Monday, December 2, 2013

Rob Ford: Serially Scandalous

The Economist has such a way with words.   In their article on How harmful is crack cocaine?, The Economist describes Rob Ford as "Toronto's serially scandalous major". Sigh. What a way for Toronto to be (in)famous.  The article includes a reference to a study* comparing the relative harm caused by different drugs.

So, Rob Ford hits both #1 and #3 on the list.  I love this photo from

One third of Torontonians still support this moron.  Wonder what drug they're consuming?

"Drug harms in the UK: a multi-criteria decision analysis", by David Nutt, Leslie King and Lawrence Phillips, on behalf of the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs. The Lancet.

The Pen Over the Sword??

Are we going to see drones delivering books instead of bombs?

Amazon has announced that they are investigating using drones to deliver goods to consumers.  In the future.  The distant future.

Is this a realistic goal? Or is it an attempt to reinforce Amazon's image of innovation - and deflect growing concern about their online retail power?

The above picture is from some BBC coverage of this announcement.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Toronto Leads Because Toronto Reads

Yup, Toronto leads - and I don't mean in the number of jokes about its mayor. With its 98 branches, Toronto boasts the largest public library system in North America, and the highest per capita circulation in the world. At 19M, Toronto libraries attract more than Toronto's top 10 attractions* combined.

The public library is a source of pride to Toronto folk, and activists have risen up to defend the system against Mayor Ford's agenda for significant cuts. Sort of makes up for the embarrassment of Rob Ford. Well, a bit.

There is a great video celebrating Toronto's library system here.

*CN Tower, CNE, The ROM, TIFF, The Science Centre, Toronto Zoo, Canada's Wonderland, the AGO, Skydome and Air Canada Centre

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Fertility Rates

We all know that fertility rates have dropped in the developed world to the replacement fertility rate (2.1 children per woman) or less.  A mind-blowing animated infographic from The Economist shows just how dramatically fertility rates have fallen in Asia.   (The Economist calls this a gentle decline, but I find it more dramatic than that). From a fertility rate of 5.8 in 1980, Asia will hit the magic 2.1 in 2014, bringing the population to equilibrium, a pattern mirrored almost exactly in Latin America.

The drop in fertility is more widespread than just in China where the one-child policy has obviously caused their fertility rate to plunge.Bangladesh's fertility rate, for instance, went from 6.9 to 2.9 in just 30 years from 1970, while Iran's dropped from 6.5 in 1980 to 1.9 in 2005.  The World Fact Book published by the CIA shows under half the countries in the world with a fertility rate above 2.1, but those rates are also expected to fall where economic security and women's rights and education increase. The UN predicts that world population will peak at 9.22B in 2075 and then drop slightly to stabilize at just under 9B in 2300.

But you should just go and look at this wonderful infographic.  The Economist has taken a page from Hans Rosling's book - take some dry numbers and show the trends by animating them.  Wonderful.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

World Toilet Day - What a Load of Crap

Did you notice that yesterday was UN World Toilet Day? Lack of sanitation is a big problem in the developing world.  According to the Gates Foundation, which has adopted sanitation as one of its key priorities, 40% of the developing world practises open defecation or has poor sanitation - that's 2.5 billion people - a direct cause of 1.5 million child deaths from diarrhea a year.

The Gates Foundation's 2012 Reinvent the Toilet competition awarded prizes to university researchers at California Institute of Technology, Loughborough University and University of Toronto and awarded second round grants to other institutions. A common theme of these toilets is to extract energy and clean water from human waste - win-win for sure.  See the Gates Foundation press release here.

For a great introduction to this topic, watch Rose George's witty and informative TED talk entitled Let's Talk Crap.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Economic Centre of Gravity

We all know economic power is shifting away from the US toward China.  This interesting chart by McKinsey, based on data from Angus Maddison of University of Groningen, shows how economic power has shifted from AD1 to present day, along with forecasts into the future.  Not surprisingly, the centre of gravity has shifted most rapidly between 2000 and 2010, since we all know that all rates of change have accelerated in recent days.

This map definitely recalled for me some of the themes in History of the World Since 1300, the wonderful Coursera course by Jeremy Adelman of Princeton that I took last year.  I sent Adelman a copy of the map and he cautioned that the data was hugely controversial.  He was surprised that the 1950 data was not further west, given the dominance of California and trans-Pacific exchanges. Adelman also pointed out how Euro-centric the image was: you could picture that shift shooting out over the Pacific rather than creeping back across Europe.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Murder as a Fine Art

I gotta admit it, I am particularly attracted to mystery novels with an interesting, or even exotic, setting. David Morrell's book, Murder as a Fine Art, features Detective Shawn Ryan, one of the first detectives on the London police force.

Morrell's book takes place in the mid-19th Century, and he slips lots of historical facts about life, mores and politics in Victorian England, the evolving methodology of the relatively new police force, and the darker side of British rule in India, its pursuit of the opium trade and covert efforts to destabilize Europe.

The fascinating Thomas de Quincey, author of Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, plays a considerable role in the book.  The most interesting character is his daughter Emily, a thoroughly modern woman of the time.

The mystery takes a number of dark psychological turns and is fascinating in and of itself, but the historical background is what made this book so appealing to me.  Give it a read if you want something light and entertaining.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Christensen Wins - Again!

Clayton Christensen has topped the list of best Business Thinkers, for the second time in a row.  His seminal book, The Innovator's Dilemma was published in 1997, but by 2001, he was only ranked 39th on the list.

Why did it take so long for him to be recognized? The Innovator's Dilemma proposes a number of counter-intuitive explanations of why 'great companies fail'. When I first met Clay in 1997 and heard these ideas, they hit me like an bolt of lightning "Ah that explains so much!" But I had had a somewhat unorthodox business background by then, and I was totally unschooled in and untainted by traditional business and MBA thinking. For most people it took years for these powerful ideas to percolate.

Today, Christensen's thinking has profoundly influenced management thinking, although the words 'disruptive innovation' are applied to just about any new idea or product, even when they are not in the least disruptive. In any case, it's great to see my hero recognized and I'm betting this honour will stimulate even more people to read his important books.

Note that Kim and Mauborgne, authors of Blue Ocean Strategy sit at #2. Blue Ocean Strategy is an elaboration of the theory of disruption, with the addition of a great visualization approach that enhances explainability of disruptive innovation.  Canada can be really proud to see Roger Martin and Don Tapscott in third and fourth spot.  Women hold 4 of the top 10 spots on the list, representing a significant breakthrough, and Chinese squeeze into 31st and 50th positions for the first appearance of Chinese thinkers on the list.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Highest Paid Public Officials in US

Many lament the dismal performance of the US education system.  Despite vast amounts of money spent, US students lag those in other countries.

College athletic systems are doing just fine though, with college coaches being the highest-paid public officials in fully 80% of states, as shown in this map by

Football coaches do best.  USA Today recently published a list of the top 10 salaries in football.

In general, basketball coaches don't do quite so well, with the glaring exception of Mike Krysewski, the highest paid of them all.  He does turn out a strong team year after year (as this Duke fan can personally attest to) but $7M?

There's a myth that these programs contribute substantial monies to the coffers of their universities. In Disrupting Class, Christensen had a statistic that said the vast majority of college athletic programs actually lose money (can't lay my hands on the book to dig out the exact reference). Deadspin concurs with Christensen's assessment; they claim that athletic programs at the top 99 schools lost an average of $5M once you take out student fees and university subsidies. So, with free labour from all the students players, the business model still doesn't work. Doesn't seem like all that good a business to me.

Would less attention on athletics and more on education result in better education results for Americans?

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

BufferBox - A Classic Innovation Story

So, you have this great job, a really interesting and challenging but very demanding job with a to-do list that tries to suck you into work early and late and your partner also has a great job with lots of travel and your life is really hectic and you have to drive Susie to basketball tonight and Johnny to hockey tomorrow morning and life is wonderful but oh where is the time to shop for mundane things for the house or the upcoming kid's birthday party or heaven forfend Christmas shopping when the parking lots at the shopping centres will be full and that kind of shopping just means you'll be exhausted by the time you sit down to share the joy of the tree and big Christmas dinner but of my goodness now you can shop online in your own time after the kids are in bed in your pjs with a glass of cooled chardonnay and doesn't that just make life more liveable.

Except . . .  you're . . . never . . . home . . . when . . . they . . . deliver . . . the package.

Wow, this is a problem that screams for solution.  Clayton Christensen calls this the Job to be Done - customers hire a product to get a job done for them - and points to job identification as the starting point for innovation. Design thinking similarly starts with the definition of the problem as the first step in good design.

In 2011, Mike McCauley, Jay Shah and Aditya Bali were students at the University of Waterloo.  They recognized this problem and designed a solution as a project in their fourth year design course. They called it BufferBox.

Soon BufferBox was incubated at the university's VeloCity campus designed to nurture entrepreneurially inclined students, and then scored support from YCombinator, an incubator in Silicon Valley.   After a pilot in Waterloo, the service was expanded to Toronto. Establishing presence in GO commuter train stations was a major coup.  How wonderful for commuters to simply pick up their parcels on their way home!

So, all is going well. These young entrepreneurs are following a classic path for innovation: find a problem, design a solution, get financial support, pilot to test usability, develop partnerships.

Then along comes Amazon Locker, with the same idea as BufferBox idea, for Amazon customers only. A validation of the BufferBox concept, but a terrifying competitor.

And so the bright young Canadian start-up is acquired by Google. This is again part of a classic innovation story.  It may be impossible for a small start-up to scale their innovation as fast as the market requires, and so their best strategy is a juicy buyout.  Google paid $25M for BufferBox. Nice payoff for a piece of homework.

BufferBox has been rolled out to two cities, Toronto and San Francisco. Luckily I live in Toronto and I've just used BufferBox.  Planning to be away during the expected arrival of an online purchase from Costco, I elected to use a nearby BufferBox for delivery (5 blocks away).  So I entered the address of the BufferBox sorting warehouse in Burlington plus a code for that particular BufferBox near me. BufferBox starts delivery of the packages same day or at night on the day the parcel gets to Burlington so typically the delivery gets to you one day later than it would get to your house.  Note the cleverness of doing most of these deliveries overnight - no hassling Toronto's horrendous traffic during the day.  And voila, the parcel arrived as promised. Then my gracious granddaughter picked up the parcel with my code.  Worked like a charm. I've often avoided online purchases because of delivery issues. I'll be using BufferBox again.

* that image of a woman at the top is from Living Green magazine

Tuesday, November 5, 2013


First I was a happy ING Direct customer.  Then I was a proud ING Direct Bank board member. Soon I'll be a happy customer of Tangerine, the new name for ING Direct.  The new name is prompted by the terms of the purchase by Scotiabank and will take effect next spring.
I love the name, linking to ING Direct's orange past, as well as the inclusion of the upward arrow, part of its recent branding initiatives.  But how do you make the announcement of a new name exciting to customers.  Today ING Direct showed us.  I have always admired ING Direct's marketing and today I was, well, dazzled by how well they launched the new name.  What did they do right?

  • Invited customers to tune in via live stream with their employees at the annual Orange Rally (guess that will soon be the Tangerine Rally).  This ensured there was enthusiastic applause for every announcement.  Maybe some viewers thought this was artificial, but that enthusiasm and engagement is typical of this company
  • Peter Aceto front and centre: he's an absolutely great speaker. Peter reinforced what isn't  going to change.  ING Direct will continue to be a pioneer, to deliver great customer service and innovative products, and stay true to its mission of helping and encouraging customers to take care of their money.
  • Frederick, famous spokesperson in the early days of ING Direct, led the crowd in a rousing rendition of his famous line "Save Your Money".  What a symbolic way to link the past with the future.
  • Introduced new products.  After all, customers are more interested in products and service than in names and logos.  Peter reviewed the recently released Cheque-in feature (deposit a cheque by taking a photo of it), and announced the imminent introduction of a credit card, and the ability to use Scotiabank ABMs without a fee.
  • Good clips from the people who worked on the project to give some background about the choices leading to Tangerine.
  • Inclusion of the band Walk Off the Earth which became popular by cheap music videos which built its fan base independently from booking agents, music labels, or management before signing up with Columbia last year.  A maverick in music that joined up with a big name.  Nudge, nudge, get the parallel?
Bravo!  Congratulations to all my old friends at ING Direct.

Gender Matters. . .Continued

Just after writing a post about the WEF's study on gender equality, I came across the map, which was published in the New York Times.  Very interesting.  I don't remember this being one of the measures used by the WEF.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Gender Equality

Why would the World Economic Forum care about gender equality?  Because there is a "strong correlation between a country's gender gap and its economic competitiveness." (See the WEF Global Gender Gap Report here).   

The WEF measured gender equality (or lack thereof) in the economic, political, health and education spheres.  Not surprisingly, Nordic countries are at the top of the gender equality rankings, led by Iceland and Finland, but there were some surprises, like the Philippines and Nicaragua making it to the top 10.  The map below shows a colour coding of the degree of gender equality around the world.

Each country's score is illustrated by a spider chart.  An interesting collection of those spider charts formed part of The Economist's daily chart here.

Canada ranked 20th in gender equality, slightly behind the UK (18th) and slightly ahead of the US (23rd).  Canada was ranked ninth in economic participation and opportunity as well as education. Personally, I think that the high economic score would have arisen primarily because of participation with high rates of employment and indicators like bank accounts. However, opportunity is definitely skewed, with the study showing a mere 6% female board directors at public companies.  Female board representation is a subject of great controversy here in Canada and it appears there may soon be some proactive efforts to increase the proportion of women.  Canada ranked very low in political participation; our four month flirtation with Kim Campbell with our first and only female prime minister didn't lift our standings much in that category!  One can't help thinking that one's own country should be better than this.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Nudging Social Policy

There's a lot of buzz about behavioural economics these days, and Rotman School of Management has held several talks about the topic and has published Nudging: A Practical GuideUsing Behavioural Economics to Inform Social Policy was the title of the most recent Rotman talk by Adam Oliver of the London School of Economics.  Oliver has moved from his initial enthusiasm for these methodologies to harbouring significant reservations.  But more about that later.  First a summary of the principles of behavioural economics.

Oliver started with a very clear exposition.  Put simply, he says, mainstream classical, economics, assumes that humans behave rationally to maximize their economic gain. Behavioural economists believe the contrary, that humans behave irrationally based on a reflexive instantaneous reaction and not in their best long term interest.

Behavioural economists use their knowledge of human behaviour to design a choice architecture that will enough people to make choices in their own best interest.   Thaler and Sunstein, authors of Nudge (reviewed here), call this Liberal Paternalism.

Some key behaviours that lead people to act against their own best interests:
Loss Aversion   If people lose a certain amount, that causes about twice as much pain as they feel pleasure from a gain of that same amount. 
Present Bias   People prefer prefer present pleasure to even greater pleasure in the future.  
Probability Weighting   People have difficulty with probabilities.  They tend to overweight events that have very low probability (think of lotteries) and underweight events that have high probability.
Optimism   People are more optimistic than justified about the future. 

Oliver then went on to describe some of the main techniques that practitioners employ to influence people based on the tenets of behavioural economics:

Change the default   Requiring people to opt in to organ donation results in a take-up percentage of about 10-20%; flipping the default so that people have to do something actively to opt out results in organ donation of 80-95%.  Companies that require employees to opt in to a retirement savings see a much lower participation rate than those who change the default so that people have to take explicit action to opt out. 
Manipulation of Reference Point   The most effective way to motivate people to save energy has been to inform them of the lowest energy usage of their neighbours.  That changes their reference point for how much energy they should be using. 
Application of Incentives   While the use of financial incentives is part of classical economics, behavioural economists use non-financial incentives to trigger desired behaviour.  A good example of this was the practice of children in Iceland signing contracts around better eating, following which child obesity rates fell. 
So, on to the serious efforts to apply these principles in national policy formation. Prime Minister Cameron was the first to embrace these ideas.  He required all his MPs to read Nudge and set up the Behavioural Insights Team, popularly dubbed The Nudge unit, which 'applies insights from academic research in behavioural economics and psychology to public policy and services'.

Subsequently, Sunstein joined the Obama administration in the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, with a mandate to base policy on evidence, not intuitions.  In his talk at Rotman, Sunstein  claims billions of dollars of savings through following the behavioural economics principles and the office's nudging people toward good choices by making those choices automatic, simple, intuitive and meaningful, with a huge emphasis on the value of simplicity.

An article this summer in The Globe and Mail reported that Canada is also weighing the possibility of employing this approach.

Oliver described his reservations about the application of behavioural economics principles in public policy.  While it's clear using these tools can advance good policies, Oliver is concerned that some of these experiments have not been vetted to ensure that they actually produce sustained results.  Most of all, Oliver worries that the interventions based on behavioural economics require subtle, covert decisions when government should always be transparent and open. The examples quoted in publications invariably focus on indisputably beneficial interventions, but of course these interventions could also be put to less noble objectives.  For instance, corporations have known about manipulating default options. Canadians are aware of the power of the negative option. A major Canadian telecoms company, Rogers, is still remembered for its introduction of a negative option billing plan - back in 1995!  Although it was withdrawn after a public outcry, the company retains association with this ugly tactic.

As academics and politicians continue to explore the possibilities behind behavioural economics, it's healthy to question its efficacy and appropriateness.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Food, Wine and Whodunit

When Bruno Courreges' local intelligence network reveals that EU inspectors are on their way to the local  market, Bruno hastens to warn his friends and neighbours to disappear any offending foodstuffs. Bruno, Chief of Police, has a well-defined sense of what's important in keeping order  in the small town of St. Denis and it doesn't include enforcing petty EU regulations.  Rather, it's all about coaching young kids to play rugby and keep out of trouble, involving himself in the life of the town and averting trouble with a quiet word planted in the right ear.

The Bruno Courreges mysteries by Martin Walker, the first of which is simply named Bruno, Chief of Police, lack the pyrotechnics of fast-paced thrillers - no exotic forensics, frenzied chases, or demented psychopaths.  The reader isn't navigating treacherous rapids, but rather meandering down a gentle stream with Bruno as guide.  Along the way we meet the local cast of characters, the age-old customers and traditions of central France, and, most of all, the food and wine.

As well as being a somewhat unorthodox policeman who's long since lost the keys to his handcuffs, Bruno is also rugby coach, hunter, gardener, and gourmet cook. A sample of Bruno's extraordinary culinary talents might include a perfect omelet made with his own truffles, vin de noix made from green walnuts he picked, and grilled woodcocks, the fruits of his own hunting.  Scene after scene, we are treated to descriptions of gourmet delights.  Some are mouth watering, like the description of wonderful cheese with fresh baguette.  Some make me a bit squeamish, like the the description of the proper way to enjoy the best parts of a woodcock: hold the beak and eat the head whole, and spread the vacated intestines on fresh baguette.

I've read the first two Bruno books so far, and thoroughly enjoyed them.  Thanks to my cousin Bill for the recommendation.

This book belongs to what I call a sub-genre of mystery novels that I quite enjoy - culinary/travel/mystery novels. The Bruno books are very reminiscent of Louise Penney's novels set in the Eastern Townships of Quebec featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache with their descriptions of gatherings of close friends and food in the village of Three Pines.  Then there's Donna Leon lovingly describing Guido Brunetti's meals at his home and various restaurants in Venice - there's even a book called Brunetti's cookbook.  Ian Hamilton goes to great lengths to describe the glories of Chinese food and to provide travel descriptions as his heroine Ava Lee flies to exotic locations.  Alexander McCall Smith's series about Precious Ramotswe of the #1 Ladies Detective Agency, features descriptions of the many delights of pumpkin while adding local colour about Botswana.  I'd appreciate any other recommendations in this genre.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Alice Munro and Peter Gzowski

What a treat!  Peter Gzowski interviewing Alice Munro on a CBC Rewind program from 1996. Listen to it here on CBC.

It was an absolute delight hearing Munro: thoughtful, modest but confident .  And it was vintage Gzowski in a conversation with a friend - full of pauses, digressions, good humour, interest in the guest, and, well, sheer grace and charm.  

I love CBC's The Current with Anna Maria Tremonti, but gosh I miss Gzowski's gravelly voice on Morningside in that time slot.  I remember a time when I was trying to seduce Gzowski to be involved in the upcoming Globe and Mail's book site.  Being awakened by his gravelly voice on the phone in early morning Calgary just thrilled me to bits!  Gzowski, not on the radio, but talking to me!

Addendum:  A friend just forwarded me a great review in The New York Times by Jonathan Franzen of Alice Munro's collection of short stories Runaway.  In it, Franzen pokes fun at the Nobel Academy for not recognizing Munro - too many Nobels for Canadians and for short story writers! Definitely worth reading this old review.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Mobile Phones, Solar Power and Dental Hygiene

Quote from an Economist article discussing the spread of small-scale solar systems, driven by the desire to keep mobile phones charged:
There are more mobile phones than toothbrushes in the developing world
This from Ryan Levinson, the chief executive of Sunfunder, a start-up based in San Francisco that helps solar companies that raise financing.

Monday, August 12, 2013

The Gleam of Chrome

The Economist, my favourite magazine, has taught me many things about the world,  and it has made me see things I know about through a new lens.  You know - an explanation of something you already understand that causes a penny to drop and suddenly you have a whole new insight.  The brilliant writing is incisive, colourful, and sometimes downright hilarious.

The magic that The Economist weaves with words is repeated in their brilliant graphics.  I knew Chrome was gaining popularity, but leave it to The Economist to show it so dramatically in this infographic of the most popular browsers by country.  

For me, the greatest single convenience is the ability to type in either a URL, or a Google search term and that turned me into an early adopter.  I was certainly in a small minority when I started to use it a few years ago, but I've noticed, for instance, that two thirds of the people visiting this blog are Chrome users, so I wasn't surprised by these stats.  Because Chrome is free, there isn't much friction in its march on the browser market, but the total reversal of market share is nevertheless truly amazing.

Just look at the comparison between 2011 and 2013.  Amazing.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Pope's Bookbinder

David Mason loves books.  He believes that preserving books is a sign of our civilization, and destroying or ignoring them is a sign of the collapse of civilized society.  He feels this very strongly.  David Mason feels strongly about everything, as we see in his interesting memoir The Pope's Bookbinder.

While I share Mason's passion for books and enjoyed the insight into how the rare and antiquarian book business was conducted, I did find Mason's personality rather tedious over the course of the book.  He was clearly a bitter and vindictive opponent for those who opposed him, launching both legal threats and public vituperation.  While it would be fascinating to talk about books with him, I can't imagine actually liking him very much, and over 500 pages is a long time to spend with someone you don't really like.

The biggest thing I learned about antiquarian bookselling was duh obvious once you think of it.  Since you can't just order in the inventory for a new store, you have to collect for quite a while before you have the stock to open a store.  Some people do this in their homes until they reach critical mass, others start as sub-stores within bigger stores.  Booksellers can be quite generous in mentoring newcomers, and it helps that often the sub-store might have a different speciality than the main store, eliminating competition.

The book rambles on with many delightful anecdotes about people and books so it has the air of Mason just sitting there telling you stories.  It's rather loosely connected in chapters.  I was surprised to read it actually had an editor, as it's full of redundancies, references to people who haven't been introduced yet, and grammatical errors.

"Hm", you might say as you read this review.  "She really hated the book.  How did she ever get to the end?"  Well, for one, I find it almost impossible to not finish a book I've started.  Secondly, I have to admit that sniping anecdotes and acid descriptions of people can be entertaining to read when you aren't the target.  And lastly, I kept thinking I might bump into a mention of my friend Mark Seltzer in the book.

Mark was a delightful guy I worked with many years ago at I.P. Sharp.  Mark was a talented programmer, but he and his wife Marilyn Chan (also in technology) would work just long enough to support an extended exotic trip somewhere in the world.  Mark probably wrung more flights out of the Aeroplan program than anyone else on the planet; he's even quoted in this New York Times article about how to be clever about airline points.  Mark's other - related - passion was collecting old and rare travel books.  I remember him describing a meandering six-month trip through Africa, where he and Marilyn carried only a back pack each.  When I suggested that wasn't much space for clothes for six months, Mark retorted that the backpack was more than half full of travel guides. Such were Mark's priorities.

One day back in the early 80s, Mark and I spend a day walking along Queen Street from University to Spadina, where the Toronto antiquarian book stores were concentrated.  Mark knew all the booksellers and had chats with everyone and that day is still a marvellous highlight of my life experiences.  I'm guessing Mason's store was one of those we visited, and I thought Mark might appear in the pages of this book.  Mark seldom left a store without buying something, which explained why every wall in his and Marilyn's home was covered with book shelves.

But the piece de resistance was his basement.  As you walked past a world map with stick pins for the incredible number of places they'd visited, you entered a mesmerizing world.  The floor was covered with shelving units that you could barely walk between without turning sideways.  Filled with fascinating old books about travel and travel guides.  I could have spent days in there browsing.

Being a technology guy, Mark was one of the early adopters of e-commerce and had started to sell and trade his books online from that basement back in the 90s.  One day, Mark told me he finally had the stock assembled to open his own antiquarian book store and become a full-time bookseller.  I was overjoyed for him.  However, barely a couple of months later that dream was shattered when Marilyn and Mark were lost in a sudden storm while kayaking on Pond Inlet, one of their favourite places.  They were travelling with other friends Rosemary Waterston and Phil King, and the harrowing story of their last days is here.

I often think of Mark and remember what a fascinating, smart, generous person he was and mourn his passing.  And I wonder what happened to that fabulous collection of books.  After reading The Pope's Bookbinder, I have a greater appreciation of the destiny of such collections, and I hope he had thoughtfully willed those books to a place that would appropriately care for them.

Just as Mark and Marilyn were lost in the sudden Arctic storm near Pond Inlet, antiquarian bookselling is doubtless doomed by the storm of electronic books.  Mason describes how used book stores form the base of the pyramid for the rare book business - the place where 'scouts' find 'sleepers' of great value.  With the disappearance of used book stores as so many move to e-books, it's hard to see how this little patch of nirvana - at least to book lovers - is going to survive.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore

If you're fascinated by books or technology or typography or crytography or technology or intrepid quests or the Singularity or data visualization or puzzles or secret societies, you will like Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore.  If you like all of them, you will love this book.  I loved this book.  I think I had a smile on my face the whole time I was reading it.

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore is a strange place, located next door to a strip club (funny thing, my first office when I arrived in Calgary was next door to a strip club!) The bookstore is more vertical than horizontal, with high shelves reached by precarious ladders. There are a few normal books in the front half and a very occasional customer.  The back is filled with mysterious tomes containing coded information, borrowed by an odd assortment of eccentric characters who are members of the Unbroken Spine society.

Clay Jannon gets a part-time job, the night shift, in this strange bookshop and begins a great adventure.  You can almost feel the covers of these lovely old books and smell the bookstore smell. But it's not all about antiquarian books.

Atttracted by Jannon's highly targeted online marketing strategy, Google employee Kat Potente walks into the store.   Jannon woos Kat with a prototype program he's written.  "I am really into the kind of girl you can impress with a prototype."  Soon she and Clay are dating and the power of Hadoop's massive parallel computing, Mechanical Turk's crowdsourced human intelligence  and Google's complicated book-scanning device  (the device doesn't sound much like the NPR description of Google's patent by the way, but what the heck) are unleashed on a 500-year-old puzzle.  Medieval meets modern meets science fiction.  Did you notice that 3-second gap in all of Google's worldwide services when the Google Big Box reached out and all of Google's computers were brought to bear on this ancient puzzle?  Did you think that Google would stop at driverless cars and Google glass? No way.  In this book we learn about the Google Forever project working on multiple aspects of life extension, such as organ regeneration, DNA repair.

I loved Sloan's tongue-in-cheek style, his determination to include as many allusions to modern technology as possible, his corny puns and playfulness, like the reference to a drink called The Blue Screen of Death.  As a reader, one is tempted to look for coded messages in the book itself.  All of the numbers mentioned seemed to be prime numbers, until one item cost $16.50.  So much for that theory.

Sloan leaves a hook for a possible continuation at the end of the book and I can't wait to see if he writes a sequel.  This one was just so much fun to read.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The New TED Stage

For me, one of the attractions of the TED 2014 conference was its location in Vancouver, on a stage specially constructed to optimize presentation of talks.   The designer David Rockwell gave an overview of the new stage on the Charlie Rose show here starting at 13:15.

One of (many) ways that Long Beach was less enjoyable than Monterey as the locale for TED was that the seats were uncomfortable.  You may think this is a frivolous criticism, but just try sitting from 8:30-6:30 for days on end.  I wasn't the only one who complained about the seating.

TED has always tried to encourage people to sit outside the main hall, watching the speakers on HD video while lounging on soft seating and a variety of other seating.  I for one never took advantage of that seating - there's an electricity in sitting in the main hall where speakers are live.  And it was a particular thrill when I sat in the onstage seating for one session.  It seems that the new design aims to combine a variety of seating right within the main hall.  I look forward to trying it out.  :-)

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Taliban Cricket Club

The improbable plot of The Taliban Cricket Club is based on the Afghan government's decision to seek entrance into the international cricket community to demonstrate their liberalism.  They invite an international observer to a tournament to be held in a couple of weeks and advertise for people to form teams to compete.  The prize is an all-expenses-paid trip to Pakistan for professional coaching.

Rukhsana, a courageous journalist who played university cricket ends up coaching a team.  They are desperate to win because they want out of the country and they see that trip to Pakistan as their ticket.

What makes the book enjoyable despite the thin plot is the portrayal of life inside Afghanistan in the year 2000 under Taliban rule.  The book's epigraph quotes from the laws of cricket:
"There is no place for any act of violence on the field of play."
Preamble No. 6 in the Laws of Cricket
So we have the juxtaposition of a savagely repressive society rife with brutality and violence in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and the ideal of a violence-free game.  It's a society where families build secret rooms to view banned movies, where women cannot walk with streets without their male mahram escort, where they cannot speak to men and where they must be covered head to foot with a burka.

Rukhsana rebels against these strictures, even to the point of risking her life.  The arrival of cricket in Afghanistan reignites her love of the game that "promotes individual excellence and depends on the actions and the confidence of each player":
"Cricket is theater, it's dance, it's an opera.  It's dramatic.  It's about individual conflict that takes place on a huge stage. But the two warriors also represent the ten other players; it's a relationship between the one and the many.  The individual and the social, the leader and the follower, the individual and the universal."
Cricket epitomizes the individual struggle against the regime.  The regime is trying to control not only behaviour, but everyone's very thoughts.  Rukhsana recalls the sense of freedom out on the cricket field, a "huge space with only the sky watching us", a place where your thoughts can roam free.  A curious choice for the Taliban's only approved sport.

Timeri Murari, the author, is a male Indian and his depiction of the life of a woman under the Taliban is based on extensive research, yet it rings very true.  His depiction of cricket is based on personal experience and he clearly loves the game.

Shoe Stores and Irrationality

When I see something that doesn't make sense, there's a compulsion in me to point it out and discuss what could be done to rectify it.  You can imagine the chagrin of my husband, children, friends, or anyone with me feels when I launch one of these 'teaching moments'.

Again and again, I've had a conversation with someone in a shoe store that goes something like this.

"Do you have this shoe in my size?"

"Nope, we're all sold out.  We only have that in sizes smaller than 6 or larger than 9.  Yours is the most common size and it always goes first. "

"You know the distribution of purchases from years of experience. So why don't you order lots more in the common sizes?"

"Oh, we do, but we never order enough.  There's only room for so many pairs in our inventory and we have to order one of each shoe in each size at a minimum."

"Why?  You know you have to sell off those other sizes at deep discount at the end of the season.  In the meantime, you've lost sales of the popular sizes because of unavailability.  Why don't you just keep bumping up the number of pairs in the common sizes and have some gaps in your availability of the less popular sizes. "

"Well, we have to be able to serve customers with availability of shoes in their sizes, so we couldn't not order a full supply of those big and small sizes."



Argh.  I've never actually shouted the way the all-caps suggests, but I've certainly felt like it.  I will continue my one-woman campaign to bring logic to shoe store inventory planning.

What's your favourite example of irrational behaviour out there?

Monday, July 29, 2013

Cape Town - Walk to Freedom

"Here's the cell where Mandela was imprisoned for  18 years", said our guide on Robben Island.
Then he quickly pushed us along after less than a minute to view the cell.  I had really wanted to stand there and contemplate the small cell but it was not to be.  (And very frustrating given that we were hustled away only to spend almost an hour waiting for the ferry back to the mainland.)  When we were there, it was not expected that Mandela would recover and there were several banners in Cape Town wishing him well.  It was a particularly poignant time to be visiting Robben Island.

Our guide had been incarcerated on Robben Island for almost a decade, but he was rather disappointing as a tour guide, not managing to bring a personal perspective on what it was like there, or the dimensions of the struggle that brought him there.  I guess it's the luck of the draw which guide you get, because my daughter had visited years ago and found it one of the most moving experiences of her life.

The trip to Robben Island was part of the Cape Town Walk to Freedom tour, focusing on the history of non-whites in SA.  Our tour guide was himself a very interesting guy, describing himself as 'coloured' which he considers not to be denigrating but simple statement of fact.  His German grandfather had fathered children with a black woman who worked in the house.  He eventually left his wife and married her - a highly scandalous action in those days.  His family varied in skin colour, and some were able to register as whites, which entailed them breaking all contact with their darker skinned relatives.  A family split, with our guide growing up in a coloured township and paler relatives growing up in Cape Town with the whites.  His personal history brought home the impact of apartheid in a very meaningful way.

District Six in Cape Town was a melting pot of all different races, including former slaves, and many Malay immigrants brought to South Africa by the Dutch East Indies Company.  The District Six museum brought to life a vision of that quarter before it was razed by the apartheid government in the 70s to make room for more development for whites only.  About 60,000 people moved to outer townships for blacks and coloureds.  However, a public outcry prevented the area from being developed and it was mostly covered in grasses.  There were a few homes there and some development being planned and offered to people who can provide proof they were evicted.

Visiting Langa Township was an eye-opening experience.  Many of the people evicted from District Six ended up in Langa Township.

 Our guide talked about seeing a different Big Five here (the traditional Big Five being lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and buffalo), namely in the range of housing.  The range of housing was much broader than I had expected and consisted of
  • Older townhouses.  These looked in 'pretty good nick' as they say in South Africa.  It was only once we went inside that we understood that the number of people squeezed in made them pretty awful.  We visited an apartment where 15 families lived, sharing a communal kitchen with primitive facilities, and the small room where 8 people lived, shown below.
  • Modern new townhouses, which stood empty.  Intended for people to upgrade to, they were simply too expensive for township residents.  You can see some of these in the corner of the next picture.  These little girls walked up to our granddaughter and walked along with her for a while, speaking very good English, before skipping away to play somewhere else.

  • Containers being used as houses.  Ironically, I've read of discarded containers being recycled as pop-up stores in urban areas after being fitted out with electricity and water.  I bet these containers were not so well equipped.  And I'm guessing they'd be murderously hot in the summer.

  • Shacks put together with odd materials, and open cooking fires.  To be honest, I had envisioned the whole township would be like this.  Here was the beginning of putting something together with 'found' materials.

  • So-called Beverly Hills:  a street of modest but attractive bungalows in warm red brick that would not be out of place in any suburb.  Apparently the people living here could afford to live elsewhere but chose to live where they had close cultural and family ties.

It was hard to tell from our curtailed tour what proportion of the people lived in each of these categories, although clearly Beverly Hills was the minority.  

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Cape Peninsula Tour

The winds almost blew me down on the Cape of Good Hope.  I had to really brace myself to stand erect.  I couldn't help thinking what it must have been like for those early sailors on wooden sailing ships trying to round this rough cape.  They didn't have a nice warm van they could retreat to in order to escape the wind.  And they weren't sure what was around the corner either!

There were incredible vistas around every corner on this tour, with water of every hue.

As well as visiting the Cape of Good Hope, we drove down to the most southwesterly tip of Africa, and Jamie stood triumphant at the top of the point:

Some interesting animals also featured on this tour.  We saw a new species of antelope - the bontebok.

And we had a very close-up view of wild ostriches:

The highlight was a view of penguins.  There was a well-marked path to a cove where there were about 2,000 penguins scattered across the beach and mostly among the low-lying shrubs along the shore.  A great little sign pointed the way and soon we were walking through a veritable sand storm down to the shore.

Penguins are fascinating to watch.  Mother penguins were sitting on their chicks keeping them warm, but the chicks were almost as big as the mothers!  They waddle clumsily (is that why a group of penguins is called a waddle?), tip over as they walk, get knocked over by waves rolling into shore, and all in all provide a delightfully comic spectacle.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Cape Town

Our amazing trip to Africa was capped with three days in beautiful Cape Town.  

The Red Line CIty Bus Tour gave us a good sense of the overall city on the first day.  Brisk wind on the top of that double decker, but well worth it for the fantastic views of lovely beaches and thundering waves like in the picture above.  We spent time at the Victoria and Alfred Wharf visiting little craft stores/stalls and having lunch in the sun.  Most pleasant. People are invariably friendly and jovial in the markets; this is the lady I bought some placemats from:

 Cable car to top of Table Mountain closed due to wind, but we had good view from high on the mountain just below the cable car.  In fact, the cable car has been closed for three days, opening for the first time this morning, when we are leaving and too pressed for time to fit in a visit.

Here's a picture of Table Mountain from corner of the street where our guest house Welgelgen was located:

Wind has been a theme during our time here.  The south-easterlies are mainly seen in summer, but we've had a hefty dose of them while here.  Winds that rattle the single-pane windows of the room and make you feel the windows might simply break apart.  Winds that create great swells on the bay.  Winds that make it worthwhile to shoot a video of clouds moving past Table Mountain!  Of course, while we were bundled up in fleecies and windproof jackets, the South Africans were wandering around in shorts and T-shirts.  They are much more adaptable to a range of weather than we are!