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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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.

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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
Holy architecture

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

 

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March has been busy! Just like that, 20 days since my last post. I’m typing this out on Dropbox Paper, having caught up with an old friend who now works at Dropbox, and it feels surprisingly refreshing compared to Google Docs, which I spend a considerable amount of my time working in. Sometimes it helps to have a clean white space to think in. 
There is so much to talk about in the arts. I went ahead and made two playlists on Spotify, one my monthly playlist, and one my top ten songs from NPR’s Austin 100 playlist. Some of the most exciting releases this month were from Fleet Foxes, Real Estate, and Gorillaz (as of yesterday). Real Estate in particular met all my expectations as a complete album, basically the same formula as the last two great albums despite a band lineup change. Saturday”, the closer, is perhaps my new favorite song from them, and maybe my favorite song about a day, period. It starts at a slow tempo with a dreamy piano melody then, like Belle & Sebastien’s If You Find Yourself Caught in Love”, emerges into focus with a bright guitar sound, quickened tempo, and delightful sixteenth note pick in the riff. It’s one of the best musical representations of the feeling of waking up. My rating: 4.5/5

I was born on a Saturday
What about you?
Well I know, I already know that you were too

After finishing up Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, I read three more books this month: Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer, Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth, and Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens. The two novels had surprisingly similar narrative devices: both took place, at least partially, in LA, namedropping familiar cities like Westminster, Pasadena, and Downey; both had a meta-novel within the novel, with the documentation and reading of the protagonist’s story having profound consequences on the characters; both were a delight to read. I probably prefer The Sympathizer (which won the Pulitzer last year) for its grander scope and shockingly nihilistic conclusion. The Commonwealth, on the other hand, was tragic and beautiful in familiar ways. Sapiens, recommended by my friend Collin, is ambitious but surprisingly shallow as a read. Ultimately the moments of profundity are like little flashes of light, an argument or point of view that is surprisingly insightful. I particularly appreciate his sweeping summary of the Industrial Revolution, the unification of humanity under money, empires, and religion, and the double-edged sword that is capitalism. It’s actually a great reading for the kind of teaching I do at Stanford, and I will probably end up using if I ever teach a course on urban ethics.
Finally, not much to highlight in terms of film except for Logan, which is up there near The Dark Knight in terms of superhero stories done right. 
April is full of delights: concerts by Foxygen, Whitney, and Hans Zimmer; a talk by Van Jones; and Hamilton! And in May I’ll be heading to New York in the first week for a couple of conferences and other meetings. Look out Sunday for a post reflecting on 25 years. 
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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.

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Journal

This was perhaps the best week of the year thus far for me, in terms of the arts. First, for Valentine’s Day, Boanne and I went with friends to see Fun Home at the Curran Theater, which has just reopened for this production. Fun Home is based off a 2006 graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel (who came up with the Bechdel test) and won the 2015 Tony Award for Best Musical (prior to Hamilton). Prior to watching this, my favorite musicals were, in order, Wicked, Les Miserables, and probably Rent, which I had also just seen last weekend. Fun Home is now securely somewhere between Les Mis and Wicked for an absolutely devastating story filled with grace and heart. The most novel aspect of this production was having Alison, in the near-present, as a constant presence on stage, observing her past and seeking answers as she creates her work of art. Very few productions in any medium can make me weep, but a climactic, fourth-wall and heart breaking moment in this musical did (and as I later told my high school students, “The best experiences in life are those that make you cry”). I am looking forward to getting my hands on the graphic novel, and I implore you to seek this out if you haven’t already.

That same day I pre-ordered the new Dirty Projectors self-titled album, which is fueled by Dave Longstreth’s breakup with bandmate Amber Coffman (who has some great stuff on her own now as well). One of the most incredible songs so far is “Keep Your Name”, which grabs a piece of the chorus from my favorite song from the last album, “The Impregnable Question”, and turns it sour, the phrase “We don’t see eye to eye” taken out of context of “But I need you” and threaded through a distorted, tortured soundscape. This is the kind of real-time human intimacy and fallout that artists generously share with the world, that makes music so compelling to me. Jens Lekman’s Life Will See You Now came out in full on Friday, and unfortunately did not live up to the joy of the title single “Evening Prayer”, but will probably grow on me in the coming weeks as a Belle & Sebastien-like pop album that is fresh in its un-American-ness.

This weekend Boanne and I visited the SFMOMA and I got to see Sohei Nishino’s work again, a grandiose love-letter to cities, a larger-than-life manifestation of Kevin Lynch’s Image of the City through a collage of thousands of photographs laid out to mimic the geographic map of each subject city. Then we went to see the sequel to The Lego Movie, which happens to have been the movie we watched on our “first date”, and it once again proved that you don’t need live action or anything beyond Lego blocks on the screen to far surpass the quality of 95% of screenplays and character development in films today. Bravo, Warner Animation Group, for putting creativity and authenticity to excellent use.

And then… I cozied up to Cixin Liu’s sci-fi The Dark Forest, the sequel to The Three Body Problem, on Saturday night, and, sometime Sunday morning, emerged out of a mind-blowing journey into the depths of human ethics and universal truths. I know I seem to have more superlatives than is reasonable so far this year, but I mean this: Cixin Liu is an absolute genius, the kind of philosopher artist that should represent humanity in the face of aliens. And The Dark Forest was staggeringly epic in its scope and confidence, a massive augmentation of the world set up in The Three Body Problem that reminded me of the brilliant scope of Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead, which is now my former favorite science fiction novel of time. It literally pains me to not be able to talk about all the incredible ideas presented in this story, so I am nearly willing to smuggle these books in stacks out of the San Francisco Public Library system to get my friends to read them, or Amazon Prime them directly to you, just so we can bask together in the glory of the story. In fact, it has triggered an idea for a short story of my own, a slight variation on the theme, which may be strong enough to move me to actually write it out later this year.

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Journal

With an hour this evening, I’d like to touch on a few outstanding topics (outstanding here meaning simply that they have been left standing in line… I use the phrase “outstanding items” quite regularly in my project work and I do wonder whether the people I work with are understanding that in the construction management sense, or as pretentiousness…).

The Expanding Circle

I have begun reading Peter Singer’s The Expanding Circle and it’s been an epiphany, in the sense that I don’t think I’ve ever read a book where I could reliably anticipate every new idea as something that I’ve been forming in my own mind. I suspect most of this was seeded by conversations I’ve heard on Sam Harris’s podcast, but I also believe that my last few blog posts are evidence of a number of authentically derived concepts around ethical systems and universal morality that are nearly aligned with Singer’s book. If anything this is making me feel more confident in my competence for moral reasoning and may encourage me to write more forcefully on these topics.

Essentially, Singer does a great job making the link between sociobiology (the territory of Dawkins) and philosophy, with a focus on the crucial role of reasoning. One concept he has articulated especially well, which I will certainly want to expand upon in future essays, is that the capacity for advanced reasoning in the human brain, at whatever point our genetic variations brought this capacity fully into dominance, was fundamentally the harbinger of ethics, which only exists in societies that need to defend their actions to one another. “Reason”, in its simplest definition, is the capacity to ask “why”. Moral reasoning is an internal questioning of why you value the things you do, while ethical reasoning deals with socially agreed-upon rules. Singer then emphasizes that “rationality” is a specific line of reasoning that deals with “calculation”. As soon as we need to defend our values and actions to others, we need to be able to justify those actions in some general manner, meaning we need to consider the interests of others somewhat equally. As soon as you are measuring and comparing the interests and values of different people in different scenarios, you fundamentally need to be pursuing some method of rationality. And so Singer’s framework squares perfectly with the flowchat I proposed a few posts ago, his book’s focus ultimately being a step I glossed over, the essential “expanding of the circle” of valuation from empathy to compassion.

There is so much rich territory to dive into here which I think would do good for anyone. Fundamentally our current political climate is just a microcosm of an overall lack of ethical reasoning in our societies. I still believe that the essence of our ethical dilemma is “intellectual honesty”, and Singer’s writing is making this clearer in my mind. I am now confident that there is essentially one “ethic”, which is universal well-being, and there are only two real reasons why we aren’t approaching it: lack of intellectual reasoning, and lack of intellectual honesty. I think the solution to the intellectual reasoning problem is progress in education, science, and technology. The solution to the intellectual honesty problem is less clear, more like a question of personal moral strength.

Apologies for the lack of direction of the passages above; I promise that once I finish this book I will formally update my ethical system with serious effort in clarity.

The Blank Slate

In my last post I mentioned one of the great insights out of Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, which was that we have hardwired intuitive reasoning in our brains thanks to natural selection. I want to offer a concise analogy here: our brains are essentially like smartphones with really terrible software programs pre-installed, like Internet Explorer, that are terrible at doing what they’re meant to do, but came as part of the package. So what education should do, first and foremost, is uninstall that bad software and install the equivalent of Google Chrome, which not only corrects for serious design flaws in the incumbent software but expands our potential to gain knowledge and solve problems.

RENT

This Saturday I got in line for $25 rush tickets for RENT at the Golden Gate Theater in SF about an hour before sale (which was itself two hours before the musical began). There were only 32 tickets at this price and it seemed like I barely got to buy 4 of them, so for those interested in this strategy, I offer the heuristic: arrive at least one hour early for rush tickets (Note that RENT is unique in offering $25 rush tickets; otherwise you have a larger supply of $40 tickets). I had listened to select songs out of the soundtrack in high school, and sort of understood the plot, but was fully satisfied by the whole production on Saturday. Golden Gate Theater doesn’t have an orchestra pit so it appears that all the productions have to come up with a novel way of featuring the instruments on stage (I’ve only seen Hedwig and the Angry Inch otherwise), and I thought the set was quite well designed in its versatility of movement. My overall takeaway was that RENT is as relevant as ever in a place like San Francisco, including the obvious timeliness of questions of protest and livability, and the more universal complexity of intimacy.

Oakland

This evening I attended an event at SPUR Oakland which featured some native Oakland residents who are in the social enterprise sector, working on topics ranging from local employment to sex trafficking to art incubation. I was hoping to get a more diverse and normal representation of Oakland residents to calibrate my understanding of what matters to the community; the socially progressive elite just doesn’t seem to be representative of the norm. But they raised important questions around minimum wage, gentrification, and inclusivity which, to me, are fundamentally unknowns about mechanisms in urban systems. How exactly does increasing minimum wage affect the community? I’m not interested in dogmatic opinions that align with an unquestioned concern for victims; I want real evidence and reasoning here. A questioner astutely questioned whether a purely dogmatic activism for minimum wage may not have led to adverse effects on employment due to big retailers like Walmart moving out. I would explore that terrain further, asking whether an increase of minimum wage is more addressing a root problem or a symptom, and whether, as a supposedly progressive measure, it is fundamentally flawed without a series of other key measures, like regulation of monopolistic business so that they can’t simply exercise the power of exit, or subsidization of smaller local businesses so they are bearing the cost of minimum wage hikes inadvertently, or simply taking on the perfectly sound conservative goals of reducing “cost disease” in many sectors of our society, so that we don’t need to hike the minimum wage in the first place. Any conversation that does not acknowledge the many facets of urban issues as I have just illustrated may only contribute to the polarization of issues that need to be evidence-based.

Snow Crash

While this sci-fi by Neal Stephenson is the genesis of many fundamental tropes of our modern tech culture, as a novel it was mostly trash.

Movies

This weekend I watched John Wick Chapter 2 and The Red Turtle. I thoroughly enjoyed John Wick, fully understanding the banality of shoot-em-up films and the seeming hypocrisy of supporting such films in a rampantly violent culture. All I can say is that, if we were to have a substantive ethical education, I think we would be able to consume such films as purely cathartic and escapist thrill rides behind the screen of fiction, without any danger of blurring the lines. I also think the film actually is just brilliant in its creativity and memedom (best scene: surreptitious gunfight with silencers in a crowded One World Trade Center terminal). The Red Turtle, in contrast, was 80 minutes without dialogue and a fantasy story told in minimalist imagery that often felt like a zen rock garden in its stoicism. While beautiful, it simply did not work for me, especially compared to Studio Ghibli films that can be profound without literally having to be a Buddhist-scale test of patience.

Creativity

A friend of mine in Thailand is writing about creativity, and I will be sharing my thoughts on this fascinating topic shortly!

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