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Winter 2021

lead in shot AQR

As you can see from our cover picture, this season Tartu is waiting for us. It looks bare and empty so far but as soon as the covid restrictions allow, we will be able to enjoy our new digs. The board members went to see the place recently and you can see some pictures and an introduction in our first article in the “What is going on in the Academy” section by Matt Segal, with pictures by Matt and John Weatherburn. We have two fine articles by Don Plumb spotlighting a workshop (Web of Natural Science) and a presentation (Films of the Weimar Era). The walks during this past year have enjoyed many different areas of Toronto. John Weatherburn has prepared pictures and descriptions of these outings. Finally, in this section is Meet a Member, Cathy Spark, who was interviewed by Karena de Sousa. In the “Arts and Letters” section, our book review this quarter is by Cathy Spark and her choice is The Don, written by academy member Lorna Poplak. The “Opinions” section has an article by Mariana Grinblat entitled Greenwashing, which she based on a Science News article. Ron Miller`s article in our “Technology” section is entitled Screenland - A Short History, with illustrations by Susan Schwartz. Our “Epilogue” is another pithy saying from the late Eveleen Armour.

Happy and invigorating New Year to everyone.

Linda Tu

The Academy is Moving to the Annex

The Academy Board will evaluate, in February, the possibility of some workshops and events (e.g. the AGM) moving later in the spring to Tartu College, depending on covid. Tartu, located at 310 Bloor St. W., is a not-for-profit student residence and college, situated on the northeast corner of Bloor St. W. and Madison Ave., three easy minutes east of the Spadina Road subway station.

It was named after the city of Tartu, Estonia, and was originally built as an undergraduate student co-op with a library, archive and study centre serving the Estonian-Canadian community.

Most of its residents are students at the University of Toronto. It was built in 1970, two years after its sister building, the David A. Croll Apartments (originally Rochdale College). Both buildings were designed by architects Elmar Tampõldand John Wells. Like the Rochdale building (and the Robarts), it is an example of brutalist architecture (from a time when there was too much concrete in North America and they didn’t know what to do with all of it).

Access (disability friendly) to our workshop rooms (G1 and G6, pictured) are three steps down from street level through the Madison Ave. entrance.

In addition to the Madison Ave. entrance, Tartu is still working on more accessibility. The large foyer / lounge space with cloakroom will have a coffeemaker. The banquet hall is a multi-purpose space that can be used not only for holiday lunches and spring talks but can be divided into more intimate spaces for the Academy forums and the documentary and feature film workshops.

There is also an interior access to the cafeteria upstairs – by stairs or by elevator.

Matthew Segal, photos by John Weatherburn and Matthew Segal



Workshop Spotlight: Web of Science

An October session of the Web of Natural Science workshop, facilitated by Linda Tu, featured an article on artificial proteins, “Life Improved, in the first hour and a wide range of shorter topics in the second, all sourced from the June 2021 issue of Scientific American magazine.

Wilma Spence delivered a clear, detailed summary of the article on artificial proteins, a topic of particular relevance because of its application to COVID vaccines. Proteins are long-chain molecules made up of amino acids linked in a specific replicable sequence, then coiled and folded into complex three-dimensional structures. Natural proteins in humans contain various combinations and sequences of about 20 different amino acids. The molecules are tiny: a single cell may contain 42 million proteins. Proteins digest food, fight invaders, repair damage, carry signals, exert force and replicate. Over the last eight years, dramatic advances in elucidating protein structure have been made using artificial intelligence (AI), including Google DeepMind. New research is aimed at creating synthetic protein “nanobots” to fight infectious diseases or dismantle toxic molecules.

The specific application of such artificial proteins to fighting corona viruses involves creating protein spikes that mimic the spikes on the surface of virus particles. These spikes stimulate an immune response so that the person produces antibodies before becoming infected with the actual virus. The “breakthrough” technique involves producing just the tip of a spike (not a natural biological molecule), which makes it able to penetrate the 3-D structure 10 times as effectively as a larger molecule. Artificial proteins offer the promise of dramatically more effective vaccines.

The second hour was a discussion of a variety of shorter topics from the “Advances” section of the Scientific American issue, each introduced by a volunteer from the group. A new process helps unscramble the chaotic jumbles of dinosaur bones typically found in geologic deposits, enabling matching of individuals and differentiating species. Rat eradication on an Alaskan island has not only allowed bird populations to recover but has also benefitted other species in the food chain right down to marine kelp. Lifelike models for bone, a complex combination of different cell types, have been created that have application to personalized therapies and bone disorders, including cancer. Studies of slime molds remembering locations of food sources led to reflection on the meaning of “memory,” including immune response and muscle memory in athletes. Game playing using virtual reality (VR) goggles is showing promise in boosting memory in older adults: this discussion segued into the relationship, both positive and negative, between stress and cognition. And finally, a discussion of biofabrication using fungi to produce sturdy, sustainable alternatives to plastic and leather completed a very eclectic hour.

The Web of Natural Science workshop usually involves two feature articles per session, rather than Advances. Future topics for the group this year include something for everyone: what Neanderthals looked like, quantum computing and how dirt could save the planet!

Don Plumb  



Presentation Spotlight: Films of the Weimar Era

A November session of the Europe Between the Wars workshop featured a presentation by Bill Krangle on “Films of the Weimar Era.” Bill had chosen the topic because of his interest in German culture and specifically the surge in creativity in the arts in the Weimar era. His research included books, Wikipedia, images from Google, and YouTube. His presentation was an engaging, highly visual PowerPoint that included stills and video clips from the films.

The Weimar Republic was the German state from 1918 to 1933, the period after World War I until the rise of Nazi Germany. With Berlin as its “Babylon,” the Weimar era was a period of extraordinary diversity in social behaviour and avant garde production in architecture, dance, painting, sculpture and cinema.

This creativity was exemplified by German Expressionist films that evolved from low-budget efforts such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) that used set designs with wildly non-realistic geometric designs on walls and floors to represent shadows and objects, to major productions like Metropolis (1927) that used lavish sets and thousands of extras. The plots of Expressionist films also often dealt with insanity, betrayal and the inner psychological workings of the characters rather than the surface romance found in British and American films of the time.

Bill introduced us to 10 classic German Expressionist films, each notable for its theme or some aspect of production:

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920): Under hypnotism, people could be induced to commit horrible acts.

The Golem – How He Came into the World (1920): An animated being from Jewish folklore is conjured from clay.

The Indian Tomb (1921): Very expensively made with elaborate sets and animals, including tigers; meant for an international audience, including America.

Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler (1922): A master criminal genius manipulates the stock market.

Nosferatu (1922): The myth of the vampire, and a theme of keeping raw carnal desire in check.

Metropolis (1927): Fritz Lang’s most well-known film of the Weimar, with 36,000 extras; a hallucinatory masterpiece vision of the future.

Pandora’s Box (1929): The new free independent woman.

The Blue Angel (1930): Shot in English and German; the role of Lola launched Marlene Dietrich’s career.

People on Sunday (1930): A realistic portrait of a day in Berlin; low budget and largely unrehearsed, with amateur actors and handheld cameras.

M (1931): Highly influential psychological thriller about a serial killer of children, pursued by both the police and the underworld; made Peter Lorre’s career, but also typecast him.

The video clips that Bill used included symphonic scores, many of which had been added in recent years in reviving the films. The original films as shown in Germany would have had musical scores played by orchestras to audiences of thousands in a large city cinema, or perhaps a piano combo in a smaller town screening. Most of the original music has been lost, but the adapted scores that we heard certainly improved the experience of seeing the film clips.

Many of these German directors emigrated when the Nazis came to power and went on to very successful and influential careers in Hollywood, most notably Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder and Fred Zinneman. Their influence on Hollywood cinema, in particular the film noir and horror genres, was significant. Actors like Louise Brooks, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich and Peter Lorre also had successful film careers in America.

The rise of Hitler and the power of the National Socialists put an end to one of Germany’s most innovative and creatively successful eras. But these films continue to represent the “dark times” post-war in the 1920s. They live on in library collections and on YouTube and, more subtly, in their influence on themes of current movies.

In summary, Bill felt that the most important idea in his presentation was that this period in German cultural life was extremely creative and new, only to be crushed in 1933 with the advent of Hitler’s Third Reich. He was surprised at the extent of German Expressionist influence on the American film industry and would have loved to have included more of the films he discussed. All of the group felt encouraged to explore further these remarkable films.

                                                                                                            Don Plumb




The Walks

Academy Walks 2021

In spite of Covid, we were able to start  the Academy walks in July of 2021. We were careful to make sure participants were outside, socially distanced and had signed a waiver agreeing to government health regulations.

Rene Laukat, Donna Oke, Rhona Wolpert and Ken Snelson gracefully volunteered to be our leaders. Many thanks to them for their help. The walks were all circular in case people came by car.

Attendance varied from 9 to 20 people for the walks. They were a great break from being in front of a Zoom screen.

Below is a summary of the walks (some with pictures, some not):

July 20 High Park

Lead by Rene’s hiking friend, Mary Ayers. We explored High Park and then had lunch outdoors at the Grenadier Café.

July 27 Greenwood Station

The intent of the walk led by Rhona Walpert was to meet at Greenwood station, walk to Monarch Park and then to  Ashbridges Bay. However, as we got to Monarch Park it started to rain like crazy, so we had to stop early. A few people found places for lunch on their way home.

August 11 Baby Point

Donna led our walk  through a truly amazing community with such grand architecture and history. The post-walk Dark Horse refreshment stop was great, although a bit chilly.

August 17 Rosedale

Donna led this walk from the Rosedale station, circling around beautiful Chorley Park and back via Roxborough Avenue to Rosedale subway. Lunch was at Rebel House Pub patio.

We toured North Rosedale Heritage Conservation area, including Binscarth Road, with many homes listed by  Architectural Conservancy Ontario - Toronto. The pilot episode of Gilmore Girls was filmed at 61 Binscarth Road (a Heritage home).

August 24 Riverdale

A temperature of 32C and high humidity made it feel very warm. Meeting at  Withrow Park, we headed south towards  Bridgepoint Hospital - stopping in the shade and many interesting sights along the way, including the park’s sports area, the monkey bars, the historic  Bain Co-op, past the Old Don Jail and the west-facing staircase of the Bridgepoint Hospital with artist Bill Lishman’s colourful leaping/dancing figures. We returned by heading north towards the Danforth, through Riverdale Park east by the monument to Chinese dignitary Dr. Sun Yat-sen and, at 469 Broadview Avenue, the John Cox Cottage built in 1796, the oldest house in Riverdale. The 5km walk took two hours. Lunch was enjoyed on Danforth patios, with some of the group at Christina’s and some at Soula’s nearby.

August 31 Islington Murals

On a beautiful sunny Tuesday, Donna organized and led a most interesting walk of the historic Village of Islington Murals. From Islington station, Donna led us along Mimico Creek through Tom Riley Park to Montgomery House to meet  Corinne, our tour guide. After the required Covid protocols, she provided us with audio receivers for her ongoing narrative of the historic Islington community, it’s artists and residents - and of the nearby 30 murals on homes and businesses along Dundas Street west from Islington to Kipling. Lunch was at the Fox & Fiddle, housed in a historic building festooned with a variety of artwork.

Sept 14 Old Mill to Sunnyside

Ken led us on a wonderful 5.2km walk from TTC Old Mill station south to the historic Sunnyside Pavilion (from the 1920s) and provided much historical detail of the numerous highlights along the way. It was a perfect way to spend a late summer morning on the south Humber River trails. With a stop at the historic Oculus Pavilion, currently under rehabilitation, then a rest stop for much of the group under the footings of the beautiful Humber Bay Arch Bridge (1994)  while waiting for the small group of us taking the hillside off trails, we merged on the bridge towards Sunnyside for lunch  on the patio of the Sunnyside Pavilion Café.

Sept 28 Toronto Islands

On a chilly but sunny Tuesday morning several of us gathered at the Jack Layton Ferry Terminal for the short ferry ride to Centre Island. We wandered the trails of Centre, first stopping to admire the seven orange Tulpi-chairs gifted to the city by Dutch royalty in 2015. Then we passed the channel across Olympic Island, past the now closed Centreville Amusement Park and empty Far Enough Farm, the closed Carousal Café, then crossed the main bridge and headed west.  Here we passed the staged seating of the Alan Lamport Regatta Course, past the Island Public and Natural Science School, then u-turning east, passed the southern beaches and onto the boardwalk, bringing us to our lunch destination.  With the Riviera Café street-side patio subject to construction noises of the Algonquin bridge rebuild, and five members fresh off the ferry joining us, we settled at a banquet table on the beautiful expanse of the enlarged gardens of the Island Café, where a  fabulous lunch was had by all.

Oct 5 Liberty Village

Rene led us on a route following the valley of the now buried Garrison Creek. Our route took us south from Christie TTC station to Garrison Common, then west into Liberty Village.

There are many parks and green spaces connecting the route from Christie Pits to Lake Ontario. After a short introduction that included the historic Christie Pits Riots of the early 1930s, we crossed Bickford Park and Harbord Park, at College and Crawford streets, stopping at the Portugal Memorial Parkette to admire its fountain, memorial plaque and murals. Continuing south through George Ben Park and Roxton Road Parkette, we arrived at the north entrance to the beautiful expanse of the 14.6 hectares of Trinity Bellwoods Park, stopping at the statue commemorating the 200th birthday of Simon Bolivar, presented by the Consul General of Venezuela. Continuing along Queen Street West and Niagara Street through Stanley Park, crossing the two beautiful bridges of Garrison Common spanning the north west and south west railway tracks, we found ourselves in the ongoing construction of the condo towers of Liberty Village.  Lunch was at the patio of the Brazen Head Irish Pub.

Oct 26 Brick Works

Rain or Shine - the Academy Walkers march on! And today's relentless drizzle had Donna and several walkers meet up at Rosedale station. With the trees in gorgeous fall foliage, red and yellow leaves splashing along the streets and sidewalks with many estate-like homes decorated in Halloween splendour - a great beginning to a rainy day. We went on to the Brick Works, then returned to the Rosedale station.

Nov 16 Moore Park

Donna led us on this circular walk through the Moore Park community, returning along the beautiful vale of Avoca Ravine trails and up that very long hill to our luncheon destination, the sunny and heated third-floor patio of  Shenanigan's Pub on St. Clair West. The glorious sunny fall weather brought about 20 of us to the trails with the unfortunate tumble of one of our members (needing ambulance rescue - gratefully now recovered), giving pause and somewhat marring an otherwise perfect two-hour outing. Lunch was at the delightful Shenanigan’s.

Nov 23 Mount Pleasant Cemetery

Donna led us on a walk around Mount Pleasant cemetery on a beautiful day in late November. It was a chance for people to visit lost relatives and friends! Lunch again at Shenanigan’s.

                                                                                                          John Weatherburn




Meet a Member - Cathy Spark -  Interviewed by Karena De Souza

Please meet Cathy Spark.

Many of you may recognize her name from her role as the Academy web master over the past few years. As she transitions out of that role, I thought it might be a nice opportunity to discover more about her and thank her for the work that has been the backbone to the way ALLTO is presented to our members and the outside world.

Our conversation segued into an interesting discussion on Cathy’s interest in Third Age Learning opportunities in our city.

I could not fit our engaging conversation into 1500 words, so I offer the following as your starting point for your own chats with Cathy when we get back to meeting in person.


How did you discover the Academy?

Karena: Hi Cathy! It is great to actually have a conversation with you. I have come across your name so often over my time at ALLTO because of your role as the webmaster.

So - starting at the beginning - how did you discover the Academy?

Cathy: The easy answer is through a Google search. Once I took early retirement from my corporate job at WSP in 2016, I knew that I wanted to feed that broader intellectual side of me that had been starved while I grew my career and raised my family. The peer-learning model of the Academy was just what I was searching for.

In the past years, I have facilitated and co-facilitated many of the workshops I have attended. They have been diverse and very thought-provoking. My current classes are Investigative Journalism, Art Crime and Sport & Society. I am always learning something outside my comfort zone from the class or the people around me. I find myself constantly finding something that I want to continue researching or discuss with others.

Then there is the diversity of classmates. The topic of Woodstock came up in one workshop. When I queried the group, three of them had actually been at that iconic event, and that added a new spin to the discussion.

In another class on Crime and Punishment I was surprised and a bit intimidated to find myself sitting with two of Canada’s respected legal minds!

On the other hand, I was only one of three people under the age of 60 when I joined! But with Covid, we are attracting more people who are searching for third age learning opportunities.

Karena: Tell me more. How have your volunteer activities at ALLTO changed your experience?

Cathy: I was asked to volunteer within a month of joining the Academy. Over the past six years most readers will likely know me from the Academy-wide emails and as the Zoom administrator. I also served on the Task Force to ease the COVID-driven transition to online workshops.

I have been the webmaster, revitalizing the website from its previous newsletter format; held various positions on the Communications Committee including Chair, and served as a Board member.

The work with the Board and my interests also led me to spend more time with the Third Age Network (TAN) – an umbrella organization for later life learning groups such as the Academy. I am in my second of a five-year role as their President.

Karena: You have facilitated a number of Academy workshops. Name some of them.

Cathy: Yes, I’ve facilitated nine workshops to date! I am passionate about social history. Cultural history of food and drink; Social History of Medicine; Crime, Prevention and Punishment; the British Empire; Conspiracy Theories; Art Crime; Investigative Journalism; Propaganda; and Sport and Society.

Karena: Now that you are stepping back from your Academy responsibilities you will hopefully have some more time on your hands. What are your range of current interests?

Cathy: I love Victorian history. Presently I am reading an interesting book by Neil Oliver called The Story of the World in a Hundred Moments – the day that Gutenberg got the loan to build his printing press, or Henry VIII saw Anne Boleyn or Hitler was made Chancellor.

I would like to do more writing and get a podcast on Social History up and running.

My husband plans to retire when he is 65, and I look forward to spending time on our shared interests. When we travel, he is an avid photographer. When we look at a building he is studying the architecture, the curves and the light. And I am asking the bricks to divulge what life was like for the people within those walls.


About Cathy

Karena: Can you share a little more about yourself?

Cathy: I was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba. As an “army brat” I lived across most of North America and Europe. By the time I was 16 we had moved 14 times – various barracks across Canada from cold Churchill, Manitoba where we had polar bears in the back yard, to Europe. Not every child had the opportunity to travel widely in the ‘60s. My parents made sure that my brother and I were exposed to different cultures, foods and languages. That variety shaped me into who I am today.

I was a boarder as a teen in Salisbury, England – this is where I got really passionate about history.

I earned a Master’s in Library and Information Science from UofT, and (fun fact) originally wanted to be a prison librarian.

At work, I had an opportunity to become an aide to the CEO – and that changed the direction of my career. I spent 35+ years working in the engineering / architecture and construction sectors – focused on change management, M&A, strategic communications and brand positioning. I became the Vice President for a global industry leader.

The work was international, and I was lucky to spend a lot of time travelling to the UK and the Middle East.

I have two grown sons and a patient husband who is willing to listen to all the interesting things I discover.

Karena: What can you share with others about Third Age learning concepts and the Academy?

Cathy: My curiosity is endless. I am an avid reader – I am the kind of child who grew up reading with a flashlight under the bed covers. But there is a limit to learning through books. Through my work with TAN and the Academy, I see how rewarding it is to have conversations with others with similar interests particularly when their experiences and ideas are diverse. For those who never grow out of their curiosity, this is a great option.

I got interested in the topic of third age learning when I helped TAN organize a symposium in 2018 before COVID. We wanted to discuss how to entice more people – especially Baby Boomers – into the third age learning environments. So many more Canadians are going to want to take early retirement or are working as solopreneurs and want to join a group where their mind is engaged and stimulated through challenging and vibrant discourse.

I was one of the younger members and they asked me to join their executive to represent the viewpoints from this “younger” age group. Many of these organizations have very talented volunteers.

I have also been working with the leadership at Ontario Tech University as they work to achieve their designation as an Age Friendly University and begin to implement exciting new initiatives.

There are many components to aging – wellness, diet, mobility, socialization. But intellectual stimulation, particularly for those who have had a very exciting professional life, is a key factor. I see organizations such as the Academy as being a key solution in this space as it offers a balance of the social, intellectual and physical.

Socialization is also an important topic particularly around the conversation about isolation in a time of Covid. If we can engage the whole person through the curiosity of their minds, we can affect people’s well being.

Karena: I think that brings it full circle to the phrase that compelled me to join ALLTO – a Spring Talk in 2018 where Michael Adams of Environics ended his presentation saying a healthy mind is a huge indicator for a healthy body.

With that I’d like to thank you for all the work you have done with the Academy, Cathy. I look forward to the day we meet in person. Any last words for us?

Cathy: Yes. The Academy is a volunteer organization that is run very professionally. I would like to see our circle of volunteers expand with more people within ALLTO taking on smaller projects so that we are able to draw on the diverse experiences and energies available to us. It will be the best way to see our organization continue to expand.


Karena de Souza



A Recommendation from My Bookshelf: The Don: The Story of Toronto’s Infamous Jail by Academy Member Lorna Poplak.

In my earlier life I worked for the engineering firm that did some of the structural design work on Bridgepoint Hospital and I made a number of site visits to the project over the years. During these visits I was aware of the Don – it had a presence that seemed to fade as the hospital began to grow upwards and outwards. But it wasn’t until I discovered Lorna Poplak’s book The Don: The Story of Toronto’s Infamous Jail that I really saw this important symbol of Toronto’s past.

The Don presents to us the story of Toronto’s Don Jail – from its inception to the day it opened its doors in 1864; through its time as a political football and a victim of changing prison philosophy; through its decline as an institution to its eventual rebirth.

The Don is meticulously researched. Its narrative comes together from what Lorna has learned through scholarly research; contemporary accounts and media; memoirs; and recollections that resulted from her interviews with individuals who had a personal connection to the jail. The result draws us in and presents us with a rich level of detail that is tightly written.

The pictures that Lorna paints in her telling of the jail’s history are evocative. Excerpts like “what transpired over the next eleven or twelve hours would not have been out of place in a Buster Keaton movie” provide the reader with the ability to see the scene – in this case Lorna is talking about the firefighters tackling a blaze at the jail in 1862. The same prose approach allows us to also see attempted escapes, executions and heated council discussions as if we were there. Lorna’s dry sense of humour and occasional tongue-in-cheek tone make her prose even more enjoyable.

Lorna’s picture of the jail and the growing city that surrounds it is populated by many characters – not only the “bewildering jumble of men, women, children, lunatics, debtors and inmates awaiting trial or execution,” but architectural and penal visionaries, bombastic politicians, corrupt prison officials and prisoners with either an abundance of hope or none at all. But the hero of the piece - the main character that informs and fascinates – is the jail itself: its imposing physical presence and the terrible yet vibrant life within.

I heartily recommend that you obtain a copy of The Don and let Lorna introduce you to the personalities and stories behind this significant social and architectural Toronto legacy.

The Don: The Story of Toronto’s Infamous Jail – written by Lorna Poplak - is published by Dundurn Press, ©January 2021.

Cathy Spark




Concerns about “greenwashing,” a term coined in the 1980s to describe the practice of organizations marketing their products as environmentally friendly when they are not, have persisted into the current climate crisis. As more consumers have become environmentally conscious, corporations’ greenwashing tactics have evolved. For instance, some energy companies in the United States have claimed that natural gas is a “clean” energy source because the power plants emit less carbon dioxide than coal plants. But natural gas plants can emit large amounts of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. In 2022, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission plans to review its “Green Guides,” rules for companies that make environmental claims.

I took the decision not to drive my Sebring Convertible any more and gave it to a company that could use it once in a while. If we all do something for Mother Earth, it will help reduce the emissions volume from cars and other things. These emissions cause climate change! It has been eight years now and I am perfectly happy with using the TTC and a taxi once in a blue moon.

We are intelligent human beings who understand the results of not taking charge of your life and helping Mother Earth.

Speak to your kids and grandkids about these things as they know that the ice up north is melting and polar bears will not have a place to rest.

Kids are very smart nowadays!

Based on an Excerpt from Science News, November 24, 2021

Mariana Grinblat


Screenland - A Short History

- "the under appreciated touch input"

Recently I left my “smart” watch on the table to charge overnight beside my “smart” phone. They have some sort of relationship since they are of the same species and to my surprise the next morning the watch had acquired several new functions such as the local weather report, various “notifications” and access to my e-mail as well. To get these watch displays, I had to "swipe" the screen with my fingertip. Since the watch is the “little sister” of the phone, I was curious to see how well its screen performed in comparison to that of the phone. It is a strange thing to interact with a watch via a touch screen. It is also a strange thing to do to a phone. Why is everybody looking down at a thin glass rectangle but also stroking it or seemingly massaging it with their thumbs? So, for those of you who have recently woken from a long nap, this is the story. Like most technology in our lives, we did not have any of this 25 years ago.

Much has been written recently about cell phone addiction and how it seems to take over so much of some peoples’ lives. We would need some help from the social sciences to really understand this behaviour - perhaps to be covered in a later article. For now, I will try to explain a little more about the device itself and maybe why it is so appealing. First the image. There is no doubt that it must “move.” Why were “movies” virtually an instant hit in the 1900s? Then W.D. Griffiths discovered that showing a face close-up captivated audiences (for example, Lilian Gish 1919). About the same time, Edison produced the Nickelodeon that used a film strip projected in a box. Thus was born movies for personal viewing (1905). It was another 100 years before movies could be viewed again for personal viewing on our phones (today streamed over a high-speed data communications channel). Early film projection flickered, which is why they were nicknamed the “Flicks.” We don’t want this, so quite early a film frame rate of 24 frames/sec was standardized. In the TV era we learned to be conscious of image resolution in terms of TV scan lines. The North American system used 512 horizontal lines across the screen, so we never sat too close to the TV console.

The first flat screen monitor was invented in 1964, a single-colour plasma type, then the first full-colour plasma screen TV in 1977. Later, LED technology was introduced in 1997. Screens were characterized by picture size and pixel horizontal x vertical count. So how much density do we really need? It turns out from the print industry that we need 300 dots/inch or better. At this density the individual dots cannot be perceived by one with normal vision. Even when aided by a 10X magnifier, one could barely resolve the dots. I suggest using a 20X magnifier or a jeweller’s loop if you would like to check your smartphone and iPad display.

Apple is well aware of this and in its advertising has branded this quality “retina” a display. For an example of a current smart phone, the iPhone X - 2436 x 1125 pixels for a density of 458 dots/inch. The pixel centre-to-centre distance equals 0.055mm. For a point of comparison, if you are interested in spacing of the photoreceptors (cones) in the fovea (central part) of our retinas, it is approximately 0.003mm and there are 150,000 cones/sq. mm. The Apple iPhone “retina” is 20x less dense than the human retina!

The construction of the screen on our smartphones appears simple but is a modern miracle of electronic technology and is composed of two basic parts laminated together.

Touch screen evolution

Development starts with the capacitive touch-sensitive switch. You will find these today on the call panels for elevators, on consumer appliances and on medical equipment.

If you remember what capacitance is, just skip ahead. A capacitor can be formed by two close-together parallel conducting metal plates separated by a dielectric layer, or just air. You can transfer an electronic charge to it, which results in a voltage appearing across the plates. Other electrical circuitry can measure or do something with this voltage. If you touched a second capacitor to it, some charge would redistribute to it changing the voltage slightly. The surface of a human body can act as one plate of a capacitor and the ground another. The capacitance value is not large, and we used to have all sorts of fun charging ourselves up. We don’t have to purposely charge ourselves up, we are all walking-around little capacitors. It is quite easy to charge up a capacitor by touch if its capacitance value is much smaller than our body capacitance. If you want to design a touch switch, you use a plate to touch, some amplifier circuitry and a relay to mechanically open or close a single circuit. In the ‘70s you could package this in something about the size of a paperclip box and to provide some feedback, remember to incorporate a small indicator light.

The air traffic control problem

In the ‘60s and ‘70s, commercial air traffic controllers were seeing up to 100 small radar blips on their screens. They did not have modern cursors or track balls to direct the computer’s attention to a specific target. The first capacitive touch screen to solve this problem was an overlay semi-transparent grid of crossed wires in the x and y axis so that each intersection point formed a small capacitor. The grid was aligned with the radar screen. All the operators had to do was to “tap” the point of interest. This is the first application of the development and use of a capacitive touch panel. Gradually touch panels found their way into all kinds of kiosks, e.g. ATM machines and many types of appliances. It is easy to find many installations of touch panels in our environment today.

To be complete, there are two other technologies that can be used to form panels. For example, there is a good chance that the controls on your electrical range are touch enabled but require some mechanical force to activate. This is the so-called “resistive” type. The reason is that you don’t want to accidentally brush over a very sensitive capacitive-technology switch and unintentionally turn on the range. However, today more than 90 % of touch screens use capacitive technology.


So, getting to the touch screens for phones. In 2007, Apple bought a company called FingerWorks for its touch technology and applied for a patent that described how the technology would be used to “scroll” through a display list on its iPod player.

In another Apple patent filed in 2008 we learned about the implementation of multi-touch capability and the recognition of a few simple gestures. These were “Swipe” and “Pinch,” pioneered in the first iPads and iPhones. We are very experienced in using these finger commands and they are almost universally incorporated in all brands of devices today.

There are three common ways to hold and operate a smartphone today. Hold it in a single hand and use that thumb to scroll; hold it in one hand and use the index finger of the second hand to tap on a screen area you want; hold it two hands and use both thumbs to tap the virtual keyboard. The phone’s operating system recognizes these modes of use and optimizes how it responds.

The touch screen sensing array

If you take a closer look, you will see that one axis of the crossed x-y grid is formed by very thin parallel semitransparent metal strips etched in just on the under surface of the covering glass. Next is an insulting layer and then a second crossed strip layer, then various semiconductor layers. A critical characteristic is that about 90% of the light from below gets through.

In the early days for tablets, people wanted a touch point per display pixel. Has this been achieved?

Well, not quite anymore. Apple specifies 264 ppi, which is like a spacing of 0.1mm. Compare this to 458 dots/in for its display.

For a human reference, you may be curious about how tightly packed the pressure sensitive neuron receptors (Merkel receptors) in our fingertips are. So, each efferent nerve is responsible for a receptor field just below the skin of about five sq mm subdivided into eight irregular regions. The Merkel receptors in these regions are spaced as tight as 0.5 mm.

Processing the sensory information is quite different. In our case the brain has outsourced some processing of the sensing neural networks so that they can pre-process for edge detection and roughness.

For our smartphone, the capacitive sensing array outputs a charge “map.” It is the software’s job to recognize blobs as finger taps, one or several at the same time, then find the centroids and track and report its motion and direction across the screen. Fortunately, because we now have powerful processors operating in nano seconds, the phone’s response can make this operation appear to us smooth and fluid. Except occasionally when it doesn’t, and we might curse at our phones.

So, the next time you are mindlessly scrolling through photos or e-mails, just give a moment’s thought to what is happening just below the surface in the smartphone and our fingertips.

                                                            Ron Miller, illustrations by Susan Schwartz



Here is another of the favourite quotes gathered by the late Eveleen Armour

Into that hidden passage my guide and I
entered, to find again the world of light,
and, without thinking of a moment’s rest, we climbed up, he first and I behind him,

far enough to see, through a round opening,
a few of those fair things the heavens bear.
Then we came forth, to see again the stars.
- Dante, L’inferno, XXXIV

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