Best of Winter 2020

Favorite music I listened to

  • Ethan Gruska – En Garde, especially “Enough for Now (feat. Phoebe Bridgers)”
  • Bonny Light Horseman – Bonny Light Horseman, especially “Deep in Love”
  • Bombay Bicycle Club – Everything Else Has Gone Wrong, especially “Good Day”
  • TORRES – Silver Tongue, especially “Dressing America”
  • Okay Kaya – Watch This Liquid Pour Itself, especially “Asexual Wellbeing”
  • Soccer Mommy – color theory, especially “night swimming”
  • Empress Of – “Call Me” (from the The Turning Soundtrack)
  • Porches – Ricky Music, especially “Do U Wanna”
  • Destroyer – Have We Met, especially “The Man in Black’s Blues”
  • Raveena – “Headaches” (from Moonstone EP)
  • Rafiq Bhatia – “The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face (feat. Cécile McLorin Salvant)” (from Standards Vol. 1 EP)
  • Christine and the Queens – La vita nuova EP, especially “Mountains (we met)”
  • Hamerkop – Remote, especially “Lull”
  • Ásgeir – Bury the Moon, especially “Eventide”
  • Grimes – Miss Anthropocene, especially “You’ll miss me when I’m not around”
  • Tennis – Swimmer, especially “Tender as a Tomb”
  • Tame Impala – The Slow Rush, especially “Breathe Deeper”
  • John Moreland – LP5, especially “Harder Dreams”
  • Katie Pruitt – Expectations, especially “Searching For The Truth”
  • Real Estate – The Main Thing, especially “You”
  • Dirty Projectors – “Overlord”
  • Down Time – Hurts Being Alive, especially “Despite”
  • Sharon Van Etten – “Staring at a Mountain” (from the Never Rarely Sometimes Always Soundtrack)

(full monthly playlists: January, February, March)

Favorite films I watched

  • Uncut Gems (2019)
  • 1917 (2019)
  • Little Women (2019)
  • Faces Places (Visages Villages) (2017)
  • Marriage Story (2019)
  • Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)
  • Emma
  • The Invisible Man

(full list of films)

Favorite books I read

  • The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom
  • Outgrowing God by Richard Dawkins
  • Self-Portrait in Black and White by Thomas Chatterton Williams
  • Homewreckers by Aaron Glantz
  • The Madness of Crowds by Douglas Murray
  • Circe by Madeline Miller
  • The Redemption of Time by Baoshu
  • In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado
  • Foundation and Empire and Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov

(full list of books)


April 2018

Spring has gotten off to a great start, with surprisingly nice weather and plenty of fun in the city.

In terms of music, I still am absolutely obsessed with Japanese Breakfast, especially the song “Triple 7”, but there were a lot of great new records and singles out as well. A short mix:

  1. Trace Mountains – Adeline
  2. Kacey Musgraves – Space Cowboy
  3. Wye Oak – You of All People
  4. Wye Oak – Join
  5. The Tallest Man on Earth – Ocean
  6. The Tallest Man on Earth – Somewhere in the Mountains, Somewhere in New York

Trace Mountain’s A Partner to Lean On is a definite top 10 album of the year, with fresh and deeply melodic twists and turns from top to bottom. Kacey Musgraves has a fairly bland album overall, but “Space Cowboy” has the simplest and sweetest of wordplay and sound, and is my #1 country song of the year. Wye Oak’s new album is not as thrilling as Shriek from 2014, but the two songs in the mix above are some of their most beautiful tracks. Lastly, The Tallest Man on Earth is getting me really excited about his concert in November with a slow trickle of excellent singles, which have been on loop for much of the month.

I got to see two concerts this month. Fleet Foxes at the Greek was impeccable, and their playing of “Helplessness Blues” at the end of their main set threw me back to listening to that song in senior year of undergrad, in the way only live music can. Just a few days ago I went to see Phoebe Bridgers at the Bottom of the Hill, and much to our surprise, Mark Kozelek showed up to sing “I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love” and “You Missed My Heart”, which Phoebe covered on her album. She was better than expected and definitely somebody to keep following.

As for film, it’s been a solid month, with Ready Player OneIsle of Dogs, and Blockers all earning 4/5 from me, and A Quiet Place and Avengers 3 earning 4.5/5. But I have to give the highest praise to You Were Never Really Here starring Joaquin Phoenix at his best, with a stellar score from Jonny Greenwood and an impressive adaptation by Lynne Ramsay (especially clear after reading the original novella by Jonathan Ames). It deals with a really grim story but throws you into the experience with so much intensity and grace. It reminds me of Raw from last year, and Green Room from the year before.

The major event this month was a trip to New Orleans for the National Planning Conference, where I spoke on a panel titled “Building Equity into Resiliency Planning”. The conference itself was valuable for a number of reasons, but here I’ll highlight other things we did on the trip:

For the city’s Tricentennial celebration, a bunch of ships were docked along the Mississippi and available for tours, including a Navy carrier. I got to strap in to a Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey, but more fascinating, I got to hop into a Humvee and press on the trigger of the big gun coming out the top. It turns out you basically sit in a small swing, and you have to press down on the trigger with your two thumbs.

In a similar vein, we got to go to the WWII Museum which was the venue for the conference’s opening reception. The exhibits themselves were pretty phenomenal, and a strange comparison to the WWII museum I visited in Tokyo, which told similar stories from a very different point of view. The highlights in artifacts here were a last-resort glove gun that literally had one bullet and a trigger activated by punching the dude you also want to shoot, and a shrapnel-blocking visor that was unpopular because of how impractical it was for anything else (at least until Ye showed us its true potential).

The highlight of the trip was definitely an afternoon and evening biking to the Lower Ninth using the city’s really convenient Blue Bikes. Max and I biked from the conference center through the French Quarter to Crescent Park (I wanted to see David Adjaye’s bridge and pier design), and then did a full circle around the Lower Ninth. It was worse off than I expected, and reminded me a bit of what I saw in Christchurch, NZ after their earthquake, with red-zoned single-family neighborhoods vacant and desolate. A small section had a series of eccentric homes built through Brad Pitt’s Make it Right initiative, which were intriguing and seemingly well-off, but the overriding feeling biking through the neighborhood is that it is haunted by ghosts.

As it got dark, Max and I headed to Mercedes’ Bar, which was featured on TAL, and found ourselves strange guests to the most turned up birthday party for a grandma I have ever witnessed. We were clearly not supposed to be there, but the bartender heated up some leftover food for us and made us feel at home. It’s strange and delightful experiences like having your birthday tips pinned to an old lady’s chest, and being invited to selfie twerk for black Snapchat, all the while taking in the love and heartbreak printed on banners and memorials on the walls of this community haven, that make traveling less about the miles logged and more about the human connections made.

New Orleans has a special place in my heart, from visiting as a kid pre-Katrina to busking in the French Quarter with my college a cappella group on spring tour (and losing my iPod at Stilettos which is a story that will never be committed to text), to now, seeing the bigger picture and the smaller details.

Last note for the month — I got to join Stanford to the Sea, a hike organized by the Bill Lane Center, and was the afternoon speaker before the group had dinner at the TomKat ranch. It was a gorgeous facility, and dinner featured some of the best garlic bread I’ve ever tasted, but more importantly, I learned about Left Coast Beef and got to talk to one of the managers a bit about their environmental goals of carbon sequestration and ecosystem resilience (and animal welfare). It’s the kind of operation that seems to satisfy my needs from an ethical eating perspective, and so I indulged in the meat courses… only to find that the vegetables and garlic bread and shandy were the best. It looks like Left Coast Beef is sold at the Mission Community Market in SF, so I’ll look to try more of it the next chance I get.


Scandinavia 2018

I’m on a sparsely-populated flight from my Reykjavik, Iceland layover to SFO. I left at 5:30pm Iceland time, and will land nine hours later, around 7:30pm PST. I’ve always enjoyed flying west; it feels like chasing the sun, or perhaps more accurately, staying as still as possible. Prolonging a beautiful sunset on a lovely Scandinavian trip.

I’ve been in Denmark and Sweden for the past ten-ish days, traveling with four students who took Industrialized Construction in the Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering with Professor Jerker Lessing, who I’ve known for six years since we had offices across the hall from each other in Y2E2. My Solar Decathlon team was developing our CORE concept and often chatted with Jerker and his colleague Emile who was also developing a CORE-like concept for his company Veidekke (and who I got to meet again last week). In 2014, after finishing up the competition, I took a 9-month Eurotrip with Dylan, visiting 23 countries and meeting many European friends I had made through Stanford along the way (the first half or so of that 2014 trip is captured in a series of videos you can find here). Sweden was in fact the last few days of that long trip, and I spent a day with Jerker at Lund University. So four years later, when I received an invite from one of the students Tyler to join the trip because they needed more participants to make the planning worth Jerker’s time, and I was craving an excuse to make it back to Europe, a continent that had so shaped my adult life, and it was as good of a timing as I could get during Spring Break, it was a no-brainer for me to join.

The trip consisted roughly of 5 days in Copenhagen, Malmo, and Lund, followed by 2 days by car from Malmo to Stockholm, stopping at sites around Vaxjo and Gillrugen, and a final 2 days in Stockholm. (Forgive me for omitting the umlauts in my post; not like I can pronounce them correctly anyway.) Copenhagen I had been to twice in 2014; Malmo I knew less, though I will always associate it with a certain degree of melancholy, given that by the end of my 2014 trip I was traveling alone, and Malmo was pretty cold and dark, and I was listening a lot to Sun Kil Moon’s Benji which has a sad song that references Malmo. Stockholm I recalled as a beautiful harbor city like San Francisco or Istanbul, where I did the most walking I’ve ever done in my life over two days. I got to connect with a few friends I haven’t met in four years, as well as make a few new friends.

(Note: In terms of recounting this trip, I will be leaving out plenty of detail about the formal visits to industrialized construction factories, offices, and projects (which I’ll probably try to discuss on my City Systems blog as a kick in the butt to get that going), as well as plenty of detail generally. I suppose I will just recount whatever memories and themes are most moving, and that I can capture onto the page in one sitting.)

On Hygge

On a free walking tour of Copenhagen, the tour guide introduced the concept of hygge which I must have missed in 2014: a seemingly ubiquitous term in Denmark that is best represented by the intimacy of a quiet, enclosed courtyard that abuts a crowded, pedestrian street like Stroget. I think we are all searching for hygge in our most important relationships, and in our most cherished spaces. As an urban designer I am particularly interested in how we create spaces and neighborhoods that strike a healthy balance between the public realm and hygge, since hygge alone is not necessarily a good thing if it only draws us further into our own tribes. I’m reminded of a conversation I had with my good friend Sam from Singapore when she came to visit me in San Francisco a couple of months ago; we were recalling our memories of Greek life on Stanford campus and those intolerable row house parties that were much too loud for my tastes, but still somewhat alluring in the abstract as vessels of energy, and I imagined the perfect party in a many-roomed, many-windowed house, in which the first floor is a mosh pit, a chaotic pulse, a preponderance of souls, which we throw ourselves into for the sheer evolutionary game of chance to find somebody who resonates at our frequency, physically or romantically or intellectually or at all wavelengths, and – here’s the key – when you find this person, the two of you go hand in hand up the stairs to an empty room, not to the proverbial bed, but out the window to the balcony or fire escape, where, amidst a canopy of similar balconies with similar couples silhouetted in the quiet, starry night, you sit on the railings and have the slow, hushed conversations you’ve all come here to find, and relish them in a place outside of time. When I imagined this scene in my mind, the throbbing house below and the perched lovers like silent birds in the night, and when I imagine it now, I believe I am imagining hygge.

On Health and Well-Being

It turns out that on the first day of the trip, in Copenhagen, I was scheduled to record an interview for a podcast “Built for Health” by USGBC on how parks and public spaces can be designed for health. So I ended up leaving that walking tour early to do some prep research and to make sure that I could find a quiet space. I ended up sitting with my laptop on a toilet on the fourth floor of the hostel which was completely empty because it was undergoing interior renovation, meaning the rooms were full of construction materials and equipment but were perfect for audio-only recording, when I found out that the podcast had to be rescheduled to the last day of my trip, in Stockholm, because a snowstorm in DC was preventing the recorders from reaching the studio. Ultimately, having the whole trip to reflect on when I ended up recording the podcast yesterday was helpful, as I think of health as something that is planned for at the urban systems scale, and despite how cold these Scandinavian places were, they were full of lively and active streets with bikers and runners. Perhaps the one missing ingredient to what I consider a health society is diversity of people and social interaction, which is pretty much the only expertise half-point I had going for me when I was invited to join the podcast, through my experience designing Common Ground in San Francisco’s Market Street Prototyping Festivals. Despite being heavily socialist countries, Denmark and Sweden revealed some of their darker sides to me throughout the trip as I talked to old friends who warned me about the “illusion” of Scandinavian progress, the deterioration of social values as capitalism and nationalism have crept in. Immigration is certainly the hot issue in all of Europe, as I was able to confirm, but I also learned that it may just be the convenient scapegoat to avoid addressing more fundamental moral sicknesses we all suffer from in the battle between selflessness and selfishness, liberalism and illiberalism, the tragedy of the commons and the expanding circle. (I’m not sure how the podcast will turn out, but I’ll definitely link to it when it’s released.)

On Food and Fika

  • It turns out that Joe & The Juice, which I had assumed to just be yet another bougie creation from downtown San Francisco, is from Denmark and had locations pretty much everywhere we went.
  • It also turns out that Tex-Mex is the most popular American cuisine in Scandinavia. You’ll find plenty of Texas Longhorn Steakhouses and oddities like “Texas Smorrebrod”.
  • Best meal: vegan frikadeller at Kao’s in Malmo, in which the balls are not pork but breadballs with grilled onions and mushrooms, topped with lingenberries.
  • Most expensive meal: Glazed cod on a slice of bread with Brussels sprouts and pickled carrots at Barr (by an ex-Noma chef) in Copenhagen, $100 for the dish to be shared by 2 people. Incredible, but was roughly the same delectable bite as I had out of the more affordable crab roll at Fish in Sausalito.
  • Fika is the “hygge” of Sweden, and is basically a culturally-mandated break around 9am and 2pm every day to sit with work colleagues or friends and have coffee, sandwiches, and relaxing conversation. In Stockholm I met a guy who wanted to start a T-shirt company selling “Wanna Fika?” shirts; I suggested that he use “DTF: Down to Fika?” instead. I hope I haven’t caused too much harm to Sweden.
  • Mikkeller Bar (which has a location in SF) was posh but much too cramped; much better was Clown, or the “shit bar down the street” as Tina calls it, where beer was half the price, and where I could get a special Easter-edition Tuborg bottle with cute yellow chicks on the label.
  • I was impressed by fast food restaurants like Max in Sweden that heavily marketed vegetarian meals; even McDonald’s had a vegan burger, which suggests that the onus is on societies, not corporations, when it comes to the consumer health revolution.
  • I was confused by how coffee shops and fast food restaurants all had microwaves; it turns out that the EU has a law that requires restaurants to provide means for parents to heat up baby food.
  • At “Mom’s Kitchen” in Stockholm I talked to the owner and found out he grew up in my hometown Arcadia, CA and moved to Sweden after serving in the Iraq War. Just another reminder of how hyggily small our world is.

On BIG and Small Architecture

The architectural highlights of the trip were part of a Sunday roundtrip excursion from Malmo up the Swedish coast to Helsingborg, to Helsingor in Denmark across the straight by ferry to see the Maritime Museum by BIG, to the Louisiana Museum Art (my second time) a little bit south, and then down to Copenhagen and across back to Malmo. I went with Tyler and my good friend from Slovenia, Sinan, who came all the way up to visit me for a few days, given that we hadn’t seen each other since 2014 when we dreamed up Cloud Arch Studio, and given that both of our birthdays were on March 26.

I have a lot of thoughts about BIG, which was a critical part of my architectural education at Stanford in terms of how I learned to communicate design. Having now been to their offices in NYC and Copenhagen, and seen quite a few of their projects, I am simulatenously awestruck by the one-of-a-kind experiences that the firm has created that can engage everyday people in the wonders of space (especially the Maritime Museum and the 8 House), and disappointed by the inevitable lackluster quality of finishes and questionable design details when every choice is subservient to the “diagram”. I think we are in the age of Diagrammatic Architecture (usurping the Deconstructivism of Gehry, Hadid, and Morphosis), or perhaps Silicon Valley Architecture, in which the key to architecture is the elevator pitch that can be encapsulated in a simple series of geometric or linguistic moves, like “the donut”, or “the courtscraper”, or “the ski slope power plant”. Unfortunately, as simple as “twisting the building so that it preserves views for the neighboring building” or “pulling the corner of the building to maximize views to the water” sound, I suspect that neither the engineer nor the client can sustainably resolve the implications of those overtly simple architectural moves at the end of the day in their calculations or their checkbooks. Fortunately BIG and other firms are master communicators and thus operating on something akin to venture capital; on the construction site of one of their upcoming projects in Sweden, we learned that tenants who had purchased their million-dollar-plus condos were mostly foreign investors or older Swedes who sold off their inner-city historic houses to be able to afford the move-in; one condo was bought for a teenage son as a college gift on the condition that he is accepted into KTH. To be clear, I think there is a place for Diagrammatic Architecture in our cities, and I have personally learned a lot from firms like BIG. But walking down the entry bridge to the Maritime Museum, the first thing I noticed was a bunch of duct tape covering a prominent edge on the walkway; later on in the museum, I found three instances of staircases that, suffice to say, could have only been conceived in Grasshopper (and do pretty poorly at their fundamental function, to safely convey people up and down). At the Stockholm project, the 169 units were all entirely unique, a sharp contrast to the affordable, standardized designs built in factories we had spent most of our trip viewing, which means hundreds more surprises in the operations & maintenance phase. I think we’re riding a bubble that will burst as soon as enough of these simple-yet-complex buildings begin to wear and tear or fail to adapt more readily than their humbler counterparts, and it will be unfortunate for the whole field that we did not critique these buildings more carefully. I’ll go out on a limb to predict that this phase of architecture won’t last longer than five more years, and I hope to be part of the transition to something like Honest Architecture.

After the Maritime Museum was a return to my favorite museum in the world, the Louisiana Museum of Art. It’s a modest white house that looks like it could be on a plantation in Louisiana (though as I learned, the namesake of the museum is actually three wives of the art collector, all strangely named Louise), that received a series of modernist extensions as wings meandering across the beautiful coastal site. In 2014, I got to see Olafur Eliasson and Philip Gustont; this time I got to see Picasso ceramics and haunting sketches by George Condo, along with one of Yayoi Kusama’s infinity rooms. But most importantly, I felt like I was reconnecting with an old friend, like the many I got to see in Copenhagen and Malmo, which speaks to how much character this museum has, even to the degree that it has different moods depending on which wing you’re exploring. For example, the north wing, which looks over a lake and trees, is warm to the touch of cedar wood with porous thresholds to allow you to move back and forth between nature and building; on the other hand, the southern white wing is cold, subdued, secretive, and introverted, with precariously narrow paths that allow you to traverse all the way around the wing on its cliff edge, only to find that there’s no way to get back into the building. All the while, beautiful outdoor and indoor sculpture and art immerse you like the stories you’d hear from a friend you haven’t seen in years. I felt rejuvenated revisiting this museum, especially with the human scale of architecture that we can still achieve if we build our buildings as lifelong dialogues instead of 30-second sales pitches.


Bonus highlight: a magical water tower in Vaxjo that I found through Atlas Obscura which a concave underbelly that echoes all your sounds back to you if you stand right in the center. Watch this video to hear what I mean.

On Turning 26

I feel lucky to have had such a conveniently-timed journey to wrap around what otherwise is an ordinary day, to help enrich the memory and imbue the transition into the latter half of my twenties with some emotional significance. With my last trip to Europe being 4 years ago, which itself was a momentous transition, it seems like the chapters of my life have come in series of 4 years, from 4 years of high school to 4 years of undergraduate education to the last 4 years of finding my bearings in an eclectic career of teaching and practice. So it was magical to be able to step out of the bubble of my busy life and disappear into what essentially felt like a parallel dimension hygge — a Time-Turner, a Mirror of Erised, a meeting with Dumbledore at King’s Cross (apologies for the random Harry Potter references) — and let a real adventure serve as the backdrop for a reality check within. I have experienced satisfying achievements and cherished love in my twenties, and I have experienced profound failures and suffered through physical and emotional struggles. I accept that the best and worst are yet to come, in the most unpredictable of ways. I am happy with the person I have become, a strange concoction of intellectual honesty, emotional and moral anxiety, and undercover tomfoolery. I am simultaneously guilt-ridden by and proud of the effect I have on other people, and will continue to be confused by this dichotomy. I still haven’t been able to escape the embarrassment of my young age, or the feelings of meaninglessness in a corrupt world, or the “left hand of darkness and right hand of light… like lovers in kemmer” (to quote a book I have just finished on this flight), but all in all, I have stepped across this arbitrary threshold without a hitch, saved by a conspiracy of love, and carry more than enough of what I need to make it to the next pit stop.

To all of us travelers through this beautiful and mad world: here’s to stopping once in a while, at least once a year, to check the GPS in your heart, and then getting back onto the winding trail.




Two quick raves: Enlightenment Now and Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405

1. Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker. The last few paragraphs give you a sense of the scope of this book and deserve to be quoted in full:

The case for Enlightenment Now is not just a matter of debunking fallacies or disseminating data. It may be cast as a stirring narrative, and I hope that people with more artistic flair and rhetorical power than I can tell it better and spread it farther. The story of human progress is truly heroic. It is glorious. It is uplifting. It is even, I daresay, spiritual. It goes something like this.

We are born into a pitiless universe, facing steep odds against life-enabling order and in constant jeopardy of falling apart. We were shaped by a force that is ruthlessly competitive. We are made from crooked timber, vulnerable to illusions, self-centeredness, and at times astounding stupidity.

Yet human nature has also been blessed with resources that open a space for a kind of redemption. We are endowed with the power to combine ideas recursively, to have thoughts about our thoughts. We have an instinct for language, allowing us to share the fruits of our experience and ingenuity. We are deepened with the capacity for sympathy—for pity, imagination, compassion, commiseration.

These endowments have found ways to magnify their own power. The scope of language has been augmented by the written, printed, and electronic word. Our circle of sympathy has been expanded by history, journalism, and the narrative arts. And our puny rational faculties have been multiplied by the norms and institutions of reason: intellectual curiosity, open debate, skepticism of authority and dogma, and the burden of proof to verify ideas by confronting them against reality.

As the spiral of recursive improvement gathers momentum, we eke out victories against the forces that grind us down, not least the darker parts of our own nature. We penetrate the mysteries of the cosmos, including life and mind. We live longer, suffer less, learn more, get smarter, and enjoy more small pleasures and rich experiences. Fewer of us are killed, assaulted, enslaved, oppressed, or exploited by the others. From a few oases, the territories with peace and prosperity are growing, and could someday encompass the globe. Much suffering remains, and tremendous peril. But ideas on how to reduce them have been voiced, and an infinite number of others are yet to be conceived.

We will never have a perfect world, and it would be dangerous to seek one. But there is no limit to the betterments we can attain if we continue to apply knowledge to enhance human flourishing.

This heroic story is not just another myth. Myths are fictions, but this one is true—true to the best of our knowledge, which is the only truth we can have. We believe it because we have reasons to believe it. As we learn more, we can show which parts of the story continue to be true, and which ones false—as any of them might be, and any could become.

And the story belongs not to any tribe but to all of humanity—to any sentient creature with the power of reason and the urge to persist in its being. For it requires only the convictions that life is better than death, health is better than sickness, abundance is better than want, freedom is better than coercion, happiness is better than suffering, and knowledge is better than superstition and ignorance.

I hope to one day be able to write something like this — perhaps the sequel which makes the case for cosmopolitanism, and the work of cities to advance and protect the ideals of the Enlightenment.

2. Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405 by Frank Stiefel, featuring artist Mindy Alper. It’s one of the nominees for Best Documentary Short at the Oscar’s tonight, and though it probably won’t win (Heroin(e) being the most timely film), I think it may be one of my favorite documentaries ever (nowhere near the budget and gravitas of The Act of Killing, The Look of Silence, Citizenfour, and Blackfish, but incredibly moving). It’s on YouTube, and I highly recommend you make the time to experience it.



February 2018

OK, I’m back on track with blogging, even starting this post a few days before the end of February. I hope everybody’s 2018 has been off to a great start, that you’re doing the best to filter out the distractions that prevent you from realizing your full potential. I’ve had a friend send me a handful of depressing links about crime and homelessness in the Bay Area this week, and while I think just as much if not more about the systemic drivers of these social issues within cities, I worry that his exposure to negative news is akin to catching a digital cold, and that we can all gain from practicing both physical and emotional hygiene in this especially contagious season.

I’ve just begun reading Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, which clocks in at about 450 pages, and I’m relishing it. It basically feels like the book I didn’t end up having to write, but was aspiring to I began my journey of intellectual honesty at the start of the Trump presidency. And I think it works pretty much perfectly as prerequisite reading for my next class of students in Sustainable Urban Systems, and the antidote to the contagious pessimism of our media-saturated environment. Pinker recalls a point he made in earlier books like The Better Angels of Our Nature and The Blank Slate that if newspapers could only publish once every 50 years — heck even just once every one year — they’d have a lot better things to say, when they can elevate above our negativity and recency biases to see the incredible progress and success of science and reason to improve overall human health and well-being. Paul Collier’s The Bottom Billion, which I just finished yesterday, provides some reservations on whether 1/7th of our world is experiencing the same progress, but these newspapers can be equally influential in helping us break out of our small circles of empathy and applying rational compassion to the biggest problems in our global society.

I try my best to keep all my projects ranked in scale of impact on well-being, and compare them to projects I see out in the world that may be more deserving of my time. Affordable housing and transit-oriented development in the Bay Area are problems that substantively affect well-being on the order of millions of people, but perhaps not as directly as the impact you would have specifically targeting the thousands who are homeless and struggling with opioid addiction in the Bay. Which should I be spending this year focused on? Or should I be focusing more on climate change and flood risk and mental health and education, in service of generations yet to come in the Bay Area? Or should I be focusing my time on this current window of opportunity we seem to have with gun control legislation, led by brave students out of Parkland, Florida? Or should we be even more honest about the problem of gun violence and look past mass shootings to the many more gun suicides and gun homicides we could be preventing through a more comprehensive set of policies and political shifts? Or should we break out of our American bubble and stop to think about the over 500 deaths in Syria this past week, or the residents of Cape Town who down to 50 liters of water per capita per day?

To my friend’s credit, it is incredibly challenging to stay measured in the wake of so many problems worth solving, some that hit emotionally close to home, others that are unfathomable. But all I know is that we each need a minimum amount of personal health to be in the best position to tackle these challenges, and that should be our first priority when we wake each morning. Otherwise, to use an uncomfortable metaphor, we’re shooting ourselves in the foot before we start the race.

Two quick last anecdotes on the topic of unfathomable depths.

On Thursday night I went to see Mount Eerie (Phil Elverum) perform at the Swedish American Hall. As I noted in my last post, his latest album A Crow Looked at Me is an eulogy to his wife who died of pancreatic cancer in 2016. Listening to this album over the last few weeks, and watching Phil perform these songs (and new ones), represents one peak (or valley) of this unsettling landscape of empathy and compassion. I suggest you listen to a song like “Real Death“, or just listen to the whole album (I’ll share it with you) to really know what I mean, and maybe to get a glimpse at what he means, or is trying to mean. See the thing is, I have absolutely know idea how to feel about or relate to this music. He’s noted in interviews that the point wasn’t to make music or art, but to put down a year’s worth of haunting memories in record and performance as a way of one day being able to distance himself from them, and move on with his (and his daughter’s) life. But if that is the goal, then what are we to do with these tragic songs? How was I supposed to react to them, sitting in the audience with a hundred San Franciscans on Thursday night, as Phil went from song to song, often throwing his neck back to stare straight up into the ceiling, maybe to Geneviève, as he started a song? (At some point the veil was broken when he was going the second time through a chorus for a surprisingly funny new song about hanging out with Weyes Blood and Father John Misty at a music festival in a desert in Phoenix, but the breaking revealed more about us than him; as he sang “People get cancer and die, people get hit by buses and die,” somebody in the audience started clapping along, and he stopped and said, “That’s so fucked up.”) I think maybe it’s as simple as Phil wanting a simple truth to be known: death is real. There is meaningless suffering around the corner for all of us, embedded into the relationships and dreams we care about the most, traceable back to the Second Fundamental Law of Thermodynamics, as Pinker so eloquently explains in his new book. But in another song Phil revealed a deeper idea: that in anticipation of his own death, which he imagined to be a plane crash in the Grand Canyon, he just hoped that he would be remembered after he was gone. I think this is the beauty of the human condition (ignoring for a moment the merits of working to reduce human suffering): that as grim as our lives can be, our suffering is at least temporary, while good ideas and loving memories can last as long as society itself, if cherished. So through song, Phil has honored a memory that can transcend Geneviève’s suffering, and his own. And this is what I took from Thursday night, walking back home, having stood at the edge of an unfathomable depth; I still had no way to connect with the feeling of being in that depth, but I was able to see that it was deep in a way I had not measured before.

This was all fine and dandy to close out my thoughts on well-being and suffering for February; then I watched the first episode of Black Mirror Season Four last night. I know I’m way behind and that many of you have probably already watched the Star Trek episode (spoilers ahead, so definitely watch it before reading the rest of this post).

But after a brief look for thinkpieces online, I feel like the elephant in the room hasn’t been addressed, the idea that scares me the most out of this episode. That is: the idea of the eternal suffering of conscious AI. This may be the most important idea that Black Mirror has explored so far, because I think it’s one of the most important ethical problems we are at the precipice of in human civilization, one that I’ve only heard Sam Harris seriously focus on. All you have to do is watch this episode and imagine what it was like for the cloned characters to be trapped in the U.S.S. Callister for what is implied to be years, without a way of escaping their prison, even through suicide. (Or even worse, for poor Gillian from marketing who is out there on some planet trapped in a monster’s body.) The implication is that when the main characters exit the wormhole, the offline mod is deleted, but it looks like Robert Daly’s real-life consciousness is left to sit in some residual code floating through space at least until his real-life body dies of dehydration. But what if it’s more complicated than that, and somehow the digital version stays trapped for what feels like a conscious eternity? What if Gillian from marketing, Tommy, Walton, and unnamed others weren’t deleted with the wormhole incident, but also stuck in some alternate digital dimension, continuing to suffer forever? And what’s not to say that shortly after the “happy ending” of the show, the main characters who are conscious AI in the online server end up getting stuck in new eternal prisons by real-life abusive players like the Aaron Paul cameo?

Compared to everything I’ve discussed in this post, I actually feel like it’s more important for us to prevent even a single conscious AI from suffering like this, because then we’d have eternal damnation on our hands. (Perhaps this is one issue that religious people have the most experience with and should be the most concerned about.) There’s of course a long road before we better understand the preconditions of consciousness, and before our experiments with general machine intelligent could yield such preconditions, but if we are not careful, our computers will become the gates of Hell.

And on that most depressing of notes… back to Netflix. I’m off to run the Dish at Stanford tomorrow morning, and will probably add an update about that.

UPDATE 2/28: The Dish Race was a success! I had practiced it a week before and run it in just under 30 minutes (3.25 miles, just over 5K); for the real thing I ended up running it in 27 minutes, 8:19 split! I made a playlist with Kendrick Lamar and Grimes and War on Drugs which probably helped. By the end my knees were in a lot of pain and were the bottleneck to me running any faster, and I was worried that my knees would be in pain all week, but by the following morning they felt fine. So it seems that my physical endurance and joints have really improved this year, with the skiing and the running. I’m thinking I’ll try a 5K in San Francisco next and see how that goes.


Photo from the Stanford Dish Race FB Page.

Not much else to add for February except that it was a fantastic month for music! A selection for you to sample:

  1. Wye Oak – It Was Not Natural, second single off the new album coming in April, is expansive and sometimes explosive but still has the pristine joy of Wye Oak’s last album and Flock of Dimes. I have two tickets to see them in July, and the second ticket is not yet claimed!
  2. Trace Mountains – Cary’s Dreams, second single off album due at the end of March, is making me really excited about this artist. The long drawls are probably not for everyone, but I love this kind of Garage Band indie sound.
  3. Mount Eerie – Toothbrush/Trash, not a February 2018 release, but as I noted before, I’ve been deep into this album in preparation for the concert. This track is near the end and is like a light at the end of a really dark tunnel.
  4. S. Carey – Hideout, off Bon Iver’s drummer’s new album Hundred Acres, aptly described by Pitchfork as “pleasant”. This whole album is my year’s fix of Asgeir, Novo Amor style goodies for a nature walk.
  5. Belle & Sebastian – The Girl Doesn’t Get It, off How to Solve Our Human Problems Part 1, though I’m listening to the full trilogy which just came out as one package. With quick glimpses throughout the past few months I wasn’t too enthused, but now diving fully into it there are some really lovely gems in here. I’m not sure if B&S is still my #1 band, which it was for all of college, but they really can’t do wrong by me. This song has the fervent motion of “Play for Today” off the last album; other highlights include “Poor Boy” and “There Is An Everlasting Song”. I haven’t extracted the answer to our human problems from this project yet, but the last darling song “Best Friend” probably hints at it: “Oh, here we are just trying not to fall in love / It’s only human not to want to be alone”.
  6. Yo La Tengo – For You Too, a song off their March album There’s A Riot Going On, which sounds really promising! So far it’s got the vibe of Fade, which is exactly what I was hoping for more of.
  7. CHVRCHES – Get Out, first single off of Love is Dead, which just came out on pre-order today, is the kind of banger I adore. Simple, yes, but at this point Lauren Mayberry can say two words over and over again on a sick beat, and as long as it’s that perfectly high anime range, I’m loving it. Oh, and Matt Berninger is on this album, making good on their sharing the stage at Treasure Island a few years ago to sing “I Need My Girl”, which was about as good as it gets for me and Bobo.

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”)


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.


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.


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.