Year in Review

Derek’s Year-End Reflection, Part 2

This year, I’m going to try to organize this Part 2 reflection by a few free-form chapters of what I hope to be interesting lessons and ideas from 2017. Hope you enjoy!

A measured life

I’ve spent quite a significant amount of time on personal accounting this year. I’d be doing financial accounting anyway, as I’m sure most of us do, so it wasn’t too much of a stretch to add a few more items in my spreadsheet. Why log so much? For me, it’s mainly about goal-setting and accountability. I can have subjective goals each year like spending less, or sleeping more, or reducing my carbon footprint, but I can only hold myself accountable and track my progress if I measure my progress (i.e. you can’t improve what you can’t measure). Seeing the true results also reveals surprises that help calibrate my own biases, and that I hope are informative for readers.

Expenses

First, my financial accounting is quite complicated as I need to separate out personal expenses and income from those from my pass-through entity and new nonprofit. My Stanford work complicates things further as I am regularly making huge expenses for SUS and getting reimbursed a few weeks later, which screws up any weekly tracking I’d want to do. But since I categorize all my expenses into a few high-level categories, I can look at my breakdown over the whole year as such:

$ Rent Eat Out Entertainment Transportation Supplies Groceries Gift Clothes Total
Per Day $62 $15 $11 $7 $5 $2 $5 $1 $108
Per Week $433 $105 $76 $51 $36 $13 $37 $8 $758

A few caveats: Gifts include charity and gifts to friends and family. Expenses for eating out and entertainment are over-weighted in the sense that I’m counting plenty of times I’m paying for others and not proportioning out the expenses over to the Gifts category. Transportation looks particularly good because I don’t own a car, and I get a GoPass from Stanford for free Caltrain rides (so essentially this is Bart and my monthly Muni pass). Supplies is a little bit of a miscellaneous category, including things like electronics, laundry, and Google Drive. Health insurance will show up as a new category next year when I turn 26. And lastly, of course this doesn’t account for the gifts I receive.

2017 expense week

So what does this all mean? I definitely am always hoping to improve the balance between eating out and cooking, though that was difficult throughout the year because of my busy hours down in South Bay, which mean I’m regularly not home until 8 or 9 or 10pm. I mentioned in Part 1 my big change in habit around purchasing music, which shows up in the Entertainment category, and hovering around 10% of my overall expenses, my entertainment spending seems pretty reasonable. I’d like to separate out personal gifts and charity next year, and see both of those categories get to 5%.

Hours

I’ve tried my best to accurately count my sleep hours and work hours to monitor my productivity and division of labor. Sleep was pretty easy because I’ve worn a Fitbit all year, and I can just quickly sync to my phone and look back at the daily log. Work hours are a little bit less rigorous, but I’ve tried to apportion out rough time spent working on Stanford business vs. Cloud Arch Studio business vs. City Systems business, usually in 1/2 hour increments, and subtract out non-productive times eating or commuting. I also have hours from Nueva where I was still teaching in Spring of 2017, as well as time reading and blogging here. It’s also worth noting up front that the numbers below are an absolute average over all days and weeks of the year, so they include the weight of weekends and holidays. That’s just a disclaimer if it looks like I’m barely doing a typical 40-hour workweek.

Hours Sleep Stanford Reading Cloud Nueva City Systems Blog Total
Per Day 6.9 5.2 0.4 0.3 0.3 0.3 0.1 13.5
Per Week 48.2 36.2 3.0 2.4 2.3 2.0 0.5 94.6

2017 work week

First off, I’m personally quite disappointed by the true balance between Stanford work and my personal ventures, which I ultimately would like to see get closer to 50-50 within five years, as I grow the SUS initiative to be more sustainable without my management (or like I like to call it, firefighting). Reading and blogging can also clearly increase, though it became crystal clear by the midpoint of the year just how outlandish my New Year’s resolution was to embark on a personal writing project; it just became impossible to keep up with the weekly and daily onslaught of crazy news and ideas. I would like to more explicitly track both media reading (short form and long form) and book reading, as well as podcasts, to get a better view of the Reading category as intended. With that change in accounting, I’d like to see Reading get to 1 hour per day, and Writing 0.5 per day, in 2018. Lastly, sleep doesn’t look too bad; I’ll probably keep my goal at 7 hours per night.

I’ll see if I can get my overall work productivity from 42.9 to 45 hours per week in 2018 as well, or more. More fundamentally, one of my greatest frustrations with my current work life, and something these numbers don’t really capture, is that I have so few opportunities to just work on a task by myself, for two or more hours, without having to manage something else. When I think about a genie’s wish, I immediately think about having an 8th day of the week, where the world is held in suspension, and I can just devote a few 12 hours to personal projects. Imagine if we could schedule our lives like that, with weekly or at least monthly sabbaticals.

By the way, since I won’t really mention it anywhere else, if you want to know what I’ve been doing professionally this year, it’s pretty much all here. And the best way to follow the work I’m doing is by subscribing to this, and following this blog for some big personal nonprofit updates in 2018.

Meals

This next section will focus on a subset of my larger interests in carbon reduction, so I’ll discuss that first. I’ve been on a general journey to reduce my carbon footprint, which, according to carbotax.org, is about 10 metric tons of carbon equivalent (MTCO2e) per American. Here’s my breakdown after answering the questions on that survey:

Annual MTCO2e Avg American Derek
Home Electricity 1.7 2.3
Waste & Water 0.4 0.1
Food & Beverages 2.4 1.2
Consumer Goods 0.9 0.2
Home Heating 1.8 1.2
Transportation 3.2 0.4
Travel (Air, Hotel, Boat) 0.7 15.5
Land Sequestration -1
Total 10.1 20.9

If you’ve looked at this and other carbon calculators, you’ll know that some of the outputs are influenced by the carbon content of local utilities that you don’t have direct control over, while others are more directly tied to personal actions. There are also plenty of model-based estimates taking place in here which I could spend more time refining with my own calculations, but I just haven’t found the time to undertake yet.

Interpreting the numbers as they are, obviously, the killer for me is the air travel I do for business and for family/leisure (almost 65k miles this year). Assuming that in the broad utilitarian sense, I’m mostly flying to work on global sustainability issues, and that my work will reap many multiples’ worth of benefit, and at the very least I’m donating to try to offset my carbon, then where I personally focus on is reduction in daily and weekly material consumption. My transportation is pretty good on account of mostly using public transit, and so this year I was particularly interested in taking as much meat as I could out of my diet.

Food is particularly interesting because, for me, there’s also a significant mitigation-of-suffering goal in effect (more on ethics later).

So how did I measure my diet? I split each meal into the categories of vegetarian, seafood, chicken, pork, and beef/lamb (in order of carbon content, and in my opinion, ethical standing). If a meal has a mix of two types of meats, I accounted for the more carbon-intensive one. I effectively only logged the meat meals each day, so the remaining, including most breakfasts, were vegetarian (totaling 21 meals per week). Unfortunately I don’t have a good baseline to compare to since I haven’t tracked this before, but I can pretty safely say that prior to trying to be vegetarian, I was raised and lived with the understanding that literally every meal should have meat, so my daily meat intake was at least 2 meals. Here’s how I fared in 2017:

Meals Vegetarian Chicken Beef Pork Seafood Total
Per Day 2.1 0.4 0.2 0.2 0.1 3.0
Per Week 14.8 2.6 1.4 1.2 1.0 21.0

2017 meal week

I didn’t quite make it to full vegetarian, but what I achieved is probably the biggest lifestyle change I’ve ever had. (What it effectively amounted to was a lot of salads and tofu, which I do in fact really love.) However, I couldn’t quite shake the temptation of cravings for Chik-Fil-A and In-N-Out, so for most weeks I was effectively a weekday vegetarian.

So if my daily meat intake dropped from about 2 meals to 0.9, what was the outcome? If I hold onto the same proportion of meat types, this would roughly be equivalent to the following in combination (assuming 1/4lbs as a meat serving):

  • 180 servings of chicken avoided, which, assuming 2 lbs yield of meat from one factory chicken, would be the saving of about 20 chickens.
  • 90 servings of pork avoided, which based on this would be around 15% of a pig’s yield, or the saving of 3 out of 20 pigs.
  • 90 servings of beef avoided, which based on this would be around 5% of a cow’s yield, or the saving of 1 out of 20 cows.
  • 45 servings of fish avoided, which based on this would very roughly be on the order of saving 10 sole-sized fish.

And in carbon, based on this, that’s about 1 MTCO2e offset. That seems about right compared to the average American statistics. (In the next section I’ll dive down the rabbit hole of the full ethical implications of eating animals.)

For next year, I certainly would like to see my vegetarian meal count approach 3 per day, but assuming I’ll still eat some amount of meat, I’d like to see seafood be the greatest proportion. About halfway through the year I made a measly attempt to go vegan; next year I’d like to begin tracking eggs and dairy from the start so I can see my progress towards veganism as well.

I’d love to hear what you track on a daily basis, what your goals are, and whether you have any recommendations for apps that make it easier to track goals!

The ethics of eating animals

I’ve attempted to articulate my ethical journey through a few blog posts this year, but unfortunately I haven’t been able to do my thoughts justice. In advance of hopefully much deeper investigation next year, as my ideas continue to develop, I’ll just use the example of vegetarianism to illustrate exactly how my mind tries to grapple with the ethical calculus, which may be a better representation of my ethics than me trying to extrapolate some higher-level themes.

How do you compare environmental and mitigation-of-animal-suffering goals in your diet, if you care about both? If you have to eat meat, what’s the right balance of the four key types of meat (chicken, pork, beef, fish) to maximize both ethical values? (I can’t remember in exactly which podcast, but Ezra Klein makes his own case for eating beef over chicken, which I intuitively disagreed with and which got me really thinking about this.) There are a lot of variables at play. First I have to estimate the typical weight and yield of a factory animal, which lets me estimate the number of servings the animal yields, as well as its life cycle carbon footprint. To summarize using the same few references I used above:

Full weight/animal, lb Edible weight/animal, lb Servings/animal kgCO2e/kg animal kgCO2e/serving Animals/serving
Chicken 4 2 9 6.9 0.78 0.11 chickens
Pork 250 163 650 12.1 1.4 0.0015 hogs
Beef 1200 660 2640 27 3.1 0.00038 cows
Fish 2 1 4 6.1 0.69 0.25 fish

If you accept the assumptions above (without worrying about sensitivity analysis for now), now we need to figure out an equivalency between kgCO2e/serving and animals/serving. Basically, we need a common denominator, say, our valuation of a human life. Of course, this is where things get super subjective, and it’s probably best to calibrate our heuristics on orders of magnitude (I’ll also note here that I’m not considering dairy/eggs for now).

To figure out the environmental side of the ethical equation, the basic question is: how many kgCO2e does it take to cause one human death (or whatever unit of human suffering we want to consider)? Well, with a very brief amount of Googling, I found two key numbers I’m willing to work with for now. This estimates our global carbon budget at about 1 trillion MTCO2 if we want to keep temperature rise below 2 degrees C. This (specifically Table 20.16 on page 64) attributes about a hundred thousand deaths to climate change (I couldn’t figure out exactly which climate scenario this used, and didn’t bother to examine the details of the methdology, but I’m just taking the order of magnitude here as a reasonable estimate of DALYs-worth-of-deaths exclusively attributable to a 2 degree C temperature increase). If you accept those two vast assumptions, then we’re talking something on the order of tens of billions of kgCO2e equating to a human life. If we normalize the kgCO2e/serving of each animal by its contribution to a human death, and then add a bunch of 0’s (1e11) to get a good-looking integer and call that a util, then we get the following utils for the environmental impact of 1 serving of each animal:

kgCO2e/serving Environmental utils/serving
Chicken 0.78 8
Pork 1.4 14
Beef 3.1 31
Fish 0.69 7

Next, to figure out the animal suffering side of the equation, the basic question is: if I had to choose between the death of 1 human or the death of X of each of these animals, what is X? First off, some people would say that no number of any non-human animal life is equivalent to a human life, but let’s just assume for argument’s sake that you accept Peter Singer’s claim that animal suffering is at least measurable in the same currency as human suffering. Then let’s just say for argument’s sake that we think 1 human life is worth 1 million cow lives (i.e. the trolley problem, but the first track has 1 million cows on it). Then using our util, we end up with 1 serving of beef equating to 38 utils. Notice that this is on the same order as the 31 utils of impact from 1 serving of beef due to its carbon emissions. I ended up picking 1 million to reach equivalency between the two sides of the equation, to basically demonstrate that, taking all other assumptions for granted, if I think that cows are worth less than a millionth of a human life, then I should forgo beef mostly because I care about the environment. But if I think that cows are worth more than that (let’s say a thousandth of a human life), then animal suffering becomes by far the greatest weight to my ethical calculus.

Now in terms of the difference between the animals, if we believe the following are reasonable claims:

  • 1 human life is worth 1,000,000 cow lives
  • 1 cow life is worth 3 pig lives
  • 1 pig life is worth 65 chicken lives
  • 1 chicken life is worth 2 fish lives

Then we get this final comparison of subtotal and total utils for a serving of each animal:

kgCO2e/serving Animals/serving Environmental utils/serving Suffering utils/serving Total utils/serving
Chicken 0.78 0.11 8 57 65
Pork 1.4 0.0015 14 51 65
Beef 3.1 0.00038 31 38 68
Fish 0.69 0.25 7 64 71

Again, to demonstrate the balance point, I’ve picked equivalencies between each of the animals to roughly balance out the impact of eating any of the animals (65-70). And, since these final assumptions were fundamentally subjective variables, here’s a spreadsheet you can download to play with the numbers. But basically, here’s what I take this all to mean:

  • The impact of eating animals is small but ethically meaningful, both because of the direct impacts of animal suffering as well as the indirect impacts of greenhouse gas emissions on climate change and suffering (for humans, and I guess animals too).
  • I personally don’t know how many cows need to be on the first track for me to pull the switch to kill one human stranger instead, but it’s definitely a number with a lot of 0’s behind it. Maybe it’s 10,000, maybe it’s 1,000, maybe it’s a googleplex, I really don’t know without understanding human and animal suffering more. But I’m willing to believe that the ethical weight of climate change and animal suffering are within a few orders of magnitude of each other, and so I care deeply about both.
  • Between the animals, I would agree with cows and pigs being within the same order of magnitude, and birds being lower, with brain size being my only meaningful indicator of suffering. In fact it would take a lot more chickens, hundreds, for me to pull the lever to kill one mammal instead, and hundreds of fish to kill one chicken, which ultimately means that poultry and seafood are orders of magnitude better than eating mammals, by all my ethical accounts.

OK, let’s extrapolate some higher-level themes

The simplest insight I’ve had on ethics this year is that it can be measured, just like I’ve measured so many things in my life. This becomes crystal clear if you think about values as valuations. The hard part, of course, is what you’re valuing and how you’re valuing it, and the harder part is, how do our real-world actions affect outcomes in value terms, and the hardest part is, how do we agree on our metrics of valuation.

The most important tool we have in ethics is reason. Reason is quite literally having good reasons for why you do what you do. And if values rely on rational accounting of some kind of currency, then if we agree on our underlying assumptions, reason enables us to agree on our ethical choices.

The most important spectrum of underlying assumptions is between principle-based, or deontological, and outcome-based, or utilitarian, methods of valuation. Without getting too much into detail, utilitarianism is the true domain of empiricism, or measurements in the real world. In other words, utilitarianism is the true home of reason.

What I value is the suffering of conscious beings. Even though our observable measurements of suffering are imperfect, I can meaningfully compare outcomes based agreed-upon assumptions about suffering (like I demonstrated in the previous section). Most directly this line of reasoning leads to the classic utilitarian goal of maximizing universal well-being in our personal or policy-scale decisions.

There’s an important meta-value that I’ve grown to appreciate in 2017 with another simple thought experiment called the veil of ignorance. Basically, since we were born into this world without a choice of exactly who we were, we should make ethical decisions as if we had no information about who we were. It’s like designing a perfect world under the condition that after we designed that perfect world, we were then placed into it at random. What this Rawlsian thought experiment gets at is the importance of fairness, or equity, alongside maximization of well-being. In other words, the difference between a Darwinian self-interest and a post-evolutionary or progressive selflessness, or Singer’s ‘expanding circle’.

I’ll emphasize what I meant by that last statement. I believe that the most fundamental type of political difference tracks the development of human ethics from selfishness to selflessness, and that conservative ideals (capitalism, libertarianism, western religion, homeownership) are our most natural of human values because they are the product of our Darwinian genes, while the future of humanity lies in the discovery of post-evolutionary truths about the meaning of suffering, and that those who adopt liberal ideals (socialism, equality, globalism, and reason) are quite literally martyrs of the future.

The link between my personal ethics and the ethical city (urban systems being my professional area of focus) is as simple as evidence-based decision-making. I believe if we can come up with fairly simple ways to encode the parallel goals of maximization and equity in well-being, and we use the scientific method to continually find better ways maximize well-being, minimize suffering, and reduce inequalities, we can guide both individuals and societies towards that progressive future.

Here’s a practical way to think about the ethical city. If our city is a room full of people with a floor and a ceiling that represent the worst and best of outcomes, then as designers, engineers, and policymakers, I think we have two basic jobs:

  • Raise the floor.
  • Build as many ladders as we can.

And now, for some lighthearted gaming

If you’re still with me, I’ll let you in on the best game I discovered in 2017. Ready for it?

Set. On Google Play. Seriously. Download it here, and add me as a friend.

I played Set maybe once or twice in high school, but thanks to Paul, I’ve rediscovered it in digital form and it is intellectual paradise. I literally feel like I could write a book about how my mind works on and is worked by this game. Some brief observations on the three hundred times I’ve played this game:

  • I’m not convinced there’s a stable equilibrium of strategy for this game. If I try to develop a systematic process of elimination to find the set, then my brain begins to over-rely on probabilistic rankings and wastes time on rare combinations. Then if I switch over to a broader, more intuitive view of the board, I’m a little bit slower on average per set. Maybe the perfect strategy is out there, but I’ve experienced the game more as a rotating set of gym workouts that has exercised multiple parts of my brain.
  • That being said, the intuitive muscle in my brain has really surprised me at times when playing this game. I’m beginning to suspect that my brain knows, with an immediate subconscious register of colors and shapes, what the pattern combination is likely to be, and then it’s up to my frontal cortex to stagger towards the correct identification of specific cards. It’s an incredible feeling.
  • Also incredible is a kind of meditative experience I have when I’m really in a state of flow in this game, and I can tap into a meta-level of thinking and basically observe myself in thought. This literally is the closest I’ve felt to the meditative experiences that Sam Harris talks about on his podcast.
  • By the way, one huge perk: I can play this game while listening to podcasts.
  • Also by the way, this makes for a very fun 2-player game, and even 3-player game, but technically that is distorting your Google Play statistics…
  • At this point, what I’m essentially trying to do is change the shape of my distribution of games from normal to lognormal. It was a month-long endeavor to get my three-minute bar to meet my four-minute bar, and now they are neck and neck. I wonder if someday my two-minute bar will become the mode…

OK, enough geeking out about Set. This year, thanks to Wayland, I also got really into some party games which I can also geek out about like I did above, but will spare you the embarrassment:

  • Codenames: probably the ultimate party game for both old and new friends. Turns out it even works well for English vs. non-native English speakers (as I discovered in Monterrey, MX).
  • No Thanks: close to Set in its intellectual wonder, but more from an econometrics angle. Playing with the minimum three people is a perfect never-ending oscillation of game theory. Also, I tried playing this in Thailand in a cafe and the staff told us to stop because it looked like we were gambling, and turns out, gambling is illegal in Thailand.
  • One Night Ultimate Werewolf: a marked improvement on Mafia and quite fun if your group is willing to commit at least an hour to it, to play a satisfying number of rounds.
  • Skull: maybe the essential game of bullshit and chance. But as a result, it has a fairly short half-life on account of how mentally stressful it is.

And finally, as a confession, in the midst of an incredibly busy Fall, I did manage to make the time to buy a Nintendo Switch and beat both Breath of the Wild and Odyssey. My, has video gaming improved since the days of Pokemon Yellow and N64 Smash.

Hope you get to try some of these games, and reflect on the measurable and immeasurable in life, this holiday season!

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Year in Review

Derek’s 2017 Reflection, Part 1

Just like last year, I’ll start off my year-end reflection with a post about the experiences in art and culture I enjoyed, followed by a post about the most important projects and ideas I worked on this year.

Music

I have to start off this section with the biggest change in my music experience this year: I finally quit torrenting music and purchased every album and song you see below, and many more. I guess there are three camps these days: the torrenters, the streamers, and the purchasers. If you are still a torrenter and wondering what it was like to switch after over a decade of getting music for free, just think about the relative value of an incredible album that you’ll cherish for years to come, and basically one beer in downtown SF, and I hope you’ll join me in supporting artists in the coming year. As for streamers, besides the same argument of supporting artists as much as we think they’re worth, I purchased about 25 albums this year, so that would be roughly $250. That is a little over twice the cost of Spotify Premium at full price for a year. Is it worth it to me? Well, I personally carry an iPod touch around to listen to music and podcasts because I want to preserve battery on my phone, so it makes a lot of sense to me to be able to use iTunes. I also am still not convinced that some day in the future Spotify may not disappear, leaving Spotify users with none of their favorite music. Besides, I enjoy using Spotify just to test out new music, and when I find I like it, then I go and buy it. Anyway, music economics aside, there’s no argument that 2017 had some incredible new releases, and some new favorite artists for me.

Here are my top ten favorite albums of 2017:

  1. Big Thief – Capacity
  2. The National – Sleep Well Beast
  3. The War on Drugs – A Deeper Understanding
  4. Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.
  5. Rostam – Half-Light
  6. Jens Lekman – Life Will See You Now
  7. SZA – Ctrl
  8. Real Estate – In Mind
  9. Mac DeMarco – This Old Dog
  10. Fleet Foxes – Crack-Up

And my top twenty favorite songs:

  1. Big Thief – “Haley”
  2. The National – “I’ll Still Destroy You”
  3. The War on Drugs – “In Chains”
  4. HAIM – “You Never Knew”
  5. Real Estate – “Saturday”
  6. Rostam – “Gwan”
  7. Jens Lekman – “Dandelion Seed”
  8. The xx – “Replica”
  9. Kendrick Lamar – “LOVE. (FEAT. ZACARI.)”
  10. Dirty Projectors – “Up in Hudson”
  11. Sufjan Stevens (Planetarium) – “Mercury”
  12. Sylvan Esso – “Signal”
  13. Phoebe Bridgers – “Motion Sickness”
  14. Fleet Foxes – “Third of May / Odaigahara”
  15. Father John Misty – “So I’m Growing Old on Magic Mountain”
  16. Perfume Genius – “Slip Away”
  17. Beck – “Fix Me”
  18. Mac DeMarco – “A Wolf Who Wears Sheeps Clothes”
  19. Lorde – “Hard Feelings/Loveless”
  20. The Flaming Lips – “The Castle”

Some brief comments, since I’ve spoken about some of this music in posts throughout the year. One of the natural differences between the song list and the album list is that the albums have to be excellent as a whole, and the kind of albums I enjoy listening to top-to-bottom, or even on repeat. So while some old favorites like HAIM, The xx, Sylvan Esso, and Father John Misty had great singles, their full albums were somewhat disappointing.

Some really exciting new finds this year, besides the #1 of the year, included Jens Lekman (yet another addicting Northern European songwriter!), Phoebe Bridgers, and SZA (who I got into just this month, but is without a doubt this year’s Solange or Rihanna). Some old bands that I hadn’t really listened to much really got my attention, including Mac DeMarco, Perfume Genius, and the Flaming Lips. I got to see quite a few of these bands and others play live this year: highlights include

  • Jens Lekman at the Independent
  • Lambchop at the Great American Music Hall
  • Whitney (my favorite new band of last year) at the Independent
  • Foxygen at the Independent
  • John Mayer at Shoreline
  • Rostam at the Independent
  • Blood Orange at Fox Theater
  • Sylvan Esso at Fox Theater (with opener Flock of Dimes!)

The top three on each list were pretty unequivocal. The War on Drugs and The National delivered fully satisfying follow-ups to exceptional albums (Lost in the Dream and Trouble Will Find Me), though I’ll need a bit more time to be able to decide whether these albums were better than their predecessors. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see either band play at the Greek this year, in the National’s case canceled for air quality reasons because of the North Bay fires. But I did get to see both of them at Treasure Island in 2015.

Big Thief deserves the biggest praise of the year. I heard them first on NPR’s All Songs Considered from their SXSW coverage, and then fell into the album like a trance for the second half of the year. Lead singer Adrianne Lenker has an immaculate voice that reminds me of blood in both ominous and tender ways, and the songs in this album are constructed like little universes, evoking Joanna Newsom and then the Weepies and then sounding utterly one-of-a-kind. Please give them a listen if you haven’t already.

I also want to highlight two albums which came out last year but that stayed with me through this year: If You See Me, Say Yes by Flock of Dimes, the solo project by Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner, and American Football’s eponymous record.

Finally, of the three musicals I watched this year, Fun Home at the Curran was the stunner in its emotional poignancy and execution, even though none of the songs were particularly memorable. RENT was a delight in terms of nostalgia, but not particularly strong as a stage performance. Hamilton was, unfortunately, a disappointment, mostly because of the SF cast, but also because, seeing it all come together on stage, I just can’t quite get into the second act emotionally. The soundtrack strangely outperforms the real thing, and even that may be starting to lose its magic, 100+ plays in…

Early next year I’m looking forward to releases by First Aid Kit and Rhye (and maybe Grimes?). I’d love to hear what music you enjoyed this year, and what you’re looking forward to next year!

Film

You probably know by now how much of a fan I am of Moviepass. This year I watched 68 movies in theaters, and roughly paid $5/ticket. I started off paying $45/month (+ another $45/month for Boanne), and then in the Fall, Moviepass pulled a Netflix and dropped their price to $10/month. Just a few weeks ago I switched my plan to an annual payment of just $90. To date, since the end of 2015, I’ve saved $1100 on movies (not counting Boanne, not counting the many free popcorns and Icees we’ve gotten through the complementary AMC Stubs membership). At this point I can’t honestly understand why anybody I know wouldn’t go order a Moviepass right this very moment.

Anyway, films are tougher to judge than music, but here’s my twenty favorite films of 2017:

  1. Get Out
  2. Raw
  3. The Florida Project
  4. Dunkirk
  5. Call Me By Your Name
  6. Wind River
  7. Detroit
  8. Lady Bird
  9. Good Time
  10. Molly’s Game
  11. Logan Lucky
  12. Mother!
  13. Blade Runner 2049
  14. The Last Jedi
  15. City of Ghosts
  16. Alien: Covenant
  17. Coco
  18. Baby Driver
  19. The Big Sick
  20. Logan

Get Out and Raw were early winners that stood the test of time. Raw in particular is still so vivid in my memories, and so shocking even now, that it’d be my pick if I could recommend only one. But Jordan Peele’s debut deserves all the praise it gets for its timeliness and subversiveness and perfect execution.

The Florida Project and Dunkirk are an interesting side-by-side comparison: both mundane by some measure, both epic portraits of humanity. While I thoroughly loved Nolan’s massive orchestration of three survival stories poetically wrinkled in time, the thirty-second performance by the young protagonist at the end of The Florida Project was the best scene of 2017.

Wind RiverDetroit, and Good Time were really satisfying thrillers, each examining violence and justice in moving ways. Lady Bird establishes Greta Gerwig as the undisputed prodigy of Noah Baumbach. Between the two driving films of the year, while Baby Driver is the critical favorite, I enjoyed Logan Lucky a lot more, because it excelled at an important type of storytelling from this year: stories about Trump’s America (other notable examples include Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, MissouriThe Glass CastleBeatriz at Dinner, heck even Cars 3).

Also on my list are some really great sci-fi’s — Blade Runner 2049 winning for best cinematography, Alien: Covenant for Fassbender’s two winning performances — and some that defy categorization: Aronofsky’s mind-blowing Mother! and the indie surprise Colossal.

Literature

After four years of steadily increasing my reading count (21, 25, 30, 43), I am now likely to fall just short of my goal of 40 (UPDATE: I got to 40!). This target seems about right to keep for a while. What’s particularly new is that I have achieved a near 50-50 balance of nonfiction and fiction (in fact, more nonfiction than fiction, as I’m counting some light poem collections and graphic novels). This also feels about right to keep for a while, as the nonfiction reading has really stimulated my growing interest in philosophy and other weighty topics (which I’ll hopefully do justice in Part 2 of my year-end reflection).

In fiction, I’m a bit tickled that my two favorite books ended up being Dark Forest and Forest Dark. I’ve spoken plenty about my love for the Three Body trilogy, and its complete annihilation of all other sci-fi I’ve ever read. More recently, Forest Dark really moved me with its Kafka-esque profundity. Even more, Krauss’s book paired with Foer’s Here I Am from last year were a strange portrait of a break-up in public told like competing monologues, two mammoth writers in their own right lobbying heartbreaking metaphors across a battlefield of readers. (There was a similar experience in music this year from the breakup between David Longstreth of The Dirty Projectors and Amber Coffman, told through competing singles). But I suppose it can’t be denied that a meta-layer of sadness on top of books of sadness make for delectable reads.

In non-fiction, I particularly dived into the works of Peter Singer and Jane Jacobs. Jacobs particularly surprised me with the breadth and depth of her genius beyond what was already an incredible first book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and I was quite surprised by how well her journey of ideas tracks my own evolution in the last few years. Singer helped me clarify some fundamental ethical beliefs in the early part of the year, and helped prepare me for the big trial that was Parfit’s Reasons and Persons. I’ll leave the reflection on ideas for Part 2.

Keeping in mind that my book lists are much less tied to 2017 than the others, here are my five favorite works of fiction read in 2017:

  1. The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu (2008)
  2. Forest Dark by Nicole Krauss (2017)
  3. The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen (2015)
  4. Death’s End by Cixin Liu (2010)
  5. Commonwealth by Ann Patchett (2016)

And my five favorite works of non-fiction:

  1. Evicted by Matthew Desmond (2016)
  2. Reasons and Persons by Derek Parfit (1984)
  3. Systems of Survival by Jane Jacobs (1992)
  4. The Expanding Circle by Peter Singer (1981)
  5. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi (2016)

All forty books I read this year:

17 Books

Podcasts

Lastly, podcasts have cemented themselves fully into my lifestyle, and I have had to endure a few painful purges this year as new podcasts have continued to vie for my attention. At the close of the year, my regular daily and weekly rotation looks like:

  • To keep up with the news
    • Up First
    • NYT’s The Daily
    • The Weeds
    • NPR Politics (if it doesn’t look too similar to The Weeds)
    • On The Media
  • From there, I go to whatever’s new from the following, in roughly this order:
    • Waking Up with Sam Harris
    • Radiolab or More Perfect
    • All Songs Considered
    • This American Life
    • Reply All
    • Planet Money
    • 99% Invisible
    • Song Exploder

And that’s pretty much all I can keep up with. Special shout-out to friends Abi, Morgan, and Iris who started a podcast Imagine Human this year with some interesting guests!

Some of my favorite longform podcast episodes of the year:

  • The entire season of The Polybius Conspiracy on Radiotopia’s Showcase (on arcades)
  • TAL 620: “To Be Real” (including David Blaine)
  • Radiolab: “The Gondolier” (on identity)
  • Radiolab: “The Ceremony” (on cryptocurrency)
  • Radiolab: “Oliver Sipple” (on civil rights)
  • More Perfect: “American Pendulum II” (on Dred Scott)
  • Reply All 86: “Man of the People” (on balls)
  • 99% Invisible: “The Trails of Dan and Dave” (on Reebok)
  • On the Media: “Unnatural Disaster” (on Harvey)
  • Revisionist History: “A Good Walk Spoiled” (on golf courses)
  • Waking Up With Sam Harris: “Forbidden Knowledge” (with Charles Murray)

I particularly enjoyed getting to see Sam Harris do a live taping of his podcast just a few weeks ago in SF, although the debate with Ben Shapiro ended up being up there among the most annoying of his tautological arguments.

I may come back and add more content here over time, but hopefully you got something out of reading! Happy holidays to all!

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Year in Review

Derek’s 2016 Reflection Part 2: Production

While Part 1 of this 2016 reflection was a systematic review of various forms of information and art media that I enjoyed throughout the year, Part 2 will be a bit more free-form. Here I want to talk about what I have worked on in 2016 that I hope has impacted society positively, where I think I was successful and where I think I failed, and how these lessons have influenced my plans for my work in 2017. In particular, as a direct request to you, the reader, at the end, I would like to connect with more interesting people in 2017 on projects, or even receive ideas for meaningful projects to work on, and would greatly appreciate any and all such feedback.

There of course isn’t too fine of a line separating what I’m calling “consumption” and “production” in these essays. I think in the past I’ve thought about this simply as the difference between what you take in and what you put out into the world, but that distinction doesn’t take into account the gray area that is the experiences we create, the relationships we build, the ideas we refine. I’m not sure this improves on my definitions, but I’m starting to think of the difference more as what provides personal fulfillment, versus what impacts society as a whole. So perhaps “fulfillment” and “purpose” will be better labels in the future.

As quick contextual summary, before going into individual projects: Since graduating with my Master’s Degree in Structural Engineering from Stanford University, I think I can safely say that my path has been unconventional. A combination of passion for building my own personal design practice and ideology, as well as disdain for the idea of working for a big company without personal agency, has pushed me towards this tightrope juggle of multiple part-time jobs, where on any given week this year I was supervising a project-based learning class and/or participating in a meeting at Stanford, and/or teaching an architecture class at the Nueva Upper School, and/or meeting with a client for an upcoming Cloud Arch Studio project, and/or supervising construction on the Common Ground project in the Mission, and/or working at the SF Public Library just to have a convenient workspace near home. For the entire year I also made a conscious effort to not work on weekends, to put a hold on emails and social media, and to spend the time enjoying life with my girlfriend and/or friends. The significant commute time required to shuffle back and forth from all these commitments, instead of being a burden, simply blocked out reliable times for personal consumption of books, podcasts, occasional work, etc. (see Reflection Part 1).

Stanford Sustainable Urban Systems

My work at Stanford has, so far, felt the most impactful, given that the goal has been to take the concept of a holistic urban education and turn it into a formal reality as a graduate degree program with a full-fledged curriculum. I’ve been working on this more or less since 2012 when I first started prototyping my own project-based learning courses, alongside undergraduate coursework and eventually the Solar Decathlon project, because I had had a formative experience with that type of education as a sophomore and had believed that more of college curriculum should be project-based. Jump ahead to the 2014-15 academic year, after I had returned from my gap year abroad, and I was prototyping urban project-based learning with real clients like my new friend Michael Tubbs from Stockton, and the successes of that endeavor led a faculty member, who shared my advocacy for an urban curriculum, to hire me as a part-time lecturer to keep the prototype going. Essentially the last year of work since then for our Sustainable Urban Systems Initiative has been to implement another solid prototype of a graduate-level project-based learning curriculum, but now positioned as the core of a proposed program called Sustainable Urban Systems which had been around as a concept but had not yet been pushed forward by faculty in the Civil & Environmental Engineering Department, at least until our peripheral activity. And so a lot of my work in 2016, besides finishing up the prior round of student projects and gearing up for this Fall’s iteration, has been behind-the-scenes politicking and evangelizing to rally support for SUS, including putting together a series of white papers to the Dean of the School of Engineering and to the faculty leadership of CEE.

To make a long story short, we were a sideshow barrelling forth with this bold idea of a whole new graduate degree within CEE, somehow picking up the right pieces of support by contriving far more confidence than we really had, until the whole department had to acknowledge our inertia and re-commandeer the ship from us, given that ultimately we were headed for a shipwreck at our speed. In the last few weeks I have looked back at this strange journey and wondered just how precedented/unprecedented it really was for a 24-year-old recent alumni to be on the front lines of developing a program that he had absolutely no business implementing, but simply cared passionately about. Or how likely/unlikely it was that SUS would ever happen if not for the very nontraditional and long-cut path we took it through. Perhaps this is in fact a good lesson, as many of my colleagues have tried to convince me, that passion and perseverance can move mountains, and perhaps this is the lesson I should be attempting to impart to the reader, but I can’t seem to bring myself to fully believe this at the close of 2016. For this major portion of my mindshare and timeshare this year, as a lecturer/outlaw at Stanford, I think I was simply naive and lucky.

Next year I will definitely keep working in this capacity as lecturer, because I wouldn’t miss the actual first incoming graduate class of SUS students in the Fall. But I am also hoping that my role can transition away from the bureaucratic necessities to the much more fulfilling work of guiding students through exciting and impactful projects around the Bay Area, and building a skunkworks of even more ambitious incubation projects, something that I would gladly be involved with to some capacity for the rest of my professional life.

CORE Project

I worked on another major Stanford-related activity during the summer as an advisor for undergraduate students who chose to work with me on sustainable design for the developing world. I had planned to make substantial progress on my CORE side project, which dates back to the Solar Decathlon, by collaborating with a research team in the Department working on indoor air quality and other health issues in Dhaka, Bangladesh, because I wanted to see if a pilot project there would be possible (having surveyed conditions in El Salvador and Indonesia last year), and had thus set up this summer activity. Unfortunately, just a few weeks before we were scheduled to travel there, there was a gruesome terrorist attack in Dhaka targeting foreigners, and the research team decided to cancel all the trips, leaving me to work with talented students with nonoptimal resources and guidance on campus. Nonetheless they produced valuable work, and the CORE project continues to lumber along. At a point this year I also considered getting involved in a few private enterprises that would allow me to advance some of these concepts of industrialized construction, but I was never really able to commit enough time to the expected commitment of these companies, even in a consultant role, to make meaningful progress. It still remains to be seen how much time I can commit to this project in 2017, but I certainly want to, especially by repositioning the short-term goal towards designing self-sufficient homeless shelters.

Stockton

Another project related directly to my SUS work brought me back to South Stockton, the site of my 2014-15 project-based learning course in partnership with Tubbs and the South Stockton nonprofit community. By coincidence or causality, the City had decided to release a Request for Interest for local developers to submit proposals for what they would do with two City-owned sites along Airport Way, where my students had done a master planning exercise a year before (and where I had strongly advocated for release of City-owned sites in a separate meeting). I lent my services as a schematic designer to produce an initial concept for the RFI, and a few months later the local nonprofit STAND was selected as the developer to enter into an Exclusive Negotiating Rights Agreement with the City for the 8th & Airport Way 1.6 acre lot which is right at the heart of the neighborhood. I have since supported them as much as I can as a consultant to help them get to the end goal of a community center with a public market, medical services, and maybe affordable housing. It’s been a joy to work with these wonderful people again, on a problem where the value of compassion and design is so apparent, and where I’ve been able to spend more of my own mindshare thinking critically about the type of urban development I care most about, that which can revitalize struggling communities and is as holistic as our tools of science, design, and engineering can realize. I had some Stanford students work on this project in the Fall and will mentor another team in the first half of next year, but all the while I will continue to personally support the Stockton group in as impactful of a way as I can, and likely focus on this as my core Cloud Arch Studio project.

Nueva Architecture

One of the hardest decisions of 2016 was to commit to teaching at Nueva a second year. In the summer of 2015 I was recommended by a few people to consider a teaching job at this new high school, and I took the opportunity mostly as an experiment, because I have been personally fascinated by the challenge of designing an effective high school curriculum in architecture, or more generally an effective curriculum in architecture for any new student, and really liked the idea of having full control of the pedagogical method. I ended up really enjoying the experience and grew as a teacher, mentor, and thinker, especially enjoying our final hands-on project of an exhibit built out of milk crates at the Maker Faire. But compared to the educational work I was doing at Stanford, I couldn’t really justify the time spent teaching, grading, and managing logistics at the high school in terms of scale of impact. Instead, the reason I ended up deciding to stick around for a second year was because I just really enjoyed working with the kids, and because Nueva was entering its 50th anniversary year and first graduating high school class, so the sentimental value tipped the balance for me. It has been incredibly fun the second time around, and certainly easier than the first time, but still not quite justifying the time spent, so I have to think seriously about how to conclude my time at Nueva while sustaining the legacy of my work.

Common Ground 3

The biggest project of the year for my personal LLC, Cloud Arch Studio, was the third iteration of my concept for revitalizing public streets in big cities, and a headliner project for the second San Francisco Market Street Prototyping Festival. Coming off of the second iteration which ended quite disastrously in the early removal of the project from the Tenderloin area due to complaints of drug dealing and undesired behavior on the installation, I was incredibly cautious of the challenges of the project and spent a lot of time just proactively working with the City to solve problems, such as ADA accessibility, community stewardship, and permitting for Common Ground’s interactive features. As an incubator project I really benefited from having a dedicated space to work and build at Gray Area in the Mission, and also benefited from having a dedicated team of supporters, including an intern from Ohio State University and a few star students from Nueva. Over the summer we started to build CG3 and basically made steady progress all the way to the festival in October, with the exception of just a few hiccups on our end (screwing up a paint job) and on the City’s end (asking us to change our handrail design literally one week before the event, as if any contractor in the history of public works has been able to deliver on that timeframe, let alone an underfunded ‘artist’). But we installed successfully, and the project succeeded my expectations for those glorious three days of the Festival, which even my parents were able to come up from LA to see. If you haven’t already seen photos from the Festival, you can see them on my Cloud website.

Unfortunately, my optimism was, yet again, much too great. A few weeks ago I received the unexpected news that Hyatt Regency and Philz Coffee, the property owner and storefront business that had signed a stewardship agreement with the City and me, wanted the project removed (which was their right as part of the agreement), citing homeless encampment as the issue. There were, of course, issues with the project itself, most significantly the crappy handrails which were constantly deforming, as well as the lack of signage to instruct the average pedestrian on how to activate the domes, but these were all problems solvable by iterative design, which of course was the point of the entire exercise. Homelessness, unfortunately, is not a problem solvable by design. It’s systemic to a city plagued by wealth inequality and, I’ve decided, the fundamental reason we can’t have make improvements in public space. I’ll be moving CG3 to a new location in the East Bay at the start of 2017, and unless the City demonstrates that it has learned its lesson from these prototyping activities and is willing to hear my recommendations as an experienced and undervalued designer, I simply do not wish to entertain them any longer.

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A few final activities and thoughts on 2016 to note:

Under the Cloud brand I worked on a few smaller residential projects for friends, each stimulating in its own way, but I will have to think critically about how to manage my time better on small projects as the logistics tend to take a longer time than I expect. I worked on an RFP for a tiny home village in Santa Clara County which we didn’t win but got me thinking much more critically about homeless shelters as impactful work. I also worked on one high architecture competition this year with some colleagues for Eleven Magazine’s Tenderloin Competition, which we didn’t win but allowed me the refreshment of a direct involvement in bold design that I typically don’t have time to do, ironically.

I also wanted to note that, after watching Before the Flood, Leo DiCaprio’s spiritual sequel to An Inconvenient Truth, I was inspired to take part in the survey on Carbotax.org and donate $200 to offset my personal carbon ‘production’ or footprint. I decided it was necessary for me to do this as part of my commitment to environmental sustainability, and highly recommend you consider paying your dues as well.

Related to sustainability and to my Stanford work: I have also gotten quite engaged in thinking about the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, particularly in relation to the Sustainable Development Solutions Network’s (SDSN) work with US cities to pilot localization of the SDGs. Because we have worked with the City of San Jose in Stanford SUS, I got connected to this network and even got to meet the SDSN team during my trip to NY. I’ve been interested in using the SDG framework as a fundamental part of the SUS pedagogy, i.e. evidence-based decision making, and by continuing to represent Stanford as an academic partner to SJ on that exercise, even got an invitation to go to Washington D.C. a few weeks ago to participate in a roundtable producing recommendations for the U.S. Department of State’s SDG Open Data Roadmap for 2017-18. The timing couldn’t have been better, in relation to the election and its impact on my thinking, as I really welcomed the opportunity to return to DC after 15 years and be up close and personal with this political machine in which I am slowly losing trust.

On the arts side, I once again severely disappointed myself, writing no short stories and only mustering a few dozen daily poems at the start of the year. For the second half of the year I started feeling the urge to write an essay about secularism, but never got around to finishing the first draft, such that when the Election happened that essay somehow morphed into an essay about political philosophy, which also never quite materialized, leaving me with scraps of difficult ideas and an existential crisis of morality and purpose at the end of this year. But despite not producing as much writing or art as I would have liked to, I do feel like year was full of valuable conversations about important ideas that will yield meaningful work in the years to come, and I am grateful to everybody who has spent time in deep discussion with me.

As a final note of emphasis, I really enjoyed the amount of time I spent this year investing in relationships, not just with Boanne but also with high school friends and college friends who could have faded away into the background of adult life. I went to three weddings this year, each of which was filled with nostalgia and joy, as well as organized many other fun adventures with friends in the Bay Area and beyond, and that type of creative work should never be undervalued.

Looking Ahead to 2017

Back in 2014, when I went on a 9-month Eurotrip with Dylan, the most memorable nights were spent wandering for hours by foot through cities like Sofia, Mostar, Istanbul, or Berlin, exploring the equally uncharted space in our heads. We came up with this concept of a Moral CV, a personal manifesto that one should write in his or her twenties in which one examines and justifies a full set of principles to live by. We both felt that a moral education was something sorely lacking in both of our undergraduate educations, and imagined that such a Moral CV, one day, would and should be more important than the professional CVs we currently value. The following year, we tried to host and facilitate a small group forum online on moral and ethical topics, but the effort slowly faded into the background behind the daily grind. Alas, even the Moral CVs we so ambitiously envisioned for society couldn’t make it past our own tests of will.

This year there has been plenty to think about, from my growing immersion in urban systems to the reality check that was our 2016 US Presidential Election. In the immediate days that followed I suppressed the urge to share any thoughts, for fear of betraying some deeper understanding I had yet to find. (The only post I shared, on Facebook the day after, was a message of sincere ambiguity.) Many of the posts I did see on my feed, in fact many of the posts I’ve seen all year, bothered me in nonobvious ways. And it wasn’t just conservative triumph; it was also liberalized martyrdom that seemed to miss the mark. It is as if our society has collectively elevated righteousness over honesty. The world has been painted in unnatural shades of left and right, the kind of flavors that leave a sickening taste in your mouth. So in the heat of political and cultural battles of which I felt no strong allegiance to either front, I felt instead the pull to think, to turn ideas over and over like a pebble in my hand, to read and to observe and to converse. I felt the yearning to achieve moral clarity, and found myself returning to that concept of a Moral CV.

Next year I want to spend a significant part of my timeshare and mindshare working on a project of intellectual honesty. I am not quite sure exactly what form it will take yet, but I will start off with more personal blogging on this site, with a focus on morality, ethics, philosophy, and politics. My first hypothesis is that if I can successfully ‘think in public’, which is to say my intellectual reasoning can withstand the test of public scrutiny, then within the span of the year the process will substantially improve my intelligence and aptitude for persuasive communication with others. My second hypothesis is that, through this process, I will have produced a series of rigorously rational and empirical views on important policy issues (of which I suspect there will be no shortage of in 2017) which will be readily accessible and useful for my readers. I would eventually like to engage as many intelligent people as I can in this activity, growing it perhaps to a community blog or a think tank or someday a political movement. If you are interested in this endeavor, the best place to start is by following this blog so you can receive my blog posts as they are published, and to reach out to me for discussion (I’m always up for deep talks over beer in SF).

This existential crisis has led me to rethink my overall timeshare. I am certain I will spend 50% of my time on Stanford in 2017, continuing to develop the SUS curriculum and working with students. After this last semester at Nueva I will document my curriculum and find somebody to pass the baton to, perhaps spending a little bit of time supervising their work in the Fall; I will put the time commitment overall at about 25%. I will set aside 25% on the Stockton project, 25% of my time on this Intellectual Honesty project (yes, I know I’m going over 100%, which corresponds to 40 hours/week), and 25% on miscellaneous Cloud or other projects, including possibly the formation of a nonprofit entity to formalize some community development work. With the rest of my time, of course, I will maintain my own health and wellbeing and maintain meaningful relationships with people I care about. One idea I’m going to try, as a sort of life hack, is to set up a shortlist of about 25 people I care about, and to use a weekly Google Calender invite to remind myself to stay in touch with each of them.

I would also like to actively seek out new and interesting people to collaborate with in 2017. Perhaps this is in fact the most important reason I’m writing this, to enlist your help, as a reader, to connect me with (you perhaps, or) people you know who share the same values as I do, and who are open to collaborating on meaningful work.

  • I’m looking for people who are aspiring young designers and engineers who are tired of being a cog in the wheel and want to work on improving sustainable urban systems, possibly as a student, researcher, or lecturer at Stanford.
  • I’m looking for people who are knowledgeable about and interested in working on reducing homelessness or generally community development in the Bay Area, or in developing countries.
  • I’m looking for people who have recently finished a degree in architecture and are interested in refining and teaching a high school architecture curriculum as opposed to working in a traditional architectural practice. I’d like to work with them immediately to see if they are a good fit for Nueva.
  • I’m looking for people who aspire to intellectual honesty and would like to work on something to change the dangerous course of politics and policy in our country.
  • I’m looking for people who are just as passionate as I am about books, podcasts, film, music, or all of the above, and would like to just meet up to talk about these topics more, and maybe even want to work on art projects together.

And finally, if you have followed me for this long, I hope you will give me honest feedback on how you think I should spend my time and think about 2017.

The year that has passed has been fraught with disappointment for many of us who believed in liberal values and common sense in our nation. The temptation may be to shrink even deeper into our enclaves and to stick to the personal lives we have so much more agency over. I hope you will join me in rejecting that choice, and coming out with compassion, reason, and honesty in 2017.

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Year in Review

Derek’s 2016 Reflection, Part 1: Consumption

2016 was rough by most accounts, but you cannot say the same for its art. In the same vein, select pieces of journalism excelled in bringing forth truth and insight amidst the many debasements of its field. And if all else in 2016 fails, the beauty of books, films, etc. is that they far outpace our own lives, and there is always a never-ending trove of treats to consume from years past, meaning the quality of any one year’s experience is in fact what you make of it.

I care deeply about what I “consume”, by which I mean stories, ideas, information, and designed experiences (in other words, food for the mind and soul), because we are living in a world which is becoming increasingly saturated by mediocre, poor, or sometimes even malicious content. Our consumptions guide our morality and intellect, but are often guided by institutions that only care about our bank accounts or our votes. Creative content should be valued not by the dollars of ad revenue it can lure eyeballs to, but by its intrinsic value, measured in knowledge, honesty, or feeling. I am passionate about curating and communicating that value because we only have so much time in our lives to let anything we do be aimless or misguided. And for my own life, I consume so that I may have inspiration to produce my own stories and ideas which, someday I hope, will be worth consuming as well.

The types of content I would like to reflect on here are the following:

  1. Books
  2. Podcasts
  3. Film and Television
  4. Music
  5. Live Performances

Of course there are many more categories I could write about, and many more beyond that I simply did not have the time or privilege to consume. I certainly hope this work inspires some of you to not just seek out these meaningful experiences, but to share some of your own, so that we may all benefit from the essential work of curation.

One last note before I begin: another way to frame this entire exercise, if I were writing much more philosophically, is that as automation takes over a lot of the manual and technical labor that humans once had to do, then what is left is not suffering as some political pundits would like to claim, but a beautiful chance for us all to produce and consume the types of content that are fundamentally human. I hope the most popular careers in 2040 will be storytelling and art. And I hope that we can reconfigure our economy by then so that those works can be traded at their true value, can sustain our livelihoods. So in other words, perhaps if more of us think critically about the value of what we consume, and aspire to produce content whose value will far outlast our own lives, we will be the true vanguards of tomorrow.

Books

I begin with books because I think they are the most endangered species on my list. It’s not just that the time needed to read long books feels more and more like a luxury, but that our brains may be losing their ability to focus long enough on books, given all the toxic distractions they are bombarded with every moment. For the last few years I have made it a priority in my life to read and have been able to consistently increase my productivity (2013: 24; 2014: 26; 2015: 30; 2016: 44). I suspect I can realistically maintain around 40 books per year with my public transit life, especially if I start replacing late night Facebook time with Kindle time. This year and last I’ve finally gotten deeply into nonfiction, and I’m almost at the point where I’m a more avid nonfiction reader than fiction reader. Perhaps I’m starting to feel the unbearable weight of what I don’t know.

I’ll note here that I am personally not enough of a reader to be able to keep up with books that are released in the given year, so pretty much all of the books I’ll talk about were from years past. I guess that just means I have much to aspire to when it comes to bibliophilia.

Nonfiction

In the beginning of 2016 I made a concerted effort to read the Pulitzer Prize winners and runners up in nonfiction from 2015: The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert, tales of biodiversity and evolution, Age of Ambition by Evan Osnos, an incisive study of the Chinese psyche, and No Good Men Among the Living by Anand Gopal, an equally incisive study of America’s mistakes in Afghanistan. All three deeply impressed me, although I’d recommend Osnos’s work the highest.

From there I was inspired by Sam Harris’s podcast to tackle Steven Pinker’s massive The Better Angels of Our Nature, which demonstrates unequivocally that human violence has massively declined throughout history. I was especially intrigued by the idea that literature itself — the first fiction to be mass manufactured off the printing press — may have actually led to a cultural wave of empathy for the “other” whose stories had never been told so intimately, and an actual societal shift away from torture, slavery, etc. I really welcomed historical evidence of stories and knowledge actually rewiring our moral values, as I argued for in the introduction.

From there my nonfiction reading jumped back and forth between evolutionary biology, climate science, design and urban planning, politics, and secularism. Of particular note, The Language of Architecture by Andrea Simitch was a major influence on my curriculum design for my high school architecture course, and The Big Sort by Bill Bishop reminded me of the insight of Bob Putnam’s Bowling Alone but even more directly explained the political polarization that surprised us all in 2016.

Fiction

Fiction, of course, will always be the cornerstone of my library. While the title of favorite novel was not usurped in 2016 (held by, in order for the last decade: the current Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See; Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch; Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close; Nicole Krauss’s The History of Love; Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife), many excellent novels entered my shelf of all-time favorites.

I read two Kate Atkinson novels this year after falling in love with Life After Life last year. A God in Ruins was a (sort of) sequel to Life After Life in an incredible way; where LAL used the plot device of the main character starting her life over after every death to demonstrate the poetic power of narrative fiction, AGIR took the same universe and told just a single timeline in a nonlinear format, to the same powerful effect if not more. It’s as if Atkinson is playing both sides of the literary chessboard and showing off that she’s simply a Grandmaster of storytelling. If you like WWII novels and want to experience a really innovative pair of stories, I highly recommend these two.

I went back in time for the Pulitzer Prizes in fiction and greatly enjoyed The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson, as well as Tinkers by Paul Harding although it was significantly more enigmatic. The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman, which yielded a beautiful film with Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander of the same name, was poignant yet forgettable among others. I really enjoyed Andy Weir’s The Martian and found it to be the most intellectually rigorous space sci-fi I’ve ever read, feeling essentially more like its own genre of “fiction about science”, if that makes any sense. Ready Player One was another surprisingly fun read, more YA than the others, but exploring a really entertaining fantasy world that rewards you with a satisfying journey.

Now, Murakami. In 2013 I somehow picked up After Dark as my very first Murakami work, and that led me to binge-read his Trilogy of the Rat and other early works in 2014. Then in 2015 I jumped ahead to his latest Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, leaving a gaping hole from The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle to 1Q84 that I finally finished off this year. Those two in particular really cemented my love for Murakami and his unique metaphysical view of the human condition. In 1Q84 especially I found myself reading almost the entire third act in one sitting, and I consider this strange and delightful novel his masterpiece.

Three more novels I want to highlight. First, the only new release I actively anticipated this year (having finally gotten deep enough into literature to actually have authors I am following) was my favorite author Jonathan Safran Foer’s Here I Am, which definitely met my expectations as a beautifully realized and rich novel, though the subject matter did not resonate with me as strongly as his last novel. What I especially enjoyed was getting to see him at the San Francisco City Arts & Lectures Series talking about his work. I have always suspected that JSF awoke the writer within me in my freshman year, and that I largely based my first and second NaNoWriMo novels off of this writing style. It was incredible to hear him speak directly about his process and feel like I really had developed much of the same approach — letting the work evolve without too rigid of a plan, using the fictional character as a study of reality, using the fictional story as a form of personal therapy. I’ve now seen two role models at the Nourse Theater, just blocks away from my apartment, JSF and Richard Dawkins, and I’m so grateful for this intellectual sanctuary in my neighborhood.

Second, in anticipation of seeing Les Miserables for the first time on Broadway this Fall, I decided to finally dive into Victor Hugo’s massive novel, starting on the flight. While I didn’t get anywhere close to finishing in time for the musical, a few weeks later I reached the end and felt deeply alive. I’d underestimated a lot about classical literature, especially that these writers could depict humanity and history with such grand and ambitious strokes, without the modern conveniences of technology. I regret that I did not open this book earlier in life, and now will commit to reading at least one great work of classical literature per year.

Third, the beast that I’ve been wrestling for basically the last quarter of the year has been David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. To be honest, I’m still not done with a week left to go in the year, but I intend to finish. There’s so much to say about this work that I simply cannot do it justice. First and foremost, it is absolutely worth the read, but perhaps with the caveat that you may need to be reading at the volume I read to be able to tackle it with sufficient momentum and perseverance (I had to take multiple breaks of other books to get the weight of this book off my chest). It’s the first novel I’ve ever read that truly felt superhuman in its scope and complexity. DWF is above all a master of language, as if he has somehow unlocked its secret and can make it bend to any purpose, especially through complete control of grammar. There is literally no narrative structure here, footnotes inside of footnotes that are longer than some entire novels, single sentences that are longer than some entire chapters, multiple interlocking storylines, and a complete universe of WebMD-level detail into multiple areas of nonfictional interest, including but not limited to professional tennis, hard drugs, AA, avant-garde film, international relations, and climate science. And I feel like everything works, and has gotten under my skin in strange and wondrous ways. It is a definitive account of addiction and psychosis in all its forms.

My top ten books read in 2016, starting with fiction:

  1. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
  2. Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer (2016)
  3. Les Miserables by Victor Hugo
  4. A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson
  5. 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami
  6. The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson
  7. The Martian by Andy Weir
  8. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
  9. The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman
  10. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

And nonfiction:

  1. Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Fortune in China by Evan Osnos
  2. The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker
  3. The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert
  4. The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins
  5. The Big Sort by Bill Bishop
  6. No Good Men Among the Living by Anand Gopal
  7. The Extended Phenotype by Richard Dawkins
  8. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain
  9. Smart Cities by Anthony Townsend
  10. More Human: Designing a World Where People Come First by Steve Hilton (and my friend Jason Bade and his brother Scott Bade) (2016)

I’d love recommendations for what 40 books I should read in 2017!

Podcasts

For the same reason I had so much time to read books in 2016, my week-daily commute from San Francisco to Stanford and back, outside of sitting in my Caltrain seat I listened to podcasts on the bus or on my feet. I also listened to podcasts on my walks to Trader Joe’s, or while cooking, or basically any time besides when I was reading or concentrating on work. That made for a lot of time with my favorite new medium, one that often seemed to mirror my life in uncanny ways, and one I think will only pick up in popularity.

There are so many different types of podcasts, and so many of each, that it may seem daunting to get into them. I suspect for many of you that this the one category I’m writing about that you haven’t tried yet, and you would find recommendations quite valuable. I subscribe to about 40 podcasts, and will go ahead and introduce them in categories.

Stories

Given This American Life is still the most popular podcast, I’ll start by sharing my favorite podcasts that are similar in format, namely journalism focused on ideas and stories through the lens of everyday people. It’s also critical to note here that these types of podcasts are fully produced with excessive editing and music, and that if you don’t like that style there are other styles below to suit your needs. On TAL I particularly enjoyed the following stories this year:

I personally like Radiolab better than TAL because of the science angle, and an overall stronger production style, and I particularly liked the More Perfect side project by Jad Abumrad about the Supreme Court. In fact, in 2016 the best Radiolab work all-around was about political science and law. Best episodes out of Radiolab:

  • I Don’t Have to Answer That”, a valuable history lesson on politics.
  • K-poparazzi”, in which I learned a lot about Koreans.
  • Debatable”, my personal favorite Radiolab episode of 2016, an incredible story about high school debate culture.
  • 23 Weeks 6 Days”, a story that helped clarify my own views on abortion.
  • Cellmates”, Good old evolutionary biology, writ large by Radiolab.
  • The Buried Bodies Case”, a dark case about ethics in law.
  • Object Anyway”, from More Perfect, the incredible story of the Batson Rule.
  • Seneca, Nebraska”, a haunting look at the power of voting.
  • One Vote”, an inspiring look at the power of voting.

However, for the average millennial I would actually recommend you start with Reply All, which focuses on stories related to the internet and has two entertaining hosts and plenty of fun features (including Yes Yes No, which, when I showed it to a friend a few days ago, basically inspired him to want to binge listen to the whole podcast). The stories are not as essential as those in TAL or Radiolab, but they certainly matter to our generation. My favorites:

  • The Cathedral”, perhaps the best podcast story of 2016. If you’ve never listened to a podcast before, start here.
  • Dead is Paul”, the Yes Yes No I mentioned above which will blow your mind and is the best way to get into Yes Yes Nos.
  • Making Friends”, about a strange but strangely relatable disorder.
  • The Grand Tapestry of Pepe”, their first essential coverage of the alt-right.
  • Very Quickly to the Drill”, which will change the way you think about advertising.
  • Voyage into Pizzagate”, their second essential coverage of the alt-right, demonstrating why Reply All is so important in our new political landscape.

If you enjoy all of the above, then there are many other great story-driven podcasts. I particularly like Strangers by Lea Thau whose voice is like chicken noodle soup for your ears. Her stories are reliably more challenging and painful portraits of humanity, but if you’re willing to take the plunge, try the entire kidney donor series, “Elizabeth and Mary”, and then try to stomach “The Truth” and “Lex” if you dare. StartUp has been doing a really interesting story about the infamous Dov Charney of American Apparel which is worth listening to if you’re interested in studying a modern Icarus. And finally, I’ll highlight Jonathan Goldstein’s Heavyweight which is a quality project of personal therapy (though I really miss Mystery Show by Starlee Kine).

Other podcasts I listen to in this vein, roughly in order of what you should try: Twice Removed (which just started but is promising), Serial Season Two (a letdown compared to Season One), Millennial, Invisibilia (a huge letdown compared to Season One) and Crimetown.

Ideas

Another style of podcasts may use a story-driven or interview format but is really about presenting ideas in economics, technology, politics, ethics, etc. Besides the episodes above that entered this realm, the following are my go-to places for ideas.

  • Waking Up With Sam Harris has changed my life. Sam Harris is one of the smartest and most intellectually honest people I know, and over the course of many hours listening to him think in public, I consider him a role model for my own moral and intellectual reasoning. The warning I must give is that his podcasts average 2 hours long and require serious concentration, but if you are willing to truly grow as an intellectual, I’d recommend starting with the following:
    • An Evening with Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris (1)”, and nice comprehensive interview to start with two of my favorite public intellectuals.
    • Thinking in Public”, the first episode I listened to, with Neil degrasse Tyson.
    • What Do Jihadists Really Want?”, a definitive podcast on how to think honestly about Islamic extremism.
    • Abusing Dolores”, a really entertaining conversation with his best guest Paul Bloom touching on the problem with empathy and artificial intelligence. If you like this one, then go back immediately and listen to his past two conversations with Bloom.
    • Racism and Violence in America”, which helped me think honestly about Black Lives Matter vs. Blue Lives Matter.
    • Meat Without Misery”, a great application of moral reasoning to a great upcoming technology.
    • Evolving Minds”, a wonderful conversation with Jonathan Haidt (whose book The Righteous Mind was a great read last year), demonstrating the proper way to debate different perspectives, concluding with a great takedown of our new illiberal campus culture.
    • The Best Podcast Ever”, which you should tackle once you’re fully comfortable with Harris, because this is three hours of torture but essential to experience if you want to see the dishonesty of the illiberal left.
  • The Weeds by Vox is an excellent nourishment for the mind on policy and economics, a chance to sit in on a conversation among three intelligent and well-informed journalists. Every single episode is high quality and worth listening to, but given its positioning as relevant to current events, I would just recommend you start now and never miss an episode. I particularly like that they discuss an economics white paper at the end of every episode. BTW, for general news, though I don’t read as much as I would like to, I generally look to Vox for my preferred coverage, based on my satisfying experience with this podcast.
  • Revisionist History by Malcolm Gladwell is, like his books, big ideas packaged a little bit too convincingly, but is a really successful debut in this new medium which I prefer to his books. Especially notable episodes are “Food Fight”, “The Big Man Can’t Shoot”, “Hallelujah”, and “Blame Game”.
  • Planet Money has emerged as my favorite economics podcast. I especially liked their series on Oil and their analysis of the Wells Fargo scandal, and would generally recommend this podcast for its brevity and concision to the first-timer interested in ideas.
  • Freakonomics is still very much worth listening to for the talented production of Stephen Dubner, and for a breadth and depth of behavioral economics ideas. I found the following particularly useful: the Bad Medicine series, “Ten Ideas to Make Politics Less Rotten”, “The Longest Long Shot”, and “The True Story of the Gender Pay Gap”.
  • 99% Invisible started it all for me, and is still creating great pieces about design (I now happily own a challenge coin though I don’t carry it with me). My favorite episode this year was “Mojave Phone Booth”.
  • The Theory of Everything by Benjamin Walker has not delivered anything as great as last year’s “New York After Rent” series, but is still a fresh dose of intrigue throughout the year. I particularly liked the miniature story “pass (r)” about self-driving cars.

Other podcasts in this category: Song Exploder, TED Radio Hour (increasingly less interesting to me), TEDTalks (audio) (which I’m starting to prefer to Guy Raz’s product), StarTalk Radio, Science Vs, Surprisingly Awesome, The Allusionist, Undone, and Generation Anthropocene.

News, Interviews, Criticism, Etc.

For news, I really appreciated NPR Politics Podcast coverage throughout the year, and would recommend you try it out if you want to be informed about the first year of Trump in a light-hearted way (but for more technical analysis, go for The Weeds). I also listen to KQED’s The California Report which has been somewhat valuable.

For great interviews, I still enjoy WTF with Marc Maron when I know the person he’s talking to (great guests this year include Ethan Hawke, Louis CK, Sam Quinones, author of Dreamland, and Lin-Manuel Miranda), and have also enjoyed some episodes from The Nerdist. There were some great interviews on The New York Public Library Podcast, largely thanks to great interviewing by Paul Holdengraber; check out the episodes with Junot Diaz and Robert A. Caro. I’ve just started listening to The Ezra Klein Show and suspect I will have glowing praise for it this time next year.

Miscellaneously, I’ve started listening to criticism in film and music, specifically Filmspotting and All Songs Considered. Homecoming, a fictional radio drama by Gimlet, was worth the listen, and has convinced me that the medium can be successful for storytelling. Finally, when all else failed, I enjoyed good old comedy. So far I’m just enjoying 2 Dope Queens and have just started the British satire The Bugle.

I would love recommendations for anything great I missed in 2016, and what new podcasts I should subscribe to in 2017!

Film and Television

As you probably know, I’m now officially a cinephile, having passed through the gauntlet of freezing cold waiting lines at two Sundances and one Berlinale, the less painful trial of a B-movie horror film and wine festival in the countryside of Slovenia, and an average of about 90 movies watched per year over the last two years. I’ve been able to afford this excessive movie-watching through a wonderful product called Moviepass, which, if you haven’t already heard me go on about it, is a debit card + app that lets you watch one movie in theaters per day for $35-45/month. Basically I found in the first half of 2015 that Boanne and I were essentially spending that much in movies already, so we got the Moviepass in August 2015, and, according to my careful accounting, since then I’ve paid $600 through the service but have watched nearly $1500 worth of movies in theaters (not to mention the perks through AMC Stubs). It’s basically the only reason I’ve been able to fully become a film junkie, and I seriously recommend it for anybody who wants to enjoy film without worrying about the cost.

I tried to do a Top 25 Movies list on Facebook but ran into trouble with a dozen or so films I expected to be contenders but hadn’t watched yet; alas the problem with film is that so many great ones come out right at the end of the year in limited release. But as best as I can do, I will highlight my favorite films that came out in 2016. Basically I rate films on a scale of 5, and would recommend anything I give a 4 or above.

Early in the year, besides watching the excellent ones I missed from 2015 (The Revenant, The Hateful Eight, Anomalisa, and the Oscar nominated shorts), there were some excellent early arrivals like Hail, Caesar (with a hilarious performance by Alden Ehrenreich which should not be forgotten as we gear up for his next role as a young Han Solo), Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds fully redeeming himself), Where to Invade Next (a really solid, optimistic documentary by Michael Moore), The Witch (with a breakthrough performance by Anya Taylor-Joy, an actress to watch), 10 Cloverfield Lane, and Eye in the Sky. But the standout from the first quarter was Zootopia, which is my favorite animated film of the year.

In the spring, I fell in love with Everybody Wants Some!!, a perfect little film by Richard Linklater following the much-deserved success of Boyhood, Green Room, my personal favorite of 2016 as a study of pain, and Sing Street, a joyful little punk musical. Civil War definitely satisfied my superhero needs, while Batman v. Superman and X-Men Apocalypse really disappointed. Hardcore Henry was actually a pleasant surprise; it reminded me of District 9 in its daring concept and perfect casting of Sharlto Copley, and made me an instant fanboy of Haley Bennett. Other good films from that season: Jungle Book (not interesting enough for me in plot but certainly a visual effects masterpiece), The Nice Guys, Finding Dory, and The Shallows. The Lobster was highly anticipated, but just didn’t work for me overall, although there are some great deadpan moments of comedy.

Summer brought the absolute trash of 2016 to sweep out, specifically Suicide Squad and Snowden, but otherwise delivered with excellent films like Our Kind of Traitor, Hunt for the Wilderpeople (cementing my love for Taika Waititi) and all things New Zealand, The Infiltrator, Captain Fantastic (with breakthrough actress Annalise Basso), Sausage Party (a potential pinnacle of achievement for Seth Rogen and friends), Don’t Breathe, Light Between Oceans, Pete’s Dragon (which worked beautifully for me in the climax), Hell or High Water (a perfect modern western), Sully, War Dogs (with impressive performances by Miles Teller and Jonah Hill), and the entertaining Magnificent Seven. I also got a chance to catch a documentary I missed in 2014, The Look of Silence, which is an incredible follow-up to one of the best documentaries ever made, The Act of Killing.

In the last quarter of the year, the gems started to show up, like the masterpieces Handmaiden, Moonlight, Arrival, Manchester by the Sea, and La La Land (see my Facebook wall for my profusion of love for these). Other excellent films around these included Don’t Think Twice (which has put Gillian Jacobs on my watchlist), Girl on the Train (again, Haley Bennett stuns, and Emily Blunt pulls off a really convincing drunk), A Man Called Ove, Hacksaw Ridge (with the most intense war scene I’ve ever seen), Moana (the future of Disney ‘princess’ films), Nocturnal Animals, Edge of Seventeen (the best film about being a teenager I’ve ever seen, with an outstanding performance by Hailee Steinfeld), and Your Name (an excellent new anime). I’ve got quite a few films left which I’m excited to see in theaters, especially Jackie, Fences, and 20th Century Women, and quite a few I missed throughout the year which I’ll have to catch up with, like Krisha, The Fits, Certain Women, Neon Demon, Born to Be Blue, Love & Friendship, Weiner, and April and the Extraordinary World.

My top 25 list, as of now:

  • Moonlight
  • Green Room
  • The Handmaiden
  • Everybody Wants Some!!
  • Arrival
  • La La Land
  • Manchester By the Sea
  • Sing Street
  • Hell or High Water
  • Hunt for the Wilderpeople
  • Don’t Think Twice
  • Captain Fantastic
  • Zootopia
  • Little Men
  • Moana
  • Finding Dory
  • Ove
  • Sully
  • Nocturnal Animals
  • Edge of Seventeen
  • Your Name
  • Hacksaw Ridge
  • Our Kind of Traitor
  • The Infiltrator
  • Pete’s Dragon

Just like last year, I simply could not make the time for television that I would like to. I’m generally really cautious of television because of its incredibly slow pace compared to film, but I can’t deny that we are in a golden era of television. In 2015 I finished up Breaking Bad and basically decided that I didn’t need to watch any other television for the rest of my life. Early this year I retracted that view after watching Louis CK’s mini-series Horace and Pete, which unfolded like a classic American stage play and was just perfect all around (I’m happy to share the episodes if you haven’t seen them). Otherwise, I succumbed to my guilty obsession with The Great British Bake Off, once again, with Boanne, and can happily flaunt that I guessed the season winner correctly from Episode 1. We also binged Stranger Things recently, which had a nice overall design but was much too uneventful to me, and watched a few Black Mirror episodes. Based on recommendations, I think next year I will try to finish off Black Mirror, binge Westworld, and then maybe make a dent in Mad Men. Any other recommendations will have to directly compete for my timeshare, but are very much welcomed.

Music

The medium that is nearest and dearest to my heart is music, based on an entire childhood of musical training and the degree to which music has shaped my emotional growth. As I have written before, music has the added bonus of placing me in the past unlike any other stimuli (although podcasts have been doing this recently as well). I’ve already written quite excessively about my 25 favorite songs of 2016, as summarized below (with an extra 5 for good measure):

  1. Whitney – Follow
  2. Blood Orange – Best to You
  3. Bon Iver – 715 – CRΣΣKS
  4. Lambchop – In Care of 8675309
  5. Frank Ocean – Self Control
  6. Drake – Fire & Desire
  7. Kevin Morby – Black Flowers
  8. dvsn – Another One
  9. Francis and the Lights – Friends (feat. Bon Iver)
  10. Kanye West – Famous (feat. Rihanna & Swizz Beatz)
  11. Flume – Say It feat. Tove Lo
  12. Tegan & Sara – Boyfriend
  13. Mutual Benefit – Getting Gone
  14. The 1975 – Somebody Else
  15. Regina Spektor – Bleeding Heart
  16. M83 – Atlantique Sud
  17. James Blake – I Need a Forest Fire (ft. Bon Iver)
  18. How To Dress Well – Can’t You Tell
  19. Rihanna – Kiss It Better
  20. Radiohead – True Love Waits
  21. Angel Olsen – Sister
  22. Ra Ra Riot – Call Me Out
  23. Kendrick Lamar – untitled 03 | 05.28.2013.
  24. Jimmy Eat World – Integrity Blues
  25. American Football – Give Me the Gun
  26. Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam – Peaceful Morning
  27. Solange – Where Do We Go
  28. NxWorries – Scared Money
  29. Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker
  30. La La Land Soundtrack – Audition (The Fools Who Dream)

(Let me know if you want this as a playlist and I’ll be happy to share.)

I have a top 15 albums list, but I’ll start by talking more broadly about the music that moved me throughout the year.

At the start of 2016, I was still listening to some favorites from 2015, like Joanna Newsom’s Divers, Adele’s 25, Grimes’s Art Angels, Majical Cloudz’s Are You Alone?, and Julia Holter’s Have You In My Wilderness.

The first exciting new albums to be released, in February, were the hip hop stunners ANTI by Rihanna and The Life of Pablo by Kanye West. TLOP in particular amazed me with its seemingly arbitrary design, getting revised and added to all the way to the last moment. We also got the much awaited sophomore album of The 1975, I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it, which didn’t produce any single incredible tracks like their debut but delivered an impressive soundscape. I also got recommended the 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning Partita for 8 Voices by Caroline Shaw and Roomful of Teeth, which was a wonderful classical addition to my playlist.

In March I got mildly obsessed with The Microphones’ “I Want Wind to Blow” thanks to an episode of Song Exploder, as well as Nick Drake’s Bryter Layter thanks to a feature on 99% Invisible. I totally fell in love with that Nick Drake album which evoked (or perhaps inspired) the essential bucolic sound of Belle & Sebastian. Other songs I discovered from past years included “I Decline” by Perfume Genius and “Run Away From Me” by Carly Rae Jepsen, which fully convinced me of her talents (far above the likes of Taylor Swift). Kendrick Lamar came out with untitled unmastered. which was like an effortless encore to last year’s huge To Pimp a Butterfly. Ra Ra Riot also came out with their new album Need Your Light which did not meet my expectations from Beta Love but was still a fun listen.

In April, still riding the Yeezy wave, I decided to go back to some old albums I hadn’t really gotten into (having ‘come to Yeezus’ on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy) and got pretty obsessed with 808s & Heartbreak, especially “Paranoid (feat. Mr. Hudson)” and “RoboCop”. I fell in love with newcomer dvsn and his sensual songs on SEPT. 5TH, as well as the retro sound of M83’s new album Junk. While I didn’t get deeply into Andrew Bird’s new Are You Serious, I did particularly enjoy “The New Saint Jude”. Beyonce’s Lemonade came out this month, but I just did not find anything exciting about it, compared to all this other great music. Perhaps I just reacted poorly to a lot of the negative energy inside of it, which I didn’t want my music to exude.

May was a huge month for music, with Drake’s Views, Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book, James Blake’s The Colour in Anything, Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool, and Mutual Benefit’s Skip a Sinking Stone on repeat. Chance has definitely moved into my radar but I still can’t quite love his work the same way I do Kanye’s or Drake’s; I think it may just be his voice and a fairly monotonous style. I did particularly like the sound in “Summertime Friends”, which introduced me to Francis and the Lights as well.

In June, I found my favorite new artist of 2016, Whitney, and my second favorite new artist of 2016, Kevin Morby. Blood Orange’s Devonte Hynes delivered with his new Freetown Sound which, above all, showed him moving towards Michael Jackson in style. I’ll also note that his music videos have been some of the best all year. Tegan & Sara came out with Love You to Death which was just as solid as their last album, while Flume mostly disappointed with his sophomore effort Skin.

In July I didn’t discover much new music besides a new concept album by Bat For Lashes, The Bride. It wasn’t nearly as good as A Haunted Man, but the last few songs on the album were some of the most beautiful I’ve heard from her.

August brought the long-awaited return of Frank Ocean, in this case more than enough music in two complete albums, Endless and Blonde. I particularly liked “Rushes” from the visual album, and then pretty much everything off of Blonde. I got into a little bit of Mitski, though I’m not a fan of her overall rock sound, as well as a little bit of the new Metronomy which does not live up to the excellent songs from The English Riviera or Love Letters. Boanne and I got pretty obsessed with “Friends” this month, and for some reason I found myself digging through old Fleetwood Mac and listening a lot to “Second Hand News” and “Never Going Back Again” from Rumours.

In September, I got into the rest of Francis and the Lights’ Farewell, Starlite! as well Kishi Bashi’s new Sonderlust. But mostly I fell in love with Angel Olsen and the second half of My Woman.

In October I mainly listened to Bon Iver’s 22, A Million, but also found time for new albums from Regina Spektor and How to Dress Well. I also got into Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam, which presented a nice derivative of Vampire Weekend’s sound.

November was time for catch-up on great albums I had missed, like Solange’s A Seat at the Table, NxWorries’ Yes Lawd!, American Football’s second eponymous album, and Carly Rae Jepsen’s EMOTION Side B (especially the last three songs). I also got semi-obsessed with “Gemini Feed” by Banks, though the rest of her album is much too basic for me. The big new releases for me were Conor Oberst’s simple Ruminations, Jimmy Eat World’s epic Integrity Blues, and Leonard Cohen’s dark swansong You Want it Darker. But mostly I fell in love with the new Lambchop album FLOTUS and the Hamilton soundtrack.

Coming into the last stretch, I’ve mainly been reviewing these favorites throughout the year to create my Top 30 list, as well as checking in on critical acclaimed or friend-recommended albums I missed, like Wilco’s Schmilco, Kid Cudi’s Passion, Pain & Demon Slayin’, The Weeknd’s Starboy, Crystal Fighter’s Everything is My Family, Car Seat Headrest’s Teens of Denial, David Bowie’s Blackstar, ANOHNI’s Hopelessness, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ Skeleton Tree, and Nicolas Jaar’s Sirens. On Christmas Day my favorite rap group Run The Jewels put out their much anticipated RTJ3 which has been sounding pretty good so far. I also fell in love with the La La Land soundtrack, one of the highlights of a film I’m still overall struggling with, and its showstopper “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” is the last song to sneak into my Top 30 list.

Top 15 albums of 2016:

  1. Bon Iver – 22, A Million
  2. Frank Ocean – Blonde
  3. Whitney – A Light Upon the Lake
  4. Lambchop – FLOTUS
  5. Blood Orange – Freetown Sound
  6. Kanye West – The Life of Pablo
  7. Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam – I Had a Dream That You Were Mine
  8. Solange – A Seat At the Table
  9. Drake – Views
  10. James Blake – The Colour in Anything
  11. Kevin Morby – Singing Saw
  12. The 1975 – I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it
  13. Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
  14. Angel Olsen – My Woman
  15. American Football – American Football

I’d love to know what other music you liked in 2016, and what you’re looking forward to in 2017!

Live Performances

As I mentioned in the intro, the future of automation may lead us all inevitably to careers in creativity and art. Within that space, live experiences may be the most valuable and essential content we create. I have consciously tried to invest more in performances, immersive experiences, and gatherings for ideas, and will share some of the most valuable ones below.

Building off of my musical journey this year were some wonderful concerts, particularly:

  • Majical Cloudz at The Chapel, SF. Devon Welsh is enigmatic in his music but wears his awkwardness out in the open when he performs live. It was really incredible to see his endearment towards his own music. I basically was holding out for his performance of my favorite song “Downtown”, and he absolutely nailed it.
  • Cyndi Lauper at Hardly Strictly, SF. What a joyful performance from an older woman who still has all the energy in the world. I honestly hadn’t known that she was the original writer of “True Colours” and absolutely loved her performance of that song, as well as, of course, “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” Yo La Tengo was also wonderful right ahead of Cyndi Lauper on that stage in Golden Gate Park.
  • The Tallest Man on Earth at The Greek Theater, SF. Kristian Matsson was actually just opening for The Head and the Heart, who I’ve now seen four times and was mediocre, but Matsson totally impressed me with his stage presence and fluidity with his instrument. I’m definitely going to catch him every chance I can now.
  • Bon Iver at Fox Theater, Oakland, my third time seeing him live. I’ve already praised Justin Vernon’s new sound, and you rarely come across a concert in which the artist simply plays the album exactly as you love it, top to bottom. I particularly loved seeing him use the Messina live, and his huge fleet of saxophonists. While he didn’t pull out the classic “Re: Stacks” or “Skinny Love”, I really liked his performance of the single “Heavenly Father”. Opener Francis and the Lights, unfortunately, was a huge disappointment.
  • Peter Silberman of the Antlers at Swedish American Hall, SF. When I saw him I wasn’t aware of his bout with hearing loss and the bare record he had put together as a result, but I thoroughly enjoyed his expansive solo set and the quaint venue.

In 2016 I got to see a bit of contemporary dance by Tanya Chianese’s wonderful dance company ka·nei·see | collective, which reinvigorated my personal love for dance that grew out of some social dance classes in freshman year of college. I also got to see my favorite author Jonathan Safran Foer at the San Francisco City Arts & Lectures series. Next year I’m looking forward to seeing a broadcast conversation with Edward Snowden there.

I can’t really talk about live performances without praising Broadway musicals. I got into musicals with Wicked in high school and actually saw it for the fourth time this spring. I also happily supported a Heathers independent production by some wildly talented and motivated students at the high school I teach at. When I went to New York for a week in August, I had to re-experience my favorite ‘theatrical’ experience, the enigmatic Sleep No More by Punchdrunk, which is quite simply my #1 recommendation for how to spend $100 in New York. And I finally got to see Les Miserables, a musical I performed in field show form in high school marching band and have always loved. The stage production itself may have shot up and beat Wicked as my favorite musical, though I suspect it will be quickly usurped by Hamilton which I am super excited to see in 2017 in SF. I rounded out the year’s musicals with Hedwig and the Angry Inch, a really exhilarating, fourth-wall breaking musical experience right at home in liberal SF, and a second viewing of The Lion King.

I want to highlight stage comedy, which I have learned a lot about through episodes on the WTF Podcast and the excellent film Don’t Think Twice but have never really had a chance to experience until this year’s NY trip when I got to see cheap shows at The Comedy Cellar and the Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theater. I definitely think the interactivity of live comedy is a nourishing and valuable experience to take advantage of and to invest in if you have good comedy venues in your city (does anybody know of any in SF?).

I’ll highlight some new museums I visited in 2016. In the Bay Area, I enjoyed the new Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (though I hate the overall architectural concept by Diller Scofidio + Renfro), the new SFMOMA (which had a much more successful architectural solution by Snohetta), and the Academy of Art & Science which I finally got to experience on one of its Nightlife events. In NY, I visited the American Museum of Natural History for the first time, as well as the new Whitney at the southern end of the High Line which I think is Renzo Piano’s most successful public building. I also really enjoyed the observation deck at the top of the One World Trade Center, which holds a special place in my heart because I had been at the top of one of the original towers one month before 9/11, and had watched this new tower be built over a summer internship in NY. On my brief trip to Washington D.C I didn’t have a chance to see David Adjaye’s new Smithsonian Museum, but really enjoyed touring the Capitol Building and Library of Congress, as well as walking around Tidal Basin and viewing all of the national memorials in the empty stillness of midnight.

In terms of natural environments, I didn’t get to explore as much as I would have liked, but did enjoy new hikes in Yosemite, Muir Woods, and Lake Tahoe, adding to my love for the Bay Area as a whole. On a trip to China over Thanksgiving I got to see Zhangjiajie National Park, which has unbelievable geological formations which inspired environmental design in the Avatar film. I think those natural canyons are some of the most incredible places I’ve ever seen on this planet.

Mostly I found experiential nourishment this year by exploring my new hometown, San Francisco, in all of its urban and natural beauty, for many weekends with my girlfriend, racking up those Fitbit badges.

I really don’t have the energy to get into food, which could be its entire own chapter of consumption, except to list my ten favorite establishments in the Bay Area:

  • El Farolito in the Mission, for the best Mexican I’ve ever had, especially the Super Suiza. I had this a lot over the summer when I was working at Gray Area.
  • Good Mong Kok Bakery in Chinatown, for dim sum at proper price point and bluntness of service.
  • Yamo in the Mission, for delicious house noodles and the smell of cooking oil all over your clothes.
  • The House of Prime Rib on Van Ness, for the kind of carnivore’s delight I feel is actively worth building up a carbon budget for.
  • Arizmendi Bakery in the Mission, for excellent cheese wheels and fresh pizzas.
  • San Tung in Inner Sunset, for delectable chicken wings.
  • Saigon Sandwich in the Tenderloin, for solid $4 bahn mi’s.
  • Golden Boy Pizza in North Beach, for clam and garlic pizzas and a convenient excuse to visit City Lights Bookstore as well.
  • Pedro’s Brazil Cafe in Berkeley, for heavenly tri-tip approved by your favorite President.
  • Momoyama Sushi in Pleasant Hill, for a perfectly sized dinner special for two.

Coffee enthusiasts: I simply will drink nothing but Philz Tesoras and Coupa drip unless you can show me something better.

On the personal cooking front, I’ve made it a regular habit to buy fresh baby bok choy from the U.N. Plaza Farmer’s Market and all other regular groceries from my local Trader Joe’s, though every once in a while I need to replenish something from 99 Ranch or succumb to the guilty pleasure of a Costco whole combo pizza in the freezer. I have tried consciously to reduce my meat consumption or to switch mostly to chicken, though have not done useful tracking of this. Next year I will try to limit red meat consumption to two meals per week and have at least two vegetarian lunches and dinners per week, for starters.


That concludes all I have to share of my essential consumptions of 2016. If you’ve made it this far, I hope you’ve found something worth agreeing with or trying out for yourself here, and definitely would welcome any additions or feedback you’d like to share. As I said, I do this because I love the things I love, and want to spread that experiential wealth in as effective of a way as I can, multiplying the value of my own time spent looking for gold in soil that is increasingly toxic. Perhaps I’m posting the kind of content I hope to see more of on social media, the kind of value that is not mined by advertisers, but reaped and shared with friends.

Here’s to what moved us in 2016, and what will move us further in 2017.

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Year in Review

2015 Year in Review

NOTE: This post will be continually updated with additional writing (and possibly new contenders to the lists) until the end of the year.

We grow so much each year. It’s a shame to lose that for ourselves, and it’s a shame not to share that growth with others.

Ever since my college days, I’ve found great value and enjoyment in writing a review of books, movies, music, and the like at the close of year. Sometimes it’s been a bit memoiristic as well; one piece I keep coming back to is “The Tree of Life” from 2011. To me, the value of writing an annual review is not narcissistic; rather, I consider it essential for self-reflection, and efficient for packaging valuable experiences for friends and acquaintances.

I recall where I was right at the start of 2015, having just finished an incredible year. In 2014, I spent nine months traveling through 23 countries in Europe on a budget of about $10,000 with my best friend Dylan and a whole cast of interesting characters on the road. The impetus for the trip was an immense feeling of exhaustion after my undergraduate career, as well as some encounters with depression that pushed me to seek refuge from places I called home. Spending winter in central Europe, spring in eastern Europe, and summer in western Europe gave me time to reflect on my adolescence and the life I wanted when I returned to California. The trip was also a refreshing experience of creativity and inspiration. I ended up turning about half of it into a series of short films, writing a novel as a form of therapy, developing a Moral CV, and developing the vision for what is now Cloud Arch Studio, among many other things. So in the end, seeking refuge in the unknown brought me right back to where I was, and closer to the person I had always been.

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As for emotions, I have found solace in the idea that happiness is part of a cycle, as are all our experiences. There is no use running away from sadness, because the weight of sadness is what allows us to truly appreciate the lightness of happiness when it arrives.

The cycles of nature and the waves in our lives coexist and propagate through the same narrative. Almost as soon as I settled into grad school, I fell in love again. Once again I found myself cycling between school and outside projects, sometimes in and out of control, but on the whole with renewed purpose. In August, I wrote a blog post about my career plans to move between different part-time jobs and projects, striving each day to perform five basic acts: to Learn, to Teach, to Make, to Give, and to Love. Put another way, the cycle of production and consumption is critical to our daily growth. Neither the couch potato nor the workaholic is as balanced as the person who upcycles meaningful goods and ideas into new creations on a daily basis.

This is why I invest so much time in books, movies, music, podcasts, and the like. Apart from being enjoyable to the artist in me, they truly have inspired my own work in explicit and subtle ways, and as part of our collective consciousness, they are a kind of glue that binds, a kind of thread that weaves our experiences together. I’d now like to highlight those that impacted me the most, so that you may find them equally enriching.

Best books I read in 2015

These were not necessarily published in 2015; alas, one of the greatest sadnesses in life is that the rate at which new books are written far eclipses the rate at which any individual can consume them (the same is true for the upcoming categories as well). Furthermore, I seem to have wasted a great deal of my first twenty years letting important books pass me by. When I was freed from the grasps of college, I renewed a vigor for reading which got me to 24 books in 2013, 26 in 2014, and hopefully 30 this year (22 at the time of writing). I’d like to think that I can keep this trend going for many more years, especially as I have just gotten seriously into nonfiction this year. I once said that my goal in life is to one day be able to just read books for the rest of my life.

My new lifestyle is very conducive to reading because I take the BART and Caltrain regularly around the Bay. In fact one of the biggests benefits of ditching my car for public transportation, in my mind, besides all the various environmental and urbanistic benefits that I preach in class, is that I can read. It’s so wonderful to me that the length of my commute doesn’t bother me at all. (NOTE: When I used to drive a lot, podcasts would be the next best thing to do while driving. Nowadays I switch fluidly between podcasts and books on my commute; basically if I’m ever walking or standing on a bus, I’m listening to podcasts, and as soon as I sit down for at least a half hour stretch of time, I switch to music and pull out a book.)

Before we begin, a quick curation of the best I read from 2014:

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