Neil Young and the creative process

"We went lookin' for faith
on the forest floor,
And it showed up everywhere,
In the sun and the water
and the falling leaves,
The falling leaves of time."

-- Neil Young from "You're My Girl"

In a recent television interview, singer-songwriter Neil Young talked about the creative process.

He said an interesting thing: essentially, when creating something, to think is one of the worst things you can do. He believes in the truth of the moment. He gathers memories, impressions, without editing much, without the chatter of the mind interfering. Better for something to be presented with flaws but be honest. When performing, being technically perfect doesn't necessarily make it better. Good execution without soul is not his style.

His many fans around the world agree. It's something that has served him well for over five decades of artistic production.

Changing perceptions about drugs

What to do about all of the problems related to drug trafficking and addiction?

Countries spend billions to fight drug-related crime, interdict shipments of illegal substances, process people facing charges in the courts and care for those suffering from physical and mental issues stemming from drug use. The list of social problems related to the "war on drugs" is as long as your arm and growing. Taxpayer costs keep rising at a time when no government can afford to see budget deficits worsen.

While some countries have examined legalizing certain drugs, one in particular has taken a novel approach. Ten years ago, Portugal decided to change the prevailing mindset about drug use: rather than treat it as criminal activity, the government chose instead to focus on it as a national health issue. The approach has yielded some very positive results and now the United States is studying the Portuguese model.

The details are in the story linked here.
More in this AP story.

Photo courtesy of

Lightness of Being

Happiness and laughter mean different things to different people.

Here are some perspectives I like:

"Happiness depends more on the inward disposition of mind than on outward circumstances." - Benjamin Franklin

"People are just as happy as they make up their minds to be." - Abraham Lincoln

Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony." - Mohandas K. Gandhi

"Laughter is the brush that sweeps away the cobwebs of your heart. " - Mort Walker

Laughter is the shortest distance between two people." - Victor Borge

Mirth is God's medicine. Everybody ought to bathe in it." - Henry Ward Beecher

"When people are laughing, they're generally not killing each other." - Alan Alda

An appeal for good governance

The 21st century is only a decade old, but it's becoming apparent to me that if we do not devote ourselves to reform our political systems we will face some very hard times. I don't mean to overstate this or sound gloomy, but I believe the crisis is real and global.

The democratic process as we've known it seems to be stagnating before our eyes. The United States is wrestling with doggedly entrenched partisan positions at a time when it should be making difficult decisions and enacting legislation to right a listing ship; in many cases unpleasant medicine is required now for the long term benefit of all. It's the only way the country can hope to stabilize its economy in the face of trillions of dollars in debt and also hope to regain it's leadership position. President Obama has very difficult days ahead of him. In this climate one must wish the occupier of the Oval Office well, whatever one's political persuasion.

Europe is struggling with the effects of a banking crisis that appears to be spreading like an oil spill. Politically, the European Union is trying to hold together a grouping of states whose 19th and 20th century governments need reform. Italy, for example, the country of my birth, has a multiparty system that is desperately in need of improvement, yet it cannot make any progress in enacting change. The present system, too complex, too archaic, only guarantees one thing: constant sniping, and little or no real action in parliament. The judiciary, instead of being independent from the government, finds itself arguing with it and fighting publicly with the Prime Minister. Indecision at the highest levels facilitates corruption and gives organized crime the opportunity to spread its tentacles.

In most Western democracies, the rise of paid lobbyists representing many partisan interests, from corporations to unions to not-for-profit associations, are successfully influencing governments for the sake of narrow interests, often caring little for the benefit of the larger whole.

Where is good governance? How will we make sure our future is sound? These terrible squabbles, all shouting and no listening, the proliferation of public campaigns appealing to and gathering only like-minded people who have no care for fairly examining issues, only in supporting narrow views, no matter what, are creating a dangerous situation for us. No concessions from all sides of the political spectrum, no willingness to expend a little political capital for the greater good.

Without good governance, how are we going to arrange for safety and security and professionally manage foreign policy? The lives of millions of people depend on smart decisions by our elected representatives. Are our politicians doing the right things for a safer world? (See the inherent dangers inherent in the latest WikiLeaks revelations.)

How can governments function in the present situation? The democratic system seems broken. We need to fix it soon.

What can we do to turn politics from being some sort of grand game to a process that effectively represents the interests of the people? We have drifted far from the ideals we profess to uphold. How much are we willing to sacrifice before everything we own, our livelihoods, all of the dreams and aspirations of our children are comprised by dysfunctional politics?

Somehow, we must revive concepts of good citizenship, real public service and political representation for the common good. Maybe we need to create a new system. We need intelligent leaders mandated and capable of making better decisions under more objective terms of office, and somehow freed from the dirty games of partisanship.

I hope that change will be possible.

Related posts:

>On ideas about global government and democracy
>An appeal for better coordination of the global food supply
>Concepts espoused in the U.S. Declaration of Independence

Life stories

Recently on the CBS television program Sunday Morning, the producers looked at the role of obituary writers in newspapers and how their work has changed over time.

Originally obituaries were written about community leaders, influential citizens, the powerful. But over time these records of lives lived gradually evolved into stories about many kinds of individuals, citizens of all kinds - plumbers, teachers, doctors and so on. In short, the newspaper obituary now reflects the idea that ever person's life is a story worth telling.

In the aftermath of the World Trade Centre attacks in 2001, the New York Times found itself with a daunting challenge: how to tell the story of thousands of victims of the collapse of the Twin Towers? The newspaper decided to publish short summaries of as many of those lives as it could. The Times called the capsules Portraits of Grief. They were published every day for more than three months. The paper won the Pulitzer Prize for the feature.

What struck me most while watching the program were the comments by one of the newspaper reporters who wrote those summaries. Jan Hoffman interviewed a lot of victims' families and colleagues. She remembers that people usually focused their response around simple themes: "It was about love, it was about singularity, it was about connection, it was about moments of thoughtfulness."

"The singular quality that really stays with me is almost no one ever talked about that person's job."

A sobering thought for all of us.

Venice in the rain

It's a rainy evening. When its wet for an extensive period of time and I start to carry my umbrella every day, my mind turns to memories of other cities I've seen in the rain: Seattle, London, Milan, Venice...

Have you ever been to Venice? I remember visiting in the 1980s during a rainy period. I was standing in St. Mark's Square. The rain was falling and the tide was rising. Within minutes water started lapping up from the gondola moorings. It rose up the steps and came creeping onto the square. In the middle of the square, water bubbled up from underneath, through holes in the stone and marble and through grates, the water burbling like a pot boiling, and within minutes the entire square was flooded. Crews of workers appeared and laid out platforms, rows of wooden planks, for the public to cross the square. Like walking on long tables, we used those raised footpaths to walk around the centre of the city.

It's a scene that's repeated many times in Venice when the "acqua alta" - high water - comes calling. A huge project is underway to create a barrier that can be raised in the lagoon when high tides or rain surges hit the city. The "Moses" project, (MOSE in Italian, "Modulo Sperimentale Elettromeccanico") should be completed by 2012. As concerns about global warming and rising water levels grow, other cities will be watching this project with interest (New Orleans, for one).

Like the water, memories of Venice come flooding back. A restaurant by the canal. The lamp lights and couples walking down quiet narrow alleys at night. The bridges and worn marble steps. Boatmen and business people at the espresso bars in the morning. A living city, not just a tourist attraction.

Venice, whether water-logged or dry, leaves an impression and is worth preserving.

Like so many visitors, American writer Paul Theroux was smitten:

"I took a water-bus from the Lido to Venice proper, and approaching this city in the sea, glittering in brilliant sunshine, I began to goggle, trembling a little, feeling a physical thrill and unease, in the presence of such beauty, an exultation amounting almost to fear."

"...It is man-made, but a work of genius, sparkling in its own lagoon, floating on its dreamy reflection, with the shapeliest bridges and the last perfect skyline on earth: just domes and spires and tiled roofs. It is one color, the mellowest stone. There is no sign of land, no earth at all, only water traffic and canals. Everyone knows this, and yet no one is prepared for it, and so the enchantment is overwhelming. The fear you feel is the fear of being bewitched and helpless. Its visitors gape at it, speechless with admiration, hardly believing such splendor can shine forth from such slimy stones." (From The Pillars of Hercules, 1995, Putnam.)

(Photo courtesy of Paola da Reggio -- Public domain, Wikimedia Commons.)

Youthful success

I was invited recently to a celebration for Darpan, a South Asian magazine published in Canada. The event in Surrey, B.C., was memorable for a keynote speech by Gurbaksh Singh Chahal.

An immigrant to the United States from the Punjab region of India, Chahal is an extraordinary 21st century entrepreneur. He left high school at the age of 16 to launch an internet advertising company. A mere two years later, he sold the company for $40 million. He then formed another company and a few years later sold this second venture to Yahoo! for over $300 million.

Still under 30 years of age and living in California, he is one of the wealthiest entrepreneurs in the world and is now working on his third company, which aims to connect brands with social media.

Chahal, who's known in the States by the initial of his first name,"G," offered a few examples of the things he's learned from personal experience during his meteoric career. Some of these tips I'm summarizing here:

  • "Life is actionable." Ideas are just ideas, but success is all about execution. Always focus on performance.
  • "Stand up for what you believe." Be confident and focus on the image you wish to project. Approach issues from a position of strength. Sell a dream and then build it.
  • "Accept rejection." Don't be afraid to ask for help and learn from your mistakes. "Put yourself out there." You've got to develop a thick skin.
  • Relationships are everything in business and in life. Chahal says, "I never, ever burn a bridge."

Chahal has written a book (The Dream) and appeared in the Fox TV series, "Secret Millionaire." He's also been a guest on "Oprah."

It was an interesting talk and an interesting evening with the Punjabi-speaking community in British Columbia.


Gurbaksh Singh Chahal's website is located here.

A review of The Dream is at this site.

The South Asian magazine Darpan can be found here.

Finding a way

Focusing allows us to achieve more than we thought possible. It's interesting to hear the words of those who made a difference and left us some advice:

"We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act but a habit." -- Aristotle

"Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough; we must do." -- Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

"Nothing contributes so much to tranquilize the mind as a steady purpose--a point on which the soul may fix its intellectual eye." -- Mary Shelley

"We are still masters of our fate. We are still captains of our souls." -- Winston Churchill

This sampling today is courtesy of

GPS network impacted by time drift

The concept of time continues to amaze and befuddle us.

Here, for example, is one interesting fact: did you know that time travels faster just above the earth than it does on the surface of the planet?

In the 20th century, Albert Einstein had said that time can be understood to flow like a river; in some places it moves faster than others. He also likened it to the fabric of space. Earlier this year, British cosmologist Stephen Hawking provided tantalizing proof of time's fluidity. In a newspaper article, he cited as evidence what happens daily to the Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite network in orbit around the earth. The system that so many of us now rely on for accurate navigation requires the constant adjustment of its computer clocks.

Hawking writes, "Inside each spacecraft is a very precise clock. But despite being so accurate, they all gain around a third of a billionth of a second every day. The system has to correct for the drift, otherwise that tiny difference would upset the whole system, causing every GPS device on Earth to go out by about six miles a day." (Six miles per day!) Imagine what this drift, left unchecked, would do to aviation safety.

Hawking explained that the reason the clocks need adjustment is that the earth's gravity acts like a drag on the flow of time, and actually slows it down compared to the flow of time in space.

For more on Hawking's thoughts about time, including the possibilities of time travel, see Stephen Hawking's Time Machine, which was a summary posted on

Related material

Link: Research on the frontiers of physics leads to interesting theories about time travel

Okanagan wine country

Visiting a close relative in Kelowna (British Columbia) on a rainy autumn weekend, my wife and I decided to take a drive through the Okanagan Valley, well-known as an important wine-producing region in Canada.

We thought we'd drive south from Kelowna and visit some of the wineries in the area before heading back to Vancouver.

The OkanaganValley is long and narrow, about 160 kilometres in all, running in a north-south direction from Vernon to the U.S. border. Several deep, narrow lakes fill the valley floor, dominated by the largest which gives its name to the entire valley.

It's ideally suited for wine production because it sits in an area of "rain shadow," between the Coastal and Monashee mountains. Rainfall in this valley is lower than in other parts of the province as most precipitation falls on the western, or Pacific, side of the Coastal range. The long summer days and bright sunlight favour grape ripening, while the lake air limits temperature extremes. The micro-climates along the sides of the valley offer unique wine growing opportunities.

We started off with a visit to Cedar Creek Winery, on the east side of Lake Okanagan, across the water from Mission Hill, the region's biggest winery. Cedar Creek in contrast is a mid-sized operation, producing about 38,000 cases of wine per year. It commands a beautiful view of the lake. Like all the wineries in the area, the owners offer tours and wine tastings. In the vineyard, we admired some bright rose bushes. They serve an important purpose. Roses are the first plants to attract pest infestations and serve as a valuable signal of any impending hazards to the grapes.

Each of the wineries we visited referred to the importance of the aging process in oak barrels. Cedar Creek buys ninety-five percent of their barrels from France, where oak trees have been grown for this purpose for hundreds of years. Janet, our guide, showed us three special barrels that were made from a tree that was planted in France back in 1650. The other five percent of barrels used at the winery come from American oaks. Each kind of oak imparts a unique flavour to the wine. We were told that each barrel holds enough wine to fill 300 bottles. The cellar was filled with many rows of them. The barrels are not cheap. We were told they cost about $1,200 each.

A fire almost destroyed the estate in 2003. Fortunately, the wine maker had previous experience with forest fires in California and he organized men and earth-moving equipment to dig a fire break around the property. Before evacuating, he soaked the buildings and the trees. The fire spared the winery, but damaged the one next door. It was a devastating event for the town, as more than 230 homes in the area were destroyed.

Later we crossed the Kelowna bridge and visited Quails' Gate winery, where we ate an early evening dinner in the restaurant. We looked down the hill at all the vine rows stretching towards the lake, this time on the west bank. Proving the estate's name was not mere fancy, we saw a family of quail strutting between the plants. To the south, the sandy-coloured Mission Hill bell tower rose above the evergreens on the hill.

This part of West Kelowna is also interesting for another reason: the nearby Mt. Boucherie winery sits on the side of a dormant volcano. Boucherie mountain rises only 417 meters above sea level, but tens of millions of years ago it was much higher, standing at approximately 2,000 meters . The combined effects of wind erosion and glacial ice sheets have reduced its size and rounded it's top. However, the volcanic rock is very visible and it's a still favourite spot for climbers and geologists.

The next day we headed south on our way to Penticton. We drove down through Peachland and Summerland and admired the changing scenery on both sides of lake. Since the 1980s, the Okanagan has attracted more investment each year. Over 200 wineries are now located in the region. Daytime temperatures in the northern part of the valley are on average about 4 degrees Celsius cooler than the southern reaches. The soil in the north tends to be composed of clay and gravel, while in the south it's sandier. For these reasons, white grapes grow better in the north, while red grapes, which require warmer temperatures and more sunlight, do better in the south. Common varietals in the north are Pinot Gris, Chardonnay and Riesling. Southern varietals are Merlot, Pinot Noir and Syrah.

We learned that all along the valley grapes are grown on geographical features named "benches." These are outcroppings on the hillsides that favour agriculture and benefit from moderate air rising from the lake, afternoon sun and reflected heat off the rocky ridges behind them.

Near Penticton, we visited the small Nichol winery on the "Naramata Bench," rising on the east side of Lake Okanagan. It has a rock face to its back and fields sloping down towards the water. Because of the rain that day we were the only ones in the wine shop, so we had a lengthy chat with the seller and enjoyed the wine tasting. Harvesting this year will be weeks behind schedule because the cool, wet spring and the early fall is retarding grape ripening.

Lake Okanagan ends at Penticton, and a short distance south from there you encounter Skaha Lake on the way to Okanagan Falls. Along the way we saw a large group of aboriginal people performing a kind of ceremony on the banks of a river. We continued on towards Oliver. The country here starts to change, looking more arid. Sage makes its appearance on the hillsides and fruit tree plantations dominate the valley floor. The region between Oliver and Osoyoos on the U.S. border is actually the northern tip of the Sonoran desert. The Sonora, in various forms, starts in the Baja Peninsula and extends all the way up the western part of North America behind the rain shadow of the coastal mountain ranges.

The highlight of the day was a visit to the Burrowing Owl winery, halfway between Oliver and Osoyoos on the "Black Sage Bench, " not far from Lake Osoyoos. This large winery grows over 13,000 acres of varietals. Owned by the Wyse family, this estate commands a great view of the valley and the lake to the south, arid mountains at its back.

The proximity of the mountains sometimes brings surprises. An employee told us that few days earlier a bear cub had visited the fields. "We won't begrudge the bears a few grapes," he said. The area also is home to snakes, so pickers need to be careful. The winery has guest rooms, a pool and a large restaurant, among other attractions.

That evening we headed west again, rising up from Osoyoos to enter the Similkameen Valley. As we drove towards the dimming sun along the Crowsnest Highway, we were treated to extraordinary mountain scenery and unspoiled landscapes. We passed through a string of towns that owe their heritage to the gold rush of the 1860s and now focus on agriculture and ranching. We continued home with our few bottles of wine in the trunk. The Similkameen Valley deserves another trip of its own.


Cedar Creek winery
Mission Hill winery
Quails' Gate winery
Mt. Boucherie winery
Nichol vineyard
Burrowing Owl winery
The Okanagan Valley

Detroit rises again

My grandmother lived to over one hundred years of age. One of the things I will always remember about her was her abiding faith in young people. All her life, she enjoyed spending time with children and teenagers. She found they buoyed her sense of optimism and kept her young at heart.

Whenever I see youth taking the initiative to build something, I think about my grandmother.

Recently, my son forwarded a link about a video project that explores how young people in Detroit see new possibilities in the resurgence of their city. While many media reports have focused on Detroit's blight, this perspective is refreshingly different. We've all heard how the city has staggered under the crippling blows of the collapsed housing market, the world banking crisis and the subsequent near-death experience of the auto sector. Many sections of Detroit do indeed look like parts of New Orleans after Katrina. The city faces monumental challenges.

But the essence of Detroit runs deeper than the highs and lows of the auto industry. Thanks to the "can do" attitude of growing numbers of young people, Detroit survives and is very much alive, reinventing itself in new and unpredictable ways.

In the mini-documentary, posted on the Palladium Boots website and presented by actor Johnny Knoxville, one gets a sense of a city within a city. In one sequence, for example, the producers talk to long-time resident and club owner Larry D'Mongo about a desolate part of town. D'Mongo explains, in his own characteristic way, how he came to open his Cafe' D'Mongo in that location:

"When I first left, I always tell people, the pigeons had left. I mean there wuz no homeless, no nothin'. About five years ago, I saw white girls running down the street. Now, in the past, everybody would call 911, like, 'who's chasin' em?' ... (but)I realized that they were joggin'. And I said, 'Am I in Detroit?' "

"And these kids who live down here; they kept aggravatin' me, knockin' on the windows: 'Sir, please open, please open.' "

"I said, 'Okay, I'll open.' "

The pictures tell an interesting story. It's a story about new uses for abandoned urban spaces, of creativity, modern soul and entrepreneurship from the young and proud.

Check out the video. It's in three parts, shot in 2010. The first part on its own is enough to give you a sense of this alternative, up-beat perspective of a city coming to life again. The project is called Detroit Lives.

Photo credit:
Detroit picture courtesy of Anttank (Maha Rashi), Michigan.

History lives

The other day my son and I were talking. I was telling him one of the reasons why I like history:

"If you could see the people you read about in history books, you'd realize just how like us they really were."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean that things like technology, vehicles, clothes...they all change; but people are really just the same. Our brains are more or less the same, we laugh the same, grow old the same. It's our tools and general knowledge that change. If you take someone today, say a skateboarder or nurse, and place that person in the past, he or she would look more or less the same. When I read history, that's what I see."

A case in point was the story that appeared recently in the Toronto Star about an auction at Christie's. Up for sale was a collection of memorabilia of Sir Charles Seymour Wright, a young Canadian who joined Robert Scott's tragic Antarctic expedition in 1910. After reaching the South Pole, Scott and four companions never made it back to base camp. Charles Wright was with a second group who traced Scott's final movements and found the tent.

The story in the paper brings Wright's exploits to life, but not so dramatically as an astounding photograph of Wright himself. Like some of the classic photographs of the past, this one stands out for its remarkable intensity. It shows Wright at around age 23, hair tussled, a few days' growth of beard, sunburned skin and white spots on his face. His eyes penetrate into the lens of the camera.

It's an amazing photograph because it looks so current: you could easily take this portrait to be that of a modern-day snowboarder, hiker or surfer. It's a bit of a shock when you realize that this photograph is a hundred years old, from another century.

See for yourself: the photograph and article from the Toronto Star can be found here.

History is a living thing.

The photo of the pharaoh statue in the corner is courtesy of Rodolfo Belloli.

Moving forward on Afghanistan

Watching news coverage on television of the war in Afghanistan, it's hard to get a sense of what progress, if any, is being achieved by Western military forces. We see scenes of soldiers on foot patrol and occasionally interaction between them and local people. Sometimes, we see the aftermath of an improvised explosive device. There have been many civilian casualties. Overall, the military objective of stabilizing the country by ensuring security and winning "the hearts and minds" of the population appears a nearly impossible task. The country is vast and underdeveloped; the local security forces, police and army, too small, susceptible to pressure and corruption; the divisions between tribes, interests and loyalties very hard to overcome.

While safety has been improved in some cities and other areas, it has come at a great cost, in terms of financial resources and human life. Efforts to create national infrastructure have been hampered by corruption, betrayals and the insurgency.

The war in Afghanistan is being played out against a backdrop of high-risk geo-political tension: perceived global threats from fundamentalist religious regimes; the lure and traps of oil revenues; the strategic positions of Western democracies, China and Russia, just to list several issues.

Increasingly, it appears the road to stability in Afghanistan may lie not so much in centralized democratic government, but rather in developing local leadership in the rural areas and assisting people in creating workable alternatives to Taliban rule. We may need to abandon notions of Western-style democracy in Afghanistan. Countries rarely achieve in a few short years what others have developed over hundreds.

Traditionally, people in Afghanistan respond to tribal leaders. Perhaps greater efforts can be directed towards protecting and encouraging these leaders. Moderate religious authority figures, likewise, could be assisted, so that they regain their former standing in their communities. They will also require complete protection from insurgents and their radical form of Islam. None of this will be easy.

Analysts argue that allowing Afghans to determine local solutions to local problems may be a more effective approach to securing the country from the Taliban threat. This will take patience and fortitude. But perhaps Western countries will be seen more as genuine partners than occupiers and invaders, as Taliban propaganda surely labels U.S. and NATO forces.

If such an approach yields results, we should see fewer troops on the ground.

For more information on military options in Afghanistan, see Mitchell LaFortune's article in the New York Times. LaFortune served as an intelligence analyst with the 82nd Airborne Division in two tours of duty in the country.

See also Thomas L. Friedman's backgrounder on the global perspective on the war. It's a revealing behind-the-scenes op-ed piece entitled: The Great (Double) Game.

For a variety of comments on the situation, see Afghanistan and the Counterinsurgency War at

Photo credit: United States Marine Corps, through Wikimedia Commons.

The art of observation

Ted Mooney, the author of several novels, including the most recent thriller, The Same River Twice, is also a teacher at the Yale University School of Art. He is in the enviable position of combining unique skills, both as an accomplished art critic and as a narrator. In a recent podcast interview, Mooney described how he spends time trying to capture the essence of a place. I found his comments on observation useful for anyone who likes to travel or is interested in writing.
What I do when I visit a city... I spend fourteen-sixteen hours a day on the street. And if you just look -- and I do owe this to my years in the art world, I think, in some way -- if you keep your eyes open, and look at everything as if you've never seen anything of that kind before, you discover amazing things. They are all there to be seen.

If you stand in front of an art work of even medium value, you really have to spend some time clearing your mind of words -- utterly -- and just begin to look and keep yourself as blank as possible, for as long as possible, and you will begin to see the relations of things, how they fit or don't, and eventually you'll be able to see the object whole and then you can start letting words come in again and they will be the right words.

If you do the same thing at a street corner, it works too, by the way. You need to see the things that the people who live in that place can't see because they have their own routine

To read a review of Ted Mooney's latest novel, see Worlds of Trouble
For an interview with the writer, see Malcolm Love's conversation, posted on The Current Reader.

Road tales on a budget

Matt Gross, the New York Times' "Frugal Traveler," is moving on to something else. After four full years of writing travel articles for the newspaper, of blogging and videotaping his budget-wise, globe-trotting ways, Matt has decided to take off his backpack. (If you'd like a little background, see the posts entitled "Rome and Malta" or "Bucharest rising" in this blog.)

Before moving on to his next assignment, he wrote one last blog entry that summarizes what he's learned from being a traveler on a tight budget. He says one of the key lessons that will stay with him is that the amount of money spent on a trip does not determine the quality of the experience. What instead is much more valuable is having an open mind and being willing to go outside of one's comfort zone. Matt says meeting new people and establishing new friendships are the real reward for travel, regardless of budget or destination.

He explains his reasons, his joys and his regrets. The blog entry also has some embedded video samples of some of his experiences. You can read his last post here.

The "Frugal Traveler" column, however, isn't dead -- it merely has a new protagonist: Seth Kugel will be picking up where Matt left off. This summer, Seth will be travelling on less than $500 a week from Sao Paolo to Manhattan. The writer of the "Weekend in New York" column will offer some unique insights from the road. You can read some of Seth's previous work on his website, linked here.

"The best obtainable version of the truth"

For those embarking on a journalism career, certain iconic figures stand out as role models.

Probably the most famous are Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the Washington Post reporters who won the 1973 Pulitzer Prize for their investigative work on the break-in at the Watergate hotel and office building, a story that followed a money trail and unveiled a cover-up that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon.

Since then, both Woodward and Bernstein have gone on to write numerous best sellers. Bernstein is also a contributing editor to Vanity Fair magazine. Recently, Bernstein was invited to speak at a public forum on journalism in Rome, a city he knows well from his days researching a book on Pope John Paul II.

During the forum, Bernstein said some things about journalism which provide a unique insight into the passion with which he has embraced his profession. His remarks offer useful lessons for those who are considering a career in the media, and also for consumers.

Talking about the shift of journalism from older models of media to the newer forms of communication, Bernstein reflected on the need to bring over the best of the old traditions. He defined good reporting as the process of communicating "the best obtainable version of the truth." A simple phrase, he said, yet "something very difficult to accomplish."

Bernstein went on to explain that in North America we seem to have created a "mythology" about media objectivity. According to Bernstein, reporting is not objective, but instead is "the most subjective of activities." This is because journalists and editors themselves decide what is news and what is not. Reporters collect facts and string them together to provide context. He stressed the need to do thorough research and present the facts in a responsible manner.

Bernstein has been at it a long time. He started working as a journalist in 1960 at the age of 16. Asked to share his thoughts about the profession, he offered this summary, on looking back:

What is we do? We're not here to be prosecutors. That's for prosecutors. We're not here to change the results of an election. We're here to present information about how we live and how our fellows live. We're here to describe our community, our government, our sports, our entertainment -- always with the idea of this best obtainable version of the truth, so that those who read us, see us on television, on the web, put their trust in what we do and learn which of us is worthy of that trust, which institution is worthy of that trust, which individual reporters are worthy of that trust, so that we can help people know things.

That's really all our job is: to help people know things, so they can make up their minds about what's around them. It's very simple. [But] it's probably the hardest thing you can do because there are so many ways to get it wrong, to take shortcuts. The bad part of the web is the pressure on us time-wise, to get it out there right away, right away, right away... without checking it out, without trying to see how one fact weighs against another and putting it into context."

I would say, particularly in the informational cacophony that we have today, that if I were a young person and I could do anything, this is what I would do.

Bernstein may inspire a new generation of journalists to rise above all the noise and make difference.

Photo credit:
Image by Larry D. Moore, used under a Creative Commons ShareAlike License. More info here.

If you dream it...

Here are some perspectives on the strength of the human imagination, from some notably imaginative types:

"It's not what you look at that matters, it's what you see. " - Henry David Thoreau

"Live out your imagination, not your history." - Stephen Covey.

"I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free." - Michelangelo

"Imagination rules the world." - Napoleon Bonaparte

"If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn't thinking. " - George S. Patton

(Patton always make me smile.)

Quotations are from

Europe at the crossroads

Sergio Marchionne, the chief executive officer of automakers Chrysler and Fiat, was speaking to reporters recently and said something about the economic challenges in Europe that caught my attention. As we've been reading in the news, the concept of European union is at a critical stage. Talking about the looming debt issues, Marchionne made the observation that while both Europe and North America desire unity in their respective regions of the world, they've adopted separate paths towards that end. Europe, faced with many national differences, decided to first establish a strong shared currency (the Euro), hoping that the single currency and its benchmark economic requirements would eventually lead to political union. But those requirements of monetary union and the differences between national economies now risk tearing Europe apart.

Marchionne noted the North American model is different. Canada, the United States and Mexico first negotiated a free trade agreement. They chose to not bind national currencies together. The value of the currencies has been free to float. As a consequence, political union, if desired and possible, could be developed as a separate phase. Countries have been freer to pursue their own policies. Specific national economic issues to date have not been a grave threat to the agreement.

Financial observers say that many of the world's nations have been living too deeply in dept for too long. Now Europe faces significant social and economic upheaval, as Greece is forced to make great sacrifices to enact an austerity plan that threatens its social fabric. The global downturn of 2008-09 may only have been the first phase of a continuing crisis. All eyes are on how the European Union and the world's bankers are tackling the big challenges of this latest financial dilemma.

Der Spiegel magazine offers a detailed portrait of the economic situation in Europe. See Huge National Debts Could Push Eurozone Into Bankruptcy.

A seal and a ferry in the Strait

The seal was swimming in the middle of the Strait of Georgia, the body of water that lies between Vancouver Island and the mainland. The Strait is about 25-30 kilometers wide, and the seal was right in the middle of the channel, a long way from land. It simply popped it's head above water and watched as the large ferry headed directly towards it. I was on the deck of the ship looking down. Just as it seemed we would bear down on it, the seal effortlessly ducked under the surface of the water and swam a few meters off to the side and then popped it's head out again, whiskers dripping wet, and looked up at the deck as the ferry sped past.

This happened also with a different seal in another part of the same crossing we were making between Nanaimo and Horseshoe Bay on the mainland.

While many people on the West Coast are used to these types of encounters with nature, this is still marvellously new to me. It's a thrill to find other forms of life coexisting with humans. It always serves as a reminder that we humans are but one player on this stage, only one aspect of a complex ecosystem.

Standing there on the deck of this gigantic steel machine, an intruder in the ocean world, we had a connection, that seal and I, that lasted just a few seconds. We looked at each other; but it was a moment that linked us as living beings - partners - on this planet we both call home.

Eloquent words

Much has been said and written about the U.S. Declaration of Independence, drafted by Thomas Jefferson and signed by Congress in 1776. The document was the fruit of many days of difficult discussions between the representatives of the original colonies, the thirteen States.

Every time I read it, I'm struck by the powerful sentiment so artfully expressed by Jefferson in the second paragraph. Much of the original draft was modified by the founding representatives who participated in those early sessions of Congress. But this paragraph, we're told, is all Jefferson. The words somehow reach down and reflect something within the human spirit that seems to resonate still:

"...We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."

I never tire of seeing these words and reflecting on how powerful they are, how much they've guided western democratic ideals, and - sadly - how sometimes we've drifted from them.

The full text of the Declaration of Independence can be read here.
More on the thoughts and writings of Thomas Jefferson here.

Feeling at home

I recently spent a few days in Newmarket, Ontario, about an hour's drive north of Toronto. We had gathered for the funeral of a close family member. It was an emotionally trying time but also an opportunity to reconnect with family, friends and acquaintances. At the reception, talk turned to the topic of home.

Since we've moved out to Vancouver, many people have asked me, "So, how do you like Vancouver?" I always respond by saying that I'm enjoying living on the West Coast and I'm starting to feel at home here. But almost in the same breath I say that for me home is relative. Home is where I am, where I rest my head after a heavy day and where my family is. Home is not that necessarily related to a specific location.

The more I travel, the more I realize that while geography offers us the infinite variety of the natural world and clues to understanding local history and culture, it is also represents simply an aesthetic aspect of life. Life, for most of the week, revolves around work, spouse and family, shopping, food and rest.

As beautiful as the country may be, so much of our daily experience looks the same after a while that in the end it doesn't matter so much whether one lives in the Rockies, the Prairies or the Maritimes. Offices are more or less the same, shopping centres offer the same types of stores and merchandise pretty much everywhere, restaurant franchises are copies of each other, and many of these companies are also national: think about brands like Tim Horton's or The Bay, for example. When you factor in the effects of network television programs, the availability of the Internet, portable music tracks that become the soundtrack of life, and the use of social media, then geography begins to matter less and less.

So as we share similar life experiences across the country, then "home" comes down to our routine and the relationships we form -- relationships at work, relationships in the house and how we stay in touch with extended family members. That emotional "place" is, for me, where home is. And, accepting that, one can, in theory, live just about anywhere in this vast country and find a way to feel at home.

Will the volcanic ash cloud cool the planet?

While the volcanic eruption in Iceland has been very disruptive for air travel, one possible benefit of the enormous ash cloud is that it may contribute to global cooling.

The spreading of suspended particles of ash in the atmosphere, particularly if they are rich in sulfur, can actually create a protective haze in the high atmosphere. The sulfur particles mix with water vapour to form clouds with sulfuric acid droplets. These are said to stay aloft for years and contribute to the cooling of the atmosphere by absorbing solar radiation and reflecting it back into space. This may give scientists and governments a little more time to find ways to reduce the harmful impact of increasing carbon dioxide emissions from human activity. Even as we struggle to find ways to reduce these emissions, scientists are starting to turn to "geoengineering" looking for ways to shield the earth from the harmful rays of the sun.

While volcanoes may damage the ozone layer, it's also very clear that certain significant eruptions in the past have contributed to recorded periods of cooler weather.

The 1991 eruptions of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines and Mount Hudson in Chile released a gigantic sulfuric oxide cloud that scientists say caused the reduction of global mean temperatures by as much as one degree Celsius for the following two years. It may not sound like much, but such a reduction is significant. To appreciate the change, let's look at the opposite scenario: think of what would happen if the temperature were to swing the other way. An increase of the global mean temperature by one degree takes us to the edge of fateful precipice: many climatologists say an increase of just two degrees would spark an unstoppable chain reaction of global warming that would increase the amount of methane in the atmosphere, choke our food supply and rapidly doom our planet. So, in contrast, a reduction of global temperatures by one degree is a big deal.

A similar global cooling phenomenon was recorded after the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa (Krakatau) in Indonesia when the world experienced very cool weather and dramatic sunsets.


The image shows the smoke plume from the Mt. Etna volcano, in Italy.

For information on climatic effects of volcanic activity, including the two eruptions cited above, click here.

For a primer on climate engineering, click here.

The story of the Krakatoa eruption is here.

On night flights, there's more to see than airline movies

The orange starfish stretched wide and large below me as I looked down from a great height...It was a reminder of how the view from an airplane window can sometimes be quite remarkable. In this case, it was a different perspective on the city of Winnipeg.

In the surrounding blackness, urban centres from the air look like crystalline decorations on the vast expanse of our planet. Despite the internal glare from a plane's lighting system, night views are not only possible, but frequently satisfying, if you happen to have a window seat.

During daylight hours we forget how widely developed our lighting systems have become. At night the grid structure of the streets and buildings look like lit-up circuit boards with capillary tentacles reaching to the outlying regions.

Many European cities, having evolved from walled enclosures, castles and market squares, spread out from a central hub evenly in all directions. I remember one night looking down on Dublin and being amazed at the symmetry of the radiating pattern. It looked like a perfectly-designed citadel or spider web.

Interesting night views are not limited to cities. Natural features like lakes and rivers are visible under clear skies and moonlight. Mercury snakes twist and turn under aircraft wings.

Clouds are equally fascinating. Flying south under a Caribbean moon one time, the clouds looked like dark gray cotton balls. They left darker shadows over the ocean below. At first I thought I was looking at islands in the water, but after a minute of looking down under the brightness of the moon, I realized the black shapes were patches of cloud shades on the water. Like herds of elephants slowly crossing a savanna, they marched in silent formations over the waterscape. It was a surprising and stunning sight.

If this is what we can see from our small oval windows along the fuselage, imagine what pilots see up front.

If you've had similar experiences, why not a add a comment below. I'd really like to hear about yours.


To get a sense of how our cities look from outer space, see this illustrative YouTube video: "Cities at Night: An Orbital Tour Around the World."

Back to nature

"The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness." -- John Muir

"I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars." -- Walt Whitman

After a week of office work in the city, it feels good to get reacquainted with nature. It's a beautiful day so my wife and I decide to take a short drive to Vancouver's north shore where we stretch our legs in Lynn Canyon.

We become aware of how the full cycle of life is represented here. Flowers, ferns, new growth, old growth: we're amazed to see how many trees grow upright and strong from the trunks of dead trees.

In the forest, one gets a sense of how temporary human life is; how small we are in the larger scheme of nature and the universal passage of time. It's a sobering experience that also energizes. For all of us there is something here, something primal, something we can call home.

"It is not so much for its beauty that the forest makes a claim upon men's hearts, as for that subtle something, that quality of air that emanation from old trees, that so wonderfully changes and renews a weary spirit." -- Robert Louis Stevenson

How Leonardo da Vinci asked for a job

Imagine we turned back the clock and said you were Leonardo da Vinci, but not exactly the well-known man in the portrait. Rather, let's say you were a much younger Leonardo, about 30 years old, and you really needed to land a job. What would you say to a prospective employer? How would you market yourself?

How about something like this:

"Dear Sir, I know you've interviewed a lot of people for this job and seen their proposals for your military projects. Their concepts relate to standard procedure. Without prejudice to anyone, I'd like to show you some of my private work and offer my services. I'll list some below.

"I can build some pretty light but strong bridges that you can carry around with your army; and I can build mortars that can throw hundreds of stones and terrify your enemy; and I have quite a few other useful contraptions I'd like to show you. Oh, and in times of peace I can also paint, design buildings (both public and private) or even create sculptures, if you like."

Remarkably, this is more or less how Leonardo presented himself in 1482 to Ludovico il Moro, the Duke of Milan. His words have been an interesting resource for many scholars.

Recently, Marc Cenedella of the job site posted a photograph and translation of the enquiry letter on his blog page. He calls it Leonardo's "resume'." It's intriguing to read it.

Here are some excerpts:

1. I have a sort of extremely light and strong bridges, adapted to be most easily carried, and with them you may pursue, and at any time flee from the enemy; and others, secure and indestructible by fire and battle, easy and convenient to lift and place. Also methods of burning and destroying those of the enemy.
4. Again, I have kinds of mortars; most convenient and easy to carry; and with these I can fling small stones almost resembling a storm; and with the smoke of these cause great terror to the enemy, to his great detriment and confusion.
10. In times of peace I believe I can give perfect satisfaction and to the equal of any other in architecture and the composition of buildings public and private; and in guiding water from one place to another.

In closing, Leonardo offers to work on a large bronze horse sculpture. He also says he's willing to prove himself, if necessary, by conducting demonstrations on Ludovico's property to show his inventions in action.

In case you're wondering, Leonardo got the job. He lived in Milan for 17 years and produced many famous works.

If you'd like to read more, here's the link to Cenedella's post. It points out the advantages of Leonardo's marketing approach: Leonardo da Vinci's Resume'

Related da Vinci posts in this blog:

Why do we merely play with our tools?

Two mysteries solved.

Oops! Headlines that aren't quite right

A friend of mine passed along these headlines and the attached comments. They make one wonder whether the newspaper writers and proofreaders who put these together were a little hung-over. Strange and delightfully off-balance:

Man Kills Self Before Shooting Wife and Daughter

It took two or three readings before the editor realized that what he was reading was impossible!


Something Went Wrong in Jet Crash, Expert Says

No, really? Ya think?

Police Begin Campaign to Run Down Jaywalkers

Now that's taking things a bit far!

Panda Mating Fails; Veterinarian Takes Over

What a guy!

Miners Refuse to Work after Death

No-good-for-nothing' lazy so-and-so's!

Juvenile Court to Try Shooting Defendant

See if that works any better than a fair trial!

War Dims Hope for Peace

I can see where it might have that effect!

If Strike Isn't Settled Quickly, It May Last Awhile

Ya think?!

Cold Wave Linked to Temperatures

Who would have thought!

Enfield ( London ) Couple Slain; Police Suspect Homicide

They may be on to something!

Red Tape Holds Up New Bridges

You mean there's something stronger than duct tape?

Man Struck By Lightning: Faces Battery Charge

He probably IS the battery charge!

New Study of Obesity Looks for Larger Test Group

Weren't they fat enough?!

Astronaut Takes Blame for Gas in Spacecraft

That's what he gets for eating those beans!
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Kids Make Nutritious Snacks

Do they taste like chicken?


Local High School Dropouts Cut in Half

Chainsaw Massacre all over again!


Hospitals are Sued by 7 Foot Doctors

Boy, are they tall!


And the winner is....

Typhoon Rips Through Cemetery; Hundreds Dead

Did I read that right?