Sunday, March 24, 2013


So I went into these pretty swank offices on a recent trip and my bowels were knocking down the doors. After hurrying and running to a stall, I quickly realized I didn’t know what to do. Before me was a toilet at an ever-so-slight downward angle,  with something like a control panel attached to the right side of the toilet (when sitting down). My bowels didn’t care about buttons and I didn’t have time to waste so I quickly used a seat cover and sat down.

The first surprise was that I didn’t need a seat cover. In the winter, I normally cover toilet seats with toilet paper or use seat covers because the seat is cold and, just like losing your appetite, the cold seat makes me lose the ability to go. It’s like instant constipation.

But this seat was pleasantly warm, like using the toilet above a pleasant fire—the perfect advert. No more worrying about leaving the fireplace to go use the freezing toilet. We’ve taken the fireplace and put it underneath your commode. J

The second thing I noticed was that by pressing buttons, I could adjust the temperature of my seat. Surprise, surprise. But no need to do that. I was warm enough to read the novel “War and Peace” from cover to cover in one sitting, one literal sitting.

And just as I was about to get up, I noticed the other controls. One control button had a picture of a person that said “Rear cleansing High Pressure.” At first I was confused and thought I was in a woman’s washroom Then, I realized I was in a men’s washroom but some how this thing, this machine was offering to assist me in cleaning myself. Now, if you haven’t traveled widely enough, there are places and regions of the world where, instead of toilet paper you use a hose next to the toilet or when you go to the pit latrine, you carry a kettle of water and use that to clean yourself. It’s not my preference because of the issue of drying and the many animals that like to help you dry yourself. But it happens. Some of you have probably only ever used toilet tissue to clean yourself. Well, this machine, this toilet thing was offering to use water to do it. In Egypt many of the toilets have this, but . . . I have never been to Egypt.

For some reason, I didn’t see the other button with a picture of a person and a fountain splashing his bum with the words “Soft pressure” and so I pressed the “High Pressure” picture and was so unbelievably uncomfortable I screamed out “Aaaah!” And before other men in the restroom could throw strange looks to my stall I said “My wallet, I FOUND IT!!” all why being pummeled with water from somewhere inside my toilet. Thank goodness it was warm. I couldn’t tell if it had cleaned away bits and pieces, but I needed to stop it because I was quickly losing consciousness.

I hit stop. I decided not to try the button that had a picture of a woman above a fountain and said “Front Cleansing.” There was one more picture-button. It looked like a wave, and it was blue. I wasn’t sure but I thought I could see a little sign next to it saying “Stop killing our planet and save trees.” So out of guilt, I pressed it and immediately began to laugh from the air that was attempting to dry my bum. “Hee hee, hoo hoo harr.”

I realized that, through my stall walls, the men in the washroom had stopped talking, so I quickly said “Man that was a funny story. I’ll call you later.” Then I made a beep sound but realized phones don’t make beep sounds when you hang up. Mental note.

I quickly wiped with toilet tissue because I didn’t trust the air-dry system and walked out with confidence mouthing the words “important phone call.” I decided I’ll use the normal toilets next time. (Incidentally my friend John Knight has a show Macho Metro Man coming out this spring, and I think the toilets are perfect for one of his minority macho metro men.)


4 Husbands

The local news station was interviewing an 80-year-old lady because she had just gotten married for the fourth time. The interviewer asked her questions about her life, about what it felt like to be marrying again at 80, and then about her new husband's occupation. "He's a funeral director," she answered.

"Interesting," the newsman thought.

He then asked her if she wouldn't mind telling him a little about her first three husbands and what they did for a living. She paused for a few moments, needing time to reflect on all those years. After a short time, a smile came to her face and she answered proudly, explaining that she had first married a banker when she was in her 20's, then a circus ringmaster when in her 40's, and a preacher when in her 60's, and now - in her 80's - a funeral director.

The interviewer looked at her, quite astonished, and asked why she had married four men with such diverse careers.

(Wait for it)

She smiled and explained,

"I married one for the money, two for the show, three to get ready, and four to go."


Not much is going on for me at the moment. I just came back from a trip to Iceland followed directly by a trip to California. It’s been a really good time of seeing people and reconnecting with people. I’m sorry I missed some really good friends (TJ, Jeremy, Omair, Praj, Stephanie) but glad I was able to see Kaitlin (my friend who is always thinking and forever pushing forward with her love for music), Teresa (my discussion buddy), Josh (step brother), Cheryl (kindred spirit but with more muscles), Angel (blood sister who is interested in exactly the same things as me).

Sometimes it’s funny seeing friends like that because I really forget that I went to school with a lot of movers and shakers. My friend Angel has just co-founded her own start-up, and to be honest, she has all the right skills and experience for the job. Kaitlin is one of the few people I knew who still inspires me; she’s pursuing her love of music and making it work via education with kids. I love that. I really forget that Josh is big stuff now. He is a director of international giving for a foundation, he’s the co-founder/mentor of an accelerator programme, and he’s now an author. On top of that, he’s one of those guys that downplays it all. That’s Josh. Cheryl still has a love for international missions work and is pursuing body sculpting at the moment. What impresses me most is that she becomes more herself each time I see her. That is hard to do in today’s environment.

At home, I am seeing crisis-pregnancy/miscarriage/post-abortion clients a majority of the time I work at the centre. I’m still helping advise a few non-profits and social enterprises, and I’m still working with ex-offenders and helping someone with a learning disability find gainful employment. My mentorship programme with 2 university students is ending but I will probably keep in touch with them both. They were great students. And just two days ago a student in India emailed to ask if he could work with me on his aerospace engineering thesis. I was shocked but was open to it; he happened to read a paper I wrote a few years ago. Now that I don’t have a lot of trips planned, I can start up my music lessons on the ukulele and work on the accordion (I have a kids one, and it’s really cool). I’ll keep you posted on all that.

As usual, I deal with lots of thwarted attempts. The North American Actor’s Guild here will not take me due to some professional requirements; I can work professionally at night but not during the day and that doesn’t work for them. So I have to revisit my plan on the acting scene here. The fellowship didn’t choose me, again, this year and only told me because I sent an email asking to visit their offices since I was in California. I haven’t heard from a lot of other people. When I was in California, however, a group called TechSoup Global has been interested in talking. I also tried to visit Khan Academy while out there but didn’t get any email contact with them until I landed back home. But it is nice to be in contact. I think I’d like to use them if I go back to the math classroom.


Well, I told you I went out on expedition to see the Aurora Borealis. The Northern Lights and Southern Lights are similar but it’s easier to see the Northern Lights logistically so I went with that option. I researched all the countries where you could see them (I found 10), and decided to follow my workmate, yet again, on another trip she recently took. She usually checks out a place on vacation and tells me it’s good and then I go.

Actually, I don’t know if I would have gone just to go. If you’ve followed the story, after the horrible car crash in December, I thought this would be a trip that could lift the post-accident spirits of a photographer like Kristine. The lights are beautiful to behold. So I surprised her with this trip. And that’s how I found myself on a trip to Iceland.

Iceland is unlike any country I’ve ever been to. It’s the first European country I’ve visited where I was hyper-exotic like I am in the rural parts of Latin America away from Caribbean culture or in many parts of Asia. I was in Europe but people definitely eyed me as a strange Black man. Traveling around the entire country, I think I only saw one other Black person there and he was a tourist. However, Iceland is exotic. I mean its landscape is bizarre, as if you’re on Mars at times or the moon. In fact, we found out that NASA has used Iceland for astronaut training in the past due to its lunar-like landscape. Still, people found me exotic.

The language is really interesting to me because it’s part of the Germanic language family in a Northern Germanic or Nordic subset. Yet, I still had trouble picking out any phrases or words. With Germanic languages like German, Dutch, Afrikaans, even Swedish I can catch things now and then, but this was very different. It lacked the musicality and lilt of Norwegian, which surprised me. It was like speaking Norwegian with a Russian or Spanish accent. Kristine said I spoke Icelandic with a German accent (she says I speak Italian with a Spanish accent as well).

Religiously, Iceland is a Christian country, the state denomination being the church of Iceland, a Lutheran institution. It switched over from Catholicism around the 16th century (the last Catholic bishop was beheaded in 1550). But according to belief demographics (not official religious geography), Iceland is one of the most irreligious European countries. Even though the Church of Iceland is supposed to comprise of about 75% of Icelanders, according to Wikipedia, a 2011 Gallup Poll found that 60% of Icelanders felt religion was unimportant in their daily lives. There are some small percentages of Buddhism and Islam. I even saw a Bahá’í sign while I was there.

Iceland is one of those bizarre countries where its influence is greater than its size. I was really surprised that a tiny island with less than about 320,000 people has a language that is considered more important than say Nigeria’s Yoruba according to Google Translate. In fact the only sub-Saharan languages included in Google Translate are Afrikaans and Swahili whereas there are multiple African languages with many more speakers than 320,000 people. Yet none are deemed important enough to include. I was a bit amazed as I didn’t expect to be able to use Google Translate while in Iceland, but I could.

But I guess that’s what happens when you become quite a wealthy nation. From its settlement in the first century AD by Norse Vikings (and possibly Celtic monks before that) it had always been a country dominated by the fishing industry. (Their seafood is amazing and I happened to be there during a food festival!) But for some reason there was a shift in the early 2000s and banks, especially investment banks, became big business in Iceland between 2003 and 2007. So when the global economic recession hit, it hit Iceland really badly. And many people here feel that the country had lost its way by leaving its fishing roots.

I sometimes wonder if the banking boom was a way for people in Iceland to restore national pride somewhat. In the past, Iceland had been ruled by a union of countries, by Norway, and finally by Denmark. It was one of the poorest European countries in the 1500s, 1600s, and maybe even the 1700s. It’s a really hard land to cultivate and a tough place to live. A sizeable portion of the land is ice mountains and glaciers. I honestly thought their horses were some other animal, like a mule or something. They looked shorter, stockier and harrier. Apparently the isolation of Iceland and lack of inter-breeding of horses has let their horses evolve separately from horses in other places. I saw the same thing with cows. I did, however, see some normal looking cows in a restaurant that is also a cow farm with large window-walls so you can watch the cows defecate while you eat (no kidding, this happened, and we had to move tables because I wasn’t hungry anymore).

When you look at Iceland from the air or on a map, you will see green parts as well as large chunks of white. I know people say, “Greenland is Ice, and Iceland is green.” But let me tell you, Iceland is ice, too! Ok, ok, I know that Iceland does have green especially during the summer, but it is a cold country even if people classify it as having a mid-Atlantic-type climate. New York City might get colder than all of Iceland in the winter, but New York City also gets much warmer than all of Iceland in the summer. I have never been in a blizzard or snowstorm like the one I was in when I was there. There were accidents and rescues happening all the time. We didn’t have a 4x4 or 4WD vehicle (I didn’t originally request one and they were all out at the car rental) and we ended up spinning a bit on a snowdrift and then got stuck (no collision). A monster truck emergency vehicle came and rescued us 2 hours later and helped us get back to town in the opposite direction because the roads were impassible.

I thought it was smart to go there off-season, but I didn’t account for snow storms. The rest of the trip was brilliant however. In off-season there are few people there. So yes, a lot of hostels and bed & breakfasts are closed and people get irritated when you call the number on the hostel or hotel, but you get to see rainbows, frozen water falls, glacier coming down the mountain toward you, glacier lakes, volcano islands, cinder cones of ash, volcano lakes, geysers that brood over your presence, and black sand beaches inviting you for cold walks.

It’s a ridiculously strange land, basically a volcano-formed island that sits right over the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. If you remember your Plate Tectonic theory from Geography and science class, Iceland sits right over the border between two plates on the earth crusts, the Eurasian plate and the North American plate. But instead of the plates colliding to form mountains or shifting past each other or one plate sliding under another like in California, this is mostly where new crust or new earth is formed. So the country of Iceland is literally dividing itself, spreading apart, more and more, year by year. Eventually it will become two islands but right now it is one. And you can go and visit a park that sits on the fault line: Pingvellir National Park.

We saw pseudo-craters, rock formations, and mountain beaches. We went whale watching and bird watching (when we could, mostly only seagulls were left as other smart birds went south for the winter) and sheep/cow/horse watching. The most amazing experience was swimming.

My first exposure to Iceland was the language. In high school, my concert choir sang an Icelandic piece. Prior to my trip my last exposure to Iceland was studying their energy landscape: Ninety-eight percent (98%) of Iceland’s energy is sourced from renewable energy sources. At USAID, I was studying this and what we could learn as we sought to become carbon neutral. Much of Iceland’s renewable energy is geothermal and hydro. And because of all the amazing volcanic and thermal activity below Iceland it creates amazing hot springs. So swimming happens here all year round. I have never swum in winter and I’m not sure I want to do so again, but it was pretty amazing. I had always seen videos or pictures of Icelandic people swimming in hot and jumping out in cold and then going back to hot. Well I got to experience it.

One night while swimming I was thinking how the jumping-back-and-forth-between-hot-and-cold is just a story; no one does that. Well, I was swimming  in hot waters with snow all around me underneath the night sky at 9 PM at night with a local group of North Icelandic farmers, and no sight of the Northern Lights. One of the farmers jumped out of the medicinal pool. He jumped on an inclined snowy bank, lay flat, and began to make snow angels. He had a big smile on his face, but I secretly know it was covering up his pain. After making his snow angel furiously hard (and his smile equally as hard), he jumped back in the pool to the congratulatory praise from his fellow farmers. His back was condemning him, though. I saw the steam rise. I wasn’t going to do it for no one. J

It was wonderful to swim so much in the winter. I really enjoyed it. Some of the farmers had yearly passes and would come each night after work. Outside the capital, the first hot spring I went to is called Blue Lagoon. It is the #1 rated medicinal spa in the world. And it’s true. It does something to your skin especially when you use the naturally created mud on your skin. The 40 degree Celsius water temperature is supposed to be prime time for certain bacteria but for some reason it kills all the harmful bacteria. Moreover, there are species of bacteria in the water that do not exist anywhere else in the world. So they actually don’t treat the water at all. That said, the make you shower with soap, fully nude, before entering the water. This is normal at all the hot springs and spas around the country. The Blue Lagoon has a restaurant, a café, a smaller café, a water bar, and massage services. They even sell mud and beauty products made from the lagoon.

But the main reason I traveled there, though was the Northern Lights. They are funny things. The solar wind from the sun is always headed toward the earth and it’s always been slung back from one magnetic pole to the other, and atoms at the magnetic poles are always being excited by this solar wind and glowing as the return to a calmer state. The problem is you cannot always see it and it is stronger some days and weaker other days. You need good weather or clear skies. Also moonlight and city light pollution can ruin the view. Since it can only be seen in countries around the magnetic north pole, you also deal with extended days and extended nights at different points in the year. This makes it hard to see the lights in the summer time because the day is so long or the sun never completely sets. The auroral activity tends to be stronger around the equinoxes (spring and autumn equinox) due to a particular alignment between the earth’s position and tilt and the sun. So some people travel late February/early March or late August/early September. Some say you can see it any time of the year even though chances are higher at certain times of the year. Iceland is the only country where you can see the lights around the entire country (outside the capital city which has too much light pollution). So I liked the odds in Iceland.

Unfortunately, the snowstorm not only impeded progress around the entire island and set us back at least a day on travel plans, but it also removed most days we could view the lights. I think I saw it only twice in 10 days, my 2nd night there, and my last night. My last night was special because we were on a boat cruise that lets you view the lights from the Atlantic Ocean away from the city. But you can see the lights quite easily if they are strong just by driving a few minutes outside the city (we drove 30 minutes my 2nd night) there.

It’s hard to describe what the Northern Lights look like. When you look up it’s as if someone threw her arm and released a band of shimmering particles arced across the sky. It’s like a dancing, shimmering curtain of light that moves across the sky and dances to its own tune, changing and morphing through the night into various dreams and characters from your life. Everyone told me it lasts 10-15 minutes, but each time we saw it lasted at least an hour and was still going. The color is anything from a strong green to a greenish white but it depends on the intensity of the auroral activity and in which country you are viewing it. I’ve seen pictures of white, purple, red, orange, yellowish, and blue lights. It really just depends. If you look closely, sometimes the arc of lights seem to bend around a formed blackness that feels like a mountain of presence in the distance, shaping its way, shifting its home in and through the lights. Those lights. They remind me of the Lion King, when Simba had lost his way and one night saw his father in the sky. I’m pretty sure I saw Mufasa in the sky, too, and yes, he does sound like James Earl Jones.

I was unable to capture it on my phone camera, so you can watch a sped-up video of the Northern Lights from Finland.


I recently watched the movie Argo, and it reminded me of how bad things can go with negative US-interference. I am not sure how long it will ever take for Iran (as if it were one person) to forget and forgive what the US did over the years in its country. If you remember a large reason why the US leaders did not like the 1951-1953 government of Iran is because the democratically elected Prime Minister Dr. Mohammad Mosaddegh nationalized Iranian oil.

And that reminds me of Venezuela.

On the 5th of March, Hugo Chavez, president of Venezuela died from cancer. One thing I will always remember him for is nationalizing his country’s oil. Instead of talking about his life as a whole, I wanted to talk about what nationalization means a bit. Western (US and UK) opponents of the nationalization of oil will tell you that the reason they don’t want the oil nationalized is because it is communist or socialist and bad for the people of the country. I want to address that.

I believe the reason Western leaders don’t like it when other countries nationalize their oil is that it is bad for Western multi-national companies that profit in innumerable or corrupt ways that usually never end up benefiting the people of the country like it should. I’ve studied the various ways in which an oil company goes in and either prospects, discovers, and captures oil and other non-renewable resources as well as the ways the host country sells those rights and what it does with the money. There tends to be immorality and a lack of ethics on both sides (leaders of the host country and businesses seeking the rights). But do not ever let anyone tell you that nationalizing oil automatically spells doom.

It is true that generally, governments are not good at running resource extraction businesses whether they be petroleum, uranium, gold, silver, etc. Professor Paul Collier in Plundered Planet points to Indonesia’s oil company and Zambia’s copper company, both failures. But some have done it and done it well. The shining example in the world is Norway. Norway used to be the poorer country in Scandinavia and was a colony of Denmark and then united under Sweden. It had long been in the shadow of a much more powerful Sweden. Leaders in Norway saw oil as a chance to “catch up” in the region. After oil was discovered, Norway created a government-owned oil company that managed petroleum exploitation. Over time, the government built up the expertise in extracting petroleum from the North Sea, which eliminates the usual asymmetric information problem when an oil company (which knows much more) is bargaining with a government (which has oil in its land or seas but knows little about the costs or time required for prospecting, extracting, or pricing).

People will of course say that Norway is not a “developing” country so it doesn’t count. But Malaysia is a perfect example of a country, which nationalized oil when it was still a low-income country. Its national company now competes well with private companies around the world, and today Malaysia is often pointed to as a model growing middle-income country.

So let me say that is possible to be a poorer country, discover a valuable resource in your land or seas, create a state-owned company, and use it to bring back more profit to your people and raise the standard of living of people. It’s possible. It’s hard to do, but it’s possible.

To do it, Dr. Collier says you need honest leaders who are filled with a sense of purpose, like the Norwegian leaders who wanted to catch up. In Malaysia, it was the same. The minority Chinese ethnic group in Malaysia was much richer than the majority Bumiputra ethnic group, and Malaysia didn’t have many friendly country neighbours. For the people who ran the national oil company (most Bumiputra) oil was an opportunity, again, to “catch up.”

So if you have the proper climate and honest leaders united by a sense of purpose with a greater incentive to benefit the country rather than themselves, go for it. Be a revolutionary, nationalize your oil. Try to increase the well being of your country.


How do you measure the wealth or well being of a country? Traditionally, economists only used the one thing they have been taught to study—money. Basically, what is a country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) or Gross National Income (GNI) per capita? Well, today, a popular measure is the Human Development Index (HDI) which had its foundations laid by Mahbub ul Haq in 1990 when he gathered a group of development economists to create a new measure of well-being to shift development economics from income-centered policies to people-centered policies.  Though Amartya Sen was initially reluctant to join in the work for fear of the impossibility of reducing the complexity of human capabilities down to a single number or index, it was Dr. Sen’s economic work that laid the groundwork to develop the index. Today, the HDI has three dimensions—a life expectancy dimension, an education dimension, and an income dimension. That was in the 1990’s.

 Backtrack to the 1970’s. Bhutan, a small Asian country bordering China, northeast of India and east of Nepal, decided that national happiness is much more important and crucial than national income. So they adopted the goal of achieving a high Gross National Happiness (GNH). Though it’s been criticized, and it’s extremely hard to measure within a country as well as comparatively with another country, it highlights the growing importance of happiness to people around the world who formerly did not consider it.

And that leads us to this.

International Day of Happiness

I know, I know. There are so many official and unofficial international days, international weeks, international years, and international decades. Why do we need another? In fact, there are people in a lot of countries who don’t even know these days happen. I don’t know if we need another, but I am glad to take time out from my day, week, month, and year and remind myself of the importance of joy (and happiness) throughout my life, my family, my community, my country, and my world. Apparently, the UN does, too, because Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the UN celebrated March 20th of 2013 as the first ever International Day of Happiness. Ban said he was “encouraged by the efforts of some governments to design policies based on comprehensive well-being indicators,” and he encouraged others to do the same. “On this first International Day of Happiness, let us reinforce our commitment to inclusive and sustainable human development and renew our pledge to help others.”

And helping others reminds me of today.

World Water Day

One way you can try to do something in your life, community, country, or world is by supporting World Water Day, the 22nd of March, this year, today. It’s hard to describe or explain how water is so important if it’s not experienced or felt. But each year we move closer and closer to water anxieties, and there are already regions in the world that are water scarce in which people suffer from dehydration and food dies due to water scarcity. Compound that with the problem of using water faster than the hydrological cycle recharges the water or the many problems of managing water rights across regions, borders, and countries, and then you see the problem is growing.

There are many ways to help. You can work on your own water footprint—all of the water that you use directly (drinking, flushing, washing, etc.) and all of the water you use indirectly through products you buy (water used to make the food you order, to take care of the animals used to provide you food, to wash equipment in the factory that produced your bag of chips, etc.). You can try to use less water and conserve water more. You can try to be more efficient with your water and waste less. You can also give back to organisations like Charity:water, Waves for Water,, etc. Or you can buy toilet paper from the social enterprise Water scarcity affects over 2.7 billion people for at least 1 month each year. And you can help to decrease water insecurity for at least one person in the world.