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.