Despite today's travel hassles, a trip still offers self-renewal and new possibilities

One of the benefits of travel, whether near or far, is the prospect of renewal. Besides getting from point A to point B, travel offers unique opportunities for seeing life a little differently. Once on a plane, train, ship, bus or automobile, for example, the traveller becomes a sort of willing prisoner. While some passengers turn to amusements to pass the time, others find the act of travel opens the mind to fresh perspectives. It's like being in suspended animation. On a long trip, one may become melancholy, thinking about the past, reflecting on loneliness and failures; but at other times, ideas flow like a waterfall with new resolutions, plans for the future, and ambitions. Travel can be as much about measuring oneself as it is about physically getting to a new destination.

Not everyone, however, sees it the same way. John Steinbeck, winner of the Nobel prize for literature, in his narrative about a trip around the Baja Peninsula in 1941 (The Log from The Sea of Cortez), appears to take the view that people do not escape themselves, no matter how much they long to travel. Describing the scene on the departure from the port of San Diego, Steinbeck writes:

"Strangers came to the pier and stared at us and small boys dropped on our decks like monkeys. Those quiet men who always stand on piers asked where we were going and when we said, 'To the Gulf of California,' their eyes melted with longing, they wanted to go so badly. They were like the men and women who stand about airports and railroad stations; they want to go away, and most of all they want to go away from themselves. For they do not know that they would carry their globes of boredom with them wherever they went. One man on the pier who wanted to participate made sure he would be allowed to cast us off, and he waited at the bow line for a long time. Finally he got the call and he cast off the bow line and ran back and cast off the stern line; then he stood and watched us pull away and he wanted very badly to go."

I admire the detail in the scene, but I respectfully disagree with the great Steinbeck. While I think it's true that travel is often simply a temporary diversion from our daily problems, I don't think a trip leaves us unchanged: those of us who may be carrying around those "globes of boredom" can free ourselves of them.

On a flight to Toronto, I find communion with Timothy Taylor's thoughts on the subject in Air Canada's enRoute magazine. Taylor has written a series of travel articles called "The New Simplicity." He opens one of them like this:

"In travel, while you don't want to rush, moments of real speed can be exhilarating. I mean those times during a trip when you can feel the globe rotating under your feet, the landscape transforming before your eyes. Liftoff out of Vancouver, on a trans-Pacific flight, is particularly evocative of this sensation for me. The ground melts away behind, the scenery blurring and morphing. The sea opens up under the wheels, and there is a sudden sense of transference, of life moving from the known to the possible. And when the landing gear folds home, with that light but comforting thud, a point is sealed: We're all in transit, in physical suspension, mid-teleportation. When the flight is over - I feel this every time, with a sudden and intense certainty - a new world of unpredictable possibilities will begin to make itself known."

Taylor finds this experience is not limited to planes. Describing the high-speed trains in Japan, he makes this observation: "... the trains here often feel less like a linear mechanical system and more like a quantum one, a series of black holes sucking people out of one reality and releasing them some distance away in the midst of another."

Back when travel was more of an "occasion," before the days of x-ray machines, line-ups, and general cattle-herding, a voyage was much more likely to offer moments of authentic conversation, fresh perspectives and even zen-like clarity.

And yet, despite all the modern-day hassles, remarkably, it still does. All that is required on our part is a little awareness and letting go of the shackles of the mind, even only for a minute or two. It's well worth it.

Travel and change of place impart new vigor to the mind. ~Seneca


1. Description of the Log from the Sea of Cortez.
2. enRoute magazine. "Eastern Promises. The New Simplicity, part three: Betting on Buddha," by Timothy Taylor.
3. Taylor's website is here.

Ruminating about the "Q" word


The English use this word emphatically in soccer commentary, as in this case: "That was a quality pass," or in this: "An effort of real quality." It's an appealing use of the word because it doesn't need a qualifier: "quality" means quality... not good quality or poor quality, simply of good value, "superiority in kind," as one dictionary says. If an object or action is worthy, it has quality. Nothing more needs to be said.

We are so used to hearing light-weight words these days, terms that have inflated meanings or deflated meanings; words whose values have changed because common usage has worn them down or they've taken on new meanings through slang (think about " wicked" or "cool" or "hot," for example). So when we hear that something has "quality," the impact of the word is heavier, grounded, certain, even reassuring. The term was chosen precisely to refer to something of real value.

I find words like "quality" to be precious. Very welcome indeed, because we could all use a bit of quality in our lives. As the saying goes... it never goes out of style.

A life lived in full: Lew Wallace, the man behind "Ben-Hur"

The 1959 blockbuster "Ben-Hur" won 11 Academy awards and was seen by almost one hundred million people around the world. Directed by William Wyler, the movie solidified Charlton Heston's fame as one of the most popular actors of the 1950s and 60s. The movie was the most expensive film of its time (it cost $15 million). "Ben Hur" tells the story of a Jewish prince (Judah Ben-Hur) who is enslaved by his once boyhood friend, now a Roman tribune in the period of Rome's occupation of Judea. After many years away, he returns a free man and finds his revenge in the dramatic high point of the film, a violent chariot race. The film explores themes of redemption and spirituality in ways that moved audiences and critics.

A true classic of the American cinema, "Ben-Hur" remains a popular film that continues to be shown year after year by television stations, often around Easter. The film has endured because at its heart, it's a well-written story. It was based on the 1880 book by Lew Wallace, a novel that received even more acclaim in its own era than the film did in the next century. The book has remained in print since it was first published.

The story of Wallace's life, in many ways, is even more interesting than the book and the movie. Wallace was a Civil War general, the governor of New Mexico, and an ambassador; he painted, was an inventor, and at one time was wanted dead by Billy the Kid.

But it was his personal research and writing that left a lasting impression. The impetus for "Ben Hur" can be traced to a long conversation on a train with an agnostic military colleague who pushed Wallace hard on many questions related to Christianity. Wallace apparently felt ashamed by his lack of precise knowledge on the subject and embarked on a scrupulous study of First Century life in the Middle East. He then decided to write a novel based on historical accuracy. It changed his life.

I learned all about Wallace in Amy Lifson's revealing portrait in Humanities magazine. I've linked it here.


Movie poster is from
More about the movie at the AMC film site by Tim Dirks.
General Lew Wallace Study and Museum

Dealing with demons in the Bayou; nature and a shot of Jack Daniel's

I came across a passage today that I hadn't seen for a while but that still resonates with me. It's written by the American writer, James Lee Burke. I like it because of its descriptive quality and its Louisiana imagery; so real you can smell the scent in the air and feel the sun on your face. But I also like it for another reason: it aptly describes the appeal of alcohol to someone who needs it to basically function.

Burke, a former alcoholic himself, lets his protagonist, Dave Robicheaux, do the talking in the 1989 novel Black Cherry Blues. It's interesting how he blends nature and drinking in a short, powerful paragraph.

"When these moments occurred in my adult life, I drank. I did it full tilt, too, the way you stand back from a smoldering fire of wet leaves and fling a glass full of gasoline onto the flames. I did it with Beam and Jack Daniel's straight up, with a frosted Jax on the side; vodka in the morning to sweep the spiders into their nest; four inches of wild turkey at noon to lock Frankenstein in his closet until the afternoon world of sunlight on oak and palm trees and the salt wind blowing across Lake Pontchartrain reestablished itself in a predictable fashion."

A travelogue through the bottom of a glass.

In case you were wondering what Jax is, it was a popular brand of beer once brewed in the New Orleans area.

James Lee Burke
Black Cherry Blues
Lake Pontchartrain
Burke talks about his career and past struggles with alcoholism

False Creek at night

There is a section of Vancouver that exhibits a dreamlike quality at night. Dreamlike because when you're in this area at night, you see nothing but soaring lights: visions of a surreal place. You could be forgiven if you think for a moment you're in a science fiction movie. Bridges are illuminated in warm tones and vehicles move rapidly in and out of a golden city on suspended lanes; you don't hear them much down here, only see headlights moving in the air above the bridges.

In the black water, colour spills and mixes in reflective pools and patterns, like molten metal. Occasionally a silver light will appear out of the gloom and a slap-slap sound tells you a canoeist or kayaker is out there, his helmet light turned on for safety. Then out of the dark, the soft sound now of a small wave being pushed in front of a rounded precedes the appearance of a green light and a red light; and the shape of a small water taxi takes form. It heads for a nearby pier.

A ring of bright pearls decorates the shore. The towers of light go up into the sky.

Seen from this vantage point, the city looks like an imaginary place, like Oz, or some far-off, extraterrestrial future city, or perhaps instead an image from the 1920s, a golden re-creation of Fritz Lang's Metropolis.

It is, instead, False Creek at night, with its reflections of the condo towers, it's ten marinas and it's four bridges; quiet and peaceful, with it's walking path and parks ringing it, in the heart of Vancouver.

Photo by Jonesy22 shows False Creek, taken from the south shore at Charleston Park. Made available under creative commons license

Under Granville Bridge, Vancouver

Granville Island is a popular Vancouver attraction. From its days as an industrial area, the island was transformed in the 1970s and 1980s into a popular destination for both residents and visitors of the city. A colourful public market offers a plentiful selection of fresh food of all types, while art galleries, pottery studios, a university, waterside restaurants and many different shops give people good reason to stroll the area for hours at a time.

My wife and I stopped for a cappuccino at the Blue Parrot coffee shop under the Granville Bridge, and I couldn't resist taking out my notebook. The view here is looking towards the north shore of False Creek

How a woman survived a 75-floor elevator fall after a plane crashed into the Empire State Building

The September 11, 2001, tragedy of the Twin Towers in New York City was not the first time a plane crashed into a New York skyscraper: a previous incident in 1945 was tragic and miraculous at the same time.

On July 28th of that year, William F. Smith, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Air Forces, was trying to land his B-25 bomber at Newark airport when he became disoriented in low cloud. He narrowly missed hitting the Chrysler building, but unfortunately slammed into the seventy-ninth floor of the Empire State Building. Fourteen people were killed in the accident and ensuing fireball. However, the crash is also remembered for an unusual tale of survival. It's the story of an elevator operator who fell seventy-five floors and lived to tell about it.

The story was recounted by another bomber pilot, Col. Robert Morgan (ret.), in his 2001 autobiography ("The Man Who Flew the Memphis Belle: Memoir of a WWII Bomber Pilot"):
"Just as in war, the crash produced its surreal acts of fate. A badly burned woman named Betty Lou Oliver was given first aid and placed in an elevator car to descend to street level. The weakened cable snapped and the woman plunged seventy-five floors... The rapidly falling car created an air cushion that slowed its descent as it neared bottom, and the steel cable underneath the car piled up, turning into a giant coiled spring that further absorbed the impact."
Five months later, the woman felt well enough to return to the scene of the accident and courageously took a ride back up in one of the elevators.

Not the kind of story one reads every day.


For more information, read the full account of the accident here.

Details about the elevator crash and repairs are found in this article from an industry trade magazine.

Amazing heists and burglaries from around the world

If you enjoyed movies like "Ocean's Eleven" and "The Italian Job," you will relish the true-life stories of some of the most amazing heists in modern history.

Two examples:

In 2003, Leonardo Notarbartolo and his gang, later named "The School of Turin," masterminded the theft of over $100 million in jewels from the diamond centre in Antwerp. The story behind the heist reads a lot like the script for "Ocean's Eleven." Three years in the planning, the gang copied keys, learned how the alarm system worked and even replaced the tapes in the security cameras during the robbery.

In August, 2005, a gang in Brazil tunneled for three months under the streets of Fortaleza to break into a bank and make off with over $70 million. The thieves worked in broad daylight and set up a storefront business while they dug underneath two city blocks before reaching the vault and calmly removing its contents during a weekend.

The stories of the detailed planning and execution of these and other recent movie-like robberies are collected in a fascinating post in Neatorama ("Hail to the Thieves: Famous Heists We Love.")

Trees near Cypress Bowl

I have been really busy at work lately and have not had many opportunities to write. I will resume again shortly.

Here's a drawing I did during a weekend visit to Cypress Mountain, just outside Vancouver. Cypress is the site of the freestyle skiing and snowboarding events in the 2010 Winter Olympic Games. It's also a richly forested area, with some ancient trees said to be as old as 2,000 years.

The ones I chose to draw are much younger, although one was just a bark shell; but I liked where they stood, in a gully between the road on this side and a stone retaining wall on the far side.

A historic building

This tower with its balcony sits atop the tiled roof of St. Paul's Hospital on Burrard Street in downtown Vancouver. This research and teaching hospital was founded in the 1890s by the Sisters of Providence, a Roman Catholic women's religious order, and grew with the city into a comprehensive health centre.

I sat at a coffee shop across the road and looked up at the roof of the multi-storey building and for some reason the little tower appealed to me.

In a city that is largely dominated by modern glass and steel architecture, the hospital stands out as an example of a previous era.

Night strolls

"At night they would go walking ‘till the breaking of the day," Coldplay, Viva La Vida

Some random thoughts about exploring cities in the dark...

When you're walking you really get a feeling for a place; its rhythms, sounds, its aromas, its nooks and crannies. In many ways, walking is a better way to see a city than driving. One of my favourite things to do is to roam at night. I've been fortunate to have walked under the light of the moon in many famous places: Paris, Rome, Venice, and Toronto, to list a few. Walking at night is a different experience. In many ways you're seeing a city after its work mask has come off and the city has put on its comfortable clothes and getting into relaxation mode.

After the sun goes down, the sun's reflections disappear off windows and for a visitor the focus of attention moves naturally from outdoors to indoors: lights are turned on inside buildings, and suddenly you can see through the glass barriers and see people in their private spaces: working in offices, preparing dinner, watching television, having people over or getting ready for a night out on the town.

Like Charles Dickens, that incessant walker who used his nightly strolls around London to assemble great stories in his head, exploring a city at night provides a different perspective. It's more intimate, but also more anonymous; in the dark, details are lost, people move in the shadows and only become recognizable when they come under the light.

The night brings its own character. Lights create pools of colour and shadow. Couples huddle close, groups of people laugh and line-up at restaurants and night clubs, freed temporarily of their schedules and deadines, everyone putting their best foot forward.

Streets are uniformly black, dirt and stains not visible. If it has rained, then everything takes on a reflective sheen; a freshly-washed tableau.

In Vancouver bridges have their own special allure. The lamps over the darkened water create reflections, and the lights from buildings and boats move like brush strokes of colour on the water.

"I often think that the night is more alive and more richly colored than the day." ~Vincent Van Gogh
Sharing a moment: I'm sitting in a coffee shop. It's late at night. I'm going through e-mail on my laptop computer. It's been a long day. Normally, this place would be quiet and subdued. But tonight it's restoring my energy. Some of the best music from the 1970s and 80s is playing on the speakers and it's almost impossible to sit still. The rhythms bring back memories.

People come and go. Some sit in groups of twos and threes and talk. Others, like me, sit alone and read or tap on their phones.

These islands of warmth and light in the darkness are a welcome haven after a long day. We're smiling over here.

Pyramids of canvas

I apologize for maintaining a bit of a nautical theme, but after today I promise to leave it for a while.

Few sights are so majestic as the view of a sailing ship moving through the water on the strength of the wind. The so-called tall ships belong to another era, but they are still fascinating. With sails fully spread and lines taught, they inspired many paintings and photographs, like this one of an American clipper.

The vessels of the age of sail required constant attention by captain and crew. Sailors risked their lives daily to furl and unfurl the heavy sails hanging many metres above the heaving decks of ships. The constant action required to keep a wooden ship safe and afloat are often forgotten in our time.

I've been reading Two Years Before the Mast (1840) by Richard Henry Dana, Jr. The author left Harvard and spent two years aboard merchant ships in the Pacific and the Atlantic. On the voyage home on the Alert, he reflects on the appearance of these sailing ships, and I would like to share his description of a special moment, because I found it striking:
Notwithstanding all that has been said about the beauty of a ship under full sail, there are few who have ever seen a ship, literally, under all her sail. A ship coming in or going out of port, with her ordinary sails, and perhaps two or three studding-sails, is commonly said to be under full sail; but a ship never has all her sail upon her, except when she has a light, steady breeze, very nearly, but not quite, dead aft, and so regular that it can be trusted, and is likely to last for some time. Then, with all her sails, light and heavy, and studding-sails, on each side, alow and aloft, she is the most glorious moving object in the world. Such a sight, very few, even some who have been at sea a good deal, have ever beheld; for from the deck of your own vessel you cannot see her, as you would a separate object.

One night, while we were in these tropics, I went out to the end of the flying-jib-boom, upon some duty, and, having finished it, turned round, and lay over the boom for a long time, admiring the beauty of the sight before me. Being so far out from the deck, I could look at the ship, as at a separate vessel; -- and, there, rose up from the water, supported only by the small black hull, a pyramid of canvas, spreading out far beyond the hull, and towering up almost, as it seemed in the indistinct night air, to the clouds. The sea was as still as an inland lake; the light trade-wind was gently and steadily breathing from astern; the dark blue sky was studded with tropical stars; there was no sound but the rippling of the water under the stem; and the sails were spread out, wide and high; -- the two lower studding-sails stretching, on each side, far beyond the deck; the top-mast studding-sails, like wings to the topsails; the top-gallant studding-sails spreading fearlessly out above them; still higher, the two royal studding-sails, looking like two kites flying from the same string; and highest of all, the little skysail, the apex of the pyramid, seeming actually to touch the stars, and to be out of reach of human hand. So quiet, too, was the sea, and so steady the breeze, that if these sails had been sculpted marble, they could not have been more motionless. Not a ripple upon the surface of the canvas; not even a quivering of the extreme edges of the sail -- so perfectly were they distended by the breeze. I was so lost in in the sight, that I forgot the presence of man who came out with me, until he said (for he, too, rough old man-of-war's-man as he was, had been gazing at the show), half to himself, still looking at the marble sails -- "How quietly they do their work!"
When we see these ships today, they are usually moored at a dock or are turned into floating museums. I suspect that their real character, however, is only known at sea, under the canopy of sails and ropes.

About studding-sails: as a reference, here's a photograph of a ship from around that time, the USS Monongahela, with studding-sails protruding over the sides of the ship.
The photos used in this post are copyright-cleared as historic records now in the public domain

A gentle giant

This post is a short photo essay. Last weekend I had the pleasure of watching this ship, the Diamond Princess, depart from Vancouver harbour for its seven-day run up the North American coast to Alaska.
It's a really big ship, as you can see. This picture was taken from the roof of Canada Place, which is already about 10 storeys above the water line. Launched in 2004, the Diamond Princess can accommodate 2,670 passengers, and a staggering 748 cabins have private balconies. Built in Japan, it is one of the two largest ships in the Princess fleet.
During the height of the cruise season, weekends are busy in the harbour as ships prepare to leave. This summer, the Diamond Princess departed from Vancouver and arrived in Whittier (Anchorage). It then followed the reverse path with new passengers.
The bridge features the extensions pictured here, which provide excellent sight lines of the sides of the ship.
To facilitate docking procedures and preparations for getting underway, the ship is designed with these side doors that allow the crew to coordinate the release of mooring lines with workers on the dock. The ropes are whisked inside by a winch mechanism. The thick lines are guided by large rolling pins on the outside of the hull to keep the side of the ship clean.
Side-mounted engines provide the needed lateral force to maneuver the massive ship away from the dock.
116, ooo tons of steel and thousands of passengers begin a leisurely voyage out of Burrard Inlet and up the Pacific Coast. Along the way, passengers will see glaciers and mountains, fiords and forests.
Bon voyage!

Roz Savage succeeds again, making landfall after a solo journey of thousands of kilometres.

An update on Roz Savage, the adventurer who is trying to become the first woman to row solo across the Pacific Ocean: she's arrived at Tarawa, a small island in the Republic of Kiribati, successfully completing the second stage of her journey.

(For some background info, see my earlier post here.)

She was alone at sea for 203 days, having started this stage on May 24 from Hawaii. She rowed almost 4,000 kilometres. (Hard for us on land to image such distances and the physical and mental strain.)

Her overall voyage is planned in three stages. The 41-year-old British woman is also campaigning on behalf of the environment and each stage carries a special message. She began her adventure last summer, when she rowed from California to Hawaii. Her aim then was to draw attention to the damage caused by disposable plastics. This summer's section of the crossing carried the message about our need to take action against climate change.

Next year, Roz hopes to complete the final leg of her amazing trip, taking her all the way to Australia. I'm not sure she's announced the focus of her campaign for the last stage.

But back to her landfall: upon her arrival at Tarawa, she was greeted by hundreds of people and community elders. She was treated to performances of traditional songs and dances in her honour. It looks like it was quite the celebration.

The photos are
provided by her team and are copyright Roz Savage. They are used with permission.

Congratulations, Roz!

Living roofs

If you like green design, you may find these examples of "living roofs" interesting. Architects today are increasingly looking for ways to improve the ecology of cityscapes.

These photos were featured at, and give us an idea of how more buildings will look in the future. The photo above is of Singapore's Nanyang Technological University.

This is a building in Darmstadt, Germany. It's a residential complex called the Waldspirale, built in the 1990s. It features a unique curving roof with landscaping.

Here's a familiar shot for all my friends in Toronto. This is the roof of the Mountain Equipment Co-op store on King Street West. The company is committed to sustainability and in greening its operations.

And this is the roof of California's Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano.

Green roofs reduce energy consumption, reduce our carbon footprint and aid in the beautification of city spaces. They also open opportunities for food production in downtown areas. For more on that topic, I pointed to a link in an earlier post on vertical farms. It was this item from the New York Times.

Normally green British Columbia looking browner because of insects, drought and forest fires.

The four-hour drive from Vancouver to Kelowna takes one through rugged country and mountains, across rivers and over high pastures.

I recently returned after a round trip to the resort area and found the drive to be somewhat disturbing this time. The geography is still wonderful; but compared to a year ago, I was surprised by the number of trees that are dying as a result of mountain pine beetle infestation. The normally green trees appear discoloured at first, turning brown in groups here and there; then they turn into a rust colour before dying altogether. In some valleys, the brown tinge is all-consuming.

In 2008, almost 15 million hectares of forest were affected. This year, the number is undoubtedly higher.

The beetles kill a tree gradually. The danger begins when they lay their eggs under the bark. The larvae then mine the interior of the tree trunk and cut off the supply of water and minerals from the ground. To make matters worse, the beetles carry a fungus that further dehydrates the tree and discolours it.

Mountain pine beetle infestations have been part of the landscape for many decades, but they get worse when drought-like summers and mild winters fail to control their populations. This has been the case in British Columbia in recent years.

The dried timber and warm weather conditions also increase the risk of forest fires, and this year has been another bad one for fires in the province. Kelowna was again threatened when fires broke out near Westbank, on the outskirts of town. My wife and I saw the charred remains of this year's burn on the drive down Highway 97.

The photo above was taken in 2003, when fires threatened the town and burned many homes.

Many are hoping for a very cold, snowy winter this year.

Despite the challenge to the area's ecosystem, Kelowna remains a popular destination for people. Lake Okanagan's breathtaking beauty, summer boating, the local wineries, golf courses and winter sports are just a few of the attractions that will keep the area vibrant for many years to come.

Photo of the August 2003 fire is courtesy of Jeremy Bohn, who made it available on the image sharing site, the stock.xchng.

Another scene from Grouse. A very quick sketch from the terrace. I was enjoying a beer and wanted to jot down the feeling of the terrace. Great views from up there, looking southward toward English Bay and the Island, with the city of Vancouver spreading out to the left of the treetops. The cable car rises from below and to the right.
This is the view from the cable car station on Grouse Mountain, just north of Vancouver.

NBC Sports has selected this spot to set up its Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics studio.

Grouse may be one of the view places in the world where one can hop on a city bus and be skiing just a short time after having walked on the beach.

In the summer it's the home of tourists and exercise enthusiasts who experience the hiking and other outdoors activities in and around the nearby peaks.

I celebrated my birthday by walking in the area, hiking along the north side of the mountain where I was surprised and scared out of my wits by a large bear on the trail. I was very happy to later celebrate my escape with a bottle of beer and by taking in the view from the peak, at just over 1,250 meters above sea level.

A view of English Bay

Here's one of my sketches of English Bay from Vancouver's West End.

From this densely populated area of apartment buildings and hotels the view looking out to sea is spectacular, especially at sunset. Tankers arrive from far away ports and wait in the Bay to be called in to the harbour for loading. They have become an integral part of the city's view. At twighlight, they turn their navigation lights on and they twinkle out on the water. The building on the right with the dark ring around it is the Empire Landmark Hotel, which sports a rotating restaurant on the top floor.

According to, the area acquired its name from the 1792 meeting between the British sea captain Vancouver and his Spanish counterparts Valdez and Galiano. The same meeting resulted in the naming of the Spanish Banks nearby, an area which is home to three of Vancouver's best beaches.
This is a quick sketch of the view below Vancouver's Lions Gate Bridge as seen from the seawall in Stanley Park. Structures like this fascinate me. Thousands of tons of steel suspended in the air, held up by cables hundreds of metres in the air, vehicles and passengers crossing it every day. It's an amazing sight from both below and from above the road surface. When you're looking up from underneath you can clearly see all the support beams and how the weight has been been distributed; you hear the rumbling of tires over grated steel as vehicles move over each section.

Completed in 1938, the Lions Gate Bridge spans the First Narrows section of Burrard Inlet, linking the city of Vancouver with the municipalities of North Vancouver and West Vancouver on the northern shore of the Inlet. The construction of the bridge was made possible by a purchase of land by the Guinness family, the same family related to the famous Irish beer. Together with other entrepreneurs, in the late 20s and early 30s they bought a large tract of land on the mountainside in West Vancouver. This allowed the project to proceed, as many local residents and business people were originally against the idea and had voted against it.

The bridge is popularly known as the Lions Gate, because it points in the direction of the Lions, two mountain peaks north of Vancouver.

The other day, I rode my bicycle across it. There is a separate sidewalk and bike lane on either side of the road surface. Only a handrail remains between the bridge and the empty space below. For someone like me who's not comfortable with heights, it takes a bit of courage to ride your bike next to that rail, but the view is spectacular.

Here's an overhead look , taken by a photographer in a seaplane landing in Vancouver harbour:

The bridge is a classic Vancouver landmark. On the day I rode across it, I was headed back downtown when I saw a large cruise ship leaving harbour. I stopped my bike, leaned it against the railing and waited for the ship to pass underneath. With a couple of pedestrians who had also stopped halfway across the bridge, I peered down on the thousands of people who were enjoying the view of the coastal mountains from the deck of the Norwegian Sun. Young people were playing basketball on deck in an enclosed area and the swimming pool was busy; but mostly passengers had gathered in the upper decks in the front of the ship or on their private balconies to get a last look of Vancouver as they headed off either to Alaska or down the coast to California, I don't know which. Everyone waved. The great ship passed. I carefully got back on my bike and headed downhill into the coolness of the forest in Stanley Park.


Aerial photograph courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
For a related story on Stanley Park , see this post.

Solo adventurer takes on the Pacific Ocean and shares all on-line

The other day, surfing through Leo Laporte's popular This Week in Technology site, I stumbled across his archive of weekly web conversations with Roz Savage. Who is Roz Savage? As I discovered, she is a remarkable woman who is rowing solo across the Pacific Ocean. (Think about that for a minute: the Pacific Ocean, alone!)

Her story is one of self discovery. In the year 200o she decided to change her life and embrace one based on adventure and discovery. She left her home and job in England and gradually shed her possessions, keeping only the things that had real value to her. She adopted a new philosophy and later decided she wanted to try something very unusual: row across the Atlantic. Despite her lack of experience, she overcame many obstacles and accomplished that feat. And now she's taking on an even greater challenge, attempting to row from the United States to Australia.

Roz is baring her soul, her ups and downs (literally and metaphorically), daily on the Internet. Roz's boat bobbing out there in the Pacific is equipped with devices that permit her to send e-mails and write a blog. The entries are startling for their honesty and for what they reveal of a psyche experiencing this type of physical and mental test. You can read her comments and see her photos at her site here.

One of Roz's objectives is to raise awareness about environmental issues like plastic pollution, climate change and the destruction of wildlife habitats. She has inspired many with her courageous spirit. She's also become a motivational writer and speaker. Here are some of her life lessons, as she explains on her site:

[Sunday Times, 23 April 2006]

  • Don’t waste mental energy asking yourself if you CAN do something. Just do it. You’ll surprise yourself. I did.
  • Be clear about your objectives. Ignore others, stay true to yourself and measure success only against your own criteria. I was last to finish the race – big deal. I went out there to learn about myself, and I did.
  • The only constant in life is change. So don’t get depressed by the bad times, and don’t get over-excited by good ones. Accept that things are exactly as they are, and even bad times have something to teach us.
  • Life can be magical, but magic only gets you so far. Then you need discipline, determination and dedication to see it through.
  • Hope can hurt. The danger is that you hope for too much and set yourself up for disappointment. Be optimistic but realistic. Nothing is ever as good or as bad as you expect it to be.
  • Be mindful of the link between present action and desired future outcome. Ask yourself: if I repeat today’s actions 365 times, will I be where I want to be in a year?
  • Decision-making: act in faith, not fear, and don’t worry about making a ‘wrong’ decision – the way you implement it is more important than the decision itself.
  • Be your own best friend. The more you rely on other people, the less control you have over your destiny.
  • Be proud of your own obituary: a few years ago I wrote two versions of my obituary, the one I wanted and the one I was heading for. They were very different. I realized I needed to make some big changes if I was going to look back and be proud of my life. I am making those changes, and now I have a life worth living.

Photo of Roz arriving off Hawaii is made available by her and is used with permission.

If you'd like to listen to her weekly conversations with Leo Laporte, you can find them at Leo's site here.

Is technology dulling our senses?

Has our love of technology so diminished awareness of our surroundings that we are now impaired in our social relations?

I stumbled across two interesting articles this week that highlight this question. One relates to our use of cellular devices; the other to social behaviour in museums, of all places.

USA Today looked at what happens when people spend a lot of time texting, talking on mobile devices or listening to mp3 players. The result is a phenomenon we're all familiar with: lots of us are "present, yet absent." This has many social and personal implications. For example, while on vacation to exotic locales some people walk around with their heads down sending messages instead of experiencing the natural beauty they paid good money to experience. At restaurants, conversations (and relationships) are impaired when we pay more attention to incoming and outgoing messages than the conversation we're also having with our own partners.

Are we becoming "post-human" and are we losing valuable R & R time? Find out in Olivia Barker's story here.

In The New York Times, meanwhile, Michael Kimmelman writes an observational piece about tourists roaming museums. Watching visitors in the Louvre in Paris, Kimmelman asks himself what, exactly, are tourists doing and how do they react when confronted with a work of art? The answer, most of the time, is that they are taking hasty snapshots and moving on. During a morning of observation, almost nobody paused in front of an object for more than 60 seconds.

Kimmelman contrasts this experience with that of visitors in the pre-digital era, when people would bring sketchbooks to museums and interact with a work for much longer. He points out that artists see things differently. "Artists fortunately remind us that there’s in fact no single, correct way to look at any work of art, save for with an open mind and patience," he writes. One cannot review one's "lifetime art history requirements in a day."

Fortunately, not everyone that morning was impatient to move on to the next photo opportunity, as you'll see in the story here.


Thanks to John Lee for his photograph of texting on a mobile phone and to Christian Bauer for his shot of the exterior of the Louvre Museum.

For a related story in Zanepost, see "The present is the only thing that's real."

Solar forest

This elegant concept by designer Neville Mars is an ingenious solution to a question related to electric vehicles. I admit the problem has been tugging at me, too. The dilemma is this: if so many people want electric cars for a greener world, then where is all that additional electricity going to come from? Won't it just boost our demand for even more energy and add to our carbon footprint in other ways?

This clever design answers that question with another : why not solar power?

The trees in Mars' concept have branches that hold photovoltaic leaves. They slowly move to follow the sun's trajectory in the sky and also provide shade. A power outlet is located at the base of each tree trunk so that a driver can recharge a vehicle while he or she goes shopping.

Mars has put together a video demonstration that you can view here. (You will need Quicktime to play it. Let the video load fully before you press the "play" icon. It takes a few seconds.)

Mars founded the Dynamic City Foundation in 2003, an organization focused on researching and designing the rapid transformation of China's urban landscapes. He also launched, a collaborative web site also focused on holistic urban development of China.

You can read more about him at his bio page, here.

Images by Neville Mars

Vancouver's summer

After a week in Vancouver, I'm starting to wonder if this is the same city I visited a few months ago. It's been sunny and very hot for seven days in a row and more of the same on the way. Normally, the city has moderate temperatures and lots of precipitation. Many homes and apartments don't have air conditioning. In the morning, standing at water dispensers in cool office buildings, people have been sharing their insomnia woes. Fans and air conditioners have been flying off store shelves.

Sleepwalking or not, it's still a great time for those who like to hang out at the beach.

But for some, the heat and dry air have been bad news: forest fires in the province's interior and in the mountains have forced residents to leave their homes. The fires have been sparked by lightning strikes, mainly. While crews have battled flames non-stop in the wilderness, including a fire at Blackcomb, near the site of the Winter Olympics, here in the city there is no sign of rain.

We have had artificial fires, mind you, with the HSBC Celebration of Light event, which is an annual fireworks competition on the waterfront. This year it featured teams from South Africa, Canada, the U.K. and China. You can get an idea of what it's been like by watching this casual YouTube video, posted by a local resident.

To the newcomer, Vancouver stands out for its Anglo-Asian-Aboriginal ethnic mix; but it's also a city of many languages. Like Toronto, this city is a true cultural mosaic. In addition, cruise ships arrive at dawn and discharge hundreds of tourists and shoppers fill Robson Street and the downtown core. I've heard Spanish, Korean, Japanese, Italian, Russian, Farsi and a whole range of other languages in my walks downtown. The 2009 World Police and Fire Games are being held in nearby Burnaby, and this has added even more visitors to the streets, as groups of fit-looking people (mainly men) wander in groups wearing their national colours. Coincidentally, it's also time for Vancouver's gay pride parade. I'm not saying the two things are related, of course, but you get the picture.

Vancouver is also very cyclist-friendly, with many biking trails in town and near the seawalls. Lots of people also commute to work on their bikes. They've inspired me, and I have bought a bicycle of my own.

Great street art

Many thanks to my friend Sandy, who passed this along.

This is an example of the work of two enterprising artists in Brazil.

Anderson Augusto and Leonardo Delafuente are turning some common street fixtures in São Paulo into fascinating works of art.

You can see 20 more entertaining examples of storm drains here. It's great inspiration for a sketcher like me.

The artists form the 6emeia project, which is explained here, with more links to murals and other creative works.


Heading west

I would like to take a moment to thank all my friends and colleagues who took the time to wish me good luck and to say goodbye at OMNI Television Ontario. I really appreciated all the warm comments and the great reception. I will miss you all and everything we shared over the years will stay with me forever.

After 25 great years at the OMNI Lake Shore Boulevard location, I'm moving to Vancouver, where I'm taking on a new role with Citytv and OMNI on the West Coast.

I'm still with the same company, just working in another city. I hope to stay in touch with you all.

Many thanks and best wishes to everyone.

Outdoor patio

Summertime, and the living is easy.

A drink under an umbrella, some conversation and all the life of the city within walking distance.

This was the scene at a restaurant patio in the Yaletown area of Vancouver, a few weeks ago. My wife and I were waiting for an important phone call and I decided to spend the time doing a little sketching. These were some of the people at the nearby tables.

The shade of a large patio umbrella is always a welcome thing.

I hope you're enjoying your summer !

When free content impoverishes us

Further to the previous post, we can examine why the spread of free information and free creative material on the Internet and elsewhere has created a big paradox: art and data is so plentiful and so easy to access now that more people than ever before can find it. However, at the same time, the prevalence of free material has made it seem less valuable than it ever was before.

For example, a committed artist who has worked on a creative project for years, let's say, striving to bring it to the highest quality he or she can muster, becomes harder to discover in the world of "cheap" works and amateurs. The level playing field of free content mixes the great with the commonplace, the original with the fake, and everything is flattened in an ever-expanding universe of creative material.

So, for a work of artistic quality to be valued, it either needs to be drawn out from the field or it needs to be scarce. The scarcer, the better. If demand can be created for its uniqueness, then its value rises.

This may be one way that even journalism could find a way out of its present crisis.

Andrew Potter, a columnist at Maclean's magazine, recently wrote an interesting piece that explores this paradox. It's called "When 'free' becomes really expensive," and you can read it here.

Journalism at the crossroads

Much has been written and said lately about the financial difficulty of news organizations and the role of journalism.

The digital era has brought two things which are great for the consumer and terrible for the news field as a business: first, the Internet has reduced printing and distribution costs down to almost zero. This means that newspapers, individuals, companies, non-profit organizations, government and anyone, really, can easily distribute their content to anyone who's interested in finding it. This is great for consumers because they can access whatever they want, whenever they want, almost always for free. As part of this process, consumers have also become creators of information, collectors of information and sharers of information through blogs, forums and through popular applications like Facebook and Twitter. Access to experts, opinion and basic facts is not exclusive anymore. Who needs to buy a newspaper to read classified advertising when one can find products and services anytime on the world wide web?

Second, this ubiquity of on-line information and the proliferation of hundreds of specialty television channels through cable and satellite distribution, has diminished the importance of news organizations. People today have thousands of choices for content and thousands of choices for how they spend their "media time." For the news business this has become a problem. In the early 1980s, when channels were few, many news programs on television, especially local news, could capture as much as a twenty percent (20%) share of the available audience. This meant something to advertisers, who knew they could reach a significant portion of the population by advertising on these programs. Now, with hundreds of channels and the Internet, local news shows do well when they reach a two percent (2%) share of the viewing audience. This means less revenue from advertising and big financial challenges for news organizations.

Experts in the business of media, like Robert G. Picard, point the way forward. The challenge for news organizations is to find new economic value. They must discover ways to offer unique and different information such that people will see this service as valuable in a media universe of sameness and plenty. In a recent presentation by Picard to the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, he pointed this out:

" Journalism must innovate and create new means of gathering, processing and distributing information so it provides content and services that readers, listeners, and viewers cannot receive elsewhere. And these must provide sufficient value so audiences and users are willing to pay a reasonable price.

"If value is to be created, journalists cannot continue to report merely in the traditional ways or merely re-report news that has appeared elsewhere. They must add something novel that creates value."

This presents a real challenge.

Back to the moon with a blast

Here's a story that has been quietly developing and will come to the forefront later this summer and fall.

Forty years after man first walked on the moon, NASA has a mission underway to study the feasibility of establishing human outposts on the moon. The space agency launched a rocket last month that has two missions: the first is to precisely map the moon's surface; the second is to look for evidence of water in a spectacular experiment that has a few people worried. Scientists will slam an empty Atlas V Centaur rocket into the moon's surface at an impact speed of about 9,000 kilometres per hour. This kinetic impact is expected to create a crater as big as 8 kilometres wide and send a plume of dust high into space, such that it will be easily visible from earth.

NASA will be looking for evidence of ice or water in the gigantic dust cloud. If ice or water droplets are found in the debris or on the surface, scientists say living on the moon may be possible. Water molecules (H2O) could be separated into their component elements: hydrogen could be used for propellant and oxygen for breathing.

The big collision on the surface of the moon is scheduled for October near the moon's south pole. You can anticipate lots of news stories in August and September.

If you'd like to know more, see NASA's page here. It also has a video presentation that illustrates the experiments.

Photo is courtesy of Thomas Pate, who snapped this shot of the full moon in Tampa, Florida, on December 13, 2008. (

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It's nice to have a day off in the middle of the work week.

The rhythm of the day is different, and being at home, one feels the tension lifting from the shoulders. There's time to linger over coffee and the daily news, to look outside or to see the furniture in a new light. Nothing fancy, just a subtle re-awakening of awareness in the home environment. It's strange how commitments, deadlines, clocks and schedules create a different world in our minds. Pressure builds up without us noticing.

It would be nice, I think, to work one day less each week and split the work down the middle. This wouldn't work for everyone, but it appeals to me. More balance for someone who's often pulled in different directions.

Secrets of the underdog

Malcolm Gladwell, author of "The Tipping Point: How Little Things Make a Difference" and two other best-sellers, wrote last month in the New Yorker magazine about a fascinating topic: how underdogs often beat the odds and win.

In typical Gladwell fashion, the author draws from disparate examples to illustrate research that shows how weaker opponents in any contest, from sports to war, often find a way to come out on top. He finds that successful underdogs adopt tactics of insurgencies: attacking where opponents are weakest, challenging the established rules and common mindset. They use speed to their advantage, keep moving and are relentless.

Gladwell tells the remarkable story about a novice girls basketball team in California, coached by a software engineer from India, who made it all the way to the U.S. national championships. Six of the girls had never played basketball before. The coach used a full-court press and some nifty logic to successfully challenge the conventional approach to the way the game is played.

He also examines the tactics of an obscure British archaeologist who in the First World War led bands of Bedouins in the desert to a series of improbable victories against the Ottoman Army occupying the Middle East. T.E. Lawrence's exploits against long odds earned him the title "Lawrence of Arabia." Like David beating Goliath, the underdog can often win by substituting hard work and cunning for ability.

You can read Gladwell's examination of these traits in his piece, "How David Beats Goliath."

For a scene from David Lean's famous movie about Lawrence of Arabia, see this link that illustrates how Lawrence (played by Peter O'Toole) planned to attack the coastal town of Aqaba.

Toronto evening

Have you ever noticed how rain on city streets makes them look better? This is especially true at night, when light reflects off the slick asphalt. I think this is a reason why movie sets are watered down for night scenes; everything assumes a uniform sheen; no stains, uneven patches, or dirt.

Last night, we were driving downtown after a day of rain. The roads were slick. The effect on the city was that even down-and-out neighbourhoods seemed to look a little more polished. Street lights, automobile lights and store lights all reflected on the shiny black surface, creating an impressionistic collage of colours. The wet rails of the streetcar tracks and the wet overhead wires added to the reflections. Toronto seemed so much more like the big world capitals we see in movies.

The fact that it was a warm summer night made it even better. No need to wrap ourselves in scarves and heavy clothing, shielding ourselves from the wind. What breeze there was, was refreshing; and the warmth of the evening made everything feel, well, warmer. We passed by a spotless coffee shop, it's beige and brown interior and soft lighting spilling out onto the sidewalk in an inviting way. It reminded me of Hemingway's short story about two bartenders in Europe. He called it "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place"... This place certainly was.

I walked up the steps of St. Paul's Basilica, just east of Parliament Street, and read on the plaque that it was built in the early 1840s in the first Roman Catholic Parish in Upper Canada. The architecture is Romanesque, with a tall square bell tower. I had not seen the church before. It was also the site of an early Catholic cemetery in Toronto. The basilica stands on a small plot of grassy land. The rain on the natural stone exterior was so much better looking than the wet concrete on some of the other downtown buildings.

The wetness of the evening also brought out the smells of nature; the leaves on the trees, the wet grass, the subtle scents of flowers in planter boxes. We drove in the Don River valley and entered another world; vast greenery in the heart of the city: the lamplights on an empty walking path; a baseball diamond, green and wet under the lights, vacant. We drove up Rosedale Valley Road, a dripping, tree-covered tunnel, and then, suddenly, emerging near Yonge and Bloor, with trendy Yorkville at a stone's throw. And, again, lights and billboards reflecting on the pavement.

Towels are always in demand

I'm not sure what it's like at your home, but at mine we never seem to have enough clean towels to go around. Now that summer is here, my son and daughter are back from school. Everyone is busy indoors and out from early morning until late in the evening. The shower has never been more popular, with the washing machine running a close second.

Things we should learn before leaving high school

My daughter, who is now in the middle of her university years and living in an apartment for nine months of the year, was talking the other day about education. She asked a rhetorical question: why don't high schools do more to teach you about managing your finances, preparing your taxes, cooking, maintaining your house and your car?

I think she's right. We pick up many of those skills (or perhaps never even learn them) in an unstructured way outside of school, often to our detriment. What good is it to memorize some algebraic formula in math, or the parts of a flower in biology, if we don't know how to manage a household budget when we graduate?

Some schools are better than others, but some more courses or skills I would add to Lisa's list for all schools would be: mental health and balanced lifestyle, essential communication techniques, practical psychology (especially the role of the ego and how different personality types relate to each other), spirituality or meditation, personal improvement, citizenship and community building.

I realize schools can't do everything, but in my opinion a stronger awareness of some of these subject areas would go a long way to making all our lives better.