The Octopus Card

I am in Hong Kong this week for Blockstack‘s Decentralizing the World Tour (more on that in a forthcoming post).   I arrived yesterday and have been exploring the city a bit.

The first observation is how awful the air quality is.  Holy cow.  This report from Plume Labs (snapshot from the time when I took this above photo of the skyline) tells the story:

While the air quality has made it a bit difficult to get around (no views, but more importantly, you just start to feel sick after a while), something else here has made it tremendously easy to get around: the Octopus Card.

The Octopus Card is a reusable, contactless smart card used for payments throughout Hong Kong, which most importantly works for nearly all modes of transportation.  Yesterday, I traveled by high-speed train, subway, streetcar, bus, tram and ferry, and used my Octopus Card to pay every time (it also works in some, but not all, taxis).  

It is hard to overstate how much of a convenience this is, especially to a visitor to a foreign city.  I traveled by seven different modes of public transportation yesterday, and had zero cognitive overhead trying to figure out tickets, rates, etc.  It is really liberating and makes exploring a new city so easy and so much fun.

Similar systems exist in other cities (Oyster Card in London, UPass in Seoul).  It really makes the city so much more accessible, both for residents and for tourists.

Experiencing infrastructure like this makes me realize how broken and unusable most of the US equivalents are.  Imagine if you could pay for a train, subway, bike, and ferry in NYC using one system?  It is a shame we can’t make investments like that work (by and large) — the closest is perhaps EZPass, which in the American tradition works for cars.

19 comments on “The Octopus Card”

I lived in Taipei for a while and they have a similar system: pay for trains, subways, bikeshare and all taxis with a single card. An added bonus is that the Taipei “EasyCard” is also usable at all 7-11’s and Family Marts, which are much nicer in that part of the world. Moving back to NYC was jarring. It would be a dream to use my MetroCard for a bagel and cup of coffee before my morning C train ride…

exactly. I was at dinner last night and ran into trouble because the restaurant only accepted octopus card (my balance was too low) and alipay, which I don’t have. No credit cards. Luckily they still took cash…

Such a world we live in!

A guy can blog about a liberating subway ride while getting cancer!

What a “system” is right!

The Octopus card was launched in … 1997 so that says something about how integrated and advanced Chinese thinking can be. I’m from HK and air quality was decent when I was a kid. It’s in the last decade it’s dropped.

Paul Chan Mo-lim, who studied electrical and electronics engineering at my alma mater, wrote the requirements and specifications to start the MTR and Octopus system in HK. In 1994 they tendered out a requirements contract which was won by an Australian company, ERG. The Cubic system may well have been a part of their process and technology but the ideation, integration and implementation was from Paul and his team.

What the Octopus story tells us is that when we have a greenfield build with teams from different cultures, the end result is both effective and efficient.

When we have a legacy transport system/technology, e.g. London or NY, it becomes more challenging to convert/upgrade them over to new technology. London adopted the Oyster card in 2003.

but there was a ~20 year gap between the launch of the first line of the MTR (1979) and the launch of the Octopus card (1997) . But regardless, point taken that building something better, new, is almost always easier than upgrading an old system, esp those as old as nyc and london. that said, at aboutthe same time that HK added the octopus card in 1997, NYC upgraded the subway with the metrocard. So it is possible to make a big change like that – I’d just say that the HK/Octopus implementation is better

I’ve spent a lot of my life wondering why and how East and West thinking is so different in some ways and so alike in others; and how to synch the best of both into a universal system.

The integration versus separation (divide and conquer) thing is particularly interesting as it affects the design and function of data and AI systems.


Core values between East and West are the same: love for family, do not kill, do not steal, work hard and move forward etc. The democracy (individual rights) vs community (collective responsibilities) is different.

So when US social networks took off it was interesting, especially when Jaron Lanier likened it to “Digital Maoism.” Now, of course, after 2016 elections it’s clear that the US social networks are divisive and polarising.

But most people wouldn’t make the connection back to Aristotle and Descartes themselves.

Interestingly, it’s likely affected the development of the neural pathways of Westerners and made them think in linear absolutist ways which then affect the way they design AI:


So HK+Octopus is an interesting case study and inspiration for thinking about how to do great integration that works for everyone (MTR for profit, locals traveling to work and also visiting foreigners).

HK is (arguably) the most interesting former colony because there’s so much East+West integration but it’s a different type of integration from Singapore, Taiwan and mainland China.

HKers are Cantonese. Even our language involves levels of integration and complexity that the Mandarin-speaking Chinese are agog about. We have nine tones, they have four. Our calligraphy is complex form, theirs is simplified. We can flex between complexity and simplicity very easily.


I was out last night with some locals and got the introduction to the nuances of cantonese vs Mandarin, simplified vs complex etc

Agree HK is such an interesting mix of east + west

We agree 100% I have a saying. Success has many fathers failure is an orphan. Now you correctly will say that is a male centric statement and it is.

But you know who I am and what I do.

I will state unequivitablely Paul had the vision for HK to own it, and they did.

Thanks, Phil. Context is everything.

Those phrases we inherited like, “Success has many fathers. Failure is an orphan” and “Necessity is the mother of invention” are two small examples of the way that language is loaded with historical biases rather than personal misogyny/misiandry.

Where issues arise with historical biases is in how AI loops historical sexism+racism that civil society had fought wars to eradicate:






Big Tech isn’t incentivized to change a system that’s helped them to monopolize ad $$$.

Investors aren’t incentivized to change the system because the dominance of Big Tech means there’s very little room for innovation and upside. They’ll plough investment $$$ into infrastructure for codeable finance but not codeable values.

It is what it is. The technology shipping from the US is sexist+racist+xenophobic+mindless. It’s inconsistent with its purported values; at least, the values of the Democrats and liberals.

Maybe no one cares as long as Big Tech makes money.

Seems stupid as unequivocally women control more consumer spending than men by far. I can tell you from loyalty programs which further skew things the numbers are very different.

However, I have seen some “brotastic” behavior at conferences. I don’t want people to have to walk on eggshells however. You know I quoted Mark Suster’s article: “All startups are naked in the mirror” People recoiled and said that was sexist. Really?

Women account for over $50 TRILLION in investable assets and $20 TRILLION in global spending but male investors and adtech have total blind spots on this.


Please see also the slide in my observations to Nick below. I discovered this: the language biases in English happened because of HOW ARISTOTLE CLASSIFIED THINGS.

Most classification systems have been thought up by men, including the psychometric ones that Zuckerberg et al have been testing out on us:



There are female neuroscientists pointing out that there haven’t been enough female rats tested:


But let’s stick with Aristotle. There are guys who think more like Socrates who said: “There is no practice of a city’s governors which belongs to a woman because she’s a woman, or to a man because he’s a man.” This was a very different philosophy from Aristotle who wrote: “The relation of male to female is by nature a relation of superior to inferior and ruler to ruled.”

Alas, Aristotle’s classifications and logic is what underpins technology and social systems. So even the guys who believe in equality are subjugated to Aristotle’s rules.

Voilà, huge amounts of $$$ and value isn’t being seen and served because male engineers still classify according to Aristotle.

yes it is impressive. of course, there are tradeoffs.

another thing I learned yesterday is that the MTR (the HK subway, for those not from there) is actually publicly owned/traded entity (city owns ~60%), is managed for profitability and operates profitably, which is… amazing

Nick have you been to WDW (Orlando) with the kids?

The system they have there with the magic bands is awesome. Way way better than a card which you could drop or more easily lose.

Honestly given Steve Jobs affiliation with Disney I was sure this was what drove him to do payments with apple watch. (or perhaps vice versa) The magic bands are great. You just wand everything and it’s on your wrist. Worked very well (and this was several years ago btw).

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