Sunday, November 9, 2014

Canada: A Clean Energy Superpower

Avro Arrow. Canada can do awesome stuff when we put our minds to it.
Photo: Government of Canada, Department of National Defense. // Wikipedia.
Imagine you're walking from Tofino BC to St. John's NL along the Trans-Canada Highway. For every three minutes you walk on the highway, you build a million dollar mansion, all the way across the country. By the time you get to St. John's, you will have built $12 Billion in mansions.
The Energy East Pipeline project is projected to cost $12 Billion. Not a good investment.
If the pipeline is built, either we roast the climate or we waste the investment by turning the pipe off. Neither of those approaches are any good in the long run, but we can avoid those lousy outcomes in advance.
Here's how: We want to be an energy superpower. We're Canadian and we can do that like crazy. Instead of building a pipe, we could build 3000 MW of clean solar capacity or 6000 MW of clean wind power instead.
Becoming a clean energy superpower would revitalize Canada's manufacturing sector and provide energy jobs in without compromising the climate.
These generators could come online immediately, rather than waiting for the entire investment to be ready.
If you're one of those guys who are awesome at building pipelines, we need you most of all. Your project management skills, determination and drive will serve the country and the world well as we develop our clean energy infrastructure.

Becoming a clean energy superpower will help Canada reclaim a leadership role in the world and demonstrate how we kick butt when we put our minds to it.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The two second rule

Yep. The fountain I wanted was one of the green ones on the top shelf.
Not quite first order access, even though it's in front.
Keep any tool you actually want to use within two seconds of being useful.
You want to be able to make use of whatever you need without losing your concentration. Your use of a tool drops off significantly if it takes you more than two seconds to access it.
Glancing at a watch is easy and immediate. If you had to walk across the room to check the time you wouldn't do it unless you really wanted to know it. 
This goes for kitchen or shop organization too. Put everything in front. That way the right tool for the job is immediately available. (Then put it back where you found it.)
When you reduce the friction between getting your tools and doing your work, you'll reduce the psychological barriers that slow you down.
This is how you get out of your own way when trying to accomplish things.
It applies at other scales too. People tend to make good use of neighbourhood playgrounds and greenspace if it's within a three minute (240m) walk from their house. Beyond that, usage drops off like crazy. The distance outweighs the benefit. It's the same principle at a different scale. To actually use it, remove the barriers.

Corollary: Get rid of things you don't want to use. If you can't get rid of them at least make them inconvenient. Save money by leaving credit cards at home. Hide the halloween candy and make sure handy snacks are healthy snacks.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Just the best, please

Look at you. You obviously have great taste in clothes. You know what looks good and what to avoid. Here's some meta-style advice that will simplify your life, unclutter your closet and help you look your best.

Just wear the good stuff.

Turf the rest.

Not all the cars in a Nascar race come in first. No matter what your wardrobe is currently like, some of your clothes suit you better than others. You wear some clothes lots, while others pad your closet.

Project 333 has thrown down the gauntlet against overstuffed closets.

Here's how it works: Pick 33 items of clothing. That's your wardrobe for the next three months. Burn your ships. Discard, donate or sell the clothes that didn't make the cut.

If you save your 'ugly' clothes in your basement, you'll miss out on some of the benefit. By preemptively pruning your choices, picking what to wear becomes much easier. You won't waste energy wondering if you should look elsewhere. However, it's okay to stash a few seasonal items that don't make your 33 this season.

The Project 333 website has loopholes (like sleepwear) if you need a little leniency.

You'll look better and feel better. You're only wearing your best clothes, and there's less decision fatigue when you have fewer things to pick from. Save your limited decision making energy for things that matter.

Then in three months, switch it up for next season and go again.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

You have enough.

Though you might not realize it yet.
It's a bit of a Catch 22: You can only get enough by discovering you already have it.
Those who chase money or fame will never have enough.
It's not about money or stuff. In fact, everyone you know has too many things, and would actually be happier owning fewer things. Recycle, give away, donate or trash three things today. It'll feel liberating. Do it again tomorrow.
Stay off the hedonic treadmill. Things you want are wonderful, when you get them they turn into things you have, and you don't get to want them anymore.
Kurt Vonnegut, in his 93-word poem "Joe Heller" articulated it clearly, observing that a billionare could have made more money yesterday than Joseph Heller's novel "Catch 22" ever did. Joe's response:

Beyond that, find something bigger than you that matters and contribute your energy to it.
Even if your goal is happiness, trying to be happy for your own sake isn't likely to succeed. You are far more likely to achieve happiness as a byproduct of working towards something you find meaningful, even if you never achieve it, than you will by making happiness the goal.
Know that you have enough.
Know that you matter.
You can pour yourself into something meaningful, and you can be happy.
That's something you can be thankful for.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Reality, Survival and Freedom

Reality: What's true is true and can't be negotiated or ignored.
Survival: Every citizen needs to meet their physiological needs now and in the future: Air. Water. Food. Thermoregulation. This is not negotiable. The alternative is lethal.
Freedom: Once we have confidence in our immediate survival, we want to be free to do what we want.
Embrace reality. Survival and freedom for all. Any defensible governance model must champion those principles both at home and abroad.
Survival trumps freedom. Your right to survive supersedes everyone else's freedom to kill you. Your right to drink clean water and breathe clean air supersedes everyone else's freedom to pollute it.
You get the moral authority to these rights by affording them to others.
With reality, survival and freedom you can derive the rest.
Ecology: Protect the ability of the world to meet our physiological needs, so we can survive in perpetuity.
Science: Learn how the world works so we can ensure it continues to meet our needs.
Rules: We ensure our freedom by protecting the freedoms of all. This can mean restricting individual freedoms to achieve broader objectives: Drive on the right. Stop at stop signs. Don't steal. Pay your taxes. That sort of thing.
We cheerfully forfeit our 'freedom' to drive on the left so that we can all get where we're going.

The rest of politics is ideology and posturing. It's pretty wide open, but any governing body that violates these principles loses its moral authority to govern.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Status quo economics leaves you busy, tired.

The typical North American approach: Get a mortgage to buy a house, then get a credit card to fill it with stuff. That approach locks you onto the economic treadmill where you're working for the bank.
As dual income families became the norm, the price of houses rose to match what these dual earners could borrow and ostensibly repay.
If this reminds you of your situation, then to make that mortgage payment you'll have to work pretty hard and make choices based on serving your creditors first, rather than your family or your goals.
The 'health' of the economy depends on the continued expansion of the money supply, based on peoples' promises to repay it, with interest.
Note: The economy doesn't have a health. It's a bad metaphor. Continued growth is good for the status quo because that means the music's still playing. In musical chairs, there are no losers until the music stops.
The machines and electric servants that are the result of human ingenuity should have made our lives much easier.
Instead, we're as busy as ever. 'Busy' and 'tired' are all-too common answers to the 'how are you doing' question. Busy and tired are symptoms of having bought into the system where you work for the bank.
If you didn't owe any money and had a free place to live, you wouldn't have to work so hard. Instead, that interest treadmill makes sure you're running as hard as you can so you don't fall behind the rest and lose the house.
Economic growth is the smokescreen that allows global winners to stay on top while still promising the global poor a dream of prosperity.
Continuing to feed the banks record profits while plundering the resources of the world and exhausting your personal energy is not a worthy goal.
Unfortunately, understanding the precariousness of the current economy is still a long way from successfully restructuring it to a steady state system, like you'd see in a climax ecosystem.
A solution would involve a deeper understanding of value separate and distinct from money. More likely a combination of vibrant relationships, clean water and the time and energy to do as you please, even if that means less stuff and a small house.

Good luck taking that to the bank, that is - if you can find the time and energy.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

State of the chessboard

White: Mate in 2.
Jim Prentice, Alberta Premier. Status: Not currently elected? Check. Appointing ministers who also aren't elected? Also check.
Let's set aside various affronts to representative democracy for a moment. Yes. It's outrageous. And that isn't the big problem. Look a few moves ahead.
The Harper government intends to make Canada the best place in the world for energy investment.
FIPA: The Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Act.
If you've ever been sold into slavery, you have some idea of what's going on. Chinese investors in Canada can claim damages, in secret, for anything that reduces their investment payoffs.
FIPA is locked in for a generation without recourse to Canadian law. Hardly mentioned in the House. It comes into force October 1. Check.
Premier Jim is ideally suited to facilitating a pipeline to somewhere. Keeping the Aboriginal and International portfolios may signal that intent.
So Jim comes to Alberta and appeases the Natives so pipelines can send fossil energy to China.
Canada gets Chinese investment money so we can dig faster. Also we have to do what we're told or pay for it.
Chinese interests trump national interest, and we expand fossil energy development ...because Canada's the best place in the world for energy investment. Checkmate.
Carbon emissions accelerate. The planet becomes dreadfully uncomfortable. Chinese mutual funds post record profits.
When you give up the environment (or your national integrity) for the economy, you end up with neither.

Let's hope it plays out differently.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Strategic quitting - the power of opportunity cost

Wayne Gretzky quit baseball and lacrosse to play hockey. The 'Great One' skipped the three-year waiting period to get into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Quitter?
Suppose you realize you're climbing the wrong mountain. Is it quitting to descend and climb another one?
Winners are simply better quitters than the rest of us. Strategic quitting frees them up so they can focus their efforts and excel at what matters to them.
It's a question of opportunity cost: What do you want to accomplish and what are you willing to give up to accomplish it?
Quitting isn't all about giving things up. It's a trade. What do you get in exchange? Freedom. You get the freedom to do exactly what you want with the time you were spending on the activity before. You can shake things up.
Just make sure you're quitting for the right reasons. You need to be capable of follow through. There's a big difference between choosing not to see something through and not being able to.
Clearing away the chaff and focusing on something important is a powerful way of getting things done.
If you've found a comfortable niche, it's hard to go through the pain of changing your behaviour, even if you know the grass on other side is going to be really green. (And it might not be once you get there.)
When you're shooting for that big win, know before hand that getting there is going to be hard. If you decide on your criteria for quitting in advance you'll do a better job of keeping the pain and the rewards in perspective than you will if you simply decide to quit when the going gets tough. 
This sort of thinking takes a great deal of self reflection and understanding. Develop that self awareness. Pay attention to what attracts you to something as well as what's missing when you decide you're done with it.
Q: How long should you stay at something?
A: However long it takes to get what you came for.

Q: How do you decide what you came for?

A: You don't, you discover it.

Q: How do you discover it?

A: You notice what isn't there anymore when you feel like leaving.
—Barbara Sher, Refuse to Choose.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

On the cover of the Rolling Stone

Sometimes, even the best ideas need reminders.
Do a quick search for Bill McKibben's Rolling Stone article about 'Global Warming's Terrifying New Math'. Right beside the cover shot of Justin Bieber (Hot, Ready, Legal) sits the article that clearly articulates the climate change problem. It's scary, it's bleak, but it's required reading to understand the next decade worth of history.
Briefly, to have a reasonable shot at staying under 2°C, we can only release 565 Gigatons of CO2 into the atmosphere. Oil companies have 2795 Gigatons on the books ready to burn. That's five times what we can burn 'safely'.
Burning any more than a fifth of these reserves will put us irrevocably past the 2°C threshold where things turn ugly. Business as usual does that in 16 years. (And 2°C is probably high. Things are turning out worse than predicted across the board, and were only at 0.8°C so far.)
Follow the money. Oil companies are nothing if not profitable. The fossil fuel on their books ready to go is worth about $27 Trillion. Leaving 80% of it in the ground would mean writing off ~$20 Trillion in assets. If this is your company, you'd rather avoid doing that.
That's the money that's in play. That's the economic pie that that the oil & gas industry is chasing.
Prisoner's dilemma? Of course. If you don't burn it someone else will. If your company doesn't dig it, someone else will. Logical, and that kind of thinking takes us all over the cliff pretty quickly.
Business as usual is a suicide pact. If Aliens came to roast our planet, we'd scramble the might of the military-industrial complex worldwide and kick their shiny metal posteriors back to their bugger homeworld.
Our apathetic response to date hasn't been enough to avoid leaving catastrophe to the next generation, or even this one. Business as usual commits us past 2°C by the time Bieber turns 35. Disaster.
Changing our energy sources will be challenging, but with political will we can still create a post-fossil-fuel world that still works as human habitat, but the window of opportunity to stay below 2°C is closing fast.
Seriously. Find that Rolling Stone article. It lays it all out in more detail than this column can manage. We have our work cut out for us.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Consequences are for later. Procrastination pays off now.

Hard drives are exquisite, fragile platters that store enough information to thoroughly boggle the mind in less space than it takes to store a folded T-shirt.
It would seem reasonable that someone aware that hard drives fail would have all their files backed up.
If that person were to write a newspaper column emphasizing the importance of having a backup plan then any question that their family's files would be backed up would be laughable.
Backups are important, and current backups are even better. If things start running slowly, that's not the time to skip the backups to get things done. That's the time to make sure your backups are complete.
This happened to me, but the story ends well. The photos, videos, and emails are salvaged thanks to a two month old backup and a healthy dose of luck. It brings up a larger question about why we wait to learn things for ourselves, rather than learning from what happened to others.
Most of the time we know better. Do we do better because of it?
Often not. It's widely known that excellent nutrition is associated with health, and fast food isn't. We still go for the fries when we should take the salad.
That extra drink is not a good idea, but the consequences of the morning hangover are too far away to enter your decision making.
Exercise? Not today thanks.
The sunscreen's in the car.
This is a short trip. I'll get gas later.
Coal is a cheap source of electricity.
Consequences are for later. Procrastination, hedonism, indulgence, and abdication of responsibility pays off now.
The thing about later is that it will find you. You can't avoid it. You may be able to delay it for a while, but that hard drive's going to crash. If you knew how they worked that would make you more scared, not less.
Of course, when it's later it may be too late. Solve your problems in advance, and they won't ever become problems.

"You mailed that insurance check, right Gob?" - Michael Bluth, Arrested Development Ep. 2

Sunday, May 18, 2014

When to interrupt: Don't.

Listen more.
"Shut up idiot. What I want to say is more important than anywhere you could possibly be going with this."

It's a little harsh, and that's the message interrupting conveys. If that's not what you mean, breathe, have a little patience, see if you can figure out their eye colour and listen to what they're saying.
Interrupting erodes conversational rapport and makes people feel like they're not being listened to: They're not. Right before you interrupt you were figuring out what you were going to say instead of listening.
Let conversations breathe a little. Leave gaps between when they stop talking and when you start. It lets you sound reflective.
Avoiding interrupting also allows you to listen more fully to the person doing the talking. Perhaps more importantly, it lets them feel like you're listening.
Asynchronous communications, like texting, let both sides finish their thoughts, even while the other person is typing. That doesn't work so well face to face.
You can get away with occasional interruptions if you know the person you're talking with is direct and cuts other people off regularly. They are less likely to take offence if you cut them off.
Practice catch and release conversations. Here's how:
Catch: When it's time for you to start talking, refer to something they just said.
Talk: This is where you say what you want to say.
Release: Ask them a question so they know it's their turn to talk.
Listen: Making 'listening sounds' like uh-huh isn't interrupting. It's encouraged and conveys that you're paying attention.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

They don't post the boring bits

Even this is a highlight.
When you see what your 'friends' are up to on social media, take heart. They're posting their highlights, not the boring in-between stuff.
Most of your life is spent between highlights, living out that boring in-between stuff.
When you compare your life to the torrent of highlights on social media your life will obviously come up short.
It's not an apples to apples comparison.
Check your own highlight reel. Even if you're not actively seeking employment, keep your resume up to date.
Your resume is a highlight reel of your achievements at work. With fifteen minutes, four times per year, you can keep it up to date without ever getting very far behind.
And that's just work. There's so much more to you than that. What have you accomplished just for the joy of it? Who have you helped? Who's life have you improved?
The things you share on social media become your highlight reel for everyone else. Your real highlight reel is the smiles in the eyes of your friends and family, the satisfaction you get from accomplishing something challenging and meaningful, and the song in your heart.
With that song, you can delight in the happiness that others share with you, and you can smile in the quiet satisfaction that the things you do make your corner of the world a little better.

A little gratitude helps too. Sharing a little gratitude will spark a little happiness. Appreciating what you have is a great antidote for bemoaning what you don't.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Happiness is overrated. Shoot for satisfaction instead.

Happiness is fickle. You can get 'happy' by pasting a big stupid grin on your face. (Try it. It works.) TV, Angry Birds, any hedonistic 'waste of time' could make you happy.
Happiness is more of a practiced character trait, where you get the pay off in the now. It's like junk food that way. You can synthesize it when you're out of options. Make lemonade.
Satisfaction is the whole grain of feeling good. It lasts longer and is brought on by real accomplishment rather than fickle hedonism.
You can't fake satisfaction. You'll know whether something you tried to do was hard or not. Breezing through the math final is no big deal if you're good at math, but if you had to work hard for that good mark will leave you satisfied with a job well done.
Shooting for satisfaction instead of happiness will change your approach. You'll start working on medium and long range goals rather than the short term hits of happiness.
Unrestrained happiness is undoubtedly responsible for some of the household and credit card debt that people are struggling with. Wanting that hit of happiness now means paying for it later.
The satisfaction of saving up to buy that two-wheeler will last longer than the happiness of simply buying it on credit. Working for it and earning it feels better in the long term than just having it handed to you.
Change your habits and your activities to work towards satisfaction instead of happiness and strangely, you'll end up more deeply content with the way things are turning out.
There are only two problems, everything else is a variation. You know what you want but you don't know how to get it, or you don't know what you want.
Figure out what you want. Make it up if you have to. It will be a challenge. Then make it happen.

That's how you get satisfaction, and that will pay off much bigger than any short term buzz you get from happiness ever will.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Being understood: Superconducting communication

Communicating means taking an idea that's in your head and putting it in someone else's. That requires overcoming several layers of resistance.
Basic elements, like body language and tone, make up most of a face to face message. It's primal. You can tell whether someone's attacking you. You don't need their words.
We're wired to spot threats: negative interactions have a lot more impact than positive ones. In relationships, without at least five positive interactions for every negative one it will deteriorate. How many people do you tell when you had great service? Terrible service? A little bit of negative can outweigh a lot of positive.
Once you've established you're not a threat, you still need to break through the barriers of comprehension (What do you mean?) and ambivalence (Why should I care?).
Attention: If you have a reputation for valuable messages, they are more likely to honour your message with their attention.
Messaging: Articulate your message in a way that is crystal clear to your intended audience. It's irrelevant whether anyone else understands it.
Superconducting communication: Trusted confidantes. There are a few people who really get you. The filters are off. The resistance to communication can drop to zero. You understand. You care. You have enough shared history, in-jokes and context that they already know what you're thinking.

In those cases it doesn't take much to communicate much more than just what's said. Then again, there's always money in the banana stand.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Six ounces of prevention.

No, not those shots.
"To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill." -Sun Tzu
The thing about healthcare is you'd rather not need it.
Doctors, Nurses, EMTs and Pharmacists have raised the level of medical care far beyond what was available one hundred years ago. They can win battles that you are better off not fighting.
Like the seatbelt in the car, if you need it, something else has gone particularly badly.
Inasmuch as you have an option, pound of cure is the default. The 'ignorance is bliss' approach just fixes things when they break. Doctors. Casts. Drugs. All to put things back the way they were before.
1: Keep your hands clean. Wash off the bacteria regularly with soap and water.
2: Floss. This is your best defence against painful, expensive dental work. It's a little tedious every day, but considering the consequences makes it feel worthwhile.
3: Exercise. A little more than you're doing right now. With use-it-or-lose-it muscles and a sedentary lifestyle, that adds up to lose-it pretty quickly. If you can structure your life so that you're walking or biking for your daily commute, you build in automatic activity.
4: Eat well.
5: Don't drive tired. You're already smart enough not to drive drunk. In a pinch, a catnap at the side of the road is better than the alternative.
6: Shots. Help your immune system fight off disease by keeping your vaccines up to date. 

Stay healthy. Stay safe.

Friday, April 25, 2014

The newspaper habit: Avoid confirmation bias and escape the echo chamber

Pay attention, especially to things you disagree with or don't understand. If you agree with most of what you read, it means you're not reading enough of the right things. It doesn't mean you're wrong, just narrow.
Let's broaden things a bit.
On the internet you're in total control of what you read. Two problems show up. Confirmation bias and the echo chamber.
Confirmation bias: If you're looking something up and it matches what you think already, you're going to accept it and stop looking. If, on the other hand, what you find doesn't match up with what you already think you'll keep looking until you find something you agree with.
Echo chamber: The internet lets you read about what you're interested in. The media sites that you like will tend to have news and opinions that reinforce your views. The people you chat with all agree with you.
An extreme example to make the point: If all you read is the forums on the Justin Bieber fan club page, you're likely to conclude that everyone else loves his music too. The people who disagree don't post there.
Staying inside the echo chamber makes it pretty easy to be oblivious to things outside your sphere of interest that impact you.
That's where the newspaper habit comes in. Reading local newspapers brings you a whole host of information about the community you're in.
It'll tell you what's going on in your community. You'll notice the things that interest you and skip the things that don't. You'll read the headlines, glance at the pictures and buy the chicken that's on sale.
If there's something else you need to know, the newspaper will have it. If, for example, main street has been torn up for repairs, the newspaper will let you know, even if it's not your sports or news aggregator of choice.
There might even be opinions in there that you disagree with. That's healthy. Breaking out of the echo chamber means sometimes exposing yourself to new ideas. Other ideas will cross pollinate with your old ones and you might end up with something new.
Broaden your worldview. Have enough confidence in your ideas to test them against dissenting opinions. Changing your ideas based on new information doesn't make you weak. It makes you flexible, adaptable, and more likely to be right.
At the very least you won't make plans to drive down main street until it's open again.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The value of vacations.

When was the last time you were really unplugged?
No phone, no blackberry, no email, no radio. You might turn these things off, you might not be on the phone. Having these distractions around tethers you to the whims of anyone who wants to distract you with a conversation, even if you don't pick up.
They can break your concentration even if nobody calls. Knowing that 'maybe you should call someone' can take your mind off what you're doing.
Every once in a while, it's useful to take a step back from the demands of daily life, and spend some time undisturbed with whatever you need to put your life back in balance.
Maybe you need downtime. Maybe you need excitement or a change of scenery. Maybe you're comfortable in your groove - or was that your rut.
Vacations are an opportunity to rebalance your life. In order to do that you can't be down 'in the weeds' dealing with the day to day distractions. It's a time to look at the big picture issues from a distance.
The reason your best ideas show up in the shower is because you're unplugged. The water keeps the headphones from jamming your ears and more importantly your mind with external things to pay attention to.
It's only when you turn off the inputs to your mind that your mind will be free to connect the dots on things that might not otherwise seem connected.
As companies continue to make cellphones smaller and thinner they won't be able to make them light enough to override the mental burden of being at everyone's fingertips. With a phone in your pocket you can't leave them behind.
Interruptions are the enemy of deep thought. It takes about 15 minutes, give or take, to reload your mental RAM to where you were before.
You might not ever get your good ideas back. Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Kubla Kahn is a fragment of what the author had composed in his head during a dream. He was interrupted and lost the rest.
Continuous partial attention is another enemy of deep thinking. Your consciousness can't multitask. It can task switch pretty well, but that takes away from your stream of thought. I wonder if anyone texted me.

You probably won't go cold turkey, but build some unplugged time into your vacations and watch where your mind takes you.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Shine for something.

The odds against you are astronomical:

Collapsed stars created heavy elements that accreted into our solar system.

Amino acids started arranging themselves on this Goldilocks rock.

Your great-grandparents met each other.

If history zigged instead of zagged, we would be absent from the narrative, none the wiser.

You are here. Alive. Brilliant. Conscious. Desperately racing the clock. A spark flying in defiance the endless night.

You are alive. Now. Now is all there is.

So shine. Burn your candle at both ends. Be at your best in this and every moment. Your spark will not last the night. They never do.

Shine for something. Illuminate the world. Keep someone warm. Keep the fire burning. Set other sparks alight. Shine in the way only you can. Now's your chance. The fire has invited you to come alive.

When you come alive, as a consciousness of the universe, you validate everything that's happened up to this point. You make all of history worthwhile, and you make it possible for others to come alive too. The fire needs sparks that come alive.

Watch out for the smoke. Smoke comes from incomplete combustion. When you blow smoke, you fail to live up to your own potential and you stifle the others around you.

Be as bright, hot, and positive as it is possible for you to be. Forgive the past. Embrace reality. Don't prejudge the future. Don't waste your flight on smoke.

Go Spark, and shine. 

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Is it good enough?

Being a finch would narrow down the choices some. Is it food? Yep.
Like most things, the question comes back to: given your situation, what do you want?
What do you want is one of two fundamental problems. Either you don't know what you want or you don't know how to get it.
The big version of that question is insufficiently constrained to be useful without three weeks in an ashram. If you have that answer, carry on. You'll be unstoppable.
In the drive-thru, the what do you want question comes with enough context to be easy: burger, fries, drink.It's good enough.
Would a six course prix-fixé with wine pairings be better? Probably. And sometimes the drive-thru is good enough.
It's a question of satisficing, opportunity cost and horizon. What do you want? How much do you want it relative to everything else? How much energy do you want to put into deviating from the default option?
In math, the local maximum of a function is the peak where the values go down in both directions. If up is 'better', doing less makes things worse, and doing more makes things worse too.
Good enough: Best available option within how much you care.
If you're looking at a wider horizon, it may open up other possibilities to optimize outside of your local max.
If you can easily improve, you're probably not at a local max. Keep improving.
Don't forget, you're on the clock. Everything becomes good enough when you run out of time or energy to change it.
It might not ever be perfect. And it might be good enough.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Heartbleed: A problem with the plumbing

Over the next few weeks, companies will be saying words like Heartbleed, OpenSSL, and certificate, and telling you to change your passwords. Change them. Change them all.
This is a great opportunity to fire up your password manager (yes, get a password manager) and make sure you're not reusing passwords in multiple places. 
Like any good security flaw, there's nothing you could have done to avoid the 'Heartbleed' (CVE-2014-0160) bug which became public Monday night. It's a server problem.
An attacker could, without leaving a trace, go fishing in the server's active memory and retrieve up to 64k of whatever's there each time they ask.
This could include logins & passwords, other personal data, or certificate private keys which form the foundation of online authentication.
Once the servers have been updated, change your password. Visit for all the gory details.
It's impossible to know how widely exploited this hole was. The only safe option is to assume it's all compromised.
Are you still there, server? It's me, Margaret.

Password management software will reduce the cognitive overhead of these changes, and make it easy for you to use different long, incomprehensible passwords at every site you visit.
Take care of your plumbing. Rome was built on two goddesses: Venus (love & beauty) and Cloacina (the sewer/infrastructure). Without the Cloaca Maxima (the main storm sewer), the Roman Forum is a swamp, without love or beauty.

You don't get the beauty of the internet without the infrastructure that supports it, and sometimes that needs a little maintenance. Do your part. Change your passwords.

Friday, April 11, 2014

The future of electricity: More like the internet, less like cable tv.

We're still in the cable tv era of electricity. It's centrally produced and wired up to our homes and businesses. It is very hard to imagine modern life without it.
There are lots of incentives for energy companies to maintain the status quo. The disruptive peer to peer model of energy production and consumption threatens their business model.
We use a lot of energy, most of it in buildings and as transportation fuels. No one solution is going to fix it all, but transitioning to sources of energy without ongoing input costs will provide stability for future prices, while reducing the carbon burden on the atmosphere.
As far as fossil fuels are concerned, the scarce resource isn't the fossil fuels. We've proven resourceful at continuing to find ever more remote sources of fossil fuel. 
The scarce resource for all carbon-based fuels is in the ability of the atmosphere and the ocean to absorb the CO2.
The solution is, of course, multifaceted. Structural reduction in energy use is an essential step. Green sources of energy is the obvious part, but coupled with a storage and exchange system that rewards green generation and allows people to profit from participating.
Use less energy. Remembering to turn out the lights is a part of this, but it's really at the tail end. Instead, renovate cities and buildings so that the whole system uses much less energy. Existing buildings can be renovated to use less energy and serve new purposes. These retrofits are often a great deal financially and environmentally, because those costs for the structure has already been paid.
Harnessing a broad mix of renewable energy options is the next step.
Wind power can produce lots of power on appropriate sites. The bigger the turbines the better the energy return on investment is. Financially, the wind will always be free, which makes predicting financial return much easier than guessing at the future price of natural gas or coal.
The same goes for solar photovoltaics. Of course solar and wind need to produce enough energy to pay for their creation, but once that's done, they're carbon free sources of energy.
Solar thermal is a great, often overlooked, source of energy savings. The sun can heat up your domestic water.
Storage and the smart grid are key elements of this transition. Storage can be boring like a rack of batteries or interesting like a Tesla electric car set up to sell its battery power to the grid when you can make money doing so.

That's where the data connections and the software come into play. Software can place a value on a watt of power anywhere in the system. Location matters. Your house could be configured to charge your car with the sun, and when the price of energy is cheap, then sell it back to the grid around supper time when the spot price goes up. If this sounds greek to you, don't worry. Once the pieces are in place, the neighbour kid will set you up.

Friday, April 4, 2014

How to avoid pesticides in your fruits and veggies

So you're skipping out on growing a garden this year but still want to avoid pesticides. If you've got a garden, great, you know exactly where your food comes from.
Here's how: Buying organic fruits and vegetables will keep the pesticides out of your body.
Foods destined to be organic aren't allowed to have pesticides applied to them. You can have confidence that food labelled organic isn't going out of its way to poison you.
An alternative strategy, one that builds community, is to get to know people at the local farmer's market and ask them how they grow their food. Often, small growers will find organic certification cost prohibitive, though they grow their food without pesticides.
Now, if you're only a little worried about the pesticides, the Environmental Working Group out of the US has posted what they call their Dirty Dozen: Fruits and vegetables that are worth buying organic.
So much for an apple a day… Apples and nectarines topped the list for fruits. Along with blueberries, grapes, peaches and strawberries, these ones are worth buying organic, or avoiding altogether.
If you're looking for an excuse not to eat your veggies, the veggies to avoid are celery, bell peppers, spinach, lettuce, cucumbers, and potatoes. These ones are worth buying organic or avoiding.
Also, green beans and kale greens didn't make the 'dirty dozen' list, but had organophosphate residues, which have been shown to be neurotoxic. Organophosphates have been linked in an Ohio study with lower birth weight and shorter pregnancies, placing babies at risk.
The 'conventionally grown' foods least likely to contain pesticides are onions, sweet corn, and pineapples. You can see the complete list of the 'clean 15' foods least likely to have pesticides at
Growing your own organic food, buying organic, or getting to know someone who grows clean food will go a long way to keeping pesticides out of your body. If you can't manage a fully organic diet, you can get most of the benefits by avoiding the 'dirty dozen' fruits and vegetables, or buying them organic.

Avoiding pesticides takes a little extra work or a little extra money, but your health is worth it.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Connect with your community

Discover what's possible right in your own neighbourhood.
The reason we live so close together is so we can take advantage of the abundance of goods, services, and friendships that proximity provides.
Spontaneous connections make communities come alive. Making optimal use of those serendipitous connections requires a little effort on your part though.
Explore. The next time you find yourself with three minutes to spare, go in, wherever it is you happen to be.
Your three minutes might be fruitless, but it won't be wasted. You'll meet someone new, learn what they're about, and that new information will be available to you when you need it.
On the other hand, right behind that door might be exactly the thing, activity, or experience you didn't realize you needed.
When you fill out the mental map of your neighbourhood and know what's available, that's gives your community its small town feel.
It's not just stores either. Visit the public buildings. There are resources there that you don't know about. Know what you can do at the library, at city hall and the pool.
Check out the clubs too. If one sounds interesting, show up. They may be strangers, but they're only strangers once.
If there's a transit system, know how to use it to get home, even if you'll "never" need it.
The benefits of knowing what's available right around you are worth the temporary discomfort of introducing yourself and asking a few friendly questions.

Connect with your community. That's why it's there.

Friday, March 28, 2014

How to grow cities for people.

There are two kinds of cities. There are cities designed for cars and cities designed for people.
If you're wondering which you'd rather live in, ask yourself whether you'd rather lose the ability to drive or the ability to walk.
A small tweak to how we think about planning can make it much easier to design cities for people. That tweak starts with understanding the urban transect.
You have a scale from T1 to T6. T1 is untouched nature, T6 is a metropolitan core. The places in between are a gradient of increasing density and activity.
Instead of planning the land use, instead decide on the shape of the community you want.
Your 'main street' will probably be T4 or T5. That's the urban metro area with apartments, commercial development and lots of activity and excitement. You plan the energy and the building shapes and types there to support the city you want.
Further out you have the T3 sections, which is more like the typical single family residential areas. The T2 would be the exurban development or rural reserve.
What this lets the planners do is tune the city. Rather than simply having to say yes or no to something, it lets them say how and where, and have it support the goal of a complete city.
Building types, fences, roads, sidewalks and public space can all be tuned in the land use bylaw by where it exists in the transect. You might want big setbacks in T3 but buildings up to the sidewalk at T5.
You could allow apartment buildings in T4 and T5 areas, but not in the T1, T2 or T3 areas. They wouldn't be right for that part of the city. These decisions help clarify what the city will be like, make the decisions about what sort of buildings can go where, and simplify what's normally a complicated land-use-bylaw document.
By specifying which areas are in which parts of the transect and what is allowable in each of the spaces, you allow the city to become what it needs to be. Rather than focusing on which areas are commercial, residential and industrial, you make it easy to specify the gradient and variety of development that allows human scale cities to emerge. Look up the 'Smartcode' for details.
You could throw out your existing land-use bylaw and start over. That's what Miami did. There's enough existing suburbia out there that makes that sort of strategy challenging.
A parallel code strategy would allow you to pick whether you wanted to build your development for cars or for people, then follow that set of rules, whether it's the traditional Land Use Bylaw, or the Smartcode.

Changing the planning structure makes it easier to make cities for people instead of cities for cars. That's what lets you keep the small town feel as your city grows.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Read this. You don't have to agree.

When you read things you disagree with you understand your own position better.
Books are lighthouses for your worldview. Newspapers and magazines are GPS satellites. The internet is a laser rangefinder. Agree or disagree, care or don't care; reading teaches you about where you are in the landscape of ideas.
Some ideas are new-to-you and open up continents of thought you haven't explored. Other ideas conflict with things you know to be true; punt 'em.
Reading widely provides the raw material for combining existing ideas in interesting and potentially profitable ways. It's hard to connect the dots if there aren't any.
Reading widely helps you understand the gamut of opinion on any issue. When you understand all the angles, you might be able to help everyone win.
Avoid confirmation bias: If you only read things you already think it demonstrates insecurity. The slightest breeze could knock it over.
Avoid pig-headedness: If you're so confident in what you believe that nothing could sway you, that's another intellectual error, and it robs you of the advantages education can provide.
New ideas are scary. Invite them in. Entertain them. Test them every way you can. Keep the good ones. Changing your mind when better ideas come along is how we get better as individuals and as a society.

Read widely. Read thoughtfully. If you don't think for yourself, someone else will do it for you, and they might not have your best interests at heart.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Smart city growth isn't at the edges

Sienna, Italy.
Sprawling cities create a liability with every new subdivision. Cities can be lively and financially prudent by building up, not out.
The maintenance and replacement costs of that infrastructure are not sufficiently covered by the property taxes.
As each subdivision needs infrastructure maintenance that money comes from the tax revenue from several newer subdivisions, which don't need that maintenance yet.
This is the vicious circle of perpetual exponential growth. Just like any good Ponzi scheme, it works for you if you get in early, but you don't want to be stuck at the end.
The institution of 'the city' is there for the long game. It's going to be around for the reckoning. All the infrastructure that the city thought it was getting for free from developers will need expensive replacement.
Sprawling has other costs too. Obvious costs include the additional cost of transportation over longer distances, additional cost of road maintenance because there's more roads, and the opportunity cost of the paved agricultural land.
More hidden costs include the social isolation that exists in suburbs where it's difficult to connect with your neighbours.
Great neighbourhoods aren't about wide boulevards, two car garages and mature trees. Those things are pleasant amenities, and they're beside the point. Great neighbourhoods are places where you know someone who can lend you a fondue pot; places where you run across your friends on a regular basis.
Much of the city has already been built out at a low density. Fixing it involves creating dense nodes near amenities and transit hubs. It involves reinhabiting the main streets. It also means curtailing the sprawling fringe.
The dense pedestrian nodes keep down the costs associated with transportation, infrastructure maintenance, road work, and parking. If you can live in these places without needing a car except for unusual trips you can save a bundle. The city saves a bundle too, because it doesn't need to maintain so much area.
The costs are an important factor, but they can't compare to the social benefits that emerge when people live in community with each other. There can be conflicts, but those are outweighed by the benefits of having friends close, being close to the amenities you need, and living in a vibrant environment.
When you think of destinations like London, Paris, and New York they have an energy that you can't find in a sleepy suburb.

Quit building fluff around the edges. Reinvent that stale business model. Find ways to reinvigorate the core and you'll end up with a vibrant community that won't be a ticking time-bomb of infrastructure and social problems.