Saturday, February 25, 2017


In 1980 I was 13 years old and had dreams of working in space at some point in my life.  Solid fuel rocket motors, telemetry modules, and star charts littered my bedroom.  With STS-1, Space Shuttle Columbia took it's first voyage to the void and Carl Sagan was my hero.  That was also the year the Planetary Society was started by Carl Sagan, Bruce Murray, and Louis Friedman. I was one of the first card-carrying members.  I remember the excitement of receiving my card all the way from Pasadena California, which seemed like a billion miles away for a teenager from British Columbia, Canada.  The card itself was just a piece of paper, but what it represented was important to us as a species, and I was determined to be part of it.

Thirty-six years in, The Planetary Society has been responsible for S.E.T.I. (The Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence), Rovers on Mars, Lightsails, and a myriad of space science advances. We have driven the mission to discover Pluto and to chart near-Earth objects.  Its 40,000 members have funded research and pooled resources to search the sky for threats and opportunities.  The Society has lobbied governments, penned papers, and built backyard telescopes in the name of discovery and understanding our universe.  There is also an excellent chance you have never heard of it.

This week, astronomers revealed details around the discovery of three Earth-like potentially habitable planets orbiting the star TRAPPIST-1 in the constellation Aquarius.  The data shows seven planets in total with three in the habitable zone.  This may be one of the most important discoveries in space exploration history.  For SETI researchers, this is a gold mine of vast proportions.  While there have been other planets that could potentially support some description of life including Mars and Europa in our solar system, at least one of these new TRAPPST-1 planets could support life very similar to our own.

The discovery is remarkable in many ways and should provide decades of work for space science researchers.  Exobiologists will be examining data and hypothesizing on the possibility of life forms.  Astronomers will be trying to gather as much data as possible to accurately chart the planetary system.  Aerospace engineers will be redirecting their efforts to find ways to improve how we observe that portion of space for some time.  I would not doubt that at least some attention will be directed toward transport technologies to develop better rocket motors.

The TRAPPIST-1 system is more than 39 light-years from Earth.  With current technology, it could take 700,000 years to reach, but engine designs already in the conceptual stage could shorten that to 300 years.  A Heinlein style generation ship powered by a Hawking Starshot engine could be within reach in the next decade.  If a Star Trek style warp drive were a reality, at warp factor 7 (TNG) the trip would take less than 22 days.

I watched the official announcement and press conference with great excitement this week, followed by disappointment reading through the comments sections of posts and articles.  Aside from the obvious trolls who just hate everything and exist only to start a fight, there were genuine comments from people suggesting this was a waste of funds, a hopeless exercise, or useless information.  The number of individuals either commenting that this was junk science or irrelevant to us here on Earth now were overwhelming.   That thinking is just so wrong.

When space science researchers explore, they learn important things about Earth while they are gathering data about space.  We would not have a real understanding of oceanic tides had we not studied the moon.  Kepler's work observing our neighboring planet's interactions created a set of calculations that enable us to see a larger universe.  Recording the creation of new stars in stellar nurseries helps us understand the mechanics of our own sun.  Sending probes and rovers to other planets gives us insight into natural geologic patterns unhampered by humans.  They also allow us to look for colonization opportunities that we may need someday.  Most logical people agree that if the human race is going to survive for the long term, we cannot bank on Earth being our only home.

I am looking forward to following the spin-off research from this discovery over the next few years.  I can only hope that scientists will have the backing and resources they need to do the important work that is ahead of them.

Sunday, February 5, 2017


I first tried the "lifeboat exercise" as part of a business management planning session several years ago, and I found it so useful in helping me stay focused and run a small team that just do it continuously now.  I was surprised to see that this is not standard business practice for many managers so I thought I would write about it here.  It seems that many of the things I do as a business manager are non-standard, but seem valid.  Maybe I really do need to sit down and write that book I have been joking about for a while.

The lifeboat exercise comes from a psychology discussion examining morality under pressure.  Consider this - "You suddenly find yourself in a lifeboat with 15 people. However, it can only support 9. If you were in command, who would you choose to survive?"  The traditional exercise continues on to give a profile of the 15 people, and you have to determine who survives.  This discussion, however, leverages that concept toward business survival and focusing on what your minimum viable team is and how this can bleed over into your personal life.

Small startups go through some well-known growth stages.  At each stage, the founders have some tough decisions to make, but those usually boil down to a choice between getting much bigger and risking everything or downsizing and sacrificing people, projects and dreams.  Even the largest, most successful businesses need to consider the concept of waste and bloat.  I have seen a company with nine CTOs and they indeed had to go through the process of who to keep and who to reassign.

If you manage a team, imagine the CEO coming to you one day in confidence saying that there was a critical need to downsize to keep the doors open.  You may have 10 or 15 direct reports or more, but in order to keep the company afloat, you need to reduce your team to 5.  Who do you retain?  Who needs to be let go?  Who stays on your team and who is valuable but should be reassigned to a different group?  These are tough decisions that no one ever wants to make, but sometimes it happens.  The idea of doing the exercise on a routine basis is to avoid having to make that decision under pressure.  You can tailor that to your own reality so if you have 5 direct reports, maybe you need to reduce that to 3.  

While on the surface that seems like a simple numbers game, the mental process can be gut-wrenching.  If you have fantastically creative and highly motivated people, then losing any one of them could have a critical impact, and that is where it gets really hard.  It forces you to think of the greater good, not only individual contribution, and it forces you to look inward.  You have to at some point consider that YOU may be one of the people left behind.  Do you sacrifice yourself for the good of the organisation?  Would you?

Luckily for me, I have not ever had to follow through on that mental exercise, and I think that is actually a result of doing it in the first place.  When offered the opportunity to expand and hire, I've been able to do a mental check on the results of my last lifeboat exercise and determine that our team could cover temporary workload increases or learn more without expanding unnecessarily.  This has helped to remove the spectre of having to reduce staff in leaner times and the whole team prospers.  I believe when an entire company operates this way, a smaller dedicated team can do amazing things because you are always assessing value and avoiding bloat.

This whole concept can be translated to other things as well.  I consider the same process when developing software.  Can I build a functional deployment with 3 features instead of 5?  Do all the extraneous frills actually add any value, or can you deliver a smaller, but better product?

You can do the same in your personal life too.  Ask yourself if you really need all the "things" in your world or if you could live without.  Ask yourself "If you needed to leave your home tomorrow and you could only take with you what you could put in the back of a pick-up truck, what would those things be?"  Clothes, pictures, furniture, heirlooms and keepsakes?  What is critical, and what is just taking up space in your house?

Running through this mental exercise monthly can save the stress of having to make critical decisions under pressure and helps me streamline my life and my work.  Hopefully sharing this will help you too.

Saturday, January 21, 2017


Read more.  Write more.  Golf more.

Last January, I promised myself I would complete that trifecta of soul management during the year.  The first I completed - the other two I did not have much luck with.

It turns out that reading more can be done by expanding your reading list to the point where you need an extra hour a day just to skim the headlines - the world is a busy place.  In today's world, generating a select news-feed is relatively easy.  The hard part is filtering the hundreds of headlines down to the few that actually matter.  It helps to follow a few key influencers like Bill Marriott, Richard Branson, and Bill Gates. There are also a great number of garbage, fluff, duplicate posts that can be ignored - I am amazed at what passed for journalism in 2016.

Catching up on news headlines to stay current is only one part though.  Sadly, most news is written for a grade 10 reading level at best and I find myself sometimes struggling to get past poor grammar and horrible sentence structure.  Exercising the brain requires a well written novel or technical journal.  Thankfully, there seems to be an endless supply available still.

I have a stack of books and other publications on my desk now that represent my "to read" pile so to keep myself honest, I'll review them here after I have completed them.  The stack already includes interesting titles like The First 90 Days and An Astronaut's Guide to Life.

Writing is more complicated.  With all that reading, it is hard to write anything in an unbiased manner.  Two novels in various states of creation, random short story projects, and a couple of blogging commitments have spread my efforts thin.  Must F O C U S ....

The funny thing about writing is that the more you do it, the easier it is.  Like 10,000 monkeys, if I type enough words, eventually something useful will fall out of it all.  The magic is in the editing.

Golf was a complete write off.  Who has time?  I will really need to make an effort to get out and walk 9 holes at least once a month this season.  If I recall correctly, the last time I did that it was quite relaxing.  I am not a scorekeeper and that annoys some people I have golfed with in the past.  All those numbers just get in the way of a great walk on a nice day.

So how does your reading list look? Is there an interesting book waiting on the bookshelf just dying to be read?

When was the last time you wrote anything more complex than a shopping list?  Start small - write a thank you letter to someone who deserves one.  Or jot down a few paragraphs that describe your day.  Before you know it, there is a full journal in your hands and you are searching for a new Moleskine to crack open.

See you on the golf course.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Time for a refresh

The first week of January has always been a "reset" time for me.  While it can be argued that January 1st is just an arbitrary date on the timeline and should not be considered some magic time to cast personal resolutions for change, the changing of the calendar is a great excuse to pause, take stock and reset.

I always take some time in the first week of January to assess where I am, where I need to be, and what it will take to get there.  Maybe I should do that more often.  Maybe that will be something I do this year.  It reminds me of the Vorlon five questions from the amazing series Babylon 5 from the late 1990's.  

Who are you? Really, who ARE you?  Beyond your name and address, past your occupations and title, what are the things that make you, you?  

Where are you going? Not physically, but metaphorically - where are you heading to in your life and career?  What are the decisions and actions active in your life now leading you to?

Where have you been? Contemplate the situations and experiences that have compounded to make you the person you are today.

Who do you follow? The people you admire, emulate, aspire to be can say much about you. 

Whom do you lead? Even if you don't consider yourself a "leader", there may be people who look up to you, admire you, and try to emulate you.  Be aware of of your actions and be aware of those who may see you as a leader even if you don't.

I kick off 2017 with a revamp of my websites, new social presence and a renewed effort to create awesomeness.  I'll be doing my best to divide my blog efforts to separate technology posts from the political rants as well.   I plan to focus a whole lot more on helping kids adopt technology which is something I did a great deal of in the past, but have been quite lax in recent years.

Whether you make New Years resolutions or not, take the time this week to assess where you are in life and where you want to be.  If you don't like what you see, make an effort to change it.

Be awesome, change the world.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

'Twas the night before

I could write yet another variation on Clement Clarke Moore's famous poem and struggle yet again to find a rhyme for "Vixen", but I won't do that.  I could just post a nice classic picture of the Jolly old man with his Caribou friends and a sleigh full of toys. I won't do that either.

At this time of year, most of us are enjoying the hustle and bustle of the busy holiday season, picking out just the right presents and decorations or immersing ourselves in holiday baking.  We rush from place to place searching for just the right thing, shop till we drop and gorge ourselves on turkey and sweets.  At least most of us do.

For many people, this is a season of despair.  It is a season of reminders that they have less than others or will soon be in that position.  It is a season filled with memories of lost loved ones, hospital stays, and empty chairs at the dinner table.  For many people, this is the most depressing time of the year.  The thing is that in many cases, those people hide their crippling despair very well.

So this year, I won't decorate my website with snowflakes and write a catchy Christmas poem.  I won't overtly push my Christmas joy on people who don't necessarily want it.  That will be difficult because it really is my favourite time of year.   I will however continue to support my local food bank and shelter with more than usual cash donations so they can multiply that into useful food, shelter, blankets, and clothing for those who need it.  It is cold out there and there are more unemployed friends and neighbors than any previous year I can remember.  People who were "fine" last year may be struggling to put food on the table this year.

One thing I can do as a writer, as a story teller, is to raise awareness and maybe remind people that the joyous season is not so for many.  This season, perhaps the best present you can offer is a shoulder to lean on, an attentive ear to listen, a warm blanket and a friendly smile.  Sometimes the people who seem happiest on the outside are disintegrating inside. At this time of year more than others, there is a greater divide and more tension for those who are struggling financially and emotionally.

That grocery store clerk who just rang through your $40 turkey, probably cannot afford one themselves and likely has to work through the holidays to pay the rent.  That neighbor who puts the tree up at the last minute is grieving the loss of a family member.  The college student you see at the bus stop every morning has lost hope of having any productive future.  For those people Christmas time just sucks.

So my gift to all my friends and family this season is an ear, a shoulder, a hug and a warm blanket.  If I reach out to you in some random way and ask how you are doing, it is because I really want to know and I really want to help, to listen, and to get you through it.   If I can take the time to donate to the food bank, I can take the time to hold your hand.  You are important and you are not alone.

May the peace of the season find your heart and warm it.

Thursday, November 10, 2016


November 10th, 2016
Photo by Eric Hill

I awoke this morning to a different world. It is a world I thought we had left behind decades ago, but apparently it was just buried under the facade of political correctness and affirmative action.  The US presidential election of 2016 did one thing very effectively;It shook America with a huge dose of reality.  The effects however, have far reaching aftershocks touching every part of the planet.  On the night of the election, when it was almost fully counted, the New Zealand dollar crashed and it is still trying to recover.  New Zealand.  The other side of the planet.

I could rant for an hour on my personal feelings but there is really no point.  The majority of the seats were elected Republican in alignment with the new president giving them the mandate to govern.  That is how democracy works.  You cannot believe in the process selectively.  The people have spoken (~ 50% of them anyway) and a new government is about to take power.

Tomorrow is Remembrance Day in Canada and Veterans Day in the US.  It is a day we pause to reflect on the sacrifices made by our soldiers to defeat tyranny and oppression and to ensure that those who want democracy have the ability to pursue it.   We thank them for taking up arms against those who threaten democracy.  We remember that they gave their lives to protect our rights and freedoms. We remember that whether it was 1918 or 1945 or one of the many other conflicts this century that threaten the spread of democracy, young men and women have put themselves in harms way to ensure that YOU have the right to exist and express your voice without fear of persecution. 

This Remembrance day it is all that much more important for us to remember their sacrifice.  Remember that democracy is not about what is convenient for you but what is fair to ALL citizens. Remember that brave men and women gave their lives so that you could peacefully protest without fear of retribution. That your voices could be heard and that you matter.  Remember that all opinions are valid, even the ones you don't like and remember that NO ONE in a democracy is more important than any one else.

The events of recent days have left North America in shock and regardless of whose camp you were pulling for, there are extreme emotions everywhere.  Let us all take a long moment to remember that many thousands of men and women throughout history have given their lives to ensure that you have the right to cast that vote, to protest, to write that blog and to be who you need to be in a free society of equals.

On "The Eleventh" please take an extra moment to breathe and Remember.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Omran's Ghost

Ghosts haunt me from the past this week.

I was brought to tears late last week reading first a post about a 4 year old girl who had endured such thorough verbal abuse that she actually thought her name was "Idiot".   Then shortly after, I made the mistake of watching the video report from Syria of the now famous young "Omran" sitting in the back on an ambulance trying to wipe blood from his face and his hands. That's when the the ghosts crept in.

I am sure there are still a few people out there who remember 1989, the wall, the communist block and the aftermath when it all came down. God help us if we ever forget.

My wife and I were in Romania shortly after the Communist rule of Nicolae CeauČ™escu came to a violent, bloody end. By mid 1990 the world was well aware of the corruption in the Romanian government under CeauČ™escu's rule and the thousands of orphaned children in institutions there.   We traveled there hoping to do something - anything - to change the situation for at least a few of those children.  We left jobs in limbo, barely had time to collect passports and other papers before catching a last minute flight to Bucharest and only caught our breaths for a moment of clarity somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean. We had no clue what we were doing, but someone had to do something.  After we arrived, we found that were not the only lunatics who needed to get on a plane to save children.  We met many couples from all over the world who were equally lost and determined at the same time.  I am sure there is a novel worth writing there, but not today.

And we met the children. Hundreds of them. In Bucharest and Braila, in Alexandria and Constanza and Brasov. There were newborns and toddlers and pre-teens in every city, and they out numbered their care givers 300 to 1.   Occasionally we would meet an actual doctor, but for the most part facilities were staffed by two or three nurses or volunteers.  In Bucharest we spent some time with a special group of 3 to 5 year olds who managed to capture our hearts and memories. Children who had no awareness of the politics or the men who placed them there, were singing us happy songs and making their best impression in hope we would take them home, away from that place.

Men and politics and war and economics.... and the lives of children.

Twenty Six years later I can still see them when I close my eyes. I can smell the rooms, hear the cries, feel the sadness knowing we could not bring them all home and keep them safe.  I  often wonder how they are today. I wonder and hope that they survived and flourished. I also know that for most of them it is unlikely.  Those children may never know the names of the  men who's politics and greed for power put their tiny human lives at risk.  If they lived, they would be adults today in their mid to late twenties.  Dozens of couples flew to their aide and like us brought medicines and food and supplies, but we know it was not enough.   There were just so many of them. So many.

There were the twins in Orphanage number 1 who danced for us and there was the 5 year old in Bucharest hospital who sang "Good Morning Romania" at the top of her lungs every morning in spite of a crippling injury to her legs. There was the toddler in Braila who's parents simply could not afford to keep her and the baby who spent most of his time rocking and bouncing his head against the wall of his crib to fill the void created by lack of contact.  So many children needlessly abandoned by a system driven by powerful men and their politics.

The echoes of their voices, their memory ghosts haunt me today more than normal as I think of the children of Syria. I can't get the image of Omran trying to wipe the blood from his face and hands out of my mind.  More senseless politics and violence.
More damaged children.
More ghosts.