Sunday, December 17, 2006

See More Manatees

MISTAKING A HALF-TON MANATEE for a lithesome mermaid is a sign of dangerous nearsightedness--or extreme desperation. But according to legend, Spaniards sailing the Caribbean centuries ago did just that, imagining these roly-poly creatures with their oven-mitt flippers and sad-looking, bewhiskered snouts to be beautiful sea sirens. Now, paddlers and hikers can appreciate these giant herbivores for what they truly are--gentle, curious marine mammals.

Come winter, manatees congregate in southern Florida's balmy 70°F-plus waters after their summer migrations as far north as the Chesapeake Bay and as far west as the Texas Gulf Coast. They swim in salt as well as freshwater environments, and prefer depths ranging from 0 to 20 feet.

Manatee numbers in the United States have declined to about 3,100, despite longstanding state and federal protections. Threatened by no natural predators, manatees die primarily from human influence: speedboat collisions, habitat destruction, and entrapment in canal locks. Watercraft alone kill 70 to 80 manatees every year, and many adults bear scars from boat propellers.

Because of their curious nature, manatees often put themselves in danger--but they also afford dramatic wildlife-viewing opportunities for kayakers. "It's quite an experience having this free-ranging animal the size of a small elephant come right up to you," says Robert Bonde, a biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. Here's how and where to observe these gentle giants safely as they winter along the Florida coast.

Each winter, Florida's manatees flock to the islands in the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge in Kings Bay, 75 miles north of St. Petersburg ( Kayak 7 miles from the bay to the Gulf, passing through sawgrass marshes that are popular winter feeding grounds. Aardvark's Florida Kayak Company, which is known for its LNT approach to manatee tours, offers river trips for $40 per person.

Halfway between Daytona Beach and Orlando, this park's 72°F spring attracts manatees all winter. Put in at the visitor center, and glide along St. Johns River beside moss-draped cypress trees to reach Hontoon Island State Park, Book a trip with Suwannee River Canoe & Kayak ($40;

The vegetation-thick waters around the Ten Thousand Islands are popular with hungry manatees. From the Gulf Coast Visitor Center, paddle 3 miles south across the Chokoloskee Bay (beware of high waves) to Sandfly Island. Circle the mangrove-covered island on a 1-mile hiking trail while scanning for manatees feeding

Heavy breathers Manatees sleep under water, periodically surfacing to breathe without waking. They typically stay submerged for 3 to 4 minutes, but can go as long as 20 minutes without coming up for air.

Solo swimmers Except for mothers with calves, most manatees feed and cruise alone. Occasionally, a herd of 3 to 20 manatees will travel, breed, and feed together for a short period.

Close encounter If a manatee approaches your canoe or kayak, "stop paddling and drift quietly," Bonde says. If it surfaces under your boat, tap the vessel's side to alert it to your presence. Otherwise, "lf you startle the manatee, it may turn abruptly and unintentionally flip your craft," Bonde says.

Dark water Manatees prefer murky, muddy water because the vegetation they consume grows best there. In addition to aquatic plants, they sometimes eat shoreline vegetation.

Hotspots In winter, manatees congregate around warm-water springs in Florida's inland waterways. On hatter days, look for them near river mouths and in lagoons, bays, and canals. Prime viewing time is midday.

Ripple effect A manatee's paddlelike tail creates a series of oval ripples as the animal surfaces; watch for these telltale waves to locate a submerged manatee. If you encounter one in the wild, take the passive approach and let it approach you; pursuing or harassing manatees is against the law.

Leave No Trace When boating, respect no-wake zones and post a manatee lookout. When swimming or paddling, allow manatees to approach you--never reach out and pet them. Avoid mothers with calves, so they don't become separated.


Friday, December 01, 2006

With Lots of Love

MY MOTHER'S FAVORITE PART OF the Christmas season was the ex change of cards. "It's the one time of year I get to hear the news," she would explain. She did not live far from where she was born and raised, but many of her friends, following the end of World War II, had settled in faraway places.

Sometime in November, she would set up the card table in her bedroom, organize the cards and envelopes around her, and begin. Like a scholar bent over an important work, she would spend days crafting her cards, writing each one individually. In her round, open script, she shared what mattered to each of these far-flung friends. A little tower of plump sealed envelopes would slowly rise beside her. Once, in the 1950s, a cousin of hers began the tradition of sending out typed newsletters, not even signed personally. My mother felt cheated by this mass production of the yearly greeting.

She always tried to get her cards into the mail by the first week of December. She sent them off as if on the wings of carrier pigeons. She expected something in return, and her wish was always granted. Waiting for the mail truck to ease away from the mailbox, she would pull on her coat, wrap her head in a woolen scarf, and tuck her feet into her fleece-lined boots for the walk up the driveway, often through new-fallen snow. She would return, clutching the thick, square envelopes, sometimes red or green, like prizes. "There's one from Claire!" she would exclaim. Claire, her next-door neighbor growing up, was by then living in Florida, and she always wrote the long messages for which my mother hungered.

My mother wouldn't open the cards right away but leave them unopened on the hall table. When my father would come home from work, they opened them together and sometimes read them out loud. My sister and I would sit with them and hear about friends like Claire, whom we had never met but about whom we knew a great deal.

Some of my friends today have abandoned sending cards. Too expensive. Too time-consuming. But, like my mother, I never want to lose touch. Without Christmas cards, I would never know that the little boys 1 once babysat for are now men with interesting jobs and children about to go away to college. How can it be? I wonder. Another friend is in remission from her cancer. Another is getting divorced, and yet another married. All that life has to offer seems to unfold on this little Christmas stage, which, for my mother, began at a card table.

And so, starting in November, I settle at the kitchen table and begin to write. My mother would be disheartened to know that most of us, by now, have adopted the method of her forward-thinking cousin, recounting the major events of our year in newsletter style. For the rest, the part that counts, I sometimes stay up till midnight, scribbling personal notes, watching snow fall, and, in the morning, mail them off with lots of love and the strong hope of a return.

By Edie Clark

Thursday, November 23, 2006

How would I like my steak? Raw

People on the caveman diet eat their meat uncooked. Some think they're 'a little off.'

Mario Fiorucci, proprietor of the Healthy Butcher in Toronto, is talking about some of his regular customers: "They come in several times a week and everything they buy they eat raw." That includes organic chicken, game meats like elk and bison, and organs. Liver, he adds, is a favourite -- at the Healthy Butcher they've blended it raw to create a "liver shake." One of Fiorucci's customers will even "grab some ground meat, open the bag and start popping it like potato chips on the way to the cash."

There may be a new diet born every day, but it's not every day that a diet fad takes its cues from the paleolithic era. Alternatively known as the Stone Age diet, the caveman diet, the primal diet or the hunter-gatherer diet, the paleolithic diet looks back -- waaay back -- for its eating cues.

What's on the menu? The rules are simple: eat only what was available to early hunter-gatherers, meaning foods that are edible raw. So on the "yes" side: meats (including organs), fowl, fish, vegetables (excluding potatoes and sweet potatoes), berries, and nuts (but not peanuts -- a legume). On the "no" side: grains in all forms, beans, sugar, salt and dairy products (unless raw). Basically, if the food can be sourced with bare hands (or rudimentary tools) and ingested without cooking or processing -- then bon appétit! "Surprisingly," says Fiorucci, "the raw meat eaters actually look quite robust."

Rasha (who asked that her last name be withheld) is a 32-year-old private fitness coach in Toronto who started on her paleolithic path following a trip to India after university. "Within two weeks I started getting this intestinal thing, then was on antibiotics for months. That cleared out all of my bad bacteria, but also took the good with it." For the next 10 years she suffered from debilitating intestinal problems, eating only easily digestible foods, all of which, she says, would nonetheless putrefy in her system. And then she discovered the teachings of Aajonus Vonderplanitz, the creator of the primal diet. Within a couple of days of being on it, "I had my first real bowel movement in a decade."

She's been eating raw for five years now. "A good day is a pound of stewing meat, the toughest cut from the shoulder. Tougher meat grows tougher muscle." Normally she'll eat a pound of meat a day, uncooked and unadorned, but sometimes throws together a recipe, like dressing her organic beef with raw cream and scallions, or raw honey and cream. Reaction from family and friends has been vocal: "One day I was eating raw chicken livers out of a jar, and a couple of my friends just got up from the table and left."

Hoven Farms in Alberta raises and processes certified organic Alberta beef, which they sell fresh and frozen at the Calgary Farmers' Market, as well as area organic food stores. "Many of the people who are on this raw meat diet," says Tim Hoven, "try not to promote it that much because people think they're a little off." One of Hoven's customers "buys a pound or two, then portions it out and freezes it, and thaws as needed. Personally, I'm not comfortable with it. A rare steak is about as raw as I like to go."

The first thing Toronto dietician and nutritionist Fran Berkoff can see wrong with the diet "is the chance that you could get really sick. We shouldn't drink unpasteurized milk in terms of bacteria, and we shouldn't be eating raw chicken or raw eggs because of salmonella. Cooking gets rid of that. Historically maybe we didn't have to, but now there's a real safety issue." Berkoff does concede that there is something about following a very restrictive pattern of eating that can be good for some people, no matter what it is. "They're focused and motivated and careful about what they eat," she says. "The thought of raw liver just strikes me as incredibly gross. But if you're eating it, at least you're getting lots of iron and tons of protein." Still, "it's one thing to be focused and eating fruits and vegetables and nuts, but another to be eating raw meat, which is why I would totally be against this diet. Sure, people will say, well, show me a chicken that has salmonella. But all you need is one to make you really sick."

Rasha, who routinely eats raw chicken breast, slicing it sashimi style, says she's never felt better. She has a message for naysayers: "I don't say anything to you about eating pasta with béchamel sauce, and then having a cigarette afterwards on the sidewalk. I think that's gross, but I don't say anything."

By Amy Rosen, Maclean's

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Nick Gold

World Music Pioneer Looks Back On Two Decades Of Exposing African And Cuban Music To A Global Audience

Some 20 years ago, young British history graduate Nick Gold joined small London-based concert booking agency Arts Worldwide, run by two women who shared a passion for the then-nascent world music genre. Shortly thereafter, when the company renamed itself World Circuit Arts and reinvented itself as a record label, Gold found himself overseeing the imprint and producing its early releases. Since then, he has developed East London-based World Circuit into one of the leading independent world music operators in the business, with a roster based mostly around Cuban and West African artists.

In the Grammy Award-winning "Buena Vista Social Club," the label claims the most successful world music album of all time, with more than 6 million units shipped, while its African artists such as Ali Farka Toure and Toumani Diabate have earned further Grammys.

Gold bought out the company's co-founders, Anne Hunt and Mary Farquharson, in the early '90s. These days, he is World Circuit's sole owner and managing director--and still produces most of its releases.

In October, the label marked its 20th anniversary with "World Circuit Presents . . . " a 28-track, two-disc compilation of past favorites and previously unreleased recordings. Ironically, its release came at a critical time for World Circuit, with some of its biggest stars, including Toure and the Cuban singer Ibrahim Ferrer, having recently passed away.

Billboard talked to Gold about what lies behind World Circuit's success--and what the future holds.

World Circuit is one of the few labels to make any serious money out of world music. How do you account for that success?

The biggest seller, of course, has been "Buena Vista Social Club," and I think we were very lucky with our timing there. But a decade before that, we'd come along at a moment when there was a huge surge of interest in music that had previously been almost completely ignored.

My first love was jazz, but that had all been done. In African and world music, there were all these incredible musicians you could work with--and a huge range of possibilities opened up.

What made World Circuit so different from the other world music labels that emerged at that time?

Working with Ali Farka Toure was the key. His music and personality were so powerful--and you couldn't allow it to be sidelined as something obscure and exotic. You had to give it the best treatment on every level.

That led to him recording "Talking Timbuktu" in L.A. with Ry Cooder, which really put the label on the map and gave us our first Grammy.

World Circuit's U.S. releases come out on Nonesuch. How does that deal work for you?

Nonesuch originally approached us about 10 years ago because they were keen on Oumou Sangare, who has now recorded four World Circuit albums. I appreciated that very much. It's a very comfortable relationship. They are knowledgeable with a great team and they care.

How do you balance the business role of owning and running the label with the creative side--for example, producing most of the recordings?

It's not easy. You get enthusiastic about an artist and project you're working on, and you want to get it out there in the best possible way to as many people as possible. But the balance is helped enormously by the fact that we've got a great, dedicated team at World Circuit which we've built up over time.

One British newspaper recently described you as looking for "the 'Sgt. Pepper' effect," aiming for a perfect record every time. Is that why World Circuit has a fairly small output?

I'd like to put more out, but you've got to take time to get it right. We don't put anything out unless it's the best. If it isn't, then it doesn't get released. You hear people say an album needs three or four great tunes, and you don't need to bother about the rest. That's anathema to me. Records are expensive. I think it's shit to expect someone to buy something you don't think is quite good enough yourself.

The other point I'd make is that in rock music, you've got the lyrics and the relationship between the band and its fans to carry a record. With this sort of music you have to find a way of making each album new and special.

Was there a sense that you had a duty to record the "Buena Vista" musicians, who were nearing the ends of their careers, before it was too late?

There definitely was that feeling when we embarked upon it and discovered what was there. The pianist Ruben Gonzalez was approaching 80, but he was on fire the first couple of years we worked with him. Ibrahim Ferrer had reached this fantastic maturity in his 70s. And Compay Segundo, who was nearly 90, was singing with huge elegance and authority.

For eight years, you've had the recordings of the only concerts the full "Buena Vista" lineup gave. Why no album release?

There had been Wim Wenders' film ["Buena Vista Social Club," 1999] and I just didn't think it was the right time. But we're finally going to release the July 1998 Carnegie Hall concert next year. Its moment has arrived.

Many of the "Buena Vista" stars are now dead, and this year Ali Farka Toure also died. Where does World Circuit go from here?

It's a bit of a "what happens next?" moment for us. Ali has left a huge hole because I'd worked with him for nearly 20 years. But at the same time, we've only recently started working with the kora player Toumani Diabate, who is a genius. The first record we did with him was "In the Heart of the Moon," which won a Grammy this year. We've got a new record coming from him, which I'm really excited about.

Is the Cuban music adventure that began with "Buena Vista" now over?

There's going to be a posthumous Ibrahim Ferrer record. It was always his dream to make a purely bolero album. We did two sessions in Cuba. We were due to go out there and finish it when he died in August last year.

On his deathbed, he left me a note asking me to complete the project. The tapes got stuck in Cuba, and we've only just got them back, and we're now trying to finish it. There's some wonderful stuff there.

Almost all of World Circuit's artists have been masters of their art. Have you thought of recording young Cuban or African acts in newer genres?

I get asked a lot why we don't do younger stuff, like timba and rap, because you're right--pretty much all the people we've recorded have been the finished article. That's made it easy for me because I wouldn't know what to do with someone young and raw. Maybe that music's good, but I don't like it, and I wouldn't know how to treat it properly.

By Nigel Williamson, Billboard

Monday, October 30, 2006

10 Tips for Teaching How to Search the Web


Teaching how to search the Web is hot--it's become standard practice in public-service librarianship. We teach classes, hold workshops, distribute handouts, mount tutorials on the Web. We know our sources and don't hesitate to help. Do you want a list of the top search engines? The most substantive directories? Good places to find deep Web content? No problem!

Still, basic questions remain. How are we going about teaching search tools? Are users taking away information they can really use? Does our instruction hold up over time?

From what I've seen, I have concluded that many of us take a descriptive approach to teaching the Web. We are masters at identifying search tools and describing their salient characteristics. We routinely detail their query options, search syntax, and results-ranking schemes. Our instruction is loaded with facts.

The answer lies in the question
As admirable as this approach is, it is ultimately unproductive. Description isn't much help in an environment in which search tools and their features are madly proliferating on an ever-burgeoning Web. There is simply too much to remember, and too much change. How many of us have expended good time and effort giving an in-depth review of a search tool's features, only to see these features mutate or disappear? This is frustrating to us, and it leaves our users with little that they can use.

I propose that we take an approach that is more apt to provide knowledge that endures. I call this a query-based approach because it is based on the individual query. If we teach search tools for their usefulness with specific types of queries, we are giving users a reason to return to these tools. We are identifying needs and finding solutions. Each tool becomes not just a bundle of characteristics but something that fits into an information-finding context. In short, we are providing users with a strategy.

Here are 10 tips for shaping a query-based approach.

1. Apply what we know about library resources to search tools on the Web. Librarians understand the characteristics of library-based research tools and when it is appropriate to use them. With library resources, it is a matter of routine to match the query to the tool. We need to approach Web-based tools in the same spirit. When teaching how to do research on the Web, we should evaluate its information-finding tools based on the queries they support, and recommend them accordingly.
2. Help users find what they need. Users tend to view Web search tools as an amorphous, undifferentiated whole. By the same token, many users believe that there are tools that can answer all queries. If they try a certain tool and are disappointed, they tend to fault the tool rather than their decision to use that tool. It's our job to explain that different search tools serve different purposes and to help users identify which tools match their needs.
3. Define searching broadly. To teach query-based searching, we need to view searching as a process that begins with the quest for information. It is far more than the act of constructing a search statement--in fact, that step comes last. Users should begin the search process by analyzing their query. Do they want to begin with a broad topic and become familiar with its subtopics? Is their topic targeted to a narrow concept or made up of multiple concepts? Are they looking for a specific Web site? Do they want a targeted set of data? Dynamically changing information? Multimedia?

Based on the answers to these kinds of questions, we can help users explore the tools that might bring them results. Once they have chosen the right tool, we can address the matter of constructing search statements.

4. Teach search tools, not just search engines. The Web offers three major types of information-finding tools: directories, search engines, and the deep Web. Teaching search engines alone is not enough. A query-based approach to Web searching encompasses all types of Web-based tools. We need to familiarize users with the full range of tools and the kinds of queries they can address. Search-engine training is limiting, while search-tool training opens up a world of possibility.
5. Teach users to analyze their queries and identify the tools that support them. The following illustrates how useful a query-based approach can be. Here are three queries, all on the topic of American architecture, each of which requires a different type of Web-based tool.

I'm looking for: sites on American architecture.

Use: A professional directory created and annotated by experts.

I'm looking for: the site of the Society of American Registered Architects.

Use: A peer-ranking, human-mediated engine such as Google or Direct Hit.

I'm looking for: a list of architects in Baltimore.

Use: A database on the deep Web such as a phone book.

These examples demonstrate the advantage of analyzing the query first, then choosing the search tool as a second step. Tips 6, 7, and 8 cover each major type of tool in greater detail.

6. For general queries or for topics that need exploring, recommend directories. Directories, especially those compiled and annotated by experts, are appropriate starting points for broad topics. A few examples are the Argus Clearinghouse, InfoMine, and the Librarians' Index to the Internet. These tools give users an opportunity to see what the experts have to say about the best resources available on their topic. With their hierarchical subject listings, directories are also good for browsing. Listed subtopics can help users become familiar with the scope of their topic for further refinement. In addition, directories often include meta pages that are jumping-off points for topical research. It's important to teach directories as human-mediated tools that tend to offer substantive content.
7. For targeted, ambiguous, and sometimes broad queries, recommend search engines. Traditionally, search engines have worked best for targeted or multi-concept queries. Because we are searching the full text of millions of files, we are able to pick up specific and often obscure information. With the current crop of engines, an even wider range of queries is supported. The following examples illustrate this point. These queries range from the specific to the very broad.

Query type: targeted to a narrow topic.

Query: I'd like to view sites about the Hubble telescope.

Use: Peer-ranking, human-mediated engines.

Examples: Google, Direct Hit.

Why? The Web is a community of content creators and users of this content. People who link to external sites from their Web pages exercise judgment about the relevance and value of these sites. Google's relevancy ranking measures this activity. Direct Hit tracks the sites that users select from their search engine results. The collective judgment of millions of these searchers adds up to a continual and dynamic peer ranking. Both types of rankings work quite well when we are searching a narrowly-defined topic.

Query type: targeted to a specific site or other restriction.

Query: I'd like to view NASA documents about the Hubble telescope.

Use: Engines with a searchable site field.

Examples: AllTheWeb, AltaVista, HotBot, IxQuick Metasearch, Northern Light.

Why? Engines that offer "site" or "URL" as a field restriction allow us to retrieve documents from a specific site. These limits may be put into effect through search syntax or menu choices in a search template. This idea can be extended to other types of field delimiters such as geographic location ("I want to see documents from South Africa about Nelson Mandela"), date last modified, language, file type, etc. A number of search engines work well for these types of targeted queries.

Query type: ambiguous or terminology-seeking.

Query: I'm interested in learning about stocks.

Use: Concept-processing, thesaurus-creating engines.

Examples: Excite, SurfWax.

Why? Ambiguous words are always a challenge in a database search. Thesaurus-creating engines can help us narrow our concept to our intended meaning. These engines offer a choice of meanings based on the initial search, from which users can select for a subsequent search. Thesaurus-creating engines, like their library-based counterparts, can also help users choose appropriate terminology for a search.

Query type: general, in-depth.

Query: I'm doing research on renewable energy.

Use: Concept-clustering tools that parse topics into component subtopics.

Examples: Northern Light, Guidebeam, Query Server, Vivisimo.

Why? Concept-clustering tools process a search and return results that are organized into subtopics and relevant sites. This can be very useful when you want to become familiar with different aspects of a topic, are unfamiliar with a topic, or want to be sure you are examining it in depth. In this respect, these tools and directories serve a similar purpose.

8. For information stored in databases or non-textual files, recommend the deep Web. Fixed Web pages are only one part of the content available on the Web. The much larger part is held in databases or nontextual files. Data, graphics, software, dynamically changing information, and multimedia are examples of deep Web content.

This content may be retrieved in a variety of ways. Many databases on the Web are searchable from their own sites, and these sites can be retrieved from directories and search engines. Also, many search engines offer deep Web searches as featured options. For example, it is not unusual to be offered searches for news, multimedia, stock prices, airline tickets, items in Web stores, and much more. A few sites specialize in gathering a collection of links to searchable databases on the Web, for example the Invisible Web. Others, such as ProFusion, search the content of selected databases from a single interface.

9. Avoid getting bogged down in teaching search-tool features. Features come and features go. Trying to keep track of which ones belong with which tool is very difficult. If this is a challenge for us, what about our users? Even if we could keep track of everything, teaching features in and of themselves has little value. We should avoid an approach that says, "This tool does this, that tool does that." This leaves users with numerous details but no grounds for using the tool once they're on their own. It's much better to say, "Search engines have features and they change." Then, give advice about the features to look for based on the nature of the query. Remember: context is everything.
10. Be realistic--and relax! It's amazing to think that we are still in the early years of information-finding tools on the Web. The volatility of this world is sure to continue. Absolve yourself and your users of the burden of tracking a multiplicity of details. Instead, teach what is useful in the actual process of finding information. Rather than elaborating on features, put your attention on the query. This is a lesson that will stand the test of time. degrees7degrees
Steps for this search and those to come:

• Define the nature of the quest.

• Choose the most useful tool.

• Construct the proper search statement.





Argus Clearinghouse:

Direct Hit:





Invisible Web:

IxQuick Metasearch:

Librarians' Index to the Internet:

Northern Light:


Query Server:



By: Cohen, Laura B., American Libraries

Sunday, September 10, 2006

World's Oldest Condom

The oldest surviving condom in the world has gone on display in an Austrian museum.
The reusable condom dates back to 1640 and is completely intact, as is its orginal users' manual, written in Latin.

The manual suggests that users immerse the condom in warm milk prior to its use to avoid diseases.

The antique, found in Lund in Sweden, is made of pig intestine and is one of 250 ancient objects related to sex on display at the Tirolean County Museum in Austria this summer.

Friday, August 18, 2006

A Train of Your Own

When business titans and blond heiresses with pet chihuahuas need to get from A to B, there is no more sumptuous and speedy a medium than the private jet. But it’s not so long ago that even those with ample means had no choice but to take a luxe mode of transport far slower than the speed of flight. When the likes of Cornelius Vanderbilt (in the mid-1800s) and Rudolph Valentino (six or seven decades later) made their way across the landscape, it was often in the carriage of a private train.

Today, you can follow in their tracks, as it were–and discover along the way the joys not only of being pampered silly, but of being pampered silly at a nice, slow chug. “I’m a Type A personality; I can’t sit still for more than five minutes,” says Warren Barhorst, president of Barhorst Insurance Group, in Houston. So last year, when his wife, Lisa, suggested the couple hire a private two-car train for an eight-day round trip between Los Angeles and Seattle to celebrate his 40th birthday, Barhorst was sweet but firm. “I said, ‘Honey, I can’t go on a train for that long.’ I said, ‘Honey, I’ll go crazy.’”

Before their trip was up, in fact, Barhorst was crazy for the pleasures of life on the rails–so much so that on the way back to L.A., he phoned Patrick Henry, who runs Creative Charters Inc., to ask if they could continue on his train to hometown Houston. (Sadly, Henry’s cars were already booked.) “It’s just very, very relaxing,” says Barhorst, whose getaway included a winery tour, on-board gourmet meals, visits with friends and family who bedded down each night in the six-bedroom sleeper car, and a lot of scenery-filled leisure. “There aren’t many vacations where you end up truly rested these days,” Barhorst adds. “I’m telling you, this is one of them.”

In an age where everybody just wants to get there, riding a private train is all about getting there. And getting spoiled rotten en route. Along with your own executive chef, many of the 100 or so private railcars that criss-cross North America come stocked with one or two stewards, full room service, private call buttons located in domed observation lounges, complimentary bars, and open-air platforms for watching the world roll by. The cost: generally between about US$5,000 and US$7,000 a day, depending on the train-although that does cover the needs and appetites of up to a dozen or so guests.

All the trains are owned by members of the American Association of Private Railroad Car Owners, and are inspected and certified annually by Amtrak. To operate, they are usually attached to the tail end of Amtrak trains and–decreasingly, thanks to new restrictions introduced in the past couple of years–to those of Via Rail. Nearly everywhere Amtrak goes, and within Via’s Windsor-Montreal corridor, you can fashion a trip of your own, and trundle on into the horizon.

Such is the world of “private varnish,” a term that derives from two characteristics shared by pretty much all privately owned railcars: a fastidiously buffed external cladding, and a hand-rubbed interior heavy on stainless steel, brass and exotic woods. On Henry’s two cars, on which I stayed overnight during a recent visit to Chicago (they were berthed, between trips, at the city’s Union Station) that interior also included a 12-seat dining room, its built-in glass cabinets gleaming with silver and crystal; a clubby bar sporting wraparound sofas and a big-screen TV; an upper-level observation dome that seats 16 in banquettes and swivel tub chairs; and, of course, that sleeper car.

Also on board was Dave Kugler, the executive chef of another pair of cars, the Northern Sky and Northern Dreams, hooked up to Henry’s for their stay in Chicago. Built for the Union Pacific Railway in the 1950s, both were purchased and refurbished by Wisconsin businessman and lifetime train buff David Hoffman, in the 1990s.

Sitting in the Northern Sky’s deco-inspired living room one evening, Kugler described his method of tailoring his talents to the tastes of Hoffman’s clients. “I send menus,” he said, “of 20 soups, 20 salads, and 20 entrees each of beef, pork, lamb, chicken and seafood.” Hosts can then e-mail back what they’d like served, at which point Kugler begins mapping out where he’ll buy provisions, from Grade A beef, say, at his favourite Milwaukee butcher, to fresh seafood from Seattle’s Pike Place Market. He also preplans breakfasts (grilled grapefruit with brown sugar and rum is among his personal faves), appetizers and lunches, all with an eye to clients’ tastes and local, seasonal strengths.

Amid all that eating, of course, a prime lure of life on the rails is watching the countryside go by, often along otherwise inaccessible routes. For the novice trainer, Henry recommends Chicago to San Francisco, a trip that takes you through the Rockies, past Lake Tahoe and along San Francisco Bay, all in three days. He also has a soft spot for Vancouver to Seattle to Chicago, a three-day journey that traverses Montana’s Glacier National Park. More hard-headed travellers can do New York to Chicago in a day.

Spectacular scenery can be the perfect backdrop not just for a personal holiday, but for corporate affairs, too: about 60% of Henry’s clients book his cars for business-related functions. Coors Brewing Company, for one, chartered a trip to this year’s Super Bowl, in Detroit. Last year, one Denver-based company held its annual board-of-directors’ meeting in Henry’s dining room and dome car, taking to the sleeper as each night rolled around, and arriving in San Francisco after two days on the rails.

If you are considering shining up your corporate image (or brightening up an otherwise dull confab) with such private varnish, bear in mind that no matter how fastidiously blocked out the details, the rails can deliver the unexpected, too. On their trip along the American West Coast last year, the Barhorsts report they were able to see the moon in the bright light of day–several moons, in fact, as a highschool soccer team in Northern California greeted the train with their own rear platforms bared for all on board to see. “We really laughed,” says the newly converted train buff. “I have to say, they formed a very straight line.”

By: Dwyer, Victor, Canadian Business, 7/17/2006

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

X-Rated Astronomy

By Robert M Wilson

It seems like every semester certain female college students enjoy sitting in the front row of classrooms displaying very exposed cleavages. Professors handle them in different ways.

One day, in Astrophysics 201, busty Miss Anderson had already gotten Dr. Geschlecht’s attention by bending down low for her notebook, leaving little to the imagination. Obviously distracted, he nevertheless began, in a thick German accent, “Riccardo Giacconi, won the Nibble, I mean Nobel, Prize in 2002 for his pioneering contributions to astrophysiques.”

Despite student laughter, he continued. “Giacconi worked out the principles for construction of an x-ray telescope to be mounted on a satellite so as to gain closer views of bodies in the Milky Way and beyond, such as Black Holes, Red Giants and White Dwarfs. I’m sure you’ve all heard of the Hubble telescope.”

“We’re going to look at x-rated, I mean, x-ray images of one of the most beautiful nipples, I mean nebulas, in the galaxy: the Grab, I mean, Crab Nebula. You must pardon my English.”

By now, Dr. Geschlecht’s face was an intense shade of red. He got some respite when he darkened the room to show Chandra Observatory photos of the nebula with the overhead projector, noting its formation, size, distance, brightness and location.

Turning on the lights afterward, his eyes were again assaulted by revealed bosoms. He was dazed, in a dream beyond his control. Awkwardly, he ended the lecture by reminding the class, “We will have a kiss, I mean quiz, next week to test your mammaries, I mean memories” and fled the room. From now on he would wear dark sun glasses in class.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

What Mommy Calls Daddy

The day care teacher holds up a picture and asks, "What's this?"

"A horsey," one child answers.

"And this?" the teacher asks.

"A piggy," replies another youngster.

"And now this one?" asks the teacher, holding up a picture of a male deer with a beautiful rack of antlers.

There was no answer, only total silence.

"Come now, children," she coaxes, "I'll give you a little hint. What does your Mommy call your Daddy when he hugs and kisses her a lot?"

"I know! I know!!" exclaims one little girl. "It's a horny bastard!"

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