While living in California, I attended the earliest Bay Area Maker Faires in 2006-10. They were a blast, partially inspiring me to seek out the local hackerspaces and exposing me to many wonderful things. Much later, after I had settled into Toronto, FITC reached out to me about taking over the Toronto Mini Maker Faire. Together with my friend Jen Dodd, we made it happen! Later we rebranded our efforts to Maker Festival. We’ve brought together hundreds of makers and thousands of attendees every year to celebrate the quiet glory of making and bring more artifacts of the future into existence.
Everybody talks about colonizing Mars... but it’s so cold, and almost airless, and the radiation levels at the surface are scary. Randomly reading the internet one day, I found a long essay about how Venus could be colonized with airships: We could live in the upper atmosphere, floating around in large balloons of breathable O2/N2 which is buoyant in the CO2 atmosphere of Venus. Why live in underground pressure cylinders on Mars when you could live in stratospheric penthouses on Venus? I started Venus Labs to promote this idea and do research on how to make it happen (hence the “lab” part).
After starting Venus Labs and having fun there, I wanted to meet more people who are super into all the things humans are doing in space! A podcast featuring a guy who created “space club” as a lunch-hour meeting group at his office inspired me to make a meetup group here in Toronto. We get together, we drink beers, we shoot the shit about space,and sometimes we launch balloons to space.
Friends told me for years that I should get into angel investing, so this was a long time coming. Reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book “Antifragile” gave me the kick I needed. He has a spectacular theory about managing financial risk called the Barbell Investment Strategy. Essentially, in your portfolio, you want to have lots of zero risk, no middle risk, and some super high risk - like a barbell with all the weight at the extremes. This is totally different from the usual approach of using market index funds (all middle risk). To get started with angel investing (the super high risk part), I joined Maple Leaf Angels. MLA is one of the prominent angel investment groups in Canada and it’s been a great education and hell of a ride. As of May 2020, I’ve invested in six startups and I serve on the Investment Review Committee for MLA.
Anticipating a long period of being mostly confined to my house, I gave considerable thought to what new hobby I might be able to pursue with all of my extra time. I settled on acrylic painting as I’d had a very positive experience with it at paint lounge and it seemed like exactly the kind of thing that I could still do really well even if I was trapped inside. I bought supplies at Curry’s the day before they were forced to close and then made lots of paintings. My favorite so far is The Return which depicts the dual-side booster landing of the first SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch.
Like many people, I was somewhat obsessed with the coronavirus case numbers and thoughts about how this might play out over time. I blogged about my thoughts, including my repeatedly way-too-optimistic projections for how many cases of the disease Ontario would experience during our first lock-down.
The idea for Tiny Helpers came from a talk Nancy Dougherty gave for Quantified Self on the power of placebo pills. I sat on this idea for years before I pitched my friend Khuyen - and Tiny Helpers was born. We call them Designer Placebos and they “work” in the sense that a lot of things like your energy levels are very susceptible to psychological factors (like you believing you’ve taken something for it). Our vials of yummy sugar candy placebo pill sets are nestled in laser-cut boxes and have humorous clinical wording to make them more believable.
I joined Hacklab when I relocated to Toronto: I had been a part of Noisebridge in San Francisco and learned so much there. Hacklab offered the same experience. It’s a hackerspace - meaning it’s a clubhouse for geeks; a place where we have shared tools and equipment (like 3D printers, soldering irons and a laser cutter) to work on personal or group projects. I served as president for a few years and I also ran Sensebridge, my wearable electronics business, from there too. These days I mostly do vegan cooking hacks for the Open House nights!
During HackLab’s Open House nights, most members would go to eat meat at a local restaurant in ChinaTown. To prevent the lab from emptying out, a vegan member started a vegan cooking tradition in 2011. I took over after he left and I’ve been cooking vegan dinners for ~20 people every Tuesday evening since! Lots of people help me - it’s hard work to cook a meal that large! It’s also lots of fun experimenting on my friends. My secret plan is vegan offsetting (like carbon offsetting) for my personal diet (which is not vegan, but edging closer year by year). Curious? All my recipes are linked online, including my favorites!
Wish life was as interesting as a video game? I gamified my life and started leveling up my achievements. Inspired by Steve Kamb’s Epic Quest of Awesome, I began treating life as a role-playing game, giving myself points for encounters and experiences that made my life worthwhile or enjoyable. I even gave a talk about my journey at FITC. You can see a mostly update-to-date version of my Epic Quest here. I’m currently Level 44.
While I was assisting in the lab at Singularity University, I attended a lecture by Kevin Kelly on the future of intelligence. This talk convinced me that I needed to better understand the hype behind Machine Learning which some people were then also calling Artificial Intelligence (AI). I’d been interested in AI but didn’t think that we were close to achieving it. On returning to Toronto, I created a machine learning study group and invited my friends and members of hacklab to join. Since then, we’ve been taking online classes related to Machine Learning and trying to keep ourselves grounded in the realities of it, so that we can separate the wheat from the chaff in the huge amounts of hype. It’s been a great education and I do like to write the occasional line of code!Email me if you’d like to join the slack!
2016 - Present
Long Now Toronto
I joined the Long Now Foundation as a steel member in 2009. They intend to “nudge civilization toward making long-term thinking automatic and common” rather than rare and weird. They are building a 10,000 year clock in the Nevada desert and it’s awesome. The foundation encouraged people to start local meetup groups and I so I started one here in Toronto. My aim is to host a meeting at least once a year on a topic related to long-term thinking.
Dark Mountain is an eclectic group of UK artists and authors. They are trying to write about the unknown future, the one in which all our current unsustainable practices have ended (as all unsustainable practices must). We have no language for what that future is like; the project is a literary stab into the dark. Hence the artists and authors are “trying to scale the dark mountain” to get a view of the flatlands below. I put myself forward as a local organizer for the Toronto region. Several local people have contacted me but we haven’t had a meeting yet. Soon!
In October 2001, I co-founded StumbleUpon with several friends of mine and we released a working beta less than 4 months later. StumbleUpon was a toolbar for your browser which recommended websites to you and would take you to them through a single click of the “stumble” button. These days it’s easy to make a recommendation engine, but we did collaborative filtering and machine learning before it was cool. After a year, I left the company to finish my engineering undergrad at Queens University. My friends continued with StumbleUpon for many more years and ultimately sold it to eBay as a “discovery service.”
A friend of mine wanted a robot-themed birthday party and, of course, this meant we needed to build a robot. Leading a team of 4, we birthed Luma Droid, the robot bartender who mixes alcoholic beverages. The machine combined Arduino with arcade buttons, peristaltic pumps, tubing, tons of LEDs, and ultrasonic humidifiers creating an illuminated mist. The “menu” of 6 choices (possible drinks it can make) is actually an excerpt from the code. A good time was had by all at the birthday party... though I can’t say the same for the next morning 🙂
Sensebridge began at Noisebridge’s Sunday Cyborg Mass, a weekly gathering where like-minded folks would hack devices to turn ourselves into cyborgs. Inspired by the FeelSpace magnetic-north-telling belt, our vision was to bridge senses by using devices to add senses we didn’t have to those we did - augmentation and addition if you will. Early experimentation led to the North Paw compass anklet as well as various ultrasonic listening devices, some electronic jewelry, and other wearables. When our friends demanded their own North Paws, we set about creating a kit business and Sensebridge was born. Before closing the business in 2016, over 800 kits were sold.
The Awesome Foundation was a micro-philanthropic initiative: we gave away $1000 each month to the most awesome idea. People applied via the global website and we’d meet as a group to make the decision. Sometimes they even pitched us in-person! 10 trustees + $100 each = a super huge amount of fun! We gave away about $30,000 over 4 years. Here are some of my favorite winners: Toronto Kiss Map. Stop Gap. Guerilla Fish Tacos.
Quantified Self is a group of people who use self-tracking for personal development. What gets measured gets managed! I attended some of the very early QS meetups in San Francisco (with Gary Wolf, Kevin Kelly, etc) and I loved the “show & tell” format where people would tell us: What did you do? How did you do it? What did you learn? When I moved back to Toronto, I immediately wanted to have it here too, so I made it happen! Gary Wolf put me in contact with a local doctor and together we ran the first Toronto QS Show & Tell event. We ran 30+ events across 8 years of self-tracking.
DIY BIO = Do-it-yourself biological innovation! We're inspired by the California group "biocurious", like them, we believe in the power of open source, open access, and learning in community. We believe this philosophy should be applied to biology! We’re a biohacker space in Toronto, with shared tools, equipment, and community. I cofounded this group in collaboration with friends and ran a molecular biology study group for years.
After I shut down Sensebridge, I knew that I needed something new in my life but I didn’t have any idea what. I started brainstorming (“what will most affect the future of humanity?”), reading books about career design, and talking to a lot of people. 21 ideas got whittled to six main ones, each of which I tried to “test” in some way. I never made a singular decision but I’ve pursued two of the ideas fairly seriously since - green investing and machine learning - plus other things I found (like Venus Labs).
I studied Shao-Lin Kung-Fu at the Chinese Shao-Lin Center in San Jose, California under Sifu David Diep. Since then, it has been renamed to Chuan Wu Kungfu and moved to a new location. We learned dozens of forms, including some for all 16 classical Chinese weapons. After many years of discipline and hard work, I tested to second degree black belt. I also spent over a year as an assistant, helping to clean the facilities and drill the lower belts. It had an absolutely enormous impact on me. Sifu was like a second father to me.
A big group of hackers/makers travelled with Mitch Altman to China, including Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Shanghai, and Beijing. I went on the very first one in 2009, and again on Trip 7 in 2017. Both times we toured factories & makerspaces, gave talks, got weird honors from local governments, rode electric unicycles, and generally had an amazing time. Mitch leads a tour every year. Sound fun? All you need to do is search for HTTCxxxx (xxxx is the year) and add your name to the wiki page to join (anarchy baby!).
After experiencing the original Cyborg Camp in Portland with Amber Case (cyborg anthropologist), I decided Toronto needed some of this too. We held an unconference themed around cyborgs and had many great discussions about wearables, transhumanism, technology, and what it means to be human. A good time was had by all and I do hope at some point to do it all again!
Our group would find small patches of ugly land in the city and turn them into flower gardens! We also made and threw seed bombs, and had some art & crafts sessions to make little “water me” signs and cute fences. At its peak, we did four plots per year and had a dozen regular members plus at least twice that many irregulars. It was a total blast! We even managed to win an Awesome Foundation grant to get more money for plants!