Saturday, April 25, 2009

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

I’ve just finished reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. What a lovely book. It’s about kindred spirits, and finding meaning in our human existence, and beauty. There is a philosophical treatise in every chapter, but there are also characters who jump off the page and not only become friends but remind you of your friends.

When I enjoy a cup of jasmine tea, I’ll remember these words: “When tea becomes ritual, it takes its place at the heart of our ability to see greatness in small things. Where is beauty to be found? In great things that, like everything else, are doomed to die, or in small things that aspire to nothing, yet know how to set a jewel of infinity in a single moment?”

But when I’m out for a walk and see two dogs sniffing each other, while their owners turn their heads in embarrassment, this is the quote that will come to mind: “What a muddle when this happens! They’re [the humans] as clumsy as if they had webbed fingers and feet because they’re incapable of doing the only truly practical thing in cases like this: acknowledge what is going on in order to prevent it. But because they act as if they believed they were walking two distinguished stuffed animals utterly devoid of any inappropriate impulses, they cannot bleat at their dogs to stop sniffing their asses or licking their little balls.”

And when I fear death, I’ll remember these words: “. . . beauty consists of its own passing, just as we reach for it. It’s the ephemeral configuration of things in the moment, when you can see both their beauty and their death. Oh my gosh, I thought, does this mean that this is how we must live our lives? Constantly poised between beauty and death, between moment and its disappearance? Maybe that’s what being alive is all about: so we can track down those moments that are dying.”

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Flying Pigs and Bamboo Bicycles

I read an article which referred to the Druid notion of ternary thinking. So often we classify ideas or choices in binary terms – yes or no, black or white. Ternary thinking invites us to look for a third option that isn’t simply a compromise between the two. It is no longer a choice between capitalism and socialism or bungalows and apartments. It’s about opening our eyes to a whole range of possibilities.

Bamboo Bicycles
Craig Calfee says that bamboo is the ideal material for a bicycle. It’s tougher and lighter than most metals and even more effective at absorbing road vibration. The bamboo frame is held together with lugs made of a hemp/epoxy composite. Calfee is now experimenting with growing bamboo in pre-formed shapes in the field. You can even make your own bamboo bicycle – here are the instructions.

Bicycle Ambulances
And, while we’re on the topic of bicycles, Nepal and a number of African nations turn bicycles into ambulances with the addition of a very basic cart. Bicycle ambulances are built using simple technology so they can be built locally and are highly effective at patients to clinics and hospitals.

Tree Houses
And, finally, why is it only children who have the fun of living in a tree house? This slide show illustrates four fascinating designs – from a geodesic dome to a teahouse built amongst four trees with sliding stairs to compensate for the trees waving in the breeze. There’s even a tree house for pigs that fly!

Sunday, April 19, 2009


I admire but am amazed that some people decided when they are children on their future career. Or start a job immediately after finishing university and remain in that position until they retire. That is far too linear for me. I like to pursue side roads, to explore new ideas. I’ve lived in France and four different provinces. I’ve been a researcher and a writer and a bookkeeper. I’ve worked for non-profit organizations, municipalities, a university and a small business.

What I’ve discovered is that knowledge is never wasted, that I apply my knowledge of bookkeeping when I write software documentation, my knowledge of French when I work for the Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation. My life has been enriched by being able to explore so many different ways of life and ways of work.

In an essay entitled Introduction to Patriarchal Existentialism, Jeffner Allen attempts to define the essence of women’s lives, focusing on their resilience and perseverance as they weave together multiple roles. She introduces the concept of sinuosity: “Sinuosity is constituted not from the outside, as an attempt to impress a fixed mold on life events, but by a gathering of memories and projects. There emerges in this gathering the curving, winding, folding of women’s lives. . . . The sinuous undulates, ripples in the breeze. It slithers silvery on moonlit nights. The sinuous billows in the waving fields of corn, the flowing of a mane, the rolling in laughter of joyous celebration. At the same time, the sinuous names the sinew, the tendon tough and strong. Here anger and revolt are embedded in women’s muscles, giving us the endurance to shape a world of our priorities and delights.” Female existence is “neither that of the straight line, which proceeds in an upright, orderly sequence, nor like that of the perfect circle, which repeats itself without variation.”

Sinuosity represents strength because it bends but doesn’t break. Like a river flowing through a valley, there is continuity and direction. There is beauty in the curve of a wave or in the flowing shapes of Gaudi’s architecture. And there is wholeness and beauty in the sinuous path of my life.

Photos courtesy of: and

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The World Beyond Our Borders: Mysteries set in Gaza and Shanghai

I read two mystery novels this past week which opened a window onto the people and the politics of Gaza and Shanghai. I’ll let the writers speak for themselves.

A Grave in Gaza
Matt Beynon Rees says in his blog that he cried as he wrote A Grave in Gaza: “I used to think that meant I was a damned good writer. Now I know it was my trauma, collected over a decade of monthly visits to Gaza, seeping onto the page. I hope that makes it a better novel. I know it saved me from the creeping depression and sudden fear that sometimes gripped me when my mind would return to memories of burned bodies, scattered body parts, angry people who wanted to hurt me, the sound of bullets nearby from an unseen gun. It helped me understand what kind of man I really was.”

Rees has retired from journalism to write mystery novels, but he has remained in Jerusalem. He explains why: “News blots out real life. It makes Israelis and Palestinians seem like incomprehensible, bloodthirsty lunatics, ripping each other apart without cease. Living amongst them makes it clear that it’s the news that’s unreal, fashioned to quicken the pulse and shoot you up with adrenaline. By staying here, living a happy life among normal Palestinians and Israelis, I’ve beaten the bad dreams and the sudden rages. They exist only in a decade of dog-eared notebooks on my bottom shelf.

Fiction is able to put across the true characteristics of my Palestinian friends--like Zakaria’s courtly hospitality--in a way that’s largely beyond journalism, with its headline focus on the literally explosive. I’ve filled my novels with those characteristics, because they remind me that the times when I felt threatened by violence were unnatural. They belong only to nightmares and they aren’t real any more.I want to give my readers the true emotional experience of being among people who live in extreme situations, with all its traumas, but mostly its pleasures. For entertainment--sure, these are novels, not non-fiction tomes to be crammed down like cod-liver oil because they’re good for you. But also because if there’s a point to knowing about the world beyond our borders, it’s to see into the minds of other men and thus to better understand ourselves. Sometimes it might even save us from ourselves.”

The Mao Case
When Qiu Xiaolong was a child, he was moved by Mao’s romantic poetry. However, his research as an adult showed that Mao was a bigamist who did nothing to rescue his wife during a siege that ended in her execution. “Mao was cold-blooded—not merely to his women. With his approval, Liu Shaoqi, Chairman of the People’s Republic of China, was killed like a naked, nameless rat in secret prison without trial or medical treatment. Liu was one of millions and millions of victims in the Party struggles and political movements launched by Mao.”

In the past few years, he notes revived interest in Mao with the opening of Mao restaurants, the distribution of Mao knick-knacks and souvenirs and tourists waiting in long lines to view Mao’s mummy in its glass coffin.

Qiu Xiaolong dedicates The Mao Case to “the people who suffered under Mao." He says, “Like me, Chen makes no claim to being a historian, but for his job, he has to look into something sealed in official Chinese history archives—into the closet of horror: Mao.”

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Some Saskatoon Gargoyles

When I’m travelling, I am always drawn to stone carvings and sculptures. But I tend to ignore them in my home town. It was warm and sunny yesterday, so I went out and took photos of some of the carvings on two of Saskatoon’s oldest buildings.

College Building, University of Saskatchewan
The College Building was designed by Montreal architects Brown and Valance and constructed between 1910 and 1913. It cost $297,000 and originally housed labs, classrooms and offices as well as the library and the President’s Office. Particularly in its early years, the university had close ties with agriculture so the basement housed rooms for making butter and cheese.

Designed in the College Gothic style, the gargoyles protecting the building were supposed to represent Prairie animals. Unfortunately, the carvers in Eastern Canada weren’t familiar with Prairie animals. Instead, there is a mix of farmyard animals and more exotic creatures.

The Bessborough
The Bessborough Hotel was constructed between 1928 and 1932 as one of a chain of railway hotels built by the Canadian National Railway. It was designed to resemble a Bavarian castle and continues to be a well-loved landmark on Saskatoon’s riverbank.

The slideshow on the right currently includes a variety of close-up images of the gargoyles and carvings on the two buildings.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Made to Stick: why some ideas survive and others die

All of us, every day of our lives, attempt to share information. Far too often, what we say goes unheard or misunderstood. Made to Stick: why some ideas survive and others die by Chip Heath and Dan Heath provides six key ingredients for making sure that our ideas are useful and lasting and stick in our audience’s heads.

SIMPLE – What is the essential core of our message? Can we distil our key idea so that it is simple and yet profound? Proverbs are extremely simple so they’re easy to remember; and yet the message is often profound and applicable to many different situations.

UNEXPECTED – At first glance, there appears to be a piece of duct tape stuck to the front cover of Made to Stick. It catches your eye, and it reinforces the theme of the book. Our message needs to surprise listeners enough that they sit up and start paying attention.

CONCRETE – The Heaths emphasize that although language is often abstract, life isn’t: “Even the most abstract business strategy must eventually show up in the tangible actions of human beings. It’s easier to understand those tangible actions than to understand an abstract strategy statement.” For example, list six objects that are white. Now list six objects in your refrigerator which are white. It’s easier to identify white objects in our refrigerators because we can visualize a concrete object.

CREDIBLE – We tend to rely on authority figures or statistics to assure our public that our ideas are reliable and trustworthy. But often that isn’t enough. In his book The 8th Habit, Stephen Covey describes a survey of 23,000 employees. Only 37% said they had a clear understanding of what their organization was trying to achieve, and only 20% fully trusted the organization they worked for. There’s food for thought in those statistics, but the information becomes truly compelling when Covey uses a very human metaphor to describe the statistics. “He says, ‘If, say, a soccer team had these same scores, only 4 of the 11 players on the field would know which goal is theirs. . . . And all but 2 players would, in some way, be competing against their own team members rather than the opponent.’”

EMOTIONALMade to Stick explains that we get people to care about our ideas by making them feel something. “Research shows that people are more likely to make a charitable gift to a single needy individual than to an entire impoverished region. We are wired to feel things for people, not for abstractions.” So non-profit organizations ask us to become foster parents or to buy a goat or a chicken.

This applies in business as well. Made to Stick describes the Pegasus Army canteen outside of Baghdad. It became renowned for serving good, attractive food. There were tablecloths, soft lighting and the waiters wore tall white chef’s hats. Floyd Lee, the man in charge of Pegasus, says that he is not in charge of food service – he is in charge of morale. And that attitude shapes how his staff performs its job. One cook ordered spices from New Orleans to enhance the entrees. The dessert table features five kinds of pie and three kinds of cake, and a dessert chef describes her strawberry cake as “sexual and sensual.” For the time that they are at dinner, the soldiers can forget that they are in a war zone. “In redefining the mission of his mess hall, he [Floyd Lee] has inspired his co-workers to create an oasis in the desert.”

STORIES – Gary Klein is a psychologist who studies how people make decisions in high-pressure, high-stakes environments (e.g. firefighters, air-traffic controllers). “Klein says that, in the environments he studies, stories are told and retold because they contain wisdom. Stories are effective teaching tools. . . . Stories illustrate causal relationships that people hadn’t recognized before and highlight unexpected, resourceful ways in which people have solved problems.” If we make an argument to deliver a message, our audience will evaluate it, debate it, criticize it. But if we tell a story, the audience shifts into problem-solving mode. They empathize with the main characters and cheer them on. The story becomes a springboard as listeners apply what they are hearing to their own lives.

Made to Stick is full of concrete examples of people who “distinguished themselves by crafting ideas that made a difference. They didn’t have power or celebrity or PR firms or advertising dollars or spinmeisters. All they had were ideas. And that’s the great thing about the world of ideas – any of us, with the right insight and the right message, can make an idea stick.”

Monday, April 6, 2009

Participatory, Web-Based Government Administration

President Obama’s election campaign proved how effectively you can distribute information and organize people online. I follow a couple of techie blogs, and there appears to be a move to take that one step further and to use technology to do two things: to involve people in administrative decision-making and to use technology to provide people with more information. Interesting possibilities, and I’m impressed by the people who are out there trying to make it happen in really positive ways.

Involving People in Decision-Making
In January 2009, the mayor of Los Angeles posted an online survey. The survey included a detailed list of the services provided by the municipality and asked residents which ones they would recommend cutting in order to balance the municipal budget and avoid a deficit.

John Geraci, co-founder of DIYcity, a site that invites people to personally reinvent the spaces around them using common web applications, applauds the City for its step towards greater openness and participation, but also wishes that they had gone one step further.

In a guest blog on O'Reilly Radar, he says, “If you're going to involve city residents in these issues, why stop at asking people which services they would like to cut? Why not go a bit further and ask them for input on how to keep these services, while making them leaner, more efficient, and smarter? And why not then ask for their help in making those changes happen?

These are questions cities everywhere should be asking today, as they find themselves faced with the challenge of gigantic budget shortfalls brought on by the recession. The conversation about the future of our cities should involve the people living in those cities. But it should not be about which services to eliminate, it should be about how to reinvent these services as modern, efficient things, how to make them work at a fraction of their current cost, and, while we're at it, how to make them better than they are now.

Why? Because cities don't have the money to improve, or even sustain these services on their own. Because people have good ideas, often more innovative than the ones coming from the cities themselves. And because increasingly, people have the means to actually build and implement these services - not as centralized, closed, top-down systems we think of as public services today, but as distributed, participatory web-based systems built using data open to all.”

Using Technology to Provide Information
Development Seed is a strategy organization in Washington, DC. They responded to an Apps for Democracy competition that challenged techies to use some open data sources to build something that would be useful to local residents.

Development SEED produced Stumble safely, a guide to bars & avoiding crime in NW Washington. They took several sets of data and created a map that shows where the bars are located and where assaults and robberies have occurred at different times of the day or night. They also post Twitter messages about local get-togethers.

Development SEED is working with international development agencies and non-profit organizations. They hope that government will begin to realize that, "Wait a minute. We've already collected this data, and if we spend a little extra time packaging it, we can put it out there. And it will essentially have a whole new lifecycle and start adding value back to the community--the tax payers that paid for it." (via O'Reilly Radar)

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Online Marketing: Squidoo

I have been working full time as a freelance communications specialist for a year, and I am still building up a clientele. As a writer and editor, I don’t have to live in the same city as my client, so I’m using the internet as one medium for letting people know about my services.

I enjoy reading Seth Godin’s books (particularly Purple Cow) as he has a fresh approach to marketing. So I decided I’d try out Squidoo, which was founded by Godin. Squidoo is a collection of pages about a virtually unlimited number of topics. If you are passionate about gardening or knitting or your business and want to share your ideas with other people, then you can do it on Squidoo. It’s free and relatively easy to set up.

I decided to set up two pages – one about Writing a Killer Resume and another about Corporate Oral History. This was an opportunity to refine my thoughts about both types of writing assignments and to create a permanent site to showcase the type of work I do. I have linked them to my website as additional reference material for potential clients.

Clients can now review the type of work I do and my writing style. And I’m not limited to a local audience.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Cross and the Crescent

I have just finished reading The Cross and the Crescent: Christianity and Islam from Muhammad to the Reformation by Richard Fletcher. It’s a concise history of conquest and empire building in the Mediterranean region.

The growing strength of the Arab nations and of Islam in the 20th century has taken some of us by surprise. I wasn’t aware of what a powerful force they were in the Middle Ages nor of the important role they played in shaping modern-day Western culture.

The Moors first conquered Spain in 711. Al Andalus became an independent caliphate in 929. Cordoba, its capital, was the greatest city in Europe, a centre for art, science and literature. Granada remained under Islamic rule until 1492. Fletcher comments that Europe’s advances in economics, institutions and sciences were achieved in large part by acquiring what the Islamic world had to offer.

Fletcher notes in the closing chapter of his book that the Arab world was largely ignorant of the growth and increasing sophistication of European culture. “Seen from Baghdad in, say, the year 900, the Christian world was a jumble of confused sects and petty monarchies squirming about in an unappealing environment. The Islamic community had no rival in its wealth, its technology, its learning and its culture as well as in its faith. A lofty disdain was the only intelligible attitude for Muslims to adopt towards Christians.” And that attitude persisted, long after it had ceased to be accurate.

Richard Fletcher goes on to make a statement, which has universal application. “Attitudes laid down like rocks long ago continue to shape their moral environment for many centuries thereafter. There is a geology of human relationships which it is unwise to neglect.”

(Photo of the Alhambra Palace, Granada, Spain)