Saturday, November 20, 2010

Why I've given up on rechargeable batteries.

I feel cheated and betrayed.  For years I've made small efforts to be responsible in purchasing rechargeable batteries.  I wanted to reduce the number of batteries going to a landfill, I wanted to be responsible with money by not having to re-purchase batteries.  I wanted to do the right thing.    But I feel like the promises made and prices charged by battery manufacturers weren't genuinely intended to support the widescale adoption of rechargeable batteries. Its been a long process but for now I've finally given up. :-(

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Google provides free phone calls from GMail to anywhere in North America. (reasonable rates for overseas)

Cyrus (+1)  and Lifehacker pointed out that Gmail has now allowed phone calls to be placed straight from Gmail.
Google announces it here (along with a cute video)
I thought you would like to know about this. Here is an overview. 

Free calls anywhere in North America till Dec 31st, fair rates elsewhere.

  • I used it for 2 hours yesterday and the quality was very very clear. :-)
  • It is super easy. 
  • It will dial people from your Google contacts list (accessed through Gmail)
  • It integrates with your Google voice account if you have one. (calling credit, history, google voice # on caller ID etc.)
  • You need a Gmail account. (free fast good)
  • It requires a browser plug-in that you would otherwise install for using Google chat’s “voice-chat” feature.
  • It requires a speaker/headphones and microphone
  • (um and an Internet connection)

  • In Gmail on the left were you see “chat” and your friends below your status;
    • Rather than clicking on a person and starting a chat,
  • you click “call phones” and it presents you with a keypad.
  • Type the number you want 604-555-1212 etc… and it starts ringing
  • OR type a contact from your gmail contacts.
UPDATE: Gmail has extended free North American phone calls for all of 2011.  Thank you Gmail.  I know this is one of many factors causing my friends to consider giving up their home phones.

Enjoy! I hope this saves you money and helps you connect with the people that matter to you.

Cheers, Greg

Friday, August 27, 2010

Say no to flyers and newspapers to save trees, reduce clutter and save money.

The experiment is a success.

Each year, our household saves 2.1 mature trees per year by refusing flyers and newspapers.

At our house, we have more time, less mess, less stress, the paperboy gets his route done faster and we save trees from being unnecessarily, cut down, transported, processed, printed and delivered to our door.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

US Pollution Database Aggregates Public Polluter data

I just found this online resource for finding local information (including reported release of pollutants)
If we look at what Blaine, Bellingham, Lynden, Sumas Washington (which are the closest US Cities to British Columbia) are releasing it is quite surprising what is going into our air.  Without actually counting the numbers, it seems that the BP Cherry Point refinery is spewing the greatest variety of pollutants into our local air-
shed.  For those of you who are unaware, air quality in the Fraser Valley in British Columbia's "Lower Mainland" ia problematic, with local mountains creating a funnelling effect that seems to concentrate air pollution as it travels eastward. (The wind is normally gentle from the West) 

Despite the thickness of the black line on the map that marks our border with the United States, American pollutants continue to defy international law by illegally crossing our border without permission.  Seems that elimination of pollutants at source is the only option, since we realize our neighbours to the south aren't being malicious, and suffer as much as we do from the careless release of toxic chemicals.

Resources like this make the facts Open to the public and form a foundation for reasonable and informed grassroots efforts to improve air quality.

BP? what are you doing to my kid's health?

Now to bring balance to the force, we also need to see a listing of Canadian factories and pollutants.  If anyone reading this knows of a similar Canadian resource, let me know.  


Friday, July 30, 2010

Cities designed to be "idle-free" - Strategies for Reducing Idling

Much of our traffic infrastructure is designed to facilitate a smooth flow of traffic, but other aspects promote idling.  Traffic lights where entire phalanxes of cars sit still with their engines running.  This is sad because it wastes petroleum which is a non-renewable toxic resource, creates unnecessary air pollution for my children to breathe, and it effectively syphons money out of people's pockets by causing them to get 0 mpg.  There are some very real savings that come from a reduction in idling

2 sources of idling have been addressed
  • In cities, we are past the days were people would leave a vehicle running and go into the store thanks to concerns about car theft (who said it was all bad?).  
  • We are past the point where people believe their car needs to run for several minutes to "warm up" before being driven.  Thankfully vehicle technology has made advances in that area, so we only have cars idling when they are likely to need to move forward again.
4 sources of idling still exist.

  • When idling at railway crossings, traffic will typically be stopped for several minutes and this is an excellent time for people to turn off their engines.  Signage is beginning to be deployed to educate people about not idling their vehicles at railway crossings which I observe is having some effect.  For example the Township of Langley as part of its "Idling gets you Nowhere" campaign has deployed signage to reduce idling at railway crossings where Langley experiences mile long coal trains several times a day.   Railway underpasses and overpasses eliminate this source of idling at a greater initial construction cost.
  • When idling in traffic at intersections with a stop sign or stop light we do idle, but it seems we're all thinking "what if that guy's car doesn't start.  Along these lines the BC idle-free website encourages people to eliminate idling except when "in traffic".  While some vehicles like the Toyota Prius will automatically turn off the car's gas engine when it is idling (solves idling for all the situations), most drivers aren't going to turn their vehicle off in traffic.  Effective creation of overpasses (the ones without traffic lights at both ends) can eliminate idling, as can right hand turn lanes which allow traffic to keep moving "around" an intersection without being unnecessarily stopped by the light.  Round-abouts are increasingly being chosen as an effective traffic control device which permits continued traffic flow rather than the stop and idle pattern offered by traffic lights.  The Cities of Abbotsford, Langley and Surrey are deploying effective traffic circles which are receiving growing acceptance among drivers.
  • Traffic jams promote idling when the entire road is full, and the traffic inches forward and stops, inches forward and stops.  In this case, the entire freeway is idling.  If there was a culture of turning off your engine and letting the traffic ahead inch forward for a minute or 2 and then pulling forward and repeating the process this might eliminate a great deal of the idling.  Rebecca from BC's IdleFree program pointed out an innovation at the Peace Arch border crossing which uses traffic control signals and appropriate signage in order to do this exact thing. (Thanks for the link Rebecca!)  It's called "Greening the Border" and you can read about it here;
  • Drive-thru services are the final place where I observe vehicles idling.  The drivers are waiting inside, they are caused to inch forward and stop inch forward and stop, and the properties have limited room to allow for vehicle queuing.  Whether this be the bank, the Costco gas bar line-up or the local Tim Horton's drive-thru, people are sitting in the vehicles waiting to move forward.  Not only does this create general air pollution and general waste, but it has a very direct exposure to the staff who must work in drive-thrus.  In Abbotsford BC, the Tim Horton's drive-thru on Sumas way is similar to most in that it has a constant line of 5-10 vehicles all day long and during peak periods it easily has 15 vehicles in line.  Because the line moves frequently, drivers in line must remain ready to move forward. With 5-10 small moves, drivers are unlikely to turn their car on and off that many times. What they need is a way to advance in the line without restarting their vehicle.

My proposal for a "Carbon Neutral Drive-Thru" design.
If the drive-thru lane sloped downward at an appropriate grade from the start of the lane to the drive through windows, customers could turn off their car, and simply take their foot off the brake when they wanted to advance.  Remember we are talking about a movement of 20ft at a time at extremely slow speeds (gravity power only) on a gentle slope. At these speeds, the assistance of power brakes becomes unnecessary for the average passenger vehicle.  This drive-thru recommendation is a development consideration with the long term return of potential reduced emissions for the life of the property.  it requires more planning than simply posting signs. It requires;

  • Determine the best incline to overcome the rolling resistance for most passenger vehicles. 
  • Publish information on this design concept to all cities and municipalities, for their use in supporting property developers.  
  • Allow developers to adopt the plans .
  • Grant recognition to those developers/ restaurants who adopt "carbon neutral drive-thrus".

Given the overall cost of development, grading the drive-thru lane is minuscule.

If every drive-thru in a city were developed to this standard, the potential for literally 1000s of cars a day to avoid unnecessary idling is huge.

Cheers, I hope this idea is helpful to you.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Math and Myth of Outsourcing

Math in a quote
"Simple logic should tell us it's impossible for the private sector to deliver the same service for less and make a profit as well."
Ellen J. Dannin, Professor of Law, Wayne State University Law School

The Myth of private industry's inherent efficiency
There is this myth out there that private industry is exceptionally efficient when compared to government.  It may be efficient, and in some cases that might hold true, but beware the trap of all or nothing, black and white  thinking.  Just considering how individual contractors have their own equipment, licensing, insurance, payroll, buildings, vehicles etc, starts to show a duplicated cost in private industry that is quite wasteful.  So I think we can agree that private industry isn't exactly waste free, and perhaps quite inefficient as each private enterprise has to "re-learn" how to chase contracts perform work and satisfy the customer... or at least take the customer's money.  So private isn't necessarily more efficient and if the money is being wasted on inefficiency it isn't necessarily available to provide value to the customer.

Add a Layer, save money and miss the point
Everyone I know has at some point had a disappointing experience with "outsourced" call-centers.  You phone a number in North America (where English is the primary language) and you expect to get an English speaker because you need help.  And... you get someone from a foreign country who is very interested in "registering" your problem (so they get paid) and reassuring you, but they keep missing your meaning because English is not their language, it is an acquired job skill, one they polish and polish, but will never truly understand the way a native speaker understands it.  The whole point of customer service is to.... Serve the customer.  Seems to me that making the customer speak to someone who doesn't quite understand their language is going in the wrong direction.  What could lead to such insanity?  Could it be corporate cost cutting?  Ever notice the sales guys are from your country and native English speakers, but as soon as you sign on the line and they get your money, you are put off to people in a foreign land who don't even understand what you are talking about because they are probably trying to answer your question from a set of scripts. Going to a third party at arms length just to save money can certainly compromise the quality and the value you get out of that service.  Notice the "outsourced call center" isn't needed until we try to save money, then we look smart to the accountant and foolish to the customer. (who are you trying to impress anyways)

My Outsourcing experiment
I tried outsourcing once for my software company, and I spent so much time explaining, re-explaining, documenting, defining, paying, reacting to their lax security and adapting their half solution to meet my simple requirements, that any savings I thought I would experience were "Lost in Translation".  On the receiving end, several years ago I bought a Dell laptop, and when I had trouble, Dell saved a dollar or 2 by paying someone in another country to answer my call.  They weren't much help, and were hard to communicate with. The English was flawless but the meaning was lost. So I made sure that the next computer I purchased was not a Dell. Dell! Are you missing $200?  I gave it to your competitors because of your stupid Cost cutting, cost avoidance, whatever, I call it bad service.

So Leaders! Are you listening?  Stop flirting with the guy in accounting and consider the REAL cost to outsourcing before you go down that road and convert your customers into haters.

Cheers, what is your experience with outsourcing?

Monday, May 24, 2010

Different degrees of Carpooling

Over the last couple years I've had to adjust my stereotype of how carpooling works.

I started believing that a carpool was an all or nothing commitment.  5 days a week or zero.
While there are advantages to being part of a carpool, there are limitations also.

Then I became part of a carpool that existed 2 days per week.  Really, it was the "partial" characteristic of that carpool which allowed me to participate at all.  Some days I had 100% flexibility, others I had none.  But it all averaged out.

Recently I heard of another variation of carpooling which again re-defines the limits of carpooling.  Apparently in San Francisco, folks who want to carpool may not even be travelling with the same carpool from day to day.  Check out the article at this link.


Friday, April 16, 2010

DRM - Pirating - Digital Rights Management and the current Media culture shift

There are a lot of assumptions being thrown around these days.  If you aren't already aware of the issues and their implications, this might be a good chance for you to quickly get up to speed.  The implications are important, and despite the propaganda at the start of very DVD, this is NOT a "done deal" this is an area of legislation that needs updating in a reasonable respectful way.

DRM explained in 57 seconds. (Video)

The value customers are paying for is being degraded as control over the media is wrested away from customers.

And this from XKCD a tech savvy comic

Not only is there the potential for the value of media to be degraded, but there is the very real and likely potential that the corporations will destroy customers ability to access / use and enjoy the media they have paid for.  Online gaming has experienced this on numerous occasions including DRM outages in 2010 where game publishers DRM servers have gone offline effectively preventing paying customers from playing the games they have purchased.  WalMart shut down their DRM servers effectively rendering the DRM music purchased through them unusable (unless you burned it to CD).  WalMart is a pretty big company, so thinking a company is "going to be around" doesn't hold water.  The company has to continue to want to support you. Once they have your money.... Where is there motivation?

Digital Rights "Activists" or "really smart people who understand the real issues behind DRM in the digital age"  like these guys are fighting to educate politicians and the public.  It is an uphill battle since the public is constantly bombarded with DRM propaganda.  Before the start of every movie, on the back of every CD and on and on and on.  Threats of fines, of jailtime etc etc. all without a fair balanced discussion of what reasonable use would be. Not only is the public being indoctrinated, but most of our politicians are poorly informed and ill equipped to evaluate technology issues while being subjected to constant propaganda from well financed DRM lobby groups.

In addition to the media itself being affected with DRM, many customers are unwittingly purchasing hardware that comes crippled by DRM constraints.  The most recent visible examples of this were with the Ipad launch which precipitated an information campaign
You can sign their petition at the address above.  Of course the image is from the movie 1984 where an "George Orwell" describes a world under the totalitarian control of a government that even wants to control what people think.

We are living in a different world.  One where the business models are changing, and that is not a bad thing.  Most major companies and their current business models did not exist 50 years ago.  And will not exist in 50 years.  Change is natural, the idea that a corportation or group of corporations can insist that society FREEZE in its tracks.

Here is a brief presentation on the economics of abundance which are in contrast to the traditional economics of scarcity.

Finally there is an excellent presentation from TED on "Laws that choke creativity", which ends by questioning the social implications of having draconian legislation in place because it causes a society to spurn the law as an institution. (In a nutshell, bad laws reduce the authority of the governing authorities and ultimately weaken the respect for law, leading to lawlessness.)

"It is technology that has made them different, and as we see what this technology can do we need to recognize you can't kill the instinct the technology produces; we can only criminalize it. We can't stop our kids from using it; we can only drive it underground. We can't make our kids passive again; we can only make them, quote, "pirates." And is that good? We live in this weird time, it's kind of age of prohibitions, where in many areas of our life, we live life constantly against the law.Ordinary people live life against the law, and that's what I -- we -- are doing to our kids. They live life knowing they live it against the law. That realization is extraordinarily corrosive, extraordinarily corrupting. And in a democracy we ought to be able to do better. Do better, at least for them, if not for opening for business."

Lets THINK.  Lets LEARN.  Lets DISCUSS.  This is NOT a "done deal".  This is a societal contract subject to negotiation by all parties.

Cheers!  Let freedom and honour reign!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

My Response to the Government of Canada's Department of Justice discussion paper on Randomized Police Stops with Breathalizer tests to prevent Drunk Driving

Here you will find the discussion paper (series of webpages) discussing proposed legislation that would allow police to stop drivers when there was no suspicion of a crime being committed. SCARY!!!

Responses to the specific consultation questions posed in this paper, as well as more general comments, are welcome until Friday April 30, 2010. Responses can be submitted via email to , or by mail to: 

Here is what I wrote;

Impaired driving consultation
Criminal Law Policy Section
Department of Justice
East Memorial Building
284 Wellington
Ottawa, ON, Canada
K1A 0H8

Dear Canadian Department of Justice,

I have comments on 2 aspects of this legislation which I ask you to consider.
I would appreciate your acknowledgement of my comments.

Bolus Defence.

I agree with the recommendation that this defence be disallowed, and the assessment that it encourages "guzzling and dashing". (drinking after or arguing that the alcohol was present but not yet absorbed.  The Bolus defence strikes me as insincere, and a loophole to be exploited, rather than honouring the intent of the law.

Random breath testing
Status quo
Reasonable grounds are required for police to perform a search.
I understand that at present the police may pull over a driver who presents evidence of impairment (crossing the center line, weaving in his lane, throwing empty beer cans out the window).  I understand that police can administer a breathalizer test at that point and gather evidence that the driver is impaired.  
I believe this state of affairs should continue.

Proposed legislation
I oppose giving police the right to pull over citizens where there is no suspicion of a crime.
In my opinion this puts Canada on course for a "police state".
I don't see what makes drunk driving so special among criminal activities.  Perhaps the zealous lobbying of MADD has made it a "special crime".
Next it could be.  Let pull over random drivers to search the car for;

  • bodies in the trunk,

  • drugs 

  • bomb making equipment

  • illegal Olympic merchandise

  • DNA samples suggesting incest

  • Illegally downloaded movies

  • evidence of unauthorized religious affiliation?
Today if the Department of Justice decides to draw the line at drunk driving, where will that line be moved in the future? (The eternal threat of elusive boogeyman terrorists is already overdone by our neighbours to the South so I'll leave the rest to your imagination.) 

My understanding is that whether in a car, on a horse, on a bike or walking, all Canadians are guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights to be free from unreasonable search and seizure.  Do not erode our charter rights.  There are other ways to identify and prosecuted drunk drivers.

The discussion paper cited optimistic numbers and mentioned other countries that thought this was a great idea.  I don't care if New Zealand thinks "freedom from unreasonable search" isn't a right worth keeping.  I am Canadian and I value my hard won Canadian rights.  My Grandpa didn't fight at Vimy Ridge just to have his grandson live in a police state.  Canada is on its own course.  As the "hopeful experiment that is going right for a change".  Making Canada the kind of awful place where at any time police can pull you over and harass you has terrifying echos of communist Eastern Europe (and worse).  
I would much rather live in a Canada that is free from government oppression than live in a Canada where nobody died from drunk driving.

And on a lighter note, h
as anybody considered outlawing alcohol?...   No I didn't think so...

I am 
a Citizen of Canada, a registered voter, and a proud father whose children sing "The truth North strong and FREE"
Lets keep it that way please.
Sincerely yours.

Let me encourage you to speak up if you value your Charter rights.
Canada does not want police wielding power abusively. It might look like this...

RCMP officers Tazer a handcuffed Robert Dziekański.


Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Help Chile and Haiti Earthquake Relief Efforts by mapping with Google

Google is inviting people (you) to map Haiti and Chile in Google maps using "Mapmaker".
In a nutshell, you use the hybrid view to see existing mapping over top of satellite imagery.  Where you see a road that isn't mapped, you click click click and "connect the dots".

Easy to get started (30 mins of learning curve and the rest is productive).  Edits are moderated by other mappers who offer tons of helpful suggestions. The mapmaker help is also quite useful.

I like to think that since these updates are almost real-time, anyone with Internet access has very up to date maps provided by an army of volunteers. (like you) (the army wants you).  Certainly this is faster than the update submission processes offered by map providers like tele-atlas. .

I like to think that somebody on the ground there might be benefiting from my additions to the maps for those areas.  Certainly the folks affected by the Earthquakes aren't in a position to do this.  As relief agencies try to reach different areas, they will benefit by the identification of "alternate routes" provided by mappers.  I suspect that even improving the accuracy of road mapping helps with navigation as the detail of the roads improves to look more like the actual road network.

In Haiti, it is shocking and interesting to see the poor infrastructure in place, the haphazard manner in which housing and buildings are constructed and laid out. The way highways end at rivers and cars are forced to drive through rocks and water to carry on.  To see crops piled on the ground rather than stored in silos and dozens of other  interesting cultural insights you will gain as you stare down on Haiti from the sky. Particularly shocking are the crowds you may see around trucks filled with relief supplies, the tents crowding the American embassy and Port au Prince airport, and the painted SOS and HELP US evident on many roof tops.

In Chile, thoughtful engineering is evident for highways, mitigation of rock-slide hazards etc.  Central planning for neighbourhoods, minimum standards for buildings and other signs of disciplined development are clearly seen from above.  Satellite imagery is currently from BEFORE the earthquake, so don't be fooled into thinking the 8.8 quake did not damage.

So if you can use a mouse and like using maps, you can make a real difference thanks to the Google tools. (of course Google is gaining valuable map data in the process.)

Cheers, Have fun!

Saturday, March 6, 2010

No detectable recycling at the "John Wayne" Airport in Orange County CA

I had a weird epiphany of sorts in the John Wayne airport in California this morning.

After purchasing orange juice in a plastic bottle at the McDonalds I looked in vain for a recycling container.  I wandered from Gate 14 to the food court (gate 7?).  No recycling containers... None obvious at McDonalds, None obvious at Starbucks.  (the places putting the plastic bottles into the waste stream.)

I finally stopped and asked a janitor who smiled a gentle apologetic smile and motioned to the trash bin.  I gave up and tossed them in.

Ironically I walked past several large advertisements for the "Nature Conservancy", the "Toyota Prius" boasting 50 mpg and another environmentally focussed advertisement.  Makes me wonder if the environmental awareness or ethos of California is highly geographical, or if it as skin deep as much of the marketing and entertainment from CA.  Maybe some of the professed "Californian progressive environmental message is greenwash. Sorry California (and John Wayne in particular) I'm sure you're doing better in other areas, but not being able to recycle paper or plastic/glass bottles at an airport in 2010 seems like a rather obvious "oversight".

In the words of John Wayne, “Tomorrow hopes we have learned something from yesterday.”
So John Wayne Airport, I dare ya to fix it and post a photo!  If you are sorting all the waste from those big garbage cans for recycling, I'm happy to update this post to reflect that, but highly recommend you also update your trash can labeling.

[UPDATE: Thanks for the update "John Wayne Airport"! (see their comment below) it seems that John Wayne IS in fact recycling, but is doing it offsite by sorting their waste!  In many ways this "hidden" approach is even BETTER than visible because it catches items that folks at the airport would mistakenly discard in the trash.  Now this seems to fit better with John Wayne's  Environmental policy and practice statement on their website.  As promised here is my update.  Thanks for the quick response. (I'm impressed)]


More Un-Recyclable Waste

The other day I purchased some clothes at Walmart and didn't notice them send the plastic hanger home with the clothes in my shopping bag (yes i had enough that I needed a bag).  I got home and was about to recycle the hanger when I realized there was not resin code...  So either its going back to Walmart or its going in the trash.  (Yet one more item to put by the front door in the hopes I remember to take it with me when I leave the house).

I think I'm going to keep beating this drum because it just makes sense.  All plastic products need to be marked to facilitate recycling with their resin codes.  (even if it is a 7 meaning "other, probably not recyclable").  I called "The accessory store" to urge them to get these hangers labelled as I suspect thousands a month leave the Walmart ecosystem.


Monday, March 1, 2010

Is Walmart Helping Customers Ask Manufacturers to be More Socially Responsible?

On I read this today;
One of our Sustainability goals is to create zero waste. To that end, Walmart Canada has committed to reducing, reusing or recycling materials that would otherwise be sent to landfill.
Our company has challenged our vendor-partners to make more eco-friendly decisions when packaging their products. We have asked them to eliminate wasteful over-packaging, to include more recycled materials and to ensure more of their packaging can be recycled.

If you believe that a product you purchased at Walmart is packaged in a wasteful or inappropriate manner, please provide us your feedback and we will forward to the manufacturer.

So I reported the eggs I had purchased that were packaged in styrofoam and shipped 3450 KM from the packer to my local Walmart Store.  We'll see if there is any response.  I know our local costco offers eggs packaged in a cardboard/paper-fiber container that CAN be recycled.  I am hoping at a minimum Walmart will offer me the choice of better packaging for my eggs.  At the most, I hope they replace the styrofoam packaging and source their eggs closer to their final destination.  I'll update this post with any good news from Walmart on the "reducing wasteful packaging" front.

Sometimes its hard to tell the difference between "greenwash" and a genuine committment to make the world a better place.  I'm hoping it is genuine for Walmart, because it sounds like they have some really good ideas for making their business more sustainable from top to bottom. Check back to see if this particular instance makes a positive change.

UPDATE:  I haven't heard a thing back from Walmart.  I suppose this was greenwash / good intentions, or something they let slip through the cracks.  Sad....  Hey corporations.  Be good.  If you're good we'll enjoy doing business with you.  If you work hard to look good without actually being good, we'll find out and see through your insincerity.  So when you say "we want to hear from you". Answer the darn email. (and not with marketing BS).  Now I'll be the first to point out that incremental improvements are good.  If a company transitions from 20% good to 40% good, that progress is positive and to be encouraged.  However, pretending that a 20% company is as good as a 40% good company is insincere.  Action not words people.


Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Tips for Successful Video Conferencing

Video conferences are a convenient way to save money, and time and environmental impact, while still getting work done. They are hi-tech and still relatively new which may make them intimidating. Nobody wants to look foolish, much less in a business setting and even less on video that might even be recorded. If you put in the time and planning, your video conferences can be smooth and effective.

Video tips that will help you improve what your video conference attendees SEE.

Look at the camera
It may feel strange, but you shouldn't spend all your time looking at the people on your screen, especially when you are speaking. The best place to look while speaking is directly at the camera. Your participants will get the impression that you are looking right at them. This creates a better connection between them and you.  To help with this, you can position the camera as close as possible to the screen so your eyes don't have far to travel.  This results in near eye contact when you are looking at the screen.  Eye contact is important for interpersonal communication. If the camera cannot be place close to the screen, then consider practicing facing and talking into the camera, not looking at the other party's image. You want to avoid the situation where you have two people watching each other watching their computer screens.

The Lighting
Hollywood movies have lighting designers for a reason.  Light is important for video.  Have plenty of light on your face. If you don't, you may appear as a silhouette. Also try to eliminate shadows. A shadow of your hand, for example, looks like another hand to the camera, so the motion of that shadow results in twice as much motion handling as it would normally do, with a subsequent reduction in perceived video quality.

The Setting

The location that you chose to do your conference from will say something about you. Other than the obvious point that what you have on your desk and behind you will make impressions on your participants, what is in that background can be detrimental to your video quality. Try to have a clean or bare background with a neutral color. Keep all camera-visible areas neat and decluttered. You will look better on screen, so as much as you have control in your work environment, be mindful of the background for your video conference. 

The Clothes
What you wear can alter the hue of your skin, and possibly distract your video conference attendees.
  • Avoid wearing clothing that has bright colours and busy patterns. 
  • Wear plain or fabrics of muted colours like pastels.
  • Avoid bold colors, especially red and black
  • Avoid jewelry that may brush against microphones or tabletops and cause feedback
  • Solid shades of blue or gray generally bring out healthy skin tones and do not create a visual distraction. 
  • On a television monitor, black and white clothing colors can also enhance the skin tones, 
  • Avoid too sharp or too little contrast between your clothing and your skin and hair tone.
  • Avoid wearing bold red, green and orange, as these colors can cause an unfriendly hue for your skin
Be in the picture
Frame yourself in the picture by practicing with your camera prior to the meeting.  You want to avoid disappearing off of the screen.  Knowing how far you can lean will help you stay on-screen during the conference.
You might consider using your mouse as your anchor point. Holding on to the mouse naturally while setting up your camera may help you maintain a good sense of where you are. 
As you move back and forth be aware that the camera may exaggerate your motion. 
Because movement is compressed and decompressed in videoconferencing, it is important that motion be minimized.

Audio tips that will help you improve what your video conference attendees HEAR.

OK, assuming that we all know how to use a phone, or talk in a normal meeting, videoconferencing is a little different because of audio delays, a general unfamiliarity of how to behave around a live microphone, and the loss of queues a face to face meeting would otherwise provide.

Mute is your friend. use it.
An issue specific to virtual meetings is the mute button. Mute buttons are essential to having a well-ordered and quiet meeting, and their use should be encouraged. This minimizes interruption such as coughing, sneezing, and paper shuffling.  Being aware of muted attendees allows you to give attendees a few extra seconds to respond to questions. By allowing them time to unmute themselves.  Limit verbal interruptions by providing non-verbal feedback through, nodding or shaking your head.  Some video conference systems drop the other party's audio when the microphone is active, so mute avoids unnecessarily dropping the other's audio.

Speak Clearly
Clearly enunciate and speak more slowly than the normal rate of speech. Auditory dynamics such as pitch, tone, volume, pausing, and pacing are crucial during a video conference.  Audio compression may remove parts of the audio so careful speech improves the chance that your message will be received clearly

Verbal acknowledgement and identification
  • Address people by name especially for questions
  • Acknowledge individual comments and ideas
  • Identify yourself (and your site if appropriate) before speaking if there are more than three participants
  • Ask participants to raise their hand if they wish to speak
  • Allow a couple seconds for transmission delay when speaking; 
  • Pause after the end of your comments to allow time for remote sites to respond to a question or comment

Etiquette tips that will help you improve the flow of your video conference.


  • Direct questions or comments to a particular person or site (especially important in multipoint conferences)
  • If participating in a large multi-point meeting, it is advised that you say your name and location each time you speak
  • Avoid side conversations
  • Announce actions to the others when possible  (e.g. John from HR has just joined us here)
  • If your video conference session is primarily a presentation/lecture, it is recommended that the "audience" mute their microphones. 

Bonus Video
Here is a great, funny video from the University of Washington which highlights some good video conference practices. (worth a watch).  (7:40)

Source credits:

Cheers, I hope you find these video conferencing tips helpful.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Facebook plans to burn COAL to power their new data center.

You like facebook.  Do you like that facebook is planning to burn coal to power their new data center in Portland? has a petition you can sign.

Coal is the dirtiest option available for generating electricity (apart from burning old tires).  Facebook couldn't have picked a worse source for powering their new data center.  While competitors like google are switching to sustainable power generation.  Facebook is effectively kicking sand in the faces of all the kids with asthma in the Portland area.  You might want to encourage Facebook to act a little more responsibly. You might not want to ruin air quality around Portland just to update your friends on your "status".

Its not all about money Facebook.  Its about people. Listen to the people.

Protest Facebook's decision to power their new data center by burning COAL.

[Edit] One of my friends asked why I was singling out Facebook, and wanted to know if I was suggesting giving up Google, Microsoft etc.
I'm an incrementalist, I'm not normally an all or nothing kind of guy.  The way I see it life is a series of incremental choices, with no magic bullets that solve everything.  The point was that Facebook is at a pivotal point where they are doing something new and facing an opportunity to make a really good OR bad choice here.  Personally I don't want my "status updates" inflicting a health cost on the good people of Oregon.