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.