Tuesday, November 14, 2017



I was baffled by algorithms long before the Internet came along to stupefy me again.
It wasn't enough for the maths of high school to curdle my brain to such an extent that I had to take all sorts of extra courses to limp into and then through two universities.
Now I am left to wonder just how Facebook works because some of my contributions are lionized, many more disappear into the ether,  and then there are those people whose every phrase haunts my queues for weeks and I know everything about them from the rug they're selling to how they cooked their roast to the latest operation on their bunions.
 I never get the same roll call of items when I want to, then the good stuff only seems to appear once. I never know quite what to expect when I come face to face with Facebook
My three sons view me with a mix of sympathy and disdain when it comes to computers and trying to cope with the Internet.
Since they're computer experts, all I have in response is to remind them who paid for their education. I also point out that 99% of those past 60 are often baffled by the latest wonders of the electronic world.
They inform me haughtily that algorithms, those calculation processes, rule Facebook and the Internet. Even the investment world.  BNN and the business pages inform me that due to mathematicians locked up in Bay St. basements, there are algorithms surfacing daily to give new advantages in a lightning-fast trading world where I am always left paying more and getting less after the big boys riding their superior algorithms have ravaged the stock.
All I know is that algorithms don't favour this Downing and that I will continue to lean on whatever son dares to answer the phone for help, like when the printer balks at my computer or the computer freezes or I can't even make a reply on Facebook without appearing to screw it up.
Like the other day.
An old friend told us on Facebook that she had just made a few mistakes in her mini-essay and maybe it was time for her because of age to hang up the keyboard. Then some time later she repeated an item about a preening anti-Semitic bumper sticker.
I wrote her that one shouldn't be worried about typos or spelling mistakes on Facebook or anywhere else because I had been taught as a kid that the person who corrects your spelling or usage or pronunciation is making a bigger social gaffe than you. It's the idea, the thought, that counts, not how it is dressed semantically.
Except due to the way Facebook works for amateurs like me, my contribution drifted under the listing about the awful bumper sticker, not the one about being worried about making mistakes in typing a contribution. So it became a weird justification for that foul message. And she replied snarkily.
Sylvia Sutherland, a regular on Facebook, just asked for friends not to send her chain letters or stuff that is supposed to be forwarded to others. For once I knew that, having been warned months ago by one of my sons that this is one of the tricks of the myriad computer fraudsters. I am scrupulous about what I open and what I forward because as I wrote on Facebook the other day, police and various authorities can't cope now with all the hacking and computer scams inflicted on us.
There is no need for anyone to send me an explanation of how Facebook works. My sons have tried. All I know is that, thank heavens, occasionally the good stuff like Dick Loek's pictures of his morning boardwalk saunter do last a few days, and not just the crap from people whom I have never heard of  and never wish to hear from again.
Oh yes, spare me those cardboard birthday greetings which are as loving as kissing a donkey. And supposed friends repeating ads about condos and shows. What's friendly about that?  You should ask yourself a question before you tell us on Facebook. Would it interest your spouse or even one of those superior young people who actually know how algorithms work? Or are you just showing off?

Tuesday, November 7, 2017



Thanks in part to Murray Koffler, the Toronto when he died is much nicer than the city when he started half a century ago making a difference in pharmacy, philanthropy, business and the arts.
I will leave it to others to detail his grand successes in business and the huge contributions of the Kofflers to a rainbow of causes from the University of Toronto to fighting drug abuse and helping the helpless.
Believe me, this man was a mensch, that lovely Yiddish word for integrity and honour and caring for others.
He had to be because the city in the 1950s, when as a kid he was running the two drugstores left to the family by the early death of his father, still considered religion as an important issue when they judged you.
Don't be fooled by the fact that Toronto elected its first Jewish mayor in 1955 and that Nathan Phillips went on to serve for eight years. (Only Art Eggleton has served longer.) The election of Phillips in the Orange Protestant stronghold of Toronto was front page news in every newspaper in Canada.
As the ghostwriter of his book, Mayor Of All The People, I know Phillips often was under attack for his religion. And there were some who whispered his wife really wasn't Jewish. But he had several decades of council experience and the stout backing of John Bassett and his Telegram newspaper, an important force in urban politics, so he beat back a challenger who just happened to be a major Orangeman.
(Ironically, despite all the Roman Catholic voters, the first Catholic mayor since the city was incorporated in 1834 was Fred Beavis, appointed briefly in 1979, and then Eggleton, elected in 1980.)
So the Establishment in the 1950s and 1960s hunkered down on Bay Street didn't exactly rush to help this Jewish entrepreneur build the empires of the Four Seasons Hotels and Shoppers Drug Mart.
I had a ringside seat watching Koffler transform the city's art world from a stuffy pecksniffian one preserved in Victorian pretensions to one where a nude painting could be displayed boldly in the front yard of City Hall without shock waves cascading through the media.
The Toronto Outdoor Art Show has produced a history book (I contributed to it) of how it was started by Koffler around his modest motel on Jarvis St., the first Four Seasons Motor Hotel, after the Kofflers returned in 1960 from an outdoor art show in Manhattan to find that artists had been arrested for displaying their art on hoardings around old City Hall.
Then Koffler dreamed bigger and decided to move the show in front of the new City Hall in 1967  (Ironically, the Square is named after Phillips who as mayor routined thundered out in news stories against nude paintings at Hart House or for censoring George Gobel in the CNE Grandstand Show.)
The second irony is that Koffler enlisted me to help him run interference with City Council. I was in charge of entertainment and culture coverage in the Tely but earlier I had been one of those City Hall reporters getting Phillips to express great indignation about any racy entertainment.
The outdoor art show has gone on to become the largest in Canada and one of the largest annual affairs in the world. And those first nervous days when Koffler and I and other committee members like Jack Pollock and Alan Jarvis paced around watching the councillors wander around peering suspiciously at the art are long gone. By some miracle, there never was a major complaint, just a continuing battle to keep mass-produced shlock out of the show.
Years later, I headed a city council committee choosing people to receive various civic honours, the most important being several Orders of Merit. At a presentation at the start of a council meeting, Eggleton invited me on the dais to help him make the presentations.
Much to my satisfaction, several decades after Koffler first made his mark on his birthplace, we had chosen him to get the city's top award. He shook our hands and then whispered to me that he had wondered why he had finally got this honour after all these years and then saw I  headed the advisory committee.
I wished I could have done much more sooner.  It is because of civic champions like the Kofflers that our city has matured from a municipal Nervous Nellie into such an urban joy. It is unfortunate that Mel Lastman as the first mayor of the amalgamated city felt that he had to do away with such civic honours because he feared the good burghers of the suburbs like his North York would not feel comfortable with the annual ceremony.
The Koffler name on a Toronto public building is a familiar sight. But for me, one of his greatest  contributions comes quietly each summer around the reflecting pool when you can ponder art from landscapes to pornographic wonders and then wander down the street and have a cold draft.
Once upon a time, that would have been a civic miracle, from the art to the drink to the cafe, and certainly never on Sunday.

Friday, November 3, 2017



The "last man standing" ordered another glass of the house red and talked passionately about some insult from four decades ago while I egged him on as an appreciative audience
The rest of the actors in the insult are dead, I think. So, some would say, is the newspaper we built from the wreckage of another great paper.
It was the annual anniversary dinner of one old cartoonist and one old editor/columnist to mark the birth of the Toronto Sun in the Eclipse Building on Nov. 1, 1971.
There are some who say the eclipse has been a long time coming to its most famous occupant, but that would never come from me since I treasure all newspapers and applaud all their staffs who have to be such adept survivors.
Of course the "last man standing" is Andy Donato, the noted golfer who occasionally has done editorial cartoons since the 1960s.
And the warm friend and occasional critical boss of the "last man standing" is me. Together we noshed contentedly at Ottimo's and contemplate survival at an age when the Bible estimated we would be dead.
We put together the first Toronto Sun during Halloween. That ancient Scottish prayer for heavenly help that often is recited on All Hallow's Eve when even the cemeteries are restless should have been carved on the antique building. "From ghoulies and ghosties And long-legged beasties And things that go bump in the night."
We certainly later endured ghoulies and ghosties as politicians, the Establishment and the snooty competition did their best to dismiss us as just another shopper's flyer on steroids backed by developers and knuckle-dragging conservatives.
But it turned out that Monday, to universal surprise as the newfangled tabloid was snapped up, that we few were an instant success. We sure didn't know it then as the trick-or-treaters flitted about and some of us felt like our hangovers from the Tely wakes were a flu fed by apprehension about how to feed our families.
There were only 59 of us following the Three Musketeers of Doug Creighton, Peter Worthington and Don Hunt from the ruins of the Toronto Telegram where 1,200 had worked as a giant family, including the "last man standing" and this creaky editor who put out the Tely's final edition.
And now Andy is the last of the 62 Day Oners still working for the Sun although they just tried to cut him from four to three cartoons a week. Many of the others have passed on to the great newsroom in the sky to argue style usage with Saint Peter and to suggest there is something strange about how some get through the Pearly Gates because they hint without proof they have a "real" relationship with the big guy.
Andy came to my attention as I was struggling up the Tely editorial ladder. He stood out as an irreverent prankster who had the inside track with the famous and powerful because they loved to call and get the original of his cartoons even when he skewered them. (I confess a conflict there since there are cartoons ridiculing me among the 30 lovely paintings and other creations on my walls from Andy and his wife Diane...who is much nicer.)
And now decades later, Andy is the great survivor of a golden time in the journalism history of Toronto. The famous bylines, the circulation wars, the stunts, the great pictures and the legendary columnists that were loved by readers and were part of the audacious fabric of the Telegram and the Sun are remembered by fewer and fewer people. Tumpane? Hicks? The Rimmer? Fisher?
Also shrinking with the nostalgia are the newspapers of 2017 as they wilt under the electronic competition and by being ignored by the ad buyers and fools who think social media and fake facts give readers a true picture of the reality around us.
Where in hell do they think the real news comes from? Certainly not from cranks trying to weave outrage from the lint in their belly buttons. Real journalism costs money and requires training and experience and talent and cannot be performed by amateurs who think anyone can write, that libel is a new street drug, and fiction is better than truth.
If there ever was a time in journalism for the plea in that old Scottish prayer, it is now.
"Good Lord, Deliver us."
And we should all say amen unless you want to live in an undemocratic world where Andy with that discerning eye and great talent would have obvious targets in every single meeting for anything more important than a pothole repair.
The world has become a shooting gallery, for cartoonists too, just as they have become an endangered species even if this one lasted 60 years.