Peeling back the media layers

When I consume fiction, I try to dive in with enthusiasm. I suspend my disbelief and let the story itself carry me. I try hard to not worry about meta-narrative, or technique, or politics get in the way. I try to let the story itself stand on its own. For “good” media, this often works. I readily enjoy the experience, be it book or film or tv or game. Often the first sign of problems is when the media can’t stand on its own, and I end up being forced into analytical mode.

Almost inevitably, the first layer I pull back is technical: with a literature degree by way of a few years of film studies and a perverse need to watch all the extra features, I think a lot about how stories are told. I worry about why that particularly manipulative camera-pan, or upwards-to-the-right angle, or why mention a missile at all, because now I know it’s going to come back later in the book. In the score, was that overbearing timpani in that one scene really necessary? (pro tip: no, it never is). Again, things split here. When I re-watch a really good movie, looking at it through this technical lens only adds to why I love it (My favourite movie is probably I am Cuba, which I like perhaps more for the technical elements of the film than the film itself).

Beyond technical, I start to think about meta-narrative: when you know an author’s work, you tend to see recurring themes, images, etc -both in print and screen, and I start to wonder how the decisions made this time tie into the overarching œuvre. And in film, you not only have the writer’s meta-narrative, but also the director’s. And the cinematographer’s. And sometimes the actors’. When you get to “corporate” film, you also have the producers’ (see: Pixar, Disney, Marvel, etc). Watch a bunch of Scorsese films back-to-back, or binge-watch a tv show under the same show-runner, and see how quickly you can start to identify which episodes were directed by which person – there’s all sorts of little tells that keep popping up.

And then, finally, likely to my own discredit, I often think about the socio-politics of the media (Hi! I’m a Canadian, straight, white male who has the luxury of not having to think about this all the time!). Why this casting choice? why that gender/race for that character? who directed? How is that reflective of the audience’s experience? the creators? the funders? This, most often than not, is where films that have survived all the previous examinations start to fall apart.  Just passing the Bechdel test is hard. Add in “positive/lead/speaking” roles for non-white-men as a layer and it gets worse. I have this immense luxury of approaching virtually any media knowing that I am the target audience for it. I had a small sense of perhaps what it might be like to not be recently reading “Between the world an me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates, which is definitely not aimed at middle-class white Gen-X… and it was fascinating to start to look at the assumed terms of reference in the book that were not at all common to me (aside: this is a reason I like to read foreign novels, particularly from non judeo-christian-heritage authors, because that means I need to work more to figure out the common terms of reference).

(all of this bubbled to mind after binge-watching the 100, and why i thought it was inevitable that Clark and Lexa would kiss. And then wondering why it made me squeamish that the only black lead in the new Ghostbusters was, also, the only non-scientists (indeed, she seems to be the “street-smart” character), and why, while it makes sense to cast a non-white actor in a new Harry Potter play, or as James Bond, it is still hugely problematic that Zoe Saldana was cast as Nina Simone).


Software is eating the world like…

This adage is well-know. Based on a Google search, it would appear that Marc Andreessen has made several comments on this topic since 2011, and is has become defacto accepted as truth. And, of course, bastardized to suit (eg. Mobile is eating the world, IoT is eating the world, etc)

I’ve been thinking a fair bit about how “regular” companies interact with software. Over the past 20 years, I’ve worked with lots of companies as they slowly embraced to-them new technologies several years after, as someone in the field, I would have thought it was a necessity – so there’s a disconnect. And, to my horror, the way in which these accounting firms, lawyers, retail shops, etc, embrace the tech now available to them is really hodge-podge and often to their initial detriment. Quite consistently, it takes an initial failed dive to get the next version “right” – which isn’t necessarily bad. But maybe there’s other ways.

That thought lead me down the path that maybe earlier recognition of technology trends for the non-technical would be useful, if possible. And then I started to think about how that might surface. Which brought me full-circle to this adage, about Software eating the world, which has an interesting corollary in “the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed”. So, yeah. Software is eating the world – just not evenly.

… And this is where this serious train of thought goes a little off the rails: If software is eating the world, but unevenly, what’s the best simile here, and why? And could that exercise actually be useful?

Software is eating the world like the Sarlaac:
Software is more of a trap that unsuspecting industries fall into, without realizing they’re about to. They’re then digested slowly, painfully over a long period of time. This feels like an apt metaphor for the transportation industry, who were rolling along and were suddenly confronted by Uber, Lyft, etc – and are now in the midst of slow, painful contraction and likely death.

Software is eating the world like a river:
This is another “slow” simile, but has an inevitability factor about, as well as a randomness: Software, like water, eats the easiest path through, and it meanders, is uneven, and, importantly, is constantly digging deeper in paths where it has already been. Think about communications software, and this feels true to me: it wasn’t everywhere, it was channels, and it entrenched (literally?) quickly, and kept re-doubling the victories in those spaces as it moved and opened new channels.

Software is eating the world like Galactus:
Galactus is the “world devourer”, a giant space entity and roams the universe, and when hungry, eats entire planets, destroying everything that was there, leaving nothing as it moves on. Apart from the immense disruption that occurs when Software arrives at a new industry, I’m not sure how apt this is: Software is mostly transformational, rather than destructive (although, maybe Telephone Operators and Transcription artists would beg to differ). But I like how strongly this simile enforces how radical the arrival of new software in an industry can be.

Software is eating the world like a vulture:
With this similar, the idea is that when software enters a new industry, that industry is actually already dead – it just doesn’t know it (maybe?). When design software started replacing letter-setting and manual type-setting industries – were they already on the decline? A lost art? This doesn’t feel like an appropriate simile in most cases to me.

Software is eating the world like like a cheetah:
(Or any big hunting cat). I quite like this simile, because it correlates intent, as well as the thrill of the hunt. When software enters an area, is it because there was an intent to disrupt/enter that space and remove it? The old “find a Linux command and build a web-service around it” adage of Web 2.0? Although, the chase of a big cat and it’s prey implies an element of chance that doesn’t really seem to exist. Has software ever failed to eat an industry once it has started down the path?

Software is eating the world like Prometheus’ Eagle:
I feel like this is an apt simile for software’s relationship to the media industry. Media, like Prometheus, has done so much, but is now left out, chained to a rock, while software slowly pecks away at it every night, only for it to regenerate every morning to continue on its way. It implies an immortality to the media industry, which I feel is true, but it denies the transformational nature of software: the media is not regenerated, unchanged, each morning. It is rather transformed. But this constant pecking, picking at an industry that is suffering, left exposed rings somewhat true.

Software is eating the world like…:
Like what? Probably in different ways, in different industry. Software is a many-headed hydra with innumerable ways of attacking a new enemy. But understanding both that software is inevitable (to pervert an idiom: The only things certain in life are taxes, death & software is going to eat you) in whatever your industry is, and also, that, in each of the above original stories there are survivors, heroes, escapees and even beauty is important. Most Yoga professionals I’ve met hate all work that takes them away from their passion – and resent technology for it. But I’ve also learned that I can write software that lessens their time away from their passion, that reduces resentment, because it can still bring joy and delight. Software that reduces grunt-work, without eliminating the whole job is often appreciated. Bringing software into an industry, into an office, into a single person’s life in a way that yes, perhaps does make what they used to do redundant, but also yes, provides them new tools to either do more, or do different in a newly rewarding way is a good thing, not something to fear.

Thinking about Twitter

Thinking about Twitter

I like Twitter a lot. I’ve been using it nearly a decade now. It’s an indispensable part of my professional and personal social life. Chances are, you’re reading this after seeing a link on Twitter. But Twitter is having some problems, some which I think are real, some less so. And because punditry is fun, here’s a few thoughts about Twitter, product opportunities and issues at hand.

Scale & ongoing growth

I’m going to be upfront about this: I don’t think continued growth is necessarily always a necessary, or even a good thing. Twitter is big. Not Facebook big, but, that’s probably ok. There’s lots of commentary about the lack of growth of users as being essentially a death-knell for Twitter. That’s possibly true – but it becomes true if you say it’s true. Having run a company, I knew early on that there was a sort of ideal size for what I was trying to do with the company. We had opportunity to grow much beyond that size, and resisted, because it changes the nature of the company.

Twitter’s like that. I’m not advocating that it regress in size, but, I will say that I find as it has grown, there was a tipping point, which for me was in mid 2013, when the signal-to-noise ratio became unwieldy and I needed to change how I used Twitter. So – what if there’s only 300 million users? That’s still the size of America’s population. And certainly some don’t believe in incessant growth of the national user base, or they’d be clamouring for more immigrants, right?

Part of Twitter’s problem, as it relates to users, is that in the modern free-app world, the only way to make money is advertising, and advertising demands ever-more eyeballs to make money – which in turn seems to drive down the value of each eyeball, so…huh.

But maybe Twitter could spend more time examining how to monetize it’s own users more. Also: I should preface this by stating I don’t actually know how Twitter makes money, besides selling data access and advertising. They may already do some of this. Looking back at the original WhatsApp model, they charged $1/year for users. What if Twitter did that? Or provided a free model, which works as is, but charged $1/month to power users? Or significantly more for Corporate or Verified users? Or, like Facebook, charged business users for reach within their own network (maybe they do this already?) when they post? There’s likely a tonne of money to be made just be re-examining access, stats, limits, etc on existing users. & I strongly suspect that Wall St would be much quieter about user-growth if per-user revenue and overall revenue would grow.

Of course, implementing all of this would certainly cost them users. Would celebrities still tweet if it cost them $$$ to reach all of their followers? Who knows. But looking at experiments like YouTube Red, and other paid-access social networking, there’s clearly money being left on the table.

Changing the product itself

There’s lots of complaints about ongoing Twitter changes:

  • Moments suck
  • I don’t like Hearts, I like Stars!
  • Quote? Retweet?
  • Longer Tweets?
  • Longer DMs?

Etc. Essentially every change to Twitter has brought much derision. But Twitter’s own UI, own feature set has been going more or less constant tweaks and refinement since it started. A major difference now is that since Twitter cut off it’s own developer network at the knees, these changes have been top-down, rather than bottom-up. So feel imposed, rather than organically grown. But even still, the Twitter community has managed to build cultural tools, with Tweetstorms and fun quoted-tweet rabbit-holes and other items. But, even when I don’t like the individual change, I love the feeling that Twitter is a growing, changing organism willing to explore fundamental changes to itself. While there’s a lot of worry about changing the “core” of Twitter – this ongoing change to me, is “core” Twitter. It’s been changing since the day I joined. But! I do, wholeheartedly, believe that Twitter needs to find a way to re-embrace it’s own community. It will be very hard, nigh impossible, to win back the trust of developers at this point. But, with a massive leadership change underway, this becomes a window to do so.

Abuse and dealing with it

I’m writing this as a white, cis male – so let it be know I don’t experience this much. But friends do, and I’m certainly well aware it’s out there. And that lots of much smarter people are working really hard to confront this. But, strangely, Twitter doesn’t seem to be doing much. So, here’s some of my own thoughts:

  • Where’s the “Akismet” for Twitter? A user-subscribable service to auto-filter inbound responses? Most of my miss-tweets are Scots angry at their local TV station – it’s pretty easy for machines to learn that this isn’t relevant to me or a recent tweet. S0 – quarantine them for me. In-app, give me a spot to review them if I want. But otherwise, just let me ignore them.
  • Network-rating? When someone I don’t know/follow joins in a conversation, one of the first things I do before I decide to respond is check: a) are they an “egg”? (I ignore all eggs – why this isn’t a feature in and of itself is beyond me) b) what’s their following/follower ratio? C) what’s their tweet count? D) do we have common networks of followers/followees? E)content of their recent tweets? Now, I don’t actually do all of the following every time. But you know what? A robot sure could. It could give me a score based on these (or other) criteria. And let me decide what sort of score would let their tweet come through or not.
  • Banning is, for me, a very problematic tool (free speech and all). But blocking should be easier and work better. And yes, should probably have better in-network tool too (ie, if this person is blocked by X% of people I follow, then…)
  • A large part of the problems I read about stem from piling-on across networks. I don’t have a great solution here – even if you don’t see the abuse, it could still be public and thus affect others, and even get back to yourself. Tools like Slack’s purported public-broadcast channels could be an interesting tool here: if your account is “public-broadcast” only, then no one can mention your account (or something) – people you follow could still DM, possibly even mention you still. That might reduce direct abuse, but not sub-tweet (and sundry off-line extensions that, TBH, I don’t even know where to begin).

Other Thoughts

  • As above: Letting users decide how interactive Twitter is for them is potentially useful: Twitter for large-follower users is already essentially broadcast – why not create an explicit channel/toolset for broadcast vs conversation?
  • As I tweeted last night: Liking/Favouriting is fine, but I’d really like two additional tools: a “mark” this tweet – which lets me use some sort of single-emoji to mark a tweet – the stats about which emoji I use for what could surface all sorts of interesting data, and a “react” to this tweet – again – a single/short emoji would work well here, like Slack reactions, which would go back to the tweeter, but perhaps not as a public tweet – perhaps in a method similar to poll-responses – show up in notifications. But maybe this, again, would be available as public data, so I could see when I look at a tweet, the various reactions to it – but not directly in the timeline.
  • I, personally, love the idea of long-tweets, or tweets with embedded stories. What if every Medium article I posted would auto-embed in my related tweet? Great! Feels like a win for everyone. I was unsold about embedded images/videos, but those are generally good. So why not longer text?
  • Media likes Twitter. Twitter likes Media. There’s probably a very interesting intersection here about the end of TV, channels-as-apps, Netflix or Twitch-style streaming…and Twitter. Periscope is definitely down this path. But how much money could there be if, say, I could pay monthly to ESPN to get access to a particular Twitter feed of ESPN programming, directly in my Twitter app. Or if I could make money by streaming through Twitter – particular tweets (or whole accounts) that people had to pay to see? (Beyond streaming, there’s simply an interesting Patreon-style model in here for supporting interesting writing, etc directly in Twitter
  • Seriously Twitter: let go of app-control. Let other people build various, use-case-specific or even general apps. Simply enforce feature-sets, so that as tools get added to Twitter, apps need to update too, if it applies to their use-case. Many common interactions now all grew out of app-developers experimenting with how to display Twitter.
  • I’ve always thought of Facebook as AOL, Twitter as IRC. Both are, in their own way, walled gardens, But one is a super-controlled walled, curated, corporate walled-garden, while the other is more of a slightly-off-kilter free-for-all that is still self-contained. Twitter almost feels like a utility, or a protocol, rather than an app to me – which probably explains why it has such a hard time dealing with Wall St – it is a fundamentally different tool than many of the other social network competitors (Who, increasingly, are just Facebook), and needs to find a way to revel in that.

So, Twitter. I love you, but you’re bringing me down. But we’re all in this together, so let’s figure this all out, so you can become a sustainable company and I can go on loving you.

Vance Joy at the Orpheum

One of Liam’s favourite artists is Vance Joy, who’s an Australian folk singer, in the vein of Jack Johnson, that is to say he’s very charming, pleasant and not particularly challenging, so absolutely radio-friendly and enjoyable.

As a last-minute thing, I found a pair of reasonably-priced, decent seats at the Orpheum, and so suddenly I was taking Liam to his second concert ever (his first being Mumford & Sons out in Surrey).

And… it was perfect. He was happy – singing along, clapping along, dancing in front of his seat – exactly what I want as a parent when I take him to something for him, rather than for me. The late night definitely meant a few yawns, and I think he’d have preferred if people didn’t stand up for the whole concert, but a rousing success.

The show itself? Well, it was mixed. The opening act, Rueben and the Dark were excellent. Really enjoyed their show, their energy, their music – Liam too – he immediately wanted to add their stuff to his music.

Rueben and the dark
Rueben and the dark

Vance Joy was charming as all heck, telling short stories to intro the songs he was singing. But… it all felt a little too pleasant. Charm, not excellence was the tenor of the night. The quality of songs is also widely varied – I’m not sure if he has on occasional collaborator who is responsible for his 3 (to date) radio hits, but they (+ 1 other) stood head-and-shoulders, quality-wise, above most of his material. Then, closing the night, he covered Paul Simon’s You Can Call Me Al, which.. while an excellent cover, really showed up his own music as lacking a certain something.

But – maybe that’s just where we are. According to one story Vance Told, just 2.5 years ago, he was playing the Media Club, just him and a guitar. And now he’s got 2 sold-out shows at the Orpheum. That’s a pretty good 2 years of work. I definitely enjoyed the show – he’s so damn pleasant you’d have to be a real asshole to not – but, I can’t say he was excellent.

But, that wasn’t really the point last night. The point was to go with Liam to see someone he really likes, for him to experience the pleasure of live music being played well in front of other like-minded fans and that, that was everything I could have wanted it to be. Liam’s just now developing his own distinct tastes in music, and I look forward to learning from him about new and different acts in the way I started teaching my parents about music I discovered, sharing back. This night was a great start to that, sharing his enthusiasm.


So, it turns out that when one has a WordPress site that is so old that its content predates WordPress itself (indeed, WordPress is, I believe, the 4th in a series of CMS/publishing platforms that I’ve used to maintain this site), it gets some cruft. And when it is additionally sitting on a server that was new sometime in the 90s, occasionally bad things happened. And so, it came to my attention last week that the site was riddled with malware. Some investigation lead me to discover that while the current, immediate threat was easily contained, there were some 1400 suspicious files on the server that I wasn’t sure what they were doing – most were contained by the server itself, but, still – I clearly wasn’t being a good site owner.

So, rather than try to clean that all up in place, on a server that often chokes whenever I click a button, I simply exported the data, moved the site and re-launched it the least amount of time possible. So now I’m using the default WordPress theme for a while, and there’s likely tonnes of things missing. But the site’s now up on a Digital Ocean Droplet, so, in theory, modern technology that will keep it up and running smoothly.

It’s probably time to actually move platforms again, but I have neither the time nor the inclination at the moment, so this’ll have to do.

Albums of the year – 2015

I used to do this regularly (see 20042005, 2006, 2008, 2009 & 2010), but apparently haven’t done it in a while. I suspect that it is no coincidence that my stopping this corresponds directly with Kellan’s arrival in my life.

But this year has felt like a particularly good year in music, and one where there’s been lots of changes in how I listen to music (good bye Rdio! hello Apple Music!). So, as in previous years, here’s an alphabetical list of albums that I liked a lot. Unlike previous years, I won’t be linking to Amazon, because who buys music anymore! Also – only a top 8 this year: If I had to think about it, it didn’t make the list. I’m sure I’ve forgotten something I really loved at some point, but these albums all stuck with me.

Sound & Color

Alabama Shakes – Sound & Color

A stunning mix of gospel-blues-electronica, powered, unerringly, by Brittany Howard’s unbelievable voice, this album has the distinction of being my most-played album of the year. I couldn’t get the first eponymous single out of my head

Depression Cherry

Beach House – Depression Cherry

Lush, ethereal, moody. Dark like a grey afternoon, but maybe just after the rain has cleared, this feels like a slightly rawer album than their last.


Björk – Vulnicura

A strange, moving, personal album about painful divorce, it is cathartic, raw, and even occasionally really hard to listen to.


Coeur de Pirate – Roses

A most Canadian of albums, this was my favourite “pop” album of the year. Introspective lyrics and some well-done orchestral arrangements make this a lovely listen.

Art Angels

Grimes – Art Angels

Local-via-Montreal wunderkid Grimes can really do no wrong in my book. I’m not sure I “get” this album, but I sure can’t stop listening to it! One reason I really like this is in comparison to her last – she, as I understand, wrote, performed, produced, art-directed – the whole thing on here. Incredible craftsmanship.

In Colour

Jamie XX – In Colour

The standout techno album of the year, an amazing, astounding mix of anthemic and yet somehow really small, detailed, personal music. It also has this weird sense, from the earlier-era samples carefully paired with modern collaborators of being not really of today of being a really timeless, yet somehow immediate, album

To Pimp a Butterfly

Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly

I’m not really knowledgeable hip-hop, but some albums cross over – this one crossed way over. It felt like a window into a completely different world – as Pitchfork wrote, this album is “black as fuck”. It tied together social consciousness and politics lyrically, with amazing music. This album was my intro to Kamasi Washington, who’s album The Epic should probably be on here too.


Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell

Right up there with Vulnicura as perhaps the most depressing album of the year, this is also one of the most beautiful: a loving, detailed look at Sufjan’s parents. Not self-pitying, not aggrandising, but a really intense look inwards that we all get to peek at.

Marvel Unlimited & digital media ownership: some thoughts

I’ve been buying comics weekly since I’ve had an allowance – about 30 years or so. 98% of them are Marvel comics – and in particular the X-men and the “street heroes” (Daredevil, Iron Fist, Luke Cage, Spiderman). About 4 years ago, I more or less stopped buying physical comics and switched to buying Digital Comics – this coincided, not at all incidentally, with my buying my first retina iPad. But I was still spending a fair amount of money each week on comics, and, while physical comics come with definite ownership, the built-in DRM of the Comics apps (Marvel, Image, Comixology) meant that I didn’t really feel like I was buying comics any more so much as I was  licensing them. I have a similar experience with other digital media.

And because I wasn’t really buying them anymore…the thrill, the urgency was gone. When I stopped buying physical music, I stopped caring so much about “owning” the music. And so I got an Rdio subscription – which suits me fine. More or less unlimited music, great discovery tools, for a small monthly fee. I kind of feel like I’m renting the world’s greatest music library.

When I stopped buying physical movies, I likewise stopped caring. I still will buy some movies on iTunes, but you know what? 90% of the time I’m perfectly content to wait for the movie to show up on Netflix: again – I’m happy to pay to rent access to a large library.

Books…I haven’t found my Netflix for books, mostly because the digital reading experience for me is much more intimately tied to the device I consume it on. I read only Amazon-purchased books when I had a kindle. Now I have a Kobo (almost entirely because of, at least publicly, how poorly Amazon seems to treat Authors/Publishers), and I buy Kobo books. Also: I *really* like the Kobo hardware. Much more than either Kindle I owned prior. If there was an on-device “Netflix for books”, I’d likely stop buying & immediately sign up for that. But I don’t like reading books on my tablets, so the existing services might as well not exist for me.

So we come back to Comics. About 2 months ago, I decided I no longer needed to be buying digital comics weekly. The pull of some 18,000 back issues available for rent in the Marvel Unlimited app was such a great draw. And so I downloaded it, and it’s been…ok. On to the original point of this, here’s some good and bad things on the Marvel Unlimited app:

  • Good: The experience of reading an individual issue. The pages/images are crisp, and really reward a high DPI screen. I can zoom in to see detail I often couldn’t with physical media. It’s just like the purchased digital issues.
  • Fantastic: Content. Seriously. If you’re a fan of Marvel comics, there’s almost no excuse to not have this app just to get access to all that content.
  • Meh: How the app handles rotation. Some pages/panels are better landscape, some portrait. As you rotate back and forth, it sometimes gets lost and you end up zoomed, or more oddly, back a page. Likewise, it sometimes has issues loading in the issue. Consistently, for me, every 3rd issue in a session, I need to exit, restart the download, before I can finish the issue
  • Good: consuming “official” events. You can just keep reading the next issues.
  • Missed Opportunity: Search. The Marvel Wiki is an amazing resource for discovery. It seems terrible that I can’t leverage that knowledge base, directly in the app, for discovery.
  • Bad: Inter-issue linking. If a comic says “as seen in [title]” in one of those little editor notes, the meta-data for that issue should always link me to that.  This, to me, is an almost unconscionable omission in this app. It’s a rabbit-hole app, and should take every opportunity to send me further down the rabbit hole. Same goes for Cross overs. If an X-Factor story links to a She-Hulk issue, when I finish that X-factor issue, show me the She-Hulk title! Cross overs are nearly impossible to read in the Marvel Unlimited App.
  • Bad: No wish-list. Seriously. Even if it was limited to, say, a dozen titles. let me wishlist items to read later. I can’t keep 18K comics in my head, but I might come across a title while browsing that I want to read later, but not right now. Why can’t I store that desire somewhere? Again. This is a rabbit-hole app. So help go further down that hole.
  • Potential: Sharing/social reviews. I’ve got friends who’re using this app. But I have no way to learn what they’re reading, what they liked, etc. Sharing what comics I’m reading has always been part of my comic culture. So why I can’t I share my reading list with my friends? Or publish quick reviews of issues/titles/storylines to Social Media? Seems a really easy missed marketing opportunity for Marvel

So what’s my overall? To paraphrase Winston Churchill, Marvel Unlimited is the worst of all Comic Reading apps – except for all the others. The content is so great that it absolutely trumps the varied experience of consuming the content. But, there’s so much opportunity to grow this app into something amazing, that I’m actually a little sad how poorly executed it currently is.

Ed Note: Marvel – I’d love to help make this app better. Want to hire me?

2nd Ed Note: The cover image has very little to do with the post. But I like coffee and comics. They go well together.

O Vancouver, City that I love

Vancouver has a hard, brittle beauty.

Walk down any street in Vancouver. We are a city of nondescript streets, where very few blocks possess a beauty of their own. But cunningly, cross a boulevard, or turn a corner, and there it is: a sharp beauty that cuts hard; that takes your breath away. Looking across the sea of slender glass towers from a Fairview street (was there ever such an understated name for a neighbourhood? Fair doesn’t begin to cover it. Whenever I see those spires as I cross the town east to west, our collective British origins are unmistakable, that understatement of the obvious such a particularly British sensibility), it can suddenly take your breath – such a startling beauty that it cuts deep. I’ve lived here for 20 years and it still happens with alarming regularity. And like a jeweller appraising a shiny bauble, we can do that here too. Our views change depending on where we are, but there are very few that do not reward the faithful.

Look east from the West Side, back across the downtown peninsula and see the slope of towers crest and fall, echoing sublimely the mountains that loom behind and to the left.

Look west from the east side, cycling along Adanac and see the echoes of our industrial past laid bare, waiting to be claimed by creeping modernity: our tracks towards destiny, the gleaming towers echoed by the shiny waters of false creek, slender sails echoing slender buildings.

Look south from the north shore, and feel the abrupt ending of where Capitalist dreams meet the water which is both a psychological and very physical divide between Vancouver and the North Shore, which conjures up not the sleepy, spreading suburb that it is, but rather the wild, untamed promise of all those mountains it is nestled up against. Look south from high enough and the beauty changes. The downtown no longer dominates, but rather seems a small bastion against a sea of squat structures clinging to the edge of the world.

Look north from anywhere and the city disappears: the mountains are ever-present, and the city simply pales against their terrible promise of inevitable collapse: They are stark reminders that we live on borrowed time. And when the mountains are no longer there it is somehow worse, hidden somewhere in the fog bank or clouds. At night, when the lights on Mt Seymour & Grouse float in the sky there is an assurance, and one when I travel I have come to miss greatly.

Vancouver does not love her children

Vancouver is a city that does not respect her past. She doesn’t care for her own children.  It is a city of immigrants, for immigrants – whether from across the Rockies or across the ocean. We tear down old buildings – where someone we knew grew up, or spent their free time, in favour of the new over and over again. Like cells, old houses subdivide into duplexes, fourplexes. Or two or 3 houses combine then divide into a squat complex of condos, all of which are heavily advertised elsewhere, or sold by the promise of the Vancouver lifestyle, which only the non-Vancouverite can still be sold by, because everyone who grew up here knows that they’ve been priced out. Or the lucky, have ridden that wave and now own a house worth vastly more than they could ever have imagined and think only of selling, and leaving.

No  one I know who sells a house in Vancouver they’ve lived in for 20, 30 years sells to move elsewhere in Vancouver. They go away. And those  in our 20s and 30s and 40s who grew up here. Their salaries don’t match the prices, and so we leave. And only if they return, having earned more elsewhere, and are no longer subject to the low-wage trap of Vancouver, are happy to return to Vancouver as newly-minted foreigners, ready to re-embrace the promise of Vancouverism, leaden with money earned elsewhere to buy, to invest, to pay for the ski passes and boat mooring and cars.

Vancouver is hard

Much like we are physically a thin band of people nestled between mountain  and ocean, this echoes deeply in our relationship. Our business dream smaller, and sleepier than those elsewhere. We temper our dreams of success with our dreams of “lifestyle”. My friends who work here, collectively, work vastly less than my friends in Toronto or New York or Montreal or San Fransisco.

We are the Spain of North America: we all cut out early to get 2 hours of biking or skiing or drinking on patios. And how could we not? We give up so much to live here, so we need to make it worth our while. And we continue to sell this lifestyle abroad and everyone abroad continues to buy into it and then they move here and some can reconcile their old habits with the demands of this lifestyle and some cannot and leave.

Investment here will continue to struggle. What’s a 10 million dollar round in the face of a 200km bike ride with your buddies every sunny day of the year? What’s an extra 25K a year in your pocket when – christ, did you see the mountains today? See you at Whistler on Saturday? And these things that are sold to us as goods; they are indeed goods but they are also a tax on us.These are the taxes we pay to celebrate living here. Because if you don’t participate in the Vancouver lifestyle, why are you here? These are steep taxes we pay, whether or not you take advantage of what they offer you.

And all this living, all this participating, the unspoken problem is that it creates a massive underclass of people barely making it. When those who can are sipping their pour-over coffees at the third-wave coffee-house, the people working there are barely making it, living in shitty apartments with friends in East Van or New West and likely going directly from pouring coffee to band practice, or more likely another job, their dreams “on hold” as they make rent and buy food and drink and live, but live a very different life of loud music and Hastings st and the Drive and not the Sea Wall, and while they too have been sold Vancouverism it is a very different one.

Vancouver has my heart

And yet. And yet. And yet I say all the above like these are bad things and they are not. They are the very reason I love this land like nowhere else I’ve been.

Just-in-time disk

Just-in-time Disks, wherein I complain, yet again, about the state of cloud storage services, cross-device sync and ownership of generated content.

I feel like this is an ongoing complaint from me – but it’s really time for someone – some combination of corporations and likely-existing technologies – to solve the issue of mobile computing + storage.

Here’s my standard problem:

I have, currently on a Drobo in a corner of my home office, my Lightroom catalog. It’s just over 2.5 TB in size – I take a lot of photos. But! I’m not often at my home office. Most of the time, when I’m taking photos, I’ve got my phone, my iPad, my laptop. & I want to edit photos. Lightroom Mobile syncs mobile photos through the cloud to my main Lightroom catalog (on said Drobo).

But – my primary computer is my laptop. It’s got a pretty beefy 500GB drive. And, because it’s a laptop, it’s not always in the same place as my Drobo (it’s actually never plugged into my home Drobo – but it is plugged in sometimes to one at my office). an because my laptop has a retina screen, and the home iMac does not the laptop is an infinitely superior experience when editing photos.

  • So how can I access all those photos, that catalog, on my laptop, when I’m editing?
  • How can I import photos, while travelling somewhere, and have those sync back to my primary photo repository?

When Adobe announced Lightroom Mobile‘s Sync feature, I was pretty excited – this felt like exactly what I wanted. I take photos on my phone, and, magically, they get pushed to my primary catalog. I can also selectively pull photos from that catalog for editing on my iPad (which is also a lovely editing experience). But!

  1. I have to be on my primary catalog computer to indicate which photos I want to push back
  2. You can only sync to 1 primary catalog
  3. You can only use this to push from mobile devices to a computer, not from 1 computer to another.

I also use Dropbox, and pay for 1TB of storage. This is great! I long ago set up the automatic back up of photos to DropBox – however, as I discovered today, this only works if the camera uploads folder is synced to my computer(s). Which means all those photos are also taking up precious space on my laptop. It turns out I have just over 60GB of photos in my camera uploads folder – which, at 1/5 of the total storage on my laptop, was a nice gain to NOT sync. But now the automatic photo-upload feature doesn’t work. Which is dumb – because I don’t want ALL of my camera-upload photos to be synced locally. The last, say, 5GB? sure. but not all forever in history.

So Dropbox doesn’t really solve this problem either.


So, here’s what I’m thinking should be possible:

The Adobe Solution

With Creative Cloud, I already am bought into their ecosystem. & Clearly, with how Lightroom Mobile works, they have a way of sending me “pointers” to a photo, without the actual file. So, let’s complete this circle, Adobe. Let me say where I want to keep my photos – this might be in your cloud, this might be a cloud service, this might be a drive attached to a particular device. Then let me open Lightroom anywhere – one of several computers (I currently regularly use 4 different traditional computing devices), mobile devices (where I regularly use 3 different devices). Let me plug in a camera or card, and add photos to my catalog, but edit where I am. If this means some back-and-forth syncing, so be it. Show be small “previews” of recent photos, perhaps a simple text-catalog of older ones until I request more. But stop making me think of how/where I’m adding photos and just let me work. For bonus points, let me easily/selectively share access to my catalog with friends & family.

The Apple Solution

Any third-party solution could be made easier if Apple let me configure and reserve a certain portion of my hard drive as a sort of cloud-storage scratch disk – so that when Adobe needed to download photos, it knew it could safely remove anything else in that drive to give me access to what I need – sort of how memory management currently works. By default, maybe take 10% of the computer’s hard drive – but again, let the user tweak these preferences.

Related, but different, would be a built-in Apple-y way of mapping cloud storage as a local folder or drive – indeed, I hope this is really the promise of iCloud – but it’s certainly not there yet. It works this way, for the most part, with Apple apps – Pages, Numbers, etc – where things are just stored there and we no longer care about “where” it is locally – but this needs to “just work” with other services, and needs to not be completely closed off (so that I could make “my” cloud be a device I control, like in the scenario above) (Also: this is never going to happen. Apple likes walled gardens). But in the same way Mail supports built-in Gmail configuration, I should be able to configure *any* cloud storage as just a place I can drag & drop to like any other folder – a little like how Dropbox works, but without the local copy of *everything*.

The Dropbox solution

This, to me, feels like it should be the easiest, but I could well be wrong. Dropbox, and all sorts of storage tiers, now offers vastly more storage than most computers have (on the assumption that most computers are laptops, and new laptops in general seem to have <1TB storage – particularly if you’ve gone solid state). And Dropbox helpfully offers “Selective Sync”, which prevents this silly duplication of files locally and on their servers for particular folders. But if you turn off Sync for a folder, it can break useful Dropbox features, like automated Camera Uploads & the screen shot sharing service. Which is dumb. Because I really do want all my photos backed up to drop box – but I don’t want to have to keep every last photo locally too in order to do that.

& again, I often don’t need, in order to find what I want, the actual files. Some kind of index of files, that integrates with services like Spotlight, are all I need, so that when I do need a particular file that exists only on Dropbox, I can find it easily, download it and do what I want, before returning it back to Dropbox, removing itself from my local drive again.

Wrap up

I realize as I write this that what I am describing in many ways is a thin-client. But, because connectivity is not ubiquitous, thin clients aren’t totally a fit – I need some local storage/access, but not all the time – for most common scenarios, I can predict when I need to download things locally, and when I can rely on the cloud to store things. And that’s really what I mean by “just-in-time” disks – It feels like there’s very little need for any content-files to exist only locally, but they might need to occasionally. When cloud storage is so cheap as to be essentially free, and laptop hard drives are still so expensive, why do we keep pushing things there? And when multi-device computing is so common, why is sync across them, user-controlled, still so broken?

The Bone Clocks

I’m a big fan of David Mitchell – I devoured Cloud Atlas – although, perhaps oddly, I’ve not read The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, which I suppose is a precursor to this book, so maybe I should have. But, it it’s not necessary to have done so.

Mitchell’s way with prose is second-to-none. He can create a world in a paragraph and destroy all your remaining hopes and dreams in another. He’s also really mastered the multiple-narrator trick. Each sounds distinct in a way that isn’t cloying, but natural.

Holly Sykes, the principal protagonist of this book is, well – she’s one of the best characters I’ve read in ages. She’s inspirational, she’s tough, she’s smart. She’s only the narrator in 2 sections, but features prominently in all.

Here’s an odd thing – with the exception of the epilogue (more in a moment), the narrators are universally dislikable. The other characters get to shine when someone else is narrating them, but the narrators themselves do not. When we first meet Holly she’s a bratty teenager – not horrible, but not exactly nice or good. But, tellingly, you already see the signs of worthiness that the latter narrators will expose. But Hugo, Ed, Crispin & Marinus are all quite unlikable as narrators, though each gets varying degrees of remediation in the eyes of other narrators.

The primary sci-fi element running through the book is forgettable, oddly. Indeed, my least favourite section is the primary dénouement, which is straight-up super-hero-immortal vs super-villain-immortal and not terribly well thought through, I thought. I found its own internal rules inconsistent, which is a cardinal sin for sci-fi/fantasy. But, the book is so good this is easily pardoned. And Holly. Holly’s so damn great to read that she makes this section worth it.

Finally. The epilogue: A post-internet, near-future (30-years-from-now) post-apocalyptic world that is so horrifyingly plausible that it left me fairly shattered after reading. Honestly, the first 500-odd pages are worth it just to read this – but DO read the first 3 sections at least to give this the real weight it deserves.

Lastly, there’s a nice (I’m assuming) hat-tip in the book to Vancouver’s own Douglas Coupland.