What a wild start to the decade. Just three months in, and we’re in a pandemic. I think we’re all still reeling from shock and the stress of it all. And, as our public health officials remind us, we’re just at the beginning.
I’ve had a few near misses with coronavirus. In February, it canceled a work trip to Hong Kong. In March, the same with a trip to Paris in March. How can I complain when I’m lucky enough where I even have a chance to go to these places for work? Each time, I knew days before the event was officially canceled that I wouldn’t be attending. The disappointment slowly settled while I was buoyed by relief. And in the end, I feel grateful for the risk assessment and happy to sit put.
Beyond the canceled events, I’m baffled that I didn’t see this coming. I tracked the virus as the numbers moved skyward in China, and then in Europe, but I still didn’t fully imagine doing the same here at home.
It became very real as COVID-19 canceled my birthday. Well, not entirely. I turned 33 this St. Patrick’s Day. The already low-key dinner date at an Italian restaurant I’ve been wanting to try was nixed as the restaurant, rightly so, has shuttered its doors for the time being. The City of Vancouver, to put a fine point on it, ordered all restaurants and bars in the city to close for St. Patrick’s Day. Sensible, yes, and a marker of the days to come.
As I lamented these wee inconveniences, I recognized how lucky I am to be able to type, healthy, happy, and at a social distance. D and I modified our plans to support another of our fav local pizzerias and clicked glasses at home to another circle around the sun. I chatted with friends and family across the country and city via video, foreshadowing the days to come.
And in all the doom, gloom, and serious illness, I have found some spots of hope. In my birthday tradition of reflecting on the year, I thought I’d spend some time pondering five bright spots in this strange time:
It wasn’t certain it would happen. It wasn’t a question of our partnership. It was a question of a ‘Colorado Low’.
I’ve come to loathe this term. I first heard it with the Tuesday weather forecast. My father-in-law, Dennis, who is calm and has a lifetime of prairie storms under his belt said “Ohhhh. A Colorado Low. That’s not good.” I realized then that this snow could be a problem. But it wasn’t until Thursday evening that I came to realize how much this weather system would come to impact our wedding day.
That evening, my cousin called from Alberta to report that Air Canada had canceled his flight. For Friday evening, arriving in Winnipeg. On Thanksgiving weekend. And there wasn’t yet a flake of snow in the provincial sky. I understood then what Derek, ever the realist, had already come to terms with. This wasn’t your average October snow.
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.
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.
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.
Here in Budapest, spring has sprung. The sun is getting stronger, the clocks sprang forward, and everyone is ready to shed their winter layers for spring clothing. In the age of fast fashion, there’s a tendency to head to the mall. The better answer to your spring wardrobe refresh is: host a clothing swap!
I’m a big fan of the clothing swap. The idea is simple: invite people to bring in nice-but-no-longer-loved clothing together and exchange it. There’s pressure, especially for women, to constantly buy new clothing to stay up-to-date, professional and appealing. While people are ditching the consumerist behaviour in manyradways, the clothing swap is one more strategy to simplify, save and enjoy.
I’ve done this with friends, in a slow fashion pop-up, at a community event, and most recently here at Impact Hub Budapest, marking Buy Nothing Day in November, and just yesterday, the start of Spring.
One of the clothing swaps strengths is that it’s a hard event to screw up. However, here are the key steps I’ve discovered to hosting a successful one: