A Map For Getting Places



Maps that outline a single building, like a mall, an office, or an apartment complex are usually straightforward. They mark the entrances and exists, they show stairwells and elevators, and every floor plan is basically identical. You’ll usually see something like this:

Theoretical Map

Using your floor as a reference you can quickly decide “Ok, I need to go that way, but first I need to go up one floor in the elevator”. This works because the floor plan is the same as the one you’re on, so all the spatial cues you’ve already picked up will continue to apply on the next floor, and because standard stairs and elevators travel completely vertically you’ll end up on the next floor in exactly the same position. 

These cognitive rules have been developed over time for the very reason that they make navigation simple. There’s no rule that elevators let you out on the same side you came in, and there’s no rule that you go up a floor using two flights of stairs (the second flight bring you back to your original position). But those subtle aides do wonders to get you around. You can walk into almost any office in the world, look at the directory to find your floor, head on up and just walk down the hall until you find what you’re looking for.

Those rules also make maps very simple. In the picture above, there is no reason, other than convention, to assume that the stairs on Floor 1 take you to the stairs on Floor 2. There are no lines drawn or arrows to indicate that or any sort of label. But because the floor plans are consistent, we just assume it. And it nearly always works.


That’s where creative architecture throws everything into chaos. Take my building, the Waterfront Lofts in San Diego.  It’s unique architecture poses several challenges:

The 1st and 2nd floors are not at all similar. Some apartments have others on top of them, some do not. Sometimes the you have to take a flight of stairs to reach the higher apartments, other times you have to take 3 flights. There’s no consistency in height, so even defining a “2nd Floor” is difficult. 

Stairs don’t always move you vertically. They may also move you horizontally such that on the 1st Floor the stairs begin at one end of the complex and when you reach the 2nd Floor you’re on the other end. 

No useful apartment numbers. Because it’s a bit of a maze, there’s no one line that can circle the complex and the architect evidentially decided to give up. The first apartment you encounter is number 22, if you go upstairs you’re in the 30s, and if you want to find number 1 you have to go to the furthest corner of the parking lot. We need numbers on the map obviously, but we can’t count on the sequence of numbers being helpful. If we use signs to point the right direction, we immediately end up with a sign that says “11-18 back outside and around the corner, 31-41 upstairs, and 22-30, 1-10 straight ahead.” This line represents the apartment numbers in sequential order:

 Apartment Lines


Of course, that assumes you’re able to fly through walls and from one floor to the next. If you were to actually walk from door 1 to door 2 and so forth, and I swear I made this as simple as I could, it would look like this:


Apartment path

No color coding. Apartment numbers are not only not linear, but they aren’t even based around contiguous spaces. If we color code the parking lot, we can group numbers 1-7 and 9, but they we leave 8 and 10 isolated. Likewise with the 20s. Hell, apartments 12 and 18 can’t even be reached from inside the complex, you have to go outside around around the block. This is what an attempt at color coding would look like (note that some of the numbers not grouped are not nearly as close as they seem due to walls: 

 Apartment Groups


 The apartment complex is so disorienting that packages get delivered to the sidewalk by our mailboxes, never reaching the door, and rather than buzz people in we go to the entrance and walk them to our door, they’ll never find it otherwise. How do you tell someone that the need to walk past 22-27 before reaching 8?



The mapping difficulty can be resolved just by understanding the what it’s trying to achieve. The goal is to get a first-time guest through the main entrance (the only one where you can get buzzed in) to the apartment they’re looking for.  With that in mind, quite a few liberties can be taken.

Stretching dimensions: Generally, floor plans are done with proportions and dimensions in mind. That’s fantastic if you’re doing a remodel, but when you’re looking for an apartment, you’re not counting paces to see when you reach the right door. This is the one big break we need to make this work.

Since proportionality doesn’t matter, we can warp the map to bring overlapping apartments onto the same 2d plane.  Apartment 40 is directly above apartment 29? Not a problem. We can stretch the stairs up to apartment 40 much longer than they actually are. All you need to know is where to find the stairs and the general direction you need to go. You’ll know you’re at the top when you get there, whether you get there in 10 steps or 20 steps. 

Combining flights of stairs: It takes 5 flights of stairs to go from ground level to reach apartment 36. Who cares? All that matters is you know which side you enter on and which side you exit on. I’m a bit torn on this solution because if someone is expecting a straight stair case and finds a back-and-forth stairwell it can definitely cause confusion. But trying to portray 5 flights back and forth proved incompatible with the goal of keeping all apartments on the same 2d plane. 

Shading: The real key that brought everything together. Since we’re break the mold, it’s important to convey that this map is NOT 2d, but rather a 2d representation of a 3d space. Gradients on stairs and shadows on bridges convey that dimensionality without having to explain “This is not your normal map”.

It gradients also imply direction. 16 and 17 are particularly hard to find, to get there you must first go up the  stairs by the entrance and down several small flights while you make your way to the back of the complex. It’s completely counter-intuitive, especially once you hit some rather dark hallways, but thanks to shading guests understand that they’re supposed to go back downstairs.

Since the numbers are placed randomly, it’s absolutely key that the numbers have the most contrast in the map. If the walls and lines are any darker, the random numbers because lost within the lines.


And here you are:

APT MAP finalYou now know where the stairs are, which to take and what direction you need to turn at the top of them. Apartment 35? Under the bridge, up the stairs, make a right.

Benghazi: A Success Story

This week, a Republican-led commission question Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for hours about the Benghazi attacks. While their goal is certainly to find politically-useful failures, all they’re accomplishing is the resurrection of the most important diplomatic and national security success stories in the last 20 years.

Four American diplomats lost their lives in Benghazi, and nothing makes that less tragic. As found by the Accountability Review Board, the incident was the result of inadequate security precautions stemming from interagency communication issues. In short, no one knew who was responsible for adequately protecting the Consulate. This is of course inexcusable. However, “The interagency response was timely and appropriate, but there simply was not enough time for armed U.S. military assets to have made a difference.”  This is the important dividing line: while mistakes allowed the attack to be successful, the response was swift and effective.

Rumors and accusations have been thrown around, so lets first clear the timeline up.

Sept 12

09:41p A Local CIA annex receives a call that the Benghazi Consulate is under attack.

09:56p Six CIA Security Operatives leave for the consulate and encounter heavy resistance as the entered the consulate compound.

??:?? Sean Smith succumbs to smoke inhalation after a fire bomb hits the consulate. The injured Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens is rescued by Libyan civilians and taken to a local hospital where he too passes away.

11:11p An unarmed drone arrives on location, diverted from an ongoing mission elsewhere in Libya.

11:30p All American’s other than Ambassador Stevens are evacuated from the consulate under fire.

01:00a The initial attacked is dispersed and another six-man CIA security team arrives onsite having just been charted in from Tripoli.

05:15a Two CIA Operatives (the former Navy Seals) Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods die in a mortar attack on the CIA annex. That attack is repelled after only eleven minutes

06:00a The annex is evacuated with the help of the Libyan militar

Sept 13

             Obama promises a full investigation into the apparently coordinated attacks           

 Sept 14

           Four people arrested in Libya in connection to the attacks

 Sept 22

Hundreds march in Benghazi against radical Islam and take over the headquarters of a group tied to the attack. Later that evening another Radical Islamic organization loosely tied to the attack has it’s headquarters peacefully occupied by protesters.

Oct 24

          One suspect arrested in Tunisia, one suspect killed in a firefight with police in Egypt.


What this timeline shows is isn’t a view into a failed security system, it shows us that sometimes bad things happen and you can’t always stop it. The response by local CIA security was swift, Libyan civilians risked their own lives to save the American Ambassador and then took to the streets against radical Islam, the Libyan military helped repel the attack, and suspects have been quietly arrested in 3 different Middle Eastern countries. 

What strikes is the international cooperation in apprehending the perpetrators. In 2009, Obama gave a speech in Cairo titled “A New Beginning”. It was a speech not to those in the Cairo University hall, or those in Egypt, but was regarded as a message to all the Middle East. This new beginning is what we saw after Benghazi. Rather than invading or deposing uncooperative powers and hunting down unknown enemies ourselves, The White House reached out and asked our newly-found allies to  use their resources, their knowledge, their security forces to help us police the issue together.

Gone is the Hubris that told to solve everything ourselves. Gone is responding in anger and sacrificing our diplomatic relations. I struggle to think of a a more successful example that highlights Obama’s patient, quiet approach to change.

The Hobbit Part I: Two Stories Shuffled Together

Unlike the Lord of the Rings, JRR Tolkien wrote the hobbit to be accessible to children, a Grimm-like Fairytale rather than the heavy drama of the earlier trilogy. A young hobbit goes on a merry adventure, bonds with the oddest of characters, and finds bravery he never knew he had. Nice and jolly. And for the most part, Peter Jackson stays surprisingly loyal to the tone of the book. He shies away from the moody lighting of LOTR and creates a warm, light-hearted atmosphere where even the occasional fart joke doesn’t seem out of place. Much of the book’s original humor is kept in place, and in the case of the Trolls, even furthered by wonderful rewrites. But when he takes liberty with the story, boy does he get it wrong.

In an effort to expand the scope of the story, Jackson introduced a huge amount of content from either his imagination or Tolkien’s unpublished notes. Almost entirely, this additional material takes the form of new or expanded action scenes that do little to further the story.

Exhibit One: The Pale Orc

The Pale Orc, Azog, enters the story to build the Dwarf King, Thorin’s backstory. It establishes the Thorin’s desire to retake the Lonely Mountain from Smaug, and explains why he was prevented from finding another home. That’s a logic choice, as a troupe of Dwarves without a home is a key theme. In one artistic swoop, we have conflict, backstory, and swift resolution all tied up with a bow. It’s a clever bit of screenplay and an intriguing addition. If only it had ended there.

But against all odds, Azog survives his role and quickly outlives his usefulness, yet continues to persist throughout the film. It feels like Jackson took the screenplay and made one little note before passing it on to the film crew and CGI artists: “What if Azog survived? Give me another 20 minutes of him and his orcs chasing our heroes”. I thought this Orc died. He was definitely defeated. So why are we doing this again? Will killing the Orc make Thorin even more impressive? Even after we thought it had been done?

Exhibit Two: Rock Giants

When he peeped out in the lightning-flashes, he saw that across the valley the stone-giants were out, and were hurling rocks at one another for a game, and catching them, and tossing them down into the darkness where they smashed among the trees far below, or splintered into little bits with a bang. – The Hobbit

One line in the Hobbit describes almost metaphorically a titanic thunderstorm in the Misty Mountains. Tolkien imagines a war-like atmosphere of crashes and noises and flashes and darkness and an overwhelming sense of dread permeates the atmosphere. And that word “atmosphere” is the key. Tension is formed without need for action. The hairs on the back of your neck prick up with excitement, like lightning could strike at any moment.

But a torrential storm without the near-death of at least one protagonist? That won’t do at all. Jackson took a much more…blunt direction. That one vague sentence that holds little value to the plot became ten minutes of dodging boulders and dangling from cliffs and jumping gaps and being buried under avalanches and… *ok, breathe*.

It’s an insult to both the audience and himself that Jackson doesn’t trust the subtlety and tension to hold the moment, and insists on ten minutes of mindless and irrelevant action to transition to the next scene. The scene failed to build characters, introduce any element of danger (we know by this point no protagonist will die), and won’t ever be referenced again. So what does Jackson think he accomplished?

Apparently a band of 14 protagonists wasn’t complex enough, so he repeatedly introduces additional content, interlacing new and weaving subplots connect by the smallest of threads. What we’re left with are two parallel stories. There’s a mindless action flick full of orcs and wargs and 20 minute action sequences where cameras and characters and weapons zoom around at a hundred miles an hour. But there’s also a light-hearted drama where we watch Bilbo grow courageous, and we learn that heroism isn’t all about violence and weapons, it’s about strength of character. The ultimate conflict is that those two messages are mutually exclusive. Half the movie says “When in doubt, hack your way out”, and the other half teaches us that violence doesn’t solve problems. We’re left with complete dissonance.

The reason Tolkien skimmed over the battles in his adventure wasn’t because he can’t write action. We see him create wonderfully vivid fights in the Lord of the Rings. Epic of battles are glossed over in a few pages because to include more would be completely at odds with the character of the book. That’s a lesson that Peter Jackson just hasn’t learned.





Westfield Mall on Market Street in San Francisco. Even on a cloud-covered gloomy day, sun pours through the window and cascades bright white from floor to floor.

Westfield Mall on Market Street in San Francisco. Even on a cloud-covered gloomy day, sun pours through the window and cascades bright white from floor to floor.

Shadows of the Rock

Alcatraz is dark maze, periodically pierced by a shot of sun through a small window, a glimpse of hope to those rotting inside. The shadows dance across the walls, changing minute by minute, ticking away today just as they did when the prison was first built.

Shadows of the Rock

Shadows of the Rock

Shadows of the Rock

Shadows of the Rock

Shadows of the Rock

Shadows of the Rock

Shadows of the Rock

The way is marked

The way is marked
Camping in Big Sur is magical. Even the path to the restroom is bathed in streams of light.

A Brief History of Presidio San Diego

Perched on a hill high above Mission Valley is Presidio Park. The site of the first European settlement in what is now the United States, the park has been claimed for a mission, fortified as a Presidio1, occupied by the governor of Mexico, and enshrined as the Junipero Serra2 Museum for those rare San Diegans who don’t get altitude sickness at 100ft above sea level.

The Presidio was established in 1769 on the most prime piece of real estate in the not-yet-a-city. Early real estate agents noted: “sweeping view of the ocean… waking up to romantic sunrises over the Native American village in the valley… wonderful facilities for aiming massive bronze cannons at both the bay and the natives… safe from the tides and troubles of the bay front”. The location just can’t be beat, especially at the low price of planting a flag. As the Kumayaay say “There goes the neighborhood”.

Disgruntled by their now-marred view of the hilltop and the impact it would have on their property value, the Kumayaay immediately attacked. After a quick battle, the Spanish walked away with quite the defensive foothold, and promptly issued ordinances on grass length and acceptable religions. Having soon run out of rules to make and other fun Conquistador past times, the Spanish consulted “La Guía Conquista de San Diego”, the local guide for conquistadors. Out of the plethora of options available, they chose to build a bustling cultural center just outside the walls, the Mission San Diego de Alcalá.

Of course, as it turns out, it was NOT the ideal location for a mission. While the idea of “let’s turn these natives we distrust into Spanish-speaking taxpayers” SOUNDED great to the Spanish, what they didn’t consider was that it also meant “Let’s gather people we don’t trust and bring them to the walls of our fort”, which the local permit office would have told them if only they’d been consulted. So after only five years, in 1774 the mission was relocated down the valley where it stands today. But the presidio itself remained.

Obviously few colonists were brave enough to take a cruise to a beachside city with wonderful weather and incredible agriculture, but those that did all stayed close in the shadow of the presidio for security. And so life continued for years until one day, a brave settler looked at the hill and said “no”.

“What do you mean ‘no’?” his neighbor asked.
“No. I’m not going back up that hill again. It’s been a long day and I’m tired. I’m staying down here” responded the settler.
“We..we can do that?” his neighbor whispered.
“I’ve already done it. See, I’ve put down my bag” replied the lazy hero. “I’m going to create a tourist trap and open a Mexican restaurant [after which the country Mexico would eventually be

And that’s how Old Town3 was founded, at the foot of Presidio Hill. By 1835, the Presidio was no longer needed, fell into decay, and suffered through those horrible lean years where something is a bit out of fashion, but not so out of fashion that it’s retro and cool again. It wasn’t until the early 1900s when the site passed from ruin to relic, that a local businessman, George Marston, stepped in to preserve the site. Motivated by a love of history and the dream of a Junipero Serra themed roller coaster, Marston purchased the hill in 1909. But by then, precious little was left aside from the original jogging trails and picnic benches, and his dream of a Father Serra inspired mascot wouldn’t happen until 1958 when the San Diego Padres, MLB team, history aficionados, and all-around idea-stealing bastards, appropriated Marston’s idea for their mascot.

Today the original ruins have all but vanished. And yet, in the spectacular yet functional view of Mission Valley, in the rollercoaster-less Serra Museum, in the rather strenuous hill, history is still very much alive.

1. Presidio is the Spanish word for “fort”. But I couldn’t very well say “Fortified as a fort” now could I.
2. Father Serra’s greatest ability in life was posthumously naming things after himself. You’ll find his name all around historical sites in San Diego, and being as forward thinking as he was, he got in on the game early. Naming rights for a non-profit in San Diego nowadays can range in the millions.
3. “New Town” would have been a terrible name for a tourist trap.

Presidio San Diego 1

Presidio San Diego 2

Presidio San Diego 3

Fill in the blanks: San Diego history

The following results came from Google:

History of San Diego – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
The recorded history of the San Diego, California, region goes back to the … still convinced that San Diego would be the perfect location for a Spanish colony. …. for taking bribes in a scheme to overturn the city’s “no touch” law at strip clubs.

Go ahead, just fill in those blanks.

Alcohol Consumption Quantified

On my path to getting fit for a half-marathon, I began to assess my diet. The first decision, and most obvious, was to cut back on alcohol consumption. All those empty calories went straight to my waist and sapped my endurance. And yet, my social life continued to revolve around happy hours and barbecues where delicious alcohol in all it’s forms was not only readily available, but strongly encouraged! So to help me make the right decision when the time came, I wanted to understand the impact alcohol was having on my performance.

For 55 days, almost two months, I logged the number of drinks consumed. Why 55 days? Because as you’ll see, that was more than enough to establish a pattern.

1. Frequency of Alcohol Consumption

Days of the busy work week blur together into an endless cycle, and it’s easy for habitual consumption to fade into the background. So the first step was to objectively survey how often I imbibe.
Chart showing days that beer was consumed

When visualizing the data, you can see clear and strong clustering. If I drink one day, I’m more likely to drink the next day. I have to toss this up to the taste and sugars being habit-forming in the same soda is. But no matter the physiological cause, if I drink one day, I’m 70% more likely to drink the next.

2. Quantity of Alcohol Consumed

“Just one drink”. That’s what they always say. But put something tasty in front of me, be it food or ice cream or soda, and I’m not the best at holding back. For me, discipline comes in the form of avoidance, most often taking the form of keeping unhealthy options out of the house and at a safe distance. But when that fails, my drink intake looks like this:Quantity of alcohol consumed by day

So what is one drink? To me, “one drink” is actually 4.43 drinks. To take that a step further, “one drink” is 886 calories*, or 1/4 of a pound of body weight.

3. Conclusion

In 55 days, I consumed 20,400 calories* in alcohol drinks. That’s 5.82 pounds of body fat. I could be almost 6 pounds lighter today! .

What difference does this make? Well, I obviously knew alcohol had calories and that abstaining from it would help my waistline and recovery time, but putting a number to the impact turned an abstract concept into actionable information. The decisions is now much easier. I’m not longer denying myself some malty goodness, each time I’m saying no to an extra 1/4 pounds of body fat, which really ruins the appeal.

* Estimating calories is difficult due to the variety of drink options. A glass of wine, bottle of light beer, or shot of hard alcohol all weigh in around 80-120cal. Meanwhile, mixed drink can range from 100-700cal, and a strong flavorful beer can hit 500cal. For calculations use here, I’m estimating 200cal/drink.

All Quiet on the Lawn

Due to distance, minimalism, and the complete absence of people, the White House is almost underwhelming unless viewed as an exquisite sculpture.

Due to distance, minimalism, and the complete absence of people, the White House is almost underwhelming unless viewed as an exquisite sculpture.