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Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

How K-Tel Shaped My Music Listening Habits

On April 27, 2016, Phil Kives, the founder of K-Tel International, passed away at the age of 87. K-Tel was a household name back in the 1970s and 1980s, and if you grew up during those decades, then you probably bought (and may still own) some of their products, such as the Patti-Stacker and the Veg-O-Matic.

K-Tel Patti-Stacker

In addition to time-saving kitchen appliances, K-Tel also produced music compilation albums. When I was about eight years old, my parents bought me a copy of K-Tel’s Sound Explosion – 22 Original Hits, 22 Original Stars. This was a big deal to me because it was my first “grown-up” LP. Up until then, my music collection consisted entirely of children’s records. I wasn’t familiar with these Sound Explosion songs, but I was happy to be listening to the same music as my parents and their friends. A couple of years later, I acquired two more K-Tel albums: Disco Dynamite and Music Machine. With 22 songs on each album, this was a great way to start building my music collection. It was cheaper than buying all of the 45s, and took less time than recording the songs from the radio onto cassettes (which was usually an exercise in futility, since the songs were invariably interrupted by the disc jockeys).

K-Tel Music Albums

I was content for a while… that is, until I bought a copy of Saturday Night Fever. Its version of Walter Murphy’s A Fifth of Beethoven was longer than the version on my K-Tel album. This seemed odd to me, since I just assumed that my K-Tel albums contained the complete songs. Of course being a kid, I had no idea how many songs an average LP contained, and I never wondered how Phil Kives was able to fit 22 songs onto two album sides. As I started listening to the radio more often I began to notice that other songs were also much longer than my K-Tel versions. I now realized what was going on, and I felt a profound sense of disappointment, and that I had been cheated. These weren’t complete songs at all – they were all heavily edited. Those K-Tel albums were the musical equivalent of a tasting menu, and (if you’ll forgive this tortured metaphor) one that left a decidedly bad taste in my mouth!

I now felt that my burgeoning music collection was a waste of money (OK, technically it was my parents’ money), since I didn’t even have the complete songs. Now I had to buy some of this music over again, in order to hear the complete songs and experience them properly. While this may not seem like a big deal to you, as a pre-teen with limited financial resources, it was a significant setback for me.

My second music-acquisition setback occurred during my teenage years. I was happily building my music collection by listening to AM radio stations (1050 CHUM, 680 CFTR and 1150 CKOC) and buying the 45 RPM singles of the songs that I liked. When I started listening to FM radio stations, it happened again. Unknown to me at the time, AM radio stations usually played the edited “single” versions of Top-40 hits, while FM stations played the full-length album versions. Once again, I felt ripped-off. However, upgrading this time was going to be a challenge. Those 45 RPM singles (at the time) cost $1.14 at Sam The Record Man, but albums – most of which contained only one or two songs that I liked – cost $5.99 or $6.99, which was quite an expense for a high school student who didn’t have a job.

In hindsight, one good thing did emerge in the midst of this musical and financial angst. I started to consider songs not merely as entertainment, but as a form of art. I also began to view disc jockeys and the music industry with contempt, for butchering this art in their misguided belief that consumers could only enjoy to songs that were packaged in small, bite-sized, three-minute pieces. This was utter nonsense; if I could sit through an entire classical symphony or even a four-movement concerto, then I could certainly digest a four or five-minute pop song.

As far as I was concerned, this wanton butchering of of pop music was blasphemous. Imagine that you are an art gallery curator, and that you’ve recently acquired an invaluable collection of well-known paintings. Your gallery is holding an exhibition to show off your new collection, and you want to give the public their money’s worth by displaying 100 of these paintings. Unfortunately, when the collection arrives, you realize that the canvases are larger than you thought, and that you won’t be able to fit the entire collection in the allocated space. What would you do? Display fewer paintings, or buy a bunch of smaller frames and then take a pair of scissors to each painting to make then fit into these smaller frames? This sums up the way I felt about the people who created the edited “single” versions of pop songs, as well as the staff at K-Tel Records.

Picture Frame Mona Lisa

You obviously know what this painting is – enough of the canvas is visible to tell you that much – but you’re not experiencing this piece of art as completely as you should.

Since my teenage years, I’ve become almost obsessive about building a proper music library. I stopped buying 45 RPM singles, and I now ensure that songs I do buy are always the full-length versions. A song is a musician’s piece of art, and it should be listened to just as it was written. Anything else is incomplete and diminishes the experience. This philosophy has also led to a few joyous discoveries over the years. From time to time, I discovered that the album versions of some songs contained not only an additional verse, but also an extended opening instrumental (Jet Airliner, Driver’s Seat . Occasionally I would discover huge swaths of new material (Come Sail Away, Love Is Like Oxygen, Call Me, Magic Man. The full-length versions of Santa Esmerelda’s Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood and Rapper’s Delight still amaze me – they both clock in around 15 minutes, with almost no repetition!

You might assume that I love the 12-inch maxi singles, disco remixes and assorted extended versions of songs. Well, yes and no. I like them, but only if they contain additional, fresh material. Adding 16 bars of a pulsating drumbeat does nothing to enhance the song; it’s just a cheap (and lazy) way to sell additional copies of the record. I also have no use for YouTube remixes that simply copy and paste the existing musical material – they also add nothing to the experience. I’m looking for new material that wasn’t present in the original recording. That’s why even now, decades later, I’m still pleasantly surprised with some of my musical discoveries. Thirty years after it was released, I heard – for the first time – the extended rap in the song Miss You, by The Rolling Stones (from 1:46 – 2:37). I had never heard this version on the radio, and it isn’t included on their Some Girls LP.

When LPs and CDs are remastered, there are often additional tracks added to the original playlist. These can be outtakes, early versions or alternate versions of the original songs. I love listening to these because they give me some insight into the creative process of the musicians and lyricists. I like experiencing their musical ideas that were considered, but eventually ended up on the proverbial “cutting room floor”. One excellent example is an alternate version of Who Are You, by The Who, which contains a verse that wasn’t included in the version of the song. Evil Woman by The Electric Light Orchestra is another notable example – this alternate version contains an extra verse plus a short orchestral intro.

Turntable Stylus

Over the decades, I’ve become philosophical as I reminisce about my music library. I don’t harbour any ill will toward K-Tel or its founder Phil Kives. Yes, I did have to spend more money on my music collection and buy many songs more than once, but I’m glad that I started my musical journey with a K-Tel record. I now have more of an appreciation for music as as art form, and less tolerance for mass-produced, butchered versions of songs. I believe that the quality of the pop and rock sections of my music collection is higher because of this experience. Indirectly, Kives taught me that songs should be experienced in their entirety, just as the artist composed it, and not how the record labels decide to repackage it.

I still have my three K-Tel compilations albums, tucked away in my vinyl collection. Although it’s been decades since I’ve played them, I can’t bear to get rid of them. They were among my first LPs, and were responsible for making me a more discriminating music lover, and less likely to accept the edited and watered-down sonic pablum that’s still being fed to the masses.



Is The Bible Still Relevant?

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven.” – Pete Seeger, The Byrds and Ecclesiastes 3:1


I knew that church attendance had been declining during the past couple of generations, but it really hit home for me when I visited Chester, England, a number of years ago. Our tour guide pointed out the numerous magnificent churches, and told us that some of them were now being re-purposed, since far fewer people are attending church regularly. While declining church attendance could certainly be considered a symptom of an increasingly secular society, I’ve also noticed an additional change: a more polarized view of the Bible.

I’ve heard arguments from both camps, and I must say that neither side impresses me.

Many of my secular or not-particularly-religious friends have no use for the Bible at all. They’ll state that it’s merely a 2000-year-old book that is hopelessly outdated and completely out of touch with modern values. They’ll quote selected passages and ask “who thinks this way anymore? This is clearly an antiquated mindset that has no place in modern society”. However, they then suggest that these few ecclesiastical snippets invalidate the entire book. Some public figures are making similar statements. They may think that they’re being modern, progressive and in touch with today’s values, but I think that their polarized all-or-nothing attitude is regressive and damaging. In my opinion, they have adopted the same mentality as people who want to ban books. If they find something objectionable – especially passages that did not cause an uproar in previous generations – then they will try to have the book banned from high schools. By fixating on the parts that they find offensive, they are rejecting everything that is good about the book – essentially throwing the out metaphorical baby with the bathwater.

At the other end of the spectrum are some of my friends and acquaintances who are particularly devout, and who follow the teachings in the Bible (for lack of a better word) religiously. I even know people who insist that everything written between its covers must be true, and who treat everything in the Bible as (for lack of a better word) gospel. This group conveniently refers to the Bible as “the word of God”, thus imbuing it with a sense of permanence and infallibility – a divine, unchangeable tome that functions as the ultimate behavioural authority for everyone. An authority that, in their estimation, is sorely needed by the entire populace. As we know, the Bible wasn’t written by God; it was written by men, so I personally don’t infer much from this lofty and grandiloquent label. Provenance is not a reason to abandon critical thinking.

Cafeteria Bible

In my opinion, this polarized view has its roots in the Church itself. Religions encourage (or even insist upon) an “all or nothing” commitment. You have to embrace their entire dogma and accept all of their teachings. You can’t adopt a “cafeteria-style” approach to religion by selecting and adopting only the components or values that resonate with you. According to this article “Cafeteria-style religion may be popular among Americans, but the New Testament indicates that we do not decide what is right and wrong, but live according to God’s standard of right and wrong. [John 14:6 passage]. This is an exclusive claim that demands full acceptance or rejection.” How can we be expected to embrace everything in the Bible, when parts of it are no longer aligned with our current societal values? Why would someone insist that you consume everything in a cafeteria when some of food has obviously spoiled? It’s therefore perfectly understandable that, when faced with this “take it or leave it” attitude, some followers will continue to accept everything and others will simply reject or even abandon it entirely.

It would be nice if we could all get along, yet many of us seem to be pushed into opposite corners of an ecclesiastical boxing ring. We view each other as opponents, rather than brothers and sisters. I obviously don’t have the ability to reconcile these two opposing and mutually-exclusive views, but perhaps I can help people find some middle ground. Therefore I’d like to propose a new way to look at the Bible… from The Bob Angle.

The Bible, in addition to telling the story of Jesus, is essentially a behavioural guide for the adherents of Christian religions. In my view, the Bible and Aesop’s Fables are very similar – a collection of allegorical fables, parables and stories that tell us how we should comport ourselves. The major difference is that the Bible purports to contain rules and regulations handed down from the creator of the universe himself – it’s difficult to trump that kind of authority, especially when it’s accompanied by the threat of an eternal punishment if we don’t follow these rules.

I’m sure that the authors of the Bible did they best they could, but there was one thing they didn’t anticipate – something that the devoutly religious people among us haven’t yet noticed: everything has a lifespan, including their best-intentioned advice.

I’m sure you’ve heard the expression “the only constant in the world is change”. The world has been changing for the past two millennia, often imperceptibly when viewed from the vantage point of a single lifetime: societal values, political boundaries, even the position of the continents. As Robert DeNiro said (metaphorically) in the movie Limitless “Tectonic plates are shifting beneath our feet”. What makes the Bible challenging (and ultimately polarizing) is that there is an abundance of advice in it, and each passage has a different lifespan. Unfortunately, it takes about 2,000 years (or maybe longer) to see this.


Imagine that you are standing in front of the Great Pyramids of Giza on a hot summer day. Immediately in front of you are the following items: an ice cream cone, a glass of cold milk, a loaf of bread, a dog, a person, a tree, and a house (unfortunately, I’m not skilled enough with PhotoShop to place these items convincingly in a single image, so I’ll use two images for now).


Now take out your (Polaroid) camera, take a photograph of the scene in front of you and then compare those objects to the picture in your hand. The two images are identical. This is how I view the Bible – as a snapshot in time. Your surroundings represent your society and the Polaroid picture represents the Bible’s teachings. When it was written, the Bible was an accurate reflection of society, its values and its knowledge. The story of Creation may have been their best attempt to explain the origin of the planet.

As you stand in front of the pyramids, wait for 30 minutes, and then hold your Polaroid photograph up once again. Everything will look the same – except for the ice cream cone, which will have melted in the hot sun. Now wait a little longer and start making regular comparisons: as time passes, the milk will curdle, the bread will become mouldy, the dog, human and the tree will grow, mature, age, and die, and the house will eventually disintegrate. Everything in this world has a different lifespan, including behavioural advice. Over the years, decades and centuries, some of these lessons endured, and others did not. The pyramids probably look just like they did 2,000 years ago, and to me, they represent the timeless behavioural lessons in the Bible.

Stand-up comedians understand the concept of expiry dates intuitively. If you search Amazon.com, you won’t find any DVDs of Jay Leno or David Letterman monologues. That’s because monologues are generally made up of topical (and decidedly disposable) material. While the jokes are funny on the day of the broadcast, they don’t have a long shelf life. When comedians are recording an album or a television special, they are usually careful to avoid talking about current events or local news stories, since that material will become stale very quickly. After several years, the references to people and events will be largely forgotten and the material will no longer be funny. A comedy routine that contains more generalized observations without any local or current references will be funny for years to come, and will sell more records and videos.

I am currently reading a book called The Year of Living Biblically, by A.J. Jacobs. It’s the story of a man who spends a year trying to live his life according to the teachings in the Bible – and to follow these lessons as literally as possible, exactly as they were prescribed two millennia ago. As you can imagine – given the limited lifespans of some of its advice – hilarity and awkward social situations ensue! This book illustrates, as well as anything, the importance of critical thinking, and why one shouldn’t follow everything in the Bible without question.

Everything has a lifespan, and some lifespans are longer than others. However, unless we’re incredibly wise or exceedingly prescient, it’s difficult to determine what that lifespan will be. Who knows what will endure? Newspapers are often called “tomorrow’s fish wrap”, yet the words of Shakespeare remain relevant for centuries. I’m sure that the men who wrote the Bible did their best – no one would deliberately include ephemeral advice – and I’m sure that all of the authors assumed that everything would remain relevant forever. While their efforts did indeed reflect their society at the time, in a world in which the only constant is change, few things will stand out as timeless.

Lifespans of Selected Passages

There are hundreds of passages that I could use as examples, but I’m going to limit myself to three: still-relevant advice, outdated advice, and one that is just now reaching its expiry date.

Outdated: Exodus 21:20-21 (New International Version) states “Anyone who beats their male or female slave with a rod must be punished if the slave dies as a direct result, but they are not to be punished if the slave recovers after a day or two, since the slave is their property“. This one had a surprisingly long lifespan. If we, for the purposes of this blog post, say that legal slavery ended with the American Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, then its lifespan was anywhere from 2360 years to 3260-3300 years depending on your source. Today, it would not be wise to embrace this bit of religious dogma.

Still Fresh: Ecclesiastes 11:1. This one is just as fresh now as it was the day it was written. This passage is “Cast your bread upon the waters, for after many days you will find it again“. In fact, I was so taken with this verse that I wrote a blog article about it called The Generosity Coefficient.

Approaching Its Expiry Date: Proverbs 13:24 (English Standard Version) states “He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him“. The term “spare the rod” implies corporal punishment (at least to me), which I also interpret to include spanking. When I was a child, all parents spanked their children when they misbehaved. Today, the tide seems to be turning – more parents are opting for “time outs” instead of spanking. I think we’re approaching a tipping point, and I predict that spanking will be completely unacceptable within the next decade or two.


Wanted: Role Models

During the late 1990s, when the Spice Girls were near the height of their fame, they visited Toronto and spent some time at the MuchMusic studios. Teenage fans filled the street in front of the studio as they tried to catch a glimpse of the group. The Spice Girls then went outside to greet their fans. One teenager had the opportunity to say something to the group, and as the reporter held up a microphone, she managed to blurt out that she thought they were wonderful role models, before being overcome with emotion and losing her composure. As I was watching this on television, I was shaking my head in disbelief while muttering something to myself about the decline of Western civilization. Clearly, this young lady and I had vastly different interpretations of the term “role model”.

I didn’t think about that news report again until recently, when I read a very macabre Rolling Stone article about a Florida teen who murdered his parents. One of his friends, while searching for an explanation for this behaviour, tried to pin the blame on the town itself – there was nothing for teenagers to do, and therefore, they always got into trouble. He said to the reporter “It drives kids nuts. There’s no role models. And the parents are always on everyone’s ass because everyone’s stressed about money.”

Try to ignore his weak argument and the reassignment of blame for a moment, and focus on what he said about role models. Up until that moment, I hadn’t thought that teenagers may actually want role models in their lives. I don’t expect adolescents to come out and say it, but if teenagers are looking for good behavioural examples in their community – then this statement is significant. This boy may be expressing what many other teenagers want, but haven’t said out loud. If this is true, then we as adults have a responsibility to be good role models, and from what I’ve seen, we’re not doing a particularly good job.

If young people are having trouble finding role models, where do they turn? My guess is that celebrities are now filling this vacancy, whether or not they are qualified to do so. To be fair, celebrities (as far as I can tell) are not requesting this label – it is being foisted upon them by their fans, as illustrated in the Spice Girls example. I’m not the only one with this opinion; other people have also said that celebrities should not be role models.

This confusion, as I see it, is twofold. First of all, fame is not the same thing as accomplishment. Secondly, young people looking for role models can’t make the distinction between fame and infamy. These are opposite sides of the publicity coin. Reporters measure attention-seeking behaviour only as an absolute value, and ignore the +/- sign. Celebrities no longer have to set a positive example to stay in the spotlight – they just have to behave poorly, which is obviously much easier. Since many young celebrities behave poorly, and don’t come close to fitting the definition of a role model, there is a gap that needs to be filled, and we – the middle-aged and older adults of our community – are the ones who should fill it. It is time for us to step in and become honest-to-goodness role models to the young people around us.

Railway CrossingLast summer during a neighbourhood walk, I approached a railway crossing that had its lights flashing, bells ringing, and guard rail down. I was standing there with five other people: two boys who looked to be about nine or ten, and three middle-aged women. The train was only a couple of hundred feet away, stopped at the adjacent station. This intersection’s proximity to the station meant that the guard rail is usually down while the passengers disembark. After 90 seconds or so, the three middle-aged women decided that they were tired of waiting and crossed the tracks together. About 15 seconds afterwards, the two boys decided to do the same. I was disappointed to see the boys cross the tracks, but not surprised. I didn’t day anything at the time, but looking back I wonder if I should have given these women a stern lecture on the fiduciary responsibilities of being a responsible adult. There were three tracks at this crossing, and while a ground-level observer would assume that the signals were triggered by the train stopped at the station, there could have been another train travelling at high speed (and obscured by the stopped train) on one of the other tracks.

This is an example of the power that we adults have over younger people. We’re all told repeatedly not to cross railroad tracks when the guard rails are down, and the boys didn’t – until they saw the adults do it, and then decided to emulate them. The parental advice given to those boys seemed to be effective, but was then completely negated by the actions of a complete stranger. Our actions speak louder than words, which is why we must always be aware of the effect that our behaviour has on others.

We should behave well at all times, especially in public. Whether you realize it or not, you are being watched every time you step outside. If you cross the railroad tracks while the lights are flashing, or whether you run a red light or cross the street against the traffic lights, you may think that this act affects only you, but it doesn’t. Other people are watching you, and some may be taking cues from your behaviour. For this reason alone, we should always strive to behave admirably. We may not notice anyone reacting to what we do, but it doesn’t mean that our actions are going unnoticed.

The importance of being a role model actually increases over time. Every day in your community, babies are born and some elderly people will die. This means that with each passing day, a slightly greater percentage of the population is younger than you. Therefore, a greater percentage of that population will now look up to you as someone who is knowledgeable and wise. In time, you may even be thought of as your community’s proverbial “tribal elder”.

How To Be A Role Model

Some of you will find that being a role model is effortless (since you may already be one), but for others. it will involve a major shift in your philosophy of life and in your behaviour. Being an adult means taking on the fiduciary and continual duty of being a good behavioural example to others. Not everyone has the awareness, self-discipline, motivation or desire to do this. However, if you feel up to the task, then read on…

  • Remember that you are always being watched. Others – family members, relatives and even complete strangers – are using you as a behavioural example.
  • The younger a person is, the more s/he will mimic you. Be on your best behaviour around young children.
  • Remember that actions speak louder than words. Lead by example, rather than by giving advice.
  • If you’re driving with kids in the back seat, remain composed and don’t curse at other drivers or give them the finger.
  • Don’t take the path of least resistance. When faced with a challenge, remember the words of John F Kennedy “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard”.
  • Set your own (impeccable) standards, always do your best, and strive for excellence in everything that you do.
  • Challenge yourself regularly, and keep raising your standards.
  • If those around you have lower standards, that’s fine – just don’t drop yours.
  • Be kind, supportive and helpful.
  • Be humble. Don’t brag about your own accomplishments – use your experience to assist others.
  • Be respectful toward others.
  • Be a team player. Remember the words of Mr. Spock in Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”.
  • Don’t be easily discouraged.
  • Take responsibility for your actions, and “own” your mistakes.
  • Keep all of your promises. Walk the walk.
  • If you have the time, do some volunteer work in your community.
  • Treat young people the way that you wanted to be treated in high school.
  • If you notice something praiseworthy in another person, then mention it.
  • Take good care of yourself physically, and don’t put poison in your body.

Finally, behave in a way that will make other people say “What would [your name] do?”.


From Categories To Attributes – Creating A World Without Prejudice

Back in the 1990s, I remember watching an episode of Seinfeld in which Elaine is uncomfortable around her new boyfriend. He looks like he’s of mixed heritage, and she doesn’t know if he’s black or white. She insists that it doesn’t matter one way or the other, but she still needs to know. This, in my opinion, was one of the most insightful episodes in the series because it held a mirror up to our society and forced us to take a long, hard look at ourselves and the ways in which we perceive and categorize each other.

Since watching that Seinfeld episode, I’ve noticed this behaviour everywhere – a need to place people and things into discrete categories. I’ve also found myself affected by the same categorization frustration experienced by Elaine’s boyfriend.

My Toastmasters Icebreaker speech dealt with a similar theme. Some people have told me that it’s difficult to determine my ethnic background simply by looking at me – I don’t look like I’m from any particular country or even region. Apparently, this bothers quite a few people. A certain percentage of the people I meet just aren’t comfortable around me unless they know my ethnic makeup. After that, they’re fine. As far as I can tell, they’re not prejudiced – they don’t care where I’m from – but just like Elaine, they need to know, so that they can compartmentalize me.

In my opinion, this is what’s holding us back as a society – our desire to categorize and compartmentalize everything and everybody. This isn’t limited to physical characteristics; in addition to skin colour, race and ethnicity, we also categorize people according to political views, religion (or even one’s lack of it), and sexual orientation. I believe that the path to a benevolent, less prejudiced, and more peaceful and harmonious society lies in a subtle shift in the way that we perceive each other. Rather than slotting everyone into neat little boxes, we need to view our differences as a set of attributes. This is more than mere semantics; this perceptual shift can change the world.

Attribute Examples

Eye Colour: We don’t categorize people by eye colour, because it’s simply an attribute. Eye colour has no bearing on one’s character. You (in all likelihood) don’t categorize your friends by their eye colour. Although it may describe them, it doesn’t define them. Imagine seeing a public water fountain with a sign “blue-eyed people only”. That would be ridiculous (and probably offensive to many people) because an attribute was promoted to a category.

Astrological ChartAstrological Sign: Despite an abundance of psychics in large cities, and of horoscopes in most major newspapers, nobody (other than members of 1970s soul group, The Floaters) defines themselves or others based on an astrological sign. Even men who wore polyester leisure suits while trolling the singles bars during the 1970s, and who chatted up unsuspecting women with the hackneyed opening line “Hey babe, what’s your sign?” don’t particularly care – and are unlikely to back away in horror if you give the wrong answer. Your astrological sign is an attribute.


Left-HandedLeft-handedness is an interesting characteristic because it’s one that used to categorize (and even stigmatize) people, but has since been demoted to an attribute. Interestingly, the word sinister comes from the Latin word sinister/sinistra/sinistrum which means “left-handed” or “unlucky”. Conversely, the Latin word for right is “dexter” from which dexterity is derived. My father was born left-handed, but when he went to school his teachers forced him to write with his right hand. Today, only two generations later, the stigma is gone, and people are no longer categorized by their dominant hand. It’s shift from a category to an attribute is a sign that we as a society are on the right path.

Sexual Orientation

Homosexuals are not as oppressed as they used to be only a generation ago (at least in North America), but we still categorize and even define people according to their sexual orientation. If we can change our perception of left-handedness, then surely we can do the same thing with sexual orientation. There are actually many similarities between these two characteristics:

  • About 10% of the world’s population is left-handed. It is thought that a similar percentage is homosexual, although accurate numbers are difficult to obtain, since results depend on self-reporting. Unlike left-handedness, this trait can’t be observed directly.
  • People are born left-handed or gay. Neither is a lifestyle choice.
  • Left-handedness and sexual orientation do not have any effect on one’s character.
  • Both groups were persecuted in the past, and even today there is still some discrimination toward homosexuals.
  • Left-handed people were forced to write with their right hand. There are still people who want to convert homosexuals, or pray the gay away.

In my opinion, the most obvious difference between these two groups is that societal attitudes toward sexual orientation are about 75 years behind.

Political Opinions

Political opinions are another way that we separate people into distinct groups. However, I’ve noticed that the level to which we categorize people according to their political leanings differs along geographic lines, as illustrated in the following personal anecdote:

US Political PartiesLast year, my sister-in-law, who is American, joined us for a family dinner here in Canada. During the meal the conversation turned to politics, and afterwards, she remarked on the civility of our discussion. We spoke freely about all political parties (both American and Canadian) and no one seemed offended. She said that a similar discussion among her friends in the States would quickly become polarized and probably heated. I replied “Well then, let me tell you about the differences between Canadian and American politics!”. Disclaimer: the following explanation is based solely on my personal observations (and the political views within my circle of friends) and does not represent all Canadians.

“In Canada, we have a number of political parties, but the two major ones, the Liberals and the Conservatives, are roughly equivalent to your Democrats and Republicans, respectively. I’ve voted for both parties over the years, as have many of my friends, and right now I have no idea whom I’ll vote for in the next election. It depends which candidate presents the best platform.

In Canada, we’ll usually say ‘I voted for the Conservatives (or the Liberals, or the NDP)’. However, Americans declare ‘I AM a Republican’ or ‘I AM a Democrat’. You are heavily invested in your candidates or your political parties; your political opinions form a part of your personal identity. If someone criticizes Barack Obama or Mitt Romney, most Americans will take it personally – at least based on what I’ve seen in the media. Canadians generally won’t be offended, because voting for a politician is like choosing a cell phone provider – we’re stuck with them until the contract expires, and afterwards we’re free to make another choice”.

In the United States, you are defined (or you define yourself) by your political opinion; in Canada, your political opinion is only an attribute, and often a changeable one.

The Ultimate Irony

Our egalitarian future is right in front of our eyes. In what is surely one of the greatest ironies of our time, this enlightened environment not only exists, but it’s something that we created. It exists as a component of object-oriented computer languages. We humans – without realizing what we’ve accomplished – have created something greater, more sophisticated, more mature and more enlightened than ourselves.

Object-Oriented Programming (OOP) languages use a concept known as a class, which is similar to a blueprint. A class is used to create an object. Imagine a contractor building a house from a blueprint. The blueprint is the class, and the house itself is the object. Many houses can be created from the same set of blueprints, and similarly, many objects can be created from a single class. You can also think of a class as a genotype and an object as a phenotype. A class will contain one or more attributes (known as properties) that define each object.

Let’s say that we wanted to create a bicycle using an object-oriented programming language. First we would create a class called “Bicycle” and determine what features we would like our bicycle to have:

class Bicycle {

Now that our definition is complete, let’s create two objects from this blueprint. These will represent two actual bicycles:

RacingBike {                   TouringBike {
   FrameColour = red              FrameColour = blue
   HandlebarStyle = racing        HandlebarStyle = touring
   WheelDiameter = 26             WheelDiameter = 24
   Speeds = 15                    Speeds = 5
}                              }

Now we have two bicycles. Although they were created from the same blueprint, they are a little different. One is a 15-speed bike with a red frame, 26-inch wheels and racing handlebars; the other is a 5-speed bike with a blue frame, 24-inch wheels and touring-style handlebars. The same blueprint can create a wide variety of different bicycles, simply by changing the values of the attributes.

This same OOP concept can apply to people as well. There are over seven billion people on this planet; each one of us is unique, but we are still all human, and created from the same blueprint. If we use these concepts from an object-oriented programming language, then we could redefine ourselves like this:

class Human {
   eye colour
   hair colour
   skin colour

You can create a wide diversity of “human” objects from this template, and although each object will be different, they are all inherently equal. Each object has the same attributes (known as properties) and those attributes merely have different values.

Human AttributesThis simple programming language concept gives us a sneak preview of a Utopian society. In this world, we aren’t black or white, gay or straight, Republican or Democrat, religious or secular, or any other label that we can use to categorize each other. We are simply people with the same set of attributes, but with different values assigned to them. We’ve already started moving in this direction (perhaps without even realizing it) and I want us to continue. This is the way that I hope we will view and treat each other. If we can create a programming language that combines diversity and equality, and eschews categorization, then surely we can embrace this philosophy ourselves. A creation shouldn’t be more enlightened than its creator.



Reading, Writing, Coding and Arithmetic

I’m going to get right to the point: it’s time to expand our definition of literacy to include not only reading and writing, but also numeracy and especially computer programming. If you don’t know how to program (or at least have an intuitive grasp of Boolean logic), then society will soon label you as illiterate. In my opinion, that’s how important this skill is becoming.

Commodore PETIn hindsight, I consider myself fortunate to have grown up during the late 1970s and early 1980s – the dawn of the personal computer era. When I was a teenager, I remember using a Commodore PET computer in my Data Processing classes at school, This machine was considered state-of-the-art compared to what we were using before: a Wang minicomputer that was programmed using punched cards, and was shared among three high schools. The following year, my parents bought a Commodore-64 computer for the family and I started to learn the BASIC programming language.

Sometime during the mid-1980s I remember seeing a book called Why Johnny Can’t Program, which was obviously based the well-known book Why Johnny Can’t Read. Its premise seemed a little grandiloquent – elevating the importance of computer programming skills to the same level as reading, writing and arithmetic. Back then, relatively few students took data processing classes, even fewer families owned personal computers, and programming was considered a fairly esoteric pursuit.

As you’ve probably guessed by now, I’ve changed my mind about the book; it was actually decades ahead of its time. I now believe that programming does deserve to be on the same level as literacy and numeracy, because our society has transformed completely during the past 2-3 generations.

  • In our grandparent’s day, everything around us was mechanical. If we wanted to know hoe something worked, we could simply take it apart and see how the parts fit and moved together.
  • During our parent’s generation, things shifted from mechanical to electronic, and suddenly our gadgets no longer needed moving parts in order to function. However, it was still possible to determine how electronic deviices worked: schematics were often included in the owner’s manual or glued to the inside of the case. If you were familiar with electronic components (and were handy with a soldering iron), then you might even be able to do minor repairs yourself.
  • Today, we’ve moved from electronic gadgets to computerized ones. Microprocessors are now embedded in almost everything we use: cars, coffee makers, children’s toys, MP3 players, gaming consoles, stereo equipment, smartphones, and even LED flashlights. Just about everything we use relies on a computer program to function, and since these programs are burned on to IC chips (or EPROMs, in firmware-upgradeable devices) their inner workings are completely hidden from us. There are no moving parts to examine, and even a schematic won’t reveal anything useful. Manufacturers don’t release their source code to consumers, and some companies, such as Apple, even remove the screws from their products, to keep consumers from opening the case and poking around. If you want to know how something works, then you have to study the device’s behaviour and create rudimentary a computer program in your head. You can then learn the rules and even predict how the device will behave in a variety of circumstances.

That’s what I’ve been doing for several years now, and since I know how to program, it’s practically second nature. I’m constantly studying the behaviour of computerized devices, and trying to figure out what their internal programming might be. Then I create a computer program in my head, and then modify it as necessary (whenever I encounter any new behaviour) – it’s what I consider the modern-day equivalent of “getting under the hood”. I also assumed that everyone did this.

However, it didn’t take long for me to realize that not everyone gazed at the world and automatically wrote source code in their head. In fact, it has become painfully obvious that many of us seem to have no clue how even the simplest computerized devices work, such as elevators and traffic lights.



Occasionally when I enter my building’s elevator, someone will complain about what they perceive as the elevator’s aberrant behaviour. They’ll say variations of “I pressed the button for my floor, and for some reason, it stopped three floors below mine. The doors opened, but no one was there. I swear this elevator has a mind of its own”.


There’s actually nothing strange about that scenario at all. If you’re waiting at a bank of elevators (on your floor – not in the lobby) you’ll press the button, and it will illuminate. When your elevator arrives, the button light turns off and the elevator doors open. Occasionally, an elevator will stop at your floor, and someone will exit. This is not your elevator. In this situation, the button remains lit because your request is still pending. However, most people won’t look at the button to see if it’s still lit, and fewer still will wait for “their” elevator. The vast majority of people will simply enter the first elevator that arrives. When your elevator finally does reach your floor, the button light turns off and the doors will now open to an empty hallway. That’s all there is to it – it’s a completely logical sequence of events, and the elevator certainly doesn’t have a mind of its own.

Whenever other residents tell me that the building’s elevator seems to have a mind of its own, I am always tempted to lecture them on Humankind’s tendency to employ (and overuse) anthropomorphism to explain things that they don’t understand, and then teach them a few fundamental concepts in elevator programming. So far, I’ve been able to hold my tongue – besides, the elevator ride isn’t long enough for a proper disquisition.


Pedestrian Traffic Signals

Pedestrian LightsTraffic lights and pedestrian crossing lights are fairly easy to understand. While standing on the corner, you press the button, and after a few seconds the red hand will start flashing. It flashes 10 times, and then remains solid for five seconds. At this point the traffic light turns yellow and then red. When the other traffic light turns green, the corresponding pedestrian light changes to a white persona walking, and then it’s safe to cross.

After waiting at intersections (as a pedestrian) hundreds of times of the years, this is the program I’ve formed in my head from watching the behaviour of the traffic lights and pedestrian signals (the ones without the new countdown timer).

1) The traffic light turns green on the primary street (the
   one with the highest traffic level)

2) Wait for a pre-defined period (e.g. 30 seconds)

3) After the pre-defined period is over, run the CHECK routine

4) Run the CHECK routine again (every five seconds).

 * Check the weight sensors beneath the road on both sides 
   of the secondary street. If there is a car on either 
   weight sensor, then start the COUNTDOWN routine

 * Check all four pedestrian signal buttons. If any of the 
   four buttons has been pressed, then start the COUNTDOWN 

 * The pedestrian signal changes to a red flashing hand and 
   flashes ten times (once per second)

 ^ The flashing stops and the red hand remains lit for five 

 * The traffic light on the primary street changes to yellow

There’s a little more to the programming of course – the primary wait period may vary throughout the day, based on traffic volume – but those are the basic rules based on my observations. I just assumed that everyone waiting on the street corner beside me wrote source code in their head while they were waiting for the traffic lights to change. Apparently, I was wrong. Here are some things I’ve observed by my fellow pedestrians over the years:

  • The red hand is already flashing, but they press the pedestrian walk button anyway.
  • The traffic light has just turned yellow. They press the pedestrian walk button anyway.
  • The traffic light in the primary direction has just turned green. They press the pedestrian walk button, wait ten seconds, see that the pedestrian signal is still white, and then press the walk button again. A few will press it more forcefully. Some impatient people will press it another five or six times (probably the same ones who press elevator buttons repeatedly).


The Increasing Importance of Programming

Elevators and pedestrian traffic lights are just two simplistic examples, but they demonstrate that there are people walking among us who are not familiar with programming concepts. Hence, they have no idea how these basic machines function. This is evidence of a larger technological shift – in three generations, our gadgets have evolved from mechanical to electronic to computerized. With each passing year, more of the machines that affect our lives are controlled by computer code, and this new reality illustrates why the author of Why Johnny Can’t Program was so ahead of his time. Simply knowing how to boot up a PC and run a few applications no longer qualifies as basic computer literacy. An understanding of programming fundamentals, logic and data processing concepts will soon be as essential as reading and writing, if a population wants to be considered literate.

If you’re not a programmer and feel that you already understand society well enough, then imagine for a moment how confusing the world must seem to a newborn baby. They have no idea what adults are saying, and crying is their primary method of communication. When they finally begin to understand spoken words, their world becomes much more meaningful and exciting. Then, when they can articulate their needs by speaking, their world opens up a little more. Their next awakening occurs when they learn the alphabet and how to read. Up until that point, their environment was filled with indecipherable symbols. Once they assigned a meaning to these symbols, everything around them started to make sense.

I see programming as the next awakening – a new category of comprehension layered on top of speaking, reading and numeracy. It’s as if you’ve been granted a superpower – a form of x-ray vision that allows you to peer into the inner workings of machines, understand how they work, and even predict how they’ll behave under varying circumstances. As our society becomes increasingly computerized, those without this knowledge will soon find themselves living in a new Dark Age – computer-controlled devices will be perceived as mysterious and impenetrable “black boxes” which exhibit unpredictable behaviours, and (according to some of the residents in my building) seem to have a mind of their own.

Although we were all too young to recall how our world suddenly opened up for us when we first learned how to read, I imagine that the transformation must have been profound. Similarly, a solid understanding of programming fundamentals will imbue you with an enhanced perceptual power and a new understanding of the world around you. If you want to thrive in a society that’s run on computer code, then learn how machines process information – this is your new literacy. As Robert DeNiro said in the movie Limitless “tectonic plates are shifting beneath our feet”.


Don’t Just Do It – Do It Now!

Checkout Line ItemsI have a confession to make. Years ago, whenever I was shopping and waiting in the checkout line, I would secretly make fun of some of the other shoppers. As you know, checkout lines are filled with impulse items – batteries, candy, gum, tabloid newspapers and other high-margin items that are never on sale. If the person in front of me picked up one of these items and placed in on the conveyor belt, I would think to myself “Look at you – you are so undisciplined! You just see something and you grab it. I am clearly a superior shopper because I have a list, from which I do not deviate. I know exactly what I want and how much it costs, and I am not tempted by the store’s amateurish attempts to make me spend more than I had planned. Unlike you, I am methodical, I stick to the task at hand, and I am not distracted by small shiny objects or celebrity gossip”.

My rigid attitude started to change after I re-watched the movie Dead Poets Society. As you may recall, Robin Williams portrays an English teacher at a private boys’ school who impresses upon his students, the importance of the phrase carpe diem. While I was congratulating myself for being organized and disciplined, I failed to realize that during the execution of my plans, unexpected opportunities would often arise. I was so focused on my list that I neglected to even notice or take advantage of them. What I had pejoratively labelled as impulsiveness can often be a good thing, if applied judiciously.

A few months before re-watching Dead Poets Society, I was doing some shopping, and I remember seeing a nice polo shirt on a clearance rack; it was marked down 40%, and it just happened to be in my size. I should have bought it immediately. Instead, I pulled out my phone and took a picture of it so that I could hold the picture up to some pants in my closet, determine how well it went with each colour, and calculate how many decent-looking combinations it might yield. As you’ve probably guessed, when I returned to the store later that week, the polo shirt was gone. For some reason, I keep forgetting that other customers shop at this store, and I assume that all of the merchandise will magically remain on the shelves, waiting for my return. Now I have a lovely photo of the polo shirt, but not the shirt itself. Clearly, I am a doofus; don’t you be one as well.

Dead Poets Society reminded me that life, and the many opportunities contained within it, are ephemeral. If we spend too much time analyzing the risk/reward ratio of a decision, then the window of opportunity may close. The Nike slogan is a good example – Just Do It. I’ve now adopted a revised version for myself: Don’t just do it – do it now!

I applied this philosophy when I was in Rome. It was my first time in Italy, and while walking around St. Peter’s Square, I decided to take the advice of a friend and sample an authentic Italian gelato, in order to enhance the cultural experience. When I found a nearby street vendor, he wanted 7,000 lira (about $7). I thought this was outrageous! Seven dollars for a couple of scoops of gelato? I could buy two litres of Chapman’s ice cream at the No Frills supermarket for $3; even a small tub of Häagen-Dazs was (at the time) only $6. However, I thought about it some more, and weighed the cost against the experience. Years from now I won’t notice that my bank account has seven fewer dollars in it, but I will regret the missed opportunity. So I bought the gelato, and enjoyed myself immensely as I lived in the moment, and experienced simultaneously, the sights, sounds and tastes of Italy.

ChecklistIn addition to carpe diem, another phrase that has entered the public consciousness recently is “the bucket list”. It refers to a list of things that we want to accomplish before we die, or to put it more colloquially, before we “kick the bucket”. The list could be mental, or you could actually write out your list and cross off the items as you accomplish them. Each person’s bucket list is unique. In 2007, a movie called The Bucket List was released, and starred Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman as two men who have a terminal illness. Amazon.com has dozens of books touting this philosophy, with titles such as Make Your Own Bucket List, The Adrenaline Junkie’s Bucket List and 1,000 Places To See Before You Die.

If you’ve made your own bucket list, then start ticking off those items now – don’t wait. I think we humans have a habit of distributing things evenly. For example, if we’ve made a “To Do” list for today, then we will do the chores at regular intervals throughout the day, so that we’re not overworked. Similarly, if we create a bucket list, there is a natural tendency to think “I’m 35 years old, so I’ll probably live another 50 years, and during the first 40 years, I’ll be in fairly good health. There are about 40 items on my list, so I can check off one item per year and get everything done”.

This approach does make sense, if we are lucky enough to live out our lives completely, in good health, and with enough money. However, good health cannot be taken for granted. Even tomorrow is not guaranteed. Reading a newspaper or watching the news is a constant reminder that our lives can be cut short at any time. There are continual reports of traffic accidents (including pedestrians and cyclists), tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, building fires, wildfires, civil unrest and violent crime. If you live in a large city, how many times have you heard this phrase on the nightly news “It was a deadly start to the long weekend…”?


Television commercials may depict retirement by showing us images of an affluent older couple on a yacht (or in the above example, whiling away the afternoon hours on a backyard swing), but that’s not a reality for most people. Our health deteriorates and our mobility decreases even before we reach the age of retirement. In one example that hits close to home, a gentleman in my Toastmasters club had been in the workforce for almost 50 years and told us that he was looking forward to his retirement; he would finally have the time to do everything he wanted. Less than two months after he retired, he started experiencing health problems that were severe enough to limit his activities. He is now practically housebound, and is no longer to attend our club meetings, much less do all of the things that he had planned for this part of his life.

I know you’ve heard that life is a journey, not a destination, and that we are supposed to enjoy ourselves along the way. I agree completely, but I’m going to go one step further and recommend that you don’t try to spread your bucket list goals evenly across your anticipated life span. Start crossing things off that list as soon as you can afford the time and money.

You probably have the following, understandable concern: if I actually complete my bucket list, then I’ll take a deep breath and say “OK, now what? I’m bored”. In my experience, bucket lists are never static. Within ten years, you will invariably add one or more items to it. Even my own daily “To Do” lists don’t always get completed because I am often adding items to them throughout the day. The same principle applies to bucket lists. More items will be added to your list after you see a movie, browse a travel magazine, watch a documentary, or peruse a friend’s vacation photos. Furthermore, the increasing rate of change and technological advances in our society gives us so much opportunity to explore, and to learn new things. In my opinion, we – no mater what our age – will never feel that we’ve lived long enough or that we’ve accomplished everything.


Sale-SundayIf you want a carpe diem reminder, then read advertisements or watch commercials. Even if the items are on sale regularly, advertisers know intuitively how to appeal to our sense of urgency, through the use of phrases such as “act now”, “sale ends soon”, “limited-time offer”, “our biggest sale of the season” as well as the blatantly obvious and redundant “get yours now, because when they’re gone… they’re gone!”. Let’s put the same sense of urgency into our own lives. Do as much as you can, and don’t wait – do them now!

Finally, take some time to direct your gaze outward and offer a kind word or a good deed to those you care about. Their lifespan is also limited, and their journey can end unexpectedly. If there is something important that you want to say to a loved one, say it now; don’t wait until the funeral service. Although it’s a poignant scene, in my opinion there’s nothing more pointless than people who apologize, or pour their hearts out to a gravestone.

I’ll leave you with the words of Herb Magidson, performed by Guy Lombardo:

Enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think,
Enjoy yourself, while you’re still in the pink,
The years go by, as quickly as a wink,
Enjoy yourself, enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think.



Finding Comfort Under A Blanket of Stars

For my part, I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream” – Vincent Van Gogh

This past August I wanted to get a glimpse of the Perseid meteor shower, so I went onto my balcony to see what I could. Unfortunately, since I live near Toronto, there was so much light pollution that I didn’t see much at all – in fact, for the first couple of minutes I wasn’t able to detect any stars.

That’s when I realized what was missing in my urban existence – my celestial canopy. When I was a kid and living in the suburbs, I would go out to the backyard, look up at the sky, and see more stars than I could count. Now that I’m in a high-density neighbourhood with light emanating from apartment windows, streetlights and bright storefront signs, the sky is no longer black. In fact, on cloudy nights it doesn’t get any darker than a charcoal gray. Until I stepped outside to search for the meteor shower, I didn’t even notice their absence, and if you’ve lived in an urban area for a long time, I’ll bet that you were also unaware that you could no longer see a significant number of (or even any) stars.

Our sun, of course, is an entirely different story. During the summer, the UV Index is part of the daily weather forecast, and we are warned continually to use a high-SPF sunblock. Now, as winter is approaching and the nights getting longer, we will soon start to read newspaper articles about Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) – a temporary mood change brought about by a lack of significant exposure to sunlight. Shortly afterwards we will be subjected to a plethora of advertisements offering exorbitantly expensive fluorescent desk lamps, cleverly repackaged as “Light Therapy Systems” to combat SAD.

And now, The Bob Angle – a bold, original and completely unproven hypothesis: I believe that regular starlight exposure is just as important to our mental (and even spiritual) well-being as sunlight is to our physical health. I think that starlight completes nature’s balance – we need some exposure to sunlight during the day to maintain good physical health, and we also require regular exposure to the stars at night. Here’s why:

  • The stars keep us grounded, and make us realize how insignificant we are in the grand scheme of things. On a moonless night in a rural area, there are about 2,000 stars visible to the naked eye. The more stars we can observe, the easier it is to look beyond ourselves and our petty problems, and be humbled by the almost incomprehensible vastness of our universe. Furthermore, what we can see (even with a telescope) is just a minuscule portion of what’s out there. Your personal tribulations and even Mankind’s accomplishments may seem like a big deal, but they are barely measurable against the backdrop of a star-filled sky. We are just one planet orbiting a single star, in a universe that contains about seven septillion other stars.
  • Stars are a reminder that there is something out there rather than nothing, that there is still more for us to discover, and that we are probably not alone in the universe. At this moment, another civilization on a planet orbiting one of those stars could be gazing in our direction and wondering about us.

Hubble NGC-1659

  • Photographs taken by the Hubble Space Telescope never cease to amaze us. There is something visceral about its penetrating gaze into our universe, capturing images of galaxies that we could never see clearly (or at all) through the haze of our planet’s atmosphere, and whose distant light took thousands or even millions of years to reach Earth.
  • Stars are traditionally associated with granting wishes, as denoted in the following children’s rhyme “Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight. I wish I may, I wish I might, have the wish I wish tonight”. In the Walt Disney movie Pinocchio, Jiminy Cricket sings “When you wish upon a star, your dreams come true”. Stars are the conduits for our wishes, and seeing them – especially hundreds of them each night – gives us hope. A whimsical thought: for all we know, beings from another planet could be wishing on our sun right now.
  • Stars are used for navigation – sailors used the stars (and a sextant) to navigate the seas. A star (possibly Polaris) guided the three wise men to the birthplace of Jesus. Stars are Mankind’s original GPS, and it wouldn’t surprise me if some of us feel lost when we can no longer see them.


  • Astrologers use stars to predict future events in your life. Whatever your personal feelings about this system of celestial divination, many astrologers do manage to make a living, which means that more than a few of us actually believe that the position and alignment of various stars and planets can affect our lives in a significant way.
  • I think that part of the therapeutic value in camping and in trips to the cottage comes from spending time relaxing under a blanket of stars. It forges a connection as a dull grey sheet is pulled back from the sky, revealing to us, the rest of the universe.
  • Stargazing gets the creative juices flowing. The simple act of gazing skyward and letting one’s imagination run free was the inspiration for numerous television series: Star Trek, The X-Files, Lost In Space, Stargate SG-1, Babylon 5, My Favorite Martian, Mork and Mindy, Buck Rogers, 3rd Rock From The Sun, Alf, selected episodes of The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits… and countless movies.

Starry Night

  • One of Vincent Van Gogh’s most famous paintings is Starry Night. It was painted in 1889 and depicts a view of the night sky from the window of Van Gogh’s room at the mental asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, France. Melanie Lee, in her interpretation of the painting, writes “it’s the night sky that seems to be the life force of this piece with its bursting dynamism”. Van Gogh himself wrote of the painting “It does me good to do what’s difficult. That doesn’t stop me having a tremendous need for, shall I say the word – for religion – so I go outside at night to paint the stars.”. The painting is located in New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
  • Pop culture provides us with many examples that hint at the disparate powers of stars.
    • In Tony Bennett’s song I Left My Heart In San Francisco, they represent aspiration “Where little cable cars, climb halfway to the stars”.
    • Perry Como, in his song Catch A Falling Star, proposed that starlight can banish unpleasant thoughts “For when your troubles start multiplyin’, and they just might, it’s easy to forget them without tryin’, with just a pocketful of starlight”
    • The mental and physical health benefits of starlight are mentioned in Earth, Wind & Fire’s song, Shining Star “Shining star come into view, shine its watchful light on you, give you strength to carry on, make your body big and strong”.
    • Stars are portrayed as guides and companions in Madonna’s song, Lucky Star “You must be my lucky star, ’cause you make the darkness seem so far, and when I’m lost you’ll be my guide, I just turn around and you’re by my side”.
    • The ability of stars to grant wishes is the theme of Little Star by Dion & The Belmonts “Twinkle twinkle little star, how I wonder where you are, high above the clouds somewhere, send me down a love to share”.

The combination of sunlight and starlight is what I interpret as Nature’s balance. The light and warmth of the sun keeps us alive and contributes to our physical health, and the light from the stars provides mental and spiritual benefits. Now all we need to do is stop paying attention to stars of the Hollywood variety and start gazing at the real ones instead. In my opinion, they offer far more inspiration.