Best of 2016

2016 has been a tumultuous year, for both the entire world and for me personally. I have categorized some of the best hits and big changes below into three categories: Life, Posts and Media.

Life

Death and rebirth

This year we had a cancer scare in my family which made me put community activity on hold for a few months while we waited for test results (maybe I should write a post about how we were totally failed by the Canadian medical system, and had to get this sorted out in Japan?). I had to leave ORCA, which was sad because I think they do important work. I stopped playing D&D. There were many serious talks.

However, two good things came out of this: first, it doesn’t look to be cancer. Second, it made me rethink my life. What they say about near-death experiences is true.

New job

After 4 years in startupland, 3 of which dealing with adtech, I finally moved on to a new, more stable (and less morally hazardous) work environment. My new company is in a massive growth phase, so I get to use a lot of my startup skills. The nice thing is they have lots of customers and resources and experienced executives, making it a much easier to execute.

Vegetarianism

On December 28th 2015, I decided to stop eating meat. A year has passed and I am still not eating it, and am pretty happy about the decision. I wrote about why at the 6 months mark →

Travel

I had the opportunity to visit Texas for the first time, and learned a bit about that state’s history, and of America’s as a whole. My wife and I also took a getaway to the Sunshine Coast, where we could delve a little into BC’s aboriginal history.

This year we took two trips to Japan (I am still on one as I write this). Since we stay in Kyoto, the city of temples, I took both opportunities to explore Japanese Buddhism. Here are a couple of posts exploring the issue:

Public appearances

Early this year I did a couple of radio interviews: one on downsizing and one on Syrian refugees. I was on a public panel about transportation. Lastly, and totally randomly, I was on local TV news.

Posts

blog-posts-by-year-2009-2016

This year was a good one for blogging. I have 54 posts (including this one) for 2016, which is an uptick over recent years. Starting a newsletter to help people who do not use Twitter or RSS to help keep up gave me some more motivation to write, holding me accountable to a schedule. Also, I hit 500 posts this year since starting in early 2009. Lots of introspection about how my thinking has changed over the years here.

Standout posts for the year include:

Media

53 films

The Force Awakens (second viewing) was my first film of 2016. Rogue One (first viewing) was my last. Well, the first 45 mins of it anyways, since my (not quite) 5 year old got a little too scared and we had to leave. I am sure I will get another opportunity to see it.

In February and March I went on a tear and watched a bunch of Oscar-related films which was just about the deepest, non-Marvel non-superhero, non kids watching I did. Standout films include:

62 books

This year I set out to discover new podcasts and Great courses, so I originally set my Goodreads challenge low, to like 30 books. I was still reading a lot, so I kept having to up the challenge. But now when I look back, 20 of those 62 books were graphic novels (including the 8 volume series on the Buddha reviewed here), which means I actually didn’t hit my final goal of 45 books. Also, only 10 of those 42 books were in text form, making my audiobook ratio 76%, which is pretty high, even for me.

I read a lot on Syria, about Marxism and leftist politics, and a lot about Buddhism this year. It is a reflection of the ever-changing perspectives and interests of someone trying to live the examined life (or write the examined blog at least).

My standout books this year are as follows:

Mental Flexibility: My first Zen experience

In 1335, a few years after he abdicated the throne, the 95th emperor of Japan Hanazono (1297-1348) decided to become a Buddhist monk. He entered the Rinzai school of Zen Buddhism and donated one of his palaces, turning it into a temple complex. Almost 700 years later, the Myoshin-ji (妙心寺) complex houses almost 50 sub-temples, and lays just up the road from the JR Hanazono train station in northeast Kyoto, a station I used to frequent often when I was a student here in 1999.

Last Saturday, on a crisp morning with a cloudless blue sky, I wandered about the temple complex in search of Shunkō-in (春光院). A few times a month, the Reverend Taka Kawakami gives an introductory zazen (seated meditation) lesson in English. Having only done guided mediation on my own, listening to podcasts or books, I was really looking forward to trying zazen, especially under the guidance of a teacher.
Continue reading “Mental Flexibility: My first Zen experience”

A short trip to the Sunshine Coast

The Sunshine Coast is a region of mainland British Columbia just up the coast from Vancouver. Originally inhabited by the shíshálh people, the area was settled by westerners in the mid-nineteenth century. Now, about 27,000 people live there. The Sunshine Coast is less than two hours from downtown Vancouver, accessible by transit, and gets just half the rain of Vancouver. Its small-town feel, yet nearness to the city makes it popular with retirees.

My wife and I visited the region for the first time. I took almost 500 photos and videos. I put some of them up on Flickr, splitting them into albums for each leg of the trip, as detailed below.

sunshine_coast-horseshoeWe took the Greyhound to Vancouver ($34), then a city bus from downtown to Horseshoe Bay ($3.75). From there we walked on to the ferry ($7.50), and after crossing over took a short bus ride ($2) into Gibsons. Once in Gibsons we used the Coast Car Co-op, a carsharing outfit partnered with our local OGO Carshare Co-op. It was nice since I just used my regular fob to get into the vehicles.

sunshine_coast-gibsonsWe spent just two nights at the Sunshine Coast. We were based in Gibsons, and explored the area including the marina where Molly’s Reach is located. This is the restaurant featured in the long-running CBC show The Beachcombers which was set in Gibsons. We drove around the various neighborhoods, checking out the town, and down to the beach at Chaster’s park. My wife was so happy to see the ocean. I am always amazed at how green and verdant the coast is with its temperate rainforest. Even the rocks on the beach were green with seaweed and moss. The whole area is teeming with life, especially when contrasted with dry Okanagan.

sunshine_coast-davisUnfortunately it rained heavily the second day. We drove to Davis Bay, where the weather started to clear up. There is a long sandbar jutting out into the ocean at low tide, and a number of people were fishing at the tip, where a freshwater stream emptied into the ocean. I asked a fisherman what people were catching and he replied with a smile, “Salmon!” Of course… why didn’t I think of that.

sunshine_coast-secheltThe weather started to clear and we visited Sechelt, the center of the Sunshine Coast district. I had caught a cold in Vancouver on the first day of our trip and was feeling pretty terrible. We viewed a number of totem poles, and enjoyed the waterfront as it started to warm up. Unfortunately the shíshálh museum was closed. I was looking forward to learning more about the nation and the original four settlements in the region.

sunshine_coast-smugglersWe drove east to Halfmoon Bay and the sun started shining. Finally, the Sunshine Coast we came to see! There are a bunch of hiking trails so we took one into Smuggler’s Cove, the location of an aboriginal settlement which was later used to smuggle alcohol during the the prohibition years. The hike only took an hour or so, and there was a surprising number of people we met along the way.

Davis Bay, Sechelt and hiking to Smuggler’s Cove made for a busy day. We headed back to the Garden Cottage B&B (which I highly recommend, see my tour video here) and relaxed, viewing the stars as they came out. The next day we headed back to Vancouver via ferry and bus, and then back to Kelowna. It was a whirlwind trip, and we enjoyed it so much that we plan on going back next spring.

All 99 photos and videos can be viewed here →

Minimalist wall-hangings

People who think I am a downsizing/minimalist fundamentalist, are surprised when they come into my livingroom and see a number of wall hangings. We don’t have many, but almost all of them are handpainted art (like the family portrait featured in this post). They are all gifts, and have a personal touch.

For example, the piece in the photo above was made for me by a calligrapher I met near Babolsar in northern Iran, on the coast of the Caspian Sea. It is the opening line from an Omar Khayyam poem, that translates into English as “Arise o gracious treasure!” I originally hung it up over my bed.

iran_farhangi_2

The artist, Farhangi, was knowledgeable about Japanese calligraphy, and wanted to show me how it was done without a brush. He wrote this out, signed it and gave it to me, joking about its potential worth. I put in a camel bone frame bought at a bazaar in Tehran and have had it hanging in every home I have lived in since receiving it in 2004. It is an important token to me, a good story-piece for when people come over, and the poem is pretty good too!

If I really wanted to, I guess I could get rid of it… . But it costs nothing to own, either in terms of space or environmental impact, and it spruces up the place a bit, making our living space interesting without any clutter. Besides this piece, we have our family portrait, a Japanese calligraphy piece, a painting of the Seven Lucky Gods, and this piece by a local artist and friend of my wife. None are mass produced, or kitschy, so I do not feel they impinge on our downsizing lifestyle, though admittedly they will have to go if we ever transition to a tiny house.

Working through Ramadan: the inverse edition

For Muslims working in non-Muslim work environments, observing Ramadan is an epic feat of self-discipline.

Working through Ramadan is an excellent piece on the Slack blog that I recommend for Muslims and non-Muslims alike. For Muslims, there are some tips on toughing it out with a 9 to 5 schedule, how to prioritize your focus throughout the day, and patience. Also, dealing with co-worker questions. For non-Muslims, this is an opportunity to learn about some of the things a minority has to deal with in the office, which only helps with your perspective as a human.

This blog post reminded me of the exact inverse situation: being a non-Muslim office working during Ramadan in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Even as a traveler in Tehran during Ramadan, I struggled with not eating in public during the day. From my travel journal:

I got into the taxi the embassy called for me and headed back to the hotel. Once back in my room I made a few phone calls … I also ate a granola bar. I was starting to feel a little dizzy from hunger. Maybe coming to Iran during Ramazan wasn’t a good idea.

When traveling I always make sure to have a few granola bars packed just in case.

The Ayatollah Khomeini stares down at Sarkiss Cathedral, a spectacular Armenian church in Tehran. There are about 250,000 Armenian Christians in Iran.
The Ayatollah Khomeini stares down at Sarkiss Cathedral, a spectacular Armenian church in Tehran. There are about 250,000 Armenian Christians in Iran.

One of my goals in Iran was to learn about the daily life of religious minorities there. It was during a party in northern Tehran, over pizza and beers, that I got the opportunity to learn more. I had a conversation with an Armenian Christian woman, who worked in a marketing office in Tehran. Since it was Ramadan I asked her how she dealt with it at work, since she is not obliged to fast. She told me that she had to be very careful, since just about everyone else in the office was fasting and struggling as the month went on. Her and one of her Christian co-workers would retire to a closet to eat during mealtimes or have a cup of tea.

Everyone was rejoicing by the end of the month.

Today is the last day of Ramadan for 2016, and I expect some excellent feasts to be had tonight.

In between worlds — thoughts from a short trip to Japan

Every time I come back to Japan I ask myself: could I live here again? I spent 8 years here. I met my wife here. Both of my daughters were born here. There is so much about this country that I enjoy. The infrastructure is great, the safety, helpfulness, richness of culture and history.

Yet, I don’t think I could live in Japan again. At least, not at this point in my life. And the reason is a simple one: community.

We have lived for 3 years in Kelowna. Since leaving my hometown at 18, this is the longest I have ever lived in one location. I am involved in a few different community groups including the startup community, Japanese immigrant community, the wider immigrant community, and others. Once my children are more independent, I plan on being involved in more. This year, my oldest daughter completed kindergarten. That has a whole new community, a long term one made up of teachers and best friends and other parents. I care about what goes on in my city, province and country, and think of myself as an active and engaged citizen. I cherish my right to vote, and can voice my opinion to my political representatives which I have pretty much all met at one time or another.

If we moved back to Japan, I would lose all of this.

My wife takes our daughters back about once a year and puts them in school for a month or so, that they might have some Japanese education. Walking the kids to school, listening to the daily recap from the teacher, attending assemblies — even though I am pretty fluent in Japanese, my outsider status is pretty apparent. Not having the same shared experiences, I cannot contribute to my full potential.

This year’s visit coincided with the Gion Festival, a month long series of events, dating back to 970CE, heralding the beginning of summer. Gion matsuri is one of Japan’s three major festivals and the pride of Kyoto. It is a hot sticky mess as the summer rainy season brings humidity and typhoons. Everyone looks forward to going out in the (slightly) cooler evening, admiring the 33 floats, running into neighbours, drinking and revelling. Families are out with younger children way past their bedtime. Teenagers run around, flirting and sneaking drinks. It is a real carnival atmosphere. The floats represent different city neighbourhoods and are maintained, built and paraded by the community members. There are months of preparations, meetings and dance practices, bringing the community together. Parade members are selected as representatives of their neighbourhoods. The participants are full of pride, and are looked on by their community members with pride. Although there is the occasional foreigner in the mix, they are inherently a “guest.” Experiencing Gion matsuri this year just reminded me of how difficult it is to integrate into a foreign society.

My 8 years in Japan were not as an “expat”, but as someone who intended to live their forever. I am fluent with the language, knowledgeable about history, know more about Japanese traditional culture than many Japanese, and kept up with domestic politics and economic issues. Even armed with all this knowledge, lacking a common experience with natives makes it exceedingly difficult to integrate completely. I think most lifers in Japan find a comfortable niche and make it work for them. This would have been my approach, had I chosen to stay.

These challenges in integration have given me a little insight into the immigrant experience, which has been very useful in Canada. My wife got her Canadian Permanent Residency over 5 years ago, yet there are still many struggles. She is grateful that I can understand her feelings and at the same time be her “inside man” when it comes to Canadiana. I enjoy helping other immigrants, not from a pedestal of privilege (as a white male) but as a pool of understanding, to be drawn upon if needed.

I am a collection of strange experiences, without any real special skill or knowledge. I have always been in between worlds, serving as connective tissue between different communities — stuck between Canada and Japan; between Eastern and Western Canada; technology and politics; nerds and “normies”; between the past and the future. Always cartilage, never the bone.

However, at this point in my late thirties, with all the connections to the local community that I have been building over the past few years, I am finally achieving a sense of long-term belonging. Japan is a wonderful place, a place that we Canadians can certainly learn from and aspire to in many things. But for now, I am content just visiting. I have much to live for at my home in Canada.

Summer 2015 in Japan

For those that are interested, here are a bunch of photos and videos from my trip to Japan this summer:

More than computers — A recap of LinuxFest Northwest 2015

For me, this year’s LinuxFest Northwest 2015 was learning more about the politics of the Free Software movement. This track featured some excellent and eminent speakers, and I enjoyed it very much. Here is a short recap of each session:

1.

Deb Nicholson, the Director of Community Outreach at the Open Invention Network gave an entertaining talk called Patents and Copyright and Trademarks: A Primer for Developers. Using plain language and funny pictures, she delineated trademarks (how it looks), copyright (the content), and patents (how it works) in a simple way. I enjoyed her examples of “trademark collision” and where things get fuzzy with regard to patenting software.

2.

screen cap of slide

Bradley Kuhn, former director of the Free Software Foundation brought the controversy in his talk Considering the Future of Copyleft: How Will The Next Generation Perceive GPL?. You can see a previous version of the talk on YouTube. Basically he advocated the enforcement of licenses, the abandonment of weak copyleft, and bringing the principles of copyleft to a new generation of coders. Javascript and Android are the new fronts for free software in this age, and the young devs coming up are used to wiring together frameworks and APIs without much knowledge or background about licensing. This is a long-term problem for the free software movement. As I summed up in my tweet from the event:

3.

Every year at LFNW there is an ACLU/EFF Panel Discussion. This year Seth Schoen from the EFF partnered with ACLU Washington state’s Technology and Liberty Director Jared Friend. Seth was great as always, and I was really impressed with Jared. As usual the crowd got pretty riled up. The discussion included stingrays, the terrible DMCA exemptions process, and fighting 215. The EFF must make a chunk in donations on LFNW weekends, but I feel like we in the crowd want to do more, but can’t, and feel helpless.

4.

The final talk I took in was an intro to The Free Software Foundation Licensing & Compliance Lab; We Fight for the User by Donald Robertson who is a Copyright and Licensing Associate with the FSF. This was a more informational session, but I came away with a much better understanding of the FSF and its activities.

Other interactions

With 1800 attendees and a bunch of exhibitors, you can bet you are going to meet some interesting people at LFNW.

Late Saturday, on the way to our traditional drinking spot Uisce, we stopped by The Foundry, Bellingham’s Makerspace. They had a really nice setup with electronics, sewing, woodworking corners in addition to the “traditional” 3D printers, laser cutters and the like. Check out my album on Flickr to see their amazing PAPER 3D printer. This thing blew my mind. (They have better pics on their

(http://www.bellinghamfoundry.com/gallery/)). We capped off the visit by playing a 3D printed guitar and 3D scanning my head. Good times.

screen cap of Chad's 3d scanned head

On Sunday I wandered the exhibitor’s floor rather than going to sessions.

I spoke with the executive director of Geeks Without Bounds, and we had a good discussion about balancing fervor for technological solutionism and the realities of delivering aid through established frameworks. I am confident that GWOB isn’t simply about air-dropping mobile phones across the developing world and telling them to simply apt-get install democracy.

There was another deep discussion with Aaron Wolf from Snowdrift.coop, which is a platform for coordinating donations to F/OSS projects to make a bigger impact on development (those are my words). Rather than tons of disparate small donations going to disparate projects, getting everyone to put there money in the same place can push a project forward in a meaningful way. The vision of the project, and the idea to convince proprietary projects to go open once a sustainable ecosystem is developed is intriguing and worthy, even if extremely challenging. Check them out.

In conclusion

LFNW is about more than computers. There is a rich background of history and culture to the Free Software movement and the Free Culture movement. Learning about the ways these organizations fight for every user’s rights through legislative, legal and technical means is empowering. It is not all about the tech, but about the politics and social norms that underly every human endeavor. This recap should demonstrate that you do not have to be a Linux geek to enjoy LinuxFest. There are tons of learning and networking opportunities for developers and users of all kinds.

I did not touch a command line all weekend. Which suits me, since I only have a Mac and wouldn’t want to be scorned by all the true neckbeards there. 😉

Ignite SF

During our month in San Francisco last year we were lucky to catch Ignite San Francisco 8. We had a great time that night. IgniteSF just put up the videos this month, so I thought I would share some of my faves from that evening. Each talk is just 5 mins long. There were about 15 talks that night in total.

Julia Grace – Money, Cryptography and Scandal: A modern tale of mathematics.

Serena Wales – How to Win at Bar Trivia

Emily Wright – The Journey of the Urban Flush

Jennifer Kuczenski – Engineering Lessons from Folding

Rick Prelinger – Lost Landscapes of San Francisco D

This final talk from Rick Prelinger made me pick up tickets to go see a full “performance” of the Lost Landscapes of San Francisco show at The Internet Archive, which I detailed in this post.

おめでとうございます — Happy New Year!

(See all pictures and videos at Flickr)

Happy 2014! This year the grandparents watched the kids so the wife and I could go out for 初詣 (hatsumode), the traditional first trip of the year to the shrine. We left our downtown Kyoto apartment at about 11PM and had a full course of shrine-visiting, including:

  • 電電宮 Denden-gu, where the gods of electricity reside
  • 松尾大社 Matsuo Taisha, where the gods of alcohol reside
  • 春日神社 Kasuga Jinja, a health shrine
  • 御金神社 Mikane Jinja, the money shrine

Our first stop was Denden-gu, a small shrine near Arashiyama. This is a famous shrine for people in the IT business. You will see sponsor placards here for Softbank, NTT, Tepco and tons of other companies. At the entrance there are two signs for Thomas Edison and Heinrich Hertz! Here we were able to ring the New Year’s bell. In fact, we rang it a few times since this is just a local shrine and there weren’t a ton of people. I picked up a good luck charm for our office here.

Next stop was Matsuo Taisha where the wife made a wish to have lots of delicious alcohol this year. Then on to Kasuga Jinja to wish for the health of our parents. The final stop was Mikane Jinja where you basically just wish for money. All in all it was pretty productive(?) and we got home at about 3:30AM.

This afternoon we went up to 龍安寺 (Ryouanji), a Zen temple where we admired their famous rock garden. This garden was designed with an ocean of gravel and 5 island groups for a total of 15 stones. The cool part is that for any viewing angle, one can only see 14 stones at a time. Tricky!

Rock garden at Ryoanji
(full size)