Monday, December 15, 2014

Our Family Home Catches Fire


In Part 1, last week, I wrote about my first school friend, Watson Woo; this week, in Part 2, I write about the fire that forced us to move, thus ending our friendship.
Mom & Me: In this Summer 1967 photo, I am standing with my mother outside the store—Frank’s Grocery—that my mother and father owned and operated in Montreal. As was often the custom at the time, we resided in the back of the store in a fairly large residence. I have happy memories living on Park Avenue.
Photo Source: (c) Perry J. Greenbaum

Some events you can never forget, even decades later. The facts might not be all correct, but the general impression remains and this suffices to tell the story. Such certainties now escape me more than 44 years later. What I do recall was the following:  I was 12. It was an cold day in February in the year 1970, in Montreal; I think it was a Tuesday or Wednesday at the beginning of the month, February 3rd or 4th. There was snow on the ground, which was the norm for this time of year. I was walking home from school with my friend, Watson Woo. This would make it around 3:30 in the afternoon.

As we talked, traversing along Villeneuve Ave, and neared Jeanne Mance, the street where Watson lived and where he would make a leftward turn to his house, we both noticed many fire trucks a block away on my street, Park Avenue. As schoolboys often do, Watson joked about it, saying. “It must be that your house is on fire.” I said nothing other than “bye,” and began to quicken my pace home, turning left onto my street, and seeing in front of me a long line of red fire trucks that stretched a city block. 

I ran. As I neared my house, I saw the trucks were indeed in the final stages of putting out the fire at my house. I stood there motionless, not knowing what to do. In fact, the next few minutes seemed to progress in slow motion. Then back to a reality that I did not want to face. My world as I knew it would not be the same. It would change.

We had lived here since I was born. Our home was at the back of a store—Frank’s Grocery—that my parents had owned and operated. Grocery stores had long hours, from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. My mother ran it during the day, and after my father came home from work and ate supper, he managed it. I would often join him in the evenings, keeping him company, and helped him serve customers, some of them Yiddish-speaking. My parents closed the store a year before, in 1969, after my mother had decided that she did not want to  “do it anymore.” I liked the store, especially since it had candy, chocolates, chips and soda pop—all the things that children love to consume.

I saw my mother first and then my father and then two brothers coming out of Nina the dressmaker’s shop next door to our house, our former home, that is; after establishing in my mind that all my family was safe, unharmed, I decided to run inside to save what was most important to me. This was my hockey card collection and my cat, Betsy. Luckily, the firemen stopped me before I could run inside. Later on, I found that our cat was safe; and we gave her to a family friend. My card collection did not fare so well.

Sun Youth Organization, started by a great humanitarian, Sid Stevens, arranged for us to stay at a hotel a few doors down—an emergency shelter. It was small but cozy and safe. This was our home for the next few weeks, until my father found us a new place to live in another neighbourhood.

All the familiar sights and sounds of Park Avenue and the nearby streets of Mont-Royal, Jeanne-Mance, Villeneuve and Saint-Urbain would now be gone. Gone from my view would be the Dairy Queen across the street, my school on Saint-Urbain, Mont-Royal “the mountain,” the constant sound of traffic on Park Avenue, the sounds and colours of foreign language and culture, and my friendship with Watson Woo.

These would eventually be replaced by new ones, new places, new people, new memories. And the memories of all now remain, not vivid but constant. All flowing from one to another.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Victorians' Optimistic Future

Modern Vision

Funny Future: In this detail from the “March of Intellect” series, Paul Pry (aka William Heath) ridicules the future and in particular its varied and many modes of transport; 1828.
Photo Credit: SSPL/Getty
Source: Aeon

Many things have been be said  about the Victorians, one being that they were optimistic about the future; this revealed itself in their fiction as much as it did in their scientific writings. This is a point well taken, and the writer of an article  in Aeon magazine, Iwan Rhys Morus, goes as far as saying that the Victorians invented the idea that technological progress was and is social progress.

Morus writes:
For the Victorians, the future, as terra incognita, was ripe for exploration (and colonisation). For someone like me – who grew up reading the science fiction of Robert Heinlein and watching Star Trek – this makes looking at how the Victorians imagined us today just as interesting as looking at the way our imagined futures work now. Just as they invented the future, the Victorians also invented the way we continue to talk about the future. Their prophets created stories about the world to come that blended technoscientific fact with fiction. When we listen to Elon Musk describing his hyperloop high-speed transportation system, or his plans to colonise Mars, we’re listening to a view of the future put together according to a Victorian rulebook. Built into this ‘futurism’ is the Victorian discovery that societies and their technologies evolve together: from this perspective, technology just is social progress.

The assumption was plainly shared by everyone around the table when, in November 1889, the Marquess of Salisbury, the Conservative prime minister of Great Britain, stood up at the Institution of Electrical Engineers’ annual dinner to deliver a speech. He set out a blueprint for an electrical future that pictured technological and social transformation hand in hand. He reminded his fellow banqueteers how the telegraph had already changed the world by working on ‘the moral and intellectual nature and action of mankind’. By making global communication immediate, the telegraph had made everyone part of the global power game. It had ‘assembled all mankind upon one great plane, where they can see everything that is done, and hear everything that is said, and judge of every policy that is pursued at the very moment those events take place’. Styling the telegraph as the great leveller was quite common among the Victorians, though it’s particularly interesting to see it echoed by a Tory prime minister.
Many will argue that there is little to be optimistic about today, given the number of social problems that seem to dominate our planet. Caution seems to be the general tenor of the times. Be this as it may, technology, including communications technologies, has made our lives better; it might well be that our present vision and view of the world has been largely shaped by the counter-culture views of the 1960s and ’70s and equally by its dystopian fiction. Then there are the current realities, including scientific ones that portend a dark and ominous future for planet Earth. A child of this era, I am as guilty as anyone in pointing out these realities. Not to deny these realities, but a healthy dose of optimism does lead not only to technological progress, but also to social progress.

You can read more at [Aeon]

Monday, December 8, 2014

My First School Friend

The Early Years

My first school friend, or friend period, was Watson Woo; we met in kindergarten while both of us were playing with blocks; it was September 1963. It was not surprising, since our family resided in a neighbourhood that, as my Mom often said, was “a League of Nations.” There was Nina the dressmaker next door to the left of us, and Waxman’s formal rental next door to the right. Nuns in full habit were often see walking the street in front of us; we were close to a Catholic order of nuns.  Across the street was a Ukrainian woman who always wore on her head a babushka and had a few gold teeth; for reasons that I now do not recall, my brothers and I were convinced that she was a “witch.” My mother’s arguments to the contrary were ineffective in convincing us otherwise.

A block north of us was Hutchison Avenue, the southern boundary of the leafy borough of Outremont; there  resided the various sects of Hasidic Jews, whose distinctive ways and dress were as foreign to me as those of other religions. We shared a common religion, no doubt, but our understanding of it and the application of its laws did not generally find agreement between us, or so it seemed at the time. The restrictions seemed too great; the requirements too burdensome; the benefits too meagre. It takes a great distance for two almost-parallel lines to intersect.

Watson and I remained friends at Bancroft Elementary School until Grade 6, when our family was forced to move after a fire made our house inhabitable. More on this later.  (The school was founded in 1915, and currently remains open.) Watson lived one block from me, I on Park Avenue; he on Jeanne Mance—both of us living within a block of Mont-Royal, which Montrealers refer to as “the mountain.” Our houses backed on to an adjoining lane-way. We walked to school and back home together, and we talked. mostly about school and the kind of things that kids then talked about.

I was at Watson’s house only once; I remember that there was a rather large photo in the living room of Chairman Mao, hung prominently in the same way that Chabad-Lubavitch families have a picture of the last Rebbe on their walls.

Watson introduced me to many things Chinese, including dry ginger, rice and noodles and other Oriental delicacies. I introduced him to Jewish foods. Such was our simple friendship. We shared a love for learning and for doing well in school. We often walked together to the local library and discovered many new things in science, including the latest discoveries in paleontology. The idea that large dinosaurs walked the earth proved fascinating to young curious minds. How excited we both were when a school trip took us to McGill University’s Redpath Museum. It was understood that we would both end up studying science at some level. I didn’t get as far as I had originally thought in the pursuit of pure sciences; and I am not sure how far Watson got.

In February 1970, our family home had a fire, and it was no longer suitable for habitation. After spending a few weeks at an emergency family shelter, my father announced that we were moving to a new neighbourhood, which meant a new school. I was heart-broken; Watson and I made heartfelt promises to keep in touch, and we did meet once afterward, but such promises are, as is often the case, defeated by geography and the making of new friends. Our bond was based, to a large degree, on the school that we both attended; and the new school meant the forming of new bonds.

The new neighbourhood had many more Jews (like me) than the old one I left, and in many ways I found this both comforting and reassuring. Still, Watson Woo will always remain my first friend.
Next week, Part 2: “Our Family Home Catches Fire”

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Engineering Humour

Science Humour

Here are two cartoons book-ending a few engineering jokes that have made the rounds in recent years; there is always some truth in humour; Enjoy.

Source & Credit: Chemical Engineering News

Three engineers and three mathematicians are on a train going to a conference. The mathematicians each bought a ticket. The engineers have one between them. As the conductor starts through the train car, the engineers all rush off and jump into the small lavatory.

The conductor knocks on the door of the lavatory and says "Ticket, please." At which point the engineers slide the one ticket through a ventilation slot and the conductor punches it. The mathematicians think this looks like a good trick and decide to try it on the train ride back home.

As the mathematicians board the train they have one ticket between them. The engineers have no ticket!

After a while, one of the engineers says, "Here comes the conductor!" So all three mathematicians jump up and run into the lavatory with their one ticket.

One of the engineers goes to the lavatory door and says "Ticket, please."


A priest, a doctor, and an engineer were waiting one morning for a particularly slow group of golfers. The engineer fumed, "What's with those guys? We must have been waiting for fifteen minutes!"

The doctor chimed in, "I don't know, but I've never seen such inept golf!"

The priest said, "Here comes the green-keeper. Let's have a word with him."

He said, "Hello George, what's wrong with that group ahead of us? They're rather slow, aren't they?"

The green-keeper replied, "Oh, yes. That's a group of blind firemen. They lost their sight saving our clubhouse from a fire last year, so we always let them play for free anytime."

The group fell silent for a moment.

The priest said, "That's so sad. I think I will say a special prayer for them tonight."

The doctor said, "Good idea. I'm going to contact my ophthalmologist colleague and see if there's anything he can do for them." 

The engineer said, "Why can't they play at night?" 


Two engineering students were walking across a university campus when one said, "Where did you get such a great bike?"

The second engineer replied, "Well, I was walking along yesterday, minding my own business, when a beautiful woman rode up on this bike, threw it to the ground, took off all her clothes and said, "Take what you want."

The first engineer nodded approvingly and said, "Good choice; the clothes probably wouldn't have fit you anyway." 

During the French Revolution, three men were condemned to the guillotine. One was a preacher, one was a doctor, and the third was an engineer.

When the preacher approached the deadly machine, he requested to be beheaded while lying on his back so that he could die while looking into heaven. The doctor and the engineer thought that to be a good idea and requested the same.

As the knife plunged down the track toward the preacher, it suddenly jammed just short of the man's neck. The executioner declared it an act of God and let the man go free. The same thing happened to the doctor.

As the engineer laid his head back in place he suddenly said, "Wait! I see the problem! Look up there where the rope has jumped out of the pulley groove!"

& Finally, Some Dilbert:

Source & Credit: