Monthly Archives: July 2009

Driving with Devices


Another learned study has come out, placing a large red circle around texting while driving.  According to research conducted by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute a driver is 23 times more likely to get into a car accident if they text while driving. 

According to their research over 18 months, text messaging forced the driver’s eyes from the road for the longest period of time, about 4.6 seconds out of a six second interval.  Doing some fast math (44 feet per second = 30 miles per hour) means someone texting while driving in the city, is not watching what they are doing for just over 200 feet, (202.4 if you want to get precise) or a tad over two-thirds of a North American football field.

Which makes sense.  Texting calls for more visual acuity and dexterity than talking on a cell phone.  What it really calls for is the complete redirection of the driver’s focus from driving to tapping the correct keys on a miniscule keypad to reply to the deeply important msg of u suk2 n ur mama iza ho.

I think we all understand, even with hands-free operation, simply talking on a cell phone is a dangerous distraction.  Some studies have implied that being piss drunk while driving (+.08) or talking on the phone while driving is more or less the same thing when it comes to driver inattention.  Both aren’t smart.  Texting is even worse.  However, it begs the question, what are we going to do about it?

Fourteen states and a handful of provinces have prohibited texting while operating a motor vehicle.  Boston and Los Angeles commuter rail services have forbidden their operators from texting while operating their trains, as a result of two nasty crashes.  The cause and effect of distracted driving is well known and well researched.

Driving home this evening from the office, I counted the nostrils of those with a cell phone in use while driving in Toronto rush hour traffic.  After dividing by 2 (generally, two nostrils = one human) there were more than 100 drivers I was able to spot, driving one-handed with a phone glued to their heads.  The distance from the office to the apartment?  15 kilometres.  Or 6.6 morons per kilometre.  23,100 pounds of vaguely controlled motor vehicle per kilometre, using an average of 3,500 pounds per car.

Now on the scale of ‘truly dumb’, we need some context, something to compare with:  Which is more dangerous to life, limb and reputation? (choose one) 

A) Driving a car on the expressway while texting, handling phone calls and email.  B) Engaging in an act of intimacy with a giraffe at the Metro Zoo, over the noon-hour with the media in attendance.

Either action can get you killed.  Giraffes do kick.  Reputation harm however, is a little more prominent if you’re on the noon news being led away by the police from the giraffe house.  You’ll also get a free psychiatric evaluation, probation for a couple of years and quite possibly be studied by mental health professionals to see if you are as deeply twisted as your actions might indicate.

Getting a ticket from the police for using your phone while driving will cost you a couple of hundred bucks and some minor annoyance.  This is assuming you don’t actually bang into something by running a red light and killing a family of four.

So which act is worse?  It depends on the perspective of society.  I humbly submit that relations with the giraffe is not the more ‘wrong’ act.  At worst you become a social pariah, labelled as a very sick individual and are prohibited from going to the zoo. 

Using your phone while driving means you’re a multi-tasking serious business person, plugged-in, focused on the bottom-line, customer first…yadda yadda yadda.

The giraffe relationship-artiste is not a well person by any measure.  But the cell phone driver is actively going out of their way to provide a violent and potentially deadly threat to others with 3,500 pounds of rapidly moving steel. rubber, glass and plastic aimed by a clueless hump. 

The giraffe lover is annoying the giraffe and wrecking their personal reputation, but not a whole lot more. I don’t know of anyone who has been killed, maimed, horrendously disfigured or permanently injured by someone who has banged a giraffe. Not that I know anyone who has, or would admit to it.  I travel in mainstream society thanks.  

A distracted driver?  That would be a different question that is answered on the roads.  Paramedics mop up the leftover parts every day.

Having been the owner of a cell phone for a number of years, my voice mail has always said “I can’t take your call right now, as I might be driving, teaching or in a meeting, but I will return your call as soon as possible.”  I simply refuse to use my phone while driving.  It’s too distracting and too dangerous.

If it is a ‘critical’ call, I put the phone down and pull over:  Loop into a parking lot, or head for the roadway shoulder, get out of the way, stop, then talk.  Realistically, there haven’t been that many ‘critical’ calls in the years of cell phone ownership, perhaps a dozen in fifteen years. It’s not like I have the only copy of the launch codes and NATO needs them immediately or the world will end.

Which comes back to our original story.  Even deducting half for media inflation and fear-mongering headlines, someone texting while driving is (after the math) 11.5 times more likely to get into a car accident than someone who isn’t.

Hang up:  It isn’t that important.  Or go to the zoo around noon. 

At least at the zoo you won’t be hurting anyone but yourself.

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Les Lye


Odds are most of you never knew Les Lye.  You might have heard of (or seen) that kid’s show on Nickelodeon called “You Can’t Do That On Television” and if you have, you’ve seen Les Lye, who passed away on Tuesday at 84.  Les played Ross and Dad.

A bit of the background here.  YCDTOTV was produced at CJOH-TV in Ottawa, when I worked there in the 80’s.  I was in commercial production and Les was a staff freelancer, so we worked together more than a few times.  Les was one of those people who was naturally funny:  Just being around him was a lift to your day.  He had an encyclopaedic knowledge of jokes, bits and humour, but could still sit down and talk over the trivialities of the day.

One Les Lye story will suffice.  On occasion we’d semi-collaborate on some of his movie reviews, which he did as part of the late news.  When the film version of “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” came out, in 1982, he didn’t want to actually say ‘whorehouse’, the gag being the station management wouldn’t let him say ‘whorehouse’ on the air.  It wasn’t true, but that was going to be the gag.

He was able to find a few synonyms for ‘whorehouse’, but knew that I was a font of excruciatingly useless information and seemed to be able to find the obscure and archaic terms.  (Remember this was pre-Internet days)  After a few hours, I had 38 synonyms for ‘whorehouse’ and these were duly incorporated into the script.  I think Les managed to work about 30 of them into a five-minute review.

Les’s partner in real crime was Bill Luxton.  Between the two of them, they did 22 seasons of Willy and Floyd.  Ostensibly a children’s show, the genius of Willy and Floyd were the jokes that could be taken at one level by the kids and a whole other, much raunchier, level by the grownups. 

Actually, the rehearsals for Willy and Floyd were perhaps the funniest things ever created in the known Universe.  Les and Bill were both so talented that the ad libs in rehearsal would leave your bladder a crippled spasmodic wreck as you tried not to piss yourself laughing.  I was fortunate enough to write a couple of Willy and Floyd’s.  I actually found one of the scripts a couple of years ago. 

Les worked with a lot of folks and his career spanned decades in radio, film, television and stage.  He also gave back as a very active member of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. 

We’ve lost a very warm and talented man.  Thank you Les.   

The Economic Benefits of Space


One of our regular readers on the Facebook side posed an interesting question, which I will quote:  Still, I’ve been waiting all these years for someone to make a really good argument for the value of the space program. I’d love to hear what you/others might have to say!  That’s a deep and important question that deserves a reasoned answer.

Here are some factoids:  2007 NASA Budget $16.3 billion.  US Pet Toy Industry in 2007:  $31 billion.  US Alcohol industry in 2007: $58 billion.

Computers:  In 1962, when the space race more or less started, a computer was the size of a small house and needed fourteen guys to run it to play a game of tic tac toe. 

By the time of the Apollo program, computers were the size of a shoebox and could be flown in space.  Apollo essentially flew and navigated on a Commodore VIC-20 by way of a comparison.  That progress took six years from a small house to a big shoebox and was driven entirely by NASA’s needs for a small, power-efficient, anvil-reliable computer.  

The computer you’re using right now has several million times the computing power of what went to the moon 40 years ago.  It could be argued that the entire computer industry was NASA-fuelled and there is some truth there. Some of their work was figuring out how to “network” Cape Canaveral/Kennedy and the Johnson Space Center in Houston together and do a hot swap 10 seconds into the launch, without so much as dropping a signal.  

Evans and Sutherland (ask an animator) one of the first ‘computer graphics and animation’ companies was a direct offspring of NASA.  It could be argued that animation would still be cel and ink based if it wasn’t for NASA needing real-time rendering engines for training simulators.  Yes, the early ones were low-rez polygon primitives, but they led to things like the opening credits on Monday Night Football, or the upcoming District-9, which is almost entirely rendered in an virtual environment.  “No film was exposed in the creation of this movie.  It’s all computer generated.”  Alright, it also created “Tron”, but we’ll forgive that.

Watching the BBC World Service.  If we didn’t have cheap, broadband digital satellite links, the BBC World Service would still be radio, over shortwave, if the ionosphere didn’t get in the way.  We would have to wait months for Top Gear or Corrie Street to ship tapes to North America for broadcast.

Speaking of tape, Time Code.  SMPTE Time Code was a direct result of NASA needing a way to identify video frames down to the 1/30th of a second, as well as edit it after the fact.  SMPTE Time Code is the international standard of frame coding and editing. 

Every TV frame you see has a time code and in editing that ghastly Shamwow commercial, the editor used the time code to electronically edit the segments together.  If you occasionally see a line of white dots across the top of the screen of your old tube TV, you’re actually ‘seeing’ the time code.  Seeing the time code that way means that old tube TV is badly misaligned and the frame masking is waaay off.  Time code is normally invisible to the viewer.

Optics:  Want to know if Vladimir Putin dresses left or dresses right?  Ask the US Department of Defence.  They have camera lenses that they admit to, that can read license plates in the Kremlin, from Low Earth Orbit.  That technology links directly to the Hubble and Cassini telescopes.

Do you have a GPS enabled phone, a Tom-Tom, or a Garmin GPS?  The Global Positioning System was a direct NASA offshoot hijacked by the US Military to provide non-inertial navigation for cruise missiles. Using that same NASA-originated technology, you can download the turn-by-turn directions from your place to Phil’s Original BBQ on College Street.

I think we both agree that the weather this summer sucks, at least in Toronto, and the reason is El Nino.  How do we know that?  Weather satellites thanks, taking readings of sea temperatures and heat flows in the Pacific.  Want to model global climate change?  Where do you think the technology came from to model the location of planets in the future?  The massive computing power needed to render long-range weather predictions comes right off NASA’s bat. That also includes the technology needed to model and decrypt the human genome, as well as sequence DNA.

If you bought a new house, odds are the water pipes are what is called PEX (cross-linked polyethylene), instead of copper tubing.  PEX is a space spinoff.  A hiker’s water purification system, like the MIOX, uses an electrified brine to treat untreated water.  A space spinoff, from Skylab, to treat non-potable water from the energy cells.

Now there have been things from space that truly suck.  Tang comes to mind.  Freeze-dried ice cream is just wrong.  So were Space Sticks, a simulacrum of the long-term shelf-stable goo that ‘the astronauts’ allegedly ate.  Imagine beef-flavoured toothpaste that doesn’t quite taste like either beef or toothpaste.

To put it in perspective, NASA has spent money, a lot of it and we’ve got our money back, several thousand times over. 

The Moon Landing


Being of the appropriate vintage, I do remember the moon landing, forty years ago today.  You’ll see all the clips played over and over again.  NASA has even restored some of them, so you can see more detail.  In the day, video was very low-fidelity from small cameras at the best of times and sending the signal from the Moon was an incredible effort just to have moving pictures. 

Forty years on, we haven’t done much with the Moon.  The two lunar Rovers are still there.  Astronaut Gene Cernan (Apollo 17) is of the opinion that we could go back, bring some old skool batteries, power the Rover back up, then skedaddle around just like old times.  He’s probably right, but it doesn’t quite answer the question of “Now what?”

There were all kinds of wild speculation that we would have extensive habitation, mining minerals and growing peaches the size of basketballs in mammoth greenhouses.  The first generation of space-born children would all be over seven feet tall (no gravity, or very little gravity to push against their bodies) and would view Earth as some quaint blue planet that Grandpa came from.

Of course all that wonderful speculation was just that, speculation.  There really wasn’t a way to make money off the Moon.  It wasn’t as if there were huge gobs of gold just sitting below the dusty surface, or strange clumps of Unobtainium waiting for the clever engineers to wrought into miraculous machines for our salvation.  If you wanted dust, regolith, or powdered basalt, the Moon was the place to go, but the economic model didn’t work.  We haven’t been back since Cernan and Apollo 17, in December 1972.

There will always be that percentage of the populace that are absolutely positive that it was all faked.  Such things as evidence don’t matter to them and they’re collectively dusting off their black helicopter decoder rings and secret handshakes to ‘prove’ once again that the entire space race was done on a sound stage at Nellis, or Black Lake, or White Sands.  We should just them rant, as they’ll run out of air and settle back down in a weeks’ time.

The Moon Landings happened in a time when humans were still capable of doing good, big, important things.  If JFK threw down the gauntlet of “Landing a Man on the Moon and returning him safely…” in a speech today, the CIA would have a net over him in a second and whisked off to the loony bin for a long course of electro-convulsive therapy.  We, collectively, don’t do heroic anymore.    

However, some night, when the Moon is full and the skies clear, take a moment to look at the Moon.  Really look at it.  People walked up there.  We went there.

“And That’s The Way It Is…”


When you discuss television journalism, there is a Holy Duality:  Cronkite and Murrow.  These two pre-eminent inventors of television journalism, right from the beginning, are the ones that set the standard for every other talking head to come.

Walter Leland Cronkite started as an ink-stained wretch doing news and sports reporting for a series of newspapers in the US Midwest, then moved to radio as a reporter, using Walter Wilcox as his on-air handle.  This would be in the 1935 to 1937 era of history. 

Cronkite joined United Press in 1937 and was a very distinguished reporter during the Second World War, covering Operation Market-Garden, the Battle of the Bulge and even the Nuremburg War Crimes trials.  He was an actual working reporter.

Television ‘news’ in the post-war era was not much more than re-writing the newspaper copy and fifteen minutes of a talking head reading it to the audience, interspersed with commercials, usually done by the news reader.  This changed as people figured out how to incorporate pictures in the new media, then sound, then reporters with microphones, asking questions.

To understand some of it, you need some backstory:

In the beginning there were no LiveEye satellite trucks or helicopters with downlinks, feeding shaky pictures of cops chasing someone in a wife-beater undershirt over fences and through back yards. There were no iReporters emailing cell phone video clips to a news organization.

In The Day, film was the medium.  Eastman 7240 (or 7245), single system 16 mm film in a CP or an Eclair mag.  The film from breaking stories came in either by the camera man, or shipped in an “onion bag” from far away.  The film was taken immediately to the lab and as soon as it came out, about an hour later, was edited on a Steenbeck (was it 21 or 27 frames for lip flap?) and rushed to the telecine to get to air.  Total time from story to air: About three hours.

In that three hours the reporter would actually write the story, check facts and make sure that things were accurate and fair.  Tape sped things up a bit, but there was still a lag from the story to air where the reporter could actually answer those pesky questions of who, what, when, where and why.

Moments of history communicated by Walter Cronkite?  The Kennedy Assassination, The Cuban Missile Crisis, The Viet Nam War, Apollo 11, Watergate, The Iran Hostage Crisis.  You name it from 1937 onwards, and Uncle Walter was probably there and reported on it.  Lyndon Johnson, after watching Cronkite comment on the futility of the war in Viet Nam, said “If we’ve lost Cronkite, we’ve lost the war.”

On February 14th 1980, Cronkite retired from CBS News, handing the reins over to that young punk from the Dallas-Kennedy Assassination coverage, Dan Rather.

In “retirement” he kept very busy, doing documentaries, voice-overs, writing, sailing and occasionally commenting on the state of the world.  A little slower of course, but still with measured, reasoned commentary in that voice that could only be Walter Cronkite. 

You could take any of his clips, even off the cuff casual remarks and transcribe them as a print story:  He spoke in complete sentences, likely a result of his years as a journalist, but also the result of having a brain that worked before the lips started moving, almost unheard of these days in our overwrought media landscape.

He passed away yesterday, having almost made it to the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, his historic clips making the rounds of the media again. 

There won’t be a three-hour memorial at the Staples Center, with Mariah Carey singing, as Cronkite was a reporter, not a circus act.  We won’t see Rev. Al Sharpton or Brooke Shields delivering their heartfelt commentary over his remains.  Perhaps just as well.  I would imagine Cronkite would rise from the dead and bust some heads if anyone suggested it. 

However, if you have a shred of respect for what real, fair, balanced, accurate reporting was and should now be, you’ll stop for a moment and reflect on Walter Cronkite gave to the world.  He gave us The Standard.     

And that’s the way it is. 

Timmy’s Goes South


It would seem that Canada is very gently, very quietly, with great subtlety, invading the United States.  Twelve Timmy’s are open now in New York City.  That’s right, Timmy’s, the ubiquitous Canadian icon is making it in New York.  (You can now sing “If you can make it there…” if so inclined.  I eschew showtunes, thanks)

Tim’s, for uninitiated south of the 49th, is a coffee and donuts chain.  In the US, the closest equivalent is Dunkin’ Donuts with some notable exceptions.  Up here, if there are two dirt roads that cross at a four way stop and more than three houses, there is likely a Tim’s. Tim Hortons (there is no apostrophe anymore) has close to 3,500 locations with new ones seemingly opening hourly, selling coffee, tea, donuts, sandwiches and other ‘quick service’ menu items.  There is even a Timmy’s at the Canadian Forces Base at Kandahar Air Field, in Afghanistan.

For a while, Timmy’s was part of Wendy’s, which explains why you see so many Timmy’s next to a Wendy’s, but now Timmy’s is a separate company.  In fact, up until last week or so, TDL, the holding company, was a Delaware corporation for tax purposes, but now it’s come back home too.

Crossing the border into the US meant you couldn’t have a good coffee unless you went to St. Arbucks, or Tully’s.  In Ohio and parts of Michigan you could find a Tim Hortons and as a Canadian, it was very much a taste of home. 

With the opening of the new stores in the Big Apple, it is important to pass on some of the informal history and social conditioning attendant to Tim Hortons:

Ordering:  Figure out what you want before you actually get to the counter.  For God’s sake don’t stand there with your mouth open pondering the imponderable for seventeen minutes:  The menu isn’t that big. 

A double-double is two creams and two sugars, or a triple-triple.  The size?  Extra-large is the one that grownups get.  There is also something called a half and half, which is half hot chocolate and half coffee.  They do serve tea, either steeped or fresh brewed. 

A note about the Iced Cappuccino, or the IceCapp.  It is manufactured in a slushie type of machine, the first five ingredients being sugar, glucose, milk, coffee and ice.  IceCapps are notorious for causing skull-splitting ‘ice cream’ headaches that will make you beg for a fast, violent death.  The seasoned IceCapp veteran knows that slow and steady is the way to go.

For food, the Dutchie or the Apple Fritter is always good, so is the Maple Dipped.  You want a salad with baby arugula and balsamic dressing?  Go someplace else.

Timbits are the holes out of the donuts.  You can get them in 10, 20 and 40 counts.  The 40 is a road pack for longer drives.  Done correctly, the children will fall into a sugar and insulin coma within the hour.  Unfortunately, during the hour, the sugar rush will have your issue caroming off the headliner like a superball thrown into a restroom stall.  There are trade-offs.

Social Constructs:  In a sit-down Tim’s, there are always the local elder folk who seem to cling like barnacles to their seats.  In most small towns the Tim’s is the social hub to meet, greet, conduct business, interview employees, go on a date, pick paint samples, plot the overthrow of a distant African republic, read the paper, write sermons, share lies, tell stories, gossip, play “Spot the NFH (Not From Here)” and complain about the weather. 

As a NFH going into the local Tim’s, you are entitled to internally scoff and perhaps even very quietly remark on the lack of branches in the family and genetic trees indicated by the locals’ visual aspects.  Don’t do it out loud to the person behind the counter:  They’re related to everyone else in the Tim’s and can have your spine broken in a moment.  All it takes is a wave to their cousin Gord, the great hairy monster in the overalls, who is manhandling a 64 ounce Thermos the same way you have trouble with a demitasse cup.

Incidentally, if you are lost, asking the counter person how to get back to the highway, is better than military-grade GPS directions.  They’re locals:  They know.

Roll-Up-The-Rim-To-Win.  From February to May, more or less, Tim Hortons runs a contest, which as the name implies, means you can roll up the rim of the paper cup (after you’re done drinking the coffee please) and possibly win various prizes.  With the opening of the New York City stores, there is a move afoot to change to contest to Roll Up The Fuckin’ Rim Ta Win, Ya Fuckin’ Asshole!

I humbly suggest that the expanded NYC game name might be inappropriate in markets outside the 212 area code.

Camp Day, usually in June, takes the one day coffee sales and gives the money to the Tim Hortons Children’s Foundation.  They run six Tim Hortons Camps for disadvantaged children.  The Tim Hortons Children’s Foundation was set up in 1974, after the untimely death of Tim Horton.

Yes, dear reader, there was a Tim Horton.  He was a hockey player, most famously as #7 for the Toronto Maple Leafs.  He had four Stanley Cups and was known as quite possibly the strongest player going in his era as a defenseman.  I had the honour of shaking his hand many years ago as a kid, at the Gardens.

As an aside, in “Wayne’s World”, the Mike Myers film, the donut chain “Mikita’s” was modeled after Tim Hortons, using Stan Mikita from the same era of the Chicago Blackhawks, instead of Tim Horton, as Tim Hortons wouldn’t go along with the product placement.

Now, my American cousins, you have been schooled in the world of Timmy’s.  Tim’s.  Deadboy Donuts. Tim Hortons, or even Tim Horton’s.  Welcome to the family.

 

Practical Jokes


I like clever practical jokes:  The good ones that take time, planning, effort, craft and skill.  There has to be a sense of mystery, astonishment and a sizeable dollop of “Howthehell did they do THAT?” at the end of the day. 

Outside of Ottawa is a ‘burb called Constance Bay.  For the longest time the big event in Constance Bay was getting drunk on the May 2-4 weekend and watching the sun set.  It used to be a cottage community, back when Ottawa ended at Britannia and Bill Teron was dreaming about a planned community in the far west end.  As Kanata and Ottawa expanded, Constance Bay was absorbed into the metro area with the attendant gentrification that comes with it.

One of the effects of gentrification is the establishment of a ‘business district’ and the need for a group of grasping merchant-class to promote the business area with signage, petitioning the city with their urgent, nay economically desperate, requirements to point the unwashed motor travelling hordes to the business district. 

After the appropriate time and much contortionist ass-kissing, the sign was put up.

1778063      

Constance Bay does have places to worship, eat, shop, launch boats and, of course, buy fuel.  It would seem they also have other attributes in the community that are not normally advertised.  By the way, the photo is not retouched.  It’s from the Ottawa Citizen July 10th 2009.  You can read the whole story here.

The joy of the sign is that the added panel matches the others perfectly.  The spacing and margins are spot-on.  The use of ‘international-style’ ISO graphic symbols, although not official, is a perfect representation of the bland stick-figures that populate our graphic world.  Of course the actions being depicted at one time or another have likely happened in Constance Bay, so there is no hint of misleading advertising, which is important, especially for public signage.

The truly subversive pleasure is the skill, stealth and craft exhibited by the creators of that sixth icon:  Perfectly done.  I doff my metaphysical hat to the participants.

Welcome to Constance Bay.  I’m sure you’ll like it.