Who Speaks for Earth?

Today, November 9, is Carl Sagan’s birthday – now semi-officially dubbed Carl Sagan Day. He passed away in 1996 at the all-too-young age of 62. He would be 79 today.

Carl Sagan

We know who speaks for the nations. But who speaks for the human species? Who speaks for Earth?

That’s the question Carl Sagan asks in Episode 13 of his acclaimed series Cosmos. His answer was simple and not so simple: “We speak for earth. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” His question runs through my head time and time again. When the world looks hopelessly lost, afloat in its own dreck and malady, mired in petty disputes and negligible differences, asking that question – and keeping in mind Carl’s answer – brings light and optimism. If I were forced to point out only a single piece of Sagan’s genius, it would be his ability to “pull back” and always see the larger picture. Often, the larger picture was the size of the universe.

Watching Cosmos now, thirty years later, it seems even more powerful and “rich with prophesy”, as Sagan’s widow Ann Druyan says in the introduction to the remastered DVD set of the series (released in 2001). Cosmos was hopeful and uplifting, but in places it was nightmarish and dark. Carl talked about the beauty of the scientific endeavour and our potential to destroy ourselves in equal measure. By today’s standards the special effects are horrible, the picture quality is spotty, and the whole presentation is more than a bit on the cheesy side. To Carl’s great credit, the content is the true legacy of the series. Carl’s voice, his timbre and cadence, was like that of a caring father – smooth and gentle. His vocal inflections and tone have informed my public reading style to a great extent. Decades on, Cosmos continues to shine.

Sagan and Cosmos are much more than just fond memories of my youth (the original series aired in the early 80’s). Carl’s legacy resonates more powerfully with each passing year, informing me like nothing and nobody else. The Cosmos series was nothing less than a watershed moment – a turning point which spoke to my natural, nascent interest in science and critical thinking. It was like a giant YES delivered at just the right time. I came to his books in my 20’s, and I devoured every one of them. His prose was (and is) passionate and full of all the traits that make for great science writing: clarity, humility, wonder, eloquence, and perhaps more than any other writer I have read, awe. At times he wrote like a big kid, fervently telling us his dreams. He wrote no “Poetry” as far as I know, but his eloquence, humility, and science-informed magnanimity read like pure poetry to me. His vision and scope will forever be my writing model. His writing is what I aspire to, and I will fall forever short.

To say it plain, I miss Carl very much. It sometimes seems as though there is a hole in the world left by his passing. Arguably, no single person has fully filled that space, but many carry his legacy forward with admirable passion: Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Phil Plait, Carolyn Porco, and of course, Ann Druyan. Neil Tyson is taking on the monumental task of hosting a reboot of the Cosmos Series, due to air on the Fox Network (?!) in early 2014. I have high hopes for the program, and I dearly hope that it turns on another generation of youth to science, reason, wonder, and awe.

Who speaks for Earth? Sagan did, and still does. Happy Birthday, Carl. May your song always be sung.

Event Recap - E Town Festival 2013

On September 12 and 13, 2013 I attended the inaugural E Town Conference at the Shaw Conference Centre. The speaker lineup was incredible: Colonel Chris Hadfield of ISS fame; Bruce Croxon from The Dragon’s Den; filmmaker Tiffany Shlain; the legendary Guy Kawasaki; John Herdman, coach of the Canadian Women’s soccer squad; David Usher of Moist renown (who I did not hear, because my brain was full by this time). Musical entertainment was provided by The Barenaked Ladies (Thursday evening) and Martin Kerr. It was a cool event with a great, positive vibe.

Friday’s agenda included smaller breakout sessions with various industry leaders, including two excellent panel discussions led by Todd Babiak. The conference mostly held true to its value proposition: E-Town is an intensive two-day Edmonton festival of ideas for entrepreneurial-minded people who get excited by innovation, change and disrupting common thought. Inspiration and connection were the main reasons people attended, according to my far-from-scientific research. There was plenty of inspiration from the keynote speakers, and that inspiration was channeled into networking in Friday’s breakout and exploration sessions. The Shaw centre was buzzing with ideas and crazy conversations, people scheming in corners, making business deals on cellphones, talking about ROI and “flagship properties”. It felt alive and vital, although laughably Type-A at times.

Many of the attendees were business owners and industry leaders, and there were plenty of Joes like me who wanted to hear about cool people doing cool things. The age range was broad – 10 to 70 by my reckoning. The gender blend was almost even, 60/40 or 55/45 male to female. Ethnically, the event was overwhelmingly white – both in attendees and speakers. Friday’s midday sponsor panel consisted entirely of white men aged 50+ (a turnoff, and acknowledged by the organizers). The original five keynote speaker slots included two women – filmmaker Tiffany Shlain and Bitly scientist Hilary Mason, who cancelled and was replaced by John Herdman. This left Tiffany Shlain as the sole female keynote speaker, and she was the most socially and artistically-minded.

Chris Hadfield in Edmonton September 12, 2013

The keynote speakers brought powerful and inspiring stories. Bruce Croxon talked about ethics and values, and even allowed an ambitious audience member to deliver a 30-second pitch (which he shot down, to his credit). Tiffany Shlain demonstrated the power of “cloud filmmaking” – the magic of simply asking the world to participate in something bigger than themselves. Guy Kawasaki delivered his 10 steps to innovation, all infused with humour, wit, and humility, including the fact that he has been a “bozo” in the past. John Herdman spoken with infectious passion about starting with a broken team and building them into a medal-winning squad – a journey that was so much more difficult than we imagined.

Colonel Hadfield’s Thursday keynote was worth the price of admission alone. He spoke with grace, intelligence, humour, pride, and sensitivity about his role in Canada’s space program (and the larger endeavour of space travel in general). He spoke with regret about the environmental havoc that we have wrought on parts of our planet. He insisted that “the Earth will be fine”, but that humans have certainly done damage. Arguably, the highlight of the conference was Hadfield giving advice to an attendee’s son who could not be there. The mother recorded Hadfield’s advice. His words are applicable to all of us, at any stage of our lives.

What I took away from the conference was this seemingly simple idea: Do or build something really cool and necessary, then tell people about it. There’s a lot of subtlety in that idea and many steps to achieving whatever definition of “success” you aspire to. But that’s the basis of all worthwhile endeavour.

In all, I give the thumbs up to the folks at Economic Development Edmonton for staging an inspiring couple of days. I walked away pumped and excited to be working on cool things. Thanks guys and gals! I’m looking forward to next year’s lineup.

The Slow Climb

VLA in New Mexico

Yesterday, I read a tweet from a guy I recently started following on Twitter. I’d rather not name names, but for the sake of some background, this gentleman is involved in Toronto’s startup community. Here’s the tweet:

No project should be considered a success with a pathetic success criteria of: finished on-time & on-budget. #ZeroEngagement #OldSchool

All bravado aside, I understand the sentiment. “One time and on budget” is simply the way to mediocrity. The less kind part of me simply dismissed this tweet as Type-A hubris. And again, I get it. In business these days, “standard” just isn’t good enough. It was “just a tweet”, but doesn’t it just build higher the pile of impossible standards that we set for ourselves?

In every corner, every time we turn around, we’re told we’re not doing enough, not reaching far enough, not getting enough done. It seems that the new “societal insecurity” is about not doing enough, or, perhaps more directly, not doing more of what we love. Is your company as successful as Facebook? Well, thanks for coming out. You’re not pursuing your passion? Sorry kid, time to go home.

This post by Kevin Fanning likely says all this better than I can:

I was having dinner with Mary-Kim the other night and we talked a lot about how much more successful as writers we would feel if we didn’t give a shit about our families and lives. I might have gotten farther faster as a writer if that’s all I ever did or thought about, but like, so what? Is that a good model for how a person should live their life?

Is it just me and my aging brain, or are we putting WAY more pressure on each other these days? And if so, how can that be a good thing? How about forgiving ourselves? How about doing the best we can day-in-day out? Simply delivering “on time and on budget” might not be good enough in some cases, but for some it’s a major victory.

Dependencies

Recently, we in Edmonton were welcomed into spring with a storm that dumped 30cm (12”) of snow. I fired up my snowblower to clear the walks. My garage is behind the house, so I had to bring the snowblower through a gate to the front. I got to the gate and tried to open it. Wouldn’t budge. I didn’t notice at first, but a buildup of ice and snow on the ground and around the hinges prevented easy opening. I cleared the snow by hand and tried to chip away the ice. In a moment of great frustration, with the snowblower whirling beside me, I gave the gate a violent yank. Crack. The gate frame came away from the hinge, broken. Not only did I foolishly damage my gate, I now had no easy way to get the snowblower to the front. The only thing I could do was take the snowblower through the alley and around the block. And if I was doing that, I figured I might as well clear my neighbour’s walks along the way. My impatience and lack of foresight had produced an act of ostensible kindness. However, the extra distance covered in my journey burned more fuel than usual. Also, the sheer volume of snow meant that the blower’s motor was under a greater-than-normal load, burning slightly more fuel. Had I remembered to check the fuel level before setting out? Of course not, I’m just doing my walks. Guess what? Choke, sputter, clang, stop. Out of gas 2/3 of the way through the job. Nice.

In all, this snow clearing episode was a lesson in humility, patience, and the importance of considering dependencies, which in this case were:

  1. Make sure the snowblower has enough fuel
  2. Make sure the gate can be opened

How many times have you started out thinking that a task was “easy” only to be blindsided by unseen or unaccounted-for dependencies that you should have been aware of? I guess that old “fool me twice” idiom takes a while to sink in for some of us.

Make Something Edmonton →

I love it. Love the idea and love the energy behind it. It’s an “indirect” form of brand building: just build something cool, give others permission to do the same. Eventually those cool things reach critical mass and begin to define you. It’s an inspiring and positive idea for a city that has long struggled with its identity. Also: sweet site design from Lift Interactive.

How Much Does it Cost?

I ask that question of everything. How much does it cost to:

shop at the more distant but less expensive mega-sized grocery store?
work late every night?
skip the gym tonight?
change suppliers for a critical supply item?
be late for every appointment?
be always accessible via technology?
not try something you’ve always wanted to?
lower your standards to make more money?
not ask the question you want or need to ask?
give disinterested, indifferent service to clients?
change your look once in a while?
keep the course and don’t do anything different?
not forgive yourself for the past?
make something for someone else?

Value is important, but I think about cost all the time.

Negativity and Choice

A few weeks back, I undertook a simple exercise. For a single day, I took note of how many times I had a negative, angry, or cynical thought, or came across something that produced a negative reaction. I told myself that I didn’t have to act on these observations, I just had to make them. As you can no doubt guess, the results weren’t encouraging. I discovered what I had feared: I was one angry individual.

I started tallying the instances, but I had to give up out of sheer volume. Another driver annoy me on the commute? Angry. Barista botch my coffee order? Angry. Co-worker tell me about their house plans? Sneer. By the end of the day, it became obvious that my default state was one of negativity and cynicism. At any given moment I had my anger at the ready. By taking notice of my anger, I was able to realize how much energy was required to sustain it. Why was I so angry? Why was cynicism my default?

The real answer likely requires therapy, but I think the immediate answer is plain: Fear. Cynicism, negativity, and anger are easy defaults. They allow one to not care about anything too deeply. They allow one to hold the comfortable positions of smartass, no-man/naysayer, and detached cynic. They allow one the easy comfort of building and contributing little or nothing. It’s tough to see the good or positive in things and situations. It’s harder to build than it is to criticize or tear down. It’s easier to hold back out of fear than it is to give and contribute. Putting positive work and demeanour into the world involves real labour, exposure, and risk. It involves the possibility of ridicule and appearing foolish. It also involves the possibility of making a small corner of the world a bit better for others, or even for one other person. A funny thing can happen when you set out to impact the world positively. You can end up making yourself positive in the process.

We are what we put into the world. We decide how we behave, and we are how we act. Our defaults are changeable. Our positive contributions are possible, permissible, and necessary. Time and other people won’t wait for us to swap our negativity and cynicism for positive contribution. The naysayers and no-men will always be there and will always be vocal, no matter what we do. Will we stay safe and play to them, or will we risk more by playing to those who need us to be better? I believe I’ve made my choice.

Things That Are Missing

An incomplete list of things that should still be around and more popular.

  • Cellphones with solid hardware buttons (i.e. old Nokia)
  • Devices with knobs and switches that don’t need to be “programmed”: Appliances, TVs, stereo equipment.
  • Wind up alarm clocks with bells
  • Plain stonewash straight leg jeans made with heavier denim with triple-stitched seams
  • Cars with exterior metal bumpers, two-knob stereos, and user-repairable/accessible parts
  • Handwritten letters
  • Goodyear welted oxfords (flat leather welt)
  • The sunday paper
  • Men with a code of honour
  • The simpler days of the web, before FB, Twitter, iPhone, app store. It was messier, but more honest.
  • Recipe cards for recipes
  • Marginalia
  • Waiting for stuff, and hunting around to buy music
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