Good-bye to the Oughts

While the past year has been good, I must admit that I’m in complete agreement with those like Time Magazine, who dubbed the first 10 years of 2000 as The Decade from Hell. It was a decade that belonged to Bush, whose ascendancy to the White House I have often said was the worst single event in US History. It was for us, a great leap into the unknown, leaving the city of Boston and the country of our births. It was definitely scary in the beginning, but we’ve slowly climbed back, at least in terms of our finances, to where we were when we left, more or less. We dodged much of the housing bubble, and although Pam and I both saw time out of the work force, I suspect that would have been just as bad (or worse) if we had stayed.

After the election of Obama, many people have asked us if we were considering returning to the US. After all, we were ‘Bush Dodgers’, according to some. Well, the ridiculous debate on Health Care reform had us constantly shaking our heads in bewilderment. The fact that the US still fails to acknowledge health care as a human right (like the ones of religion and guns that they extoll so often), is something we’ll never understand. The lack of acknowledgement that the proliferation of guns is causing more and more violence and death throughout America is also baffling to us. Whenever we see people being interviewed on the US evening news constantly refer to God, their belief in religion and other magical thinking also seems further and further from us. Nope, we’re not going back to all of that.

Good-bye to 2009, Then

Looking back on just this year, I do have some events that I’ll remember fondly. Here’s a brief list:

  1. The Concert of works for and by Dutch composer Louis Andriessen for his 70th birthday. Back in April, I got to see and hear him (and one of his works), as he reminisced about performances by airport runways and mused that the bass line in Bach Chorale Preludes is “like a cow mooing, interrupting chirping birds”.
  2. Riding the brand spanking new CanadaLine all day on my Birthday, and playing Foursquare (and ‘tourist in my own town’) as I went all the way from the south of Richmond to North Vancouver without burning any gasoline (not counting the fuel on the Seabus).
  3. Actually not one but several fun and stimulating Meetups for bloggers, graphic designers and Social Media folks. Several were at Caeli’s Pub, which has become one of the most popular social watering-holes in town.
  4. An after-hours tour of the newly-renovated Arctic Ocean exhibit of the Vancouver Aquarium as part of the local chapter of the Interaction Design Association (IXDA)
  5. Excellent meals at Provence at Marinaside, a tea (thanks to Tiny Bites) at the Fish House in Stanley Park and this past week, a warming Hot Pot (Shabu Shabu) at a new Korean Restaurant, Dae Bak Bon Ga, on 4th Avenue in Kitsilano.
  6. The Inauguration of Barack Obama (of course)
  7. BarCampVancouver, which was a blast this year at Discovery Parks.
  8. Helping to run and participate in UXCampVancouver, the first User Experience ‘unconference’ in the Vancouver area. Many thanks to Karen Parker for providing the leadership and guidance. Next year, it will be even bigger and better. This was, perhaps, the big highlight of the year for me.

And a few sad losses:

  1. The loss of Workspace, a marvelous public/private space that hosted many great techie get-togethers. It was the closest thing to a ‘parlor’ that the Geek Scene in Vancouver had. I’m hoping that another will come, but sometimes these things take time to replace.
  2. The closing of a bunch of restaurants: Chow (which I reviewed in this blog), O Thai (which was replaced by another Thai restaurant in the same spot that is decidedly poorer), The Fish Café (on 4th Avenue in Kitsilano), and a few others that I forget at the moment (maybe for that reason, they should have closed).

When I look back on 2009, I know that I will sadly have to note that it was the year that Becca Hammann died (see previous entry), and it will be some time before I am used to that fact.

I also note the birth of many babies by friends and relatives, and once again, our orchid is blooming.

My next post, will be about next year. Oh look: the clock says that it’s here already. Well, come in, 2010. Make yourself at home.

In Memoriam

I’ve been thinking about this post for a long time, and it’s probably the hardest one I’ve ever had to write. The world lost someone last week. She wasn’t famous, but she was important. Her name was Rebecca Hammann.

Rebecca, or Becca, as she preferred to be called, will be missed by many people; I’m clearly not alone. There has been an official obituary, and there will be memorial services, although I doubt I can attend them. I can’t even begin to sum up a person who I haven’t been in touch with on a regular basis for a couple of decades; I didn’t know her as an adult as well as I did when she and I were young. I can say that knowing that we will not meet again seems just as painful as it would have been if we had seen each other regularly.

We met, back in the late 1970s, at a summer program called The Walden School, a 5-week program for kids 9-18 who were interested in music, and in particular, music composition. The Walden School, as it’s web site says, was and is ‘an artist colony for young musicians’. The name of the place is from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, which suggested an affinity with the New England Transcendentalists, as well as the idea of retreat to art within nature. More recently, when I served on the Board of Directors for the School, we wrestled with a phrase that summarized their approach, which was that at Walden, one could study music as if it were a language. You learned to understand it, as well as ‘speak’ it. As part of their training, all of the students compose, and just about everything that they write is performed by a combination of other students, faculty, and professional performers in residence. When Becca and I were students, the program was held in Vermont, but since then it has moved to New Hampshire. I recently learned with pride, that during a presentation in New York where a current Walden student was receiving an award, it was referred to as ‘the renowned Walden School’.

Here’s what the obituary won’t tell you: Becky (as she was called back then) was no average student. She had an extraordinary mind. She was a fine performer, but not as exceptional as she was a composer. At the time, we were both studying the opus 11 piano works of Arnold Schoenberg. In particular, the first of those three pieces, we realized, was the musical equivalent of a Hirschfeld caricature, where instead of picking out ‘Ninas’, one could find tens, perhaps hundreds of instances of a 3-note cell: b,g-sharp,g-natural – a falling minor third followed by a half step. In fact, Schoenberg’s piece of early atonality is not so much hiding these cells, but like a body, it is almost entirely composed of them. Some of the students wrote a few pieces based on this method of tight construction. As an assignment, Becky wrote a concentrated gem of a piano piece that I can still play back in my mind. It also was based on a three-note cell, but her’s was c,b-natural,f-sharp, a rising major seventh followed by a falling fourth. The drama of that initial leap, followed by the smaller leap down, was followed by a brilliant inversion of the first 3 notes: a,b-flat,e — a falling major seventh followed by a rising augmented fourth. Those first 6 notes displayed her unique sense of musical drama and balance, and along with the finely crafted and dramatic passages that followed them, won her a BMI (Broadcast Music Incorporated) prize at the age of 15. The usual age for winning a prize like that is perhaps mid-twenties. Several of my teachers, Pulitzer prize winners and now-famous composers won a BMI prize when they were older than she was, and many of them didn’t win one at all. I hope to be able to post or point to an online recording of the piece. The cassette recording I had of it is long lost.

Becca and I stayed in touch, mainly via sporadic letters, on and off until I went away to college. I know that she pursued a life in teaching, beat back breast cancer, and adopted an adorable child in China who is named Lucy. Those items one can find in her obituary. What it does not tell you is that she remained extraordinary — How could she not be? She had her seizure while teaching Science class. Despite the fact that she could no longer teach, she insisted in coming back in to see her class. She brought with her the images from her MRIs that indicated the tumor. I believe that she also met with each of her former students to talk about what death was, how it was a part of living, etc. In essence, she turned her illness and prognosis into a vehicle for learning. Frankly, I’m in awe of such courage and clear-headedness.

The obituary also mentions that when she learned of her diagnosis, she immediately wrote President-Elect Barack Obama. In fact, her seizure struck just 2 days after the election. Here is an excerpt from her online diary:

TUESDAY, JANUARY 13, 2009 5:15 PM, CST

When I first found out about the return of my cancer and that it was terminal, one of my first thoughts was to write a letter to Obama. Remember, all this began the day after the election. So I did write one, telling him to use his leadership to get us to make hard decisions. “Your task is daunting. It is not something you can do alone. You will need to convince the people of this country and in this world that they need to and can change. If anyone can do this, it is you. In a culture of lies and convenience and ease, you have the ability to say the truth clearly and, I hope, the people of this country have the willingness to hear your words.”

I wanted VERY badly for him to read the letter, but everyone knows how hard it is to get a letter to the President himself. My sister and her husband gave it to someone who gave it to someone who gave it to his personal secretary, the person who decides what papers go across his desk. Pretty darned close.

Then today, I got a letter from Obama. It was beautiful. It feels incredibly good to know he heard me.

Rather than link to her letter and his reply (which are online elsewhere), I’d like to provide them here:

Dear President-Elect Obama,

For the last year or so I have felt as if the world was falling apart. Our system is based on buying more than we need, more cheaply than the true costs. We believe that we deserve comfort and ease and material things that our Earth can not afford to give us. That is why I hoped so much that you would be elected. You bring hope and true leadership to this country and this world. There is a chance, now, for my two-year-old daughter to live in a world of beauty and love instead of the chaos and greed I had begun to imagine for her.

She is a glorious child, full of life and love and humor and she alone is worth changing the world for. You must not falter. I know in my head that there are millions of children to protect; even adults who have created this mess are worthy. But I must ask you for her in partic ular. The day after your election I learned that I do not have much time. A seven-year-old cancer has spread to my lungs and brain and will prevent me from taking part in the changes that must occur. So I am begging you to lead this world with all your heart and mind, to not take the easy path and to never let the rest of us take it either. This is a lot to ask of you, I know. Our entire paradigm must shift. Our decisions have been based on material possessions and comforts. Even mine. I just decided a few weeks ago to try to live without my own car. I realized that I must be part of the solution now before it is too late. But my tiny realization must be magnified a million times if it is to save our beautiful Earth. Our lives must change. We simply can not sustain what we are currently doing.

My hope is that you are honest and courageous enough to lead us in the direction we must go. You have two beautiful daughters yourself. You know there isn’t a moment to lose.
But your task is daunting. It is not some thing you can do alone. You will need to convince the people of this country and in this world that they need to and can change. If any one can do this, it is you. In a culture of lies and convenience and ease, you have the ability to say the truth clearly and, I hope, the people of this country have the willingness to hear your words. The changes we must make will require almost overwhelming amounts of courage and hope — and that is what you inspire in us.

My darling Lucy can do without most of what we have grown accustomed to — the material possessions and the comforts. But she needs a healthy Earth and a thoughtful self-sacrificing humankind willing to act for our future generations no matter how difficult.

Please, from the bottom of my heart, don’t give up this fight. If you could meet my daughter Lucy, you would know why you can not. And there are millions of Lucys in this world.

Rebecca Hammann

Obama’s reply:

Dear Rebecca,

Thank you for the let ter that you wrote to me on behalf of your daughter. I was moved by your sense of hope and purpose.

You described what makes Lucy unique and glorious, and then ended by saying that “there are millions of Lucys in this world.” I was struck by the seeming contradiction, but of course it’s true — we all know that there are hundreds of millions of children, and yet each is unique.

Just like you, I try every day to build a better world for my daughters, and to make sure they are ready to enjoy it — that their personalities are shaped by love, knowledge, compassion, a sense of honor, and the free spirit that my mother always nurtured in me. While I can’t imagine the anguish you feel knowing that Lucy will grow up with out you, I am profoundly honored to be part of the hope that buoys you today.

You are right to be hopeful, because our children face a future of limitless possibility. We know that a sustainable way of life is essential to our children and grand children. But beyond that, the quest for sustainability that you described with such eloquence and passion is integral as well, because it is a powerful unifier, motivating peoples and nations to act in concert so that all may benefit.
I have every confidence that your daughter will grow up to be a part of this, living out the principles that have motivated you and which will live on within her. My heart tells me Lucy will play a part in creating the change you and I seek. My faith tells me that you will be smiling down on us the whole time.

Barack Obama

With Becca’s death last week, two phrases come to my mind. The first is Shakespeare, from King Lear, when he mourns Cordelia: “Thou’lt come no more, / Never, never, never, never, never.” I will never again hear her unmistakable voice, never again take in those gray-blue eyes, never again kiss her (we kissed once; I thought there would be more but that one was the first and last), she’ll never see the sketches I made of a Symphony that included her name (or at least the letters E-B-E-C-C-A) worked into it in several sections. We’ll never have a reunion where we laugh over my youthful crush on her (and how one day she finally wrote me a letter telling me to lighten up, that I was becoming a bit of a pain).

The other is a phrase from one of the English translations I read of the Tao Te Ching: “The Tao is the mysterious female.” Like many young girls, Becca talked softly and mumbled. Rather than ask her to say a phrase again, the awkward, pimply adolescent that I was, I would just guess at what she had said. This, plus the complex workings of her mind, made her a great mystery to me, and one can’t but help but love a mysterious female.

Finally, as a last word, I wanted to include one other entry in Becca’s online diary, which also displays, for lack of a better word, just how extraordinary she was, to the end:

MONDAY, NOVEMBER 24, 2008 1:25 PM, CST

This whole experience is profoundly different than I would have ever expected. I feel overwhelmingly lucky. There is so much goodness around me. I have to say I’ve been kind of down on humans as a species for a while. When we just go about their business, we take too much from our Earth and each other. We are so often selfish and cruel. But when faced with challenge, human beings are a glorious thing. We are full of love and strength. Anything is possible. The thoughts and love coming from all of you just proves this. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and feelings with me!

And it seems clear that this whole experience isn’t really about me. It is about the challenge. The thing that makes us rise up and be what we ought to be. I see those around me do this everyday and it fills my heart with hope. Not for the amount of time I may or may not have, but for all of us.


Summer in the City

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything, mainly because I always feel the need to take a little time off in the summer, particularly since this summer weather has been so spectacularly good. True, it has been a little warm, and even on some days, downright hot. Still, that hasn’t kept us from getting out and enjoying the city, visiting with friends, taking long walks along False Creek, and even a few outings with the car.

An Intimate Evening with Hummingbird604 and Some Exotic Potent Potables

It was one of those hot nights in Downtown Vancouver when we went out one of the evenings a couple of weeks ago. Rather than try and escape the heat (as any sane person would do), we embraced it. We climbed the staircase to the third floor of The Network Hub, one of the shared office space and social incubators in town on West Hastings and Richards, a couple of blocks away from Waterfront Station. Hummingbird604 (AKA Raul to those who know him), hosted a small group of friends and bloggers to try out some interesting new beverages from China. When we arrived, we were greeted by Christy Nguyen and Minna Van of Urbanbella Marketing Group. To go with the liquids, they had already begun to put out some Chinese food (which was helpful to see how the liquids might go with different dishes).

The 15 or so of us dug in and chatted as we were trying to keep cool. I was happy to see plenty of friends, including Gus (and Russ), Tanya (with her new fiancé, Barry), Degan, Erica and John.

So what were we trying? There were three different items. First, there was a red wine, a saki (or rice wine) and a whiskey, which we could try straight up as well as a mixer in a sort of lemonade (which was perfect for a hot night). I opted immediately for the most unusual (at least for me) thing to try first: the whiskey, straight up from a shot glass. This is not because I wanted to get drunk fast, but because I tend to be a bit of a purist when it comes to liquor, and love Single-malt Scotch. I was also intrigued, because this whiskey , called Chu Yeh Ching Chiew, was, as an accompanying information card put it:

…a special ancient liquor made from traditional Chinese herbal recipe. It has (a) transparent golden and slightly green colour, and intense floral herbal aromas of dried apricot. It’s off dry with a hint of anise and packs a lengthy finish.

What this information does not include (and which the name and pictures on the bottle do), is that this is alcohol fermented from bamboo shoots. I tried it and was impressed. To me, it had the strength of an Irish Whiskey, but the finish was exotic; with a bit of ginseng, and perhaps another spice. Here’s what the bottle looked like:

 Bamboo Whiskey from China. Photo courtesy of Hummingbird604

Bamboo Whiskey from China. Photo courtesy of Hummingbird604

Here’s my own photo of the bottle:

My own photo of the same bottle

My own photo of the same bottle

The company who provided it is Hi-Bridge Consulting, although as I mentioned, Urban Bella was the Public Relations firm who arranged for the tasting. I have to say that this product, with some repackaging, and perhaps a new, English name, could do extremely well. They also offered it in a lemonade mixer, which wasn’t as interesting (but did prove that it could be a fine mixer), but I have to say that straight up, it is a very impressive drink. I propose that they call it, Bamboo Mist, and put it in a distinctive, frosted bottle with bamboo brush style lettering on the label (and keep the bamboo leaf art as well). Market it to upscale liquor stores and put it in the section that has other drinks strongly associated with a country (like Jameson Whiskey, Aquavit, Midori or perhaps Sabra). I realize that some of those are liqueurs, but hopefully you can see where I’m going with this. In addition, there’s the whole sustainability angle, since bamboo is one of the world’s most sustainable natural resources (it grows in a variety of places like a weed). Many people in North America have floors and furniture made of bamboo. It makes excellent cutting boards. If you don’t use a lot of nasty chemicals, it also can produce wonderful, earth-friendly and silky fabric. One of my all-time-favourite T-shirts is a long-sleeved greenish cocoa one that feels an awful lot like silk. It is also washable and wicks perspiration well. To have a whisky from the same material seems a natural for a marketing campaign that not only plays off the exotic sound of liquor from ancient Chinese bamboo groves, but also of a whisky that ecology-minded folks can love as well. Are you listening, Hi-Bridge?

There was also a less impressive Sake (Sake from China? Well, OK) which did have a strange, thick, almost chocolate taste and consistency, and an extremely undistinguished Cabernet Sauvignon (sorry), but the Chu Yeh Ching Chiew (although the name doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue for those who don’t speak Chinese) made the evening, which in addition to friends, imbibing and talk, also included some appropriate Chinese food to nibble on.

We All got together for a group shot near the end of the evening. Photo courtesy of Hummingbird604

We all got together for a group shot near the end of the evening. Photo courtesy of Hummingbird604
Another Evening

As I mentioned, Pam and I have been taking lots of walks after dinner (mainly to walk off the meal – we have been eating so well lately!) One time we actually drove somewhere, however, was a trip down to Richmond for the famous Night Market. It’s an open air market in an industrial park, far from everywhere, but you feel as if you’ve gone further. Besides the booths of everything from socks from Korea and iPod/iPhone accessories from China, there are the food booths. Oh. My. I really do love street food, and this was no exception. In addition to some fantastic squid, cooked up on the flames right in front of us:

Squid! Yum!

Squid! Yum!

I also got a ridiculously fun (and silly) spiral of a fried potato, drizzled with a hot and sweet chili sauce. Truly a wonderful blend of ‘carny’ food and Thai-style spices. As you can see, I was grinning like a kid. I think I’m really getting psyched for our trip to Southeast Asia that we’re just starting to plan for next year:

Me at the Night Market

Me at the Night Market

A Summer Full of People

Up until recently, many of the photos I’ve been taking this past couple of months have been of nature; flowers, birds, the forest, etc.

Then, Vancouver went all gregarious on us. The fact is, when the days are as beautiful and comfortable as they have been, you just have to get out, and everybody else has the same idea. So this month has been a series of festivals, meetups, tweetups (think impromptu get-together flash-mob via web messaging), BBQs and general get-togethers.

A couple of weeks ago was Car-Free Vancouver day, in which several sections of the city blocked off areas to automobile traffic and vendors (and others) set up booths. Pam and I went up and down a large section of Main Street, but didn’t get to the other streets that were participating, including Commercial Drive (where the movement started) and a large swath of Denman. We saw everything from Tai Chi:

Tai Chi - 1

to crowds and balloons nearly as far as the eye could see:

Crowds as far as the Horizon

Then, this past weekend, it was the Greek festival, which took over a stretch of Broadway to the east of us. It was an enormous crowd, and Pam and I chowed down on Souvlaki…

Cooking the Souvlaki

…and Baklava (Pam opted for a lemon pound-cake with almonds called Samali, after a Ugandan friend she has of the same name). I learned that my name in Greek is NTABINT (although phonetically it’s spelled ∆ABI∆ ). We also realized that this section of the city was full of great little Greek restaurants and delis, so now we know where to get the best pita and treats like Kourabiethes (sugar cookies), Kataifi (Baklava with shredded dough) and the nearly unpronounceable but delicious Galaktoboureko Rolla (Phyllo stuffed with custard).

Last night was the Meetup of all Meetups at the Ceilis Irish Pub downtown. A combination of the Third Tuesday Meetup, The Vancouver Sales Performance Meetup, Vancouver Blogger’s Meetup, Real Estate Technology Meetup, Young Professionals Meetup, WordPress Meetup and the Vancouver Entrepreneur Meetup Group all made for a huge crowd on the rooftop:

It was a very, very big Meetup

I was glad to see a lot of friends and fellow Vancouver bloggers there, including Raul, Tanya, Monica and Shane:

Raul, ?,Tanya, Monica and Shane

One fun part of this meetup was that there were door prizes, and by pure luck, I won one! Digital Smart Homes provided a Kanto Zed iPod Speaker system, and I’m having fun unboxing it today! Thanks, guys!

See, it wasn’t just a month of flowers, birds and trees…

A Musical Mystery

There are a couple of iPhone apps called Shazam and Listen that identify music by holding up the phone to take in the sound as it’s being played or reproduced, but they’re pretty much limited to songs on the radio. Some renditions of music don’t lend themselves to that method of identification. For example, a friend of Pam recently got a music box. It had been in their family for a long time, and it played a tune that she didn’t recognize. Her background is Scottish, and although we didn’t recognize the tune, it has a vaguely folk-song sound to it, and at one part, I even detected a ‘Scottish Snap’, which is the distinctive rhythmic pattern of a short note followed by a longer one (after several of the usual long-short, long-short patterns). Here’s what the music box sounds like. I let it play the tune twice:


Any idea what this melody is? I’m guessing it’s a Scottish folk song, but it might possibly be a popular tune from years ago.