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January 2018

I was planning to churn out a life update at the end of every month, but the last week of January I was busy preparing for a weekend conference in LA so this got delayed, and before I knew it, it was almost March. Alas time is still the most important and scarce resource in 2018.

City of angels

The first weekend of February, I headed back to LA for a series of meetings on new Sustainable Development Goal initiatives (for a summary of what I’ve been working on in this space, read this). These meetings included a day in L.A. City Hall, which allowed me to take the super convenient Metro line from Arcadia to downtown and experience just how much mobility has changed in the suburban desert I grew up in. For the next two days I was at Occidental, a tiny little oasis like Stanford that I had never been to before, but had spent a good three years down the block from, in Eagle Rock, at a little private Christian charter school called Westminster Academy. I don’t know where folks stand on the emotional value of childhood experiences, but for me, there’s a lot in the years of 1st grade through 3rd grade which shaped me for better or worse, that I felt a deep urge to mine that weekend. So having finished up my meetings on a Saturday afternoon, I took a short drive over to my old school, to discover (1) it had changed names and was an entirely different school now, and (2) it was at least 50% smaller than the spaces loomed in my memory, which makes perfect sense psychologically but it nonetheless an incredibly disorienting experience (is the same true for the people and events?). Then, thinking back to one of my first romances, I was drawn to one of the most important memories I have from that time, of playing on a wooded hillside with this girl as our older brothers were playing tag football, and discovering a tunnel system beneath the extensive root network of an old tree that we were able to crawl into and literally slide through for a good length, getting dust and sap and spiderwebs on our Christian uniforms, and finally emerging out into the grass clearing with our own “Bridge to Terabithia” hidden somewhere only we would know. Except, alas, that at age 25, driving from park to park in Eagle Rock trying to identify likely clearings and woods on Google Maps like the character in Lion, and finally wandering through Hispanic family gatherings under gazebos with fireworks illuminate a darkening field at dusk, I found only a hillside infested with poison oak that I could barely see into to cast a profound shadow over my memory and its veracity. How many cherished Terabithias are out there, somewhere nobody knows?

 

Progress so far on “radical accountability”, and a plan for charitable giving

If you read my end-of-year post from 2017, you saw some of the tables and pie charts I had created after a year of meticulous accounting, and some adjustments I proposed for 2018. I did find some time right at the turn of the year to set up my 2018 spreadsheets and make it a lot easier for me to continue this “radical accountability” experiment. For example, I decided I needed to find an actual time tracker app for my phone so I wouldn’t just be relying on my calendar and rough memory to allot time to different productivity categories, and have been fairly satisfied with this app. (In actuality I still forget and have to retroactively estimate start-and-end times about 50% of the time, but I feel more confident in my numbers than last year.) So far, here are some promising results across the different things I’m tracking:

  • Hours
    • Professional across my three “hats” (Stanford, Cloud Arch, City Systems) totals 47.7 hours per week.
    • I’m reading 1 hour per day, with a 70:30 split between books (which I’ll review in more detail below) and articles (which ranges from academic papers to email newsletters).
    • I’m getting nearly 7 hours of exercise per week, which is certainly a huge increase of last year (though I don’t have the numbers). This has mainly been attributable to skiing at Tahoe 6 days so far in the season, and doing the requisite gym time to prepare for those ski days.
    • I’m sleeping 6.5 hours per day (though this doesn’t include a 40-minute nap most weekdays on the morning Caltrain ride).
  • Diet
    • I especially wanted to isolate out vegan from dairy/egg meals, and it looks like I’m a solid 60% vegan and 78% vegetarian.
    • Based on my “ethics of eating” deep dive at the end of last year, I wanted to flip the balance of meat to seafood and poultry, and that looks to have been successful (about 7.8% seafood and 7.8% poultry).
    • A lot of the meat eating has been cleaning out the fridge and the obligatory meat-eating that comes with relationships with friends and family. I think I can probably get it down to below 15% at the close of the year.
  • Expenses
    • I’ve increased my grocery spending by nearly 3x compared to last year,
    • I’m spending about $600/week on all expenses, compared to $690 from last year.

I was particularly interested in increasing my charitable giving this year, and it occurs to me that there is a fairly simple way to hold myself accountable to that: if I set my $690/week from last year as a baseline, then any money left over at the end of each month this year, relative to the baseline, can be by default set aside for charity. I need to figure out a systematic way to make this happen, and will report back with progress in the next update.

Away from the hustle

Having purchased a Tahoe Epic Pass for this season, I’ve made a pretty conscious effort to head up as many times as I can, including this past weekend with my brother. Unfortunately the snow has been quite disappointing compared to last year, but nonetheless I’ve improved greatly over three weekends on my short skis and with physical endurance (supported by mild gym time). Last year I was at Squaw; this season I’ve been rotating through Kirkwood, Heavenly, and Northstar. At this point I feel pretty comfortable with moguls and steep slopes, as long as there is soft snow. My effective edge on my skiboards is pretty much the length of my feet, so I’ve gotten quite a feel for the edge of reasonable speed and stability. I do think that by next season I’ll be craving more speed, so I’ll be considering investment in a pair of normal skis. I’ve geared up with new goggles, helmet, and water backpack as well. All in all I am investing time in skiing as a combination of exercise, adrenaline rush, appreciation of nature, and quality time away from the hustle, and it’s felt really satisfying thus far. Hit me up if you want to ski together before the end of this season, with hopefully some more snow up its sleeve.

Of course, back in the Bay there have been some moments of respite as well, from hiking in Muir Woods with Sam to Cat-opoly with the homies to morning buns with Bobo.

 

Books, movies, music, and the ideas that have excited me

I’ve been pretty voracious this year so far, with seven books down:

  • On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder
  • Planning and Design for Future Informal Settlements: Shaping the Self-Constructed City by David Gouverneur
  • A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro
    • Having pretty much completed Murakami’s bibliography, I’m moving on to Ishiguro, and really enjoyed this debut novel which takes “unreliable narrator” to a level I haven’t seen before, to haunting effect.
  • Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963 by Susan Sontag
  • The Regional City by Peter Calthorpe
  • The Little Friend by Donna Tartt
    • The Goldfinch and The Secret History are in my top 5 novels of all time, so I had really high expectations going into this one. It’s not as good but enough of an achievement to establish Tartt as one of the best contemporary authors in my opinion.
  • Inadequate Equilibria: Where and How Civilizations Get Stuck by Eliezer Yudkowsky
    • I discovered Yudkowsky through a recent Sam Harris podcast, and then quickly realized that he is a missing piece of my intellectual puzzle as the primary contributor to LessWrong, which is becoming something of a philosophical home for me. This newest book on systems thinking was as refreshing as the best of Jane Jacobs.

I’m now sprinting through my reading list, ever more cognizant of just how much I want to finish. I’m currently reading:

  • The Bottom Billion by Paul Collier, upvoted by a pretty direct recommendation, to hopefully clarify some of my thinking on international development and build off of what I pretty much only know through Jeff Sachs, especially now that it looks like my work on Sustainable Development Goals is heating up again.
  • Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, a fanfic by Yudkowsky that is basically a disguise for teaching rationalist fundamentals. I’m still only in Diagon Alley and it’s been a visceral pleasure already.
  • The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See is coming up soon, recommended by my mom because it apparently hits surprisingly close to home with plot and settings in rural China and Arcadia (mere blocks away from home?).

These reads have been supplemented by some really great content in longform (especially “Promethea Unbound” recommended by Planet Money) and podcasts (I finally listened to S-Town and quite enjoyed it).

In film, I basically spent the first two weeks getting through a bunch of Oscar nominations, with Call Me By Your Name and Molly’s Game being standouts. As for music, I’ve basically had the following on repeat:

  • CMBYN soundtrack: a mix of Ruichi Sakamoto piano compositions (somebody whose discography I intend to explore), 80s foreign pop ballads, and good old Sufjan Stevens. It’s the most listenable and impactful film soundtrack I’ve ever taken the time to experience.
  • Ruins by First Aid Kit: It was a bit disappointing at first, and still feels somewhat incomplete, but has definitely grown on me with weeks of listening. I really regret not seeing them live in Oakland in January; I guess “it’s a shame”.
  • Blood by Rhye: An early contender for my top 10 list, this one completely satisfied my long wait for a sequel to Woman. Can’t wait for a chance to see this album performed live.

In anticipation of seeing Mt. Eerie this week in SF, I finally put some time into last year’s A Crow Looked at Me, which I had avoided because of its daunting topic: the death of Phil Elverum’s wife, Geneviève Castrée. It is definitely not easy listening, and has put me in a somewhat despondent mood the last week, and leaves me a bit anxious for how emotionally moving this live performance will likely be. Lines like this are indicative of how powerfully and tragically captured the memories and experiences of this album are:

Crusted with tears, catatonic and raw
I go downstairs and outside and you still get mail
A week after you died a package with your name on it came
And inside was a gift for our daughter you had ordered in secret
And collapsed there on the front steps I wailed
A backpack for when she goes to school a couple years from now
You were thinking ahead to a future you must have known 
Deep down would not include you
Though you clawed at the cliff you were sliding down
Being swallowed into a silence that’s bottomless and real (“Real Death”)

and:

I now wield the power to transform a grocery store aisle into a canyon of pity and confusion
And mutual aching to leave (“My Chasm”)

This past week Boanne and I celebrated Valentine’s Day with our first trip to see the SF Symphony perform Beethoven’s Eroica (inspired by a Murakami book on music from last year). It was a real delight, except for the easy distraction of kids on Snapchat, which makes me wonder how much longer the human endeavors that require communal, device-free patience can last.

Looking ahead, and other news

I’m getting ready for trips to Scandinavia (maybe) in March, New Orleans in April (National Planning Conference), and NYC in May (Smart Cities), so let me know if you’ll be in the area or if you have recommendations.

My projects have been progressing really well, with some really exciting projects in the pipeline, including something we’re calling the Guangdong Province Summer Program this summer at Stanford, and (hopefully) 3 or 4 separate funded projects for City Systems this year (including some formal work on garage conversions in East Palo Alto). I am not sure how I will find the bandwidth to do my professional work justice in terms of writing, but if it is going to happen, it will happen on other blogs, and I’ll make sure to link to them here.

In other news, I have also spent quite a bit of time in the beginning of 2018 exploring the possibility of homeownership through San Francisco’s Below Market Rate program. Basically, new multifamily developments in SF have “inclusionary housing” requirements to provide up to 20% of their units at rates affordable to low income renters or buyers, which is defined as some percentage of area median income (which is around $80k in SF). Having taken the requisite workshops and counseling sessions, I’ve learned a lot about eligibility (and how much of a barrier the process still is for many families) and feel somewhat more confident that I am in fact a target audience for this program, and am now awaiting the results of my first lottery.

Last: the recent shooting in Florida, and continued shitshow that is our government and national conscience, reminded me of something I wrote back in 2014, which still basically captures what I feel about the matter. Hopefully I’ll have more to say in my next post. Until then, take care.

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In this post I’d like to finally get to the meat of this project: a systematic construction of rational and honest views on current topics of ethical importance. I’ve felt it necessary to build a strong foundation about my ethical system before diving into specific ethical issues, which I have preliminarily done here, but it feels appropriate to move into phase 2, given the pace at which real life is throwing us ethical curveballs. I suspect I will get through at least preliminary comments on the following topics by the end of tonight: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, Islamophobia, border vetting, and culture.

First, as an overview of the ethical principles I will take as granted from here on out:

  • Reasoning is the foundation of ethics, given that ethics deals with values and behaviors at the societal scale, and to have alignment of individual values and behaviors across a society, you have to be able to give “reasons” to others for why you believe what you believe, and why you do what you do. That is the essence of reasoning.
  • I believe there is fundamentally one line of reasoning (an “escalator”, in Peter Singer’s conception) about values that leads us inevitably to the ethic of universal well-being. I believe this strongly enough, at this point, that in principle I shouldn’t have to explain this (but I can dwell on this more in future posts, if desired); the degree to which you accept the expansive circle of well-being is, in my view, the degree to which you are truly reasoning. I don’t mean that to be condescending; in truth, the vast majority of our life circumstances do not require us to truly reason (imagine the obnoxious child in your life that keeps asking “why” over and over again; that is the only kind of person who is “truly” reasoning at peak performance, while the rest of us have fallen into states of ignorance, dishonesty, rustiness, or a combination of all of the above). And, in fact, many of our “cultures” and “customs” actively obviate us of the responsibility of reasoning, by design. So back to the point of this point: there is an objective “right” direction to ethical reasoning, in my view, and it’s the equal consideration of the well-being of all beings of equal consciousness (and less conscious animals, accordingly).
  • The best thought experiment I have heard of to explain the “rightness” of this ethical system is the following: for any ethical view you are debating, simply imagine that once you have conceived of the version of society you believe is “right”, then you are assigned at random to live in that society. This automatically aligns your thinking with the common sense criteria that your “ethic” cannot be individualistic, and must work for all people in a society (which, as I have already pointed out, is part of the literal definition of an ethic). Imagine creating a “perfect” world, with the caveat that once you have created that perfect world, you are born into it at random. If you truly hold yourself to that thought experiment, I can’t imagine much variation in what we would conceive that “perfect” world to be like. It would be a world in which everybody has equal opportunity, and likely equal outcome to some degree as well. If you have an interesting argument against this, I would be very interested to discuss it.
  • The challenge, of course, is whether we are able to accurately measure the increase or decrease of universal well-being comparatively between any two ethical scenarios (say, yes or no on abortion, or yes or no on gun control). This is where “rationality” and “empiricism” enter the fray as the best tools we have to make those ethical judgments. I am of the opinion that we must always employ the best reasoning we are capable of to make our ethical decisions, and that dogma of all forms (across the entire political spectrum) is at odds with rational thinking.
  • For the current topics I will consider, or any kind of debate I enter with colleagues, I would like to employ the following strategy. First, we have to agree on our fundamental areas of agreement and disagreement. That means distilling our views to their fundamental values and assumptions. If we find that our values are at odds (i.e. at different points along that arrow of reasoning from localized, gene-focused well-being to universal well-being), then that is the most fundamental area of disagreement, and we’d have no good reason to argue further if we cannot reach agreement there. If, on the other hand, our values are aligned (i.e. both believing in the equal value of all beings), then our disagreement can only be in the assumptions we make to calculate well-being. That disagreement would ultimately stem from different facts (which of course must be vetted for accuracy, a question of science), differences in methods of calculation, or different heuristics around uncertainty if we do not have the facts.
  • At a high level, any disagreements I expect to have with people around religion and political ideology are very likely at that core level of value difference (and I invite you to consider this very, very seriously before arguing out of principle). Once we’ve gotten past those spectra of polarization, which I think are the root disease of our public discourse, then we can get into the truly interesting, wonky, and vital questions of calibrating and testing our methods of reasoning. My final point I’ll make here is that I think of debate not as a zero-sum game of someone winning and someone losing. If you think a debate is zero-sum game, you probably are arguing about that core value system of selfishness and selflessness. But if we are having the kind of debate that I would like to have, we are in a non-zero-sum game. We are debating in order to co-discover truths that will lead to greater universal well-being. I’d like to think this is a really inviting and liberating motivation for us all to pursue intellectual honesty.

Alright, so now that those premises have been covered, let’s dive into the weeds…

Freedom of Speech

I agree with Sam Harris on the idea that freedom of speech, our first amendment in the US, is the most important right we have as human beings. I may even go so far as to say that it is the only fundamental liberty we should guarantee in societies, besides the other rights to life and pursuit of happiness. This is because, as I will paraphrase of Harris’s view, communication by writing or speech is the only means we have to reason with one another besides violence. When you do not have the right to argue your viewpoints, then you may be compelled to assert those views through physical force. So I am unequivocally on the side of free speech as it applies to current events (the case of yelling “Fire” in a theater, or hate speech where the negative impact on well-being is immediately causal, are specific cases which are perfectly OK to penalize without compromising on freedom of speech in the society at large). That means that I am for cartoons that depict the Prophet Mohammed in less-than-favorable ways. I am for somebody like Milo Yiannopoulos speaking at Berkeley or Stanford, and against the idea of “safe spaces” on campuses, and am appalled by so-called “liberals” who illiberally restrict the fundamental right to free speech. If you have a problem with the ideas being presented, then your weapon should be the same right to free speech, not a physical weapon. If we want to resist bad ideas like white supremacy or Islamic fundamentalism, then our society should trust that the social cost of reputation will be a powerful enough disincentive. If not, then I think we have to improve our institutions of knowledge and reasoning, without resorting to violence.

Freedom of Religion

Now things get trickier. As I said, I’m all for freedom of communicating ideas, regardless of how “right” or “wrong” those ideas are. But given my ethical system, I do have deliberate criticisms of religions, which to me are institutionalized ethical systems based on dogmatic (disprovable) ideas most often manifested in “sacred” texts like the Bible or Quran. I can get much deeper into arguments on religion, and would like to do this systematically with reasonable religious people as part of this writing project, but for now I’ll just say that my views on “freedom” of religion are very complicated. I’m not sure if it’s as clear-cut as freedom of speech, because of two main problems. First, fundamentalist religions can be directly against freedom of speech. If you cannot speak against Islam in a fundamentalist state in the Middle East, for fear of literally being stoned to death, then that is incompatible with freedom of speech, and I cannot advocate for the rights of that religion to exist. So any version of Islam that follows the strict principle of violence against Muslims who have apotheosized, or more generally preaches systematic violence as part of its divine ethical system, cannot be practiced as a “right”, in my opinion. In this case, a “sterilized” version of Islam, as most of us have encountered through Muslim friends in the western world, and pretty much every modern version of Christianity, Judaism, and Catholicism, do not violate this problem. But that brings me to my second problem with freedom of religion. Our culture has embedded religion into childhood education, through family or through school (as has been the core value of the religious Right, and as will certainly be championed by Betsy DeVos). Given the natural malleability of ethical values in children, and the powerful grip of religion as a culture, I think we can hardly say that children in religious upbringings are “free” to hold beliefs and values that are contrary to that religion. So while I don’t think I can rationally be opposed to the freedom of people to believe disprovable things in a structured social institution, I do think the exception can be made to prevent inculcation of dogmatic ideas into children through our educational institutions, and to break up (like we break up monopolies) religions that promote ideas that are at direct odds with the well-being of others, and of course, separation of church and state.

Islamophobia

To connect this more broadly to the timely question of a Muslim ban, I will share a few remarks. First, I think Islamophobia is a really sloppy liberal label to throw onto a complex and serious set of ideas in our global society that deserve rational discourse. I say this to try to provide as much of a buffer against that immediate reaction to my next few remarks. While I do not support a “Muslim ban”, I would support a “terrorist ban”, as I hope everybody else would. The issue, of course, is the degree of certainty we can reliably have about that profiling, which fundamentally is a question of how much we can ascertain about somebody’s beliefs and values at the border. This, of course, is the essential goal of “vetting”, which absolutely must happen at a border if we have laws which resist certain ethics like murder. No matter how “tolerant” you are as a liberal, you cannot be “tolerant” of somebody who vows to kill homosexuals, so you have to seriously consider the degree to which you may be dogmatizing your concept of tolerance to the point of it actually contradicting true liberal values. So, as a citizen of a liberal society, I do believe there are ideas which we cannot accept as part of our vetting process for immigrants and refugees. But unless somebody flat out tells a CBP official at the border that they “vow to kill homosexuals”, actual terrorists are of course likely to lie about their views. Therefore we have to be strategic in our design of vetting procedures so as to be as confident as we can about our identification of people who harbor ideas that are actually illiberal. Here, I agree with Sam Harris that there are many types of questions that are truly reliable points of information to have, at least compared to not having them. I do think that a question about religious affiliation is perfectly reasonable at the border, because we can see how powerful religious convictions can be (enough to be the only type of belief system that reliably leads some people of specific affiliations to kill themselves in suicide bombings; and if you don’t agree with this, we have a lot to debate about reasoning in a follow-up conversation). But of course the label “Muslim” is way too broad! In fact, Muslims who don’t believe in honor killings and jihad are literally the most important people to give refuge to in America, because they are the ones who should ultimately lead the reformation of their own religion, the invalidation of politicized illiberal interpretations of their sacred texts, just as the Anglican faiths have been reformed over many centuries of monumental human suffering. So in summary, I obviously think that the specific ways in which the Trump administration has gone about dealing with border vetting have been outrageously poor and seeped in all other kinds of dogmatic prejudices or plain stupidity. But I am afraid that the Left is veering away from the “right” answer if it cannot reason through the fundamental issues of illiberalism at hand. In fact, if the Left continues to resist reason on this topic, we are unfortunately left with the Right being the only political ideology that has a potential to be reasonable on this issue — and that’s a scary thought.

On Culture and Identity

I know some of the views above, if read at lighter-than-face value, may lead to accusations of me being a bigot or Islamophobe, which I am fully prepared to challenge (perhaps leading me to discover true bigotry in the views expressed so far). But to place myself on firmer (or shakier) footing, I’ll end this section with some generalized views. The Left is notorious for respecting “culture” and “identity politics”, and while I consider myself progressive in many ways, I cannot accept this typical “social justice warrior” mentality. First, I would urge for a rethinking of what we mean by identity, as it relates to rights. I think there is a major difference between identity that is natural and identity that is constructed. Identity that is natural is not your choice, like your race, level of ability/disability, gender (biologically at birth), sexual orientation (as we understand it), etc. Given my ethical system that values every human equally, the only way we can maintain that is by making sure that differences caused by natural identities do not lead systematically to differences in well-being. Hence racism and homophobia being fundamentally illiberal problems in our society. But I would put constructed identities, like religion and, as it appears, some “gender identities” (which, I’ll admit, I am very uninformed about, and would graciously accept education from somebody who is an expert on these recently discovered “other genders” or “gender fluidities” that appear, by my powers of reason, to be more constructed than not), on the list of “cultural phenomenon” that should not necessarily be granted the same rights of equal treatment and equal outcome. More broadly, I must say that “culture” is not something I value innately. Culture is simply a series of popular ideas and values; nothing in culture is inherently “right” in my ethical system. Cultures can be systematically compared using ethical reasoning, and one culture can be determined to be more “ethical” than another. Of course, there are many micro cases in which it is difficult to make that comparison, but other comparisons should be fairly black and white, even for the dogmatic. The best example, in a modern context, I believe is, again, fundamentalist Islam. I am perplexed that feminists can be anywhere close to supporting of women living in Islamist societies which force body veils and female genital mutilation, and condone honor killings, and would seriously want to debate this if somebody is willing to enlighten me with good reasoning (of course, I support the freedom of women in the US to wear hijabs, because they literally have the choice to wear them or not to wear them; that’s what’s critical). So, in summary, I do not believe the Left’s dogmatic tolerance and protection of “culture” and “identity” to have merit in its current form, and hope that honest conversation and reasoning about this can occur without the righteous pre-labeling of bigotry.

I think it would be prudent for me to stop here, if not sooner. I will probably let the reaction to this post dictate the order in which I revisit these arguments with much greater detail and reasoning, as I have proposed to do systematically. And I fully anticipate and hope to have my judgment changed on at least a few issues, as that is the outcome we must allow rational debate to yield if we are ever to empower our societies to flourish through conversation and not violence. Otherwise, the next chance I get to write, I’d like to get into other topics like environmentalism, more on culture, and Trumpism.

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