Hope and opportunity

As another year draws to a close, it's time to pull out a new calendar and start a new cycle. A clean slate! A fresh start! It's a good feeling.

My fervent hope is that we all have a happy and rewarding year, full of positive things and good progress, however you may measure it. May your dreams come true and good fortune be with you.

If we all do just a little bit, we can make this world a better place.
Happy New Year !

Photos courtesy of Kilian Zsuzsanna (bottle) and Yury Kristich (sunrise), who made their shots available on the stock.xchng

Icarus returns. But this time, instead of flying towards the sun, he aims to master the fall.

Some say we humans will one day find a way to fly on our own power.

While that's still beyond our reach, right now a curious race is underway: it's to see who will be the first to fall to earth safely without a parachute.

If mythical Icarus could have glided to the ground after his wings had melted instead of falling to his death, then the cautionary tale of human audacity would have taken on a completely different dimension.

Well, around the world devoted parachutists and building-jumpers -- one could call them new Icaruses -- are testing "wing suits" that mimic the skin of flying squirrels in a bold attempt to become the first human being to purposely fall from a great height without the use of a parachute and still walk to tell the tale.

Perhaps the most courageous (or crazy) of these aspiring flyers/landers is Loïc Jean-Albert of France, who likes to conduct his experiments over jagged mountain peaks. American Jeb Corliss is another notable aspirant. Both have recorded their practice jumps on video.

Are we repeating Icarus's mistake or are we taking steps in a new frontier? Our history is filled with risky challenges like this one. Some have resulted in tremendous failure; others in quantum leaps of development. Barriers are broken, and it appears humankind is attracted to these challenges despite the cost, often paid by the loss of life.

The New York Times recently provided a good overview of these new attempts to make jumping history. You can read the article here: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/10/sports/othersports/10flying.html. It contains a spectacular video and an interview with Jeb Corliss.

To see a truly astounding piece of video, click on YouTube's "Flying Dude," about Loic Jean-Albert. One can appreciate the danger of this endeavour as he flies past a camera position high on the slopes of a mountain.

If anyone succeeds at this, I don't want to see it live on television. I will watch the video when it's posted afterwards.
Photograph is courtesy of the stock.xchng

If you liked this post, you might find this one from September interesting: it's about another type of record.

As the song says, time keeps on slipping into the future

We had a wonderful green Christmas day in Florida. In the afternoon, we swam at Cocoa Beach, near Cape Canaveral, and then watched the sun set during dinner beyond Merritt Island. It was very unique for us Canadians.

Another year approaches. Time slips by, yes. It's easy to look back and think about all that happened in 2007 and in previous years.
Now it's time to look forward. I'm reminding myself that life is not just a sequence of tasks and difficulties to overcome. Instead, I want to think about the opportunities that are all around us. We just have to find a way to see them. I don't know about you, but I tend to be blinded by problems and challenges instead of seeing the opportunities they represent. So I'm going to begin 2008 with a renewed effort to think positively. This will be resolution number one. I have others, but I think I'll start with this one.
May the New Year be a good one for all of us.

Family on the move

Did it again. Went from winter to summer in a few hours and yes, it feels good.

Yesterday, we drove to Montreal to see our daughter, who had just completed her last universtiy exam of the year. We navigated deep mounds of snow, as workers did their best to clear the snow from side streets. Montreal's narrow roads quickly become congested when so much snow is on the ground. Driving is challenging, as many cars seem abandoned on side streets, too snowed-in to be moved. Meanwhile, large snowplows work night and day to clear the roads before the next storm hits. The city is postcard beautiful. Walking is recommended at this time of the year, though.

This morning, we began a few days of rest and recreation. We were up at 4 am and out to the airport. We flew to Orlando. In the space of a few short hours, we found ourselves in the greenery of central Florida, with palm trees swaying under a summer-like breeze. This is an odd way of spending Christmas, but very welcome. This reminds me of several such holidays my brothers and I experienced growing up in Africa.

After fighting a cold for a few days, the warm weather feels like a gentle tonic to the system.

Christmas cards

How I envy those of you who have found the time to write and send hand-written Christmas cards.

I've received a number of them (thank you, all) and it's interesting how much more meaningful they are to me than e-mails or those web-based greetings.

I should have planned my time better so that I, too, would have sent cards out. But this year I've let other priorities rule and consequently am woefully negligent in the greeting card department this year.

I've received cards from close family members, from co-workers and especially from relatives in Italy with whom I haven't spoken in years.

I'm happy to receive the warm messages of goodwill from across the ocean. Even though my negligence likens me to Mr. Scrooge, I can atone for my sin by writing back. I can and I will.

If you think about it, you can see how the thought behind these cards is very much part of the real spirit of Christmas.

It's the season to be jolly

Since pictures are usually better than words, I'm getting into the mood of the season by posting these photographs.

Hope you like them too.

They're from the stock.xchng.

Now curl up with a good book by the fireplace and enjoy a warm drink or two!

Digging out

We are still digging out from the snowstorm that hit the Great Lakes region yesterday, dropping more than 25 centimetres of snow and reducing visibility to near zero at times. The storm has now moved off into the Atlantic states and provinces, but in its wake it left a lot of people scrambling. The snow is beautiful when it lays such a thick blanket of white on everything. Unfortunately, it's horrible for drivers. Yesterday was a bad day to be on the roads without snow tires. We were among those who had to travel, and it was quite stressful. We saw many accidents and spin-outs. Overnight, I had ice build-up inside the wheel wells of the car and was surprised this morning when, in the acceleration lane of the highway, everything started vibrating as if I had four flat tires. I stopped and drove slowly to a repair shop. Fortunately, a mechanic was able to power-wash the ice away and it didn't cost me a penny.

The storm caused at least one death in the area. A woman was killed near London, Ontario, when her vehicle was clipped by a snowplow in an underpass. She had exited her vehicle to clear ice from her windshield wipers when the snowplow hit the corner of the car. She was thrown and pinned. Her two daughters were in the car and saw it happen. Unfortunately, there was nothing rescuers could do to save her. The snowplow driver had to be treated for shock.

Even though police reported many accidents, traffic was lighter than usual, as many people chose to stay home and wait out the bad weather.

Winter has arrived early this year. Looking on the bright side, children are happy and Christmas decorations look wonderful with the snow. For those who will are gathering with friends and family, the weather is perfect for traditional Christmas celebrations.

Messages from the middle of the Atlantic Ocean

Imagine being on a sailboat all alone in the Atlantic Ocean in the cold of December.

For the participants of the "Transat Ecover B to B" race, this is exactly what they've been experiencing for the last two weeks. The competitors are expert sailors, who are single-handedly challenging themselves from Salvador de Bahia in Brazil to Port La Floret in Bretagne, France (Bahia to Bretagne, hence "B to B"). The race is one of a handful of qualifiers for sailors who wish to enter even more gruelling solo round-the-globe races, like the Vendee Globe.

French skipper Loick Peyron, navigating Gitana Eighty, arrived first in France late Thursday night. Behind him, at various distances, stretched the field of another 12 boats. One of them is Spirit of Canada, skippered by Derek Hatfield of Aurora, Ontario. He prepared the boat in Port Credit and sailed it on Lake Ontario before heading to Brazil.

Through daily e-mail updates for his team's sponsors and other supporters, Hatfield has allowed us to follow him on his adventure. Somehow - I assume by satellite uplink - he finds a way to tap out a daily message while he's sailing the boat.

A few days ago, the tone was despairing, as the boat languished for several days in flat seas, with no wind and no progress. The fatigue and stress was apparent in his notes. Then the wind finally picked up and his messages became more upbeat.

This is what he wrote on Friday:

Hello from Spirit of Canada 14 December 2007.

Overall it's been a good sailing day but still not a lot of wind. On average about 8 knots
of wind from the southeast so we are going off the wind for a change. I have
continued to hand steer to get the maximum from the gennaker and boat speed.
There was a great sunset tonight and each night has been clear with millions
of stars. As the boats start the finishing process, it always gets anxious
for those further back to get in and finish. I am starting to feel the
anxiety now with over 1000 miles to go, it is not a position I am used to.
Here's hoping for a quick finish from here but unfortunately the winds are
not playing fair so far.

And the next day he wrote this:

Hello from Spirit of Canada 15 December 15, 2007

The wind is back! Finally we have some decent wind, albeit from
the south it is a welcome change from that heinous area behind us that held us
for so many hours. I'm sailing a direct course to the finish line at speed so it
feels great. Congratulations to all of those skippers that are in port, what a
fantastic job they did. The situation on board is very static at the moment and
as I mentioned before, I am anxious to be finished and move on to the next
stage.The family is on their way to France and will be flying overhead in about
6 hours from now. I'll keep an eye for the light in the window.

If you'd like to learn more about Hatfield, see here.

More information on the race is available at:
Photo is by Yucel Tellici, made available by the

Still standing

History. com, in its feature "This Day in History", reminds us that on this day six years ago, the Leaning Tower of Pisa reopened to the public after a "monumental" (pun intended) effort to save it from falling.

The bell tower, which stands next to the city's cathedral, had begun to lean during its construction in the 12th century. The foundation began to sink in marshy ground, causing the lean. The builders tried to counter-balance it by making the top stories taller on one side, but the extra weight caused it to sink even further. It was finally completed in 1360 and people said it was a miracle it was still standing.

The tower became a magnet for the curious.

However, the combination of the passing years, the effects of the weather, the weight of many visitors climbing up and down its stairs and the soft ground took its toll.

The restoration effort started in 1990. Groups of experts worked for 11 years and spent $27 million to stabilize it. The 190-foot-high tower (58 meters) was leaning a full 15 feet (about 3 meters) off the perpendicular before it was closed to the public. In that year, about a million visitors had climbed the white marble tower. A first attempt to stop the lean almost brought the tower down in 1994, but engineers were eventually able to reduce the lean by removing some earth from the foundations.

Only guided tours are allowed now, but the curious still come from all over the world to see this marvel.

In the 1980s, before it was closed, I had an opportunity to visit it. I climbed up the worn marbled steps to the top. It was an unnerving experience, as the tower is open at each floor and the smooth marble requires that you watch your footing very carefully. At the top, the lean pushes you toward the edge. It feels like the tower wants you off. The gap between the columns is wider than it looks from the ground. You have to hug the interior wall to stop from falling. But what a thrill it is to be up there looking down on the green Campo dei Miracoli (Field of Miracles).

Happy anniversary.

For an account of how the tower was saved, see here

Photo is from http://www.sxc.hu/

Commuting in winter and living on a schedule

Now that the days are shorter, the drive home at night gets lonely. As one leaves the city, the landscape seems bleaker. Commercial buildings, franchise outlets. Fewer lights and fewer pedestrians and everyone dependent on cars.

The life of a commuter in the winter months is composed of morning departures in the dark and arrivals home in the dark. If one spends the day in an office building, it's possible not to be exposed to daylight for the entire day. With growing obligations at work and with children involved in various activities, it's easy to fall into a predictable routine of fulfilling scheduled responsibilities, where one moves like an automaton from appointment to appointment and the calendar runs life.

I wonder how some of us allow ourselves to get to this point, where work and obligations rule our lives completely. I sometimes fantasize about being free of responsibilities, perhaps working only part-time, and having the freedom to live life at a different pace; to live in the city and feel its rhythm without necessarily being part of the rushing; to have long, natural conversations with friends without worrying about having to run off to an impending appointment; to have time to reflect and be creative; or to exercise regularly without needing to do it in the dark and the cold.

Then, I talk to my dad and see another perspective: he's retired and has lots of time. His mind is youthful and his outlook optimistic. He takes good care of himself. Because his time is plentiful, he fantasizes about being involved in the work force again, about doing something for others; using his talent and experience to make the world a better place. Always searching, always looking for new stimuli, he's more than willing to give up some of his free time to become more engaged. Somewhere, perhaps, he hears a clock ticking off the minutes.

When he can't make any progress, he seems a little lonely. Our lives are different, but on these solitary winter commutes, this I have in common with him.

Do women do more with the family car?

If you enjoy the ongoing debate between the sexes, here's more fuel for conversation: a new study about driving patterns says women make "complex trips" in the family car more often than men.

Statistics Canada found that women tend to make multiple stops on their way from Point A to Point B, while men tend to make simpler trips. Researchers call the practice of making intermediate stops "trip chaining."

The study says women drop children off to school, stop for coffee and go shopping with the family car more often than men. Meanwhile, men drive to single destinations more frequently: about 45 per cent of their trips are of this type, while only 39 per cent of women's trips are in this category.

This data seems to echo other studies about multi-tasking activities by the sexes. Does this mean men don't handle complex tasks as readily? Could be a bit of a leap.

But here's where the Statistics Canada research really hurts us guys: it shows that when men do stop along the way, they are more likely to do so at a restaurant, entertainment venue or recreational facility. This accounts for 62 per cent of these intermediate trips.

A higher percentage of women drive to banks and shopping centres after leaving work.

Some men wonder whether all that running around is really necessary, but that's another story. Lots to talk about on the home front.

The study was published in a quarterly bulletin on environmental and sustainable development statistics.

To read more, see Statistics Canada's "Daily" page

If you'd like to express your opinion, post a comment.
Photo of the wooden puppets is by Cecile Graat, who made it available on stock.xchng

An urgent call for action

I must say it gave me a special kind of pleasure watching and hearing news excerpts of today's speech by former U.S. Vice-President Al Gore's speech in Oslo today, as he received the Nobel Peace Prize.

It seemed a powerful, clear and dramatic speech. The kind you want to hear on grand, ceremonial occasions like this one; the kind you wish you'd hear more often from the present leaders of the world's superpowers.

Evoking Winston Churchill, Mahatma Gandhi and other luminaries, Gore made a strong plea for immediate action to save our planet from environmental disaster. In accepting the prize together with the UN climate panel and it's leader Rajendra Pachauri, Gore said humanity risks "mutually assured destruction" if we don't act now.

"We must quickly mobilize our civilization with the urgency and resolve that has previously been seen only when nations mobilized for war," he said.

Gore made a special appeal for the United States and China to make bold moves on climate change or "stand accountable before history for their failure to act."

"It is time to make peace with our planet. "

Later in the evening, he was joined by Pachauri and their wives on the balcony of the Grand Hotel in Oslo, where they were greeted by crowds of supporters. The public filled the streets of the Norwegian capital, under Christmas decorations.

It was a particularly important day for Gore, who took on his environmental crusade after that controversial and close political defeat seven years ago in the U.S. presidential election. His wife Tipper, one of his most public supporters, was beaming by his side.

Later this week, Gore will be taking his message to the international conference on climate change in Bali, Indonesia.

If the world's leaders can't agree on ways to reduce harmful emissions, let's do our part at the neighbourhood level and let's also find ways to support our youth -- I'm confident they have the drive to make a critical difference.

To read excerpts of today's speech, click here:

To see photographs of the Nobel ceremony and acceptance speech, see this link.
The photo of our planet was taken by the crew of Apollo 16 in April of 1972. Courtesy NASA through http://www.pdphoto.org/.

Please excuse the lack of posts recently. I'm still here.
I've just been occupied by many obligations. I will return.
If anyone is planning a trip during the upcoming holiday period, I hope it's a good one. For those who aren't, what a great time it will be to sit back and explore destinations through the pages of a great book, magazine or TV show. The world is full of marvelous things around every corner.

Just getting through "stuff"...

The return from the short vacation in the sun has left me scrambling to catch up.
As I was getting ready for work on a cold and blustery Monday, my plans were changed by a flat tire and a series of complications that seemed to set in like the cold front we're going through.
I'm still working on a little thaw, but I'm confident things will get back on track.
Thanks for checking in !

December sunshine in the Caribbean

As winter moves in to establish itself in most of North America, other areas breathe a sigh of relief: Florida, the Gulf Coast and the Caribbean welcome the official end of the 2007 hurricane season.

Only one major storm threatened the southern United States this year and it's cause for celebration.

I'm fortunate to be enjoying the beach life for a few days in Nassau's Cable Beach and everyone's pleased the "stable months" are here.

For the last week or so, the Bahama Islands have enjoyed a stretch of beautiful weather, with warm temperatures (28-30 degrees Celsius) and gentle breezes.

Nassau seems to be hopping with activity. Construction workers are finishing homes, the big hotels on Cable Beach all seem to have projects going, with painting and general touch-ups underway, gardeners trimming hedges and planting flowers and so on. Everywhere music provides an upbeat background soundtrack for life. People are taking things as they come, going with the flow.

The hotels are comfortably busy. Cable Beach is as beautiful as ever. The water is bathtub warm close to shore. The horizon presents itself as a mixture of emerald or jade green and blue further out. The main road into town has public benches set in three shade with views of the bay and the reefs. I wish I could paint, because there's one spot in particular that deserves capturing. No matter; it's safely etched in my memory.


A Canadian November

It's been a whirlwind of a week so far, travelling to Canada's west with colleagues and in the process getting another reminder of the vastness of this country and its rigid weather.

Monday we flew the more than four-hour distance to Calgary for a business project. We were greeted by a typical Canadian Arctic cold air mass, moving in from the north. It was about -16 degrees Celsius with strong winds and light snow, the winds making it feel much colder.

Usually it takes a body (mine) several days to adapt to such temperatures in the canyons of a robust western city, (one would want climbing gear, inflatable jacket, goggles, etc.) but we got the idea very quickly that it would be wise to put on hats and gloves. Fortunately our meetings the rest of the day were indoors, with cups of coffee in hand. Base camp Alpha.

That night we flew north to Edmonton, where the temperature was even colder and more snow was falling -- a balmy autumn evening.

Our hotel presented a beautiful view of the North Saskatchewan River. The snow blowing by the window panes and alighting onto the illuminated terrace making the warmth of the bar truly welcoming. Base camp Beta.

In the morning, the wind had tapered off and the cold was more bearable as we walked to our appointment on Jasper Avenue.

We flew back last night, arriving in Toronto after 11 PM to the milder cold of this city.

An interesting couple of days in Canada's vast expanse.

Tomorrow, I leave for warmer climes.

On the road...

Thanks for visiting!

I am travelling this week without a computer. I will try to post when possible.

December is upon us. Hard to believe another year is almost over. Time really does fly.
Back soon.

The shopping season

Here we go.

It seems like it's practically Christmas. Now that Thanksgiving has passed, communities right across North America are launching full speed into the Christmas season with ceremonies launching holiday lights, parades and window decoration unveilings. I like all of that.

What I don't like is what happens on television, on the radio, on billboards and in the shopping malls with the constant barrage of messages to buy, buy, buy... I work in commercial television and our company does benefit from seasonal advertising, of course, and I recognize the importance of the season to all businesses, television included. But its still November, for crying out loud.

I realize some people love shopping and get excited about it. I, on the other hand, am not a very good shopper. I lack ideas and creativity. But I don't mind that too much, because I find ways to come to terms with it. Over a period of a few weeks, I eventually find ways to select items for the people on my list. But what really irks me is how I feel herded and pressured, cajoled and increasingly put off by the constant barrage of advertising.

Granted, in the first week the ads sound interesting and new. But by the time Christmas Day arrives, the holiday spirit can seem like used plastic in the recycling bin.

It's spoiling the season for me. If you try to live up to the ideals portrayed in all the ads, if you listen to all of the messages (and often there is no way to avoid it), you realize pretty soon that reality never comes close. Reality starts to look a little drab in comparison, and that's a subconscious "downer".... but I have to remind myself that all of the messages are themselves an artifice, a sham of Styrofoam snow, and smiling actors who wore coats in August to record these Christmas commercials.

In order to make the season memorable, I wish we could forget about all of this crazy buying and just focus instead on connecting with people. Instead of rushing around looking for gifts and fighting the crowds, I'd like to have coffee with friends, dinners with family, and maybe, just maybe, spend some time reflecting on the origin of the season. It should be a time for some introspection and connection.

I realize we all have the power to make choices about what to do during the season, to take the best of the season and hold onto that. I know, I know. But we're caught up in a tidal wave of messaging (brainwashing?) that is getting increasingly loud and sometimes even offensive, don't you think?

The difference between the idyllic world and reality is a formula for depression in so many people. I don't want to read about domestic tragedies this year.

I'd like a warm cup of chocolate, a warm fireplace and meaningful acts of goodwill. How hypocritical we must look to followers of other faiths.

The photograph is of a church in Baranya, Hungary, courtesy of the stock.xchng.

If you're into books...

The editors of the New York Times Book Review have sifted through the items they reviewed since last December and have come up with their list of the "100 Notable Books of the Year." As always, it's an interesting list, one that ranges over vast literary distances.

In the fiction section, for example, the editors have selected many books from writers around the world. These include Per Petterson's "Out Stealing Horses," about an Oslo professional trying to overcome his loneliness; "After Dark," by Haruki Murakami, about two sisters, one awake all night, another asleep for months; and "Dancing to 'Almendra'," by Mayra Montero, set in Cuba in the 1950s.

Of course, the list includes some of the more publicized novels we've heard about, including J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," Philip Roth's "Exit Ghost" and Alice Munro's "The View from Castle Rock: stories."

In the non-fiction section, the titles appear tantalizing. The list begins with "Agent Zigzag: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love and Betrayal," about a British criminal who became a double agent during the Second World War, and proceeds through an extensive choice of biographies and other works that provide explanations in a variety of subjects.

Interested in Africa? The Book Review proposes "Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa's Greatest Explorer" by Tim Jeal and "Too Close To The Sun: The Audacious Life and Times of Denys Finch Hatton," Sara Wheeler's look at the man who was the focus of Karen Blixen's autobiographical "Out of Africa" story.

If you like popular culture, the Times highlights "Shulz and Peanuts: A biography." The book explores how Shulz's frequent gloom and melancholy were reflected in the actions of Charlie Brown, Snoopy and other cartoon characters in the famous syndicated strip.

Biographies of note this year also include volumes on Pablo Picasso, Thomas Hardy, Alexis De Tocqueville, Leni Reifensthal (the woman who directed Hitler's Nazi propaganda films) and Princess Diana.

The Times selects some notable explanatory books. There is "How To Read The Bible: A Guide To Scripture, Then and Now." (A former professor of Hebrew guides readers through the Bible, navigating through waters marked by literalists and skeptics.) Another is "How Doctors Think," a look at the difficult relationship between doctors and patients and some of the tough choices facing medicine today." If you're interested in the American justice system, there's "The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court."

Finally, I'd like to list two more. The titles are rather curious: "Foreskin's Lament: A Memoir" by Shalom Auslander and "Cleopatra's Nose: 39 Varieties of Desire" by Judith Thurman. Hmm...

You can review the entire list on-line at the New York Times book pages here. Each listing links to a separate book review.

Photo from http://www.sxc.hu/

Small and cute proves a winning combination for European Car of the Year Award

After the Smart Car and the Mini Cooper, it's now time for the "500."

For those of you who like the trend towards small, fun-to-get-around-town, easy-to-park vehicles, there's a new reason to celebrate. Fiat's cool redesign of its classic post-war "500" model has won the prestigious 2008 European Car of the Year Award.

It was introduced in July by Fiat's Italian-Canadian CEO Sergio Marchionne. In five months, it has already become the second best-selling car in Europe, just behind another Fiat model, the Panda.

The car is the first small vehicle to receive a full five-star safety rating in crash testing. It comes equipped with seven airbags. Consumers have a combination of many thousands of options to choose from.

For more information, see Fiat's English-language web site, here.

If you'd like to check out a fun "500 club" site, try this.

For background info on the Fiat's popular model through the years, see Wikipedia's page.

Photo of the Fiat 500 in Torino, Italy, courtesy sos.andre on Wikipedia, under creative commons attribution.

Words to remember

November 19th marks the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's famous Gettysburg Address, a speech he delivered on the dedication of the military cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, during the American Civil War.

His remarks, just 272 words, have gone down as one of the most memorable speeches in American history. The words are still powerful, still stir today.

A few months before he spoke, Gettysburg had been the scene of a three-day bloodbath between Union and Confederate forces. An estimate 45,000 soldiers were killed.

The battle was a turning point in the war. General Robert E. Lee's Southern forces never ventured further north after that and gradually diminished in strength.

But on the day of the dedication of the cemetery, the public in the North was weary of war and demoralized. Lincoln told them why it was so important to keep fighting.

It's a unique speech, not only for its brevity, but for the emotional weight of the words, as Lincoln tried to express the need to honor the fallen by rising to the defense of democracy and of the founding ideals of the nation.

Oddly, Lincoln was called to participate at the dedication ceremony almost as an afterthought. Edward Everett, one of the most talented orators of the time, had been asked to be the premier speaker. Only two weeks before the event, organizers also called on the President, who agreed to travel to Gettysburg. On the day of the dedication, Everett spoke first, and apparently talked for two full hours. Then Lincoln rose. He spoke for only several minutes, saying this:

Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.

You can see a draft of Lincoln's speech in a surviving document, written in longhand on Executive Mansion letterhead here.

You can also hear Johnny Cash and other notables read the speech at this online speech bank:
(There's also another photograph of the draft document at the same site).

The photograph of Lincoln during the Civil War at the top of this post is from a free online collection of 35 photographs of Lincoln from that period.

The photograph of the Lincoln Monument at night is by Aaron Murphy and was made available by www.sxc.hu

Disney World as business school

Some time ago, our family visited Walt Disney World in Florida. It was around this time of year and we all enjoyed the experience quite a lot. We found the resort stimulating for everyone, children and adults. We especially enjoyed Epcot . (The acronym used to stand for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, but Disney has since dropped that. Some people on the web also jokingly point out that the acronym also stands for Every Person Comes Out Tired, but that's another story!)

Disney World is really a marvel of logistical organization and customer care. Slate.com's business reporter Daniel Gross recently visited the resort and writes that it should be seen as a business model for many companies. In his article, entitled "The Mickey Mouse MBA: What We Can All Learn From Disney World," Gross points out that restaurants and airlines could use some of the innovations introduced at the resort to manage line-ups and schedules. He also shows how the simple approach of "under-promising and over-delivering" is key to enhancing the visitor's experience.

Last year, Disney World saw 49 million people move through it's turnstiles. That is a number of people larger than the population of many countries. The safe and orderly processing of so many people offers key lessons for government border controls, Slate says. Disney World combines the latest available technology, including biometric scans, with "old-fashioned humanity."

MSN Money reports that in the last five years, the Walt Disney Company's growth in net income has been in the order of 30.5%, and revenue this year have been 35.5 billion dollars. Its theme parks represent only about a quarter of its operating income. The rest comes from its media networks (ABC, ESPN, etc.) at 56%, its studio entertainment division at 11% and its consumer products division at 9% . In short, a formidable company. And still a company that seems to take care of the small details when it comes to the interactions with its customers.

The company also runs a consulting business called the "Disney Institute" . It focuses on leadership development, service, customer loyalty, team building and creativity.

In his article, Gross suggests CEOs should buy a three-day pass to Disney World and spend some time observing. He particularly recommends Epcot for American companies that do any business overseas:

"Finally, every CEO should take at least three or four rides on It's a Small World and then spend the rest of the day in Epcot. For years, the United States has been shrinking as a global economic force, a trend that is accelerating with the continuing boom in Asia and the domestic slowdown. For more and more companies, future growth and prosperity will depend on penetrating foreign markets. But Americans aren't so much innocents abroad as ignoramuses abroad. A day at Disney can remedy all that. It's a Small World is like an animated version of Thomas Friedman's The World Is Flat. Epcot allows visitors to immerse themselves in the cultures and cuisines of 11 countries, from Mexico to Norway, in 40 compact acres."

Gross may be exaggerating just a little about American business savvy abroad, but the references to the Epcot experience are apt, I think.

For the rest of us looking for an interesting time on vacation, it's still a fun place to visit.

For more information on the Walt Disney Company's corporate structure, investor relations and environmental efforts, see:
Photos courtesy of http://www.sxc.hu/

The way things go

A long time ago, the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius Antonius said, "The universe is change; our life is what our thoughts make it."

I looked up this quote this morning as I reflected on several situations in which I found myself yesterday.

In the morning, I was sitting with some colleagues from another company unit whose future is uncertain. It looks like their division is going to be sold off and they will learn more about their jobs next week. They were not optimistic and expressed some regret over what "might have been" had the unit been managed differently. Still, they were philosophical about it and prepared for what may come their way.

In the afternoon, I happened to be with another unit that was on the opposite end of the spectrum. Theirs is growing rapidly, so rapidly that those involved have so much work to do at the moment that they fantasize about having clones of themselves to accomplish what they have laid out before them.

Technology is transforming the workplace. Companies acquire other companies, merge, are sold; ventures are born, some are successful, some reach a certain height in their field and stay there, others gradually decline and morph into something new. In the middle of all this are human beings, the drivers of these enterprises and those who give their time and energy to support them. The seasons change, our personal lives change, the business environment changes, the world changes.

We have a natural urge to reach for our dreams; to design our lives as we would like them to be or to maintain things just the way they are because we’ve reached a comfortable place. Meanwhile, the world offers us opportunities and the world also seems to take opportunities away.

I think the more determined we are to control everything ourselves, the harder life becomes; joy is temporary and suffering more apparent. The only thing we can really depend on is what we are inside. It helps if we see what's outside of ourselves as neutral: it's not necessarily good or bad, it just is what is.

It is admirable to work hard to achieve objectives, of course. We need to keep reaching. But we shouldn't allow our ego to wrap itself completely around these ambitions, around visions of how it sees itself or how it thinks the world should see us. These goals are not the "be all and end all." If things change in ways we don't like, we should avoid passing judgment. Instead, it helps to just deal with the reality and move on.

As the sages say, our life situation may change; our life energy does not.

Wish I could remember that more often.

Here are a couple of thoughts from other people:

The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty; not knowing what comes next.
Ursula K. LeGuin

In three words I can sum up everything I've learned about life: it goes on.
Robert Frost

(These are from The Quotations Page).

Photo is of a nudibranch, or sea slug, photographed at Port Stephens, Australia. Courtesy: the stock.xchng

An ode to the season

As we head into the second half of November, autumn plays out its last hand before the arrival of winter in the northern hemisphere.

So let's enjoy the last burst of colour before the cold winds undress the trees and the first snows gird them in white.

Naturalist Richard Mabey has written a lyrical examination of the season in the on-line edition of The Guardian. The headline reads, "A Season of Splendour. Some people find autumn a sad time of year. They couldn't possibly be more wrong."

His essay moves easily from literature to science and is a joy to read.

You can read Mabey's reflection on autumn here.

Photo courtesy: http://www.sxc.hu/

Weather maps

Like the girl pictured here, one of the things I've always enjoyed has been studying maps. I'm not particular, really; I'll look at any kind of map with some interest.

In this blog yesterday, we talked about the lower water levels in the Great Lakes. The subject of possibly changing weather patterns reminds me of forecasting and how much maps have improved in the digital age.

Thanks to the Internet, weather maps of all types are now available in all shapes and colours and levels of interactivity. I was an early fan of the easy-to-read, colourful weather page in USA Today, right from the day it was distributed. But now, it's easy to lose oneself in the minute details at sites like Accuweather.com, The Weather Channel or the Weather Network here in Canada.

Particularly attractive, to me, are the maps that explain how approaching weather systems will shape the short-range weather forecasts.

If only someone could invent a nice colour map for keeping track of daily to-do schedules. I'd consult my agenda more often.

Photo credit: José A. Warletta, through http://www.sxc.hu

Why is the water dropping in the Great Lakes?

If you walk along the shores of any of the Great Lakes these days, you notice that the water levels have dropped significantly.

This morning I was down at the Lake Ontario waterfront and saw for myself that the water line is about a foot-and-a-half lower than last year. Moorings and pilings are getting higher and drier.

Scientists and environmentalists are not sure what's causing this drop in water levels. It may be a change in rainfall patterns, it may be related to global warming or, as others suggest, it may be related to human activity, like dredging and industrialization in the Great Lakes basin.

Whatever the cause, it's disturbing. We can only hope it's temporary. According to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, between 1998 and 2000 the levels of Lake Michigan and Lake Huron fell at the
fastest pace ever recorded and the situation is similar to the drop that occurred during the Great Depression in the 1930s.

Earlier this year, residents on both sides of the Canadian and U.S. border pushed for an investigation into whether erosion in the St. Clair River, between Lakes Michigan and Huron, was causing a big drop in the water level in Lake Huron. The
Georgian Bay Association wondered whether dredging had caused erosion significant enough to cause nine billion liters of water per day to drain from Lake Huron into the lower Great Lakes and out into the ocean.

A few weeks ago, the International Joint Commission, which provides information to both the American and Canadian governments, concluded that there's no evidence that erosion is the cause. The
findings are still preliminary, but video pictures from the bottom of the channel seem to indicate a stable rock bed. However, many questions remain to be answered and more studies, over longer periods of time, will need to be done.

We've seen lots of related stories in recent months. Residents of Atlanta went through a
difficult summer, as a prolonged drought in the Southeast led to significantly reduced water levels in Lake Lanier, a primary reservoir for the city.

Let's hope science provides some clues to the cause of these changes. It really would be a sign of trouble, I think, if the Great Lakes were to continue drying up.

Photo: http://www.stock.xchng/

The world on the point of a pencil

Visual artists have the ability to transform what the eye sees into images that can be preserved for posterity.

In the process of recording what the eye sees, artists usually transform the object of their attention into something that is unique and personal.

A lot of variables come into play in this process: the materials used, the medium on which the image is recorded, and the personal stylistic preferences of the artist, to name a few.

Gabi Campanario, who works for the Seattle Times newspaper, is a graphic artist and illustrator who goes one step further. He's also a blogger -- a "sketchblogger," to be precise. At his site here, Campanario shares his passion with the world. And I'm very grateful he does.

He has more pages organized in albums at http://www.flickr.com/photos/baconvelocity/

Campanario is originally from Barcelona, Spain. He has a journalism degree, and it seems he cannot stop drawing. I can't imagine when he finds time for work. He fills his blog with illustrations that show scenes from his daily life in the Pacific Northwest. He rides the bus and he draws what he sees. He looks out his office window and he draws the view. He draws when he goes on weekend excursions. He draws his friends. He gets an e-mail from his library reminding him to return some books, and he draws.

Each illustration is a representation of what he sees in his world. They're portrayals of his living environment; but because they're illustrations, they are also intensely personal and unique.

Thanks, Gabi.

I wish I could draw.


Gabi Campanario is not alone…

If you enjoy seeing the world through sketches, there are many, many others…

He has sketchblogs listed on his site.

Here are a few more:

Jana Bouc (http://janabouc.wordpress.com/) is from California

Mattias Adolfsson (http://mattiasa.blogspot.com/) blogs from Sweden.

And then there's Sarah, from Texas: http://www.sarahmensinga.blogspot.com/


Photo courtesy: stock.xchng

What happens when the fighting stops

On this day each year, on the 11th day of the 11th month, when we remember and honor those who died in war, we not only reflect on the human sacrifice of conflict, but also on a sad irony: that the seeds of war are often planted at the moment of surrender.

Every generation, it seems, is burdened by the deeds of its predecessors.

As we seek to understand the conflicts in the Middle East today, our thoughts on this Remembrance Day go back to the First World War because of its pivotal importance.

It was supposed to be the "war to end all wars." Sadly, after nine million soldiers and five million civilians lay dead on all sides, and twenty-one million remained wounded, the peace treaty that was signed laid the foundation for yet another global conflict.

The Treaty of Versailles imposed such punitive measures on Germany that the treaty became a primary cause of the rise of the Nazi Party and the subsequent onset of World War II.

Now, as we reflect on the wars in Iraq and in Afghanistan, we see a similar pattern replaying itself. As a result of poor management by the forces that ousted the previous regimes, the situation is grim: societies in chaos followed by the struggle for some semblance of stability. The disaffection and suffering of millions of civilians and subsequent exploitation of the situation by militant forces have resulted in insurgency and internal conflict; in short, a real mess.

At the end of the Second World War, the Allies faced a similar dilemma. While it's true that the power struggle between Russia and her Western allies sowed the seeds of a divided Europe, it's also true that the world responded very differently towards the countries in need. The cessation of hostilities led to the Marshall Plan and the rebuilding of Europe. The United States also led the rebuilding of Japan, another defeated power. As a result, Europe and Japan recovered, the seeds of the European Common Market (now the EU) were sown, and these nations became contributors to peace and stability in the world.

As we recognize the collective sacrifices of humanity at war, let us hope that we also remember that what we do when hostilities end is just as critical in honoring those who died and those who remain with us, on all sides of a conflict.

Photo courtesy stock.xchng.

Saturday night

The radio in the car is playing upbeat trumpet jazz and the road is bright: big city lights ahead. Saturday night and the cares of the week have been left behind; at six-thirty the highway is a river of headlights flowing easily towards the heart of Toronto.

The skyline glitters with office towers and condominiums; the gigantic CN tower rising above them, a multi-colored light show decorating it's tall concrete base. The tower is trying to present a younger image of itself, having undergone somewhat of a makeover. A light show draws attention to it: think of an enormous needle with a swoosh of light rising rapidly to the top, much like mercury rising with unnatural speed along a gigantic thermometer, and then quickly dropping to the base, only to repeat again in different colors.

The radio tuner in the car moves from radio station to radio station, reflecting my feelings tonight -- a little bit of rock-and-roll, then some disco, back to upbeat jazz and over to funk. No racing the clock tonight; just rhythm and movement; an easy drive without any need to hurry.

I drive along Lake Shore Boulevard, the music high. Lake Ontario to the right is dark, except for occasional reflections of light on the water; shafts of light that stretch and waver with the movement of the water. The boardwalk along the coastline is empty, but the grass on the side still comes through green despite the darkness.

The city presents itself as a big and pleasant party destination: the Toronto Maple Leafs are playing the New York Rangers in ice hockey; people are stepping out to for dinners or theatre shows; a walk with friends, a talk at Starbucks or a drink at the local bar.

Toronto really is growing up, looking more and more like Chicago, Boston or parts of Manhattan. On a fine autumn night, it presents itself with blemishes hidden and its jewelry on, ready for an evening of fun.

Lately, the Canadian dollar has risen vigorously above its American cousin, and held its own in the international markets. It seems the city wants to show the world it has come of age.

Last train to the suburbs

Taking the last train out of the city in the evening sometimes feels like it really is the last ride.

The passengers are tired and silent after a long day at work. Now that the darkness comes earlier, the windows show no scenery and instead reflect back images of the inside of the train. Only occasionally, when the train arrives at a station or crosses a road, do you see some points of light through the windows. Otherwise black dominates.

People doze off. At night, the train seems to travel quietly and slowly; nothing at all like the morning's imperative to arrive on time in the heart of the city.

Clackety-clack-clack. Only the muffled sound of the locomotive and the hum of the ventilator in the car. People sitting apart from each other, spread out evenly in the car, each person in their own space, wrapped in their own thoughts.

The train arrives at a station; again quietly, it seems. The conductor announces the stop. One or two people get off. The train slowly resumes its course.

I wonder if this will be the way after death, as we travel to a destination beyond. Will we also sit as silent strangers on that night train?

Photo courtesy Egidio Bacigalupi, through the stock.xchng

A neat idea

Imagine what would happen if we could harvest energy from the random movement of people.

This is what two MIT students recently proposed in an ingenious idea they call the "Crowd Farm." It's a concept that won them the top prize in a sustainable-construction contest in China.

James Graham and Thaddeus Jusczyk noticed how physical objects flex when people place their weight on them. Think of what happens when you walk downstairs, for example.

They then reasoned that renewable energy could be harvested where many people congregate and move around; places like airports, railway stations or stadiums.

According to USA Today the two graduate students thought about the possibilities and came up with a sub-flooring system of blocks. The blocks move slightly when the force of people's footsteps is brought to bear on them. The sliding of the blocks against one another generates electrical power.

While the concept is still too costly for practical use, the idea is stirring imaginations. Everywhere we look, it seems, we see the potential for simple forms of renewable energy based on human power.

That's exciting, because lots of little ideas like this one, put together, can make a big difference.

King Tut's face on display

85 years to the day after Egyptologist Howard Carter found the hidden tomb of King Tutankhamun, the face of the legendary boy-king has gone on display in Luxor.

We're not talking about his ceremonial sarcophagus cover (shown at left), but his actual face.

It turns out that King Tut was a buck-toothed teenager, not that different from other young people in our own time. He was also slight; only five feet, six inches tall. It's unknown what caused his death at the age of 19.
A CT scan conducted on his body two years ago discovered that a few days before he died he had broken his thigh bone. Scientists speculate he may have died from a subsequent infection.

In order to save the king's body from decaying into dust, curators placed Tut into a climate-controlled glass case, where he will be seen by an expected 700 visitors a day.

The display is a reminder of how the past can still reach out and remind us of the march of civilization.

King Tut ascended to the throne at the age of eight, about one thousand years before Christ's time. And yet here he is, in 2007, looking up at us; the boy who led one of the most advanced civilizations in the ancient world.

The 1922 discovery of his glittering tomb decorated with golden objects and jewels, and, of course, the famous mask, captured the world's imagination and intrigues us still.

For more, including photos: King Tut from Associated Press
Blog photo credit: Enbrut Dani, through the stock.xchng

Words of wisdom

The Dalai Lama spoke some encouraging words during a speech in Toronto the other day.

His message is one that resonates because it reminds us that we are all linked together.

The Dalai Lama told his audience that one of the keys to peace in the world is good bonding, especially early in life. Maternal affection during infancy, he said, helps children have a warm-hearted approach to others. This eventually contributes to peaceful cities and peaceful nations.

"A healthy community must start from individuals," he was quoted as saying in the Toronto Globe and Mail.

"Today's reality [is that] everything is dependent and interconnected. Whether you love others or not, your existence depends on them, so you should consider others part of yourself."

The Dalai Lama encouraged his audience to "make this century the century of dialogue."

May it be so.

The present is the only thing that's real

Time for a little reflection.

We run around so much these days, juggling multiple activities, thinking about what we need to get done or analyzing what we did yesterday. We worry. We feel anxiety when we're delayed on our way to an appointment or when something deviates from our plans; when we're stuck in traffic; when our children are late coming home. We worry when we lose control of our timeline or when things don't jive with our expectations.

When you look at how we go through our days it becomes apparent that we live a great part of the time in the world of our thoughts, in the virtual reality of our minds.

When feeling stressed, and in search of serenity or some tranquility, try turning down the volume in your brain. Many people find it useful to consciously focus on the present, to become aware again of the senses and experience this particular moment in these surroundings.

Sometimes, the mind is like a runaway train. And we make things worse by letting ourselves get further distracted by the car radio, for example, or the mp3 player, the video game, the television or the computer. We may be in one place physically, but our minds are too often somewhere else.

A useful technique to improve awareness is highlighted in the book "The Power of Now" by Eckhart Tolle. His suggestion is to visualize your thoughts as if they're a series of images on a screen, to see them as a movie. Don't analyze them, just observe them without judgment.

As you see these disjointed thoughts running on the screen, you come to the realization that the room is filled with another presence -- the watcher. And the watcher is also YOU.

But how can this be? This means there's another "you" that is not a part of those thoughts up on the screen. The more you connect with that "watcher", the more your presence focuses on the "other" you; the you that is set apart from all the mental noise or static. As you practice this, the easier it becomes to disconnect at will from uncontrolled mind activity and the easier it becomes to focus on the present.

There are other techniques to focus on the present, of course, like conscious breathing exercises, yoga, etc.

The bottom line, according to the experts, is that you start to feel better the more your body and mind synchronize with the "now", with the surroundings and situation that defines the present.

Only the present is real; the past is a movie in your mind and the future is also just a series of images, also in your head. As humans , we can only truly live one "here and now'' at a time. The more we can fully experience this, the better we will feel. Tolle points out that our minds are so polluted that this has become difficult to do.

But with a little practice, living life a little more "unplugged" can make you feel better.
It's worth a try.

Photo courtesy: Greg Hill, stock.xchange

Religiously-motivated militancy: a new form of fascism?

I heard a term on the radio the other day which hadn't really registered with me before, but now it's sticking and I cannot rid myself of it. I don't know what to make of it. It has a visceral effect on me.

Those who defend it applaud its use because they argue the time has come to call things very clearly, to call a spade a spade, as the saying goes. But I'm wary of labels, because once they enter into common usage, people tend to apply them far too easily and loosely, and this often leads to injustices and discrimination of the worst kind.

The topic being discussed on the radio was terrorism linked to certain armed Islamist groups.

The term being used was "Islamofascism": modern Jihadist ideology linked to fascism.

Is this reasonable?

Columnist and author Christopher Hitchens* offers an interesting examination in a recent article in Slate.com. He argues the two movements are both totalitarian in nature and share many characteristics.

"Islamofascism" is a controversial term: a person using it risks sounding like someone who sees most Muslims as people who support terrorism. And yet, Hitchens does not hold back and draws intriguing historical parallels between fascist movements and the present ideology of anti-Western jihad.

While he is careful to point out that fascist tendencies have been seen in other religions in the past, including Roman Catholicism and even Judaism, he focuses his attention now on those who support and belong to groups like Al-Qaeda. He runs through a list of similarities that makes the blood boil in any defender of free choice in a society of shared and accepted humanitarian values.

If he's right, Hitchens does offer a ray of hope: he argues that many totalitarian movements have within them the seeds of their own destruction, a sort of "death wish," as he puts it; a willingness to see the movements destroyed rather than compromised in any of their ideals.

It's bleak and disconcerting. How accurate is this assessment?

It's up to each one of us to observe, consider and decide for ourselves.

* Christopher Hitchens is a writer for Vanity Fair and is the author of "God is Not Great: How Religion Spoils Everything"

Photo courtesy http://www.scx.hu/

Finding a better way to move people in a metropolis

On this day in 1904, the New York City subway system opened for the first time.

In those days, the streets of Manhattan were crowded with all kinds of horse-drawn vehicles and congestion was the order of the day. So New Yorkers thronged to try this new underground railroad. When the subway opened to the public at 7 PM that day, more than 100,000 people rode the line. It cost a nickel to board the train.

The first line traveled about 15 kilometres and stopped at 28 stations. It ran from City Hall in lower Manhattan to Grand Central Terminal and then on to Times Square and north all the way to Harlem. New York City mayor George McLellan was invited to inaugurate the line that afternoon of October 27th, and he was given the opportunity to drive the train. History.com reports that he liked the experience so much, he stayed at the controls from City Hall all the way to 103rd street.

The New York subway has now grown to 26 lines, operates 24 hours a day, and carries more than 4 million people every day.

For more information see:

This site has a lot of information about the history of the subway, but also about what goes on in the subway system every day. It's more than just a transportation system, with many activities for New Yorkers and visitors alike.

For maps of the system and other information, here is the Metropolitan Transportation Authority site...also quite interesting:

Photo courtesy of humdizzy
From...The stock.xchange (www.sxc.hu)

Why do we merely play with our tools?

An invitation to a social event crossed my desk today that shows a reproduction of Leonardo Da Vinci's famous sketch of Vitruvian Man from 1492.

I got to thinking about how technology and science are changing our lives, and how Leonardo himself innovated in art, science and mechanics. He used the technology available to him to advance our knowledge of the universe. He studied nature. He used his brushes to represent human experience on canvas. He used available tools to design and build machines that were years ahead of his time.

But what is technology without thought?

In today's world, it seems to me that we often play with new devices because we succumb to the allure of slick marketing campaigns. We buy gadgets and learn how to use them; and too often end up doing only that -- learning how they function. Then we repeat some those functions over and over again. Think, for example, how many of us use a computer only for e-mail; how many of us sit on the couch and use the remote control to surf aimlessly up and down the dial. We fill our time with media consumption that is based on access to it; not necessarily to accomplish something.

What a difference it makes when we apply technology to some higher purpose.

I read on the back of the card that Leonardo drew Vitruvian Man after reflecting on the observations of an ancient Roman architect, Vitruvious. It was Vitruvious who saw the human body as the model of perfection. It was he who observed that the human body, when seen with arms and legs extended, fits into both of the so-called "perfect geometric forms": the circle and the square. He used these ideas of human proportion to design buildings.

So Leonardo was simply using his talents to draw a visual representation of Vitruvious's earlier thought. The same can be said of another genius who lived after Leonardo, Shakespeare, who based so much of his celebrated work on earlier stories from classic Greek and Roman literature.

Real credit goes to our predecessors, on whose thoughts we build our world. The works that endure are those that relate to deep, shared aspects of the human experience.

Technology is always just a tool.

The treasure chest that opens when we sleep

The more researchers study the human brain, the more impressed they are with the findings.

When we sleep, it appears that our brain, freed from the demands of bodily motion and conscious thought, switches into a new form of activity that is surprising scientists with its unique powers.

We've heard this before, but now the results of a rich body of studies is pointing to some important conclusions about learning and memory.

In an insightful article in the New York Times, Benedict Carey writes this about our slepping brain: "Once seen as a blank screen, a metaphor for death, it has emerged as an active, purposeful machine, a secretive intelligence that comes out at night to play — and to work — during periods of dreaming and during the netherworld chasms known as deep sleep."

It's great reading because it highlights our body's potential.

The New York Times website lists the article as one of it's most e-mailed this week.

You can read it here.

Photo courtesy stock.xchng.

Harvard University digs up its Native American past

Something unusual is happening at Harvard University.

America's oldest institution of higher learning, founded way back in Puritan 1636, is rediscovering it's Indian heritage. The Boston Globe reports that in the middle of Harvard Yard, where students sun themselves on warm days, an archaeological dig is unearthing artifacts from the university's brick building where whites and Native Americans studied side by side.

It's a long forgotten fact that Harvard, the venerable Ivy League school of the elite, early in it's history welcomed the area's native inhabitants. It was an age when the future of the university and of New England was anything but certain.

In a rare precursor to our more modern notions of integration and multiculturalism, the university's 1650 charter laid out its mission as "the education of the English and Indian youths of this country, in knowledge and godliness."

Students working on the archaeological project, led by the school's Peabody Museum, are finding lots of small items, including pieces of a printing press that may have produced the first Bible printed in North America. It was a 1661 edition written in the Wampanoag dialect of the Algonquin language.

Coincidentally, one of the students working on the dig, Tiffany Lee Smalley, 18, of Martha's Vineyard, is -- the Globe writes -- the first Aquinnah Wampanoag admitted to Harvard as an undergraduate since the 1660's. She says the experience is bringing her closer to her ancestors.

Researchers hope to learn more about how the early English settlers interacted with the local Native American population.

Four hundred years ago, wampum -- beads of polished shell --were legal tender in New England. According to the Globe, Native students paid 1,900 beads for their tuition, while the equivalent sum for English settlers was 1 pound, 6 shillings, 8 pence in English currency.

Sadly, the link of multicultural scholarship was broken in 1675 when war broke out between the settlers and local inhabitants in the region. Many years passed before Native American students returned.

The Boston Globe article, with slide show, is located here.
(You may have to register on the site to get to the free page.)

For details on the archaeological project conducted by the Peabody Museum, here's the museum's newsletter page.

For more information on Harvard's history, see the Harvard web site.

The 1650 Harvard Charter is photographed here.

Driving to Boston

It's autumn at it's best: we're driving along the I-90 in upstate New York on a warm October day. Skirting the Finger Lakes, continuing east along the Mohawk River, across the Hudson at Albany and onto the Massachusetts Turnpike, through the Berkshire Hills and then gradually downhill to Boston and the ocean.

The mantle of tree cover seems to go on forever. To the north in the Adirondacks; to the south, the Catskills. A perfect fall day. October 20 and the sun in the northeastern United States is warmer than usual for this time of year. The trees show their many colours: reds, yellows, gold and still much green. The land rises and falls; we climb hills and dip into valleys; cross rivers and pass sloping farmland; and everywhere the trees frame the landscape in a gigantic quilt. It almost looks like this blanket was placed over the country by an invisible hand, to protect the land, or maybe to dress it for presentation.

Our destination is Cambridge and we arrive in mid-afternoon. Hundreds of people strolling; it's Harvard on regatta day on the Charles River. Parks full of people of all ages. Harvard's football team is playing at home vs Princeton; the college spirit is alive and well.

Later the Boston Red Sox lift the city's spirits as they beat the Cleveland Indians in a do-or-die playoff game, and the cheers from the bars spill onto the streets under a clear moon.

Oxygen, a simple prescription for better health?

One of the most basic of human activities could hold the key to better health. It’s so obvious that most people usually don't think about it.

That activity is breathing.

Yoga practitioners are promoting the benefits of “breath control,” known as "pranayama" (the Sanskrit term). Some say improving one’s breathing is the simplest way to promote better health and, yes, also to achieve some degree of inner peace.

Swami Ramdev, a teacher of this form of yoga, in an interview in the Toronto Star, sustains that “breathing is a form of medication because it increases the oxygenation to your cells and hence the blood to your body. This generates more energy and balances your internal system, including your hormones.” Ramdev claims that people who follow his techniques for 30 minutes a day, and stick with a vegetarian diet, can noticeably improve circulation and prevent a number of diseases like diabetes, for example.

Dr. Andrew Weil, the noted proponent of "integrative medicine," also believes in the benefits of certain breathing exercises. He propose three specific exercises and says on his web site that "practicing regular, mindful breathing can be calming and energizing and can even help with stress-related health problems ranging from panic attacks to digestive disorders." You can read more here.

One of the leading authorities on stress relief through improved breathing is the Indian spiritual leader Sri Sri Ravi Shankar.

For a general overview of pranayama exercises, see this link to about.com.

Photo courtesy "Stock.xchange": http://www.sxc.hu/