Life Lessons from Bembo

In the spring of 2005 we spent a month in the small village of Aniane in the south of France. The trip was the first test of my “I can work from anywhere” hypothesis, and the results of the experiment showed that this was just barely true: the house we rented was free of Internet, leaving me to scavenge for wifi in the surrounding towns, and the ergonomics of the attic I set aside to be my office were such that rope and pillows were required to strap me into a comfortable work position.

But, work logistics aside, it was one of the greatest trips we’ve taken as a family: Aniane was a tiny, perfect village with two boulangeries, a mid-week market and awe-inspiring stone architecture, surrounded by enough distractions to keep us pleasantly occupied for the month with fun family activities. Sometimes it was enough just to wander about the village, taking it all in.

Sunny in Aniane

The nearest major city, 30 minutes drive away, was Montpelier, and we would often go into the city to shop, or to wander, or to ride its city-centre carousel. A few minutes walk from the carousel was a park called L’Esplanade, and one of the features of L’Esplanade was that it offered pony rides for children.

Which is how we met Bembo.

Bembo was one of the stable of ponies, and was the one selected for Oliver to go on walkabout around the park. We paid our fee – a Euro, if I recall correctly – and were surprised to find that our marching orders were to simply set off, under Bembo’s guidance, through the park. In stumbly French I managed to determine that Bembo knew the way; there was nothing to worry about.

And Bembo did know the way: he dutifully, calmly, loped on his standard route, around and about and through, never diverging from his intended course. If we’d fashioned ourselves as pony thieves it never would have worked out, as Bembo’s determination to stay the course was unbreakable: he wouldn’t divert no matter how hard we might have pulled.

Everything went sideways, however, when we came to a section of the brick path that workers had just started to dig up: what was Bembo to do?

He couldn’t go forward, he couldn’t go backward, he wouldn’t go around.

So he stood there. Waiting.

It took all our strength and persuasive energies to convince Bembo that it was okay to divert 6 inches to the right to make his way around the disturbed section of the path, but we eventually managed it.

Once beyond, Bembo merrily continued on his way back to home base, where Oliver slipped off, and Bembo went back into the rotation.

My mind has returned to that afternoon with Bembo often in the years since: how many times must have Bembo walked that path for it to become so implanted in him that no other path was possible? How many times after Oliver’s ride did he continue to do so? What become of him? Could he still be there, 9 years later, still walking the same path?

Oliver and I are reading the excellent Lucy Knisley book An Age of License, a “comics travel memoir” about her 2011 trip to Europe. The introductory page looks like this:

Licy Knusley, An Age of License, Introduction

She writes:

“Sometimes travel can show us how our life is… Or can give us a glimpse of how it can be. Being untethered, I could float away, lifted to a great height where everything is new, and I could look back on my life with new perspective and go, ‘Oh!’”

Our ride through L’Esplanade with Bembo afforded me some of that new perspective: we can worry ourselves into repetitive ruts in life, ruts worn so deep that we hardly even know that they are there, as they come to simply resemble everyday regular life, “the way things are.”

And on occasion we come to a break in the path, a pile of bricks set there by others, and we’re confronted, suddenly, with the need to find a way around.

We can use that opportunity to squeeze around the pile of bricks and continue on the path, or we can use the opportunity to realize that perhaps we have the ability to set off down a different path and avoid the bricks altogether.

Spreading Printcraft

Back in July, in Enschede, Oliver and I gave a walk-through of Printcraft, the intriguing “make 3D models in Minecraft, then print them on a 3D printer” experiment, to a group at the Make Stuff that Matters unconference.

In the room that summer afternoon were Frank and Floris, father and son.

I am happy to report, via Ton, that Frank and Floris took the ball and ran, holding Meet2Minecraft this weekend in Utrecht and taking our little talk to the next level, with 40 kids gathering to craft in Minecraft and print in the real world.

I love it when ideas spread!

Minecraft / Printcraft

Stephen Fearing in Sackville

The first time I saw Stephen Fearing perform live was in the Market Hall in Peterborough, Ontario in the late 1980s as part of Mike Barker’s excellent Folk Under the Clock series (still going on all these years later!). I was transfixed by his songwriting, his wit, and his skills on the guitar. I saw him live again at the Winnipeg Folk Festival in 1989 – his first of many appearances there, and I’ve been a fan ever since.

But obviously not a very devoted or active fan, as 25 years have passed since 1989 and that’s a pretty long gap to not see someone you purport to be a fan of play live.

I resolved to rectify that when I noticed that he was scheduled to play The Trailside this past Friday, but fate intervened, as I was scheduled to be in Truro on Home & School business that night. What to do?

Fortunately, I realized that I would be driving right by Sackville, New Brunswick the next night, and he had a gig scheduled there that would fit into my schedule perfectly.

So I left Truro around 5:30 p.m. on Saturday night, drove through the stunning fall colours of the Cobequid Pass, and arrived in Sackville around 7:00 p.m.  After a quick Tofu Pulled Pork sandwich at Pickles (much better than it sounds like it will be), I arrived at the venue, George’s Roadhouse Kitchen in plenty of time to pick up a $20 ticket.

The venue is a odd one: right across from the VIA Rail station in Sackville, it’s closed most of the time, opening only for special events like this. It has a very “Jolly Hangman in the 1980s” feel to it – rough-hewn, a definite air of mold, a pleasant workaday bartender, an amiable doorman. Like the Trailside, but without the food, three times bigger, and more “people have probably gotten into fights here.” In other words, a pretty good venue for one of Canada’s preeminent singer-songwriters.

Fearing came on stage at 8:00 a.m. and played two sets, finishing up with an encore. We were all back out into the cool fall night by 11:00 p.m.

He did not disappoint: he played a selection of songs old and new. He has aged well, and his fingers are as nimble as ever, and his honey-golden voice as sweet. I’m so glad I took the detour at Aulac and spent 3 hours in his glow.

Stephen Fearing in Sackville

The One Where I Accidentally Discover the Cache of Polish Geological Maps

On the list of things that can happen to someone like me, coming across an unexpected cache of paper maps – beautiful, richly colourful, paper maps on subjects ranging from the Northwest Passage to Polish geology to Ugandan agriculture – is right up there on the list of “greatest things ever.”

And that’s exactly what happened today: walking the halls of the fourth floor of the Taylor Family Digital Library here at the University of Calgary I spotted a door marked Spatial and Numeric Data Services.

How could you not walk through a door with such an intriguing title? It was like coming upon the Department of Dark Arts and Magical Incantations.

So in the door I did walk. Where I was warmly greeted by a friendly map librarian, who told me all about the services, spatial and numeric, that her section offers. I told her about maps at the University of PEI, and about Island Imagined. She told me about their aerial photographs collection and their GIS services.

And then I spotted a table in the middle of the room marked FREE MAPS.

FREE MAPS table.

Were they really free maps?, I asked. Yes.

And so I spent an ecstatic 20 minutes browsing through maps of north and south and east and west. Satellite maps. Topographic maps. Index maps. Maps of Africa (a lot of maps of Africa). Maps of northern Canada. Maps of Iberia.

I couldn’t take them all, but I also couldn’t pass up the opportunity to take some of them with me, even if it did mean carrying around a cumbersome roll of Polskie mapy geologiczne for the rest of the week.

I curated a nice little selection, rolled them up, and asked the friendly librarian where I might purchase a tube to carry them home in. She generously pulled an old one out of their collection – don’t tell anyone I told you this, as no ill should befall her for this kindness – and I was on my way.

With the cumbersomeness of the tube quickly becoming apparent as I walked around the library for the rest of the afternoon, at the end of the day I made my way to the local Shoppers Drug Mart Canada Post Outlet and invested $15 in postage to mail the tube home.

Be thus warned: I will likely be prone to holding forth on the geography of the maize growing areas of greater Kampala in the weeks and months to come.


Here is a strand.

Eleven years ago I attended a public meeting at the Delta Prince Edward hotel where Maritime Electric, Prince Edward Island’s electric utility, made its case for a dramatic increase in electricity rates.

As I related at the time in this space, the key line of the evening, for me, came when CEO Jim Lea, responding to my question about whether there would ever be a situation where it would be beneficial for the company if electricity consumption were to drop, answered, with commendable honesty, “no it would not be beneficial.”

That simple realization drove home for me that it was never going to be the utility that was going to drive electricity reduction efforts: if anyone was going to do it, it was going to be we the people.

Also in the audience at that meeting was Richard Brown, a fellow resident of downtown Charlottetown, a fellow computer programmer, someone interested in energy issues, and, at the time, a defeated Liberal MLA.

Six months later, Richard was elected to the Legislative Assembly again, and joined the Liberal opposition for a term before being reelected in 2007 and joining Executive Council.

Two years later, in 2009, Richard was named Minister of Environment, Energy and Forestry and I interviewed him as a part of a series on climate change I was producing.

I returned to Richard’s office two years later, in March of 2011, to discuss the possibility of having information about electricity load and generation, including wind energy, released as open data, returning to the thread that started in 2003: if it was we the people that were going to responsible for reducing electricity consumption, we were going to need access to data about generation and consumption to arm ourselves.

By July, still without access to this data, I created a hack that used New Brunswick data to provide a slice of the energy picture and created another hack, covered by CBC Spark, that allowed the energy flow to be visualized through techno music.

A year later, in June of 2012, the project I’d originally discussed with Richard bore fruit, thanks to the efforts of his department of of the province’s IT department, and open data on energy load and generation started to flow and I started to archive it.

Someone who noticed my efforts was Scott Bateman, a researcher in human-computer interaction at the University of PEI (and a colleague from many years ago when we both worked on the provincial website project). Scott proposed that we work together on a project to create an in-home appliance – an “energy thingy,” he dubbed it – that would use that open data to present “actionable feedback” about electricity usage.  It might glow green when the wind was blowing and much of the electricity was being wind-generated, and glow red when the reverse was true. And thus help you decide when to turn on the clothes dryer.

Scott proposed the project to the NRC, it was funded, and now that “thingy” is a real thing: it has how-to manual, open source code, and you can build one yourself.

Meanwhile, I shifted my focus from the macro to the micro, applying for and being granted a City of Charlottetown micro-grant to fund The Social Consumption Project, a pilot effort to provide daily water and electricity consumption data to five households in Charlottetown.

All of which led to me spending this week in Calgary, in part with Scott’s academic colleagues in the Innovations in Visualization Laboratory at the University of Calgary, discussing both our “macro” and “micro” energy projects, with an eye to learning more about how their thinking in information visualization can be used to both improve the presentation of data and increase the likelihood of it spurring positive action.

We spent a very productive session with the team in the lab today, and already my head is filled with alternative approaches and interesting ideas: they are an insightful lot and, as I wrote the team afterwards, it was refreshing to discuss with interested others ideas that I had mostly, to this point, discussed only with myself.

Scott and I are presenting the “thingy” at the SurfNet conference later this week and I’m certain that we’ll find other opportunities for collaboration there.

I never could have imagined, when I attended a little meeting in a Charlottetown hotel, that I would end up, a decade later, pursuing the same strand, in a rich academic context.

This is the kind of thing I love doing – following stands, connecting dots, building digital connective tissue, meeting interesting people, following my curiousity.

Among other things, it has provided me with a route back into the academy after 30 years: I have finally found a way of engaging academia which, rather than being soul-dampening, as it was the first time around, is compelling in ways I never could have imagined.

Moral of the story: don’t be afraid to follow unlikely strands; they can lead you places you can’t get elsewhere.

Do stuff. Tell other people about it. Ask questions. Be patient. And see what happens.