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.