Old Friends, New Ways to Connect

Sometime relatively recently, Facebook added videos to the newsfeed, and it taps into the worst part of me. I don’t want to get sucked into the newest viral video, but it just starts playing when it scrolls into view, and I have to stop to see what happens. My better side wants to look away, but I can’t.

Like everyone, I have toyed with the idea of tossing my Facebook account. My uses for it are few. One, it brings traffic to my blog since it’s difficult to find otherwise. Two, it offers up addictive content that I would rather let the masses of reddit than my few friends pick for me. Three, it tells me when people get married or move somewhere, which is momentarily interesting but only relevant in conversation when I am told in person and awkwardly reply, “Oh yeah, I saw that on Facebook.”

Four, and most importantly, it is the best way for people to find me and for me to find them. Most people have phone numbers and emails, but those change and are hard to find, whereas most everyone I know has Facebook. It’s a great way to keep in touch, especially on birthdays as I noted in my last post.

Since then, I have been getting back in touch with high school friends I haven’t talked to or seen in many years. Last night, my high school friend David came over to meet up with several other high school transplants. Even though he had been in the area for awhile, we missed each other and hadn’t We talked about old times, like the competitions we battled in, the teachers we had, and the prison-like experience of school*. We all had a great time, but I don’t see how it could have happened 20 years ago.

Earlier this week, I played the new Dungeons & Dragons with 5 of my friends from high school, living across 3 time zones in 4 different cities, over roll20 using Google Hangouts. We had the inevitable technological difficulties getting setup, but within a half hour, we were laughing over the “tabletop” experience shared between all of us.

I also play StarCraft weekly with friends again spread across the United States. We have kept it going for over a year now, and as much as I like StarCraft, I appreciate it more for the people. Two of my college roommates join regularly and have gotten to know some of my high school friends decently well talking about Game of Thrones, motorcycles, and never fighting alone.

And perhaps the most regular contact I have is a Google Hangout persistent group chat I have with my draw group from college. I started it as a way to just share fun links without having to start new email chains, but it erupted into very lengthy conversations about work, high culture, low culture, inside jokes, current events, and everything in-between. I liken it to having everyone sitting in a room together except where everyone can talk at the same time. It’s hilarious and keeps us each engaged exactly as much as we want to be.

When I think at a high level about all of these things, the immediate wonder is how people kept in touch without the internet. My blog should be evidence in my own belief about the value of long form communication, but even then, I see letters as time-consuming and limited. I guess I could call, but there is some amount of anxiety about interrupting other people. As such, I find that tech as a medium has 2 advantages.

One, it can put us into the same space so I know I’m not bothering anyone. I myself am fairly available, and being present online in persistent spaces like a group chat can indicate that.

Two, it can arrange for shared experiences and events, such as the games mentioned above. Like exercise, staying in touch with friends works best when organized around a schedule. Despite the importance of people, we typically organize our lives around what we do, not who we do it with. Thanks to video chat and associated services, I can play tabletop games and hold book club meetings with geographically divided people.

All things, however, come with an opportunity cost, and I can think of two general issues. First, it’s possible that this sort of connection with distant friends reduces the likelihood of and displaces in-person interactions. Since we can stay in touch this way, I may feel less of a need to see them in-person. I see this as less of an issue because travel is generally an issue, and the opportunity to engage with them at all has kept them closer.

Second, it displaces more local, community-based interactions. Because i can play D&D online with my friends, I don’t go to my local game shop to play. More generally, I don’t have a tremendous drive to go out and meet new people because I have other ways to connect. Most people I know have difficulty keeping up with old friends, but it’s not that big of a deal because we just make new friends.

It’s a tradeoff, but technology has offered us new ways to maintain contact with people geographically divided. I think it’s a personal decision as to whether that is better or worse than connecting locally, but having the option is awfully nice. The technology has improved beyond what I feel are more shallow forms of communication and hopefully will continue to progress in this manner.

* no windows, no leaving campus, confiscation of all cell phones, no facial hair, random drug testing, and pat-downs at graduation. Did I miss anything?

Great Things About My Birthday

Thanks to everyone for the birthday wishes. As it is, I think Julie gets more excited about my birthday than I do, but it’s still really nice to be treated specially once a year for pretty arbitrary reason. Here are a few of the nice things about it, some of which may resonate more with you than others.

Good Food

Julie and I went to Queen House, my favorite Chinese place in downtown Mountain View. We went there last year for my birthday, so I guess it’s becoming something of a tradition. They have really good beef noodle soup and a 3 dishes for $25 (plus rice or scallion pancakes) menu that has good options. I think I have figured out  a lot of Chinese restaurant dishes, but they still manage to make theirs taste extra good.

Afterwards, we went to Sno-Zen for shaved ice. My uncle and cousin introduced me to it down in LA, and I have been craving a second shot at it. It’s light and fluffy unlike snow cones (which are just icy), and it’s like ice cream without the heaviness. The owner was friendly and helpful above typical courteous service. I can appreciate that and would absolutely recommend it to a friend.

Baseball Trade Deadline

The MLB trade deadline happens to be July 31st, so I have baseball rumors and news going on through the mid-afternoon. In a sport spanning 162 games and more than half of the year, there are few times with a spurt of action, and this happens to be one of them.

Facebook

Facebook has spawned what I’m sure is the relatively new phenomena of having endless email or push notifications as people wish you a happy birthday all day. For me, it tends to be a lot of high school friends who I haven’t talked to forever, and though it’s somewhat superficial, I’m glad for the brief moment of connection that may bring back past relationships. I try to send back thanks to everyone in a few sittings over the course of the day with some other appreciative note or response.

Harry Potter and Shared Birthdays

Harry Potter’s birthday was also July 31st. Maybe I’m biased by the similarity, but I can’t think of another fictional characters’ birthday who is more recognized. That’s cool. I would also like to give a shoutout to my friends Andy, Michael, Sam, and the couple others who I very painfully have to say I have forgotten who also share my birthday.

Target

After getting shaved ice, Julie and I went to Target to buy somewhat mundane things like socks and contact solution. Everyone who I told this to when asked about birthday plans laughed, though Julie called me out for doing this deliberately for the laugh. I honestly really like Target: I’m not much for the detail and effort of buying clothes or other apparel, but I do like looking at a lot of knickknacks and other items, and Target is kind of the king of stuff that is totally accessible but not junk. The main goal was to buy new flip-flops, though the only pair that looked serviceable was unfortunately not purchased when Julie pointed out that the style was intended for females.

Gifts… from myself

Most transitions from childhood to adulthood are overstated, but a nontrivial one for me was the ability to get things for myself. I realized when I started working that unlike when I was a child, I can get the things I want on my own. I don’t have to wait for a birthday or christmas for a gift. This greatly affected the way I perceived the ownership of things. Fortunately, it hasn’t led to a spree of consumerism, though it has left me in an unusual spot for gifts. I think I previously blogged about trying to give gifts that one would not bother for on their own.

In my case, item number one was a new wallet. Do I really need a new wallet? Not really. My current wallet hasn’t completely fallen apart, and until I literally had money spilling out of my pockets, I probably wouldn’t do anything about it. On the other hand, the buckle is almost detached, a few sheets have come out, and it’s generally in poor condition. As such, thanks Julie for the new wallet on its way.

The flip side of that is that I usually have the will not to instantly buy the things I want and try to be realistic about how much I will use things. As such, it can be tricky to find the motivation to get things otherwise. Once a year, though, I have my birthday. Last year, it was a car. This year, it will be a set of pizza making supplies I have wanted for awhile: a baking steel, a pizza peel, and Jim Lahey’s book. If you haven’t tried his no-knead pizza dough recipe, you must. It’s very easy and absolutely delicious.

Cheaper Rental Cars

Unless I’m running for president, I believe 25 is the last important birthday as I don’t get charged extra for rental cars. Also, my coworker told me that I apparently don’t have to get insurance on rental cars. What a racket.

Why Professional Athletes Deserve Their Pay (and other don’t)

I think professional athletes get a bad rap for what they’re paid. People complain how LeBron James  is paid $6 a second on or off the court just to play a game. Certainly numbers like that put in perspective how much more millions is than what most of us make, but I don’t think the magnitude should shock us away from it. There are many people out there who, in my opinion, probably deserve their fortunes much less than professional athletes do. I wouldn’t necessarily say they deserve our scorn, but maybe it can help us understand how to best allocate our resources.

Starting with athletes, they deserve their pay because they offer a valued service. A perhaps unfortunate truth is that things in society are valued not necessarily on the effort or innovation behind them but simply on what they offer to society. Brilliant mathematicians, biologists, and other academics can spend many years developing a new theory that maybe doesn’t have immediate impact on society, and they are forgotten. On the other end, there are “cloning” businesses that just copy a product or service from someone else and rake in the dough. Similarly, many people (including myself) enjoy watching professional sports and will pay money for tickets and merchandise for it. Athletes are the basis for those sports, and they receive much of the profit. The total salary can be quite large, but that’s simply because of the scale of their impact. Most jobs yield results that are limited in effect, but athletes can affect billions of people by their performance

Another point is that these athletes are not directly replaceable. There is only one best, active basketball player in the world, and he is LeBron James.  We pay to see the best, and he is it. We aren’t satisfied (at least in this context) by an inferior team. Moreover, sports as a whole is well-developed to ensure that (with very high probability) the best athletes do make it to top billing. I’m comfortable saying LeBron is the best because of his raw performance and stats. There are many analysts and scouts both in the media and in sports organizations who work exhaustively to find the best talent, and from elementary school onward, we have development programs for the athletically gifted. I can’t be entirely certain abroad, but I’m pretty confident that those who excel in sports can find the right venues to feature their skills and move forward if they are truly the best. Professional sports is one of the true meritocracies in the world: performance is the most important metric for advancement.

Compare to the world of business, at least as much as I have seen. In business, a large part of success is who you know. People, whether fresh out of school for an entry job or an industry veteran looking at a leadership position, are often hired by reference or something along those lines, and it’s fair that many of them probably are qualified for the job. That many of these jobs are filled this way, however, indicates that there is a much larger population out there who weren’t as seriously considered for the role, some of whom could have been more qualified for the position. Recruiting and job hunting is still a major obstacle in today’s business world because many businesses neither have the reach nor the ability to effectively screen all potential candidates for a job. Perhaps the inefficiency is intrinsic: having that personal connection is valuable, and it’s hard to know from an interview how good someone actually will be. Even so, it’s hard to call something like that a meritocracy.

I think that luck also happens to play a much larger role in business. Granted, there’s a lot of luck play-to-play in sports, but even great players on bad teams can usually manage to earn a good salary or be traded to a team that will pay.  Barring bad luck in injury, there are usually enough opportunities to demonstrate one’s ability. In business, however, so much of what happen is out of our control. Great businesses were crushed in the economic recession. Some websites or apps go viral because it got picked for one news story or picked up in one area while many other comparable products are left in the dust. A major contract is signed or falls through for things as little as someone being caught in traffic.

The difference in my mind between business and sports with regard to luck is that sports happen in a regular, well-defined, often replicated environment where one’s ability can be demonstrated with high certainty. Business (I’m thinking startups and entrepreneurship specifically), on the other hand, is a much looser world where no one really knows what’s going to happen. Success (and pay) can come out of nowhere, or disappear just as quickly. This is going to be extremely cynical, but I think even the biggest successes in business often provide stories that are illusory and understate the importance of variables outside of their control. They probably did a lot of things right and managed a lot of risk, but they also weren’t sunk by something out of nowhere.

Even if we get past execution, it’s hard to say that people in business get what they deserver when there are differences in opportunity from birth. Anyone born in the United States (or equivalently developed country) also has a huge leg up. Being born into a middle or upper class family helps even more. Most people who graduate from college worked hard to get it, but it turns out that family income is pretty good predictor of making that happen. I can’t concretely point out that sports are different, but I think stories like The Blind Side and the demeaning stereotype of dumb jocks indicate that we believe that athletes often don’t come from the best backgrounds.

So everything I have put out there so far has been really strongly-worded and definitely polemical (note I also have tried to avoid specifics to avoid demonizing anyone), but I really do want to offer a positive spin on this. First, lay off the hate: I don’t think it’s productive for us to be annoyed at how much professional athletes make. They deserve it.

Second, I wonder whether we can use sports as a model for improving our education in general. Despite the integrity of some of his work, Jonah Lehrer wrote an interesting piece awhile ago about athletic geniuses. I think our sports development program today is amazing: we identify talent at a very young age and have extensive support for it all the way through to adulthood. These programs are generally accessible  and really foster the best athletes possible. I wonder how well we can do in trying to bridge inequities in general education as well.

Furthermore, how can we come up with better, more efficient ways to allocate talent? The world is inherently messy and irregular, so maybe we can’t quite get the regularized conditions of sports, but anyone involved in either hiring or looking for a job can speak to the huge difficulty there. The scope is much greater than what sports organizations deal with using their scouts, but I think this can continue to improve here.

Speaking of the World Cup

I am shamelessly a World Cup-only fan. Despite the tremendous amount of soccer played throughout the world during the other 200-ish weeks between World Cups, I can’t be pulled away from NFL American football, NBA basketball, MLB baseball, and just a tad of NHL hockey, to pay attention to the leagues that the rest of the world care about. Over these 5 weeks, however, I quickly developed strong opinions about the ability of different teams, criticized FIFA for their policies, and expressed outrage about poor strategy and execution in game.

But that’s not really what I have been talking about these past few weeks. Instead, I would much rather talk about

and just about every topic that doesn’t actually involve the soccer itself but is somewhat related. Given the media coverage of these things, I think that i’m probably quite normal in this respect. During the World Cup, I feel obligated to stay informed and active in this event that citizens of almost every other country regard as being tremendously important. Even so, I can’t engage with it directly, so I stick to the odd news around it. It turns out that it’s a lot more fun to talk about the random stuff rather than analyze the intricacies of a game that I don’t actually understand.

And now that the World Cup is over, I return to my normal sports life, filled largely with my objectively irrational love of baseball, the least action-packed and most idiosyncratic popular sport I know. It’s only another 2 years until I again feign knowledge and interest in athletic competitions taking place in Brazil, only because the peer pressure that everyone else is faking enthusiasm for as well. But it’s a self-fulfilling and sustaining enthusiasm that I think we all enjoy quite a bit.

So good on you, Germany, for taking this one. Having watched a few of your games, I whole-heartedly believe that your team really deserved this victory, even though your strategy was quite conservative and boring in the final game.

But importantly, Scolari is out for having embarrassed Brazil. What do you think of that?

“X-Men: Days of Future Past” Review

Coming in at 91% on Rotten Tomatoes, I was excited to see X-Men: Days of Future Past. Although it’s not part of the Marvel Studios-owned Marvel Cinematic Universe, which I have become obsessed with through Marvel’s Agents of Shield, this storyline is particularly famous in comic book lore, where Kitty Pryde sends herself back in time from a dystopian future to prevent that future from ever happening.

As featured prominently in the marketing campaign, the movie features both generations of X-Men: Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen play the older Professor X and Magneto, James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender the younger, and both have X-Men around them to form a large ensemble cast. The movie mixes time travel into the superhero formula to create the ultimate, contemporary sci-fi action movie. The movie is anchored by Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), who interacts with both timelines by being sent back from the future to the early 1970s to stop Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from murdering the man behind the Sentinels, robots that destroy mutants in the future.

The movie works largely within existing plot elements and tropes, such as Wolverine’s amusement at life in the 70s and a “student becomes the master” relationship between Wolverine and a young Professor X. The animosity between a young Professor X and Magneto brings a nice human element to a genre often maligned for its lack of depth in hiding behind special effects.

The special effects were, of course, quite impressive. The future shows off a mix of new and familiar mutants to the movies, including Bishop, who can absorb kinetic energy and fire it out of his gun, and Blink, who can create portals for impressive combat tricks. A highlight in the movie is an appearance by the speedy Peter Maximoff, who we first meet when playing ping pong against himself.

Despite involving the large, ensemble cast, the movie is mostly set in the past, and it feels as though a major opportunity to feature Stewart and McKellen is missed. Rather than risk the confusion of time travel communication and heavier interplay between past and future selves, the future is basically a framing device for the story in the past. The script dodges an opportunity to explore the question, “If you could go back in time 50 years, what would you tell yourself?”

The past is set just around the end of the Vietnam War, and the ensuing events are large, political issues. Since the first X-Men movie, there has been a “humans versus mutants” theme, and set in a different and more fatigued world, the writers had an opportunity to not only situate the story in major world events but also to draw greater, more poignant lessons. If there were in there, however, I think I must have missed them. Let me know if you catch any of them.

Overall, I enjoyed the movie, though the 91% rating overhyped it for me. Although it stays close to well-established movie tropes, it is executed well and should keep you engaged to the end.

And beyond, since there is an after-credits scene to wait.

Memories of my Po-Po

About two weeks ago, my po-po (maternal grandmother) passed away. At the funeral, several members of my family patched together a more complete look at her life than I had ever heard. I knew that she had come to Canada under her sister’s name, but when that happened and how she met my gong-gong (maternal grandfather) never came up. My uncles talked about her as a mother and what they learned from her. They mentioned her liveliness, her quiet leadership, her self-sufficiency, her dedication to family. Many stories from my sisters and cousins revolve around food, which is much of what I remember as well.

Since she passed, I have tried several times to write about her and failed, so I’m taking the easy way out and being self-aware. My blog posts tends to be formulaic: I start with a story about a recent event, then meander through my thoughts and extrapolate wildly. Somewhere along the way, I hit the hopefully profound moment of insight, share it, then wrap it back around to the original story as the close. For my po-po, it took one draft to get the lesson I wanted, but I couldn’t bridge the gap between a central story to that lesson.

I will again cop-out of real structure and say that it wasn’t a failing of writing to come up with the story: the problem is that the influence of my po-po is greater than can be expressed so concisely in a blog post. Instead, she has weaved herself through my life so deeply that I can only recognize the bits of it, which follow in a scattered manner.

Physically, there are the plates and bowls passed through my family.  These bowls have held countless bowls of cereal and held beaten eggs for many baked goods. These aren’t family heirlooms, though: they’re the dishes from airplane meals that you get your bread roll in.

Although I probably wouldn’t take a tray myself, I do remember the jars of smarties and 2-cracker packages of saltines, probably carried off from Chinese buffets in a napkin. And I remember waking up one morning to see my po-po carefully transferring individually wrapped pats of butter into a butter tray. I got through college by snagging cereal and milk from dinner the night before or stashing an apple or orange for breakfast.

Once a year, a clan of old Chinese people would caravan between Toronto cemeteries to visit the graves of their ancestors. There were lots of seemingly creepy people, and it was mostly riding in the car, but what 5-year old Kevin did know was that every attendee received a bag with a styrofoam box of Chinese food and a can of Sprite. A can of Sprite worth a day in my life.

So I happily sat in the middle, fold down front seat of the Cadillac between my grandparents. I couldn’t have sat in the backseat had I wanted to because it would be filled with luggage and supplies for every contingency. My po-po had extensive pillows for the marathon drives they would take to drive to Florida or Palm Springs, or later on, Houston when my family moved. My legs dangled, which was also okay, because there were glass jars of candies, sweet and salty dried orange peels, dried prunes that could either be delicious or disgusting based on the color of the writing (which I never did figure out), and other assorted snacks. And there would always be the huge thermos filled with tea.

I don’t remember really having too many in-depth conversations with my po-po. Her English was fine, though maybe it would have helped if I had known more Toisan. I do remember a lot of commands and laughs, though.

I once got a yellow “old-timers baseball” t-shirt from her that even today would be way too big. She gave it to me one day while at the cottage out of my grandpa’s collection, and I can’t possibly fathom the reason for it beyond my interest in baseball. Despite that, I ended up wearing it from several years.

Her Christmas gifts typically came in cardboard boxes wrapped in newspaper. Inside, I could expect half-rolls of girl scout cookies and other assorted goodies. I haven’t confronted my mom about it, but my mom’s last Christmas present was a cardboard box filled with assorted cooking equipment, and also a half-package of soap.

The simplest way to put what I learned from my po-po is that I learned how to be cheap, but I think the trivializes all of the intentions behind it. What’s so ironic is that because of her and my parents and grandparents, I have never been in a situation where frugality was necessary. Her dedication to family enabled the wonderful life I have, where saving is just norm. She taught me that what really matters is providing for and being there for the people you care about, and it’s worth enduring discomfort to have saved a bit of cash or driven across the country to make that happen. Stretch a little here and there to be able to spend time, the most limited resource, to truly have a fulfilling life.

My Regular TODO List

I am, by upbringing, a planner. Recently, I have become a more self-aware planner, and a need to rebel has pushed me to be more spontaneous. The result is that I have rapidly gone through phases of more and less planning depending on what I’m reacting against.

Currently, I’m in a planning mindset, which has led me to my scheduled TODO list. A few months ago, I would set a daily TODO list at the beginning of each week and cross off items everyday. My personal life was amazingly efficient, but it also really started to look like work. I backed off from that, but over the past few months of limited computer use, I have found myself not doing very much. Evenings would just disappear after finishing dishes.

During that time, I have maintained a “floating” section to my TODO list, which are intended to be done anytime during the week, but I haven’t used it consistently. One problem is that it muddles the urgency and timing of many different things, so it takes some thought to determine what is important to address. When I start going through it, I mentally skip items I can’t immediately do, and the ones I can are lost in the mix. Also, there are many things I would like to do very regularly but aren’t part of a daily routine. As such, I have developed a new system.

My new system is to set TODO items as daily, weekly, or monthly. On those schedules, I check and uncheck items in evernote. It grants me the right amount of flexibility to not feel too regimented in completing things that I have handcuffed myself to do. A lot of them are also vague to encourage exploration.

Here’s what it looks like:

Daily

  • Exercise – even if I don’t make arrangements to run or play a sport, I can at least do a quick workout at home or stretch out my arms
  • Learning a 2nd language – it’s a New Year’s Hope, and language has to be used. I was doing German, but after talking to Julie, I don’t think that will be very useful. Instead, I’m going to pick up more Cantonese. Maybe it’s not globally very important, but I have missed out on enough family interactions by not speaking it, and with my sister’s wedding coming up, I’ll see all of them
  • Read – It’s been amazing to get back into reading. Just putting it on my TODO list is enough to get me to open my current book, and then I’m sucked in
  • Listen to iTunes U – still getting through classes. This one is a lower priority, but it’s a reminder to keep it up. It somewhat goes against my last post,  but I need to keep moving, or else I’ll lose context for not keeping up with a class
  • Relax with Julie – most evenings, we do dinner and catch up, but on some nights (like StarCraft night), we might barely say hi before heading off into different things. It’s worth the time to sit down and enjoy being together
  • Read the news – I get the New York Times and Politico in my email inbox daily. I have let it pile up for 2 weeks, and it just isn’t as valuable when just catching up.

Weekly

  • Play StarCraft – join us on Tuesday nights!
  • Play other video games – I have a video game backlog, too. It’s probably too much to do on weekdays when I’m on my computer all day, but it’s nice to play on weekends when I can
  • Blog – I am become much less consistent over the past few months. My blog is where I do a lot of thinking
  • Write in my journal – Maybe my life isn’t that interesting nowadays, or maybe it just doesn’t fit, but I haven’t written daily in a few years. I have since gone for months without writing. Weekly is a good balance since I can usually write Sunday nights and look back on the biggest thing that happened that week
  • Watch TV – Agents of Shield, Cosmos, and whatever other show Julie and I are currently working through
  • Work on my side projects – This is somewhere between daily and weekly. Currently, I’m mostly focused on Spawning Tool, so we’ll see how that goes
  • Watch a movie – I also have a huge movie backlog. I have wanted to but been unable to successfully do movie night, but I know I have time to do it at some point during the week
  • Cook something new – Julie and I cook a lot, but it’s pretty easy to fall back on the standards. At least once a week we should try a new recipe amongst our cookbooks and foodmarks
  • Bake – I do enjoy baking, too, and it’s something I can do to brighten other people’s days
  • Basic cleanup – Typically, we do a big cleanup right before some major event when people are coming over, but it would be less daunting to do one of the tasks once a week and keep things running

Monthly

  • Eat out somewhere new – I mostly prefer home-cooked meals, but there’s just so much good food out there, especially up in San Francisco, that i haven’t explored. If I do go out to eat, it’s usually with a friend, and I like to pick nearby staples. It should be easy, but I definitely need to make an effort to eat out
  • Keep in touch with an old friend – Every time I catch up with someone, we both lament how poorly we keep up with people. Put it on a schedule
  • Get out to do something – Go to a community event, join a meetup, see a performance, get outdoors, take a day trip somewhere. Find something new to do
  • Run my RPGs – I have a Tekumel and a Forgotten Realms play group. We’re not that intense, but it’s easy to fall off track, so I’m shooting to play monthly with them
  • Volunteer – Recently, I have felt a push to become more involved in my community. Volunteering is one of the positive ways to do it, but I haven’t really done any in Mountain View yet
  • Play board games – My collection grew quite quickly, and it’s another fun way to hang out
  • Do a more extensive clean – If anything hasn’t been touched in a month of weekly cleans, it should probably be cleaned
  • Book club meeting – There’s enough structure around this that I don’t have to monitor it, but it’s just a reminder for myself

That may be the best high level look at my life. Let me know if you have any suggested changes in it!

The Sounds and Sights of Cheap Dim Sum

(Author’s note:I wrote this Sunday night)

Good dim sum should come in large, cheap portions. In my mind, you need real, Chinese people making the food, and if they can stay in business with low prices, it means that that the food itself is really good and that they aren’t wasting money on decor and American standards of cleanliness.

New Hwong Kok in Milpitas fits this description. My friend Brain referred it to me, and with the $6 dim sum lunch special equivalent to 3 or 4 items at sit-down dim sum, I thin it’s great. You get the food in a takeout container, there are only 2 tables, and the service is neither good nor bad: it’s simply a necessity in executing a financial transaction involving delicious food.

When I stepped outside this morning to grab dim sum, I stopped to consider whether I wanted to bring my water bottle or not. I might want it in the car, but the main benefit would be to eat there. It was unlikely I would get a table, but if I did, my food would be 20 minutes warmer. I wouldn’t eat dim sum from the comfort of my own kitchen table, but that seemed acceptable.

It ended up being the right call. When I finished paying and turned to leave, I saw that the old Chinese lady at one of the tables had left, so I swooped down and sat in the dinky shop. To my left, a row of fridge cases cooled ingredients and bulk packaged buns, which I suspect were repackaged leftovers from the previous day. In front of me, a mother (or grandmother: don’t tell me you can tell the difference with non-ancient Asian women) was trying to get her rambunctious son, sitting across her at the table, to finish his meal. To my right, a steady line of 5 or 6 people in 2 or 3 parties inched towards being served. Beside them were the display cases of buns and stacks of metal steamers of dumplings.

I ate my food and watched and listened to the people passing through. I heard clutches of Mandarin in orders, and I heard even more Cantonese that I could only occasionally understand. My Cantonese comprehension is at an awkwardly smug level: I can legitimately say that I can’t speak at all and can only understand some of what my grandparents say, so I am justifiably humble. I know enough random food words, however, to randomly bust out translations to show off. I rarely encounter concentrated Chinese groups these days, yet I strangely feel at ease despite not understanding most of the situation.

As I ate, I realized that the familiarity wasn’t strange: how rarely I encounter these situations was strange. The Bay Area has a solid Chinese population, but I don’t interact with it much. Had I pulled out my phone to browse reddit while eating, I wouldn’t have felt so connected to the Chinese boy running around the shop with a lightsaber tucked in the back of his shirt. Had I not brought my water bottle, I would have gone home to eat and missed a 3 year old Chinese girl clearly apprehensive of an old Chinese lady introduced as an “aunt” by her mom. And had I decided just to stay home and have eggs and toast for breakfast, I couldn’t listen in to an apparently impossible explanation of how the customer wants not 1, but orders of the egg noodles.

I have so many ways to avoid interacting with or even just noticing my environment, my neighbors, and generally the world around me. When I’m washing dishes, brushing my teeth, or doing other mindless tasks, I feel compelled to play a podcast to absorb my higher-level thoughts. When I do get outside, I often look down at the sidewalk or road before me and daydream. I miss out on the unique houses on my commute or the soccer game in the park. And perhaps the greatest struggle is even getting outside by convincing myself that the stimulation of the outside world is more valuable than working on a side project at home or catching up on TV.

So I have recently tried hard to be zen-like and empty my mind. On my drive to New Hwong Kok this morning, I turned off the radio and just enjoyed the beautiful day (and watched the traffic, of course). I brought my journal to the dinner table to write while eating dinner, then decided to open the window and just listen to the birds chirping and children playing in the park.

Maybe I can squeeze my daily Duolingo into dinner and attack my TODO list more efficiently. Maybe sitting at New Hwong Kok could have been an utterly boring and soul-sucking experience. But for now, I need the chance to not absorb my attention, not to focus on a virtual world, not to turn inwards on my thoughts. Instead, I need to just take in the world around one, one thing at a time.

The Effect of a Placebo-based Policy

(Disclaimer: I don’t actually know that much about medical ethics or public policy, so I welcome all comments to educate me on the issues here. Also, I will miss citing things because I’m a lazy blogger, so I recommend that if you’re interested, you do your own research)

The Placebo Effect is a well-known phenomenon where a patient actually improves even when given a non-effective treatment that  he or she believes is effective. The perception of efficacy alone not only makes the patient feel better, but actually makes them better.

This effect manifests in other, similar manners, where the perception overrides the actual sensation. For example, it turns out that people will enjoy (and report as enjoying) wine more if it is marked as being more expensive, independent of the actual wine itself. Though maybe if you’re a hipster cheapskate like me, you might perceive cheaper as being better, like a hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant.

In both of these cases, the subject is being tricked into something, but the effect on them is real. Given that, the big question I have is: do you think it’s ethical for doctors, marketers, and other professionals to use the Placebo effect?

Big Yak Mountain, the book club I am in, just read Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational. Ariely is a behavioral economist at Duke, and in this book, he describes several quirks about human decision-making that show how irrational we are. He discusses how uncertain we are in valuing things, to the point where we don’t even know whether we should pay or be paid for some experience. He talks about the gulf between free versus really cheap. He explains why I would happily help you move a couch out of the goodness of my heart but would be unwilling to do it if you offered me $5. Overall, he covers roughly 15 different topics, one per chapter, in an accessible manner. Although I think that Thinking, Fast and Slow is still better, I can understand why you might want to save yourself a few hundred pages and explanation of experimental methods.

When I was putting together notes for the discussion, the question I kept coming back to was, “Is it okay that we’re so irrational, or shoulwe be more rational, more economically logical, in reasoning?” From our discussion, we roughly agreed that these phenomenon are fascinating and good to know, but we were also completely satisfied to experience our blissful irrationality as it is. The bigger question, however, is how this should impact policy, and this is where I am going to do the very bad thing of generalizing narrow experimental results into my worldview.

I asked one policy question above, and I have a few more for you along the same lines. Here’s an easy one: should the use of “free” in advertising campaigns be regulated? I think most of us would say no, despite the fact that we’re totally irrational about free and will go way out of our way to get a free bagel to a degree far beyond that of a 1 cent bagel, even if the free bagel is just a way to lure us into a store to make a large purchase.

Here’s a more contentious one. Ariely spends a chapter on how irrational we are when aroused. If you’re unfamiliar with the study, I’ll save the joy of the experimental methods for when you read the book, but the result is that we act less rationally when emotionally aroused. Since people can be emotionally aroused by anger, one policy is a “cooling off” period between the purchase and acquisition of a gun to prevent people from doing something rash. What do you think of cooling off periods?

The last one is quite broad, but a big issue today is government surveillance. It appears that the NSA has been spying on just about everyone to a much greater degree than we thought. I’m a trusting guy and believe that this was done for our own good and not because someone is reading my phone meta-data to hurt me. If we momentarily ignore the ethics of the surveillance itself, we have been deceived about the activity itself. This deception sounds a lot like the Placebo effect, where an authority gave the perception of something to make us feel better and improve our situation, though they were technically lying at the time. Given my biased framing, how do you feel about the government deceiving us about surveillance for our benefit?

I haven’t quite worked through the details and nuances of this, and specific issues deserve more thought, but I personally am pretty liberal (socially and economically), and I think my belief in human irrationality (and by inclusion, the placebo effect) plays a big role in that. Simply, I, like most other people in this country, am just one person who can’t adequately grasp what is ultimately good for me, and to some degree, I need someone (and not just market forces) to be watching my back.

I need financial regulations because I have no idea what the banks are doing. I need environmental regulations because I don’t know what every supplier is doing. And even if I could, I couldn’t resist buying the cheaper detergent to make optimal purchases. I believe in universal health care because choice is good, but it’s a lot ask every individual to know how best to keep themselves healthy. And assuming that Congress is well-informed (which apparently has not been true so far), I’m generally pretty okay with government surveillance because there are things that I’m better off not knowing, and I trust an entity with the goal of protecting me more than businesses with the goal of being profitable.

So my wildly extrapolated beliefs based in science suggest that a stronger hand in policy is good for us. Of course, there’s always the looming threat of totalitarianism, but a healthy debate and oversight from our legislature should keep it in check. At least in contrast to current trends in libertarianism and small government, I would like to see government stay involved. Some people believe that they deserve complete transparency, that markets are self-correcting, that government should be limited, and that individuals should have tremendous personal freedom. I definitely believe in personal freedom on social issues where it’s more obvious (to me) how freedom affect one’s happiness. On the other issues, my understanding of human cognition is that given complete information and choice, people can still be quite bad at ultimately making themselves happy. And I think that public policy has that mandate as well.

“The Elder Scrolls Online” thoughts

These days, most of my gaming is spent looking down and controlling large armies of space marines in epic, strategic battles. My favorite genre of games, however, typically involves playing a single hero (and maybe a few companions) embarking on an epic quest in some fantasy world where my character grows stronger and find magical equipment and loot. Among these games, known as western (as opposed to eastern or Japanese) role-playing games (RPGs), there are several well-known franchises, such as Baldur’s GateDiablo, and Mass Effect. One important franchise that I came late to is The Elder Scrolls,. Most recently, I have been playing the 5th installement, Skyrim, but thanks to the generosity of my friend Tom, I had the chance to play in the open beta for The Elder Scrolls Online (ESO) this past weekend. Continue reading