Saturday, July 25, 2009


HBO featured a science fiction/thriller/horror series called "Ray Bradbury Theatre" from 1985 through 1992. Each episode was based on the writings of Ray Bradbury, usually on one of his short stories. The introduction to each episode consisted of footage showing Ray Bradbury arriving in his studio, which was cluttered with posters, photos, notes and every sort of tchotchke imaginable. Bradbury explained in a voice over, as he took his seat at a typewriter near the center of the flotsam,, that this studio is where he gets his ideas.

"I'm surrounded on every side by my magician's toy shop," explains Bradbury, "I'll never starve here!"

I have a home office something like that. My home office, or perhaps "den" is a better word, is an attic room. I claimed it as my den when we bought the house because it features lots of shelving and cabinet space, which I knew I would need. Even so, every available surface in the room is occupied by books, binders, boxes, discs, caricatures, miniatures and brick-a-brack of every kind.

Clutter rules my life. Sometimes I see this as a bad thing. I admonish myself to be more organized. I remind myself to get rid of the old stuff that I no longer need. What's the rule? If you haven't looked at it in 2 or more years, you can probably throw it out.

However, the introduction to the Ray Bradbury Theatre suggests that clutter isn't always a bad thing. Some of it has to do with surrounding yourself with things that make you happy. Looking around my den, it quickly becomes obvious that I'm a big fan of The Simpsons and Star Wars, and that I love airplanes, computer games and books. Spending time there tends to make me feel good because I look around me and see my favorite things. (Not to worry; I'm not about to start prancing about the room and singing, Julie Andrews style).

Beyond just making one feel good, clutter can serve to inspire. It can help to set the creative juices in motion by bringing dormant ideas to the forefront and sometimes highlighting obscure associations. In Ray Bradbury's case, the clutter in his studio helped to inspire some of his renowned literary works. In my case, well, it gave me something to blog about this week.

It's also possible to be too neat and organized. One of my favorite quotes about computer programming suggests that "structured programming is for compulsive neurotics who were prematurely toilet-trained, wear neckties and carefully line up pencils on otherwise
clear desks". Speaking of which, I think that most people, when they see a co-worker sitting at a clean, uncluttered desk, assume that person must have no work to do. Clutter suggests busy-ness.

Perhaps the happy medium lies in eliminating the clutter that comes from simply not putting things in their place or throwing out the unneeded, but keeping those things whose presence stimulates and inspires, even if they have no obvious practical use.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Deceptively Strenuous Pastimes

I'm a pretty sedentary guy. To begin with, I'm a computer programmer/analyst by profession, so I spend my working days behind a keyboard or sitting in requirements meetings. The most exercise I ever get at the office is when I need to walk down to the factory floor to check something.

My leisure time hobbies are no more active. I'm not into contact sports, or sports of any kind, really. I don't jog. I seldom swim and I don't go skiing or ice skating in the winter time. I like to "plunk around" on my computer, watch DVD movies, read, build models and miniatures and just relax in general. Nothing too strenuous.

I've tried two activities that have fooled me. Both sounded pretty layed back and low-stress, and both turned out to be deceptively tiring.

The first is golf. Golf doesn't look too strenuous to a spectator; a leisurely walk around a well-manicured course, a little fresh air and sunshine, and once in a while you whack a little white ball with a stick. Heck, one usually doesn't even walk from one hole to the next. One usually rides in a little electric car. How hard can that be?

Plenty hard, as it turns out! By the sixth hole, I practically fell to my knees and worshipped before the beer cart that showed up every two or three holes or so! Ten bucks a beer? Such a deal! Five bucks for a can of Coke? A bargain at twice the price! Hand it over with all speed! In my own defense, it was a particularly hot summer afternoon.

It probably didn't help that I couldn't swing to save my life. At each hole I had to swipe at the ball several times before ever making contact. That really tires out the arms! Once I did connect with the ball, I tended to take the scenic route from the tee to the hole, what with short distances, wild hooks and slices, and the inevitable stick-handling the ball across the green in a manner that would have made Gordie Howe jealous. All that walking about wore me down as well. I think my handicap is somewhere around three hundred. Since then, I've stuck to the type of golf that you see to your left.

Last weekend, I tried my hand at the second deceptively placid outdoor pastime; canoeing. When I think of canoeing, I picture a boat, silently gliding through gentle waters, the silence broken only by birdsong, the whir of distant insects and the gentle splash made by the the tips of my oars as they dip in and out of the water. Boy, was I in for an education!

My wife, Judy, my daughter, Jessica and I joined several family members last weekend for a canoe trip down southwestern Ontario's Grand River. There were fifteen of us, occupying seven canoes. The other canoes were occupied by two people each, but Judy, Jessica and I made a threesome. This turned out not to be a very good idea, as I shall shortly explain.

Our 20 kilometer course took us downstream on the Grand River, beginning in Cambridge, Ontario and ending in Paris. The estimated time for completing this was 5 hours. There were shorter runs available which might have been more appropriate for beginners such as us, but my brother-in-law, Shane "Iron Man" Groleau, insisted that anything worth doing is worth doing to exhaustion.

I had foolishly chosen the tiller's position in the rear of our canoe, which made it my job to steer. I had been given rudimentary instructions about how to do a "J" stroke and how to use my oar as a rudder, dragging it through the water on one side of the canoe or the other in order to turn the craft's nose. I had not been warned, however, about the overriding effects of wind and current. I also kept overcompensating, and learned the hard way that, if I waited until the nose of the boat was pointed in the desired direction before removing my oar from the water, it (the nose) had a disturbing tendency to continue to drift over, past the point at which I wanted to aim the canoe. And so my craft zig-zagged back and forth across the stream while I madly switched the oar from the left side to the right and back again, quickly tiring out my arms in the process.

It also didn't help that Grand River becomes quite shallow and rocky at certain points and, because of the extra weight in our three-person canoe, the boat's hull sat deeper in the water than most and kept getting lodged against the rocks. Repeatedly attempting to push and pry our craft away from the rocks with my oar did nothing to sooth my tired arms. In fact, by the time we'd reached the half-way mark for our course, my right forearm kept cramping up every time I bent my elbow.

At one point, the current washed us up against one of the many rocks while the canoe was turned sideways. The sudden stop caused the canoe to list heavily against the rock and, before I knew it, we were all swimming (or, rather, wading) in the river.

Things happen very fast when a canoe overturns. Your first priority is to grab the oars and any other loose items that were in the boat before they're swept away by the current. Your second priority is to grab the canoe itself before it floats away. Ensuring that everyone is still alive and intact becomes the third priority. It's pretty much every man for himself.

Righting and re-entering an upset canoe also proved to be a challenge. First of all, the boat had taken on water when it overturned, so we first needed to empty it. This involved picking it up out of the water, turning it upside-down in order to empty it and then putting it back into the water upright. Canoes are generally designed to be fairly light-weight, but a water-logged one can get pretty darned heavy!

Once the empty canoe was placed back into the river, it immediately wanted to float away on us with the current. Now we had to try to keep it from drifting away and steady it as much as possible whilst climbing back in without upsetting it yet again, all of which required far more dexterity than I normally possess.

During our run, were only dumped into the river once, although I did have to step out of the boat in a more controlled manner several times in order to help dislodge it from various rocks. Fortunately, Shane partially redeemed himself by thoughtfully staying close to us and stopping to help dislodge and then steady our canoe while I climbed back in whenever we got stuck. By the time we finally reached the end of our course, the first of our group of boats to arrive had been waiting for us to return for almost an hour. If we'd been just a little longer, I'm sure they'd have sent out a search party.

By the next morning, every movement hurt. Riding in a canoe is one of those activities that employs muscles which many of us didn't even know we had until they begin aching.

Mark Twain once described golf as "A good walk spoiled". If he had ever ridden in a canoe, as opposed to those Mississippi steamers for which he was known, he might have referred to canoeing as "A good boat ride spoiled". On the other hand, looking back on the experience with the benefit of hindsight, I must admit that it was fun, overall, and there were brief moments, when the water became calm and the screaming stopped and the only sound was the chirping of birds in the trees that surrounded the river, the distant buzzing of insects and the gentle lapping of water against the boat and the oars, that I could imagine myself actually learning to enjoy this.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Bean Counters

"The conditions of financing and distribution that made the Warner shorts possible no longer exist, so we will probably never see their like again." - John Canemaker

When John Canemaker made this comment in the 1975 documentary "The Boys From Termite Terrace" he was, of course, referring to the Warner Brothers short cartoons that so many of us grew up with; Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Yosemite Sam, Tweety and Sylvester, Wile E. Coyote, the Road Runner and a host of others.

Let's think about that for a moment. What Canemaker was, in fact, saying is that, today, these cartoons, which millions around the world have come to know and love and which, arguably, have played a significant role in moulding our culture, could not exist. If it were up to us, they would never have been created.

Why? Because they would be deemed to be unprofitable. They take too much time and care to create; therefore they cost too much and offer too little a return on investment. Instead, we get pale imitations of these classics; Fairly Odd Parents, Prank Patrol, Spongebob Squarepants,the Simpsons and a host of anime shows in which what passes for animated speech involves flipping back and forth between just two mouth positions; open and closed.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that these modern animated shows are bad in and of themselves. I'm a big fan of the Simpsons. I own the first 11 seasons on DVD. But the quality of the artistry and animation simply cannot compare to that of the old Warner Brothers shorts.

To demonstrate my point, a friend of mine and I once watched one of the old Warner Brothers short cartoons in its entirety with the sound turned off. It was just as funny and entertaining as it was with sound. The subtlety of the characters' facial expressions, their gestures and their posture rendered the soundtrack almost unnecessary.

Today, the Simpsons aren't even hand drawn in America anymore but farmed out to Korea where the animation is computer rendered. Why? Because it's cheaper to do it that way. The difference in the finished product is noticeable. Watch an episode of the Simpsons without sound, and the experience becomes much degraded; almost pointless. That's the difference.

It seems to me that our society has evolved, or perhaps devolved, to the point where financial profit increasingly appears to be the only motivator for any enterprise. The "bean counters" run the show. I understand that everyone needs to make a living and that money-losing ventures are doomed to failure, but we seem to have forgotten that not everything is about the bottom line. Some things are worth doing for the sake of doing them. What about beautifying the world? What about broadening our horizons, thereby increasing our knowledge and wisdom? What about simple experimentation; trying things just to see what happens?

In George Minter's famous motion picture adaptation of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol", he added a scene that was never in the original novel, in which one Mr. Jorkin offers to buy Fezziwig's failing business.

"It's not just for money alone that one spends a lifetime building up a business, Mr. Jorkin" explains Fezziwig.

"Well if it isn't, I'd like you to tell him what you do spend a lifetime building up a business for," counters Jorkin, with an amused chuckle.

"It's to preserve a way of life that one knew and loved," explains Fezziwig. "No, I can't see my way to selling out to the new vested interest, Mr. Jorkin. I have to be loyal to the old ways, and die out with them if needs must."

And indeed he does. Scrooge, meanwhile, jumps ship and leaves Fezziwig for a position with Jorkin's company before Fezziwig's business fails. This ultimately proves a prudent career move and Scrooge becomes both successful and wealthy, but he loses his soul in the process.

I once read that many of today's corporate steering committees and boards of directors will not approve a research and development project unless the results are known in advance. How ridiculous! If we already knew what the results will be, why would we need to do any research? Conversely, if the "bean counters" never approved any project whose ultimate result was unknown at the start, no projects would ever be started.

Jame's Burke's excellent mini-series, "Connections", demonstrates several examples of inventions and discoveries that changed the world as we know it, which were discovered by accident, or by people researching something entirely different. Otto von Guericke rubbed a sulphur ball in an attempt to create a magnetic attraction. Instead, he caused a spark, which ultimately led to the understanding and harnessing of electricity. Archibald Cochrane, the 9th Earl of Dundonald, cooked coal in a kettle in order to create coal tar for coating the bottom of marine vessels. When the vapor caused by his experimentation ignited one day, causing an explosion, it alerted others to the existence of combustible gases, which could be harnessed for their heat and energy. Would today's "bean counters" have funded von Guericke or Cochrane?

It was largely an obsession with cost overruns that killed Canada's Avro Arrow program in the 1950's. The Arrow was the most advanced jet interceptor of its time. The program inspired advances in aerodynamics, metallurgy, computer processing and engine power which enabled achievements that had never before been accomplished and that many deemed impossible at the time. Of course such a program is going to be expensive!

When the program was canceled, Canada lost not only an aircraft and thousands of Avro employee jobs, but most of its best aeronautical and engineering minds, which all went to the United States to be scooped up by NASA, Rockwell, McDonnell-Douglas and other U.S. aerospace companies, and its status as an aeronautical and scientific innovator on the world stage. By canceling the Arrow program, Canada helped to entrench its own stereotypical image as America's poor cousin; a perception which continues even today.

Concern about costs is also the reason that the Apollo program was canceled after Apollo 17, and why mankind has since managed to venture no further into space than Earth orbit. As our population grows, warming the planet and making it harder and harder for the Earth to sustain us, mankind's only hope for long-term survival may ultimately be the colonization of other worlds, but it isn't happening because the "bean counters" don't think that long term. They're only concerned about next quarter's results.

Certainly both the Avro Arrow and the Apollo programs were hugely expensive and probably financially unprofitable, but the people involved didn't get into these projects solely to make money. There was a larger purpose which got lost among the clatter of adding machines.

If people had thought the way they do today in the past, Columbus would never have discovered the new world and the Wright brothers would never have created a heavier-than-air vehicle that flew. These were high-risk ventures with no guarantee of any sort of return. The motivation of those undertaking them was their boundless curiosity, their need to explore and discover, their desire to improve peoples' lives and their world as well as the hope of financial rewards.

For those who insist on making it all about dollars and cents, I point out that, sometimes, reluctance to risk investing in the unknown can result in the loss of huge potential revenues. The famous postor at left shows the staff of a very young Microsoft corporation, circa 1978 and asks "Would you have invested in this company?" Well, "bean counters", let's see a show of hands. How many of you would have said "Sure! They look like they know what they're doing. Give them some money."

Another disturbing trend is that more and more politicians are encouraging the study of mathematics and the sciences in schools, while downplaying the importance of art and literature. After all, nobody hires a lot of writers, painters and poets, right? Such skills are not considered useful or productive. And yet, our artisans teach us lateral thinking, imagination and conceptualization. This type of thinking is important. Facts aren't usually the catalyst for invention and discovery. Imagination and creative thinking is. It's been said that you can't win at poker just by applying the mathematics of probability.

Accountants and bookkeepers have their place but, in my opinion, they should not be the ones making the decisions that steer the course of enterprise and innovation. Let the "bean counters" balance the ledgers and let those with an entrepreneurial spirit, leadership and, above all, imagination, take the helm. Wouldn't it be wonderful if, in the not-too-distant future, our children could turn on the television to watch something brand new that's as creative and timeless as Bugs Bunny?

Friday, July 3, 2009

Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics

About three weeks ago, I attached an invisible stat counter to this blog because I wanted a better idea of how many readers I'm getting and who they are. I find the results interesting enough to share with all four of you.

This blog gets an average of four hits per day. I have five regular readers. Okay, so Perez Hilton has nothing to fear from me for the time being.

I've had one-time visitors from all over the world. Most are from Canada (my home and native land). The United States, not surprisingly, ranks second, but I've had visitors from as far afield as the Republic of South Korea.

I've had one visitor from Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. That tempted me to embellish my heading banner with the tag line "The preferred blog of Harvard scholars!", but Harvard's legal department changed my mind.

Blog Visitors by Location
(Click to enlarge)

(maps courtesy of Google Maps and

Incidentally, if you're concerned about privacy, fear not. The stat counter doesn't give me anybody's identity; just their IP address, location (country, region and city), their ISP, and what browser and operating system they were using. Granted, in some cases, I can deduce the identity of the person from this information if it's someone I happen to know, but these are generally people who I already knew read my blog anyway.

Most one-time visitors are directed here by a search engine (usually Google). The post that generated the most Google hits is my recent U/C Airplane Follies post. You'd be surprised how many people search for terms such as "super bee airplane", "miniature flying balsa wood aeroplanes" or "u/c stuka". South Korea was looking for references to "aircraft stuck into ground". Perhaps the North shot down some hapless Cessna from the South that ventured over their nuclear missile launchers and a friend or family member was hoping to find some clue as to whatever happened to them on the internet.

Just as surprising as the post that did attract the most Google searches is one that didn't. I'll admit to a bit of personal subterfuge here. Part of my motivation for writing about the death of Michael Jackson, though the thoughts expressed therein were sincere, was to try to pull in some of the multitudes who were surely Googling for him shortly after his passing. It didn't work. Google didn't direct a single person searching for Michael Jackson references to this blog.

And finally, one last word, as Joseph Campanella used to say. You may have noticed the complete absence of any ads on this blog. Oh, I could put them there alright. does have a "monetize" option that enables me to infest this blog with ads that theoretically make me money every time someone clicks on one. But at ... what is it? 0.04 cents per click? I figure my four readers per day would earn me roughly 60 cents a year. More to the point, I don't do this to make money. This isn't my idea of some get-rich-by-blogging scheme. I do this because I enjoy writing, to entertain and, sometimes, to make you think.

On the other hand, my ego is big enough that I'd like to increase those readership stats a bit, which is why I've recently added a "Share" button after each post. If you like what you read, I encourage you to tell others. Maybe they'll like it too.