The Medium Is the Message or: how Internet killed the video star (and a lot of others)

“They took the credit for your second symphony
 Rewritten by machine on new technology
 And now I understand the problems you can see
 I met your children
 What did you tell them?
– “Video Killed the Radio Star“, The Buggles

Sometimes we take for granted just how much technology has transformed our world. Perhaps it is because day-to-day we don’t really see these changes manifest themselves in dramatic ways. It’s a steady drip, drip, drip – a new iPhone here, a crowdfunding platform there – and before we know it the rules of how things get done in our world have fundamentally changed.

However, every once in awhile that steady drip of change wears away the bedrock enough that something breaks off and we get a clearer glimpse into the future. For me last week I had one of those moments, and it was sparked by an email from a comedian.

But let’s back up first. Way back to August 1, 1981 – when I was just barely 2 months old – and the launch of an new television network: MTV. Playfully, and perhaps prophetically, the first video ever aired on MTV was “Video Killed the Radio Star” by The Buggles (there is a great bit of archival footage at this link of the first 8 1/2 minutes of MTV’s inaugural broadcast including The Buggles music video). As Marshall McLuhan famously noted, the medium is the message. And the birth of MTV did in fact herald a turning point in a new relationship between the producers and consumers of music. What for generations before was something that had a primarily auditory connection – be it radio, vinyl, 8-Track, or cassette – it was now equally part of a visual medium as well. And while that had major implications for how the consumers of music experience it, the implications on the producers of music were equally if not more profound. To become a music star, simply being a talented musician was no longer enough. You needed movie star good looks, or at the very least a movie star quality special effects team. The visual was arguably now as important as the audio. Moreover, to make it big you suddenly needed access to a video studio, video producers, and a means of video distribution – which in the 1980s for practical purposes meant getting a record label to broker a deal with a TV channel. In short, the music industry and all of its associated “rules” had changed and, importantly, the art form itself had evolved into something different in the process. Perhaps for better, perhaps for worse – but there was no going back.

Now lets skip forward to 2016. In the intervening 34 1/2 years, technology has made the world a very different place. Today from a device in my pocket that costs a few hundred dollars I can access essentially the collective knowledge of the human race, including virtually every book, song, image, movie, and television show ever produced. From that same device I can take pictures and record video and audio of better quality than anything that was available to consumers when I was growing up, and then send that picture, video, or audio to anyone, anywhere in the world, with a press of a button for essentially free. I can broadcast video and audio live to individual people or large groups, either one-directionally where they simply watch (think YouTube) or multi-directionally where they can interact with me in real-time either through video, audio, or text (think Skype or Periscope). I can receive money from people anywhere in the world, instantly and securely, through online platforms that both they and I can access at home, at work, riding in a car, or hiking in the woods (think PayPal or Amazon). And if those people like what they hear, see, or read, they can send it to everyone they know via a social networking platform with another push of a button from anywhere, at anytime (think Twitter or Facebook). All of this is still with just the smartphone in my pocket. If I want to lay down a few thousand dollars – not insignificant funds but less than say the cost of a decent used car – I can buy a laptop computer with the hardware and software needed to process and edit audio-visual content roughly on par with professional studios. For a few thousand more, I can get the equipment needed to record video and audio content of quality also roughly on par with those same studios, and certainly of high enough quality to satisfy all but the most discerning of potential consumers whom are increasingly going to likely be consuming that content via a small screen in their hands and a small speaker in their ears.

In short, the cost – both in terms of dollars and time/effort – of producing, distributing, and (importantly) getting paid for creative content is rapidly approaching a number that is effectively close enough to zero to be a non-factor. Increasingly the only real barrier to entry is inspiration, talent, hard-work, and vision…you know, the small stuff.

In his 2013 book “The End of Big“, Nicco Mele talked about this very phenomenon when it comes to creative professionals. He described a model made possible by the Internet and the technologies I describe above, where to make a comfortable living through producing creative content (say in the ballpark of $100k per year) instead of needing to go through a large distributor where you get a cut of 10 cents per consumer of your content and thus need to reach 1 million people (or transactions) a year, you can instead produce something that 1000 people love enough that they will give you $100 a year (which is coincidentally almost exactly what a Netflix subscription costs). This is a relatively simple idea that changes the economics behind art and the creative process. It literally was not possible to do at scale until just the past few years when technology crossed some undefined threshold of capability and cost that opened up these new fronteirs. And as with the birth of MTV, whenever an art form leaps to a new medium, it not just changes how we consume the art but it changes the nature of the art itself.

Back to the email from the comedian. Louis C.K. to be specific. Aside from being acclaimed for his comedy, over the past few years Louis C.K. has also become known for the enetrapruneral ways in which he has used technology to bring his art to the masses. He actually came onto my radar in late 2011 when he launched one of his first big experiments of this type. Instead of the usual way of getting a new comedy special out (think HBO), he decided that for his next one he would film and produce it himself and make it available via his website for a flat $5 fee. It’s not cheap to produce a broadcast quality comedy special – he pegged the production costs of “Live at the Beacon Theater” at around $250,000 – but still reasonable enough that ticket sales alone in a 2,500+ seat theatre like Beacon could cover the majority of production costs. But the real innovation was on the distribution side, as it broke new ground to produce a professional A-list comedy special that had a direct-to-consumer business model. It is no accident that it took until 2011 for this to happen as it required (at least) three big technological innovations to reach the mainstream to enable it: high-speed internet access; high quality video playback software/hardware in consumer grade computers; reliable and easy to use online payment systems. He also made a very interesting choice (some may say a gamble) to make the access to the material as simple for the consumer as possible by putting no technological copyright protections into the files. It was a gamble because this decision made it much easier for people to distribute the material to those who haven’t paid for it, but he described his reasons as such:

“To those who might wish to “torrent” this video: look, I don’t really get the whole “torrent” thing. I don’t know enough about it to judge either way. But I’d just like you to consider this: I made this video extremely easy to use against well-informed advice. I was told that it would be easier to torrent the way I made it, but I chose to do it this way anyway, because I want it to be easy for people to watch and enjoy this video in any way they want without “corporate” restrictions.

Please bear in mind that I am not a company or a corporation. I’m just some guy. I paid for the production and posting of this video with my own money. I would like to be able to post more material to the fans in this way, which makes it cheaper for the buyer and more pleasant for me. So, please help me keep this being a good idea. I can’t stop you from torrenting; all I can do is politely ask you to pay your five little dollars, enjoy the video, and let other people find it in the same way.”

Turns out that against all the prevailing conventional wisdom it paid off. Big time. Within 12 days of releasing the comedy special on his website he had brought in over $1 million. Not bad for a little web video.

Fast forward 4 years and 1 month. January 30th I get an email with the title “A brand new thing from Louis C.K.”. It was a simple four line email that read as follows:

Hi there.

Horace and Pete episode one is available for download. $5.

Go here to watch it.

We hope you like it.



What is “Horace and Pete”? Well it turns out that Louis had been working in secret on a new, self-financed project, which through his January 30th email to the presumably tens of thousands (perhaps hundreds of thousands?) of people subscribed to his email list he dropped onto the world. It’s not standup comedy. It’s not a movie, and it’s not really a TV show either (at a 67min run time, the first episode falls somewhere between TV show length and feature film length). Probably the best descriptor for the feel of it in terms of both visuals and pacing is like watching a stage play.

It also bears some resemblance to watching live theater in another way: immediacy. It isn’t “live” per say, but it also doesn’t feel like a usual TV show with weeks/months of production or a movie with months/years of production. It was released on Saturday, January 30th and references events that will happen two days in the future (Iowa caucuses) and events that happened two days in the past (Trump skipping the Iowa Republican debate). It’s “live-ish”.

But perhaps the most striking thing about watching Horace and Pete is that Louis C.K. let us experience something that we almost never get to in our modern publicity filled, media saturation environment: the novelty of surprise. As he said in his own words in his follow-up email a few days after its release:

Part of the idea behind launching it on the site was to create a show in a new way and to provide it to you directly and immediately, without the usual promotion, banner ads, billboards and clips that tell you what the show feels and looks like before you get to see it for yourself. As a writer, there’s always a weird feeing that as you unfold the story and reveal the characters and the tone, you always know that the audience will never get the benefit of seeing it the way you wrote it because they always know so much before they watch it. And as a TV watcher I’m always delighted when I can see a thing without knowing anything about it because of the promotion. So making this show and just posting it out of the blue gave me the rare opportunity to give you that experience of discovery.

So if you’ve made it this far and are still reading 2,000 words into this blog post (congratulations!) you may about now be asking yourself: what exactly is your point here Ryan? Good question. It’s three things I think:

  1. Sometime in the past 5 years or so we’ve crossed a threshold where a lot of the disruptions to how things get done in what I will call “the creative industry” have actually started to manifest in a real way. Real in that we are not just talking about people in their basements making funny cat videos that go viral on YouTube, but rather world-class artists starting engage in projects in the order of magnitude of 6 to 7 figures using novel business models and creative processes (a non-Louis C.K. example: the Veronica Mars movie that was produced by raising over $5.7 million from 91k+ backers on Kickstarter).
  2. All of this is only possible because the advancements of necessary technologies reached a certain level of sophistication and adoption. Sure we’ve been able to watch video on the internet and make online payments since the 1990s (for example, PayPal’s money transfer service launched in 1999). But it took these three trends – internet bandwidth, video processing and display power, and online payment systems – almost two decades to reach maturity.
  3. That same technological maturity has also now reached a point where it is changing the art form itself. The medium IS the message. This isn’t just about watching a TV show in a new, more convenient way (think Netflix). The fact that increasingly people can become an active participant in the creative process – not just passive consumers of the end product – can allow for novel new hybrid forms of artistic expression. We can experience something different, not just experience something differently, because of technological advancement.

To belabour that last point for a moment, this blog post isn’t just about the fact that Louis C.K. has put together a live-ish, TV show-ish type thing that you can buy off his website for $5. It is that this is the tip of the iceberg of new ways of creating, distributing, and financing creative content which is starting to produce whole new types of entertainment. Just a few examples that have come across my radar in recent months which may give some hint to the many paths this could take:

  • Platforms like Patreon which provide the ability for content creators to receive regular subscription income from their fans. For example, the brilliant Wait But Why? blog (which was the inspiration for my Life Calendar project) now receives over $12,000 a month via Patreon. It’s a fascinating example of a non-advertising, non-paywall based business model for a blog.
  • Twitch is a website that primarily is used for video-game fans to watch other video-game fans play video games, and (sometimes) pay them for the pleasure of doing so. On the surface it sounds like an absurd idea: why on earth would you want to watch someone else play a video game, let alone pay to watch someone else play a video game? Yet there are Twitch channels that have 100,000s of followers, with popular channel creators able to make a living based off subscriptions or “tips” that you leave through the website (product sponsorship/placement deals seem to be common too for the most popular ones). These range from standard video game playthroughs (e.g. “PartiallyRoyal” whom has 60k+ followers on his Twitch channel, 400k+ subscribers to his YouTube channel, and whom I am giving this hat-tip to as I ended up spending a lot of time watching his Fallout 4 videos when I was flat on my back in November recovering from my back injury and in need of a distraction from the pain. It worked.) to the esoteric such as Grandma Shirley (a 79-year old grandmother with over 100k+ subscribers on her YouTube channel. Watching her play video games is an adorably unexpected treat.) and the “pianoimproman” with 180k+ Twitch followers of his madcap piano improv stylings.
  • The Smule Sing! Karaoke app takes the experience of karaoke, adds in some auto-tuning technology to make even the worst singer sound at least somewhat half-decent, and then allows people to sing together with other karaoke enthusiasts across the world. Perhaps most interestingly, they have started partnering with popular artists such as Jessie J and Carly Rae Jepsen to allow fans to sing karaoke duets with them (not in real-time per say, but it is still a unique new way to engage with fans in a more personal way).

Our generation gets to witness, and shape, an evolution in art and entertainment. That’s something…well…pretty cool. I won’t pretend to know where this all ends up, nor will I pretend that this will necessarily all be sunshine and rainbows. As just one example of a potential storm cloud on the horizon, these same technological advancements that lower the barriers to entry of distributing content also can further contribute to fragmentation of media consumption. What is the impact on society when we have fewer and fewer truly shared experiences, and indeed increasingly only are exposed to ideas that already conform with our existing world-view and biases? The short answer is that it probably isn’t good.

However, as a relentless optimist I will end this with saying that on balance I am reasonably hopefully that the new opportunities for expression and sharing being opened up will be a net positive. I’ve been thinking about these issues a lot in recent months as one of the side projects I am pursuing in earnest right now will take advantage of some of these trends to hopefully create something fairly unique to capture and preserve some of my ancestor’s cultural and spiritual heritage and practices (more details to come in a few weeks).

Moral of the story: Go forth and create. There has never been a better (or easier) time in human history to tell your story.


What’s Next?*

Hard to believe that my last post here was almost 6 months ago. Though the cliché about time flying when you are having fun would seem appropriate, it wouldn’t exactly be accurate in this case. The past 6 months have been…well…weird. Some great experiences to be sure, including some amazing travel opportunities through my work with the OECD to Japan, Italy and Morocco. Decisions were made about what I would be doing in 2016, and though I was offered an opportunity to stay in Paris at the OECD for at least another year I decided for a number of reasons that I would instead return to Canada at the end of my contract in January. Then I wound up flat on my back. Literally.

At the end of October, after getting back to Paris from a fairly intense 6 weeks of travel, I started suffering from my severe lower back pain. While I have dealt with this type of thing before from time to time, this felt different. Normally after about a week or so it would ease up, but this time it wasn’t and the intensity was unlike anything I had experienced before. I couldn’t work. I couldn’t sleep. Doing even the most basic things – like getting dressed – was torture. After seeing some doctors and getting an MRI the diagnosis was that it was a herniated disk in my lower spine that was pushing on a nerve. The good news (relatively speaking) was that I likely wouldn’t need surgery, however I was told it would take 2-3 months for it to fully heal and get back to normal.

By this point it was late November and I had gone through a month of spending essentially 23+ hours a day stuck inside my apartment in Paris. It was looking like it would be at least until Christmas before I was starting to be more functional again, with a decent margin of uncertainty around that. Thus I made the relatively big decision very quickly to end my contract early and head back to Canada to finish my recovery at home. Decision was made on a Tuesday and I was in Saskatoon by Thursday night; there is something to be said for travelling light.

Six weeks later I am happy to report that I am feeling much better. While I wouldn’t say I am 100% back to normal yet, it is without doubt a significant improvement from where I was at in November. Going through this experience I couldn’t help think of this bit by my favourite comedian Louis CK – just change “ankle” for “back” and it pretty much hits the nail on the head:

In the midst of all this, November also saw Paris hit again by the ugly spectre of terrorism. I was safe in my apartment when the rampage began, though the attack hit close to home for me in a more metaphorical sense. Having been in Paris for almost a year, this kind of atrocity feels different when it happens in a city whose streets I have now walked and whose people I now know much better. One of the restaurants that was attacked by gunmen – Café Bonne Bière – I had sat at just a few weeks earlier on a Friday evening with good friends of mine from Ottawa and their young daughter whom were visiting. One of my closest friends in Paris had been out at one of the other cafes that was attacked that same evening – fate had her leave just a couple hours before the gunman went on their rampage. Most people I talked to in Paris were no more than one or two degrees of separation away from someone who was directly impacted by the attacks. It was a strange bookend of my time in Paris, with the Charlie Hebdo attack in January happening just days after my arrival and this latest one happening just days before my departure.

So what now? On a practical level, I don’t start work back in Ottawa with the federal government until April 1, thus I’ve got almost three months yet of unscheduled time ahead of me which is a unique gift. I have a few personal projects that have been kicking around for quite some time (one of which the origins go back to this post from 2013) which I am hoping to make some progress on. I’m using Saskatoon as my home base for the time being, but I’ll probably travel a bit over the next few months to visit some family, exact plans as of yet TBD. Before long I will need to start preparing in earnest for my reintegration into life in Ottawa, including finding a place to live.

I also need some time and mental space to reflect. For the past few years I have used this blog to occasionally share and reflect on both my experiences but also some of my thoughts and feelings on life’s journey. It isn’t always a comfortable thing to do, but I think it is a useful one. I described 2013 as my most difficult year to date. 2014 I talked about as a year that set the stage for the next act. Thinking back on 2015 I can probably best describe it as an “apéritif” year, one the cleanses the palate and stimulates the appetite. It was an amazing year, don’t get me wrong, with opportunities that included travelling to 10 countries and 5 continents over the course of the year. Moving to France, exploring life in Paris including some wonderful people from around the world that I met, and the professional opportunities for growth and learning through my work with the OECD were all great experiences. But it always felt temporary, never quite like I was home in any sense of the word – hence the “apéritif year”.

The main course, I suspect, is yet to come.


*Those who know me will know that I consider The West Wing to be the greatest TV series ever created. I have claimed before that anything smart I know about politics I learnt from watching that show, something I probably still agree with (seasoned with some practical experience in the intervening 15 years). “What’s next?” was fictional President Bartlett’s catch-phrase, said not out of fear or anxiety but as a signal that he was ready to move on to the next issue that required his attention (though no doubt it still contained a hint of double entendre to it). It struck me as quite appropriate for this update on many levels.


Halfway to somewhere

Last week I geeked out a bit on the New Horizons mission to Pluto, however I felt that a post updating on life in Paris was in order as well. This past week marked the halfway point in my contract with the OECD. Talking with a few friends and family back home recently they remarked their surprise as to how time flies. And while in part I agree with that, it equally feels to me like I have been here for MUCH longer than 6 1/2 months.

In part that feeling is no doubt because a lot has happened in this relatively short period of time. Aside from the adjustment to a very different environment, including a new job in a new organization, I’ve also had the chance to travel more than I expected and thus get a glimpse of a number of new places. Since my last update I had the opportunity to spend a few days in Amsterdam and then a few weeks later zip across the Atlantic to spend a couple of days in Quito, Ecuador where I was presenting on open data at a conference of Supreme Audit Institutions.

I’m now enjoying a period of about two months of uninterrupted time in Pairs itself, which is a blessing in that I feel like this past while I haven’t really had much of a chance to explore the city itself. There is a pretty steady trickle of visitors coming through Paris over the next couple of months (one of the benefits of living in one of the big international cities of the world); it will be good to see some familiar faces and a great excuse to get out and explore a bit more.

So what’s next? Already the next few months are starting to fill up. I’m going to be making a short trip to Germany at the end of August, followed by a return to Slovakia in September and then a much bigger voyage to Japan at the end of September for one of the major projects I am working on. There will likely be family coming for a visit in the fall, and perhaps a few friends as well. By that time, I will be well on my way to having to make some decisions as to my answer to the question “what’s next”. As is often the case in life, there will no doubt be some different paths that present themselves. For now, the best I can do is try enjoy the moment and follow my gut when the time comes.


Geeking Out: Pluto Edition

Something a lot of people, even people who know me very well, probably don’t know about me: I’m a bit of a closet space geek. I’ve been a science fiction fan for as long as I can remember, and as a child of the 80s grew up on Star Trek, Star Wars, and the rest of the usual sci-fi classics of my generation (and of course readers of this blog will know that in recent years I have become a pretty big Dr. Who fan). I would always pick up sci-fi novels when I was a teenager, and I particularly remember loving the Foundation series by Asimov. But beyond Sci-Fi I was always interested in the actual science behind space, and still remember finding books in my elementary school library about rocketry, quantum physics, and space exploration which I devoured (or at least tried to, most of it was way over my head). I built and flew model rockets. I even went to “space camp” a couple times.

We probably all remember at least some of our answers to what we wanted to be when we grew up. There were 4 distinct phases to mine: Ghostbuster (until I realized that I am actually pretty scared of ghosts) followed by Paleontologist (until I realized that digging in the dirt VERY slowly isn’t actually that much fun) followed by what I am going to rather inexactly call “space dude”. Astronaut is of course always a sexy job, but I was realistic even at that age that I didn’t exactly have the body type of a test pilot. Being a rocket scientist sounded pretty good as well, and I remember some pretty serious day dreams in my pre-teen years of pursuing something in the engineering or science realms related to space. However those dreams soon enough came crashing back to Earth (pardon the pun) with the following realization: I neither am very good at, nor very much enjoy, math. And that appeared to be pretty much a career limiting move when it comes to the space sciences.

Thus I eventually settled on my last, best destiny: public policy. However over the last number of years I’ve realized that there is actually an overlap in my professional pursuits and my childhood interests in that space policy is not only a thing, but arguably an increasingly important one. Though my day job for much of the past decade has focused on a very different type of intersection between technology and public policy, I still love reading and learning about all things space related.

So I have been following with great interest the big year for space exploration that has been happening with the first visits to some of the more inaccessible reaches of our solar system. First there was the landing in November of the Philae lander on comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, the first ever “soft” landing on a comet (“soft” being in quotation marks as it ended up being a bit of a bumpy ride). Then the Dawn spacecraft using a remarkable ion propulsion system became the first ever spacecraft to orbit two different extraterrestrial bodies when it entered into orbit around Ceres, the largest object in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Amongst other things, it discovered the enigmatic “bright spots” on Ceres’ surface which have still yet to be explained.

However for most people the main attraction of the 2014/15 space exploration season is taking place as we speak. The New Horizons spacecraft which launched from Earth some 9 1/2 years ago, is about to reach Pluto with it’s closest approach taking place in just a few hours at 7:49am EST July 14th. This is the first time we will have ever seen Pluto up close, the last of the major bodies in our Solar System to receive a visit from us humans. The Voyager era was before my time, so this is really the first time in my lifetime that we are getting to experience the thrill of newly exploring a major body in our solar system. Up until a few weeks ago, Pluto and its moons were nothing but a few pixels in even our best telescopes. But now with even just the preliminary images we are starting to get a fascinating look at this previously unknown world.

Image of Pluto taken by New Horizons on July 12 from a distance of 1.6 million miles (2.5 million kilometers). Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute
Image of Pluto taken by New Horizons on July 12 from a distance of 1.6 million miles (2.5 million kilometers). Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

For those who are interested in learning more about the New Horizons mission and following it as starts sending back data from its flyby, by far the best resource I have come across is Emily Lakdawalla’s blog on Start with her “What to expect when you’re expecting a flyby” post and you can follow the breadcrumbs from there. I also have a Twitter list of over 100 space peeps which I have been slowly building which will provide you with a pretty good live look at what is going on as many of them are following the final approach to the Pluto system at the mission control centre.

Aside from the hard science of the mission, Pluto holds a special place in our collective psyche and expect to see some more light-hearted takes on this new chapter of space exploration. Earlier this week I stumbled upon this music video tribute to Pluto which aside from being fun and catchy, is actually also surprisingly touching:

As the high-resolution images start coming in over the next few days, no doubt Pluto will be gracing newscasts and newspapers around the globe. In fact this is likely to be one of the highest profile moments for space exploration we have seen in many years. Which I think is more than a little sad.

Sad because there are so many amazing things happening in the field of space exploration right now which for most people are flying completely under the radar. The commercialization of space exploration with the emergence of companies like Space X and Virgin Galactic. The rapid advancement of space programs in non-traditional space-faring nations such as India and China (In the past 18 months alone China landed a rover on the Moon and India put a probe into orbit around Mars). The search for exoplanets which has already found thousands of planets around stars in just our little corner of the galaxy. Big advancements in astronomy including the planned launch in 2018 of the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope. The beginnings of a mission to send a probe to Jupiter’s moon Europa to look for signs of life beneath its frozen oceans. The development of the Space Launch System and Orion Program by NASA with plans within the next decade to send humans on a near-Earth asteroid re-direction mission, and possibly back to the Moon or on to Mars – which will be the first time since the Apollo Moon landings that there has been a serious program to send humans beyond Low Earth Orbit. I could go on, and each of these topics could merit not just a post but volumes onto themselves.

All that to say, there are some amazing things happening right now in the realm of space exploration. Yet not only is the public awareness of what is happening in this field shockingly low, but so too is government support. For example, spending on space programs make up just a fraction of what is spent on the military. With some quick Wikipedia research, here is a snapshot of how annual expenditures compare in the top ten spending countries on space vs. their military expenditures for the most recent years available.

Country Space Program Military %
United States 17,800,000,000 518,000,000,000 3.44%
Russia 5,600,000,000 70,000,000,000 8.00%
France 2,500,000,000 53,100,000,000 4.71%
Japan 2,460,000,000 47,700,000,000 5.16%
Germany 2,000,000,000 43,900,000,000 4.56%
Italy 1,800,000,000 24,300,000,000 7.41%
China 1,300,000,000 129,400,000,000 1.00%
India 1,100,000,000 45,200,000,000 2.43%
Canada 488,000,000 20,100,000,000 2.43%
United Kingdom 414,000,000 61,800,000,000 0.67%

With space program spending being in the single digits as a percentage comparison to military spending in each of these countries, that means it is just a fraction of a percentage point compared to the overall national budget. For example, in the United States NASA’s budget is currently less than 0.5% of the national budget, and even during the hight of the Apollo program was less than 4.5%.

My point being this: so many amazing things are happening in the field of space exploration in spite of the remarkably low levels of funding, just imagine what could be done if for example we collectively doubled humanities’ spending on space programs by re-purposing a few percentage points of military spending to the peaceful exploration of our cosmic neighbourhood. The breadth and speed at which our reach, knowledge, and experience as a species would increase would be staggering. Moments like the New Horizons mission remind us that we are living in the future; but that future won’t last long if our public policy priorities don’t follow.


Another Line on the Life Calendar

“We all change. When you think about it, we are all different people all through our lives and that’s okay, that’s good, you’ve got to keep moving, so long as you remember all the people that you used to be.”
The Doctor, Dr. Who, The Time of the Doctor

Last week I got to start a new line on my Life Calendar (for those who aren’t familiar with my Life Calendar project, see here and here for the back-story). Since my last update to this project, the boxes have changed colour, a new city is on the right-hand margin, and another “Dr. Who moment” has been added.

Life Calendar - May 2015

So what have I done with those 21 new squares on the calendar? I’ve moved across the Atlantic and made significant progress on the adjustment process to my new (even if in the grand scheme of things, temporary) home in Paris. I have met dozens, if not hundreds, of new people from literally every corner of the globe – among them some wonderful colleagues and a diverse set of new friends. I’ve had the opportunity both through work and personally to start travelling throughout Europe with trips to Slovakia, Northern Ireland, London, and within France to the Champaign region (with a stop to see the impressive cathedral of Remis) and to the Medieval Disneyland that is Provins, while of course continuing to explore the amazing city that is Paris. I’ve had the pleasure over the past few months to host a couple of friends and also my father who made an extended visit in April (my tour guide skills are getting better by the day – in the 3 1/2 weeks my father was here we estimated we did about 150KMs of walking the streets of Paris and London!). I also made a trip back to North America to attend my 5-year reunion at the Harvard Kennedy School for a weekend of reconnecting with the many amazing people I shared that time with, and years worth of catching-up and hugs squeezed into a few days. Last, but not least, I’ve continued to broaden my professional horizons through my work at the OECD in gaining a better understanding of how digital government initiatives are unfolding across the globe and starting to move forward on a few projects that will help countries accelerate their progress.

Of course I would be remiss to leave this update at that; guilty of what in the social media era is best known as “selective sharing“. Yes there have been amazing moments over the past 5 months, but there have been some tough ones too. In what has become a common reflection amongst other ex-pats I have talked with, it gets harder the older you get to just pack up your life and start fresh. It’s a unique sensation to suddenly find yourself on your own living somewhere you know virtually no one; family, friends, and even familiar memories an ocean away. As I am starting to discover, it strengthens you in ways that you weren’t even aware needed strengthening.


A short update on life in Paris

Well it has been almost two months since my inaugural post from Paris. Despite good intentions, I haven’t been able to find the time to sit down and put virtual pen to virtual paper on a proper post. Thankfully I never had any clearly committed to posting schedule, thus I will take inspiration from one of my favourite blogs which has just recently updated its posting schedule from “New Posts Every Tuesday” to “New Posts Every Sometimes”…sounds about right!

As always, for those interested in what I am up to as part of my European adventures, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook are the best ways to keep up with my goings on. The long and the short of it: life is good.

Sometime in February I crossed the threshold when moving to a new city where one goes from feeling like a tourist to feeling like I actually live here (if not quite yet at home). It’s a good place to be at coming up on my third month here and I’m feeling more and more settled and comfortable in Paris. The language barrier in day-to-day life is something that I’m conscious of, but my rudimentary (and hopefully slowly improving) French, combined with the occasional need for an impromptu game of Charades, has been enough to navigate most situations. There have been a lot of little differences I’ve noticed in daily life here; in fact that is a blog post in and of itself that I plan to write at some point. However on balance most of the little differences fall into either the “good” or “interesting” category and I can say 2 1/2 months into this journey that I am very happy that I took this particular leap of faith.

Work started to kick into high-gear over the past month and I have to say that I am grateful for the opportunities to travel and learn that this position is affording me. I am currently working on projects related to public governance reforms in both Northern Ireland and Slovakia. Over the past month I have had the opportunity to travel to Belfast and Bratislava to learn first-hand about their systems of government and work with their officials to help identify areas for improvement, specifically in my case in the realm of what we call digital government. I’m also working on a number of broader projects with our OECD member countries in the realm of digital government, taking a particular focus on our work on best practices in government use of social media. Last month I co-authored a blog post with a colleague of mine titled “Measuring Government Impact in a Social Media World” which builds on some research that our team published late last year. We got some good online traction from the blog post and even a few media articles in Chile.

So that’s it for now! I will wish you all well and leave you with a few pictures from my travels over the past month and my continuing exploration of Paris.


My colleague Jeremy took some amazing pictures from our time in Belfast which you can find at this link (I’m sharing with his permission as they put anything I took to shame!)

I will only add to his great collection a shot of the very impressive Titanic Museum that I had a chance to visit on the Saturday morning before I flew back to Paris, along with the scale model so you can see how big the actual ship was compared to the museum (each corner of the museum is the same size as the bow of the ship):




The “UFO Bridge”:IMG_2382

Panoramic view of the Slovakian Parliament and the Bratislava Castle:IMG_2391

View of the Slovakian Parliament from the front steps:IMG_2405

I don’t know what these are actually called, but I call them “Slovakia Sticks” and they were great! 🙂IMG_2414


The small-scale replica of the Statue of Liberty at the Point de Grenelle near my apartment:IMG_2434

Speaking of my neighbourhood, some poetry on the metro by the writer/poet that my street is named after:IMG_2184

A few other landmarks of Paris:IMG_2201IMG_2441IMG_2131 IMG_2129


Walking in the City of Lights

It has been almost three weeks since I arrived in Paris, and what a remarkable time it has been so far. The first weekend I was here, as I was trying to shake off my jet lag and explore this new city, the title for this blog post instantly jumped into my mind. Paris is a city of immense beauty. Literally around every corner is something remarkable, and as someone who has always enjoyed reflective walks at night it occurred to me on my very first of those walks in Paris that I may have found myself in the best city in the world for such an activity! But it would be disingenuous of me not to address the elephant in the room first.

When I got on the plane in Saskatoon the morning of January 2nd I couldn’t have begun to image how the world’s gaze would be on Paris just a few days later, so tragically for reasons of violence and hatred. Mine is a generation who have known international violence and terror in a way that Canadians haven’t for a long time. Terrorism is, almost by its very definition, shocking. It is designed to disrupt normal life and force everyone to pay attention. 9/11 happened while I was still an undergraduate student at Carleton University. I still remember how I felt that morning and that uneasy sense that the world was changing, that we were at one of those points that would divide events into “before” and “after”, and the pit in our collective stomachs waiting for the other shoe to drop.

It is remarkable the number of people I know in my life who served or were involved in some way in the Afghanistan war. During my time at the Harvard Kennedy School I met so many more American friends who were impacted by their involvement in the Iraq war. Having lived in Boston for two years the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 hit me in a personal way, particularly as I was checking social media constantly that day to make sure that those friends still living there were okay. Three months ago I was on the receiving end of that concern from family and friends when the shooting took place in Ottawa that killed a Canadian Forces honour guard at the tomb of the unknown solder and led to a gun battle in the halls of Parliament. Then on morning of January 7th of this year, just four days after arriving in Paris, news started filtering out about the horrific attacks at the offices of Charlie Hebdo. More violence would follow in the days after as all of France, indeed much of the world, held its collective breath as the manhunt for the gunmen raged and culminated in the hostage stand-offs that took place two days later.

I shared some thoughts with Saskatoon radio station 650 CKOM in the immediate aftermath of the attack on Charlie Hebdo which you can listen to here. While I have had some more time to process everything that has happened, I still ultimately feel the same way I did when I gave the interview: life goes on. Indeed it occurs to me that in some ways this is nothing new, and every generation faces their own demons. Today acts of horror in our world get amplified given the instant interconnectedness that technology brings us, but they have always been with us and it is important not to forget that in so many important ways the world is in fact getting better.

I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t unnerving to now see police and soldiers with assault rifles patrolling the streets of Paris. However, one of the great strengths and weaknesses of the human condition is that our memories are short, and even now I get a sense that things are starting to move back to a sense of normality. In the face of such madness all that can really be done is to go on and live our lives, stay vigilant of course, and perhaps most importantly, try to do what we can to make the world a little bit of a better place.

That is after all why I am here (The OECD‘s slogan is “Better Policies for Better Lives”). This has always promised to be an incredible professional and personal opportunity for growth, and the past few weeks have only reinforced that for me. In many ways I feel like I have had little more than a glimpse of Paris since I got here, but if there was one word for me to describe this place it is “magical”. After the intensity that always accompanies a move to a new city, I’m starting to feel settled. I’ve met new colleagues and friends from literally dozens of countries, and have begun to enjoy the pleasures, both simple and grand, of life in Paris and this new experience. There is so much more to come, and I look forward to sharing this journey with you!

I will leave you with just a few images from my walks in the City of Lights so far (P.S. I’ve started using my Instagram account more regularly, so for those who are on it follow me for my latest photos from my time here). Unlike some things in life, I can truly say that the great monuments and sights of Paris are so much more impressive in person than a picture can hope to capture.

ETower from across River nightOblest and Wheel Louve Louve facing West  Arc de Triomphe


New Chapters, Life Calendars, and Dr. Who

As some of you might know, last month I got some big news about how I am going to be spending 2015:

In just a few days I am going to be taking this next leap in my life’s journey, moving to Paris for at least the next year to work on digital government issues for the OECD. This is an incredibly exciting opportunity and I think will prove to be quite an adventure professionally and personally.

Preparing for this kind of a transition is obviously an opportunity to pause and reflect. All the more so with it being the holidays and New Year’s Eve upon us, a time of year I have always found full of self-reflection. Last year at this time I posted about my reflections on 2013, which I described as the toughest year of my life to date. I predicted that 2014 would see me move into a new phase of life professionally and personally, which proved to be true even if not in the ways that I expected (but then again, when does life ever unfold in the ways that we expect).

2014 was very much about setting the stage for the next act. I had to make some choices at various points throughout the year to close certain doors in my life, often without knowing which ones would open up in turn. My family and I went through the difficult experience of losing my step-mother to cancer this fall. There were real moments of joy this year as well, and many reasons to celebrate victories, births, and important milestones of those in my life. More than anything, when I look back on 2014 it strikes me as a year where I learnt more about myself.

One of the exercises that I started in 2014 was creating a “life calendar”. For those who have been following this blog (or my Facebook or Twitter feeds) you may have read a bit about this project of mine. I’ve done some further refinement of my life calendar since my last post in September, and I’m happy to share with you the fruits of my labours:

Life Calendar - Beta 2

You will notice the yellow squares with numbers I’ve added throughout my timeline. Those represent major transitions in my life, or as I have come to think of them, my “Dr. Who moments” (bare with me for a moment and I will circle back to explain what that means). These are major transition points in my life which launched significantly new chapters. They were all instigated by a career change, a move to a new city, or in many cases both. They also involved having new people become a part of my life, and in many cases having to say goodbye to others. Arguably only #1 and #6 were truly transformational, with everything in-between being smaller chapters within the same narrative arc. A new number is going to be added to the calendar next week, and I am fairly confident that #8 will fall into the “truly transformational” category.

Which brings me to Dr. Who. Last year around this time thanks to the magic of Netflix I started watching the modern seasons of Dr. Who (starting from the 2005 re-boot), the British sci-fi series that has been running for over 50 years. For those who have never seen it, the central character, the Doctor as he is known, is a Time Lord that travels through time and space having frequent madcap adventures while saving the universe. While the Doctor is for practical purposes immortal (though not completely), if he is fatally injured he goes through a process of “regeneration” where he takes on a new physical appearance. Through this convenient plot device there have been 12 different actors who have played the Doctor since 1963.

Predictably, I loved Dr. Who and ended up gobbling up all 8 seasons of the modern re-boot in fairly short order. Immersing myself in it, I soon realized that beyond the sci-fi plot lines there is a deeper metaphor being explored throughout the Dr. Who series. To me, it speaks to the nature of the journey that is our lives. How the journey itself changes us and we can appear, at least to others, to become different people at different points along the way. How some people travel with us for part of the journey (the Doctor often has a travelling companion), even sometimes through multiple regenerations, but more often than we would like through choice or circumstance our travelling companions have to take different paths.

The best expression of this metaphor in the series is the final episode of David Tennant’s run as the Doctor, titled “The End of Time”. Throughout the episode he knows due to a prophecy that he will soon be needing to regenerate and struggles with moving on to this next phase of his journey:

Later in the episode, after he is critically injured and knows that he only has a little time left before he regenerates into the next Doctor, he takes some quick trips through time and space to say goodbye to the people that were closest to him through his most recent travels (the clip below captures the last couple of these goodbyes; unfortunately I can’t find one with the full scene):

The past month I have spent a lot of time saying my own goodbyes to the people that have been important to me these past few years. I’m truly excited about the journey ahead, but I would be lying if I said that there weren’t moments of pause in the realization that this really is the start of something new, and everything that means.

So as I begin this new chapter, one of my New Year’s resolutions is to blog more regularly, in part to keep my friends, family and colleagues updated on my Paris adventures. If you are interested, I’d encourage you to to sign-up for email updates from my blog through the subscription box below:

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Wishing you and your loved ones health and happiness for 2015! À la prochaine!


Life Calendar (Beta Version)

Those who follow me on Twitter or Facebook may know that about two months ago I bought a “Life Calendar” from the wonderful blog “Wait But Why” (and specifically, inspired by this blog post). After putting down $15 and waiting a few weeks, I had my very own 2 foot by 3 foot life calendar.

Life Calendar - blank

There are 52 boxes across the horizontal axis (one for every week of the year) and 90 rows down the vertical axis (one for every year of a 90 year life – above the average, but still a reasonably achievable goal). That’s it. Your entire life graphed on one piece of paper. I have to admit, unrolling it for the first time, tacking it to the wall, and stepping back and looking at it was an interesting mix of humility, inspiration, and terror.

Over the past month I have had some (unexpected) time for reflection and to work on a few projects that I have had kicking around, including this one. I decided to take a first crack at visualizing the contours of my life using the calendar as my canvas. I must admit that I underestimated how much time it would take to actually remember/research my life down to the granularity of week-by-week and convert it to calendar that starts on May 28th, decide what to include on the calendar and how to represent it in a meaningful way, and then put pen/marker to paper.

The fruits of my labours, what I am going to call the “beta version” of my Life Calendar, is below along with a rough legend to help you make a bit of sense of the colour scheme:

Life Calendar -  Beta 1 Life Calendar - Legend

A few explanatory notes, followed by a some initial observations and questions. First, the legend should hopefully make at least a cursory review of the Life Calendar possible by anyone (those who know me well will probably have a bit easier of a time figuring out what exactly is what – I’ve admittedly done a lot of different things in the first 33 years of my life and kept the categories fairly general as a result). In each week’s box, only the top half is coloured in. This represents the “primary activity” I was doing that week (put another way, that week what was my most likely answer to the question “what do you do?”) – more on what, if anything, I will do with the bottom half of each square later. Along the far right side you will see city names. Those specify which city I lived in for the majority of that year of my life (every year had a pretty clear winner). I had considered colouring in the the gaps between boxes to indicate different cities lived, but I was not only running out of colours but also worried that it would make the whole calendar less legible. I did try the grey border around the two times I lived outside of Canada…not sure how well that worked in the end.

I’m still taking this in and what it means. It really is powerful to see one’s entire life graphically represented at a glance like this. A few initial things that jumped out at me:

  • The sheer volume of my life to date that is taken up by formal education of some type is surprisingly large to me
  • I was also surprised by how much of my professional life was spent working in politics in one form or another (perhaps because it feels like it was a long time ago) – it’s actually under-represented on this version; more on that later
  • While 20 of my 33 years I have lived in Saskatoon, only 2 of those were as an adult, if we use the age of 18 as the definition of adulthood (debatable, I know). Of my 15 “adult” years, 10 of them have been in Ottawa, 2 in Saskatoon, 2 in Boston, 1 in Washington DC
  • There are only two significant gaps in my Life Calendar in my adult life where there was no “primary” activity: 9 weeks in my 23rd year and 8 weeks in my 29th year (there was also a bit of a “slump” period of about 12 weeks in the later half of my 26th year, but using the methodology I’ve chosen it doesn’t really show up as such). I remember those gaps being filled with anxiety trying to answer the question “what’s next?”, and for the most part being not particularly pleasant periods of my life

In my mind this is not yet a finished product and I’d love some feedback to help get it there. Keeping the scope purely to my professional life, there are a few notable absences given the methodology I’m using that are significant parts of my life story (e.g. my work on Parliament Hill during all four years of my undergraduate degree, my work last year on getting my tech startup company off the ground). Should I use the bottom half of squares to colour in areas where there were important “secondary” activities in my life? Beyond that, should I try capture non-professional/educational aspects of my life? If so, how and which ones (e.g. significant trips, relationships, specific milestones)?

I hope this post doesn’t come across as too much naval-gazing but is taken in the spirit in which it is intended: a mix of geekish interest in effectively visualizing complex systems and personal self-reflection.


Round Numbers

Even after all the promises you’ve broken to yourself,
All will be well. 
You can ask me how but only time will tell.
– “All Will Be Well” by The Gabe Dixon Band

There is something deep in the human psyche that makes us inclined to want to celebrate and reflect on anniversaries that end in 0s or 5s. It’s not clear to me if this is a biological imperative or driven more by cultural influences, but regardless of the cause it remains a fact of life.

This week I was back home in Saskatchewan, in part to celebrate a round number anniversary. In this case that of a very special person in my life, my Baba Mabel Androsoff who turned 90 on June 6th.


After a family dinner we had at her home in Blaine Lake in honour of her birthday, we decided to watch the video of her 65th birthday party. This was one of the first major family events that I have any significant memory of. As I sat there watching the parade of faces, many of whom have now left us, a realization started to wash over me. The images I were seeing were from 25 years ago. Mental math ensued. Then it hit me: in this video, my parents are the same age that I am now. A strange feeling started to grow in the pit of my stomach, which I struggled to articulate.

Later that evening I was driving back to Saskatoon and decided to take a bit of a scenic detour through the north end of Saskatoon where early in my career I lived and worked. As I was driving a second realization washed over me. Exactly 10 years ago I was in the midst of a particularly monumental period in my life. That 12 month period from September 2003 to September 2004 would set in motion much of the next decade of my professional and personal life. I could viscerally recall exactly what I was doing 10 years ago in June of 2004 and how the shadows of that time in my life still linger in unexpected ways. That same unarticulated feeling came back.

As I sit here writing this, I can tell you what that feeling isn’t. It isn’t a feeling of being old. It isn’t a feeling of regret. It isn’t even a feeling of nostalgia. Perhaps I can best describe what it is as vertigo brought on by a sudden loss of a frame of reference. In that feeling may also lie the reason as to why we have such a strong attachment to round number anniversaries – after all, one of the ways to treat motion sickness is to focus on a fixed spot on the horizon.