They say the best things in life are free. In this modern age of content and consumerism, I’m still amazed at the amount of knowledge and resources available for free with an internet connection.
I’ve benefited in so many ways from the Internet of Free Things. I’m currently taking a course on solar photovoltaics, gaining the institutional insight of Delft University for $0.
There are three free things I’ve enjoyed so thoroughly in the past few years, I decided it was high time to support them. So, as a birthday gift to myself this year, I’m treating myself to support this trio of free things I love.
I grew up in a household where the speakers were constantly translating the notes from vinyl records or the radio waves of the CBC. My father gave me an appreciation of audio. Both Mom and Dad encouraged an understanding of the news, locally and globally, on the CBC (even when thirteen-year-old me whined for the K94.9’s Top 9 at 9 instead).
Radio being a long-time companion, I quickly fell in love with podcasts. The best companion for pre-sunrise bus commutes in the prairies. Of course, it was Serial that first drew me in. Then, as I sought interesting Canadian content, I came across Canadaland and Sickboy.
This week, I began my second semester of my master’s program in clean energy. It’s been a strange, challenging and enjoyable shift into the role of a student. I’ve learned a lot in the past four months, from thermodynamic exergy to business strategy.
I intended to share more insights through the process, but the usual student business of readings, papers and exams topped my priority list. Reflecting back on the entire semester, there was one overarching and surprising lesson I learned from my courses:
Ask better questions.
It may seem obvious. Perhaps too basic to spend all that money to learn. Indeed, it’s not even a factual learning. It’s just an approach, a mindset. However, I find it incredibly valuable and too often overlooked.
This lesson stretched across classes and disciplines. I’ll highlight two courses that I found particularly inspiring and where this learning was at the forefront.
Each year, I’ve reflected on the wisdom I’ve collected from people and places I’ve been. As each year arrives more quickly, here again, I reflect on another lap around the sun.
This year, I’ve been incredibly lucky to have a birthday week filled with strong, powerful, female environmental leaders. It’s as if the universe knew exactly what I would love for my birthday and aligned the stars (and the talks) to gift it to me. As a set out on my clean energy education path, it’s a pretty well thought out present. Thanks, Universe (and UBC)!
In my birthday week, I was fortunate enough to hear three such leaders speak.
On Tuesday, I enjoyed two separate talks at UBC featuring Elizabeth May. In the afternoon, she reflected on her life in politics followed by an evening talk on current environmental legislation.
Listening to Elizabeth speak of her life and environmental work is like having a crash course in the global sustainability movement. She pulls lessons from the major global conventions, weaves Canadian history and politics through rounds of legislation, and quotes leaders of every political stripe and nationality.
With the raft of environmental issues in the world today and the challenges ahead to meet a goal of no more than 1.5C increase in global average temperature, she reminded us that “It’s hard work to be hopeful.” Yet, she still is. She says she’s genetically wired for optimism, but if anyone could see the dire straights we’re in, it would be Elizabeth May. Yet, she finds hope.
She draws inspiration from the nearly incredible World War II story of Dunkirk. She asked, “What’s the equivalent of every tiny fishing boat to rescue the entire British army?” Rescuing 300,000 men by fishing boats seems impossible. But it was done. Now, it’s our turn.
In order to meet the Paris Agreement at 1.5C, she simplified the task into priorities:
“Get fossil fuels out of electricity generation everywhere.
Get rid of internal combustion engines.”
It’s simple and incredibly complex. But so is rescuing the entire British Army.
In the evening, she wove a rollercoaster of a story of Canada’s environmental assessment process. From attending the first ever environmental assessment panel in Wreck Cove, Cape Breton(!) to today’s proposed legislation (Bill C-69). What should be an improvement on the gutted, broken assessment process from the Harper era doesn’t even get back to where the process was in the 90’s. Elizabeth May makes a powerful call for action, which you should read here.
Catherine McKenna spoke at the GLOBE Forum with a rousing speech to an audience focused on sustainable business. I disagree with some of McKenna’s moves around pipelines and the economic-environment balance, there was something special about hearing her speak. She is the first Minister with climate change in her title, holds a cabinet position from the beginning of her time in office, and is a strong, well-educated, articulate leader.
Her talk opened and closed with insights I thought were particularly thoughtful:
After recognizing the unceded territory of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations:
“Reconciliation is hard, but we need to be part of it.”
Recognizing the broad and sometimes unexpected parties who do and need to come together to fight climate change and grow a sustainable future:
“Unusual suspects working together is the only way to get things done.”
Annette Verschuren, O.C.
Annette Verschuren came a long way from a Cape Breton dairy farm. She’s lead major corporations and foundations and is chancellor of Cape Breton University. She spoke at the Walrus Talks Energy, offering a story of her eureka moment while on her bucket list trip:
“We found a way to store food. We found a way to store water. But we hadn’t found a way to store energy.”
Now, she’s founded an energy storage company, NRstor, to meet this need. And has a simple tactic for getting things done:
“I’m a believer in mediocre strategy and great execution.”
Wisdom in Pairs
Hearing thoughtful, clever, experienced women share their lessons and their thoughts on how we need to tackle today’s challenges was the best gift I could receive.
The messages are potent, but even moreso coming from women. Women who have carved out space and created change in this messy world. It’s a reminder and an inspiration that I and other women can (and will!) follow suit.
Why does summer always evaporate? Right now, I’m reflecting on a full month of travel to Bulgaria, Bosnia and Herszignovia, Italy and Slovenia. I’ve been incredibly lucky to take the time to travel, and I will write about it all soon enough here, and the lessons in simplicity I’ve taken from these beautiful, fascinating and delicious places.
Through these trips, I’ve been refining my pre-travel preparation. In particular, I’ve been finding the most efficient uses of the greatest travel tool available: the smart phone. I am still amazed at the vast resources that my phone provides to me at my convenience.
I’m old enough to remember traveling before smart phones. In fact, I owned my first cell phone after I moved to France in 2009. It was smaller than a credit card and allowed me to master T-9 dialing (a lost skill?). Besides being able to text a friend for an address, the phone was useless as a travel resource.
Instead, I relied heavily on the paper map I picked up from the new city’s tourist information center. (This is a habit I still follow today, though I suppose it’s mostly sentimental.) On the map, I would carefully circle key landmarks, my hostel, and memorize intersection street names to be able to recognize them while walking the town.
It’s hard to imagine that just a few years ago, the little red book of Paris’ streets was the essential and the only tool for guidance. I remember standing on a tiny 5-way intersection as we oriented and reoriented the small pages of the Plan de Paris to find the correct street and direction to our night’s adventure.
While some people reading this might find it hard to imagine traveling by paper map, I’m grateful for the perspective it gives me. Every time I can easily follow the blue dot towards my starred accommodation on my phone’s map, I am thankful for the convenience. Every time I bring up a metro map to catch the right train, I appreciate how much time and brow-furrowing it saves me.
While paper maps harken of a simpler time, smart phone travel offers smoother travel with less waste. Catching the right airport bus can mean a last-minute taxi ride averted. Having good, reasonable priced restaurants (or grocers) marked on a map may mean a plastic-packed street food meal can be avoided. Used wisely, a smart phone can be a simple traveler’s best friend.
In appreciation of this handy travel tool, I want how I’ve made it useful for my travels. I’ve been repeating this process for each trip this summer, and I’ve compiled my list of the more valuable smart phone travel preparations. This combination of apps, notes and downloads has saved time and money, and allowed me to better experience the little things.
Disclaimer: I’ve linked to the apps I use on my iPhone SE, but you may find others equal or better (if so, please comment as I’ve love to hear them!).
Seven Ways to Prepare Your Smart Phone for Travel:
1. Download the Lonely Planet City Guide App
When I first explored this app, I couldn’t believe it was free. The Lonely Planet Guides app has dozens of major travel cities available as an offline city map. It includes a brief city description, and long searchable, navigable, savable lists of where to see, eat, sleep, shop, drink and play. It’s been handy to find a nice glass of wine in a quiet Barcelona neighbourhood and to learn more about an intriguing statue inside Dubrovnik’s city walls. Most of the information can be found on their website, but it’s packaged into this wonderful little package. Before traveling, be sure to click on the ‘download the offline map’ option to ensure you have all the interesting facts without data. If your destination isn’t listed, you can also vote to have it be the next one added to the app.
2. Download a Currency App
While mental math is a key skill, there’s nothing more frustrating that miscalculating a currency by a factor of ten. When traveling, I check my math within just a couple clicks to make sure I know what I’m really paying. My go-to is XE Currency Exchange. Before traveling, I add the new currencies I may need, so when I arrive without data, the most recent exchange rate is already loaded.
3. Download the language pack on Google Translate
Google Translate still boggles my mind. When I first used the photo function to automatically translate text in place, I felt the future had truly arrived. (Was anyone else this impressed, or am I a bumpkin?)
This app has been useful for me to ask for directions to a monument or to offer a poorly pronounced but happy ‘Delicious!’ in tasty foreign restaurants. Yes, English is global. However, using the local language allows you to communicate with people outside the tourism industry and to communicate respect for their place and culture. It works offline with a basic vocabulary in many languages. Before traveling, search for the language(s) on the app and click the download arrow. When you arrive, you’ll
It works offline with a basic vocabulary in many languages. Before traveling, search for the language(s) on the app and click the download arrow. When you arrive, you’ll have a better voice.
4. Starting Language Learning with Duolingo
If you don’t have Duolingo on your phone, stop reading and download it right now. It’s the most useful (and cutest!) way to pass the time. Learning a new language is always a good idea, for the world and for your brain.
Plus, it’s a great, free way to learn the basics of a new language before arriving at your destination. The languages offered are limited, compared to Google Translate, especially depending on your native tongue. For English speakers, there are 29 options to choose from. You can learn Spanish, Turkish, Hungarian, German, Vietnamese, Ukranian, Swahili and more. (While preparing this post, I discovered you can learn Esperanto and Klingon on the app!)
5. Download Relevant Podcasts
Whether before your trip or on the train, listening to a travel podcast or a local podcast on the destination city or country fuels the excitement. A good podcast can offer essential background and thoughtful insight through storytelling.
I also am a huge fan of Rick Steve’s Travel Podcasts. I once thought he was a travel guide for my parent’s generation. However, his travel advice is valuable for all ages and budgets. His interviews pull interesting stories and tips from local guides. And as a lover of a walking tour, his audio tours are fantastic. I recently followed his tour and map through Pompeii. Not only did I save 8 Euro on the (admittedly more extensive) official audio-guide, it provided a curated tour that I could feel satisfied with or supplement as desired.
6. Make Your Mark on Google Maps
Although I’m wary of Google’s all-encompassing and all-knowing abilities, I can’t help but acknowledge how darn useful it is. Without data, the little blue dot on Google Maps can still guide you to your destination.
Before departing, I save all key locations under the ‘Favourites’ or ‘Starred Places’ function either on my laptop or on my phone, ensuring they have all loaded on my phone. The locations include accommodation, museums, well-reviewed restaurants and bakeries, bus and train stops, and anywhere else that would be useful to have on a map.
7. Create a Local Note
Some information isn’t captured in emails or in apps. Each trip, I compile museum opening hours, screenshots of bus schedules, interesting local website links, a metro map, directions to (free walking) tour meeting spots, and other information that might be useful. It’s nothing fancy, it’s just a quick cut and paste of information to the basic notepad program that is both on my computer browser and phone (for me, Notes). A draft email can also serve this purpose. The idea is to simply save you from having to re-research the local information you found before leaving home.
Bonus: Password App
In the age of digital privacy, good and changing passwords are crucial. Most people set strong passwords, but don’t need to remember them as their personal devices have them saved. Then, there’s that moment when you need to print a ticket from your email from a hostel computer. Which brilliant combination did I use last time…? Then, to reset your password from an international, unrecognized computer can start a rabbit-hole of email access issues. It’s far better to avoid these scenarios by either properly memorizing those key passwords, or using a password app. I quite like LastPass as it has a great auto-add/update on browsers and its mobile app is very searchable and easy to use. This is a bonus one as I’m wary of advising on online security. But, no matter the solution, passwords are an important thing to remember while traveling.
I hope you find this list useful when you’re preparing for your next trip. Is there anything I missed? I’d love to hear your favourite travel apps and tips in the comments below.
While traveling, I have visited magnificent monuments as well as sites of great tragedy. Travel offers an important opportunity to learn not only the good (the art! the architecture! the food!) but also the bad. Thoughtful memorials are built to preserve the memory and the lessons learned in humanity’s darkest moments.
Earlier this summer, I visited one monument that is all too relevant today: Auschwitz.
I read the news today, oh boy
On Saturday night, I sat and scrolled through the news and comments coming out of Charlottesville, Virginia. Yes, I know there are populist movements rising in all different parts of the Western world. There has been an increase in violent, racially-motivated attacks. There are all the racist and provoking statements Donald Trump has made. Yet, it didn’t seem that it could really be happening.
A white supremacy rally in 2017? Really?
In the morning, I woke up and saw the news that came out overnight. The death, the violence, the calls to ‘go home’. It seemed surreal. Haven’t we learned these lessons from hatred already?
On a day trip from Kraków, I set off for Oświęcim with four friends to see the largest concentration and extermination camps of World War II.
As you might imagine, the whole experience was haunting. We started at the original camp, Auschwitz I before going to the purpose-built Auschwitz II-Birkenau. Our tour guide asked for quiet and respect as we approach the entryway. The crunch of gravel and our guide’s somber words were all we could hear; the whole complex causes a quiet even on bright summer’s day.
The whole camp seemed impossible. Walking down the hallway of prisoner’s faces, the names and dates cry out a story of a continent swept into a frenzy of fear and hatred. The cruelty and precision seem inhuman. In June, I thought, ‘How could this be?’
In August, I think to the rally in Charlottesville. That’s how. Casting broad strokes, blaming ethnic and religious groups, polarizing people to extremes that ultimately cause terror. Breaking the world into simplistic blocks that can be forcefully rearranged to better suit some. A leader who avoids using the strongest and most accurate words to condemn these movements. A leader gaining political capital on the back of hatred and violence. Words matter.
From my place of privilege, I’m uncertain what my words can do. But it’s not a time to stay quiet. We need to talk about prejudice and inequality and terrorism. We must remember our history.
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. — George Santayana
Recently, I had the absolute pleasure of attending TEDx Danubia. An inspiring day that surpassed my expectations with brilliant speakers and audio-visual engagement in the beautiful Müpa venue. The range of topics was both dramatic and stimulating. However, from the lens of simplicity, one talk spoke to me the most: plain language.
Through the translated Hungarian in my headphones, I listened to Vera Gergely open her speech reading the text of a Hungarian tax document. The translator talked in the circles the form provided. The laughter of the audience at the absurdity of the text confirmed that I was hearing the same elaborate and baffling instructions.
Part of the laughter stemmed from hearing the complex, inaccessible wording intended for the average citizen. Part of the laughter came from realizing how ridiculous it is that this text is generally accepted as normal.
The problem of the tax document is not solely a Hungarian matter. In fact, I learned from Vera’s bio that there is a worldwide organization working to tackle this wordy problem: PLAIN (or Plain Language Association International). According to PLAIN, a communication is in plain language ‘if its wording, structure, and design are so clear that the intended audience can easily find what they need, understand what they find, and use that information’.
The following table from the Government of Canada’s English-language guide provides fine examples of traditional verbose government wording and plain language. I find some of the examples almost comical when compared to their simplified pair:
In this day and age, it can often seem like the only straightforward text is one precisely prepared by a marketing agency to sell the latest widget or to click onto a site. So much of what we read, from website terms and conditions to post office tariffs, is convoluted. After a dash a legalese, the text becomes inaccessible for the very people for which it’s written.
Everyday advocates, like Vera, promote the virtues of plain language. In Hungary, she furthers the cause by speaking to organizations, including the ones who pen those documents, as well as by giving awards to the clearest and most incomprehensible Hungarian texts.
As a lover of simplicity and of efficient systems, I commend the efforts of all the PLAIN people out there (a term meant affectionately). The next time you write instructions, directions or a document, remember the following guidelines:
use the simplest words possible, in short sentences within short paragraphs
use a structure that is logical and easy to follow
speak directly to the reader, providing the most important information
Plain language is not condescending language. It’s simplified text that varies based on the audience and the topic. The concept provides a valuable guiding principle. Using plain language, what is written can be understood.
Last month, I was lucky enough to have my parents and my younger sister visit me in Budapest. It was a busy trip, as I would say they wanted to fit an entire European summer vacation into two and a half weeks. As part of this vacation, we enjoyed a Croatian road trip.
In North America, the road trip has a certain romantic appeal. It combines adventure, independence, landscape and opportunity. There’s the ability to add to and deviate from plans, to set your own pace, and the best ones have a great soundtrack. It’s been romanticized by writers, by musicians and now by Instagrammers. I’ve done road trips across Canada and France and can confirm it’s a fantastic way to explore. In fact, the road trip may be the one good thing our North American car culture has to offer.
In April in Croatia, our little rental car allowed us the flexibility to travel with one guiding principle: follow the sunshine. We had a rough schedule, some accommodation booked, and Dubrovnik as only must-do. Otherwise, our days were flexible. With the forecast for rain looming, we wanted to take advantage of the warm Adriatic weather as best we could.
By following the sunshine, it led us to a lunch and long walk through the capital, Zagreb. The forecast called for rain and 8°C in our planned destination of Plitvice National Park, so we skipped it and headed for the coast.
Waking up on the Adriatic, we enjoyed a leisurely morning walk by Zadar’s sea organ (perhaps one of the most clever urban designs) and Roman ruins. When the weather started to go south, so did we.
An impromptu visit to the Krka National Park (pronounced Kirka, if you were wondering as we did) by boat then by foot to explore its seven cascading waterfalls.
An exciting rainstorm with thunder echoing against the Dubrovnik Old Town walls.
Followed by a quiet yet stunning golden hour as the Old Town.
A pit-stop in Makarska for snacks and coffee on the water.
And finally, a late-night but rain-free exploration of the Split Diocletian Palace after a delicious meal of pizza, pasta and Rakija.
Our Croatian adventure was jam-packed but still flexible enough to make Split decisions. (You’re welcome.) We were able to do this by focusing on research rather than planning. We knew the options, and Croatia as many great ones, and were able to chose. Most importantly, we had a car-wide understanding that no route would be a bad one. With this agreement and a weather forecast, we finalized our plans on the highway.
While I’m traveling, I am always interested in the simple things. I love discovering those items or spaces so thoughtfully designed or naturally occurring that they work well with less. Less waste, less energy, less effort. There’s plenty of examples to learn from within different cultures, histories, and landscapes.
Today, I’m beginning a catalog of these clever items that I think are worth remembering, worth considering, and worth taking back home, wherever home may be. I hope these act as an inspiration to see and seek simplicity in everyday objects.
Barcelona is beautiful. It’s lively, fresh, warm and welcoming. It’s the fiercely proud capital of Catalonia and the hip urban hangout for those who want to explore the Spanish Mediterranean. It’s delightfully affordable and down-to-earth for a Western European capital. However, I think the best things in life are free, so here are a few cultural activities to take in without spending a Euro.
Sagrada Familia’s Facades
Antoni Gaudí dominates the city. His architectural presence is revered and delightful to discover. The English term ‘gaudy’ stems from his extravagant, strange and intricate buildings. His masterpiece, of course, is the Sagrada Familia, Barcelona’s basilica, which is still under construction. (They’re working hard to have it finished for the 100th anniversary of Gaudí’s death in 2026, but it’s unlikely the deadline will be met.) I highly recommend entering the Basilica. The interior is awe-inspiring, melding natural form, function, and faith. However, if you’d like to save the entry fee, you can still enjoy the structure. Take in the nativity scene over the north-eastern entrance – overseen by Gaudí’ himself, the facade captures the entire biblical scene, crowned by the vibrant colourful Tree of Life.
Meander around to the south-western entrance and take in the Passion facade. See how the architect defined his own style with angular interpretations of the scenes. But the natural feature can be seen in the columns overlaying the structure, reminiscent of the bones of human skeleton supporting the facade. Both sides have a park adjacent with sunlit benches for you sit and look. And look. And look.
If you tire of the architecture, you can also take in a fine example of bocce ball play as the north-eastern park, Plaça de Gaudí, has courts filled with local grey-haired gentlemen squaring off against each other.
Antoni Llena’s Homage to the Castells
My favourite piece of public art had to be in the Homenatge als Castellers. In part because the form is playful, simple but imaginative. In part because I love how it plays tribute to one of the wildest activities I had ever heard of: the Castell. In Catalonia, people will build human castles at festivals. Yes, men will literally tower over one another, competing to be the highest castle. I only wish I could visit Barcelona in late summer to take in the festivals. For me, the creative, chicken-wire version was a small, but satisfying replacement.
On Sunday afternoon, I attended the impressive rally calling for the Hungarian President to veto the legislation that would rule Central European University’s current operations illegal. It’s a political play by the Hungarian government to assert power and limit academic freedom. Wiser people with better context can explain the political context here, here and here. For me, it’s a short-sighted step that prioritizes politics and control over transparency and academia. Last night, the president signed it into law (which spurred on spontaneous protests at the official residence).
At Sunday’s protest, it was beautiful to see tens of thousands of people united for freedom. The crowd was the full range of Hungarian demographics, with a smaller mix of global geographies, which CEU is often responsible for inviting to the city. Here, you could feel the energy of the crowd and the real desire for openness and change. It’s not about which party’s struggle for power is less corrupt, but about corruption itself. About representation itself. CEU, though important, is now but one of the issues to protest.