Thursday, April 30, 2009

Solemnity of Winter

After visiting so many blogs publishing beautiful pictures, I decided to try my hand at it also. I do not pretend to be anything more than a neophyte at this art form (the beauty of digital photography is that I can screw up a thousand times and still have a chance of success!) but still will venture to post some of my pictures.

I was up North visiting family a few week ago and went from spring to winter in a 4 hour drive! One can say a lot of bad things about winter but cannot deny its beauty. This is a picture of spruces on my mother's lot. I have seen these trees a thousand times but, on that day, there was something solemn about the scene.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Almost Making History 3

It seems that making history, becoming famous, changing the world is as much about having dumb luck as having great talent, superior intelligence or innate predisposition. There are so many stories of people that just happened to have the right idea, at the right place and at the right time that I decided to write about those that happened to have the wrong idea, at the wrong place or at the wrong time. Note that the names, dates and events have been changed to protect the innocent and ensure their continued anonymity.

Mary McMillan was a sickly young child. Living with her parents in a small farmhouse, lost in the wilds of Upper Canada. Days where she would feel better, she would almost always be seen walking around in the forest behind her parent's farm. Mary had a passion for trees and it seemed she new all of them almost intimately. Her father, J. A. William Stephen (Jaws to his friends), enjoyed watching her bushwhack. He hope that if one day she would recover from whatever it was that made her so weak, he would take her down to the southern US in the spring to see all the fruit trees in bloom.

Mary was allowed to walk almost anywhere in the forest except for the area close to Old Dr McCooeye's farm. Old Dr McCooeye was not well liked by the people of Dundela. He was a taciturn figure, known for his love of cider and goats (don't ask...), and his dislike for women of all ages. Mary new Old Dr McCooeye well enough. Not only had she heard all sorts of rumours about him but she also experienced first hand his dislike for women. One day, when she had an exceptionally high fever, her parents saw no other choice but to fetch Old Dr McCooeye, even though they had vowed never to do so. After all, it seemed the life of their daughter was at risk. Mustering up his courage with a glass of Brandy, Mr McMillan put on his coat and ran to Old Dr McCooeye's house. After some hard bargaining, the doctor accepted to come to see Mary in exchange for an important quantity of cider and a visit with Mr McMillan's goat (again, don't ask...). When they arrived, they both went directly to Mary's room where Mrs McMillan was caring for her daughter. There, the doctor did a summary examination and said to Mary's father, not even looking at her mother or herself: "It is the simple fact of the weakness of her sex that makes her this sick and for that, there is nothing I can do...". Mr McMillan was livid but, in order not to cause a stir with his neighbour, gave Dr McCooeye his cider and showed him the door. In spite of the doctor's diagnostic, Mary did recover; but the whole event left her with a strange mix of fear and anger towards Old Dr McCooeye. And so, every time she went walking, she did her best to avoid his farm.

On a beautiful fall day of 1811, Mary when for a walk in the woods. She was feeling quite well and so decided to go farther than usual, to see different trees. As she walked, she noticed a beautiful apple tree she'd never seen before. As it was late September, the tree was full of red and green apples and Mary decided to taste one. It was sensational. As she was having her apple, she noticed through the branches Old Dr McCooeye busily examining a goat. She had not noticed the apple tree was so close to the doctor's farm. Her first reaction was to throw the apple she was eating in the general direction of the doctor and the goat. The goat, smelling the sweetness of the apple ran after it and the doctor followed. Now out of sight, Mary was able to quietly eat another apple. The next day the same scenario repeated itself with the same results.

Noticing his daughter always going in the same direction in the forest, towards the doctor's farm, Mr McMillan asked his daughter to be careful to which she replied: "Oh father, don't worry. An apple a day keeps the doctor away...". Mr McMillan didn't dare ask what she meant by that but did think the saying was a good one.

So Mary kept going to her apple tree and chasing the old doctor away. After a while, Dr McCooeye's neighbour noticed that the doctor and his goats seemed to always be running away from the same area of the forest. He decided to investigate. Taking his old shotgun, he made his way to the spot and found a beautiful apple tree. Tasting one of the apples, he thought to himself that he had never tasted an apple so good. And he hadn't. Mr McIntosh had just "discovered" a new variety of apple that would make him famous.

Mary never really new that she had, indirectly, contributed to this discovery. She finally did get better and ended up marrying a peddler from Kingston and disappeared into the abyss of time.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Hockey night in Gatineau

I'm sitting in a cold arena, waiting for my sons to jump onto the ice. Some would say it's a hell of a way to spend a Sunday evening but, actually, I'm happy to be here. I rely love to see my two boys enjoy themselves; they both like sports and I do my best to encourage them. I don't think either of them will ever be a superstar but that's not the point. To see the smile on their faces when they're playing or in the change room after the game, it's priceless. Kids have a way of being in the moment that I certainly seem to have lost somewhere along the way. When my boys are having fun, whether it be on a soccer pitch, a football field or an ice rink, they seem to be firmly anchored in the present and enjoying every minute of it.
Oh the innocence lost ;-D! I just hope they can stay that way: cease the moment as the poet once said.
By the way, they lost... but, you know what? It had no ill-effect on the smile!

Friday, April 17, 2009

Disease or Symptom?

It's all over the news; not a day goes by without some item on the Somali piracy situation. What is going on there? Why so many acts of piracy coming from such a small country? How come we seem unable to do anything to eradicate it?
Oh, we talk about military escorts for ships, take a hard line with the pirates we do catch, discuss means for ships to protect themselves but, in the end, it still seems that a ship is attacked almost every day.
So, where do we go from here? We can, using an approach dear to our western medical field, focus on alleviating the symptom. After all, it is much faster and much, much simpler to zero in on the symptom than to actually attempt to determine, understand and fight the disease that brings about the symptoms; the true underlying cause.
Piracy, other than in movies and children's books, is rarely an end in itself. I don't believe one chooses to be a pirate if honest, simpler and less dangerous means to earn a living exist. Accepting this, unless Somalis are genetically programmed to be pirates or they actually enjoy risking their lives to take control of ships, there more to this situation than meets the eye.
A bit of history of Somalia: for thousands of years, the region, populated by a various clans and ethnic groups, was sometimes united, sometimes divided. In the 19th century period, it was first "colonised" by Britain and Italy. Later, the French also joined in. Although there were various resistance movements during the period, the region remained divided in two territories: the north under British rule and the south Italian. This situation lasted until the early 1960s when both territories achieved Independence and united as the Somalia Republic. With independence inter-clan rivalries resurfaced, leading to assassinations, coup d'états, lawlessness and, ultimately civil war. Civil war brought about famine and, with famine, came piracy.
Thus, piracy is but a symptom of a much bigger problem. Attempting to eliminate it without addressing the bigger issue is a futile exercise. As long as desperation exists in Somalia, there will always be young people willing to risk their lives to better their existence and that of their families.
If we are really serious about reducing or eliminating piracy, we will need to address the issues of a country that has been at war for decades, has suffered through droughts and famines, and has seen generations of citizens know nothing other than basic survival. Obviously, it will not be easy: taking two aspirins to get rid of the headache is a lot simpler than dealing with the stress that caused it in the first place...

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Trip up North

Just came back from a trip to my home town, it was like changing seasons in the matter of 4 hours. Although there is practically no snow left here, up there it's still winter. It's amazing how much difference 400km can make, and not only weather wise.

I always find it tough going back to my home town. I don't know what it is exactly: maybe a sense of lost years, the feeling that I am opening up old wombs? As I get nearer to my destination, I wonder what my life would have been liked had I gone back there after school. Regrets? Not sure, maybe...

Once I drive into town though, I realize that although I once belonged, I don't anymore; I am a stranger on my own turf. The places that were important to me then carry no meaning anymore. The people I once knew are now complete strangers. When someone recognizes me, it's usually as the brother of, the son of. If I didn't have any family left there I would rarely, if ever, want to go back.

I know I can never change my hometown, but if I could, I would. Not that I am ashamed of where I'm from but I just feel it doesn't reflect who I am anymore. I find myself saying I am originally from ... but I left there x years ago. I moved my anchor...

Monday, April 13, 2009

The Shoemaker - an allegory

So there he was, John the shoemaker, left to cry in an empty shop. Things had gone so well, how could it come to this?
John started shop as a shoemaker in the town of Abc. He worked hard to establish his business and became well known in Abc. People came from miles around to first get their shoes repaired and then to buy new ones. John was intent on pleasing his clientele: he ensured the services and products he offered met their wants and needs; and they kept coming.
As his business kept growing, John could no longer meet the demand and so hired apprentices to help. With the added production capacity, John was able to expand the number of models he offered. He made shoes for young and old, rich and poor; models for the winter, for the summer and anything in between. People just kept pouring in.
But then, things started to slow down. At first John wasn't sure why but he finally realized that his shoes were so well made that they rarely needed to be replaced. As this was affecting his business, John decided to reduce the quality of the materials and workmanship. This went unnoticed with the clients as the shoes looked just as good. John also worked with a well known fashion designer to come up with new models so that people would buy new shoes just to follow the trend. He single handedly created the "big shoe" fashion, always creating bigger and heavier shoes. But, as big shoes were more expensive, John allowed his customers to use monthly installments to pay for their purchases. At first he only did this for his best clients but, as time went by, he allowed anyone to buy their shoes that way: at least it kept the business humming.
All this time, John was making loads of money. He built himself the biggest house in Abc and his own shoes were so big he had to hire two menservants to help him walk around.
Although he was rich, John was not a very good citizen of Abc. People said that he had all is money carted away to the town of Cde, a fiscal paradise, to avoid paying tax. Also, the waste caused by his big shoes was piling up in the landfill but when city councilors confronted him with that fact, asking him to contribute to better waste management, John threaten to close shop.
Then, one day, a strange disease affecting the cow population in the county caused the leather to become thinner and weaker. Instead of adapting his models, John continued to make big shoes even though they would now often fall apart after only a few walks. Because of the quality issues and the fact that big shoes were no longer "in", less people were buying shoes from John. He tried all kinds of marketing strategies but his shoe store just kept loosing money.
It came to a point where John had no choice so, putting on his biggest pair of big shoes, he went to the city council to plea for help. He explained that he was a victim of the bad weather (heavy rains made it difficult to walk around with big shoes), that cheap imports were taking away his business, that the cow disease was certainly caused by foreign terrorists , etc. He argued that as one of the biggest employer in Abc, the town had to help him through these tough times.
While John was wiping away his tears, the mayor said to him: "John, you have done everything you could to avoid contributing to the development of Abc and now you are asking its residents to help you. I am faced with a huge dilemma: on the one hand I would love to see you suffer through this but, on the other, I do not want to see all the townsmen and townswomen you employ loose their jobs. I therefore ask the city council for its advise on the matter." The city councillor responsible for the landfill stood up and said: "I believe that the best way to resolve this is to have John personally take care of the mountains of big shoes in the landfill, go door to door in Abc to receive a good kick in the butt from everyone suckered into buying big shoes and find out what townspeople really want in a shoe and, finally, share any future profits with the community. Only if John agrees to this, should we consider lending him Abc's money." John, who's ego was as big as his shoes, rejected the offer. He tried to keep running his business for a while but, finally, had to declare bankruptcy.

The moral of this story is that it is easier to share abundance than famine. So, instead of buying cashews just for yourself, buy peanuts for everyone!

Monday, April 6, 2009

What to do when someone cries wolf?

I was just reading the news about the earthquake in Italy. These natural disasters are always hard to cope with as there is no real logic behind them.
Of course these people were living in a potentially dangerous area but aren't most of us? Where I come from, the temperature often drops to -40°C and lower in January; a few days of that in a row and it can become dangerous. And how about Florida and hurricanes, the mid-western US and tornadoes, Switzerland and avalanches? In reality, natural disasters, in some form or other, can occur anywhere. So, whether we end up living in and around where we were born or where our work, interests and/or love life takes us; the choice is rarely driven by the risk of natural disaster. As far as I can remember, don't think I ever heard someone say something like: "Sorry honey, I love you very much and want to spend the rest of my life with you but there is no way I am moving to (insert name)! It's too damn dangerous there so goodbye."
Now, accepting the fact that we all have to face some risk where we live, how should we react if someone credible said that that risk is about to materialize? Should we run away? Stay put and not believe the information? Prepare ourselves for the situation?
Well it seems that someone did predict the earthquake in Italy: a seismologist by the name of Gioacchino Giuliani predicted it several weeks before the event. The response of the Italian authorities was to turn a blind eye, asking him to remove the information from his website to avoid a panic. Not sure it was such a great move. I have never heard of Gioacchino before so I don't know if he's the type of person who does this regularly, what is his track record, if he is well respected by his peers, etc. But if we accept he's not a quack, and we take into account that predicting earthquakes is far less exact than predicting weather (and we know how exact that can be...), wouldn't it still have been wise for the authorities to at least ask people to be ready for the eventuality? Maybe asking people that did not need to stay to move out of the area for a while; temporarily relocating people that lived in more dangerous houses to safer ones; ensuring emergency services were close by and ready; paying closer attention to the seismic situation... I'm not sure that acting on any of these suggestions would have changed the situation but it might have saved a few lives; after all nothing short of full evacuation could have saved all of them. But not doing anything is difficult to understand. Individuals can ultimately decide what they want but authorities should err on the side of caution. I guess the authorities in Italy were possibly more concerned about their own image than the lives entrusted to them.
Every once in a while, a Gioacchino comes along and we are faced with a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" dilemma. My view is that if I am to be damned, I would rather it be for doing something than for not doing anything at all.

I miei pensieri sono con le famiglie colpite da questo evento
(not sure how good the translation will be so here it is in English, just in case: My thoughts are with the families affected by this event)

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Almost Making History 2

It seems that making history, becoming famous, changing the world is as much about having dumb luck as having great talent, superior intelligence or innate predisposition. There are so many stories of people that just happened to have the right idea, at the right place and at the right time that I decided to write about those that happened to have the wrong idea, at the wrong place or at the wrong time. Note that the names, dates and events have been changed to protect the innocent and ensure their continued anonymity.
Berezekiah White was a bright young man. Growing up in Maryland, people often wondered how such an intelligent kid could come from such a stupid family. His father, Jeremiah, was an entrepreneur of sorts. He started many businesses that all ended in some sort of failure. He finally became a pastor for a relatively unknown church. When asked why he took on that line of work, he used to say: "God can't let down this time, I'm working for him!". He was wrong as after a few years his small but vocal congregation chased him out of the church. Berezekiah's mother was not much better: long thought to be deaf and mute, it was finally realized that she just never payed attention when people were talking to her as she was busy counting everything she saw. As for the other White siblings, none stood out other than when wearing their yellow raincoats.
Berezekiah was a keen observer and really enjoyed trying to solve problems or find different uses for things. He was certainly the first one to think of using corn as a means to determine the duration of human digestion. With his friends Duncan and Alonzo, he spent hours dreaming of new gadgets. On a few occasions, they even tried to bring some of these to life. For the longest time, neighbors remembered the trio's attempt at creating an automatic mixer using Duncan's family gramophone. Miss Lovejoy said it took her weeks to remove the egg yoke from the sheets she had hung in her backyard. Over time though, the three became better and better at it.
But, as it is so often the case in life, love muddled the waters. Duncan had met a beautiful young woman named Mariah and was intent on getting married. One day, Duncan presented Mariah to his two friends. Beresekiah was immediately smitten. He could not stop thinking of Mariah day and night. He started to court her secretly and, over time, won her over. In order to avoid facing Duncan, Berezekiah and Mariah ran away to Canada, hoping to take advantage of the Klondike Gold Rush (they were at least a decade too late). They finally settled down in Dawson City, where they opened a gramophone repair shop, leveraging Berezekiah's expertise in the subject. Berezekiah and Mariah led a fairly happy yet uneventful life.
Before Berezekiah's sudden departure, the trio had decided to open a small machine shop to be named Decker in Black and White (a play on words based on their last names). Obviously, with the resentment Duncan felt towards Berezekiah for stealing his Mariah, the name of the company was changed. It became known as Black and Decker... The rest, as they say, is history.