2014: Rear View Mirror Edition

So, it’s a wrap. 2014 has mere hours left; 2015 has actually already arrived for most of the world’s population.

As I look back, 2014 is the year that kicked my ass. This blog reflects it: a whopping 4 posts, year-to-date with the most recent one being over six months ago. I also checked the goals I made for the year – and I accomplished 1 of 21. A spectacularly low success rate.

So what happened? Why did nothing turn out as planned in 2014?

One hypothesis: I had a second child. On my daughter’s second day of life in mid-December 2013, we took her to get her inaugural tune-up checkup. The doctor was a true expert: 55 or so & head of pediatrics, on the top of his game like he’d just walked out of Ian McEwen’s Saturday. He grinned and told us “Oh, two kids under three years old? You’re about to enter what most people consider to be the hardest year of their life.”

Right. But what does he know? He’s only been doing this for 30 years. He doesn’t know our family…

And of course he was right. I was destroyed this year by the act of child rearing. The simple act of trying to keep two children alive turned out to occupy an almost unimaginable amount of time. They really do both need 100% of your attention, they don’t understand the concept of sleeping in and why, oh why, would they ever forgive you in the unlikely event you found yourself hungover.

Hence the 1 of 21 goals achieved.

However, all was not for nought. I feel like I still got a lot done. Both of the two above-mentioned children are not just alive, they’re healthy. To the best of my knowledge, my wife is no planning to divorce me and considers our relationship a success.

More seriously, I got a new job mid-year (no more worrying about getting paid) and we bought a house. I started running again and managed to do two 50km races. I learned how to cook sous vide. I picked up a new programming language (R). I raised $750 for charity and helped out with Seattle Coderdojo. I squeezed in a night photography class. And I built Cam a blinkybox.

And I read a few books: The Everything Store. The Bone Clocks. The Peripheral. Hooked. Scarcity. Your First 90 Days (guess why). Invisible Engines. Influence. Elements of Japanese Design. Too much seriousness; not enough fiction.

All in all, a year that kicked my butt. But not a failure. Tomorrow I’ll write about what I hope to do in 2015.

More importantly: happy new year y’all.

And let me close with a ridiculous photo from the fundraising period.


Things Are Getting Faster

One of the common themes of life today is that it’s getting faster. It’s not that time has actually sped up, rather the rate of change in society has sped up.

This is really happening; it’s not just crotchety old men pining for the days of martini lunches. One way to measure this trend is through technology adoption rates.

This chart from somewhere on the Internet shows how long it took for different technologies to reach the same portion of America’s population:
You don’t have to be a genius to see that it’s getting faster.

If you’re a science fiction fan, the acceleration continues inexorably until it’s infinite and we hit something called The Singularity. Who knows what happens then; perhaps we turn into pure energy (Didn’t realize Powder was a documentary) or we all upload our brains to computers and colonize the stars. Or maybe the rate of change stabilizes and we just end up in a period of constant – but not accelerating – change (I’ll bet on that).

This trend has some unique implications. We see, for instance, that it’s harder to stay successful. How many overnight Internet celebrities have appeared over the past few years? Similarly, the Fortune 500 lost is turning over faster then ever. Glory is increasingly fleeting.

Some more evidence of this:

  • ebooks-a category that basically didn’t exist six years ago-have almost stopped growing. We went from no one having them to saturation in the blink of an eye
  • Apple’s iPad sales are flat; they’re selling tons but the rate’s not accelerating. It may be that everyone who needs a super high end tablet has one-and it only took 3 years

I find this fascinating. You’d think the iPad is a growth hit that you could take to the bank for 10 years; now it looks like some dramatic rework is required. Ditto if you’re Amazon with your Kindles.

What I take away is that we’re in an era where we can’t rest on our laurels and we’ll have to constantly adopt new ideas and learn a lot of new things. In fact, resistance to new ideas (or at least technology) could potentially become a leading indicator of future o failure.

I’ve given up trying to predict what I’ll be doing in five years time and instead focus on learning lots of new things and meeting interesting people. We’ll see where the journey goes.

We Live In The Future

When I was a kid, there was this elusive thing called The Future. It was this beacon visible just over the horizon where things would be different. Technology would bring knowledge and power to the masses. Poverty would disappear. We’d have lots of leisure time. Or maybe the world would collapse into a dystopian nightmare powered by that same technology.

But there was no date when this would arrive. Authors and actors provided the imagery (a lot of white and robots) but there was no ETA or it was so far in the future that it was laughable.

Over the last few years, I’ve come to believe that we’re living in The Future.

I’m writing this blog post on a wireless keyboard that’s communicating with a tablet that’s connected to billions. If I desired, I could reach out to most of those people. I can order a near infinite number of physical goods to my house from any connected place on the planet; and I can get an update on where the good is every step of its journey to me. If I didn’t want to wait, I could order a design instead and print or mill the good myself with only the push of a few buttons. If I hunt around, I can watch or listen to almost any popular music or video ever created.

I can turn the lights of my house on and off from this tablet; ditto for adjusting the temperature. If I wanted, I could connect multiple cameras to watch live what’s happening in my backyard. Or I could use a $200 robot controlled by this tablet to be my camera instead.

I can go to work in a fully electric, zero emission car. I can pull out my phone and, with one tap, summon several different types of cars to my current location and not have to pull out cash or card to pay. Several billionaires are competing to get me into space at an affordable price. I can purchase a kit that lets me build a basic brain-controlled robot. And there’s a revolution in biology underway that could redefine how we think of the living world (think heartier crops that use less water and personalized medicine).

Plus this world isn’t restricted solely to the rich West. The recent rise of Indian and China has brought The Future to literally billions (and done more to alleviate poverty than anything else in history). And they’re building their own version of The Future.

But this blog post isn’t meant to be some hagiography of technology and capitalism. The combination of pollution, inexorable warming and increasing wealth inequality (despite rising absolute standards of living for everyone) means that The Future is not guaranteed to be all unicorns and rainbows. I worry about governments spying on everyone and armed drones are truly terrifying; it’s also not clear what social compact we’ve created by trading entertainment for privacy with large corporations.

In fact, The Future is a lot messier than what was promised by those actors and authors mentioned earlier. Their future was a beacon that shone because it had emerged from a world that did not exist. There was no path from the then-world to that future; it was more like a schism had occurred and a new, shinier, better future had emerged from some void.

But real life doesn’t work like that. We’re surrounded by 500 year old buildings and crappy condos just went up and be antiquated in 25 years. We have wireless broadband but can’t always get the physical kind. Regulations can mean that inventions stop at a an artificially created physical border. The Future emerges from what exists today; it evolves.

The Chinese never actually had a curse that said “may you live in interesting times” but we really do. I, for one, relish it. I love living in The Future even if I don’t fully know what it’s going to bring. In fact, I know that as I write this more of it’s arriving; I just don’t know what it is yet. And I can’t wait to see it.

New York Alki

I just finished Ryan Boudinot’s Blueprints of the Afterlife. It’s one of the most original and convoluted stories I’ve read in recent years; like David Mitchell meets William Gibson.

There are some beautiful sentences lurking in this story:

Like a rivulet of suffering feeding into the tributary, this new source of sad humanity bled from the TV…


The end was a slow but accumulating tabulation of lost things. We lost species of animals, polar ice, a building here and there, whole cities. There was a time when we lived on streets where we knew our neighbor’s names but now we were all strangers isolated in our condos late at night, speaking across distances to our lonely, electronic communities.

The book also features the most interesting architectural reinterpretation of the future I’ve read in recent years. Here’s how Victoria, BC looks a few hundred years from now:

The city of Victoria appeared to have regressed in age, its green-built skyscrapers brought to heel, malls and parking garages and condominiums razed, all replaced by roiling wilds. What remained standing were the buildings worthy of the city’s heritage-the Parliament, some Tudor-style B&B’s, a replica of Shakespeare’s house. This was a city that had once aspired to London’s botanical gardens and double-decker buses but had negotiated with the tribal culture that preceded it, arriving at an aesthetic truce, a fusion of potlatch and high tea. Here and there totem poles and longhouse materialized from the Emily Carr mists rolling off the harbour, monuments of extinction far more distant than the end times of recent memory.
Abby disembarked, suitcase in one hand, a duffel containing her tools in the other. Up ahead was the Empress Hotel, a stately, ivy-clad structure that smugly lorded over the geography as is glaciers had sculpted the harbour for its benefit alone. It used to be a hotel anyway. In recent centuries it had survived fires, vandalism, drug-addicted architects who’d added wings and bunkers. A scorched tower stood proudly unbowed. Abby ascended to the lobby entrance, skipping every other step.

But the most interesting idea in the book is New York Alki.

The book is set in the Pacific Northwest, primarily around Seattle. Now it turns out that Seattle was originally called “New York Alki“. Alki was a local native work for “by and by” and several of the original settlers were from New York. One day, by and by, Seattle would be New York.

It hasn’t exactly worked out that way, but Blueprints shows how it could.

Because it turns out that Bainbridge Island – just across Puget Sound from Seattle – is roughly the size of Manhattan (Manhattan is 13 miles long; Bainbridge clocks in at 10 miles). In Blueprints, Manhattan is literally recreated on Bainbridge Island, which is terraformed into the shape of it’s eastern neighbor.

I couldn’t help but wonder what this would look like, so I thought I’d create a map showing it. Here it is using Open Street Maps and Tilemill:

New York Alki

If this is too small for you, here’s a high res version.

A couple of interesting things happen. First, New York Alki connects to Seattle via the longest suspension bridges in the world and the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges actually cross over each other just off the old coast of Bainbridge.

Downtown Seattle is connected to New York Alki via the Midtown tunnel; the Williamsburg Bridge will drop you off at Denny Way. Magnolia and Discovery Park are about to get a lot more car traffic – but they get the sunset over Midtown’s spires. And if you’re going to the airport, you’ll want to take the Brooklyn Bridge. And Blake Island now has its own tunnel.

Notes on Healthcare

Our weekend was interrupted by a trip to the local emergency room (don’t worry, everyone’s fine). While it’s still fresh in my mind, I thought I’d write up some thoughts on the experience.


When you’re in the trauma room of the emergency department you feel oddly secure. You’re in a space that represents the sharp tip of the medical spear and all the wood is pushing behind it.

It’s a massive room that balances plenty of open space with literally millions of dollars of life-saving equipment. Racks of gear that blinks and wheezes and sucks surround you; bins containing every variation on suture, clamp and connector lie in wait. Wheeled machines are ready to stabilize and scan and monitor. Any free space on the walls is adorned with home made flowcharts outlining inscrutable jargon-heavy algorithms for dealing with cardiac arrest or other common procedures.

At least one nurse is dedicated to the room and you’re never alone. Doctors enter and exit, sometimes trailing their rolling wares, like a lost travelling salesman who roams hospitals instead of sidewalks.


In general, the emergency rooms of hospitals seem to be peaceful places. It’s an odd juxtaposition of people going through unlikely traumatic events and professionals for whom this is just another day at the office.

The nurses and ambulance attendants maintain the casual pose and jocular banter that I assume is found amongst people whose work randomly switches between the banal and the violent (I suspect soldiers and policemen are similar). The doctors flutter about, quietly moving from patient to patient. Security guards stare lazily into the distance and furtively sneak glances at their smartphones.

And then there’s the patients.

They’re mostly silent. There’s little moaning or crying. Most sit silently; in the children’s hospital they’re usually accompanied by a small posse of weary parents who seem resigned to a wait and are already calculating the impact of this on child care arrangements.

Even babies don’t seem to cry. It’s like they can sense that they’re entering a special place and they retreat into themselves. Odd.


It’s incredible to walk into a hospital and know that you won’t pay. This is truly one of the things that Canada has gotten right (America-I love you and you should learn from this).

The peace of mind that comes from knowing that you’re going to get world class care and not have to worry about being bankrupted is zen-like. I’m so glad that Canada didn’t tie health care to employment like in America.

There are, of course, consequences to this. The first is that you’ll wait a bit longer than you would if you were paying for it. The Canadian hospital is the ultimate meritocracy of distress; if you’re in truly bad shape you will be seen right away, but otherwise you’re going to wait.

It’s not an unreasonable compromise and it gives you a chance to hang out with a bunch of people who you otherwise likely wouldn’t. The Canadian hospital is the great equalizer; we are all in the figurative boat.

One thing that was reinforced for me while waiting several times in the hospital over the weekend is how Vancouver is ground zero for multiculturalism in Canada. The Children’s emergency room was an almost even split of Asian and Caucasian with a healthy dose of South Asian as well. If you want to see what a multicultural metropolis looks like, come to the Lower Mainland in 2025.


Healthcare costs a lot of money. The people, the tools and the costs of mistakes. All of this was on display during our visit.

People: they’re everywhere. Dozens of nurses, lab techs, custodial staff, ambulance attendants and the odd doctor. They’re simultaneously busy and doing nothing. Putting an IV in a patient and then waiting thirty minutes for it to be finished. The whole system feels designed to succeed at peak capacity with a lot of redundancy when it’s not rush hour.

The redundancy abounds. Some is technology; some is process. For instance, a nurse can’t start an IV without scanning their badge; the machine literally won’t pump.

Ditto for constantly checking that they’re working on the right patient. Nurse A put a syringe in our IV; nurse B came to turn it on – but before he did he verbally confirmed that the he was working on the right patient. Same for the lab techs; after drawing blood they verbally confirmed that it was the right patient. Very reassuring.

Less reassuring is watching how cost creeps into the system. We were transferred from one hospital to another via ambulance. Our son had a heart rate monitor attached to his foot while at the first hospital. They left it on (it’s just a bandaid with a wire) so that the second hospital could use it – except that it didn’t fit their machine. It was the identical set of pins, but manufacturer B had put a little flange on the plastic that meant that it couldn’t connect.

And that’s how cost slips in. No one makes a decision on health care based on the cost of cord. No one is going to decide whether to buy a machine based on whether the cord is interchangeable. But cords cost money (and I’ll be the margin on them is insane; that’s one way how consumer electronics manufacturers print money); multiply this by the millions of decisions around equipment and you can see why healthcare costs so much.


But I’m not worried about the costs because that’s a solvable problem and we seem to have great people working in health. Everyone we interacted with was focused on the best outcome for our family. It made us quite happy.


There were a couple of odd things that happened during our visits.

The first was that we were constantly asked the same questions: Any allergies? Any contact with people with chickenpox? Any contact with someone with MRSA? etc., etc.

Again and again.

Literally, we would tell this to the admissions nurse, then the nurse who visited us in the acute room. Followed up by the nurse practitioner and then finally the doctor.

I’m not sure if this was redundancy (always testing for the same data) or a sign that there’s a broken process.

The other odd thing was the different advice we’d get for the same thing. One healthcare provider told us we should come back if something happened and lasted one minute. Another told us five. The same person then told us that they wouldn’t actually recommend coming back for that at all, rather what mattered was temperature.

A little disconcerting – and a sign of just how complex healthcare is.

Requiem for a city

There’s a fantastic article in Vanity Fair on One Hyde Park. It’s the most expensive residential building on earth and a metaphor for a new London.

Here are some great quotes:

“Knightsbridge is an un-English activity,” says York. “The former gratin [upper crust], a combination of old toffs, Knightsbridge Americans who wanted to be old toffs, plutocrats who wanted to know The Form, people who weren’t here for funny-money reasons: all those things have been completely obliterated by a mad kind of very, very gauche overseas money. It’s absentee money: the kind of money that has bodyguards. It is the world of Maybachs and absurd-looking Ferraris in absurd colors, and kids who buy them straight out of the shopwindow. These people have no substantive relationship with anything British at all. It’s everywhere: I can’t emphasize enough how everywhere-ish it is.”

Many in London are uncomfortable not just with the flagrant display of super-wealth but also with the rising number of absentee residents who are based in foreign countries. “Those people who do buy these houses, particularly the bigger ones, in many cases don’t buy them to live in permanently: they are part of a portfolio,” said Bendixson. “That doesn’t add much jollity to your street: houses with the shutters down and nobody there.” Edward Davies-Gilbert, of the Knightsbridge Association, sees the area gaining the flavor of “a ghost town, peopled by ghost blocks.”

What I find interesting is that with many of the paragraphs you could substitute “London” with “Vancouver” and you’d have a similar story.

The Tower

A popular trope in modern fiction is the dystopic tower: a skyscraper that becomes its own self-government and slips into chaos. The building-a symbol of the future-becomes a trap for all those living in it and a blight on civilization.

JG Ballard wrote one the seminal book with High Rise. The last two years have each seen a movie where a high rise is controlled by drug lords who terrorize the inhabitants and live above the law.

2011 featured The Raid :

Next year it was Dredd :

There’s actually historical precedent for this theme. I’ve written before about Kowloon Walled City; a recent article in the New Yorker entitled Slumlord takes us inside a new Kowloon Walled City, Caracas’ Tower of David (there’s also a great Time article here).

From one side the building appears finished; all glass and steel. From the other, it’s a vertical shanty town, with concrete favelas stacked on top of each other.


Image courtesy of WebUrbanist

The text paints a vivid image of life inside the slum:

The halls were angled to admit light from the wall-to-wall windows at the end of the building, but they were still dim. On the unfinished floors, people had built small homes out of painted cinder block and plaster. Many kept their doors open, for better air flow as much as for sociability, and I could see them busy with everyday life: cooking, cleaning, carrying pails of water, taking showers. Music played here and there. Daza [the guy who organized the squat and runs the building] had rigged up a generator-powered water pump and each floor had a tank, but the water supply ran unpredictably through pipes and rubber hoses.

The Tower has several bodegas, a hair salon, and a couple of ad-hoc day-care centres. On the ninth floor, I visited a small bodega, where Zaida Gomez, a white-haired, garrulous woman in her sixties, lived with her mother, who was ninety-four. She showed me the cubicle next to the shop, where she had settled her mother, a tiny birdlike woman who slept on a bed right next to one of the plate glass windows. Gomez kept a fan going all the time, because the window made the room baking hot.

Gomez was one of early pioneers of the Tower, and she told me that, at the beginning, things had been terrible there. The Tower had been ruled by malandros [property invading gangsters], she said, shaking her head; there had been beatings, shootings, killings. But now she was able to leave the door of her shop open, something she had never been able to do in Petare, the slum where she had lived before. Her shop sold everything from soap to soda pop and vegetables, and to bring in supplies she made the journey up and down nine floors several times a day. It was tiring, she said, but she couldn’t afford to pay the mototaxis [the first 10 floors include a parking garage and you can get a ride to the top on a motorcyle], who charged fifteen bolivares (about eighty cents) for each ride. She had a daughter who helped her, and a grandson.

The article is worth reading in its entirety as it contains several almost unbelievable stories about how surreal life is in Chavez’s Venezuela.