Life

On August 3, I had surgery to remove an osteochondroma, which is a small bone mass that occurs in 3% of the population and usually shows up near joints like knees and elbows. Mine was just below the knee on the proximal tibia and was shaped like a hook, as you can see in this X-ray image.

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In 2004 or so, back when I was in middle school, I first noticed one day when I bent my right knee and found that I couldn’t straighten it out, as if there were some sort of tendon holding it locked past some angle. Naturally, my parents and I were freaked out; I remember my dad canceled his business trip the next day out of worry that this was something serious. It turns out that, by the next morning, I had figured out how to unlock my knee by bending it as far as it would go, rotating my whole leg inwards, and then straightening it out in this contorted position, thereby bypassing whatever was locked like a perfectly oiled key. From that point on I went about my days like normal, except my knee locked up dozens of times a day, and dozens of times a day I manually unlocked it with this key-like combination of leg thrusts. As a budding engineer I imagined this to be some kind of mechanical defect in the joint, and in some ways it was even exciting to be discovering how to make a flawed machine work, like knowing the best place to slap the side of the old TV to make the static go away, or the right intensity of air to blow through the N64 cartridge to make it play. A few weeks later I had an MRI, and after reviewing the results, the doctor passed it off as a meniscus tear typical for young athletes and ordered an arthroscopic surgery, three scopes into my right knee. I recall having a pretty bad reaction to the general anesthesia and spending a few miserable days in bed, but upon return to middle school, it was actually pretty fun to be temporarily handicapped, to receive the undeserved concern and attention of your classmates and teachers for just as long as it was graciously offered. In retrospect, that first surgery was completely useless on account of a misdiagnosis, but probably because of inflammation of the entire area, the problem seemed to have been solved. My right knee was no longer locking, and I had enjoyed a few months of indulgent importance.

In 2007 or so, probably somewhere on the football field during marching band practice, my left leg locked for the first time. A few days later, a second doctor noticed something odd on the standard X-ray; on the bottom corner of the image, away from the actual knee region where the previous doctor had focused his inspection, this doctor noticed a strange hook shape right where the tibia narrows from the knee to the long, slender section of the bone (just as I showed above). As he demonstrated, this hook was snatching a specific set of ligaments as they passed over the ridge during bending. Now that I was focused on the right place, I could literally feel it happening under my fingers, like a buckle snapping shut. Suddenly, it became clear that the previous surgery had been pointless, that the source of the locking was still present on both knees, and that the only solution was to actually go in and shave off the hook. I remember feeling nowhere near as curious or fascinated about my predicament; rather I felt the first tinges of a deep melancholy, the kind that I suspect permeates old age, as the unfortunate surprises of our genes all come out into the limelight. It was an early warning sign of the facts we cannot change, the consequences with no one to blame.

My second knee surgery went much more smoothly, given it was less invasive to the knee joint itself, and within a week or so I was hobbling across the football field during early morning marching band practice, shouting comments at my snare line as they trotted across the yard lines, trying to maintain a straight file with a gap where I was supposed to be. About a week later I was back in that gap, surprised by how fast my body recovered from its disability. Having conquered one osteochondroma and lain dormant the other, I was back to being limitless.

Only a year later, I felt a pain in my abdomen and a strange lump in that high school boy’s treasure trove of euphemisms. (The official diagnosis was an inguinal hernia; I called it a third nut.) Whether it was because I was carrying a thirty-pound snare drum for hours a day, or because I was a bit too trigger-happy with my first 24 Hour Fitness gym membership, I was back to despair over this body that was holding me back from my responsibilities as a leader in my drumline, from enjoying my youth without fear of complications. My third surgery was the worst, involving cuts into my abdomen, and left me bedridden for many more existential days.

Almost ten years later, on the eve of my 25th birthday, I was hanging out with friends in Inner Richmond when I felt something shift in my right knee, and a familiar locking sensation. I knew perfectly well how to unlock it, but to my surprise, my remaining osteochondroma was back with a vengeance, locking dozens, maybe hundreds of times a day, basically every time I bent my knee past 90 degrees. I suspect it had something to do with my recent uptick in ski trips this past season. That was about five months ago. I visited a new doctor here in the city, my first time navigating the health care system on my own, and knowing the drill, he and I both went straight to surgery options. We set the date for early August.

The surgery itself felt more nostalgic than anything, that particular luminosity of hospital waiting rooms, the massive exposed sensation of the surgery gown, the speed at which everything seems to move as you enter the operating room and see all the hands move like clockwork to get you into position. As she put a cold fluid through my IV, the anesthesiologist asked me what kind of music I like listening to. I said indie music, folk acoustic. She asked if the Lumineers was fine. I said sure. As “Flowers in Your Hair” started playing, she told me I was about to feel something hot and spicy move through my system. It felt more like a dull, heavy pain begin to seep through my arm. Somebody placed the oxygen mask over my mouth. I don’t remember hearing the end of that short song. About two hours later I woke and, just as I recalled from my past surgeries, could not feel the passage of time, the way you’d feel after sleeping the same amount of time. I had goldfish and animal crackers, just like I remembered. This time, instead of my parents being there, I waited for my friends to come pick me up. I felt good enough to head straight to dinner, and then head over to the East Bay to spend a few days with Boanne and her mom taking care of me. A weekend of Netflix and Wii games, and then I was feeling good enough to return to work at Stanford. I used one crutch on Monday, and none for the rest of the week. A few swabs of rubbing alcohol over the bandaged stitches twice a day, a slight limp wherever I went.

Yesterday I went to the doctor one last time for a post-operative check-up, and the doctor saw that everything was healing properly. The only complication I seem to have is a slight numbness in the nerve that he had to move aside during surgery; apparently it can decide to go to sleep for weeks or months before waking up again. It’s a small price to pay for being rid of a lifelong annoyance. Although, ironically, it’s really hard to break free of the habit of unlocking my knee every time I think I have locked my knee, even though it theoretically will never happen again. I suppose I will have phantom osteochondroma for quite some time.

Four surgeries down; many more to come. If I’ve come to belief anything bone-deep, it’s the following. We should never take our able bodies for granted. We should never take the accessibility designs of our built environment for granted and treat those with disabilities with the utmost compassion. And we should be with who we elect to manage our health care, in more ways than one.

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Art

This week I’ve been listening to two of my favorite female debut artists from 2013: Haim and Lorde. I felt like both sophomore efforts this year, unfortunately, were a letdown, but have their moments.

Haim’s Something to Tell You, I feared, could have gone in the direction of Taylor Swift, but instead is a surprisingly fresh road trip through the 70s, 80s, and 90s. Quite literally, there are songs in the album that sound like the love child of Celine Dion and George Michael, or Hanson and Fleetwood Mac, or ABBA and Michael Jackson. For that alone it’s a wonderful listen and a testament to the creative sensibilities of the Valley sisters. Anthem “Want You Back”, which is on my shortlist for best music video of the year, and “You Never Knew”, which Bleeds Orange all over in the best possible way, are the standouts so far. For the rest of the album I’m constantly being thrown back to memories of some random radio ad background song I can’t remember from the early oughts, or a specific guitar song from a long lost oldies playlist. Now all that being said, I still think Days Are Gone was the better album. There’s somehow still more diversity, more kick-ass rhythm, and more cinematic beauty throughout that album from “Falling” to “The Wire” to “Running If You Call My Name”. But Haim is definitely still in the game. My rating: 3.5/5

Lorde’s Melodrama I’m having a harder time getting into. The magic of Pure Heroine was its minimalist nonchalance, the feeling that you were discovering a superstar in the making in the bedroom studio of an unnamed suburb halfway around the world. The maturations and production upgrades of her second album all make sense, but one of the effects is that these songs feel sound a bit less distinguishable from each other. Nothing transports me quite to the extent that “Ribs” or “400 Lux” did; the closest trips are “Supercut” and the Loveless half of “Hard Feelings/Loveless”. But I do have to admit that the unfettered, anthemic arrivals in “Green Light” and “Perfect Places” are a great new territory for Lorde which I’m perfectly happy to have. My rating: 3.5/5

I’ll quickly add that the second single “Guilty Party” by The National is an absolute gem and was on repeat for much of my Tokyo trip. Can’t wait to see them perform this in October.

Movies: There have been some great ones in the last couple of weeks. Baby Driver was so much better than the trailer made it out to be, with a surprisingly confident lead by Ansel Elgort and entertaining support from Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm, and Lily James. But the standout is director Edgar Wright with some absolutely delightful direction and vision, from the irreverent screenplay to the danceable soundtrack. I can’t say there’s a lot of depth here, but there sure is a joy ride.

I also watched Okja on Netflix which I’ve been anxiously awaiting, and it did not disappoint with its narrative acrobatics and surprisingly believable-looking, Totoro-like muse. As a new vegetarian, I really appreciated how serious of a thematic ground an otherwise unserious film gets to, with grace and confidence. Bong Joon-ho has struck gold twice with back-to-back ecological fantasties Snowpiercer and Okja, and I’m already impatiently awaiting the third, and what crazy role Tilda Swinton will play.

The Big Sick was also a solid Apatow production that tactfully commented on the perils of religious culture, delighted with surprisingly messy and moving performances from the parents Ray Romano and Holly Hunter, and knocked it out of the ballpark with the funniest in-movie joke I can recall this year. But the biggest surprise I’ve recently seen was Cars 3. It was honestly a throwaway entertainment one night, but I forgot that Pixar should, under no circumstances, be underestimated. I’m pretty sure I did not watch Cars 2 and barely remember anything about Cars, but if you give the third one a shot, you’ll see that it firmly stands on its own four wheels with a narrative idea that beats Moana, Finding Dory, Kubo and the Two Strings — every animated film since Zootopia. I don’t want to spoil it, except to say that it’s about as prescient as Pixar could get to our current political conscience without making a movie about politics, and to implore you to give it the chance it deserves.

In terms of books, I’ve mainly just enjoyed Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape, which, like his other books I’ve read, aren’t quite excellent as literature but are stock full of intellectual clarity and honesty on the most vital ideas in my mind this year. It’s actually probably the best place to start with Harris, so I encourage those who are willing to resist whatever stigma may be attached to his name from whatever dogmatic source to give it a try. More on the ideas themselves in an upcoming post.

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Journal

I just got back from a week in Tokyo and am scrambling to get caught up, so here is a quick account of my travels the last two weeks!

Monterrey was a wonderful culmination to the student work this past Spring. There wasn’t too much time for exploration outside of our meetings, but on our free afternoon we headed to Macroplaza, the downtown civic center, to see two interesting exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MARCO), one by Korean light thread artist Jeongmoon Choi and the other by Dreamworks. MARCO was design by Legoretta, who also designed the new Schwab residences on Stanford campus, among many famous buildings around the world. I would characterize his work as minimalist in the modern sense, but bordering on postmodern in its whimsical investigation of form. That being said, standing in his sculpture can be exhilarating. In the main hall, this massive yellow shaft hangs down from the ceiling and acts as a private skylight for the receptionist desk. I was also struck by the elegance of the more general clerestory grooves in another space.

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The Dreamworks exhibition was surprisingly moving as it reminded me a lot of my artistic upbringing, which was largely based on pencil sketching. My brother did much more of the CGI rendering which also was highlighted in the exhibit. I particularly enjoyed the process sketches from Madagascar, and the architectural studies Kung Fu Panda and other movies.

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As for food, I must confess I succumbed to eating some Arrachera steak which, in my defense, was already ordered and would have been wasted otherwise (it was just as good as I remembered). Mostly I stuck to my vegetarian diet and wasn’t disappointed, especially given the simple perfection of a little taco stand beside the hotel, and chilaquiles.

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So I got back from Monterrey last Friday, did laundry, dropped in on some homies at an afterparty for an Ivy League young alumni mixer (which I was glad I did not attend), and then was back to SFO early the next morning. The direct flight to Tokyo Haneda was about eleven hours, which I spent watching two indie films I had missed, Certain Women and Paterson (both solid 3.5s), and half of Planet Earth 2 (which I finished up on the flight back) and reading a little bit of Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman by Murakami. I got to Tokyo around 3pm on a Saturday. I had asked the Asian Leadership Conference to give me an extra day before and after the event to allow me to travel. I started off by waking over to the Imperial Palace outer grounds, checking out a little Da Vinci and Michelangelo sketching exhibit at a Mitsubishi museum, and then trying a mid-tier sushi dinner for about $60 at Manten Sushi. It did not disappoint, and was seriously too much food, as a guy from Apple and I reflected after enjoying the entire meal in silence at the corner of the traditional L-shaped counter. It was very much like what you see in Jiro Dreams of Sushi, in which the chef selects the entire meal and drops individual pieces of sushi or sashimi on a plate, or sometimes more exotic concoctions like sea urchin directly on a piece of seaweed in your hand, mixed in with bowls of other treats. You sit there patiently cleansing your palette with ginger and drinking tea while you watch the sushi chef prepare the exact same rounds for a group of you who arrived around the same time, while preparing slightly delayed or slightly different meals for other customers. By far the tuna sashimi blew me away, and I think probably ruined all the other mediocre sushi I had for the rest of the trip. I have yet to attempt to see how the top-tier $100+ restaurants compare, but that will have to await another trip and higher honoraria.

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After dinner, I floundered around Tokyo Station’s Character Street for a bit before heading to the other side of the city to check out the famous Shibuya Shuffle. In a little alleyway nearby I walked in on an impromptu concert by this band called LOOP POOL which was totally chill, like a little taste of Real Estate and American Football. I wandered further south and, after getting lost a bit in a seedy little red light district, ended up at this red gem of a building, Aoyama Technical College, by Deconstructivist Makoto Sei Watanabe. Other highlights of the night include pretty solid $1 coffee out of a machine at every Seven Eleven, generally impressive infiltration of vending machines everywhere, and a serene moment with one of my favorite buildings of all time, the Nakagin Capsule Towers by Metabolist Kisho Kurokawa.

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By around 1:30am I was back in Ginza and walked over to the Tsukiji Fish Market, which was the ultimate destination for my whole sleep-deprived journey, as I heard that a select group of 120 people could get in to see the 5am tuna auction (also as seen in Jiro) if they got to the information center really early. Here’s the official signage I found at 1:30am, as well as the view inside the waiting room you have to sit/stand in from 2:30-5:30am, if you are considering the ordeal. Luckily, I got in right at the same time as a fellow traveler-and-blogger-at-heart, Civa (@Row8c), who was a delight to talk to for the four hour wait.

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Near the end of the wait, an auctioneer came in and talked to us about the tuna auction, noting that the average tuna is 100 kilos sells for about $10-30 per kilogram, along with many other interesting facts. Then the yellow-vested group got to go in first, and we watched the auctioneers hack at the exposed tail-ends of the massive fish, shine a light at the meat, rub in between their fingertips, and make quick notes on a clipboard before doing lightning-fast bidding with raised hands for select rows of tuna at a time. Outside, the scene was reminiscent of a Tatooine droid market, especially with the peculiar R2-D2 shaped shippers whizzing back and forth. Overall it was definitely worth experiencing a cultural pulse of Tokyo firsthand, despite the cruel industrialism of it all. At the very least, you get to see a system that’s imbued with veneration for nature.

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By the time I was done at Tsukiji it was 6:30am, and because I still couldn’t check into Hotel Okura until 2pm, I headed over to Roppongi to check out a few more points of architectural interest (21_21 DESIGN SIGHT; a really gorgeous campus for the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies; view from the top of Roppongi Hills Mori Tower), as well as enjoy what turned out to be the best ramen of the trip.

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Then I passed out for essentially 15 hours. The conference started on Monday and was a really wonderful opportunity to meet national and local government representatives from the participating countries (India, China, Myanmar, Pakistan, Georgia, Sri Lanka, Fiji, and Timor-Leste) as well as fellow speakers from Japan, Singapore, Korea, and other places doing amazing sustainable and resilient development in Pacific Asia. I definitely felt out of place, both as a young speaker and as a speaker on the SDGs which didn’t seem to be of much significance to most of these developing countries. But by the end of the conference, it sounded like quite a few of the participants were motivated to localize SDG and smart city thinking into their cities; it was also surreal to get a chance to sit next to the head of the Department of Climate Change in China on a bus trip to Yokohama and share our honest thoughts on greenhouse gas geopolitics. On the last evening of the conference, a group of us who got especially close having mostly all been on the SDG panel together, hailing from Australia, Singapore, Korea, the Philippines, and the U.S. headed out for a classic night of yakitori and sake and made the world seem as small and down to earth as a sunken table. For our final lunch the next day (the start of a 4-meal ramen marathon), we discovered that four out of five of us were left handed.

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For the end of my trip, with a few more days for sightseeing, I made a last-minute decision, based on a good recommendation by a new colleague, to head to Kyoto for a day-trip. Before that, I checked out a few more places in Tokyo, including Sou Fujimoto’s NA House and some of the artsy retail buildings in Omotesando and Daikanyama, and, of course, ramen.

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The next morning, I checked out of my hotel, stored my suitcase in one of the ubiquitous lockers of the train stations, and boarded a Shinkansen bullet train to Kyoto. Kyoto was full of beautifully crafted (by which I mean deliberate nature, as is Japanese custom) and sometimes eccentric details. Just start with the public transit: the almost cute fins of the bullet train, and the seats of the Keifuku Electric Railroad train which you can transform by pivoting the back piece from one side to the other, instantly creating a cluster of 4 seats facing each other (on the Shinkansen the entire seat swiveled 180 degrees).

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In Arashiyama, the famous bamboo forest was serene if a bit ruined by tourists, and I was especially struck by a pair of crows navigating down the hollowed path as if a natural hallway. Based on a tip from a blog, I checked out the Okochi Sanso Garden Villa at the end of the forest, which had a little meditation room with a miniature rock garden out one side and a series of tables with poetry and blank paper to practice calligraphy on. I must have spent 20 minutes there, completely alone.

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Next up was Kinkaku-ji with its famous golden temple, which left me thinking, why isn’t every temple golden? While there I was blessed with some really stellar cloudy weather for photography. And another excellent ramen nearby — this one with a wait down the block. One thing worth noting — pretty much every ramen I tried was vastly different, unlike the mainstream type you get in the States.

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A bit south of Kinkaku-ji is this peculiar street with a bunch of monstrous creatures guarding the storefronts. And on the east side of the city, I strolled down Philosopher’s Walk which follows a crawling channel shaded by lush trees. It seems like the kind of place I would have frequented often, had I done Stanford’s study abroad at Kyoto.

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I saved the last stop, Fushimi Inari, for the the magical changing of light around sunset. I will say that Kyoto can quickly overwhelm you with temple saturation, in which the vast majority of the shrines look exactly the same, but Kinkaku-ji and Fushimi Inari stand out amongst the crowd. The mountain has a 4 kilometer loop trail in which you pass through thousands of torii, each a gift by a wealthy donor to the spirit of fertility and industry. As an architect, I had been yearning to experience this massive-scale environmental design for years, and once you got past the swarming crowds of basic tourists trying to snap selfies, the quieter forest trails up above were exhilarating. As I hoped, there was a delightful play of sunlight on and through these structures, as well as surprises, like the fact that the back sides have tons of writing, the occasional mounds of shrines and fox statues, and a black cat that appeared between my feet as I was taking a photograph.

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And to cap off the night, one more ramen with a line out the door and a playlist that included, of all ironies, Justin Bieber singing “Despacito”.

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I took the midnight bus out of Kyoto so I wouldn’t need to get a hotel for the extra night. At 6am the next morning I was in Tokyo with a few hours left to spare, so I checked out Akihabara, St. Mary’s Cathedral by Kenzo Tange, Yasukuni Shrine which commemorates Japan’s war dead, complete with a war museum which had an unnervingly different depiction of WWII than you get in the U.S., Harajuku (where I picked up a new pair of Japan-made black kicks from Onitsuka Tiger), and a museum full of architectural models by great Japanese architects.

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Overall it was wonderful to spend a whole week in Japan, where I haven’t been for almost twenty years. I kept reaching into the inner depths of my memory to seek if anything would connect; perhaps the only thing that surprised me was seeing the real-life Mario Kart rides zipping through Shibuya Shuffle, and feeling strongly like I’ve seen them before. Otherwise, I just enjoyed participating in an enriching conference, meeting new acquaintances and hopefully future collaborators, and consuming a satisfying amount of Japanese architecture and cuisine.

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Art, Ideas, Life

It’s been about a month since I last wrote. Once again I am in purgatory, also known as the airport, where I arrived at 5am only to find that my United flight to Monterrey was rescheduled to 2:30pm. No serious harm done, as this has afforded me some quality time to work, but it does mean that my SUS team will have a harder time preparing for our meetings tomorrow, in which we’ll present the outcomes of the project course this Spring. Monterrey will be at 100 degrees F this week. Last time I was there, spring break, I was noncommittal vegetarian; this time around, I’m a struggling vegan. We’ll see if I succumb to the temptations of arrachera.

I get back Friday night, and then the next day, I’m off to Tokyo for a week for the Asia Leadership Conference on Sustainable Development and Climate Change. I believe I was invited pretty much because the organizers read this blog post; don’t underestimate the value of maintaining your professional online presence. The organizers were really generous to agree to book my trip with one extra day at the beginning and end, which means I’ll get to pull a couple of all-nighters in Tokyo like a Murakami character and take in a city I went to as a little kid, but haven’t yet truly experienced as a “woke” urbanist, foodie, techie, artist, etc. etc. Any recommendations for places I should visit are greatly appreciated.

Since I’m stuck in SFO for the next 6 hours, I figured I’d do some catch up on life, arts, and culture this past month.

First the Stanford Architectural Design Program hosted two lectures as part of AIA continuing education and for the Senior Show, which are always a great opportunity to listen to some architects speak about their work. Thomas Woltz from Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects gave a breathtaking lecture, perhaps the best I’ve ever seen in the series, and in particular, helped me understand the unique artistry and power that landscape architects can wield at the top of their craft. I was especially struck by their Memorial Park project in Houston in which trees are not just architectural form but dynamic program, in that they represent a specific number of fallen soldiers and are planned to be felled, in unison, 25 years after planting, to commemorate the equivalent human loss at that average age, and planted and felled again in the same pattern for perpetuity. What a staggering design decision, well above what most buildings can ever claim. On the other hand, Greg Pasquarelli from SHoP Architects perfectly represented, in my view, the worst trends of contemporary architecture in his firm’s body of work. I won’t get into the details (unless I am asked to), but the Barclay’s Center is the kind of architecture that looks great in a napkin sketch, on Rhino, and from about 1,000 feet away, but it hideous up-close because of the fundamental inability of planar metal construction components to represent curved, parametric forms. It’s as fundamental (and comical) of an attempt as Lego architecture, and perhaps should be reserved for the Toys”R”Us aisle, because these parametric prefabrication-and-assembly techniques fundamentally add little performative value to complex buildings besides aesthetics and mild shading. They contribute almost nothing to the most important functions of the architectural envelope: structure, weather protection, and thermal insulation. In other words, the most exciting thing about contemporary architecture is basically fancy skins. And Pasquarelli drove this point fully home when he ended with the most egregious project of all, 111 West 57th Street, which will be the most slender building in the world at 1,438ft, 82 stories, and 316,000 sqft, but will only have 60 tenants. Oh yeah, and a beautiful neo-Gothic gladding on the outsides of two massive concrete shear walls, because the tenants can afford to be a spectacle on the skyline. If this is the direction of the architectural profession, then I’m honestly glad to be transitioning to urban design and planning. The more I understand cities, the more I understand that the most important decisions made about a building are its urban constraints and urban interactions. Maybe, then, architecture really is just the leftover cosmetics.

The first weekend of June, my family came up to SF and I took them to enjoy Squaw Valley at Lake Tahoe. But first, I went to a great Lambchop concert at the Great American Music Hall in SF, which is a quaint little venue with little roundtables instead of standing area. At Squaw, I rocked my Boboskis wearing just a t-shirt and shorts and spent most of two days on Granite Chief pushing my speed on moguls. There was also a fun luge-like section on Shirley Lake Express. We also checked out Sand Harbor and part of the Shirley Creek Trail, which is a truly magical hike.

Coming back from Tahoe, I then spent the week with a visiting group from Sichuan University (which I had visited earlier in May). I invite all readers to take a look at some documentation of the SUS Symposium I organized on June 8. On Friday I took the group on a curated tour of San Francisco, which included the Ferry Building, Powell-Hyde Cable Car, Lombard Street, Pier 39, ferry to Sausalito, the Bay Model Visitor Center, floating homes, a walk across the Golden Gate Bridge, Palace of Fine Arts, and PPQ Dungeness Crab Restaurant.

This past week I started transitioning to the summer quarter, when I’ll be working with some students on special projects and preparing curriculum for next year. I went with Abi to see Rostam at the Independent, which was awesome because he played songs from Discovery and Vampire Weekend in addition to some upcoming music that almost sounds like it could be in a Kanye album. In terms of albums I’ve been listening to, it’s been early releases from The War on Drugs’ A Deeper Understanding, Sufjan and friends’ Planetarium, Big Thief’s Capacity, and Fleet Foxes’ Crack-Up. TWOD is really promising so far; “Thinking of a Place” has totally grown on me to match some of the best of Lost in a Dream over its 11 minutes, and “Holding On” is a full-on Bruce Springsteen joyride.

Planetarium turned out to be much more like “Saturn” than “Mercury”, in terms of styles the two initial singles teased. There are some really ambient orchestral sections that, while beautifully produced, aren’t quite interesting enough for me to listen to regularly, and there are some more jagged and space-rock moments in “Jupiter” and “Mars” that wade a bit too far into Age of Adz waters for me. “Neptune” and “Venus” are lush and engrossing tracks, in addition to the beautiful “Mercury”, and “Earth” is a whopping 15 minutes which almost feels like the entire album captured in one track, going from ambient to electronic and back and packing some quintessentially Sufjan-emo contemplations. Overall this is an interesting musical experience, but I preferred Sufjan’s last side project, Sisyphus. My rating: 3/5

Capacity has been an absolute stunner for me, proving that I really need to start trusting NPR Music just as much as a trust Pitchfork (which also rated it highly). The best thing I can say about Big Thief, besides Adrianne Lenker’s deeply personal songwriting, is that at their best, they evoke the sound of The Weepies. The best examples of this in the album are “Haley” and “Black Diamonds”. “Haley” in particular is going to be on my top 10 songs of the year list. It has a simple but extended climbing melody that is imbued with a lush string orchestration, spot-on drum fills, and perfectly moving time signature and key changes. Other good songs include “Mythological Beauty”, “Objects”, and “Mary”. My rating: 4.5/5

Finally, Crack-Up finally came out and on the whole is an engrossing listen and, as usual, doesn’t quite reward a playlist with easy singles, but there are some gems which make this comparable to, if not quite at the level of, Helplessness Blues. The earlier singles, “Third of May / Odaigahara”, “Fool’s Errand”, and “If You Need To, Keep Time on Me” turn out to be the main ones. But I also really enjoy the pair “Cassius, -” and “- Naiads, Cassadies”. Take a listen, and in the latter song, reflect on the beautiful lyrics below. My rating: 4/5

Who stole the life from you?
Who turned you so against you?
Who was the thief who shaved your teeth
Accepting just virtue

And did he act alone?
Were any more complicit?
When he would sing and offer the ring
What older voice said, “kiss it”?

Fire can’t doubt its heat
Water can’t doubt its power
You’re not adrift, you’re not a gift
You know you’re not a flower

Movies: This month I watched Their Finest, The Lovers, Wonder Woman, Beatriz at Dinner, and It Comes at Night. I’d recommend all of them, especially Their Finest which is a nice preparation for the upcoming Dunkirk and Beatriz which is as literal of an illustration of our sociopolitical divide as can be found on screen this year.

Podcasts: I highly recommend “The Gondolier” on Radiolab, the new season of Invisibilia, and the entire third season of 2 Dope Queens.

Books: Against Empathy by Paul Bloom was not a particularly impactful read, but mostly because I’ve already mulled over its ideas for a long time. If we ever talk about the difference between empathy and compassion, I’ll be referencing this book. Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance certainly met my expectations as an honest portrait of Appalachian and Rust Belt America with this damning conclusion:

I believe we hillbillies are the toughest goddamned people on this earth. We take an electric saw to the hide of those who insult our mother. We make young men consume cotton undergarments to protect a sister’s honor. But are we tough enough to do what needs to be done to help a kid like Brian? Are we tough enough to build a church that forces kids like me to engage with the world rather than withdraw from it? Are we tough enough to look ourselves in the mirror and admit that our conduct harms our children?

Public policy can help, but there is no government that can fix these problems for us.

But Hillbilly paled in comparison to Matthew Desmond’s Evicted, which absolutely exceeded my expectations and definitely deserves the Pulitzer. All I can say is that for an author to pull off telling a harrowing and tragic documentation of families suffering through eviction in Milwaukee that reads like fiction, and to have done it accurately and honestly and ethically, is the kind of feat that, if I had experienced it earlier in my life, might have pushed me towards sociological research. Go read it as soon as you can.

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Art

One last post for the weekend on some books, music, and movies I’ve enjoyed this month.

I really haven’t had much time to read in all my travels, but on the plane to Beijing I got through a few of the poetry books that Sam had had me receive on Amazon to bring to her in China. They were all collections of poems by Philip Levine, originally from Detroit and up until recently residing in Fresno, CA. One of his earlier works, What Work Is, was the most moving to me, a depiction of working-class life in beautiful prose verse. Here’s “What Work Is”:

We stand in the rain in a long line
waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.
You know what work is—if you’re
old enough to read this you know what
work is, although you may not do it.
Forget you. This is about waiting,
shifting from one foot to another.
Feeling the light rain falling like mist
into your hair, blurring your vision
until you think you see your own brother
ahead of you, maybe ten places.
You rub your glasses with your fingers,
and of course it’s someone else’s brother,
narrower across the shoulders than
yours but with the same sad slouch, the grin
that does not hide the stubbornness,
the sad refusal to give in to
rain, to the hours wasted waiting,
to the knowledge that somewhere ahead
a man is waiting who will say, ‘No,
we’re not hiring today,’ for any
reason he wants. You love your brother,
now suddenly you can hardly stand
the love flooding you for your brother,
who’s not beside you or behind or
ahead because he’s home trying to
sleep off a miserable night shift
at Cadillac so he can get up
before noon to study his German.
Works eight hours a night so he can sing
Wagner, the opera you hate most,
the worst music ever invented.
How long has it been since you told him
you loved him, held his wide shoulders,
opened your eyes wide and said those words,
and maybe kissed his cheek? You’ve never
done something so simple, so obvious,
not because you’re too young or too dumb,
not because you’re jealous or even mean
or incapable of crying in
the presence of another man, no,
just because you don’t know what work is.

Just back from travels this week, I final got through Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation, which I wrote about two posts earlier. I’ve got a stack of new books on my desk which are all non-fiction, so it’ll be some time before I get back into literature, but I’ve got a great list from Sam I’m excited to explore.

My May playlist consists of Sylvan Esso, Slowdive, Perfume Genius, Mac DeMarco, two singles released from Planetarium, and now one single from The National’s upcoming album.

Sylvan Esso’s What Now has really grown on me and is an excellent sequel to their debut a few years ago. I think the most toxic thing about the music is Amelia Meath’s voice, which has a strangely Southern, strangely street twang that works so well in an aggressively punk sort of way. It activates when she goes into a higher register of her voice; take the intro of “The Glow” where she’s reminiscing about sweet details from childhood, including “Deanna’s so beautiful / Pretending not to care” — right there she gives the end of that verse the perfect amount of kick to swing into a high-energy chorus. Looking up the lyrics just now on Genius, I just discovered that she’s referring to The Microphones’ The Glow Pt. 2 which is just awesome. Other songs I really like: “Song”, “Just Dancing”, “Signal”, and “Rewind”. I guess I would place them in a similar space in my musical landscape as CHVRCHES and Flock of Dimes (who is opening for them in August at the Fox Theater), but they are the most down-to-earth and free-styling of the three. My rating: 4/5

Slowdive was a new find for me (especially given that they’ve been on hiatus for almost as long as I’ve been alive), but the music sounds strangely familiar to me. There is a general similarity to a band I can’t for the life of me think of, but otherwise I hear connections to The Police, The War on Drugs, Pink Floyd, Broken Social Scene, and most of all, The Antlers. It’s the melodious moments when the lead singer’s voice reminds me of Peter Silberman (eg. the slower sections of “Don’t Know Why”) that this music really resonates the most with me. Other songs I like: “Slomo”, “Sugar for the Pill”, and “No Longer Making Time”. 4/5

Now, Perfume Genius has been the most exhilarating release of May and has really elevated their status in my mind since I saw Mike Hadreas as an opener for Belle & Sebastien at the Greek a few years ago. I highly recommend you listen to his interview on Song Exploder to hear directly from Mike how this album was a departure from past sounds. I would describe songs like “Slip Away” and “Wreath” as achieving something of a Yeasayer “I Remember” kind of epic cinematic scope, and it sure has been a long time since I’ve experienced music like this. There are also really elegant tunes like “Valley” and “Every Night”, sprawling gothic landscapes like “Sides” featuring a haunting Weyes Blood, and beautiful ballads like “Alan”. This album is really a cut above the rest in its ambition and intensity, and I suspect you will see this on a bunch of top-10 charts at the end of the year. My rating: 4.5/5

Mac DeMarco, meanwhile, has made the chillest album of the month that is also a complete joy to listen to. Where Real Estate feels like driving fast on a highway, Mac DeMarco’s This Old Dog feels like skating slow through a suburban neighborhood (likely with a pitbull following you). I enjoyed listening him talk about his life on WTF, but really it’s not essential knowledge to appreciate the attention to rich layering and sonic harmony throughout this album. I particularly like the use of synths in songs like “For the First Time”, “Dreams for Yesterday”, and “Watching Him Fade Away” to evoke disco and soul vibes alongside folksy guitar songs like “Baby You’re Out”, “One Another”, and “Still Beating”. The standout song is “A Wolf Who Wears Sheep’s Clothes” which features a really fresh slide effect on the lead guitar, accompanied by harmonica and claves in the background. Overall he’s like a modern stoner reincarnation of the old Cat Stevens. My rating: 4/5

Coming up is a collaboration between Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly & James McAlister called Planetarium. I’ve been quite fascinated by the promise of Sufjan Stevens side projects since loving Sisyphus, and the two songs that have been released so far, “Saturn” and “Mercury”, paint two very different portraits of what this project could overall sound like. The former is heavy Auto-Tune and almost becomes danceable, while the latter almost fits into Carrie & Lowell with a beautiful melody and a sprawling outro. Whichever direction the overall album heads, I am very much optimistic. Meanwhile, The National has unveiled some really sweet modernist graphic design and an intriguing song, “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness.” Overall the track is much more rocky than anything on Trouble Will Find You, which is not necessarily a direction I’m excited about, but nonetheless it sure is nice to hear Matt Berninger’s voice again.

Finally, films. I’ve only watched two films so far in May and they were both this weekend. If you liked Prometheus, which I totally did, then you’ll certainly like Alien: Covenant, which is a satisfying extension of the same scope and rich dynamism of characters/species. I’ve always loved the ambition of a story that introduces three very different forms of life: human, alien, and machine, and crafts a mythology that inexplicably ties the fate of all three. Humans, as before, are simultaneously cursed and blessed with the flaws of faith and love. In this sequel, the arguably best character of Prometheus, Michael Fassbender’s android David, gets a foil in the doppelganger American-accent version, Walter, and Ridley Scott employs some really delightful film magic in a long shot panning back and forth between the two Fassbenders as David teachers Walter how to play a musical instrument. Compared to a crappy film like Passengers which I was forced to watch on the plane back from China, this film seems to pack about tenfold more plot and character into the same space (pun intended). One thing that certainly helps is a cast of characters whose fate actually really matter to the audience. The final plot twist was fairly predictable, but that didn’t stop it from being a guilty pleasure to watch unfold. Turns out the other movie I watched this weekend was also a space film, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2. As much as I enjoyed the irreverent humor of the first one, and noted successful things happening in this sequel, I sort of lost interest halfway through and began to wonder whether the magic of Marvel is starting to wear off. I hope that Thor: Ragnarok pulls off a really different type of comedy that has a longer half life for me.

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Journal

A short recount of my two trips this month, to NYC/DC and to China!

New York City and Washington DC

Having been to NYC many times already, I thought that this trip would be mostly in/out for Stanford project work with some of my students, but there ended up being some really magical moments as well. First, this was my first time staying in Brooklyn, for better or for worse, in a brownstone in Bed-Stuy converted into at least 5 separate Airbnb rooms. But it meant that I got to see an area of Brooklyn I’d never seen before. I’d never really even been to Dumbo; the first evening we went to to Juliana’s for some incredible pizza, then walked around the beautiful parks and enjoyed the stunning sunset right below the Brooklyn Bridge… then went straight back for a second dinner at Shake Shack. We were hungry because we had flown right through lunch.

The next day we did an exciting workshop with folks at the Smart Cities NYC Conference in Brooklyn Navy Yards then had wonderful pasta at Forno Rocco’s in downtown Brooklyn, before heading to Manhattan to meet with the Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics. That was the end of the formal schedule, so I parted ways with the students and went to catch up with my best friend Dylan, who was busy studying for his Law School finals but took the time to go and grab a bite of pasta. I then headed back to Brooklyn to catch up with my friend Jason who’s working on a really important project called PennyPass.

The third day brought further uptown in Manhattan, where we walked around the UN Headquarters for a bit and then presented to a group at the United Nations Foundation. I then got to head to Wall Street and check out the BIG office, then briefly catch up with Stanford alum Stefan who’s now at NYCDOT. Then I was off to JFK, but decided to try a different route than usual on a bus through local neighborhoods that honestly are the real NYC. JetBlue ended up being delayed a few hours and I got to my go-to hostel in DC around 3:30am.

The next morning it was pouring rain but I met up with two new students and colleagues from SDSN, NYC, and Baltimore for a fascinating meeting in the State Department in which we had to leave all of our laptops and devices in old-fashioned lockers outside the room that were clearly made long before such devices were invented. It was a bit exhilarating to feel so close to the inner workings of an administration where inner workings are now under such scrutiny. I was half expecting to go into this “high-security” room and see a secret door into Russia or something.

Anyway, we then headed to another meeting with a big foundation and then visited the Cannon House where we shared our work with staff members of Rep Eshoo and Rep Lofgren from the South Bay. It turns out that the halls of these Congress buildings are some of the most passive aggressive places in the world.

That was it for the day, but I shortly thereafter got a text from JetBlue telling us that our flights back to NYC were canceled, so after some scrambling online decided that the best Plan B was to take a bus out of Union Station. Unfortunately, that bus ended up breaking down somewhere in Jersey, so we then had to wait for another bus, and the bus driver couldn’t quite figure out how to park in Penn Station, so by the time we got back to our Bed-Stuy Airbnb it was something like 2am.

The next day was a Saturday, and after a refreshing revisit to the High Line (where the Hudson Yards are really starting to shape up), a brief check-in with some planners from SF who were in town for the National APA Conference, and a tour of the Bloomberg Foundation office courtesy of Scott, I parted with the students for a free afternoon. My close friend Ivan and I treated ourselves to Derren Brown’s first live performance in the States, called Secret at the Atlantic Theater Company. If you haven’t seen anything from Derren Brown, just spend about 20 minutes on YouTube (here’s a perfectly good one to start with), but keep an extra 20 hours ready. Then, suffice it to say that his live show was everything you couldn’t possibly imagine and more, and that if you’re in NYC anytime soon, GO SEE IT. That’s all I’m allowed to say, given that the show’s contents are a secret.

Later I caught up with my friend Alison whose wedding I attended last August (turns out her husband has been living in the room next to Dylan’s for some time, unbeknownst to him, and she just happened to be in town the same time as me), then reconnected with my Stanford students for a night of stale improv and scrumptious Korean food. The next morning we had brunch in Bed-Stuy, I did one last event speaking on a panel at the APA Conference, then we headed off to Newark. All in all it was a great chance to be back in my definitive favorite city in the world and to see some of my favorite people.

Beijing and Chengdu, China

After just two days back in the Bay Area, I headed off for a second trip to China, having been invited by partners at Sichuan University to come engage with a group of students who are participating in a similar Sustainable Urban Systems Program. I had asked for a 12-hour layover in Beijing on the way in so I could catch up with one of my close friends Sam, who lives downtown in the financial sector. My neck and upper back were killing me on the whole plane ride over, probably built up knots from all the traveling the previous week. But great food and drinks and conversation made for a relaxing night in Beijing with a fellow lover of art and life.

The next morning I headed back to the airport for a short leg to Chengdu, where I made my way to Sichuan University campus where I had been two years ago with my dad. I joined a few of the teachers for lunch where I was quickly re-acquainted with the incredible kick of Sichuan peppers in hotpot. Then one teacher dropped me off at 太古里, the site of an old Buddhist temple which has since had a major luxury commercial development with some really high-quality architecture. One of the coolest stores there was a massive bookstore in which I bought my new sci-fi, The Three Body Problem, as well as All the Light We Cannot See, in Chinese to give as gifts.

The next day I met with most of the students for a field trip to “Crazy Ranch” (疯狂农庄) where an old Taiwanese woman has been perfecting self-sufficient agriculture. Having rarely been on farms in my life, it was great to see lots of design details like tire tubes being used as cheap drip irrigation, yellow sheets which caught flies, truly raised planter beds to prevent certain diseases, and an extensive water purification channel system. After a long day at the farm, I finally got to address that back pain with a good old Chinese massage.

One of the most interesting new things in China has been a wave of bikeshare companies that rely on WeChat for checking in and out of the bikes, so that they can be parked pretty much anywhere in the city. One company, Mobike, has an electronic locking mechanism, while the competitor, Ofo, has an analog combination lock. These really have become ubiquitous as they’re literally everywhere in the city, and it was stunning to see just how scalable free market technologies can be in a place like China. Unfortunately, I don’t think this works in practice in the States because of accessibility laws (these are literally left anywhere, including right in the middle of sidewalks).

On my last two days, I gave lectures at Sichuan University to students, ate more delicious food, and got to visit a few more iconic places in downtown Chengdu which I had missed the last time, including the resting place of 刘备, one of the emperors from the Three Kingdoms from Chinese history (my only knowledge coming from an old TV show I watched as a kid). On the last evening I biked with some teachers to an old industrial part of town which had been revitalized into a series of hipster art studios, cafes, and sports facilities, and we enjoyed some German beer on top of a shipping container overlooking a river as we swatted away mosquitoes and talked about the state of education in China and the U.S. It never ceases to amaze me how precious and interconnected life can be all around this great big planet.

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Ideas

It’s Sunday, May 21st and I’m just about caught up on my personal and professional life after two trips out of town this month. I want to write about those trips, and I want to write about the music and art that accompanied me on those trips, but first a few reflections.

I blog because I am an introspective searching for answers, and hoping that others are searching for the same. I believe that reading (and therefore writing), more than any other medium, has the potential to change minds (and therefore change lives). If, in addition to the direct work I do everyday on education and urban problem solving, I can invest a little bit of time each week into synthesizing and documenting my ideas in written form, I truly believe that it makes me a smarter and more impactful person, and provides some secondary value to some group of readers. Someday I would like to be the kind of person some may consider to have ‘thought leadership’ or to be a ‘public intellectual’; the role model that comes to mind is Sam Harris, who has inspired me on my recent journey of intellectual honesty. I am curious, to the anonymous readers out there (if any), whether there are topics that would interest you more than the random assortment I usually cover — whether I could organize something similar to an ‘AMA: Ask Me Anything’ anytime soon that would be valuable to anyone. For what it’s worth, I have an anonymous form in the menu of this website called “Feedback” which can serve that exact purpose, and I’d be more than happy to tackle questions on any topic I receive through that form in upcoming posts.

As I mentioned, I have been on a journey of intellectual honesty, vaguely inspired by deep anxieties about the state of our politics and culture. To be more specific: there are myriad technical and ethical issues within the various systems of our society I could individually focus on and work on, and ultimately would like to in the course of my professional career, but the most fundamental system that stitches them all together is the system of reason. If we lose the sanctity of rational and evidence-based decision-making in our social and political discourse, we lose the ability to be sure of anything. That’s why I think the greatest harm Trump has done so far is an irreversible damaging of trust, trust in our institutions that takes decades and centuries to build up but can wither and collapse in a matter of days.

Speaking of Trump, I have been holding out on the possibility for impeachment or resignation in fear of impeachment since the very beginning, and now that things have started to heat up around the Comey, Flynn, etc. drama, I would like to take a bold step towards thinking in public and state that I now feel more than 50% certain that Trump will NOT last as President until November 2020. That being said, that wouldn’t necessarily bring about satisfaction since we’d get President Pence, but at least we would have rescued ourselves from a more basic type of shame.

Moving from the political to the personal, my intellectual honesty project is first and foremost a project to examine and question my own ethical reasoning. I started thinking mostly about religion and faith, and planning to document a comprehensive and persuasive ‘coming out’ as atheist, but for various reasons have not been able or willing to give that project due justice. Meanwhile, as you know, I have been attempting to transition my diet towards vegetarianism for both environmental and ethical reasons, and this weekend I feel like I’ve made a moral breakthrough while reading Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation to want to commit fully to the real goal of veganism, and would like to briefly explain why and how.

I already had a strong sense of why I care about food from an ecological sustainability perspective, given the excessive impacts of a meat-based diet on land, greenhouse gases, and water. That alone should be enough of a reason for any intellectually honest believer in climate change and the environment to actively try to eliminate beef from his/her diet. I’ve also been attempting to explicitly change my diet out of concern for the suffering of animals, as an intellectually honest ‘expanding of the circle’, to use Singer’s language, from our inherently selfish and tribal nature to a concern for all humans to, inevitably, a concern for all organisms capable of suffering. The book did not discuss one of Harris’s interesting expansions on the subject, in which he considers that the capacity for pain may be proportional to some measure of the brain’s complexity, so that the suffering of mammals, birds, fish, etc. can be meaningfully distinguished. But it made those differences almost not matter, where I have the choice to remove meat from my diet entirely. And more importantly, Animal Liberation made it painfully obvious to me that if I truly care about animal suffering, then being content with vegetarianism as the end goal is complete hypocrisy, since standard eggs are produced through exactly the same cruel factory farm conditions as poultry meat (i.e. systematic killing of male baby chicks, debeaking), and dairy products carry even greater harm through the systematic suffering of mother cows losing their children and calves heading for the veal industry. I could certainly have conceived of these ethical problems with greater thought, despite its perfect obfuscation by the capitalistic drug that is ignorance, and so I consider myself fully guilty of intellectual dishonesty on this issue.

So, having fared well in this transition away from an omnivorous lifestyle in the first half of 2016, I will now try actively to completely boycott animal products. The book also reminded me of the obvious point that this position must accompanied by efforts to persuade others to do the same, or else it loses its sustaining impact. And so expect me to write pretty regularly about my experience here, with best practices to impart, and always open to learn more myself. I’ve already tried to enforce vegetarianism at scale where I can, like in giving all my Stanford-related food events vegetarian menus. I’d like to do a mid-year progress report on what my dietary transition has meant in quantifiable results. Very recently, I discovered Rainbow Grocery which is about a 15 minute walk from my house, and it has an incredible selection of local, organic, and ethically conscious food that will make this diet much more easy and enjoyable (especially the possibility of truly ethical eggs; I’ll need to do more research on this but ‘pasture-raised’ seems to be a serious label, or else I was tricked into paying $10 for a dozen eggs). Today I also bought some multivitamins, including B-12, having read that these are some nutritional deficiencies to watch out for.

As we descend deeper into this brave new world, I invite you all to consider just how equipped your tools of reasoning are. They may be our only sources of light in the coming darkness.

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