A friend died suddenly of cancer recently. As a result I’m in shock not knowing what what to feel or think. To be honest I haven’t had to think too much about mortality in a personal way until now.

I was with her at the hospital a few days before she passed away. At first you wonder what to even say or do. But then you realize that the imminent end strips away the need to skirt around reality; this is goodbye. You share memories, gratitudes, and yes even hopes for the future.

This was the gift that Tracey gave me and, I would guess, others. Despite it being her last days on earth, she looked to the future not so much for herself as for the people around her including her husband and son. This was typically her. Throughout her life, she faced blindness, cancer,and motherhood with a kind of directness and courage that inspired everyone who met her.

She also demonstrated that death isn’t the end. It’s not that I have any strong convictions around where she will go in the afterlife. But I do see how her actions have created ripples of change that will last beyond her life. This is as close to a grounded meaning of eternal life as I can define. What we do in this life does matter to the generations to come and perhaps in that way we do live on through the influence and impact we’ve had on others.

There is nothing revolutionary about this way of thinking except perhaps in our current individualistic and egotistical society. Every tradition has some sense of legacy. My middle name in Chinese tells me that I represent the 27th generation in my family. Today, however, we know that we are all part of the same family, the same species living on a relatively small and limited home.

So, the question becomes whether we are supporting humanity’s journey or hindering it. Easy to ask at the high level; difficult to work out the details since we don’t often ask questions about our own humanity. We assume it like an heir to the throne.

In an insulated society like ours we are protected from the debilitating fear of starvation, the violence of war, or the threat of freezing to death. Always a dangerous proposition for a species dependent on its ability to sense the environment around them. While safety gives us the space to explore and understand our world, safety also makes us complacent about what ensures our long-term safety.

Death is a major part of our evolutionary process. Without it, species would not be able to adapt from one generation to the next. We’re lucky in that human beings don’t always have to wait until their genes get updated. We can update our thinking about the world more quickly. Nevertheless, death is the final arbiter as to whether our thinking is sound, whether our civilization is worthy of life.

There are other ways to approach death though. You can take on beliefs that make it easier to deal with maybe even dismiss it altogether. You can decide that life is all about you and enjoy the ride. Or maybe it’s like groundhog day where you spend your life trying all the wrong ways of living before finding a good way to live.

I haven’t come to terms with it. I am caught between wanting to be brutally realistic about death, wanting to transcend it, and well wanting to avoid it.

I have figured out one piece of it though. If I thought about death only as it applies to me or other individuals, I fall into a survivalist “who-lives-who-dies” mentality where death is to be avoided at all costs. When I think about death as a part of life and when I think of myself as being part of a human community, I am better able to make sense of it. So rather than being only concerned with what life insurance policy I need, I am also concerned with why war, famine, disease is such a large part of our civilization.

Strangely enough that puts me at peace with my mortality.

Lunar Eclipse Inspiration

A few days ago I found myself waking up early morning a little after 6:00 am on December 10th for no apparent reason. Then I remembered there was to be a lunar eclipse, so like a little kid, I snuck out of bed, put on my coat and rushed out to watch the moon slowly being eaten by the shadow of the Earth.

It wasn’t long though before I decided I had to share it with everyone, so I rushed back in to grab my camera to point at the night sky. Here is what I caught in 25x time-lapse:

While you get to see 25 minutes compressed into one, I got to reflect on the celestial event and have some sense of why it happens and at what time! It brought me back to my elementary days when I tried to simulate the crescent moon with a flashlight, globe and tennis ball. To think that we were able to come up with Kepler’s laws of motion which could predict the motion of the planets and moons. This seems more magical to me than the old Chinese mythology of a dragon eating the moon. Here was a peaceful reminder that if humankind were to contemplate the heavens and reach for the best of what humankind can offer, then we can achieve much.

So while my ancestors might have been beating drums to scare the dragon away, I could have my moment of inspiration knowing that it won’t be long before the moon returns.

We should learn more like CSI

If a massive traffic accident involving dozens of cars kills, maims, injures hundreds of people, there would be a serious inquiry into why it happened, what can be done about it, and maybe even prosecutions laid if someone fell asleep at the wheel or failed to take due diligence.

Why is it that we have no similar response the world’s biggest economic meltdown?

Reading this you are likely a middle class professional much like me. I’ll admit as much as the next reader, life is pretty darn good in Canada. I didn’t buy into the sub prime mortgage, my portfolio is back up, retail spending is back up, so what is there to worry about? What is to worry about is that the systemic issues that caused the original crash hasn’t been fixed and the people and companies responsible for it have not been held to account.

When an airplane crashes, the airline industry doesn’t just say this component failed or scapegoat the pilot. They look at what made the error possible to begin with. Was it the positioning of the landing gear switch next to the flap controls? Was it the language barrier between the control tower and international flight? They take a deep look at it because otherwise there’d be more plane crashes over time.

When it comes to the economy we want to look for the simple proximate answer. Somebody bought a loan they couldn’t repay. Ha! Dumb person for trusting the banks. The fact that many of these investment banks knowingly exploited, lied, repackaged those assets, bet against it, sold it around the world and made billions doing it is ignored. In this situation, you arrest the con man, not the victim.

Jeffery Sachs, a renown economist, in the following video describes the systemic problem with the global economy today. What’s ironic is that

in the following video says, “It’s not a free market; it’s a game” and a rigged one at that.


Even if you only follow the cursory headline news, you’d know that banks like Goldman Sachs were bailed out with billions or dollars of tax money all while paying themselves handsome bonuses and lobbying against any form of regulation that would restrict their profligate spending.

But a few things get in the way of understanding. First, it’s hard to hear the reality when our portfolio, our retirement savings, our investments depend on the success of the current system. That trillions of dollars evaporated during the financial crisis because most of the wealth “created” was phantom wealth is of no concern to us… as long as we get our returns.

Second, those that make billions have a vested interested in fighting any sort of regulation or control. Any responsible regulatory measure is fought because it’s against the “free-market” or it’s all about “government interference.” There is nothing “free” or fair in letting the elite players set the rules of the games. And a nation without a government is… well likely to be taken over my private, corporate interests. Hardly the American Dream. Unfortunately, while no one has an interest in letting traffic accidents happen, lots of keen individuals have an interest in keeping the money flowing to the top.

Perhaps the most insidious barrier to understanding would be our tendency to react to the words and not their meaning or implication. The knee-jerk reaction in the States to taxation or regulatory control is often accusations of being communist or anti-free-market. Invoke those words, and you stir the passions of an ideology without any investigation into what they mean and if they are in fact served by those who profess it.

The antidote? I think we should be more like CSI but in life. It’s not that I think we can solve cases in a single day (or look so good doing it). However, I do think the ability to investigate the case, put together the pieces, test stories and theories against evidence despite people actively trying to confuse or delude you… it’s a useful skill.

And we can’t afford not to be curious, not to question our assumptions, or challenge those with formal authority and power. Otherwise, they will be happy to structure our assumptions for us.

Are we financially illiterate?

In this video interview, Jeff O’Rourke points to a statistic from the Payroll Association indicating that “60% of Canadians would have financial difficulties if their paycheque was delayed by one week.” Although the conversation was about financial literacy for low income earners, this stat seems to indicate that Canadians of all income levels could benefit from learning how to manage money.

I’ll let Jeff explain his perspective here:

One point he made that didn’t make this cut was one about how we don’t equip university students to learn how to use credit cards. Furthermore it doesn’t help that credit card companies promote credit cards as if they were giving you money.

I was lucky in that I just followed my parent’s cardinal rule of always paying off the credit card every month. However, I didn’t really understand how loans and interest worked until much later in life.

But isn’t this financial literacy problem a symptom of a much larger problem? Which is that our economic structure is based on spending and debt-financing. Isn’t there an inherent motivation to get people to take out loans and spend with the assumption being that people can pay off the loans with interest?

In a way, it’s kind of like our schooling system. In school, we learn how to conform and obey authority. In economics, we learn how to consume and salivate at the latest product.

Maybe we’re not financially illiterate. Maybe we’re doing exactly what we’ve been trained to do. Now that’s a scary thought.

Influencing Nenshi

Wow, I influenced Nenshi’s thinking in a big way. Well, okay it was me and many other voices and cultural assets, but I was a part of it.

While videotaping Nenshi talking at the EPCOR centre about livable cities, I confirmed a rarely acknowledged fact: leadership is not one person; it is an ecology of influences. To hear my mayor talk intelligently about transit oriented land development and community development is a big step up for Calgary and a long time coming.

Ten years ago I was part a non-partisan policy group called Canada25 looking into what made cities great. Naheed was the lead editor and I was part of an urban design research team. You can find the paper (and my name among others) here. Much of the policies you hear from Nenshi today can be traced directly back to some of the research we did.

But of course, it’d be facetious not to recognize where our urban design group drew their thinking from. And that person is none other than Jane Jacobs, the person with no formal training that revolutionized the urban design discipline. It was her keen sense of observation and sensitivity to human relationships that allowed her to figure out how urban spaces affected the health of a community.

It is through her work decades ago that we are now able to find some expression of it through Nenshi as Calgary’s mayor. However, our small urban design group played a critical part in refreshing Jane Jacob’s leading edge work for our context. Ideas do create change; they just take a long time to find good soil to grow in.

There is a significant hazard in all this though. The lessons that gets passed on may be the wrong ones. What made Jane Jacobs’ ideas powerful is not so much the ideas (having pedestrian walking areas or having lots of transit) but the way in which she understood how urban design works. Slavishly copying the specifics of her ideas misses the point of what it takes to build a sustainable community.

Sidebar: This is part of a more general problem of our tendency to see a solution that works in one context, import it without alteration into our context, find that it doesn’t work and then dismissing the person who created the solution.

Nevertheless, I find it tremendously hopeful that good ideals can work. It just takes a long time and takes a lot of people working on it.