Jim Letourneau's Blog

Investing, Technology, Travel, Geology, Music, Golf. I think that covers it.

The Asti Randomizer

I tend to default to geographical landmarks when I'm in unfamiliar territory. I can often do quite well just knowing where the mountains are and where the water is. Uphill vs. downhill is often all you need to know. Unless you're on the outskirts of Asti.

This monster intersection ensures that any knowledge about the lay of the land becomes irrelevant. We usually encountered at least 3 forks and a toll gate before finding out we were going the wrong direction. 

Catalan Independence Rally

We arrived in Barcelona the night before the National Day of Catalonia holiday. I didn't think much of it apart from wondering if there would be museum or restaurant closures involved. Julia and I did a long city walk and encountered hundreds of people flying the Catalan flag. 

Hundreds of thousands of supporters gather for Catalan independence rally

Many were headed to a very large peaceful demonstration that included all ages. If there is strong opposition to Catalan independence I didn't detect a whiff of it on the streets. I don't think I've seen a Spanish flag here. I did see a persistent surveillance helicopter presence that got on my nerves. I can't imagine what that the demonstrators were thinking but it all went down peacefully.

Road Trip Castell'Alfero-Genoa Return

In theory, the trip from Castell'Alfero to Genoa can be done in 90 minutes. We took a wrong turn at Alba (querque) and got off the Autostrade and it took some effort to get back on it. As a cultural note we did manage to see a stretch of road with Nigerian prostitutes out in the noon day sun. It was surreal. Imagine driving from Sylvan Lake to Drayton Valley and seeing a working girl instead of a mailbox at every minor road intersection or culvert crossing. It wasn't the best of Italy and it definitely wasn't in the shadows.

Fortunately, Julia navigated us back onto a 110 km/h road until. Since we were approaching hour two of our 90 minute journey, we had to make a pit stop at a rest stop. Very similar to a North American truck stop but the food was prettier. How do we make ham and cheese taste meh?

Eventually We rolled into Genoa through a series of tunnels and bridges and worked our way down to the seaside. Our destination was the Grand Hotel Savoia which was located opposite the train station. It is reminiscent of the Grand Budapest Hotel in terms of color and the interiors. We eventually gave up on our paper map after driving 10 minutes on the equivalent of Genoa's Gardiner Expressway. We got off the elevated road and booted up our Google Maps and backtracked for 15 minutes. We didn't feel too ambitious but hit up the stunning rooftop bar after unpacking. We had a great view of the harbour.

Wednesday morning we were up in time to catch the free hotel breakfast and ambitiously take public transportation to scenic Portofino. The train stop we needed was Santa Margherita Ligure. On route, we were asked to present our tickets. It turns out that we had not validated them. This led us to be fined by a train official for 5 Euros each. Julia insisted on paying her share by collecting all of her loose change. She can be very "stick it to the man" sometimes.

We had a lovely afternoon in Portofino.  Some massive yachts were moored in the harbour leading to what I like to call "yacht pollution." Don't get me wrong, I'd love to hang out on one of these monsters but they are a bit large for Portofino.

 Yacht pollution in Portofino.

Yacht pollution in Portofino.

Given our train issues going to Portofino, we were both nervous about returning to Genoa. We made sure to validate our tickets but we ended up rushing onto a train that was headed for Milan. Some of the crazy thoughts that Julia and I shared included:

  • Is the train non-stop? What if it doesn't stop at Genoa!
  • Is the train going in the right direction?
  • Are we in the right class of rail car?

Given that our hotel was right across from the main train station in Genoa, our odds were pretty good that things would work out, and they did. 

The next day we had to drive home and there was some tension between driver and navigator upon leaving our hotel. Consider driving the Pacific Coast Highway vs. the 101 and you'll get the nature of our conflict. I chose the slow road along the Italian Riviera instead of  taking the Autostrade but we hadn't really discussed exactly how we would be getting to Savona. The coastline was gorgeous and every rock beach was dotted with colorful umbrellas. I'm glad we took the long way. My navigator was as well... eventually.

At Savona we headed upland and drove past some major industrial locations including a town that first made explosives and then color film (Ferrania) and a little bit further along a steel town (it looks black on Google Earth). The further upland we went, the fewer people we saw to the point of it being almost eerie. Eventually we started seeing hazelnut trees and eventually vineyards and soon we were back in populated territory. We made it home without incident. 

 Find the steel mill...

Find the steel mill...

What I love about the English version of Google Maps is that it pronounces all the Italian road names incorrectly, just the way I would. It works pretty well.


Grape Harvest!

We made a point of returning to the Relais and Chateaux hotel at San Maurizio and enjoyed three nights there. The service was wonderful and the views from the property were stunning in all directions. I got a little obsessed about the grape harvest. There were tractors on the road with wagons full of grapes. It was awesome!

Wednesday Market in Asti

We are only a 15 minute drive from Asti (but it wasn't a 15 minute drive the first time we visited). Wednesday and Saturday's are Asti Market days and we made a point of getting up "early" so we wouldn't miss the noon closing. Parking was not a given as the market is well attended but I scored a spot right beside the Campo Del Palio. The market was large and featured lots of cheese, meat and local produce. Peppers were especially abundant and could be bought by the case. The were a bit larger and less uniform than the North American ones. We scooped up as much as we could carry and took it home to make lunch and a few subsequent meals. I've been making a lazy version of ratatouille, where the vegetables are not cooked separately. I'll have to dig in and find out what kind of difference that might make at some future date. For now, the goodness of the market completely overshadows any preparation issues.

Road Trip Monforte d'Alba

Today we put our 5-speed Fiat Panda through it's paces on the twisty roads of Piemonte. Our mission was to check out some of the scenic villages south of Alba. My wife, Julia, played the role of navigator. The smaller the village, the smaller the sign so we had a few cases of backtracking but it didn't matter because we are on holidays after all. We stumbled across a sign for a Relais and Chateaux hotel that has a restaurant with one Michelin star. We decided to check it out and we were delighted that we did. San Maurizio is located on top of a hill in what was previously a monastery. The road to the place winds between lush steeply terraced vineyards (see the Google Earth screenshot below for a look at the hill hugging road). I wasn't planning to visit a fancy place today so I was wearing shorts and a t-shirt (surprise!) but we were warmly welcomed and had a great lunch there. We have a few gaps in our lengthy itinerary but Julia made sure to fill one of them with a longer stay here. She's an amazing planner who somehow can keep a year's worth of dates straight in her head. She's not "Rain Man" about it but she's sharp. After lunch we drove to Monforte d'Alba and then found a straight road to take us home. I only turned on Google Maps once while we were trying to get out of Alba. 


The views were amazing.  


My Encounters with Simon McBurney

My first encounter with Simon McBurney happened earlier this year in Los Angeles. Julia and I had driven from the San Ysidro Ranch near Santa Barbara to LAX that morning to drop off Tyler, Jenn and the baby Izzy. Julia wanted to do a bit of shopping on Wilshire Boulevard so we parked the car and I went to a caffieneplex on a triangular piece of land at the intersection of Wilshire and Santa Monica. This location has a Starbucks AND a Teavana. All my options were covered. 

Simon walked in with two female assistants in tow. He was wearing black. I recognize his face. After a quick look around at the filled Starbucks tables, he decides to leave. 

I Google images of character actors. I check IMDB lists. I can't figure out who this person is. Memory is fluid at my age. I can rattle off all the members of the E Street Band on a good day but only a couple of members of St. Paul and the Broken Bones. Newer memories are becoming harder to recall than older ones. 

The week before our trip to Edinburgh I see the face! I'm researching Edinburgh International Festival plays and the mystery character actor that I saw in LA was none other than established character actor Simon McBurney. I subsequently learned that he writes, produces, directs, and acts in film and theatre. He has an OBE. He appears in the latest Mission Impossible film. The trailer was released on the day I saw him in LA. Considering him a "character actor" was akin to thinking Wayne Gretzky was a professional ice hockey player. 

I celebrate my luck at solving my personal mystery by buying tickets to his play, The Encounter. A few weeks later we were in the audience where he gave an immensely innovative performance.

The next week, we attended Robert Lepage's 887. It is about memory. Just before the lights go down, Simon McBurney walks in and takes a seat on the aisle.  A patron gets up and introduces himself. It looks to me that Simon is not thrilled to be acting interested in this conversation on his day off. I make note of this and reconsider my celebrity selfie collection. In another section of the audience we recognize Obi Abili, who plays the Guard in Antigone, which we had seen the previous evening. 

At the end of the performance many people are standing and applauding. McBurney quickly leaves. We exit the theatre and see Obi chatting with a friend. His friend is wearing a shirt with labels on it.

Julia, strikes up a conversation with Obi and we share our impressions of The Encounter and 887. She asks what Obi what it is like to work with Juliette Binoche. He is diplomatic, but not effusive my wife notes later. The discussion is restricted because Obi's friend Joe hasn't yet seen The Encounter but intends to and it would be rude to spoil his experience. Joe is in a show called Labels.  He hands us cards which we politely accept even though we are leaving Edinburgh tomorrow (Since 887 and The Encounter are now sold out, you should see Labels instead, Obi Abilia and Emma Thompson recommend it). 

That evening, we saw the Daniel Sloss comedy show Dark. Sloss put on a great show and mentioned his flatmate Kai Humphries who we had seen during our first week in Edinburgh.

As we leave the theatre,  I recognize the face of an actor. It is Simon McBurney.


Just move your legs like you're running...

I am seeing an unexpected side of Edinburgh. The dawn exposes the excesses of the previous day's Fringe Festival.  Garbage and broken glass are commonplace but by 8AM it gets cleaned up. Normally I  wouldn't notice as I am not a morning person.

For a few days, I was.

Day 1 in Edinburgh had me hitting up a Starbucks before 7AM. Eventually Julia and I made our way to Arthur's Seat.  At 251m, it is in the hard walk/easy hike range for most people. There were a few steep sections with loose rocks. Julia fell on the way down.

"Jim! Jim!  I fell!"  

I was off taking a picture and Julia wasn't in it. I was completely oblivious which made things worse. All I could say was "I'm sorry, are you OK?" I'm not a 30 year old paramedic so there wasn't much I could do.

Day 2 I opted to go far a long walk BEFORE the coffee fix. Young people trundling off to work were passing me quickly but the streets were otherwise very quiet. I headed for Arthur's Seat for the second day in a row. I wanted to try a different path. The hill was mostly dotted with a few early morning runners. A few were sprinting past me and I kept praying that there wouldn't be a team blasting past me on the narrow steps.  I could hear heavy breathing and an American voice shouting encouragement. His charges were dying on the hill. They weren't even able to pass me (I suspect the trainer had already sprinted them into the puke zone). I kept climbing and heard Mr. Trainer say "keep going that's it, now just move your feet like you're running". 

This time I found Hutton's Outcrop which was a nice surprise. I noticed an old quarry and a strange vein projecting out of the ground.  I thought it odd that it hadn't been removed. It turned out that it was Hutton's Rock. Just 100m further along was Hutton's Section. Being a geologist, it was pretty special to see this spot.

A Younger Elizabeth Taylor

Jet lag rears its head at the strangest times. Apart from the obvious symptoms of spontaneous napping, the hidden danger of being off time zone is that I become "slow", to use a politically correct term. 

While waiting at the mall, I mean Terminal 2 at Heathrow, Julia bought a couple of books. After reading the first few pages of one of them, she asked "what actor would play you in a movie?". She lifted it directly from her book which gave her an unfair advantage. I said I didn't know, her response was "Drew Carey". I get that alot. She didn't make the distinction between the "fat Drew Carey", and the "Price is Right Drew Carey" and I was too tired to ask.

Then she asked who would play her. The jet lag is in full force, I can't even run a 5 compartment travel wallet, never mind engage in this dangerous battle of wits. My mind is drawing from a very short list of female actors before I blurt out Shirley Maclaine. Julia blurts out "WHAT!". I forgot Julia Maclaine was in her 80's. I had to backtrack and clarify whether I was restricted to the present or if I could pick actors from any era but the damage had been done. The correct answer was "A younger Elizabeth Taylor".


I always like to take pictures of "airport art" and for a while I had a pretty steady stream of them between Facebook, Instagram and Foursquare. This neon orange car was one of the more delightful things I've seen at an airport. It really popped out and cut through the jet lag fog.

Crossing the Pond

If I could bottle the energy that goes into getting things done before a holiday... 

A combination of sleep deprivation, excitement and amplified multi-tasking always leads to a few minor disasters. Keys get lost, important things are left to the last minute and there is no time to discuss the day with Julia.

My pre-trip disaster happened two hours before we were to drive to the airport. Access to our parkade, and elevators is via a fob. We have a storage locker that is in a room with other lockers that has a key. Then we have a padlock on the locker. All those things are on one keychain. I brought in one set of clubs, by unlocking the door and then unlocking the padlock. Then I left the keys in the padlock. Then I went out to get the next set of clubs and the door closed behind me. Argh!!! I was locked out of everything. Without a fob I was locked out of elevator or stair access and a pedestrian can't trigger the parking garage doors. I was ready to pull the fire alarm. 

Fortunately I could hear Julia pull into the parkade less than a minute later and she was able to track down our building security guard who rescued me. Only 15 minutes lost. I was lucky.

My packing used to be the equivalent of throwing clothes and shoes into a rectangular laundry hamper. While very inefficient, I always had confidence that I'd be able to repack with ease. Today, I am an Eagle Creek convert using packing cubes, garment folders, bolstered by the newly learned skill of folding and rolling up my clothes. I need to add that my mother tried to show me these skills over 40 years ago with no success. 

I first used their garment folders on a long private jet tour that had stops in Iceland, Hungary, India, China, Vietnam, Oman Greece and France. Most stops were 2-3 days so there was a regular unpacking/packing routine that was helped significantly by using garment folders. Now my suitcase is full of packing bags, cubes and garment folders. One cube for shorts, socks and t-shirts, a garment folder for casual clothes, one for dressy clothes etc.  

We've made it across the Atlantic and are enjoying the perks of an arrivals lounge that includes access to showers. I was able to get what I needed out of my suitcase without completely overturning the contents. That is pretty much a miracle for me!

We have a pretty long layover before flying to Edinburgh later this afternoon. 



Trip Countdown

The countdown for a lengthy trip to Europe is on. We leave on August 9th for Edinburgh. The logistics are in place and we are filling up our time there with activities like The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, Edinburgh Festival Fringe , Ben Folds in Glasgow, and probably some castles and a round of golf. I must not forget a Hop on Hop off tour. These really do give a pretty good overview of a city. 

Today I needed to send a copy of my Alberta Operator's Licence to someone and the photo I had said that it expired on June 12th, 2015. This could be an issue in renting a car in Europe. After rummaging around the condo, I determined that my wallet was either a) in my golf bag or b) in the car. I tried to not get too worked up but my mind was creating little scenarios. Will my wife be outraged or sympathetic? How fast can you get an Alberta Operator's Licence? (a real one, not the temporary one). How could this even happen? 

Fortunately, I really did update my licence when we moved and I've got until 2020 before I need to update it. 



Clean Your Room!

I'm a borderline hoarder. I'd rather see papers in stacks on a table than put away neatly in a file folder.  I don't like to throw "useful" things out.  My wife and I moved into a very nice condo last summer and I slowly got comfortable with getting rid of things that I won't be using any more. I didn't want to ruin the look of the place with too much of my clutter.  It took a few dozen trips to Value Village and Goodwill but the volume of my possessions was reduced considerably. 

In spite of having a well designed office and closet, I still maintained a messy looking space albeit with far less stuff. The door to my area was still closed when we had visitors.

I was reading the always thought provoking  kk.org a few weeks ago when I ran across The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying up by Marie Kondo. I decided to order the Kobo version (in order to save space). 

Her method is based upon years of experience helping clients de-clutter. The anecdotes about her clients lacked the shock value of watching Hoarders. However, her personal stories about her lifelong obsession (I concluded that Marie Kondo is a bit of a freak) with tidying up did inspire empathy and trust. Every time I had a thought about dismissing her advice as being overly detailed, I remembered that I was the one with the problem. 

The greatest value in Kondo's book is her advice on handling personal items like photos and mementos.  It is very easy to get distracted by them and lose focus.  

I followed the instructions and they worked very well for me. 




The Treadmill Phase for LinkedIn

While eavesdropping at a coffee shop, it occurred to me that if everyone is trying to "dominate" their space via LinkedIn, it is going to be several orders of magnitude more difficult to do so. Unless you're a cow in the vicinity of a slaughterhouse, there are many benefits to being first in line to use a new service.

I tend to sign up for more services that I could ever possibly use. I will live forever through my inbox that will be receiving emails from these services long after I'm gone. While the noise factor is irritating, I have benefited greatly by being an early adopter on a popular services like LinkedIn. 

Fast forward to today. LinkedIn has added several Tinder style features that require a mere swipe or click to provide their user base with fast dopamine hits (someone noticed me today!, I matter!). Organizations are making concerted efforts to format their thought pieces and white papers into the most engaging formats. That means you could see a post, a video and an infographic with the same content. More noise, less signal and a tough road ahead for those trying to get noticed on LinkedIn. 




I really didn't know who Damon Albarn was until his solo album, Everyday Robots came out in 2014.

I was somewhat familiar with Blur and Gorillaz but Albarn got a fan for life after I heard this...

Fast Forward to the new Blur album, The Magic Whip. Very good stuff.

On Politics

My home province of Alberta is gearing up for an election this week and it looks like there might be a change in government. It seems like one of the big issues for voters is trust. If a person/party stays in power for any length of time, the machinery that they build to support themselves eventually becomes corrupted. 

Corrupt people tend to gravitate to those in power. They tend to be very adept at corroding the good intentions of people. A great example is the Clinton dynasty. I think the mining community has a good handle on the character of certain donors to the Clinton Foundation. As Russel Zisky would say "never convicted." 

I see that Hillary Clinton has something in common with Alberta's ruling party, a trust deficit. There is a best before date for those in power. I'm thinking 10 years is too long and 5 is not enough. 


When the Media Doesn't Play Ball

I ran across two examples of the outrage that celebrities have when the media doesn't play ball. The veneer of civility cracks quickly when everything is recorded and shared.

First the Cincinnati Reds manager Bryan Price launched into an expletive filled tirade that basically bemoaned the fact that he couldn't control the media. Once you strip out the f-bombs he believes that he is being completely open and up front about the team with reporters so why would would they be so ungrateful as to report on things that he hadn't told them about yet.

Secondly, we have the always charming and deeply thoughtful Robert Downey Jr. walk out of what was supposed to be a promotional interview for a movie. His flashy smile quickly fades as the interviewer decides to go off topic and ask him political and personal questions. Its not the first time that Krishnan Guru-Murthy has gone rogue as seen in this Quentin Tarantino interview.

Robert Downey Jr. didn't agree to an in-depth interview. Did his people not know about the Tarantino interview? Possibly, but I suspect Guru-Murthy hasn't been blacklisted from accessing celebrities because when a celebrity walks out of an interview, it gets more page views. 

The Seven Deadly Sins of Speaking

I first wanted to check out Julian Treasure's TED Talk How to speak so that people will want to listen to see if I could pick up a few Toastmaster type tips. Instead, I was schooled in how to be more mindful when I open my yapper.

I'm hyper aware of negativity in conversation. On occasion I am drawn to it (there are some very creative ranters and complainers) but more often than not, I'll start to check out. 

I've listed the sins below along with Treasure's comments.

  1. Gossip, speaking ill of somebody who's not present. Not a nice habit, and we know perfectly well the person gossiping five minutes later will be gossiping about us.
  2. Judging. We know people who are like this in conversation, and it's very hard to listen to somebody if you know that you're being judged and found wanting at the same time.
  3. Negativity. You can fall into this. My mother, in the last years of her life, became very, very negative, and it's hard to listen. I remember one day, I said to her, "It's October 1 today," and she said, "I know, isn't it dreadful?" (Laughter) It's hard to listen when somebody's that negative.
  4. Complaining. Well, this is the national art of the U.K. It's our national sport. We complain about the weather, about sport, about politics, about everything, but actually complaining is viral misery. It's not spreading sunshine and lightness in the world.
  5. Excuses. We've all met this guy. Maybe we've all been this guy. Some people have a blamethrower. They just pass it on to everybody else and don't take responsibility for their actions, and again, hard to listen to somebody who is being like that.
  6. Penultimate, the sixth of the seven, embroidery, exaggeration. It demeans our language, actually, sometimes. For example, if I see something that really is awesome, what do I call it? (Laughter) And then of course this exaggeration becomes lying, out and out lying, and we don't want to listen to people we know are lying to us.
  7. Dogmatism, the confusion of facts with opinions. When those two things get conflated, you're listening into the wind. You know, somebody is bombarding you with their opinions as if they were true.It's difficult to listen to that.

Occasionally people just need to listen to a friend who is going through a rough patch but I always like to say "It would be a shame if we were still talking about this a year from now."