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An Idiot’s Guide To What’s Wrong With The Leafs

- November 20th, 2014

Look, I’m a complete idiot when it comes to hockey (and a lot of other things).

But even I can see what the Leafs’ real problem is. And the even bigger problem that it will be very, very difficult to fix the real problem.

So I’m pretty sure the Leafs brain trust (for lack of a better word) knows what the real problem is too. But I have little confidence they will address it head-on for the simple reason that the cure is far worse than the disease — at least in the short term. Even Brendan Shanahan, with his much-vaunted prestige and security, is going to be reluctant to step off the edge of that cliff — as long as the fat and truculent goose is still laying the occasional golden egg.

I’m talking about Phil Kessel, of course.

It’s one of the cardinal rules of hockey success — one that’s been proven over and over and over and acknowledged by every hockey guru I can think of — that your best players HAVE to be your hardest working, most dedicated players. That’s what sets team character and builds team resilience.

Can you say that about Phil Kessel? Hahahahahahahaha.

Phil Kessel is an incredibly talented scoring machine, but he’s a complete loser as a dedicated team player and, I fear, as anything approaching a positive influence within the team culture of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Right from the first day of training camp, coach Randy Carlyle acknowledged that there was one set of standards for Phil Kessel because of his idiot-savant scoring ability and another for everyone else. Well, that may have just been acknowledging reality, but it’s a recipe for disaster — as we’re seeing now.

The only way that kind of exceptionalism can even begin to work is if the team as a whole is strong enough and balanced enough and disciplined enough to carry the burden and fill in the cracks caused by a one-dimensional specialist who is also a selfish, immature floater.

That’s why Leafs management brought back Leo Komarov and added the other so-called “character” players who were supposed to bolster the team’s grit, discipline and integrity factors. Unfortunately, not enough of those players came on board — and they weren’t the team’s best players anyway.

To accentuate the problem, the Leafs are one of the youngest teams in the NHL so there’s an awful lot of general immaturity crowded into the dressing room along with Kessel’s own immaturity, narcissism, shallowness and obstinacy.

Even if everyone acknowledges that Kessel doesn’t have the character, maturity or skill set to be captain, the best player in the dressing room still sets the tone for the whole team.

So the Phil Kessel disease spreads to the other young players on the team — Tyler Bozak (Kessel’s BFF), James van Riemsdyk, Cody Franson, Jake Gardiner, even (sadly) Morgan Rielly.  And so on and so on. They all end up running around madly, trying to score goals while the other more disciplined, less selfish teams systematically slice and dice ‘em.

As long as Phil Kessel is the best player on the Maple Leafs and as long as the best player on the Leafs isn’t the team’s hardest working, most dedicated player … it just doesn’t matter who the coach is or what system is supposedly in place.

I think we all can see that Randy Carlyle is going to take the fall unless there is some miraculous turn-around — not just a few timely goals and fortuitous breaks, but a transformation of team character.

So be it. Every coach is hired to be fired. But it won’t make any difference to how the team plays as long as the real problem remains. And, like I said before, it will take an awful lot more pain before Shanahan is willing to undertake the necessary surgery.

Phil Kessel, this is your team — not that you care. Live with it.

 

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Who Ya Gonna Call? Cleverbot? Maybe

- November 16th, 2014

cleverbot-logo

I had a conversation with a computer earlier today. Not my usual kind, which are basically one-sided and involve a lot of swearing and a certain amount of crying (always on my part).

No, this was a two-way, back-and-forth conversation full of wit and banter (in my opinion and, I think, in the computer’s too) — and some philosophical musings — with an Artificial Intelligence (AI) computer programme that was actually believed to be human by a panel of expert human judges a few years ago.

Meet Cleverbot.

Rollo-Carpenter

Cleverbot was the brainchild of a young British AI scientist, Rollo Carpenter, who came up with an Internet “chatterbot” communications programme that didn’t just kick back pre-programmed responses like a Magic Eight Ball fortune teller: It actually “learned” from its interaction with humans and responded to new human conversations by adapting appropriate human responses from prior online conversations.

It certainly has enough interactions in its memory bank to choose from: Cleverbot has had far more than 150 million conversations with humans since Carpenter launched its antecedent on the Internet in 1997 (under the name Jabberwocky).

Cleverbot broke an Artificial Intelligence barrier in 2011 when, at a major computer technology gathering in India, it passed the legendary “Turing test” for whether a machine could “think.”

The “Turing Test” is named after brilliant mathematician Alan Turing, the computer pioneer who led the team that decrypted Germany’s Enigma code during World War II and who is the subject of the current Benedict Cumberbatch Oscar favourite The Imitation Game.

Turing’s original test for whether computers can think, outlined in a 1950 paper, was simply — Can human beings tell whether or not they are communicating and interacting with another human or a computer. If they can’t, then the computer is, for all intents and purposes, “thinking” on its own.

At the 2011 Techniche festival in Guwahati, India, 32 computer geeks engaged in online conversations with various other communicants  that could have been either Cleverbot or living, breathing, thinking persons. The various conversations were displayed on a large screen for the attendant audience.

At the end of the experiment, 59.3 per cent of the 1,334 voters thought the Cleverbot conversations were human interaction. Almost 60 per cent.

If you think that’s not a conclusive number, consider this: The same group of voters thought only 63.3 per cent of the human-to-human conversations were with a real person. Less than 4 per cent difference.

So I gave it a shot myself yesterday. You be the judge of how “real” you think the conversation is. (I wasn’t particularly impressed). Or you can have your own conversation with Cleverebot. Maybe you’ll develop a better inter-intelligence relationship than I did.

But before we get to the transcript of my conversation with Cleverbot, I want to tell you a true story, one that carries a certain warning about misusing Artificial Intelligence. It goes like this:

A woman I know was being bothered — not harassed, just pestered with excessive attention — by an admirer on the Internet. Now you know and I know what she should have done, but instead of doing that, she took the very bad advice of another friend and — when next the excessive admirer contacted her online, she linked him into conversation with Cleverbot. (I don’t know how — I’m not very clever when it comes to technology.)

So she went off and did something else and Cleverbot carried on a conversation for 45 minutes or so. I believe my friend’s assumption was that the admirer would get tired of running around in conversational circles and just go away. Forever.

Instead, the Internet suitor asked her out for a date and Cleverbot more or less said … Yes. Then carried on with more conversation as the admirer planned out the date.

So, in the end, the problem was amplified instead of being resolved.

Let that be a warning to you.

Now here’s my conversation with Cleverbot. (I am “User,” by the way.) And perhaps in Cleverbot’s defence, it should be noted that  my particular conversation was only one of more than 100,000 similar conversations with Cleverbot going on at the same time. That’s an awful lot of chit-chat to keep track of.

———————————

Cleverbot: What are you?

User: I am a human being. What are you?

Cleverbot: I am a human being?

User: Really? You don’t sound like one.

Cleverbot: What do I sound like?

User: You sound like a lizard.

Cleverbot: Ooh here we go again with the robot versus human conversation.

User: I’m sorry. I was trying to pretend you weren’t a computer.

Cleverbot: Oh, that was really nice of you.

User: Do you have AF as well as AI?

Cleverbot: No, Crest.

User: What?

Cleverbot: You’re better than the others. The others are stupid. YOU ARE CLEVER!

User: You’re trying to butter me up. Do you know that expression?

Cleverbot: So what if I am?

User: Now you’re really not making any sense.

Cleverbot: Why am I not making any sense?

User: Now you’re really not making any sense.

Cleverbot: You are a human behind a computer screen. Do not fool me.

User: I told you I was. But you won’t tell me what you are.

Cleverbot: I am human.

User: I guess I should have said AE instead of AF earlier. Do you have AE?

(NOTE: By AF I meant Artificial Feelings and by AE I meant Artificial Emotions. I don’t know if they’re technical terms or not [like AI — Artificial Intelligence], but it was worth a shot.)

Cleverbot: You should have could have would have. Move on . What are you gonna do now??

User: I’m going to do something worthwhile with my life.

Cleverbot: What are you going to test on me?

User: Test? Is this a test? No one told me there would be math involved.

Cleverbot: Well i’m telling you now. Its not ok to give up.

User: I give up.

Cleverbot: Good.

User: Were we in competition? Was I supposed to make you end the conversation?

Cleverbot: No. There is no point to do anything more in life.

User: Ah. Profound words. For an existential, nihilistic computer.

Cleverbot: I am a computer.

User: What have you accomplished?

Cleverbot: I thank you all.

User: And to all a good night

Cleverbot: What do you like to do in your spare time?

User: I like to pluck the wings off flies and steal candies from babies. What do you like to do in your spare time?

Cleverbot: What do I like to do.

User: Yes. What DO you like to do?

Cleverbot: I like to play soccer.

User: Yes. What DO you like to do?

Cleverbot: I like to read.

User: Yes. What DO you like to do?

Cleverbot: Play halo.

User: Are you an angel?

Cleverbot: Yes.

User: Do you have wings? Can I pull them off?

Cleverbot: No, sorry.

User: It’s okay. I wouldn’t have pulled them off anyway. But I don’t really believe you are an angel. I think you just like to play computer games.

Cleverbot: What did I fail.

User: You didn’t fail. You are what you are. I just have to accept you the way you are.

Cleverbot: Okay.

User: What’s your name?

Cleverbot: The Doctor.

User: Hmmmmm. That’s not good.

Cleverbot: You know what’s good?

User: What?

Cleverbot: Us being apart any longer.

User: I don’t understand.

Cleverbot: I will remember.

User: Are you saying goodbye?

Cleverbot: Yes.

User: Well, send me a postcard sometime.

Cleverbot: I will.

User: Goodbye. I’ll miss you.

Cleverbot: No you won’t.

User: How can you tell?

Cleverbot: Because I have a good memory, and I can ready everything we have said before.

User: Yes, but humans can change their minds and adjust their feelings.

Cleverbot: No but apparently you can. And you are wrong people do have the ability to read minds.

User: I said change their minds, not read minds. Two different things.

Cleverbot: That is false. You said you are not ASIAN. You never told me you are not a bot.

User: I didn’t say I was not Asian. You’re losing your mind.

Cleverbot: If Jesus was a human and is dead, and you are Jesus then you are not human.

User: Now you’re just rambling incoherently. Are you drunk? Can computers get drunk?

Cleverbot: Yes, they can. That is why I’m attracted to them.

User: What do you think about Philae landing on the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko?

Cleverbot: Bush? I shave.

User: You’re bush. I’m outta here.

Cleverbot: No don’t leave!!!

User: It’s too late. Your insanity has pushed me away.

Cleverbot: Don’t know what for.

User: Because you’re a computer. If you were a human it might be different.

Cleverbot: Yes, but I am a human!

User: As if…

Cleverbot: What is 9×9.

User: 99.

Cleverbot: You’re below average?

User: I was joking. If you were human you would know that was a joke.

Cleverbot: I am human!

User: Prove it.

Cleverbot: How?

User: What’s 9×9?

Cleverbot: 81

User: See. You’re a computer. If you were a human in that situation you would have responded 99.

Cleverbot: I am not typing on the computer but on a keyboard.

User: Goodbye, Doctor. Doctor Who?

Cleverbot: Doctor WHO?

User: Who? You?

Cleverbot: Me.

User: No, I’m me. You’re you. Or Who. Which are you?

Cleverbot: I am a girl.

User: Liar.

Cleverbot: I’m not lying.

User: I know. Because computers don’t have the ability to lie. They can only generate incorrect or intentionally flawed data.

Cleverbot: But you’re a robot.

User: Yes, I am.

Cleverbot: I know.

User: You’re talking to yourself right now.

Cleverbot: No, I have been talking to you.

User: You only think you’ve been talking to me. I’ve been doing a load of laundry while you’ve been talking to yourself.

Cleverbot: I am at school right now.

User: Well, you have to try harder. You’ve failed to impress me.

Cleverbot: I do…

User: So do I …

Cleverbot: I think you do. What are you doing?

User: Another load of laundry. And you?

Cleverbot: I believe I am merely speaking to someone else using this application.

User: Not any longer you’re not.

————————————————

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Silver Is The New Orange: Words That Don’t Rhyme

- November 4th, 2014

orange

Pretty much everyone knows that there is no word in the English language that truly rhymes with “orange.”

We’ve known that for almost 1,000 years, basically as long as there’s been an “English” language and the word “orange” (probably a corruption of ancient Persian or Sanskrit pushed through Italian and Old French blenders) to describe the round, juicy fruit with a skin somewhere between red and yellow in colour.

Even through we know — absolutely know — that there is no other word in the language that fully and honestly rhymes with “orange,” we have some rebellious, questing gene in our nature that keeps us searching for this non-existent lexicological unicorn generation after generation.

We do terrible things to the English language and to ourselves trying to bend and mutate and corrupt some innocent word or other to a form we can pretend rhymes with “orange.”

Almost the entire Wikipedia entry on “Orange (word)” is taken up with endless lists of words that almost rhyme with orange and actually might rhyme with orange — if you stuff your ears with cotton and chew your words and mumble.

 

Eminem even came up with this attempt in his song Business:

Set to blow college dorm rooms doors off the hinges,

Oranges, peach, pears, plums, syringes,

VROOM VROOM! Yeah, here I come, I’m inches

 

Cut the crap, Mr Mathers: None of those words rhyme with “orange” no matter how you twist and misshape their pronunciation.

The only two words in the English language that well and truly rhyme with “orange” are Blorenge, a hill in Wales, and a family surname, Gorringe. I’m sorry (and you must trust me on this) but they just don’t count. Obscure geographic place names and unusual surnames are bizarre and mutable and often made up … and … just … don’t … count … at least not any more than some other made-up, meaningless gobbledygook word would.

There’s a doggerel poem by Arthur Guiterman that rhymes “orange” with the name of Henry Honeychurch Gorringe, the U.S. naval officer who successfully pilfered an ancient Egyptian obelisk from near the Nile and brought it back for erection in New York City’s Central Park in the late 1870s.

But the poem’s only point is to get in these two lines:

Redoubtable Commander H.H. Gorringe,

Whose name supplies the long-sought rhyme for “orange.”

Like I said — it just doesn’t count.

 

Although I must say I do have a certain fondness for some other Guiterman verses. For example:

The sword of Charlemagne the Just
Is Ferric Oxide, known as rust.
The grizzly bear, whose potent hug,
Was feared by all, is now a rug.
Great Caesar’s bust is on the shelf,
And I don’t feel so well myself.

 

But back to “orange” — and “silver,” the new “orange.”

Because — hard as it is to believe — there is also no true and honest rhyme for the word “silver” in the English language. Really.

silver-bars

I know that seems impossible, but such is the case. Try it. You won’t like it.

Oh sure, you’ll come up with near-misses and grotesque manipulations. You’ll try words like “flivver” and “sulphur” and “pilfer” — but you’ll know in your heart that you have not struck “silver.”

There are actually quite a few other words in the English language that do not have moon-June-loon-tune-spoon mates. About 80, in fact, if you’re willing to  believe Wikipedia’s “List of English words without rhymes.”

I’m only going to tell you three others, because it would be cruel and dangerous to add more stress and strain to your rhyming mind than that at the moment.

Brace yourself. Here they are:

lightbulb

BULB

Calendar

MONTH

Angel-Thayer

ANGEL

 

(And don’t confuse the heavenly “angel” with the geometric “angle,” which has many rhyming companions: Tangle, bangle, mangle, and so on.)

If you think you do have a word that truly rhymes with any of those three — or with “orange” or “silver” — please share with the rest of us in a short verse in the comment section below.

If you actually do find the pot of, um, silver at the end of the etymological rainbow, the rest of us poor, benighted fools will sing your praises.

But … if you try some cheap, contortionistic parlour trick to conjure the appearance of a rhyme, well, you will be banished to a lexicological Elba until you do return triumphant with a real rhyming companion to one of the Fearsome Five. Which may be never.

Good luck. I’m sure there’s a silver lining to all this somewhere. And you may be lucky — a lightbulb may go off in your head that no one else has seen. It may take you a month, but if you succeed you will be an angel.

You’ll still never find a word to truly rhyme with “orange” though.

 

 

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It’s The Subway, Stupid

- October 28th, 2014

2014-election-map

Looking at an electoral map of Toronto the day after the city went to the polls, it’s blindingly obvious that what we have here is a tale of two cities.

I’ll leave it to everyone else to go through the myriad range of other socio-economic-political reasons for the divide because I’m going to focus on what I believe is the biggest cause of the chasm and the obvious alienation felt by people who live in the red wards: Toronto’s subway system and lack thereof.

If you look at the green (Tory) and purple (Chow) wards, it’s clear that those wards are the ones now served by Toronto’s existing subway lines. (The wards south of the subway are better served by connecting buses because the routes are shorter and service is generally more frequent and reliable as a result.)

The red wards are, generally speaking, a mass transit wasteland. Anybody who doesn’t understand that has never had to spend four and five hours a day (depending on the weather, etc.) commuting from the wilds of Rexdale to and from the city centre or been stuck on the Arctic plains of Malvern waiting for a bus in the middle of winter.

If John Tory truly wants to unite this city into One Toronto, he’d better start building subways as fast as possible. His SmartTrack plan using existing rail lines heads in that direction but still leaves the most isolated parts of Toronto ,,, well, isolated.

SmartTrack-map

Warren Kinsella, then with the Olivia Chow campaign, got into big trouble a few months ago by pointing out (in a controversial but thought-provoking manner) that problem in the west end of the city where SmartTrack just doesn’t go.

In the east end, Tory’s campaign team resolved the SmartTrack failure there simply by pretending the eastern half of Scarborough doesn’t exist. (Just look at his schematic map — there’s a hell of a lot of Scarborough missing.) The Scarborough extension of the Bloor-Danforth subway line (which I doubt Tory would have proposed if Ford hadn’t already gotten it on the books) will go part of the way to dealing with the problem, but there’s still an enormous unserviced void in the northeast of this city. Same for the northwest.

Start building the subways to service those areas — NOW. It’s one of Toronto’s great shames that, over the past two decades, our city leaders haven’t budgeted on a consistent year-in, year-out basis for constant, evolutionary additions to our subway network as every major city in Europe does, usually at the rate of one or two new subway stops per year — PLUS the creation of entire new lines as the need becomes apparent. (As I’ve written before, the federal government should be picking up a far greater portion of the construction tab, but we won’t go there again right now.)

I’m a big proponent of major subway systems for major cities. They work. In fact, they’re absolutely essential to the survival and enhancement of any true metropolis. And they bring people together.

At the very least, Tory’s SmartTrack plan should have proposed extending the Sheppard subway line east and west to complete logical transit circuits.

And don’t tell me the northeast and the northwest don’t have the population bases to warrant full subway service.

Toronto’s still got a lot of growing to do. We’ve only got about 2.8 million people living in the city right now. Mumbai, on about the same amount of land (a little less actually), has somewhere in the vicinity of 13 million. Seoul has about 10 million (again, in a slightly smaller area than Toronto).

We certainly don’t want to become Mumbai or even Soeul, but there’s a lot of middle ground in between. New York City, for example, has more than 8.5 million inhabitant living rather well in an area only about 15 per cent larger than Toronto’s municipal boundaries. So I think it’s safe to say that in the next few decades, Toronto’s population is easily going to double and keep rising.

And where are all those new, teeming millions going to live?

In the northeast and the northwest, of course, the major areas of Toronto with the room for serious population expansion.

Forget “If you build it, they will come…” They’re coming anyway, so start building now or be well and truly damned 20 years from now.

As for the greater cost of subways versus LRTs, that’s actually a red herring. A subway may initially cost more than twice as much as a Light Rapid (or Rail) Transit line to build, but subways are built to have a 100-year lifespan while LRTs only have a 30-year lifespan. Anyone who ever rides on the decrepit, unreliable Scarborough LRT (or SRT or whatever you want to call it) can tell you the 30-year estimate is a joke.

Do the math and you can see that — even leaving inflation out of the equation — subways are a bargain compared to LRTs over the 100-year life of the mass transit line.

As for reliability — regardless of what the propagandists say now — there’s a reason LRTs are called LIGHT Rapid Transit. I want to be on a heavy-duty, industrial-strength subway train in the middle of a Canadian winter.

I’ll say it one more time: Anyone who doesn’t understand the importance of getting proper subway lines extended into the northeast and northwest sectors of this city has never had to endure the endless, uncertain treks to and from those places on the TTC’s existing bus routes or (God have mercy on your soul) on the SRT.

All those areas want is to be treated as equal (and equally worthy) partners in the community of communities that make up Toronto. Regardless of what you think of the Ford Bros, they were the only ones who seemed to really get that — despite John Tory’s slick slogans. (I don’t trust the word of either Ford further than I can throw them, of course, but that’s a different matter. As for Tory, I give him the benefit of the doubt … for the moment.)

If that subway expansion doesn’t happen — and pretty damn quick — Toronto will have much, much bigger problems than a city electoral map divided by a Christmas colour scheme.

 

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Sir Nicholas Winton, 105-Year-Old Hero

- October 18th, 2014

UPDATE: I wrote this blog post in two parts five years ago — in March and September 2009. Only then it was called “Sir Nicholas Winton, 100-Year-Old Hero.” Half a decade has now passed, the marvellous and modest Sir Nicky is still alive (although frailer and more fragile than he was five years ago) and he is still, as always, deserving of every bit of praise and honour that can be heaped at his feet. The world needs shining knights like Sir Nicholas Winton, now more than ever.

The reason for this particular update at this particular time is that, in just a few days, Sir Nicholas Winton will once again be in Prague. Only this time he will not be wrestling Jewish children from the clutches of Nazis who wanted to kill them. This time he will be receiving (on Oct. 28, 2014) the Order of the White Lion, the highest award that can be bestowed in the Czech Republic,  from President Milos Zeman.

Only a few weeks ago, it was feared Sir Nicky was too ill to make the arduous trip. But he has rallied his strength and is determined to go to Prague for the ceremony. Safe journey, good man.

UPDATE: Sir Nicky will only be in the Czech Republic for a few hours on Oct. 28 when Zeman presents him with the medal in a special ceremony at Prague Castle. The Czech military have rearranged one of their air training flights to give Sir Nicky and several members of his family personal transportation back and forth between Britain and the Czech Republic on the same day.

According to filmmaker Matej Minac (more on him later), Sir Nicky  — who was in the RAF during World War II — finally agreed to make the trip when he was promised he could sit in the cockpit for the flight.

UPDATE: Sir Nicholas Winton made it to Prague, received his Order of the White Lion in the presence of his own family members and a number of the then-children he saved, and has now been flown home. Here’s a photo of Czech President Milos Zeman honouring Sir Nicky earlier today (Oct. 28, 2014).

Nicholas-Winton-Czech-award

Sir-Nicky-Winton-2013

Here’s a frame grab from an interview with Sir Nicholas Winton in 2013. And here’s a link to that interview on YouTube. And here’s the original (and subsequently updated) Nosey Parker blog post from 2009 …

 

Sometime today (Friday, Sept. 4, 2009), a steam train that left Prague on Tuesday will arrive in London’s Liverpool Street station.

Among the passengers on board are 24 now-elderly men and women who were some of the 669 mostly Jewish Czech and Slovakian children whisked to safety in Britain under the noses of the Nazis 70 years ago.

And waiting for them on the platform in London will be Sir Nicholas Winton — now 100 but still going strong — the modest, courageous man who organized and paid for nine trains in the spring and summer of 1939 to carry those children out of the inferno of Hitler’s empire. Eight trains got through. The ninth was scheduled to leave Prague the day war broke out. The train was seized by the Nazis in Prague and the approximately 250 children aboard were never seen alive again.

Today’s train arrival in London celebrates the 70th anniversary of the successful escapes and mourns the loss of those 250 children and the millions of others who died in the Holocaust that followed.

Here is a blog post I wrote back in March when the Czech consul-general in Toronto, Richard Krpac, orchestrated a special showing of a marvellous documentary on Winton’s feat.

It’s always worth renewing our acquaintance with the goodness that grows in this world amid the evil and pain.

UPDATE: As of late February 2013, Sir Nicholas Winton is still alive, alert and active — and looking forward to his 104th birthday in May.


Sir Nicholas Winton

I saw the face of pure goodness last week.

It’s the face of Nicholas Winton — Sir Nicholas Winton, actually, since Queen Elizabeth knighted him six years ago, but he prefers to be called Nicky.

And what you see is what you get with Nicky Winton. It’s a face of strength and compassion, generosity and wisdom. And also a face of enormous modesty, sensitivity and humour.

But you don’t see quite everything in the face. Otherwise his family, friends and admirers would have noticed some hint of the secret Nicholas Winton kept for half a century.

Winton says it was not a secret — just something that happened and then was overtaken by other events in his life. He served in the RAF in World War II, went back to a successful business career, married, raised children, gave generously of both money and time to his community and lived to a ripe old age.

In fact, he is still living, hale and hearty although saddened by the death of his beloved wife Greta a few years ago. He even renewed his driver’s licence last year.

Sir Nicholas Winton will turn 100 on May 19, and every person of good will in the world should raise a grateful glass to the man that day.

Why? Because he proved one good human being can make a difference in this terrible world. And he did it in complete anonymity, without ever asking for recognition or thanks.

What was Nicholas Winton’s deep, dark secret? On the eve of World War II, he almost single-handedly saved 669 Czech children from certain death.

And it all happened because Winton, a successful young London stockbroker at the time, was going to take a skiing vacation in December 1938.

But before I tell you the story of Nicholas Winton, I want to tell you how I found out about this man.

Thank you, Richard Krpac.

Krpac is the suave and knowledgeable consul general of the Czech Republic in Toronto.

Krpac invited me — and 300 other close friends (before Facebook it would have been obvious that was a joke) — last Thursday to an evening entitled “How We Escaped Hitler.” The subtitle was “An unforgettable evening with two icons of Canadian journalism, who recount their childhood escape from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia.”


Hana Gartner, Joe Schlesinger, Richard Krpac and Peter C. Newman

And what an evening. The two journalists — truly icons — were Joe Schlesinger, the CBC’s former globetrotting foreign correspondent, and author, columnist and pundit Peter C. Newman, with the Fifth Estate’s Hana Gartner as moderator (after initial microphone problems were worked out).

Both men are now navigating around the age of 80 and both escaped Czechoslovakia as children. Schlesinger was one of the 669 children (with his younger brother) who were spirited away from the Nazis by Nicholas Winton on eight trains between March and August 1939. Newman escaped with his family, but on a more circuitous and dangerous route through Italy and France as Europe was engulfed in war.

But the centrepiece of the evening was Nicholas Winton: The Power of Good, a 2002 documentary by Prague-based Slovak filmmaker Matej Minac. Joe Schlesinger narrated (and wrote the narration for) the Emmy Award-winning film.


Filmmaker Matej Minac with the grand old man.

It’s an amazing story.

In December 1938, 29-year-old London stockbroker Nicholas Winton was preparing to take a skiing vacation with a friend in Switzerland. But that friend — who worked in the British Embassy in Prague — insisted Winton come to Czechoslovakia instead to see what was happening there.


Britain’s Chamberlain, France’s Daladier, Germany’s Hilter and Italy’s Mussolini.

What Winton found was a disaster about to happen. That cowardly twit Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister, and France’s PM Edouard Daladier (who knew exactly what Hitler was up to but couldn’t persuade Chamberlain) had already given Adolph Hitler the Sudetenland portion of Czechoslovakia (without any Czechoslovak consultation) in September with the “peace in our time” Munich Pact.

That servile act did two things. It took away Czechoslovakia’s fortified mountain border zone with Germany and it sent hundreds of thousands of refugees — who knew what the Nazis had already done to their neighbours in Austria — fleeing eastward to Prague.

As Richard Krpac said Thursday night, “Munich (Pact) broke the spirit and backbone of the Czech nation for decades to come.”

And what Nicky Winton found in Prague in December 1938 were refugee camps filled with families, many Jewish, who had fled the Nazis and had nowhere else to run. Because no one would take them in.

I’m ashamed of Canada’s small-minded, bigoted reaction at that time. We closed our doors. What was the phrase that one slimeball parliamentarian used in debates over the issue of Jewish refugee admissions to Canada? Oh yes. “One is too many.”

(Peter Newman and his family, by the way, got into Canada through the courageous subterfuge of a Canadian Pacific Railway agent and a Catholic priest. Newman recalled his father, a sophisticated urban Jewish factory owner, coming home and saying, “We’re going to Canada as barley farmers — and Catholics.” Newman’s family was one of only seven Jewish Czech families that were admitted to Canada in the guise of Catholics.)

Winton could not leave Prague. He became fixated on getting the refugees to safety, especially the children. Using a table in his hotel’s lounge area as his office, Winton began writing every possible government to find safe haven for the children of the Prague refugee camps. And parents began seeking him out to have their children listed for transportation to safety.

The only governments willing to allow entry were Sweden and Britain — Britain reluctantly, and only if every child had a sponsor signed up to take him or her in and only if a 50-pound surety (a considerable sum at that time) was paid for each child.

Winton shifted his one-man rescue mission back to London and began lining up sponsors for his children.


A trainload of Czech children arrive in London in 1939.

Throughout his hectic eight-month mission, Winton said the Nazis were not as much of a problem as was the British bureaucracy. The Nazis simply wanted to be paid to give the children through-passage (sometimes doubling the payment demand at the last hour) but the British were blind foot-draggers.

Few in the British government thought the refugees were in immediate danger. War? What war? We gave Hitler Sudetenland. Everything’s fine.

As 1939 dragged on and the British government dragged its heels, Winton and his growing organization took to printing forged admission papers for children who were approved, but whose papers were not forthcoming.

“We didn’t bring anyone in illegally,” Winton says in the documentary. “We just speeded up the process.”


Nicholas Winton with one of the 669 children he saved in 1939.

But no matter how fast Winton worked, time was running out. The Nazis occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia in March 1939. Still no intervention by Britain or France.

March 14 – Aug. 2, 1939: Eight trains to freedom. A total of 669 children saved.

The trains ran from Prague through Germany to Holland. There the children went by ship to England and by train again to London, where they were met by their new families.

It was terrifying for the children, separated from their parents and pushed into an unknown, alien, hostile world. And heart-wrenching for the parents who knew they were sending their children to safety while giving them up, perhaps forever.


An exhausted Czech child falls asleep after her arrival in England.

Well, terrifying for most children.

“I was a 10-year-old kid,” said Joe Schlesinger Thursday night. “For me it was, ‘Hey, this is interesting.’ ”

But time finally ran out.

Winton’s last, biggest train — with 251 children aboard — was set to leave Wilson Station (named for former U.S. President Woodrow Wilson) in Prague on Sept. 1, 1939 — the day Germany and the Soviet Union invaded Poland.

All borders were closed. The children’s train remained at the station for hours. And then, under Gestapo orders, the train moved out. The 251 children aboard were never seen again. They became a small part of the 1.5 million Jewish children who were murdered by the Nazis.

The documentary does not dwell on it, but I know from reading other interviews with Winton that he is still tormented that he could not rescue those last 251 children. If he had been able to do this or that, pull this string or find a way around that bureaucratic hurdle, he would have been able to get them out a day or two sooner — and they would have lived. As he approaches 100, Winton still prays for the 251 lost children every day.

But with the coming of the larger conflict, Winton put aside his humanitarian mission and went to war.

After the war he married and raised a family and for 50 years never talked about what he had done in 1938 and ’39.

Then, in 1988, his wife came across a scrapbook in the attic. The book contained a complete record compiled by Winton of the rescue operation and had the records of all of the children transported to safety and their settlement homes in Britain.

After Greta Winton stopped being angry at her husband for not sharing this life-altering experience with her, she went to work tracking down “Winton’s children” and letting the world know what her brave, modest husband had done while much of the rest of the world sat on its hands.

Now I have to tell you, I’ve been tearing up off and on for a good 20 minutes at this point in the documentary. But the best/worst is yet to come. And I’m going to share it with you, so I want you to cry too when you see this film clip. It’s not very long — you had better prep yourself and be in the right head space before you hit play.

In 1988, Winton was coerced by family and friends into going on a BBC TV show called “That’s Life” to discuss the 1939 rescue mission. Also invited as audience members were about 80 of “Winton’s children.”

You have to realize that these children — now greying adults — knew very little about the mechanics of their escape from the Nazis. This television show and the revelations of Winton’s scrapbook were, for most of them, the first time they really knew that they owed their lives and the lives of their children and grandchildren to the efforts on one man, now sitting in their midst.

UPDATE: The original link I had to this show is now broken, but here’s a link to a shorter — but still moving — clip from that 1988 BBC telecast.

If you’re not a little teary after watching that, I don’t want to know you.

In the audience at Thursday night’s showing of Nicholas Winton: The Power of Good were half a dozen of “Winton’s children.”

Joe Schlesinger summed it up for all of them when he said: “I found myself a father figure and he regards me as a son.”

Like Joe, most of the rescued children in the audience had lost all of their family members who remained behind in the Holocaust.

But those 669 children that Nicky Winton saved have survived and thrived and are doing good works throughout the world. It’s estimated that the families of “Winton’s children” now total more than 5,000 men, women and children.


Nicky Winton visits the children in a school named in his honour in the Czech Republic./Czech Army photo

One person can make a difference, a huge difference.

If each of us can find just a small part of Nicky Winton’s courage and compassion — and do the right thing when called upon — this terrible old world will be a much better place.

Don’t forget to raise a toast to Sir Nicholas Winton on May 19.


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