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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Life

On August 3, I had surgery to remove an osteochondroma, which is a small bone mass that occurs in 3% of the population and usually shows up near joints like knees and elbows. Mine was just below the knee on the proximal tibia and was shaped like a hook, as you can see in this X-ray image.

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In 2004 or so, back when I was in middle school, I first noticed one day when I bent my right knee and found that I couldn’t straighten it out, as if there were some sort of tendon holding it locked past some angle. Naturally, my parents and I were freaked out; I remember my dad canceled his business trip the next day out of worry that this was something serious. It turns out that, by the next morning, I had figured out how to unlock my knee by bending it as far as it would go, rotating my whole leg inwards, and then straightening it out in this contorted position, thereby bypassing whatever was locked like a perfectly oiled key. From that point on I went about my days like normal, except my knee locked up dozens of times a day, and dozens of times a day I manually unlocked it with this key-like combination of leg thrusts. As a budding engineer I imagined this to be some kind of mechanical defect in the joint, and in some ways it was even exciting to be discovering how to make a flawed machine work, like knowing the best place to slap the side of the old TV to make the static go away, or the right intensity of air to blow through the N64 cartridge to make it play. A few weeks later I had an MRI, and after reviewing the results, the doctor passed it off as a meniscus tear typical for young athletes and ordered an arthroscopic surgery, three scopes into my right knee. I recall having a pretty bad reaction to the general anesthesia and spending a few miserable days in bed, but upon return to middle school, it was actually pretty fun to be temporarily handicapped, to receive the undeserved concern and attention of your classmates and teachers for just as long as it was graciously offered. In retrospect, that first surgery was completely useless on account of a misdiagnosis, but probably because of inflammation of the entire area, the problem seemed to have been solved. My right knee was no longer locking, and I had enjoyed a few months of indulgent importance.

In 2007 or so, probably somewhere on the football field during marching band practice, my left leg locked for the first time. A few days later, a second doctor noticed something odd on the standard X-ray; on the bottom corner of the image, away from the actual knee region where the previous doctor had focused his inspection, this doctor noticed a strange hook shape right where the tibia narrows from the knee to the long, slender section of the bone (just as I showed above). As he demonstrated, this hook was snatching a specific set of ligaments as they passed over the ridge during bending. Now that I was focused on the right place, I could literally feel it happening under my fingers, like a buckle snapping shut. Suddenly, it became clear that the previous surgery had been pointless, that the source of the locking was still present on both knees, and that the only solution was to actually go in and shave off the hook. I remember feeling nowhere near as curious or fascinated about my predicament; rather I felt the first tinges of a deep melancholy, the kind that I suspect permeates old age, as the unfortunate surprises of our genes all come out into the limelight. It was an early warning sign of the facts we cannot change, the consequences with no one to blame.

My second knee surgery went much more smoothly, given it was less invasive to the knee joint itself, and within a week or so I was hobbling across the football field during early morning marching band practice, shouting comments at my snare line as they trotted across the yard lines, trying to maintain a straight file with a gap where I was supposed to be. About a week later I was back in that gap, surprised by how fast my body recovered from its disability. Having conquered one osteochondroma and lain dormant the other, I was back to being limitless.

Only a year later, I felt a pain in my abdomen and a strange lump in that high school boy’s treasure trove of euphemisms. (The official diagnosis was an inguinal hernia; I called it a third nut.) Whether it was because I was carrying a thirty-pound snare drum for hours a day, or because I was a bit too trigger-happy with my first 24 Hour Fitness gym membership, I was back to despair over this body that was holding me back from my responsibilities as a leader in my drumline, from enjoying my youth without fear of complications. My third surgery was the worst, involving cuts into my abdomen, and left me bedridden for many more existential days.

Almost ten years later, on the eve of my 25th birthday, I was hanging out with friends in Inner Richmond when I felt something shift in my right knee, and a familiar locking sensation. I knew perfectly well how to unlock it, but to my surprise, my remaining osteochondroma was back with a vengeance, locking dozens, maybe hundreds of times a day, basically every time I bent my knee past 90 degrees. I suspect it had something to do with my recent uptick in ski trips this past season. That was about five months ago. I visited a new doctor here in the city, my first time navigating the health care system on my own, and knowing the drill, he and I both went straight to surgery options. We set the date for early August.

The surgery itself felt more nostalgic than anything, that particular luminosity of hospital waiting rooms, the massive exposed sensation of the surgery gown, the speed at which everything seems to move as you enter the operating room and see all the hands move like clockwork to get you into position. As she put a cold fluid through my IV, the anesthesiologist asked me what kind of music I like listening to. I said indie music, folk acoustic. She asked if the Lumineers was fine. I said sure. As “Flowers in Your Hair” started playing, she told me I was about to feel something hot and spicy move through my system. It felt more like a dull, heavy pain begin to seep through my arm. Somebody placed the oxygen mask over my mouth. I don’t remember hearing the end of that short song. About two hours later I woke and, just as I recalled from my past surgeries, could not feel the passage of time, the way you’d feel after sleeping the same amount of time. I had goldfish and animal crackers, just like I remembered. This time, instead of my parents being there, I waited for my friends to come pick me up. I felt good enough to head straight to dinner, and then head over to the East Bay to spend a few days with Boanne and her mom taking care of me. A weekend of Netflix and Wii games, and then I was feeling good enough to return to work at Stanford. I used one crutch on Monday, and none for the rest of the week. A few swabs of rubbing alcohol over the bandaged stitches twice a day, a slight limp wherever I went.

Yesterday I went to the doctor one last time for a post-operative check-up, and the doctor saw that everything was healing properly. The only complication I seem to have is a slight numbness in the nerve that he had to move aside during surgery; apparently it can decide to go to sleep for weeks or months before waking up again. It’s a small price to pay for being rid of a lifelong annoyance. Although, ironically, it’s really hard to break free of the habit of unlocking my knee every time I think I have locked my knee, even though it theoretically will never happen again. I suppose I will have phantom osteochondroma for quite some time.

Four surgeries down; many more to come. If I’ve come to belief anything bone-deep, it’s the following. We should never take our able bodies for granted. We should never take the accessibility designs of our built environment for granted and treat those with disabilities with the utmost compassion. And we should be with who we elect to manage our health care, in more ways than one.

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Art

This week I’ve been listening to two of my favorite female debut artists from 2013: Haim and Lorde. I felt like both sophomore efforts this year, unfortunately, were a letdown, but have their moments.

Haim’s Something to Tell You, I feared, could have gone in the direction of Taylor Swift, but instead is a surprisingly fresh road trip through the 70s, 80s, and 90s. Quite literally, there are songs in the album that sound like the love child of Celine Dion and George Michael, or Hanson and Fleetwood Mac, or ABBA and Michael Jackson. For that alone it’s a wonderful listen and a testament to the creative sensibilities of the Valley sisters. Anthem “Want You Back”, which is on my shortlist for best music video of the year, and “You Never Knew”, which Bleeds Orange all over in the best possible way, are the standouts so far. For the rest of the album I’m constantly being thrown back to memories of some random radio ad background song I can’t remember from the early oughts, or a specific guitar song from a long lost oldies playlist. Now all that being said, I still think Days Are Gone was the better album. There’s somehow still more diversity, more kick-ass rhythm, and more cinematic beauty throughout that album from “Falling” to “The Wire” to “Running If You Call My Name”. But Haim is definitely still in the game. My rating: 3.5/5

Lorde’s Melodrama I’m having a harder time getting into. The magic of Pure Heroine was its minimalist nonchalance, the feeling that you were discovering a superstar in the making in the bedroom studio of an unnamed suburb halfway around the world. The maturations and production upgrades of her second album all make sense, but one of the effects is that these songs feel sound a bit less distinguishable from each other. Nothing transports me quite to the extent that “Ribs” or “400 Lux” did; the closest trips are “Supercut” and the Loveless half of “Hard Feelings/Loveless”. But I do have to admit that the unfettered, anthemic arrivals in “Green Light” and “Perfect Places” are a great new territory for Lorde which I’m perfectly happy to have. My rating: 3.5/5

I’ll quickly add that the second single “Guilty Party” by The National is an absolute gem and was on repeat for much of my Tokyo trip. Can’t wait to see them perform this in October.

Movies: There have been some great ones in the last couple of weeks. Baby Driver was so much better than the trailer made it out to be, with a surprisingly confident lead by Ansel Elgort and entertaining support from Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm, and Lily James. But the standout is director Edgar Wright with some absolutely delightful direction and vision, from the irreverent screenplay to the danceable soundtrack. I can’t say there’s a lot of depth here, but there sure is a joy ride.

I also watched Okja on Netflix which I’ve been anxiously awaiting, and it did not disappoint with its narrative acrobatics and surprisingly believable-looking, Totoro-like muse. As a new vegetarian, I really appreciated how serious of a thematic ground an otherwise unserious film gets to, with grace and confidence. Bong Joon-ho has struck gold twice with back-to-back ecological fantasties Snowpiercer and Okja, and I’m already impatiently awaiting the third, and what crazy role Tilda Swinton will play.

The Big Sick was also a solid Apatow production that tactfully commented on the perils of religious culture, delighted with surprisingly messy and moving performances from the parents Ray Romano and Holly Hunter, and knocked it out of the ballpark with the funniest in-movie joke I can recall this year. But the biggest surprise I’ve recently seen was Cars 3. It was honestly a throwaway entertainment one night, but I forgot that Pixar should, under no circumstances, be underestimated. I’m pretty sure I did not watch Cars 2 and barely remember anything about Cars, but if you give the third one a shot, you’ll see that it firmly stands on its own four wheels with a narrative idea that beats Moana, Finding Dory, Kubo and the Two Strings — every animated film since Zootopia. I don’t want to spoil it, except to say that it’s about as prescient as Pixar could get to our current political conscience without making a movie about politics, and to implore you to give it the chance it deserves.

In terms of books, I’ve mainly just enjoyed Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape, which, like his other books I’ve read, aren’t quite excellent as literature but are stock full of intellectual clarity and honesty on the most vital ideas in my mind this year. It’s actually probably the best place to start with Harris, so I encourage those who are willing to resist whatever stigma may be attached to his name from whatever dogmatic source to give it a try. More on the ideas themselves in an upcoming post.

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Journal

I just got back from a week in Tokyo and am scrambling to get caught up, so here is a quick account of my travels the last two weeks!

Monterrey was a wonderful culmination to the student work this past Spring. There wasn’t too much time for exploration outside of our meetings, but on our free afternoon we headed to Macroplaza, the downtown civic center, to see two interesting exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MARCO), one by Korean light thread artist Jeongmoon Choi and the other by Dreamworks. MARCO was design by Legoretta, who also designed the new Schwab residences on Stanford campus, among many famous buildings around the world. I would characterize his work as minimalist in the modern sense, but bordering on postmodern in its whimsical investigation of form. That being said, standing in his sculpture can be exhilarating. In the main hall, this massive yellow shaft hangs down from the ceiling and acts as a private skylight for the receptionist desk. I was also struck by the elegance of the more general clerestory grooves in another space.

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The Dreamworks exhibition was surprisingly moving as it reminded me a lot of my artistic upbringing, which was largely based on pencil sketching. My brother did much more of the CGI rendering which also was highlighted in the exhibit. I particularly enjoyed the process sketches from Madagascar, and the architectural studies Kung Fu Panda and other movies.

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As for food, I must confess I succumbed to eating some Arrachera steak which, in my defense, was already ordered and would have been wasted otherwise (it was just as good as I remembered). Mostly I stuck to my vegetarian diet and wasn’t disappointed, especially given the simple perfection of a little taco stand beside the hotel, and chilaquiles.

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So I got back from Monterrey last Friday, did laundry, dropped in on some homies at an afterparty for an Ivy League young alumni mixer (which I was glad I did not attend), and then was back to SFO early the next morning. The direct flight to Tokyo Haneda was about eleven hours, which I spent watching two indie films I had missed, Certain Women and Paterson (both solid 3.5s), and half of Planet Earth 2 (which I finished up on the flight back) and reading a little bit of Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman by Murakami. I got to Tokyo around 3pm on a Saturday. I had asked the Asian Leadership Conference to give me an extra day before and after the event to allow me to travel. I started off by waking over to the Imperial Palace outer grounds, checking out a little Da Vinci and Michelangelo sketching exhibit at a Mitsubishi museum, and then trying a mid-tier sushi dinner for about $60 at Manten Sushi. It did not disappoint, and was seriously too much food, as a guy from Apple and I reflected after enjoying the entire meal in silence at the corner of the traditional L-shaped counter. It was very much like what you see in Jiro Dreams of Sushi, in which the chef selects the entire meal and drops individual pieces of sushi or sashimi on a plate, or sometimes more exotic concoctions like sea urchin directly on a piece of seaweed in your hand, mixed in with bowls of other treats. You sit there patiently cleansing your palette with ginger and drinking tea while you watch the sushi chef prepare the exact same rounds for a group of you who arrived around the same time, while preparing slightly delayed or slightly different meals for other customers. By far the tuna sashimi blew me away, and I think probably ruined all the other mediocre sushi I had for the rest of the trip. I have yet to attempt to see how the top-tier $100+ restaurants compare, but that will have to await another trip and higher honoraria.

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After dinner, I floundered around Tokyo Station’s Character Street for a bit before heading to the other side of the city to check out the famous Shibuya Shuffle. In a little alleyway nearby I walked in on an impromptu concert by this band called LOOP POOL which was totally chill, like a little taste of Real Estate and American Football. I wandered further south and, after getting lost a bit in a seedy little red light district, ended up at this red gem of a building, Aoyama Technical College, by Deconstructivist Makoto Sei Watanabe. Other highlights of the night include pretty solid $1 coffee out of a machine at every Seven Eleven, generally impressive infiltration of vending machines everywhere, and a serene moment with one of my favorite buildings of all time, the Nakagin Capsule Towers by Metabolist Kisho Kurokawa.

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By around 1:30am I was back in Ginza and walked over to the Tsukiji Fish Market, which was the ultimate destination for my whole sleep-deprived journey, as I heard that a select group of 120 people could get in to see the 5am tuna auction (also as seen in Jiro) if they got to the information center really early. Here’s the official signage I found at 1:30am, as well as the view inside the waiting room you have to sit/stand in from 2:30-5:30am, if you are considering the ordeal. Luckily, I got in right at the same time as a fellow traveler-and-blogger-at-heart, Civa (@Row8c), who was a delight to talk to for the four hour wait.

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Near the end of the wait, an auctioneer came in and talked to us about the tuna auction, noting that the average tuna is 100 kilos sells for about $10-30 per kilogram, along with many other interesting facts. Then the yellow-vested group got to go in first, and we watched the auctioneers hack at the exposed tail-ends of the massive fish, shine a light at the meat, rub in between their fingertips, and make quick notes on a clipboard before doing lightning-fast bidding with raised hands for select rows of tuna at a time. Outside, the scene was reminiscent of a Tatooine droid market, especially with the peculiar R2-D2 shaped shippers whizzing back and forth. Overall it was definitely worth experiencing a cultural pulse of Tokyo firsthand, despite the cruel industrialism of it all. At the very least, you get to see a system that’s imbued with veneration for nature.

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By the time I was done at Tsukiji it was 6:30am, and because I still couldn’t check into Hotel Okura until 2pm, I headed over to Roppongi to check out a few more points of architectural interest (21_21 DESIGN SIGHT; a really gorgeous campus for the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies; view from the top of Roppongi Hills Mori Tower), as well as enjoy what turned out to be the best ramen of the trip.

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Then I passed out for essentially 15 hours. The conference started on Monday and was a really wonderful opportunity to meet national and local government representatives from the participating countries (India, China, Myanmar, Pakistan, Georgia, Sri Lanka, Fiji, and Timor-Leste) as well as fellow speakers from Japan, Singapore, Korea, and other places doing amazing sustainable and resilient development in Pacific Asia. I definitely felt out of place, both as a young speaker and as a speaker on the SDGs which didn’t seem to be of much significance to most of these developing countries. But by the end of the conference, it sounded like quite a few of the participants were motivated to localize SDG and smart city thinking into their cities; it was also surreal to get a chance to sit next to the head of the Department of Climate Change in China on a bus trip to Yokohama and share our honest thoughts on greenhouse gas geopolitics. On the last evening of the conference, a group of us who got especially close having mostly all been on the SDG panel together, hailing from Australia, Singapore, Korea, the Philippines, and the U.S. headed out for a classic night of yakitori and sake and made the world seem as small and down to earth as a sunken table. For our final lunch the next day (the start of a 4-meal ramen marathon), we discovered that four out of five of us were left handed.

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For the end of my trip, with a few more days for sightseeing, I made a last-minute decision, based on a good recommendation by a new colleague, to head to Kyoto for a day-trip. Before that, I checked out a few more places in Tokyo, including Sou Fujimoto’s NA House and some of the artsy retail buildings in Omotesando and Daikanyama, and, of course, ramen.

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The next morning, I checked out of my hotel, stored my suitcase in one of the ubiquitous lockers of the train stations, and boarded a Shinkansen bullet train to Kyoto. Kyoto was full of beautifully crafted (by which I mean deliberate nature, as is Japanese custom) and sometimes eccentric details. Just start with the public transit: the almost cute fins of the bullet train, and the seats of the Keifuku Electric Railroad train which you can transform by pivoting the back piece from one side to the other, instantly creating a cluster of 4 seats facing each other (on the Shinkansen the entire seat swiveled 180 degrees).

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In Arashiyama, the famous bamboo forest was serene if a bit ruined by tourists, and I was especially struck by a pair of crows navigating down the hollowed path as if a natural hallway. Based on a tip from a blog, I checked out the Okochi Sanso Garden Villa at the end of the forest, which had a little meditation room with a miniature rock garden out one side and a series of tables with poetry and blank paper to practice calligraphy on. I must have spent 20 minutes there, completely alone.

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Next up was Kinkaku-ji with its famous golden temple, which left me thinking, why isn’t every temple golden? While there I was blessed with some really stellar cloudy weather for photography. And another excellent ramen nearby — this one with a wait down the block. One thing worth noting — pretty much every ramen I tried was vastly different, unlike the mainstream type you get in the States.

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A bit south of Kinkaku-ji is this peculiar street with a bunch of monstrous creatures guarding the storefronts. And on the east side of the city, I strolled down Philosopher’s Walk which follows a crawling channel shaded by lush trees. It seems like the kind of place I would have frequented often, had I done Stanford’s study abroad at Kyoto.

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I saved the last stop, Fushimi Inari, for the the magical changing of light around sunset. I will say that Kyoto can quickly overwhelm you with temple saturation, in which the vast majority of the shrines look exactly the same, but Kinkaku-ji and Fushimi Inari stand out amongst the crowd. The mountain has a 4 kilometer loop trail in which you pass through thousands of torii, each a gift by a wealthy donor to the spirit of fertility and industry. As an architect, I had been yearning to experience this massive-scale environmental design for years, and once you got past the swarming crowds of basic tourists trying to snap selfies, the quieter forest trails up above were exhilarating. As I hoped, there was a delightful play of sunlight on and through these structures, as well as surprises, like the fact that the back sides have tons of writing, the occasional mounds of shrines and fox statues, and a black cat that appeared between my feet as I was taking a photograph.

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And to cap off the night, one more ramen with a line out the door and a playlist that included, of all ironies, Justin Bieber singing “Despacito”.

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I took the midnight bus out of Kyoto so I wouldn’t need to get a hotel for the extra night. At 6am the next morning I was in Tokyo with a few hours left to spare, so I checked out Akihabara, St. Mary’s Cathedral by Kenzo Tange, Yasukuni Shrine which commemorates Japan’s war dead, complete with a war museum which had an unnervingly different depiction of WWII than you get in the U.S., Harajuku (where I picked up a new pair of Japan-made black kicks from Onitsuka Tiger), and a museum full of architectural models by great Japanese architects.

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Overall it was wonderful to spend a whole week in Japan, where I haven’t been for almost twenty years. I kept reaching into the inner depths of my memory to seek if anything would connect; perhaps the only thing that surprised me was seeing the real-life Mario Kart rides zipping through Shibuya Shuffle, and feeling strongly like I’ve seen them before. Otherwise, I just enjoyed participating in an enriching conference, meeting new acquaintances and hopefully future collaborators, and consuming a satisfying amount of Japanese architecture and cuisine.

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Art, Ideas, Life

It’s been about a month since I last wrote. Once again I am in purgatory, also known as the airport, where I arrived at 5am only to find that my United flight to Monterrey was rescheduled to 2:30pm. No serious harm done, as this has afforded me some quality time to work, but it does mean that my SUS team will have a harder time preparing for our meetings tomorrow, in which we’ll present the outcomes of the project course this Spring. Monterrey will be at 100 degrees F this week. Last time I was there, spring break, I was noncommittal vegetarian; this time around, I’m a struggling vegan. We’ll see if I succumb to the temptations of arrachera.

I get back Friday night, and then the next day, I’m off to Tokyo for a week for the Asia Leadership Conference on Sustainable Development and Climate Change. I believe I was invited pretty much because the organizers read this blog post; don’t underestimate the value of maintaining your professional online presence. The organizers were really generous to agree to book my trip with one extra day at the beginning and end, which means I’ll get to pull a couple of all-nighters in Tokyo like a Murakami character and take in a city I went to as a little kid, but haven’t yet truly experienced as a “woke” urbanist, foodie, techie, artist, etc. etc. Any recommendations for places I should visit are greatly appreciated.

Since I’m stuck in SFO for the next 6 hours, I figured I’d do some catch up on life, arts, and culture this past month.

First the Stanford Architectural Design Program hosted two lectures as part of AIA continuing education and for the Senior Show, which are always a great opportunity to listen to some architects speak about their work. Thomas Woltz from Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects gave a breathtaking lecture, perhaps the best I’ve ever seen in the series, and in particular, helped me understand the unique artistry and power that landscape architects can wield at the top of their craft. I was especially struck by their Memorial Park project in Houston in which trees are not just architectural form but dynamic program, in that they represent a specific number of fallen soldiers and are planned to be felled, in unison, 25 years after planting, to commemorate the equivalent human loss at that average age, and planted and felled again in the same pattern for perpetuity. What a staggering design decision, well above what most buildings can ever claim. On the other hand, Greg Pasquarelli from SHoP Architects perfectly represented, in my view, the worst trends of contemporary architecture in his firm’s body of work. I won’t get into the details (unless I am asked to), but the Barclay’s Center is the kind of architecture that looks great in a napkin sketch, on Rhino, and from about 1,000 feet away, but it hideous up-close because of the fundamental inability of planar metal construction components to represent curved, parametric forms. It’s as fundamental (and comical) of an attempt as Lego architecture, and perhaps should be reserved for the Toys”R”Us aisle, because these parametric prefabrication-and-assembly techniques fundamentally add little performative value to complex buildings besides aesthetics and mild shading. They contribute almost nothing to the most important functions of the architectural envelope: structure, weather protection, and thermal insulation. In other words, the most exciting thing about contemporary architecture is basically fancy skins. And Pasquarelli drove this point fully home when he ended with the most egregious project of all, 111 West 57th Street, which will be the most slender building in the world at 1,438ft, 82 stories, and 316,000 sqft, but will only have 60 tenants. Oh yeah, and a beautiful neo-Gothic gladding on the outsides of two massive concrete shear walls, because the tenants can afford to be a spectacle on the skyline. If this is the direction of the architectural profession, then I’m honestly glad to be transitioning to urban design and planning. The more I understand cities, the more I understand that the most important decisions made about a building are its urban constraints and urban interactions. Maybe, then, architecture really is just the leftover cosmetics.

The first weekend of June, my family came up to SF and I took them to enjoy Squaw Valley at Lake Tahoe. But first, I went to a great Lambchop concert at the Great American Music Hall in SF, which is a quaint little venue with little roundtables instead of standing area. At Squaw, I rocked my Boboskis wearing just a t-shirt and shorts and spent most of two days on Granite Chief pushing my speed on moguls. There was also a fun luge-like section on Shirley Lake Express. We also checked out Sand Harbor and part of the Shirley Creek Trail, which is a truly magical hike.

Coming back from Tahoe, I then spent the week with a visiting group from Sichuan University (which I had visited earlier in May). I invite all readers to take a look at some documentation of the SUS Symposium I organized on June 8. On Friday I took the group on a curated tour of San Francisco, which included the Ferry Building, Powell-Hyde Cable Car, Lombard Street, Pier 39, ferry to Sausalito, the Bay Model Visitor Center, floating homes, a walk across the Golden Gate Bridge, Palace of Fine Arts, and PPQ Dungeness Crab Restaurant.

This past week I started transitioning to the summer quarter, when I’ll be working with some students on special projects and preparing curriculum for next year. I went with Abi to see Rostam at the Independent, which was awesome because he played songs from Discovery and Vampire Weekend in addition to some upcoming music that almost sounds like it could be in a Kanye album. In terms of albums I’ve been listening to, it’s been early releases from The War on Drugs’ A Deeper Understanding, Sufjan and friends’ Planetarium, Big Thief’s Capacity, and Fleet Foxes’ Crack-Up. TWOD is really promising so far; “Thinking of a Place” has totally grown on me to match some of the best of Lost in a Dream over its 11 minutes, and “Holding On” is a full-on Bruce Springsteen joyride.

Planetarium turned out to be much more like “Saturn” than “Mercury”, in terms of styles the two initial singles teased. There are some really ambient orchestral sections that, while beautifully produced, aren’t quite interesting enough for me to listen to regularly, and there are some more jagged and space-rock moments in “Jupiter” and “Mars” that wade a bit too far into Age of Adz waters for me. “Neptune” and “Venus” are lush and engrossing tracks, in addition to the beautiful “Mercury”, and “Earth” is a whopping 15 minutes which almost feels like the entire album captured in one track, going from ambient to electronic and back and packing some quintessentially Sufjan-emo contemplations. Overall this is an interesting musical experience, but I preferred Sufjan’s last side project, Sisyphus. My rating: 3/5

Capacity has been an absolute stunner for me, proving that I really need to start trusting NPR Music just as much as a trust Pitchfork (which also rated it highly). The best thing I can say about Big Thief, besides Adrianne Lenker’s deeply personal songwriting, is that at their best, they evoke the sound of The Weepies. The best examples of this in the album are “Haley” and “Black Diamonds”. “Haley” in particular is going to be on my top 10 songs of the year list. It has a simple but extended climbing melody that is imbued with a lush string orchestration, spot-on drum fills, and perfectly moving time signature and key changes. Other good songs include “Mythological Beauty”, “Objects”, and “Mary”. My rating: 4.5/5

Finally, Crack-Up finally came out and on the whole is an engrossing listen and, as usual, doesn’t quite reward a playlist with easy singles, but there are some gems which make this comparable to, if not quite at the level of, Helplessness Blues. The earlier singles, “Third of May / Odaigahara”, “Fool’s Errand”, and “If You Need To, Keep Time on Me” turn out to be the main ones. But I also really enjoy the pair “Cassius, -” and “- Naiads, Cassadies”. Take a listen, and in the latter song, reflect on the beautiful lyrics below. My rating: 4/5

Who stole the life from you?
Who turned you so against you?
Who was the thief who shaved your teeth
Accepting just virtue

And did he act alone?
Were any more complicit?
When he would sing and offer the ring
What older voice said, “kiss it”?

Fire can’t doubt its heat
Water can’t doubt its power
You’re not adrift, you’re not a gift
You know you’re not a flower

Movies: This month I watched Their Finest, The Lovers, Wonder Woman, Beatriz at Dinner, and It Comes at Night. I’d recommend all of them, especially Their Finest which is a nice preparation for the upcoming Dunkirk and Beatriz which is as literal of an illustration of our sociopolitical divide as can be found on screen this year.

Podcasts: I highly recommend “The Gondolier” on Radiolab, the new season of Invisibilia, and the entire third season of 2 Dope Queens.

Books: Against Empathy by Paul Bloom was not a particularly impactful read, but mostly because I’ve already mulled over its ideas for a long time. If we ever talk about the difference between empathy and compassion, I’ll be referencing this book. Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance certainly met my expectations as an honest portrait of Appalachian and Rust Belt America with this damning conclusion:

I believe we hillbillies are the toughest goddamned people on this earth. We take an electric saw to the hide of those who insult our mother. We make young men consume cotton undergarments to protect a sister’s honor. But are we tough enough to do what needs to be done to help a kid like Brian? Are we tough enough to build a church that forces kids like me to engage with the world rather than withdraw from it? Are we tough enough to look ourselves in the mirror and admit that our conduct harms our children?

Public policy can help, but there is no government that can fix these problems for us.

But Hillbilly paled in comparison to Matthew Desmond’s Evicted, which absolutely exceeded my expectations and definitely deserves the Pulitzer. All I can say is that for an author to pull off telling a harrowing and tragic documentation of families suffering through eviction in Milwaukee that reads like fiction, and to have done it accurately and honestly and ethically, is the kind of feat that, if I had experienced it earlier in my life, might have pushed me towards sociological research. Go read it as soon as you can.

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Art

One last post for the weekend on some books, music, and movies I’ve enjoyed this month.

I really haven’t had much time to read in all my travels, but on the plane to Beijing I got through a few of the poetry books that Sam had had me receive on Amazon to bring to her in China. They were all collections of poems by Philip Levine, originally from Detroit and up until recently residing in Fresno, CA. One of his earlier works, What Work Is, was the most moving to me, a depiction of working-class life in beautiful prose verse. Here’s “What Work Is”:

We stand in the rain in a long line
waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.
You know what work is—if you’re
old enough to read this you know what
work is, although you may not do it.
Forget you. This is about waiting,
shifting from one foot to another.
Feeling the light rain falling like mist
into your hair, blurring your vision
until you think you see your own brother
ahead of you, maybe ten places.
You rub your glasses with your fingers,
and of course it’s someone else’s brother,
narrower across the shoulders than
yours but with the same sad slouch, the grin
that does not hide the stubbornness,
the sad refusal to give in to
rain, to the hours wasted waiting,
to the knowledge that somewhere ahead
a man is waiting who will say, ‘No,
we’re not hiring today,’ for any
reason he wants. You love your brother,
now suddenly you can hardly stand
the love flooding you for your brother,
who’s not beside you or behind or
ahead because he’s home trying to
sleep off a miserable night shift
at Cadillac so he can get up
before noon to study his German.
Works eight hours a night so he can sing
Wagner, the opera you hate most,
the worst music ever invented.
How long has it been since you told him
you loved him, held his wide shoulders,
opened your eyes wide and said those words,
and maybe kissed his cheek? You’ve never
done something so simple, so obvious,
not because you’re too young or too dumb,
not because you’re jealous or even mean
or incapable of crying in
the presence of another man, no,
just because you don’t know what work is.

Just back from travels this week, I final got through Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation, which I wrote about two posts earlier. I’ve got a stack of new books on my desk which are all non-fiction, so it’ll be some time before I get back into literature, but I’ve got a great list from Sam I’m excited to explore.

My May playlist consists of Sylvan Esso, Slowdive, Perfume Genius, Mac DeMarco, two singles released from Planetarium, and now one single from The National’s upcoming album.

Sylvan Esso’s What Now has really grown on me and is an excellent sequel to their debut a few years ago. I think the most toxic thing about the music is Amelia Meath’s voice, which has a strangely Southern, strangely street twang that works so well in an aggressively punk sort of way. It activates when she goes into a higher register of her voice; take the intro of “The Glow” where she’s reminiscing about sweet details from childhood, including “Deanna’s so beautiful / Pretending not to care” — right there she gives the end of that verse the perfect amount of kick to swing into a high-energy chorus. Looking up the lyrics just now on Genius, I just discovered that she’s referring to The Microphones’ The Glow Pt. 2 which is just awesome. Other songs I really like: “Song”, “Just Dancing”, “Signal”, and “Rewind”. I guess I would place them in a similar space in my musical landscape as CHVRCHES and Flock of Dimes (who is opening for them in August at the Fox Theater), but they are the most down-to-earth and free-styling of the three. My rating: 4/5

Slowdive was a new find for me (especially given that they’ve been on hiatus for almost as long as I’ve been alive), but the music sounds strangely familiar to me. There is a general similarity to a band I can’t for the life of me think of, but otherwise I hear connections to The Police, The War on Drugs, Pink Floyd, Broken Social Scene, and most of all, The Antlers. It’s the melodious moments when the lead singer’s voice reminds me of Peter Silberman (eg. the slower sections of “Don’t Know Why”) that this music really resonates the most with me. Other songs I like: “Slomo”, “Sugar for the Pill”, and “No Longer Making Time”. 4/5

Now, Perfume Genius has been the most exhilarating release of May and has really elevated their status in my mind since I saw Mike Hadreas as an opener for Belle & Sebastien at the Greek a few years ago. I highly recommend you listen to his interview on Song Exploder to hear directly from Mike how this album was a departure from past sounds. I would describe songs like “Slip Away” and “Wreath” as achieving something of a Yeasayer “I Remember” kind of epic cinematic scope, and it sure has been a long time since I’ve experienced music like this. There are also really elegant tunes like “Valley” and “Every Night”, sprawling gothic landscapes like “Sides” featuring a haunting Weyes Blood, and beautiful ballads like “Alan”. This album is really a cut above the rest in its ambition and intensity, and I suspect you will see this on a bunch of top-10 charts at the end of the year. My rating: 4.5/5

Mac DeMarco, meanwhile, has made the chillest album of the month that is also a complete joy to listen to. Where Real Estate feels like driving fast on a highway, Mac DeMarco’s This Old Dog feels like skating slow through a suburban neighborhood (likely with a pitbull following you). I enjoyed listening him talk about his life on WTF, but really it’s not essential knowledge to appreciate the attention to rich layering and sonic harmony throughout this album. I particularly like the use of synths in songs like “For the First Time”, “Dreams for Yesterday”, and “Watching Him Fade Away” to evoke disco and soul vibes alongside folksy guitar songs like “Baby You’re Out”, “One Another”, and “Still Beating”. The standout song is “A Wolf Who Wears Sheep’s Clothes” which features a really fresh slide effect on the lead guitar, accompanied by harmonica and claves in the background. Overall he’s like a modern stoner reincarnation of the old Cat Stevens. My rating: 4/5

Coming up is a collaboration between Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly & James McAlister called Planetarium. I’ve been quite fascinated by the promise of Sufjan Stevens side projects since loving Sisyphus, and the two songs that have been released so far, “Saturn” and “Mercury”, paint two very different portraits of what this project could overall sound like. The former is heavy Auto-Tune and almost becomes danceable, while the latter almost fits into Carrie & Lowell with a beautiful melody and a sprawling outro. Whichever direction the overall album heads, I am very much optimistic. Meanwhile, The National has unveiled some really sweet modernist graphic design and an intriguing song, “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness.” Overall the track is much more rocky than anything on Trouble Will Find You, which is not necessarily a direction I’m excited about, but nonetheless it sure is nice to hear Matt Berninger’s voice again.

Finally, films. I’ve only watched two films so far in May and they were both this weekend. If you liked Prometheus, which I totally did, then you’ll certainly like Alien: Covenant, which is a satisfying extension of the same scope and rich dynamism of characters/species. I’ve always loved the ambition of a story that introduces three very different forms of life: human, alien, and machine, and crafts a mythology that inexplicably ties the fate of all three. Humans, as before, are simultaneously cursed and blessed with the flaws of faith and love. In this sequel, the arguably best character of Prometheus, Michael Fassbender’s android David, gets a foil in the doppelganger American-accent version, Walter, and Ridley Scott employs some really delightful film magic in a long shot panning back and forth between the two Fassbenders as David teachers Walter how to play a musical instrument. Compared to a crappy film like Passengers which I was forced to watch on the plane back from China, this film seems to pack about tenfold more plot and character into the same space (pun intended). One thing that certainly helps is a cast of characters whose fate actually really matter to the audience. The final plot twist was fairly predictable, but that didn’t stop it from being a guilty pleasure to watch unfold. Turns out the other movie I watched this weekend was also a space film, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2. As much as I enjoyed the irreverent humor of the first one, and noted successful things happening in this sequel, I sort of lost interest halfway through and began to wonder whether the magic of Marvel is starting to wear off. I hope that Thor: Ragnarok pulls off a really different type of comedy that has a longer half life for me.

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