Review: Bad Blood by John Carreyrou

Literally couldn’t put down this book. Carreyrou’s account of the rise and fall of Elizabeth Holmes is mercilessly matter-of-fact. The Theranos cautionary tale could have been to never mistake a prototype for the real deal — but something even more insidious was afoot.

My central thought: Would the same events be told differently had Theranos succeeded? After all, history is notoriously written by the victors, and Theranos admittedly adopted many of the same “bold” tactics used by Silicon Valley tech startups. Is it that Theranos played in the sensitive field of patient care (and not consumer electronics) that rendered the tactics vile? Or would a story of a failed Apple still sound much tamer? Personally, I suspect the latter. By all accounts, Holmes’ interest in her actual product was negligible compared to her obsession with her image. While her behaviour may have been Jobs-like, her intent and motivation were anything but.

I continue to wonder what it is that separates the people who are brought to answer for their mistakes from those who seemingly are not. Topical, given the recent going-ons both in big tech and in politics. Is it just a matter of time, or is a downfall altogether avoidable for the select few?

Review: Enemies, A Love Story by Isaac Bashevis Singer

The first half is far superior to the second—that is to say the payoff doesn’t quite vindicate the setup—but this is still the kind of book I will one day write.

For example:

“That was the way with facts. They punctured every bubble of conceit, shattered theories, destroyed convictions.”

“He remained the same: without belief in himself or in the human race; a fatalistic hedonist who lived in presuicidal gloom. Religions lied. Philosophy was bankrupt from the beginning. The idle promises of progress were no more than a spit in the face of the martyrs of all generations.”

“Yadwiga’s sheer goodness bored him; when he talked to her, it was as if he were alone. Masha was so complicated, stubborn, and neurotic that he couldn’t tell her the truth either.”

“She seemed to Herman to be the incarnation of the masses, always following some leader, hypnotized by slogans, never really having an opinion of her own.”

“She was flirting with the man and all the wrinkles in here rouged face smiled imploringly, with the humility of those who can no longer demand but only beg.”

“Masha was the best argument Herman knew for Schopenhauer’s thesis that intelligence is nothing more than a servant of blind will.”

Source: The New Yorker

Source: The New Yorker

Your data knows you better than you know yourself

The stories that data tells us are mundane. Big data does not show us the lone genius who built a company to revolutionize communication, nor the crazy inventor who made a breakthrough in renewable energy, nor the dedicated violinist whose musical gift is a delight to millions. In fact, data is almost entirely antithetic to Malcolm Gladwell’s outliers. Data shows us medians, trends and averages: a graph of the everyman.

OkCupid cofounder Christian Rudder’s Dataclysm is a cool behind-the-scenes look at what he learned from the massive amounts of user-generated data on his relationship-as-a-service platform. I was familiar with most of the notions presented in the book (the Internet’s explosive reaction to Obama’s election; that a woman’s optimal age is 22, etc.), save for some of the studies on language used by men as compared to women, but the intrinsically interesting subject matter helped the foundational data science concepts to sink in. Rudder also added to the conversation the translation of data into beautiful visualizations reminiscent of (and credited for inspiration to) Edward Tufte.

The question I’m left with after flying through the book (Rudder is an excellent writer), is the one I’m always left asking: can data analysis ever be fair and inclusive? I appreciated Rudder’s sensitivity to the inherent bias that comes with choosing which datasets to study, and with the interpretation that comes with any analysis. Yet he doesn’t offer a solution, and his methods don’t hint at one. Since analysis is just starting on the quintillions of data that have been generated to date, maybe this is something we’ll see when the practice is more mature. Already I’m more hopeful with examples like Google’s Constitute service, which compiles every constitution ever written to allow newly sovereign states to learn from history what worked and what didn’t. The mission of such a service is inclusion-based, even if the practice, itself, may not be.

I’m also left wondering about the future of privacy. Although I’ve grown up mostly accustomed to sharing information about myself online, and haven’t felt much need to protect my digital privacy, the more I learn about the effectiveness with which corporations are able to use my personal data to their advantage, the more I wonder if I should care more about the choice to disclose:

“The fundamental question in any discussion of privacy is the trade-off—what you get for losing it. We make calculated trades all the time. Public figures sell their personal lives to advance their careers. Anyone who’s booked a hostel in Europe or bought a train ticket in India has had to decide if the private room is worth the extra money. And not to confuse the issue here, but many people, men and women, trade on privacy when they walk out the door in the evening, giving it away, via a hemline or a snug fit, for attention.”

Rudder’s most striking point is that because data collection is so pervasive and so accurate in painting individuals onto a graph, whether or not you choose to disclose may not matter going forward—they’d already know. Even now the terms for exchange of personal data are not transparent, nor is what’s being inferred from that data. The data you’re generating could be telling companies and governments things about you that you don’t even know about yourself. After all, as people, we don’t exactly excel at self-awareness. This makes me think of the Precrime unit in Minority Report. How honest are we ready to be with ourselves? 

“If employers begin to use algorithms to infer how intelligent you are or whether you use drugs, then your only choice will be to game the system—or… to “manage your brand”. To beat the machine, you must act like a machine. And that’s all assuming you can guess at what you’re supposed to do in the first place. Apparently, one of the strongest correlates to intelligence in the research was liking “curly fries.” Who could reverse-engineer that?”

On the lighter side of things, a quick data-driven pointer for those of us quickly losing broad appeal (turning >22 for women): emphasize your distinctiveness to continue enjoying targeted appeal. Unexpectedly, data confirms the old adage to just be yourself. You’re welcome. 

My Review: Solaris by Stanislaw Lem

A rather painful reading experience made up of poor pacing (sloooow), repetitive tangents, cringe-worthy dialogue, and paper-thin characters. Originally published in 1961, the story did not age well. The biggest eyesore was the representation of Harey, the protagonist’s deceased wife come back from the dead as a clone (aka the love interest). The Harey character is nothing short of hysterical, helpless and completely revolved around our protagonist—seemingly pre- and post-clone life. The descriptions of the ocean and sky sound gorgeous, though, so may still watch the movie.

My Review: Everybody Lies by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

You can be yourself, but being yourself may not get you what you want, and you’re probably wrong about who you think you are anyway. So goes the gist of Davidowitz’s Everybody lies. Does the truth even matter? The short answer is, yes: while we can choose to believe whatever we want, the value of recognizing the truth can be enormous.

Take this excerpt.

The outsize value of ignoring what people tell you

What people say: They don’t want to stalk their friends.

Reality: There is little in this world they want more than to keep up with and judge their friends.

Ipso facto: Mark Zuckerberg is worth billions.

What people say: They don’t want to buy products that are produced in sweatshops.

Reality: They will buy nice, “reasonably priced” products.

Ipso facto: Phil Knight is worth billions.

What people say: They want politicians to outline their policy positions.

Reality: They want politicians to spare them the details but seem tough and self-assured.

Ipso facto: Donald Trump

The emergence of big data is a breakthrough for the social sciences, adding validity to its practices. Data can effectively validate or invalidate assumptions, and also serve as a channel for discovery. Where social science went wrong in years prior is attempting to replicate the rigidity of hard science, a field where simple, distillable laws rule. But human nature is neither simple nor distillable. In the future, we’ll need nothing more (and nothing less) than curiosity, creativity and data.

Big data is our first real shot at understanding human nature. Beyond who we think we are and who we want to be, there is who we actually are: the sum of all the little actions we undertake day in and day out, some of which we’re aware of and others we’re not, while others still we lie about, both to ourselves and to others. I’ve always liked the adage that if you want to know who you really are, just look at how you spent your time that day; look at the line items on your bank statement — that’s where you’ll see your priorities. That’s where you’ll see what’s important to you — not in what you say is important to you. I know I haven’t always been happy when reflecting on this and examining the delta between who I think I am (schedule, budget, Netflix queue) and how my time and money are actually spent (what I did that day, bank statements, Netflix recommendations).

Stephens-Davidowitz states:

“Everybody lies…. People lie to friends. They lie to bosses. They lie to kids. They lie to parents. They lie to doctors. They lie to husbands. They lie to wives. They lie to themselves. And they damn sure lie to surveys.”

So where is the truth? Davidowitz says it’s with Google. Our private Google searches are revealing of our actual thoughts, worries and desires, and that’s what Davidowitz spends his book unpacking. While I don’t buy that we are our Google searches, as I think Google gets an outsized amount of the thoughts we deem too unsavoury for “more human” company, I do think the insight is undeniable. You shouldn’t compare your insides to someone else’s outsides, and you shouldn’t compare your Google searches to someone else’s social media presence.

One drawback of the data revolution is that the things we can measure aren’t always the things that matter, but they end up being the things we optimize. Enter the rise of addictive technology. What gets me is the story about video games, casinos and apps being A/B tested to optimize for maximum time spent and addiction. This data-focused explanation drove this idea home for me more than Nir Eyal or Golden Krishna did in their respective books. The odds are ever not in our favour as consumers.

A few more ideas:

  • Statistically, growing up near big ideas is more important than growing up with a big backyard

  • When it comes to data, it doesn’t matter if the algorithm makes logical sense, it only matters if it works (kind of a scary idea feeding into the black box AI fears)

  • To battle hate, don’t lecture. Instead give new information that may shed a different light and pique curiosity

  • The problems users actually have with your product or system or business may not be what they tell you; examine the data on how they actually behave to learn where they really struggle

Source: Harper Collins

Source: Harper Collins

My Review: Dear Madam President by Jennifer Palmieri

The unexamined life is not worth living (Socrates), and Jennifer Palmieri seems to subscribe to this adage in examining Hillary Clinton’s historic loss from her spot in the trenches. Palmieri was communications director for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, and she wrote Dear Madam President shortly after the election as an open letter to the future (hypothetical) first female U.S. president.

At the outset, Palmieri states that her goal isn’t to apologize or to explain herself. She then proceeds to apologize and to explain herself anyway for the 200 pages of the slightly repetitive (but very good) book. I caught myself about to critique the book for spending too much time discussing feelings, but then I thought: what’s wrong with spending a whole book discussing feelings?

Some ideas that stuck:

  • The life worth living should be rewarding, but it should also matter

  • The quiet moments-in-between often feel the most gratifying, not the big night, the big celebration, the thing that’s supposed to feel most rewarding

  • “The gratifying moment is simply the one in which your own mind decides to let you believe you have done your best and your effort has mattered.”

  • “People take their cue from you. If you act like you belong in the room, people will believe you do. If you act like your opinion matters, others will, too. Simple, true, empowering, and life-changing advice.”

  • Who are you when you are stripped of your title?

  • Speaking up and sharing your opinion actually becomes harder not easier as you gain power, since your opinion now carries weight in a way it didn’t before

  • You may not be the best person in the world for the job, but it’s likely that you’re good enough, and that that’s good enough

The book is divided into ten short sections; the titles speak for themselves:

  • Chart your own path.

  • When the unimaginable happens, imagine what else may be possible.

  • Brace yourself: Nothing draws fire like a woman moving forward.

  • Speak up — Your voice is needed.

  • It’s your world and you can cry if you want to.

  • Keep your head and your heart during a storm: You need both to steer the ship to safety

  • Show us what you have been through: It tells us what we can survive

  • Don’t search for your role in his story: Write your own

  • Even when you lose, refuse to be defeated

  • We are bound together. Now we need to unite.

The last point, especially, made me think. All division and separation among human lines are just an illusion. We’re already stuck together, so we may as well unite.



5/5 stars to Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?

This last line in Harari’s Sapiens pretty much sums up his take on our human condition. Harari observes that humanity has socially engineered our surroundings, subscribing to the ethic of consumerism and giving in to the ideals of liberalism and individualism. As a result, we are living in the first few centuries of human history where we believe that what we want and what we feel makes us who we are—and above all, that it actually matters. A big insight in a book of BIG insights is that contrary to the Orwellian vision of the man’s struggle against the MAN, it’s actually the state and the market that power individuality as a stand-in for the interdependent communities that were previously necessary for our survival. We can now give power to our individual choices, thoughts and feelings, because the state provides our healthcare and the market provides our pay.

How Harari can be an authority on the entirety of humanity’s history across every discipline (biology, philosophy, psychology, ethics, et al.) is beyond me. Sapiens reads like mankind’s memoir written posthumously, as Harari has some chilling prognoses for our future on par with those of Elon Musk (read: super-AI takes over). But he also points out how today’s predictions may come to pass as nothing but red herring; after all, we see what we focus on.

History teaches us that what seems to be just around the corner may never materialise due to unforeseen barriers, and that other unimagined scenarios will in fact come to pass. When the nuclear age erupted in the 1940s, many forecasts were made about the future nuclear world of the year 2000. When the sputnik and Apollo II fired the imagination of the world, everyone began predicting that by the end of the century, people would be living in space colonies on Mars and Pluto. Few of these forecasts came true. On the other hand, nobody foresaw the Internet.

What I learned from Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate

I’m just the type of conceptual art junkie who believes that beauty is a construct, that morality is nuanced, fluid and contextual, and that human potential can redefine the world, for whom The Blank Slate was probably more mind-blowing than it should have been.

John Baldessari’s  The Pencil Story  (1972–3) represents transition

John Baldessari’s The Pencil Story (1972–3) represents transition

Pinker throws a damper on the human potential movement, and I, for one, find it mildly liberating. No, you can’t do whatever you set your mind to! No, you can’t use the power of positive thinking to will your preferred reality into being! No, you don’t have to pressure yourself into reconstructing the world! Pinker says we can’t do these things because people are not blank slates — we have an innate human nature. So stop the tweaking and perfecting: you do not have control. Stop overriding the gut feeling that is suggestive of your human nature: you can’t entirely construct your life.

Pinker’s interpretation of the laws of evolutionary biology are more likely to credit your personality to random gene mutation than to your entire upbringing. The long and short of this interesting stance is that humans can be explained in large part by their genes, in small part by random gene mutation, and in smallest part by their environment and upbringing. Everything else, according to Pinker, is postmodern abstraction we’ve all collectively bought into, and Pinker pities the academic fields that fly in the face of evidence (gender feminism being one such field, he notes).

Where Pinker’s argument gets muddled for me is on the topic of common sense. He spends about an equal number of pages arguing for and against common sense as an indicator of our innate human nature. It seems he himself gets to serve as the arbitrator of what is human nature emerging from faulty social construct (according to him: increased numbers of women in the workplace), and what is faulty social construct cloaking human nature (according to him: experimental art). So which one is it, and how will we know it when we see it? This I never got a clear answer for, and this really would have been a valuable tool. Am I fighting my human nature when I find a way to appreciate Kanye’s Yeezus (his self-proclaimed music for a post-rhythm future)? Is the empowerment I feel to choose just an illusion of the importance we place on constructionism? Pinker drives this point home when describing George Orwell’s 1984 as the ultimate example of social constructionism. The Party believes there is no innate human nature; thus, with time and effort, individual thought and interpersonal love can be stamped out. Kurt Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron makes a similar point about stripping individuality and innate ability.

Where I like Pinker’s argument is similar to where I liked Carl Cederstrom’s The Wellness Syndrome. An emphasis on personal responsibility and individual power can serve as a political and societal construct that chooses to avoid acknowledging the systemic nature of most wicked problems, thus placing undue (total) responsibility on the individual where the one does not have the power to change the whole. This does not mean that personal responsibility and a desire to change the world are meaningless; they are valuable individual mindsets, but individual mindset is not a national or global strategy.

Something else I liked from Pinker’s book is his advocacy for integrating art and science. How can we apply what we understand about cognitive perception to make art? Already this meeting of the left and right (brains) is happening in literature, film, music, tech, and more. Charlie Kaufman’s screenplays are a great example of putting a creative spin on cognitive science while messing with the viewers’ brains all at the same time (try Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless MindAdaptationSynecdoche, New York).

TL;DR Great addition to the nature vs. nurture debate. An expanded, science-based StrengthsFinder. Mind-blowing for those of us told we can do anything.

The Virgin Suicides: 25 years later

The Virgin Suicides is dark humour that reads like dreamy long-form poetry in testament to coming of age and passage of life, equal parts horrifying and mundane, and wholly effective. Twenty-five years after Jeffrey Eugenides first introduced us to the OG Manic Pixie Dream Girls, the Lisbon sisters, this self-proclaimed satirical response to romanticism still calls into question how much we can ever really make sense of our lives. Everything about the novel is vivid except for the Lisbon girls, who are not quite characters but projections of the collective narrative imagination. The past is just a story that we tell ourselves.

From the 1999 Sofia Coppola film

From the 1999 Sofia Coppola film

My review: Against Empathy by Paul Bloom

Empathy is up there as a buzz word, probably right below innovation and right on top of transformation. Typically empathy is framed as a positive trait, akin to morality. In his contrarian book, Bloom challenges this notion, and argues that empathy actually leads to poor decision-making. Bloom defines empathy as the unintentional inclination to feel what others are feeling, specifically differentiating from cognitive empathy (the ability to guess what others are thinking and understand their motives) and compassion (the desire for good outcomes for others). 

I expected at least one of his arguments to centre around skepticism that we are actually accurate when we project thoughts and feelings on others. What right do we have to make decisions for other people based on projected assumptions? But Bloom did not call into question the accuracy of empathy. Instead, the focus of his argument is that empathy causes emotional decision-making which may not take into account the whole spectrum of consequences. O

One of his most effective points was that being overwhelmed by negativity may paralyze one in a way they are not able to act at all, leading one to turn away and act in a way that may actually be amoral or lacking in compassion. It all makes sense: this is why I couldn't make it as a doctor-wannabe and why I'm so attracted to the optimism of technophiles!

I may be mad / I may be blind / I may be viciously unkind / But I can still read what you’re thinking 

Annie Lennox (on negative effects of empathy?)

My review: Judgment Detox by Gabrielle Bernstein

Very much in line with the concepts of the personal responsibility and wellness movements, Bernstein advocates for the complete mastery of the mind, and by extension of every situation and of your world. This to me is both the definition and the fallacy of positive psychology. Where I do buy in is that we don’t know our own minds, so practicing meditations that may not be innately intuitive may nevertheless ameliorate the mind on a level above intuition. 

A very short introduction to the future (a review of the book by Jennifer M. Gidley)

Reads like a hundred-page lit review, but offers a solid introduction to the hopeful and empowering concept of alternative futures. Alternative futures operate at the boundary of the possible, the ideal and the real, to create possible, preferred and probable futures. This concept claims that the future is not deterministic, and that instead we have the capacity to create desired outcomes. The author highlights that most of the recent discussion on futures has had a one-dimensional focus on the evolution of technology, and that in fact, there is more to the future. Futures modeling should also encompass humanist facets, such as culture and ethics.

Interesting concept: Industry drives a linear concept of time, while subsistence drove a cyclical understanding of time.

Interesting quote: “A sense of fear and hopelessness often comes from not knowing enough.”

My Review: Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O'Neil

“I will remember that I didn’t make the world, and it doesn’t satisfy my equations,” reads an oath from financial data scientists Emanual Derman and Paul Willmott. 

On reading this in O'Neil’s cautionary book, my mind jumps to a great line from the memoir/film, I, Tonya: “Everyone has their own truth, and life just does whatever [it] wants.” Humans are notoriously bad at identifying that just because we think something is true doesn’t mean that it is or (perhaps more importantly) that others will share our opinion. 

O'Neil warns about the dangers of giving us irrational humans the power to enforce our world view on millions to billions of people in coding algorithms. In our post-truth era, the pain that results from the biases in life’s pervasive algorithms are borne by society’s most vulnerable. McNeil’s thesis is that if the algorithm is rigged to always watch a specific person, eventually you’ll catch them doing something wrong. All is fair when life screws everyone over equally, but it's an issue when some people are systemically on the losing end. 

While I wish O'Neil had spent more time on the positives of big data for prevention and the road forward with evaluating algorithms, it is undeniable that she is exceptional at breaking down complex data stories. She was able to take touchy scenarios like Trump's election and the Facebook emotion experiment, and put them in a context her readers can understand and appreciate. 

Toronto's fintech innovation ecosystem: And what's design got to do with it

In June 2018, I completed the two-year journey that was my Master of Design at OCAD University. It was a happy coincidence that I started at Scotiabank Digital Factory as a User Experience Designer right as I was in the process of selecting my thesis topic. The Digital Factory opened my eyes to the digital transformation underway in the Canadian financial services industry, and consequently gave me something to write about: a look at Toronto’s unique technology ecosystem.

Toronto, summer 2015

Toronto, summer 2015

What I discovered was that the outcome of the banking transformation makes a difference beyond financial services, and even beyond Toronto. Because of the importance of the banking industry to the Canadian economy, the success of this transformation is crucial for the continued quality of life for all Canadian people.

Ecosystem components

Ecosystem components

As I conducted my ecosystem research, it was apparent to me that companies and products are not built in isolation from their environment. At minimum, organizations are shaped by their context. Research shows that a startup has a greater chance of success in an ecosystem that is supportive to its core functions and goals, and that maintains a symbiotic relationship among research, government and industry.

In the face of exponential global growth in connected technologies, also known as the fourth industrial revolution, Canada is at an inflection point. Technology startups and big tech entrants are promising to disrupt every industry, and the disruption largely benefits the few select high-tech centres worldwide that generate this growth. One way to bridge this innovator gap is with startups, so Toronto’s headlines are full of speculation around whether Toronto will grow into the next Silicon Valley.

A deep dive on Silicon Valley’s history affirms its uniqueness. As the largest tech ecosystem in the world, it is arguably the benchmark for ecosystem success. Home to engineering-driven, design-forward technology invention, Silicon Valley boasts a culture of risk-taking, entrepreneurship and high mobility, steered by venture capital. Venture capital is structured in a way that rewards rapid growth and expansion, aligns incentives, and connects people, resources and ideas. Additionally, Silicon Valley benefits from generations of seasoned entrepreneurs, experienced investors, mature startups and sophisticated tech talent in a phenomenon nicknamed the anchor-tenant effect: the advantage of having done it before.

At the same time, few would argue that Silicon Valley is a utopia. While also far from the dystopias predicted by twentieth century science fiction, Silicon Valley has recently been critiqued for a myriad of reasons, from lacking inclusivity and diversity, to a culture of overwork and burnout, to oversaturated consumer innovations, to clashes with regulators, to ethics challenges in the usage of algorithms and big data.

Beyond Silicon Valley, global ecosystems have proven themselves successful by amplifying their own unique traits:

  • China has sprouted tech giants like Alibaba and Tencent, and has developed consumer tech arguably more widespread and advanced than in North America, using its regulated environment and large population to its advantage.
  • Berlin has built a thriving tech hub from the base of a city that throws its doors open to immigrants as a hotbed of culture.
  • Taiwan has specialized in process and operations-focused innovation, producing silicon chips ever more efficiently to support Silicon Valley.
Taipei 101, summer 2012

Taipei 101, summer 2012

The question then becomes: what are the unique characteristics that Toronto should amplify in order to create the best possible conditions for Canadian startups, while honouring the culture and life we want to create to be consistent with our collective identities as Canadians? As per the mandate of Steve Case, known for founding AOL, and more recently the platform to support emerging ecosystems Rise of the Rest and corresponding venture capital firm Revolution:

We just need to make sure we continue to identify interesting people doing interesting things in interesting places. We need a more diverse mix of views thinking about agriculture, health care, education and energy and financial services and government services.

In that sense, the qualitative analysis of my research leads me to believe that Toronto tech represents the opportunity to include a greater diversity of mindsets that will create a variety of innovations to serve a greater breadth of people. By applying innovation to industries that are already well-supported in our ecosystem, such as financial services, in a way that is sustainable and profitable, Toronto will continue to develop its uniquely Canadian brand of innovation.

In his address to the Davos World Economic Forum in 2016, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said:

New technology is always dazzling, but we don’t want technology simply because it is dazzling — we want it, create it and support it because it improves people’s lives.
Technology needs to serve the cause of human progress, not serve as a substitute for it, or as a distraction from its absence.
Simply put, everybody needs to benefit from growth in order to sustain growth.
It’s not hard to see how the connections between computing, information, robotics, and biotechnologies could deliver spectacular progress. It’s also not hard to imagine how it could produce mass unemployment and greater inequality.
Technology itself will not determine the future we get. Our choices will. Leadership will.

Do you agree?

A note about design education

At OCAD, I got to work on a myriad of projects: a visualization of a year in daily affirmations from a log I kept with one of my best friends in NYC; an inclusivity critique of self-expression platforms like Medium and YouTube; an exhibit for the workplace of the future; a multimodal translation of a Cubist Movement painting, and more.

Happy Moments visualization project

Happy Moments visualization project

My favourite facet of design education is the challenge to imagine, make and create as a way of life. Design has shifted my mindset from one of consumer to one of producer. Every part of life becomes something to question and to redesign: from org structures, to relationships, to transit systems, to jewelry. My next favourite facet is the separation of the ego. To create the best product for your users, you have to be relentless in seeking feedback, and iterating on that feedback. As I grow as a designer, my ear has evolved from one that hears criticism to one that hears opportunity.

While it has become broadly accepted that design is not just how the product looks, but also what the product is, why the product is, and who the product is for, technology has further expanded the meaning of design. As technology has grown into the largest sector of the global economy, the mandate of design has expanded to encompass computational design: design decisions coded into algorithms for impact at incomprehensible scale.

It is exactly for this reason that diversity in designers is an even more important conversation than in many other industries. The overrepresentation of similar mindsets in design can lead to innovation that misses the opportunity to serve more people. Empathy is not enough: Inclusion is.

For further reading

Blue Ocean Strategy: How to create uncontested market space and make the competition irrelevant by Renée Mauborgne and W. Chan Kim

Brotopia: Breaking up the Boys’ Club of Silicon Valley by Emily Chang

How we can win: And what happens to us and our country if we don’t by Anthony Lacavera and Kate Fillion

Make it new: The history of Silicon Valley design by Barry M. Katz

Startup Nation: The story of Israel’s economic miracle by Dan Senor

The end of average: How we succeed in a world that values sameness by Todd Rose

The future of work: Attract new talent, build better leaders, and create a competitive organization by Jacob Morgan

The geography of genius: A search for the world’s most creative places from Ancient Athens to Silicon Valley by Eric Weiner

The inevitable: Understanding the 12 technological forces that will shape our future by Kevin Kelly

The spirit level: Why equality is better for everyone by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett

The third wave: An entrepreneur’s vision of the future by Steve Case

Weapons of Math Destruction: How big data increases inequality and threatens democracy by Cathy O’Neil


Jen is a User Experience Designer at Scotiabank Digital Factory, working on Search and conversational UI.

Jen is a User Experience Designer at Scotiabank Digital Factory, working on Search and conversational UI.

Erich Fromm's The Art of Loving, 60 years later

Although outdated on the subjects of male-female gender roles and same-sex relationships, The Art of Loving by social philosopher Erich Fromm is a lovely quick read about brotherly, familial, romantic and religious love, inspiring propensity for paradoxical thought and reconciliation of opposing views. Also kind of reads like an introduction to Buddhism (Fromm did not identify as a Buddhist).

According to Fromm, humanity’s greatest pursuit is overcoming the loneliness we experience as a result of human separation. Most people expect that the right object will inspire loving fusion, but Fromm argues that this is impossible without a practice of love. While humans attempt to systemize fusion with the concept of work and family, these are mere shell structures without learning how to practice love.

For Fromm, the prerequisite for the practice of love is objectivity: the capacity to see another person as they are, independent of what they mean for you, and the desire that they grow and prosper on their own terms for their own good.

In short: respect each other’s journeys.

Best passage:

Union by conformity is not intense and violent; it is calm, dictated by routine, and for this very reason often is insufficient to pacify the anxiety of separateness…. Man becomes a “nine to fiver”, he is part of the labor force, or the bureaucratic force of clerks and managers. He has little initiative, his tasks are prescribed by the organization of the work; there is even little difference between those high up on the ladder and those on the bottom. They all perform tasks prescribed by the whole structure of the organization, at a prescribed speed, and in a prescribed manner. Even the feelings are prescribed: cheerfulness, tolerance, reliability, ambition, and an ability to get along with everybody without friction. Fun is routinized in similar, although not quite as drastic ways. Books are selected by the book clubs, movies by the film and theater owners and the advertising slogans paid for by them; the rest is also uniform: the Sunday ride in the car, the television session, the card game, the social parties. From birth to death, from Monday to Monday, from morning to evening — all activities are routinized, and prefabricated. How should a man caught in this net of routine not forget that he is a man, a unique individual, one who is given only this one chance of living, with hopes and disappointments, with sorrow and fear, with the longing for love and the dread of the nothing and of separateness?
A likeness from the Internet (Source:

A likeness from the Internet (Source:

The 4.5 books I read on a beach this week

The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride

A potentially daring femme coming-of-age story wasted on a descent into melodrama — anything bad that can happen happens to these characters. Nevertheless, a quick and captivating beach read.

Runaway by Alice Munro

I would characterize Munro’s style as somewhere on the spectrum between drama and dark comedy — she is a prime candidate for penning a Black Mirror episode. Every one of the short stories in this anthology came with a twist that subverted the imagination and took the reader just far enough. Like all good fiction writers, Munro preys on very real human fears: that those closest to us can betray us, that our judgment can fail us, and that we may never really know if we are loved, and if we are safe.

Brotopia by Emily Chang

Brotopia reads almost like a year in review. I was very familiar with most, if not all, of the content in the book. While the message Chang delivers needs to be heard (and then re-heard), I feel her argument suffers a bit from underrepresenting the potential for diversity in women’s viewpoints. I also wonder how tech culture changes and morphs outside of the Bay Area, and whether all the same conclusions and learnings apply with equal relevance outside of San Francisco.

The Wellness Syndrome by Carl Cederstrom

Guilty as charged. The author examines the wellness movement through the critical lens that questions positive psychology both as a complement to extreme personal responsibility (the belief that have you the right mindset, nothing can go wrong) and as a way to continually improve your life while putting off living.

But, really, the first half of Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo sapiens stole the beach show. It’s epic, stay tuned.

Start-up culture versus entrepreneurship

That feeling when a friend is pitching a new app idea for the 'Uber of x'. 

The grievances I have with the Ubers of x range from lack of competitive advantage to lack of resources to devastatingly hard work to high probability of failure.

Uber for Outback? Preferable

But really I think I’m baffled by the perception of start-up culture as something one can adopt, as opposed to a way of life that pervades all thoughts, patterns and decisions.

When my family immigrated to Canada in the late ‘90s, our plan for income generation was to find a market we could serve and create a solution, as it is for many hard-working immigrant families. Through my teens, I was part of a number of family-grown start-ups in industries ranging from food to health & fitness to catering to elderly care. I envied my friends whose parents were executives at IBM and who did not have to do market research on weeknights, help with accounting on weekends, and support operations on holidays. I remember designing a flyer (print!!) for an elderly care start-up and subsequently having Staples mess up the print order (they didn’t print the logo) and going ahead and accepting it for the discount along with a logo stamp and then spending several weeknights stamping these flyers into sufficiency.

Since life at home is a child’s benchmark for what life outside of home should be, I became a starter. I started a lunch program for kids; I started a school supply shipment operation to Ecuador; I prototyped a college textbook exchange app. I worked for start-ups in India, China and Indonesia. I was a finalist in a major business competition. I minored in social entrepreneurship (for real) and won awards for it (what??) all while generating less revenue than it would take to sustain a quarter-person. Of my myriad initiatives, I enjoyed modest success from founding a 501(c)3 non-profit organization for microfinance in Uganda and as part of the founding team for art nights in Toronto. But most (all) of the time, starting things only ended with ending things and all the not-fun stuff that comes with ending things, so I began to gravitate toward structure, metrics and resources to avoid endings.

What did come out of this serial ending of things is a rigour around what I’m looking for the next time that I pool my heart, soul and flow into an idea, and that’s a number of things, like resources, market knowledge, competitive advantage (preferably an unfair one) and the right team. These things are obvious to everyone except for people who are a product of an environment where starting things is the only option so these factors are not up for measurement. In fact this is what I should be articulating to all my Uber of x friends in place of my rant. Next time.

What I learned about doing business in Canada from Anthony Lacavera’s new book: An ode to innovation in context

I’m a designer but I get more excited about being part of changing a system that will impact the 99% underserved by the latest innovation in juice pressers than I do about designing a connected blender, or whatever is at the bleeding edge of what has come to embody innovation.


I don’t think innovation is about the new. To borrow from Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, who received the Nobel Prize for discovering Vitamin C: Discovery is seeing what everybody else has seen and thinking what nobody else has thought.

That’s how I felt about Wind Mobile founder Anthony Lacavera’s How we can win: And what happens to us and our country if we don’t, a book that I expect will prove to be the most influential read of my 20s (although I recently discovered Esther Perel and her writing on human connection is blowing my mind).

Canada is a unique place to do business and we don’t hear much about that, which is actually one of the unique traits of doing business in Canada.

I <3 Toronto

According to Lacavera, the problem with Canadian business is that entrenched organizations are slow to innovate and compete, and innovative start-ups are quick to sell to American companies. This is a problem because Canadian companies are increasingly facing foreign competition on our home turf, and the cost of losing is being passed down directly to the consumer.

But the really interesting stuff is about how we got here: why do we have this problem?

In short:

  • Our risk-averse culture
  • Our vast, sparsely-populated geography
  • Our governmental and tax policies
  • Our stable economy
  • Our relationship with the U.S.

It’s that last point that pervades our culture and economy, and really makes the Canadian context unique amongst other stable, sparsely-populated peers. We are accustomed to being late adopters of American innovations.

In fact, Lacavera so captivated me with this problem statement that I am now dedicating my Master’s research to pinpointing the unique Canadian factors that can form the unique Canadian company that will embody our unique Canadian values. Any ideas?

My Review: The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

A book that is as much about the plot as it is about the art of writing, The Handmaid's Tale starts in the middle of the action and doesn't fully show its cards until the Epilogue. The events are shocking because they just are but also because they have all really happened at some point in history. I found myself craving a turn for more fantastical events in a sequel that was never written, but may still come to fruition in the Hulu series.

My Review: How to get filthy rich in rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid

4/5 stars

"We are all refugees from our childhoods. And so we turn, among other things, to stories…. Writers and readers seek a solution to the problem that time passes, that those who have gone are gone and those who will go, which is to say every one of us, will go. For there was a moment when anything was possible. And there will be a moment when nothing is possible. But in between we can create."

"You feel a love you know you will never be able to adequately explain or express to him, a love that flows one way, down the generations, not in reverse, and is understood and reciprocated only when time has made of a younger generation an older one."

"The fruits of labor are delicious, but individually they’re not particularly fattening. So don’t share yours, and munch on those of others whenever you can."