Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Prairie Gold

As the year draws to an end, I have been counting my blessings. This has been a very good year for me.

I have been healthy and strong and full of energy. I have a solid network of family and friends who sustain and support me. My apartment has become a comfortable home with the addition of new flooring and new furniture.

2009 has been a year of discovery and learning and beauty:
  • I have moved outside my comfort zone in networking and promoting my freelance business.  
  • I spent three glorious weeks in Spain studying architecture and design, trying my best to learn a new language, and exploring a new culture completely on my own.
  • I have taken thousands of photographs and even gave a slide show about Spain at the public library.
  • I have read voraciously on so many different subjects - creativity, economics, politics, and more. 
  • I am learning new computer skills, so essential in our current age. I developed a professional website and started using Google Reader and Delicious and Springnote.  
  • I have become more environmentally conscious, buying local, organic foods and trying to step more gently on the earth. 
  • I have attended lectures on architecture and urban design that sustained my belief that cities and buildings are for people not cars. 
  • I've been to concerts and plays and the ballet in Saskatoon and Vancouver and Spain.
  • I've delighted in the beauty around me - from the grassy fields beside the South Saskatchewan River to the scented gardens and fountains of the Alhambra and the Alcazar in Andalucia.
As the morning light turns the prairie grass to gold, I give thanks for family and friends, for the many opportunities to learn and to explore, and for the natural beauty that surrounds us. I give thanks for life.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

How We Decide

We make thousands of decisions every day – what we want to eat or drink, whether or not to purchase a new electronic device, how to carry out our job. Jonah Lehrer’s book, How We Decide, is a fascinating look at how we arrive at all these different decisions.

What surprised me the most was the absolutely vital role played by our emotions: “every feeling is really a summary of data, a visceral response to all of the information that can’t be accessed directly.” Our emotions help us to interpret complicated information. They serve as the link between all the information stored in our brains and our response to a new situation.

We rely on stored memory to help us decide when to swing at a baseball or when to brake. We don’t have time to consciously think through each of these actions, but instinct and emotions help us decide on the right response. In fact, if we think too much about how we swing our arm or how we steer, we’ll make mistakes.

Emotions also help us sort through complex decisions. We can rationally decide to buy a vegetable peeler as there are a limited number of factors to consider. We need emotions to help us sort through a complicated decision like buying a house, which involves many different factors – price, location, style, size, etc.

In fact, we may regret our choices if they are too rational. A research study asked students to choose a painting. The students who chose one they liked were happy with their choice. Those who were asked to provide a rational explanation for why they chose a painting often regretted their decision.

However, emotions can lead us astray as well. The mind treats losses differently than gains. We’ll respond far more positively to a proposal with a 90% chance of success than we will to one with a 10% risk of failure. It doesn’t feel like we’re spending money when we use a credit card, so we run up debts that we know we shouldn’t.

In addition, our brains will always try and impose a pattern on random acts. We start gambling, and we think we’re on a winning streak, so we keep going, even though we’re losing more and more money.

Sometimes, we don’t think enough. We rationalize decisions that we’ve already made, using rationality to justify practically any belief. For example, voters will use reason to justify their consistent, partisan voting patterns.

Lehrer recommends embracing uncertainty – identify what you don’t know as well as what you do know, and consciously examine your decision-making process.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Mighty Popo: A Canadian Citizen

Life is a Celebration

How many guitar players and bands are writing alternate national anthems? Not many, I suspect. But the Mighty Popo did. Because citizenship matters to him. Mighty Popo was born to Rwandan parents in a Burundi refugee camp. He had no citizenship, no country that he could claim as home until he was granted Canadian citizenship.

Mighty Popo and two of his band members played at a recent symposium on immigration in Saskatoon, and he had many of us up and dancing. He kept repeating that, “Life is a celebration.” Mighty Popo’s albums are available from Amazon and on iTunes. He's also one of the featured artists on the CBC's two-part African Guitar Summit.

Refugee Success Story
For more information about Rwanda and Burundi and the life of a refugee, I highly recommend reading Strength in What Remains by Tracy Kidder. The book recounts the story of Deo, a young Burundi man, who arrives in New York City, with nothing. He deliveries groceries and makes friends with people who help him go to medical school. It’s a story of remarkable courage and perseverance.

I suspect that Deo and Mighty Popo have a great deal in common. Not because of the colour of their skin, but because of their strength of character and love of life.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

RAGE: Residents Against Greenhouse Emissions

I really wonder why I bother to vote and why we spend so much money on maintaining a parliamentary system when our politicians seem incapable of taking a stand and establishing policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. George Monbiot has singled Canada out as one of the major threats to reaching an international agreement in Copenhagen. Why? Are the politicians too busy squabbling amongst themselves or are they protecting the oil industry, particularly the tar sands?

It was reassuring to attend a lecture at the University of Saskatchewan by Dr. Marc Jaccard, an energy systems analyst who builds models to understand the interrelationships between policy, technology and economics. Jaccard says that it is increasingly obvious that we have the technologies to dramatically reduce our greenhouse gas emissions with marginal cost increases. (Of course, we still have to have the political and social will to do it.)

I’m not going to try and reproduce his talk, but he made some points that I found interesting and worth sharing.

Voluntary Action
For the past three decades, we’ve relied on voluntary action to curb energy use – and it doesn’t work.

We make more energy-efficient appliances, but people just buy more. In 1985, households had an average of 15 electronic devices; they now have 40 (this does not include major appliances).

Subsidizing energy reduction doesn’t have the effect intended either because 25-75% of the people who receive a subsidy for buying a hybrid car or installing insulation would have done so anyway.

Compulsory Policies
You can’t implement aggressive targets if you don’t implement compulsory policies. Regulations and penalties drive innovation, create markets and overcome lack of public understanding.

Jaccard points out that MADD has been extremely effective at curbing drunk driving because they combined education, changing people’s behaviour and compulsory policies and penalties. He suggests that we need RAGE – Residents Against Greenhouse Emissions.

Lifestyle Choices
Jaccard emphasized that policies must focus on reducing the harm to the environment rather than changing people’s lifestyles. For example, his research has shown that people are remarkably attached to their cars. You can’t just substitute public transit for a status enhancing, sexual compensating, personal mobility device. But you may be able to substitute electric cars.

And the economy won’t necessarily suffer either. Instead, Jaccard believes that by constraining our policies, we will change the nature of economic growth towards innovation by doing more with less.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Integrative Thinking

The Opposable Mind: How successful leaders win through integrative thinking by Roger Martin
Roger Martin’s book is a very accessible study of how successful business leaders resolve conflicting opinions, question long-standing points of view and develop creative solutions to their problems. The book is based on interviews with a number of successful leaders, many of whom are Canadian, and provides concrete tools that all of us can use to improve our decision-making capacity. I took three specific ideas away with me:

Existing models ≠ Reality
Martin defines integrative thinking as “the ability to face constructively the tension of opposing ideas and, instead of choosing one at the expense of the other, generate a creative resolution of the tension in the form of a new idea that contains elements of the opposing ideas but is superior to each.”

We avoid complexity by accepting either/or solutions rather than drawing out the best elements of each and combining them as a creative new option. Martin uses Isadore Sharp, the founder of the Four Seasons hotel chain, to illustrate this principle. Sharp combined the comfort and intimacy of a small, no-frills hotel with the well-appointed, state-of-the-art facilities of a large downtown hotel by focusing on superior service.

The key to integrative thinking is to “embrace the mess” and to avoid simplification. Focus on what might be in addition to what already exists.

Assertive Inquiry
When we have a discussion with other people, we’re inclined to defend our point of view rather than trying to understand the other person’s position. As a result, we don’t gain any new information that might help us to arrive at a creative resolution.

Martin recommends asking questions in order to gain a deeper understanding of other people’s mental models. Assertive inquiry involves a sincere search for another’s views (‘could you please help me understand how you came to believe that?’) and tries to fill in gaps of understanding (‘could you clarify that point for me with an illustration or example?’) It seeks common ground between conflicting models (‘how does what you are saying overlap, if at all, with what I suggested?’).

Deepen Mastery + Nurture Originality
Martin emphasizes that successful leaders “utilize their experiences to build and deepen their mastery while maintaining and expressing their originality. Experience helps you to identify what is important, to recognize causal relationships and to analyze a complex problem. But mastery without originality produces standard solutions that fail to consider the unique aspects of every situation.

When A.G. Lafley, former CEO of P&G was in charge of naval retail sales at the Atsugi Naval Base, he collected data on which customer populations were buying what goods and at what prices. He held mid-week sales and analyzed the results. But he also expressed his originality by stocking unusual merchandise. He integrated mastery and originality.

See Also:
The Game-Changer: How you can drive revenue and profit growth with innovation by A.G. Lafley and Ram Charan

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Telling Our Story: Saskatoon’s Immigration Sculptures

I’m a weekly visitor to the Saskatoon Farmers’ Market, part of an evolving redevelopment of the City’s South Downtown. It’s a delight to watch as the riverfront walkway is expanded and new features are added.

There are two wonderful sculptures adjacent to the Farmer’s Market, which celebrate some of the City’s earliest residents.

Egg Money
Egg Money is a particularly appropriate addition to the Farmers’ Market. Designed by Don and Shirley Begg and donated by the German community of Saskatoon, it honours the resourcefulness of Prairie women and their children, who raised chickens and sold the eggs to buy essential items for their families.

Storytelling Chairs
The Storytelling Chairs, designed by  Jyhling Lee and Paul Koopman, are part of the courtyard behind the Farmers’ Market. They’re a great place to sit and eat your breakfast on a sunny Saturday morning, but they also tell the story of the Immigration Hall, which used to stand on the site (now outlined in stone).

See Also:

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Telling the Story of New Orleans

Which would you rather read – a statistical report full of charts and graphs – or a novel with interesting characters? For most of us, that’s not a difficult decision. We’re interested in people, what they do and how they think.
In fact, non-profits have learned that people will donate more money if we see one individual in need rather than facts about the thousands of people who are dying from disease or hunger.

Dan Baum, a former staff writer for The New Yorker, found a way to bridge the gap between fact and fiction. In order to write Nine Lives: Death and Life in New Orleans, Baum held in-depth interviews with nine residents of New Orleans – from a Mardi Gras King to a police officer to a transsexual barkeeper to a successful establishment lawyer. The people come to life on the page, and it’s hard to believe it’s not a work of fiction.

Another character is a strong but unseen presence on every page – the City of New Orleans. We listen in on union discussions around integration. We watch teachers and principals struggling to keep the poor kids off the street. We dance in the Mardi Gras parades – in the poor areas as well as on St. Charles Avenue.

Dan Baum contends that New Orleans is like no other city in North America. Nine Lives shares his love and respect for its residents and for their courage in rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina and in trying to escape poverty or to help their neighbours.

For more ideas:
Another great book about New Orleans is The House on First Street by Julia Read.

The Interviewer: Echoing Stakeholder’s Voices explores ways that municipalities and organizations can document and evaluate their work through interviewing key stakeholders and synthesizing the information.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Adaptive Reuse: Promoting Synergy and Collaboration

Saskatoon has been enriched over the past few months through the establishment of Great Places , a discussion forum on current issues in the built environment. On Wednesday, November 18, three local professionals shared their perspectives on renovation and design.

Structure Supports Ideology
Jyhling Lee, architect, public artist and designer, discussed three heritage buildings in Toronto that have been renovated to serve as cultural centres. While respecting the original integrity of the buildings, the structures have been adapted to meet social and environmental needs.

401 Richmond, formerly a factory, is now home to 140 cultural organizations. The entrance way, lobby and wide hallways are social meeting places that build community. The roof garden includes an urban garden, a greenhouse, a deck with free internet access and a 3,000 square foot green roof. The gardens insulate the building, prevent stormwater runoff and counter air pollution.

The Centre for Social Innovation (CSI) is another warehouse that has been transformed to provide work space for social action groups. CSI’s goal is to create spaces where “creativity and social conscience ignite each other” in a “dynamic community hub.” There are offices (with glass walls allowing the natural light to reach the core of the building), permanent desks and shared-use desks as well as a wide range of common areas, including a kitchen and meeting rooms with whiteboard walls and chalkboards on the closet doors. Again, there’s a green roof to support insect and bird life and a living bio wall inside the building to help purify the air.

Sedimentary Architecture
Andrew Wallace, Architectural Design Coordinator with the University of Saskatchewan, describes the renovation and reuse of heritage buildings as sedimentary architecture. Changes and additions are designed to add a new layer of depth and richness rather than attempting to erase the past. By layering the new and the old, each layer is still distinct, both reinforcing and contrasting with each other.

Wallace described the work he was involved in to upgrade and add administrative space to the Whitby Junction Railway Station, which now serves as a community gallery. The original building was preserved and an addition was lightly connected to one side so that the old building was not obscured. The addition was constructed in traditional, southern Ontario brick and the metal beams resemble train rails.

They rebuilt the platform behind the old train station to serve as a sculpture court, and a boxcar parked on the rails serves as a printmaking studio.

Creative Expression
Curtis Olson is a musician and a developer. He and his wife purchased a 1935 Safeway grocery store in the Caswell Hill and turned it into a combination of residence, home office, music studio and performance space. It’s their home, but they also host home concerts. The space expresses their respect for Prairie structures by incorporating a red barn, a grain elevator and a grain silo (kitchen in the round) into the space.

Olson emphasized that adaptive reuse is a form of storytelling and must show respect for the building. His company was responsible for converting the Fairbanks Warehouse into 12 loft condominiums. He has just completed the first Shift home providing modern, affordable, green housing.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Open Government: from Accountability to Participation

Over the past few years, the public has increasingly demanded greater accountability and transparency from both public and private organizations, and this has had a major impact on communications professionals. It has changed not only what we write but also how we write it.

But people are requesting even greater openness, particularly from government. In the past, most citizens believed that they had done their civic duty by voting. After that, it was up to the politicians to make the decisions. That’s no longer the case. People are disillusioned with their politicians. They want more information and greater involvement.

A study on Leadership in Customer Service indicated that citizens “do not accept the idea that politicians and civil servants can effectively shape public services simply on the basis of their own assumptions of what is best for citizens. Instead, they want access to channels that will offer them the chance to engage with politicians and public managers, influencing public policy and shaping public services in ways that meet their personal needs and the needs of their communities.”

Technological Advances
Advances in computer technology and increased internet access have dramatically altered how people interact with government bodies. The City of Saskatoon’s new website includes interactive maps, the ability to pay bills online, information about road closures, and a searchable list of local business owners.

You can track your water consumption on the City of Nanaimo website and download an iPod audio tour that includes washroom locations and accessible routes from Whistler’s website

Whistler is also leading the way in providing greater financial transparency. Their 5-Year Financial Plan is available online and includes not only an overview of the budget-planning process but detailed financial information.

Open Government Databases
A number of North American cities are now moving beyond simply providing information. They are giving the public access to their databases and inviting volunteer programmers to “play” with the data.

As David Eaves indicates, this is a two-way deal: “On one side, the city agrees to share as much data as it possibly can, in open formats, as quickly as it can. On the other side, the community – and in particular citizen coders – must make that data come alive in applications, websites and analysis.”

The US government was one of the first to provide public access to its databases. In Canada, both Nanaimo and Vancouver have open data portals and several other cities are considering following their lead.

Information that was once private is now becoming accessible online:
FixMyStreet Canada provides an online reporting mechanism to inform your City of potholes, graffiti, or other problems in your neighbourhood.
• You can use the HowdTheyVote website to track your MPs voting history and attendance record.
EveryBlock offers a news feed for every city block in 15 US cities providing information about everything from crime, to traffic jams, to robberies, to upcoming events.
CarPool Mashup Matchmaker helps Washington, DC, residents find a carpool that matches their preferences.

Vancouver’s First Mashups
Volunteers have used the City of Vancouver’s databases to create a number of new programs to make information more readily available:
• One of the first apps to be created, during this past summer’s heat wave, was a map showing the locations of all the water fountains in the city. Volunteer coders set it up and invited the public to add to it.
VanTrash is a free garbage service reminder. You can download the schedule to your electronic calendar or set up email/tweet reminders.
• You can now search the Vancouver Public Library from the Amazon website. Amazon’s website is much easier to use than the library’s, and you may save money by reserving a book rather than buying it.

Is It Useful?
There is tremendous potential in the move towards public access to government databases. Open source software, such as Mozilla, Open Office, and Library Thing, were all created through the combined volunteer efforts of computer enthusiasts from around the world. Now they are turning their talents to developing programs to assist municipal, provincial, and federal governments in understanding and responding to public concerns.

There is a risk, however. At present, open government projects are primarily driven by computer geeks. This is a restricted group of people who are focussed on developing software applications but may not have spent sufficient time understanding the community and its problems and needs.

I hope that open government projects will expand the circle of involvement to include community activists, business leaders, academics, marketing and communications experts, and members of the public. And I hope that they will address some of the most urgent needs of our communities – environmental sustainability, transit, health.

Stay tuned for further developments.

For further information:
Government Ambassadors for Citizen Engagement, O’Reilly Radar
Bridging the Gap between Expectations and Reality, GTEC
Creating the Open Data Bargain in Cities, eaves.ca
Gov 2.0, eaves.ca

Note: This article was prepared for IABC Saskatoon’s November, 2009 newsletter.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Adaptive Reuse and Cultural Spaces

Great Places will be hosting a discussion on Adaptive Reuse and Cultural Spaces on Wednesday, November 18, 2009 at 7 PM at the Frances Morrison Library (main downtown branch) in Saskatoon. Information about the event is copied from the flyer distributed by Great Places.

Jyhling Lee, Andrew Wallace and Curtis Olson will share their unique perspectives on renovation and design in an evening devoted to the discussion of adaptive reuse and cultural spaces.

Jyhling Lee - architect, public artist, and designer - will introduce three adaptive reuse projects which have become important creative cultural complexes within their urban Toronto neighborhoods. She will describe 401 Richmond, The Centre for Social Innovation - Robertson Building, and the Wychwood Barns and discuss how the existing heritage structures have positively influenced their building’s new functional program and the refurbished architectural spaces.

In his presentation of Whitby’s Station Gallery, Andrew Wallace - Architectural Design Coordinator with the University of Saskatchewan - will take a closer look at cultural spaces and adaptive reuse within the context of the smaller city. Wallace designed and managed the construction of this finely-crafted project, completed in 2005, while working at Goldsmith Borgal & Company Architects in Toronto.

From a local perspective, Shift Development’s Curtis Olson will be speaking on the Hayloft, the adaptive reuse of a former grocery store in Saskatoon.

This talk will be located in the lower level auditorium of the Frances Morrison Library. The event begins at 7:00 PM. Admission is free. Following the presentations, there will be a moderated public discussion on the topic with the panelists.

Hope to see you there!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Control Freaks

I have just finished reading Fordlandia by Greg Grandin, and I am appalled by the human desire to dominate and control the world around us. It’s well known that Henry Ford invented the assembly line, dividing up the act of building a car into 7,882 separate actions. But he had much grander schemes than that.

He paid his workers well, but he didn’t want them to waste their money so he set up a Sociological Department and dispatched inspectors to probe into the most personal corners of his employees’ lives. “By 1919, the Sociological Department employed hundreds of agents who spread out over Dearborn and Detroit asking questions, taking notes, and writing up personnel reports. . . . Sociological men came around not just once but two, three, or four times interviewing family members, friends, and landlords to make sure previous reports of probity were accurate. They of course discouraged drinking, smoking, and gambling and encouraged saving, clean living habits, keeping flies off food, maintaining an orderly house, backyard, and front porch, and sleeping in beds.” Later, he would employ a gang of thugs to make sure that workers didn’t attempt to form a union or stir up any kind of trouble.

Once Ford’s factories were up and running, he set about creating model communities that combined industry and agriculture. When Ford came across a pretty site in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, he ordered his men to dig a lake and build a lumber mill. The dozen or so workers were expected to divide their time between lumbering, milling, and farming. Ford townships were spotlessly clean; alcohol and tobacco were prohibited; and it was compulsory to stand up perfectly straight on two feet at all times.

Ford dreamed of developing model communities in the Tennessee River Valley. When that proved impossible (during the Depression the federal government would institute many of his ideas), he looked south and bought a huge tract of land in the Amazon. He spent millions and millions of dollars trying to not only tame the jungle but to tame the natives. He built rows of Cape Cod bungalows, a golf course and taught the locals to square dance. The steam whistle blew four times a day; the workers were expected to punch a time clock; and the family homes were inspected for such things as making sure they knew how to use and dispose of company-provided toilet paper. With a complete disdain for expertise, he tried to develop a rubber plantation. The whole experiment was disastrous.

Henry Ford wasn’t unique. He simply had more money to help him implement his ideas. The Amazon continues to be manipulated in order to provide cheap labour, cheap beef, and cheap consumer products. We continue to consume energy and resources far faster than they can ever be replaced.

Will we ever learn humility? Will we ever try to live in harmony with the world around us?

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Who Has Seen the Wind?

After a grey day of snow and rain, today's sunshine pulled me out of doors and into the country. The sun was still low in the sky when I arrived at Beaver Creek, and the shadows were darkly drawn upon the land. By the time I left, there was golden sunshine but a strong wind that was pulling the last leaves from the trees and speeding the migrating birds on their way south.

beaver creek nov1 09

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Starting Your Own Business: It’s Not Like a Job

I have been pouring a great deal of energy and emotion this past year into establishing myself as a freelance consultant. Paul Graham’s blog posting on What Startups Are Really Like was very reassuring as it demonstrated that I am not alone and that the challenges I am facing are faced by every entrepreneur.

Graham says that startups take over your life and are an emotional rollercoaster. He also emphasizes that you have to be persistent and think long term. You have to view your startup idea as a hypothesis and be flexible as it may need to be changed. Luck is a big factor: success depends on skill, determination – and luck.

Graham says that people are often surprised by their freelance/startup experience because it’s not like a job. “Everyone's model of work is a job. It's completely pervasive. Even if you've never had a job, your parents probably did, along with practically every other adult you've met. Unconsciously, everyone expects a startup to be like a job, and that explains most of the surprises. It explains why people are surprised how carefully you have to choose cofounders and how hard you have to work to maintain your relationship. You don't have to do that with coworkers. It explains why the ups and downs are surprisingly extreme. In a job there is much more damping. But it also explains why the good times are surprisingly good: most people can't imagine such freedom.”

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Simplicity – an understanding of the complex

It can be difficult to find an appropriate balance between complexity and simplicity. We have so many, many choices when deciding how to live our lives. How do we determine what is important and what isn’t? Do we try to do and be everything, or do we set rigid limits on our activities?

The following statement by Tim Brown, author of Change by Design and CEO of Ideo, makes a lot of sense to me. He says that “minimalism has come to represent a style and as such is limited in its usefulness. It represents a reaction to complexity whereas simplicity relies on an understanding of the complex. This is an important difference. One is about the surface, about the stuff. The other is about our experience and requires a deep appreciation of how things work so as to make them just simple enough.”

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Freelance Work - Chaotic Liberation

I have reached an age where many of my friends are retired or preparing for retirement. Not me! Instead, I am pouring my energy into establishing myself as a freelance consultant.

One of the challenges has been defining my area of expertise and the type of work that I can do. I used to define myself as a Communications Specialist because I’m a really good writer. But I’ve been told that I’m selling myself short with that description as it fails to incorporate my analytical skills, my Master’s degree in Public Affairs, and my research and municipal government experience.

So, I’ve revamped my resume, and my website, and my business card to include Research, Evaluation, and Communication – Observe, Understand, Share.

When I’m tired, it’s chaotic and overwhelming. But it’s also liberating, and I’m excited about exploring future possibilities.

Visit my website – recommend me to your friends – hire me!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Cranberry Flats

It was a grey, gusty day at Cranberry Flats (just south of Saskatoon) – but it felt so good to be outdoors in the fresh air.

cranberry flats oct09

Friday, October 16, 2009

Blue Ocean Strategic Planning

Blue Ocean Strategy

I have just finished reading Blue Ocean Strategy: How to create uncontested market space and make the competition irrelevant by W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne. It’s an engaging account of the steps businesses or organizations can take to expand their market by identifying new market opportunities rather than simply engaging in business as usual.

For example, Cirque du Soleil took the concept of circuses to an entirely new level by introducing elements of music, dance and theatre. They didn’t compete with other circuses by being bigger or cheaper; they created a new form of entertainment.

Southwest Airlines recognized that their competition was not only other airlines; it was other forms of transportation. They transformed their business by focusing on providing “the speed of a plane at the price of a car – whenever you need it.”

Strategic Planning
I found the chapter on strategic planning to be particularly useful as I think most strategic plans are of little or no value. There is often a disconnect between the abstract plan and the concrete reality of day-to-day operations. And very few plans capture the essence of the organization or provide a clear road map for the future.

As Kim and Mauborgne state, “Few employees deep down in the company even know what the strategy is. And a closer look reveals that most plans don’t contain a strategy at all but rather a smorgasbord of tactics that individually make sense but collectively don’t add up to a unified, clear direction that sets a company apart – let alone makes the competition irrelevant.”

Blue Ocean Strategy outlines a very different approach to strategic planning. The authors recommend focusing on the big picture by developing a strategic canvas that charts the competitive advantages of your company and its competitors. For example, Westjet might give itself a higher rating for customer service while Air Canada might have a higher rate for the number of cities it services.

The chart provides an overview of how you rate compared to your competitors and whether you stand out from the crowd. The next step is to go out into the field and to find out from customers and non-customers what they think about your business. Organizations are often surprised to discover that factors they believe are extremely valuable are of little or no importance to their customers. So it’s important to identify what people actually want and value.

Based on this information, managers are asked to plot new strategies that will meet customer needs and values. Not simply more of the same or business as usual but instead charting a fresh, new course so you’re no longer competing with other companies. You’re in a class of your own.

It’s an ambitious approach to strategic planning, but I like the focus on creating a unified vision rather than a long list of individual projects and on going out into the field to find out what people actually think and want.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Make This Your Lucky Day

I am devoting a great deal of time at present to looking for new work opportunities. I know that I have great skills and a reputation for doing good work. But I am still very anxious – When will I get another contract? Will I ever be able to afford to travel abroad again? (Yeah, I’m a worrier!)

I was “lucky” enough to find an article on how people make their own luck and on how I can improve my chances of being “lucky.”

Richard Wiseman, a psychologist at the University of Hertfordshire, observed 400 people who described themselves as either lucky or unlucky. His research indicates that we can maximize our good fortune through three easy techniques:

"Unlucky people often fail to follow their intuition when making a choice, whereas lucky people tend to respect hunches. Lucky people are interested in how they both think and feel about the various options, rather than simply looking at the rational side of the situation. I think this helps them because gut feelings act as an alarm bell - a reason to consider a decision carefully.

Unlucky people tend to be creatures of routine. They tend to take the same route to and from work and talk to the same types of people at parties. In contrast, many lucky people try to introduce variety into their lives. For example, one person described how he thought of a colour before arriving at a party and then introduced himself to people wearing that colour. This kind of behaviour boosts the likelihood of chance opportunities by introducing variety.

Lucky people tend to see the positive side of their ill fortune. They imagine how things could have been worse. In one interview, a lucky volunteer arrived with his leg in a plaster cast and described how he had fallen down a flight of stairs. I asked him whether he still felt lucky and he cheerfully explained that he felt luckier than before. As he pointed out, he could have broken his neck."

My thanks to O’Reilly Radar for referring me to the article by Richard Wiseman in The Telegraph.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Andalucian Slide Show

I will be showing slides of my holiday in southern Spain on Friday, October 9 at 2 pm at the main downtown branch of the Saskatoon Public Library.

I am so happy to have this opportunity to share some of the sensual delights of Andalucia – houses and streets decked in flowers; perfumed gardens with dancing fountains; Roman mosaics; the ruined arches of the 10th century Moorish palace of Medina Azahara; the intricate stone lacework of the Alhambra Palaces; the Renaissance architecture of Baeza and Ubeda. Not to mention sunshine, outdoor restaurants, and olive trees.

I realize the slide show is during work hours, but I'd be delighted to see some familiar faces in the audience.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

El Dia de los Muertos

One of my tai chi instructors is dying, and so over 25 of us went and did a set of tai chi on his lawn while he and his family watched from the living room window. It was very moving. I was grateful for the opportunity to tell him I cared and to let him know that he wasn’t forgotten.

Birth and death are two sides of the same coin, but North Americans shy away from discussing death. When I was in Mexico, I went to a wonderful craft museum in Ixmal that was full of papier mache skeletons. There were skeletons on bicycles delivering bread with their girlfriend on the handlebars and a whole funeral procession of skeletons – priests, young children, mourners. Life and death, joy and sorrow, were fully integrated.

Mexicans believe that during the Day of the Dead it is easier for the souls of the departed to visit the living. They hold picnics at the graveside, and they build private altars with favourite foods, photos and memorabilia. That’s a foreign concept in North America; however, my family dedicated a park bench to our mother, and I like to sit on the bench and talk to Mum, to continue a conversation that has only been artificially ended by death.

Note: My thanks to ladysail for the wonderful photo

It's Not Easy Being Green

In the summer, I do the majority of my grocery shopping at the Saskatoon Farmers’ Market.

I am trying to buy organic, local food. Sometimes it’s easy. I bought a bag of flour at the Market, and when I asked if it was Saskatchewan wheat, the vendor could tell me the four locations in Saskatchewan where the wheat had been grown, including a farm 12 miles from his home.

But it’s not always that easy. Do I buy local strawberries at the Market, which may not be organic, or do I buy organic strawberries from the United States? Do I non-organic apples sold from a van at the Market, or do I buy organic apples from New Zealand?

I try to eat seasonal fruits and vegetables, but that’s difficult in Saskatchewan. I know I would be more successful if I bought a large freezer and spent the summer canning and freezing food to eat in the winter. But I don’t want to. I will eat lots of cabbage and potatoes and beets this winter, but I’ll supplement it with fresh or frozen greens and fruits and vegetables from other parts of the globe.

Buying wine is a humorous exercise in making choices. Can I find a BC wine (the most local) that is organic, low in alcohol, one of the varietals that I enjoy, and cheap? I don’t usually meet all the criteria.

If I buy convenience foods, what should I choose? Should I stop buying soup in a can when I know that the liners in most cans contain bisphenol-A (BPA), an endocrine disruptor that has been linked to a range of human health and environmental problems? Is it okay to buy tetra paks, or do they create too much waste? And what do I know about the company's labour practices?

I try to buy organic cheese or else gourmet cheeses, which are not necessarily local or organic food, but at least they’re not being produced by huge multinational conglomerates. I’m not rich enough to buy only artisan cheeses, and I haven’t seen any Saskatchewan artisan cheeses on the market.

I care about what I put inside my body. I care about environmental sustainability. I care about supporting small-scale farmers and entrepreneurs. But I break all those principles on a regular basis. How about you?

Saturday, September 19, 2009

I'll Follow the Sun

33 degrees and sunshine – surely one of the warmest days of the year, and yet it is September 19 and winter looms on the horizon.

Like a sunflower, I rotate towards the heat of the sun. (Is it any wonder after living in Africa for the first six years of my life?) So I headed downtown through Kiwanis Park to the Spadina Freehouse to enjoy a cold beer on the outdoor patio. Wedding parties and conference goers passed by on the sidewalk, and I had an up-close view of the carvings on the Hotel Bessborough across the street.

Just in passing, I should mention that the Spadina Freehouse has the most vegetarian options of any restaurant in town as well as a wide variety of beers on tap. Now, if they just had olives, I wouldn’t need to go to Spain (well, maybe!).

On my way out, I pick up an ice cream cone at the double decker bus parked across the street and then meander home along the river. The sky is turning pink, and the cormorants are settling in for the night on the power lines that cross the river near the Mendel Art Gallery.

And, in closing, a few verses from Mary Oliver’s poem The Sunflowers: “Come with me / to visit the sunflowers, / they are shy / but want to be friends; / they have wonderful stories / of when they were young - / the important weather, / the wandering crows. / Don’t be afraid to ask them questions! / Their bright faces, / which follow the sun, / will listen, and all / those rows of seeds - / each one a new life! - / hope for a deeper acquaintance; / each of them, though it stands / in a crowd of many / like a separate universe, / is lonely, the long work / of turning their lives / into a celebration / is not easy.”

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Digging for Fresh Ideas

It’s really easy to get stuck in a rut, to base decisions on a set of beliefs and to never challenge their validity. Thinkertoys: a handbook of creative-thinking techniques by Michael Michalko is a compilation of exercises to help you clarify your problem, challenge your assumptions and brainstorm possible solutions. Here are a couple of examples. You can find many more exercises on Michael Michalko’s website.

Tick-Tock (to help overcomes fears, doubts, uncertainties)
1. Zero in on and write down those negative thoughts that are preventing you from realizing your goal. Write them under “Tick.”
2. Sit quietly and examine the negatives. Learn how you are irrationally twisting things and blowing them out of proportion.
3. Substitute an objective, positive thought for each subjective, negative one. Write these under “Tock.”

1. When you are looking for a fresh approach to a challenge, bring in a random word. The word you bring in must be truly random and not selected for any relevance to the stated challenge. Random words will spark a fresh association of ideas in your mind. The best words are simple and familiar, words you know well enough that it is easy to visualize the objects they represent (e.g. soap, soup, sand).
2. Think of a variety of things that are associated with your chosen word. What are its characteristics? What can you do with it?
3. Force connections. Make a forced connection between your random word and the challenge you are working on. Think about the similarities, connections and associations.
4. List your ideas. Otherwise you won’t remember them.
Alternative: Use a picture instead of a word. Examine the picture and look for ideas that could be applied to the challenge.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

You Can Do It!

As the comments on yesterday’s post indicate, it is easy to feel discouraged about creating people-friendly cities. But Jan Gehl believes it is possible – by changing attitudes and by changing the design of your city. It doesn’t happen overnight, but he believes it can be done, and he gave his enthusiastic audience good ideas on how we can make it happen in Saskatoon.

Changing Attitudes
I took the bus to last night’s lecture, despite the fact that buses only run once an hour in the evening. The schedule doesn’t encourage people to take the bus, but there were only 3 people on my bus at 10:15 pm – the demand isn’t there to generate more frequent buses. It’s a vicious circle, and you can’t change that overnight.

Gehl says that part of the solution is to keep making it less convenient for people to drive a car – provide less roads and less parking – because the more roads you have, the more cars you will have.

Another part of the solution is to adopt a policy that says, “In this city, everything will be done to invite people to walk and bicycle as much as possible in the course of their daily doings.” That seems simplistic until you realize how blind we have become to the ways in which we let cars dominate. Gehl pointed out that we are obliged to “apply” to cross the street by pressing a button. Urban planners may believe that they are protecting pedestrians by installing walk lights, but in fact, they’re reinforcing the superiority of the car.

Melbourne, Australia
Gehl used his experience in Melbourne to show that North American-style cities based on a grid system can become more people friendly. You can close the main street to cars, install wider sidewalks with trees and attractive street furniture, and put cycle lanes between the sidewalk and the parked cars so that there is a protective buffer zone.

Roads encourage people to keep moving towards a destination whereas squares encourage people to stop and enjoy. People walk slower in squares. So Melbourne created squares and turned ugly alleyways into people places with sidewalk cafes and tiny stores.

You can provide tax and planning incentives for creating more residential housing in the downtown core. In 10 years, Melbourne went from 1,000 to 10,000 residents in the city centre, and 26 corner stores and supermarkets moved back into the area.

You can insist that new buildings must be interesting to look at from the sidewalk. Gehl contrasts 5-kilometre, pedestrian-paced architecture, which is small scale and rich in detail, with 60-kilometre, vehicle-paced architecture with big signs and wide streets.

Melbourne installed more street art and used lighting to floodlight fountains or buildings. They plant 500 new street trees every year.

Has it made a difference? Yes. There has been a 40% increase in pedestrian traffic in the daytime and a 100% increase in the evening. There has been a 200-300% increase in the number of people participating in stationary activities. And Melbourne has been declared the world’s most livable city three times.

Taking Responsibility
The question period at the end of the evening focused on what we can do to make Saskatoon a better place to live. It was very encouraging to see the Mayor on stage for the first presentation and to hear that one of the councillors had taken a cycle tour of the city with Jan Gehl. The City’s urban planners were out in force and had been prime instigators of the event.

But each of us need to play a part – by telling City Council what we want, by using the facilities that are available, by leaving our cars behind.

Business owners can do so much more to make the city an attractive place to live. Gehl described a group of investors in Norway who have decided to charge little or no rent on their ground floor units so that they can ensure that they are occupied by interesting businesses (ice cream stores, florists) that will attract shoppers.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Cities for People - not Cars

I went to the first of two public talks by Jan Gehl, a leading Danish urban planner, last evening. It was immensely satisfying to be part of a crowd of 500 people applauding Jan Gehl as he advocating designing cities for people not cars.

Cities were originally created as a place where people could meet and sell their goods. They were also transportation hubs, but the focus was on people. But in the ‘50s, cities were invaded by cars, and city planning revolved around moving cars from Point A to Point B. Sidewalks were unnecessary; parts of Miami have no streetlights because cars don’t need them. Too bad if you want to walk your dog or jog. You can walk in the mall from 8-10 every morning.

Gehl’s home town of Copenhagen, like a handful of other cities around the world, have chosen to return their cities to people. In 1962, 18 of Copenhagen’s town squares were being used as parking lots; they are now all spaces for people to sit and talk and watch the world go by. They have outdoor restaurant seating for 7000. Copenhagen has a problem with traffic congestion, but it’s in the bicycle lanes as 36% of residents cycle to work (as opposed to 26% in cars).

And everyone rides their bikes. Gehl’s mother in law was still cycling at 82. Gehl and his wife celebrated their 45th wedding anniversary by cycling to town for a nice meal and then cycling home again – a round trip of 19.8 kilometres.

Gehl also encouraged Saskatonians to stop being afraid of winter. Hold an outdoor Christmas market; set up a skating rink; encourage restaurants to provide heaters and blankets to extend the patio season. He urged us not to follow Calgary’s example by building tunnels and walkways to escape the cold for a couple of months but are then stuck inside when the sun is shining and the weather is warm.

For someone who loves to walk, to people watch in the park or sip a beer on an outdoor patio, Gehl’s words were music to my ears.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Seeking Happiness - Engaging in Life

I have been thinking about my father when he was in his 50s like me, wondering how much I resemble him and whether my struggles with abandoned dreams and self doubt parallel his. Then I read a friend’s blog about her craptacular year so I was in a receptive mood for an essay by Tim Kreider about humanity’s elusive search for happiness.

He questions what we are really looking for. “Maybe we mistakenly think we want ‘happiness,’ which we tend to picture in very vague, soft-focus terms, when what we really crave is the harder-edged intensity of experience.” Certainly some of my clearest memories are not of “happy” moments. I wasn’t happy as I confronted complications following major surgery, but I was certainly fully alive.

And I’m fully alive when I’m on holidays in a foreign country. Everything is new and unfamiliar; I can’t take anything for granted. Whether it’s sitting quietly watching pelicans flying low over the toppling waves in Nicaragua or getting lost in the sun-baked, cobblestone passages of Albaicin (Granada, Spain), the scene is carved in my memory because I was present in the moment. Happiness – in retrospect.

As Tim Kreider says, “Perhaps the reason we so often experience happiness only in hindsight, and that chasing it is such a fool’s errand, is that happiness isn’t a goal in itself but is only an aftereffect. It’s the consequence of having lived in the way that we’re supposed to — by which I don’t mean ethically correctly so much as just consciously, fully engaged in the business of living. In this respect it resembles averted vision, a phenomena familiar to backyard astronomers whereby, in order to pick out a very faint star, you have to let your gaze drift casually to the space just next to it; if you look directly at it, it vanishes. And it’s also true, come to think of it, that the only stars we ever see are not the ‘real’ stars, those cataclysms taking place in the present, but always only the light of the untouchable past.”

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

What Font Are You?

Just for fun, take this quiz to see what font best represents your personality. According to the quiz results, I'm Times New Roman - "a class act" - but, unfortunately, I hate Times New Roman and never use it. Maybe it's time to change my personality to match my font.

With thanks to Presentation Zen for the link.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Picture Paints a Thousand Words

Some of my travel photographs are excellent examples of effective advertising.

For example, the store in Nicaragua that has a picture of a machete, accompanied by the words - "cutting prices."

Surely humour is effective when asking dog owners in Prague to clean up after their animals.
And I'm tempted to drink sherry if it means that I too will lead a life of beauty, luxury and leisure.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Show Me the Numbers: Designing Effective Tables and Graphs

“The primary objective of visual design is to present content to your readers in a manner that highlights what’s important, arranges it for clarity, and leads them through it in the sequence that tells the story best.”

The two primary goals of tables and graphs are to present quantitative, numerical information and to point out patterns, trends and exceptions. In his book Show Me the Numbers: Designing Tables and Graphs to Enlighten (Analytics Press, 2004), Stephen Few points out that “very few of us have been trained to design tables and graphs effectively” so they tend to be hard to read and don’t provide sufficient information to help readers understand and make business decisions based on the numerical information.

Few insists that writers and designers must not only pass on the information but also help readers to interpret it: “The right numbers have an important story to tell. They have to rely on you to give them a clear and convincing voice.” Show Me the Numbers is packed with information and examples to help us do just that.

Visual Perception
Few points out that tables and graphs are forms of visual communication so it’s important to understand how the human eye perceives and processes visual information.

Line length is easy to compare so bar graphs are very effective.

Pie charts are an extremely poor way to present quantitative information as our eye is unable to judge how much bigger one shape is than another.

There is a limit to how many different characteristics we can perceive and retain in short-term memory. Few recommends limiting the number of distinctions to four (e.g. points on a graph as circles, squares, triangles and asterisks) and only using one distinguishing feature at a time (e.g. don’t use various colours of triangles and circles).

Don’t use three-dimensional shapes. They are hard to quantify and provide meaningless visual content making it harder for the reader to process the data.

Our eyes are drawn to contrasts, and we automatically assume that differences are meaningful. Colour, hue and intensity are effective ways to draw the readers’ attention to a particular piece of information.

Objects that are close together or have similar characteristics will be perceived as a group. You can also visually group objects by putting a border (using line or colour) around them.

Don’t centre columns of information if it will create a ragged left edge as it is hard for the eye to scan.

Don’t use vertical labels as they’re very hard to read – put them on a 45 degree angle if you need to save space.

Organizing the Information
The first step in designing a table or graph is to identify its purpose and the most important information. Then you can use arrange the data to help the reader find the most relevant information as quickly and easily as possible (e.g. don’t use alphabetical order if 80% of your sales are in the United States).

Use logical sequences that will be familiar to your readers (e.g. position time sequences from left to right and rank items from top to bottom).

Start your scale at zero; it’s very misleading if you only illustrate part of a scale. Use ticks on quantitative scales to help readers measure the item.

Use white space to delineate rows and columns. A ratio of 1:1 works well.

Use the same font throughout and make sure it is easy to read.

Use text to provide the necessary background information. The title should clearly define the purpose and content of the chart. Provide a date and a source.

The most important part of the table or graph is the numbers. Subtract unnecessary information (too much data or too much explanation) and de-emphasize the non-data ink (e.g. grid lines should be lighter than the data and in soft, neutral colours).

Group related information – both related columns and related graphs. You may be able to integrate different sets of data by using both sides of a graph to record different categories and consistent formatting and a common vertical axis can integrate a series of graphs.

If you need to break up your data into several tables, do it logically. Number your tables if it’s important for readers to review them in a certain sequence.

I would highly recommend purchasing this book if you design a lot of tables and graphs. There is so much useful information with excellent examples.

You may also want to take a look at 2845 ways to spin the risk, which is an interesting look at how we can shape our message through the words used or the graphics selected.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

“the grace of living in a just relationship with the other-than-human world”

There was a chill in the air and deer in the field when I arrived at Beaver Creek. Ripe berries, goldenrod and blazingstar were splashes of bright colour on a green and yellow background.

I thank You God for most this amazing day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything which is natural which is infinite which is yes” (ee cummings)

Beaver Creek aug9 09

Note: The title is a quote from Grass, Sky, Song: promise and peril in the world of grassland birds by Trevor Herriot

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Thinking in French . . . or Spanish . . . or English

When I started dreaming in French, I knew that I was finally absorbing the language on a subconscious as well as a conscious level. But I never thought that the people who speak different languages think differently. So I was fascinated to read an article by Lera Boroditsky explaining how language shapes the way we think.

The Kuuk Thaayorre (an Aboriginal community in northern Australia) use cardinal directions to refer to space , for example, “There’s an ant on your southeast leg.” “The normal greeting in Kuuk Thaayorre is "Where are you going?" and the answer should be something like " Southsoutheast, in the middle distance." If you don't know which way you're facing, you can't even get past "Hello."

Many languages have masculine and feminine words, and researchers have discovered that this shapes the way people think about those objects. "In one study, we asked German and Spanish speakers to describe objects having opposite gender assignment in those two languages. The descriptions they gave differed in a way predicted by grammatical gender. For example, when asked to describe a "key" — a word that is masculine in German and feminine in Spanish — the German speakers were more likely to use words like "hard," "heavy," "jagged," "metal," "serrated," and "useful," whereas Spanish speakers were more likely to say "golden," "intricate," "little," "lovely," "shiny," and "tiny." To describe a "bridge," which is feminine in German and masculine in Spanish, the German speakers said "beautiful," "elegant," "fragile," "peaceful," "pretty," and "slender," and the Spanish speakers said "big," "dangerous," "long," "strong," "sturdy," and "towering."

The author concludes by saying, “Language is central to our experience of being human, and the languages we speak profoundly shape the way we think, the way we see the world, the way we live our lives.”

My thanks to Voices en Espanol for leading me to this article.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Open Government

Do you trust the federal government to make good decisions? Are you happy with the directions being taken by provincial or local politicians? I’m not, and I’m not alone. According to the Conference Board of Canada (October 2008), nearly 45% of eligible Canadians don’t bother to vote and only 41% of Canadians have a high level of trust in Parliament (compared to 70% in Norway and 22% in Japan). There has to be a better way to run this country or this city than by placing blind trust in a small group of politicians and public employees.

As a result, I’ve been observing with considerable interest the development of open government projects in both Canada and the United States. “Techies” and “computer geeks” appear to be taking the lead in increasing transparency and public involvement.

What is Open Government?
Programmers have witnessed the development of open source software. Volunteers have been instrumental in developing Mozilla and LibraryThing and a huge range of other software programs, and they’re making them freely available for people to use.

Now, they’re urging governments to make their data openly available (while still respecting privacy and security) so that volunteers can work with the data and develop software programs that will benefit the public. American cities have taken the lead in this area, but Vancouver, Toronto, Nanaimo and Calgary are joining in (The Rise of the Open City: The Current State of Affairs).

David Eaves provides a useful overview of the evolution of the open city concept, and he points out that 911 is a prime example of public involvement in local government. We don’t have civic employees stationed on every block to report on accidents or fires or other emergencies. We rely on citizens to phone them in.

What Are the Possible Benefits?
Opening up access to government databases could work in a similar way. The Saskatoon Public Library has a really outdated online search and reservation system – it would be awesome if a local techie could access the data and improve the system – for free. Wouldn’t it be great if local heritage information was available online so that when I was walking down the street and saw an interesting building, I could find out its history on my cell phone? Other cities have compiled community information so that you can find out about missing pets, traffic jams, robberies, and restaurants in your neighbourhood all from one handy website.

And, although we are living in an increasingly wired society, open government projects can also benefit citizens who aren’t using the internet by providing municipalities with better information or more effective tools.

What Are the Risks?
There are all sorts of risks in open government projects. How do you respect the privacy of public citizens? How do you overcome resistance from government employees who are nervous about sharing unedited information or who feel that they have lost their sense of purpose because they are being asked to share responsibility for serving the public interest.

However, my primary concern is that the open government projects all appear to be driven by computer geeks. This is a restricted group of people who are focussed on developing software applications but may not have spent sufficient time understanding the community and its problems and needs.

What is the Problem?
Open government projects can only be successful if they involve a wide range of people – from politicians and government employees to academics and researchers and computer experts to members of the general public. As Seth Godin says, “The difficult conversation about the problem is far more useful than the endless effort on solutions. . . . The more clarity you can get about what a successful solution looks like, the more likely you will be to have a delighted customer when you're done.”

Open Government in Saskatoon?
I have found David Eaves’ blog and O’Reilly Radar to be useful sources of information, and the GTEC blog provides interesting information about social media and open government projects at the federal level.

I would be interested in being directed to additional sources of information or in hearing from other people in Saskatoon or Saskatchewan who are interested in initiating open government projects.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Breaking out of the Mould

Charles de Lint and Iain Pears are long-standing authors who have written many books. But their most recent novels particularly interested me as they demonstrated how much these two men have developed and expanded their writing style.

Charles de Lint initially wrote enjoyable but simple fantasies and fairy tales. In contrast, his latest book – The Mystery of Grace – is a powerful story that dares to explore some troubling concepts.

Iain Pears’ first seven books were Italian art mysteries, relatively short and straightforward. In contrast, Stone’s Fall, published in 2009, is 900 pages spanning three generations, multiple locations and an amazingly convoluted plot. I found the book somewhat too long and complicated, but I was in awe at how Pears developed and maintained an incredibly complex plot interweaving a large set of characters.

The two books set me to thinking about how some authors develop a successful writing formula – Dick Francis, J.D. Robb, Janet Evanovich. I enjoy all these authors, and I welcome the fact that I know what to expect when I pick up one of their books. But I also delight in watching authors like Pears and de Lint evolve and expand their repertoire.

As human beings, we’re offered a choice as well – to settle into a comfortable routine or to dig a little deeper, try a little harder and take some risks. I’m reminded of Robert Frost’s poem, The Road Not Taken:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Good Customer Service

My brother owns a software company and emphasizes the importance of providing good service in order to attract and retain customers. I was reminded of this when I was shopping this weekend.

Saskatoon is prospering and is developing specialty food and drink stores. Cava Secreta is the city’s first specialty wine store, and two delicatessens have opened downtown this month.

I visited Souleio on Friday. The store and restaurant are in a heritage building, and it’s a very attractive, high-ceilinged facility. But they serve food on disposable plates: neither attractive nor environmentally-friendly. But I was pleased to see that they had chocolate hazelnut cheesecake on display – just what I was looking for. But, when asked, the staff told me that they were only selling it as a whole cake – it was too much trouble to cut it and serve slices. I wasn’t impressed.

Sous Chef has just opened a second downtown location. It’s a small deli with a more limited selection, but their staff were friendly. They provided detailed cooking instructions, told a joke and listened politely as I recommended that they offer more vegetarian options. And the stuffed Portobello mushroom was delicious and significantly cheaper than the square of chocolate cake that I had purchased at Souleio.

I’ll be a regular visitor at Sous Chef – but I won’t be visiting Souleio very often.

P.S. The staff at Cava Secreta are friendly, helpful and enthusiastic. That’s another store I’m happy to patronize.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Ice Cream and Libraries

Library-themed Ice Cream
The New Yorker reports that a Facebook group is advocating for a library-themed Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. Libraries are awesome; ice cream is tasty; therefore, a library ice cream would be tasty awesome.

Here are some of the flavour suggestions from both the New Yorker and the Facebook group:

Gooey Decimal System: Dark fudge alphabet letters with caramel swirls in hazelnut ice creamGooey Decimal System: Dark fudge alphabet letters with caramel swirls in hazelnut ice cream

Rocky Read: Vanilla with chocolate-covered nuts, chocolate chunks and raisins

Chick Lit: Fat-free Peach-Mango swirl with pieces of Chicklet chewing gum

Of Ice and M&M: M&Ms, Chocolate powder, Vanilla, Fresh bananas. It’s a good plan, but it never fully works

Loyal Library Patrons
I am a patron in good standing of the Saskatoon Public Library, and I think I read quite a few of their books every year. But I’m not sure I could beat the record of a 91-year old Scottish pensioner who has borrowed nearly 25,000 books from her local library since 1946 (and no late fines).

My thanks to Quill and Quire for these great news items.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Dorothy Knowles: Saskatchewan Artist

The Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon is currently showing an exhibit of Dorothy Knowles’ landscape paintings. Dorothy Knowles was born in Unity and has lived in Saskatchewan all her life. Her paintings capture the beauty of the Prairie landscape – curving rivers, shrubby knolls, waving grasses.

I love the Prairies, and I think their beauty is often overlooked. This is not the cosy beauty on a human scale of an English landscape of small fields, hedges, thatched cottages and church steeples. The individual is swallowed up by the sheer enormity of the Prairie sky and fields that stretch to the horizon in all directions. And yet, disappearing into nature is very liberating. There is a sense of unity and of room to stretch and grow.

And, if you take the time to look, there are all sorts of flowers blooming close to the earth, beavers on the riverbank and deer in the fields. Saskatchewan is a good place to live – despite the winters!

Note: Quiet Day, a watercolour on paper, is for sale through Art Placement Inc., Saskatoon

Friday, July 17, 2009

Dr. Sun Yat Sen Garden, Vancouver

The Dr. Sun Yat Sen Garden in downtown Vancouver is an island of tranquillity amidst the bustle of a big city. The layout follows the traditional design of a Chinese Ming scholar’s private residence and garden and is based on the harmony of rock, water, plants and architecture.
The building materials were imported from China and 52 master craftsmen from Suzhou, China worked with Canadian counterparts to construct the facility without using nails, screws or glue.

The garden is located in Chinatown at 578 Carrall Street. I would recommend taking a guided tour as there is so much intention behind each feature of the garden.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Things to See and Do in Cordoba, Spain

I stayed at the Hospederia Luis de Gongora, Horno de la Trinidad 7. I really liked the location as it was close to both the main tourist sights (la Mezquita, la Juderia, Alcazar) and the principal shopping district, but it wasn’t inundated with crowds of tourists. I could observe people going about their everyday business – taking their children to school, going to work. The single room was small with poor lighting, but there was a tiny patio on the main floor and free wifi. It was clean, attractive and only cost 40 euros a night.

I try to immerse myself as much as possible in the life of local residents so I avoid tourist restaurants. I found two restaurants that I really liked. Ziryab Taberna Gastronomica (San Felipe 15) was a small, very modern restaurant that had just opened. They had an excellent selection of wine and lots of interesting tapas, including some vegetarian options. Café Gaudi (Avenida del Gran Capitan, 22 – across from El Corte Ingles) has a lovely art deco interior as well as an outdoor terrace. There is an extensive menu.

Cordoba delighted me by the abundance of flowers, and the Palacio Museo de Viana (Plaza de Don Gome 2), with its 14 patio gardens, was absolutely stunning. Each patio is different with orange trees, pools of water, fountains and flowers. I also enjoyed touring the house. The museum is outside the downtown core so it’s a good opportunity to meander through a different part of the town. Don’t miss the Cuesta Baillo, with its curving stepped street, bougainvillea-draped wall and colourful church bell tower.

There is daily bus service to the archaeological site of Medina Azahara organized by Turismo de Cordoba. It’s a convenient way to get to the site, which is just outside of Granada, and you have roughly 2 hours to wander around the site, which is plenty. I was very glad I took the evening tour as it would have been very hot at midday.

The Iglesia y antiguo Convento de la Merced is an amazingly flamboyant building with a stunning courtyard. And across the street is Plaza de Colon and the Jardines de la Merced, an excellent place to take a break on a park bench.

The tour of the Alcazar is only of moderate interest, but the gardens are fabulous. The Archaeological Museum (Plaza de Jeronimo, 7) has an excellent collection of Roman statues and mosaics and is well worth visiting. In my opinion, it’s not worth going out of your way to visit either the zoo or the botanical garden.

I really enjoyed the concert by Cordoba’s Symphony Orchestra in the Gran Teatro. I also attended a free concert next door to the Gran Teatro in the Centro Cultural San Hipolito.