Monthly Archives: March 2007

Squared Up Part III

It has been seven days since my surgery.  My left eye itches a fair amount, as there are slow-dissolving sutures in the outside muscle that have pulled my eye straight for the first time in fifty years.

I take eyedrops four times a day, which are a combination of antibiotics and steroids for the inflammation.  I can see light, dark and beginning of images through my left eye.  Right now, with my right eye closed and covered, I can see the brightness of my computer monitor and the darkness of my keyboard.  I think I can see the blue taskbar of this particular program, which would be Windows Live Writer.  Yep.  It has a blue taskbar.

The strangest effect of all this, is between my ears.  I look in the mirror and I’m not entirely sure who is looking back.  I know, logically, it is me, as nobody else lives here:  That haircut is a dead giveaway.

Which speaks to how we see ourselves, our perceptions of what we look like and how others recognize us.  Most people feel a little uneasy when they see a picture of themselves.  A picture is an accurate representation of how we look, but it doesn’t quite mesh with how we perceive ourselves.  Our self-identification contains not only the physicality but the emotional and behavioral aspect of who we are.

I’ve always avoided looking directly at my face, as the wonky eye bothers me.  Correction, it bothered me.  It doesn’t bother anyone else, I know, but it bothered me, being tied into all kinds of other memories, fears and darker things in the human soul.  We see our flaws, to the exclusion of everything else.

A common example:  Think back to your teenage years.  Odds are you had a pimple or two.  Looking in the mirror, to you, it probably seemed like it was the size of Montana, was big enough to plant a flag on the top and park cars in the shadow of it.  For that period of time, it became the only thing you could see on your face. 

My situation is somewhat the same, except it has gone on for a long time.  This morning, as the swelling goes down some more, I am marveling at the image in the mirror looking back at me.  It seems like the David I know, but something is different.  I am unlearning my visual self-image and replacing it with the New David. 

If you color your hair, you have felt that same psychic wobble, going from brown to red, or blonde as an example.  It is The New You in the mirror.  Brighter, younger, more vivacious, sexier, whatever attributes you might care to use.  Then it becomes the new Normal, things settle down and you ‘recognize’ yourself again. 

Yet, logically you know that the only change from yesterday to today is having your hair colored.  Your eyes are the same color, you’ve got the same beauty mark and your nose is still the same shape.  You still like Barolo or Kraft Dinner.  The only change is the color of your hair, but it feels different and even nice.

It doesn’t quite feel nice to me yet.  That might take a while to get to the point of nice, as self-image is a component of ego and a component of self-worth, which ties to self-confidence, values, happiness, sadness, fear, memories and four thousand other attributes of personality.

As for visual acuity out the left side, I can’t see depth, but I am seeing the beginnings of shapes, colors and light.  Maybe that’s all I’ll get.  I’m not hoping for anything beyond the eye healing up close to straight.  Anything after that is pure bonus.

The rest, I’ll adapt to as I go.  It might be good, it might be bad, or it might be somewhere in between. 

It is bittersweet however, as the image of the little boy, the teenager, the young man, the adult and the middle-aged man, all named David, with that one eye looking off someplace else, is gone. 

Replaced with what, we shall find out.


So, Goodbye my friends.  And Hello!






Squared Up Part II

If you hit you can get a capsule definition of Strabismus that is close enough for Rock and Roll.  And a squeamish alert as there are photos of my eye pre and post surgery in the posting.

Today, infants with strabismus and amblyopia are treated very young, often before their first birthday.  In 1957 it wasn’t done, as the general prognosis was "He’ll grow out of it".  Oh well.

The human eyeball has four muscles that hold it in place and move it around.  Think of a globe of the Earth.  The muscles that move it around are on the North and South poles and along the Greenwich and International Date Line meridians at the equator.  It is an elegant machine for moving an orb around in specific patterns.

Mechanically, if you want to look to the right, the muscles relax and tighten in a specific order to move the eyeballs.  You lean this set of actions in your first few days of life and it becomes automatic, as the infant eye and brain likes bright, moving things. 

You can see this test being done with newborns, using a small light to see if the eyes track together.  Infants can’t quite make sense of what they’re seeing, as the brain hasn’t quite figured out all this real world stuff yet.  Sometimes newborns don’t track properly, but it goes away after a few days and is probably an artifact of the the various human systems getting used to being out in the world and trying to figure out the basics.  The newborn brain learns stuff at a ferocious rate.

To square up my particular situation, lenses or prisms to force a correction would not work, as it had gone on forty-nine years too long.  Surgery was the sole option.  Unfortunately the surgery is declared a ‘cosmetic’ procedure and is almost not covered by health insurance.  I could have gone to the US and dropped several thousand dollars for a cosmetic procedure, but didn’t. 

Adult strabismus corrective surgery for cosmetic reasons is severely underfunded by health insurance in Ontario.  I got on the waiting list almost four years ago.  I’ve got no complaint there, as it is ‘cosmetic’ ophthalmic surgery.  It’s not as frivolous as a bigger set for a pole dancer and not as important as fixing an infant with strabismus or a senior with glaucoma.  I can appreciate that the funding well isn’t as deep as one might like.  Priorities have to go to the serious stuff first.  Last May I got the word that I would be up for surgery in March 2007.

Meeting the surgeon was important.  I knew approximately, how the surgery would go.  By judging the angle off square, the surgeon loosens one muscle and throws a few stitches in the other.  In my case, loosen the left eye muscle next to the nose (East) and tighten up the muscle to the West by putting four or five stitches in it, shortening the length of the muscle and pulling the eyeball more forward.  I was 45 degrees off square, pointing East, or inwards towards the nose.

Knowing the mechanism and procedure is important, but even so, I’ll confess to a deep fear here.  You can call it a morbid fear if you like, as everyone has at least one, be it spiders, snakes, pubic speaking, circus clowns or Cream of Wheat. 

Mine is my eyes.  Having only one working eye, I have guarded it all my life, as losing it means White-Cane Time. 

I’m sitting in a office with a guy who is going to be taking a scalpel to my eye?  Holy Hannah and Maynard!  I made sure I told him that the whole concept scared the hell out of me.  Had I had a fully open choice, I would have opted for full general anesthesia.  Knock me out cold, work me over with a ball-peen hammer and let me feel like crap in the recovery room for a few hours.  I could get a general, but it would postpone the surgery until December 2007.

With a local, I was scheduled for March 22nd.  Four days before my 50th birthday.  That seemed to be some kind of omen to me, starting off the next half-century with straight eyes, so I put on my big boy underwear and said do it.  Local anaesthetic, but be prepared to shoot me full of drugs if I start to panic in the OR.  Agreed.  Nitrous, Atavan, Valium, Jack Daniels’, Afghan Hash, or a mallet to the head, whatever it took.

The night before, I took this picture.  The Before. I am looking at the camera lens, at least with the eye to your right.       

This is what I’ve seen for 49 years, 360 days and what everyone else saw when they looked at me. 

Well, not with the camera under my chin.  That would be silly. 

No coffee, no tea, no smokes as of midnight.  I arrived at the hospital at 0700.  The Riverside Hospital is all day-surgery, so I waited around a bit, and then was called into the back room.  Strip off, wear the angel wings, blood pressure, checklists, pulse, sit here.  I read for a bit, knowing that like all hospitals, unless you have a javelin stuck in your head, things take the time they take.  After a chapter or two, it was my turn.  On the bed, warm blanket, head back and get comfortable.  They take my eyeglasses and book.  I lay back and close my eyes to meditate a bit. 

A gowned gnome comes over and takes my blood pressure and pulse again.  He doesn’t bother introducing himself so I ask, "Who the hell are you and what are you doing?"  It turns out he’s the anesthesiologist, Doctor Unpronounceable Muttered. 

We have a little talk.  First up, buddy, what is my name?  He consults the chart.  David Smith.  What is my middle name?  Eugene.  What is the procedure I’m going to have?  Strabismus.  Which eye?  Left.  Are you sure?  Yes I am.  Who is the surgeon?  Doctor Delpero.  What’s the offset?  45 degrees.  Good. 

I want to make sure they’ve got the right guy and the right procedure, as David Smith is a fairly common name.  The hospital is doing 38 ophthalmic procedures in six hours, I want to make sure they know who they’re doing and what they’re doing to this patient. Then we have the discussion regarding fear.  The gnome stops in his tracks.  He didn’t know I was fearful.  So I explain it to him using small words and easy to understand concepts.  He inserts a little venous shunt into the back of my hand and tapes it down.  Then pops a syringe into the shunt and gives me a squirt of something.

Then he peels my left eye open and pops some ‘drops to numb your eye’ into the left eye.  They sting like hell and I tell him so.  Don’t worry, it’s just the first freezing.  Then he swabs my eye area and cheek with an antiseptic, probably Betadine, as it has that iodine chemical smell.  Then he takes a Sharpie marker out of his pocket and puts a dash over my left eye.  That’s encouraging.  I could truly run amok with a Sharpie and box of Hi-Liters. 

I lean back.  In a few minutes he returns.  How are you?  Scared Shitless, Thanks for Asking.  I get another shot in the back of the hand.  The drugs kick in.  Wheeeeee!

An orderly comes by, looks up the chart and asks my name.  David Smith, I manage to reply.  He unlocks the wheels and gets me rolling down the hall.  I park in the hallway, looking at the ceiling tiles for a while.  Clunk and we’re rolling again, this time into a room with a stainless steel ceiling and too many lights. 

Doctor Delpero greets me, wearing his OR blues and a mask.  How are you?  Right now, I’m starting to shake in fear and I feel some tears coming out of my eyes.  Nnn-not so good, is about all I manage to stutter.  I feel a pressure on my right hand as another shot of FeelGood goes in.  Someone takes a length of tape and tapes my head to the table, forehead and chin, so I can’t move. 

A pulse clip goes on my finger, while someone sticks cardiac monitors to my chest.  They’re cold and I can feel the leads being hooked up.  Then I hear the cardiac monitor beep and feel the blood pressure cuff inflate on my right arm.  I didn’t even know it was there, such is the power of FeelGood into the back of the hand.  For that matter I never noticed someone turning down my gown to put the cardiac pads on me.  Only when I head the beeps did it register that I was hearing me. 

Then, in a moment of exceptional weirdness, someone puts a Styrofoam box on my chest and tapes it down.  I open my eye and look down.  No word of a lie, it looked like the kind of Styrofoam clamshell box you get takeout lunch in, big enough for salad, a sandwich and dessert. 

I laughed out loud and asked if they were taking lunch while working on me.  It was explained that they can’t put an oxygen mask on me, as the doctors need the room to work, so the box has an oxygen feed line to blow on my face. 

You ready?  As ready as I’ll ever be.  Doctor Delpero puts a length of opaque adhesive plastic over my face, more or less a square of shower curtain with Post-It Note glue on one side.  I start to hum to myself and close my eyes.  I hear a few things, like this will feel weird.  At that moment he’s clipped my left eye open with a tool that looks like it came from the Inquisition, to give him room to work.  I breathe into the weirdness. 

There are whispered instructions between Delpero and his student who is doing some of the work.  I feel pressure and a pinch as the freezing is pumped into my eye area with a needle.  I breathe some more, but I can hear the heart rate beeps increasing.  Since I’m reasonably certain nobody else is hooked up in the OR, that could only be me.  You OK?  Yessssss. I reply.

I can feel the side of my head going numb from the nose back to my ear.  I’ve had extensive dental surgery before and I know that the freezing only takes a minute to numb it all out.  I’ll feel pressure, but no actual pain.  Here we go.

I hear someone ask for a hook and start to hum to myself again.  I don’t want to know and try to conjure up some happy drug-induced images, but I only partially succeed.  I feel pressure as my eye is pulled a bit, a hand on the side of my face.  I hear a clipping sound, then a request for cautery and can see a hand pass over my now wide open right eye, with the shower curtain over it.  I hear a little beep as the cautery iron works.  Again please.  Another beep.  Damn.  Not the word that you want to hear in the OR.

I ask, what’s up?  Oh the cautery isn’t working right, so we’re going to get another one.  Fair enough, I say.  You still with us David?  Yep.  Right here.  There is a momentary pause and a few beeps while the new cautery is fired up.  I get hit again and hear a That’s better.  A few more tugs and a few more beeps.

The plastic drape is starting to close in on my nose and mouth a bit, as the doctors work.  I ask for a moment, explaining what is going on.  The drape is adjusted and the Styrofoam lunch box is repositioned. I feel a swab over my left eye. 

Ready for the other side now.  I hear the request for the hook again and feel some tugging.  Then a request for suture material.  More tugging, just gentle pulling, as I breathe into it again. 

I can hear the heart rate start to race a bit.  Could I have another shot please?  We can’t David, you might start to come up out of the drugs if we give you more, as there is a border between relaxed and then suddenly awake.  OK.  Then give me a second.  I feel their hands move away from my face.  I bring my knees up a bit, straightening out my back as best I can while taped to the table.  A couple of deep breaths.  A couple more.  OK.  Keep going.

A few more whispered requests then an quiet, Yep.  That looks about right.  OK David, I’m going to uncover your right eye and I want to see how they track together.  Off comes the drape and I blink into the bright lights.  Look left.  Look right.  Look up.  Look down.  My left eye feels like it is full of aquarium gravel and I notice tears in my right eye.  I blink a couple of times.  So?  Looks good so far. 

The drape goes back down and someone swabs the trail of tears heading towards my right ear.  It would seem I am crying at least on one side of my head.  There are a couple of more tugs, then a ratcheting click and a release of the pressure on my left eye.  All done, I’ve taken the instrument out and now I’ll put a patch over it.

I feel my right eye well up again with tears as the shower curtain drape comes off.  Someone swabs the tears away and I let out a little sob.  You OK?  Yes.  I think so.  Hands undo the Styrofoam lunch box on my chest.  Others take the tape off my forehead and chin.  I close my eyes as the gurney is rolled out.  I choke out a Thank You.  I’ve been waiting nearly 50 years for this.  Thank you.

Trundled down the hallway to the recovery room, I get hooked up to the blood pressure cuff again.  I close my eyes and and sleep for a bit. 

When I wake up, I can barely feel half my head.  My nose is still half frozen and my left eye itches like a son of gun, so I touch the gauze patch over my eye and press on it very lightly.  It helps.  An aide asks me if I want anything.  Coffee and something to eat would be good.  I get hospital strength coffee-related product and some kind of carrot muffin.  I eat and nod out again. 

Later, after snoozing for a bit and reading for a bit, Doctor Delpero comes in for my adjustment.  What happens is he leaves two slip knots hanging out of my eye.  With the freezing in, he can’t be certain that the lineup is bang on, but now that the freezing is almost out, he can adjust the slip knots to give me a precision alignment.  

In the initial consultation I said I’d be happy with something close enough, as nothing is guaranteed.  My example was Ellen Barkin, the actor, who is just ever so exquisitely off eye alignment.  Not that I want to look like Ellen Barkin, so stop thinking that way, you dirty minded swine. 

The patch comes off and I blink a few times.  I can feel the suture slip knots on my cheek, which is a very disturbing feeling to be sure.  Look up, look down, look left, look right.  Follow the finger.  He opens a sterile pouch of instruments and has me look around again.  I feel one of the sutures tugged a bit as he tightens things up.  I start to panic a bit, as this is a very weird feeling, but I breathe and relax, knowing it won’t take long. 

A few more tugs, then a couple of snips.  Look up, look down, look left, look right.  Bingo.  Bang on.  A few lengths of adhesive tape and some gauze pads come out.  Close your eyes David.  A patch goes on and gets taped to my head.  I’ll see you tomorrow at my office and we’ll see how it all worked out.  He leaves me the instructions and a prescription for various things.  I shake his hand and say thank you. 

After another half hour, I’m released.  Back in the hotel I take this picture.  Call it The After  

Yes, I know the patch should be black and I should have a parrot on my shoulder, but considering hospitals have no sense of humor, I did OK.

With the application of much medication, I sleep.  Part the way through the evening, I notice something.  I stare at the bedside light and cover my right eye with my hand.  I can see light through my patch.  I check again.  Yep.  Light and Dark.  Holy Shit.  I try not to cry, as tears have salt and salt in fresh stitches hurts.  But I cry anyway.  I can see bright light and darkness through an eye that I have never seen through. 

The next morning I drive to Doctor Delpero’s office.  I want to know if I’m just dreaming this, or hallucinating, or just full of wishful thinking.  The patch comes off and Delpero shines a light in my left eye.  I can see it.  I ask if this is possible?  It can happen, he explains.  Perhaps the nerves are there and hooked up but since the brain couldn’t make sense of the image, it ignored it all these years.  Now, with the image being closer to lined up, the brain is trying to make sense of it.  Only time will tell if it develops into anything.  By the way David, the lineup is right on.  

I look in his mirror.  I look like I’ve gone rounds with Mike Tyson, but that is expected and it will go away in time.  The sutures will dissolve in four weeks and the eye will look a bit red for another few weeks after that. 

So here’s the After II on Friday and After III on Sunday.


I’ll finish it up in the next installment.



Squared Up Part I

I’ll give you the squeamish alert now.  Some photos and descriptions might be disturbing to some readers.  Or, it will get your rocks off.  I don’t know, or particularly care to know.

Since March of 1957, I’ve had an eyeball that is off kilter, the left eyeball.   As the left eye couldn’t see things, it never tracked with the right eye.

Last week, I had surgery to fix it.  This is the story of one eye being off target for all of my life, then squared up.

Back in the Day it was called Lazy Eye and the solution was to put a patch over the good eye and exercise the lazy eye to make it track with the good eye.  Look up, look down, look left, look right, repeat nine thousand times.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t see out of the left eye, so all the ‘exercise’ was an exercise in futility. 

I was sent out to play wearing a patch on my good eye, which meant I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face.  Or doors, fences, trees, buildings or cars.  There was much bruising.  Again, back then, it was considered appropriate by the medical folks to "force’ the kid to use the eye, then it would magically work and line up.  The attitude was that children are wilful, evil little creatures who must be forced to do things, with a rubber hose to the soles of the feet if need be.  Fortunately things have changed since then.

After a few months of banging into things, the medical folks eventually figured out, despite me telling them repeatedly, that I couldn’t see out the left eye.  Blind as a bat.  No light, no shapes, no dark, or shadows.  Nothing.  The right eye?  Fine, but nearsighted.

Some science content here:  Stereoscopic vision, the ability to see in three dimensions is as much a brain function as an eye function.  The back of the eyeballs output data via the optic nerves to the optic chiasm, where a lot of the data crosses paths.  Essentially your right eye feeds the left side of the brain and the left eye feeds the right side of the brain.  Your brain puts the two slightly different pictures together and calls that reality in three dimensions.  The interocular distance, the distance between your two eyes, gives you the two slightly different images.

When you move your eyes to look at something, let’s say a car passing in front of you, the two eyes move at slightly different rates.  Every zillionth of a second the brain sends signals to the muscles to keep the two images approximately in sync and refreshes the combined image into a coherent picture. 

If you’ve ever had dental surgery, like a root canal, and had half your head frozen, you notice that your vision is impaired or blurry for a while.  One set of eye muscles is affected by the dental freezing and is out of sync with the unfrozen ones.  The brain can’t make a coherent image out of the input, because the two aren’t lining up within the range the brain can resolve. 

As a young’un, the two pictures that were being delivered to my brain were too far out of alignment for the brain to make sense of them.  So, the brain, being confused, said, "The left side data is pooched.  Screw it."  The brain, being a complex machine, stopped accepting input from the left side optic nerve.  

I never noticed it, being about 6 months old.  The left eye, over time, stopped tracking with the right eye as the brain didn’t need or want the input.  Parenthetically, my left eye is a real one, completely alive, as the pupil reacts to light, but there is no input from it that I can see, at least until last Friday.

What this means, is that I have never seen in three dimensions.  I have no idea what it looks like.  Since I have never seen it, I don’t miss it, much like someone born color-blind or deaf has no appreciation for what they have never known. 

Having said that, I must also explain that there are drawbacks to having monocular vision.  For example, catching a ball.  Billiards.  Pouring liquids.  Walking down stairs.  The list of things that are easier with binocular vision is long, but humans are remarkably adaptive animals.  Most of my adaptions are very subtle and you wouldn’t notice them, if you didn’t know.

For example, if I pour you a glass of wine, you might notice that I put the spout of the bottle on the edge of the glass, then pour.  If I didn’t, then there would be wine everywhere, except in the glass.  Walking down a flight of stairs, I always hold the handrail.  To me optically, the stair and my feet are in the same geometric plane so I don’t get the visual cueing that my foot is about to hit the stair tread.  I’ve fallen down too many sets of stairs for it to be entertaining anymore. 

As for catching anything?  Forget it, as I can’t see how far it is away from me to put out my hand to capture it.  You need two slightly different views of the flying object to allow your brain to calculate where, in space, the object is, to trigger your arm to put your hand predictively where the arc will end.  Without the second visual input, the brain can’t calculate the interception point accurately. 

Watching me play badminton is hilarious, golf is agriculturally funny as I dig divots, baseball is a nine-inning joke, volleyball an exercise in face-planting, along with gymnastics, lacrosse, football, hockey and rugby.  Skiing, be it downhill or cross-country is an endless loop of me falling over, while darts is dangerous for bystanders.  Snooker and 9-ball, two billiards games I love, are as visually puzzling as modern art to me.  Martial arts would be dangerous to all concerned, as I can’t see properly to pull the strike before hitting someone.

I tried playing Squash with a good friend many years ago.  I tried hard too, as I like it.  More than once I almost decapitated him with a mighty swing of the racquet to hit a ball that I thought was far enough away from his head to clear it.  I was wrong.  He’s since forgiven me for it, but at the time, I was mortified. 

Sports is one thing, but behavior and personality are another whole set of things that I have a different take on.  There is some scientific thought that the left hemisphere of the brain is the creative side, the literate, wordy, visual side of our personality.  The right hemisphere is the more mathematical, hardwired logical side. 

I am so mathematically challenged that I should have a blue parking pass from the Province of Ontario.  Grade 2 consisted of me being drilled in math for hours after school by my Father, usually ending in tears, yelling and screaming.  I still don’t know my times tables.  It took me three tries to get through Grade 9 Algebra.  Long division might as well be in Sanskrit. 

Cursive writing is right hemisphere and my handwriting is indecipherable at best, aside from being partially dyslexic.  Fortunately I have learned how to spot my common errors and rely on spell-checking programs.  I’ve used a typewriter then a computer for just about all my correspondence, as others can’t read my writing.  

I don’t actually know, instinctively, my left hand from my right hand.  Watch me give directions to someone and I’ll take forever, as I have to consciously do the turns, then figure out which direction it is by translating motion into Left or Right.

Math and handedness are right brain functions.  The biggest stimuli is visual in the human and the right hemisphere of the brain is fed by the left eye.  Perhaps this explains why I seem to be able to fling words with a modicum of mediocrity, but can’t add three numbers together without a calculator.

It isn’t all unpleasant.  I see what a camera sees, which explains why I spent about ten years in television as a director and photographer.  The illusion you see as depth on television or film is created with lighting.  I can’t be fooled by binocular vision into thinking things are correctly lit, so I was a pretty good shooter in my day on film and tape.  I can still get off the occasional good shot with the camera. 

Even stranger is my previous history in flying and racing, two activities one would think would absolutely need depth perception.  Technically, they do, but I’ve got eight hours in fixed wing, single engine aircraft and sixteen hours in gliders.  Laps racing?  More than several thousand and I wasn’t that bad a racer either.  

You learn different cues to make up for the cues that others use naturally.  When driving, I always do the three-count thing.  Watch the car in front of you on the highway pass a fixed object, count to three and you should be passing the same object.  Less than three and you’re too close. 

When driving I have my head turned slightly left, to center up my right eye and cover all three mirrors.  I don’t know how I learned it, but that’s what I use.  I can extrapolate position from shadows, perhaps better than you can.  Again I don’t know how I learned it, but that’s what I use.

To bring it all together regarding binocular vision, just for giggles, cover your right eye and try to walk across your living room, only using your left eye.  You will bang a shin, or fall over or wind up behind the sofa on your head.  It’s hard for you because you’re used to having the two visual inputs that you see as depth.  

As a child it was hellish.  Male children in the 60’s were all about sports as the determining social hierarchy marker.  So was physical appearance.  With one eye pointing inwards and a basic stick and ball ineptitude, I was a castaway.  There aren’t many photos of me, as I instinctively avoided cameras.  For some reason I was always away when school photos were being taken.  Cyclops was a common playground taunt, along with Spaz, Freak and Dumbo. 

Growing older I adjusted, sort of.  There are a few pictures of me out there.  When I could, I would make sure that I was far enough from the camera that it was hard to see the left eyeball being off.  What few formal portraits of me that exist, give me the heebie jeebies when I see myself.  The bathroom mirror looks somewhat back at me, kind of, but not quite.

As a trainer I used to make mock of it.  If I pointed to someone at the back of the class and the guy four seats to the right answered, I’d point to my right eye and say "Not quite, try this one, as it’s the one I use all the time." then laugh.  After all, you can laugh or you can cry and laughter is easier, at least in public. 

Inwardly, I cried and got reminded of it, every morning, in the bathroom mirror.  I have overheard others describe me as the "guy with the eye".  Oh well. 

Is a wonky eye a definer of me?  Perhaps.  I know I have learned more about visual acuity, spatial relationships, perception and some rudimentary biology because I have tried to understand the why of how I see what I see and how others see what they see.

In the next posting I’ll get down to brass tacks regarding the operation.  There will be a before and after picture or two.  No shot of during, although I was tempted to ask for one. 



Lottery Investigations

The lottery industry up here is under scrutiny. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s investigative program, the fifth estate, has been peeking under the scratchoff tickets and following the money like good little journalists should.  Here’s the link if you want to read more:

the fifth estate found that the number of lottery sellers winning jackpots was significantly higher than the math said it should be.  Canada has had government run legal lotteries since 1975 or so, when the first Canada Olympic Lottery was stood up.  Designed to fund the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, governments across the country saw that there was a huge wad of money out there to be plucked.

We have the usual lottery games, pick 6 numbers out of 49, or pick 7 out of 49 and win even more.  Plus four hundred and ninety seven different kinds of scratch-off type tickets.  Each province runs their own versions, with various payouts from a free ticket to a zillion dollars a week for the rest of your life.

Since the lottery retailers were winning significantly more than the statistics would suggest, it pointed to a hole in the security somewhere.  When Bob Edmonds of Fenelon Falls presented a winning lottery ticket to a retailer in July 2001 and was told it didn’t win, he knew something was curious.  Even more curious, the retailers cashed the winning ticket as their own and scored $250,000.

The Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation, OLG, undertook an investigation, which was, at best rudimentary.  Eventually it came out that the OLG security people knew something was fishy, but the senior folks didn’t want to look too closely, as the retailers are the front line in a Crown Corporation that grossed $5,854,055,000 in 2005.  (That would be nearly $6 Billion for those you who can’t remember how many zeros are in a million)

If the retailers were examining the scratch and win tickets and figuring out which ones were the big winners, or jiggering the lottery terminals to not play the ‘winner’ music, then the happiness of the retailers was paramount and the security of the game becomes secondary.  After all, we got us a $6 Billion dollar machine to feed!

Needless to say, the CEO of the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation has resigned, with his golden parachute intact.  The Atlantic Lottery Corporation is investigating why so many of their retailers seem to have winning tickets.  The other provincial lottery groups are starting to look inwards too.  There is much trembling in the board rooms.

Some factoids here:  The likelihood of winning a big prize in a 6/49 type of lottery is approximately 1 in 13,983,816.  In a 7/49 type game, according to the OLG’s own stats is 1 in 20,963,833.  You are more likely to have Sigourney Weaver and Kate Winslet show up unannounced at your front door with a bottle of Viagra, a case a Mazola oil and welcoming smiles, than win at any lottery.

There’s nothing wrong with the ‘dollar and a dream’ bit of recreation, once in a while, if you can afford it.  Notice the qualifiers there, once in a while, if you can afford it.  Unfortunately, lotteries have become a tax on stupidity and those who play the most, tend to be those who can’t afford to play.  I’ve seen too many people of modest means, plunking down anywhere from $20 to $100 twice a week to play ‘their numbers’, hoping to hit it big. 

Of course the lottery corporations have taken all kinds of stern voiced stances regarding problem gambling, but their actual efforts, aside from signing a high-toned Code of Conduct consists of, well, signing a high-toned Code of Conduct.  OLG also says they have poured $113 million into "Problem Gambling"  As best I can see, those efforts consist of signing a high-toned Code of Conduct and issuing media releases.

It will eventually out that the government-run lotteries are nothing more than voluntary taxation of the dumb and broke, while the proceeds are dumped into General Revenue and frittered away on studies about high-toned Codes of Conduct. 

Spend your $2 and dream of telling the boss to pound sand, if you choose to and can afford to, but remember that you are willingly giving the government your after-tax money to piss it away on more studies of nothing, plus marketing more lotteries to more people.

Perhaps Sigourney and Kate will knock on the door first.  I can always rent a trampoline.



The TIDE database

Databases are wonderful things, when the data is consistent.  I’ve talked about databases before, but in the weekend Washington Post, a fine article by Karen DeYoung highlights the problems the US Department of Homeland Paranoia is having in keeping their waste products linear.

The Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE) is the storehouse of individuals that the various American intelligence agencies have considered to be potential risks.  Data comes from several hundred sources of varying degrees of accuracy.  The database in 2003 was about 100,000 files:  Now it is 435,000 files.  It isn’t the number of files that is the problem, as things like SQL can handle databases much larger than that. 

The problem is the veracity of the data.  Remember the Old Skool Computer Acronym GIGO? Garbage In, Garbage Out.  The TIDE database gets some of the data from the FBI, some from the TSA, some from Consular Lookout and Support System and some from state and local cops.  Parts come from the National Crime Information Center database, other parts are Secret.  It all piles into one big monkey vat of data lovin’. 

Knowing that, you must also understand how a database works.  Databases are nothing more than a big collection of electronic files, put away by keywords. so you can find them again. 

In the distant past, if you wanted to find something in "The Joy of Cooking" and all you had in the kitchen was a dead possum, flour and garlic, you could turn to the index, look up opossum and it would have a list for recipes that featured possum.  The index would list page 454 as the page that has the specific recipes for possum. Eventually you would narrow your search down to that one recipe that has possum, flour and garlic as ingredients.

That is the simplest and most common type of database search there is.  Computers can do that searching much faster than humans, searching on several dozen terms at the same time, as well as the relationships between keywords, as long as the data is consistent.  Please underscore that last line. 

For example, from the WaPo article, let us consider Cat Stevens.  Cat Stevens is the former name of the singer now known as Yusuf Islam.  Yusuf Islam is on the TSA No-Fly list for "secret" reasons. 

I’m guessing here, but odds are some CIA pud found a piece of paper in London with the name Yusuf Islam written on it, in the same time zone as a rocket propelled grenade.  Therefore anyone named Yusuf Islam has been near or associated with explosives, is obviously a Jihazi, dangerous, crazy and shouldn’t be allowed into the US. 

This is the same logic as Googling David Smith and assuming I am a mathematician who died in 1944 or I work at NASA Ames Research.  I am not dead and I don’t work at NASA Ames, let me be clear on that.

However, if your name is Catherine Stevens, you might be stopped at the airline, or the border, as Cat is a common enough contraction of Catherine and the last name matches, so you must be Yusuf Islam, a "bad" guy and writer/performer of "Peace Train"  Or, you could be the wife of US Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), trying to get to Washington. 

Again, obviously a bad guy intent on transvestite sex with a Federal politician and destroying the Wal-Mart in Cookville, Tennessee with explosives hidden in a can of Alaskan crab legs.  I am kidding; it is a waste of good crab.   

Perhaps the worst part of TIDE is that it is a data warehouse without anything beyond rudimentary vetting based on the assessments of 80 data analysts.  I suspect that Chester Field, Heywood J. Ablome and Suk Mi Ohf are also somewhere in the TIDE database, as that seems to be the level of sophistication and accuracy that the various intelligence agencies can muster on a good day.

The most telling sentence however, is this one, "(Rick)Kopel (TIDE Acting Director) insisted that private information on Americans, such as credit-card records, never makes it into the screening center database and that "we rely 100 percent on government-owned information."  

DCS 1000 (formerly Carnivore), the data, email, phone call and chat domestic spying tool is run by the FBI.  The FBI is government-owned.  Therefore, Rick Kopel is telling the truth, but overlooking the pervasive no-warrant/no-oversight/no-review powers that DCS 1000 and Echelon have under the Patriot Act. 

The Department of Homeland Paranoia, renown for their transparent and forthright communications with Congress, Justice and the citizens of the United States of America, is the owner and operator of the Patriot Act.  Which also explains why there is no mechanism to get yourself off the watch list.

To put the fine point on it, TIDE has access to and from all the data you could possibly want.  The value of the data, based on the output that crops up in the TSA, is garbage.  It isn’t even funny garbage.  

Even more frightening, is that there will be a file somewhere in TIDE database tomorrow that links the keyword term Heywood J. Ablome to David Smith to the keyword Jihazi to the keyword TSA.  What kind of assumption could you make of that linkage?  The wrong one, to be sure.     


Who Profits?

Yesterday, President Jo Jo The Idiot Boy told the Congress and Senate to piss up a rope regarding sworn testimony from Karl Rove and Alberto Gonzales,  The mouthpiece who delivered the message was Fred F. Fielding.  Fred is the 32nd White House Counsel, who replaced Harriet Miers.

Fred has a great background in politics, aside from being the 19th White House Counsel under The Almost Lifelike Ronald Regan, from 1981 to 1986.  The most fascinating part of his resume was as his gig as Associate Counsel to President Richard Nixon from 1970 to 1972.  Fred’s boss was John Dean.  Yes, that John Dean.  The one who blew Nixon out of the water with revelations of all the insanity that was going on in the White House.

Now, am I saying that the current White House, under President Jo Jo The Idiot Boy, Shotgun Dick and Kousin Karl is the same as the Nixon Monstrosity?  Not at all. 

The current incumbents learned from Watergate.  If there is anything written down, it has already been shredded.  If there are taping systems in Shotgun Dick’s office, they’ve already made the tapes invisible via the Patriot Act and National Security.  If someone broke into the Democratic HQ back in the day, you would be assured the perps did not have any pieces of paper with Karl Rove’s phone number on it.  Remember, getting caught is the ultimate crime. 

The fudges the Republican Party have pulled, like winning Florida from Gore by controlling the whole counting and appeals process, are small beer compared to Nixon and the Committee to Re Elect the President. 

The new boys are much tougher than Nixon’s punks.  There is no Daniel Ellsberg Pentagon Papers and break-ins at a psychiatrists office.  The CIA has improved their tradecraft and taught the FBI the rudimentary tools too, so that side is covered off. 

As for firing eight Federal Attorneys, well, it stinks, but is legal.  Karl’s fingerprints are all over that one, but there have been no laws broken, so it is a non-starter.  However, Shotgun Dick’s Chief of Staff being a lying scumbag and bullshitting the FBI under oath, was actionable and Irving will be spending time in the Crowbar Hotel.

As for Jo Jo The Idiot Boy, his comment is, "We will not go along with a partisan fishing expedition aimed at honorable public servants. … I have proposed a reasonable way to avoid an impasse."  It sounds like it was cribbed from the Richard Nixon quote book that, "Today, in one of the most difficult decisions of my presidency, I accepted the resignations of two of my closest associates in the White House — Bob Haldeman, John Ehrlichman — two of the finest public servants it has been my privilege to know."

Even yesterday, the Nixonian term "Executive Privilege" has been dusted off by Jo Jo’s handlers.  A reminder here, the only executive privilege the President gets is Marine One, Air Force One, the keys to Camp David and a fleet of armored limousines.  America isn’t a monarchy, if I remember my civics class correctly.   

Until somebody decides to actually open their mouth and lay out the real data on how much Karl and Shotgun Dick have run roughshod over the Legislative, Judicial and Executive branches of government in the name of National Security, we’ll never know.

Actually, we can find out.  To quote David Hobbs, the media needs a "Large Set of Attachments" 

It is time for a return to legitimate reporting, which means digging into the relationship between Rumsfeld, Cheney, Rove, Dubya and the American Enterprise Institute, with the oil, security and arms industries.  Add Wolfowitz, Feith and the Carlyle Group into the mix to find out more.

There is an expression in Latin that sums it up:  Qui Bono?  Who Profits?  The money can’t disappear, no matter how hard they try.  It will only take a couple of dedicated reporters and editors, with some media resources, to start the hard, unglamorous slog through the paper trail.  We need a return to the Cronkite/Woodward/Bernstein/Bradley level of digging for the story that is in there.

Qui Bono?  Answer that and President Jo Jo the Idiot Boy and his cronies don’t get to wipe their feet on the Bill of Rights and the US Constitution. 



Iraq and The Death Squads

A CNN feature report by John Roberts has detailed the utter breakdown of the Iraqi Security Forces.  The short form of the story is that Shiite groups are now embedded in the Iraq Interior Ministry with the tacit approval of then Minister of the Interior, Bayan Jabir and funded by the American dollars that prop up the government. 

Iraq, theoretically now self-governing, is turning its hatred inwards, going off on a Shiite-Sunni fight to the death, encouraged by various clerics and politicians. The situation has devolved to the point of injured bystanders of the wrong religious persuasion are being denied treatment at Iraqi hospitals, if not actively taken to a room just off the ER and shot.  The phrase Death Squads slips easily off the tongue.

Iraq is so far down the slippery slope of religious warfare that the US has little or no hope of keeping the two sides apart, aside from partitioning the country by force.  Partitions would almost have to be neighborhood by neighborhood in Baghdad, as Shia and Sunni live in enclaves next door to each other, taking time out of their busy day to bomb each others’ mosques, weddings and funerals. 

About the only times that partitioning has vaguely worked has been Lebanon, Cyprus and Berlin, post WWII.  In each situation the partitions were maintained by mammoth force of arms on all sides.  Even so, in the case of Lebanon and Cyprus, the fighting merely settled down to a dull roar, instead of a blazing hot war zone. 

Making one big partition has precedence.  Yugoslavia was a made-up country post WWI.  The only way it held together for so long was the strong-arm King Alexander I, then a Communist regime under Tito and later the Soviet Union. 

We all know what happened when the ‘police’ broke up and Yugoslavia ceased to exist:  Factional fighting between Bosnians, Herzegovenes, Serbs, Montenegrins, Slovenes, Croats, Albanians, Muslims and Christians, as well as some ethnic cleansing just to add to the confusion, settling old scores from 1914 or even further back into the mists of the 17th century.

Which leaves what for Iraq if partitioning can’t work?  There are options and none of them are pretty. 

Option 1:  The US could up their presence by a factor of ten or fifteen, putting more than 750,000 pairs of boots on the ground, armed to the teeth and willing to shoot the hell out of anything that moves on any side.  A police force to do the job the Iraqi Police Force can’t and won’t do.

Downside?  A 10 year commitment and cranking up Selective Service to find enough bodies to stand a post.  It would bankrupt the US fiscally.  It would bleed the US white as the occupation would be, at very best, a human Cuisinart.  We’ve seen how well the US Military supports its’ returning veterans, especially those who are injured.  It would mean the loss of an entire generation to fight a barely understood war in a distant nation to help people who hate us.

Option 2: Finding a suitable dictator to grab power in such a way that he’s still Oil-Company friendly and will act as a puppet for the US.  However, this does mean choosing sides in the Shiite-Sunni battles and watching as one side or the other is eradicated from the face of the Earth. 

Downside?  Genocide on a scale that will make Sudan and Darfur look like a playground tussle over a game of marbles.  All the suitable dictators were killed off by Saddam Hussein during his reign.     

Option 3:  Pack it up and go home, letting the Shia and Sunni groups kill each other.  Iran and Saudi Arabia would have to take sides, as neither regime can afford to have that kind of unstable madness in their back yards.  It would rapidly evolve into a low-fidelity version of an Pan-Arabic Cold War, using violent proxies to fight on their behalf.

The US would naturally choose the Saudi side and funnel arms and ‘advisors’ into the mix.  With any luck the newly resurgent Russian Federation would hook up with Iran, as long as the money was paid up front in oil and gold. 

Downside?  Another Cold War, this time over oil, with a side order of theology.  Again, genocide on a heretofore unimagined scale.  Just for hilarity, Israel might get so scared they blow the whole Middle East to pieces, resulting in an Arab world versus Israel battle to the death. 

The US would be trapped in a three-way battle of supporting Israel, Saudi Arabia and anyone not siding with Russia.  Does the phrase global catastrophe come to mind?

Option 4:  Do nothing except what is being done now:  Let the status quo of troop strength and insurgent warfare thrash on, hoping the insurgents run out of guns before the US runs out of troops. 

Downside?  It hasn’t worked for five years and won’t work until the Iraqi people decide that prosperity and getting along with each other is better than blowing up mosques and killing as many people as possible.  Settling scores from 632 AD is not really the way to get along.  This is the ‘bleed to death, slowly’ option.

Option 5: Pull back and become an armed state.  If the US packs up the tents and tanks, then the borders of the US, in every way imaginable, will become the new front line.  The list of armed and crazy revenge seekers will be longer than the No-Fly List at the TSA. 

The US will be forced to become a closed, armed camp with near-continuous surveillance of all the citizens to prevent attacks.  The Ministerium für Staatssicherheit, circa 1970 comes to mind.  For those too lazy to look up the real name of the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit, I’ll tell you the informal name that was given to it in East Germany:  The Stasi.

Considering how far the Department of Homeland Paranoia has four unlubricated fingers up the ass of America today under the Patriot Act, a homegrown Stasi isn’t that far a leap.  All it would take is one terrorist attack on home soil. 

Actually, just the spectre of four or five cement-heads blowing up a school bus full of kids with a chlorine tanker in downtown Anywhere, USA would push the government over the edge, demanding round-the-clock surveillance on everyone.  Groupthink will become the new normal. 

To police a nation of 300 million, you need a mammoth standing security force.  Expect a return to Selective Service and the whole security apparatus farmed out to various friends of Cheney who would only be too happy to opeate it on behalf of the government on a cost-plus basis.

Without going fully nuclear and making the ashes of the Middle East bounce, the US has only Option 1 and Option 5 available.  Options 2,3 and 4 revolve around massive religious genocide on an unprecedented scale as well as a new Cold War via proxies, this time over oil, not politics.

ese are all very bleak scenarios.  They all track back directly to March 20th 2003 when President Jo Jo The Idiot Boy and Shotgun Dick invaded Iraq without a plan for anything beyond a press conference on May 1st 2003 on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln under the "Mission Accomplished" banner.

We’ve been down this road before.




A Week in San Francisco

As part of job, I was in San Francisco for a week, taking some training.  You and I both know I don’t talk about the job in here, but I will talk about the City By The Bay, San Francisco.

San Francisco is uncommonly beautiful, being built all over a bunch of hills, on the side of the Bay and the Pacific.  San Francisco has a long tradition of being a port city, shipping in and shipping out just about everything at one time or another.  The city is quite green, being a temperate climate, unlike Los Angeles which is a desert with silicone implants. 

The people? Uniformly friendly and approachable.  Sort of a small-town mentality with a big city environment.  You can ask any passerby on the street for the correct time and not be told to do an anatomical impossibility.  Of course, being a beautiful city, housing costs are astronomical, so you get socio-economic stratification.  There are fabulously rich folks and dirt poor folks, with nothing in between.  The middle class can’t afford to live in San Francisco, so they have all moved to the soulless ‘burbs, each within ten minutes drive of a Borders, Bed, Bath and Beyond, the GAP and Wal-Mart big box mall-hell. 

Downtown is clean and orderly, while still retaining some of the city-ness and characters you find in a large city.  The tourist areas are uniformly spotless and safe, after all, people come from all over the planet to San Francisco and the good citizens want to put out their best china and linens. 

I was in San Francisco with a co-worker, who hadn’t been there for several years, so we took some time in the evenings to do a bit of tourism.  First off, the cable cars are just as you see them in the Rice A-Roni TV commercials.  They clank and rumble, climbing the hill up Market street.  Chinatown is a riot of people, languages, smells and colors that stun the eyes, ears and nose.  Yes, there are quaint apartments that seem to defy gravity, clinging to the side of hills.

Fisherman’s Wharf is at once a working wharf and a theme park of a wharf, having been Sanitized For Your Protection as a tourist.  You can get New England Clam Chowder in a bread bowl from one of dozens of street kitchens, the come-on being that you’re at a wharf, ergo the clams are fresh.  There are several hideous tourist traps hawking t-shirts and "authentic" Alcatraz Swim Team jackets along with gum, cameras, batteries and fridge magnets.

We did manage to find a good restaurant and take in the seafood, which was excellent, as well as a sunset behind the Golden Gate Bridge that took your breath away.  Some days, I’m certain, God does that just to show off. 

Coming back to Market street, we asked a passenger on the street car what stop we should use to get to our hotel and received concise directions.  After getting off the transit, my colleague remarked that one of the women on the streetcar was a fine specimen of womanhood, specifically the one we asked directions of.  I pointed out to him that she also had an Adam’s apple and knees that looked my mine, as well as just that bit too much makeup to cover a five o’clock shadow.  There was a minor mental earthquake.   

Thursday night however, it was a different story.  I was in my pajamas (the pink, flesh colored ones) watching the History Channel, minding my own business at 8:40 PM.  The bed started to move.  A lot.  Imagine a big, heavy truck rolling by your house, shaking everything.  For three seconds I was confused, as I was on the eighth floor.  Then it struck me.  I am in California.  This is an earthquake. 

I didn’t hear sirens, or breaking glass and a second later, the bed stopped moving.  So far, no issues.  I had survived my first earthquake.  A moment later, my cell phone rang.  It was my colleague wondering what the hell had just happened.  I changed channels to a local station and lo, a 4.1 magnitude earthquake.  No damage.  Nothing more than a few rattled dishes.

Thursday evening we spent some time looking for souvenirs for my colleague to take home to his partner.  We even took a few moments to watch the sea lions basking on the jetties and barking at passers-by.  Sea lions look exactly like you have seen them in documentary films.  Big, flabby and cute, they have a bark like a very big hound dog and loll around staring at the humans with the cameras.  I’m never sure who is on display, as I suspect there is a sign in sea lion-ese underwater somewhere in the bay that says, "Come and see the idiot bi-pedals, but don’t feed them herring and don’t throw things at them.  Thank you." 

By the time things wrapped up on the Friday, I had four hours to myself.  My colleague had to catch a flight, so I was on my own.  My first stop was the USS Pampanito.  The Pampanito is a WWII US diesel submarine, of the Balao class.  The Pampanito is a restored, real, fleet submarine that has been slightly modified so you can walk the length of the interior.  The Pampanito is actually in the water, so it rolls and yaws with the sea, unlike other subs that are dryland monuments to rust held together with paint.

Entering aft you find that more than 20 minutes on a sub will give you the heebie jeebies if you are at all claustrophobic.  Hard steel pieces jut out at angles that are certified by the shipyard to leave bloody gashes in your forehead and scalp if you don’t pay attention.

The Pampanito has been lovingly restored to as close to 1945 as you can get.  They did leave out the asbestos and the toxic lead paint, but you can never get rid of the smell of diesels, sweat, hot vacuum tubes, Lucky Strikes, dust, grease and oil. 

Everything is tiny.  The head is miniscule.  The racks, even for the senior officers are not much bigger than an airline seat folded out flat.  The galley is a miracle of space and efficiency.  Every cubby hole, niche and surface available has some kind of machinery built in to service the needs of a big steel tube that sinks and surfaces at will. 

One of the museum docents aboard served on a sister to the Pampanito and, as it was a slow day, showed me some of the engine room where he served on the Bowfin.  Four big Morse Diesel engines take up all the room.  Underway, according to the docent, you can only communicate by hand signals, as the noise obliterates all potential for speech. 

Under the engines is a whole other space, of batteries, electrical cabling, pipes, oil sumps, bunker tanks and ballast tanks.  Overhead are the levers, valves and switchgear needed to run the boat.  You would burn yourself on something in the engine space at least once a day, and usually bark a shin four or five times a week.  It was considered the informal tattoo of the engine room. 

The control room, dive room and fighting spaces have all been restored.  Some of the floor decking is open grate, so you can see down into the lower levels of the boat, where even more 1943 technology lives.  Occasionally you feel the boat heel in the water, adding a sudden reality shot to the floating museum and memorial to those who are still on patrol. 

Next door on the wharf is another WWII relic, the Jerimiah O’Brien Liberty Ship.  One of only two working Liberty ships left from the more than 2,700 that were built in WWII, the Jerimiah O’Brien is still seaworthy and has the Coast Guard license to prove it.  Most of the ship is open to tour and perhaps the most remarkable part is the monstrous 3-cylinder steam engine that pushed the loaded Liberty ships to a stunning 11 knots.

Hull #230 was welded together in 56 days in Portland, Maine and hit the water on June 19,1943 being called SS Jerimiah O’Brien.  To cheer everyone up, it was painted grey.  Eleven of her stops were just off the shores of Normandy, bringing troops, guns, bullets and beans to the D-Day beaches.

Notice the prefix on the name, by the way.  SS, meaning steam ship.  Not USS, as in United States Ship, or HMCS, for Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship, both designations meaning a flag ship, or one owned and operated by the military.  All the Liberty ships were operated by private companies and all the hands were Merchant Marine sailors.  They weren’t military personnel:  They were citizens.

After an afternoon of floating history and too much walking up, down and around, I needed something to eat.  Pier 1, near the hotel has a number of small food emporiums and I was tired of hotel food and portions.  A nice, crispy french bread, some local cheese and slices of organic Parma ham made it into various bags.  A small container of gelato was obtained and I strolled back to the hotel.  One quick call to room service for butter and cutlery and I was set for a comfortable dinner.

Now that is the way to travel.  Lots of work, some history, a bit of beauty, some interesting people and very good food.  Welcome to San Francisco. 




I love aircraft. I have since the first time my Father took me to Uplands Airport 14,000 years ago. I got to fly on a tour of Ottawa in the grips of the fall foliage, on a short Air Canada hop around the Capital. The aircraft was a Vickers Vanguard turboprop.

At the time, around 1965, you could stand on the outdoor observation deck at Uplands and watch the planes, hearing the almighty whine as the Rolls-Royce turboprops spun up. You felt the turbine screech then a thump as the combustion chambers lit off. You were bathed in hot, humid, kerosene air as the aircraft taxied, turning its sooted exhaust can towards you as it lumbered off towards 32 or 07, carrying the glamorous and wealthy to their exotic destinations of Winnipeg or Halifax.. On special days there would be a DC-8 or a 707 at the airport. It was pure jet wonderment for a young child.

Since then, I have had a love affair with aviation, despite deregulation, security and the commoditisation of air transport.

My maternal grandmother, Frances Preece, lived fifty yards from the CN/CP Rail yards in Smiths’Falls, legitimately on the wrong side of the tracks. Since the age of 6, at least that I can remember, I’ve been playing near trains. I know the difference between a switch engine and a mainline motive unit. I can read the signal lights and know how to spin the brakes on a four car shunt. Gondola, reefer, bulk, coal, phosphate, boxcar, oilcan and pressure tank are known commodities to me.

I can jump on and off a moving train. I can hook up air lines and have gone from Smiths Falls to Brockville in a caboose. Even to this day, I can tell the difference between a Westinghouse deuce and a Nathan Airchime five throat.

I’m not going to mention trucking and how to shift a transmission without using the clutch, or how to make rude noises with a Jake. Then there is the whole cars, motorsport and racing shenanigans.

Some days I have Jet-A in the veins, other days, Diesel, other days Sunoco 260. Occasionally, I’ll admit to having blood in the veins, but for most of my life, it has been some kind of fuel.

The first legitimate train trip I took was to Montreal for Expo67 and I fell in love with passenger trains. In those days the toilet emptied on the tracks. I kid you not. You flushed the head and could look down the hole to see sleepers and rail.

Over the years I have taken the train, be it CP or CN on Red, White and Blue days, or later, the VIA red-headed stepchild several dozen times. There was an occasion whereby I joined the 70 mph Adultery club on an overnight train from Ottawa to Toronto. There were also two acts of oral intimacy on the return trip, one of which got my ears wet, but I digress.

Today, I am in VIA 1, hurtling to Montreal. The server has just brought me a hot, lemon-scented actual terrycloth towel with which I have refreshed myself. Shortly I will be brought a beef tenderloin, steamed vegetables and a nice dessert. There will be coffee, liqueurs if I so choose and copious amounts of wine.

I will be treated like a grown up and allowed to work, or gaze distractedly out the window of the car, as I so see fit. In this particular car, five people wanted to sit at the four place seat towards the back. It is easier to work there, as there is a table, much like a travel trailer table, so you can spread out. Between the five of us, we worked it out, without booking in advance, demanding accommodation, whining about membership in the frequent traveler program or being pissy, spoiled brats. Grownups handled it, without intervention by the train staff. In other words it was civilized.

Currently, the engine is moving air out of the way in the neighborhood of 160 kph (or about 100 mph) in the Toronto -Belleville-Kingston section.  I have been brought an appetizer of hummus and pita with olives and marinated red peppers with a slice of cold, grilled zucchini.

Nobody has asked to see my ticket to determine if I am eligible for a free soft drink, or bag of pretzels. No corporate drone has insisted that I sit up straight and not move, in the interests of safety. There are no crying babies, although there are young children in the car.

Outside, I can see Lake Ontario on one side, then into the backyards and farm lanes of Cobourg on the other side. The snow has been light this year. Brown stubble is everywhere, the light skiff of snow collecting the in the rows where the harrow disks have piled up the soil for the winter sleep.

A sudden roar and startle, as a unit train muscles the other way, a whooshing parade of empty well cars lugging west, then the parade of pines and fields resumes out the window. Occasionally you see into someone’s back yard, where a discarded 1966 Chevy pickup lies preserved, bushes growing out of the cab.

Then in a furious zoetrope, a glimpse of a partially melted snowman in a side yard, facing the tracks, a stick arm waving at the trains. It was built by a youngster who knew, exactly and precisely, when I would look out between the passing freight cars roaring in the other direction to see his or her handiwork waving at my seat on this train. It is a symbol of hope and love and happiness, as if a melted snowman waving at me would change the arc of my day.

Thank you, young person somewhere between Quinte West and Belleville East. You reminded me that sometimes you do things because someone else might enjoy them.

There might be much civilization and gentility on the train, but the best part of all, is the unexpected greetings from a snowman who knows you are passing by and wants to wish you well on your journey. There, in a short couple of paragraphs, is the joy of travel by train. You should take the train some time, if only to find your own snowman.



AT&T Too Secret

In an appeals court Monday, the mighty AT&T said that they can’t defend themselves in a suit against illegal wiretapping, because they cannot defend themselves without disclosing secret information that would then incriminate itself again.  If you’re confused, don’t worry, we’ll sort it out for you.

AT&T has been involved in wiretapping for the US Federal Government.  The Department of Homeland Paranoia has most likely used provisions of the Patriot Act to order AT&T to set up the wiretaps.  By definition, a Homeland Paranoia order is a secret order that a corporation can’t talk about without endangering National Security, which is also illegal.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) brought the original suit to stop AT&T from wiretapping on behalf of the Government.  The boffins at Homeland Paranoia do not respond to suits brought in civil court, because the Patriot Act says they are immune from prosecution for reasons of National Security.  Essentially the EFF sued the people actually doing the wiretapping, rather than the Government department that ordered the wiretapping. 

Understandably, the judges involved are deeply confused as to which laws, district, state or federal, have precedence.  At the core are the allegations that AT&T intercepted domestic calls, Internet traffic and phone records, without a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrant.  The Department of Homeland Paranoia has never admitted that they have spied locally without warrants and will not admit to it, as that would violate National Security.

I’ll simplify here:  There is a Secret program. 

Participation is Secret. 

Data obtained from it is Secret.

Things done with the data are Secret. 

If the programs exists, it may or may not be run by the Government, but that’s Secret. 

AT&T may or may not be involved in the program, but that’s Secret. 

If the program existed, it may or may not be wiretapping millions of calls, emails and chats, but that’s Secret. 

We can’t tell you when it may or may not have started, as that’s Secret. 

We can’t tell you how broad or narrow the program is, as that’s Secret.

We can’t tell you what information they have about you, after all the program may or may not exist and that’s Secret, including the information they may or may not have, which would also be Secret.

We can’t tell you about any FISA warrants the existing or non-existing program may or may not have applied for, or not, as that’s Secret.

We can’t even tell you the name of the program, as that is Secret.

We can, conclusively state that today is March 13th, 2007.  The rest of the stuff, you’re not entitled to know, or even know that it might be known.  Don’t ask again, as we might do something Secret to you.

And, since it would be Secret, you can’t tell anyone why you’re going to jail.  After all, we must protect the Secrets.