The Grass is Finally Greener


You’ll have to excuse us newly minted hybrid car drivers. We’re both slightly distracted and a bit smug.

Earlier this year, my husband and decided to get a Prius. We’ve only had it a few months, but already the changes it’s produced in us are remarkable.

First, you must understand that never in a million years did I see myself driving a sedan. The word “sedan” is entirely too close to the word “sedate” for my liking. Second, in spite of a brief, but meaningful relationship with a red Tiburon back in the (pre-motherhood) day, I’ve never really liked driving much. Driving is incredibly boring, but it requires your full attention — or at least, that’s what the officer who caught me trying to catch up on the latest issue of New Scientist told me.

Meanwhile, my husband, who’s never met a train he didn’t like, has an innate suspicion of anything that doesn’t blow steam or require a third rail.

So it comes as a great surprise to find that we really enjoy piloting our hybrid. I say “piloting” because it feels like you’re on board a starship. The regenerative braking sounds like you’re dropping out of warp, and it’s completely silent at stop lights and stealthy in parking lots. As it comes with push button controls and digital readouts, plus a way to pipe your cell phone calls through the dash hands-free (“Scotty! Are you there?”), my husband is seriously debating getting new plates that read NCC-1701.

Thus far, we’ve only discovered two drawbacks to our new car. One is that the feedback system encourages you to play a ‘video game’ of sorts with yourself while driving, by scoring you on your consumption. You find yourself constantly watching the fuel use meter, trying to drive with a feather-light foot, and thinking of more efficient routes to work. Do not be alarmed if you see me doing a little victory dance in the driver’s seat when I rate an “Excellent!”

That’s the distracted part I mentioned earlier. The smug part is when you silently glide up beside the big, noisy, fuel sucking SUV driver who impatiently pulled out and around you two blocks ago. You see him jump in surprise, and then watch him realize he’s no further ahead than you in traffic but about $20 poorer to boot. I think I may have to develop a special dance for those occasions too.

The second drawback is that now entirely too easy to rationalize a trip into a Tim Horton’s drive through because you don’t have the carbon footprint induce- guilt associated with idling as you wait. If we’re not careful, our doughnut weight gain will more than offset our fuel efficiency.

Chocolate glazed overdoses aside, what really strikes me about the hybrid and other more environmentally friendly products is that the market is finally getting it. It used to be that the only way to be kinder to the Earth was to be a Certified Hippie. You know, the people who actually wore those coats made out of recycled plastic bottle pieces, could find time to make all their own cleaning products and who lived in reclaimed transport containers.

These days there are all kinds of choices out there. Want to reduce electricity use? Store shelves are full of low energy, long life bulbs. (Bonus: Fewer trips up the ladder.) Worm composting to reduce your kitchen waste not your thing? (And let’s face it, worms should not be present in any kitchen that also has toddlers). Get a low wattage electric composter. (Bonus: In two weeks you’ll have enough soil to re-pot the petunias your toddlers discovered).

Tired of the energy drain that is the ironing pile? Behold and hallelujah, we’ve invented no-iron shirts and pants. (Oh c’mon, tell me you don’t think that ironing is toxic to *your* environment.) And I don’t know about you, but I’ve already picked out my mid-life crisis car: the all-electric Tesla.

Not easy being green? That was so twentieth century. There are all kinds of easy to implement changes that can make a difference right now.

Let’s hop to it.

Photo Credit: Chandra Clarke

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Words to Remember From EB White



North Brooklin, Maine

30 March 1973

Dear Mr. Nadeau:

As long as there is one upright man, as long as there is one compassionate woman, the contagion may spread and the scene is not desolate. Hope is the thing that is left to us, in a bad time. I shall get up Sunday morning and wind the clock, as a contribution to order and steadfastness.

Sailors have an expression about the weather: they say, the weather is a great bluffer. I guess the same is true of our human society—things can look dark, then a break shows in the clouds, and all is changed, sometimes rather suddenly. It is quite obvious that the human race has made a queer mess of life on this planet. But as a people we probably harbor seeds of goodness that have lain for a long time waiting to sprout when the conditions are right. Man’s curiosity, his relentlessness, his inventiveness, his ingenuity have led him into deep trouble. We can only hope that these same traits will enable him to claw his way out.

Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day.


(Signed, ‘E. B. White’)

Excerpted from Letters of Note (, by Shaun Usher

Photo Credit: Pavlofox / Pixabay

Embrace the (lack of) suck



You have just spilled your espresso all over your new white jeans. Time to text “@#$%^! my life” to your friends?


Someone dented your car while you were at the grocery store. Should you vent on Twitter?


The bank froze your credit card temporarily because it deemed your last purchase suspicious. Post your outrage on Facebook? Still no.

Why not? What’s wrong with venting? Turn the question on it’s head.

Care to guess what characteristic the most successful people in the world share? Is it drive? Luck? The ability to calculate large sums in their head? No again. It’s gratitude. You just don’t see them complaining.

I can hear you thinking… “Well of course these people can be grateful. They have everything going their way!” So let’s back it up a bit.

  1. You have way, way more to be grateful for than you realize

One out of eight people suffered from “chronic undernourishment” in 2011-2012.

Half of the world lives on less than $2.50 per day.

There are still more than 40 major armed conflicts happening the world right now, with fatalities numbering in the tens of thousands.

In Ecuador, you can be jailed for having a miscarriage.

In Afghanistan, you can go to prison for being raped. 46.5 million Americans live in poverty.

Perspective is everything, isn’t it?

  1. The reason we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind the scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel. – Steve Furtick

Successful people have bad days too. They lose money. They lose friends and relatives. They get old. Believe it or not, the universe treats them the same way it treats you.

They also screw things up, and make mistakes, and some of them barely hold it together or even fall to pieces from time to time. But because they keep going and don’t make a big deal out of it, their successes tend to outnumber their failures, and we forget the bad bits.

  1. If you always speak of your troubles, you’ll always have troubles to speak of

I don’t know who came up with this  line, but it’s exactly right. Some people like to talk about the law of attraction, other people talk about karma. Me, I think we end up in a feedback loop: the more we focus on and talk about the bad things that happen, the more we unconsciously do things that bring more bad things and drama into our lives.

And of course, the opposite holds true: the more we focus on and talk about the good things that happen, and — especially this — the better we make other people feel, the more we unconsciously do things to improve our lot in life.

So if you really want to be successful, start by focusing on your successes, and quietly shrug off all of your problems.

You’ll be amazed at how quickly things turn around for you.

Making a Scene


I read something today that made me realize that sometimes good things come from the most surprising places.

Everyone would agree that car accidents – from the most minor fender bender to the worst wrecks – are bad. The lawyers that inevitably become involved in court cases don’t always agree about who has the most accurate recollection of how an accident happened. That’s where Pierre Nugues and his team at Lund University in Sweden come in.

Researchers there are developing what they call “CarSim,” a text-to-scene converter for vehicle accident reports. What this means is that the software will be able to take a written report and convert it into a three-dimensional animated “film.” For example, if at some point the report said “the car turned right,” the software would show a car turning right on the screen. The idea is that if a witness can actually see a replay on TV, he or she will be able to be more accurate about what happened.

At the moment, it’s all fairly basic and primitive, but if you think about what this software might be able to do in the future, the implications for Hollywood – and people like you and me – are astounding.

For example, consider what this will do for movies. Software called “MovieSim” would be able to read a script and immediately convert it to an animated film, giving a whole new meaning to the phrase “straight to video.” This, in turn, might improve the quality of films because execs could watch scripts before inflicting them on the general public. Consider the following studio board meeting:

EXEC1: Right guys, time to review this week’s script submissions. Someone feed the computer.
EXEC2: Okay, this first one is about a prize fighter named Rocko that beats the odds.
[They watch the MovieSim]
EXEC1: That was terrible! Full of cliches and really bad acting!
EXEC2: Okay, let’s try this one. It’s all about an unlikely crew in a space shuttle trying to stop an asteroid from smashing into Earth.
[They watch.]
EXEC1: That’s was awful! The plot was threadbare, the science all over the map, and the soundtrack was far too loud!
EXEC2: Er, those were our two best scripts. We did stuff like this last year, and the year before and…
EXEC1: This is what we’ve been producing?! Ye gods, I had no idea.

In addition to quality control, the software could also be used to prevent movie tragedies altogether. Many a production company thought it would be a good idea to convert a popular product or novel to a movie. When fed something like the Nintendo game “Super Mario Bros.” or the ponderous and dense novel Ulysses by James Joyce, the software would simply throw a “DOES NOT COMPUTE! ERROR!” message. This would save millions for the studios and prevent movie critic suffering world wide.

A plug-in for the software would improve the quality of TV shows, too. All you would have to do is put together a database of all previous TV shows and then have the software analyze your new scripts. With any luck, you’d get a report like this:

Line 22: This dialogue sounds like a four-year-old wrote it.
Line 87: This was done on Episode 22 of “M*A*S*H,” Episode 59 of “St. Elsewhere” and Episodes 43, 105, 210 and 347 of “ER.”
Line 108: Your audience can see how this is going to end a mile away.
Line 390: This is a really stupid plot development.
Line 506: This is totally out of character.
Line 1089: Please step away from your keyboard. Do not attempt another script.

The most interesting development though, will be what it allows average people to do. Just as the Internet has allowed every Tom, Dick and Harry to publish his innermost thoughts on a daily – nay – hourly basis, text-to-scene software will allow just about anyone to be a filmmaker. Just think of all the new vignettes, short films and feature length productions there will be. New camera angles, new techniques, thousands of new videos from people all around the world converting what they’re thinking to film.

Indeed, the amateur porn industry may never be the same.

Photo credit:


Actually, entrepreneurs are not risk-takers

Probably not the best approach to business.

Probably not the best approach to business.

Every group has its own mythology. For entrepreneurs, the prevailing mythos is that, to a person, they are all daredevil adventurers. When they’re not heli-skiing or bungee jumping, they approach their business decisions with the famous Branson screw it, let’s do it attitude. The business press is full of stories about ventures where the principals supposedly closed their eyes, made a breath-taking gamble, and won.

Don’t you believe it for a second.

For every entrepreneur who claims to have hit the jackpot with that kind of approach, there are dozens more that flamed out spectacularly. Insofar as we can rely on stats about privately-owned ventures, the numbers tell the tale: StatisticsBrain suggests that 24% of businesses fail in the first year, with up to 44% failing by their 3rd year. In Canada, StatsCan posted a 5-year survival rate for new businesses at a measly 0.36. The US government data puts businesses started in 2010 at 668,861 firms, and the business exit rate for that same year at 690,504 firms.

The numbers are worse in the tech category, where 3 out of 4 start-ups go kablooie. And before you go blaming economic conditions, remember that the story was the same back in the 90s, when money flowed like wine. In true dot-com fashion, there was even a website dedicated to chronicling the blowouts.

So why the discrepancy between the media reports and the reality? And is that a bad thing?

The media question is easy. First, the media loves a sexy story, and at the moment, there’s nothing sexier than stories about slightly nerdy young people who become overnight billionaires. Entrepreneurs are hawt, and it’s the outliers that get the coverage.

Second, there’s a lot of active myth-building going on by the people behind the success stories. That’s only natural. After all, when a reporter comes calling, what’s going to get you the most ink? The tale of how you spent hours tweaking your projections in an Excel spreadsheet, or the (ahem) slightly (cough, cough) exaggerated story of how you jacked yourself up on espresso to program a killer app, scored VC funding over a bottle of Jack Daniels, and went skydiving, all in the space of a month?

But is that bad? You bet it is, because it leads a lot of people into business who really, really shouldn’t be. And that by itself wouldn’t be terrible, except that failed businesses hurt more than just the wannabe entrepreneurs. They leave vendors unpaid, landlords with vacancies, and good people suddenly unemployed.

The truth is that real entrepreneurs only take calculated risks. Even the ones who appear to do everything on intuition are really just very, very well-versed in their fields and can do the math in their heads, while the rest of us have to commit it to paper. And all of the entrepreneurs that I know that are really bankin’ it measure the crap out of everything, and leave as little as possible to chance.

What does that mean for your business idea? Before you bet the farm, and with apologies to Desi Arnaz: you’ve got some plannin’ to do.

You’ll want to start with originality: you need either a new product or service, or a new way to produce an existing product better, faster or cheaper. And if you’re doing the latter, it had better be orders of magnitude better, faster, or cheaper, because otherwise, you’re an also-ran, and they become statistics, fast. That should be obvious, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a pizzeria open in a city where there’s already one on every block; likewise don’t try to start a new job-hunting website when there are already several big guns and dozens of smaller competitors in the field.

You’ll want to continue by figuring out how to make a profit. You’ll notice I didn’t say revenue. That’s because it’s actually quite easy to make money; keeping it is quite another matter. If you don’t have a solid plan for profitability in place before you launch, you’ll soon find yourself on the wrong side of the ledger with no clear way to get back. (VC funding you say? Nice if you can get it. But know this: VCs sleep like babies. That is, they wake up crying every two hours. They’ll want a return on any money they give you, and fast.)

Finally, you need to figure out what it all looks like one year, three years and five years out. If you have no idea what the end looks like, you won’t be putting the right things — staffing plans, growth projections, safeguards — in place now. Begin with the end in mind.

There’s nothing more dazzling and seemingly romantic than the entrepreneurial lifestyle at the moment, especially when job security seems so tenuous. However, there’s no such thing as a fairy tale existence; there’s a great deal more that has to come before and after that bit about “they lived happily ever after.”

Photo credit: Canva

Feel the Wind (Power) in My Hair


It’s tough trying to be an environmentally conscious consumer. Hybrid cars? They are still pretty pricey; get on the waiting list. Biodegradeable disposable diapers? Not at your local grocery store. Phosphate-free soaps? Only at expensive, hard-to-get-to health boutiques.

Promising solutions seem to drop out of sight. For years, I’ve heard of alternative fuel sources — everything from vegetable oil to hydrogen. These things seem to be in perpetual development; none of them ever make it to the market.

Blame Big Oil, you say? Well, maybe. Certainly there’s a lot of money to be made in oil, and the players aren’t going to leave the field without a fight. But it has to be said that sometimes, environmentalists aren’t doing us any favours either. Consider:

PRODUCT DEVELOPER: Right, so we want to talk about this amazing new technology that can convert discarded chicken parts – straight from the poultry-processing plant – into clean fuel.
ENVIRONMENTALIST: Did the chickens lead happy lives?
PD: Er, they were free-range, I think…
EN: But did they get a chance to self-actualize? Realize their full potential?
PD: Right, perhaps you’d like to see our proposal for these wind generators…
EN: Too noisy.
PD: Oh, but these are located along coastlines and more remote areas, and they’re practically silent-running.
EN: Underground, I mean. Vibration, etc. Disturbs the woodchucks.
PD: Disturbs… the… woodchucks. Okay, so, how about we talk about solar panels?
EN: Nope. Bad for bugs.
PD: How?!
EN: They get hot. Bugs land on them, and …ffft!
PD: Ffft? Ffft?!!
EN: You okay? You seem to be getting a bit hot under the collar.
PD: Must be that global warming thing.

Of course, economists are no better. Many an enthusiastic proposal has been squashed by an economist with a calculator and too much time on his hands. Inevitably they forecast that the new energy system will cost billions, even trillions, and that its benefits are doubtful. One wonders what would have been said if our current situation had been put forward as a proposal, back in the late 1800s.

FUTURIST1: Gentlemen! We must do something to replace the horse. They eat too much. They leave horse… stuff all over the place. They kick. People fall off them and break their necks. Suggestions?
FUTURIST2: I know! First, let’s drill large holes in random places until we find pockets of the liquid, rotten remains of long-dead animals and plants. Then we’ll set up expensive, smelly refineries to convert this goo into a wide variety of toxic chemicals. Meanwhile, we’ll begin paving over millions of acres of green landscape with a hard, but nevertheless non-durable, substance that will be prone to crack, break up, or develop something called “potholes” on a weekly basis and require repair. Finally we will have to find a way to transport the refined goo to distribution stations; this will occasionally result in an accident — you know, dropping several million litres in the ocean, or having something blow up now and then. All this will be to fuel the horseless carriage.

[Short pause]

FUTURIST1: Sounds good! Where do I invest?

The point is, of course, that things are in a bit of a mess, and so, yes, it’s going to cost money to fix or replace it. The solutions are not going to be perfect either — short of us leaving the planet, there is never going to be a time when we’re not disturbing something, consuming a resource, or both. So let’s just get on with whatever system will cause less damage than the one we’ve got, and we’ll figure it out from there.

I’m sure the woodchucks would agree — even the ones that are somewhat disturbed.*

* And to prove my commitment to the environment, let me just say this: No woodchucks were actually disturbed in the process of writing this column.

Photo credit: Alexander Blecher via Wikimedia Commons