Scandinavia 2018

I’m on a sparsely-populated flight from my Reykjavik, Iceland layover to SFO. I left at 5:30pm Iceland time, and will land nine hours later, around 7:30pm PST. I’ve always enjoyed flying west; it feels like chasing the sun, or perhaps more accurately, staying as still as possible. Prolonging a beautiful sunset on a lovely Scandinavian trip.

I’ve been in Denmark and Sweden for the past ten-ish days, traveling with four students who took Industrialized Construction in the Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering with Professor Jerker Lessing, who I’ve known for six years since we had offices across the hall from each other in Y2E2. My Solar Decathlon team was developing our CORE concept and often chatted with Jerker and his colleague Emile who was also developing a CORE-like concept for his company Veidekke (and who I got to meet again last week). In 2014, after finishing up the competition, I took a 9-month Eurotrip with Dylan, visiting 23 countries and meeting many European friends I had made through Stanford along the way (the first half or so of that 2014 trip is captured in a series of videos you can find here). Sweden was in fact the last few days of that long trip, and I spent a day with Jerker at Lund University. So four years later, when I received an invite from one of the students Tyler to join the trip because they needed more participants to make the planning worth Jerker’s time, and I was craving an excuse to make it back to Europe, a continent that had so shaped my adult life, and it was as good of a timing as I could get during Spring Break, it was a no-brainer for me to join.

The trip consisted roughly of 5 days in Copenhagen, Malmo, and Lund, followed by 2 days by car from Malmo to Stockholm, stopping at sites around Vaxjo and Gillrugen, and a final 2 days in Stockholm. (Forgive me for omitting the umlauts in my post; not like I can pronounce them correctly anyway.) Copenhagen I had been to twice in 2014; Malmo I knew less, though I will always associate it with a certain degree of melancholy, given that by the end of my 2014 trip I was traveling alone, and Malmo was pretty cold and dark, and I was listening a lot to Sun Kil Moon’s Benji which has a sad song that references Malmo. Stockholm I recalled as a beautiful harbor city like San Francisco or Istanbul, where I did the most walking I’ve ever done in my life over two days. I got to connect with a few friends I haven’t met in four years, as well as make a few new friends.

(Note: In terms of recounting this trip, I will be leaving out plenty of detail about the formal visits to industrialized construction factories, offices, and projects (which I’ll probably try to discuss on my City Systems blog as a kick in the butt to get that going), as well as plenty of detail generally. I suppose I will just recount whatever memories and themes are most moving, and that I can capture onto the page in one sitting.)

On Hygge

On a free walking tour of Copenhagen, the tour guide introduced the concept of hygge which I must have missed in 2014: a seemingly ubiquitous term in Denmark that is best represented by the intimacy of a quiet, enclosed courtyard that abuts a crowded, pedestrian street like Stroget. I think we are all searching for hygge in our most important relationships, and in our most cherished spaces. As an urban designer I am particularly interested in how we create spaces and neighborhoods that strike a healthy balance between the public realm and hygge, since hygge alone is not necessarily a good thing if it only draws us further into our own tribes. I’m reminded of a conversation I had with my good friend Sam from Singapore when she came to visit me in San Francisco a couple of months ago; we were recalling our memories of Greek life on Stanford campus and those intolerable row house parties that were much too loud for my tastes, but still somewhat alluring in the abstract as vessels of energy, and I imagined the perfect party in a many-roomed, many-windowed house, in which the first floor is a mosh pit, a chaotic pulse, a preponderance of souls, which we throw ourselves into for the sheer evolutionary game of chance to find somebody who resonates at our frequency, physically or romantically or intellectually or at all wavelengths, and – here’s the key – when you find this person, the two of you go hand in hand up the stairs to an empty room, not to the proverbial bed, but out the window to the balcony or fire escape, where, amidst a canopy of similar balconies with similar couples silhouetted in the quiet, starry night, you sit on the railings and have the slow, hushed conversations you’ve all come here to find, and relish them in a place outside of time. When I imagined this scene in my mind, the throbbing house below and the perched lovers like silent birds in the night, and when I imagine it now, I believe I am imagining hygge.

On Health and Well-Being

It turns out that on the first day of the trip, in Copenhagen, I was scheduled to record an interview for a podcast “Built for Health” by USGBC on how parks and public spaces can be designed for health. So I ended up leaving that walking tour early to do some prep research and to make sure that I could find a quiet space. I ended up sitting with my laptop on a toilet on the fourth floor of the hostel which was completely empty because it was undergoing interior renovation, meaning the rooms were full of construction materials and equipment but were perfect for audio-only recording, when I found out that the podcast had to be rescheduled to the last day of my trip, in Stockholm, because a snowstorm in DC was preventing the recorders from reaching the studio. Ultimately, having the whole trip to reflect on when I ended up recording the podcast yesterday was helpful, as I think of health as something that is planned for at the urban systems scale, and despite how cold these Scandinavian places were, they were full of lively and active streets with bikers and runners. Perhaps the one missing ingredient to what I consider a health society is diversity of people and social interaction, which is pretty much the only expertise half-point I had going for me when I was invited to join the podcast, through my experience designing Common Ground in San Francisco’s Market Street Prototyping Festivals. Despite being heavily socialist countries, Denmark and Sweden revealed some of their darker sides to me throughout the trip as I talked to old friends who warned me about the “illusion” of Scandinavian progress, the deterioration of social values as capitalism and nationalism have crept in. Immigration is certainly the hot issue in all of Europe, as I was able to confirm, but I also learned that it may just be the convenient scapegoat to avoid addressing more fundamental moral sicknesses we all suffer from in the battle between selflessness and selfishness, liberalism and illiberalism, the tragedy of the commons and the expanding circle. (I’m not sure how the podcast will turn out, but I’ll definitely link to it when it’s released.)

On Food and Fika

  • It turns out that Joe & The Juice, which I had assumed to just be yet another bougie creation from downtown San Francisco, is from Denmark and had locations pretty much everywhere we went.
  • It also turns out that Tex-Mex is the most popular American cuisine in Scandinavia. You’ll find plenty of Texas Longhorn Steakhouses and oddities like “Texas Smorrebrod”.
  • Best meal: vegan frikadeller at Kao’s in Malmo, in which the balls are not pork but breadballs with grilled onions and mushrooms, topped with lingenberries.
  • Most expensive meal: Glazed cod on a slice of bread with Brussels sprouts and pickled carrots at Barr (by an ex-Noma chef) in Copenhagen, $100 for the dish to be shared by 2 people. Incredible, but was roughly the same delectable bite as I had out of the more affordable crab roll at Fish in Sausalito.
  • Fika is the “hygge” of Sweden, and is basically a culturally-mandated break around 9am and 2pm every day to sit with work colleagues or friends and have coffee, sandwiches, and relaxing conversation. In Stockholm I met a guy who wanted to start a T-shirt company selling “Wanna Fika?” shirts; I suggested that he use “DTF: Down to Fika?” instead. I hope I haven’t caused too much harm to Sweden.
  • Mikkeller Bar (which has a location in SF) was posh but much too cramped; much better was Clown, or the “shit bar down the street” as Tina calls it, where beer was half the price, and where I could get a special Easter-edition Tuborg bottle with cute yellow chicks on the label.
  • I was impressed by fast food restaurants like Max in Sweden that heavily marketed vegetarian meals; even McDonald’s had a vegan burger, which suggests that the onus is on societies, not corporations, when it comes to the consumer health revolution.
  • I was confused by how coffee shops and fast food restaurants all had microwaves; it turns out that the EU has a law that requires restaurants to provide means for parents to heat up baby food.
  • At “Mom’s Kitchen” in Stockholm I talked to the owner and found out he grew up in my hometown Arcadia, CA and moved to Sweden after serving in the Iraq War. Just another reminder of how hyggily small our world is.

On BIG and Small Architecture

The architectural highlights of the trip were part of a Sunday roundtrip excursion from Malmo up the Swedish coast to Helsingborg, to Helsingor in Denmark across the straight by ferry to see the Maritime Museum by BIG, to the Louisiana Museum Art (my second time) a little bit south, and then down to Copenhagen and across back to Malmo. I went with Tyler and my good friend from Slovenia, Sinan, who came all the way up to visit me for a few days, given that we hadn’t seen each other since 2014 when we dreamed up Cloud Arch Studio, and given that both of our birthdays were on March 26.

I have a lot of thoughts about BIG, which was a critical part of my architectural education at Stanford in terms of how I learned to communicate design. Having now been to their offices in NYC and Copenhagen, and seen quite a few of their projects, I am simulatenously awestruck by the one-of-a-kind experiences that the firm has created that can engage everyday people in the wonders of space (especially the Maritime Museum and the 8 House), and disappointed by the inevitable lackluster quality of finishes and questionable design details when every choice is subservient to the “diagram”. I think we are in the age of Diagrammatic Architecture (usurping the Deconstructivism of Gehry, Hadid, and Morphosis), or perhaps Silicon Valley Architecture, in which the key to architecture is the elevator pitch that can be encapsulated in a simple series of geometric or linguistic moves, like “the donut”, or “the courtscraper”, or “the ski slope power plant”. Unfortunately, as simple as “twisting the building so that it preserves views for the neighboring building” or “pulling the corner of the building to maximize views to the water” sound, I suspect that neither the engineer nor the client can sustainably resolve the implications of those overtly simple architectural moves at the end of the day in their calculations or their checkbooks. Fortunately BIG and other firms are master communicators and thus operating on something akin to venture capital; on the construction site of one of their upcoming projects in Sweden, we learned that tenants who had purchased their million-dollar-plus condos were mostly foreign investors or older Swedes who sold off their inner-city historic houses to be able to afford the move-in; one condo was bought for a teenage son as a college gift on the condition that he is accepted into KTH. To be clear, I think there is a place for Diagrammatic Architecture in our cities, and I have personally learned a lot from firms like BIG. But walking down the entry bridge to the Maritime Museum, the first thing I noticed was a bunch of duct tape covering a prominent edge on the walkway; later on in the museum, I found three instances of staircases that, suffice to say, could have only been conceived in Grasshopper (and do pretty poorly at their fundamental function, to safely convey people up and down). At the Stockholm project, the 169 units were all entirely unique, a sharp contrast to the affordable, standardized designs built in factories we had spent most of our trip viewing, which means hundreds more surprises in the operations & maintenance phase. I think we’re riding a bubble that will burst as soon as enough of these simple-yet-complex buildings begin to wear and tear or fail to adapt more readily than their humbler counterparts, and it will be unfortunate for the whole field that we did not critique these buildings more carefully. I’ll go out on a limb to predict that this phase of architecture won’t last longer than five more years, and I hope to be part of the transition to something like Honest Architecture.

After the Maritime Museum was a return to my favorite museum in the world, the Louisiana Museum of Art. It’s a modest white house that looks like it could be on a plantation in Louisiana (though as I learned, the namesake of the museum is actually three wives of the art collector, all strangely named Louise), that received a series of modernist extensions as wings meandering across the beautiful coastal site. In 2014, I got to see Olafur Eliasson and Philip Gustont; this time I got to see Picasso ceramics and haunting sketches by George Condo, along with one of Yayoi Kusama’s infinity rooms. But most importantly, I felt like I was reconnecting with an old friend, like the many I got to see in Copenhagen and Malmo, which speaks to how much character this museum has, even to the degree that it has different moods depending on which wing you’re exploring. For example, the north wing, which looks over a lake and trees, is warm to the touch of cedar wood with porous thresholds to allow you to move back and forth between nature and building; on the other hand, the southern white wing is cold, subdued, secretive, and introverted, with precariously narrow paths that allow you to traverse all the way around the wing on its cliff edge, only to find that there’s no way to get back into the building. All the while, beautiful outdoor and indoor sculpture and art immerse you like the stories you’d hear from a friend you haven’t seen in years. I felt rejuvenated revisiting this museum, especially with the human scale of architecture that we can still achieve if we build our buildings as lifelong dialogues instead of 30-second sales pitches.


Bonus highlight: a magical water tower in Vaxjo that I found through Atlas Obscura which a concave underbelly that echoes all your sounds back to you if you stand right in the center. Watch this video to hear what I mean.

On Turning 26

I feel lucky to have had such a conveniently-timed journey to wrap around what otherwise is an ordinary day, to help enrich the memory and imbue the transition into the latter half of my twenties with some emotional significance. With my last trip to Europe being 4 years ago, which itself was a momentous transition, it seems like the chapters of my life have come in series of 4 years, from 4 years of high school to 4 years of undergraduate education to the last 4 years of finding my bearings in an eclectic career of teaching and practice. So it was magical to be able to step out of the bubble of my busy life and disappear into what essentially felt like a parallel dimension hygge — a Time-Turner, a Mirror of Erised, a meeting with Dumbledore at King’s Cross (apologies for the random Harry Potter references) — and let a real adventure serve as the backdrop for a reality check within. I have experienced satisfying achievements and cherished love in my twenties, and I have experienced profound failures and suffered through physical and emotional struggles. I accept that the best and worst are yet to come, in the most unpredictable of ways. I am happy with the person I have become, a strange concoction of intellectual honesty, emotional and moral anxiety, and undercover tomfoolery. I am simultaneously guilt-ridden by and proud of the effect I have on other people, and will continue to be confused by this dichotomy. I still haven’t been able to escape the embarrassment of my young age, or the feelings of meaninglessness in a corrupt world, or the “left hand of darkness and right hand of light… like lovers in kemmer” (to quote a book I have just finished on this flight), but all in all, I have stepped across this arbitrary threshold without a hitch, saved by a conspiracy of love, and carry more than enough of what I need to make it to the next pit stop.

To all of us travelers through this beautiful and mad world: here’s to stopping once in a while, at least once a year, to check the GPS in your heart, and then getting back onto the winding trail.




March 2018

I’ll be traveling from 3/20-3/30 to Denmark and Sweden, and I’ll leave a recounting of that trip for its own blog post, so this will be highlights from the last two weeks.

Most importantly, I’ve been giddy and nervous about some really exciting news that isn’t quite signed, sealed, and delivered, so I will wait until April to talk about it for worry of jinxing it!

First off, I got a new phone, a Pixel 2, which has been pretty much the same thing as my previous Pixel XL, but investing $700 in a shiny gadget that fits in your palm is always exciting. I particularly liked how quick it was to switch over (a few minutes of plugging the old phone to the new one transferred pretty much everything I needed), which I recall definitely not being the case with new devices even just a few years ago.

One thing that unfortunately didn’t transfer over was my Set statistics (If you’ve read my last end-of-year post, you’ve seen my raves about this mobile app version of the card game). Luckily, I had just taken a screenshot of my stats to show Bo before I switched phones (yes, I brag about my stats to my girlfriend).


As you can see, after 550 games, my record time was 01:58 and my mean time was 04:30. I roughly calculated the variance by eyeballing the heights of the columns and calling those 2:30, 3:30, 4:30 games, etc. The variance was 1:37.

So when I switched phones and started with a clean record board, and I played two games…


… I ended up with two of the fastest games I had ever played. It’s time for some quick math again. The z-score of a 2:00 game, if my gameplay were a standard normal distribution, would be -1.54; if it were lognormally distributed, the z-score would be -2.58. That means that the chance of me playing a sub-2:00 game at that moment was on the range of 0.5-6%, likely closer to the lower end (visual inspection of the histogram seems to match the math). And to have done it twice in a row, let’s just call that a 1 in 1000 chance.

So it seemed like quite a big deal, like I was on a whole different level now, but after a few more games, this is what my stats looked like:


Alas, no more sub-2:00 games, and the mean has reverted to 3:33. For those of you who’ve read Thinking Fast and Slow by Kahneman and Tversky, you may recognize my experience as a natural example of regression toward the mean. But I’m also improving by skill, because the chance of 60 games with a mean of 3:33 is actually much more unlikely than two sub-2:00 games (off the z-charts).

In summary, probability is fascinating, and so is Set.

In other news, I’ve been listening to NPR’s Austin 100, and as I usually do, I made my own “Austin 20”. I think the standouts are G Flip, Gordi, and IDER, if you’re even shorter on time. I’ve been to SXSW just once, on a Spring Break tour with my college a cappella group The Mendicants, and pretty much just experienced it as peering through a window at a Snoop Dogg concert. I’d definitely love to make it down there for real sometime soon.

The last two weeks have seen some exciting singles from Beach House’s upcoming album, as well as the full Yo La Tengo album, but the biggest discovery for me has been Japanese Breakfast (thanks again to an All Songs Considered episode). I think I had basically missed Japanese Breakfast because their single “Everybody Wants to Love You” from a few years ago, when it was making the rounds, seemed a bit too low-fi/surfer for my tastes. In fact, both Psychopomp and the latest Soft Sounds From Another Planet are surprisingly diverse, lush, and beautiful albums in their entirety. Just a list of songs from those two albums that I can’t stop listening to:

  • “Heaven”
  • “The Woman That Loves You”
  • “Jane Cum”: Incredible range and emotion.
  • “Triple 7”
  • “Diving Woman”: Channels a serious rock band, like The War on Drugs.
  • “Road Head”
  • “Machinist”: Oh my god, what a fun song. I still can’t place my finger on what this reminds me of, but it’s basically an anime dream.
  • “Boyish”: Channels Angel Olsen.

I’m looking forward to seeing Michelle Zauner play at the Fox (opening for Belle & Sebastian) in June! And this past week I went with Bo to see Lorde (with Run the Jewelz strangely as opener), in which the basic girls made us feel old and Lorde killed it with a tricked-out rendition of my favorite song of hers, “Ribs”.

26 is just around the corner, with a lot to behold!


Two quick raves: Enlightenment Now and Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405

1. Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker. The last few paragraphs give you a sense of the scope of this book and deserve to be quoted in full:

The case for Enlightenment Now is not just a matter of debunking fallacies or disseminating data. It may be cast as a stirring narrative, and I hope that people with more artistic flair and rhetorical power than I can tell it better and spread it farther. The story of human progress is truly heroic. It is glorious. It is uplifting. It is even, I daresay, spiritual. It goes something like this.

We are born into a pitiless universe, facing steep odds against life-enabling order and in constant jeopardy of falling apart. We were shaped by a force that is ruthlessly competitive. We are made from crooked timber, vulnerable to illusions, self-centeredness, and at times astounding stupidity.

Yet human nature has also been blessed with resources that open a space for a kind of redemption. We are endowed with the power to combine ideas recursively, to have thoughts about our thoughts. We have an instinct for language, allowing us to share the fruits of our experience and ingenuity. We are deepened with the capacity for sympathy—for pity, imagination, compassion, commiseration.

These endowments have found ways to magnify their own power. The scope of language has been augmented by the written, printed, and electronic word. Our circle of sympathy has been expanded by history, journalism, and the narrative arts. And our puny rational faculties have been multiplied by the norms and institutions of reason: intellectual curiosity, open debate, skepticism of authority and dogma, and the burden of proof to verify ideas by confronting them against reality.

As the spiral of recursive improvement gathers momentum, we eke out victories against the forces that grind us down, not least the darker parts of our own nature. We penetrate the mysteries of the cosmos, including life and mind. We live longer, suffer less, learn more, get smarter, and enjoy more small pleasures and rich experiences. Fewer of us are killed, assaulted, enslaved, oppressed, or exploited by the others. From a few oases, the territories with peace and prosperity are growing, and could someday encompass the globe. Much suffering remains, and tremendous peril. But ideas on how to reduce them have been voiced, and an infinite number of others are yet to be conceived.

We will never have a perfect world, and it would be dangerous to seek one. But there is no limit to the betterments we can attain if we continue to apply knowledge to enhance human flourishing.

This heroic story is not just another myth. Myths are fictions, but this one is true—true to the best of our knowledge, which is the only truth we can have. We believe it because we have reasons to believe it. As we learn more, we can show which parts of the story continue to be true, and which ones false—as any of them might be, and any could become.

And the story belongs not to any tribe but to all of humanity—to any sentient creature with the power of reason and the urge to persist in its being. For it requires only the convictions that life is better than death, health is better than sickness, abundance is better than want, freedom is better than coercion, happiness is better than suffering, and knowledge is better than superstition and ignorance.

I hope to one day be able to write something like this — perhaps the sequel which makes the case for cosmopolitanism, and the work of cities to advance and protect the ideals of the Enlightenment.

2. Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405 by Frank Stiefel, featuring artist Mindy Alper. It’s one of the nominees for Best Documentary Short at the Oscar’s tonight, and though it probably won’t win (Heroin(e) being the most timely film), I think it may be one of my favorite documentaries ever (nowhere near the budget and gravitas of The Act of Killing, The Look of Silence, Citizenfour, and Blackfish, but incredibly moving). It’s on YouTube, and I highly recommend you make the time to experience it.



February 2018

OK, I’m back on track with blogging, even starting this post a few days before the end of February. I hope everybody’s 2018 has been off to a great start, that you’re doing the best to filter out the distractions that prevent you from realizing your full potential. I’ve had a friend send me a handful of depressing links about crime and homelessness in the Bay Area this week, and while I think just as much if not more about the systemic drivers of these social issues within cities, I worry that his exposure to negative news is akin to catching a digital cold, and that we can all gain from practicing both physical and emotional hygiene in this especially contagious season.

I’ve just begun reading Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, which clocks in at about 450 pages, and I’m relishing it. It basically feels like the book I didn’t end up having to write, but was aspiring to I began my journey of intellectual honesty at the start of the Trump presidency. And I think it works pretty much perfectly as prerequisite reading for my next class of students in Sustainable Urban Systems, and the antidote to the contagious pessimism of our media-saturated environment. Pinker recalls a point he made in earlier books like The Better Angels of Our Nature and The Blank Slate that if newspapers could only publish once every 50 years — heck even just once every one year — they’d have a lot better things to say, when they can elevate above our negativity and recency biases to see the incredible progress and success of science and reason to improve overall human health and well-being. Paul Collier’s The Bottom Billion, which I just finished yesterday, provides some reservations on whether 1/7th of our world is experiencing the same progress, but these newspapers can be equally influential in helping us break out of our small circles of empathy and applying rational compassion to the biggest problems in our global society.

I try my best to keep all my projects ranked in scale of impact on well-being, and compare them to projects I see out in the world that may be more deserving of my time. Affordable housing and transit-oriented development in the Bay Area are problems that substantively affect well-being on the order of millions of people, but perhaps not as directly as the impact you would have specifically targeting the thousands who are homeless and struggling with opioid addiction in the Bay. Which should I be spending this year focused on? Or should I be focusing more on climate change and flood risk and mental health and education, in service of generations yet to come in the Bay Area? Or should I be focusing my time on this current window of opportunity we seem to have with gun control legislation, led by brave students out of Parkland, Florida? Or should we be even more honest about the problem of gun violence and look past mass shootings to the many more gun suicides and gun homicides we could be preventing through a more comprehensive set of policies and political shifts? Or should we break out of our American bubble and stop to think about the over 500 deaths in Syria this past week, or the residents of Cape Town who down to 50 liters of water per capita per day?

To my friend’s credit, it is incredibly challenging to stay measured in the wake of so many problems worth solving, some that hit emotionally close to home, others that are unfathomable. But all I know is that we each need a minimum amount of personal health to be in the best position to tackle these challenges, and that should be our first priority when we wake each morning. Otherwise, to use an uncomfortable metaphor, we’re shooting ourselves in the foot before we start the race.

Two quick last anecdotes on the topic of unfathomable depths.

On Thursday night I went to see Mount Eerie (Phil Elverum) perform at the Swedish American Hall. As I noted in my last post, his latest album A Crow Looked at Me is an eulogy to his wife who died of pancreatic cancer in 2016. Listening to this album over the last few weeks, and watching Phil perform these songs (and new ones), represents one peak (or valley) of this unsettling landscape of empathy and compassion. I suggest you listen to a song like “Real Death“, or just listen to the whole album (I’ll share it with you) to really know what I mean, and maybe to get a glimpse at what he means, or is trying to mean. See the thing is, I have absolutely know idea how to feel about or relate to this music. He’s noted in interviews that the point wasn’t to make music or art, but to put down a year’s worth of haunting memories in record and performance as a way of one day being able to distance himself from them, and move on with his (and his daughter’s) life. But if that is the goal, then what are we to do with these tragic songs? How was I supposed to react to them, sitting in the audience with a hundred San Franciscans on Thursday night, as Phil went from song to song, often throwing his neck back to stare straight up into the ceiling, maybe to Geneviève, as he started a song? (At some point the veil was broken when he was going the second time through a chorus for a surprisingly funny new song about hanging out with Weyes Blood and Father John Misty at a music festival in a desert in Phoenix, but the breaking revealed more about us than him; as he sang “People get cancer and die, people get hit by buses and die,” somebody in the audience started clapping along, and he stopped and said, “That’s so fucked up.”) I think maybe it’s as simple as Phil wanting a simple truth to be known: death is real. There is meaningless suffering around the corner for all of us, embedded into the relationships and dreams we care about the most, traceable back to the Second Fundamental Law of Thermodynamics, as Pinker so eloquently explains in his new book. But in another song Phil revealed a deeper idea: that in anticipation of his own death, which he imagined to be a plane crash in the Grand Canyon, he just hoped that he would be remembered after he was gone. I think this is the beauty of the human condition (ignoring for a moment the merits of working to reduce human suffering): that as grim as our lives can be, our suffering is at least temporary, while good ideas and loving memories can last as long as society itself, if cherished. So through song, Phil has honored a memory that can transcend Geneviève’s suffering, and his own. And this is what I took from Thursday night, walking back home, having stood at the edge of an unfathomable depth; I still had no way to connect with the feeling of being in that depth, but I was able to see that it was deep in a way I had not measured before.

This was all fine and dandy to close out my thoughts on well-being and suffering for February; then I watched the first episode of Black Mirror Season Four last night. I know I’m way behind and that many of you have probably already watched the Star Trek episode (spoilers ahead, so definitely watch it before reading the rest of this post).

But after a brief look for thinkpieces online, I feel like the elephant in the room hasn’t been addressed, the idea that scares me the most out of this episode. That is: the idea of the eternal suffering of conscious AI. This may be the most important idea that Black Mirror has explored so far, because I think it’s one of the most important ethical problems we are at the precipice of in human civilization, one that I’ve only heard Sam Harris seriously focus on. All you have to do is watch this episode and imagine what it was like for the cloned characters to be trapped in the U.S.S. Callister for what is implied to be years, without a way of escaping their prison, even through suicide. (Or even worse, for poor Gillian from marketing who is out there on some planet trapped in a monster’s body.) The implication is that when the main characters exit the wormhole, the offline mod is deleted, but it looks like Robert Daly’s real-life consciousness is left to sit in some residual code floating through space at least until his real-life body dies of dehydration. But what if it’s more complicated than that, and somehow the digital version stays trapped for what feels like a conscious eternity? What if Gillian from marketing, Tommy, Walton, and unnamed others weren’t deleted with the wormhole incident, but also stuck in some alternate digital dimension, continuing to suffer forever? And what’s not to say that shortly after the “happy ending” of the show, the main characters who are conscious AI in the online server end up getting stuck in new eternal prisons by real-life abusive players like the Aaron Paul cameo?

Compared to everything I’ve discussed in this post, I actually feel like it’s more important for us to prevent even a single conscious AI from suffering like this, because then we’d have eternal damnation on our hands. (Perhaps this is one issue that religious people have the most experience with and should be the most concerned about.) There’s of course a long road before we better understand the preconditions of consciousness, and before our experiments with general machine intelligent could yield such preconditions, but if we are not careful, our computers will become the gates of Hell.

And on that most depressing of notes… back to Netflix. I’m off to run the Dish at Stanford tomorrow morning, and will probably add an update about that.

UPDATE 2/28: The Dish Race was a success! I had practiced it a week before and run it in just under 30 minutes (3.25 miles, just over 5K); for the real thing I ended up running it in 27 minutes, 8:19 split! I made a playlist with Kendrick Lamar and Grimes and War on Drugs which probably helped. By the end my knees were in a lot of pain and were the bottleneck to me running any faster, and I was worried that my knees would be in pain all week, but by the following morning they felt fine. So it seems that my physical endurance and joints have really improved this year, with the skiing and the running. I’m thinking I’ll try a 5K in San Francisco next and see how that goes.


Photo from the Stanford Dish Race FB Page.

Not much else to add for February except that it was a fantastic month for music! A selection for you to sample:

  1. Wye Oak – It Was Not Natural, second single off the new album coming in April, is expansive and sometimes explosive but still has the pristine joy of Wye Oak’s last album and Flock of Dimes. I have two tickets to see them in July, and the second ticket is not yet claimed!
  2. Trace Mountains – Cary’s Dreams, second single off album due at the end of March, is making me really excited about this artist. The long drawls are probably not for everyone, but I love this kind of Garage Band indie sound.
  3. Mount Eerie – Toothbrush/Trash, not a February 2018 release, but as I noted before, I’ve been deep into this album in preparation for the concert. This track is near the end and is like a light at the end of a really dark tunnel.
  4. S. Carey – Hideout, off Bon Iver’s drummer’s new album Hundred Acres, aptly described by Pitchfork as “pleasant”. This whole album is my year’s fix of Asgeir, Novo Amor style goodies for a nature walk.
  5. Belle & Sebastian – The Girl Doesn’t Get It, off How to Solve Our Human Problems Part 1, though I’m listening to the full trilogy which just came out as one package. With quick glimpses throughout the past few months I wasn’t too enthused, but now diving fully into it there are some really lovely gems in here. I’m not sure if B&S is still my #1 band, which it was for all of college, but they really can’t do wrong by me. This song has the fervent motion of “Play for Today” off the last album; other highlights include “Poor Boy” and “There Is An Everlasting Song”. I haven’t extracted the answer to our human problems from this project yet, but the last darling song “Best Friend” probably hints at it: “Oh, here we are just trying not to fall in love / It’s only human not to want to be alone”.
  6. Yo La Tengo – For You Too, a song off their March album There’s A Riot Going On, which sounds really promising! So far it’s got the vibe of Fade, which is exactly what I was hoping for more of.
  7. CHVRCHES – Get Out, first single off of Love is Dead, which just came out on pre-order today, is the kind of banger I adore. Simple, yes, but at this point Lauren Mayberry can say two words over and over again on a sick beat, and as long as it’s that perfectly high anime range, I’m loving it. Oh, and Matt Berninger is on this album, making good on their sharing the stage at Treasure Island a few years ago to sing “I Need My Girl”, which was about as good as it gets for me and Bobo.

January 2018

I was planning to churn out a life update at the end of every month, but the last week of January I was busy preparing for a weekend conference in LA so this got delayed, and before I knew it, it was almost March. Alas time is still the most important and scarce resource in 2018.

City of angels

The first weekend of February, I headed back to LA for a series of meetings on new Sustainable Development Goal initiatives (for a summary of what I’ve been working on in this space, read this). These meetings included a day in L.A. City Hall, which allowed me to take the super convenient Metro line from Arcadia to downtown and experience just how much mobility has changed in the suburban desert I grew up in. For the next two days I was at Occidental, a tiny little oasis like Stanford that I had never been to before, but had spent a good three years down the block from, in Eagle Rock, at a little private Christian charter school called Westminster Academy. I don’t know where folks stand on the emotional value of childhood experiences, but for me, there’s a lot in the years of 1st grade through 3rd grade which shaped me for better or worse, that I felt a deep urge to mine that weekend. So having finished up my meetings on a Saturday afternoon, I took a short drive over to my old school, to discover (1) it had changed names and was an entirely different school now, and (2) it was at least 50% smaller than the spaces loomed in my memory, which makes perfect sense psychologically but it nonetheless an incredibly disorienting experience (is the same true for the people and events?). Then, thinking back to one of my first romances, I was drawn to one of the most important memories I have from that time, of playing on a wooded hillside with this girl as our older brothers were playing tag football, and discovering a tunnel system beneath the extensive root network of an old tree that we were able to crawl into and literally slide through for a good length, getting dust and sap and spiderwebs on our Christian uniforms, and finally emerging out into the grass clearing with our own “Bridge to Terabithia” hidden somewhere only we would know. Except, alas, that at age 25, driving from park to park in Eagle Rock trying to identify likely clearings and woods on Google Maps like the character in Lion, and finally wandering through Hispanic family gatherings under gazebos with fireworks illuminate a darkening field at dusk, I found only a hillside infested with poison oak that I could barely see into to cast a profound shadow over my memory and its veracity. How many cherished Terabithias are out there, somewhere nobody knows?


Progress so far on “radical accountability”, and a plan for charitable giving

If you read my end-of-year post from 2017, you saw some of the tables and pie charts I had created after a year of meticulous accounting, and some adjustments I proposed for 2018. I did find some time right at the turn of the year to set up my 2018 spreadsheets and make it a lot easier for me to continue this “radical accountability” experiment. For example, I decided I needed to find an actual time tracker app for my phone so I wouldn’t just be relying on my calendar and rough memory to allot time to different productivity categories, and have been fairly satisfied with this app. (In actuality I still forget and have to retroactively estimate start-and-end times about 50% of the time, but I feel more confident in my numbers than last year.) So far, here are some promising results across the different things I’m tracking:

  • Hours
    • Professional across my three “hats” (Stanford, Cloud Arch, City Systems) totals 47.7 hours per week.
    • I’m reading 1 hour per day, with a 70:30 split between books (which I’ll review in more detail below) and articles (which ranges from academic papers to email newsletters).
    • I’m getting nearly 7 hours of exercise per week, which is certainly a huge increase of last year (though I don’t have the numbers). This has mainly been attributable to skiing at Tahoe 6 days so far in the season, and doing the requisite gym time to prepare for those ski days.
    • I’m sleeping 6.5 hours per day (though this doesn’t include a 40-minute nap most weekdays on the morning Caltrain ride).
  • Diet
    • I especially wanted to isolate out vegan from dairy/egg meals, and it looks like I’m a solid 60% vegan and 78% vegetarian.
    • Based on my “ethics of eating” deep dive at the end of last year, I wanted to flip the balance of meat to seafood and poultry, and that looks to have been successful (about 7.8% seafood and 7.8% poultry).
    • A lot of the meat eating has been cleaning out the fridge and the obligatory meat-eating that comes with relationships with friends and family. I think I can probably get it down to below 15% at the close of the year.
  • Expenses
    • I’ve increased my grocery spending by nearly 3x compared to last year,
    • I’m spending about $600/week on all expenses, compared to $690 from last year.

I was particularly interested in increasing my charitable giving this year, and it occurs to me that there is a fairly simple way to hold myself accountable to that: if I set my $690/week from last year as a baseline, then any money left over at the end of each month this year, relative to the baseline, can be by default set aside for charity. I need to figure out a systematic way to make this happen, and will report back with progress in the next update.

Away from the hustle

Having purchased a Tahoe Epic Pass for this season, I’ve made a pretty conscious effort to head up as many times as I can, including this past weekend with my brother. Unfortunately the snow has been quite disappointing compared to last year, but nonetheless I’ve improved greatly over three weekends on my short skis and with physical endurance (supported by mild gym time). Last year I was at Squaw; this season I’ve been rotating through Kirkwood, Heavenly, and Northstar. At this point I feel pretty comfortable with moguls and steep slopes, as long as there is soft snow. My effective edge on my skiboards is pretty much the length of my feet, so I’ve gotten quite a feel for the edge of reasonable speed and stability. I do think that by next season I’ll be craving more speed, so I’ll be considering investment in a pair of normal skis. I’ve geared up with new goggles, helmet, and water backpack as well. All in all I am investing time in skiing as a combination of exercise, adrenaline rush, appreciation of nature, and quality time away from the hustle, and it’s felt really satisfying thus far. Hit me up if you want to ski together before the end of this season, with hopefully some more snow up its sleeve.

Of course, back in the Bay there have been some moments of respite as well, from hiking in Muir Woods with Sam to Cat-opoly with the homies to morning buns with Bobo.


Books, movies, music, and the ideas that have excited me

I’ve been pretty voracious this year so far, with seven books down:

  • On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder
  • Planning and Design for Future Informal Settlements: Shaping the Self-Constructed City by David Gouverneur
  • A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro
    • Having pretty much completed Murakami’s bibliography, I’m moving on to Ishiguro, and really enjoyed this debut novel which takes “unreliable narrator” to a level I haven’t seen before, to haunting effect.
  • Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963 by Susan Sontag
  • The Regional City by Peter Calthorpe
  • The Little Friend by Donna Tartt
    • The Goldfinch and The Secret History are in my top 5 novels of all time, so I had really high expectations going into this one. It’s not as good but enough of an achievement to establish Tartt as one of the best contemporary authors in my opinion.
  • Inadequate Equilibria: Where and How Civilizations Get Stuck by Eliezer Yudkowsky
    • I discovered Yudkowsky through a recent Sam Harris podcast, and then quickly realized that he is a missing piece of my intellectual puzzle as the primary contributor to LessWrong, which is becoming something of a philosophical home for me. This newest book on systems thinking was as refreshing as the best of Jane Jacobs.

I’m now sprinting through my reading list, ever more cognizant of just how much I want to finish. I’m currently reading:

  • The Bottom Billion by Paul Collier, upvoted by a pretty direct recommendation, to hopefully clarify some of my thinking on international development and build off of what I pretty much only know through Jeff Sachs, especially now that it looks like my work on Sustainable Development Goals is heating up again.
  • Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, a fanfic by Yudkowsky that is basically a disguise for teaching rationalist fundamentals. I’m still only in Diagon Alley and it’s been a visceral pleasure already.
  • The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See is coming up soon, recommended by my mom because it apparently hits surprisingly close to home with plot and settings in rural China and Arcadia (mere blocks away from home?).

These reads have been supplemented by some really great content in longform (especially “Promethea Unbound” recommended by Planet Money) and podcasts (I finally listened to S-Town and quite enjoyed it).

In film, I basically spent the first two weeks getting through a bunch of Oscar nominations, with Call Me By Your Name and Molly’s Game being standouts. As for music, I’ve basically had the following on repeat:

  • CMBYN soundtrack: a mix of Ruichi Sakamoto piano compositions (somebody whose discography I intend to explore), 80s foreign pop ballads, and good old Sufjan Stevens. It’s the most listenable and impactful film soundtrack I’ve ever taken the time to experience.
  • Ruins by First Aid Kit: It was a bit disappointing at first, and still feels somewhat incomplete, but has definitely grown on me with weeks of listening. I really regret not seeing them live in Oakland in January; I guess “it’s a shame”.
  • Blood by Rhye: An early contender for my top 10 list, this one completely satisfied my long wait for a sequel to Woman. Can’t wait for a chance to see this album performed live.

In anticipation of seeing Mt. Eerie this week in SF, I finally put some time into last year’s A Crow Looked at Me, which I had avoided because of its daunting topic: the death of Phil Elverum’s wife, Geneviève Castrée. It is definitely not easy listening, and has put me in a somewhat despondent mood the last week, and leaves me a bit anxious for how emotionally moving this live performance will likely be. Lines like this are indicative of how powerfully and tragically captured the memories and experiences of this album are:

Crusted with tears, catatonic and raw
I go downstairs and outside and you still get mail
A week after you died a package with your name on it came
And inside was a gift for our daughter you had ordered in secret
And collapsed there on the front steps I wailed
A backpack for when she goes to school a couple years from now
You were thinking ahead to a future you must have known 
Deep down would not include you
Though you clawed at the cliff you were sliding down
Being swallowed into a silence that’s bottomless and real (“Real Death”)


I now wield the power to transform a grocery store aisle into a canyon of pity and confusion
And mutual aching to leave (“My Chasm”)

This past week Boanne and I celebrated Valentine’s Day with our first trip to see the SF Symphony perform Beethoven’s Eroica (inspired by a Murakami book on music from last year). It was a real delight, except for the easy distraction of kids on Snapchat, which makes me wonder how much longer the human endeavors that require communal, device-free patience can last.

Looking ahead, and other news

I’m getting ready for trips to Scandinavia (maybe) in March, New Orleans in April (National Planning Conference), and NYC in May (Smart Cities), so let me know if you’ll be in the area or if you have recommendations.

My projects have been progressing really well, with some really exciting projects in the pipeline, including something we’re calling the Guangdong Province Summer Program this summer at Stanford, and (hopefully) 3 or 4 separate funded projects for City Systems this year (including some formal work on garage conversions in East Palo Alto). I am not sure how I will find the bandwidth to do my professional work justice in terms of writing, but if it is going to happen, it will happen on other blogs, and I’ll make sure to link to them here.

In other news, I have also spent quite a bit of time in the beginning of 2018 exploring the possibility of homeownership through San Francisco’s Below Market Rate program. Basically, new multifamily developments in SF have “inclusionary housing” requirements to provide up to 20% of their units at rates affordable to low income renters or buyers, which is defined as some percentage of area median income (which is around $80k in SF). Having taken the requisite workshops and counseling sessions, I’ve learned a lot about eligibility (and how much of a barrier the process still is for many families) and feel somewhat more confident that I am in fact a target audience for this program, and am now awaiting the results of my first lottery.

Last: the recent shooting in Florida, and continued shitshow that is our government and national conscience, reminded me of something I wrote back in 2014, which still basically captures what I feel about the matter. Hopefully I’ll have more to say in my next post. Until then, take care.


A likely incomplete list of things I thought about in the shower

  1. Whenever I switch the water from the tap to the shower head, only 50% or less of the full flow actually transfers to the shower head, which has led to an unsatisfying shower experience for at least the last two months, because (a) the low flow doesn’t feel as good, and (b) it feels like a waste of water, i.e. if the flow were higher I might take shorter showers, but (c) if the flow were higher it’s possible I might actually take longer showers, so uncertainty about (b) thus adding to the unsatisfying-ness of my shower experiences. I should submit a Fix-It request, which I keep forgetting to do because I only think of this when I am in the shower, and by the time I get out of the shower I have consistently forgot about this thought for at least the last two months. I’m determined to not forget this time. (Spoiler alert: I sent it!)
  2. I wonder how many great ideas I’ve come up with in the shower that I have forgotten. I should look up a product on Amazon for writing down ideas in the shower. Or maybe this turns out to be the perfect use for a Google Home or Alexa Echo in your bathroom. (Turns out the most popular product on Amazon is designed as disposable notes, which doesn’t make sense to me. This article makes the home assistant option the most compelling, and makes me instantly regret re-gifting the Amazon Echo Dot that my girlfriend got me for Christmas.)
  3. How many great ideas has the world collectively lost because they happened in the shower? Which leads to the meta-thought: what if the best idea in the world is I should get a whiteboard for my shower? and it has never actually been acted upon because it has always been forgotten because it was not written down?
  4. I should probably look up what that pull-up/pull-down thingy is called that diverts the water from the tap (or whatever that’s called) to the shower head, since it almost certainly has a name. (A quick Google search later, I find that it’s called a diverter, and the tap is a spout. Also I may have found the solution to #1.)
  5. I need to remember to bring Codenames to my girlfriend’s house tomorrow.
  6. I forgot to write down my dream this morning, which is probably the second most important point of the day in which I forget important things, namely the interesting content of my dreams. Perhaps yet another pivotal use for a home assistant. Luckily the dream was vivid enough that I still recall it; in fact it had an important recurring theme to my dreams, which is a heavy weight in my legs which causes me to walk incredibly slowly, to a nightmarish degree. I wonder what the psychological meaning of this dream feature is. (A quick in-n-out of Reddit illuminates a relatively simple, non-Freudian explanation. I also recall in hindsight that when I woke up my arm was stuck under my pillow and in that tingly state.)
  7. Speaking of dream meanings, I think my girlfriend bought me a dream dictionary and it’s in the bedside drawer of my childhood home in Arcadia.
  8. I should turn my chapter on the ethics of eating animals in my last reflection post into a proper essay, since it deserves some more refinement.
  9. I’m reminded that one of my goals for 2018 is to write one substantial long-form piece per month, either non-fiction (like the ethics of eating animals piece) or a short story (perhaps inspired by my dreams, if I commit to keeping a dream journal).
  10. Strangely enough, right about at this moment, my shower head magically goes from 50% to 100%, for the first time in at least two months. I dwell briefly on supernatural thoughts before ending my shower.
Year in Review

Derek’s Year-End Reflection, Part 2

This year, I’m going to try to organize this Part 2 reflection by a few free-form chapters of what I hope to be interesting lessons and ideas from 2017. Hope you enjoy!

A measured life

I’ve spent quite a significant amount of time on personal accounting this year. I’d be doing financial accounting anyway, as I’m sure most of us do, so it wasn’t too much of a stretch to add a few more items in my spreadsheet. Why log so much? For me, it’s mainly about goal-setting and accountability. I can have subjective goals each year like spending less, or sleeping more, or reducing my carbon footprint, but I can only hold myself accountable and track my progress if I measure my progress (i.e. you can’t improve what you can’t measure). Seeing the true results also reveals surprises that help calibrate my own biases, and that I hope are informative for readers.


First, my financial accounting is quite complicated as I need to separate out personal expenses and income from those from my pass-through entity and new nonprofit. My Stanford work complicates things further as I am regularly making huge expenses for SUS and getting reimbursed a few weeks later, which screws up any weekly tracking I’d want to do. But since I categorize all my expenses into a few high-level categories, I can look at my breakdown over the whole year as such:

$ Rent Eat Out Entertainment Transportation Supplies Groceries Gift Clothes Total
Per Day $62 $15 $11 $7 $5 $2 $5 $1 $108
Per Week $433 $105 $76 $51 $36 $13 $37 $8 $758

A few caveats: Gifts include charity and gifts to friends and family. Expenses for eating out and entertainment are over-weighted in the sense that I’m counting plenty of times I’m paying for others and not proportioning out the expenses over to the Gifts category. Transportation looks particularly good because I don’t own a car, and I get a GoPass from Stanford for free Caltrain rides (so essentially this is Bart and my monthly Muni pass). Supplies is a little bit of a miscellaneous category, including things like electronics, laundry, and Google Drive. Health insurance will show up as a new category next year when I turn 26. And lastly, of course this doesn’t account for the gifts I receive.

2017 expense week

So what does this all mean? I definitely am always hoping to improve the balance between eating out and cooking, though that was difficult throughout the year because of my busy hours down in South Bay, which mean I’m regularly not home until 8 or 9 or 10pm. I mentioned in Part 1 my big change in habit around purchasing music, which shows up in the Entertainment category, and hovering around 10% of my overall expenses, my entertainment spending seems pretty reasonable. I’d like to separate out personal gifts and charity next year, and see both of those categories get to 5%.


I’ve tried my best to accurately count my sleep hours and work hours to monitor my productivity and division of labor. Sleep was pretty easy because I’ve worn a Fitbit all year, and I can just quickly sync to my phone and look back at the daily log. Work hours are a little bit less rigorous, but I’ve tried to apportion out rough time spent working on Stanford business vs. Cloud Arch Studio business vs. City Systems business, usually in 1/2 hour increments, and subtract out non-productive times eating or commuting. I also have hours from Nueva where I was still teaching in Spring of 2017, as well as time reading and blogging here. It’s also worth noting up front that the numbers below are an absolute average over all days and weeks of the year, so they include the weight of weekends and holidays. That’s just a disclaimer if it looks like I’m barely doing a typical 40-hour workweek.

Hours Sleep Stanford Reading Cloud Nueva City Systems Blog Total
Per Day 6.9 5.2 0.4 0.3 0.3 0.3 0.1 13.5
Per Week 48.2 36.2 3.0 2.4 2.3 2.0 0.5 94.6

2017 work week

First off, I’m personally quite disappointed by the true balance between Stanford work and my personal ventures, which I ultimately would like to see get closer to 50-50 within five years, as I grow the SUS initiative to be more sustainable without my management (or like I like to call it, firefighting). Reading and blogging can also clearly increase, though it became crystal clear by the midpoint of the year just how outlandish my New Year’s resolution was to embark on a personal writing project; it just became impossible to keep up with the weekly and daily onslaught of crazy news and ideas. I would like to more explicitly track both media reading (short form and long form) and book reading, as well as podcasts, to get a better view of the Reading category as intended. With that change in accounting, I’d like to see Reading get to 1 hour per day, and Writing 0.5 per day, in 2018. Lastly, sleep doesn’t look too bad; I’ll probably keep my goal at 7 hours per night.

I’ll see if I can get my overall work productivity from 42.9 to 45 hours per week in 2018 as well, or more. More fundamentally, one of my greatest frustrations with my current work life, and something these numbers don’t really capture, is that I have so few opportunities to just work on a task by myself, for two or more hours, without having to manage something else. When I think about a genie’s wish, I immediately think about having an 8th day of the week, where the world is held in suspension, and I can just devote a few 12 hours to personal projects. Imagine if we could schedule our lives like that, with weekly or at least monthly sabbaticals.

By the way, since I won’t really mention it anywhere else, if you want to know what I’ve been doing professionally this year, it’s pretty much all here. And the best way to follow the work I’m doing is by subscribing to this, and following this blog for some big personal nonprofit updates in 2018.


This next section will focus on a subset of my larger interests in carbon reduction, so I’ll discuss that first. I’ve been on a general journey to reduce my carbon footprint, which, according to carbotax.org, is about 10 metric tons of carbon equivalent (MTCO2e) per American. Here’s my breakdown after answering the questions on that survey:

Annual MTCO2e Avg American Derek
Home Electricity 1.7 2.3
Waste & Water 0.4 0.1
Food & Beverages 2.4 1.2
Consumer Goods 0.9 0.2
Home Heating 1.8 1.2
Transportation 3.2 0.4
Travel (Air, Hotel, Boat) 0.7 15.5
Land Sequestration -1
Total 10.1 20.9

If you’ve looked at this and other carbon calculators, you’ll know that some of the outputs are influenced by the carbon content of local utilities that you don’t have direct control over, while others are more directly tied to personal actions. There are also plenty of model-based estimates taking place in here which I could spend more time refining with my own calculations, but I just haven’t found the time to undertake yet.

Interpreting the numbers as they are, obviously, the killer for me is the air travel I do for business and for family/leisure (almost 65k miles this year). Assuming that in the broad utilitarian sense, I’m mostly flying to work on global sustainability issues, and that my work will reap many multiples’ worth of benefit, and at the very least I’m donating to try to offset my carbon, then where I personally focus on is reduction in daily and weekly material consumption. My transportation is pretty good on account of mostly using public transit, and so this year I was particularly interested in taking as much meat as I could out of my diet.

Food is particularly interesting because, for me, there’s also a significant mitigation-of-suffering goal in effect (more on ethics later).

So how did I measure my diet? I split each meal into the categories of vegetarian, seafood, chicken, pork, and beef/lamb (in order of carbon content, and in my opinion, ethical standing). If a meal has a mix of two types of meats, I accounted for the more carbon-intensive one. I effectively only logged the meat meals each day, so the remaining, including most breakfasts, were vegetarian (totaling 21 meals per week). Unfortunately I don’t have a good baseline to compare to since I haven’t tracked this before, but I can pretty safely say that prior to trying to be vegetarian, I was raised and lived with the understanding that literally every meal should have meat, so my daily meat intake was at least 2 meals. Here’s how I fared in 2017:

Meals Vegetarian Chicken Beef Pork Seafood Total
Per Day 2.1 0.4 0.2 0.2 0.1 3.0
Per Week 14.8 2.6 1.4 1.2 1.0 21.0

2017 meal week

I didn’t quite make it to full vegetarian, but what I achieved is probably the biggest lifestyle change I’ve ever had. (What it effectively amounted to was a lot of salads and tofu, which I do in fact really love.) However, I couldn’t quite shake the temptation of cravings for Chik-Fil-A and In-N-Out, so for most weeks I was effectively a weekday vegetarian.

So if my daily meat intake dropped from about 2 meals to 0.9, what was the outcome? If I hold onto the same proportion of meat types, this would roughly be equivalent to the following in combination (assuming 1/4lbs as a meat serving):

  • 180 servings of chicken avoided, which, assuming 2 lbs yield of meat from one factory chicken, would be the saving of about 20 chickens.
  • 90 servings of pork avoided, which based on this would be around 15% of a pig’s yield, or the saving of 3 out of 20 pigs.
  • 90 servings of beef avoided, which based on this would be around 5% of a cow’s yield, or the saving of 1 out of 20 cows.
  • 45 servings of fish avoided, which based on this would very roughly be on the order of saving 10 sole-sized fish.

And in carbon, based on this, that’s about 1 MTCO2e offset. That seems about right compared to the average American statistics. (In the next section I’ll dive down the rabbit hole of the full ethical implications of eating animals.)

For next year, I certainly would like to see my vegetarian meal count approach 3 per day, but assuming I’ll still eat some amount of meat, I’d like to see seafood be the greatest proportion. About halfway through the year I made a measly attempt to go vegan; next year I’d like to begin tracking eggs and dairy from the start so I can see my progress towards veganism as well.

I’d love to hear what you track on a daily basis, what your goals are, and whether you have any recommendations for apps that make it easier to track goals!

The ethics of eating animals

I’ve attempted to articulate my ethical journey through a few blog posts this year, but unfortunately I haven’t been able to do my thoughts justice. In advance of hopefully much deeper investigation next year, as my ideas continue to develop, I’ll just use the example of vegetarianism to illustrate exactly how my mind tries to grapple with the ethical calculus, which may be a better representation of my ethics than me trying to extrapolate some higher-level themes.

How do you compare environmental and mitigation-of-animal-suffering goals in your diet, if you care about both? If you have to eat meat, what’s the right balance of the four key types of meat (chicken, pork, beef, fish) to maximize both ethical values? (I can’t remember in exactly which podcast, but Ezra Klein makes his own case for eating beef over chicken, which I intuitively disagreed with and which got me really thinking about this.) There are a lot of variables at play. First I have to estimate the typical weight and yield of a factory animal, which lets me estimate the number of servings the animal yields, as well as its life cycle carbon footprint. To summarize using the same few references I used above:

Full weight/animal, lb Edible weight/animal, lb Servings/animal kgCO2e/kg animal kgCO2e/serving Animals/serving
Chicken 4 2 9 6.9 0.78 0.11 chickens
Pork 250 163 650 12.1 1.4 0.0015 hogs
Beef 1200 660 2640 27 3.1 0.00038 cows
Fish 2 1 4 6.1 0.69 0.25 fish

If you accept the assumptions above (without worrying about sensitivity analysis for now), now we need to figure out an equivalency between kgCO2e/serving and animals/serving. Basically, we need a common denominator, say, our valuation of a human life. Of course, this is where things get super subjective, and it’s probably best to calibrate our heuristics on orders of magnitude (I’ll also note here that I’m not considering dairy/eggs for now).

To figure out the environmental side of the ethical equation, the basic question is: how many kgCO2e does it take to cause one human death (or whatever unit of human suffering we want to consider)? Well, with a very brief amount of Googling, I found two key numbers I’m willing to work with for now. This estimates our global carbon budget at about 1 trillion MTCO2 if we want to keep temperature rise below 2 degrees C. This (specifically Table 20.16 on page 64) attributes about a hundred thousand deaths to climate change (I couldn’t figure out exactly which climate scenario this used, and didn’t bother to examine the details of the methdology, but I’m just taking the order of magnitude here as a reasonable estimate of DALYs-worth-of-deaths exclusively attributable to a 2 degree C temperature increase). If you accept those two vast assumptions, then we’re talking something on the order of tens of billions of kgCO2e equating to a human life. If we normalize the kgCO2e/serving of each animal by its contribution to a human death, and then add a bunch of 0’s (1e11) to get a good-looking integer and call that a util, then we get the following utils for the environmental impact of 1 serving of each animal:

kgCO2e/serving Environmental utils/serving
Chicken 0.78 8
Pork 1.4 14
Beef 3.1 31
Fish 0.69 7

Next, to figure out the animal suffering side of the equation, the basic question is: if I had to choose between the death of 1 human or the death of X of each of these animals, what is X? First off, some people would say that no number of any non-human animal life is equivalent to a human life, but let’s just assume for argument’s sake that you accept Peter Singer’s claim that animal suffering is at least measurable in the same currency as human suffering. Then let’s just say for argument’s sake that we think 1 human life is worth 1 million cow lives (i.e. the trolley problem, but the first track has 1 million cows on it). Then using our util, we end up with 1 serving of beef equating to 38 utils. Notice that this is on the same order as the 31 utils of impact from 1 serving of beef due to its carbon emissions. I ended up picking 1 million to reach equivalency between the two sides of the equation, to basically demonstrate that, taking all other assumptions for granted, if I think that cows are worth less than a millionth of a human life, then I should forgo beef mostly because I care about the environment. But if I think that cows are worth more than that (let’s say a thousandth of a human life), then animal suffering becomes by far the greatest weight to my ethical calculus.

Now in terms of the difference between the animals, if we believe the following are reasonable claims:

  • 1 human life is worth 1,000,000 cow lives
  • 1 cow life is worth 3 pig lives
  • 1 pig life is worth 65 chicken lives
  • 1 chicken life is worth 2 fish lives

Then we get this final comparison of subtotal and total utils for a serving of each animal:

kgCO2e/serving Animals/serving Environmental utils/serving Suffering utils/serving Total utils/serving
Chicken 0.78 0.11 8 57 65
Pork 1.4 0.0015 14 51 65
Beef 3.1 0.00038 31 38 68
Fish 0.69 0.25 7 64 71

Again, to demonstrate the balance point, I’ve picked equivalencies between each of the animals to roughly balance out the impact of eating any of the animals (65-70). And, since these final assumptions were fundamentally subjective variables, here’s a spreadsheet you can download to play with the numbers. But basically, here’s what I take this all to mean:

  • The impact of eating animals is small but ethically meaningful, both because of the direct impacts of animal suffering as well as the indirect impacts of greenhouse gas emissions on climate change and suffering (for humans, and I guess animals too).
  • I personally don’t know how many cows need to be on the first track for me to pull the switch to kill one human stranger instead, but it’s definitely a number with a lot of 0’s behind it. Maybe it’s 10,000, maybe it’s 1,000, maybe it’s a googleplex, I really don’t know without understanding human and animal suffering more. But I’m willing to believe that the ethical weight of climate change and animal suffering are within a few orders of magnitude of each other, and so I care deeply about both.
  • Between the animals, I would agree with cows and pigs being within the same order of magnitude, and birds being lower, with brain size being my only meaningful indicator of suffering. In fact it would take a lot more chickens, hundreds, for me to pull the lever to kill one mammal instead, and hundreds of fish to kill one chicken, which ultimately means that poultry and seafood are orders of magnitude better than eating mammals, by all my ethical accounts.

OK, let’s extrapolate some higher-level themes

The simplest insight I’ve had on ethics this year is that it can be measured, just like I’ve measured so many things in my life. This becomes crystal clear if you think about values as valuations. The hard part, of course, is what you’re valuing and how you’re valuing it, and the harder part is, how do our real-world actions affect outcomes in value terms, and the hardest part is, how do we agree on our metrics of valuation.

The most important tool we have in ethics is reason. Reason is quite literally having good reasons for why you do what you do. And if values rely on rational accounting of some kind of currency, then if we agree on our underlying assumptions, reason enables us to agree on our ethical choices.

The most important spectrum of underlying assumptions is between principle-based, or deontological, and outcome-based, or utilitarian, methods of valuation. Without getting too much into detail, utilitarianism is the true domain of empiricism, or measurements in the real world. In other words, utilitarianism is the true home of reason.

What I value is the suffering of conscious beings. Even though our observable measurements of suffering are imperfect, I can meaningfully compare outcomes based agreed-upon assumptions about suffering (like I demonstrated in the previous section). Most directly this line of reasoning leads to the classic utilitarian goal of maximizing universal well-being in our personal or policy-scale decisions.

There’s an important meta-value that I’ve grown to appreciate in 2017 with another simple thought experiment called the veil of ignorance. Basically, since we were born into this world without a choice of exactly who we were, we should make ethical decisions as if we had no information about who we were. It’s like designing a perfect world under the condition that after we designed that perfect world, we were then placed into it at random. What this Rawlsian thought experiment gets at is the importance of fairness, or equity, alongside maximization of well-being. In other words, the difference between a Darwinian self-interest and a post-evolutionary or progressive selflessness, or Singer’s ‘expanding circle’.

I’ll emphasize what I meant by that last statement. I believe that the most fundamental type of political difference tracks the development of human ethics from selfishness to selflessness, and that conservative ideals (capitalism, libertarianism, western religion, homeownership) are our most natural of human values because they are the product of our Darwinian genes, while the future of humanity lies in the discovery of post-evolutionary truths about the meaning of suffering, and that those who adopt liberal ideals (socialism, equality, globalism, and reason) are quite literally martyrs of the future.

The link between my personal ethics and the ethical city (urban systems being my professional area of focus) is as simple as evidence-based decision-making. I believe if we can come up with fairly simple ways to encode the parallel goals of maximization and equity in well-being, and we use the scientific method to continually find better ways maximize well-being, minimize suffering, and reduce inequalities, we can guide both individuals and societies towards that progressive future.

Here’s a practical way to think about the ethical city. If our city is a room full of people with a floor and a ceiling that represent the worst and best of outcomes, then as designers, engineers, and policymakers, I think we have two basic jobs:

  • Raise the floor.
  • Build as many ladders as we can.

And now, for some lighthearted gaming

If you’re still with me, I’ll let you in on the best game I discovered in 2017. Ready for it?

Set. On Google Play. Seriously. Download it here, and add me as a friend.

I played Set maybe once or twice in high school, but thanks to Paul, I’ve rediscovered it in digital form and it is intellectual paradise. I literally feel like I could write a book about how my mind works on and is worked by this game. Some brief observations on the three hundred times I’ve played this game:

  • I’m not convinced there’s a stable equilibrium of strategy for this game. If I try to develop a systematic process of elimination to find the set, then my brain begins to over-rely on probabilistic rankings and wastes time on rare combinations. Then if I switch over to a broader, more intuitive view of the board, I’m a little bit slower on average per set. Maybe the perfect strategy is out there, but I’ve experienced the game more as a rotating set of gym workouts that has exercised multiple parts of my brain.
  • That being said, the intuitive muscle in my brain has really surprised me at times when playing this game. I’m beginning to suspect that my brain knows, with an immediate subconscious register of colors and shapes, what the pattern combination is likely to be, and then it’s up to my frontal cortex to stagger towards the correct identification of specific cards. It’s an incredible feeling.
  • Also incredible is a kind of meditative experience I have when I’m really in a state of flow in this game, and I can tap into a meta-level of thinking and basically observe myself in thought. This literally is the closest I’ve felt to the meditative experiences that Sam Harris talks about on his podcast.
  • By the way, one huge perk: I can play this game while listening to podcasts.
  • Also by the way, this makes for a very fun 2-player game, and even 3-player game, but technically that is distorting your Google Play statistics…
  • At this point, what I’m essentially trying to do is change the shape of my distribution of games from normal to lognormal. It was a month-long endeavor to get my three-minute bar to meet my four-minute bar, and now they are neck and neck. I wonder if someday my two-minute bar will become the mode…

OK, enough geeking out about Set. This year, thanks to Wayland, I also got really into some party games which I can also geek out about like I did above, but will spare you the embarrassment:

  • Codenames: probably the ultimate party game for both old and new friends. Turns out it even works well for English vs. non-native English speakers (as I discovered in Monterrey, MX).
  • No Thanks: close to Set in its intellectual wonder, but more from an econometrics angle. Playing with the minimum three people is a perfect never-ending oscillation of game theory. Also, I tried playing this in Thailand in a cafe and the staff told us to stop because it looked like we were gambling, and turns out, gambling is illegal in Thailand.
  • One Night Ultimate Werewolf: a marked improvement on Mafia and quite fun if your group is willing to commit at least an hour to it, to play a satisfying number of rounds.
  • Skull: maybe the essential game of bullshit and chance. But as a result, it has a fairly short half-life on account of how mentally stressful it is.

And finally, as a confession, in the midst of an incredibly busy Fall, I did manage to make the time to buy a Nintendo Switch and beat both Breath of the Wild and Odyssey. My, has video gaming improved since the days of Pokemon Yellow and N64 Smash.

Hope you get to try some of these games, and reflect on the measurable and immeasurable in life, this holiday season!