Tuesday, July 28, 2009


Twitter is changing the face of civic activism in several ways: Live tweeting and live commentary from events, connecting people with common interests, and helping people organize who aren't part of the old boys network.

'Plan-It' is a proposal in the city of Calgary to redensify the city by densifying existing areas and limiting the business-as-usual suburban expansion. During first reading, presentations were being made by the public, both for and against. People were there making comments on twitter as it was happening (livetweeting). This allowed people to stay in the loop about what was going, or when they should come to present without being there the whole time.

Discussions and status updates about the hearings were all tagged #yyccc, meaning Calgary City Council (YYC from the Calgary International Airport code, cc=city council). This 'hashtag' is searchable on twitter.com which lets anyone interested in that topic follow the discussion, and find other people who are also interested.

These hashtags arise spontaneously within the community and are useful for tracking discussions. Searching for #yeg will bring up a live stream of tweets relative to Edmonton in some way.

Twitter provided a platform to organize the group wanting to close the Edmonton City Centre Airport as well. The discussion on twitter about #ecca was being followed not only by the community of people interested in what was going on, but also in real time during the discussions by Ward 5 Councillor Don Iveson. Whether or not you agree with the decision to close #ecca or not, the speed and ease of distribution of information is hard to fathom until you see it in action.

Twitter was asked by the US government to postpone some scheduled downtime during the protests over the election in Iran. With cellular phone service cut and foreign journalists booted from the country, twitter users such as @Change_for_Iran became the de-facto source for on the spot news coverage.

Concern that these twitter users were being targeted to reduce protests, users elsewhere set their location to Tehran, Iran and turned their avatars green in solidarity with the supporters of Mousavi, the candidate who was reported to have lost the election to Ahmadinejad.

Twitter will certainly continue to change the face of civic activism, at least until the next thing does.

You can follow me on twitter at:


Saturday, July 18, 2009

Drops in the bucket

It's only a drop in the bucket. Or is it?

As you read this, set your kitchen tap to drip slowly into the sink. Put in the plug, or use a bowl or something to collect the drops. You'll need them later.

Drops in the bucket come up in conversation when people think things don't matter. Things like dropping a couple bucks for coffee or deciding whether to go vote.

Individually, these events are insignificant, but aggregated over many coffees or over large amounts of people they make a huge difference.

For example, Barack Obama was able to outraise and outspend John McCain during the 2008 U.S. Presidential election thanks in large part to lots of people donating small, individually insignificant amounts of money.

If you look at them in isolation they don't really matter. That's where it fools you. Where it matters is in the system that springs up around it. The drops, like the tortoise against the hare, are relentless.

Some things look imposing, impossible even. It would be great to fill the bucket and achieve that goal, but it's a lot of work or effort or time to get there. The 'if everybody would just...' lament recognizes the value of the goal, but recognizes the futility of getting everyone to do anything - especially all at once. Instead, the drops need to be accumulated one at a time. Filling the bucket is worthwhile. It just takes time.

One fast food meal or one trip to the gym isn't going to tip the scales much ether way. Years of one or the other certainly will. The question is which bucket do you put your drops in. (Not deciding is still deciding.)

A leaky tap is going to drip lots before it gets the attention it needs. Skipping one workout doesn't seem like a game changer, and probably won't affect your performance. Similarly, going for a single jog isn't going to turn you into a marathoner, but sustained small efforts add up to something big.

Exercising or not. Saving money or not. Recycling that pop can or not. These are small discrete decisions that add up to big things in the end. These are things that can't and won't get done all in one go, but don't make much difference either way in the moment, which makes them both easy to harness and easy to squander.

Whatever buckets you use to collect your drops in, make sure they're the right ones for you. Whether your buckets are fast food and television, or health food and exercise, be conscious about your decisions. Ask yourself: Is this what I want my buckets filled with? If not, take steps to fix it.

Don't forget to turn off the tap. There's more water there than you realize.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Before We Need It

When Noah's buddies were hassling him about building a boat in the middle of the desert it must have been hard to carry on with the construction. Finishing the boat was the right thing to do though.

The right time to get ready for problems that may come your way is before you need to. Most of the time you don't know what those problems are going to be, and for those sorts of problems, you need an emergency fund.

Spending less than you earn is boring, but it's the solution to your basic financial problems. Unpredictable events happen, and that's why you need an emergency fund. Typically 3-6 months of expenses is a good number to shoot for.

Keep this in a high interest savings account. Someplace removed from easy access so that you won't be tempted to spend it, but not someplace locked away where you can't get your hands on it on short notice. The emergency fund will help you ride out the unpredictable problems that life will throw your way.

The predictable problems we face are something else entirely.

Suppose you were able to predict that you want to retire someday. At that point you're going to need to spend your savings. The smart move would be to put money away so you have something when you need it.

Suppose you were able to predict that fossil energy was going to be scarce and expensive in the future. The smart move would be to transition the entire economy away from fossil fuel as quickly as possible. Jobs in fossil energy would turn into jobs in clean energy.

Suppose you were able to predict that anything more than a two degree Celsius change above preindustrial levels would be catastrophic to the biosphere. The smart move would be to avoid that change, especially when it is shown that business as usual is more costly than taking action to solve the problem.

Keep an eye on Canada's involvement in global climate change talks, and see if Canada's position, which is drawing international scorn, speaks for you. We've lost our chance for 'before we need it' international action on climate change. The scientists are terrified. We need action now.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Alberta High Speed Rail

Note: This post was written in February 2006, just after the Alberta government gave us each $400.

I've got $400 that says that Alberta is a prosperous province.

The development of High Speed Rail in the Highway 2 corridor is overdue, but the economic, environmental, and technological stars are aligning in a way that could see a progressive transportation solution for the region becoming a reality. The Alberta economy is hot, but there is currently no alternative to burning fossil fuels to get from Calgary to Edmonton in a timely manner. High Speed Rail technology is fast, proven, efficient, and economical.

It is a proper function of government to undertake large infrastructure projects that are in the best interests of the people it serves. The time is right for the province to invest in transportation infrastructure of the future, rather than waiting for some sort of crisis to force their hand.

Proposals for a High Speed Rail link between Calgary and Edmonton are resurfacing on the Provincial agenda. It was shown in the Van Horne Institute's 2004 study that sufficient demand already exists for rail service offering two hour or less travel time between Calgary and Edmonton. The project is moving towards a market demand study a feasibility study, and hopefully construction.

However the study misses out on some opportunities that relate to smaller cities along the route. It makes no allowances for stops at some of the other communities along the route. For example, Airdrie and Leduc both have significant commuter traffic to their respective big city counterparts. The train could take a significant chunk of that commuter traffic. If you wanted to make a trip from Wetaskiwin to Olds, it would be nice to be able to hop onto a train and have it take you there. It would also be nice to be able to catch a fast train from anywhere along the Highway 2 corridor to either airport, which would change dramatically the notion of park and fly. The more communities that are included in the scheme, the more flexibility the service would provide. If it's a one trick pony that just does Calgary-Edmonton, lots of people get left out.

It is, however, important to maintain the quick travel times from Calgary to Edmonton, but Japanese and European rail systems already have this scenario solved through the use of different classes of trains. Limited express trains charge more and have very few stops, while local trains hit all the stops at the expense taking a little longer to arrive at the destination. Given a project on this scale, with the tracks going by and the ability to revolutionize these communities with the inclusion of a train stop, a golden opportunity would be wasted if these communities were left out. Including links to the smaller communities along the corridor would increase the accessibility and the usefulness of such a line for all Albertans.

In the interest of staging the construction, rail lines from Calgary to the Calgary Airport, and Edmonton to the Edmonton Airport would instantly be useful, and would help present Edmonton and Calgary as world class cities. Construction could then continue while segments of the track are already in operation.

The province should get it built, soon, and they should make sure to include the smaller communities on the way, for the benefit of all Albertans. They should do it even if it means they need my $400 back.

Sunday, July 5, 2009


With the recession on, the concept of the staycation is growing in popularity. With a little resourcefulness, you'll surprise yourself with what you can do right nearby.

Obviously a staycation is much less expensive than traveling. You slash the cost of travel, lodging, and food, which add up surprisingly quickly on the move. If you ballpark $250/day for lodging and meals for two people, you could spend half of that on events every day and still come out ahead financially.

There's other perks too, if you know where to look for them. Since you don't have to travel to your destination, you get that time back to do more things. Instead of a day or two on the road, you get another day to use as you wish.

As for packing, there's no weight limit. You have everything you could need. You don't have to choose between your pairs of shoes. You get them all. The same goes for clothes, toiletries, towels. You don't need to worry about stuffing them all into luggage or having the airline lose or delay the bags.

On a staycation, you can try out the local amenities that you never get around to visiting when you're locked into your daily routines. You can go swimming, participate in local festivals, finding hiking trails at nearby parks, or discover exciting daytrips. Moreover, you can afford to splurge a little on the activities because the travel and accommodation costs are so low.

The people you meet close to home might turn into long term friends. If you meet someone far away, it's harder to stay in touch, but if they live close by, it's easy to reconnect.

You don't need to be cooped up in a car for hours to spend time with your loved ones. You just need to be mindful of the traps - like wasting your vacation in front of the television, or checking your work email - that keep you from the relaxation and interaction you need.

Fundamentally, vacations are about building common memories and bonding with people you care about. You don't need to travel across the world. You can do this from home.