2019 Review

I realize this is almost a month late, but as I am spending the majority of my time in Taipei this year I feel that it is not too egregious an offense to publish this post on (lunar) new years day.

I’m quite disappointed to have only written two posts in 2019 (including one hilariously misdated weekly update at the beginning of the year) but at the same time I’m glad to have spent more time goofing off and lazing about after a generally no good 2018. What 2020 has in store for my personal output is probably going to depend on how often my friends pester me about it.

Much like previous years, I spent a lot of time with people older than me and am incredibly fortunate to have these adults take me seriously and indulge in my curiosities. I think the different experiences and perspectives that come with generational gaps remain one of the most accessible yet underappreciated knowledge arbitrages. While parents of friends, colleagues, and older family members remain the most comfortable group for me to engage with, this year I found myself looking forward to tagging along with my parents to meet with their friends. I also ventured out to my first FinTwit meetup (Twitter is still the most underrated knowledge platform) and had a lovely time being the only college student in a crowd of kind and nerdy finance people.

My friends often ask me about these 長輩 (while the closest translation of zhang bei is “elder” it doesn’t imply that they are old but merely older) and how I seek them out and develop friendships. I never really knew how to answer beyond the usual platitudes of “Oh, he’s a really cool guy and enjoys our conversations” or “We just have similar interests”. It wasn’t until when I spent an afternoon with a close relative at a secondhand watch store that I finally realized what the secret sauce was. As he examined the bracelet of a “Hulk” Submariner, he started rattling off about how the serial number of the bracelet needed to match a specific set of serial numbers for the watch, how watches that carried those numbers had different lines of text on the dial, and how the number “4” on the bezel needed to have a flat top instead of a pointy one. I had at best a cursory understanding of his explanation but thought to myself, “man, what fun!” Each of these 長輩 have at least one child-like obsession that they are extremely passionate about and want to share with anyone that is curious enough to give them the time and attention.

Having never lived through a serious economic downturn in my adult life—and being kept well insulated and aloof during the ones of my childhood—one of my favorite questions to ask this year was about people’s experiences during the 2008 financial crisis. Certainly, secondhand experience with a heavy dose of hindsight bias does not substitute for living through actual events but it was still interesting to hear about how different people and firms deal with great uncertainty and stress. The ones that came out of the crisis relatively well off were both extremely confident and flexible in their ability and supremely humble in acknowledging their limitations and the fact that they—until they figure it out—did not have all the answers. Another commonality was that they all had strong family structures that could ride out or placate the emotional and psychological difficulties as a unit. The latter discovery led me to add a follow-up question, “what was the first phone call home like?” Hearing about the spouses and parents that provide background support for people working in an often times impersonal industry was quite interesting and added depth to simply describing “the job”.

Murakami’s asserts that one can only think differently if one reads different books, I think the same not only applies to the social sphere but is enhanced by it. The subtleties of micro-gestures, body posture, and atmosphere—ever elusive in digital despite improvements in video quality—give more nuance to the spoken word. Interactions with these 長輩 are one of the most intellectual, fun, and satisfying ways to spend my time.

This year was the first full (almost) summer that I spent in Asia since going to school in the U.S. I’ve missed the incredible livability of Taipei and look forward to spending most of 2020 here. I am also glad to have gotten to know Hong Kong and Tokyo better over the year—spending about a month in the former and seriously venturing out of the sanctuary of Ginza in the latter. All three cities remain very familiar which perhaps points to a general retreat towards normalcy and stagnation after the end of the boom years in the early 2000s.

Though not as extreme as a city like Penang, the pace of life is decelerating everywhere in Taipei outside of Xinyi district. The yearly additions of yet another new department store in Xinyi seems to be siphoning all social activity and value creation away from the periphery. This concentration seems to be mirroring the general lack of creativity and energy in the Taiwanese economy outside of the standout semiconductor industry—especially TSMC. The path forward for the city and country—barring extreme shocks to the Chinese political order—both seem destined to continue current trajectories.

Tokyo remains, to me, one of the most exciting cities in the world. Its eccentricities are vast and quality world class. My dad and I spent an afternoon trawling the watch markets of Nakano while my cousin and aunt found one of the most offbeat presents I’ve ever received (a zoomorphic painting of a cross between a salamander and a V-22 Osprey). Our family decided to spend my grandmother’s birthday at Sushi Saito, easily one of the best dining experiences I’ve ever had. Nothing quite beats seeing someone at the peak of his craft perform with such joy, being able to taste Saito-san’s food was just the cherry on top.

This year was a rather slow year in terms of TV and movies, the only two memorable experiences for me were Netflix’s Drive to Survive and the animes Mob Psycho 100 and Demon Slayer. Instead I’ve allocated more time to my newsletter, blog, and Twitter consumption. Text is still my preferred medium due to its ability to build depth and nuance but the visual medium does have many emotional and descriptive properties irreplicable by words. Tangentially, I’ve really taken a liking to the Shinkai Makato school of background aesthetic—some blend of Venkatesh Rao’s domestic cozy and mono no aware with an emphasis on urban subject matter.

I finished 38 books this year (one up from 37 in 2018) but also started dropping a lot more books midway through. This development removed the mental stress that comes with needing to finish the entire volume regardless of enjoyableness but has also compounded my liberal book buying habits. It is somewhat amusing, though, that this practice has only begun recently considering my tendency to skim or ignore assigned reading. I suspect that my introduction of tech blogs written in the Silicon Valley style—like good code: short, concise, and to the point—has slowly built up a distaste for non-fiction that is excessively flowery or imprecise.

My reading list this year largely migrated beyond the theme of international relations and (for the first time) included no books specifically on China. I think the current literature hasn’t really seen any substantial development in the past few years and the arguments seem either recycled or rather unimaginative. I’ve substituted it with reading more books in mandarin than in previous years. I found 余秋雨’s comments on growing up during the Cultural Revolution impactful but his meditations repetitive about two-thirds of the way through.

I made the mistake in reading Liu Cixin’s Three Body Problem trilogy in mandarin—he himself now pushes readers to Ken Liu’s English translation—and gave up after the second volume. I thought the premise and pacing of the first book rather good and especially enjoyed the story lines centered in the mid-1960s. I slowly lost interest as the timeline moved further into the speculative future.

In addition to Liu Cixin, Ted Chiang’s Exhalations and Ken Liu’s The Paper Menagerie were my first forays into science fiction. The stories of Chiang and Liu were usually pretty grounded in reality but interwoven with fantastical elements which perhaps presented easier material than the Three Body Problem for a new reader. Their prose was also much stronger and more beautiful than Liu’s. This is not to critique The Three Body Problem—which I think is an interesting series in its own right, not to mention its tremendous cultural impact—but rather that I simply enjoyed my experience with Exhalations and The Paper Menagerie more.

I also added more architecture and urban design books to my diet. Tom Kundig of Olson Kundig remains one of my favorite residential architects with the way he plays with the adaptable and changing nature of how we deal with space. Stewart Brand’s How Buildings Learn is I think one of the most clever books on systems thinking. It’s been a helpful guide to apply some of its lessons to other applications in different contexts such as dependency and technological paradigms or desire paths and UX design. Finally, Order Without Design was an interesting study on how economic decision making drives the ultimate shape and design of cities. Alain Bertaud’s discussion with Tyler Cowen on the themes of the book were similarly insightful and acts as a great compendium.

The other standout reads largely centered around investigating why great organizations are great and why some of them are no longer so great. Go Like Hell is about how great egos, brilliant people, and obsessive competition drove Ford to surpass Ferrari at the 1966 Le Mans. The book does a good job at showing the infighting on both sides as well as Ford’s struggle to escape its hulking bureaucracy and create a competitive car. Netflixed showed how difficult battling an incumbent actually is and how close Blockbuster was to killing Netflix. I think the book gave a lot of due credit to John Antioco’s management team for repositioning a struggling company to fight Reed Hastings. Although they ultimately failed after Blockbuster retraced its steps once Carl Icahn showed Antioco the door, his courage to cannibalize existing business with a new competitive product is commendable.

My full reading list below is chronologically listed by finish date. Bolded titles are ones I particularly enjoyed.

  • Built: The Hidden Stories Behind our Structures by Roma Agrawal
  • The Pacific War, 1931-1945 : A Critical Perspective on Japan’s Role in World War II by Saburo Ienaga
  • A Burglar’s Guide to the City by Geoff Manaugh
  • Princess Masako: Prisoner of the Chrysanthemum Throne by Ben Hills
  • Tom Kundig: Works by Tom Kundig
  • 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School Frederick Matthew
  • Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds by Charles Mackay
  • How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built by Stewart Brand
  • Working by Robert Caro
  • 泥步修行:破惑、問道、安頓 by 余秋雨
  • The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America’s Banana King by Rich Cohen
  • Waste Tide by Chen Qiufan
  • Exhalation: Stories by Ted Chiang
  • Refrigeration Nation: A History of Ice, Appliances, and Enterprise in America by Jonathan Rees
  • The Man Who Came Early by Poul Anderson
  • War and Chance: Assessing Uncertainty in International Politics by Jeffrey A. Friedman
  • Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike by Phil Knight
  • A History of the United States in Five Crashes: Stock Market Meltdowns That Defined a Nation by Scott Nations
  • Decision at Sea: Five Naval Battles That Shaped American History by Craig L. Symonds
  • The Outsiders: Eight Unconventional CEOs and Their Radically Rational Blueprint for Success by William Thorndike
  • 三體 by 劉慈欣
  • 三體II: 黑暗森林 by 劉慈欣
  • The Great Depression: A Diary by Benjamin Roth
  • Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas That Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries by Safi Bahcall
  • Blood and Silk: Power and Conflict in Modern Southeast Asia by Michael Vatikiotis
  • The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu
  • Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber by Mike Isaac
  • Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky
  • More from Less: The Surprising Story of How We Learned to Prosper Using Fewer Resources—and What Happens Next by Andrew McAfee
  • Go Like Hell: Ford, Ferrari, and Their Battle for Speed and Glory at Le Mans by A.J. Baime
  • Order without Design: How Markets Shape Cities by Alain Bertaud
  • The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned from 15 Years as CEO of the Walt Disney Company by Robert Iger
  • 新海誠監督作品 君の名は。美術畫集
  • The Inner Game of Tennis: The Classic Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance by W. Timothy Gallwey
  • Netflixed: The Epic Battle for America’s Eyeballs by Gina Keating
  • The Perfect Store: Inside eBay by Adam Cohen
  • Glock: The Rise of America’s Gun by Paul M. Barrett
  • The Man Who Solved the Market: How Jim Simons Launched the Quant Revolution by Gregory Zuckerman

Observations in the North

I recently returned from a two week trip with Students on Ice traveling the Canadian and Greenlandic north. The arctic remains a beautiful part of the world that too little people get to experience and I’m very fortunate to have done so.

Our group totaled around 200 people, half high school and college students and half staff. About half the students were Inuit while the rest were mainly Canadians from small towns from places like Newfoundland and Labrador, Northwest Territories, and Saskatchewan. It was interesting getting to spend time with kids who live vastly different lives than I do and humbling to be reminded of the dizzying vastness that is the human experience.

Below are some observations during my short visit—all of which are my own opinion and should be taken with a grain of salt. Pictures are sprinkled throughout and at the bottom.

Seagulls at midnight. Summer in the north means the sun never sets

Weather Makes the Plans

In the arctic, the most important variable to contend with is the weather—which can easily be said to be more unpredictable than most other places on Earth. Therefore, atmospheric conditions are the main arbiter of all “things one can do”. The prevalence and severity of sea ice determines whether sea access is possible, while wind, rain, and temperature regulate the available activities. For the tourist, this means that the itinerary on the brochure becomes a suggestion at best.

One thing that was hammered into our heads throughout the trip was: “Flexibility is the key. Weather makes the plans.” For students that come from the world’s urban cores, the lack of flexibility and choices was unsettling and perhaps anxiety-inducing. The local Inuit kids, however, were masters at living with randomness. In many ways, they live a healthier life relative to the—self-induced—hectic and stressful lives most of my peers have. They are able to focus and enjoy transient moments better than we do. Partly—I’m guessing—is the lack of constant and overt external stimulation one gets in a city, but a large part is undoubtedly due to their lack of resistance to relinquishing control. This trait, though, does give way to a lack of timeliness and ownership—arriving on time for briefings were always a struggle. A couple kids I spoke to refer to the city as having “too much”. Too much noise, too many rules, too much order, too busy. Sometimes it’s just easier to leave it to the man upstairs.

While we usually try and cram as much as possible into our schedules in hopes of greater “productivity”—either actual or signaling—the Inuit are content with going with the flows of nature.

A cloudy morning in Itilleq, Greenland

Poverty in the Canadian North

A couple of communities we visited in Nunavut were artificial, in the sense that they were not ancestral settlements. Instead, they were the result of the High arctic relocation, a government driven migration in the 1950s. There are arguments that the move reintroduced the Inuit to land where they could better pursue their traditional ways of subsistence living. However, the underlying political implications to reinforce Canada’s sovereign claim to the north are undeniable. Sixty years after the relocation, the consequences have—in my opinion—been overwhelmingly negative.

The largest community we visited was Pond Inlet—a little over 1,600 people—where they had a medical facility staffed by two nurses. Doctors come on a monthly basis, but more serious procedures require a flight out to Iqaluit—the 7,740 people territorial capital—or cities in the south like Montreal. For smaller communities such as Arctic Bay and Resolute Bay—populations were in the hundreds—would probably require a trip to the larger towns for any health issue that requires some medical attention.

The landing at Pond Inlet, Nunavut

Pond Inlet has K-12 schooling, but from what I gathered, communities like Arctic Bay only go up to middle school. Kids are then sent to larger towns to live with relatives to attend high school.

Banking options, like schools in hospitals, depend on the size of the community. Physical branches exist mostly in larger towns, but mobile banking is possible given that the communities have 4G. However, if one needed to interface with an actual banker then travel would be necessary.

Cigarette use is rampant across all ages and genders. The stale scent of secondhand smoke is present everywhere in the communities. It is not unusual to see kids—the youngest I could confirm was eight, but I did see others that seemed even younger—smoking . Nicotine-stained teeth was the norm.

From second-hand accounts, alcoholism and related violence are prevalent. Despite prohibition efforts in the north—some communities are nominally dry while others raise barriers for purchasing—it seems that access is not an issue. For many kids, alcohol, like cigarettes and drugs, are an escape from boredom. Other kids drink—and do drugs—to forget childhood trauma and abuses from alcoholic boyfriends.

The drug of choice—from what I could tell—is marijuana. How it gets all the way up north, I have no idea. There probably is also a hefty premium over the Canadian market price. But as the saying goes: if there’s a will, there’s a way.

Basic infrastructure such as paved roads and sewer drains were non-existent. Piped water was present in larger towns while smaller communities relied on water truck deliveries. The most important facilities in the north were oil storage tanks where the entirety of the communities’ energy supply is stored. For Pond Inlet, an oil tanker arrives every year when the sea ice has melted to top off the tanks. 4G and Internet infrastructure were present in all the communities we visited, but I was told that blackouts were not uncommon, especially in the winter.

An oil tanker resupplies Pond Inlet on a yearly basis

Hunting is still a mainstay and seems to be the preferred activity among most kids. Caribou, whale, narwhal, polar bear, seal, and muskox are the most common sources of food. On the first day, I ran into a kid wearing a necklace with a claw hanging on it. I asked about it and he casually replied, “Oh, it’s polar bear. Killed it last week. I’m going to make new pants with the hide.”

All communities had at least one grocery store—the Co-op—and larger ones had two. For most communities, this would be the extent of their retail options. Thus, they sell everything from groceries and daily necessities to snowmobile parts and Canada Goose parkas. Groceries are subsidized by the government, so vegetables, preserved foods, and meats are market price. Liquids such as milk and juices are still expensive even after subsidies because liquids are inefficient to transport. Non-necessities such as soft drinks and junk food are not subsidized and thus very pricey. Daily items such as diapers, toilet paper, batteries, etc. are also very expensive relative to prices in the city. Small population equals no scale and the remoteness means transport costs are astronomical. Since most of these communities’ sea routes are iced up during the winter, groceries need to be flown in—a flight from Resolute Bay to Iqaluit is almost 5 hours—from larger towns in the south.

If weather is the greatest variable for daily activities then distance—and in turn, mobility—is the most important factor for life in the north. People in the communities only have a couple of options to travel: dog team, snowmobile, plane/helicopter, and ship. The first two are used mainly for hunting and are inefficient at traveling long distances. Moving by air is prohibitively expensive. A ticket—there is no tiered service—from Resolute Bay to Montreal costs around CAD3000 to CAD5000. This includes multiple transfers and total travel time of up to two days. Travel by sea is only available during the summer months when the sea ice has receded. However, even then, sea lanes are often closed off by ice brought over by wind and current. Sea travel would also entail routing all the way east into the north Atlantic before heading south.

Just as there are no paved roads within town, there are no roads—paved or otherwise—connecting the disparate communities. Railroads are, likewise, not present. The lack of infrastructure is probably due to the high costs associated with building in the north, in addition to the small amount of people that it would service and therefore justify the investment. There are also environmental factors to consider. The harsh winters will mean that not only would potential corridors not be in use for a large part of the year, but that the summer months—when usage peaks—would be spent mainly to patch up the damage caused during the winter. Thus, the activity space for Inuit are largely confined to their own communities and surrounding areas.

This limiting factor has also given way to an interesting perspective. When talking about my travels, an Inuit student asked, “Have you been places?” I thought the choice of word was quite interesting and upon further investigation I realized that their mobility is so localized that rarely do they encounter political borders. While my peers might phrase the same question along the lines of “What countries have you visited?” or “Where have you travelled?”, to the Inuit student, traveling to an identifiable place outside of her own community already constituted a memorable event.

The heart-shaped rock of Uummannaq, Greenland

One amusing observation amidst the poverty we saw was that a majority of the Inuit kids had top of the line electronics. The government provides them a monthly check. This results in the purchases of iPhones, AirPods, brand new Canon and Nikon DSLRs with multiple lenses, etc. In some sense, I get that there aren’t many entertainment options available outside of using the Internet and taking pictures. Nevertheless, it was still quite shocking to walk past decrepit houses and wondering if money would’ve been better spent on improving standard of living. Or, as my Canadian friend—from Vancouver—bluntly put it: “It’s not that we don’t give them any money, it’s that they don’t know how to spend it.”

Counting both staff and students, the entire trip probably had less than 15% of people arriving from a city greater than 500,000 people. When asked about my hometown, I told a group of students and staff that Taipei had greater than 2.5 million people. Most of group were simply overwhelmed by the number and one student had an exceptionally difficult time understanding the social dynamics that come with so many people. “So… does everyone know everyone? Is everyone related?” The kids who grew up in tiny communities had no conception of the complex social systems we take for granted and are in fact frightened by the idea that one might not recognize a single person on the street. Even after explaining that there were in fact thousands of families, most of whom are strangers, he still couldn’t grok the possibility of such an arrangement.

Enjoying the simple things. Children play on the zodiac Aquila in Arctic Bay, Nunavut

A number of staff were Inuit elders from different communities. They provided invaluable insight into their culture, history, and experiences from the relocation. Nonetheless, I felt that there was always a curious disconnect lying under the surface between the hopeful messages of Inuit solidarity—which sometimes crept into the territory of nationalism—from the elders and the stories and plans of the younger generation. While all the kids cheered and clapped when the elders gave rousing speeches, a healthy majority told me things along the lines of “I can’t wait to leave the community”, “I’m going south the first chance I get”, and “I don’t think I’ll ever return”. Granted, these attitudes did not surprise me after having seen the conditions up north.

What is especially noteworthy was the gender disparity between those who wanted to stay and leave. Girls were the overwhelming majority in the leave camp while boys showed more interest in staying. The gender bias was quite pronounced, as elders—and non-Inuit staff—were more prone to showcase young men as the “future” and had them take the lead in giving presentations or serving as the main focus of a media piece.

A number of girls said that family attitudes towards marriage—many still arranged—and having kids—some communities’ average pregnancy age is fourteen—are the main driving forces. In some instances, the family pressures their daughter to be wedded and have kids before heading to college—effectively cutting off their opportunity to go off for school or work. A couple girls—sixteen and eighteen—felt ostracized by community members for not having bared a child yet. Other cases are abuse and trauma related. One girl said that she only felt comfortable talking about the past because her boyfriend was in jail. Without future economic prospects, it is doubtful the pride of being Inuit can convince future generations from moving south.

Cannibalized ATVs in Resolute Bay, Nunavut. The harsh conditions, low population, and remoteness mean little economic opportunity

Climate Change

Funnily enough, I felt that it was easier to see the results of climate change back in the south. Stronger storms, more extreme seasons, etc. are all more easily apparent than looking at a glacier with little context. However, I did feel that things were not optimal. The weather was surprisingly warm. The only times outerwear was really needed were when we were on the zodiacs or when we were near an iceberg or glacier. Plants are growing to be much larger thanks to the longer summers. Trash was everywhere in the communities, and surprisingly during an excursion to some random inlet in Greenland I came across a large piece of—well eroded—tarp. A lot of the ice was dirtied by soil and sand—exposed from the lack of snow cover—blown from the nearby mountains, creating a marbling effect as dirt gets stuck in crevices on the surface.

Weekly Assorted Links (1/19/18)

  • War Photography by Oles Kromplias
    • Some sobering shots from the War in the Donbass. A forgotten/ignored one in the west but a harsh reality with no real end in sight for those involved. Opaque borders, actors, weapons, and futures… such is war in the 21st century.

Weekly Assorted Links (12/10/2018)

Apologies for the late post, finals week + lack of sleep is a bad combo. Writing my weekly summary is a good escape and as always very fun. Thanks, and happy reading.

Information transmission is lossy. As children around the world know through the game telephone, the more people/iterations a piece of information goes through the more it gets warped. This is true of all information, even digital ones. It’s why we were taught to dissect readings during school and asked to answer those god-awful “what is the author thinking about in this passage?” SAT question (probably about his fast approaching deadline), because to convey one’s thoughts and internalize another person’s clearly is difficult.

For a piece of information to stick, though, it must also be memorable. To be memorable is to give that information a second life. The more you think about it the more it sticks and internalizes which manifests in your actions. The Compression-Expression flywheel, if you will.

I decided to revisit Sam Hinkie’s legendary letter of resignation after chancing upon his appearance in the biography of Kimberly Hampton, a combat pilot who served and was killed in Iraq. I have several things to say about both things

Hinkie featured prominently in her childhood and it was clear in the stories that the old maxim of “you are who you choose to surround yourself with” holds brilliantly true. Hinkie recalled in the book a conversation he had with her when they were kids about what it took to get to the top.

“You can let up when you get to the top,” I tried to tell her, but she just laughed.                                                                                                            “When you get to the top you have to work even harder to stay there,” she retorted.

I’m sure Hinkie is grateful for Hampton’s friendship and advice. Their shared attitude was most certainly apparent during his tenure as the GM of the Philadelphia 76er’s. Sam Hinkie set the Sixers up for success by having the longest view in the room. He was a person with a Day 1 mindset in a Day 2 organization. The Sixers had a less than mediocre team, no young talent, and a pretty hefty balance sheet. And so he and his team hunkered down and spent the next few years, getting rid of players and contracts that didn’t fit with the long term picture, positioned themselves to acquire future talent (draft picks), and signed and indoctrinated promising prospects with new styles of innovative play. The Sixers became the worst team in the league for four seasons. Then when the next season rolled around, they tore their way into the Eastern Conference Semifinals on the backs of the second youngest roster in the league.

Hinkie was also a contrarian in a league of conformity and copy cats. While adopting a contrarian mindset isn’t always a recipe for positive outcomes, it is necessary to win in a closed system (30 teams, 1 championship) with universal restraints (salary caps, roster size, etc.). It’s like if all the funds in the world started off with a clean slate, $100,000, and are assessed on their performance at the end of the year to produce a “champion”. The conventional wisdom is that buying Amazon stock will yield good returns and many people would undoubtedly buy as much as possible. But if everyone trades Amazon stock then who wins at the end of the year? The guys who didn’t of course, and was right. Getting to the top means bucking—correctly—the trend and executing for the long view. Yes, you’ll suffer through many seasons winning sub-.300 but it means you come out with the deck stacked in your favor and a clear path towards winning a championship.

Hinkie didn’t get to see his hard work bear fruit as he was ousted before everything fell into place. But as Lin-Manuel Miranda puts it: “Legacy, what is a legacy? It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see.”

We knew parking in New York was awful but this just looks like an absolute nightmare. At that point why even bother owning a car? It certainly sounds like more trouble than worth it.

Space, NASA watches, air-cooled Porsche 993s, and rethinking design in women’s watches. What’s not to love?


Weekly Assorted Links (12/1/2018)

  • Remembering Anthony Bourdain as Only His Fixers Could — Vanity Fair
    • My favorite Parts Unknown episode is Season 8 Episode 6: Japan with Masa. Like all great Bourdain episodes, food served as merely a conduit for connection. During moments like this, it is easy to see what Bourdain cherished the most. Nothing beats enjoying the company of the people you care about, eating good food, and enjoying a moment.
  • The End of the Beginning — Benedict Evans
    • Internet and mobile penetration have just about hit global saturation while everything built on top are just getting started. Though I think the new market goals that Evans sets out are exciting and certainly ripe for innovation, I’m a little skeptical about his claims on infrastructure. I think the folks at USV have a better framing on the infrastructure-app cycle: new problems require new tools require new infrastructure. However, other than that, this is a great overview of the directions tech is looking at.
  • How Amazon Now Shapes What Our Stuff Looks Like — Gizmodo
    • One question I have about is whether Amazon really was reason for the detergent box. If the whole point was to make it easier to ship to the home what does that say about supply chain innovation? What about all the shipping that takes place to big box retailers? Are the margins of shipping and stocking bulk so good that all these years of excessive packaging was ok?
  • Containers — Alexis Madrigal
    • An eight part series about modern shipping through the lens of the Port of Oakland and the people who work and live in the area.
  • I, Pencil — Leonard E. Read
    • What goes into making a pencil?


Weekly Assorted Links (11/17/18)

  • Talking Watches with Moki Martin — Hodinkee
    • This was such an enjoyable episode of Talking Watches. There was a distinct lack of watch porn. No million-dollar Pateks, no tropical gilt dial Submariners, no 1930s Cartier. It wasn’t a masterclass in watch history or collecting, rather it was just a man, a Tudor, and their shared memories. This conversation with Moki embodied the essence of collecting—not just watches!—our individual experiences and stories passed on through a shared passion for an object, stories that would have otherwise been lost to time.
  • The Deadly Global War for Sand — Wired
    • Highlighting an under appreciated resource so pervasive in our lives. From the land under our feet and the concrete that hold up our homes, to the chips that power our devices and the glass that hold our drinks, sand can probably be said to be as essential to modern life as water and electricity. Yet, as with all non-renewables, we run into the problem of scarcity and thus competition to secure existing supplies.
  • Give War a Chance — Foreign Affairs
    • Perhaps a controversial piece but the author makes the case that Western interventionist policies predicated on humanitarian reasons have not only failed to stop conflict but also generally prolonged them. Neither belligerent sides are satisfied with the stop gap proposals that are put in peace treaties or cease-fire agreements. Furthermore, intervening powers are hesitant to use necessary force to enforce these treaties or even preventing the attacks on human rights that prompt intervention in the first place.
    • As with many moral issues, while good intentioned, do not produce desired outcomes. This is not to say that we give up on maintaining high humanitarian standards but rather we need to be cognizant on the tradeoffs and be mindful of them when we weigh our decisions.
  • On riding sharing at airports — @modestproposal1 

  • 2018 Cy Young Award winners Jacob DeGrom and Blake Snell’s best pitches of the season — Pitcher List

  • See No Evil — Miriam Posner
    • An interesting snippet on the murkiness of supply chains and the potential uses of technologies to increase transparency. Tech and law people have generally been very excited about IoT and blockchain’s ability to solve these issues but as the piece points out it’s not so simple. There are significant hurdles in gaining a critical mass of buy-in before these tools can have noticeable impact.
    • I’m inclined to think that unless a body like the UN or WTO adopts a standard for supply chain tracking and transparency—something similar to standardizing shipping containers—that the use of these technologies will be highly localized. Perhaps in highly specialized sectors like tech and high end manufacturing the size of end-point companies like Apple or Daimler have enough sway to incentivize factories and suppliers to comply. However for low-cost industries like textiles or plastics it’s hard to see something similar take root.
  • The US military’s chaff and flare industry is on fragile ground — DefenseNews
    • The outcome of the US not taking care of its manufacturing base—not to mention the ones that supply its defense efforts! Much as the U.S.’s shipbuilding and maintenance capacity have atrophied in the recent decades, more and more mission critical nodes in the supply chain are buckling. I think we’ll see more and more of this happen as the economy as a whole has shunned manufacturing. This is not necessarily a bad thing as any Econ 101 student would know that countries specialize and manufacturing moves to areas of low capital requirements. However, one of the government’s job is to address areas of market failure and in the sensitive sector of defense it hasn’t been doing so well.
  • I Found the Best Burger Place in America. And Then I Killed It — Thrillist
    • The sobering story about how social media, culinary tourism, and best-of lists killed America’s best burger joint.

Weekly Assorted Links (11/10/18)

Weekly Assorted Links (11/3/18)

  • B-2 20th Anniversary Video Series — Northrop Grumman
    • Cool short series on the origins of the B-2 bomber and the people involved in the project.
  • Hodinkee x Audemars Piguet Video Series — Hodinkee
    • Exploring AP’s early history. That lug on the 1945 minute repeater just screams Royal Oak.
  • Random aside:
    • Scott Galloway used this terrible graphic in his weekly blog post and I just cannot in good conscience let it slide. IMG_2166.jpgFirst, he mislabels the USS Gerald Ford as a Nimitz Class aircraft carrier even though it is a Ford Class carrier (it’s in the name!). But more indefensible is that the graphic shows the Admiral Kuznetsov, a Russian aircraft carrier. Look, the first mistake was whatever but not being able to even illustrate a ship from the correct country is pretty absurd.
  • Talking About Money (and Salary) — Patrick McKenzie
    • For such a touchy yet important subject that people usually only learn about through experience, it’s quite nice to see someone break down their salary history and the mechanics and contexts behind the numbers.
  • What I Learned From Making Hot Sauce at Scale in China — Jenny Gao
    • Lessons and tradeoffs in trying to scale a hard to scale product (premium Sichuan hot sauce, i.e. none of that purée bs). Harkening back to last week’s link to Hart-Smith’s paper at Boeing, this piece again emphasizes the importance of the human element as opposed to automation. Also, lessons from Chinese household staple, Laoganma. At the end of the day, good product require great effort. Scaled cooking via industrial drum vs. hard to scale frying by hand is the difference between big box CPG and becoming a product-differentiated brand.
  • Tuxedo Park: A Wall Street Tycoon and the Secret Palace of Science That Changed the Course of World War II — Jennet Conant (Highly recommend)
    • One of my most fascinating reads this year. A bio of Alfred Lee Loomis, financier, amateur scientist, and all around gangsta. He made his money organizing public utility trusts in the 20s, established the infrastructure for rural electrification, and, oh, just—along with his partner Landon Thorne—invented the concept of a holding company, no biggie. Then after getting out before the Great Depression hit, he helped influence reforms such as Glass-Steagall. While all this is happening, Loomis also built a private lab in his home to pursue his interests in science and did things like develop early EEG efforts and discover K-complex brainwaves. Later during WWII, he would establish the MIT Rad Lab and lead the effort in pioneering and deploying radar technology and the atomic bomb.
    • Needless to say he is now one of my favorite historical figures.
  • Global warming and the Japanese Flying Squid — Mari Saito
    • Mari Saito’s fantastic Twitter thread on her experience in different small fishing towns while reporting for this (equally wonderful) story.
  • Cannabis vs. alcohol sales
    • Alcohol-present social gathering places (bars, clubs, etc.) and events (Sunday football are unaffected from cannabis competition while at-home consumption has changed.
    • Also, wacky weed stat: In Colorado in 2017, about 340,000—6 % of population—were responsible for 90% of cannabis demand.
  • Photographing Desert Roads
    • Oddly serene.
  • Lee Kuan Yew
    • Lee Kuan Yew speeches trending on VC Twitter, especially this one made in response to SIA strikers, as well as Charlie Munger’s take on Singapore and its founding father.
    • First and foremost, I am a big fan of the guy. However, the same cannot be said among many others in the West due to his more authoritarian governing systems, principles, and methods. Which is interesting that of all places, people in the Valley are taking notice of his history and belief system. This may very well be purely about curiosity regarding a leader people there aren’t that familiar with, but I have a sneaking suspicion that given how tech’s role in today’s society has shaken out so far people in that sphere are beginning to wonder if the democratic ideologies they hold dear—Facebook x freedom of speech, gig-economy empowering labor, etc—are as universal or pragmatic as they first believed.
    • People also generally overlook the fact that Lee Kuan Yew’s sharpness made the Singapore system succeed. Whether or not it will be able to maintain those standards over a few generations is still yet to be seen.
  • You Too Can Build Your Own Chip – For Only $30 Million — Digits to Dollars
    • Building moats cost money and effort and more money.
  • Apple’s New Map — Justin O’Beirne
    • As always, Justin’s pieces are such a treat to read about cartography, UI & UX design, as well as the integration of physical and digital worlds.
    • I think Apple realizes they need to invest the money and time into building out maps—as it will serve an essential part of any future integration with the rest of their ecosystem whether that be voice, AR, or bundling it with new use cases on the iPhone and Apple Watch—but is either half-assing it due to Google being years ahead in the space, incompetence, or complacency.
    • As Justin points out, Google’s business model and feedback loops are much more conducive to the labor intensive task of building out maps and the information layered on it than Apple ever will be. Apple’s competency lies in design and integration. The latter is important in incorporating maps with other functions in the OS but the former is no longer a cartographic advantage in a label-dominant world. This is clearly laid out in the piece: Apple is good at shapes and while they certainly look nice, they are not useful for today’s use cases.
    • I think other reasons for Apple being not so good at maps are:
      • They are content with Maps as is due to it being preinstalled on iOS and thus being the default map app for millions of iPhone users. From experience, many iPhone users I know are fine with Maps and do not download alternatives. This leads me to believe that Maps usage rates are good enough for Apple to feel pretty good about it. (Obviously this claim can be easily confirmed or dismissed with data on Maps vs. Google Maps usage rates on iOS devices. If anyone knows where to find em I would greatly appreciate it)
      • They still haven’t figured out after all these years how to build out the darn thing. Their reliance on third-party developers such as Yelp and TomTom are kind of indicative that their internal capabilities are not up to par.
      • They don’t believe maps are important enough for the future to justify forking over cash and building up their capabilities. Which seems unlikely, again, due to their investments in AR, AV, and wearables. With these products, Apple is exploring a post-iPhone centric world but iPhone or no iPhone, people still need directions and discovery.

Weekly Assorted Links (10/27)

Hi all, I’m back after a very long break. Rather than the more structured format of previous Six Bullet Saturdays I’m going to test out this new format of highlighting interesting things I’ve read during the week or happenings I wish to comment about. From a writing perspective, this also allows me to add bits and pieces throughout the week as opposed to sitting down on Saturday night and reflecting on everything I’ve done during the week. This may or may not mean I post less regularly about more personal happenings but perhaps the occasional long form piece I write will make up for it. I’ve also added a Things I Like section in the menu where I list the places where I most frequent for non-news content. As always, thanks for reading. Now onto this week’s post:

  • Tesla Model 3 Teardown – Bloomberg
    • Pretty interesting read about Tesla’s evolving—and still very nascent—manufacturing capabilities. Turns out not only is building cars hard, it is extra hard if your head design guy worked at Apple and not Daimler or GM before joining Tesla. But hey did you see that cool tent?
    • Much more interesting is Munro & Associates, the folks who did the teardown report. Turns out they have done similar design and manufacturing analyses and recommendations for companies like GM to General Dynamics Electric Boat, makers of the Virginia-class submarines. This reaffirms a strongly held opinion of mine that red-teaming is one of the most productive exercises for any operation/management project.
  • The Surprisingly Not Totally Boring Search For Who Invented The Spring Bar – Hodinkee
    • Great deep dive on the wonderfully innocuous thing that holds your watch to your strap.
  • Out-Sourced Profits — The Cornerstone of Successful Subcontracting – Dr. L.J. Hart-Smith/Boeing (Highly recommend!)
    • Exploring the failures of McDonell-Douglas’ management of the DC-10 and lessons to be taken away. Hidden costs—such as transportation from factory to assembly, varying quality of the same part across different sub-contractors, and the need to write very detailed manufacturing instructions—are everywhere and, well, hidden from accounting figures. Hart-Smith also touches on the myths of downsizing and automation. But perhaps most importantly: If the goal is to minimize costs, there is no substitute for doing things right the first time!
    • An interesting dichotomy between highly sophisticated physical products—such as planes—and digital products. While being the systems integrator in the physical world means losing out on value, this is flipped in the digital realm where being the systems integrator (i.e. platform) remains the most sought-after goal. Another reminder that zero marginal costs don’t exist outside of the world of 1’s and 0’s.
  • Kawhi Leonard being a wizard. Further proving that not only is he a basketball playing robot-demon but that he also has eyes on the back of his head.
  • Jumping on the Amazon HQ2 speculation bandwagon for a second, I think more than ever that it will be in the D.C. area. More specifically on the border of Arlington, Virginia and Maryland. Not so much because D.C. is a wonderful city (it is) but for the simple reason of senators and getting allies in government. That is neither a good thing nor a bad thing but rather merely reflects the maturity in Amazon’s growth.
  • UAE using American PMCs in Yemen.
    • There isn’t really anything new with the use of contractors in wars—especially modern ones—but this is one of the first known instances of American mercenaries being used for direct action (i.e. killing people). To be clear, it is very illegal for the U.S. to use PMCs for direct action operations but it is unclear what American citizens can do for other countries. Personally, I feel that this has been a long time coming. In recent years there have relatively high profile PMC actions such as Nigeria’s hiring of South African PMCs to beat back—successfully—Boko Haram and Russia’s adoption of PMCs in Syria and Ukraine as part of their continued experiment with hybrid warfare. This trend, I think, will be even more pronounced in the future as modern warfare is not so much about peer-state competition (ex. tank vs tank) but rather asymmetric (ex. cyber, proxy-wars, targeted strikes, etc.)
    • The advantages for Gulf states using PMCs are simple and clear: they’re expendable and give you relative deniability, flexible and adaptable to operational needs, highly trained (at least more so than your own troops), and can do things your normal military can’t legally or politically do. Also, in a certain sense, this has been the model for Gulf state military power for a long time. As one State Department person I met in Amman explained: “The Saudi’s buy top of the line American equipment and put them in storage the moment they arrive, waiting for the day when American soldiers will fly across the world to pilot American weapons to fight a Saudi war. Why? Because their own people are too damn incompetent” Feasibility and probability aside, I think people generally forget just how difficult (not to mention expensive) it is to run a professional fighting force. Easier to just outsource it.

Four Possible Outcomes In Korea

This was created in collaboration with the wonderful Sasha Trubetskoy. You can find more of his work at https://sashat.me

The Panmunjom Declaration is an exciting step towards peace on the Korean peninsula—a goal many have worked hard towards across many decades. We have forecasted four scenarios of potential developments as a result of future summits, closed-door deliberations, and agreements. A realistic view of current developments would mean that the future most likely lies somewhere between Scenarios 1 and 2.

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The summit is an easy political win. The West hears what they wanted to hear, the South Koreans kept campaign promises, and the media has a field day. Yet, for all the excitement of a new generation of peace, stability, and warmer relations, people forget that concrete steps must be taken before any “declaration” becomes reality. Such steps are absent from the most recent joint declaration. The loudspeakers at the border fall silent and the diplomats promise to pursue vague “non-aggression agreements”, but neither side takes tangible strides towards cooperation. Kaesong Industrial Zone remains closed, and the DMZ remains littered with landmines in the absence of a cleanup effort. In the end, this brief period of anticipation was rendered moot just like the previous attempts at reconciliation. The two Koreas retreat back to their well-worn rhetoric, each side blaming the other for failing to advance relations. The two systems simply irreconcilable.

The North Koreans restart their ICBM and nuclear programs, using the threat as leverage to extract concessions from the international community, but never quite willing to push the American-led alliance to any kinetic intervention. Kim Jong Un is too smart to do that. All of his posturing and cleaning house so far helps resolve the age-old predicament of dictators everywhere—ensuring survival. Compelling the Americans to act forcefully would only put that hard work in jeopardy.

The Chinese are fine with the arrangement since they still largely control the trade routes and commodities that keep the North Korean economy alive—retaining political leverage. Furthermore, not only does Kim remain a constant thorn in the Americans’ side with his nuclear threats, but the status quo means that no American ally borders China’s northern regions. Realpolitik remains the name of the game.

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Kim Jong Un realizes that his domestic economic situation is increasingly untenable. He is not steeped in his father’s radical ideology, having been educated in the West and more aware of the systems governing the world. But he is also not willing to renounce power. Kim recognizes an optimal path in the Beijing Consensus—a nominally capitalistic model that allows trade flows to reach North Korean shores and to improve his people’s living standards while maintaining a centralized power structure. North Korea embraces the system of market capitalism (with North Korean characteristics) first developed by its Chinese patrons and slowly leaves behind its isolationist ways.

By agreeing to suspend their nuclear and missile programs, the North Koreans satisfy Western conditions for the slow rollback of sanctions. Over time, relations with the South inevitably turn for the better. The 2018 diplomatic efforts were not the watershed moment people had hoped for, but they did jump-start the bilateral economic flows that resulted in closer ties. As trust builds, both sides begin dismantling the DMZ and preparing to build transportation networks to facilitate the movement of capital. South Korean businesses jump at the opportunity to expand into the North Korean market, tapping into its cheap labor reserves. Reunification remains non-viable—despite North Korea’s move towards integration into the global trade network, Kim is unwilling to give up his position at the top.

As the threat of a Northern invasion dies down, American troop levels decline as well. The United States retains sufficient forces “just in case”, as well as robust intelligence assets to probe into China. The South Koreans regain wartime command duties. Despite warmer North-South relations, militaries on both sides remain wary of each other. The Chinese are happy for North Korea to serve as a buffer against Western forces, as well as a case study that legitimizes Beijing’s economic model. And who knows—perhaps the Koreans would be open to joining the Belt and Road.

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The confluence of American isolationist sentiment and the Korean drive for unity results in a merged, neutral Korean state, with the complete withdrawal of American forces.

The two Koreas adopt a single, temporary constitution with a federal structure that maintains Northern and Southern executive power structures in place, pending further integration. National elections are scheduled to elect a head of state, whose role is mostly ceremonial. An entirely new Assembly is also elected, based in Seoul, and many call for a brand-new capital city to be constructed.

Jubilant, patriotic Southerners flood the North with aid after a special federal commission is created to handle distribution. The new government sets up work relief corps to rapidly retrain the Northern population for a modern economy, creating programs to upgrade northern infrastructure. Teachers, social workers, and entrepreneurs from the South begin moving into Northern towns and cities. However, travel restrictions remain in place to prevent a Northern migration crisis, to be gradually lifted as integration milestones are achieved.

The US essentially abdicates its say in Korean dynamics, loosening its hold on the Northern Pacific. The Chinese are all too happy to step into the vacuum. The Americans’ departure from the peninsula marks the first time that China is able to push America’s ring of allies back into the Pacific. The PLA Navy continues its blue-water ambitions and moves toward reclaiming its status as the preeminent Pacific power, at the expense of the US Navy.

Japan is left stranded. Chinese influence continues to encroach on Japan’s historical sphere of influence. The Japanese are left with two choices. They can acknowledge China’s status as the preeminent Pacific power, play nice, and retain access to the Chinese markets, attempting to optimize their position within a Sino-centric order. Or they can double down on their military buildup and rise up to check the expansion of Chinese power at the expense of great economic access.

Screen Shot 2018-05-06 at 17.55.32

President Trump dusts off his first edition copy of Trump: The Art of The Deal and takes Xi Jinping and Kim Jong Un to school. A wildly successful two-way summit convinces “Little Rocket Man” that he should join the Western Order, lest he ends up on the wrong side of history.

Four-way US-North-South-China talks are held, where the Donald works his magic on his communist counterparts. After a series of 280-character demands, the peninsula is unified—on American terms. A flummoxed Xi is forced to cede China’s buffer state to the South Koreans. Kim, Moon, and Trump share a giggle as the Chinese leader sheepishly signs the final declaration.

As the summit concludes, Kim steps onto the podium to make a closing statement. “A divided nation cannot be truly self-sufficient. A divided nation cannot control its destiny. Korea is one nation. The Korean people have made two approaches to secure their honor and prosperity. Neither is perfect, one has succeeded, and one has come short. It is in accordance with Juche, and the wishes of my father and of the Korean people, that I have signed this declaration proclaiming one Republic of Korea.” As a ceremonial gesture, Kim dons a MAGA hat and makes his departure.

Trump, of course, is prepared for this. He had already ordered US Forces Korea to move up to the Yalu River, within sight of the People’s Liberation Army. To placate Xi, he had agreed to ensure that US forces would not come within 50 kilometers of the Chinese border—a demilitarized zone. In the wake of a new standoff, this time with the Chinese, Trump holds a rally back home. “This week, we didn’t just ‘end’ the Korean War,” he booms, making air quotes with his hands.

“We won it, we won it big league.”

Kim Jong Un certainly views his domestic situation as rather bleak, and the current governance and economic models deficient. After all, his agreement to meet Moon Jae-in on South Korean soil is indicative of Kim’s strong intent to change the status quo. The South Koreans, meanwhile, have been eager to seize the opportunity to end the divisive situation and, more importantly, their only true existential threat. The South Koreans should be careful not to seem too eager. Making short-term compromises for the sake of an agreement usually waters down the end product, as we saw with the Iran nuclear deal.

This gets at the motivations of these two stakeholders. Both Koreas hope for lessened military tensions, peace, and eventual reunification. That last hope, however, is not part of the Chinese calculus. While China hopes for peace and denuclearization on the peninsula, it cannot accept a unified Korea, especially not one with close relations to its greatest competitor, the United States. Although this factor has been largely absent in current commentary of the situation, it is perhaps one of the most concrete realities underlying the affairs of the peninsula. For better or worse, China has the largest say the peninsula’s outcome—barring anything fantastical like Scenario 4. And though the talk of great power politics may be reminiscent of the Cold War, China and the US are—and will be for the foreseeable future—the main arbiters of economic, military, and political power in the world, especially in the Pacific. Korean relations with both powers have brought tremendous development in the South and great political power in the North. This is not to say the Koreas are mere puppets of the greater powers, but rather to drive home the reality that current and future developments will be greatly influenced by the wants of China and the US. Realistically, then, reunification is out of the picture.