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What happens when a digital writer tries a digital detox? My week of ‘intentional’ smartphone use

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If you’ve clicked on this story and read even just the first line, I’ve already succeeded in one goal.

I’m a writer working in a digital world, so getting you to read stories online is part of my job. But I know attention wanes and within seconds, some of you will jump to something shinier, newer, prettier.

You and I, we share this in common — we live in this digital space together. We read, we scroll, we consume. We carry the world in our back pocket, and there’s always something to demand our attention.

I don’t know about you, but I’m tired. I’m overwhelmed, and I need a break.

Avoiding the cat-video rabbit hole

I decide to take a page out of the book of University of Regina professor David Gerhard and his family. They’d been talking about tackling about what some call a “no-screen November.”

“We do spend a lot of time on our phones. We’d all be sitting around at dinner and poking around our screens,” he tells me.

Over the course of two weeks, I know for sure [my family has] had conversations that we wouldn’t have if we were staring at a phone, instead of staring at each other.– David Gerhard

Gerhard pointed out it’s a tough task to divorce ourselves completely from smartphones, when we use them for just about everything.

The challenge is to be intentional, to use the phone for what we need and then put it away rather than falling into a rabbit hole of funny cat videos.

“Over the course of two weeks, I know for sure [my family has] had conversations that we wouldn’t have if we were staring at a phone, instead of staring at each other,” Gerhard told me.

What might my family learn from doing the same, I wondered. I joke that my husband’s phone is a mistress that’s impossible to compete with: she’s sleek, infinitely knowledgeable and always gives him the latest sports scores and analysis. I often want to break her in half.

The first thing you might do in the morning and the last thing you may do at night is to check your phone. (Shutterstock)

‘The algorithm is us’

My family grumbled a bit about it at first, but they agreed to go along with the experiment — one week of “intentional” smartphone use, meaning for the entire week, we’d only turn to our phones when absolutely necessary. No cat videos and Candy Crush for us.

The irony is not lost on me. I’m a digital writer who depends on the web and an “attention economy” for a living.

But Gerhard points out that it’s not content itself that is bad. It’s how we engage with content. Social posts and news that are tension-filled or that drive conversation — but that also aggravate us —  tend to get shared and commented on. Then we end up seeing more of it.

“We blame the algorithm, but the algorithm is us,” said Gerhard.

Maybe if we changed how we consumed social media and news — purposefully and intentionally, rather than constantly and voraciously —we wouldn’t feel so bombarded and we would get more out of it.

It’s not always easy to give up screens. Playing board games at a bistro instead of watching TV backfired, with one or two sore losers. (Submitted photo)

And what about friendships? My husband says he depends on his phone to maintain relationships with people who are far away.

But strangely, if your phone is good for maintaining relationships, why has its use been linked to sleep disruption, loneliness, anxiety, depression and even increased risk of suicide?

There are probably multiple reasons for this, but let’s just take the example of a birthday.

Gerhard and I both had birthdays in November. I took five minutes to respond to messages on my phone, but Gerhard unapologetically tells me he simply ignored them, breezing right by without even making an obligatory Facebook post to say, “Thank you for all the birthday messages!”

An e-card sums up the lack of connection many feel in generic Facebook birthday wishes. ‘If we’re not careful, that connection becomes really surface,’ David Gerhard says. (Someecards)

“It relates to how we feel the need to be connected,” he said of these posts.

But does it, really? Can a 10-second throwaway birthday wish substitute for face-to-face interaction over overpriced coffee, or a phone call, or even a more heartfelt, personalized message?

It’s not even close.  

“If we’re not careful, that connection becomes really surface,” Gerhard points out.

How to go beyond surface

In a week of reducing phone use, I tried to go beyond the surface and forge personal, meaningful connections.

My husband and I survived without his mistress. We held hands and had honest conversations late into the night. My kids survived without gaming apps. And when we watched a movie, we enjoyed it together, laughing and crying together at the appropriate bits instead of watching with one eye on a social media feed or crushing virtual candies.  

At the end of a busy, active weekend, my youngest lay on my lap and drifted off to sleep. My mind was in a different space. I didn’t feel anxiety or that hyperactive need to look at my phone to see what was new or what I should do next.

I just sat there, aware of her warmth, of every shade of gold in her hair, of her delicate features and her eyelashes fluttering to a close.

I didn’t feel the need to reach for a phone and capture the moment, or hashtag it, #Adorable #MyWorld #Love.

The moment was fleeting but I was present. And it felt so much sweeter for that.

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The ‘Maple Majestic’ wants to be Canada’s homegrown Tesla

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Look out Tesla, Canada has a homegrown electric sedan on the way. Well, that’s if AK International Motor Corporation can drum up enough investment to make its EV a reality. Dubbed the “Maple Majestic,” the vehicle is a battery-electric designed to “excel in extreme climate performance without adversely affecting the climate, as befits a vehicle from Canada,” according to its website.

What’s in a name? — The company says the maple leaf is a “symbol of Canada’s warmth and friendliness towards all cultures,” while “majestic” refers to the country’s “status as a Constitutional Monarchy.”

That patriotism carries over into Maple Majestic’s parent company’s lofty goals. AK Motor founder Arkadiusz Kaminski says he wants the company, which he founded in 2012, to become “Canada’s first multi-brand automotive OEM,” and that the “Maple Majestic is intended to be Canada’s flagship brand of automobiles on the world stage.”

Partnerships are key — “We acknowledge that the best chance for the Maple Majestic brand to succeed, lies in continuing to build the relationship with Canada’s parts suppliers and technological innovators, whether they be academic institutions, corporations, or individual inventors,” the company explains. “We are currently seeking partners in automotive engineering, parts manufacturing, automotive assembly, electric propulsion technology, battery technology, autonomous technology, and hybrid power generation technology.”

In other words, don’t expect to be able to buy a Maple Majestic any time soon… and don’t expect to pour over 0-60 mph times, power output, range, or other key stats, because those don’t currently exist. For now, all we have are pictures and a short video clip. But at least those are arresting.

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PE-backed Quorum Software to merge with Canadian energy tech firm

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Houston-based energy technology company Quorum Software will merge with a Canadian tech firm to bolster its presence in oil and gas services.

Quorum announced Feb. 15 it plans to merge with Calgary, Alberta-based Aucerna, a global provider of planning, execution and reserves software for the energy sector. The combined firm will operate under the Quorum Software brand.

Gene Austin, CEO of Quorum Software, will continue in his capacity as chief executive of the combined firm. Austin, former CEO of Austin-based marketing tech firm Bazaarvoice Inc., became CEO of Quorum in December 2018.

Aucerna co-founder and CEO Wayne Sim will be appointed to the Quorum Software board of directors. Both companies are backed by San Francisco- and Chicago-based private equity firm Thoma Bravo.

“Over the last 20 years, Quorum has become the leading innovator of software deployed by North American energy companies,” said Austin. “Today, Quorum is expanding the scope of our technology and expertise to all energy-producing regions of the globe. Customers everywhere will have access to a cloud technology ecosystem that connects decision-ready data from operations to the boardroom.”

In addition to the merger announcement, Quorum Software announced it had entered into an agreement with Finnish IT firm TietoEvry to purchase TietoEvry’s entire oil and gas business. The agreement, which includes hydrocarbon management, personnel and material logistics software and related services, is valued at 155 million euros, or $188 million, according to a statement from TietoEvry.

“Our three organizations complement each other — from the software that our great people design to the energy markets where we operate,” said Sim. “Our new company will be able to deliver value to our stakeholders, while accelerating the growth of our combined business and the energy industry’s software transformation.”

The combined company will serve over 1,800 energy companies in 55 countries, according to the announcement. With its headquarters in Houston, Quorum will continue to have a significant presence in Calgary and in Norway, the headquarters for TietoEvry’s oil and gas software business. Quorum will have other offices throughout North America, Latin America, Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

As of Sept. 30, 2020, private equity firm Thoma Bravo had more than $73 billion in assets under management. In late December 2020, Thoma Bravo agreed to acquire Richardson, Texas-based tech firm RealPage in a roughly $10 billion acquisition.

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Piece of Kitchener technology lands on Mars on Perseverance rover

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KITCHENER — A piece of Kitchener technology has landed on Mars, thanks to NASA’s Perseverance rover.

The rover settled on the planet’s surface on Thursday afternoon. It’s been travelling through space since it was launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla. in July.

“The whole idea of being on a device that we’re sending to another plant with the express mission of looking for traces of past life, it’s pretty mind boggling actually,” said Rafal Pawluczyk, chief technical officer for FiberTech Optica.

The Kitchener-based company made fibre optic cables for the rover’s SuperCam that will examine samples with a camera, laser and spectrometers.

“The cables that we built take the light from that multiplexer and deliver it to each spectrograph,” Pawluczyk said.

The cables connect a device on the rover to the SuperCam, which will be used to examine rock and soil samples, to spectrometers. They’ll relay information from one device to another.

The project started four years ago with a connection to Los Alamos National Lab, where the instruments connected to the cables were developed.

“We could actually demonstrate we can design something that will meet their really hard engineering requirements,” Pawluczyk said.

The Jezero Crater is where the Perseverance rover, with FiberTech Optica’s technology onboard, landed Thursday. Scientists believe it was once flooded with water and is the best bet for finding any evidence of life. FiberTech’s cables will help that in that search.

Ioannis Haranas, an astrophysicist and professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, said the rover isn’t looking for “green men.”

“They’re looking for microbial, single-cell life, any type of fossils and stuff like that,” Haranas said. “That’s why they chose a special landing site. This could be very fertile land for that.”

“It’s very ambitious,” said Ralf Gellert, a physics professor at the University of Guelph.

Gellert helped with previous rover missions and said it’s the first time a Mars rover has landed without a piece of Guelph technology on it. While he’s not part of Perseverance’s mission, he said the possibilities are exciting.

“Every new landing site is a new piece of the puzzle that you can put together with the new results that we have from the other landing sites,” he said.

“It’s scientifically very interesting because, even though we don’t have an instrument on that rover, we can compare what the new rover Perseverance finds at this new landing site,” he said.

Now that Perseverance has landed on Mars, FiberTech is looking ahead to its next possible mission into space.

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