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.
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.
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.
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/
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.
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 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/
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.
(These are from The Quotations Page).
Photo is of a nudibranch, or sea slug, photographed at Port Stephens, Australia. Courtesy: the stock.xchng
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/
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.