Saturday, November 03, 2012

The Rabid Computer

Courtesy of my daughter Keira. To be read left column first, then right:  

Monday, October 22, 2012

Ryerson RTA Twenty-Fifth Reunion

My friend Miriam and me at the Ryerson Radio and Televison Arts Twenty-Fifth reunion a couple of weeks ago (photo by Jo-Ann Cook). (Um... I'm the one on the left.)

This was an interesting experience.

I think a lot of us that attended were skeptical whether we'd have a good time. And afterward a lot of us were amazed that we'd had such a good time. In retrospect maybe this shouldn't be such a surprise. RTA was a program of like minded people. Maybe it shouldn't come as such a surprise that we'd be comfortable with one another after so much time.

So much time. Twenty-five years. We were different people then. At least I was. Nineteen years old when I started the program. I remember being quite insecure. There were a lot of people in RTA who, although around the same age as me, seemed infinitely more sophisticated than me. Maybe because I grew up in a small town in PEI, whereas a lot of them grew up in Toronto. Or maybe that's just who we were. I had a scraggly moustache back then, and wore unstylish glasses, and had a lousy haircut. I remember thinking on an instinctive level that a lot of my fellow students were somehow better than me. Smarter. Cooler. Better. They weren't, of course. We were all the same. (Except Alison George. She might have been a little better. Just by a hair. But the rest? All the same.)

I think a lot of students were skeptical of the program when we graduated. A lot of money, and three years of our lives. For what? Well now, twenty-five years later, I know what. It launched my entire career at the CBC. Got me in the door, gave me the vocabulary. Gave me some really good friends that have lasted a lifetime. Some I've stayed in touch with, the rest I met again after way too long two weeks ago in downtown Toronto.

Like Miriam, pictured above. When she saw me, she said, "You don't know me, do you?" I had last seen her the night of our graduation party at Stop 33 in the Sutton Place Hotel.

Like an idiot I glanced at her name tag. I did know her, but I couldn't resist confirming her name, just in case. "I do so know you," I said. "You're responsible for one of the most excruciatingly embarrassing incidents in my life."

Of course she wanted to know what, and frankly I wanted to get it off my chest, so I told her.

The last time I'd seen her, at the end of the graduation party, she went to kiss my cheek. A double cheek kiss, like the French do (Miriam's Irish, so maybe it's just a European thing). Like I mentioned above, I'm from PEI, and I didn't really know anything about this double cheek kissing thing. So I didn't know what to do.

Our heads wound up positioned in such a way that I could not reach her cheek with my lips. I thought it necessary to make contact with her cheek in some way.

I wound up licking it.

I know!

The instant I did it I was horrified. What had I done? Our eyes met. She was clearly flabbergasted. Until that moment we had been friends. I had, in an instant, been reduced to a freak. A man who licked women's cheeks.

And I carried that with me for twenty-five years, the sort of memory that made me cry out, "Oh God!" whenever I remembered it, where ever I was. Especially after living in France for a while, where I finally mastered the double cheek kiss.

So I told Miriam about this ghastly incident, and of course she laughed and said, "I don't remember that at all," and we chatted for a long time, and I learned all about her life, and she about mine, and then we mingled and chatted with everyone else.

And I really hope we don't have to wait another twenty-five years to do it again.


Sunday, October 21, 2012

Assorted Nonsense In Exile

Okay, I'm going to experiment blogging here for a while. The original Assorted Nonsense has just become too aggravating. And enough people have asked me about my blog in the last little while to encourage me to keep at it. 

After spending way too much time poking around the settings of this blog, I haven't left myself enough time tonight to write up a decent post. In lieu of that, allow me to present this little film I just (ahem) happened to stumble on. 


Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Durham Regional Canine Unit

Hemmi, of the Durham Region Canine Unit

Strolled out into the backyard this morning only to discover a police officer lurking in the bushes just behind my place.  Just over the fence from him a municipal worker was cutting park grass with a Ride-On lawnmower.

I wondered if I'd stumbled onto a man hunt or crime scene.

Seeing my raised eyebrows, the officer said, "Laying a track for my dog."

"Excuse me?" I said, seeing no dogs around.

"You've heard of the K-9 unit?" he said.  "I'm laying a scent for my dog."

The officer was holding an elongated sack that I realized he was using to lay down the scent.

"I have to wait until the grass is cut.  The dog'll follow the scent better then."

"How long will it be able to follow you?" I asked.

"We try to keep it to real world scenarios," he said.  "The dog will follow me in about half an hour, but it can follow my scent up to two hours or more."

"You need a vicious dog like Maxwell here in your outfit," I said, indicating our golden retriever, who was sitting quietly at my side and hadn't even barked once at this stranger lurking in our backyard.

The officer smiled.  "Beautiful family dogs, those."  His dogs were German Shepherds, I learned later, specially trained abroad in countries like the Netherlands, Holland and the Czech Republic, and cost about $6500 apiece.

It was time to take Maxwell for a walk so we parted ways.  Five minutes later during my walk I spotted the officer laying down a scent in the woods near our place.  Half an hour after that I was cutting the grass in the backyard when I saw the officer's partner with their dog, dutifully following the scent.  I had been wondering what the dog would do about the rather high fence separating our neighbour's backyard from the park and said as much to the second officer when he got close enough.

"It's not the dog I'm worried about," he said, and sure enough I watched with amazement as the German Shepherd leapt to the top of the fence in a single bound and climbed over without either hesitation or a single command from the officer.  Despite his quip, his well-padded outfit and the knapsack on his back the officer climbed the fence almost (but not quite) as gracefully as the dog.

I watched for another couple of minutes as the dog followed the eccentric path the first officer had left, tracking it with the sort of single-minded focus my dog (as wonderful as he is) only ever manages to achieve when tackling, say, sleep.  Scanning the photos of the Canine unit's dogs later, I determined that I had been watching the work of PSD (Police Service Dog) Hemmi (though I could be wrong).  According the the unit's <a href="">website</a>, Hemmi and her eight canine colleagues "responded to over 2,143 K-9 calls, over 2,900 routine calls, located 139 people and recovered 111 pieces of evidence" in 2011.

It's good to know the citizens of Durham are in such capable canine hands. Er, paws.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Lost Series Finale

I'm sorry... was that Lost or Battlestar Galactica I was watching?

*******SPOILER ALERT******

If you haven't watched the entire series of LOST and intend to, you're not going to want to read this.


<em>Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.
MacBeth Act 5 Scene 5

I know I'm a little behind the times here but I just watched the final episode of LOST.  Holy Christian metaphor, batman.  Could the writers have laid that on any thicker?

I'm not saying that that is necessarily a bad thing.  I will say that it did not entirely work for me.  Why?  Mainly because it took me out of the story.  And I believe that when you're telling a story, unless you're doing it deliberately and are really, really smart about it, it's usually a mistake to take your audience out of the story.  As soon as I realized that the final episode was going to hammer the Christian metaphor into the ground I was no longer completely absorbed in the story.  Instead I was watching for further evidence that that was what they were doing.  And sure enough, churches, wounds in the side, "I believe in you"s, religious statuary, it just kept on coming.      To the point of inducing groans.

Apparently the writers threw references to a few other religions in there too, but if so they were too subtle for this viewer.

It's too bad.  Up until they went over the top with the religion they pretty much had me.  When Charlie and Claire recognized one another I was willing to forgive every other flaw and plothole in the entire story.

Of course, it's easy for me to sit back and criticize, I didn't have to write the damned thing.  I can only imagine how difficult it must have been to make a story like that up as they were going along and have it remain consistent.  And really, for me, there is much more to praise than to criticize.  They did keep me hooked for the entire six seasons, and during the final season I pretty much couldn't wait to watch the next episode.

It's just that it came so close I wish they could have nailed it.  It is possible to nail it.  Both seasons of Rome nailed it.  Still, they came close enough to have left me with a significant feeling of angst in the hours since watching the last episode.  The idea of being reunited with someone from whom you've long been tragically separated -- someone who feels the same way as you do -- what powerful feelings that evokes.  Charlie and Claire, Kate and Jack, Sawyer and what's her name (sorry), even Hurley and Charlie.

I did learn a thing or two from the series.  That tension trumps plausibility.  So do emotion and effective character development.

And that those elements combined can compensate for (if not completely make up for) heavy-handed metaphor.

LOST was a tale told not by idiots but by talented, intellectually shallow writers.  Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing, it was, curiously, entertaining just the same.



Saturday, July 28, 2012

Radio Master Control: "Joe, We Have a Problem" CBC VI

Jack Eddy in Jarvis Street Radio Master Control. Photo courtesy of Paul Cutler

Christmas nineteen eighty-eight I was assigned to work the evening shift in Radio Master Control (also called Radio MCR).  I worked there solid for about six months.

It was prefaced by a week or two of training, which meant hanging out with other radio master techs such as Peter Chin, Gerry Samson, Ken Lumsden, Ron Grant, Jeanette Sipos, Ron Minhennit (sorry about any mispellings), and others.  Those were the full timers, although there were others who were well enough trained to cover the odd shift.

What was Radio Master Control?  It sounds kind of impressive.  It looked kind of impressive, even back then, when it was run in part by computers using cassette tapes, technology dating back to the seventies, if not earlier.  Radio Master Control in Toronto was the central hub.  All CBC Radio shows coming out of Toronto passed through Radio Master.  Many shows originating in the regions passed through Radio Master in Toronto, at least if they were national shows.  So when you worked in Radio Master you had a fair amount of responsibility.  Much of went on was automated, but the automation only worked if the radio master control tech set it up properly, and maintained it properly, and dealt with it properly when things went horribly wrong... which they always did, usually at least once a day.

People who have never worked in Radio MCR sometimes find it difficult to understand.  When you walked by the place, which used to be located in the basement of the Jarvis Street facility, and later (until recently) the third floor of the Toronto Broadcast Centre, you would sometimes see technicians doing what appeared to be, well, nothing.  In fact, they were only at rest if all their preparations were complete, if nobody in any studios or other master controls across the country were calling them, if everything was going to air properly.  In a sense radio master control techs are like firefighters, waiting for something to go wrong.  And every properly trained master control technician is poised to leap into action at the first instance of trouble.

Back when I started in the eighties, if a show wasn't being broadcast live, odds were it was being played back off quarter inch tape.  It was the job of the master control technician to put up the tape, check it for any issues, make sure the levels were good, that the first sounds on the tape were what they were supposed to be -- in other words, that it was the right program.

I remember putting up the last ever tape for the show Eclectic Circus, hosted by Alan McPhee, and thinking, wow, I'm the last link in the chain of the last ever episode of this show, which I had enjoyed listening to when I was a kid sometimes.

But back to the beginning of this six month (or so) gig.  It was my first week.  New Year's Eve.  I was on the evening shift.  Early in the shift I put up the tapes for a show called Two New Hours, which featured modern Canadian composers and was produced for many years by David Jaeger (until its cancellation in the spring of 2007, I believe).  The show consisted of three separate one hour long reels of tape.  I carefully put each of them up, checked their levels, checked the first words, and was not at all concerned about any of them.

Here's how it worked.  When the technician was recording  the show in the studio he/she added what was called a "swap tone" to the end of the first and second hours.  I can't remember the exact details now but I believe the swap tone was something like 100 Hz at -6 DB.  The idea was that the listeners at home were not supposed to be able to hear this swap tone -- it was at the bottom edge of human hearing.  It was there for the master control systems to detect and trigger a "swap" from one tape to the next (it was loud enough for me to hear it when I put the tapes up, but the swaps happened pretty quickly, so even if listeners could hear something, they wouldn't hear it for long).    

I was working with Peter Chin that night, who had kindly taken it upon himself to mentor me, and who remains a good friend to this day.  About three hours later I was on a break in the technician's lounge when Peter called me to tell me there was a major problem with the show.

"What's the problem?" I asked.  "It finished forty-five minutes early," he told me.


I ran from the lounge on the first floor to MCR in the basement where Peter was trying to figure out what happened.  It didn't take long to sort out.  When Radio MCR techs put up tapes they were supposed to check out a form that accompanied each tape with information about the program in question.  I had done this, but had neglected an important part of the form: a comments section in which the producer David Jaeger had written something along the lines of: "There are low organ notes in this show.  Please take this into consideration when playing back the show."  In other words, I was supposed to have programmed the MCR computer to severely limit the amount of time it could detect the swap tone, so that it would not confuse extremely low organ notes with the swap tone.  Not having noticed the comment, I had not done this, so the computer detected the organ notes and swapped one of the tapes forty-five minutes early.  This meant that the show finished forty-five minutes early, and there was nothing for us to do but play fill music for forty-five minutes on Radio Two.  Because of the way programming is played back in Canada (time delayed so that all programming airs at the same time on the clock if not the same actual time) we were able to fix the show for Vancouver, but that was it.


The proverbial sh** hit the fan. The phone started ringing off the hook, people wanting to know what happened.  I felt absolutely terrible for being responsible for basically forty-five minutes of incorrect programming from (almost) coast to coast.  

The following week people in the Music Department wanted blood.  One of the technical managers told me that they essentially wanted whoever was responsible fired.  But this manager felt that if I wrote a nice letter of apology maybe that would smooth things over.  So I did.

Many years later when I became a manager myself I was shown a filing cabinet containing personnel files for all radio technicians dating back many years.  And lo and behold there was a file on me, which included that letter.  Here is what I wrote:

<em>January 4th, 1989

I'm writing you regarding the incident concerning Two New Hours.  I was the technician responsible for the disruption in the broadcast of that show.

For a number of reasons I am sorry for what occurred.  I realize my mistake, which took place as a result of negligence, affected a lot of people.  I'm aware of the amount of work and effort required to construct a show such as Two New Hours, and I can imagine the dismay all involved must have felt.  I feel particularly bad for the Vancouver composer who almost missed hearing his work broadcast.

I have been reprimanded and questioned thoroughly as to why the incident occurred.  Steps have been taken both departmentally and personally to ensure that it is not repeated.  I make no excuses for my mistake.  I do ask that you accept my apology.

Thank you for taking the time to read this.

Joe Mahoney</em>

Man did I fall on my sword.  But I was sincere.

Attached to the letter was a note that I had never seen, hand written by Kel Lack, my boss at the time, and addressed to Karen Keiser, who I believe was Head of Serious Music Programming at that time (a position that no longer exists).  Kel had written:

<em>Joe Mahoney is a new and very promising tech who needless to say was devastated by what happened with Two New Hours.

The tone of his note speaks for itself and I know he learned a good lesson.  I propose to leave the matter there.

Once again our apologies.


A good guy, Kel.  I never heard of any response from the Serious Music Department.

A couple of other notes about that infamous night.  Once we knew what had happened, and that it had been my fault, my colleague Peter Chin said to me, "You need to bear down, Joe.  You need to bear down." I have no idea how many times he said it to me that night; it seems to me he said it at least a dozen times, but it may have been only twice.  But the line came to live in infamy.  Over the next twenty years we've laughed about it many times, and I do believe I've had occasion to repeat it back to him.  "You need to bear down, Peter!"  He professes not to even quite know what he meant by that.

Also, the Operations Manager on duty that night, Malcolm MacKinney, took pity on me.  It was New Year's Eve, after all.  He gave me half a bottle of wine and took me across the street to the Hampton Court Hotel, where we rang the New Year in together, and I remember a parade of elderly women lining up to give me a peck on the cheek when the clock struck twelve.

Good times.

I've made plenty of other mistakes in my career, but no other doozies quite like that that I can recall.  A good thing, or it probably would have been a short career...


Thursday, June 28, 2012


From Fall to Christmas 1988 I spent my time at CBC Radio both observing and working in studios, learning the tricks of the trade.  I did basic bookings, simple recordings, a lot of what are called "Two-Ways."

Two Ways consist of a host in a studio in one location and a guest in a studio in another location.  The second location could be just across the city or it could be a studio on the other side of the world.  You have to master a little something called the "mix/minus" to perform a proper Two-Way.  This is just making sure that you're not sending the person on the other end of the line back to themselves.  Say I have a Two-Way between Toronto and Vancouver.  The voice of the guest in Vancouver is sent down a line to my studio in Toronto.  At the same time I have to send the voice of my host down the line to the studio in Vancouver. But both me and the technician in Vancouver have to make sure we don't send one another's signals back to one another.  If I send the guest in Vancouver back to himself, it will come back to him delayed by as much as half a second. He or she will hear this in the headphones and find it very distracting.

Although straightforward once you knew how, people were always getting the mix/minus wrong.  I remember doing the summer edition of Morningside one morning in 1993 (it was called Summerside then, which was kind of neat, as I grew up in Summerside Prince Edward Island).  We had a guest on the show from Moncton, New Brunswick, but the technician in Moncton was summer relief and didn't know how to "split the board" (one way of referring to "mix/minus", though it also has other connotations).  We were already live on air with one portion of the show and I had about fifteen minutes to teach the technician in Moncton how to split his board for the mix minus.  This involved figuring out what kind of console he was flying and how it worked and instructing him to make the necessary adjustments.  Fortunately he was a quick learner.  Also, although we were live on air, my host (it was either Ian Brown or Denise Donlon who was replacing Peter Gzowski at the time) was in the middle of an interview, which meant other than watching audio levels I had time to focus on teaching the Moncton tech. Live radio was always full of challenges like that.

Two-ways are one thing, but we also did three-ways, four-ways and even more.  Same basic principle, but care was required, especially in live-to-air situations.

Back to the Fall of '88.  A great hurdle all new technicians had to face was the intimidating presence of experienced producers.  You would walk into a studio as a new technician and the first question you would get from the producer was, "Where's (insert name of experienced technician here)?"  There are of course many wonderfully flippant responses to this inane question, but you would choke them back.  If the producer was intelligent, which was sometimes the case, they would simply deal with the situation and help you make the booking a success, whether it was a simple recording or a two-way or what-have-you.  If the producer was what (intelligent) producer Sandy Mowat would call a "mutton head" then you might have to put up with some abuse, or at the very least a distinct lack of friendliness.

It was frequently an intimidating experience.  There were over twenty studios in the old Jarvis street radio facilities.  Almost every studio was set up differently.  Every patch rack was different, usually a spaghetti-like tangle of patch cords, the rack itself cryptically labelled.  I remember doing a booking in Studio F, which was usually the As It Happens studio, but this was before 11am in the morning when As It Happens claims the studio.  I was working with a particularly belligerent producer.  I needed to make a patch, but I didn't know where the patch point was, so I started at the top left hand corner of the patch rack and worked my way down to the bottom right hand side, looking for the patch point.

I said to the producer, "You'll have to excuse me for a moment, it may take me a couple of minutes to find the right patch point."

He said (and I quote), "Have you considered the possibility that you're stupid?"

I was flabbergasted, but determined to take the high road I said nothing, found the patch point, and continued on with the booking.  I had some gum with me and at one point offered him some to illustrate that I had no hard feelings about his remarkably harsh remark.  At the end of the booking I said, "Better make a point of remembering where that patch point is lest it ever be implied again that I'm stupid," at which point the producer mumbled, "How you guys remember all these different studios is beyond me."  I accepted this oblique apology, though never forgot his words. And there will be more on this character (and others like him) later.      

Come Christmas I had a basic familiarity with some of what I'd be required to do as a radio technician, but there was much, much more to learn.  At Christmas I was reassigned to work in Radio Master Control for several months.  Ostensibly this was a bit of a promotion (master control techs were Group 5s), but it interrupted my education as a basic Group 4 radio tech for a while.

More on Master Control later.