hold everyone over until the next time we come to town.

Friday, August 20, 2004

Last Ride to Booneyville

I took the bike way west today, ending up in a place called Oka. I don't think there was another English-speaking person for 15 km in any direction, but that didn't seem to matter. I found an incredible bike path network that took me to the national park in Oka, the same place where I learned to cross-country ski as a kid. I even cycled on some of the same trails where I had gone skiing. I don't think they've changed any of the signs since then: they're still that hideous yellow-on-brown that's impossible to see unless you stick your face right up to the sign.

I think this ride will be my last one on this trip, since we're heading home in a couple of days. Still, I'm glad I brought the beast with me, because it gave me a chance to see pieces of the world I would have otherwise missed. Who knows, they may yet show up in some future writing of mine. Don't bet against it.

Thursday, August 19, 2004

Soft Comfort

Our eldest son slept at my parents' last night. Beyond splitting up the kids and making everyone's life simpler, it gave him a chance to be alone with his other set of grandparents.

Problem is, when it was time for bed tonight, he realized he had left his beloved blanket behind.

Now, the blanket is a shadow of its former self. Its original green jungle pattern with bright parrots on it has been faded to a ratty-looking monotone. It has been shredded and reswen so many times that it's a wonder any original fabric remains. But it's his. And it's been a constant in his life since we first brought him home. So off I went into the dark on my bike to fetch it for him.

He's nine years-old now. Some would say he's a little old to hold on to his blanket. I think we'd all be better off if we held onto something that brings us comfort, no matter how old we are.

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Heading North

My wife and I headed north for a couple of days. We kept looking back in the van, half-expecting there to be a chorus of little voices asking for more Shrek songs. But there were none. The kids stayed with the grandparents, and we were alone.

It is so rare for us to be truly alone that we often remember the exact date when we were last sans enfants. If rarity makes something valuable, then time by ourselves - much as we love our little people - is truly cherished.

Still, bedtime was a little odd. No bedtime stories. No cat jumping on my head. I missed the routine, but I was OK getting away from it, even if only for a fleeting day or two.

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

A Centurion, I Am

To recreational cyclists, the century is a worthwhile training goal as the season progresses. Depending on how you look at it, a century can be either 100 km, or 162 km (100 miles). The former is known as a metric century, and is usually all I can coax out of my wife before she tells me I need to get back home (I'll duck now...)

So I hit the road well before 7 a.m. with the intention of hitting triple-digits and returning home within four hours. Granted, 25 km/h isn't going to set any land speed records. But I was on my beater bike with the big, fat, knobby tires, and I was loaded down with enough food and water to get me across a medium-sized desert. I also had the lovely gel cover on my seat - for a cushy tushy. So ultimate speed wasn't my goal: enjoying the ride was.

I headed west toward a neat little burg called Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue. I took the requisite gnome-picture of my bike before stuffing my face with breakfast bars and a purloined bag of M&Ms (shh, don't tell my wife). After topping off my water bottles, I turned for home, cruising beside the shore of Lac St. Lous. The water sparkled in the mid-morning sun, but I think it's just as polluted as it's ever been. So no swimming in it for me.

A little while later, I stopped at the end of the airport runway to watch the planes take off. In this post-9/11 world, I was highly conscious of the fact that at any minute, cops might pull up and ask me what the hell I was doing there. So I got back on my wheels and continued my journey.

With 12 minutes to spare, I turned the corner and parked the bike at home. Was I a little nuts for pursuing my season's first century with such zeal? Probably. But it's the kind of small personal victory that sticks with you every time you're on the verge of quitting. If you push just a little bit more, you'll hit your goal and then revel in the achievement. Not a bad way to ride. Or to live.

Monday, August 16, 2004

Small Stuff

I sat on the stairs earlier today and watched our kids play with my wife's father. He's the kind of grandfather who will clear his schedule when we're in town because, while his bridge-playing partners will still be there next week, his grandchildren won't be. It reminds me of my own maternal grandparents, whose lives revolved around us kids whenever we went to visit. It made me smile.

Looking back at the day, the kids didn't do anything earth-shattering. No big trips or presents. Just a quiet day hanging around with their Bubbie and Zayda.

We're often told to not sweat the small stuff. Interestingly, life is all about the small stuff. If we paid more attention to the little moments, maybe we'd all be just a little happier. While I quietly sat on the stairs, I was.

Sunday, August 15, 2004

Return to the Green Mountain

As long as I can recall, Mount Royal, the 200-metre high hill for which Montreal was named, has loomed large. I spent a good chunk of my childhood in the Jewish General Hospital, high up on the hill. My room in the children's ward afforded me a view of another hospital, St. Mary's, at which our eldest son would be born so many years later.

When I learned to ride a bike, I would dream of riding across the bridge from my home just north of Montreal, through the city itself, then way up the mountain until, finally, I would reach the top. Never mind that my mother would ground me forever if I so much as left the neighborhood without her permission. I had the itch to ride further.

When I got into biking, the mountain became my so-called odyssey ride. The first time I climbed it, I was so tired that I think it took me the rest of the afternoon to trek back across the city. Still, as I got older and stronger, the mountain became a place to test my mettle and gradually bring my times down. For a while, we lived at the base of the mountain, and I'd climb it early every morning before going to work.

I went back to the hill earlier today. I climbed up and enjoyed the view before coasting down the long Chemin Olmsted - named for Mount Royal Park's designer, Frederick Law Olmsted - and taking a few pictures at the famed Tam Tam Jam. A couple more climbs and descents and I was ready to head home, my black tires turned grey from the dust of the gravel trail.

London has no real mountains, and its few hills pale in comparison. Still, every time I encounter one on the way home from work, I imagine I'm tackling my old favorite, and I go back to a comfortable reminder of childhood for the most brief of moments.

Saturday, August 14, 2004

The Grizzled Vet

When we arrived in Montreal and I put the bike back together, I noticed one of my brake cables was dangerously frayed. No big deal considering this bike - the beater bike that I used to use for commuting - hadn't been used in months. But the prospect of descending a large mountain at high speed and having my brake cable snap and do all sorts of horrible things to my person didn't really sit too well with my wife. So, rules of flight - the inviolable set of rules that I have before I set off on any wheeled journey - being what they are, off I went to the bike shop to have the offending part replaced.

I took my purple wheels to a place called Cyclo-Sport near my parents' and in-laws. It's the same bike store I used to frequent when I was a kid. The owner was still there, only his hair was a lot wilder and grayer than I rememebered it. He graciously welcomed me into the dark, dusty service area out back and set to work replacing the cable.

I may as well have stepped back in time, for the store hadn't changed since I first set foot in it. The sun struggled to shine through the hazy air over his workstand, and the walls were lined with the flotsam and jetsam of decades worth of bicycle parts. Even the smell, a strangely comfortable mixture of rubber and oil, hadn't changed.

While he worked away, we chatted - in Quebecois French - about his love of biking and the life it allowed him to lead. It was the kind of fascinating insight into smalltown life that you just wouldn't get from the smock-wearing doofus assembling steel-framed monsters at the local Wal-Mart.

I left the store with a smile on my face because I had been lucky to glimpse the kind of simplicity that makes this world so fascinating to write about. But I was also saddened that such glimpses are gradually fading, replaced by the thrum of a society bent on doing everything faster and cheaper. What we lose in the process will only become apparent to us long after it is gone.

The 401

Anyone who lives in Ontario knows the 401. Also known as the MacDonald-Cartier Freeway, it is the main east-west highway throughout the province, and forms the backbone of the most heavily congested traffic corridor in the country.

But a highway isn't made lousy by its engineering. Its drivers do a fine enough job on their own.

I just finished an 8-and-a-half hour spin from our house to my in-laws. Thankfully the kids slept for most of the latter part of the drive, and we pulled in around 2:45 a.m. (hey, some of us have to work for a living.) My wife did her best to keep me company while I drove a road that looked uncannily like the old Atari Night Driver game (if you remember it, you're totally dating yourself. But that's OK, because nostalgia is a good thing. But I digress.)

While listening to a CD laden with 150 MP3 files of every Hooverphonic, Pet Shop Boys and Shrek Soundtrack tune known to humankind, I had a lot of time to think about the meaning of life on the road. Here are my observations:
  • Many thanks to the lovely truck drivers who would pull out of the right-hand lane whenever the urge struck them. Never mind that I was in the process of passing them. Or that they were doing 95 km/h at the time (the limit is 100 here...120 seems to be the accepted cruising speed).
  • I so missed waving at those friendly Ontario Provincial Police officers with their flat-brimmed state trooper-style hats. At least I think they still wear them. But I wouldn't know, because not one of them made an appearance during the entire trip.
  • God bless the person or people who invented those gas pump that accept debit and credit cards. We now have one less reason to interact with our fellow human beings. Technology may very well set us free. But by then, we'll have no one to talk to.
  • Our next van will have a DVD player so we can anesthetize the children with Finding Nemo. Never mind that my wife and I once swore up and down that we would never resort to using the television as a babysitter. The ideals of the pre-children set tend to break down once you have kids and reality sets in. Bring on the mobile DVD and let our idealistic dreams be damned. Or at least darned.
  • No matter what time you actually arrive, your parents and in-laws will always tsk-tsk that you got in too late. They tend to forget what it's like travelling with three kids and a car packed so full of gear that it practically sighs when you finally unload it. Maybe next time we'll just send postcards.

Technology Gets Small & Disconnected

Ever the intrepid writer, I'm writing this on my PalmPilot because for the next week, I will be nowhere near a computer. Scratch that, I will be near computers. Only not computers that actually have enough horsepower to so much as post an update to my blog.

So I'll use my Palm with its foldable keyboard - best 40 bucks I ever spent - and log everything while I'm away, then blast it into the blog when I get back. Man, isn't this technology great?

Speaking of which, the whole idea of taking a vacation is to get away from the stresses of everyday life. To that end, the watch is already off my wrist, replaced by a camp-like chain of colorful beads that was a family Sunday craft with our kids. I hope to spend a relaxing week with parents and in-laws in Montreal, about 730 km east of our transplanted hometown of London.

I tucked my bike into the back of the minivan, and will be taking it on as many early-morning epic adventures as my wife will let me get away with. I intend to bring my camera along so I can take travelogue-like pictures of my beat-up wheels in whatever weird place I end up. I will sit on top of the mountain - Mount Royal for those of you who know the city - and contemplate the meaning of life. Douglas Adams said it was 42. I'm inclined to agree.

Thursday, August 12, 2004

This Just In - Transfats Are Out

As an extended post script to my goldfish cracker column, the manufacturers have jumped on the "ban all trans fats" bandwagon.

Transfats, as you must know by now because civilized society would grind to a halt if we didn't prioritize their removal from all things edible, are the dietary equivalent of the root of all evil. According to the Bantransfat.com web site, they are singularly accountable for obesity in our children, poverty in Fiji, and the scourge of reality television across the broadcasting landscape.

So Pepperidge Farm jumped on the bandwagon earlier this year and announced they would be removing said black death-inducing poison from the entire line of Goldfish products.

We bought our first box of the new-and-improved (shudder), transfat-free Goldfish a couple of weeks back. Our kids hate 'em.

Raiding the Archives 3 - Fishy Funny

Sticking with the theme of being funny, this column, the third one I published in sequence, marked a number of firsts:
1 - My first photo-byline and tagline.
2 - My first reference to my kids as subject matter.

Why our children are subjects in my columns is simple: I was always taught to write what I know. I am lucky to have been influenced by a lot of great writers since the bug first bit me a lot of years ago. An early influence came from a gentleman named Nick Auf Der Maur. He was a bon vivant in Montreal who wrote the city column for that city's last remaining daily, the Gazette, for a number of years when I was a kid.

He often wrote about his daughter, Melissa, and shared simple stories of her life in a way that connected with anyone who cared about home and family. The images he painted were very much like the images that defined my own experience, and as a result I read him religiously.

That his daughter grew up to be the bass guitarist for Courtney Love's Band, Hole, and later the Smashing Pumpkins is virtually irrelevant. He shared his family life in a deft, elegant manner. And in doing so he set the tone for a recurrent theme in my own writing arc. This article represents my first step in that kid-oriented direction. As I gradually work through my archives, you'll notice it's a theme that recurs on a regular basis. I hope my children look back at my body of work someday and treasure these accounts as much as I enjoyed writing
them. Enjoy.

Originally published Monday, July 29, 2002, the London Free Press, on the Editorial page. Column ran over four-columns.

New, yes. Improved? Well...

By Carmi Levy

Our almost-two-year-old son still hasn't learned the art of sleeping through the night. Sure, there's the occasional morning when we hover over his crib wondering when he'll wake up. But more often than not, he's up before the birds.

And when he wakes up, he wants to eat. Not just anything, mind you. Goldfish crackers, cheddar cheese flavour.

He'll stand in the middle of the kitchen, pointing up at the cupboard where they're kept, repeating, "Fishies, fishies" until I relent and dig out a few for his pudgy little hand.

One morning last week, after sleepily delivering yet another handful of this baked-not-fried treasure to my little guy, I noticed a "New and Improved" label on the familiar orange-hued box.

Through the cobwebs of fatigue, I wondered how something as mundane as a cracker could be improved. Then I read the box: No longer content to produce crackers in the shape of fish, the culinary wizards at Pepperidge Farms, bless them, decided to jazz things up by carving little eyes and smiley-faces into the venerable crackers.

After rewinding the Barney tape for the 14th time that week, I asked my now-satiated son whether this product enhancement made a significant difference in his life. He smiled at me, shoved his plastic bowl into my hand and said, "Mo fish, peeze."

Score another win for the marketing department.

I doubt the mere presence of a dimpled eye and mouth on a tiny cracker is all it takes to convince a toddler to choose this particular brand. Let's remember, after all, that little people will eat the knobs off of the furniture if we let them. But almost imperceptibly, manufacturers and marketers have slowly convinced us we absolutely must have the latest-and-greatest if we are to save face with the neighbours.

Examples abound on a trip to the supermarket. Dishwasher soap used to be powder. Then someone decided gel cleaned your dishes better. Still another anonymous inventor said tabs were a neater solution.

Tabs became two-toned tabs. Two-toned tabs then became two-toned tabs with Jet Dry. Finally, they added a funny ball-like thing in the middle that doesn't seem to accomplish anything beyond looking weird.

But it's new, so it must be better.

At some point, it becomes a little ridiculous. Do my dishes really come out cleaner if I use the tab-ball thingie instead of gel?

Will my wife or kids notice? Will they care?

Buying new things validates our position as masters of our universe and makes us feel better about ourselves. Weren't you happy when you brought home that new fluorescent desk lamp from the Building Box?

That old incandescent lamp still worked, but you really hated the yellowish light it gave off. It was so retro, but not cool retro. So it had to go.

Don't forget the new car you bought last year. You smiled when you told your drooling neighbour it had a CD player.

He shuffled back to the stack of 8-track tapes on his side of the fence.

Gloat no more, however, for he just brought home a new vehicle of his own, complete with a CD player that also plays MP3s!

You've already called the sales rep at the dealership to talk trade.

I once tried living with what I had. I ignored the taunts of a friend who said his new 1.6 GHz computer was better than my pokey old 1.2 GHz model. I endured screen envy, convincing myself that my 15-inch monitor was good enough, though not quite as sexy as that sleek 19-incher on my colleague's desk.

I even put up with a dial-up connection to the Internet because I just didn't see the point of always having the latest gizmo.

Then one day I realized even if I didn't buy the latest, I was still being bitten by the same gotta-have-it bug.

Buy or not, we all feel the inevitable pull. As insidious as it seems, there's no escaping it unless we all move to an island somewhere in the South Pacific.

And even then, it probably wouldn't be long before our thatch-roofed hut would need to be bigger than the Jones's.

So as the cycle of improvements continues, their ability to truly improve our lives remains somewhat unproven.

We ran out of smiley-faced goldfish yesterday. I offered my son some plain old arrowroot crackers - store-brand, no-name ones at that. He took them.

And he was happy.

Carmi Levy is a London freelance writer.


Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Raiding the Archives 2 - Me Funny

This article represents the first time I "wrote funny". It came
quickly on the heels of my Father's Day piece, and also set the tone
for future lighter-themed writing arcs. Every time I read it, it takes
me right back to what was a very enjoyable day. I hope you find the
reading experience similarly refreshing.

Originally published Monday, July 1, 2002, the London Free Press, on
the Editorial page. Column ran over four-columns, with picture & cutline.

New water park 'cool'

By Carmi Levy

If you work or live downtown and happened to see a couple of grown men
walking down the street dressed in soaking-wet flowery shorts and
t-shirts last week, I apologize for alarming you.

Contrary to popular belief, we were not engaged in a systematic revolt
against the corporate dress code. Nor were we trying to relive our
childhood. We were merely a couple of corporate office types seeking
refuge from the heat and humidity in the quickest, easiest, cheapest
manner possible.

On that fateful day, my colleague, Steve, was lamenting that high
temperatures and humidity were forcing his air-conditioner at home to
work full tilt. Mid-day electricity prices were heading for the
stratosphere, the shirt and tie he was wearing was beginning to
irritate his neck.

Relief was clearly needed. But how?

A walk through our usual haunts was out of the question, as neither of
us likes heat very much. I jokingly suggested we go to a mall and lie
under the fountain like the family dog.

When I mentioned the city's new splash pad, his look of despair turned
to one of triumph. We were about to go where no corporate weenies had
gone before.

The splash pad seems to be one of the downtown's best kept secrets.
Tucked into the forks of the Thames, just behind the Middlesex
building at the end of Dundas Street, the facility has just recently
been opened to the public after a weeks-long tuning and adjusting

Before settling on a splash pad, the city reviewed and, thankfully,
rejected a number of somewhat off-beat proposals.

Recall, if you dare, the jet d'eau, which promised to spew polluted
water skyward from a convenient spot in the middle of the river.

Approaching the new facility from Dundas, an expansive
stone-and-concrete promenade fronts on the river, overlooking HMCS
Prevost on the opposite bank.

Sleek stainless steel benches provide lots of places to sit and watch
kids and wannabe-kids frolic in the dancing waters.

Walking paths wind around it and above the wall built into a hill.

Its relative newness explains the fact it's almost deserted. Cyclists
and in-line skaters whiz by without so much as a side glance.
Riverfront picnickers are similarly unaware of the magical new
facility just meters away.

Close inspection reveals a Byzantine arrangement of red and yellow
buttons, as well as some odd-looking sensors on the concrete benches.

Steve and I, clearly the oldest people there by a good 15 years,
sheepishly approached the first big yellow button under what looked
like a Water Pik shower head on steroids, and tentatively pressed it.

Nothing happened.

We waited. And waited. And waited some more.

While we stood there and debated the merits of perhaps trying another
unlabelled button, the large red trough about four meters over our
heads finished quietly filling with water and with a whoosh, dumped a
torrent right on us.

Let the games begin.

Suitably soaked, we pressed every button we could find and gleefully
allowed the every fountain head to do its thing. Some sprayed geysers
of varying heights from the ground. Others shot horizontally like
neighbourhood fire hydrants. Still others cascaded waterfall-like from
the walls along the side.

The cute little flower in the middle sprayed a similarly delicate
fountain of water. Whatever it was, the worries of the day
disappeared, replaced by a rush of cold water and endless hilarity
brought on by the realization that working adults shouldn't be
cavorting like children in the middle of the day.

The half-dozen or so children who were there, dressed in
brightly-colored shorts and bathing suits, looked at us and shook
their heads in disbelief. We never did figure out how the buttons and
sensors worked. For all we know, they're not hooked up to anything.

And somewhere there's a team of psychologists videotaping us as part
of some secret behavioural research project.

After about a half hour spent ingesting chlorinated water in ways only
previously imagined, we grabbed our towels and tried to dry off before
heading back to the office. Progress was difficult because we couldn't
stop laughing.

Security guards snickered as we walked past, leaving wet footprints on
the marble tile floor. Let them laugh. As soon as the temperature
climbs again, we'll be back.


Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Raiding the Archives 1

I'm going to start posting some of my older published work to the blog. Since much of it pre-dates what's currently available online, it'll be my way of helping you glimpse what drives my writer's voice.

This particular piece represents the first column I published in the London Free Press. I had had a couple of previous reader submissions (called Vox Pop articles) published previously, but this one was my first seriously personal piece, and it marks the exact point where I decided writing was what I wanted to do not just as a sideline, but as a career. Thanks to an editor whose writing makes others better for simply having read his work, it ultimately led to the bi-weekly column I currently write for the paper.

I like this piece for a lot of reasons - including strong imagery, intensely personal perspective, relatable lesson - and have used it as a reference point in similarly-themed articles since. It convinced me that writing can really matter to people. I hope you enjoy it, and look forward to your comments.

Originally published Sunday, June 16, 2002, the London Free Press, as a Vox Pop reader submission on the Editorial page.

The seemingly inconsequential defines Father's Day

By Carmi Levy

Four aircraft sat on the deserted flight line, silhouetted against the brightening sky as they waited for the day's first passengers to board. The sun slowly brightened the dark blue sky behind them, turning the wispy high cirrus clouds various shades of salmon before finally breaking the horizon and beginning its slow climb skyward. A low fog covered most of the tarmac, covering an icy frost clinging to the ground in a futile attempt to avoid evaporation. It was 6:10 a.m. at London International Airport, and here I was allowing myself to enjoy this little slice of life.

As it was, I didn't much feel like enjoying the day. I was on my way to Montreal because my father was having another in a series of surgeries that have dominated his life for the better part of the last five years. As I watched the wonder of a new day breaking over a quiet airport, I thought about what he must be doing then - more than likely enjoying the cold ambiance of the pre-op area while getting ready to be cut open - and how much he'd rather be sitting with me watching the sun rise.

Over these few years, I've watched his transition from a vibrant, boisterous father to an aging, intermittently sick grandfather. The end, which children always shunt to the back of their minds as something to worry about some day, but not now, is an increasingly frightening and real issue. He'll survive this latest round, I'm sure. But the long-term pattern is clear and unwavering. It is one of frequent specialist visits, consultations, tests and scans, punctuated by the occasional hospital visit, not to mention the daily battery of pills. My dad was a superhero when I was a child. Now he's human. And mortal.

This year, my father will celebrate Father's Day while recovering from this latest round of surgery. I won't be going to a store, however, because he has all the material goods he's ever going to need. Whatever we've gotten him in the past has either been socked away deep in the forgotten recesses of his cupboard or has magically disappeared from the house during spring cleaning. I don't begrudge him at all: that's just the way we are when it comes to material goods. At some point, we no longer need more stuff.

What my father needs now are more moments like the one I had that morning in the airport. He needs to appreciate the little things that make life something more than a day-to-day existence. He needs to dispense with the grindingly monotonous routine of pills and health complaints - if only for a few brief minutes a day - to get out and smell the proverbial coffee. He needs to realize that life, despite the curves it has thrown at him in recent years, remains a precious gift. Sure, he woke up in pain this morning. But he woke up.

My late grandfather lived in a small, dark apartment in a neighbourhood most of us wouldn't want to visit, let alone call home. Yet he greeted every day with a smile because he knew that sometime that day, he would discover or observe something most of us would dismiss as trivial; something he would then share with those who loved him. At the time, the immature child I was often scoffed at the inconsequential nature of his findings. After all, who really cared that grey squirrels seemed to be better climbers than black ones? What I wouldn't give now to have him share those very same things with me today.

But time moves in only one direction. I am now a father as well as a son. And it's taken me my entire life to fundamentally appreciate what Father's Day is really about. It isn't about fathers at all. It about the relationships we form and how we share those little life-lifting moments with those around us.

Forget the commercialized sentiment of the store-bought card, the on-sale golf shoes and the overpriced dinner at an overcrowded restaurant. Call him up, drop by or even e-mail him. If you were at the airport that morning, tell him what you saw. If you weren't, share a similarly trivial slice of your life. And don't just do it on Father's Day. Make it a regular thing. He'll hold onto that far longer than the off-colour tie or cheesy gift store figurine.


Avoid the Wedding Cake

On a planet populated by well over 7 billion people, we're bound to encounter our fair share of insanity. I'll keep this story in mind the next time I tuck into the dessert table at a wedding.

The Soft Launch

A blog is an interesting thing. It can be used to express relatively
private thoughts. Yet the fact that it's sitting out there on a
publicly-accessible web server means it's about as secure as grafitti
on the bathrrom wall down at the local Timmies.

Which brings me to my current conundrum: when to out myself.

No, not THAT outing. Silly you! Not that there's anything wrong with
that, of course.

I'm talking about when I tell everyone I know about this little
literary experiment of mine.

See, I've been building this journal for the past couple of months in
a bit of a bubble. I've told a few family members, friends, and
colleagues. But the inner circle, such as it is, numbers barely half a
dozen people. The relative anonymity has given me pretty good leeway
when deciding what to write.

With that in mind, I'lve been wrestling with when to yell it from the
proverbial mountaintop by including it in a mailing to my e-mail list
of around 450 names. What I gain with a larger audience could be
offset by the topic-based constraints I might feel from having that
same larger audience. In other words, when more people read you, you
typically want to be a little more careful about stepping on toes.

To wit, I've been kinda hard on some folks who have crossed my path in
recent years. No names are ever mentioned, of course. But the targets
of my wordy rage would clearly know who I'm talking about. And they
wouldn't be pleased.

But life isn't always about neat beginnings and endings. If my words
tick them off, they perhaps shouldn't have been such bozos in the
first place. They can always start blogs of their own. In fact, I'd
even offer to help them get going. Assuming they're still talking to

Monday, August 09, 2004

Iron Chef, Meet Iron Blog

If you've never watched an episode of Iron Chef, you're doing your funny bone a significant disservice. This Japanese import predates the current reality television craze, and goes the Johnny-come-latelies one better by never taking itself too seriously - if at all.

TV Tome has this summary of the series. The Internet Movie Database has this one.

Now comes word of Iron Blog, a riff on the original culinary concept, now applied to online debate. Very cute, and worthy of Chairman Kaga's nod.

Now, the links...

Phew, posting-by-e-mail seems to work. Now here are a couple of links to the infamous Coleco Adam. I couldn't figure out how to embed a hyperlink in an e-mail. That's my next trick:

Old Computers Definition
Obsolete Computer Museum Definition
Vintage Computer Definition

Testing...is this thing on?

I've been playing around with the settings for this blog, and I've got
to admit there's a lot of cool stuff under the hood. By the time I
figure it all out, I'm sure blogs will be as leading edge as the
Coleco Adam computer.

I'm submitting this post via e-mail. Cross your fingers that it actually works.

Carmi Levy
Freelance Journalist
carmilevy AT gmail DOT com


I remember reading F. Scott Fitzgerald for the first time and being amazed at how richly he used words to paint vivid pictures of a bygone era. To this day, no movie adaptation has ever come remotely close to recreating the gorgeous richness of his words.

These days, I'm never far from my PalmPilot, and have been busily filling my SD card with eBooks. I found this site with a bunch of great Fitzgerald resources.

The F. Scott Fitzgerald Society is another good place to kickstart your quest for knowledge.

Sunday, August 08, 2004

DND Agrees: I'm a Troublemaker

My pseudo-paranoia continues to grow. Not only am I the subject of a full-blown bean counter investigation (see previous post), but the Canadian Forces College (part of the Department of National Defence) has posted links to a couple of my columns.

The daily summary of military-friendly pieces published in Canada is called Spotlight on Military News, and as best I can figure, they have someone - or a piece of software - scanning the major publications for pieces reflective of military thinking. No value-adds here: simply a title and a hyperlink. But as long as it shows up in a search engine, I'm a happy camper.

Links to the two pieces can be found at:
Battle of Atlantic Never Forgotten (published May 5, 2004)
Risk a Critical Element of Living (published January 28, 2004)

The Risk piece is no longer online - it was published before Canoe.ca moved to its new online publishing process. But I'll post it if anyone asks (hint!)

The bottom line: my work shows up in some pretty cool places. Quite encouraging.

Saturday, August 07, 2004

Carmi the Security Threat

The world is filled with all kinds of people. At opposite ends of the spectrum, they're either kind souls, or they're decidedly not.

When I got wind that I was being investigated by some obviously underworked former-colleague-and-leader-of-nobody because I dared drop in to say hi to some former colleagues, I took some time out of my day to call said person to register my displeasure.

I generally don't do the angry thing all that well. But anyone who even suggests that I'm up to no good - and in doing so threatens the integrity of my name - is going to get an earful. Remember, I'm a cynical journalist-type, so I have little patience for this kind of silliness.

After getting off the phone with said sponge minion, still angry that my message obviously hadn't traversed the decades of bureaucratic plaque that plagued this person's frontal lobe, I logged back into my PC and read a newly-arrived followup letter from a reader who was touched by my Father's Day column.

Niceness trumped nastiness. The reason I write was validated once again. And those who dwell in glass offices yet fail to see the outside world with any degree of clarity were once again relegated to the dark little world in which they feel so secure.

I have it on excellent authority that morons make great fodder for fiction.

Friday, August 06, 2004

Great writing from Athens

Two of my favorite columnists, Rosie DiManno and Christie Blatchford, are in Athens in the leadup to the 2004 Olympics. While the drug-addled competition and endless IOC corruption make the on-field proceedings something of a farce, it's nice to have daily missives from the street to add some perspective to what is otherwise an overwrought, taxpayer-funded circus of fools.

Thursday, August 05, 2004

Dog Owners are Sadists

You can tell a lot about a person by how he/she treats an animal.

Sadly, some planet-dwellers can become somewhat obsessive with their furry friends. There's such thing as loving them too much, as witnessed by this site.

Parental guide: coarse language.

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Words that Cross the Country

Heard from my Mom last week that a friend of hers was in Winnipeg, picked up the Sun, and was pleasantly surprised to see my Cigarette Butt piece on the editorial page. She immediately called home to spread the good news.

The way it works is simple: my columns are published bi-weekly in my local paper, the London Free Press. But they are also made available to any other Sun Media paper that wishes to run them. It doesn't happen all that often - most papers typically have fairly static page layouts, along with fairly consistent skeds of whose column gets published on any given day - but this marks the second time I've heard about it: The first one was my firebombing article in April, also in the Winnipeg Sun.

It's not chain policy to advise writers precisely when something's been picked up - they're somewhat busy actually putting their respective papers out - so I rely on my far-flung network of readers (as if!) in each city to let me know.

Just my way of spreading the literary love. Read on...

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Sunday, August 01, 2004

Up, up, and away

Our little 'burg is playing host to the annual London Balloon Festival this long weekend. The skies fill with multi-colored, propane-powered craft in the early morning and early evening, prompting dog owners everywhere to scramble indoors lest their pooches be freaked by the sound from the burners.

The closest I've come to riding lighter-than-air craft was in a blimp years ago for my radio program. After interviewing the captain - as arrogant a man as I've had occasion to meet outside my own immediate family - I tried to air-drop popcorn into swimming pools below. A great time was had by all. Even popsicle-stick-rumped flyboy joined in.