Witten's Christmas Letter for 1990

2429 Cherokee Drive
Calgary, Alberta
November, 1990


Greetings. Today is one of those rare Alberta days when the sky is not blue from horizon to horizon. It snowed a bit yesterday evening, then froze, then snowed a bit more, so that through our living-room window we could sip port and watch the excitement of cars skidding up and down our hill. This morning a very thin skiff of snow covers the gardens, the sky above is light and white, and the snow on the road has mostly melted though it's still -5 degrees C. All in all it's a good day to write a letter. Later on we will probably head off en famille to the YMCA for a family swim, perhaps a game of squash, and certainly a thick, creamy milkshake on the way home to undo any good effects of exercise. This is our ritual for Sundays when we don't head for the hills to hike or ski.

This year we have certainly done our bit for Canada's GNP. The big 7-seater van mentioned in our last letter arrived late, at the end of January (the bad news), but with $1000 off (the good news) as a post-Christmas bonus. It's been wonderful and we've travelled many happy miles together, with very few squabbles -- something we couldn't say for the old beat-up stationwagon. The van, which we christened the Mayflower (it's a Plymouth Voyager you see) maybe lacks the character of the jalopys that we've become accustomed to, but sure makes up in comfort and convenience. Talking of comfort, we invested in some posh leather furniture, two large chocolate/coffee sofas, to replace furniture that friends bequeathed to us in Wivenhoe because they were throwing it out. Broke the bank but saved our buttocks. And we had the bathroom renovated, a very successful operation that transformed it from a rather cramped, utilitarian, family bathroom into a spacious oak-trimmed marvel that provides a sophisticated backdrop for lavatorial contemplation. It really is an amazing transformation, although it involved little structural change.

One highlight of the year was Family Horse Camp at the Rocky Mountain YMCA, in the mountains. It was Anna who suggested that we go, and we were so pleased that she wanted us to do something together that we agreed on the spot, despite private reservations about our lack of a Family Horse. It was a weekend in late May and the weather was awful -- constant teeming rain, most uncharacteristic. In fact there was much flooding, including a burst dam in nearby Canmore which we went to see a month later -- a huge dam built of loose rock had been breached and washed down the river.

Anyway there were perhaps 30 families at the camp and we all lived in tipis! (also known as tepees; wigwams are a bit different). On Friday night as we sloshed through the mud to find our tipi in the pouring rain our spirits were perhaps a little damp. It was just big enough for five bunk beds in a circle around a fireplace. The canvas was soaked and there were some pools of water on the top bunks; luckily we didn't need those. One of the resident staff came to give us an "in-tipi" service, showing us how to operate the smoke flaps that sit like large ears at the top, held in position by long poles that rest on the ground. Depending on the wind and rain and state of the fire and desire of the inhabitants to become completely asphyxiated you can open and close them and move the opening around. Soon we had a large open fire blazing in the middle of the tipi. Later when we went to bed we lay round the flickering light in our sleepingbags, talking, gradually drifting off to sleep one by one. It was an indescribably cosy and intimate feeling. On waking in the middle of the night you could look around at the sleeping faces in the warm glow of the fire, reach under your bed for another log, and toss it in to keep the home fires burning. We were all completely sold on tipi living -- there's a unique magic about going to sleep together round a campfire.

Anyway, the Horse Camp was very nice too. We went on walks, rode horses, ate together in a big log building (good food and plentiful), played games, chatted with other families (one from Northern Ireland!). The rain did ease off sometimes and really didn't seem to spoil our fun. We had a cowboy breakfast sitting on bales of hay beside the horse paddock -- pancakes, sausages, maple syrup, and coffee -- and a "pub-with-no-beer" evening when the children were enticed outside and distracted with a long and complex hunting game while the adults played darts and cards.

In June we spent a long weekend at Cypress Hills in eastern Alberta, a strikingly unusual area that was left intact by the ice age. The hills rise abruptly from the bald prairie, a dark forested mass amid light brown grassland. The vegetation is quite different from the surrounding countryside, and the area has its own microclimate. There are lakes, one with a beach. We swam and hiked and the kids even fished, for we went with another family and Bruce is a fisherman. Two families make camping easier, for it halves the work of cooking and fire-making, and we had gourmet meals -- breakfasts with porridge and pancakes and bacon and eggs and toast and marmalade and coffee and tea and hot chocolate; suppers with beer and wine.

In late August we went camping with a different family at Writing on Stone Park in southern Alberta. Another oasis in the boundless prairie, this is basically a wide canyon formed by the Milk River, which winds its way from the mountains to join up with the Missouri and thence down to Alabama. We spent long hours floating in the warm, waist- deep river near our campsite, trying in vain to make progress swimming against the strong current, and floating down-river only to have to battle laboriously back on foot. The soft sandstone that forms the canyon has eroded into weird formations, and you can explore and lose yourself among the "hoodoos" -- silent, ghost-like pillars of rock. One evening we went to a campfire in a natural amphitheatre among hoodoos where the park staff enacted strange Indian legends. This was a sacred area for Indians, and the canyon walls contain many pictographs (paintings on stone) and petroglyphs (carvings in stone). Some are relatively recent and portray battle scenes with guns and horses; others predate both (horses, originally Spanish, came gradually up from Mexico, reaching Montana and Alberta in the mid-18th century).

Being close to the 49th parallel, whisky-running was a major occupation in the area just before the turn of the century. Numerous long gulleys, hidden from the higher level of the prairie, lead south toward the border. The Indians thought that the invisible line that constitutes the border was very strong magic because it had the amazing effect of stopping pursuing police from either side! We went on a guided walk that involved wading across the waist-deep river, kids in tow, to a tiny police outpost from behind which -- to our utter astonishment -- appeared a red-coated Mountie trainee of the 1870s who greeted us as fresh immigrants, showed us round, and gave us advice on where to settle. Apparently the settler's wives suffered most, for they stayed behind on the barely fertile land while their husbands travelled to find work. We heard an evocative story of a woman who for weeks on end heard nothing but a moaning sound around the isolated homestead. Eventually, in desperation, she tore a piece off her red petticoat and tied it to a stick that she stuck in the ground outside, providing a solitary mark in the featureless prairie landscape that told her when the wind blew and that the sound that was driving her mad came from outside, not inside her head.

This has been a very wet year, by our standards, with periods of heavy rain and flooding. During the August weekend when we were lazing in the Milk River, Calgary was having incredible storms -- our nearby supermarket was struck by lightning; the roof on another large store collapsed and the stock was largely ruined; people were collecting hand- pumps from community centres to pump out their basements. In May there was constant, unprecedented, heavy rain. This made the Elbow River, one of the two that run through Calgary, high enough for Ian to canoe down it one evening with a friend. In some places you wouldn't know you were in a city at all; in others you see magnificent gardens backing down on to the river. Coincidentally, as we were taking the canoe out, we happened on a meeting of the Calgary Society for Creative Anachronism in which grown men (and women) dress up in home-made armor and hack away at each other with broadswords (if touched on the leg you must fight from a kneeling position!).

At the end of June Ian went on a wilderness canoe trip with three friends from Grande Prairie to Peace River in northern Alberta, down the Wapiti, Smoky, and Peace rivers (out with the map). The rivers had flooded badly just before -- in fact, areas of the town of Peace River were evacuated -- and had even claimed some lives, but fortunately the floods had subsided by the time we embarked. Incredible devastation was apparent on all sides. Vast tracts of forest had been wiped out where the river had burst its banks and taken shortcuts, washing trees away, bending saplings horizontal, and covering all with deep piles of silt. Washed up on the piers of bridges were huge haphazard piles of treetrunks like giant matchsticks. Far above our heads on a railway bridge great trunks were lodged crazily in the ironwork, ready to drop on passing canoeists. We had great difficulty finding suitable campsites because the riverbanks were wrecked, covered in broken wood and silt for miles, and the best camping spots turned out to be sandy bars in the middle of the river. The river is interesting because the geological strata in northern Alberta slope gently upwards to the north-east, all the way to Fort Smith on the Northwest Territories boundary. The river flows in the same direction, and you can see the strata on canyon walls slowly ascending and revealing older layers beneath. It was a journey backwards in time! We saw some wildlife: deer, beaver, moose, and even a herd of "beefalo" -- cross-bred cattle and buffalo that are farmed for their lean, slightly gamey, meat. I had a beefalo burger on the way back -- yummy! During our 4-day trip we saw no other people and had to rely on our own resources all the way.

Our great experience this year was the family summer holiday, which occupied most of July. We did the great cross-Canada trip, driving East to Ontario. Our destination was the Sheen's (Ian's godfather's) family cottage near Kingston, Ontario. The trip provided some interesting experiences, social as well as geographical, cooped up in our van for days on end. It turned out to be an incredibly positive venture. We had feared that we might regret this trip but judged it worth the risk because you have to experience the vastness of Canada before you can really understand the country. But no! -- the expected horrendous days of boring, squabbling, argumentative, non-stop driving did not materialize. We travelled a total of 8,700 kilometers there and back, and this gave us plenty of time to spend talking together, something it's hard to make enough space for in the pell-mell of everyday life, and we actually had some very nice conversations. We listened to an eclectic variety of musical entertainment, ranging from baroque recorders, life stories and music of Bach and Beethoven, modern jazz from Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, wild Jewish clarinet music ("klesmer"), contemporary rock by Madonna and Paula Abdul, children's music from Scotland. We had lots of story tapes, from beautiful, evocative renderings of the Just So stories to Thomas the Tank Engine read by Ringo Starr (yes!) and a lesson on Discipline for Kids which proved popular with young and old alike!

Roughly speaking, we took a week to get to Kingston, spent a week and a half there and in Toronto, and took a week to return. We drove hard the first day, eating breakfast 3 hours out at Medicine Hat, stopping for photos by the giant moose in Moose Jaw (a town supposedly named after Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, ha ha) and ending up staying with friends in Regina (who said that our Christmas epistle sounds very "professorial" -- not our intent we assure you). Next day we camped in Riding Mountain park, so called because when travelling West this is where you had to leave your canoes and take to horseback. It's a large raised area in the middle of Lake Agassiz, a huge prehistoric lake that covered most of southern Manitoba. Here a cheeky little squirrel hopped into the back of the van, searching for -- and finding -- our supply of peanuts. On our trip we saw lots of wild (and not-so-wild) life: antelope, bear, bighorn sheep, buffalo, catfish, coyotes, crayfish, deer, donkeys, foxes, herons, humming birds, loons, pelicans, prairie dogs, rabbits, squirrels, sunfish, vultures, water snakes, and woodpeckers, to name but a few. Leaving Riding Mountain we drove on to Kenora in the beautiful Lake of the Woods area at the western tip of Ontario, then to the Sleeping Giant peninsula (that's what it's supposed to look like but it's not nearly as realistic an image as CaveHill in Belfast) in Lake Superior near Thunder Bay.

By now we had settled into a pattern: pancakes for breakfast, decamp and a quick dip in a lake before departing around 10 AM; driving (with a long, and preferably energetic, stop for lunch) until around 6 PM when we camped, swam, cooked, and ate. Although it's a lot of work for one-night stands, camping forms an ideal complement to a day's driving. You select a site, stop the car, and immediately become galvanized into action, pitching tents, making fires, fetching wood and water, exploring. Everyone contributes -- the kids were really useful in helping to pitch tents -- and the driving is instantly forgotten. We had no trouble getting campsites, and found some beauties, typically in National or Provincial Parks. After the Sleeping Giant we rested for two nights by the shore of Lake Superior near Sault St Marie at a place called Pancake Bay -- so called because it's one day's paddle from Sault, and on your canoe trip back east from Thunder Bay you had nothing left to eat but pancakes before you could stock up again in the town. One day without driving was a pleasant respite. We lazed around in the sun on a beautiful sandy beach, and although the waters of Lake Superior were a numbing cold we swam (all except for Pam, and Ian only very briefly!).

By now the Ontario roads were getting a bit tedious. Although people often say the prairies are boring, they're not to us: you can see for miles in every direction -- all the way to the horizon -- and there's always something to look at. In the forests of Ontario you drive through a narrow tunnel of trees, and although there is an occasional lake, or rocky outcropping, or bear (we did see one by the side of the road), in general it's much less interesting. Making a supreme effort we left Pancake Bay at 6 AM, made good mileage and stopped in a Provincial Park quite near our destination. We were told that the only campsites left were "semi-wilderness" ones. But ours was beautiful, and not far from a building with washing machines and hot showers. I phoned Jack Sheen and mentioned that I was calling from a phone box on a semi-wilderness campsite; we agreed that semi- wilderness phones must be ones where you have to dial the number yourself!

We had a wonderful time at the cottage. It's on an island on a lake on the Rideau Canal system which runs from Ottawa to Kingston. We swam constantly. The kids caught little fish in buckets by the dozen. Ian learned to windsurf by dint of much hard, and wet, work. We canoed around the island. Nikki and Ian spent a night camping on a desert island, a tiny rock about the size of a small house, hanging bananas on a tree and picking them for breakfast. We went for trips up the canal, through locks. It was built by the British during the American war of independence as an auxiliary supply route to Lake Ontario in case the St Lawrence got cut off, and it's a fortified canal -- the lock-keepers' houses have gun-slits! One day was wet and we drove to Ottawa, where there was ankle-deep flooding at some road intersections -- unfortunately we had left the canoe behind. We visited the new Museum of Man which was fabulous.

Eventually we left for Toronto, where we had an excellent time catching up with old friends from Essex (the Beatties), and then to Oakville to stay with the Sheens and catch up on clothes washing. Sadly, and a little apprehensively, we started homeward. Our route took us back through the US. We avoided Chicago by catching a ferry right across Lake Michigan, which we camped beside and swam in off a sandy beach -- it was much warmer than Superior. The Great Lakes really are huge. Although Michigan looks narrow, on our 4-hour boat trip we were completely out of sight of land for 3 hours! On our way out we drove along the northern shore of Lake Superior for well over 2 days. Anyway, after disembarking on the western shore of Michigan we dropped in to Oshkosh on Lake Winnebago, where we were disgusted by the plaque on Chief Oshkosh's statue which declared that "the best thing he did was to leave his name to our city"! It was the weekend of the world-famous Oshkosh airshow and 5,000 light planes had flown in for the event, but the weather was damp, humid, and drizzly so we flew out. We ended up driving overnight through intense thunder, lightning, and rain, since camping seemed out of the question. In fact the kids love sleeping in the van; they can get in their sleeping bags and stretch out on the seats and floor. The grownups suffered a bit, taking turns to drive, but it was worth it because we ended up at lunchtime the next day at Badlands National Park in South Dakota, pitching our tents under a merciless beating sun.

We were so impressed that we ended up spending three days in the area. The Badlands are really interesting, a semi-desert area dozens of miles across and guarded to the north by an eerie ring of jagged, tortured, crazily-sculpted cliffs. This is the kind of desert country we see in Drumheller, near Calgary, but much more extensive and spectacular. It's Indian country; in fact one of the largest bands of Sioux were the Lakota, hence Dakota. You can still make out the message "no Indians" over the door to the bar in nearby Scenic, a dilapidated little shanty town that grotesquely belies its name. One day we visited Wounded Knee, where on Dec 29 1890, 200 Indian women and children, along with 90 warriors who had surrendered and been disarmed, were savagely massacred under a flag of truce by the 9th US Cavalry, probably in revenge for their own undoing 12 years earlier at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. This marked the final, tragic end of the independent American Indian: give them a thought after Christmas on the 100th anniversary of the Wounded Knee massacre. All there is to see is an unkempt mass grave. It is salutary to contrast this with the National Historic Site marking Custer's last stand at Little Bighorn in southern Montana, which we visited on the way back. Here, where in an act of incredible stupidity a heavily armed invasion trespassed on territory that had been signed over to the Indians and met the fate it deserved, stands a posh monument and well-designed interpretive centre, where we attended very interesting lectures on the "last stand" and its historical background.

Although this is getting a bit long, there is more to say about South Dakota. We camped in the famous Black Hills area, which was sacred to the Sioux and had been signed over to them until gold was discovered (it was Custer who substantiated the claim) and an illegal gold rush started. The American administration lost control of migration into the area by white gold-seekers, and ultimately surrendered to the gold rush by taking the land away from the Indians(!). The Hills are very interesting, with fantastic rocks and canyons. The famous Mount Rushmore is there, with gargantuan portraits of four American Presidents carved into the rock. Even more amazing is Mount Crazy Horse, where a project is under way to convert the entire mountain into an incredibly large statue of Crazy Horse, the Sioux chief who (some say) actually killed Custer. This project has been going for 10 years; its initiator has died but his family is carrying on. Blasting is in progress. Perhaps in 50 more years the sculpture will be complete. This is America -- using dynamite to plant man's artistic imprint on to the face of nature.

So much for our adventures: now let's say something about us! Pam has lots to report: teeth, job, squash, and music. In April, in a desperate fight to retain my sanity, I upped and left for Vancouver and Salt-Spring Island, where I had a week visiting ex-Calgary friends and returned with rave reviews of the blossom and islands. I have had the most terrible time getting satisfactory caps put on my front teeth following an accident in a fight with Ian five years ago, and have spent countless hours in a dentist's chair this year. I've also got a job! -- in an excellent educational toyshop. I work about half-time now, but with Christmas coming up that may increase. I really enjoy it when the shop is busy, but it can be boring during quiet periods. I still play squash. I take my life into my hands and play Ian most weekends. It's neck and neck -- we each win half the time. I am doing quite a lot of recorder playing, though I recently gave up on theviola da gamba, much to the family's pleasure!

Ian's most creative and artistic endeavour this year was growing a Mephistophelean beard, which the kids hate. Some think it makes me look young, others old; some like a sailor, others like a jazz musician. Anyway there it is. Workwise I finally completed my three-year term on a National Research Grants committee with a meeting in Ottawa in February; I visited Apple Computer in California in August, dropping in on our Essex friends the Madams to sample their luxurious Californian lifestyle; I became President of the Canadian Society for Computational Studies of Intelligence (roughly, that's what people call "artificial intelligence"); I got a "best researcher" award from the Faculty of Science here at Calgary. I had a book published -- Text Compression, by Bell, Cleary and Witten, published by Prentice Hall -- which I'm very proud of, best yet. Doing it with three authors doesn't mean it's only a third of the work; it's three times as hard because you have to agree on everything and that takes forever. It's selling very well; you should order a copy (don't read the words, just feel the quality and look at the pictures!). I'm now working with one of my ex-students on a book about a computing interface for disabled people. We have a system that we're distributing world-wide that's Iused by some severely disabled people (e.g. quadraplegics) to expedite their communication with computers. Finally, I at last joined a band -- the University Symphonic Band -- and attended my first Graduation Ceremony in 10 years at Calgary -- as a member of the band!

Anna became a teenager this year. (In case you think it's easy, that's quite an accomplishment -- for the whole family!) She's a party animal. This weekend she's been rollerskating with a friend, had a sleepover, went to a late-night movie, and attended a charity dance run by a local radio station. She's playing tennis and loving it, and has started going to a "synchronized swimming" class -- sort of underwater gymnastics. She leads an active life, and we take off our noseplugs to her. She's also an avid reader, and writes wonderful wordpaintings that leave us full of admiration.

Nikki is finally, reluctantly, beginning to grow up. She clings to childhood and still, as we said last year, actively resists growing up. She still learns the piano but will probably give it up soon. She is an excellent swimmer and takes lessons in an advanced class with children who are mostly much older than her. In fact, once she passes the current level there will be no more classes to go to except lifesaving and competitive swimming, neither of which she wants. Nikki also is a fantastic reader; she was saying this morning how she much prefers to read a book than to go to a movie of it, because she can imagine the characters as she wants them to be.

The big news about Scott is that we've had a sort of diagnosis of some of his problems. This year he has undergone a battery of tests -- EEG, brain scan, etc. -- to see if there's any physical explanation for his peculiar character. There isn't. But now he has been identified as mildly autistic, which certainly accords with our perception of his problems. Autism, however, is apparently a genetic rather than a developmental trait, and it seems unlikely that he's "truly" autistic though he does exhibit some of the symptoms. Anyway he's seeing a psychiatrist who is chief consultant to a Calgary home for autistic children, and the two have developed a real rapport. Scott did not have a very good time on holiday, though he has settled down this Fall. We enrolled him in karate lessons, and he still perseveres with swimming -- now he can swim lengths, but only when he has a mind to and after much persuasion.

Well, that's it. We're out of space, over our word limit. It's been another good year, and as always we've had to miss out a lot. We haven't told you about Pam's parents' visit early in the Fall, timed to coincide with the Great Annual Leaf-Raking: fortunately for them they escaped the chore because of unseasonal good weather. Or camping in the mountains in May, when the temperature fell to -10 degrees C overnight and there was ice in the pots and pans left outside. Or Thanksgiving, when 25 people descended on us for turkey dinner. Or our conversion, led by Pam, to environmental consciousness, with a compost heap and even, recently, recycled toilet paper! Or Ian's backpacking trip with Nikki. Or Wall drugs, a vast, internationally-known emporium in a tiny sleepy village in darkest Dakota. Lots of love and Christmas greetings. May peace be with you.

Lots of love and Christmas greetings. May peace be with you.

Pam, Ian, Anna, Nikki, Scott