The Five Takeaways of Touring: Mustard Macklovitch

If you’re a music aficionado, you’ll certainly know who DJ A-Trak is.  In a nutshell, DJ A-Trak was a Montreal-born  DJ prodigy who won all the major DJing championships in his teenage years.  Years later, he became Kanye West’s touring DJ, started a record label called Fool’s Gold with Nick Catchdubs, and became well-known for his live shows, remixing, and producing.  He is also a prolific blogger, regularly documenting his travails and travels, and posting up the odd hotel review.  A-Trak has spent plenty of his almost 15-year career on the road.
A recent addition to A-Trak’s shows is his trusty steed, Mustard Macklovitch. Mustard Macklovitch first appeared in summer 2009, when he accompanied A-Trak on his 10,000 lb Hamburger Tour across North America. They toured and trotted together for a month, explored the whole continent, and of course, made new friends together.
However, don’t be fooled by the cuddly exterior.  Mustard, with some guidance from A-Trak, is a touring warrior.
“Sometimes when I meet people they ask me for some travel tips. They say they want to hear it from the horse’s mouth… I guess that’s me,” he neighs.
On break from touring and at home at the Fool’s Gold stables, Mustard Macklovitch provides some advice and his five takeaways of touring below.
1.  See as much of you can of each city.
“It’s so easy to just stay in your barn and sleep until showtime, but every time you make the effort to go out and explore it’s instantly gratifying,” he explains.
“If you’re a clotheshorse like me, you can often find some unique pieces on the road.  It’s good to get to know the history of the places you visit too, it gives you a better understanding of local customs.  I love discovering new cuisines.   Sometimes when we’d pass a fast food chain, some of the other guys on the bus would settle for that yucky food, saying things like ‘I’m so hungry I could eat a horse.’  First of all that’s a terrible thing to say.  And second, once you make the effort to find the good local spots, you build up these great memories of the cities you visit,” he whinnies.
2.  Take care of your body: eat well, sleep well, exercise.
“Touring is exhausting.  Your days fly by so fast, you can literally forget to eat sometimes.  You can go out after the gigs, get carried away with some horseplay and end up sleeping 3 or 4 hours every night.  That’s not good!  You have to take care of yourself, and it’s not that hard.  All you need to do is prioritize these basic things that you body needs.  As long as you sleep decent hours, eat your apples and whatnot, you’ll be fine.  I’m lucky, I actually like to exercise.  I’m trying to get A-Trak to run laps with me but he’s always playing with his Blackberry.  Next time he does that I’m going to eat it,” he neighs.
3.  Be nice to the people you meet.
“They’re so appreciative when you’re kind, and it’s simply the right thing to do.  I’m not asking you to put on a whole dog and pony show.  Just be courteous, get off your high horse and you’ll quickly realize that the people you meet aren’t that different from you and your friends.  There’s nothing I enjoy more than making friends,” he explains.
4.  Pack light.
“The rookie mistake is to show up with 2 massive suitcases packed with every saddle you think you might need for different weather conditions.  Then you just end up wearing the same 3 outfits on the whole tour and you find yourself lugging these big heavy bags for no reason.  When you’re getting your bags ready before leaving home, resist the temptation to bring useless stuff.  If you get that urge, hold your horses.  Bring your essentials and leave a bit of room for things you might buy too!” he nickers.
5.  Blog.
“I’m a modern horse.  I embrace Web 2.0.  I take a lot of pictures with my new friends and love sharing my experiences with the world.  There are lots of people out there who might know one or two things about you, but when you really start writing about experiences, the bonds that you build are so much stronger.  Now I really feel like I know a lot of you even though we may have only met for a few hours.  What’s more, all my memories are crystal clear since I wrote about them!”  he whinnies.
Mustard Macklovitch adds some closing thoughts.
“I just wanted to mention that this is my first interview and I’m so excited about it!  I hope to continue making new friends, you’ve all been so nice to me.  As long as I continue to travel, gallop on new trails, meet nice folks and eat local delicacies, I’ll be happy.  So long!”
Mustard has a Facebook Fan Page.  More about his owner and friend, DJ A-Trak, can be found here.
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The Five Takeaways of Craft Shows: Benita Hsueh

Many of us dream of one day quitting our day jobs and doing what we love instead.

Several years ago, Benita Hsueh did just that.  She worked at a large computer company, and decided that she was tired of working for the man.  Instead, she decided to craft.

“It all started when I was little.  When I was growing up, I would make paper cutout dresses for my dolls – either doll clothes were really expensive to buy, or I always found something wrong with what was out there and wanted to make something I liked,” she explains.

All this designing and experimentation led Hsueh to build House of Hsueh and We are Wedges, her bag/accessory design and stuffed toy ventures, respectively.  Craft shows have been an integral vehicle to showcase her work and to earn a living.  To date, Hsueh has participated in over fifty craft shows, and is something of a Toronto craft show veteran.  Below, Benita provides the five takeaways of craft shows.

1.  The best time to do a craft show is hands down, Christmas.

When I ask Hsueh when the best time is to participate in craft shows, the question is a no-brainer.

“Christmastime!  Christmastime!” she says emphatically.

“Spring is okay, there’s more browsers then.  But Christmas, the time from September to the end of December, people are always looking for unique or odd gifts.  Any other time of the year is pretty hit or miss.”

2.  Participate in the established shows – if they build it, people will come.

“To figure out what show to participate in, I check with the organizer if the show is established.  The way to know is if these people know what numbers come through to the show each year, or the ones that I see who do advertising, both online and in any popular local papers,” she explains.

Otherwise, there are craft shows where the only thing moving through the aisles are a couple of tumbleweeds.

3.  Never underprice your work.

“I definitely encourage people to craft, however when doing this, I recommend that people don’t underprice their craft.  Selling for under cost doesn’t help anyone – you, because you’re not making your money back, and second, because it’s damaging for people who make a living out of this kind of work,” says Hsueh.

4. Etsy is often used as a supplement to craft shows, and can be both a bane and a boon.

Many crafters often use the website Etsy to create an online presence beyond craft shows.

“Etsy has made it really easy to set up an online store, and it is very user friendly.  The nice thing about it is that it makes the world your market.  However, Etsy is something you have to work at.  There are millions of products on Etsy, and there are so many new products every day that you have to pour hours of work into it.  It’s hard to keep up.  Also, if you’re trying to make original items, it’s really hard to keep it original, and it’s often a place where your ideas can be taken.”

5.  Lastly, at craft shows, never forget tape (especially of the duct variety), a pen, change, and coffee.

For those people who prefer to stick to physical craft shows, the above items have been necessities for Hsueh in a variety of scenarios.  Duct tape is good for sticking and fixing.  A pen is great to jot down information.  People always run out of change, and coffee is a godsend for early mornings.

And of course, don’t forget your crafts.

More information about Benita’s work can be found at House of Hsueh and We are Wedges.  Benita’s work is also going to be at the One of a Kind Show in Toronto.

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The Five Takeaways of Soapmaking: Teresa Mak

Soap is something that we often take for granted, yet it’s something we can’t live without.  We pick it up at the pharmacy for a couple dollars, it cleans, and somehow melts away, only for the process to be repeated again.  Soap has existed for centuries, yet the average person knows little about how it is made, save for glimpses of the process in the movie Fight Club.  Of course, there’s no better way to create interest in a hobby than having Brad Pitt’s face attached to it.

Brad Pitt was not the reason that Teresa Mak, my sister and an engineer by trade, got interested in soapmaking.  Teresa was given a gift of handmade soap several years ago, and she realized how much she liked it – it lasted much longer and was much more moisturizing than a conventional bar of soap.  However, upon a return trip to the store to pick up another bar, she was dismayed to find that the soap was no longer available.

What else is an engineer to do?

“I decided to make my own soap.  It turns out that if you had the ingredients and you experimented enough, it wasn’t so hard, and actually it was really fun!”

Leave it to my sister to find soapmaking fun.  She ended up turning this side experiment into a sometime business venture called Sherlock Soaps.

Below, Teresa Mak provides her five takeaways of soapmaking.

1.  Basic soap is made from a combination of a base and fat.

The essence of soap making is a process called “saponification”.  As Mak describes, “Saponification is where a strong base, the lye in this case, reacts with fats to form soap.  As a by-product, glycerin is formed, and it naturally occurs within the soap.  I’m not sure how true this is, but apparently in ancient times the way that soap was discovered was that ashes were accidentally mixed with animal fat and then formed suds, and Romans would wash their clothes with this mixture.”

The miracle of the whole process is that the mixture of strong bases and fats, which on their own seem so useless, can create something so useful.

2.  Most commercially distributed soaps are made of unsavoury fats and/or strange chemicals.

Soaps these days rely on the supply of cheap fats, in which today it is often beef fat, palm oil, or petroleum by-products.  Which seems odd, considering that these products on their own are things that one wants to keep away from their body.

“I’m not sure how comfortable you are with rubbing saponified beef fat onto your body, but essentially that’s what it is when you’re using Ivory Soap,” explains Mak.

So much for that pure image of a baby bathing with Ivory Soap.  Mak prefers to use fats like olive oil or coconut oil.

If not strange fats, then commercial soaps also contain a whole range of synthetic chemicals.

“In a commercially available soap, detergents help to clean, sodium laureth sulphate helps to bubble, and artificial fragrances help to make it smell nice.  This combination creates something ‘soap-like’, but isn’t quite soap,” says Mak.

3.  Making a bar of soap takes about an hour, but the whole process can take a month before it is completely finished.

If you are one of those people who are interested in making your own soap rather than buying it off the shelf at the store, Mak explains the soapmaking process below.

“The process of getting the soap to react initially takes about an hour.  Here, you have to melt the fats, add lye, and mix until initial saponification.  After you ‘cook’ the soap, you pour it into the moulds, after which it goes through the gel phase.  As the name suggests, the gel phase is where the soap goes through a crazy reaction where it gets very hot and starts looking like gel.  After about an hour, it cools down and turns into a harder piece of soap.  What it hardens, that’s when I cut it into smaller pieces.  As for curing the soap, after I cut it I let it sit for about a month before it’s ready to use.”

4.  You can tell if a soap is done by tasting it.

The prospect of tasting soap does not sound particularly tempting, considering that many years ago washing your mouth out with soap was considered a punishment.  However, Mak assures me that tasting your soap is the way to tell if your soap is done.

“Glycerin is slightly sweet, and nice hand formed soap with glycerin should taste sweet.”

5. Always remember to keep some vinegar at hand for any safety mishaps in soapmaking.

If the above process hasn’t deterred you from making your own soap, it is important to remember that when making soap, lye is a very strong base and should be treated with caution.

“I recall one time I tasted a bar with what I thought was glycerin on top, but it was actually lye.  Gross!”

Vinegar, an acid, helps to neutralize any lye splashes.  And of course, when the soap ingredients are mixed, it is close to neutral.

Barring burns, the time commitment, and labour, making your own soap is a great way to build an appreciation for something we so often take for granted.  Cleanliness is next to godliness, after all.

You can also keep yourself clean with Teresa’s soaps, which can be found online at www.sherlocksoaps.com.

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The Five Takeaways of Solar Power: Ian Howard

Ian Howard is someone who likes to get his hands dirty.

Before dabbling in solar power, Howard was a paratrooper, then a mountain guide, then a builder of IT infrastructure in Africa.  So, how exactly did he get into solar power?

“I had been interested in renewable energy since I was very young.  Growing up in Northern Ontario, I was, of course, interested in the environment and the outdoors.  However, solar in particular, I became particularly interested in solar while working in Africa, where  we used it to bring telecommunications to rural areas. Solar was a way for us to bring these technologies without burdening these communities with the cost of fuel for generators.”

Solar power is seen to be one of the alternatives to fossil fuels, the latter of which has caused much of the CO2 accumulation in the atmosphere.  While in the past, solar power was expensive and ineffective, over the past couple of years solar technology has become cost effective and efficient.

Howard now does consulting and as a partner with a solar start-up called Power Panel.  Below he provides his five takeaways of solar power. 

1.  The speed at which solar technology is developing is comparable to that of the microchip.

People often forget that solar technology is just that – technology.

“The most common misconception about solar that I encounter has to do with dated information. Solar is progressing at such a fast speed that the two year old information that is the basis of most preconceptions is really off the mark. Solar is changing almost as fast as microchips, and this is creating opportunities that are smashing down walls decades earlier than anticipated,” says Howard.

2.  Solar energy is a good defensive measure against unpredictable weather and high energy costs.

Solar energy was once the domain of off-grid, patchouli scented hippies.  It turns out, however, that solar power has greater application than most people think.  With the upgrade of electrical networks to “smart grids”, whereby power is distributed and two-way digital technology is used to deliver electricity from suppliers to consumers and vice versa, it could potentially be a way to pay very little for electricity.

“With only a few square meters of collectors on a roof, all of the hot water for a home can be heated by the sun. This equipment costs little more than most home entertainment systems, and provides sustainable energy for more than a decade.  It also provides some insurance against those few but painful occasions when the gas, or electric grids go down. I find it astonishing that people in Ontario who endured the ice storm years ago are not convinced of the need for greater resilience and autonomy in our systems,” exclaims Howard.

As it turns out, solar power is good for the environment, wallet, and self sufficiency.  Perhaps the hippies were on to something.

 

3.  Solar power works in cold climates.

When one sees stock photos of solar panels and solar power, they always seem to contain an array of panels in the middle of a desert.  Should people in cold climates, such as Canada, be using solar power?

“It is another misconception that colder climates are less suitable for solar. Cold is not the issue, but rather sunlight. The further from the equator one goes the less light there is in winter, but photovoltaics perform better when they are cool and the heat generated by solar thermal becomes yet more useful. In fact, the best places on earth for solar are in mountain areas, like in Northern Chile which have low temperatures but plenty of sunlight,” Howard explains.

How about solar panels getting covered in snow?  Wouldn’t that render solar power pointless in cold climates?

“Snow, of course, can block sunlight from getting to the panels. Typically panels are installed on an angle so snow can slide off the glass most of the time. For those cases where this doesn’t happen, there are a few innovations which allow the panel to be heated, melting snow and ice off their surface,” he says.

 

4.  Although solar is “clean” energy, making panels is quite resource intensive – however, over the life time of the panel, less resources are needed than fossil fuels.

In the creation of new technologies, a shift occurs in resource demand.  For example, with the increase in need for long-term energy storage, the amount of lithium-ion batteries needed is increasing.  As a result, the demand for lithium is also increasing.  Similarly, with the manufacture of solar panels, there will be a need for resources such as silicon, cadmium telluride, plastic, and copper-indium selenide.

“Solar does require materials, so using no energy will always be more environmentally friendly than using solar. Where solar excels, however, is in producing power where it is consumed. This obviates the need to build infrastructure to transport energy great distances such as other energy sources require, and thus has a much lower impact and reduces transmission losses,” explains Howard.

In regards to the increased need for resources, Howard admits that many solar companies are constrained for resources and often don’t think of the longer term implications for sustainable manufacturing.  There is a need to incorporate this thinking into future product designs.

5.  Government incentives for solar power tends to favour the “big guys”.

“At the onset of the recession, the idea of ‘green jobs’ spread faster than a cold in policy circles. Governments quickly inserted green into their economic recovery plans and this created a great boon for renewable energy, particularly in places where industry dominates.  Although there has been very favourable incentives and policy for renewables, this seems to have favoured big players. Government grants often go to the well prepared and staffed big corporations. So, this green policy boon has only strengthened the big players while the small players have been weakened by the credit crunch,” explains Howard.

For now, Howard continues to fight the good fight.

For more information about Ian visit his blog at http://vectorbravo.blogspot.com.

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Yet another pause….

Will be back on the 28th of January.  Away in California!

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The Five Takeaways of Couchsurfing: Cesar Valentim

One of the great rites of passage into adulthood is backpacking around the world – staying in grotty backpacker hostels, experiencing different cultures, trying new foods, seeing sights that you haven’t seen before.  However, one begins to notice after visiting several cities, that this routine doesn’t provide for a lot of interaction or immersion with the people who actually live there.

Then, along came Couchsurfing.  Couchsurfing is “an international non-profit network that connects travelers with locals in over 230 countries and territories around the world.”  Couchsurfing has been around since 2004, and has focused on cultural exchange, friendship and learning exchange through sharing hospitality and cultural understanding.   A fancy way to say that if you find yourself in a strange place and don’t know anyone, Couchsurfing is a great way to find a couch to sleep on, or a friend to show you around town.

Cesar Valentim, does media for Couchsurfing and is a veteran couchsurfer.

“I can remember the first day that I couchsurfed – it was June 11, 2005,” he reminisces.  He recalls seeing a news article on television about the concept, and was intrigued.

Valentim has since couchsurfed and hosted couchsurfers at his home in Lisbon, Portugal, over 500 times.

“Actually, I’ve lost count,” he laughs.

Below, Valentim provides his five takeaways of couchsurfing.

1.  Couchsurfing is not for everyone.

“Why should you couchsurf?  Well, couchsurfing is for people that really want to see and feel a different culture, who want to mingle with locals.  Couchsurfing is for people who don’t want the tourist life, and don’t care for deluxe travelling accommodations,” explains Valentim.

This scene is not always for everyone, however.

“With couchsurfing, you have to be able to share some of your privacy – all this cultural exchange is not for everyone, and not everyone can open their house to a complete stranger.  You could be showering in a bathroom that is filthy, which you may not like.  You could be sleeping in someone’s living room, or sharing a room with the host’s kids.  There’s not a whole lot of privacy every time you have to couchsurf, and you have to be respectful,” says Valentim.

2.  There are couchsurfing hosts in places you couldn’t even imagine.

Two hundred and thirty countries is a lot of countries where you could potentially couchsurf.

“I’ve hosted people that come from the middle of the US and usually live in treehouses.  I’ve couchsurfed in East Timor, where there are no tourism facilities, and I couchsurfed with a family there, and ended up having an amazing time.”

If you can imagine a country, it’s more than likely that there will be a willing friend, if not a willing host, ready to receive you.

3.  Couchsurfing is quite safe, however instincts are very important.

“It’s up to you what couchsurfing it – it’s your own experience, and you have to use your own good sense.  Couchsurfing and all the volunteers and couchsurfing staff put a lot of effort into safety tools.  We have references, a vouching system, and other safety tools to provide a better and safer experience.  However, it all comes down to your judgment – if you don’t feel comfortable with something, it’s probably not right to do it.” says Cesar.

However, as reassurance, the initiative boasts 3.2 million positive experiences, which is an amazing 99.6% of all couchsurfing experiences.

4.  There is no such thing as an average couchsurfer.

“The average changes daily because the number of people who join couchsurfing each day – we’re at over a million couchsurfers now.  You never know who’s going to knock on your door – I’ve had 62 year old women, 48 year olds, 18 year old teenagers – there isn’t really a particular profile,” explains Valentim.

“However, if you want statistics – the average couchsurfer is 27 years old, almost 90% have a college education, and everyone speaks at least a second language, or tries to.  And generally, they all have an amazing will to experience new things,” he explains.

5.  Couchsurfing runs on a whole lotta love… and a whole lotta volunteer labour.

Couchsurfing is only run by a few paid staff members, and over 2,000 volunteers.  Pretty amazing for a site that boasts over a million users.

To learn more about Couchsurfing, head over to http://www.couchsurfing.org.

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The Five Takeaways of North Korea (DPRK): Simon Cockerell

North Korea, or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), has always been somewhat of an oddity.  Closed off to the world, the only exposure we’ve had to the country are fleeting images and stories, ranging from the frightening to the eccentric:  the sour face of former US President Bill Clinton with Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il; the harrowing plight of reporters Euna Lee and Laura Ling ; the Dear Leader’s penchant for toro, fatty tuna belly; human rights abuses, rumours of political stand-ins, and the grinding poverty of its people.

This would often be enough to deter most people, but for the brave of heart, Koryo Tours is one company that specializes in tours to North Korea.  Simon Cockerell, a Brit and one of Koryo’s tour leaders, was once a participant himself eight years ago. That same year, he joined the team as general manager, and he now goes to North Korea once a month.  Below, Cockerell provides his five takeaways of DPRK.

1. North Korea is not as closed as we think it is.

There is a misconception that no one can visit North Korea.  In fact, North Korea does has some tourism albeit it being very small – approximately 2,000 people visit North Korea each year.

“We take about 50% of these 2,000 people – 10-15% of them are US citizens, and we take about 80-85% of the Americans.  We’re the only specialists in the field.  Besides not knowing that you can visit North Korea, it’s expensive to visit.  However, once you get over that, the visa process is quite easy – they don’t generally arbitrarily deny visas, but it is harder for journalists and South Korean citizens to get in.  Generally, Americans can only go for certain parts of the year,” explains Cockerell.

2.  North Korea is actually quite a safe place to visit.

In 2008, a  South Korean woman, Park Wang-Ja, was visiting a North Korean resort.  She was reportedly shot and killed by the military after allegedly sneaking away from the resort in the middle of the night.  However, this story doesn’t seem to be representative of most tourist accounts.

“Certainly there are some restrictions – tourists aren’t allowed to wander off anywhere they want, and generally they are asked to stick to an all-inclusive itinerary that doesn’t involve wandering around town – but they are generally not in danger.  They just have to be aware of some limitations,” explains Cockerell.

“There isn’t really any danger or risk of large scale uprisings or petty crime in DPRK for tourists – I’ve never heard of anyone being mugged, robbed, or taking any specific precautions before going,” says Cockerell.

3.  There are actually touristy things you can see in North Korea.  (No, not secret nuclear facilities or hard labour prison camps)

North Korea is a fairly spartan nation.  However, there are some highlights worth seeing.

“Every year, there’s an event called the Mass Games – this is what most people go to see.  It’s enormous, and takes place over a 10 week period in October.  Sixty to seventy percent of the market goes at this time.  The Mass Games are a spectacle of synchronized music, dance, sports and propaganda, not unlike the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony.  Over 100,000 performers take part in a 90 minute show over this period every single day,” explains Cockerell.

People often visit during leaders’ birthdays and other holidays too.

“Really, the real highlight is just going there, and seeing what it’s like.  Every time I go back, I feel like I learn something new,” says Cockerell.

4.  North Koreans are friendly; but somewhat suspicious of foreigners.

There is another assumption that North Koreans, who are under state control, are not authorized to speak with foreigners.  This is untrue.

“North Koreans are by nature, very conservative. They don’t encounter a lot of foreigners, and no one there speaks English, and not many tourists speak Korean.  Generally, the message put across in DPRK about foreigners is a negative one.”

However, that is not to say that they will never speak with you.

“The best time to speak with locals is during Korean holidays – May Day for example.  People are shy and hesitant at first, but after they have some drinks, watch matches of Korean wrestling, have some homemade alcohol, you might have some people practicing languages with you.  It’s similar to if you were visiting any other country.”

5.  When all else fails, football is always a good fallback.

Cockerell often organizes friendly exhibition matches in North Korea.

“Football is a friendly game – it’s the world’s biggest sport, and there are very few exceptions in the world where people aren’t interested in it.  We’ve had teams from Beijing, Hong Kong, Singapore, the Netherlands – play against Korean teams.  We arrange a game, have lunch, talk about football – if you can’t talk about anything else, if there’s absolutely nothing else to talk about, we’ve got football.  Someone always has an opinion on Manchester United,” jokes Cockerell.

In 2008, a South Korean woman, Park Wag-ja, was shot and killed by the military as she reportedly snuck away from a resort in the middle of the night

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