Archive | June 2014

Sam Stewart RIP 2007-2014


Sam was born in Picture Butte, Alberta 7 years and one month ago today. He was the grand-nephew of our previous Bernese Mountain Dog (Zeke) and we flew and drove out there to pick him up. He was the last of the litter to leave home, and he was kind of nervous to meet us. The fact that Hank (the breeder) had washed and blow-dried him to floofiness probably didn’t help, but in the picture below, that ain’t water on the deck! But you can see him looking up at me bravely, ready to make a new life.


On the drive back to Calgary Airport we stopped in Vulcan, AB, where he had his first ever leash walk. Must have been scary for him, but he was brave again and did really well. I love this photo: Berners are very fuzzy from some angles, and we always thought this picture made it look like Barbara was walking a BEAR!


Perhaps it was the early hair-dryer trauma, but he was often nervous at the dog groomers. They always sent back a report card: sometimes he was “a perfect angel” but most visits he was a “brave little bear.” We knew what that meant – he was doing his best, was nice to everyone, but you could tell it was maybe a little tough for him.


He always came back pretty good looking: Barbara always called him the “Brad Pitt of dogs.” And not the scruffy more recent Brad: she was thinking the Thelma and Louise version!


But being handsome is just genetics, and no one can take too much credit for that. But his inner self was his own making. I’ve known and owned many dogs, and they each have a core character. Some are puppies for ever, other are old and mature animals from early on. Sam was like a 3-7 year old kid: they know what the rules are, and they know about being good and bad. And they choose good – helping Dad chop green beans, smiling when going into surgery, playing with the other kids.

That was Sam: he always wanted to help, he wanted to be around the family, he was never cynical, and he lived each day in order to be a “good dog” and make his Mum and Dad (mainly Mum!) happy.

The lymphoma was only diagnosed three months ago. We tried chemo, and while the side effects were minimal, it didn’t make the tumours go away as it does in 75% of dogs. We tried another kind of chemo, and it didn’t help either: by yesterday afternoon he was having trouble breathing, walking, getting up, and had stopped eating. We talked to the vet, and gave all the people who mattered to him a chance to pay a last visit. My kids, the Neray dog-walkers, Uncle Jim.

But a funny thing happened after dinner last night. A very sick and dying dog came to life for 20 minutes of play. In our back yard, where the photo up top was taken, he chased his orange ball like a pup, barked up a storm and squeaked the ball madly, all with massive tail wags. An hour later he was having trouble breathing again, but I think those 20 minutes were HIS last gift to us. He knew we were sad for some reason, so he pulled up his white Berner socks, and had the courage and willpower to make us happy for a very little while.

This morning, just before noon, Sam had the catheter put in. We said goodbye, and held him with me patting his back. As the plunger was halfway down, his head dropped to his paws for the last time. After the vet listened and told us his heart had stopped, Barbara and our dog-walker (also Barbara) couldn’t stay in the room and left with the vet.

I leaned across him, nuzzled into his fur, and told him: “you really were a brave little bear.”

TV isn’t dead. But a very bad thing is happening.


It’s silly to talk about the death of TV. Around the world, more people are watching more minutes and hours of traditional TV per day than last year. Even in North America, the rise of over the top video services like Netflix has had almost no effect on hours watched or pay TV subscriptions.

Before we go any further, it is important to note that young people have always not watched as much traditional TV as older viewers. 18-24 year olds are more active, and spend more time in conversations and social settings compared to those over 65. To give you an idea, all Americans over the age of 2 watched just over 37 hours per week of live and time shifted TV, while those over 65 watched nearly 54 hours per week, and 18-24 years olds clocked about 24 hours per week. 65+ watch 45% more than average, 18-24 are about 35% less, and those over 65 watch over TWICE as much as 18-24 year olds.

That’s not the problem. This table is:

Nielsen NEW

In the last two years, while the US population as a whole is watching  a bit more TV (live and time shifted), 18-24 year olds are watching less.

It’s not a “big shift” as yet…only 11%. And it almost certainly varies by urban vs. rural; gender; and race.

But I have seen this movie before. I remember the newspaper industry in the 1990s. It had always been true that teenagers didn’t subscribe or even read newspapers. That was OK…once they moved out and got a job or went to college they started. Then one day, around about 1995, that changed, and we started seeing (at first) very small annual DECREASES in print newspaper consumption in 18-24 year olds. 20 years later, that trend has been working away, and we now have the situation where (in one UK survey) less than 0.5% of 16-34 year olds listed print newspapers or magazines in their top five media they would miss the most.


For years now, the TV industry has been mopping its brow, and been thankful that what happened to newspapers doesn’t seem to have happened to it. I could be wrong, but I think we are starting to see the first signs of the ‘newspaperification’ of the traditional TV industry. Up until now we have had surveys, anecdotal data, and lots of arm-waving that young people are abandoning traditional TV, but not much real evidence. The empirical data is coming in now, and I think it is important.

But I need to be clear. Traditional TV remains a globally massive ($400 billion) industry that is growing in most regions and most age groups. It won’t go away just because some younger viewers are watching less. And there is no simultaneous TV equivalent of what Craigslist did to classified ads. Advertisers care about 16-24 year olds, but they also care about all the other demographics too.

This isn’t the death of TV. But it is important.


Mea Culpa – my math was wrong


In my previous blog post, I tried to refute the idea that TV set top boxes are the second largest consumer of energy in many US homes. I wrote: “According to the reporter’s own data, the average set top box (STB) uses about 35 watts per hour while on standby. There are 224 million STBs in the US, and about 110 million homes, meaning the average home has two of these ‘power hogs.’ At 24 hours per day times two devices, that is 1.68 kWh per day.”

Bad Duncan. That was NOT what the reporter said: “A set-top cable box with a digital recorder can consume as much as 35 watts of power…”

Please note his two qualifiers. First, not all of the 224 million STBs in America have PVRs: in fact, only about 50% of pay TV homes have even one PVR. Second, that phrase “as much as” should have gotten my spidey-sense tingling. Based on people who measure their own PVRs, 25 watts standby power is the norm, with non-PVR STBs running about 15 watts standby.

Therefore, let’s assume that about 35% of all the STBs in the USA have digital recorders, or 78 million, consuming an average of 25 watts per hour. That leaves 146 million consuming 15 watts. The blended average is about 18.5 watts.

Therefore, in all my comparisons to other sources of energy consumption, the number for an average home with two cable boxes is NOT 1.68 kWh per day, but 0.888 kWh per day, or 47% less.

Which makes the idea that set top boxes in standby mode are a significant part of household energy consumption even more ludicrous.


“Would you say that to me in class?” Online Disinhibition and the Effects on Learning

Useful context for any discussion about MOOCs.

Online Learning Insights

What are the effects of benign, inappropriate or even toxic student-to-student or student-to-instructor exchanges in online learning communities? How do such exchanges affect learning outcomes?  It’s a topic that’s had little attention from researchers and educators, but as learning continues to scale-up with online and open communities educators need to be paying attention, examining and addressing such interactions. This post shares highlights from a recent paper, Would you ever say that to me in class?”: Exploring the Implications of Disinhibition for Relationality in Online Teaching and Learning.

images ‘Angry’ from iStock

“As Suler (2004) observes, people say and do things in cyberspace that they wouldn’t ordinarily say and do in the face-to-face world. They loosen up, feel less restrained, and express themselves more openly. So pervasive is the phenomenon that a term has surfaced for it: the online disinhibition effect.”  (Rose, 2014)

When reading the paper “Would you ever say that to me…

View original post 957 more words

No, cable TV boxes are NOT the 2nd biggest energy users in many homes


Unless ‘many’ means about seven homes in all of North America.

As my friend Brian Piccioni likes to say, to many reporters the word “energy” is equivalent to “magic”: once they start talking about electrons, their brains turn to mush, and basic math and fact checking fly out the window.

This week’s version is from the LA Times, and the headline is not an overzealous contribution from some editor. The second paragraph ends with the sentence: “They [set top boxes] have become the biggest single energy user in many homes, apart from air conditioning.” There’s even an adorable little infographic showing the “power hog” devices. (I like the bit where the pig noses are power plugs: infographics #FTW!)


But it is almost impossible for that to be true. According to the reporter’s own data, the average set top box (STB) uses about 35 watts per hour while on standby. There are 224 million STBs in the US, and about 110 million homes, meaning the average home has two of these ‘power hogs.’ At 24 hours per day times two devices, that is 1.68 kWh per day. That’s not nothing, but how does it compare to other energy users?

There’s no question that air conditioners are huge consumers of energy. But so are refrigerators: the average (energy efficient!) fridge is around 750 watts per hour, and the average one runs 5-10 hours per day. That’s a minimum of 3.75 kWh per day, or more than four set top boxes. Do you have hot water in YOUR home? A water heater runs at 4,000 watts, and about 3 hours per day: 12 kWh daily, or over seven STBs. Clothes dryers are another culprit: at 3,000 watts per hour, if you spend even half an hour a day drying your clothes, that is more than the average home with two cable boxes.


We haven’t even touched the big energy use: space heating. Lots of homes have either all-electrical heating, or at least a few baseboards. They aren’t on year round, but when they are, the dials on your electric meter will be spinning: the average home uses nearly 30% of its total energy consumption for heating over an average year. That’s even more than air conditioning.

So it is technically possible that there are some American homes where STBs are the second biggest user of energy. But they would need to have a dozen cable boxes, be in Hawaii, not own a fridge, and bathe in the ocean. Or be this guy:


[To be clear, “vampire energy” consumption by set top boxes – or any appliance – is a serious issue. There absolutely need to be changes in how STBs run in sleep mode. But bad energy math is still bad energy math. Millions of Americans could start unplugging their set top boxes, and think they are saving the planet. At 35 watts per hour, STBs are nowhere near the top of the list of energy conservation measures that we should be thinking about.]

The column SO controversial that 2 media outlets refused to publish it!

Well, that headline is total clickbait.

My wonderful wife, Barbara Stewart (check out  has two separate columns: one is a bi-weekly newspaper column in 24 Hours, and another appears in online magazine Mrs. R. Both are great outlets for Barbara’s writing on women and finances. But a recent column of hers was deemed too ‘narrow’ for each platform. I thought it was a pretty good piece, so I am posting it here as a guest column rather than letting it go to waste. Enjoy!

To hedge or not to hedge


In case I lost you at the word “hedge”, let me say that this will not be an in-depth look at hedging techniques such as forward contracts or options. Instead, it’s a high-level look at when a currency hedge might make sense in your personal situation. A hedge allows you to fix an exchange rate for part or all of your portfolio, rather than being vulnerable to the whims of the currency market.

Three examples:

You are paid in U.S. dollars but your expenses are in Canadian dollars

A writer lives in Toronto but is paid by her New York-based publisher in U.S. dollars on a quarterly basis. She has no need for the US$ as all her expenses are Canadian. She doesn’t want to have to worry about fluctuations in the exchange rate because she wants to have the ability to plan for her cash flow. She can use forward contracts to lock in the exchange rate in advance for all of her quarterly payment dates.

You live in Canada but you travel regularly to the U.S.           

A retired couple are spending more and more of their time in Florida. They worry about movements in the currency because they have a significant need for U.S. dollars for their lifestyle requirements. This will be an ongoing issue for them. In this case, they should consider opening a bank account in the U.S. and funding it on a regular basis by converting from Canadian to U.S. dollars. Rather than doing the conversion all at once and running the risk of a less attractive exchange rate, this will allow them to average in at different rates over time.

You are moving from Canada to the U.S.

A young couple recently started a new life in California. They sold their home in Toronto and the proceeds are in Canadian dollars. As they don’t know yet what this money will be used for (a home, travel?), it makes sense for them to partially hedge their bets and convert half of it into U.S. dollars right away. This way they are free to take some time to make decisions as to where they want to invest and what they want to invest in. Meanwhile they will be partly diversified in terms of their currency exposure.

As you can see, a hedge doesn’t always have to involve a complicated product. But if you are in a scenario like one of these, hedging is something that should be discussed with your banker or investment advisor. Although I normally add that people can also do it themselves, some forms of hedging are so complicated that outsourcing it will almost always make more sense.




No, Tesla doesn’t buy more batteries than the PC industry


In fact, it isn’t even close! But respected sources like The Economist said that each Tesla power pack “contains up to 7,000 standard lithium-ion cells of the sort found in laptops. The firm is said to buy more of these sorts of cell than all the world’s computer-makers combined.” [Emphasis mine]

Although that statement is wrong, I have figured out where so many sensible reporters make the same mistake. Tesla made about 7,500 cars in the first quarter of 2014, so annualising that gets us to about 30,000 cars for the year. At 7,000 ‘standard lithium-ion cells’ (more on that in a second) anybody can calculate that they will need about 210 million Li Ion cells. And 210 million is pretty close to the number of laptops that will sell this year!

But laptops contain power packs of multiple cells, just as Teslas do. There aren’t seven thousand cells in your portable PC, but the average is over six cells per pack, and there are laptops with more. See picture below.


On average, that means the PC industry still uses over 1.2 billion lithium-ion cells per year, and that’s not even counting replacement battery packs!

To be clear, Tesla uses what are what are called 18650 cylindrical Lithium Ion cells in its packs. Most laptops use the same battery type, but not all: some of the hybrids, ultrabooks and similar computers like the Mac Air use a flat pack form factor.

So the total number of 18650 batteries used for laptops is likely a bit less than a billion per year. Then again, not all Teslas use 7,000 cells: that’s just the S85 model, and the S60 would use about 5,000 cells. Tesla has never disclosed the S60/S85 sales mix, but if even 25% of models sold are using the smaller packs, then the average cell count would fall to about 6,500 per car, or ‘only’ 195 million cells for 2014.

That’s a LOT of cells! And it will grow as Tesla sells more cars. And demand for cylindrical cells from the laptop industry will fall as ultrathins gain share.

But, despite what you have heard, Tesla does not buy more batteries than the laptop industry: in fact they are almost certainly no more than one fifth the volume by units.

5 More Habits of Happy Couples


There’s a great little article going around online: the 10 habits of happy couples. I thought this one was excellent, and it inspired me to come up with 5 *bonus* habits that I think make for being a happier couple.

  1. Don’t leap out of bed in the morning. The other list talked about the importance of going to bed at the same time, and that’s 100% true. But mornings are important too. You’ve just spent 8 hours cuddling: take 20-40 minutes, waking up early if you have to, and spend that time touching, sharing remembered dreams, talking about the highlights of yesterday, and discussing what you are looking forward to for the upcoming day, especially the  things that you will do together as a couple.
  2. Nap together. Humans are hard wired to bond with those we sleep beside. Plus sleep increases oxytocin AKA the love hormone. If you come back from a long run, bike ride, or busy time with kids, chores and shopping, take a 20 minute cat nap with your loved one snoozing on your chest and your arm around her. I dare you not to be more in love with them after you wake up than you were before.
  3. Kiss passionately. When we first meet as couples, there is a lot of wet and sloppy kissing going on. Within about 6 months, most of us do much less of that, and after 5 years almost all kisses (outside of the bedroom) are dry pecks. But at least weekly, and daily if you can manage it, try to do something that would embarrass your kids if they saw you. Maybe not over the top “necking” (or whatever it is called these days) but definite full on smooching, mouth to mouth, lasting at least 10 seconds. Tongues are good, and if one of you can lift the other up off their feet and twirl them around, that’s always good too. If you’ve gotten out of the habit, you will be surprised how much fun this is, and it will cast a happy glow over the rest of your day. If you do it extra well, you may get spots before your eyes or pass out, so you’ve been warned.
  4. Salutations and sign offs. You probably send 10-50 short messages, emails, texts or equivalent a day – many of them about quotidian tasks like walking the dog or picking up milk. You can miss it once or twice, but otherwise always start EACH one with a loving salutation: Darling, Lover, Dear One, etc. And always close with a “Love” and a sprinkling of x’s and o’s.  Don’t think of it as a duty, chore or obligation: instead it is an opportunity to tell your loved one that you love them an extra tens of times per day! How can that be a bad thing? (I already talked about the importance of pen and paper notes in an earlier blog post.)
  5. Always be presents. That’s not a typo for being ‘present.’ And I don’t mean you need to give diamond jewellery every week! But we all have dozens of opportunities per week to buy a thing that our partner might otherwise buy for themselves, and make it into a romantic present. Every couple will have their own examples, but I try to buy Barbara a Starbucks salted caramel cake pop every day when I get my own afternoon coffee. She LOVES getting that little treat from me when she gets home from work. We both need clothes during the year: as much as possible I buy her stuff and make it a gift for her, and vice versa. We still spend the same amount annually, but this way when I wear something that is “from her”, it feels more special to me.


Calling it “soccer” is just fine!


Did you know that many UK publications used the words “football” and “soccer” more or less interchangeably in the 1950s and 60s? According to an academic study released just in time for the World Cup in Brazil, we North Americans don’t need to feel ashamed of calling it soccer!

“Given the antipathy to the word “soccer” in the UK today, it might surprise many people to know that many of the most famous personalities of the 1960s and 70s used the word “soccer” in their autobiography. Thus Sir Matt Busby, the celebrated manager of Manchester United in the 1950s and 60s entitled his autobiography “Soccer at the top”. One biography of George Best, the most famous player of the era, was titled “George Best: the inside story of soccer’s superstar”. Jimmy Hill, one of the most influential figures in the development of English football entitled his autobiography as a player “Striking for Soccer” in 1961, while the autobiography of John Charles, a great player of the 1950s was titled “King of Soccer”.

Happy FIFA World Cup, everyone! And let’s close with my favourite George Best quote:

I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars. The rest I just squandered.


What the Dickens? Rock musicians selling overpriced t-shirts weren’t the first content creators to monetise piracy?


Believe it or not, but prior to 1891, American law provided copyright protection ONLY if you were a US resident. UK authors got zero royalties.

It was an intellectual-property war every bit as fierce as today’s DVD black market in China. American publishers would send their agents to roam the wharves in New York, Philadelphia and Boston to intercept popular manuscripts coming in by ship. Across the Atlantic, English customs officials would search passenger ships coming from the States and confiscate pirated British books as contraband.

Dickens v America, by Matthew Pearl in the Economist

Probably the biggest victim of this legal form of piracy was Charles Dickens. He had railed against US copyright law (and other aspects of American life) after his 1841 speaking tour, to the point where he turned the formerly-adoring Americans against him.


But pressed for money in later life, he returned to the USA for another speaking tour:

The author gave 76 public readings over six months, earning him $3000 for each performance and $228,000 total (in today’s dollars, approximately $50,000 per night and $3,800,000 total).  In New York City, 5000 people stood in a mile-long line for tickets, while 40,000 attended his performances there.

New York Times, On this Day from 2001


In fact, when Dickens died shortly after, it was estimated that 20% of his estate came from the proceeds of the tour…despite the fact that he never earned a penny of US royalties from the traditional source of income for authors of the time.

What lessons can be learned for those who are dealing with 21st century pirates? Or who are dealing with fans who think that ‘free’ is the right price for content?