We’ve lost our beloved Cleo 3 weeks ago. We think she was probably a victim of a boa that has been roaming in the area for some time. We will miss her dearly, she was a very sweet cat.
I just downloaded this beautiful new eBook in PDF format. It is a very focused book with a narrow subject: Wide-Angle Macro Photography. Most macro-photography is done with lenses from normal to short tele, which allows you to isolate the subject from its background. But by using a wide-angle lens you can show the subject in-context, within its environment, and this can make for some very dramatic photos.
At only $5 this book is a bargain and you can find it here: Wide-Angle Macro Photography
Popular Science just named Google Now their Innovation of the Year. Like most people, I had never heard of Google Now, until last week that is, when I upgraded my Samsung Galaxy S3 smartphone to Android 4.1.2 (Jelly Bean).
All of a sudden, my phone started popping up cards telling me very useful information that I never asked for! Before driving to work, it would tell me how long it would take and what the weather would be like. Similarly, before going back home or going to an appointment it would tell me how long it will take me to get there, taking weather and traffic into consideration.
Other things I have not yet experienced: if you made a flight reservation, it will tell you if your flight is on time, how long it will take you to get to the airport, and what the weather will be like at your destination, and how long it will take you to get to your hotel from the airport! Of course it will also remind you of birthdays, holidays, special events like concerts you have tickets to and it can even suggest nearby restaurants when you’re on the road and lunchtime approaches.
There are many other features I have yet to experience, but the neat (if not a bit scary) part is that all this happens automatically without any input from you. It is all based on your Android phone’s GPS location, Google Search and the contents of your gmail account and Google calendar. It is all very innovative and very useful and could easily become Android’s killer feature. You no longer need to tell your phone what you want, your phone tells you what you need. Eat your heart out Siri.
Yesterday was Canada Day (July 1st, the anniversary of the country’s official creation) and many friends took the time to wish me a happy Canada Day as many also celebrated. But somehow that day didn’t feel as special to me as it used to do. I felt no desire to rejoice or celebrate my canadian roots or my birth land.
Truth is, I just don’t really feel that Canadian anymore. Sure, my passport says Canada and the Canadian and Québecois cultures will always be a big part of who I am. But I have been out of Canada for 4 years and feel increasingly distant from the country and its politics. Canada is no longer the country I used to love.
My Canada was #1 on the UN’s list of best places to live. This was based on the fact the country was safe, peaceful, tolerant, egalitarian, had excellent health care and education accessible to all, cared about the environment and fostered arts and culture. My Canada invented the concept of socialized universal healthcare. My Canada invented the concept of peace keeping forces, and implemented the first one in Cyprus. My Canada was respected worldwide for its peacefulness, its respect of the environment and its respect of human rights both at home and abroad (unlike a certain infamous neighbour). My Canada had not only freedom of and from religion, but it had complete separation of church and state and you never heard a politician mention the word god in a political context.
But I have watched my Canada slowly slip away for the past 30 years (or would “slip south” be more accurate?), and that trend has greatly accelerated under the Harper administration who seems to stand against all my personal values. No my Canada doesn’t exist anymore and the only link that I still feel is to my Canadian friends and family. I no longer feel any attachment to the land itself.
To quote Thomas Payne: “I’m a citizen of the world, and to do good is my religion”.
About 6 weeks ago I started walking the river trail every morning. Since the trail is about 70% stairs, it is quite the aerobic workout. While I liked the real stairs-masters, I hate working out inside on a machine, it is just boring and causes me to concentrate on the pain. This though, is like a StairsMaster 3D with smell, sound and vision generator. It is invigorating and fun, save for the occasional snake encounter.
The first morning I walked, I did 1km in 25 minutes. Now I can do 1km in 12 minutes, and this morning I did 3.5kms in 45 minutes. In 6 weeks, I have lost 10 lbs and 4″ of waist-line. It is invigorating and I feel great! I hope to lose another 20 lbs over the next two months.
Losing a parent, a sibling or a close friend is always difficult. I lost my younger brother in 1993 and I know that it feels like part of you has been torn out. But there is another type of people that I also find very painful to lose. These people were not necessarily very close to me, but they were people who had a profound influence on me, on who I am: they helped shape my life. When these people die, it also feels like a part of me has died or been torn out. I’ve lost three such people over the last few years and here I’m going to honour each one of them by talking a little bit about who they were and how they influenced my life. I hope those readers who are part of my extended family will recognize them and perhaps agree with how I perceived them. As for other readers, perhaps you will find some inspiration to go and influence others around you like these folks did for me.
The first one I lost was uncle Dave. Dave and his family moved away to New Brunswick when I was a young kid but I continued to see them a couple of times a year. They would come and visit us during the summer vacations and the Christmas holiday season,and we would go visit them every other summer or so. Dave was a wonderful fun-loving man who loved to laugh and play practical jokes. But above all, Dave loved kids. He always spent a lot of time with us and would let us do cool things, like drive his car around the campground or go swim in the local river. He treated us kids as equals so I saw him more as a big friend then as an authority figure. In a sense, Dave was the father I wished I had. My own father is a very good man and I love him, but when I was a young kid he was working 60 hours/week to provide for us and he just wasn’t very present for me. Dave was not only the cool uncle, but he was also the dream father (to me anyway, not sure how his own two kids saw him).
But Dave influenced me in a much more fundamental way. He was single-handedly responsible for instilling in me a love of science and technology. When I was about 12, he spent time with me in his workshop explaining how things like diodes, resistors, capacitors and transistors worked, and we did small projects together. That year he even bought me a Radio Shack 100 Electronic Experiments kit and a Chemistry Kit. This launched me on a path to study Applied Science in college and it was instrumental in me later becoming an Air Force pilot and then for my second career in information technology.
After I joined the Air Force and moved out west I only saw Dave every few years or so, but he nonetheless still held a special place in my heart. Dave died way too young of an unfortunate medical accident. I can still see his smily face and he obviously still influences my life to this day having shaped who I became from an early age.
The second such influential person I lost, only recently, is uncle Roger. I was never really close to Roger since he was a busy executive and he lived in Montreal and I lived in Shawinigan and then Quebec City, but we often saw each other at his lake cottage in the summer. I also helped him with his personal computer when he spent time in Quebec City on business. Roger and his wife Fleurette were the most beautiful couple I knew. Deeply in love with each other and that love transpired to everyone around them. They were the epitome of love, gentleness and tolerance, and very supportive of their own kids even when they embarked on what was at the time very controversial lifestyles that my own parents were scandalized by. Roger was also a very smart man with a thirst for knowledge, an intellectual who studied all his life. He loved nature and became an expert in mushrooms, even helping start the Montreal Mycological Society. Roger was a distant role model to me, but he was the kind of man I aspired to be.
Roger was unfortunately afflicted by Alzheimer’s disease, a horrible disease that I think is doubly tragic for someone of his intellect. They say that Alzheimer’s is far worse for the victim’s loved ones than it is for the victims themselves and I believe it. This disease slowly took away Roger from his beloved Fleurette, devastating her. The last time I saw him he didn’t even recognize me, but I will always remember his gentleness, his intelligence and his loving nature. I still aspire to be half as good a man as he was. He died a few years ago from his disease.
The third influential person I lost is uncle Fernand. Last time I saw was in October 2010 during our visit to Canada and I can tell you that the Fernand we knew and loved was gone forever. Fernand was also afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease and it was progressing very rapidly. The previous time I had seen him, two short years before, he had no short term memory left but he still had all his strength, sharp mind and fun-loving personality. Alas, he died a year later, just a couple of weeks ago.
Fernand was a simple, unassuming man and I didn’t know him much when I was a kid. I really got to know him in my 20s and 30s. He began occupying an important place in my life after I joined the Canadian Air Force. By this time Fernand was a victim of the massive closures of industries that happened in Quebec during the 80s. He was forced into early retirement while in his 50s, which was devastating to him. He also decided to leave his wife around this time, walking away from a joyless and lifeless marriage when his only daughter reached 21 (something he had actually announced he would do 7 years earlier!) Rather than feeling sorry for himself he took this opportunity to realize a life-long dream and go live on the shores of his beloved Lac des Piles. From this point on Fernand lived a simple life close to nature and with a woman he loved and who loved him back without judgment.
I admired Fernand for his courage to leave his joyless marriage despite the fact that most of his sisters disowned him for doing it. He was a picture of happiness living by the lake with his lover, even though they had very little money. They took pleasure in each other’s company and in the beautiful nature surrounding them. He led a healthier lifestyle and got by with what he had, never asking for more. He thought me the importance of love and happiness, of not wasting your life on bad relationships or the pursuit of wealth, of taking risks and of living your life for yourself and not to please others.
My wife Diane and I spent many weekends at his lake house before we got our own cottage on the lake and then many wonderful dinners in his company after that. Every time we would come visit from out-west we made sure we spent plenty of time with Fernand. I have many fond memories of night-walks in the snow, and excellent food and wine mixed with great conversations and lots of stories from Fernand’s storied life. He always expressed interest and admiration for our own globetrotting lifestyle while politely acknowledging that he preferred his own low-stress and simple life. He was an important part of the process I personally went through over several years, ultimately leading to my own decision to get out of the rat race and live a simpler but more meaningful life close to nature and my lovely wife. Fernand was more than an uncle, he was a very good friend. I was simply floored last October when I saw how quickly he deteriorated in two years. He went from a strong man with a fun-loving and bubbly personality, to a wilted-up and frail old man with the mind of a child. Our old friend Fernand had already left us then, and now he is truly gone.
This brings me to a further comment on Alzheimer’s. We mostly hear about how this horrible disease slowly deprives its victims of their memory beginning with short-term and progressing to long-term memory, eventually regressing into childhood while taking away the intellectual powers of the victim. This was poignantly depicted in the film “The Notebook”. What this film fails to show though is the physical deterioration that often accompanies the mental deterioration. We also don’t hear much about how the personality, the essence of the person slowly fades away. Seeing Fernand last October brought that home to me, really hard. And for those who still cling to the notion that the “essence” of a person is encapsulated in an eternal soul that survives us, surely, Alzheimer’s and other brain diseases should make you reconsider that position. We now know, without a shred of doubt that the essence of a person, his or her personality, intelligence, memories, values, etc., all come from the electro-chemical processes of the brain. And when these processes start breaking down, the essence of the person disappears with them.
Here’s to your memory Dave, Roger and Fernand. Your minds may have been extinguished forever, but the essence of who you were lives on in those you loved and influenced. You all had a profound influence on me that I will cherish until my own death. I can only hope to have had a similar influence on other people during my own life.
This week my wife and I went whale watching with 3 other couples in the Pearl Islands. This was almost a last minute thing as we were invited to replace another couple that couldn’t make it. Well, it turned out to be one of those unique life-altering experiences. Everybody should have this on their bucket list!
Our guide was Anne Gordon, a well known animal trainer that has done work for TV series and movies in the past. She now lives in Panama where she has married an Embera Indian and organizes tours of an Embera village. She recently started doing whale and dolphin watching tours as well. You can find out more here and here. While I don’t for one minute believe her “spiritual” stuff, or that she communicates with the whales or worse, that she can heal people over the phone by channeling ”Dolphin Energy”, Anne is nonetheless a remarkable woman that has deep knowledge and respect for the animals, especially the whales. At our request, she respectfully kept all of that “woo woo” stuff out of our trip, so don’t let her website scare you away (I nearly cancelled after reading her website).
Anne organized the whole trip including the plane tickets, the lodging, a fishing afternoon and the whole day on the catamaran with Capt. Pascal. So this was a pleasant and worry free trip. If I was to do it again though I might elect to take the 1.5 hour ferry ride to the islands. While Air Panama only takes 20 minutes to get there, you need to arrive 1 hour ahead of time and we had 2 hour delays both ways. On the ferry you might actually get to see whales on the way there too!
Our first afternoon a group of three went fishing and caught 3 large dorados (mahi mahi) and 6 mackerels. These were dropped at two different restaurants on the island (Romantica and Gerald’s) where they were cooked for us for our two dinners on the island. All 9 of us slept in the comfy Contadora Island Inn B&B.
The second day we boarded the 44′ catamaran at 9:30 ( I think we should have gone out at 8 am since we were all ready, but it was what it was). The boat is very modern, roomy, stable and comfortable. Capt Pascal is a very nice guy and he cooked us a nice lunch too. The only disadvantage of the catamaran is that it is very slow so you can’t rapidly get to the whales when you spot them. But other than that, it was the ideal platform to spend a day on the sea looking for whales while respecting their space.
Things augured well when Pascal told us he was awaken by a couple of whales that came right up to his boat in the bay where he was anchored. Only a few minutes after leaving Contadora island, we spotted a smaller boat surrounded by a group of whales so we immediately aimed for them and it took us maybe 15 minutes to get there.
Shortly thereafter the first humpback came to check us out. Turns out there were 4 adult whales and one calf. This group of whales and dolphins stayed with us for nearly two hours. They were really curious and would pass extremely close to the front of the boat where we were all standing. They were clearly checking us out. On a couple of occasions they even went right under the boat (see the video below).
We had talked to Anne about swimming with the whales and she said she wanted to check what kind of mood they were in first. She was ready to guide us in the water at some point but there were two other small boats in the area and she safely decided to wait for them to leave. By the time we finally got in the water, the whales had decided to move on. We followed them for a while but they clearly didn’t want to play with us anymore.
After lunch we went to “Survivor island” beach to collect some shells and see what the Survivors were up to, but we were not allowed to get anywhere near them. After snorkeling a bit in these beautiful warm waters, we headed back out to look for more whales. While we could see groups of whales on the horizon in nearly all directions we never managed to get close to any of them again. We gave up late afternoon and started heading back to Contadora when all of a sudden one lone whale popped out of nowhere right next to the boat as if to say goodbye, and then dove back down and went on her way.
This was a fantastic trip and our close encounter with the whales exceeded everyone’s expectations and we all came away thrilled. We felt very privileged that these huge but graceful and magnificent animals came right up to us and shared a few intimate moments with our group. The only disappointment for me was missing out on swimming with these gentle giants.
This was an awe-inspiring and spine-tingling experience and I can certainly see why the more “spiritually-inclined” people interpret this as a spiritual experience and invoke notions of “energy” and other bogus pseudo-scientific concepts. But in reality it is just a highly emotionally charged encounter that kicks our brain into releasing adrenaline and endorphins and the storm of emotions that goes with them.
While you and I will never agree on this point Anne, I nonetheless thank you for your kindness, for your deep respect for the whales and for making this experience of a lifetime possible for us.
See the complete photo album here.
Here is a book of quotes by from sharp-tongued Christopher Hitchens. If you admire Hitchens for saying what many people think but would never dare utter, and saying in the most eloquent and tranchant way, then The Quotable Hitchens: From Alcohol to Zionism–The Very Best of Christopher Hitchens is the book for you.
Here’s one my favourites, about George W. Bush:
“He’s unusually incurious, abnormally unintelligent, amazingly inarticulate, fantastically uncultured, extraordinarily uneducated, and apparently quite proud of all these things.”