Duncan Wilcock

duncan@wilcock.ca
T: +1 (604) 379 0224

Saturday, April 04, 2020

Bail out Transit, Not Airlines

Transit - including buses & subways - is an essential service.

Translink (Vancouver), TTC (Toronto), and STM (Montreal) - are all getting nurses and grocery store clerks to work day in & day out.  They have always been doing this, but COVID-19 reminded us of just how important (foundational!) front line workers are to our lives.  That means boring old city-buses as well as subways and the like here in Canada.

Air Canada and Westjet are more top of mind to the white collar workers who make bail out decisions, but transit serves more people day in day out.

Transit is not just a business that takes fare revenue.  It also serves the public good - enabling transportation of people who don't drive (perhaps they are very young, very old, or otherwise don't have a car).  On some level we keep bus routes with not-so-full buses, because we want to ensure coverage to less busy areas of the urban and suburban landscape.

We are being shown they must serve the public good when governments ask transit agencies to have buses ride mostly empty - to both maintain coverage for essential workers, and so that physical distancing can be maintained.  It was never just about riders and fare collection - transit has always had a public-service role that was part of it's mandate.

I'm not fully opposed to bailouts for airlines.  Such precise decisions are mercifully above my pay-grade. I do think we don't see in-plain-sight the key role transit plays in our lives, and so want to help draw attention to that story.  I would also keep in mind that Airlines do pollute a lot, so let's make sure their fares are priced to capture all negative-externalities, like greenhouse gas emissions and noise pollution.  The important thing is that we prioritize.   A more accurate headline for this post might be:  "Bail out Transit first, and then Maybe Airlines"

Let's make sure that thanks to COVID-19 that we prioritize any bail-out funding according to our values, to doing the greatest good - that helps the most people,  because it is now crystal clear how critical transit is as a public service, and as public infrastructure.

_____

More resources if you want to dive deeper:

  1. Great interview with a leading transit practitioner
    Jarrett Walker - on youtube so watch, or just listen like a podcast.
  2. Bus drivers - frontline workers providing essential service - are dying around the world
    from COVID-19.  This article highlights two recent deaths in New York.
  3. Great, delightful article in Wired on Cities prioritizing Walking, Bikes, then Cars - in that order.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

My Favourite Books in 2019

Inspired a bit by Barack Obama's annual lists, here is a list of my favourite books I have read in 2019, with a  little summary of what I found most compelling about them:

The Wealthy Renter

by Alex Avery
Link to more info about the book

I live in Vancouver, Canada's most expensive housing market, and a city that ranks high on the global list of expensive cities to live in.  My wife and I have a young son, and we rent.  We are both masters educated professionals, earning pretty solid incomes, decent savings, and no debt.   I have felt a lot of pressure to buy a house, and until I read this book had felt a lot like:  "well it's too bad we rent, but we missed the boat and it's ok."     This has shifted my thinking to being quite thrilled that we rent, and that in itself is a huge burden lifted.

I was thrilled to find this a solid book with an analytical approach to home-ownership, and written about the Canadian housing market. At the end it has analyses for the major cities in Canada, including Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, Calgary, and more.   It didn't take a lot of extra analysis to make it apply directly to me.

Some key points I took away from it:

  • A clear framework for understanding that real-estate values is about the land appreciating, while all aspects of the building depreciate. 
  • Spending on the building is consumption, and some wealthy people rent to help keep that boundary clear.
  • Over-housing - a new term to me, that is well explained here - is incentivized under the ownership model.
  • About 70% of Canadians own houses, so no wonder the rental stock is woefully undersupplied, and of inadequate quality in a lot of cases.
  • Between about 1992 and 2017 - an unprecedented run-up in house prices in Canada - the same amount of money invested in index funds would have still outperformed the housing market in most housing markets in Canada.
  • Approaches for making upgrades to my rental unit that are creative, potentially appealing to the landlord, and freeing from the feeling of "well, no point in making it nicer - we rent"


Human Transit

Human Transit: How clearer thinking about public transit can enrich our communities and our lives
by Jarret Walker
Link to more info about the book

Jarret Walker is a Transit planner.  This book is written in clear, simple, human language and is intended for the lay-person who is interested in how transit networks are built and operated within their city.

Transit networks are the most effective way to move people around cities.  Like most systems, there are some fundamental tensions in their design.

Coverage vs. Ridership:  A system optimize so that everyone has an opportunity to get on it, but this results in a network spread thin, and service that is not as frequent than if the system is optimized to move the most people - which means frequent service on the most ridden corridors.

 Many of us in North America, brought up in a car-culture that assumes that to move is to use a car,

My interest in this book evolved from my interest in Micromobility over the last few years, and learning more about how with a limited amount of street-space, we can choose the travel modes (car, bike, bus) that move the most number of people per hour.  You guessed it, the car moves the least people in any given lane, bikes more, walking more, and the bus the  most for any given street).

Fundamentally - cities, streets, and moving people within the city is a problem of geometry.  Cars occupy a lot of physical space.  If we shift the focus to moving people rather than cars, we see that there are ways to move people that occupy less physical space.  Simple Geometry. :)

The following graphic sums up some of the key points very well.  The Human Transit blog is a wealth of even deeper information.



The Thinking Ladder

by Tim Urban, Wait but Why?
Link to the series of posts

This is not yet a book, but I think it should be soon.  It's certainly book length, and includes some great thinking about thinking.

I found it at the recommendation of a business leader I'm currently quite a fan of - Tobi Lutke - CEO of Shopify - an important Canadian tech company based in Ottawa.

In part it "is a new language we can use to think and talk about our societies and the people inside of them."  (Tim Urban)

Go read it, and then let's talk!

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Mazda CX-5: Mounting a Thule Ski Box

We bought a 2013 Mazda CX-5 in October, and we're excited to use our new 4WD vehicles to head up skiing.

I got the factory roof rack installed and put on my Thule box, and was dismayed to find that the rear hatch wouldn't open.  It was a bit of a shocking discovery for a 4WD vehicle.



Fortunately, my wife's engineer  father Ralph had a great idea once I had dug into the issue. The front bar of the rack is the limiting factor, so we made and added these extensions from
aluminum stock I picked up at our local Rona hardware store.

The bolts & washers are all stainless steel from Canadian tire.  The ones you can't see are about 1" diameter inside the channels of the rack. 

I hope this helps you or others to be able to use your ski boxes more effectively too.

The end result:



Saturday, October 01, 2016

Bluetooth Headphones & Earbuds: My Recommendation After Trying 7 Pairs

I started this post several months ago, and hadn't finished it.  With announcement of of Apple's new Airpods, I'm getting asked more about wireless headphones, and this will serve to summarize my experiences and recommendations. I hope it helps you!

Wireless Headphones are Great

The first question is of course "Why?"  Why bother with wireless headphones when there are plenty of serviceable, inexpensive wired ones?

I was surprised just how freeing going wireless was, and for me - it's worth the added hassle of having to keep them charged.    It feels significantly faster and more convenient because:

  •  fewer wires to untangle when I get them out
  •  no wire to snake through my clothing and have in my pocket
  •  nothing poking out of the bottom of my phone making it larger in pockets
  •  nothing to unplug or get tangled when removing my phone from my pocket

My Two Favourite Types

I find these two types very useful:

  • over the head "studio style" headphones
  • two-earbuds-on-a-wire style earbuds.

The headphones style are great for throwing on quickly, and their size means battery life is great - 5 hours to 30 hours of playback on pairs I've tried.    Controls on the ear piece, which is large enough to operate easily.

I find the two earbuds style vastly superior to the single earbud "cyborg-style" that have been popular with real-estate agents and the upwardly mobile for making calls for years.      The two earbuds hangs easily around my neck, so I can use them and remove them without having to stuff them in a pocket.  This means I always have them with me - my first wearable device.


Things to look for:
  • Full iPhone support - I've found battery status is not always supported, and it's a great feature to have.  To be able to just look at your phone and know how charged your earbuds are.
  • Standardized forward & back controls.
  • Standardized call button controls to trigger Siri.


Downsides:

As anyone who follows tech closely will tell you - Bluetooth isn't the greatest of wireless technologies.  Even the Apple watch and iPhone have connection glitches, and they're made by the same company.  I'm hoping Airpods will improve on this, but we'll see.  ( I also think I will prefer the 2-earbuds-on-a-wire style, but again - we'll see when they come out...)

Recommendation

The ones I recommend are the Jaybird X2. Although they are pricey (about $200 Canadian), the 8 hour battery life is unmatched, the sound quality is good for music as well as talking & podcasts, and the controls are consistent and well built.   Other cheaper versions I tested (about 5 pairs!) were just not as good on all these dimensions.


Update, 24-Aug-2017:

Jaybird X3:  I have also now tried the Jaybird X3, and immediately returned them.  The have a proprietary connector that attaches to the microphone & volume adjustment.  If you lose the adaptor or are not where you have the adaptor, you can't charge them.  This was a show-stopper for me.
They also made the microphone & volume buttons larger and heavier - which seemed significantly inferior to me.

Apple Airpods:  I have also got a pair of the Apple Airpods now too.   I've had them for about 6 months, and the are very good.  The easy use & switching between mac, iPhone, and iPad due to their "W1 Chip" is a huge win, and while I can quibble about how well it works a bit, it's really great.

The lack of wire to connect the two is an issue for me, as described above.  It's a win for simplicity, and makes the case possible, which is also a hugely important win/part of the product.
That said, the lack of joining-wre also takes away from the jobs it does for me.      One key place is on my bike.  I find that my helmet straps knocks them out of my ears, and they fall off - a show stopper for biking, so I don't use them for that case.

I also choose the Jaybird X2 for my every day use at work, due the joining-wire that means I can more quickly pop them out of my ears, let them dangle, and then tuck them into my shirt.

I know, I know - first-world problems - but these are the details of my everyday experience with the various types.  Thanks for reading & my best to you!

Saturday, April 09, 2016

My Achalasia Story


Manometry charts showing Achalasia subtypes
Achalasia is a disease of the esophagus, which attaches between your voicebox and your stomach.   Normally food is pushed through the esophagus with involuntary muscle contractions called peristalsis.   In rare cases, this behaviour fails for unknown reasons.  The result is difficulty swallowing food, and eventually liquids.  Patients with Achalasia usually experience significant weight loss, a lot of discomfort while trying to swallow, and must adapt their diet to softer and softer foods like soup and mashed potatoes.

I started experiencing Achalasia symptoms in May or June of 2015.  They progressively got worse, to the point that I couldn't drink fluids in March of 2016.   I had lost 25lbs, and had become dehydrated and malnourished by the time I was admitted to hospital for surgery that would mitigate the problem.

What I hope to Achieve with this Post

  1. Summarize what happened for interested friends and family
  2. Help increase awareness about this disease, as it is frequently mis-diagnosed 
  3. Hopefully help others with Achalasia by sharing how my story unfolded

Beginnings

Achalasia has an incidence of about 1 per 100,000 per year, and a prevalence (how many people are living with it) of about 1 in 10,000.

Mine started in June of 2015 with the experience of being at a conference dinner table, and not being able to get food to go down properly.   This discomfort persisted for a couple weeks and I went to see my family doctor about it.      I had been experiencing pretty severe heartburn for about 6 months prior to this, or certainly chest pain that I interpreted as heartburn.

I was sent for a couple of tests over the summer - a Barium Swallow/Xray which showed "esophageal spasms" and not much reflux from my stomach.   The next test was to send a Endoscope (camera) down my throat, for which I was mercifully sedated, and it showed nothing out of the ordinary.     I was seeing a Gastroenterologist by this point and he was convinced it was acid reflux - often clinically called GERD.    We managed to get these tests done relatively quickly by being available at short-notice for cancellations.

My wife and I were of course doing our own research, as it was persistently uncomfortable, and I had been limiting my diet to try to get relief from the reflux and discomfort.  Achalasia is rare enough that  it is often misdiagnosed as GERD, and this happened in my case as well.   Thanks to the help of this great blog by an engineer in Ontario, my wife identified correctly that my symptoms sounded a lot more like Achalasia than GERD.

This was in August.  The most frustrating part of this whole experience was the waiting for further tests, appointments and stages.  For example - we were sure it was Achalasia in August, and it took until the end of February for my turn to get the definitive test that would confirm Achalasia: esophageal Manometry (examples of the results pictured above).   During that time I had gone from discomfort - eating softer foods over the course of an hour  - to being reduced to 3 to 4 boost-type drinks per day with hopefully some soup and/or well-mashed potatoes with gravy.

Diagnosis

At the end of February, the Manometry test confirmed what Lauren and I were already certain of:  Achalasia.  Fortunately we had done our advanced reading and so were aware of the options and ready to go to the current best practice treatment which is a Heller Myotomy, with a Dor Fundoplication.

Unfortunately, there was more waiting (and corresponding suffering for myself, my wife, and my extended family) in the non-urgent stream of the Canadian medical system.   I'm a fan of our system in general, but waiting at sometimes becomes unbearable.  By this point many in my family were getting quite worried, as I was now down 25lbs, and at times unable to eat even soup.

 Surgery

My surgery consult took a couple of weeks to be scheduled,  this initial appointment to discuss options with the surgeon was 5 weeks after the manometry test, with the prospect of having the surgery 5 to 8 weeks after that.  Unfortunately my ability to take in fluids and nutrients had continued to deteriorate, to the point that I went to emergency in later March, as I was unable to take in fluids and had become both dehydrated and deficient in nutrition (as well as sleep).

I was not sleeping several nights a week because food that had not gone down would come up in the middle of the night, waking me up to choking on it every 20 minutes or so.

I was admitted as an emergency patient because I was no longer able to get enough nourishment down, and put on an internal hospital waitlist for the surgery.  After another 5 days of eating & drinking absolutely nothing except for IV fluids,  I had the surgery in time for Easter.

Current Situation

I'm currently 2 weeks post operation, and already feel significant improvement.  I'm able to eat soft foods, including one of my favourites - Shepherd's Pie - as long as the quantities are kept small.   I look forward to returning to a mostly normal diet.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

HeadsUp Drive: New Website!

HeadsUp Drive
HeadsUp Drive - the simple driving app - has a new website - www.headsupdrive.com

Check it out for all you want to know about HeadsUp Drive (and perhaps a bit more.)

There are details on my favourite Windscreen Mount, a video of the app in action, and an explanation of why it is Google Maps, but better.

I made HeadsUp Drive because I found Google Maps, Apple Maps, Waze, and the rest of the competition I tested to be to cluttered for everyday use.

You can download HeadsUp Drive here now -  I hope you enjoy it & please recommend it to your friends!


Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Airplay Delay

Inspired by Allan Pike's naming and describing of Schrodinger's Shift Key, I'm writing this is to document my second most disliked change in iOS7 that regrettably has not improved in iOS8.

In a nut:  It used to be a lot quicker to flip music to Airplay speakers.  Prior to iOS7, Airplay used to engage with 2 quick taps.  Now it takes a full 5 taps & swipes to achieve the same result.


Two Taps on iOS6



Remember these two screens?

The airplay button automatically appeared if airplay speakers were available.

1. Tap the Airplay Button
2. Tap the Output you want

The screen dismissed automatically & you were on your way.


Five Taps on iOS7 and iOS8 


These three screenshots depict the five taps & swipe process of getting music to airplay speakers since iOS7.  The steps are:

1. Swipe up to access the Control Center.
2. Look for Airplay button and Tap
3. Tap the Output (Apple TV)
4. Tap Done (and wait...)
5. Tap the top of the screen to dismiss Control Center.




It's substantially slower, and I'm disappointed they didn't improve this on iOS 8.  I have submitted this feedback to Apple through iPhone Feedback, and I encourage you to do the same.

Monday, October 06, 2014

HeadsUp Drive

HeadsUp Drive is the driving companion app that I have been wanting, and have now successfully made for myself.  If you are looking for a simple, minimally distracting app to use on your daily commute or on roads where you don't need a route calculated for you -  I think you will like it.  Want to try it out?   You can download it from the app store for iPhone & iPad.

On first launch, most people notice that it's not very complicated.   That is entirely on purpose.  I have been wanting a simple app that I can just launch as I leave work and not have to do too much to use it.

I've tried  Apple Maps, Google Maps, Waze, and a few others.  My principal complaint with them all is that they take too much fiddling to use them day in & day out.    Often with those apps, they require  adjusting the view so that I can see the sections I need to (the same ones every day) and Waze too often prompts me for input, when all I want to do is just drive home efficiently.


HeadsUp Drive is a simple driving companion, designed to let you see the road ahead.  I think it's the the best, simplest app for everyday commuting.  It shows you Google Maps traffic and a chase-plane view so you can see what's coming, and plan ahead to avoid traffic jams.

There is very little interaction, and that's on purpose, because we should all keep our eyes on the road and hands on the wheel. The view adjusts automatically to show the traffic and roads in your direction of travel.

+ and - to zoom in and out, and a "?" button to remind you why the app is so simple.  It's designed to be simple!


I use it daily on my commute to & from work.  Below is a picture of it in action.  I hope you find it useful too.

Feedback and comments are welcome at: duncan@wilcock.ca


Tuesday, April 08, 2014

A Better Bike Computer: My Ideal Biking App & Sensor System

I bike a fair bit around Vancouver. I'm not in to wearing spandex, and would classify myself as somewhere around the casual-commuter biker.   I don't really care about all my speed, cadence, and heart-rate stats, although that could be interesting, and I refrain from thumping the hoods of cars in anger - except maybe if I was actually hit by one.

I am however a bit of a geek - especially when it comes to my iPhone & tracking things in general. Unfortunately my many attempts at using XCode to write iPhone apps have not been very successful, and I find myself being able to conceive of what I want, but unable to implement it.  (Update:  I spoke too soon, and have now built an app that is on the app store - HeadsUp Drive)

Since I believe that ideas themselves are not worth nearly as much as good execution, I've decided to offer these ideas to the inter-tubes and hope that if anyone finds them of benefit, they let me know (duncan@wilcock.ca) - especially if this biking device & app I want to buy ever gets made - by you or anyone else.

With that pre-amble, I'm going to launch into what I'm looking for.

A Better Bike Computer


Principally, I'm looking for a better bike computer.  A hardware device that is quite simplistic.  It can look similar to the $30 one I bought from MEC.  In fact, it should cost much more than between $50 to $100, because anything that I am going to strap to my handlebars can't be worth much more than that or it becomes more & more of a problem when I wipe-out and it gets damaged, or forget to remove it when I nip into a coffee shop and it gets nicked.

So that's price.  I'll leave promotion to you, place is clearly where I live (Canada please!) and now on to product.   (Four Ps of marketing reference for all you geeky business-school types)

Interactionless Tracking


The key attribute I'm looking for is Bluetooth LE connectivity to talk to my iPhone.   For inspiration, I'm looking at Automatic - a simple device that plugs into your car,  and an app that doesn't need launching, but that tracks your driving for you whenever you start driving.   It has other features and looks like a very cool product that I would already have if it were available in Canada.

That's it in a nut.  I don't want to have my iPhone attached to my handlebars, it's too expensive to put there, and more importantly - too much trouble to do every time.  Even launching an app is too much trouble to do every time - I just want to get on my bike and get to work, or wherever else I'm going.   But if the data was collected automatically - how far I went, what routes, and how fast.  It would be fun to sit down in the evening and look at it from time to time.

I think this is the key for tracking apps.  I'm interested to record & look at the information, but as soon as it becomes an additional thing to remember to do, the likely hood of me (or many others) using it regularly falls off a cliff.

Yes - I've seen the Wahoo Fitness Computer, but it gets the solution backwards, to my taste.  The data is collected by your phone first, and this Wahoo display is more like a second screen for the app, and I believe the app has to be actually running.    I'm saying that the bike-computer should record the information and be the principal interface with the sensors, and the app should connect to the bike computer automatically (Automatic uses iBeacon for this) & store the information long term for later review.  For the record - I don't care about wireless sensors (wired are cheaper & in general more reliable), and reliability is key.  If it adds a bit of weight or wind resistance - so be it, I'll get more exercise.


Bonus - Power my Lights

 A great added value or upsell feature for the commuter like me, would be some extra battery capacity and wiring to power my bike lights.    Then I would only have one thing to remove from my bike, take inside and charge up from time to time.


So that's it - my wishlist, the product I would like to buy, but have not yet seen on the market.  If you like the idea, and want to make it real - please do so.  I'd be more than happy to help.  I've got circuit-card layout skills, basic app making skills, and marketing skills - here's an example:  www.headsupdrive.com

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Taking a Guess at Worldwide Energy Savings from Apple's new Mac OS X - Mavericks

Apple's newest operating system increases battery life by 25% to 30% with a simple software update.   Rolled out to around 50 million Mac computers, this increase in energy efficiency is going to add up to a lot of reduced  energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.  I'm going to try to calculate just how much.




It was the above graphic from John Siracusa's excellent review of the newest Mac Operating System OS X Mavericks, that really grabbed my attention. To increase the battery life by between 25% to 30% as John measured, the system must use power more efficiently - 25% more battery life means 1/1.25 = 20% more efficient.

I'm going to walk through a few more back-of-the-envelope calculations and to take a guess at how much electricity and green-house gas emissions that will add up to in the next year.

According to Horace Dedieu of Asymco Apple had sold 122 million macs in all time in February of 2012.   Let's conservatively estimate that those sold in the last 5 years are still in use - this equates to about 50 million - a few more may have sold since then, but it's a nice round number, that I used in my opening paragraph, and as I said in the title - this whole article is a big guess.

Another big guess is the adoption rate of Mavericks.  This year the upgrade is free, and adoption is expected to be unprecedented for a desktop OS.  One source is currently quoting 17% in under a month from Maverick's release date.  I'm going to pick 20% as a nice round number for the first 2 months after it's release.

Moving on to GHGs


It's at this point, that I realize I don't have a good figure for average energy use for a laptop during it's lifetime.  I could assume 8 hours per day, 50 weeks per year, for a lifetime of five years, but I think usage of computers varies widely, and the people who probably know best how much an average person uses their Mac is probably Apple.


Then I remembered that Apple provides some first class sustainability and environmental impact reports on it's website.  There are impact statements for all it's products, as well as the environmental impact of the organization  - including the life-cycle of it's products including use.   They chalk-up 30% of their carbon-footprint as due to product use - and they even provide the figure of "9,306,000 metric tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions."

Digging a little deeper into those product impact statements.  I see the most popular Mac Laptops at 350kg of CO2e for each computer and between 17% to 33% of that due to customer use (electricity).   A recent iMac is put at 1000kg of CO2e - 50% for customer use, and an iPhone 4s at 55kg and 25% of that for customer use.

Apple sells an overwhelmingly large number of iPhones as compared to the number of Macs sold, but from the impact statements we can see that the Mac Laptops use 6 times as much energy as iPhones.

It's hard to be precise on this, so I'll make another guess that Mac Laptops are responsible for about 50% of Apple's product use GHG emissions, or 4,653,000 tonnes of GHGs.

Unfortunately for me, since I'm most interested in energy savings in kWh (saving energy is what I do for a living) I don't know the conversion factors and assumptions Apple made in determining these GHG totals.  Still, estimating how many GHGs will be saved is an equally interesting figure to me, so I will continue.

Putting the Guess Together


Going with my 20% adoption rate by the end of 2013, the computers that will now have Mavericks on them would have been responsible for 930,600 tonnes of GHGs.

In 2014, but using power more efficiently, these machines will only generate 744,480 tonnes of GHGs for a savings of about 186,120 tonnes.

There we did it - a back-of-the-envelope guess, but it could be in the ballpark.   With one software update, by providing better battery life and making it's operating system more responsive, Apple has also eliminated 186,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions per year.

Perspective on 186,000 tonnes


To put this in perspective, a person living in British Columbia, Canada generates on average 5 tonnes of GHG emissions each after all the driving, keeping our houses warm, and sending things to the landfill we do each year. So that's the carbon footprint of a small city of 37,000 people.

Here's another datapoint for comparison: the BC government tracks it's greenhouse gas emissions and offsets them for carbon neutrality.  In 2012 all the provincial government, schools, advanced educational institutions, and health-authorities reported using a total of 845,212 tonnes.

So one software update that saves 186,000 tonnes per year is as significant as it is impressive.