What I Learned from My Master’s Program: Ask Better Questions

What I Learned from My Master’s Program: Ask Better Questions

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.

University of British Columbia
Fresh perspectives from the University of British Columbia campus. Not a bad viewpoint.

 

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Three Female Environmental Leaders, Two Inspiring Quotes, One Birthday

Three Female Environmental Leaders, Two Inspiring Quotes, One Birthday

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.

Elizabeth May

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.

Elizabeth May speaking at UBC
Note: sorry for the terrible photo quality in this post.

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:

  1. “Get fossil fuels out of electricity generation everywhere.

  2. Get rid of internal combustion engines.”

It’s simple and incredibly complex. But so is rescuing the entire British Army.

A slightly better quality photo filled with even more inspiring women

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

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.

Catherine McKenna speaking at the GLOBE Forum

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.”

Annette Verschuren speaking at the GLOBE Forum

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.

Vancouver View
Vancouver’s early arrival of spring ain’t a bad gift either.

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.

 

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In Praise of Speaking Plainly: A TEDx Talk about Plain Language

In Praise of Speaking Plainly: A TEDx Talk about Plain Language

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’.

What a simple, crazy idea.

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:

Canada plain language

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.

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The Humble Beer Mat Gets Classy

The Humble Beer Mat Gets Classy

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.

Prague Old Town Square
Prague Old Town Square

Location: Prague, Czech Republic

Space:  Restaurace Kolonial, a sleek yet bicycle-themed bar near the Old Town Square

Simplified Item: the beer coaster

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A Free Art and Architecture Tour of Barcelona

A Free Art and Architecture Tour of Barcelona

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.

Barcelona Sagrada Familia Nativity Facade

 

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.

Barcelona Sagrada Familia Passion Facade

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.

Barcelona bocce ball at play

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.

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The Day 50,000+ People Reminded Me: Democracy is Fragile

The Day 50,000+ People Reminded Me: Democracy is Fragile

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 herehere 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.

Photo taken by (the much taller) Mr. Stahl.

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Five Steps to Hosting a Successful Clothing Swap

Five Steps to Hosting a Successful Clothing Swap

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 many rad ways, 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.

Clothing Swap at Impact Hub BudapestOne 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:

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Stories and Silence in Phnom Penh: How I Learned about Cambodia’s Haunting History

Stories and Silence in Phnom Penh: How I Learned about Cambodia’s Haunting History

{Disclaimer: this post discusses difficult content and may not be appropriate for all readers.}

[This post is the third part in a four-part series on my recent trip to Southeast Asia]

The Cambodian people are a warm, smiling, welcoming people. The people we met in our travels were gracious and kind. The kind of people who wave and smile brightly as you stand confused trying to cross the toad with never-ending traffic with your obviously-tourist pack. A wave and smile that doesn’t judge but says “Welcome to Cambodia!”. The capital of Phnom Penh is developing so quickly that if you stand still long enough, you can watch the city grow. However, this shift in development comes after a horrific period in their history, followed by international misunderstanding and mishandling in the wake of a genocide.

Cambodian countryside

I knew little of the Cambodian genocide until watching Brother Number One at the then called Global Visions Festival in Edmonton. It told the story of the genocide through one man’s journey to understand what happened to his brother after he sailed into Cambodian waters in 1978. It was powerful and gruesome and heart-breaking.

During our stay in Phnom Penh, the travel-savvy Camille organized a van to tour for our group, a fantastic hodge-podge of six visiting Canadians who happened upon the city at the same time. The van would take us to two memorial sites dedicated to the victims of the Khmer Rouge genocide: the Killing Fields and S21.

Killing Fields
The uncovered Killing Fields.

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In Praise of the Humble Christmas Card

In Praise of the Humble Christmas Card

After a long, chilly December day, you make your way home. On your way to your door, you take a peek inside the mailbox. A small envelope with your name, hand-written, makes your day so much warmer as you bustle inside and shed your layers to open the mail. The envelope reveals a colourful Christmas card and a reminder of a loved one somewhere in the world*.

Christmas tree on a roof
A little warmth on a cold December night.

I am a big proponent of the Christmas card, as a recipient and a sender. In general, we give too much ‘stuff’ during the holidays. I know that pressure to give the people you love and appreciate …something to let them know that you care about them at Christmas time. This well-intentioned thought often leads to gifts that aren’t really needed and aren’t really right for that person. They sit awkwardly in the place of the words and emotions it was meant to convey. More often than not, a heartfelt card can capture and share that thought better than any poorly chosen gift. During the holidays, keep it simple, and simply send your love.

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A Simple Traveler’s Guide to Berlin

A Simple Traveler’s Guide to Berlin

Berlin is undeniably cool. It’s a city exploding with culture and subculture after a century of divisive politics that changed the world. It’s modern yet gritty, full of change-makers and fun to explore. I spent a weekend there in October, my second time to the German capital.

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Each time I travel, I try to minimize my budget, my impact, and my stress so I can better enjoy myself. Traveling is amazing, but it’s not without its challenges. In my journey to live simply, I’m trying to travel simply as well. Here are my takes on traveling simply in Berlin, saving you money and adding to your time.

Traveling Simply: For the Budget

Halle-loumi!

The large Turkish population in Berlin brought with it a delicious food tradition. The city is filled with great spots to enjoy falafel and halloumi. In fact, if you do a quick search for ‘cheap eats in Berlin’ (an important pre-departure step for any trip), the lists are limited in German options and packed with tasty, budget-friendly Turkish ones. Search for the lists, or just keep an eye out for a Turkish restaurant with a line and join in.

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