Time for a little levity

Okay... let's take a time out for a smile or two.
Here are some quotes from US comedian and talk show host Ellen DeGeneres, as collected by Michael Moncur in his Quotations Page:

"In the beginning there was nothing. God said, 'Let there be light!' And there was light. There was still nothing, but you could see it a whole lot better."

"The only thing that scares me more than space aliens is the idea that there aren't any space aliens. We can't be the best that creation has to offer. I pray we're not all there is. If so, we're in big trouble."

"My grandmother started walking five miles a day when she was sixty. She's ninety-seven now, and we don't know where the hell she is."

Given few realistic options, Italians turn again to Berlusconi.

I owe readers an update on the Italian political situation.

Back in February, the centre-left government of Romano Prodi fell and the country embarked on a long election campaign that culminated in general elections on the 13th and 14th of April.
(See posts on February 6 "Italians...polls" and February 4 "Government in trouble")

The man I've tried to draw here emerged the winner. It's Silvio Berlusconi, also known as "il Cavaliere." He leads the People of Freedom Party and his coalition has a majority in both houses of parliament.

This is the third time Berlusconi, 71, has become prime minister. On this occasion he won almost by default, as voters soundly rejected Prodi's unpopular coalition.

Italy's political system urgently needs reform, and it will be curious to see if Berlusconi can make progress. Optimism is hard to come by, considering Berlusconi's history of conflicts of interest and legal problems with the judiciary; a judiciary that has indicted him before for tax evasion and other charges.

Now the stakes are even higher, as Italy's economy is going through some very difficult times. The Economist magazine says in its April 19th issue: "Voters have good cause to fret about the economy. In the past two decades Italy has unquestionably become the sick man of Europe."

Berlusconi, on the other hand is healthy, and the richest man in the country. People hope he can turn things around. It will get interesting. He is a spontaneous and charismatic figure who often finds himself in hot water for saying unpredictable things.

He will have to make some tough choices. Change, it seems, is more difficult to achieve in Italy than in other countries: political power is fractured and the powerful unions and public sector workers won't keep il Cavaliere in a jovial mood for long.

A new definition of fine dining.

Are you afraid of heights?
I think today's post has to be placed in that famous category of human activity known as "What Will They Think Of Next?"

A new event venue has opened in Budapest, Hungary, that offers the public the experience of dining at a table suspended from a crane high above a city square.

A group of journalists tried it yesterday. You can see some photos in the Reuters site here.

More pictures in the slide show here.

I don't think I'll be trying this anytime soon.

Food shortages: a "silent tsunami" ?

Every day, we are presented with new evidence that countries can no longer exist in isolation; that we are one global community. The bank credit crisis is one example of this; global warming, another. And now we are faced with food shortages. Some are calling it a "silent tsunami" that threatens to affect us all if countries don't come together quickly to address the problem.

Strangely, one factor causing higher food prices may be our collective push to become more environmentally-responsible. Land that was once used for food is now being converted to grow crops to fuel cars. But the scarcity of rice, wheat and other food crops has resulted in higher food prices. In Asia, North Africa and in the Caribbean people have rioted because of the dramatic price hikes.

Two other important factors are creating a "perfect storm" that makes the problem worse: some countries in Asia have closed their exports of rice because they fear they will not have enough for their own populations. Unfortunately this has resulted in even higher prices for rice still available on the international market.

The other factor is the rising price of oil. This means higher costs for shipping and delivery of food. And, again, these costs get passed on to consumers.

The World Food Programme is calling for an immediate, "large scale, high-level action by the global community, focused on emergency and long-range solutions."

As worrisome as the situation appears, I have faith that we will find solutions to these problems. The Internet provides fast and widespread dissemination of information. Organizations are talking to each other. With the coordinated activities of banking institutions, governments, world agencies and other groups, we can pull together.

We really are a global village now...

For more info, see Science Daily and the Council on Foreign Relations pages.
Photo courtesy: http://www.sxc.hu/

The "Desert Fox"

This is my attempt at drawing Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the legendary World War II commander. I'm reading a book about the "Desert Fox." He was in charge of the German forces in North Africa and was considered the most able commander in desert warfare. He was respected not only by his troops but also by the Allied troops who opposed him.

In the drawing I've not managed to reproduce the essential energy of the man as shown in some photographs. And, for some reason, to my eyes he looks a bit like a British officer here. This I cannot explain.

I wonder: did I subconsciously superimpose the semblance of another famous desert fighter, World War I legend Lawrence of Arabia, in the drawing?

Way to go, Danica!

Congratulations to Danica Patrick, who has become the first woman in history to win an IndyCar race. What an achievement. She won the Indy Japan 300 event this weekend, beating two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves by six seconds.

It's been a tough haul for Danica. A rookie sensation entering IndyCars at age 23, she has competed in 50 races, became the first woman to lead the Indianapolis 500 three years ago and is a driver whose strong characteristic is consistency. She's had some bad luck in previous races, but things have begun to turn around: in 2007 she had 11 top ten finishes and came in second at Belle Isle in September. She finished third in two other races.

With her win, Danica has surpassed the achievement of another pioneering racer, Janet Guthrie, who became the first woman to compete in the Indy 500 in the 1970s.

Not so long ago, people in racing circles doubted women had the strength and endurance to compete in the top tier of racing. Danica is small, only 5 feet, 2 inches tall, and weighs about 100 pounds, but she has tenacity and willpower. Her win will breathe new life in Indy racing and will inspire many women to come.

Patrick is about to become a media phenomenon and a household name... and good for her.

Danica's website is here.

Photo courtesy of the GNU Free Documentation Licence, under creative commons attribution as posted on Wikipedia.

Lorenz's "butterfly effect"

I read in the local paper that Edward Lorenz, one of the fathers of chaos theory, the first to describe the "butterfly effect," passed away this month at the age of ninety.

The "butterfly effect" seeks to explain why scientific models don't necessarily produce expected results. It's the idea that a seemingly trivial thing like a butterfly flapping its wings can result in enormous consequences, like a tornado or hurricane in another part of the world.

Lorenz, a meteorologist, began experimenting with chaos theory after 1960, when he accidentally discovered that identical computer models for weather forecasts can produce dramatically different results when very minor variations are introduced in the data.

The underlying notion that a thing as a complex as our life or our world can be predicted with any certainty was replaced by the idea that conditions can never be sufficiently articulated to ensure long-range predictions. This is why weather forecasts are never reliable past four or five days. This is also why, for example, if I text a friend from the supermarket today, it could conceivably change the course of my entire week without me even knowing it.

Life, biology and physics is ordered and rule-oriented; and yet, despite those rules, it's also random and chaotic and filled with chance. That's cool.

Killing time

A moment in time...

All over the world, people spend hours waiting for connections at airports. Here's what it looked like to me at one of the bars at Toronto Pearson Airport's Terminal One. It reminded me of similar scenes in numerous movies I've seen over the years.

Have returned

Thanks for coming to the site. I'm back home, after attending a trade show in Las Vegas. Despite the downturn in the U.S. housing market, the downtown Vegas strip continues to grow. It seems that condos, upscale shopping and vacation time-share properties are the new frontier for developers there.

I will resume posting as time permits.

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

A popular franchise

This particular Hard Rock Cafe' is in the heart of downtown Toronto.

Located at the corner of Yonge and Dundas, it's a popular spot and receives a lot of publicity from the airwaves of radio station Q107, which is at the same location.

The story goes that Eric Clapton gave his guitar away to the owners of the first Hard Rock Cafe' in London, and they put it up on their wall. Since then, more than 70,000 guitars, other instruments and rock memorabilia have decorated the many Hard Rock Cafe's around the world.

I was in the area the other night and enjoyed watching the people walking around Dundas Square and the Eaton Centre across the street.

The "World's Biggest Bookstore" is just north of here, on Edward Street and is a great place to hang out. Built in a converted bowling alley, it likely was the biggest bookstore in the world back in 1980 when it opened. Even though other stores have surpassed it in size, the name stuck.

A poor spectacle

How sad it is to witness the images of recent days of the Olympic torch being escorted by police guard and protesters ambushing the runners in London and Paris. The torch relay has become a focal point, but for reasons the Olympic movement never intended. The unrest in Tibet has sparked worldwide protests and an apparent hardening in China's position there.

With six months to go before the start of the Games, the Olympic spirit is threatened by politics. Will the torch make it to Beijing? Will the Olympics prove that international sport can bring countries and people together in positive interaction, or will this debacle degenerate?

The International Olympic Committee remains cautiously optimistic that it made the right decision in awarding the Games to Beijing. IOC communications chief Giselle Davies tells the BBC that "history will look back and say the Games were a key part in a rapid and fascinating evolution of a country which is front and centre of the global community...Over the course of the last seven years, there has been enormous change that has taken place in China - some of it thanks to the Olympics. We believe the Games have been more positive than negative over the course of that time."

Let's hope she's right. Peaceful protest is one thing, violence is another.

Here's what the IOC says is the basis of the Olympic spirit's mission: "Building a peaceful and better world...in the Olympic Spirit which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play."

Everyone should decide for themselves what actions should arise out of that ideal in the context of today's world.

BBC: Beijing decision defended by IOC
Olympic Spirit.

Kandahar lifeline

If there's anything that can fill a citizen's heart with pride, it's the unseen and unheralded work of the men and women in military hospitals in a war zone. As Canada prepares to receive the body of another soldier killed in Afghanistan, we are reminded of the role of medics in the field and the staff in remote hospitals.

The other night, I watched a riveting documentary about the Canadian Forces medical personnel and the work they perform in Role 3 Hospital in Kandahar. The hospital cares for Canadian soldiers, coalition troops, Afghan civilians and also Taleban prisoners.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation spent four weeks at the hospital and returned with a compelling portrait. The bare facts tell a story on their own: last year, Role 3 surgeons performed 900 surgeries. About 1,300 soldiers and civilians were treated at the hospital in 2007. 98% of the casualties treated there survived.

Some of the most challenging and difficult cases involve Afghan children wounded in bombings and the fighting. It's really a remarkable story.

The field hospital also has an adjacent walk-in clinic to handle community cases. The doctor in charge of primary care at the time the documentary was filmed was Major Sandra West. She also led the teams when trauma cases arrived from the fighting. Her age seems to be between 40 and 55. Formerly a senior doctor at an Ottawa military base, she went about her business in Kandahar with steely resolve and military efficiency. But she also seemed very compassionate. Gillian Findlay, the CBC reporter, asked her if she had children of her own. She said yes, she did. The conversation continued something like this:
"Are you like a mother to these soldiers?"

"Yes. Once a mom always a mom."

"What's it like when you lose one (of the patients)?"

A pause..."I think about their moms."

And then she turned away quickly because the tears were coming.

On the whole, the medical staff seemed sensible, kind and incredibly connected as a team. I sense that the Canadian experience is not unique. Every citizen of every country with forces represent in Afghanistan should get a look at the work of the medical personnel. This is the other side of war.

If you'd like to read more about the CBC documentary called "Life and Death in Kandahar," click here. The site has photographs, interviews and video.
Illustration courtesy of http://www.wpclipart.com/

Do harsh measures disguise a weakness?

If you've been perplexed by China's response to the Tibetan protests in recent weeks, Canadian journalist and writer John Fraser offers an explanation. You may have surmised it yourself. It relates to fear.

Seen from afar, the Chinese government's heightened indignation over the protests seems hard to understand, no matter how many times authorities refer to "subversive elements." Many have also tried to understand Beijing's uncompromising restrictions of Falun Gong practitioners. China bristles at any criticism, it seems. It has steeply increased spending on its military.

Meanwhile, Western economies have become dependent on Chinese factories and labour.

While the gradual opening of Chinese society is encouraging, recent events have been discouraging. Should the West just butt out?

In the current issue of Maclean's magazine, Fraser, the author of three books on China, reflects the concerns of many outsiders. "Why does China overreact so badly? Why does the government care so much about small and insignificant groups?" He says the Chinese Communist Party "lacks the confidence of its own people" and "the party's endurance is based on never underestimating the power of small but dedicated protest groups. Because the party knows from its own successful experience 60 years ago that a small but dedicated protest group can take over and control an entire country, it can never let its guard down. Not once. Not ever."

You can read the full article here.

I would appreciate hearing the opinion of my Chinese friends and colleagues on this perspective.