Teaching Math in Ontario

Ontario has – well, “had”, because it was just ruled unconstitutional – a Math Proficiency Test for new teachers. Which has been quite a topic of discussion around here, as my daughter is just finishing teachers college, and my future daughter-in-law is currently teaching.

In another version of my life, I thought I’d be a math teacher. I’d be that cool teacher who gets the kids excited about math (and also directs the pep band.)

so I woke up this morning and I thought, you know what would be fun? Why not try the practice test and see what this is all about?

You can try it too .

Perhaps this is an odd definition of ‘fun’ but I enjoyed going through the test.

71 questions. 2/3 of them are on math, and 1/3 on pedagogy, and then there’s an optional questionnaire. I believe 70% is a passing grade. For the past year or so, all new teachers were required to pass this, but the future of the test is up in the air at the moment.

plunging ahead

This, believe it or not, is one of the actual questions. (I got this one right, phew.)

Sample Question

What on earth is going on here? Is this an attempt to catch bots, or people who always answer “B” to every question, or a test to see if you’re reading, or was there originally some question that they later decided was inappropriate?

the math part

I did not have much trouble with the math part. Some of the questions let you use a calculator but as a show of mental toughness I decided to try doing all the questions in my head. Got one wrong – dumb arithmetic mistake that I’m sure I would have caught if I used the calculator.

Some of them are unbelievably basic, like (paraphrasing)

In the number 470,253, the digit ‘7’ represents what?

  1. 70
  2. 70,000
  3. 700,000
  4. 7

Others require you to evaluate a little expression using BEDMAS (“What is 16 – 2 * 3 + 5 * 0”, that kind of thing) which if you’ve been on Facebook any time in the past year, you’ve seen some idiot version of this which has fourteen million wrong answers in the comments.

And at one point I had to pause for a moment to try to recall the formula for the area of a parallelogram – one question showed you a parallelogram, gave the lengths of the sides, and said “if you divided this into two congruent triangles, what would be the area of each” and, well, there’s a button in the test that takes you to page showing all the formulae for things but you know what I REMEMBERED HOW TO DO IT WITHOUT LOOKING IT UP phew.

You could answer a lot of the questions that required calculation by just doing a rough estimate with rounder numbers – can I quickly come up with something that’s within 25% or so of the right answer? – which was often enough to rule out 3 of the 4 choices. This is also a useful skill. You don’t always need to do an exact calculation.

So, good news, I passed the math part with flying colours. I should hope so. I have two degrees in math, which honestly is two more degrees in math than anybody really needs.

the pedagogy part

The last section was pedagogical questions. This sort of thing. (I got this one wrong, I think I mixed up “of” and “for”.)

Pedagogy Question

My daughter commented – Yeah…I mean that question would be very easy for someone who’s taken a pedagogy course…but yeah that’s the level of minutiae.

She’s right, this pedagogy part just seems to ask you to repeat the buzzwords you learned in a course. It’s a test of memorization, not of math and logic.

The first part of the test seems like a pretty reasonable way to evaluate if somebody remembers what they were taught up to about 9th grade math. I think that’s a reasonable thing to ask of all teachers. They’re not asking you to do calculus, they’re just asking you to apply some general principles. I heard it said once that All teachers are teachers of language, and I think you could extend that to basic math numeracy too.

But the pedagogy part. That would really trip up people whose first language isn’t English, for one thing. And what’s it doing in a test about math proficiency?

having said that I am delighted to say I got 17/20 on the pedagogy part with some educated guessing, which is also a useful skill. I’ve been lucky to work in the education division of my employer so I’ve been around teachers for a while.

And Cathy reminds me “Didn’t you actually go to teachers college?”

Well, yeah, I did, for three weeks; I am a proud dropout of York University, after a brief, unsuccessful midlife crisis experiment a while ago.

It turns out some of this is hard.

the questions I hoped it would include

Math is a wonderful thing!

Get off your ath and do some math!

Six times a billion is …?

so should there be a math proficiency test?

Yes. Yes there should. Math is a universal language. It is the foundation of truth, and beauty, and has a standard of proof higher than that in any other field of human endeavour.

When we send satellites out of the solar system, hoping they will some day reach a distant galaxy, we engrave plaques on them with math symbols to prove that we are an advanced species. Prime numbers, in particular, are such a fundamental idea that if you can just list them in some language-independent way, like this –


that that’s a good start at demonstrating where you are. There is no conceivable universe where 7 is not a prime number! We have to agree on that with whatever aliens are out there!

The first radio message beamed out to the stars from the Arecibo Observatory in 1974 was sent as 1,679 binary pulses.
Why 1,679? It’s the product of two primes, 73 and 23, and if you can figure that out, you might realize you could arrange the binary pulses into a 23 * 73 graphic like this (colour here added by the Wikipedia article with all the details- but can you see the patterns in there?

There’s a human (red) and a representation of our solar system (in yellow) – notice how the 3rd dot is offset, that’s where this message originated. And more. How much of this can you figure out? Here’s the details.

400px Arecibo message svg

Isn’t that cool? Yes, yes it is.
Math. It’s everything.

But the pedagogy part. That needs some thought. That belongs somewhere else.

Apple + NeXT, 25 years ago today.

Apple and NeXT Announce Merger

25 years ago today, I was a field systems engineer for NeXT, one of three NeXT employees in Canada – and our family was in Scranton, Pennsylvania, introducing a three week old baby to his grandmother.

Nobody had reliable cell phones back then, so most messaging was done through a voice mail system called Audix, and somehow I still remember the number. 1-800-345-5588. I dialled it the other day. Number not in service. But I can still dial it quickly.

So anyway, we got a sudden Audix message. Urgent. Everyone must dial in at 2 PM. I went looking for a reliable land line for the call, not having much idea what it was about, and somehow wound up on a pay phone at the Steamtown Railroad Museum. (which I kind of wanted to visit anyway.)

And there, we learned that NeXT had agreed to be acquired by Apple for $400,000,000.

In retrospect, the tech involved in the merger wound up being so one-sided that many people say “NeXT actually bought Apple for negative $400,000,000.” A few years later, something like 70% of Apple’s VPs were ex-NeXT people.

I was floored. I didn’t expect this at all.

NeXT was struggling. Our founder, Steve Jobs, seemed to be spending all his time at his other company, Pixar, and although we just just eked out our first quarterly operating profit (mostly based on selling WebObjects, a Java application server) we weren’t exactly setting the world on fire.

Here’s the sort of thing NeXT was selling at the time – a press release from three weeks before the merger, touting CyberSlice, a revolutionary new system for (get this!) ordering pizza from your computer. (WebObjects was also powering the Disney and Dell online stores, and Steve had even demoed using it to buy a plane ticket through a web browser. Heady stuff for the mid-1990s.)

“CyberSlice has enabled any small or large pizza provider to get online,” said Steven P. Jobs, Chairman and CEO of NeXT Software. “NeXT is excited to provide the enabling technology to CyberSlice, which combines fun with an innovative business concept. The success of CyberSlice shows the versatility of WebObjects in creating and deploying consumer web applications that are both sophisticated and original.”

It must have been killing Steve Jobs that his vision of a revolutionary new workstation and operating system for higher education hadn’t panned out and that he was now reduced to selling enterprise server software for $50,000 a copy.

Apple was seemingly caught in a death spiral too and was getting awfully close to running out of money.

two weeks earlier

Two weeks earlier, I’d got a call from a former NeXT colleague Barb, who’d gone to work for Apple. She wanted to know if I wanted to come along.

“No thank you”, I replied politely, when what I was really thinking was “What, that bunch of losers? Why would I go there? They’re the only company going out of business faster than WE are.”

But the merger happened anyway, and Barb called me about a minute after it was announced to say “Well, we really wanted to hire you, so this is the only plan we could think of.”

I always wondered if the message of “We really need to hire Steve from NeXT” got garbled somehow.

shortly thereafter

Barb called and invited me to visit Apple’s office in Markham to “show us what the heck it was we just bought.”

What Apple was most interested in was NeXT’s NeXTSTEP operating system that originally came with the NeXT cube but had been ported to run on Intel systems as well. I wasn’t even using that day-to-day any more; most of my work was using WebObjects on Windows NT. But I managed to reinstall NeXTSTEP on my Toshiba Tecra, and took that up to Markham for a demo to the Apple team.

I remember struggling to get my laptop to work with their weird mutant boardroom projector, and thinking “geez, I hope this works.” and I wasn’t just thinking about the projector.

Ultimately we got it to work at a cramped 640×480 resolution and I was able to show off NeXTSTEP, Unix, Interface Builder and (horrors) the Terminal program, which was pretty much the opposite of what Apple had been providing.

Everybody at NeXT was so unclear that this merger was going to work that we all handed out our NeXT business cards for as long as those phone numbers and emails still worked. (Remind me to write up my “I was steve@next.com” story some time too.)

eventually all was well.

It worked out OK, though. The merger happened at a historic low point for Apple, and once Steve Jobs came back as CEO, an incredible technical and business turnaround began.

NeXT’s software and hardware became the foundation of everything Apple made. The NeXTSTEP operating system – which NeXT was just about to shelve, until a midlevel NeXT guy John Landwehr (hi John! How are things at Adobe?) cold-called Apple’s CTO Ellen Hancock to ask if they needed a robust operating system because Mac OS was really shaky – became the foundation of Mac OS X; NeXT’s Project Builder and Interface Builder became Xcode; NeXT’s love of the Objective-C language eventually created Swift.

And, all that technology that I started learning when I bought my $11,000 NeXT cube in Indiana in 1988 now runs on my phone. And my watch! On my wrist. Objective-C and NeXTSTEP runs on my wrist today. Crazy.

And here we are. It’s been a pretty amazing run.

The three week old baby turned out to be a fine young man too.

My NeXT Badge

My NeXT badge, and over my shoulder, my NeXT cube.

the people

At the time of the merger, NeXT had about 400 employees, and Apple had only a few thousand. Today. Apple has 160,000 people. I’m curious how many of the NeXT crew are still here. I know about a dozen, and I’m sure there are more. 100 maybe? Who knows. We’ve all been incredibly lucky.

PS. This is a photo of the last ever gathering of NeXT employees before the merger was legally finalized. To my great regret, I was not able to get out to NeXT’s HQ in Redwood City for this picture, but it sure brings back a lot of memories.

Very Last NeXT Team Picture No Logo

Orchestra Wee Wee

In 1999 the Hamilton Tiger-Cats managed, somehow, to win the Grey Cup, a feat they have not accomplished since but they’re going to try again next Sunday.

In June of 2000, the team held a banquet at which the players were awarded their Grey Cup rings. And since the team had a sense of humour, they actually contacted, us the arch-rival Argonotes, the Toronto Argonauts Band, to see if we’d pretend to be the Ticats band for this event.

(Hey, they offered us food and beer – and T-shirts – how could we say no?)

So here is Orchestra Wee Wee, the temporary Hamilton Tiger-Cats Pep Band, at the Grey Cup Ring Presentation Ceremonial Dinner


As far as we could tell, nobody noticed that the band looked kind of familiar, but we gave it our best shot and played the Tiger-Cat Marching Song multiple times. Our band has a long history of playing that song in Hamilton and wondering if anybody recognizes it.

The Ticats, recognizing a good thing when they hear it, briefly set up their own pep band and we were delighted to confront them at Ivor Wynne Stadium at a game in 2003. Here’s a joint picture of the Massed Bands of the CFL East Division at the Labour Day Classic in 2003.

P1010022 1

That too didn’t last but it sure was fun.

here’s an email I sent to Argonotes after our rousing success as Orchestra Wee Wee –

From: Steve Hayman
To: Argonotes
Subject: Orchestra Wee Wee!
Date: June 30, 2000

I want to thank the 14 members of Argonotes who became Orchestra Wee-Wee, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats Band last night for Hamilton’s Grey Cup Ring Ceremony dinner. Over 800 people were in attendance to see the Ticats presented with their championship rings, and as far as I can tell nobody managed to put 2 and 2 together and realize that some of the music they were hearing sounded very familiar!

We got off to a shaky start. Weather caused the mother of all traffic tieups on the QEW – *three*hours* from downtown to downtown –
and everyone (including Premier Harris) was late, and when we started playing we had a whopping four people on hand, but once we all got there, they hustled us up to the balcony overlooking the banquet hall and had us play the Alleged Former Ticat Song (“We love those Cats,
those Tiger Cats ….”) over and over and over again while the players were being introduced. I imagine we played it more timesin that one stretch than it was ever played at Ivor Wynne Stadium in history.

We did a nice, tight, post-banquet show outside the hall as well. It’s amazing how good you can sound with the right 14 people
in place!

We got a picture or three of the band, in our souvenir Hamilton TiCat shirts, with the Grey Cup, and I’m sure it will be featured prominently on our “other” web site, www.ticats.com, as soon as yours truly gets his scanner fixed.

Thank you again to saxes Clem, Steve and Trevor, trumpets Alex, Gary and James, trombones Richard, Ian and Deb, tuba James, and percussion Bud, Angela and Tina. I really enjoyed doing this and I thinkwe did ourselves and Argonotes proud. Fundamentally I think we are all CFL fans as much as we are Argo fans, so if we can do the odd thing to help Hamilton, it will be good for the league, and maybe it will even shame Hamilton into actually organizing an actual band.

They’re already looking forward to having us visit for the Toronto at Hamilton game on Friday October 13. Game time is 7:30. based on what we saw of the traffic yesterday, I think we should all plan on taking the GO train.

Have a great Canada Day and we’ll see everyone at our next ARGO game, Tuesday July 11 vs Montreal. Meet at 6:30 at Front and Simcoe. More details later.

Oskee-wee-wee—excuse me, that should be
Argos Rule,

P.S. The Fan 590 has inquired as to whether we might be available for some sort of parade on the 11th from their downtown studio to the dome. It’s intended to celebrate Toronto’s home teams and will involve both the Jays and Argos, and a double decker bus which we might be able to ride on. I think, unfortunately, it’s during the day but if it’s at lunch time we might be able to find enough people. I’ll let you know the plan, if there is one, when I find out more details.

P.P.S. Yesterday I got a call from someone wanting to hire us for a Canada Day parade. (As you might expect the answer is “No, even if we did do parades, don’t you think we would have figured out something for July 1 before June 29?”)

P.P.P.S. I got another invite for a parade later in the year in Mississauga. Here is how this kind of thing usually goes. They tell me that they’ve got the Argonaut cheerleaders, so they figure they could get the band; however it usually means they have 3 of the 30 cheerleaders, and while that works great for the cheerleaders, if we had a turnout of 3 people it wouldn’t be quite as great, soI usually politely turn this sort of thing down.

Tuning Up in Victory Formation at the 100th Grey Cup. And the best picture ever.

Yesterday was the 9th anniversary of the 100th Grey Cup, when Canada’s most loved team, the Toronto Argonauts, defeated the Calgary Stampeders.

It’s also when we got the best photo of the band, ever.

So, the Argos win, seconds after the final whistle, the band sneaks onto the field through, uh, a door or two that we got tipped off might be open.

And hey, there’s Marcus Ball, #6 of the Toronto Argos! Gerry gets him to whack the drum a time or two …

Marcus Ball on the drum

and then I immediately started fumbling around, trying to take a picture of the band.

Marcus Bell, who may I remind you has JUST WON A PROFESSIONAL FOOTBALL CHAMPIONSHIP, says to me “Here, give me your phone, you go get in the picture.” A scene captured by my cousin in the stands – here I am handing off my phone ….

The Band on the Field

And Marcus Bell takes this picture. Possibly the best photo of the band EVER. In retrospect, maybe we should have retired right then and there.

The Band, by Marcus Ball

This is why we love the CFL. A player steps out of his own celebration to do the band a favour, and I’m sure he’s not the only one who had done that.

Of course, moments later, we had a ritual to attend to. Tuning up! We would only tune up after the Argos won the Grey Cup; no point jinxing things by tuning up earlier in the season. May I present to you –

Tuning Up in Victory Formation

Remembering Linda Carson, and the Varsity Briefcase Drill Team

Update: Linda, pre-organized as always, set up a bequest at the University of Waterloo to establish two new student awards. Learn more or join me in donating here.

Let me tell you about my friend Linda Carson, who tragically passed away last week from ALS. She was known for an astounding variety of creative endeavours, but I want to mention one in particular – the University of Waterloo Varsity Briefcase Drill Team.

there’s video proof!

My thanks to VBDT member Ken Jones for hanging on to this video, which was shot by the basketball team’s videographer in 1987.
Here are two performances from 1987 – the inaugural, with six VBDT members and the UW Warriors Band, and a repeat engagement where the team had expanded to 10 and added a second number to the show.

Here’s the original team in 1987

20861663 10159136721195623 3593125824846367844 o 2

10419634 10154230239255623 5349594616172928881 n

and a revival of the team in 1999 – with Linda in the middle and the Warriors Band scattered around the edges.

VBDT 1999

Linda’s passing comes far too soon, and it’s not fair, but I hope I can face a challenge like that with the humour she showed. Check out this Twitter thread where she announced the ALS news to us all – here’s the first part (but you should read the whole thing.)

I knew Linda multiple different ways at Waterloo. We were both Mathies, although she moved on to fine arts, which kind of left me agog. You can be good at math AND at painting and sculpturing and drawing? I had no idea.


We both wound up involved in FASS, too, Waterloo’s annual Faculty, Administration, Staff and Students show. This was a big original show, supposedly a musical “comedy” although I think a lot of the jokes were way more fun for the participants than they were for the audience. Linda was a theatrical jack of all trades. Actor, choreographer, director – and complete amateurs like myself were always welcomed into the production and somehow I even became Musical Director for the 1985 and 1987 shows. Wait, what? I get to conduct the band? in the orchestra pit? And it moves up and down hydraulically? COOOL.

I couldn’t believe that I got to hang around with actual creative and talented people like this! Surely there must be some mistake… but that’s one of the great things about university, how you can become friends with people with wildly different backgrounds and ideas and it’s all very welcoming and fun and somehow we all learned a little bit about math at the same time.

But anyway.

So one night, Linda, and Paul McKone, and I were hanging around in the University of Waterloo Grad Club – an old farmhouse on the middle of campus – and somehow a tremendously silly and amazing idea was born there.

the Varsity Briefcase Drill Team

Let me quote from the June 2 1997 issue of the UW Daily Bulletin, a decade after the birth of the VBDT when it was prepping for a repeat performance –

Hot dog! The faculty, staff and retiree “birthday party” for UW is set for tomorrow at Federation Hall, running from 12 noon to 2 p.m. The barbecues will be hot, the music will be cool, and the return of the Varsity Briefcase Drill Team is promised — what more could anyone ask?
Well, maybe an explanation of the Varsity Briefcase Drill Team wouldn’t be out of place. Linda Carson was in its founding “in 1987 or thereabouts”, and does her best to blame Paul McKone:

“We were sitting in the Grad Club,” Carson says, “Having a refreshing lemonade — as I recall — and bemoaning the dreadful conformity of the whole notion of cheerleaders. It just didn’t seem to represent the true spirit of the University of Waterloo. Paul said something flip about how the true UW spirit would be represented by a bunch of people in suits throwing briefcases about.
“It sounded like a great stunt,” Carson continues. “I’d done a lot of goofy choreography for FASS over the years. I got a few people together and we started working on weird stuff you could do with a briefcase. Paul was a member of the Warriors Band so he arranged to have them play for us. Steve Hayman came up with a musical arrangement and everybody got to work.

“The team rehearsed on the pavement outside the Math building. We had a rotten little tape deck and an atrocious recording of the Warriors Band. The team — all six of them — never heard the Band play live until they actually performed the number.”

The UW Varsity Briefcase Drill Team made its debut, unannounced and unauthorized, at halftime at a basketball game, November 1987, in the PAC. Nobody knew they were coming but the Warriors Band. They marched onto the court in suits and sneakers, and performed their signature piece: Nine to Five. “The crowd had never seen anything like it, but from the moment those six people entered that huge gym in formation, everybody got it. I think that’s still the greatest thing about it. UW knew right away what the team represented: ourselves,” Carson remembers today. “I’m very proud of that moment, when the University of Waterloo proved it can laugh at itself.”

I remember that first performance well! Six VBDT members marched out onto the floor as the Warriors Band played my arrangement of Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5. It brought the house down. And the VBDT was invited to return – only bigger!

Something possessed me, a two-left-feet uncoordinated klutzomatron, to join. The team expanded to about 16 people and returned to another basketball game for the same schtick, again, that you can see in the picture at the top.

There’s the band behind the VBDT.
I recall the game was telecast, and the cameraman was given instructions to film the shenanigans but he wound up filming the Warriors Band the entire time, oblivious to the synchronized briefcase drill going on behind him.

So there might be video out there somewhere. i’m still looking.

actual rehearsals

And I remember another writeup of a VBDT rehearsal, which was about the only time I was ever actually spotted in the UW’s dance studio. Oooh, this floor is bouncy. Hey, look at all the mirrors! What is this ‘bar’ for?

Linda sent me this photo from a 1987 rehearsal –

VBDT Rehearsal Feg 2017

Back row, L to R: Ken Jones, Dave Till? Heidi Leblanc? Peter Houston? And somebody of whom I can only see a shoe. John Sellens maybe?

Front row, L to R: Angela Yeates, Me, Chris Kitowski, Brian Dickson, Suzanne Langdon

and Waterloo’s Imprint student paper wrote things up –

Briefcase Drill Team Rehearsal

Photo from the UW Imprint, January 22 1988. Captioned: Waterloo’s varsity Briefcase Drill Team, fresh from its triumphant debut at the Naismith tournament, will perform again at halftime during the Warriors basketball game against Laurier January 30 at 2 p.m. in the PAC.
Shown here in a recent practice, the Varsity Briefcase Drill Team provides a brand of entertainment and team support uniquely suited to UW.

The Varsity Briefcase Drill Team encourages you to support Warriors basketball, and looks forward to seeing everyone at the game. Linda Carson is the team’s choreographer.”

Front to back, right to left, that’d be Angela Yeates, Ken Jones, me, Dave Till, Chris Kitowski, possibly Suzanne, Brian Dickson, Peter Houston, Heidi Leblanc?, John Sellens.

A photographer for the UW Gazette took what was probably the least flattering photo of me ever – not the one above, one even worse – for another writeup – and in that story, Linda mentioned that all the VBDT moves were named after computers on campus and the photo showed us `practicing the bruising wateerc manoeuvre’.

Gotta dig that article up.

Perhaps my strongest memory is that Chris Kitowski, who’s in the center in the light gray jacket in the photo, had a briefcase with a latch that would always pop open at the exact same point in the routine. Always. Every time. And Chris would click it back shut, on tempo, right on the beat, at the same point every time. Every. Single. Time. It was hard not to laugh.

successful dumb ideas cannot be stopped

I moved away from Waterloo, to Indiana for a few years, but the VBDT kept going, and appeared in a Santa Claus parade, and then, to my great delight, reformed and performed at my (first) wedding reception! (That particular marriage did not last; I don’t think it was the Varsity Briefcase Drill Team’s fault though.) And the team reformed for UW’s 40th anniversary in 1997.

I know many of us in the VBDT held on to our decorated briefcases for years, just in case we were called on to serve our university again.

That was just one thing Linda did for us all.
We can argue about who actually came up with the idea, but Linda made it happen. So many great endeavours are all due to someone who took the time to implement a silly idea, rather than just laughing it off and saying “yeah, that would be cool.” It was cool. And Linda is why.

Linda even had a law.

“There are fewer rules than you think.”

Thanks, Linda, for proving that.

We’ll all miss you, Linda.

On Getting Corrected by Ken Jennings

Yesterday: achievement unlocked. I was personally corrected (on Twitter) by Ken Jennings.

What an incredible honour!

Well, I’d always hoped to be corrected by Ken on the set of Jeopardy! itself, but still, a twitter interaction is a pretty cool alternative.

I mentioned to my brilliant colleague Tom that I’d been corrected by Ken Jennings, and Tom replied “Did he find a way to spell handyman without Hayman?” (good one, Tom.)


I have reviewed yesterday’s Final Jeopardy answer and … Well, I’m not sure Ken Jennings was right to correct me after all. And what fun would the Internet be if we didn’t argue about minutia?

The situation:

Final Jeopardy Category: World Capitals

World Capitals
The answer is:


An Annual Event Called Winterlude Includes Skating on the Rideau Canal, a Unesco World Heritage Site in This City.

(Of course every Canadian immediately shouts “What is Ottawa?”)

what is Paris?

Ken gets to the 2nd place contestant. She has written: “What is Paris?”

Jennifer answers 'What is Paris'

here’s what Ken says

Ken says, and I quote:

“Jennifer, you were in second place, which world capital did you write down? ‘What is Paris?’

No, the name is French, but it’s not Paris, so that will cost you something.”

(Remainder of Final Jeopardy unimportant at this point, although Amy Schneider (who also got it wrong, with ‘What is Amsterdam?’) won anyway, her fifth win, congratulations!)

wait, what did he say?

So Cathy and I immediately started debating. When Ken said ‘the name is French, but it’s not Paris‘… what did he mean? Does he think “Ottawa” is a French name?

It isn’t, of course, “Ottawa” comes from the Algonquin word ‘adawe’, meaning ‘to trade.’

Now what do you do when somebody is wrong? You tweet about it, of course. I immediately composed a tweet, saying

And, a few minutes later – oh my god, I got a reply from Ken Jennings himself!

(Saving a screen shot for posterity in case either of us deletes something in the future)

Tweets between Steve and Ken

I better apologize

Suitably chastened – who am I to argue with Ken Jennings – I apologized.

And I then had to wade through multiple tweets from other people. Ken got way more likes on his reply than I got on my original. Apparently a lot of people read all of Ken’s tweets and some feel obliged to reply to me. This one was good.

Along with other tweets from Ken’s army of followers reminding me that he meant that ‘Rideau’ was a French word. And a few helpful but off topic responses –


This has been nagging at me.

It’s an honour to be corrected by the legend Ken Jennings.

But what actually did he say?

The contestant writes What is Paris? and Ken responds

No, the name is French, but it’s not Paris

I think I know what he meant but …. can you not argue that the name and it both refer to the same thing, the correct response (Ottawa) here, not another word in the clue (Rideau)?

It is possible that I actually am right here. Or that we both are.

Not sure I want to risk another Twitter firestorm though!

Ken, if you’re reading this

I’ve taken the Jeopardy! test multiple times. Why don’t you call?

Sing the Phone Number!

Here’s a collection of some of my favourite commercials where they sing the phone number. Have been meaning to collect this for a while. Enjoy. If possible.

Poison Control, 1 800 222-1222

On a work trip I was driving through upstate New York and this jingle came on the radio and I thought – wait – did I just hear that correctly?

Stompin’ Tom, PEI Tourism. 800 565-7421

Stompin’ Tom was a songwriting genius who could seemingly turn out a catchy tune on virtually any topic. Phone numbers? Sure!

Alfie Zappacosta and Syd Kessler for Pizza Nova, 439-0000

This one is epic. EPIC! Especially the bridge where they start singing not just the phone number, but singing ABOUT the phone number! Four Three Nine. Lots of Zeroes.

ITravel2000.com . 1 866 WOW DEAL

The IT Crowd, the new Emergency Number

just dial 0118 999 881 999 119 725 3.

speaking of emergency services

There seems to be a whole genre of emergency service commercials where they sing the phone number.

1 800 267 2001 Alarm Force

1 866 247 4999 The Monitoring Center

Clever phone number. I think the schtick was that you got 24*7 monitoring for $9.99 /month.

Geez I’m having trouble finding this one. Ah here we go. Skip ahead to about 1:50 in this informercial. Catchy!

And in Canada at least, the granddaddy of them all, a commercial that’s been around possibly 50 years (and which they’ve re-recorded as new area codes came online)

Pizza Pizza 967-1111

A phone number jingle so popular that they actually made commercials about how popular the jingle was.

Pennsylvania 6-5000

Actually I suppose the REAL Granddaddy of them all has to be Glenn Miller’s **Pennsylvania 6-5000″, the number of the Pennsylvania Hotel in New York City, where the band frequently performed.

I’ll have to dig out the video from Waterloo’s FASS 1985 show where I was the pit band leader, and we warmed up the crowd by playing Pennsylvania 6-5000 except we altered the lyrics to include the university phone number, 885-1211, and of course. 967-1111. At the time it was hilarious. (Although if I watch that video again now, I realize the show was a lot more hilarious for the performers than the audience.)

Finally, I wonder

Back in Alexander Graham Bell’s time frame, I wonder if you’d go to a live performance by John Philip Sousa’s band at the bandshell, and some singers would come out, advertising a nearby restaurant and they’d sing the number…. “Four!”

Bobby Orr and me

Bobby Orr and me. An incomplete story.

Bobby Orr and me

50 years ago I – seen here, green striped shirt – got Bobby Orr to autograph his O-Pee-Chee hockey card.

49 years ago I misplaced the card. Somehow.

Just bought a replacement off of eBay. Now, to find Bobby and get it re-autographed. Also need to find a green striped shirt.

New Bobby Orr Card

so how’d that happen?

Someone told me in grade 7 that if you bought an entire carton of hockey cards, you’d get one of everything. I saved up $10, and bought the carton at the variety store. Richard and Kevin and I then opened them all up, and ate all the gum. And yes you do get one of each.

the gum, you’ll remember, tastes basically the same as the cards.

In the early 1970s, the Boston Bruins would hold their annual training camp in my home town of London, and in 1971 they were all playing at a golf tournament at the Highland Golf Club.

Back then, students in London got a half day off to visit the cows at the Western Fair. So… Richard and Kevin and I hatched a plan. We’d blow off the entire day of Grade 8 and take all our hockey cards – our complete set, wait, MY complete set, out and see if we could get any of them signed. Or maybe we could be caddies. We didn’t know how anything worked.

We got out there and somehow positioned ourselves at the 18th green, and all the Bruins eventually came by, and were mobbed by a small handful of 12 year olds. Esposito. Orr. Cashman. Cheevers. Sanderson. The defending Stanley Cup champs.

I had my cards ready. And a pen, I think. Really planning ahead there. Oh, and my camera, the same Kodak Instamatic 126 that took that Apollo XI picture that I won’t shut up about.

Like for instance here’s me and Derek Sanderson. Thanks Richard or Kevin or whoever took this.

Me and Derek Sanderson

look! it’s bobby orr! and phil esposito!

And the final foursome comes over. Bobby Orr. Phil Esposito. Wow. What are they doing here in my town?

here I am apparently ignoring Phil Esposito.

Phil Esposito and me
So – those trees in the background? One of them was an apple tree. Phil Esposito goes over to the apple tree to pick up a post-golf snack. Picks a couple of apples.

the apple

Phil Esposito hands one of these apples to Bobby Orr, who is in the middle of autographing my hockey card, as seen here in this not exactly perfectly composed photo.

Bobby Orr autographs his hockey card

Bobby Orr, the greatest hockey player of all time, then

• takes a bite out of the apple
• doesn’t like it
• turns to me
• hands me the apple core and says
• “Here, kid, would you throw this out for me?”

huuuuuh yes sir oooooh yes i will huuuuh

No, I didn’t keep the apple. I should have. Imagine what it’d be worth on eBay now. But I threw it out, because when Bobby Orr asks you to do something, you do it, no questions asked.

(Let me add that about 20 years ago I was in Tampa for work, and actually ran in to Phil Esposito at the airport, and told him this story about the apple, and he couldn’t have been less interested in it, which is something you and he probably have in common)

So anyways I got my hockey cards autographed by all the greats. And carefully set them aside, in the torn remains of the original carton from the variety store.

so what happened to the autographed cards?

ok I might not have ‘carefully’ stored them away.

I heard of a sports memorabilia store with a sign behind the counter saying “We charge $50 to listen to the story of how your parents threw them all away.”

i am not blaming anybody

i could have stored them better

i could have been more clear about what exactly was in the box

I still have most of that set. Somehow I set the Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins autographed ones aside, intending, I’m sure, to store or display them properly.

I still have the Sheldon Kannegiesser card for instance, sadly, unautographed.

anyway it’s been bugging me for almost 50 years. In a sort of circle-of-life moment, one of the things I demo at work these days is an Augmented Reality app I wrote where I can point the camera at a hockey card, and it overlays some statistics on top. That’s kind of cool.

so … this week, I spent significantly more than that entire set cost me, just to get one slightly used 1971-72 O-Pee-Chee Bobby Orr card, as seen here. Now I just need to track down Bobby and the circle will be complete.

I hope he remembers the part about the apple.

the new Bobby Orr card


Update: Bobby’s team replies that he will happily autograph this card for US$100.

I don’t remember autographs costing quite that much back in 1971.

The John Davidson Show

40 years ago today, I was on The John Davidson Show.

Yes, me.

Yes, THAT John Davidson.

The John Davidson Show

“That’s incredible”, you’re thinking.

Yes I suppose it was, but not that show.

You know. The John Davidson Show. This one –

It woulda been mentioned in here. Well, I probably wasn’t mentioned, but that episode’s guest star Todd Bridges would have been.

TV Guide

Perhaps you’re wondering how I, Steve, happened to be interviewed by John Davidson on the John Davidson show, 40 years ago today.

Or perhaps you aren’t. Understandable.

S1Ep224. John’s guests are actors Danny Thomas and Todd Bridges, singer Bill Medley and Joan Embery of the San Diego Zoo. Highlights:Bill Medley sings “Hey Girl”.

It is our sincere hope that there is no video of John asking audience members trivia questions at the end of the show.

My 1981 Train Trip to California

So, OK. I was in California. Shortly after graduating from Waterloo, I took the train all the way from London to Los Angeles as part of swell grad present from my parents – A two week Amtrak pass. I headed first to Sacramento for the grand opening of the California Railroad Museum. That was great. A big pageant of music and locomotives.

Then, down to LA And beautiful downtown Burbank. I really wanted to see the Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Stood in a long line for tickets. Eventually got to see his show that night. It was outstanding.

I got to take a tour of the NBC Studios, and while there, I actually met Gene Gene the Dancing Machine. As if this trip didn’t have enough highlights already.

Somewhere in there, somebody was desperately trying to get people to come to a taping of the John Davidson show, a daytime talk show that I think had been a replacement for Merv Griffin.

John was a singer of some repute, and also the host of “That’s Incredible.”

His daytime talk show, I was soon to learn, was not that incredible.

Well, the tickets were free, and I had time to kill before seeing Johnny Carson, so why not. Into the studio we went.

suddenly I’m in the audience

Now, when I saw the Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson, it was incredibly slick. They didn’t mess around. The band played right through the commercial break and the show picked right up again. No stopping. One take. Brilliant comedy. High production values. Carson, a total pro.

The John Davidson Show was not quite like that.

So, the show always started with John Davidson singing a song. He really was a good singer. And the day I was there, he announced to us ahead of time that he was going to do the Barry Manilow classic, “Copacabana.” Hey, this’ll be good. Descending some stairs. Fog machine. OK!

Show starts. Roll tape! Lights! Camera! Fog machine! Backing band! We are GO for Copacabana!

15 seconds later, song stops. Cut. John Davidson cannot remember the words. He confesses to the audience, off air, that he’s never heard this song before.

Srsly? Copacabana?

After a couple more takes, they have a complete version in the can somehow, and the show continues.

I’m sitting in the audience, halfway back on the aisle, looking at my watch, wondering how long this is going to go on, and when the Tonight Show taping that I really wanted to see starts.

(5:30. The tonight show taped at 5:30.)

Can I just add here that John Davidson struck me as an extremely nice guy, even if he couldn’t remember the words to “Copacabana”.

end of show trivia segment

So the show continues, mostly without incident, and they interview Todd Bridges, and it was getting towards the end of the episode And I suddenly remembered: Oh, doesn’t John Davidson ask audience members trivia questions at the end of show? And look at me, here on the aisle.

Here we go, final segment. Trivia time. Souvenir coffee cup prizes. John Davidson approaches a woman in the front row, and asks her a question. I don’t remember what it was, but he said the answer was wrong. Was it, though? (Foreshadowing.) He moves on to another contestant.

Now, I have seen a recording of this, recorded by pointing a Super-8 movie camera at the live TV broadcast.

Let me describe what happens, in an impartial observer kind of tone.

John Davidson looks around the audience for another trivia contestant, and makes a beeline for the nerdiest, geekiest-looking doofus in the crowd, and sticks out his microphone.

so of course I stand up.

the dorkiest thing I have ever said

He asked my name, and we have a pleasant little chat, and he asked me what I do, and I’m thinking that I just graduated from Waterloo with a particular degree and I’m not really sure what I do and I haven’t started my first job yet, but I blurt out “I’m a computer scientist.”

I really wish I could edit that part out.

Audience: “Ooooooh”.

40 years later, I’m still cringing about what a dork I must’ve looked like at that moment. On national TV no less.

But, no matter. The show must go on. John Davidson hits me with a trivia question.

I don’t remember what the question was, but I got it right somehow, and the band played a little “Ta-da!” and John Davidson handed me a souvenir John Davidson show coffee mug.

I should’ve just sat down.

But, for some reason, egged on by the director, John Davidson kept asking me trivia questions.

I think he asked me six questions. And I got them all right, somehow.

The only one I remember is this.

John Davidson: “Where are Panama hats made?”
Me, recognizing a trick question: “They are not made in Panama, they’re made in Ecuador!”

Tada, another coffee mug.

panama hats

I don’t know why I knew that 40 years ago, but now that I’m a grown-up, I actually own a Panama hat and I can confirm this.

My Panama Hat

six mugs

Anyway, show is almost over. John Davidson thanks me, I sit down, with my set of six John Davidson show coffee mugs — And the Director is frantically signaling to John Davidson about something.

“What? She was right?” John Davidson says.

Remember the first contestant from about 47 paragraphs

“She gets a mug too”, he announces.

And then, this might be the highlight of my television career (and let me remind you, that includes leading band at the world beer games opening ceremony)

the best part

John Davidson turns to me and says:

“We’re out of mugs! Steve, can we have one of those back?”

And of course I turned one over. I still regret that I did not ask John Davidson a trivia question in return for the mug.

So that’s what I was doing 40 years ago today. My sincere thanks to John Davidson . That really was fun.


So you’ve still got those John Davidson Show coffee mugs, right?

Sadly, no. A few broke and the others eventually faded to pure white after multiple dishwashings.

I think I’ll order some more, somehow.

another epilogue

Hey, how about that –

John Davidson Liked My Tweet

What to do about the name “Ryerson Public School”? How about “Roger Penrose Elementary”?

Ryerson public school

I went to Ryerson Public School (kindergarten through grade 3), two blocks from home in London, Ontario. So did my siblings. And my mom. And many others in our Old North London family.

That’s not the only connection – my great-grandfather led the John Hayman and Sons Construction Company, who built Ryerson in 1916.

I didn’t know who “Ryerson” was at the time. It never came up. Nobody said anything about it that I can remember.

Now we all know a little more about Egerton Ryerson, who not only lobbied for public education in Ontario, but also was involved in the shameful legacy of the Residential School system.

It’s time to rename the school. You know what would be a perfect choice?

How about naming it after a young boy who

  • lived in London with his family during World War II;
  • was – probably – a classmate of my mother’s at the time;
  • learned basic arithmetic there
  • became one of the most famous mathematicians of the past 100 years, and
  • won the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics (for “the discovery that black hole formation is a robust prediction of the general theory of relativity”.)

Wait, what? A kid from Ryerson won the Nobel Prize in Physics?

How could you NOT rename it after someone like that?

Let’s call it Roger Penrose Elementary School. Let’s tile the floor with Penrose tiles – one of his discoveries of two tiles that can only tile the plane nonperiodically. (Us mathies get excited about things like that.) Here’s an example of a Penrose Tiling

440px Penrose Tiling Rhombi svg

And here’s Roger Penrose at Texas A&M where they’ve done the floor that way!

440px RogerPenroseTileTAMU2010

Those oddly patterned tiles might be tricky, but I know a construction company that would rise to the challenge.

p.s. I know you’ll all see it when your copy arrives on the doorstep, but I wrote a Letter to the Editor of my hometown paper, the London Free Press, about this. I would have written more, but their web form only allowed 500 characters.

London Free Press clipping.