Monday, September 27, 2010


One of the speakers at the TEDx conference, Juliana Rotich, is a co-founder of Ushahidi.  There is an interesting reference to Ushahidi in a recent Economist article here.  It certainly whats one's appetite for hearing her speaker at TEDx.

Acclamations for TED, and TEDx

There have been a couple of articles recently about TED and TEDx that people might find interesting reading.  The New York Times article talks about the incredible spread of TEDx conferences and how TED makes learning exciting.  It's to that thirst for learning that the Times attributes the incredible popularity of the TEDx concept.  The Fast Company article argues that if you were to set out to create the perfect Harvard University today, you might just do it by bringing together great ideas and making them openly available to everyone, which is what is all about. 

Interesting reading.

Monday, September 20, 2010

At Bertram's Hotel

Last week the New York Times travel section featured an article on Brown's Hotel in London.  I remember having an old-fashioned British afternoon tea there many years ago.  The article mentioned a book by Agatha Christie featuring Brown's Hotel.  I decided to put it on my library list, since I once devoured all the Christie books but had missed this one.

Christie's At Bertram's Hotel was written in 1965 and and took place at a fictional Bertram's Hotel modelled after Brown's Hotel - not without considerable tongue in cheek mockery of its preservation of the 'old ways' and the tourists who lapped up the atmosphere of an authentic British afternoon tea.  Just like her tourists I certainly enjoyed having one of my stereotypes of British life confirmed!  I was there 20 years after the book was written and it was still celebrating the old ways.

This book was a breezy quick read.  It was not one of Christie's best (too easy to identify the culprits from early in the book), but an absolute hoot to read.  If you're a Christie fan or have enjoyed visiting London, you'd enjoy spending an hour or two with this book.

Sunday, September 19, 2010


I just read an article in The Economist about how to become a CEO.  The first point on the list of things to do was to learn how to 'manage upwards' effectively - with hefty doses of flattery.  It referred to research by Jennifer Chatman, of the University of California, Berkeley, who conducted experiments in which she tried to find a point at which flattery became ineffective. It turned out there wasn’t one.

I guess I knew that.  But it was still sobering to see it had been confirmed by scientific research. It also brings a suitable sense of scepticism to the compliments I received from time to time when I was a CEO.  I always took that praise with a grain of salt.  Or did I?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Teaching with Passion

The latest addition to the TEDx roster is Joel Gottlieb, a teacher from Rosedale Heights School for the Arts here in Toronto.  Joel is one of those teachers who make a difference in the lives of their students - at least that's what they say year after year in his yearbook!  "You have allowed me to grow beyond my assumed limits to a place where I can write my own future" is a typical comment. 

Joel will reflect on the ingredients for such magic to happen.  It should be interesting to all our attendees because of course we're all teachers from time to time.

Joel has also introduced us to the body of performers at Rosedale Heights, and we will be having a visit from some wonderful dancers.  More about that later.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Red April

This book by Peruvian writer Santiago Roncagliolo (seen on the right) is translated from Spanish.  As I read the first few pages of contorted, stilted English, I groaned, "Oh boy, this is going to be tedious.  It's really going to test my habit of always finishing any book I start.  Why couldn't the translator translate into decent English?"  However, all was well.  That opening just set the scene; the turbid prose of Associate District Prosecutor Felix Chacaltana Saldivar’s police reports alerts us to his plodding commitment to bureaucratic process.  

Chacaltana is a stickler for details and follows up on a series of grisly murders, solely to complete the required documents.  Authorities don’t want him to dig into the real reasons for the murders, and he’s willing to include any kind of nonsensical explanation they feed him, as long as he can move that darned report into his out tray.   Based on my own experience in the late 80s, I had thought the Belgians were unmatched masters of bureaucratic process, to the exclusion of thinking about what they were doing.  They were amateurs compared to Chacaltana.

However, Chacaltana is slowly drawn into the investigation of the murders.  He moves from filling out forms to actually seeking the cause of the murders. He discerns the hand of the Mao-inspired guerrilla movement, the Shining Path.  But how can that be?  Officialdom is unanimous that the revolution is over and there are no more rebels left.  This is the year 2000, decades after the horrific civil war of the 80s and 90s, when 70,000 lost their lives. 

Yet, when Chacaltana is posted to a rural village to oversee the Presidential elections there is ample evidence that the rebels are still around, even though the evidence is cleaned up every morning by the police.  Indeed, everyone in the book is well practised in being blind and deaf to events around them.  “In this country, there is no terrorism, by orders from the top”, states a military boss.

When the scene moves back to Chacaltana's home town of Ayacucho, tourists are arriving for the Holy Week preparations, which themselves feature bloodthirsty rituals celebrating torture and pain. Chacaltana is still talking to his long-dead mother, and he’s falling deeply in love; both women have pasts closely associated with the years of terror.  And Chacaltana’s almost incredible naivete and blindness is falling away in the face of the events he’s experienced.  He ends up a confused man – “I have difficulty distinguishing between us and the enemy... I begin to ask myself exactly what it is we fought against.”

This was a really good book.  I recently heard someone describe how publishers undertake initial screening of the many books submitted to them.  They assess whether the main character at the beginning of the book has changed by the end of the book.  If so, then it’s worth reading the whole book; otherwise it hits the rejection pile.  In this book, Chacaltana certainly changes between beginning and end.  In my case, the reader also changed as I learned more about a period I had only cursory knowledge of.  I would highly recommend this book.

Monday, September 6, 2010

The Upside of Irrationality

Dan Ariely

There's a lot being written about behavioural economics these days.  Dan Ariely is one of the leaders of the crowd.  I mentioned his latest book, The Upside of Irrationality, was a recent TED Book Club selection.  (He's also been a TED speaker).

In this book, he describes many experiments, usually introduced by describing what sparked his curiosity about the effect, which makes it a rather chatty and breezy read.

Some experiments prove what we intuitively believe - how we adapt to either extreme happiness or extreme pain, with both losing intensity over time.  Well, we knew that - something can smell very strong when we first enter a room, but, with time, we no longer are conscious of it. .  When I was leading a business, I would often ask new employees what they thought was stupid about the way we did things.  You have to ask such a question within their first few weeks; after that, our stupidities had started to appear sensible to them.   Even though some of Ariely's research seems obvious, many things that we intuitively 'know' turn out to be false, so it's still useful to scientifically test their validity.

Another experiment showed that moderate bonuses motivate people to excel more than very small bonuses do.  But, perhaps counterintuitively, the experiment also demonstrated that very large bonuses result in poorer performances than moderate bonuses.  This experiment was carried out in rural India so that they could afford to offer bonuses that were significant relative to their total annual salaries.  Ariely often speaks to audiences in the financial industry, who greet these experiments with a stolid disbelief.

From the first book, and from a couple of times I've heard him speak, I knew a bit about Ariely's horrific accident as a teenager which left him with third degree burns over 70% of his body, but this book delves more deeply into this period of his life, and the very lasting influence the incident has had on his life.  Experiences from that time have inspired his research into reactions to pain, for instance.

I really enjoyed Ariely's first book Predictable Irrational (see this post for my reaction to that book), but in the last couple of years since reading it, I have read enough about behavioural economics that this book, if not redundant, was not very startling.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Urban Redesign and the Arts

Recently, I went to a friend's art exhibit at the Artscape Wychwood Barns, a multi-purpose, not-for-profit community centre, housed in a series of renovated streetcar maintenance barns built between 1913 and 1921.  Not only did I greatly enjoy her artwork, but I was introduced to a wonderful little corner of Toronto.

The site had lain unused for decades before it was redeveloped by Artscape over a period of eight years, with the help of many supporters.  It now contains affordable studio and living space for 12 organizations, 15 artist studios, and 26 artist familiers, as well as space that can be rented for occasions like my friend's art exhibit.  As a result of community and environmental involvement, this was the first heritage building in Toronto to receive LEED designation.

I understand from their web site that there was neighbourhood opposition to this development - isn't there always?  But from what I could see, this was a little gem hidden in my city.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Jaron Lanier and You Are Not a Gadget

A few posts back, I reviewed the book You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto by Jaron Lanier.  Well, if that review interested you at all, you can read a much better one in the Economist here, as well as a fascinating portrait of Jaron Lanier.  I liked the review better than the book!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Five Smooth Stones

Oops - a couple of errors and ommissions in the last post.

  • The racist dean accused Champlin of being gay.  (You'd hardly have to accuse him of being black - that part was fairly obvious!)
  • Five smooth stones refers to the five smooth stones David had in his slingshot when he took on Goliath.  
Thanks to my friend Jane for pointing out these errata.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Five Smooth Stones

Five Smooth Stones, a 1966 book by Ann Fairbairn, is another book I picked up on the Not Wanted table at our local regatta.  The book felt like a historical novel of a far-away time - and yet I was in university at the time of its publication (funny how that's happening more often these days).

The book traces the life of David Champlin, a black man born poor in New Orleans through his education in the North (liberal arts college followed by Harvard Law) and his ultimate involvement in the civil rights movement. 

It was a time when Coloured and Negro were both acceptable descriptors.  Older black people were focused on surviving in the divided Southern society, teaching their children to avoid any possibility of confrontation, to keep their eyes downcast around whites.  Blacks were barred from many public buildings, parks, pools, schools; more importantly they were blocked from registering to vote.  Blacks and whites are mutually distrustful.

Yet, David becomes the protege of both black and white people, and falls in love with a white girl.  The love story is interwoven throughout the novel.  Their relationship is unthinkable in the south and more importantly in David's mind, even though he meets couples of mixed race in the North.

The reality of the book felt so distant from our situation today.  It's not that everything is smooth and easy for blacks today, but you'd be hard pressed to find people to argue that blacks should be denied access to the fruits of civil society as they were back then in the South.

The book also made me wonder if we sometimes misjudge the significance of events in our own time.  In Five Smooth Stones, there are many mentions of Medgar Evers, the civil rights activist assassinated in 1963, but only a glancing mention of the contemporaneous March on Washington led by Martin Luther King.  If this book was your sole source of information about the civil rights movement, you would never guess how deeply the "I have a dream" speech is engrained in our psyche, nor that the Americans have named a holiday after Martin Luther King Jr. 

One other thing that really struck me, apart from the inordinate amount of smoking and drinking (liquor and instant coffee) that everyone indulged in.  It was that a book evangelizing civil rights and equality could have such a medieval attitude toward homosexuality.  Champin is almost driven out of the liberal arts college he attends through the evil machinations of a racist dean.  And how does he attack Champlin?  With an accusation that he is gay.  Being gay was worse than being black.  And when the dean is ousted from the college, it is because he himself is proved to be gay.  You can fight for human rights for one category of humans, and yet not generalize such rights to all humans.

I didn't consider this a great book.  Far too often, I could guess where the plot was leading.  The good characters were just a little bit too good, and the bad characters were really bad.  The latter part became a bit sermonistic and many of the descriptions of the activist events were rather convoluted and hard to understand.  Nevertheless, I was fascinated by its depiction of that era and  it kept me turning the pages for over 900 pages, so I guess it couldn't have been that bad.