Thursday, May 06, 2010

The Aeroplane (1962)

For all those who think engineers can't write poetry!

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The Aeroplane
(c) 1962 Alan T. Chattaway

O Aeroplane!  Thou gleaming silver bird,
Shimmering in thy glory, hear my word,
For I too long have tarried in this land,
And now my eye grows feeble, and my hand
Trembles to write these words, my weary plea:
O Aeroplane!  Please take me to the sea!

When I first brought my soul to Rhodes' fair land
My fate lay in the noble pilot's hand.
Through sky and cloud he safely brought me in
While I, through youth's sweet nature, trusted him.
He set me down, and I stepped out anew
Into the land where all my dreams came true.

Thus seemed it to me then - but now, alack!
The burden of my years lies on my back.
I long to visit lands beyond my own,
Forget my labours - leave my cares at home,
And, thus released from worry, to ensure
I once again will hear the ocean's roar.

My wish it is, therefore, that I should fly
Down to the place where earth and sea meet sky.
The Aeroplane - that silver eagle there -
Must list to me, must hear my weary prayer,
My longing cry, the lonely person's plea:
O Aeroplane!  Please take me to the sea!

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In 1962, halfway through my first year as a boarder at Gilbert Rennie School* in Lusaka, Northern Rhodesia, I entered a writing contest open to all high school seniors in the Federation**.  The topic was "Why I would like to go on a Central African Airways all-inclusive holiday to the sea," and if you won, you would get that trip.

The contest was open to both prose and poetry, so I decided to write a poem as a bit of a lark - though I can see that I gave it my best shot, and harboured deeper feelings than some might expect of a 16-year-old.

A couple of months later I received good news and bad news.  The good news was that I had won!  The bad news was that the judges were unable to choose between my poem and a prose entry by a girl, so they had split the first prize between us.  Rather than one of us receiving the promised trip to the sea, each of us could fly anywhere within our own landlocked Federation (a judgment worthy of Solomon!).

I used the opportunity to visit my friend Jeremy Thorne at his home in Malawi.  Since I had to change planes in Salisbury***, and because I planned to study engineering, CAA took me on a personal tour of their maintenance department in Salisbury between my flights.

Verse 2 recalls my arrival in Northern Rhodesia at age 6.  I came from England, where luxuries like candy were still rationed 7 years after World War II.  When I arrived at Ndola airport, I saw some candies in the tearoom and asked my dad "are they on coupons?" (knowing full well that they were not - children manipulate their parents!).  My dad bought me the entire jar! 

[Update 2010-08-07: I left Africa in 1968 without a written copy of this poem, and re-wrote it from memory a few years later. Today I found the original [with typos] in our 1962 school magazine, posted by Chris Waller at My memorized version was accurate except for two words, which I have now corrected above, and I have also corrected these notes.]

     * now Kabulonga School for Boys
   ** The Federation consisted of Northern Rhodesia, Southern Rhodesia and Nyasaland.  In 1964 the Federation was dissolved and the countries were renamed Zambia, Rhodesia and Malawi.  Rhodesia was later renamed Zimbabwe.
 *** now Harare, Zimbabwe

Friday, March 12, 2010

What's a PDA?

Each month after reading the latest issue of Consumer Reports, I shelve it and discard the oldest copy on the shelf. Today, before recycling the June 2002 issue I glanced at its review of PDAs.

PDAs? Does anyone still remember that acronym?

A Personal Digital Assistant is like a smartphone, without the phone. I still use the Palm IIIxe I bought in 2000 as my calendar, diary, notepad, e-book reader, etc. It even has a copy of the entire Bible, and plenty of room for other data in its 8MB memory.  What shocks me today is that my Palm cost as much then as a good netbook costs now.

Palm introduced the first successful PDA in 1996. Apple had failed in 1993 with a PDA called the Newton; its inability to reliably recognize handwriting was the butt of many late-night TV jokes. (I've also read that the Newton doesn't recognize dates past 2009; what were they thinking?)

By 2002 there were dozens of PDAs. Palm was dominant, but Microsoft was trying to take over with "Windows Mobile." (8 years later, they're still trying with "Windows Phone 7".)

The biggest surprise is the high prices we were willing to pay in 2002:
  • Cheapest PDA $150
  • Average non-Windows PDA $320
  • Average Windows Pocket PC $560
  • The one smartphone in the group cost an extra $230
The falling cost of electronics is part of what economists call the "Wal-Mart effect" that has kept overall inflation low for a decade, while the price of essentials like homes, food, and energy rises faster than the inflation rate. Great for the wealthy, but tough on people who are just getting by.

And where are PDAs today? They morphed into smartphones, and are now handed out free with 3-year phone contracts!

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Keep TV stations' hands out of our pockets

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation is campaigning to force Canadian cable TV companies to pay TV stations for the privilege of carrying their signals. This seems entirely backward to me!

Cable TV started around 1950 and was then called Community Antenna TV (CATV). At that time all TV reception was through antennas. People who lived far from the transmitter needed a big antenna to get an acceptable picture. Because these antennas were very expensive, whole neighbourhoods agreed to share the cost and the signal, and CATV was born.

So cable TV subscribers pay the full cost of bringing TV signals into their home. Without cable TV, the TV stations would have a much smaller audience; in fact, it would make more sense for the TV stations to pay the cable companies for this service, then hit up their advertisers for more money for "delivering more eyeballs" (as they say in the trade).

All communications in Canada are regulated by the Canadian Radio and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). Under CRTC rules, Canadian cable companies must carry local stations, and all cable customers must pay about $200 per year for those stations (this is called "basic cable"). Only then can customers add "specialty" channels like movies, sports, ethnic etc.

So customers are already forced to pay to receive stations they
can get for free by sticking a bent coathanger into their TV's antenna socket. Now, in addition, the cable companies will be forced to pay a new tax to subsidize local TV stations. The cable companies, quite understandably, intend to pass this tax on to their customers - and the CBC is even campaigning against that.

International comparisons show that Canadians pay more, for worse service, in all the fields the CRTC regulates - home phones, cell phones, cable and satellite TV, and Internet service.
We would be better off if the CRTC was scrapped and replaced by a body that put customer needs first, permitted more competition, and allowed unpopular services to go out of business.

The CBC website wants me to urge my government to both support this new tax AND prevent cable companies from passing it on to their customers. Instead, I urged my government to end the free ride for local TV stations by allowing cable subscribers to opt out of "basic cable". If half of us did that, together we would save almost a billion dollars per year.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Carbon tax weeds out everyone who isn't rich

From the National Post, February 01, 2010 (summarized)

The Pembina Institute, a left-wing think tank, says the current 3.33¢ per litre carbon tax in British Columbia needs to increase to 50¢ per litre - and that's in addition to federal and provincial sales taxes, plus other taxes that subsidize public transit.

British Columbia already has the highest gasoline prices in Canada because of these taxes, and raising them will make commuting even more expensive. But Vancouver also has the most expensive housing in Canada, so people are forced to commute to work from cities 30 km to 60 km away. Since the high speed public transit system doesn't reach the places where most commuters live, commuters have no choice but to pay the high gas prices.

Carbon taxes, in effect, are a way of rooting out middle and lower income workers who can't afford to live in Vancouver, and soon won't be able to afford to commute to Vancouver either.

My comment:

For those who do have access to transit, the fares are so high that two people travelling together spend almost as much commuting by transit as they would commuting by car - and even more if they have to drive to the transit station and pay to park there (especially with our new 21% tax on parking fees, plus federal and provincial taxes on top of that).

I've always thought that increased taxation is the worst way to try to fix environmental and other problems. Higher taxes hit the poor hardest. Taxes that hit working families hurt children twice: they have less money today, and their parents are forced to forgo saving for their retirement, so their children will have to care for them then and won't see much of an inheritance.

My parents lived through World War II and the postwar era when goods of all kinds were scarce. The government issued ration coupons to make sure everyone, rich or poor, got their fair share. There is no reason why environmental resources, such as the right to emit a certain amount of carbon, can't be shared equitably through rationing.

A common objection to rationing is that it creates a "black market" in the scarce goods. But there is really no moral objection to people trading their share for something they need more. And if the rationing is done through a secure network like the ones that support credit and debit cards, not only can the scarce goods be traded freely, but these transactions can even be taxed!

A rationing system would be better for the environment because it would directly limit the consumption of the scarce goods, instead of trying to influence consumption by overpricing them. And a free market in "ration rights" would produce a fairer distribution of consumption at a lower overall cost to consumers.

So why don't we do it that way? Two reasons: it's hard for any politician to admit that the real goal of punitive taxation is to create a de facto rationing system. And it's also hard for any government to resist an opportunity to collect taxes. When our governments are willing to level with us about the former and forgo the latter, we will start making progress on this issue.