Sunday, August 31, 2014

Things I learned lately - 31 Aug

  • The roots of the 7-day week can be traced back about 4,000 years, to Babylon. The Babylonians believed there were 7 planets in the solar system, and the number 7 held such power to them that they planned their days around it. Their 7-day, planetary week spread to Egypt, Greece, and eventually to Rome. The Jewish people had their own version of a 7-day week.
  • By the late 19th century, workers were still working every day except Sunday. Some Britons used the week's seventh day for merriment rather than for the rest prescribed by scripture. They would drink, gamble, and enjoy themselves so much that the phenomenon of 'Saint Monday' emerged, where workers would skip work to recover from Sunday's fun. English factory owners later compromised with workers by giving them half of Saturday off in exchange for a promise to show up for work on Monday. In 1908, a New England mill became the first American factory to institute the 5-day week. It did so to accommodate Jewish workers, whose observance of a Saturday sabbath forced them to make up their work on Sundays, offending some in the Christian majority. The mill granted these Jewish workers a 2-day weekend, and other factories followed. The Great Depression cemented the 2-day weekend into the economy, since shorter hours were considered a remedy to underemployment.
  • A Startup named Cruise is creating a way to turn any vehicle into a self-driving car for $10,000. The Cruise RP-1 takes a few hours to install. It will eventually work on any car, but for now only works on select Audi cars. The goal is to create a suite of products that will eventually turn any car into a driverless vehicle. It can navigate stop-and-go traffic. It keeps the car in the center of the lane without touching the steering wheel. It is not able to weave in and out of lanes yet.
  • McDonald’s is quietly testing an order ahead and mobile payment app at a handful of its US restaurants. Called “McD Ordering,” the app links to a credit or debit card. You arrive and scan a QR code on display at the restaurant (counter or drive-thru). The app displays your order number and then once your order is ready, you pick it up without waiting in line.
  • In the US, the cost of a hip replacement is $40,364. For the same money, you could fly to Spain, get your hip replaced ($7,371), live in Madrid for 2 years, learn Spanish, run with the bulls, get trampled, injure your hip, get another hip replaced and still have money left over.
  • If our sun was a speck of dust, the Milky Way would be about the size of the US.
  • Can you smell all of those various hydrocarbons, aldehydes, pyridine and pyrazine? Yes? That's bacon cooking.
  • Folks tried to ban coffee 5 times over the course of recorded history. 1511 Mecca; 16th century Italy; 1623 Constantinople; 1746 Sweden; and 1777 Prussia.
  • There's a woman who is divorcing her husband because he doesn't like the movie Frozen.
  • Lead is the heaviest non-radioactive element.
  • A new restaurant will be opening in Montreal named Bar Brutus. Its menu will feature nothing but items containing bacon.
  • Russia has 15,500 tanks. That's more than any other country.

Lyrics I love: Rush - Red Barchetta

I strip away the old debris
That hides a shining car
A brilliant Red Barchetta
From a better vanished time
We'll fire up the willing engine
Responding with a roar
Tires spitting gravel
I commit my weekly crime


Friday, August 29, 2014


I was happy to hear that one of my favourite hockey players, P.K. Subban was able to get an 8-year deal done with the Montreal Canadiens. But the deal brought up a topic of interest to me regarding salaries. $9 million dollars. Per year. To play hockey. Why?

That's not the most either. Shea Weber of the Nashville Predators will earn $14 million this next season. Let's compare that with what players earned in 2005. Jaromir Jagr earned $8.36 million for the year. In 1995, Wayne Gretzky earned $6.54 million. In 1989, Mario Lemieux earned $2 million. In 1977, Bobby Hull earned $1 million. In 1967, Bobby Orr earned $35,000.

Now, the argument has always been that professional athletes deserve to earn a lot of money because they play a sport that could potentially end early with a career-ending injury. They also argue that the players are what attract the crowds to the arenas and that's what earns the teams their money. But players also earn money from lucrative endorsements. Consider Sidney Crosby, who earned a $12 million salary in 2013, but also topped up with around $2.1 million in endorsements, as much as the average NHL salary.

I ask you, does a hockey player need to make $15+ million in one year? Does a football player need to make $42 million in one year (Matt Ryan)? Does a basketball player need to make $30.5 million in one season (Kobe Bryant) - $61.5 million if you include endorsements? What does a well-paid soccer player make? $52 million without including endorsements (Cristiano Ronaldo). It would be $80 million if you included endorsements. But that pales in comparison to boxing. Floyd Mayweather earned $105 million last year. That was for 72 minutes of work. I know - that's unfair, as he has to keep practising all year. Tiger Woods earned $61.2 million last year, but $55 million of that was endorsements. Roger Federer (tennis) made $56.2 million, again, most of that - $52 million, was not salary. The highest paid Baseball player (Cliff Lee) made $25.3 million.

OK, so that's what the best earn. How about the typical players? Well, the minimum salary for a hockey player is just over $525,000. That seems pretty reasonable. For football, a rookie earns $420,000. A rookie basketball player earns around $500,000. Guess what a rookie soccer player gets? $35,000. That's it. That's a kick in the pants, isn't it? We can't really compare the rest of the sports, because what they earn is a direct result of how often they win.

Let's not focus on athletes alone though. Some actors get a lot of money for their films too. Robert Downey Jr. gets $75 million. The 10 highest paid actors earned at least $35 million each. Interestingly, the highest paid woman actor only got $33 million (Angelina Jolie).

Now let's take a look at CEOs. John Hammergren of McKesson medical supplies earned $131 million. OK, so CEOs make solid coin. But there are a lot of top bosses of great, money-making companies that know how to keep their earnings to a reasonable amount. Case in point - CEO of WestJet earns a base salary of $568,000. Mind you, if you add all his bonuses etc., his total reported earnings amount to $3 million. The CEO of Tim Hortons has a base salary of $452,000.

Alcohol versus weed

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Lucretius problem

"Risk management professionals look in the past for information on the so-called worst-case scenario and use it to estimate future risks — this method is called "stress testing." They take the worst historical recession, the worst war, the worst historical move in interest rates, or the worst point in unemployment as an exact estimate for the worst future outcome.

But they never notice the following inconsistency: this so-called worst-case event, when it happened, exceeded the worst case at the time. I have called this mental defect the Lucretius problem, after the Latin poetic philosopher who wrote that the fool believes that the tallest mountain in the world will be equal to the tallest one he has observed. We consider the biggest object of any kind that we have seen in our lives or hear about as the largest item that can possibly exist. And we have been doing this for millennia. In Pharaonic Egypt, which happens to be the first complete top-down nation-state managed by bureaucrats, scribes tracked the high-water mark of the Nile and used it as an estimate for a future worst-case scenario."

Nassim Taleb's book Antifragile

Who invited the herbivore?

Monday, August 25, 2014

Johnny Express

It's 2150.
There are all sorts of Aliens living throughout space.
Johnny is a Space Delivery Man who travels to different planets to deliver packages.
Johnny is lazy and his only desire is to sleep in his autopilot spaceship.
When the spaceship arrives at the destination, all he has to do is simply deliver the box.
However, it never goes as planned. Johnny encounters strange and bizarre planets and always seems to cause trouble on his delivery route.

Will he be able to finish his mission without trouble?

The site everyone loves to ignore

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Pandas are just an extremely elaborate hoax

Things I learned lately - 23 Aug

  • Americans smoke more in Kentucky than in any other state.
  • In 2013, Warren Buffett made on average $37 million per day. That's basically $1.5 million per hour.
  • At German car manufacturer Daimler, when employees proceed on vacation, they have the option of automatically deleting incoming email while they're away. The sender also is notified of the deletion with contact information of an alternate or supervisor. Once these people get back from vacation, there's no pile of unread messages.
  • In the future, used electric car batteries may be re-purposed as storage batteries for homes with solar panels or wind turbines.
  • In 2013, Google made $50 billion in advertising revenue.
  • Google is unique that its goal is to REDUCE the amount of time people spend on its site.
  • Google has photographed over 5 million miles of road for its Street View maps.
  • The oldest stock market in the world is Amsterdam's. It was established in 1602.
  • On 13 February 1997 the container ship Tokio Express was hit by a wave, tilting the ship 60 degrees one way, then 40 degrees back. As a result, 62 containers were lost overboard and one of them was filled with nearly 4.8 million  pieces of Lego, bound for New York. Shortly after that some of those Lego pieces began washing up in both the north and south coasts of Cornwall. They're still coming in today.
  • You would think that there aren't any pictures of nude people riding Segways. And that's where you'd be mistaken.
  • Houston is now the most racially and ethnically diverse large metropolitan area in the US.

Getting better

"People have been swimming for as long as people have been getting neck-deep in water. You'd think that as a species, we'd have maxed out how fast we could swim long ago. And yet new swimming records are set every year. Humans keep getting faster and faster. Olympic swimmers from early this century would not even qualify for swim teams at competitive high schools. Likewise, the gold medal performance at the original Olympic marathon is regularly attained by amateurs just to qualify as a participant in the Boston Marathon.

And the same is true not just of athletic pursuits, but in virtually every field. The 13th century philosopher Roger Bacon claimed that "nobody can obtain to proficiency in the science of mathematics by the method hitherto known unless he devotes to its study thirty or forty years." Today, the entire body of mathematics known to Bacon is now acquired by your average high school junior."

Joshua Foer's book Moonwalking With Einstein

Truth (Google)

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

You got to know how to load 'em

It recently came to my attention that I am not the only person who is very picky about how the dishwasher gets loaded up.

I'm thinking of developing a course where I show spouses who don't know how to load the dishwasher for maximum efficient cleaning, how to arrange the pots, pans, dishes and cutlery.

Meanwhile, Darlene wants to develop a course that shows how to put the dishes that were in the dishwasher away instead of leaving them out to air dry on the counter........

How it's pronounced

Monday, August 18, 2014

They could do it

Some ambitious Chinese engineers are considering plans to build a high speed railway line that would connect China with the US. The undersea tunnel just to connect Russia and Alaska would be 200 kilometers (125 miles).

China is already in discussions and Russia has been thinking about this for many years. A project like this would require 13,000 km of tracks and it would take a train two days to make the trip if its average speed is 220 mph.

China has plans to build a high speed railway between the southeastern province of Fujian and the island of Taiwan. The trans-Pacific project, named the “China-Russia-Canada-America” line, would require a considerable feat of engineering. If realized, it would be the world’s longest undersea tunnel, four times the length of the Channel Tunnel, which connects England and France.

There are a few other ambitious high-speed railway projects. One project's rail lines would extend from London to Paris, then to Berlin, Warsaw, Kiev and Moscow, where it would split into two routes, with one ending in Kazakhstan and the other in China's Manchuria region. A second project's rail lines would run from Urumqi in China to Central Asia, then to Iran and Turkey, ending in Germany.

Construction has begun for both projects inside China, and the parts of both projects outside the country are still being negotiated with foreign governments.

Besides English & Spanish, the next-most spoken language in each state

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Things I learned lately - 17 Aug

  • The original Mr Potato Head had kids sticking face parts onto a real potato.
  • Captain Kangaroo agreed to feature Play Doh on his show, which is how it became well known.
  • Trisha Prabhu, a 13-year-old from Chicago, won a spot as one of Google's 15 Global Science Fair finalists for her project to prevent teens from posting hurtful comments. The science is simple: Teens are impulsive and, because of their brain structure, more likely to post hurtful messages without pausing to think about the consequences. If teens are forced to take a moment of reflection before posting a mean comment, they won't do it. Her system, Rethink, prompts students who would post a mean comment to think about how it might affect its target. In 93% of her trials, the comment wasn't posted. She wants to turn this concept into an app.
  • Tanned skin is so frowned upon in China that women wear face masks (face-kini) to the beach. The reason for the bad connotation of tanning is that it makes you look like a manual labourer, farmer or peasant.
  • Hong Kong has 1268 skyscrapers. By comparison, Calgary has 52. Toronto has 210.
  • Vancouver has a mission to become the greenest city in the world by 2020. They have already reduced water consumption by 20% and 41% of people walk or bike around.
  • Munich Germany has set a goal to become 100% energy sustainable by 2025. It's already 37% of the way there.
  • The (supposedly) most hated NHL team in North America, Eurasia and Australia is the Boston Bruins. In Africa, it's the Winnipeg Jets and in South America, it's the Montreal Canadiens.
  • London has 72 billionaires, the most of any city.
  • 40% of London is covered in green space
  • The Shard in London stands 1,004 feet. Even though it is the tallest building in the European Union, it is only the 65th-tallest building in the world.
  • China's smog-plagued capital Beijing has announced plans to ban the use of coal by the end of 2020
  • The top 5 restaurants by sales (US) are McDonald's; Subway; Starbucks; Wendy's; and Burger King.
  • The US is short 30,000 truck drivers.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Never forget

About those pipelines

I have nothing but the greatest respect for people who take the time and effort to try and change our world for the better. It takes courage, effort, time and can have an impact on our relationships when we stand up for something publicly. But I think there are a group of folks with their hearts in the right place whom are misguided. I speak of those who protest pipelines and fossil fuel development. Let me explain why.

I believe that protesting pipelines and oil sands places the focus on the wrong thing. We all use fossil fuel in one way or another. We use natural gas to heat our homes and water. Even if we don't, it's likely being used to generate electricity or power manufacturing plants. Oil is being refined into a myriad of products from butane, propane and jet fuel to kerosene, gasoline and most types of plastics, just to name a few. As long as we continue to heat our homes with some kind of fuel, build things out of plastic, put stuff in plastic containers, drive cars, and fly in aircraft, we're going to need fossil fuels. Lots of it. Because now we have people doing those things who might not have been able to afford to do them 20 years ago, such as in places like China, India or certain parts of Africa. So the thing to consider is that the demand for oil and gas is on the increase. Well, we just happen to be very good at providing when there is a demand for something. Because that's how the world economy works. If you want it, they will make it. If they make it, you will buy it.

So as long as there is a need for an increasing amount of fossil fuel, there will be a need to get more of it out of the ground. This is why fracking exists and why we bother to dig up oil sand. And it is why we need a way to ship this oil and gas to where it is needed. I don't like it any more than the protesters do, but I'm trying to be realistic. I'm also trying to be consistent. We already have over 790,000 km of pipelines in the US, over 98,000 km in Canada as of 2006.

That map above only shows the major oil and gas pipelines. There are so many more. Here's a closer look at all the interstate and intrastate natural gas pipelines in the US. That's just natural gas.

So when you look at the big picture, the Keystone and Northern Gateway pipelines are but a tiny part of the whole. Yes, any new pipeline is an accident waiting to happen. But so are the hundreds of thousands of kilometres of existing pipelines. Yet we don't seem to be making much noise about those.

At this point, you're probably thinking that I'm pro-pipeline. I'm not. I dislike the idea as much as the next person who wants to protect our environment. But as long as the world wants the fuel, and as long as we have it to sell, we would be foolish to pass up the opportunity. Because money fuels the economy, pardon the pun.

So what can we do? We need to reduce our use of fossil fuels. We need to start heating our homes with alternative energy. That may not be feasible or practical, yet. But we can reduce our need for fossil fuel by building more efficiently insulated homes. We have the technology to build homes that are so well insulated that they barely need a space heater to stay toasty warm, even in the dead of winter, and yet we continue to build draft shacks. We need to build more electric cars like the kind Tesla make. Yes, we still need to generate the electricity needed to power those cars, but it always boils down to less fossil fuel needed per mile, and less cost to the consumer. We need to use cars less often, but that means we need better transit systems and more car sharing, and more protected bike lanes. We can also start generating electricity from alternative sources like solar and building infrastructure to store excess solar and wind energy until it's needed. We need to make plastic from something other than crude oil. We've already started, we need to get better at it. We also need to make that plastic bio-degradable, so that it doesn't end up in tiny bits endangering our oceans. Do you see a pattern? It means a change in the way we do things. It's a big change, one that is less likely to be adopted by the oldest generations. But our hope is in our youth. Our youth see what is happening and they are beginning to understand that the status quo is unsustainable. They're willing to car share. They're willing to bike and walk and take transit. They just want us to make it practical and safe for them to do that. They're willing to buy more efficient homes. But we have to build them and stop pricing them like novelties. They are much less interested in getting one of everything for their home and much more willing to establish neighbourhood tool sharing co-ops. Because they know that everyone doesn't really need their own circular saw or lawn mower.

Once we get enough people like that, we won't need as much oil or gas and we'll be able to shut down the refineries, close the valves on the pipelines and stop drilling, fracking and extracting oil out of sand. So put down those signs and start a practical movement that will change the world.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Music nostalgia

Feeling nostalgic for music from a particular year? Then give The Nostalgia Machine a spin.

Just pick from any year between 1960 and 2013 and you'll get several dozen links to songs from that year on YouTube.

My recommendation to anyone born after 1975 is to take a look at my musical upbringing between 1972 and 1979. It's magical.

Well played....

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

White Noise blog 10 years old!

It occurs to me that I missed my blog's 10th birthday at the end of July. 10 years. I was hoping for thousands of readers by now. Oh well.

14 followers can't be wrong.........

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Whippet good (thanks Bernie)

Things I learned lately - 10 Aug

  • A genome project is underway whose goal is to map the genes responsible for various types of cancer, so that by 2024 at the latest, gene therapy could be used to treat cancer instead of chemotherapy.
  • Apple has built up its own massive internet infrastructure that will allow seamless software and content downloads. It's much larger than what Apple needs, a sign that the company is positioning itself to deliver high-definition content in the future. This will also make Apple's future software launches and updates much faster.
  • The best of Swiss universities charge you only $600CAD per semester, regardless of nationality.
  • With the Card Table app, you can use your iPad as a card table and each person holds their hands on their iPhones.
  • When you have an app open on your iPad, simply hold down the Home button to bring up Siri and say, "Settings." Siri will then bring up the settings page for that particular app.
  • Facebook's Messenger app now allows you to make phone calls to your Facebook friends using Wi-Fi or your data plan. They have to add their phone number into their FB profile.
  • The citrus industry is at risk of being destroyed by a disease known as citrus greening, or huanglongbing. At least 70% of Florida's citrus trees are already infected and Florida's citrus crop is the lowest it's been in 30 years. Orange juice prices are up nearly 20% and will continue to rise.
  • Hilton says it plans to roll out digital check-in and room selection for Hilton Honors members at more than 4,000 Hilton Worldwide properties across 11 brands by the end of 2014. Before arriving, travelers will be able to check digital floor plans, and then choose the exact room they want instead of leaving it up to the check-in clerk. By the end of 2015, Hilton may have smart phone room key technology, allowing guests to unlock their room with just their smart phone. So you can go right up to your room when you arrive; no more checking in and getting your key first.
  • Anonymous email isn't a new concept, but Leak is hoping to make the experience less creepy and more fun by allowing you to choose the degree of familiarity in how you're attributed. It's a nice nod to the importance of context, and it allows users to send their anonymous note as "a friend," "a coworker," "a family member," "a friend of a friend," or simply "someone."
  • On a UK AC plug, the longer ground prong pushes the covers away from where the other two prongs go as you plug it in. In other words, an open UK (modern) socket is covered for safety when there's nothing plugged into it.
  • Japan's population, currently at 127 million, is expected to drop to 99 million by 2048. One third of the population..... gone. No, you can't blame cosplay zombies.....

Friday, August 08, 2014

I'm partial to sunset lounge myself

If you ever wondered what the genre of music known as nu metal was all about, or how about nordic house, or even German oi or zydeco, I've got just the web site for you.

Every Noise at Once attempts to collect a sample of every genre of music ever named. You never know, you might like celtic punk and not even realize it yet.

If Florence Nightingale was on Twitter

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Tyson on GMO

Neil deGrasse Tyson had an interesting but realistic take on GMO foods. Here is part of his comment:

"I'm amazed how much objection genetically modified foods are receiving from the public. It smacks of the fear factor that exists at every new emergent science, where people don't fully understand it or don't fully know or embrace its consequences, and therefore reject it. What most people don't know, but they should, is that practically every food you buy in a store for consumption by humans is genetically modified food.

There are no wild seedless watermelons; there's no wild cows; there's no long-stem roses growing in the wild — although we don't eat roses. You list all the fruit, and all the vegetables, and ask yourself: Is there a wild counterpart to this? If there is, it's not as large, it's not as sweet, it's not as juicy, and it has way more seeds in it. 

We have systematically genetically modified all the foods, the vegetables and animals, that we have eaten ever since we cultivated them. It's called "artificial selection." That's how we genetically modify them. So now that we can do it in a lab, all of a sudden you're going to complain?

If you're the complainer type, go back and eat the apples that grow wild. You know something? They're this big, and they're tart. They're not sweet, like Red Delicious apples. We manufactured those. That's a genetic modification."

A lot of people got mad at his stance, so he clarified his point:

"Had I given a full talk on this subject, or if GMOs were the subject of a sit-down interview, then I would have raised many nuanced points, regarding labelling, patenting, agribusiness, monopolies, etc. I've noticed that almost all objections to my comments centre on these other issues," Tyson told his Facebook followers on Sunday. 

"If your objection to GMOs is the morality of selling non-prerennial seed stocks, then focus on that. If your objection to GMOs is the monopolistic conduct of agribusiness, then focus on that. But to paint the entire concept of GMO with these particular issues is to blind yourself to the underlying truth of what humans have been doing -- and will continue to do -- to nature so that it best serves our survival. That's what all organisms do when they can, or would do, if they could. Those that didn't, have gone extinct," he added."In life, be cautious of how broad is the brush with which you paint the views of those you don't agree with." 

"Since practically all food has been genetically altered from nature, if you wanted labelling I suppose you could demand it, but then it should be for all such foods. Of course new foods should be tested for health risks, regardless of their origin. That's the job of the Food and Drug Administration (in the US)."

Lyrics I love: Steely Dan - Black Cow

On the counter
By your keys
Was a book of numbers
And your remedies
One of these
Surely will screen out the sorrow
But where are you tomorrow

Schrodinger if he was on Twitter

Monday, August 04, 2014

My military career

People sometimes wonder what it's like to be in the military. I was in it for 20 years, so I figured I may as well share some of my experiences with you.

First, why did I join? That's a funny story. A high school buddy and I never went beyond high school (which ends at Grade 11 in Quebec). I can't speak for him, but I just wasn't the least bit interested in continuing school. I didn't understand why at the time, but it turns out, I was bored. Anyway, after working various warehouse jobs for a year, we both decided that the military was a no-brainer career choice. You could learn a trade and get paid for it. See the world! We both applied, but in the end, only I went through with it. My buddy joined years later, but never made it past trades training.

Boot camp is rough. Time is no longer your own. You're going to be made to do things you never thought you could do. Up at zero dark stupid, barely time for breakfast. Maybe a run for several kilometres. Classes. Marching drills. Weapons training. Ironing uniforms and polishing boots. Late nights. Repeat for many weeks.

Basic training is the great leveller, because everyone is made to function like part of a machine. It's impersonal, but at the same time, it's liberating, because you start over with a bunch of recruits who are in the same boat as you with no obvious edge or stature over anyone.

Yeah so remember that bit about me not liking school? Guess what you end up doing as soon as boot camp is over? Classroom - full time. But this was different, because military training is fast-paced. Everyone goes off to their next training base after boot camp, depending on what trade you'll be training for. Combat arms trades go to Petawawa, Air Force trades go to Borden, electronics and communications trades go to Kingston. Navy trades go to either coast. My training was in Kingston Ontario.

The first thing I had to learn was basic electronics. Taking classes in the military is nothing like classes in a regular school. The pace is fast. I loved that part, because I had always found normal school to be way too slow to keep my attention. The part that wasn't so fun was the parades. Oh, the military love their parades. Dress in your finest spit and polish, march up and down the parade square to the same tunes week after week. Wonder who's going to thunder in (collapse and fall on the pavement) while standing still for 20+ minutes, waiting to be inspected.

One of the great things about being in the military are the folks you meet. Again, the great leveller, because it didn't matter if you were from Trois Rivieres or Red Deer or Bonavista. You were all the same. One thing I noticed was that Quebecers in the military tended NOT to be separatists, because after they had seen half the country and met people from all over, they came to realize that we're not any different from one another and that most of the anti-Anglais propaganda simply wasn't true. Another great thing about the people was the reunions. Some of the folks you met in boot camp followed you to trades training. Some of those folks followed you to your first posting after training was done. Once you were posted to another place, you were highly likely to run into people you met before but hadn't seen in years. This weave of connections continues through your career (and long after). You feel like a member of a special fraternity. Except that these people would give you the shirt off their back.

So what's work like? It depends on whether you're Army, Air Force or Navy. I can only speak for the Army side of things. My trade was Army-centric, so I was always destined to be stationed at Army bases. My first post was on the same base where I learned my craft (Kingston), so I avoided one major move across the country. My first post was a Signals Regiment. That means while most of your days were 8 to 4, with a run every morning for good measure, you spent at least a couple of months or more playing war in 'the field'. That means donning combat boots and everything that goes with them, weapon and webbing and driving a truck to the middle of nowhere to do your job in a tactical setting. That means camouflage, meals on the run, patrols and moves in the middle of the night, defending against a pretend enemy who loved to attack your camp in the middle of a meal. Mud. You drove in it, walked in it, sat in it (in a trench, waiting for the enemy). You learned to sleep while you could, eat well, stay as dry as possible and dress in layers, all while doing your regular job.

You learned to appreciate a hot coffee from a vat cooking on the field kitchen stove and the loaf of bread and jar of peanut butter the cook left out for those who worked the stupid shift. You woke up your replacement at 3am and once they arrived at the sentry post, you relished briefing them on what was going on before going back to bed on a cot in a tent, knowing you'd be up again in less than 3 hours.

Besides the camaraderie, there was alcohol. I was surrounded by alcoholics. I'm not surprised and it wasn't entirely their fault. Alcohol was treated as a reward for a job well done. It started in boot camp and evolved from there. Worse, the military lets you have your alcohol in a private club on the base at a great discount. So what little disposable income you do have can buy a lot of booze. So you buy it. In many cases - every night. That described my first year quite well.

Then I got bored. After a while I didn't feel like emptying my pockets at the bar of the local base Junior Ranks Club. So I bought a motorcycle. Cheapest way to get mobile, which was necessary, because the base at Kingston was at least 3km from downtown, depending on where your barracks was. My bike gave me the freedom to escape the base and explore the world around Kingston, going farther afield with each journey. I guess that's why my first 3 vehicles (not counting a doomed Chevy Chevelle thrown in for adventure) were motorcycles.

Highlights of my first posting. Within 4 months of arriving, we were off on a military convoy to Gagetown, New Brunswick for the first ever modern-day Army-wide Rendezvous (RV81) for 2 months. The road trip was an adventure unto itself. RV81 was an eye-opener. I actually saw napalm dropped from a warplane. I ate lobster in the field. Experienced every season in one day. Before I would leave the regiment, I would also participate in RV83 and RV85 (both in Wainwright AB). My first post also saw me visit our British brethren in Germany for a month. 3 weeks of serious 'we're not messing around' war games followed by a solid week of touring the likes of Bremen, Hamburg and the East German border.

The military training never stops, which is especially good if you're a trades person. I kept returning to the 'school' (the Canadian Forces School of Communications & Electronics or CFSCE) and it was always a mini-reunion. The thing about military training is that it is typically conducted by people just like yourself. The problem with being trained by your peers though, is that not everyone is good at training. I felt like I would be good at it, as the result of a late afternoon when I helped my classmates figure out how a particular military computerized teletype worked when the instructor couldn't. I asked for my next posting to be the 'school'.

I got my wish, but they apparently didn't hear the part about me wanting to teach. Instead I was put in the school's repair shop for 2 years while I begged management to let me switch places with instructors who didn't want to teach (there were many). I finally got my chance and never looked back. It was the right move, I can teach. I enjoyed it too. I got into the groove and as you can imagine, every new course I taught was like another mini-reunion. I got to do this teaching thing for 7 years, mostly because any time one of my peers on another base got told they were being posted to the 'school' to become an instructor, they would threaten leaving the military and the career planners would back down and I got to stay another year. Besides getting to teach, being at a static post like CFSCE meant no mud, no trenches, no 3am patrols.

While at CFSCE, I had the misfortune to be told 2 months after getting married that I would be leaving for a 6 month tour of Alert, Northwest Territories (or Nunavut as it's called now). I arrived in 24 hour daylight and within 6 weeks was plunged into eternal night. I never saw the sun again until the day I left after 6 months. The only things that kept me sane were my phone calls to Darlene and my work at the base radio station (CHAR-FM).

Eventually I ended up with a career planner who didn't care that I liked my teaching job nor that chances were good that he would be replacing me with someone who didn't want to teach. After 15 years in Kingston, I had to leave. I asked for Ottawa, Trenton and Borden, all fairly close but was told no. I had to go to an Army base. After much arguing, we finally settled on Calgary.

Calgary was IMHO the least worse Army posting you could go to (Shilo anyone?), being located in a major city. We fell in love right away. Yes, I was back to 'playing silly bugger' (that's what we Army types call going to the field on exercise) many weeks of the year, but the reward was being stationed in a modern metropolis. I got to enjoy that for just less than 3 years. Then the federal Liberals elected a few MPs in Edmonton and the government rewarded the city by closing a bunch of western Army bases and consolidating the Western Army in Namao, a former Air base on the northern outskirts of Edmonton. With only just over 2 years left of my 20 year contract, I did not want to move, but most importantly, I did not want to uproot my family only to return to Calgary in 30 months. That would have ruined Darlene's now well established career. Plus we had just bought a house.

Are you noticing a common thread here? A career in the military can be tough on families. The moves are not as bad as they used to be. It was typical for a military member to have to move to a new posting every 3-4 years. With budget cuts, this has changed dramatically. An Army trade, once they found themselves on an Army mega-base (like Gagetown, Petawawa or Edmonton), would likely stay there for possibly half of their career. Regardless of when the transfers come, the member has little choice in the matter and families have to adjust. I was very lucky in that I only had to ask Darlene to put a stop to her career once and with a couple of years to complete my contract, I wasn't about to do it again. So I made the hard choice and went to Edmonton alone, coming home when I could on weekends. It was a rough 30 months, but in the end, I was able to resume my life in Calgary, which has proven to be the right decision. So to recap, 15 years in Kingston, 3 in Calgary and 2 in Edmonton (alone). That was a lot less moving around than most of my colleagues. I felt sorry for those who moved a lot, because it's hard to sell a house when you don't get to pick the time. There are a lot of military members who end up having to buy high and sell low and they often do not get reimbursed for the entire loss. Although military members get to rent military housing, that's only an option when there is housing available. Otherwise, you are at the mercy of the local real estate market. Imagine being posted from Shilo Manitoba, where houses average $274,000, to Toronto, where it's $569,000.

While with the western Army, I had a couple of opportunities to go into combat zones. I declined each time. With my career waning, I didn't feel the need to gain any combat experience. I also didn't want to take any unnecessary risks this close to the end of my military career. That may sound selfish, but there were many eager colleagues willing to take my place. Unfortunately, some of them were permanently changed by their experiences in Bosnia and Kosovo and Afghanistan. They witnessed horrible atrocities that a life in peaceful Canada cannot prepare you for. They came back different people, suffering PTSD, angry, distressed, depressed. One of my coworkers was unrecognizable. He was being groomed for quick promotion through the ranks and when he returned from overseas duty, he had become a violent, angry, withdrawn, impatient person. Another friend suffered some kind of mystery chest ailment which sidelined his career, made it difficult to get out of bed, and forced him to undergo years of treatment and pain management. It's people like these who are abused the most, because the military only wants you if you are fit and able to perform at peak physical and mental capacity. The moment you cannot function at 100%, even if it's your duties that caused the situation, they are no longer interested in you and you are eventually released. At this point, you would think that the government has your back, but unlike the way it used to be in the 1970s, now they just want you paid off and forgotten.

One of the highlights of my career was being able to help my fellow Canadians. In 1998, a very bad ice storm hit eastern Ontario and Southern Quebec and we were called in to help. We assumed the power of Peace Officers during that operation. Over 1,000 transmission towers collapsed in chain reactions under the weight of the ice, leaving more than 4 million people without electricity, most of them in southern Quebec, western New Brunswick and Eastern Ontario, some of them for an entire month. It took us 3 days to get from being on notice to catching a flight on a chartered wide body aircraft. Canada didn't have the air transport it needs back then. It's better now, but only marginally. My unit arrived in the thick of the 'black triangle' where the transmission towers had crumpled like toothpicks from the weight of the ice. The military had put up as many seniors and families with young children as it could fit in the recruit school complex, which is completely self-powered. We went on patrols of neighbourhoods making sure nobody was taking advantage of the situation and looting empty houses. Many residents left to live with friends in unaffected areas or to stay in shelters. Those that remained were happy to see us, although they were amazed that we had come all the way from Alberta to assist them. The ice storm led to the largest deployment of Canadian military personnel since the Korean War, with over 16,000 Canadian Forces personnel deployed, 12,000 in Quebec and 4,000 in Ontario at the height of the crisis.

Looking back on my 20 year career, I have no regrets. I went from a shy, undisciplined person lacking self-confidence with no career to a disciplined, confident technologist who loves to teach.

If Edison had been on Twitter

Saturday, August 02, 2014

Things I learned lately - 2 Aug

  • Statisticians now say with certainty that the changes the Canadian government made to the federal census has resulted in poor quality data costing more money, while doing nothing to address privacy issues, which was the excuse for the changes in the first place.
  • The average Canadian house ($413,000) costs 5.3 times the average household income ($78,000). For the average Vancouverite, the house price to income ratio is 10. In one of the wealthier neighbourhoods in Eastern Canada, Toronto's Bridle Path, the ratio is 2.4. The wealthy people in Bridle Path only use half as much of their income as an average Canadian to pay for their home. Historically, the ratio over the decades (on average) has been 3, but we will probably not return to that number.
  • There's a place in Toronto called Poutini's House of Poutine.
  • Citizens of Adelaide, Australia, are nuts for Krispy Kreme donuts. A week after the store opened, police had been called to the location 20 times. There was a knife point robbery of two teens as they were loading six boxes of donuts into their car. The alleged bandit got away with all the donuts. Authorities have had to break up fights between hungry customers who wait in line for hours.
  • There's a Whole Foods store in Brooklyn that gets a lot of its fresh produce from the roof. In particular, from a company called Gotham Greens that operates a large hydroponic greenhouse on top of the store. The greenhouse yields the equivalent of a 10 acre farm using a 1/2 acre of space and 1/10th the water.
  • There are now more solar workers than coal miners in the US.
  • Bangladesh has more people than Russia. It is slightly bigger than the state of New York.
  • There are more synapses (nerve connections) in your brain than there are stars in our galaxy.
  • Cleopatra lived closer in time to the building of the first Pizza Hut than to the building of the pyramids.
  • Bayer commercialized heroin in the 1890s as a cough, cold, and pain remedy. Bayer marketed heroin for use on children as late as 1912, years after reports had surfaced that it could be a dangerous drug.
  • Harvard University existed before calculus was invented.
  • Shakira became the first person to garner 100 million fans on Facebook.

Nnooo, we're not going to the vet........

Lyrics I Love: Bee Gees - Jive Talkin'

Oh my love
You're so good
Treating me so cruel
There you go
With your fancy lies
Leavin' me lookin'
Like a dumbstruck fool