Friday, December 30, 2011

10 Days to Learn a Foreign Language? I Don't Think So!

10 Days to Learn a Foreign Language? I Don't Think So!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Art of Total Communication: Listen With More than Your Ears

For my vocation, diplomacy, and my avocation, writing, a skill that is essential to success is the ability to listen. 
Now, I have to confess that giving my full attention to people when they’re talking is something that I could be better at.  I’m often multi-tasking when talking to people, or when I’m at some gathering, I’m involved in more than one conversation at the same time, and that’s frankly rude.  I know it, and people who know me well, know it too, and at least on the surface, forgive me for it.
I’ve been that way most of my life, and find it hard to change – although, I do really, really try.  I have the unfortunate ability to listen to two or three conversations at the same time, and sort them out in my mind – and often, recall them days later.  If only I could remember where I put my reading glasses as easily, or the names of my nephews and nieces.
Another thing I do that might seem strange is; I listen with my eyes.  That’s not a joke either.  Most of us do it, but are unaware of doing so.  I just happen to know that it’s possible, and work at it.  If you don’t think I’m serious, the next time you’re in conversation with someone, pay attention to what you do.  If they’re giving you numbers, or dry details, you’re probably not really paying them much attention; but, the minute they begin to talk about feelings, decisions, or anything you consider important, what do you do?  You fix your eyeballs on them; watching their facial expression and body language.  I don’t know the exact percentage, but I’d estimate that we get more than half of the meaning of a conversation through what we see rather than what we here.
And, that’s what I mean by listening with my eyes.  Work on improving this ability, and you’ll find the amount and quality of information you gather will increase.  While you’re at it, learn to hear without listening, another skill that comes in handy regardless of your profession or pursuit.  This is a Buddhist meditation exercise I do frequently to help myself relax.  I stop trying to listen to discrete sounds and merely open my ears and allow all sounds to enter.  You’d be surprised at how many different things you can hear, and understand, when you don’t strain to listen.  It’s like the difference of relaxing and looking at the scene around you, instead of squinting to see a particular object – an exercise that blocks or blurs the rest of the vista.  Don’t believe me?  Try it.
What I’m getting at here is, communication is not just a verbal, mouth-to-ear, process, but one that involves every sensory organ, and the rest of our body as well.  If you’re a journalist or diplomat, developing these skills will improve your performance.  If you’re a writer, you’ll see more of the world around you with the clarity that will enable you to more skillfully interpret it for your readers.  So, open your eyes and hear what I’m saying.

It's the People on the Ground Who Are the True Heroes

On Dec. 28, I received the Diplomatic "Defender of Human Rights" Award from Zimbabwe Organization for Youth in Politics (ZOYP), but, it's actually the organizations on the ground, including the media, who are the true defenders of human rights, and the real heroes in the struggle for democracy.  Read more . . .

Monday, December 19, 2011

Kim Jong-il, North Korea's Dictator Dead: The One Enemy He Couldn't Bully

A reclusive, some felt extremely dangerous despot, who ruled his country with an iron fist, baiting and threatening the West and South Korea since 1994, Kim Jong-Il, “The Dear Leader,” of North Korea, finally succumbed to the one force that no one can defeat – time.  Kim, who kept his nation on the brink of starvation, banished or killed thousands, and turned the country into a pariah state, died of apparent heart failure Dec. 17.  According to state media, he was on a train trip to give field guidance when he died of “physical and mental overwork.”  The Official news agency, KCNA, later said he died after a advanced acute myocardial infarction, complicated with a serious heart shock, medical jargon for a massive heart attack.

Everything about Kim Jong-Il, son of North Korea’s founder, Kim Il-Sung, remains a mystery, even the exact cause of his death. His exact date and place of birth, the subject of much official mythology, is a mystery, although he’s thought to have been born in 1942 in Russia’s far east when his father was based there waging guerrilla war against the Japanese.  The official version has him born in China, on Baekdu Mountain, the mythic origin of the Korean race.  The state-controlled media of North Korea is not known for accuracy or truth in its reporting, and given that Kim has looked frail for some time, it becomes difficult to know his exact cause of death, only that is fairly certain that he made his last appointment with the Grim Reaper.

Taking the reins of the DPRK after the death of his father, Kim faced an uphill battle.  Many of the old guard in the ruling Workers Party objected to the dynastic succession, viewing it as ‘uncommunist.’ Neither as charismatic nor as capable of his father, he was unable to exert his personal will as his father did, but through manipulation and cunning, was finally able to overcome the opposition.  It has been widely speculated that many of the decisions since he came to power were actually made by the powerful military.  The year after he took over, the country faced one of its worse economic situations in its history, with a famine that lasted until 1997 that killed over two million people.  Only the iron control exerted by security forces prevented the mass exodus of many more millions.

In the ensuing years, though, many have managed to flee, with millions living in the Chinese border areas near Dandong and Tumen as undocumented aliens.

In 2006, North Korea announced the test of its first nuclear weapon, creating a tense situation of brinksmanship; offering at times to disarm, and at others threatening to use the weapon whenever it felt slighted, or suffered some problem needing outside assistance.

Kim will likely be replaced at the helm by his son, Kim Jong-un, a relative unknown who is not yet 30.  He is likely to face even more difficulty reining in the old guard than his father did, which means that the situation on the Korean Peninsula, always volatile, could be ratcheted up a few degrees, at least in the short term.  We must never forget that the Korean War is technically not over, only in a cease fire; a condition that North Korea has violated scores of times since the main combat operations of the Korean War ended.  A power struggle in Pyongyang could be the match that ignites yet another round of hostilities in this dangerous area.

An Interesting Site for Authors Promoting e-Books

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Virginia Phiri's Review of My Novel "Die, Sinner"

Zimbabwean author Virginia Phiri ("Highway Queen") recently read and reviewed my Al Pennyback mystery, Die, Sinner, and here's what she had to say about it.

In her first response: 

I started reading "Die Sinner" last Thursday but I am already half way through. The book seems to be "brutally honest"!, I am enjoying it.
She the followed up with additional comments:

I still stick with "Brutally Honest" but I would also like to add on more comments.

In "Die Sinner" its is clear that there is a lot of hypocrisy and cut throat business. One wonders how many business people do this sort of thing in our communities. It must be lots! In fact the drama in the book reminds me of what I have seen happening in the Christian communities here in Africa. The result is sad as many have been hurt and they bear scars that will last a life time. Unfortunately the flashy and fake style in these type of churches pulls crowds and blinds them completely. I personally do not go to church I just research about what goes on in the churches when I get an opportunity. When I feel like praying I do it at home.

I was just thinking aloud the other day, adaptation of this book into drama on the screen would give instant benefits to many. This could save a lot of souls. Just a suggestion.

If you'd like to see what impressed Virginia, check out my store's link.  Die, Sinner and my other Al Pennyback stories, as well as my other books, are available there.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Bulawayo: The City of Kings

Bulawayo is Zimbabwe's second largest city.  It has an interesting history, but is also a good tourist destination.  Read more . . .

Christmas Facts

A look at the history behind the traditions of Christmas.  This will probably offend some, so be aware of that if you decide to follow this link.

The'>">The Truth About Christmas

Thursday, December 15, 2011

An Unusual Cambodian Destination

Located on the coast, Kep is a city that many visitors to Cambodia have never heard of.  Read more . . .

Tenerife: A Jewel in the Atlantic

The largest of the seven Canary Islands, Tenerife offers amazing scenery, a touch of Spain, and warm hospitality.  Read more . . .

My Reflections on Serving in Vietnam

I served 20 years in the Army, including two tours in the Vietnam War. I've never regretted having served, but the main thing I got out of it was a healthy disdain for the bureaucracy.  Read more. . .

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Don't Get Sucked in By a Good Story!

When you encounter someone who can tell a good story, you quickly get sucked into his orbit.  When I first read “Three Cups of Tea” by Greg Mortenson, I was sold completely on the great things he related doing in central Asia, bringing education to children who would otherwise languish in ignorance and poverty.  The man can really tell a great story.
Then, I read “Three Cups of Deceit” by Jon Krakauer, and I came up for air.  Krakauer claims in his book that he too was moved by Mortenson’s tales; so much so in fact that he donated to Mortensen’s Central Asia Institute.  The problem, according to Krakauer, is that Mortenson’s tales were just that, and mostly tall ones.  His accounts of using the millions of dollars, donated mostly by individuals, to build schools in remote areas, schools that are educating hundreds of Afghan children, are, Krakauer says, mostly fabrications, or highly embroidered versions of reality.
His story that he was kidnapped and held for several days, for instance, was totally made up, the author says.
Now, this leaves me in a quandary.  Clearly, many people admire Mortenson for what he has done, and are willing to overlook some of his over exaggerated claims.  Some are even willing to forgive the poor financial management of his Central Asia Institute, and accuse Krakauer of being merely a destroyer of other writer’s reputations who hasn’t substantiated his allegations.  On the other hand, there are others who find the allegations credible, and who are extremely concerned with any non-profit organization that doesn’t perform in a completely transparent manner.
I don’t know who to believe.  In my career I’ve seen too many highly motivated NGO workers who are willing to skirt the truth to press their cause; who fabricate stories in the belief that their cause is so important it justifies such behavior.  I’ve also seen people who will write anything that they think will sell, and who make a living trashing other people; pulling the angels from the pedestal.  So, for now, I’ll just decide to not decide.  Maybe one of them is right; maybe both of them are wrong.
I do know, that henceforth, I’ll be less likely to be suckered by a well-written sob story, and ask for documentary evidence instead.

Monday, December 12, 2011

My Official Page at Asnycnow Radio

I'm Diplomatic editor for the New York-based Asnycnow Radio network.  Check my official page at the following link:  I'd be interested in any reader feedback.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Success is Nothing But a Bunch of Failures That You Learn From

Following is the text of a motivational speech I gave at the annual Zimbabwe Cricket Awards on November 28, 2001.

Thanks for the introduction, and a special thanks to the players and staff of Zimbabwe Cricket for giving me the honor of not only attending, but participating in tonight’s event.  This is indeed an historic occasion; marking Zimbabwe’s triumphant return to test cricket.  And, I don’t use the term triumphant lightly, for what you’ve done is just that.  You have, as we would say in the U.S., made a great comeback – and the best is yet to come.
If I may, I’d like to talk about the importance of returning or coming back.  I’d like to talk about winning; and what it means to be a winner.  The members of the national cricket team will remember when I spoke to them earlier this year just before they left for the ICC World Cup matches in South Asia, I said that winners are not always those with the higher scores on the board, but those who refuse to quit no matter the odds; who continue to try even when everyone tells them trying is useless.
Well, guys, this past year, you’ve done just that – and, in my book that makes you winners regardless of the final scores.
When I was growing up, one of my favorite poems was one by English poet Rudyard Kipling, called “If.”  That poem has always inspired me, especially when times were toughest.  The passage that I particularly like goes something like this:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss:
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

That, folks, is what it takes to be a winner; what it takes to be a success in this world.  I often tell young students that I speak to that success is really nothing but a string of failures that you’ve overcome.  If you’ve never been on the bottom, you really can’t appreciate being at the top.  Now, you are far from the bottom, but having been away so long, it must sometimes feel like it.  Believe me, I know the feeling.
I’d like to tell you about another person who made a triumphant return; who had a long string of failure before making it to the very top.  Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States is often viewed as one of our greatest – if not the greatest – leaders.  Through perseverance and sheer will power, he held the Union together during a terrible civil war that threatened to tear the country apart.
In 1860, Lincoln was elected President of the United States, the highest elective office in the land.  What you might not know, though, is that before winning that office, Lincoln was bedeviled by a long string of failures and returns in his career.
In 1832, he lost his job and was defeated in his run for a seat in the state legislature of Illinois.  But, that year, he was elected captain of a company of the Illinois militia in the Black Hawk War.  In 1833, the business he started after the war was over failed.  He came back to be appointed postmaster of New Salem, Illinois and deputy surveyor of his county.  In 1834, he finally won a seat in the state legislature.  In 1835, his sweetheart died, and the following year he suffered a nervous breakdown.  This didn’t, however, keep from winning reelection to the legislature or getting his license to practice law in Illinois.
In 1838, Lincoln lost his bid to be speaker of the legislature, but he won reelection to his seat and served as his party whip.  In 1843, Lincoln made his first try at winning a seat in the US Congress, but lost, and lost again in 1848.  In 1849 the state of Illinois refused to appoint him a land officer.
Now, if you think this was the end of his troubles, think again.  In 1854, he was defeated in his campaign for a seat in the US Senate, and in 1856, he lost the bid to be vice president on his party’s ticket.  He tried for the Senate again in 1858 and, yes, lost again.  A lesser individual would in all likelihood have quit after so many devastating losses in such a short period of time, but not Lincoln.  He persevered, and in 1860 was nominated by his party and won election as President.  A famous quote attributed to Lincoln is, “M y great concern is not whether you have failed, but whether you are content with your failure.”  He was clearly not content with his, and despite nearly 30 years of one failure after another, he kept coming back.  He went on to become one of our greatest leaders.
There’s a lesson there for all of us.  It’s not important how many times you fall down.  What’s important is how many times you get back up and keep pushing ahead.  The only true failures are those who never try.  Those words of wisdom I got from my grandmother, and I’ve tried to live by them in everything I do.
So, tonight, we celebrate returns; we salute those who keep coming back for more, who strive to be ever better.  If I wore a hat, it would be doffed to you valiant young men and women, and all those who support you.  You have done remarkably well, and I predict you will do even better in the time to come.
In parting, I’d like to leave you with a line I remember from some movie that I saw once.  I no longer remember the movie, but I’ve never forgotten the line – “The best is yet to come.”

Let Not the Veil of Ignorance Descend Upon Our Children

Narrow minded, anti-intellectual, anti-science beliefs and those who espouse them have been with us for a long time. 
Socrates was forced to drink hemlock after being charged with corrupting the youth of Athens.  The Italian, Galileo, who supported the theory of Copernicus that the earth orbited the sun, was called to Rome in 1633 and tried for heresy.  One of the pieces of evidence against him was Psalms 104:5, “The Earth is firmly fixed; it shall not be moved,” a biblical verse that shackled men’s minds for centuries and held back scientific enquiry into the nature of the universe.
What, you might ask, does this have to do with anything?  Well, the narrow, absolutist views that hemmed in people like Socrates and Galileo, are still with us.  Recently, the state of Mississippi tried to pass a law declaring that life begins at the moment of fertilization.  The so-called ‘Personhood Law’ was shot down by voters, but one has to believe, unfortunately, people whose minds run to such efforts won’t give up.  Which brings me to the issue that is really on my mind; the pseudo-scientific theory of Intelligent Design that some people want taught alongside Darwin’s theory of evolution in our public schools.
Adherents of intelligent design claim that it is possible to infer from empirical evidence that certain features of our universe and living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, and not an undirected process, such as natural selection.  They try to separate their views from creationism, stating that it relies on scientific evidence rather than biblical scripture or religious doctrine.  This attempt to explain the universe and the living things contained within it was developed in the early 1980s by cosmologist Fred Hoyle who, along with many others, was uncomfortable with bringing God into the discussion. 
I have serious issues with both schools of thought.  Creationism accepts no argument; you either believe or you’re rejected as a non-believer.  Unlike scientific enquiry, which is always subject to further verification or outright rebuttal when new evidence is found, creationism must be accepted on faith alone.  Intelligent design doesn’t go quite to those lengths, but it still fails the scientific test – it posits that some superior intelligence designed the universe and living creatures, but is mute as to the identity of that intelligence.  Sounds suspiciously like a cleaned-up and edited version of creationism to me.
If we allow our educational institutions to indoctrinate students with such points of view, are we not risking creating new generations of people who don’t think or question?  Shouldn’t religious indoctrination be left in the church where it belongs?  Not, according to the supporters of such thinking.
I’ve seen firsthand the outcome of religion intruding into the classroom.  Zimbabwe, where I’ve lived for the past two years, allows teaching of the Bible in government schools on a par with science.  On my Facebook page, I regularly interact with over 4,000 young Zimbabwean products of this education system, and their responses to certain issues demonstrates the danger in blurring the border between church and state functions.
Recently, just for fun, I posted the following question:  Is a zebra a black animal with white stripes, or a white animal with black stripes?”  Within thirty minutes, I’d received over 30 comments from young Zimbabweans, and about ten percent of them were religious in nature.  By the end of a day, there were more than 100 comments, still with a significant number along the following lines:  It takes an intelligence not to disintegrate what God created it simply black and white. Giving it one color is good as question God's actions,” or “There is no color in that animal . . . when God created that animal he did not tell us about colors.”
The significance of this admittedly limited sample; and I have many others, believe me; is that it shows how adhering to absolutist beliefs often closes the mind to new information.  That which conflicts with our absolute beliefs is simply rejected.  Our minds refuse to move forward, but remain mired instead in a simplistic, un-provable point of view.  Some people would call that ignorance.
I prefer to be charitable and call it naiveté; but it is no less dangerous.  Such beliefs lead to the persecution, and often destruction, of those with whom the adherents disagree.  It leads to the refusal to accept the benefits of science, such as some religious sects who refuse to allow their children to be vaccinated.  Not only does this endanger the children themselves, but in the case of infectious diseases, others with whom they come into contact.
There has to be a place in our world for religion and for science.  I don’t believe the two are necessarily in conflict.  A scientist can believe in evolution and God at the same time.  Unfortunately, there are far too many people – some of them in positions to affect our lives – who don’t hold that view, and who want to force their views on the rest of us.  I respect their views, and defend their right to hold them; but, I will fight to the death against their right to force them on me, or upon future generations.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Deadly Intentions, a new Al Pennyback mystery is available in e-book format

If you enjoyed reading the first chapter, check out the complete book at
Available soon in paperback at, or here in my store.