On the fourth Date of Christmas, my true love saw with me: “Apollo 11”


Cathy and I saw Apollo 11 last night as part of the ongoing 12 Dates of Christmas gift, wherein she agrees to see a movie with me once a month. It won’t surprise you that I loved this amazing documentary. She did too. I regret I did not wear my MOON SHOT 1969: I WAS THERE shirt. Next time for sure.

You should totally go see it. It’s fantastic, and even though I like to think I know everything about the Space Program, there were dozens of scenes I’d never seen before. Apparently the director stumbled across a collection of 65mm film that had been shot in 1969 for a documentary that was abandoned – now I want to know more about that.

Some of the scenes are just breathtaking. The elevator ride up to the capsule. The launch itself. Tracking shots of Apollo 11 hurtling through the atmosphere. I was wowed by these, and caught myself thinking “well, the scenes on the moon will be a bit of a letdown since those were shot with relatively lame cameras”, but even those were gripping. Director Todd Douglas has done a fantastic job putting all this footage together – including excerpts from 11,000 hours of uncatalogued audio recordings.

Watch the trailers. Then go see it. I truly regret that we missed the chance to see this in IMAX; I hope it comes around again in that format closer to the actual 50th anniversary this coming July.

Here’s a neat bit of trivia. The film’s score adds a lot of heart-pounding tension to a plot where you already know the outcome, which is pretty great, but apparently it was all done on instruments and technology actually available in 1969.

Several friends who already saw it told me, half in jest, “Well, I looked but I didn’t see you.” But – you sort of can. As you’ve all heard me mention constantly for the past 49.5 years, Mom and Dad took Michael and me to see the launch in 1969, and I have a very distinct memory of a helicopter flying along the crowd gathered on the beach to see the launch with a cameraman hanging out the door. Sure enough, we see what I think is that helicopter in the movie, and some good footage from it of the million people who’d gathered to watch the launch. I like to think we’re in those scenes, although I cannot exactly say “THERE: THAT PIXEL IS ME.”


Watch for the helicopter above if you see the movie – this is a frame from Dad’s Super 8 film of our 1969 vacation, although it’s certainly not quite the quality of the Apollo 11 film I saw last night, but they both stir fantastic memories. Thank you, Mom and Dad.

Here’s the actual launch from our viewpoint in Parish Park, Titusville, Florida, July 16, 1969. (Fast forward to 6:00 for the launch, and you can skip a lot of completely dark film that Dad optimistically called “The Rocket At Night”)

I hope my children and grandchildren get to experience something this breathtaking and awe-inspiring in their lifetimes. But if they don’t, I’m glad we have this movie.

Pi Day

It’s Pi Day. March 14. 14th day of the third month. And if – for some reason – you insist on writing the date as “3/14”, it kind of looks like π, except that 3/14 = 0.2142857….

We might all be better off celebrating Pi Approximation Day – July 22, which some would write as 22/7, which is 3.142857… That is much closer to the true value, which is, of course


I typed that from memory. Trust me.

So anyway, math lovers will temporarily put aside their advocacy for the one true ISO8601 style of writing the date, which is


for one day, in the interests of the greater good of society. We will write the date wrong, just this once.

Sidebar: The 2000 version of the ISO8601 standard allowed for writing dates with “reduced accuracy”, and allowed you to use the notation “–MM-DD” for a date without a year, so you COULD write “–03-14” and be within the standard. But for reasons I don’t know, mainly because it costs money to download a copy of the standard, the 2004 version of ISO8601 apparently disallows writing the month without also writing the year.

Every –03-14 I always wind up thinking about Pi. I can’t help it. Everybody at work is sending me pi jokes and links to pi T-shirts and this is what happens when you make the mistake of standing up in a large team meeting 20 years ago and reciting Pi to 100 decimal places in order to make some point about Applescript programming; you are now “the pi guy” and every year, it never stops.

do you know a lot of random facts about pi?


are they interesting to lots of other people?


are you going to write a blog post about them anyway?


ok just for now, why do you know π to 100 places?

well I memorized it to 200 places in grade 10, but I’m getting older.

why did you memorize it to 200 places in grade 10?

Because I thought it would impress girls

did it?

It took a while. Cathy married me several decades later. It was worth it.

bilateral laser retinopexy

Let me start by saying it is amazing what they can do with lasers these days, including shooting them into your eyes on purpose to fix things, and if this has anything to do with the work that Waterloo’s Dr. Donna Strickland did to earn the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physics, then I will take a bold stand in favour of it.

the word of the day is ‘retinopexy’

So … a few months ago I had a Bilateral (both eyes) Laser (Light Amplification Something Something Radiation) Retinopexy (treatment for a detached or torn retina.) and today I had a followup check

This is a picture of one of my (two) eyes earlier today. Doesn’t it look great? Especially with the pupil all dilated like that?


(Incidentally if anybody ever asks you “Have your eyes ever been checked?” you should say “No, they’ve always been brown.” Trust me. Nobody in the eye care business has ever heard this or any other joke.)

Here’s what you can’t see. At the back of the eye, your retina is attached to what we lay people would call “the back part of your eye”. (The doctor described the anatomy of the eye to me in technical terms: “Picture a basketball filled with a water balloon.” ) For a while it was coming apart, but now, my retina (water balloon) part is still attached to the back (basketball) part, thanks to the awesome power of LASERS.

wait, back up

Here’s what happened.

Last spring while sailing on one of them cruise ships in the middle of the Atlantic, it occurred to me that my right eye was bothering me, especially when looking at bright objects like, for instance, “the Atlantic.” Blurry, seeing lots of “floaters”. Had noticed it for months, I thought, like an idiot, I was just “tired” and attempted the home remedy of “rubbing my eyes”.

At the urging of my cruisemates because this was quite the topic of dinner conversation for several nights during which time everyone discussed their theories of what it could be along with a list of possibly similar problems that had happened to them, I made an appointment to see my optometrist – another fine Waterloo person incidentally – for when we got back, and she took a look-see and announced, “Hmmm. Good thing you came in. You’re right, something is wrong. I’m referring you to a specialist.”

the specialist

Off we went to the fine ophthalmology clinic at St. Mike’s. After a round of incredibly powerful eye drops, the doctor did an exam – a procedure since repeated several times, and I will never get used to this – where he basically presses his big eye examining headset thing RIGHT ONTO YOUR EYE and shines a light with approximately the power of the sun into it, instructing you to look left, left and up, up, up and right, right, and I’ll say that it’s not painful but it is just incredibly annoying and you naturally want to shut your eyes, but they (the doctors) would rather you didn’t do that, and you just want it to be OVER, and eventually it is.

“Hmmm.” the doctor said. “Now let’s look at your other eye.”

But wait! The problem is in my right eye! My left eye is fine.

“Let’s look anyway.”

Well, OK, knock yourself out, I guess, but you’re wasting your time looking in the other eye except maybe for reference but … what’s that?

So, surprise! I had two torn retinas.

Visions of complicated processes had been racing through my head; I had been researching things on Google and discovered there was a surgical process that involved doing something to your eye that required you to lie face down for several weeks of recovery. Well wouldn’t that be fun. I could put my laptop on the floor, I could get one of those massage table things so you can stare straight down … You know what, not only might it get me out of travelling to a meeting I didn’t want to do, but there would be great comedy potential in this. I can make this work.

I assume I come back for some complicated surgical thing in a few weeks, then right?

“No, we’re not doing that – we’ll fix it today. Go wait outside for a bit.”

the immediate procedure

30 minutes later I was lying on my back in a dark room, with my eyes numbed by various magic drops, and the doctor performed a Laser Retinopexy in each eye – a procedure where he wears a head-mounted laser thing that I never really did get a good look at it, and leans right in on your eye and shoots lasers at the retina, which if I’m understanding this right, deliberately creates some scar tissue at the back of your eye to hold the retina in place.

During this procedure, you feel tremendous annoyance and desire for it to be over, but not really any pain; you DO see an incredible imaginary purple fireworks show as the laser does its thing.

Afterwards, thank goodness I had Cathy with me to drive as I had no interest in looking at any bright light sources, such as “outside.”

the aftermath

I’ve now returned a few times for followup checks. Everything seems to be fine. My vision isn’t getting better – this is nothing like the procedure they do to correct your eyesight; in this case they’re shooting a laser at a totally different part of your eye. But it’s not getting any worse either. Back to the optometrist for a new prescription and some new glasses – horribly overpriced, due to an eyeglasses cartel you probably know nothing about – but things are better.

I’ve since learned quite a few of my friends and neighbours have undergone something similar. Isn’t science amazing? It makes getting old tolerable.

Many thanks to Dr. Muni and Dr. Paterson, and my cruisemates for urging me to do something.

what did this all cost?

Nothing. Other than parking. Thank you, Ontario health care system.

To check or not to check

Should you check your bag? Here’s the thing, you can never be sure ahead of time if it’s a good idea.

I’m in the middle of a travel snafu. I spent all day yesterday hanging around the airport, trying hard to get to West Virginia but it was so windy that flights kept getting cancelled, and my backup plane was cancelled, and then the backup backup was cancelled, and then my ticket for the backup backup backup was issued too late to actually board.

At one point or another I was booked on all these flights. And I went 0 for 8! A new one-day personal best.

Flight Routes

And it was all made way more complicated because I CHECKED A BAG. I know what you’re thinking. Steve, hasn’t your slogan for years been

One Of Steve’s Travel Slogans (collect the whole set)

The only way the airline can lose your bag is if you GIVE IT TO THEM.

Well, yeah, I used to think that. But lately as I get older, I’m starting to value Convenience, and checking a bag is certainly Convenient. Why?

I usually travel with a backpack with my laptop in it – no, I am not checking that – and a small carryon-size fits-in-the-overhead no-I’m-sure-it-will-fit rollaboard bag.
I’ve always loved this 1996 Toshiba commercial –

So anyway, about checking a bag.

Reasons To Check A Bag

  • Convenience. Less junk to carry through the airport
  • If you’re only carrying on one bag, you can put it in the overhead rather than under the seat in front of you. I hate it when the airline announces “Your primary storage space is under the seat in front of you.” No, that is the primary space for my GIANT FEET thank you very much. But if you’re carrying on two items, then you really ought to put one into this spot. And you’ll be cranky.

Reasons NOT to Check A Bag

  • You have to wait and pick it up at your destination. Sometimes it’s quick, sometimes it isn’t.
  • They might lose it. See slogan above.
  • You are Boarding Group 37 on some airline you never fly, and you know the overhead will be full.
  • You feel guilty about slowing everybody down as you bring all your earthly possessions onto the plane.

Reasons Why I Personally Might Check A Bag Despite The Slogan Above

I have modified my NEVER CHECK rules slightly. Now I would say there are situations where I will check a bag.

  1. In my professional opinion, is it a tight connection where the airline could screw this up and lose my bag? A tight connection through Denver? => Don’t Check. They’ve lost my bag multiple times on that route, one time telling me that it was actually headed to Istanbul.
  2. Is it a very full flight where they are already begging people at the gate to check something because the overheads are going to be full? => Check. (Especially if it’s a gate-check situation where you retrieve the bag on the jetway at the destination, not the baggage claim.) But not if it’s a screwup situation like situation #1.
  3. Is it a long flight where I have a crummy seat with limited legroom and would really like some room for my size 13 feet underneath the seat ahead of me? => Check.
  4. Am I heading home, and a misdirected bag wouldn’t be the end of the world, because they’ll deliver it to my house the next day, and anyway I have a spare toothbrush at home? => Check.

I have a Tile bluetooth tracker in my bag too which gives me a slight sense of security that if my bag is misdirected, I might be able to figure out roughly where it is.

Where This Can All Go Wrong

If you checked a bag, and something goes wrong, you are in a bad state. Airlines require you to travel on the same flight as your bag, so if you want to switch to another flight, your options are now limited. Can the airline get your bag off of flight A and onto flight B? Maybe. But it’s sure easier if you have all your bags with you.

Yesterday I checked a bag, and the travel snafus started piling up even before leaving Toronto. I wound up heading home without travelling, which adds a whole new layer of confusion – you have to retrieve your bag somehow, and for a transborder flight, this involves heading down some strange corridors, filling out forms, being escorted back into the baggage area, going through Canada Customs again even though you never left the country. It probably took me 90 minutes to get my bag back yesterday.

What Airlines SHOULD DO

Really, the process of checking a bag is better than it used to be; they’ve improved the ability to track bags, and, soon, airlines will be giving you active bag tags that broadcast their location and letting you check on the app and see where your bag is. (With my Tile tracker, I can often tell if the bag is actually on the plane with me; that’s cool.)

But … The idea that airlines charge money to check bags is the main problem. People are cheap and don’t want to pay those fees, so they drag everything they own along as carryon, slowing everything down.

If airlines made checked baggage FREE it would speed boarding, and make everybody happy, so of course it will never happen

My friend Brad Templeton has some interesting ideas. Let passengers reserve specific space in the overhead. Hmm.

So what are you doing today?

I’m back at the airport again today, still trying to get to Charleston. And today, I didn’t check. Don’t want to tempt the gods of travel again.

My Erdős-Bacon-Sabbath Number: 11

Paul Erdős received an honourary degree at my University of Waterloo B.Math. convocation ceremony. Don’t know the name? You should; he was one of the great mathematicians of the 20th century. And highly quotable! One of my favourites –

A mathematician is a machine for turning coffee into theorems.

— Paul Erdős

He had no fixed address, and travelled the world doing math research, staying in the homes of other mathematicians along the way, and publishing more mathematical papers than any other mathematician in history. He was a superb choice for an honourary degree.

I was a bit of a slacker in my undergrad days and only vaguely knew of Erdős, but to this day, I can remember a professor telling us about the Erdős-Feller-Pollard correspondence. I can’t tell you what that correspondence is, but I definitely remember the term “Erdős-Feller-Pollard correspondence.”

I remember he led off his convocation speech like this (approximately)

I travelled from Hungary to Waterloo for this event, and then I am going to Los Angeles, and after that to Australia and then back to Hungary. So I am travelling 360 degrees around the world to receive one degree. A total of 361 degrees.

polite laughter from audience, Erdős continues

Now, 361, that’s an interesting number. It’s 19 squared. I remember when I was 19 …

Erdős numbers

Everybody has an Erdős story as he kept constantly travelling and collaborating, and in the math world, there’s an idea called the Erdős number. You could define it recursively.

  • Paul Erdős is Erdős 0.
  • If you collaborate with someone whose Erdős number is N, then your Erdős number is N + 1.

So, if you co-wrote a paper with Erdős, your Erdős number is 1 (and you have exalted status in the math world). If you collaborated on a paper with someone who was Erdős 1, you are Erdős 2, and so on. There are 511 people with an Erdős number of 1, and there can be no more, since Erdős passed away in 1996.

People take this fun idea very seriously, and compile huge databases of Erdős numbering. See the Wikipedia article for starters. All 56 winners of the Fields Medal, the most prestigious prize in math (since there is no Nobel in math) have a finite Erdős number. 159 of the 200 Nobel Physics prize winners have an Erdős number, all ranging from 2 to 12. (I should check and see what the number is for Waterloo’s Donna Strickland, recent Nobel Physics winner hmm. It’s probably pretty low; there are several people connected to Waterloo with an Erdős number of 2 or less.)

Someone even wrote a paper analyzing the Collaboration Graph from a graph-theoretical perspective with the observation that it would have some interesting property if only two specific authors had collaborated on something; those two quickly whipped up a math paper on some trivial topic to ensure the graph stayed interesting.

famous people with Erdős numbers

And Erdős received another honourary degree from Emory University on the same day that baseball legend Hank Aaron also received one. Someone thoughtfully arranged to have a baseball autographed by both Erdős and Aaron; thus, Hank Aaron has an Erdős number of 1.

Lots more info at the Erdős Number Project web site. I’ve always loved this math silliness. Einstein was Erdős 2. Marie Curie, Erdős 7. (thus, Pierre Curie, Erdős 8.) Bill Gates is Erdős 4! (During his brief stay at Harvard, Gates came up with an algorithm in a combinatorics class that was later formalized in a paper by Harvard computer scientist Christos Papadimitriou, who is Erdős 3.)

so what is MY Erdős number?

Charlie Colbourn taught at Waterloo and was Erdős 1, as a result of a 1985 paper – which I’m sure you read – “A conjecture on dominating cycles”, B.N. Clark, C.J. Colbourn, and P. Erdös, Proceedings of the Sixteenth Southeastern Conference on Combinatorics, Graph Theory, and Computing, February 1985, pp. 189-198. Looking through his c.v. I recognize a few people I remember from grad school who wrote with him, and who are thus Erdős 2, and I am very jealous.

He collaborated on at least one paper with Kellogg S. Booth, who was the director of Waterloo’s computer graphics lab where I hung out as a grad student. Booth is Erdős 2.

Booth and John Beatty co-directed the graphics lab and published various things. Beatty is Erdős 3.

Beatty was my master’s supervisor and about the only scholarly thing I ever wrote was my master’s dissertation, “Software for the Tektronix Geometry Processor”, and he heavily critiqued and edited it. So I can claim a tenuous link to being Erdős 4.

kevin bacon

This probably reminds you of the whole “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” thing where people compute a distance between actors and Kevin Bacon. Bacon is 0, people in any movie with Bacon are Bacon 1, etc. The definitive source for this info is the Oracle of Bacon.

This of course, leads to the idea of the “Erdős-Bacon Number”, which is the sum of your Erdős and Bacon numbers.

black sabbath

Taking this idea to another extreme, music has the Sabbath Number. How close are you to collaborating with Black Sabbath. Naturally this leads to the greatest of all numbers…

Erdős-Bacon-Sabbath Number

I kid you not. People track the combined Erdős-Bacon-Sabbath number. No, seriously.
Stephen Hawking owns the lowest known Erdős Bacon Sabbath number – 8.

  • Erdős Four. (I’m surprised it’s that high.)
  • Bacon Two. According to the Oracle of Bacon, Hawking appeared in “Queer Duck: The Movie” with Camryn Manheim; she appeared in “Cop Car” with Kevin Bacon.
  • Sabbath Two. Stephen Hawking made a guest appearance on Pink Floyd’s album “The Division Bell”. Dave Gilmour of Pink Floyd played one number on the “Rock Aid Armenia” album which also featured Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath. Therefore, Hawking’s Erdős-Bacon-Sabbath number is an amazing EIGHT.

Brian May – guitarist of Queen, Ph.D. in astrophysics – is Erdős-Bacon-Sabbath 9. Also amazing. There’s an interesting list of celebrities with small E-B-S numbers.

ok ok ok what’s mine

This is going to be a stretch. I can very tenuously claim to be Erdős 4.

my bacon number

Bacon? Hmm. Let’s see. back at Waterloo I was the musical director for the annual 1987 FASS show. That year, the star of the show was John Watson, a student at the time who went on to an acting career. You might remember him from the classic commercial for Maple Leaf Foods. Back Off. Get Your Own Sandwich.

John, who I hope might vaguely remember me, has done a few things – here’s his demo reel

John appeared in “Haven” with the late Natasha Richardson. She was in “The Favour, The Watch and the Very Big Fish” with Bob Hoskins. Hoskins was in “Balto” with Kevin Bacon. So John is Bacon 3, and I can stake a very weak claim to being Bacon 4.

my sabbath number

Sabbath, hmm. This will be tricky.

Let’s start here –
930 Saxophones

  • In 2004 (and again in 2009) I played with the Shuffle Demons in their Saxophone World Record Attempt. 930 saxophones in Yonge-Dundas Square! (Playing the theme from “Hockey Night in Canada.”) (I don’t exactly play the sax but I have an alto, and learned just enough notes to play along on the ‘easy’ part.)
  • Richard Underhill of the Shuffle Demons has played with the Neville Brothers.
  • The Neville Brothers song “Voodoo” on their album “Yellow Moon” was co-written by Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath.

Neville Brothers: Sabbath 1

Richard Underhill: Sabbath 2

Me: Sabbath 3

my grand total

I am proud to claim the Erdős-Bacon-Sabbath number of 4 + 4 + 3 = 11.

So what’s yours?

On the third Date of Christmas, my true love saw with me: “Stan & Ollie”


Yesterday, after a brief outpouring of angst about how complex it is – for me anyway, apparently not for anybody else – to search for a movie, Cathy and I decided to see Stan & Ollie at the Cineplex Varsity downtown.

Capsule review: we both loved it. Steve “Stan Laurel” Coogan and John C. “Oliver Hardy” Reilly are great and to my mind totally believable. I am not quite old enough to remember the glory days of Laurel and Hardy, but now I want to see more of their work. And this movie focuses on the team in the twilight of their career – I’d love another biopic about their early days!

Also Cathy and I need to learn the dance number from “Way Out West”.


Cineplex continues to tinker with the style in which they present a movie. Apparently our choices now include IMAX, DBox, Ultra AVX, VIP and a new thing called “Prime Seats” – which we chose; the best two rows in the theatre are reserved, slightly more comfortable, slightly wider seats. I don’t mind paying a couple of bucks extra for that. I wish searching for that option was easier. See earlier whiny post.

“VIP” means different things at different theatres, it seems. Sometimes it means “This is the kind where you can order a beer to your reserved seat” but not at the Varsity, where it now means “VIP is just our word for this particular theatre. Oh you want a reserved seat? That’s ‘Prime Seats’. And no we don’t wait on you at this one.”

I’m glad they’re working on refining the experience. Just like professional sports is discovering, people find it pretty comfortable watching on their big screen TV at home and it’s hard to get them out.

Also, people, PLEASE, stop talking when the movie starts. I had to give the couple behind me the half-turn a few times.


Searching for Movies

Cathy and I want to go to a movie tonight as part of the #12DatesOfChristmas and I can’t believe that in 2019, the process of searching for showtimes is still awful. It took me way too long this afternoon to come up with a list that might work.

How It Is Now

We live in the Greater Toronto Area, where most of the theatres are part of the Cineplex chain – although we’re lucky to have the excellent Film.ca theatre nearby too.

By my count there are at least half a dozen movie theatres within a reasonable drive of here – Film.ca, the 5 Drive Inn, two Cinepleces (Winston Churchill and Oakville) in Oakville, a Silver City in Burlington, a few more in Mississauga, and even Cineplex’s flagship Queensway in Etobicoke is only 29 km away. And for the right movie we might even venture to downtown Toronto.

We’re lucky to have this many choices. The Maps app shows even more than I thought –


And here’s Cineplex.com’s main site –


why is this so hard

So why is it so hard to find a movie to go see? I’ve just spent way too long on the cineplex.com site searching. Their search process seems to assume you know exactly what movie you want to see, and in exactly what theatre. And I guess it’s good at that.

But it shows me WAY too many choices, or hides the info I really need.

Tonight, f’rinstance, I’d really like to see “Stan & Ollie”, the new Laurel and Hardy biopic starring Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly. If I search for that, here’s what Cineplex shows me –

Movie Search Results

I recognize a couple of those theatres – but Park Lane? Where’s that? [Spoiler: Halifax.] “Eau Claire Market Cinemas”? [Spoiler: Calgary] Why are you showing me these theatres thousands of miles away?

Fortunately I know that the Varsity VIP is in Toronto at least. Let’s check that out. Two or three clicks later after specifying the date, here are my choices

Show times

OK that’s fascinating but useless to know that the movie was on at 1:50 PM, several hours ago, and, I dunno, it’s 4:40 as I write this, have I got time to get to the 6:50 show?

Other search options aren’t much better. The actual show times for tonight are always hidden away, buried under the clutter of a bunch of movies I have no interest in.
Or, if I decide I want one of Cineplex’s reserved seat options, it shows me what theatres have that option, and I have to dig through to figure out which movies are playing that way.

What People Actually Want

My conjecture is that most people visit a movie theatre web site wanting to do one thing:

  • See a good movie tonight
  • Possibly in one of several different nearby theatres as long as I can get there in time
  • Have a generally pleasant experience

For me a pleasant experience at the theatre is sometimes “A nap in a comfortable chair in a dark room”, but the older I get, the more I like the idea of paying a slight premium for reserved seats so that we don’t have to gamble on how early to get there.

What Movie Theatre Web Sites Should Actually Show

Why can’t it be like this?
Let’s assume I want to see something tonight, and I’m not too particular.


And show me the results on a map – but only show me the ones I can reasonably get to from home –


Look, it’s 2019. You, Cineplex, have a computer. So do I. You know my location. I might be willing to share that. You know how long it takes to get somewhere. You can avoid showing me the 95% of things I won’t want, and pick out a couple I might like.

Help me out like that and I’m WAY more likely to go to the movies.

My emails with Jeff Bezos

One of today’s headlines reminded me that I too once had an interesting email conversation with Jeff Bezos.

Back in 2001, Amazon had rolled out a “gift list” feature, where anybody with an account could publish a list of things they wished other people would buy for them. And Jeff Bezos had his own public list. Some reporter mentioned how weird it was that the CEO of Amazon would want people to buy things for him.

Naturally I took a look. I liked Amazon, I had bought plenty of books from them, Jeff seemed like a good guy, and, crucially, his birthday was coming up. I thought it might be fun to buy him something inexpensive off of his list. And see what happened.

One of the cheaper items on the list was this set of car jumper cables. What the heck. One click later, I bought it and attached a gift message saying something like “Hey, happy birthday Jeff, I saw you wanted these, and I hope you don’t ever need them.”


Now, planning ahead, I also created my own gift list and added a few things to it – I forget what exactly, it might have been some fancy binoculars – just in case, you know, somebody wanted to reciprocate and give me a gift on my birthday from my wish list.

Well that didn’t happen, but I did get a nice thank-you email from Jeff Bezos thanking me for the jumper cables and agreeing that yes, he hoped he’d never need them.

So that’s my personal Emails with Jeff Bezos story.

PS. Also in writing this little post I have to say it is a great nostalgia trip going back through your old Amazon orders. The jumper cables were the first product I ever bought from Amazon that wasn’t a book or a CD …. and the very first thing I ever bought, in 1996, was “Dave Barry in Cyberspace”. Highly recommended, would buy again.

“I have heard your band”

You probably know that I used to be the Chief Centurion of the University of Waterloo Warriors Band (“One of the Bands in Canada”.) We were – and the band remains – a total bunch of goofballs, blowing off steam in a challenging academic program while supporting the Warriors etc etc etc.

Cleaning out the basement recently I came across a long lost box of Warriors Band memorabilia, including the letter below to Kitchener’s CKCO-TV and a reply. Reg Sellner’s response to our request to play the National Anthem for CKCO’s late-night signoff was a gem.



40 years later that still makes me laugh.

Remembering Alfie Kunz – U of Waterloo music director

Alfie Kunz

I was sorry to learn that Alfred “Alfie” Kunz, noted composer and conductor, passed away last week at 87. Here’s a bit about him from the University of Waterloo, where he was music director for many years, and a career retrospective from the Record.

He had a huge musical career all across the K-W area but I remember him most from his UW days. And I want to share some memories of a time before the Internet when nothing ever got written down in a way that it could be searched for later.

Alfie was one of the first people I met when I started at Waterloo in 1977. I hardly knew anybody and had no clue about extra curricular activities but somehow learned that there was a UW Concert Band that rehearsed on Wednesday nights in the Arts Lecture Hall, and I quickly signed up – and also joined the UW Stage Band, that he also directed, and I think I might have even been in the UW Orchestra at one point.

Waterloo actually had a full time Director of Music on staff and it was Alfie’s job to run all these ensembles, up until UW president Burt Matthews eliminated that program in 1979. We were upset! I recall we even wrote a protest song about it –

Tune: Yes, Jesus Loves Me
Matthews hates us, this we know
For the budget tells us so,
Peripheral programs gotta go,
Music's of priority low.

Burt Matthews hates us,
Burt Matthews hates us,
Burt Matthews hates us,
The budget tells us so.

It didn’t do much good though. UW killed its extracurriular music program, and although I was grateful that Conrad Grebel College picked up a few of the pieces – and even made concert band a credit course, which it never was in my day, not that I’m bitter – it was never the same.

I made some great friends in Alfie’s concert band – in fact, it was through the concert band that I learned that the Warriors Band even existed. All I knew about the Warriors Band was that they were a total bunch of goofballs occasionally on TV, and as a proud new student, there was no way I’d ever join that ragtag ensemble.

Needless to say, many members of that ragtag ensemble were also in Alfie’s concert band, including clarinetist Ken Fudurich, who talked me into coming to my first Warriors basketball game one night after concert band practice. We trudged through the snow from the arts lecture hall up to the gym, only to find it deserted, and Ken concluded “Oh, maybe tonight’s game is actually at Laurier, not here.” And we hiked down to WLU, found that the game had already started, Ken introduced me to Warriors Band CCWB Mark Hagen, who was overjoyed to find another trombone player besides himself… and when someone in the WLU crowd held up a sign saying “Waterloo’s Band Sucks”, I knew I’d found a new home.

But that’s kind of another story.
Back to the Concert Band for a moment.

I met a lot of great friends in that group, many of whom I stay in touch with today. I recall an end of year banquet at which Alfie thanked the graduating seniors, and I thought “I gotta stick around, I want to hear that speech about me some day.” Alas, we never got the chance after UW pulled the plug. But, we made some great music. Popular tunes, Christmas selections, interesting Alfie compositions – including one Oktoberfest-themed overture where the trombonist had to stand up and play a drunken, wobbly version of “Ein Prosit”, and I think Rob Gibson had seniority and got to play it instead of me. I hoped we’d do that one again a few years later so it could be my turn but it never happened.

I can recall a raucous concert with the UW Concert Choir, in which they were all behind our Stage Band, singing “Hey Jude” by themselves, and we begged Alfie to let us play along on the chorus even though we weren’t quite sure what key it was in, and it sounded great and Alfie loved it.

I remember a grand afternoon concert Alfie called “Tea and Symphony”, and we all had special “Tea and Symphony” T-shirts, and it wasn’t until much later in life that I understood that that title was some sort of pun on a movie title.

I can remember recruiting some of my new Warriors Band friends to join the Concert Band too. The concert band was chronically short on percussionists and I told Alfie I might know some – thinking, of course, of the many skilled musicians in the Warriors Band, and also thinking of the drummers in the Warriors Band – and I brought Jim Snyder along one time to help out. Except Jim couldn’t make the practice before the big concert, but he came along to the big concert, and I can still recall the shocked look on Alfie’s face as he cued the percussion section at some crucial spot in the opening number and BOOM, there was a huge crash on the cymbals played by someone Alfie had never seen before.

I also remember one weird band rehearsal when we were roaring away on something, triple-forte, and an older man we had never seen before barged into the room, yelling, and grabbed Alfie and threw him to the floor. Huh? We found out later it was a professor whose late night research was being disturbed, and he was of course totally out of line and had to apologize later to the whole band. But the band persevered.

I sure had friends in that band. It kept me sane while I was trying to figure out how university worked. It was a refreshing counterpoint to the disorganized mayhem of the Warriors Band – and Alfie was always a great supporter of that other group too. He composed The Black and White and Gold, UW’s official school song, and of all his hundreds of serious compositions, I bet that one’s been played the most.

Jim Spence. Rob Gibson. Rosalee Mitchell. Ginny Lyons. Ken Fudurich. John Oldfield. And many more great friends from that group and I’m adding their names here in case they stumble across this post in a google search some day. I’ve got some pictures at home that I’ll scan and post when we get back.

A few years later when I was still in the waterloo area, Alfie called me, looking for a trombone player to help out at some gig at one of the German clubs, and I hemmed and hawed and then didn’t actually show up. I felt guilty about that for twenty years afterwards – and was happy to discover that Alfie was on Facebook, so that I could apologize to him – and he forgave me, much to my relief, and we had a good chat about how much fun we’d had.

Thanks, Alfie.
A lot of us wouldn’t have made it through UW without you.

Rest in peace.