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The Education of Susan Sweeney

Sunday, March 14th, 2010

March 7, 2010

“When you were a girl in Newfoundland,” I said, “did you dream about being a search engine optimizer when you grew up?”

Susan Sweeney laughed.

“That job didn’t exist,” she said. “Mind you, that’s not exactly what I do now, either.”

No, but it’s included in what she does, and she does it extremely well. Search engine optimization – or SEO, as it’s known in the beeping, blinking world of online commerce – is the fine art of helping Google to find your web-site when potential customers are looking for what you sell. When a consumer asks Google about maple syrup, you want Google to lead her directly to your Scrumptious Scotian Syrup. SEO makes your web site stand up and wave at Google. Yoo, hoo! Over here!

What Susan Sweeney did do when she grew up was accounting, winning both her CA and her CGA designations. When she started, accounting was done with pencils and paper. “We were still adding up columns of figures in longhand,” she remembers. “We didn’t even have calculators.”

When big, costly mainframe computers began moving into the mainstream of the economy, Susan was working for Thorne Riddell, a national accounting firm. At first, accounting firms provided computerized services to their clients, who couldn’t dream of buying their own equipment. In the 1980s, however, the IBM personal computer made the technology accessible to small businesses, and accounting firms had to re-think their strategy. After working on that issue, Susan moved from Toronto to Halifax and joined the federal government, becoming an International Trade Commissioner helping software and hardware companies export their products.

And then came the World Wide Web, which revolutionized the world of marketing. Even small companies could now market their products and services globally – and do it inexpensively and effectively. But they needed tools – web sites, electronic mailing lists, credit card processing. With two partners, Susan set up one of Nova Scotia’s first web development companies.

“We built the first Bank of Nova Scotia web site, before head office built one,” she remembers. “We developed Maritime Marlin Travel, and a number of others. We had some really interesting projects. We built a portal before the term ‘portal’ was ever coined.”

Along the way, she discovered that she had an ability to “take the technical things and explain them in plain English.” That discovery opened up a very successful career as a speaker and writer. She now has eight books in print. Her first, 101 Ways to Promote Your Web Site, is in its eighth edition. It has sold 70,000 copies, and it has been translated into German, Spanish and Chinese.

Today, Susan Sweeney is an internationally-recognized internet marketing expert operating from a home base in Waverley. She delivers keynote speeches, leads seminars and workshops and provides advice, training and web development services to businesses all across the continent, chiefly in travel and tourism. Golf courses in California, beach resorts in the Bahamas, hotel chains, travel agencies. She shows them how to lure traffic to their web sites, how to get the most from their electronic marketing budgets, how to convert casual visitors into customers.

The web is constantly changing and shifting, Susan notes, and “it’s hard to keep up with all the tools.” Today’s fad is marketing through social media – Facebook, Twitter, Linked-In and all. But is that what your company needs? If so, how should you use it? Susan’s job is to figure that out.

When I hear people talking about labour force development, growing the economy, educating children today for the jobs of tomorrow, I think of people like Susan Sweeney. How would her teachers in Newfoundland have gone about educating her for the jobs in her future? Such jobs were unimaginable. And when we talk about growing the economy, are we talking about the shrinking economy of mills, mines and manufacturing – or are we talking about people like Susan, who live in a world of explosively expanding opportunities?

What the young Susan Sweeney needed from her education was not information or even skills, but support for her courage, imagination and curiosity. That’s what we need to nurture in all our children. And in our co-workers. And in ourselves.

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Manufacturing Reality

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2010

February 14, 2010

“It sounds silly when you say it out loud,” said Ram Myers, “but they seemed to have a notion that you could sit in Ottawa and make up reality. If you could enforce a scientific consensus, that would be reality.”

That’s Dr. Ransom A. Myers, Dalhousie University’s late, great, and sorely-missed marine biologist, talking about the federal bureaucrats who “gruesomely mangled and corrupted” the research of their own scientists, to quote an internal DFO report, and thus allowed three imperilled groundfish stocks to be fished almost to extinction.

Ram Myers’ comment has echoed in my mind since the Intergovermental Panel on Climate Change began imploding in the blizzard of compromising emails that escaped from the University of East Anglia in December. That episode was followed by the disclosure that several findings in the IPCC’s report of 2007 were based on faulty evidence.

These were not trivial findings. One was the widely-reported prediction that, based on current trends, the glaciers of the Himalayas would melt away by 2035. Since Asia’s nine largest rivers arise in those glaciers, the result would have been a nightmare sequence of catastrophic flooding and lethal droughts for the one billion people who live downstream.

But the prediction was based on anecdotes, not on peer-reviewed science — and it was “so wrong that it’s not worth discussing,” says Georg Kaser, a leading Austrian glaciologist who flagged the error before the report was issued, and was dumbfounded to find it in the text. Maybe part of the reason is that the head of the IPCC, Rajendra Pachauri, also heads a New Delhi research group that has scooped up millions of dollars in grants to study the melting of the Himalayan glaciers.

The IPCC’s scientists now stand accused of shabby science, selective reporting, naked self-interest and the intimidation of skeptics. And of course the climate change skeptics are all over the issue: See? These guys are liars and cheaters and thieves — and therefore, climate change is all humbug.

Not so fast, bub. To begin with, the IPCC report was written by 620 scientists from 40 countries, and only a few have been impugned. Georg Kaser himself was a lead author of the section of the report dealing with the physical science of climate change. Despite the furor, Kaser says the report’s central contention that climate change is an established reality and a major threat is absolutely sound.

What reminds me of Ram Myers is the touching faith of some climate-change critics that if they can just convince enough people that the whole thing is a hoax, then that will be reality, and we can get back to business as usual. I’d love to believe it, but it’s nonsense. Somewhere out there, beyond all the noise and clamour, the real world is evolving according to its own nature, no matter what we may hope, wish or believe.

I listen to Gwynne Dyer, who travels the world investigating the military implications of climate change. “When you talk to the people at the sharp end of the climate business, scientists and policy-makers alike,” Dyer writes, “there is an air of suppressed panic in many of the conversations. We are not going to get through this without taking a lot of casualties.”

I listen to Jim Lovelock, a towering figure in earth science, who concedes the possibility that the skeptics are right and that global warming is an illusion — but whose observations suggest that global heating is happening much faster than expected. For example, he says, the great global heat sink is the sea. When the sea gets warm, it expands, and sea level rises. Well, sea level is rising faster than predicted, so the sea is absorbing a lot of heat. That’s an observation, not an opinion.

How do we deal with all these uncertainties? In 2007, a young Oregon science teacher named Greg Craven reviewed the options in a little YouTube presentation called “The Most Terrifying Video You’ll Ever See.” His conclusion? Acting to counter the risks of climate change will certainly cost a lot of money, perhaps needlessly. But failing to act could very well cost a lot of lives. How hard a decision is that?

– 30 —

The Hope of the World

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009

September 20, 2009

Despair is a useless emotion. And there is no such thing as false hope.

I learned these things years ago, when someone I loved lay dying. A medical moron — a celebrated specialist, with an entourage of students — came to her bedside and told her she would be dead in a few weeks and she’d better get used to the idea. When he left, I went scuttling after him, demanding to know just how the hell he thought he was helping.

“She has Stage 4 cancer, and she still thinks she’s going to make it,” he snapped. “She’s not. There’s no point in encouraging false hope.”

“That’s an absolutely useless opinion,” I retorted. I was seething. “She’ll tell you that she’s not dying of cancer, she’s living with cancer. She’ll be doing that till her last breath. What do you want her to do? Spend her days in despair, waiting for death? Hope gives meaning to her life. How dare you try to take it away from her?”

By its nature, hope occurs in conditions of uncertainty. Sometimes it’s fulfilled, sometimes not. It may be faint. But it’s never false.

I remembered all this when I read Chris Turner’s article “The Age of Breathing Underwater” in The Walrus magazine. Turner is the author of an admirable book called The Geography of Hope: A Tour of the World We Need. His obsession is the need to maintain hope and optimism in a world that human beings have sent spinning towards environmental catastrophe. Action depends on hope. You can’t rouse people to strenuous effort and sweeping change if they believe that their efforts will be pointless.

But only fools ignore the science. The particular new horrors that have seized Turner’s attention are the changes in the ocean’s temperature and chemistry, which almost certainly doom the ocean’s most fecund ecosystems, the coral reefs of the tropics. Corals feed on the algae zooxanthelae — but warm water turns the algae poisonous. In addition, the increasing load of carbon dioxide in the oceans creates carbonic acid, which is also fatal to corals. We have made the oceans more acidic than they have been for tens of millions of years.

Raise the pistol to your temple, say the prophets of doom. Humans don’t deserve to live.

Not so fast, says Turner. Yes, we’ve entered the Anthropocene Era, an epoch in which human activity is overpowering the natural world. This is what Bill McKibben means by “the end of nature.” And let’s be clear, too, that there’s no going back. The world you grew up in is gone forever. We are already feeling the impact of climate change, which has such momentum that if we stopped greenhouse gas emissions tomorrow, the changes would continue for decades.

But, Turner says, that doesn’t justify surrender. The environmental battle needs to be intensified, possibly using startling new weapons like “geoengineering,” the deliberate alteration of the planet to counter-act the changes we’ve already set in motion. Or nanotechnology. Perhaps we need a philosophy of “social-ecological resilience,” accepting change as “the natural state of being on earth,” and targetting our conservation efforts on the life-forms with the best chance of survival. But this is a time for action, not for despair.

So I’ll participate in a “flash mob” at the Legislature tomorrow at noon, one of 1000-plus events in 88 countries organized by to send a message on climate change to world leaders. Just in Halifax, other flash mobs will appear at the Chapter House on University Avenue, on the North Common, and at the Bedford United Church. Come and join us.

But tomorrow is also Zero Emissions Day (, when some of us are trying to eschew fossil fuels and minimize our use of electricity. Hmm… Will I spew emissions driving to a climate-change protest? I hear my MLA is going to walk. Maybe I’ll walk with her.

As Chris Turner declares, the arrival of the Anthropocene Era is not a license for despair. The world has forever been changing and evolving, and while the science-fiction environment we have created means loss and danger, it may also offer surprising prospects for beauty and adventure.

Remember this: despair is a useless emotion. And there is no such thing as false hope.

– 30 —

Ben Barry’s After-School Project

Wednesday, June 3rd, 2009

May 31, 2009

Greetings, all:

Because I need to finish the book I’m writing on the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation, I’m taking a leave of absence from the Herald for the month of June. I won’t be filing another column after this one until July.

This column — like several other recent columns — is actually a shortened section from the book. I hope you enjoy it.


Ben Barry’s After-School Project

“I started my business when I was 14, in Grade 9,” says Ben Barry. “My company was focussed on trying to challenge status quo beauty, and create a fashion industry that celebrates beauty that’s authentic, beauty that’s in everyone and that really works to empower, and develop positive self-esteem.”

It started when a friend at Ben’s Ottawa high school took a modelling course — and was told to change her appearance, and lose some weight.

“I thought she was beautiful, and she shouldn’t have to change herself,” Ben remembers. “So I sent off her picture to magazines and local companies, and got phone calls back from people that wanted to hire her, and assumed that I was her agent.”

His first model was delighted that Ben had found work for her, and began sending other friends to him. He found work for them too, and soon he was hanging between the two worlds of fashion and high school — and making some interesting links between them.

“I was learning about the strict criteria the fashion industry has for models and their narrow idea of beauty — and I was seeing that my high-school friends and their families certainly didn’t look like the models in the ads. In fact, looking at these models day after day was negatively impacting their sense of themselves. The culture is so visual. You have images on the internet, in magazines, on billboards, on buses, on university campuses — and every image is essentially the same. So inevitably that one ideal seeps into your system.

“So I just wanted to have my friends and their families represented. We’re not trying to replace one ideal with another. What I wanted to see was body variety, and age variety, and cultural background variety, so that you see a plethora of different shapes and forms and sizes and ages and backgrounds represented in the images.”

After high school, Ben Barry got a Millennium scholarship and headed off to the University of Toronto to study business. He quickly realized that he already knew a good deal about business, and thought he should broaden his horizons by studying something else. He chose Women’s Studies, and it was “the best decision possible. It changed the whole way I thought about my business.”

He concluded that it was not healthy for his models to work full-time as models, because in modelling “they’re solely valued for how they look. And in fact they’re more successful and more creative when they bring their varied life experiences to bear on their modelling. So the models we represent are artists, students, lawyers, teachers, entrepreneurs, and we really encourage them to reveal their personalities and their character and their attitude in their work.”

Does this remind you of the surprising array of beautiful and varied women in the Dove soap “Campaign for Real Beauty?” Yes? No wonder. Ben Barry consulted with Ogilvy Mather, the advertising agency behind the campaign, and also provided some of the models. And how did the campaign succeed in the marketplace? Within six months of the first installment of the campaign, Dove’s sales increased by 700%.

Which proves that the consumer is ready for a different approach to modelling and beauty, right?

Well, maybe. Other companies and agencies remained wary. The Dove campaign, they said, was a fluke. It worked for Dove, but where was the research to support this wacko notion that consumers would respond well to real models?

If the research didn’t exist, Ben would create it. He signed up for graduate studies at Cambridge University, winning an M.Phil. in 2007. Now he’s running focus groups and surveys in Canada, the US, the UK, China, India and Brazil, testing “whether viewing models of the age, size and cultural background of the consumer increase purchase intentions more than using a model that reflects the current Western beauty ideal.” When he’s done, he’ll have a PhD.

Meanwhile, the Ben Barry Agency has grown to represent more than 300 models — all of them beautiful, every one unique. It employs 30 trusted people who keep it humming while Ben commutes between England and Toronto, running his life from his laptop. The agency is 12 years old now.

And Ben Barry is 26.

– 30 —

The Three Principles of Sustainability

Sunday, April 19th, 2009

April 19, 2009

“Yis, yis, yis,” nodded the Irishman, as he watched the complicated machine clattering away. “I see it works in practice — but does it work in theory?”

For now, our economy works in practice — but it doesn’t work in theory, because it is not sustainable. A sustainable society provides “Enough For All, Forever,” to quote the most succinct definition I’ve heard. To reach sustainability, we have to learn three principles that fundamentally challenge the way we’ve always done things.

First principle: it isn’t counted, it doesn’t count. You can’t manage what you don’t measure.

If you’re on a diet, you weigh yourself. If you’re cooking a roast, you monitor its temperature. If you’re seeking fuel economy, you measure your gas mileage. But we don’t calculate the costs of smokestack emissions and greenhouse gasses, and incorporate them in the price of the products. We don’t measure food miles — the distance that our food travels to reach us. If we factored the environmental costs of shipping into the price of the food, local farmers would be fully competitive with agribusinesses in California or Chile. We don’t tot up the value of volunteer work, or of household work. We don’t measure what we’ve lost when a forest is clear-cut — the aesthetic loss, the soil erosion, the stream turbidity, the loss of habitat, the forest’s ability to capture carbon.

All of that literally counts for nothing. And because we don’t measure properly, we can’t calculate our losses. So we act as though there were no losses, which means we are living in an imaginary world.

We do calculate the Gross Domestic Product, and our politicians unfailingly use it as a measure of progress. Alas, the GDP doesn’t measure progress; it merely measures activity. As the great economist Kenneth Boulding noted, it only tells us that people are busy. Using the GDP for policy purposes is stupid and damaging

Second principle: Ownership is an illusion.

The caribou doesn’t own the land that it occupies. The monkey doesn’t own the jungle. And we don’t own the land or its resources either. We just get to use them for a painfully short time.

That’s the view taken by traditional cultures. The land was, literally, common property, belonging to everyone and no one. That’s the aboriginal view, and the Highland view. “A man with two cows,” says the Gaelic proverb, “is a man with too much.” Use what you need, and no more. And don’t own what you don’t need.

In many cases we want the services that a product can provide rather than the product itself. I want convenient, affordable transportation, but that doesn’t mean I need to own a car. If Ford rented me a car and had to cover all its maintenance and recycle it when I was done with it, Ford would be motivated to make it inexpensive and durable. Thomas Edison originally sold electric illumination rather than electricity, so he was motivated to produce electricity cheaply and efficiently. When he switched over to selling electricity rather than light, he was motivated to encourage waste and inefficiency, which increased electricity sales.

We need services, not things. We need to be sheltered, fed, transported, equipped for work. The idea of ownership — on which our economic system is based — is saturated with incentives to waste.

Third principle: If it is to be, it is up to me.

Our whole economic system is designed to convert resources into waste, with a brief interlude as consumer products. Do not expect companies that sell steel, oil or lumber to develop a sudden enthusiasm for conserving resources. Do not expect Wal-Mart to express great misgivings about the economic system which has served it so well. These companies will change — and are changing now — but only because you and I are changing.

Whenever I speak to industry groups, I hear the same thing in my briefing sessions. “We have to go green because we’re under pressure on all sides from our customers, our employees, our shareholders.” That’s us, folks. In our roles as voters, citizens, consumers and advocates, we’re forcing the changes.

These three principles may not take us all the way to sustainability, but they are steadily taking us closer. Your efforts may never be counted — but never believe they don’t count.

– 30 —