- Whenever I switch the water from the tap to the shower head, only 50% or less of the full flow actually transfers to the shower head, which has led to an unsatisfying shower experience for at least the last two months, because (a) the low flow doesn’t feel as good, and (b) it feels like a waste of water, i.e. if the flow were higher I might take shorter showers, but (c) if the flow were higher it’s possible I might actually take longer showers, so uncertainty about (b) thus adding to the unsatisfying-ness of my shower experiences. I should submit a Fix-It request, which I keep forgetting to do because I only think of this when I am in the shower, and by the time I get out of the shower I have consistently forgot about this thought for at least the last two months. I’m determined to not forget this time. (Spoiler alert: I sent it!)
- I wonder how many great ideas I’ve come up with in the shower that I have forgotten. I should look up a product on Amazon for writing down ideas in the shower. Or maybe this turns out to be the perfect use for a Google Home or Alexa Echo in your bathroom. (Turns out the most popular product on Amazon is designed as disposable notes, which doesn’t make sense to me. This article makes the home assistant option the most compelling, and makes me instantly regret re-gifting the Amazon Echo Dot that my girlfriend got me for Christmas.)
- How many great ideas has the world collectively lost because they happened in the shower? Which leads to the meta-thought: what if the best idea in the world is I should get a whiteboard for my shower? and it has never actually been acted upon because it has always been forgotten because it was not written down?
- I should probably look up what that pull-up/pull-down thingy is called that diverts the water from the tap (or whatever that’s called) to the shower head, since it almost certainly has a name. (A quick Google search later, I find that it’s called a diverter, and the tap is a spout. Also I may have found the solution to #1.)
- I need to remember to bring Codenames to my girlfriend’s house tomorrow.
- I forgot to write down my dream this morning, which is probably the second most important point of the day in which I forget important things, namely the interesting content of my dreams. Perhaps yet another pivotal use for a home assistant. Luckily the dream was vivid enough that I still recall it; in fact it had an important recurring theme to my dreams, which is a heavy weight in my legs which causes me to walk incredibly slowly, to a nightmarish degree. I wonder what the psychological meaning of this dream feature is. (A quick in-n-out of Reddit illuminates a relatively simple, non-Freudian explanation. I also recall in hindsight that when I woke up my arm was stuck under my pillow and in that tingly state.)
- Speaking of dream meanings, I think my girlfriend bought me a dream dictionary and it’s in the bedside drawer of my childhood home in Arcadia.
- I should turn my chapter on the ethics of eating animals in my last reflection post into a proper essay, since it deserves some more refinement.
- I’m reminded that one of my goals for 2018 is to write one substantial long-form piece per month, either non-fiction (like the ethics of eating animals piece) or a short story (perhaps inspired by my dreams, if I commit to keeping a dream journal).
- Strangely enough, right about at this moment, my shower head magically goes from 50% to 100%, for the first time in at least two months. I dwell briefly on supernatural thoughts before ending my shower.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
Just like that, we’re a third of the way through 2017. I’m traveling the new two weeks, first to NYC/DC for some Sustainable Development Goals work, and second to Chengdu, China to meet with academic partners at Sichuan University. So now’s a good time to catch up on reflecting upon work, ideas, and art from the last few weeks.
My Stanford project-based learning class this quarter has been focused on a 500-acre district in Monterrey, MX called DistritoTec, and the experience has been exhilarating so far, kicked off by an enjoyable trip down to Monterrey with students over Spring Break, and since then, progressing nicely through mindsets of systems thinking and toolsets like geospatial analysis. Two years ago I did another SUS project with partners in Juarez, MX, and that culminated in a presentation to the Subsecretary of Energy in Mexico City. Besides some old family trips to the more touristy coastlines, Monterrey is now the sixth place I’ve been to in Mexico, and it’s the place I feel most comfortable. The undergraduates at Monterrey Tec were a joy to hang out with and reinforced the value I place on cross-cultural learning and making friends and acquaintances across borders. We discussed Trump, immigration, and the wall here and there, but mostly it was nice to just let the idiocy and dishonesty of American politics dissipate amidst genuine and authentic immersion and experience. Monterrey does not feel nearly as sprawly as Juarez but probably only because of the illusion of proximal mountain ranges; in reality it is just as large and stretches by its fingers. It felt like a mix of some of the ghettoness of Juarez with some of the cosmopolitanism of Mexico City. One wealthier area, San Pedro, felt strangely like any suburban office park from Southern California. Pretty much the only new Spanish slang I’ve picked up is “fresa”, which I think is essentially the same as basic, as in “strawberry girl, basic girl” (and so much funner to say). Luckily, I got no food poisoning this time; unfortunately my red meat tally suffered a massive spike due to delicious arrachera, carne asada, and cabrito, but overall my sustainable diet is still looking good compared to past years — I’ll try to quantify a preliminary result around the halfway mark of this year.
Otherwise at Stanford the most exciting progress has been the further realization of the SUS vision amongst faculty, the SDG independent project which I’ll discuss after the NYC trip, and the Stockton project, in which four students have been killing it in the Bank of America’s Low Income Housing Challenge. The project is a 1.6 acre dense mixed-use development which will revitalize a blighted part of South Stockton which I’ve been working with since 2014. It’s a joy to see the project continue to move forward through major political and legal hurdles, and to see the spirit of grassroots, community-driven urbanism thrive in Stockton. I really haven’t blogged as much as I would like to about my developing ideas around urbanism and urban systems, but I’ve been thinking about starting that up, not here but in the formal SUS blog at sus.stanford.edu; I’ll announce that if/when it comes to fruition.
At Nueva, my Advanced Architecture studio doesn’t move nearly as quickly as Stanford’s class but it’s still always great to see younger students blossom and grow in their passion and command of design. The class “studio” called 131 East (after the address of the school) has worked on three different competitions so far, and is just starting its final project which is a design research project on tiny homes as transitional housing for the homeless in Oakland. The work is not quite finalized in terms of documentation, but if you want to take a look, check out 131east.com. Unfortunately it is getting harder and harder each week for me to see myself being able to commit to another year of teaching there, with all the work building at Stanford, Stockton, and my new nonprofit venture. Currently the plan is to cancel the Intro to Architecture class in the Fall, but to run Advanced again in the Spring, especially for some students who weren’t able to take it this semester; but if I do that, there will be no path for new students to get into Advanced. A satisficing solution awaits to be seen.
I was really gungho about writing about intellectual dishonesty right at the start of the year, and building out an ethical framework that I could then use to critique political news. It turns out I can barely even keep up with the news itself (nowadays spoon-feeding myself NPR’s Up First, NPR Politics, KQED’s California Report, Vox’s The Weeds, and WYNC’s On the Media), so I’ve had to just plain give up on the possibility of committing 5+ hours of my week to an “intellectual honesty” project. Now I believe that, for most of us, there’s a converse project we should focus on, which is avoiding intellectual distraction. It really isn’t worth my time to talk about Trump on a day to day basis, especially when half of what’s happening out of Washington and viral media is literally designed obfuscation from real issues. I also still feel the same way as I did about the value of big protests, largely being a self-congratulatory preaching to the crowd that checks off a box on your Instagram feed. If I’m not going to be in national politics myself, I’d much rather focus my own energy on empowering local governments with tools, infrastructure, and policy, and never let any Kendall moment make me feel satisfied.
I will say that I do occasionally fantasize about what I would do if I could meet Trump, and if it were being filmed. So far my strategy is to act like he’s not even there, skip right over him to Melania in a line of handshaking. On matters like this I still take my inspiration from an incredible moment in The Fountainhead, where the nemesis asks Roark what Roark thinks of him, to which Roark replies, “But I don’t think of you.”
OK, on to culture. I haven’t been reading as ravenously as when I fell in love with the Three Body Problem trilogy (which I’m still thinking about using as inspiration for a short story); all I’ve read since the last post is The Life You Can Save by Peter Singer, which wasn’t as strong as The Expanding Circle but was still morally nourishing, and The Economy of Cities by Jane Jacobs which surprised me with the originality and relevance of its ideas, like the breakdown of our assumption that rural life came before urban life.
I’ve been to quite a few concerts in the last few weeks, including an entertaining Foxygen concert, an absolutely gorgeous Whitney concert except for standing behind a 7 foot tall dude, and a spellbounding Hans Zimmer concert in a packed Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, which brought me right back to my days of playing percussion to movie soundtracks in high school symphony orchestra and concert band. This past week I also got to see Hamilton, which, unfortunately, did not exceed my expectations. The first half, like the first half of the soundtrack, was excellent in its pacing and originality, but the second half really dragged and dulled. The cast also had some letdowns compared to the original recording cast. But for those who like hip hop lyricism and the spectacle of immaculately composed entertainment, I still recommend it highly; just don’t feel like you have to be in a rush to see it. Wicked, Fun Home, and Les Miserables top it on my list.
For music, I’ve mostly still been listening to Kendrick Lamar’s excellent DAMN. but added two really great songs to my monthly mix, “Mildenhall” from The Shin’s latest album and “Gwan” a new single from Rostam, which is absolutely gorgeous. Humanz from Gorillaz dropped this week but was a bit of a letdown past the first few exciting tracks that were released. In many ways the band is just a backdrop for a bunch of interesting new acts that edge them slightly away from their signature spooky funky hip hop into Disclosure-esque house, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but ultimately makes the album feel like a dance party playlist. There is nothing that soars like “Up on Melancholy Hill” or “Stylo” from Plastic Beach, or like the originals. My rating: 3.5/5
For movies, as of last night I think I have a preliminary top 5 of 2017 that really excited me, all genre-defying in their scope and solid in their execution. First, Get Out, which I’ve talked about before, is an absolute must-see and says the right things in the right way about race. Second, Raw is a French-Belgian cannibal film that just blew me away in its ambience and sensuality and really got under my skin in thinking about the real psychology of the condition. Third, Trainspotting 2 is a small but solid Danny Boyle film that tactfully explored the power of decades of real-time growth in old characters, in much the same way as Linklater does in his films. Fourth, Logan cemented its place alongside The Dark Knight as an elite class of superhero film that enriches the overall genre’s renaissance. And fifth, Colossal is a gaiju film unlike any you have ever even come close to imagining, and spins a very similar trick as Get Out but with social themes of drug abuse, small-town isolationism, and self-actualization.
April is quickly shaping up to be the best month of music so far. I’ve been listening to Passion Pit’s Tremendous Sea of Love and Father John Misty’s Pure Comedy, and just this week, Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. and John Mayer’s The Search for Everything. Mac DeMarco also put out a groovy third single for his upcoming album This Old Dog called “On the Level”.
Tremendous Sea is a return to Gossamer form with immaculately constructed electro-ballads that often seem to break through the sound barrier at their high ranges, like a shot of music straight into the veins. Passion Pit is still singular in its ability to orchestrate records like this. Incredibly, I got this album for free in a Google Drive folder, emailed to me and about two dozen other random people as a link because we retweeted Michael Angelakos’ tweet about a mental health scientist in Washington; talk about music for a cause. The album strikes instantly as deeply personal, the second song featuring two voice samples, one describing the three fundamental attachments in a child-mother bond — secure, ambivalent, or distant — and the other a voicemail from his mother notable for her line: “We’re here, and everybody else is elsewhere”. “Hey K” is the moment of arrival, and a heartbreaking one, if it’s a message of assurance to his ex-wife of their enduring promise:
Love is the answer
And the one design
Such a simple design
After some wonderful instrumental passages in the middle of the song, the album drives it home with three delightful songs back to back, reminscent of the magical second half of Gossamer. “I’m Perfect” sounds like the inside of a toy factory; “The Undertow” is the spiritual sequel to “Constant Conversations”; and “To The Otherside” even more perfectly the conclusion of “Where We Belong”, a beautiful message of hope. This whole album is immensely listenable, and growing on me with each repeat. As electronic pop continues to wage a Darwinian war on itself, it looks like Passion Pit is here to stay. My rating: 4/5
Father John Misty seems to be quite the butt of critical jokes with Pure Comedy, but I’m not sure I’m affected at all by any pretension or anti-pretension he may or may not be exuding through the lyrics of this album. It’s simply great music. It’s at least as good as both of his last albums in terms of knockout songs like “The Ballad of the Dying Man” and “So I’m Growing Old on Magic Mountain” (my favorite), and overall quality. I suspect this album feels a lot more subdued and contemplative than his last, especially with songs like “Leaving LA” that’s thirteen minutes long. “When the God of Love Returns There’ll be Hell to Pay” delivers perhaps the essential verse of the album:
Oh, my Lord
We just want light in the dark
Some warmth in the cold
And to make something out of nothing
Sounds like someone else I know
Father John Misty may be trying as hard as he can to be the King of Irony, but even if he turns out to be a hipster parody of Elton John, an Elton John is exactly what we need. My rating: 4/5
Another John, John Mayer, is back with The Search for Everything. A quick aside: John Mayer is one of the most important artists in my musical journey, the soundtrack to many of my most cherished high school memories. Battle Studies is the first album that I felt a true personal resonance with, like it was written for me in my tumultuous transition to college. I ended up using “Forgetting You” in a short film I made for a humanities class that first quarter at Stanford. Since Battle Studies, Born and Raised and Paradise Valley have been quieter backdrops to moments of tranquility and solace that speckle my early twenties, while my primary musical interests have pushed forward into many new territories. So it’s great to hear this album and fall instantly back into an entire adolscence’s full of nostalgia, but at the same time feel invigorated by John Mayer’s stolid momentum and undeniably mastered guitar. While some songs seem to harken back to Continuum or pre-Continuum style, most of the album sits right alongside the songs of Born and Raised. This is as country as I go, songs like “In the Blood” and “Roll It On Home”; it’s cinematic country, the kind of landscapes you can enjoy through the filter of Instagram. “Love on the Weekend” stands out as a song with a synth atmosphere that could fit in Battle Studies; I hope there’s more to come from that direction. All and all this is simple listening that truly doesn’t get old. My rating: 3.5/5
Finally, Kendrick Lamar once again raises the bar with DAMN. It’s been incredible to track his musical creativity from the cinematic novella Good Kid, M.A.A.D City to the politically conscious To Pimp a Butterfly to the lucid broodings of untitled unmastered. to DAMN., which mostly just feels like an opening of the floodgates of expression. In many ways this album is Kendrick entering the mainstream, with a few songs that are finally radio-friendly. He’s welcoming in influences from his fellow artists (Kanye + Drake + Frank + Kendrick = Kandrank?) as well as welcoming in entirely new voices like U2 (in the sense of genre) and Zacari. “HUMBLE.” stands out as a perfectly executed single; “LOVE.” stands out as a fresh experiment that exudes the joy of studio serendipity; “XXX.” shuffles aggressively through a triptych of flows ending with this killer verse:
Donald Trump’s in office
We lost Barack and promised to never doubt him again
But is American honest, or do we bask in sin?
Pass the gin, I mix it with American blood
Then bash him in, you Crippin’ or you married to blood?
It’s nasty when you set us up then roll the dice, then bet us up
You overnight the big rifles, then toell Fox to be scared of us
Gang members or terrorists, et cetera, et cetera
America’s reflections of me, that’s what a mirror does
As intricate as this album is in its journey through the whole thematic scope of his career and its investigation of the ironies of Black America, its most important quality is its generosity of ideas. It leaves no doubt that Kendrick is just getting started. My rating: 4.5/5
The grind of twelve-or-so busy days has finally come down to a lull, and my normal downtime weekend involves cooking marginally-more-interesting breakfasts (egg AND cheese English muffin sandwiches!) while catching up on podcasts (nowadays going straight for Reply All or Radiolab if there are episodes, KQED’s California Report, NPR Politics then The Weeds in that order, Waking Up With Sam Harris, Filmspotting if I have recently watched the film being reviewed, and The Ezra Klein Show), walking down the street to the SF Public Library for free WiFi to catch up on my unread email newsletters (mostly Vox Sentences, Slate Star Codex, and a hodgepodge of urban newsletters like City Observatory, Strong Towns, SPUR, and Sidewalk Labs — I’m always looking for more and better so please share!) and my personal bookkeeping (just barely breaking even since the start of this year which is quite promising as it’s been entirely predicated on 35 hours of work per week, not counting personal projects; some interesting indicators I keep tabs on include: my personal wealth currently increasing $36.50 per day; my income spent on housing and H+T at a surprisingly unsurprising 46.23% and 51.11%; my average sleep at 7 hours per day; and my average consumption of beef, pork, chicken, and seafood meals down to 1.22, 1.61, 3.56, and 1.83 per week, with the remaining 12.78 being vegetarian), pushing onwards through my goal of 40 books this year (currently on my 14th), and spinning gleefully convoluted sentences like this one for my blog.
Last weekend I returned to Squaw Valley with a mix of Arcadia and Stanford friends and experienced the best skiing of my life with my very well-matched ski-buddy Paul Chen. It was also my first chance to try out my first pair of personally-owned skis, little 79cm skiboards that I have christened the Boboskis. My skis, boots, and snow gear fit entirely in a blue IKEA bag, which I was able to bring on the Caltrain to Stanford last Friday morning (to meet, coincidentally, with some Swedish acquaintances from the IKEA+Skanska venture Boklok), and the Boboskis totally delivered on the mountain in terms of maneuverability, although I lost them in deep snow a few times before optimizing the bindings, and I will definitely need to tune them up if I want to get anywhere near the speed of a normal skier. Most satisfyingly, I was finally able to break through the threshold of confidence and stamina to get down the steeper black diamond moguls at Squaw like The Shot, High Voltage, and Trail 90 (we didn’t have time for K-22), and even got some praise from people on the Silverado chairlift who probably rarely see idiots on short skis trying Squaw Backside on super fresh powder. Besides the incredible snow, Tahoe was once again a delightful getaway full of great cooking, great games, great antics, and great people.
My work weeks have gotten quite intense, with Stanford pushing forward with exciting new program and project opportunities while drowning me in bureaucratic cost disease, Nueva’s Advanced Architecture studio aka 131 East sprinting to its first competition submission for the Young Architects Competition Castle Resort project (work I’m very proud of), Stockton development work progressing well with the help of some excellent students, and my newest venture with Rob Best, a nonprofit company called City Systems (more on that in its own time). It’s about the time of year where I have to start planning ahead to summer, and I’ll be looking for an optimum size team of stellar students from Nueva and Stanford to work on exciting projects that I otherwise don’t have time to do during the academic year, as well as curriculum development for new Stanford courses that I’m excited about, like Methods in Urban Systems, and hopefully, Ethics in Urban Systems. All these weird individual pieces of my sporadic professional career, from design and engineering methods to urban systems to evidence-based planning to intellectual honesty, are starting to crystallize into a coherent narrative.
In terms of music, there hasn’t been much new recently, so I’ve just been listening to Flock of Dimes’ If You See Me, Say Yes and Jens Lekmans’ Life Will See You Now on repeat, discovering new layers and new favorite moments in every listen. On Wednesday night I went to see Jens Lekman at the Independent. I had impulsively purchased two tickets for the shower a few weeks back, assuming that at least one of my friends on my FB Music group would be interested in coming with me after my showering of praise for the album. Apparently, I need to reel back my enthusiasm, because nobody took the bait. And I couldn’t even sell my second ticket in front of the venue for a good 30 minutes, so I ended up heading in alone, in defeat, for the price of two tickets. But I suppose one of the greatest virtues we can exercise in life is forgiveness and grace in the face of one’s own failures, and it was easy in this case to do so, given how wonderfully delightful the concert was. Now for a more thorough review of this album (the release of which he joked was what Trump meant by “what happened in Sweden last night”): while I did not listen to Lekman before this album, so much of his persona and musical influence reminds me of Belle & Sebastien, especially the sound from Dear Catastrophe Waitress favorites like “If She Wants Me”. There is a specific genre of music in which Northern European bands inject old sounds like funk, disco, bossa nova, and calypso with a Nordic songwriting sensibility that I can best describe as painfully honest. There are some moments of searing prose that really need the delightful soundscape to soften: “Instead of talking about religion can we just talk about how it feels /To know your mission” from the opening track; “He puts the tumor on our table / Says, ‘So, this is what caused all my fears’” from “Evening Prayer”; and “I couldn’t really see / How I built a bomb shelter under every dream” from my current favorite, “Dandelion Seed”, which I was grateful for him to finish on with his delightful three bandmates, before he returned for an encore solo of an old song “Black Cab” dedicated to the memory of a friend he lost in the Oakland Ghost Ship fire. Lekman is fragile and endearing like Stuart Murdoch and infuses his belief in the power of storytelling and compassion into his art; I’m particularly inspired to learn about his Postcard project from 2015, where he committed to write one song a week for a year — much like my past attempts at 365 poems, and even this blogging project. I can’t wait to dive into his discography and follow him moving forward. My rating: 4.5/5
I also have to give an extra shout-out to Flock of Dimes which has continued to grow on me. I’ve already talked about the album a bit before, so I’ll just note that the songs “Given Electric Life” and “You, the Vatican” have joined the ranks of 6 out of 12 songs on the album I completely adore, and I expect that number to increase. Also, Jenn Wasner will be opening for Sylvan Esso August 22nd at the Fox Theater, and you can bet I already have tickets for that. My rating: 4.5/5
I have a lot of intellectual topics to write about but just haven’t had the time to get into the mindspace of it (I’ve even had to concede my morning Caltrain ride to catching an extra 40 minutes of sleep a few times this week), so I will continue to try to carve that time out in the next week. Suffice it to say that the political discourse I see on my feed, from both the right and the left, continues to be troubling, and my open call still stands for intelligent people to sift through the bullshit and realize that the most important thing we can do is find each other and work on developing an honest system of ethics. It’s been heartening to hear from a handful of acquaintances, old and new, who are telling me that this writing has been helpful, and I look forward to having great conversations with you.
In book news, the final book of the Three Body Problem trilogy, Death’s End, though falling short of the climactic heights of The Dark Forest, ventures to the end of frontiers with satisfying breadth. It has firmly beaten out the Ender universe as my favorite science fiction of all time, and I have been making that adamantly clear to half a dozen or so more people ever since I finished.
In movie news, Jordan Peele’s Get Out was a work of genius that I cannot describe in much detail for fear of spoiling it, which is simply to say, GET OUT AND WATCH IT. Yesterday, after a field trip with SUS students to Palo Alto City Hall and dinner, Kevin and I went to see the Oscar Nominated Live-Action Shorts at the Aquarius (my first time there since it was renovated; unfortunately the theater is not on Moviepass), a regular outing of mine (past excellent shorts like 2015’s Everything Will be OK (Alles Wird Gut) and 2014’s Boogaloo and Graham having made deep impressions on me). I enjoy watching the nominated shorts all at once because they paint a concisely insightful picture of our collective social and political consciousness; this year was an especially striking example of that, with excellent French entry Enemies Within (Ennemis intérieurs) and not-so-excellent Danish entry Silent Nights both tackling immigration and xenophobia directly, and the beautiful Hungarian entry Sing (Mindenki) evoking the spirit of justice and compassion with half the material but double the weight.