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.


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.