Saturday, June 25, 2011

Canada Post labour dispute: a teachable moment

The mail is supposed to go in right where it says 'Closed / Fermé'.
Take your business elsewhere.

The labour dispute isn't good for Canada Post's main business, but there is some environmental upside to reducing the amount of unnecessary paper mail.
The postal system is pretty impressive. Moving pieces of paper around the country is a pretty tough gig. You have to keep them sorted and deliver them on time for pennies an item.
It's economical too. For $1.75 you can put an envelope or a postcard in a box near your house and have it delivered to another box pretty much anywhere in the world. Fifty-nine cents if it's in Canada. Most of the time it gets there just fine.
At the outset, it's a tremendous value proposition: You don't have to deliver things yourself. We'll do it for you. It saves you the time and hassle of delivering the letter or parcel, which is a good deal across town and a great deal across the country.
Canada Post last went on strike in 1997. The internet was still pretty new, and long distance phone calls were still expensive. Business got done by sending out bills and putting cheques in the mail. A postal strike would shut down vast swaths of commerce.
That power to shut down commerce is gone. Even before the strike/lockout companies were encouraging customers to switch to electronic billing. Online billing is common enough that many more people would switch over now if they only had a reason. 
Here's one: The mail stopped coming. 
If customer complacency is a major force keeping Canada Post in market share, service disruptions that force its customers to experiment with new ways of doing things isn't in its best interest. For example, if there was a transit strike and former riders got in the habit of biking or driving to work, it would be tough to get them back.
The learning and effort to switch between systems is a barrier to change, but this disruption will send some formerly steady customers to seek electronic solutions.
The inevitable loss of letter volumes through the post will reduce the costs of doing business for companies who move beyond the mail service. Moving information around on the internet is much cheaper than moving physical pieces of paper.
This lurch to adopt electronic options will help the environment by reducing non-essential paper use and help the bottom line for businesses who won't have to pay to mail quite as many things.
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Saturday, June 18, 2011

Free health food at the edge of your culinary comfort zone.

Lazy? You may already have a garden! The Dandelion is one of the first edible plants to pop up in the spring. Often considered a weed, think of it instead as a resilient self-planting early-bloomer that goes nicely in a salad or cooked in a stirfry or soup.
When you're gathering dandelion greens, look for the smallest plants, preferably before the blossom has opened. Those young leaves are the tenderest and tastiest. Once the blossoms have opened, they're much easier to spot and can be bitter. Parboiling these greens before serving makes them less bitter.
There are plenty of health benefits associated with dandelion greens. In addition to being high in vitamin A and C, it also contains lots of calcium and potassium.
Dandelion greens are a diuretic, and is sometimes used to improve digestion, help with liver disorders, reduce blood pressure and promote kidney function.
There are plenty of chemicals out there designed to kill this little healthy flower. Avoid harvesting dandelions unless you're sure the area is free of chemicals or pesticides.
Dandelion may also interfere with some antibiotics. You're responsible for your own health. Do your own research. Lots of information is out there, and speaks quite highly of this plant you probably already have in your yard, and could simply go out and pick, for free.
Dandelion Wine, made with the blossoms, yeast, sugar, water and various other ingredients according to the recipe is another way to take advantage of the bounty you didn't even realize you had. (Recipes for dandelion wine vary, and abound on the internet.)
Eating fresh dandelion greens may be a little outside your comfort zone, which means this will be a growth experience for you. It will also connect you more strongly to where food really comes from. (It's not the store.)
If you're not using pesticides or chemicals and you have dandelions available it's worth a try. Read up on how beneficial dandelions are and find recipes online. Post success stories (or disasters) here.
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Saturday, June 11, 2011

Civic Culture and the spirit of place: How to build worthy cities.

A healthy old tree demonstrates just what it is to be of a place. Its every twig perfectly tuned to its context, resources and constraints.

Our communities deserve that level of attention.

Making a city worth caring about is a worthy challenge that demands we fully develop the culture of the place where we live.

A lofty goal, to be sure, because it requires remembering how to listen to the quiet whispers of the place; a withered skill in the age of cheap energy and instant-on-distractions.

As a nation of immigrants, maybe we never really learned to listen to the quiet voices of this place. We brought a culture suited to where we were from rather than developing a culture that suits where we are.

The answers are in the land and the local community, foods, materials, skills that surround you. Focusing on the local resources will lead you to a land use, an architecture, and a community that reflects the spirit of the place.

The status quo is powerful, but you don't exactly hear of people making pilgrimages to Mississauga. Row after row of suburban houses doesn't make for the kind of community that is interested in itself, let alone the kind that would emerge as a beacon to others.

Athens. Rome. London. Kyoto. Venice. All places committed to being what they are as best they can. Being ancient helps. They've had time to figure it out, and that shouldn't stop us from striving to figure out what it means to be where we are.

By importing our culture we've taken shortcuts that kept our cities from developing into places where we can thrive. Like native plants, cultures thrive in harmony with the place where they emerged, and can become invasive when taken out of their proper context.

The choice is between the overconsumptive blandness that is the suburbs and the emergent harmony built from the stones, seeds, and souls that make a place alive.

When you boil it down, this is the civic analogue to 'be yourself'. Honour the place where you live. Everywhere else is taken. As your community develops, do what's right where you are. Listen to the quiet forces that surround you. Develop the culture that emerges from the place and you won't go too far wrong. What's built will belong.

Like growing a tree, it takes time and careful attention to bring this about, and slowly, deliberately, let's create places worth living in.

"It is for want of self-culture that the superstition of Travelling, whose idols are Italy, England, Egypt, retains its fascination for all educated Americans. They who made England, Italy, or Greece venerable in the imagination did so by sticking fast where they were, like an axis of the earth."

—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self Reliance.

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Saturday, June 4, 2011

Want to be happy? Don't think too hard.

Watch out, this defies conventional wisdom: If you're about to decide about something complex, you will do better if you don't exhaustively research it.

In this case better means both objectively better results and more happiness for less effort.

There's an overwhelming amount of information out there. For simple things, it's possible to think through the decision completely, but complex decisions will certainly tempt you to doing extensive analysis in order to do the best you can.

Whether that analysis is warranted depends on your objectives. The assumption here is that you want to meet your needs and be happy with the result.

If you'd rather not be happy with the result, feel free to analyze it to death, but be aware that diminishing and sometimes even negative returns kick in on the analysis, and you are ruining your chance to be happy with the outcome.

It's a waste of time to try to process it all. Trying to figure it all out is certainly time consuming.

Functional MRI studies show that the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the part of your brain that makes good decisions, shuts down when problems get too complex. If you try to juggle too many factors your frustration and anxiety will rule and you'll make worse decisions, or fail to decide at all.

In terms of your happiness, the more thought you put into it may get you a better result (subject to the frustration and anxiety we've already talked about) but you also get to know about all the ways you might have been able to do better.

For more info on this, refer to Sharon Begley's article "I Can't Think" in Newsweek, March 7, 2011, and the TED talks from Dan Gilbert: "Why are we happy? Why aren't we happy?" and "The Paradox of Choice" by Barry Schwartz.

You'll be happier with your jeans, your movie selection, or the house you buy if you consider only a few than if you try to look at all the options and then drive yourself nuts thinking about what you didn't get.

You did want to be happy, right?

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