Saturday, September 26, 2009

Fail Early, Fail Often

You aren't making enough mistakes. Don't worry. It's not your fault. You've been trained to avoid them. Instead, you should be seeking them out. Embrace the mistake.

Mistakes come with a stigma attached. From social embarrassment to losing money or property, or the loss of self esteem that can come from failing, mistakes are mercilessly punished.

Fear of mistakes stifles creativity. That's why brainstorming comes up with better ideas than simply trying to come up with good ideas. These days, creativity is more important than knowledge. If your creative ideas keep being crushed as mistakes, you'll give up on creativity remain mediocre. Instead, nurture your creativity. Give your wacky ideas room to breathe. Even if they flop, you'll learn something from them and be better for it.

It's never perfect. Whatever project you're working on, let your ideas out of the cave and into the light. Share them. Get feedback wherever you can.

"Don't worry about people stealing your ideas. If they're any good, you'll have to ram them down people's throats." - Howard Aiken, computing pioneer.

By sharing your idea, even if it isn't ready yet, you will get valuable feedback that you can't get by staying in your basement perfecting it.

It's better to find out sooner rather than later that an idea is doomed to fail. Waiting for perfection could improve the chances of success, but feedback from potential customers is more valuable. It's far better to find out that an idea is flawed early. That time could be better spent coming up with a new idea, or adapting to make sure you're solving the right problem.

It's great if you can learn from the mistakes of others, but remaining creative and learning from your own mistakes is powerful and will enhance your development better than always getting the right answer.

Don't be afraid of mistakes. Make them quickly, learn from them and get on to the next idea. Nurture your creative ideas and you will keep having them. Stifled creativity is worse than making mistakes. Making mistakes quickly and learning from them is far more likely to lead to success than trying to avoid mistakes.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

City Design: People First

Imagine the city you'd like to live in. Is it lively? Attractive? Safe? Sustainable? Healthy? Of course it is. Everybody wants these qualities in their city, but as you can see from the cities we actually live in, we've forgotten how make them this way.

Cities are habitat for people, so the city should be designed to support the people. These 'people' are human beings who naturally walk upright at about five km/h.

Europeans figured this out. Their tight city designs are murder to drive in, look jumbled from the air, but they are perfectly comfortable as a pedestrian. They had an advantage us North Americans didn't. They were built before the automobile overwhelmed city planning.

Once city-designers started designing for the car, a 110+ km/h ton of steel instead of the five km/h person, the cities lost their charm. Cars demand lots of space and engineering. Pedestrians can endure almost anything, but it doesn't mean they thrive.

If you have any doubts about whether cars or pedestrians are more important, ask yourself whether you'd rather lose your ability to drive or your ability to walk.

For a public space to thrive, it needs to be comfortable for pedestrians. The vast amount of space devoted to the roads relative to the tiny spaces for people reinforce the pedestrian's position as a second class citizen.

Even with well designed cities — cities where things are closer, there will be times when we need to go farther or faster. Rather than the loud, wide, polluting car, use the quiet, narrow, healthy bicycle.

Fixing this will require patience - the road/car system is already established, but we shouldn't build any new car-centric developments. This oil boom is a flash in the pan when you take the long view, and if we want our cities to remain useful, we'd best make them walkable.

If you're developing, it's smart business to design for people instead of cars. With high property values and more units per acre you can make more money.

If you're a city, tight pedestrian centred design will save you money in road maintenance, as well as making your transit system more viable.

If you're a business selling things to people, you want pedestrians walking by your store. People don't shop from their cars.

As a citizen, you get the biggest bang, because you get to live in a vibrant neighbourhood. You can reap the health benefits of walking to access to everything you need. You get the vibrant city you want by designing it for people first.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

How tigers caused climate change

Imagine that you're sitting in a big grassy field with your tribe, and you notice a saber tooth tiger approaching. Immediately, without discussion or hesitation, you would alert the tribe and get everyone to safety.

This crisis reaction has served Homo Sapiens well, after all, we have survived for the past 200 000 years (since the middle paleolithic). Our crisis-management reflexes have been well honed.

It is so ingrained in us that it's hard to even notice unless it is pointed out. It goes like this:

1. Identify an imminent existential threat.

2. Take immediate decisive action to respond to the threat.

3. Endure.

If they didn't respond, they didn't survive or pass on their genes and culture. We are left with a legacy of decisive radical action in the face of perceived imminent threats.

We see this today with the sweeping power of the "Patriot Act" counterterrorism legislation after 9/11 or the speed and size of the financial bailout as a result of the global financial crisis. We are conditioned by long history to respond as if they were tigers.

It is easy for leaders to respond in crisis. Crises are difficult, sure, but everybody understands that action is needed, and that a good plan today is better than a perfect plan tomorrow. Mistakes are forgivable, because they are better than inaction.

So far, so good, but two hundred thousand years of human history has left us woefully underprepared for the responsibility that comes with being in charge of a planet.

Being in charge means we need to respond to stimuli that isn't so immediate. Rather than just being ready to bail out the boat, we need to look ahead. We need to see the storms, rocks, and icebergs that could sink us and set a course that avoids them.

We hardly notice these threats creep up. More immediate things demand our attention. The big problems continue to grow unabated while we are distracted.

Trying to change without a crisis is hard. People have their own agendas. If there's no tiger then they can do as they like. In a crisis, everybody sees the need for quick action. Like the proverbial frog on the stove, we don't respond to slow growing problems until it's too late.

As the alpha species we have a responsibility to watch out for everything that lives here, not just dealing with the tigers. That means taking action to avoid the long range slow growing disasters, not just dealing with the problems that blow up in our faces.

So how are the tigers responsible? They trained us to think short term. Solving this problem means working against 200 000 years of evolution and looking hard at the future. Then acting appropriately. But we've got the big brains now. It won't be easy, but we can handle it.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Never mow again: here's how

Summer is short enough here as it is. Taking care of a perfectly manicured lawn is a time sink that will drain your summer dry if you let it. Now if you're one of those people who lives for lawn care, this column isn't for you.

Sheep's Fescue: Minimal effort, needs patience. Without much work you can transition away from the lawn you have to a Sheep's Fescue lawn. Sheep's Fescue is a short growing perennial grass that will grow to about six inches, and then flop over into spirals. It's drought tolerant, and you don't need to mow it. Overseeding is best done in May, June, or September, and it may take 2-4 years before the Sheep's Fescue really takes over. There are other varieties or mixes that are better suited to specific applications, but this is a good place to start.

One of the reasons that Sheep's Fescue isn't more popular is that its roots are too deep for people to sell it as sod commercially. The sod would take too much topsoil. It's more profitable to sell the water-hungry shallow rooted thin sod that you have to water, mow, and fertilize constantly. Instead, with some time, and a bag of seed, you can avoid ever having to mow it again. You still have the grass, but you don't have to do anything to it. What could be better?

Xeriscaping: Lots of effort, big reward. Completely re-landscaping your yard is a lot of work, but when you consider that you won't be mowing that area ever again, the labour of a few weekends will pay you back every time you walk past someone mowing their lawn like a sucker.

Between gravel, paving stone, and mulch, there are lots of options for how to do it (do your research and plan it out ahead of time), but the basic pattern is to kill the grass and weeds, cover with some sort of growing barrier then add mulch or gravel. Then plant native or adaptive perennials, trees, and shrubs. Remember to allow for the full grown size of the plant. When the plants are small, it's easy to plant them too closely together.

This is also a good opportunity to plant things you like to eat. Between wild strawberries, rhubarb, asparagus, as well as things like potatoes, tomatoes or carrots, you can work some food production into the yard. Find some things that you like to eat that also look good in the landscape. Let the landscape reward you (with food) for the work you've done.

Learn More: You can't fit all the info you need to landscape your yard in a single newspaper column. A web search for 'permaculture' or a trip to will provide lots of information on how you can landscape your yard so you'll never have to mow it again.

Bonus tip: Sell your lawn mower, not so much for the money, but to reclaim the storage space. You won't be needing it anymore. When you see people mowing their lawns, try not to gloat too much.