Tuesday, March 24, 2015



I love all media.  Newspapers, of course. Radio. Television is a great eye on the world, even if it needs drops.
I still get two newspapers a day, slimmer now unfortunately, and read others on the computer. Love long car trips listening to the radio and only put in a CD in desperation. Watch TV every night but find the banquets of childproof movies and good sit-coms have turned into wilted salads with yesterday's meats. I still buy books.
The biggest decline in the media, despite the obituaries about newspapers, has come with television. I liked it better before this 24-7 schedule means there's something for insomniacs to watch at 4.30 a.m., the hour of death for both humans and TV. Why don't they husband their apparently limited resources and go dark for four or five hours every night instead of running archival crap?
What bugs me most is the proliferation of the same ad running 20 or 30 times a day for weeks if not months on some stations. It gets so bad that each day I spend a few minutes preparing to tape various programs so I can fast-forward through the ads. It saves some time and a lot of irritation.
One of the worst offenders in running the same ad over and over and over is BNN. The business channel should have lots of resources because as we are told regularly it is owned by the rich fat giant of BCE.
Yet during the two one-hour Market Call shows at 1 p.m. and 6 p.m. where weekday viewers email or phone with their questions  (commentaries are squashed by the host) we are bombarded with a phoney Shakespearean actor emoting about damage in an insurance commercial and a bossy brat demanding construction paper for a school project in a credit card commercial.
I understand the ads pay for the telecasts. And I can switch to another channel which is probably running another clutch of ads over and over and over.  I'm not a fan of the CRTC, an inept manager of the public air waves which too often doesn't really protect the public. But surely even the CRTC has rules about one station running the same ads ad nauseam.
You would think that advertising and television companies would realize that the endless repetitions of the same commercials are starving the geese that lay the golden eggs. Perhaps, with the new CRTC rules about subscribers not having to take border-line cable stations, a few geese will be killed here and there.
As it is, I tape more and more and watch fewer and few commercials. As far as I'm concerned, I don't really care if that Shakespearean actor buys construction paper for the brat, or whateverinhell the commercials are promoting.

Monday, March 23, 2015



There isn't a day that I as a writer don't marvel at how much easier my life is because of computers. Anyone who has ever written several books on a typewriter, as I have, knows what I am talking about.
But there also isn't a week that I don't curse as my computer balks or freezes or asks me for some unknown password or to search for some baffling icon.
Thank heavens I have three computer-literate sons, and when Mark is here briefly from his Dell job in China, I can turn my computer problems over to him.
Yesterday I was talking to him in Dalian, China, over FaceTime, a wonderful way to keep in touch with your children after we sort out the inevitable problems. This time I couldn't hear him. Mark is a sympathetic helper because he candidly admits he has problems with computers too. And so he gave me advice on my computer problems of the last week.
In case you are feeling superior about this point, I recall a bull session at the cottage where Mark, with a MBA from one of the top business schools in the world, HKUST, and several of his friends, were listening to me rant in the sun over a cold beer about computer mysteries. Every one of them had at least one graduate degree, and one lectured at Princeton. They all said that routinely they had  computer hassles.
In case you are still feeling superior, I recall a head table conversation I had with Gil Amelio, who ran Apple briefly before Steve Jobs, who hated him, returned to the company. Amelio had  patented inventions to go along with his doctorate. Yet he confided as an expert that the computer world should spend more time simplifying and demystifying their devices rather than just building faster slicker new ones.
Remember the old joke about the homeowners who taped over the blinking 12:00 time signal on their  devices because they didn't know how to  dump it or set the real time. Amelio, the CEO  of at least two giant companies that I know of, said he felt that it was more embarrassing to the industry than it was to the failed nerds when they ignored eliminating such a simple problem.
I persevere through my electronic hurdles, however, and mix my happiness at the ease of editing on a computer with my curses when it decides to act illiterate. On my computer, I research through the marvels of Google, order stuff from prescription drugs to a ladder, and do most of my banking and bill paying. I even read my magazines on the iPad when it isn't hiccuping.
But then there comes simple tasks which becomes far more complicated just because corporate giants like Rogers bleed too many workers out of the arteries of their service. On behalf of all frustrated cable customers, and all the jobless who have given up looking even for a minimum job and would like to fill some of these jobs, let me shout from the rooftops that the automated answering snares of North America should have many more humans injected into the process so you don't sit on hold for 10 minutes or wait for a callback or have to play numbers roulette trying to get to the right department.
In the drive to increase the corporate profits, there aren't enough knowledgeable people staffing internet departments. And so the simplest questions and tasks, ones that a real clerk used to solve at a counter in seconds, becomes a gauntlet thanks to all the ultra modern internet tricks that allow you to do it from home....if you have the time and the patience and enough curses to see you through the experience.
  I carried an ancient cell phone only for emergencies. So Mark suggested I use his old Apple smart phone and instead of paying $35 monthly, pay $113 in advance for something like $1 a terse call over many months. (Nice phone if you don't squeeze it. Then it won't work.)
So I called Rogers. Waited seven minutes. Then retreated to a call back. Waited.  Woman didn't understand. Persisted. Switched to another department. Waited. Explained. She offered other plans. Finally my deal was done. Sort of.  I couldn't pay with VISA over the phone. I would have to go to a store. Asked for supervisor to explain why one department wouldn't accept payments for another. Waited 12 minutes. Hung up.
Tried again two days later. And it all happened again. Then I was cut off. (No wonder I love to let Mark deal with the Rogers red-tape empire.)
Tried the next day. This time I almost got all the way to the promised land but I had to go of course to the outlet at Royal York and Bloor to buy the time. Went. Waited 15 minutes. The part-time employee was really helpful but couldn't sell me the cash top up without more info from the call centre. So he called. Then I was put on the phone.  Switched to another department. Put on hold with a promise that if I was cut off again, they would phone the store and have me paged. An eternity on hold, which would only be nice if you were in heaven. Finally it was arranged and the sales chap went to input the PIN number showing the payment but by this point, the phone had died.
Went home, charged the phone,  but couldn't input the PIN number because the recorded voice kept saying I couldn't use it unless I bought time.  Returned to the Rogers outlet. Waited. Guy went into a mysterious closet or something and got the phone to accept the PIN.
Got an email message from Rogers asking if I was satisfied with how my needs were met. You have just got to be kidding. Is there anyone out there who really is satisfied with Bell or Rogers? Just why am I suspicious that Rogers hates this sparse pre-pay plans and would prefer to stick you with monthly fees.
Ah, the myriad wonders of the modern telecom age! Now we have to pay monthly insurance just to ensure that Bell will come inside your house to fix a problem.
The other day, I felt a frisson of joy that I had gone a few months and hadn't had to complain to Rogers about cable service. Did that ever backfire! The next three programs I tried to record on the super duper Rogers equipment recorded all right, it was just I couldn't play them back. So I unplugged the set and waited and plugged it back in and waited and finally I could see the programs.
Just imagine that every time your car didn't work, the first suggestion of the mechanic was to unplug the battery and wait a few minutes and then plug it back in. There would be a revolution if there wasn't a government inquiry. Any kid in any school who screwed up as much as the modern products of the electronic industry would be failed even in this permissive society. Imagine if your fridge malfunctioned as much as your computer. You would be throwing out food monthly.
I have to reboot my computer regularly, and it's less than a year old, and it's fed through a giant company with supposedly 28,000 employees, which includes maybe 100 who know how to fix things, providing you wait from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. for them to favour you with their presence.
So in the house there are seven phones, four TVs,  three computers, two copiers and a intercom system (not counting the old versions stuck in crawl spaces or the garage) and most of the time they work, and when they don't, the technical service people and the sons treat me as if I'm the village idiot who is flummoxed at changing a light bulb.
Yet once upon a time, the RCAF gave me a perfect mark in the final test turning on and operating a complicated radar system.and asked me to teach the next course. But all our devices have become much more sophisticated, or so we're told, than the electronics that help win World War Two.
Ain't progress grand, when it doesn't have to be rebooted!

Sunday, March 8, 2015



So me tell you of how one Saturday I laboured  to renew my Lotto 6/49 advance subscription and after more than three hours of cursing the Internet and searching for phone numbers and arguing with people and driving to stores I actually ended up winning.
 I was rewarded for not procrastinating for a change! But then I had this feeling I was about to win big.
It all started when I realized I had not got a tiny lottery cheque lately on my annual advance subscription.  Usually I win once or twice a year for the munificent sum of $5. I don't worry because some day my numbers will come in.
So I dug out an old bill from the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Commission and phoned. Or rather tried to. Number out of service. So I went to my computer, did a Google, and called that number. Couldn't be dialled from my area. Did another Google. That number had been changed and the automated voice of a vulture told me Bell would give me the right number for $3.25.  Nuts to that obese outfit!
Finally found a working number and was told after a wait through seven options and then another wait that the OLG had retired the advance subscription plan by mail and you had to do it retail. You mean go to a store? Yes, she said. Why didn't you inform customers like me who stupidly had done it for years that you cancelled the plan? She didn't know. I said I regretted my old boss and friend, Paul Godfrey, had fired the Liberals and quit the OLG since now I had no one to complain to.
So I went to the local Shoppers run by Margaret Fisher and assisted by Barry Phillips.  There was a long lineup at the cash register. So I left. Tried to park in front of a wee convenience store called Pops. No space. Finally found one.  Filled out the form to buy in advance only to be informed the store didn't take VISA. Searched my wallet and by some miracle found enough cash.
But wow, I won. Four numbers. Then I looked more closely through my smeared trifocals and found it was only three. My birthday, Mary's birthday, and a wildcard number because I only have three sons and a wife and I needed six numbers.
Didn't know what I had won. I tried Googling but the OLG has so much information on its site, it's incomprehensible. I was part of a Sun syndicate once that won $1,000. Then there was the time Andy Donato was one number away from $40 million and pretended to Diane that he had won it all by holding a finger over the one bad number when he showed it to her.  Couldn't remember how much he got but at least it covered his injuries.
So back I went to Shoppers, stuck my ticket in a thingamajig, and it informed me I had won $10. What? Did it short-circuit? Stuck it in again. Still $10. Cashier asked how I wanted it. I said by certified cheque.
Let's see now. I paid $3 for the chance which means I netted $7. And I spent more than three hours chasing this rainbow with a pot of pennies. So that's $2 an hour. Haven't worked for that for 50 years.

Saturday, March 7, 2015



Nothing poisons the mood on a congested highway quicker than some idiot dawdling in the passing lane. It can turn a simple trip into a difficult one as the other drivers start zipping around as if they're in a stock car race.
The dumb driver hunkered down behind the wheel, ostentatiously ignoring the glares, is a slap in the face to the rest of us, a reminder that there are a lot of stupid people in the world and most of them live in the left lane.
Ancient map makers used to mark the unknown territories with a warning that "here be dragons." We should paint that on the passing lane pavement.
Maybe a little name calling would work. After all, there are fines for the really slow drivers blocking that lane and it doesn't seem to work, probably because the police are more interested in speeders or erratic drivers rather than those who probably bought their licence rather than fail again in taking the test.
British Columbia is said to be contemplating more powers to allow the cops to curb this blight on traffic moving at a reasonable speed. Ontario may boast of being among the North American jurisdictions with the best accident stats but some days, looking around, it appears that happens more by luck than by enforcement.
I remember with fondness my driving expeditions on the super roads of Europe where some drivers are moving at incredible speeds and blast with horns anyone who impedes the passing lane. I suspect road rage incidents there are limited to a few cases of an European driver blasting with a bazooka any North American nerd who dawdles.
A example of the muddled thinking that some authorities have about this problem, which causes accidents as much as it wastes gasoline and time, is the latest Bush to run for president.
Jeb as Florida governor vetoed  a law in 2005 forcing slow drivers to keep right because he said it hurt "cautious and careful drivers" and just helped speeders and those with emotional intemperance.
Now that may appeal to all those old farts living in God's waiting room but it's another reason why there shouldn't be a third Bush in the White House unless it's a plant.
Surely it's obvious, unless he never looked out the window of the limousine, but the slow driver blocking the faster traffic causes cars weaving in and out, which adds to the danger. Passing on the right is always a trifle more dangerous, mainly because the drivers shoved over to that side of the highway are now travelling with all the poorer drivers who are only on the highway in the first place because they can't figure out from the map how to get there on a secondary roads.
New Jersey has doubled the fine to $300 for slowpokes in the passing lane. There are laws in some states saying you have to yield the lane to a faster car no matter if you are speeding yourself. And there are many laws saying you can't go slower than the speed limit in the passing lane.
It's time for Ontario to get serious about that. The OPP should lay more charges, and the punishment should be increased. Perhaps forcing an offender to listen to 20 hours of the premier's speeches would work. 

Sunday, March 1, 2015



It's a miracle, but the bureaucratic monstrosity known as the CRTC has produced a report saying pay phones have a role in Canadian society and need to be preserved.
Damn right!
Speaking as someone who thinks smart phones and cell phones and watch phones are wonderful, in their place that is, which is not in my face or when I'm talking to you or when you are pretending to be interesting company, I realize pay phones are unnecessary 99.9% of the time.
But what if you're poor or homeless or the battery has gone kerfooie or you're in a dead reception area. BCE is a rich outfit with stock near record highs. It can afford to leave a few pay phones even if it says it has 10,502 pay phones that only average one caller daily at 50 cents.
I no longer run  many meeting but I can assure that if I did, you would leave your phones at the door or hide them or I would deposit them in a round receptacle.
Perhaps this is fuelled partially by jealousy rather than just a wish to have a return to good manners. Heaven knows, my 50 years of journalism would have been a lot easier if I hadn't always been looking for a way to talk to the office or get a story to the office. And then balky computers came along to add to the frustration.
A wonderful teacher and writer, Ted Schrader, emphasized to me on Day One of Journalism at Ryerson that the first thing you did on a story was to figure out how to get it back to the editor. I spent a couple of decades doing that before there were far more phones around, and then the first clunky cell phones arrived.
You would be at a murder scene or a meeting or a trial in the middle of nowhere - believe me not everything happens on a Toronto street - and then spend hours just trying to find a pay phone to dictate for the next edition.
Some times the Star-ling got there first. The famous inquest into the RCMP drownings in Lake Simcoe that caused the plate in every boat giving the maximum weight took place in a country schoolhouse. The Tely guy found the nearest pay phone a mile  away and after he dictated, unscrewed the mouthpiece and took it. The Star guy arrived to discover the trickery but check-mated by stealing the earpiece. They agreed to share...but not with the Globe.
Another way to screw Star-ling was that after you dictated your story to rewrite, you then proceeded to read the telephone book over the line while the Star-ling cursed and threatened to punch you.
Three years ago, after I was incarcerated in four hospitals for three months and temporarily lost the ability to walk - dammit I could not even stand - I was shipped from one hospital to awful St. Joseph's in a wheelchair van to see if I still had the MRSA infection that the U. S. hospitals had given me along with the $85.000 bill.
I was the last patient of the day in the clinic just inside the Tranquility Gate entrance - some cruel gimmick name by healthcrats - and after a cursory look, the specialist fled along with all the staff who locked up everything. The van should have been there but I waited alone for an hour. I had no change for the only pay phone. I wheeled around and found a young immigrant cleaner who loaned me his cell phone. The dispatcher for the van had some silly excuse. Waited. Couldn't find the cleaner. Waited. Then remembered I had a secret VISA card against hospital rules and used it to place calls on the pay phone to the home hospital - my meal and medications were long overdue - and to yell at the dispatcher.
The driver finally arrived only to send me crashing down the wheelchair ramp. I remember the whole misadventure, from having the driver fired to that pay phone rescuing me.
Now if I can only remember to carry change. I haven't for years. About as long as I have carried a cell phone turned off so no one can bother me.