Friday, September 9, 2011

How Money Can Buy Happiness

The April 2011 issue of the Journal of Consumer Psychology includes an article entitled, "If Money Doesn't Make You Happy, Then You Probably Aren't Spending It Right." In it, the authors posit that money can buy happiness, and indeed, people with money in any particular community are on average happier than people without, because "they have better nutrition and better medical care, more free time and more meaningful labor—more of just about every ingredient in the recipe for a happy life."

However, they are not that much happier than those who have less, and it's certainly not proportional to the money they have. Why is that? The reason, the authors theorize, is this:
Because people don't spend it right. Most people don't know the basic scientific facts about happiness—about what brings it and what sustains it—and so they don't know how to use their money to acquire it. It is not surprising when wealthy people who know nothing about wine end up with cellars that aren't that much better stocked than their neighbors', and it should not be surprising when wealthy people who know nothing about happiness end up with lives that aren't that much happier than anyone else's. Money is an opportunity for happiness, but it is an opportunity that people routinely squander because the things they think will make them happy often don't.
The authors recommend eight ways to spend your money to maximize happiness. The ones that resonate the most with me are these:

  • Buy more experiences and fewer material goods.
  • Buy many small pleasures rather than fewer large ones.
  • Delay consumption.
  • Thursday, September 8, 2011

    Quote of the Day: Garth Stein

    "Could Denny have possibly appreciated the subjective nature of loneliness, which is something that exists only in the mind, not in the world, and, like a virus, is unable to survive without a willing host?"

    The Art of Racing in the Rain

    Wednesday, September 7, 2011

    Countdown: Series

    The series I liked the best from the project was my "Historic Hotels of L.A. Tour" series. Because I was flying to L.A. for work so much, I decided to stay at a different historic hotel each week. I got through nine before I ran out of historic hotels that were reasonable to expense to my employer. My favorite hotel to blog about was the Queen Mary Hotel in Long Beach. Here is one of my posts about it, from February 8, 2011:
    Historic Hotels of L.A. Tour, Part VII

    The Queen Mary is like the Titanic meets The Shining. This ocean liner sailed its sparkling maiden voyage in 1936, but is now a dilapidated hotel moored permanently in the Port of Long Beach. Like a curator's dream, almost everything on this ship has been preserved from many decades past, including the peeling cabinetry, furniture, and light fixtures. It's a floating functional Art Deco museum. Tin Pan Alley jazz pipes out from the ether.

    The first thing I see when I enter my stateroom (but really, is it still a stateroom if the ship doesn't move?) is an original fan, complete with chipped paint, bolted beside the door. The toilet flush handle is not attached to the strangely gurgling toilet, but to the wall. The vent is a big open hole that blasts out a noisy noodle of air.

    I eat the first night at the Chelsea Chowder House and Bar, the only restaurant open for dinner in the mostly empty 80,000 square foot ship. Angie, my transvestite server, greets me. She's from Cerritos, in her late twenties, Vietnamese, with a pearly manicure and a gait straight off the catwalk, thick muscular arms, a broad back, and a deep husky voice.

    "This is a bizarre place," I say to Angie.


    "I guess it may not seem that way to someone who's used to it," I reply. "But to an outsider, it is."

    "Well," she says, "welcome to our bizarre ship!"

    If you've been on a typical cruise (e.g., Carnival, Norwegian, Royal Caribbean), you may think you know what staying at the Queen Mary is like. But you don't. This ship is so old. The modern practice of absolute space economy is absent here. The staterooms have space to walk around; the adjoining hallways and corridors are wide; the showers are big enough that if you drop a bar of soap, you can actually bend over to pick it up.

    Navigating here from Torrance my first night, I get off the wrong exit (who'd of thunk the "Port Queen Mary" exit would not take you to the Queen Mary?) and find myself the only car in a crowd of hurtling big rigs and semis on the Terminal Island side of the 710. Trucks can really look humanoid at night and I feel like I am in a scene from Transformers. Don't ever—and I mean, ever—accidentally take a pier exit like I did in the Port of Long Beach. Please, for the sake of your children, and your children's children! I get so lost that I cross the Seaside Freeway and Vincent Thomas Bridge four times and dump myself repeatedly into San Pedro (what's a San Pedro?). I am on the verge of tears when I finally make it to the Queen Mary over an hour later.

    The working industrial part of the Port of Long Beach, far away from the cheesy Pike at Rainbow Harbor, has fully utilized commercial docks and piers. At night the area is stacked so high with multicolored container cargo and filled with so many blinking lights that it looks extraterrestrial, like an interplanetary space station from a novel by Orson Scott Card.

    Tuesday, September 6, 2011


    Over the past year, I have written down ideas, snippets, and words that I have wanted to use in my blog posts, at the moment they come to me. I jot them down on my phone, my computer, my hand. Here are the leftovers from my phone. I shall present them in their original form, mysteriously unexplained.

  • "See you on the other side."

  • grapes story

  • Mom comparing sisters

  • "I'm not as stupid as I look."

  • "You don't mean to fuck up your children."

  • diversity in my mouth

  • Olivia Wilde, Halle Berry, Muslim women head scarf, balding women

  • still tethered to the real world

  • "It's about guns." (Black Hawk Down)

  • I'm afraid we have all been douches at many points in our lives.

  • 3 most congested American driving cities are in California: LA (1) SF (3) San Jose (10)

  • equipoise, ludicrous, dismantle, avec moi, buns off

  • James' friend who killed herself

  • "I agree with ... uh ... Mr. Kirkpatrick."

  • "It is strange that the police are here."

  • hot stone massage

  • dismal, nucleus, antediluvian, slake, tableau

  • Beast Bar

  • when I was just a pup

  • "He should thank me. I just delivered to him a perfect woman."

  • "This shall pass, and so shall you."

  • "No, American girls aren't demanding at all."

  • masters of the universe

  • "I absolutely believe that money buys you happiness."

  • master of your destiny

  • Vail
  • Monday, September 5, 2011

    Northern Colorado (Day 4)

    Stanley Hotel in the Rocky Mountains, inspiration for The Shining

    State Capitol Building, Denver

    Saturday, September 3, 2011

    Wyoming and South Dakota (Day 2)

    Pissed-off prairie dog

    Devil's Tower

    Climbers on Devil's Tower

    Crazy Horse Monument

    Mount Rushmore

    Friday, September 2, 2011

    Mountain Country Road Trip, Day 1

    Today is the first day of our mountain country road trip. We fly to our starting point, Gillette, Wyoming, from where we drive to our first destination, Devil's Tower.  From there, we head to Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, and then down through the Black Hills.  What happens between then and the Denver airport on Sunday at 9pm will be, I hope, unpredictable, save for regular visits to many, many microbreweries.

    Thursday, September 1, 2011

    Batman: The Dark Knight Returns

    Honestly, this graphic novel went way over my head. While highly atmospheric, it was meandering and disjointed. I feel sacrilegious saying this because it is on every top ten list of graphic novels. Stephen King called it "probably the finest piece of comic art ever published in a popular edition." But if you asked me to describe the plot to you, I wouldn't be able to.

    It does have parts I like though, most notable of which are when Batman goes hand to hand with Superman. Just like any other villainous foe, Batman must exploit Superman's weakness to kryptonite and sunlessness to have any shot. Plainly, in fair combat Superman would win. All nerds know that.

    Wednesday, August 31, 2011

    Countdown: Link

    One of my rules for this project was to avoid posting just links. Part of the point of the project was to force myself to generate original content. And posting links to other people's content felt like a cop-out (and a devolution into Facebook wall posts). But still, I did do it occasionally, and some I still like.

    In particular, I was really excited to post the link to the promotional video for the Tempest Freerunning Academy in L.A., which my sister sent to me. I've watched the video myself probably over thirty times; it has been watched by the public 3,886,435 times at my last visit. I love the use of Bassnectar's remix of Ellie Goulding's "Lights."

    Can these guys be any more badass?

    Tuesday, August 30, 2011

    Provenance Uncovered

    About a month ago, I posted about a mystery dress on a Geoffrey Beene billboard that I couldn't find online. The Bends, a commentor on this blog, actually located it. I was amazed, and then even more amazed when he later told me offline how he found it. "It was a full-blown treasure hunt," he said.

    After reading the post, he left work that evening and walked to Union Square, looking for a Geoffrey Beene store. Finding none, he tried other shops that might sell Geoffrey Beene—also unfruitful. He decided then to seek out the nearest computer and hopped over to the Apple store at Stockton and Ellis. "I wanted to research if it's a current dress, if it's in stores anywhere," he said. He determined it wasn't.

    Wanting to see the billboard for himself, he then walked to the Embarcadero. He studied it for a long time, taking notes about the photo's every detail—the charity event it advertises, the form of the dress, what the female model looks like, what the male model looks like. "Most importantly," he said, "I wrote down the name of the photographer who took the picture." From his experience working in the publishing industry at companies that sue and are sued for copyright infringement, he knows that most posters contain the photographer's name in small print at the bottom.

    He then drove home, went online, and researched the photographer's name. Turns out the photographer was a long-time collaborator with Geoffrey Beene. A book connected to the photographer turned up—Geoffrey Beene: An American Fashion Rebel—as well as an associated DVD, which led to ripped clips on YouTube, which led to other clips on the sidebars. The Bends identified the decade of the dress (the 80s) by comparing photos of Geoffrey Beene at the only event at which the dress was ever worn, to photos of Geoffrey Beene throughout his life, and matched up the aging of the faces.

    "The dress is couture, one of a kind," said the Bends. "I learned so much about Geoffrey Beene finding that dress. For instance, he loved triangles. There are at least five in that dress. Can you spot them?"

    Monday, August 29, 2011

    The Freak

    Tonight Tim Lincecum went up against the Chicago Cubs. The score was nothing-nothing when we arrived in the fifth inning. Then Timmy gave up a home run. In the seventh inning he gave up two home runs and two RBIs before he got pulled. Still, I loved watching him pitch. Reviewing this photo, I am reminded of how much pitchers contort and abuse their own bodies to do what they do.

    Sunday, August 28, 2011

    Countdown: Dad

    One of my favorite subjects of the last year has been my dad. I wrote a lot about him, more than about anyone else. I'm not sure why. And the post I like best is still the first one, about his truly atrocious teeth. Incidentally, he is finally doing something about them, although that is involving tribulations of its own that I won't go into.
    Clam Chowder

    Her father’s three lower front teeth are missing, and the remaining are dark, crooked, and stained. "Dad," says Penny, "when are you going to get the tooth implants?"

    He looks up, surprised. "Is it ugly?"


    "I agree," Penny's mother chimes in. "I've told him a million times how ugly it is, but he won't listen."

    Times like these, Penny gazes at her father and the words that come to mind are poor thing. Like the French novelette Le Petit Chose her father refers to so much. The life of dreams—I wanted to be a pilot! I wanted to live in France!—cut short by an unplanned pregnancy, Penny’s conception. As Michael might have characterized it: Oops.

    "You look homeless, Dad,” Penny went on. “Please please fix it. Seeing it makes me feel bad."

    Her father and mother have some money now. Not a lot, but enough to feel safe. Their house is in comfortable decline and getting that sour old smell, with random lines and piles of junk in the living room, in the hallways, in their bedroom. It’s filled with plants, like a jungle. Sometimes they accuse Penny of treating their house like storage, but really, who could blame her? They started it.

    "Are you embarrassed?" her father replies, toothlessly. He is amused.

    "No Dad, I’m not embarrassed. I just feel sorry for you when I see your teeth.” Or lack of them. “And I hate feeling sorry for you.”

    He loves to remind her that when she and her sister were children, he—scrawny and dark and fresh off the boat, sort of—was about to join the United States Army, and send home the bacon. He had been laid off for six months, with two little mouths to feed. Anyone who’s met Penny’s father would immediately understand what an act of desperation joining the army would be for him. Little Vietnamese man, bunking and sharing latrines with all those stocky Texas types.

    “I’ll pay for the dental implants Dad.”

    "Don't be crazy!” her father replied. “It’s not about the money.”

    A few years before, right before Penny’s family flew out to Boston for her graduation, she had asked her father what their plans would be in town. I’m going to walk the Freedom Trail, her father replied. And get clam chowder at Fanueil Hall! Later, recounting this to Michael, Penny broke down crying. Michael was totally baffled. All he wants is clam chowder! Penny had wailed. "What’s wrong with that?" Michael replied. "Clam chowder’s good!" But Penny couldn’t explain it, not through her tears, not at any time really. Even her sister didn’t really understand. That her father was so excited, so exuberant with childish glee, at such a simple pleasure—something most people would consider pedestrian, maybe even lowly—was so tragic to Penny. Her father was le petit chose.

    “I don't need you to pay for dental implants,” her father continued. “When I first lost the teeth, I did think I looked like an idiot. But now I’m used to it.”

    "Don't delay," Penny replied, her stomach cringing. "Please Dad."

    Sometimes Penny fantasizes about buying a house for her parents. Michael had the idea first; Penny just appropriated it. The idea is to buy a house for your parents so they can sell their current house and live off the proceeds; the house you buy stays in your name; when your parents die, the house is still yours. Win-win situation (except the parents dying, better not to think about that). But Penny knows what her father will say if she proposes this idea: What if one of us dies inside that house? That’ll lower the selling price for you! Her father, always the pragmatist, never the sentimentalist.

    "Okay okay I’ll get my teeth fixed,” her father says, looking down. And Penny sees again that toothless smile.

    Saturday, August 27, 2011

    Countdown: Photos

    This is the post containing the photographs I like best from this project. Of course, it helped that I had a very photogenic subject. I first posted them on September 11, day one of the project.

    August in Maui

    Friday, August 26, 2011

    Hot Doctors Auction

    Last night I went to the Hot Doctors Auction at McTeague's Saloon on Polk. It was a fundraiser for my triathlon team and the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. As I told my sister beforehand, "I am hoping this is ridiculously hilarious."

    And it was. What I found most interesting is that how "hot" the doctor was had nothing to do with how much people bid. The bidding price seemed proportional only to the extroversion of the doctor—shaking their booties, peeling off clothes, bumping their hips—that's what got the audience excited and emptying their wallets.

    I only ever see people from my team sweating, panting, flushed in the face, hair askew. So my eyes popped out when I saw Lisa, the organizer of the event and a member of my team, in patent leather heels, a mini skirt, and a cinch belt. She was the hottest doctor for auction that night, by far. Yowzah.

    Auctioning dates with doctors is the only concept that really works. It's immediately funny and maybe, shall we say, logical? Sensible? Even wholesome? Think of the alternatives—"Hot Lawyers Auction," or "Hot Investment Bankers Auction." I don't think so.

    Thursday, August 25, 2011

    A Happily Unrefined Palate

    Few consumer experiences give me more simple pleasure than buying wine from Costco. On a recent trip, I bought two bottles of Stags Leap (a petite syrah and a merlot), two bottles of Layer Cake (shiraz and primitivo), and a bottle of Sextant (zinfandel). Whether true or not, I feel like I'm getting a bargain. But maybe my penchant stems also from stories my friend told me about her brother, who was a longtime wine buyer for Costco; he traveled to estates in Italy and France and stayed with old vintner families and sampled wines. What a job.

    An effective movie for putting you in a wine sort of mood is Bottle Shock, which transports you back some 35 odd years to a sleepy sunkissed Napa Valley, before it was the Napa Valley, when California wines got no respect. Then came the Judgment of Paris, the annual blind tasting, where the fact of a French winner was a foregone conclusion. In 1976 though, that was upended—winning for whites was Chateau Montelena, and winning for reds was Stags Leap, both from Napa.

    But as much as I love the idea of wine (and, of course, drinking it), I don't want to ever be willing to spend a lot on a bottle. That's why I love Costco wine. I hope I never have the palate to appreciate the difference between a $15 bottle and a $150 bottle. I don't want that skill. I prefer ignorance.

    Wednesday, August 24, 2011

    Tuesday, August 23, 2011

    Countdown: Fun Writing

    As some of you know, this blog has been a personal project of mine to post every day for one year. I started on September 11 of last year, so I am in the final stretch. Nineteen posts to go. In light of that, I thought I would post some of what I most liked writing or taking pictures of during the course of this project—a sort of "top ten," except there probably won't be ten.

    This was the one I had the most pure fun writing. I first posted it on September 15, 2010.
    Pants on Fire

    I am two inches shy of six feet tall.  I have enormous breasts.  

    Now that I’ve got your attention, I also run marathons (in a sports bra with lots of support), six or seven a year, and sometimes I win.  When I don’t, I’m only a hair’s width behind.  My arms, even at rest, have that chiseled valley between the deltoid and the bicep.  I rock climb only 5.12 or above.  Men’s heads turn when I cross the street.

    I speak French, and I have read Les Misérables and Remembrance of Things Past in the original language.  I have lived in France, in South Africa, in Kyrgyzstan, in Israel, in Cuba, in India, in Russia, Iceland, Brazil, Colombia, the Marshall Islands, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Madagascar, Nepal, Tibet, off the coast of the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, and the village in China’s Fujian province my grandfather was born in.

    Over three months, I rode my red Ducati Multistrada 1200s from Alaska down to the Panama Canal, and managed to not once eat a bug in the wind. I surf; I destroyed Shipstern Bluff off the south end of Tasmania and the Banzai Pipeline on the North Shore of Oahu.  I sailed my 30-foot 6.5-ton stock fiberglass ketch (I named her Lula) for two years around the world, alone—when I wanted to be.  I talk intelligently about baseball.

    I worked as a reporter in Afghanistan, as a doctor for Médecins Sans Frontières, and as a geologist on an Antarctic ship.  I fought the death penalty for the ACLU.  I model.  I play Chopin’s Revolutionary Etude from memory.  I sing songs at the Rainbow Room made famous by Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan. I improvise.

    I keep a horse in a stable at Fell Legend Farms in Lincoln.  His name is Gunter and I love him and spoil him to pieces.  When I ride him my long black hair trails in the wind like a banner. 

    I have read every word of the King James Bible.  

    I adopted an older child.

    I saved a life.

    And I am not a good liar.

    Monday, August 22, 2011

    Vicarious Living

    Rudy, one of my triathlon coaches, is cycling through the Italian alps with two friends, one of whom is blogging about it, and taking some nice photos to boot (the food ones are especially appealing and will make you salivate). I slip into a reverie looking at these pictures.

    Sunday, August 21, 2011

    Captain and Coke

    Last night, I had a few drinks.  Things were going fine; maybe getting a little giggly, maybe slurring my words, but still in possession of most of my faculties.  Then I knocked my Captain and Coke off the coffee table and onto my laptop, which was sitting open on the floor.  I wiped it off.  The laptop seemed unaffected.  It was still playing Cedar Rapids.

    But this morning, at least six keys developed personality disorders.  The s key produced [s, the Enter key produced `, the w key deleted the previous character—it goes on.  I wasn't sure if the spilled drink fried the hardware or if, when wiping the keyboard without turning off the laptop, I pressed some combination of keys that remapped them. I hoped it was the latter.

    I tinkered with the keyboard language input and locale settings, uninstalled and reinstalled the keyboard driver, performed several system restores. I frittered away two hours. I called my dad; he was of no help.  Another hour drifted by.  For my Sunday evening, I had planned on catching up on this blog, fundraising, napping, doing anything else but this. My eyes were getting heavy. I finally decided to perform a full lobotomy on the laptop and restore it to factory settings.

    Another hour later, when the laptop finally finished setting itself up, half the broken keys were back to normal.  But w, s, and x were still wonky.  Given their proximity to each other on the keyboard, I suspected it was a hardware issue—i.e., the Captain and Coke. So I popped off each key and, with a toothpick and some electronics cleaning fluid, I delicately scraped at the scissor switches below.  That fixed it. 

    Troubleshooting a laptop with a toothpick is oddly satisfying. You feel like a mechanic.

    Saturday, August 20, 2011

    Cinderella Trail

    This morning I ran my first half-marathon, the Cinderella trail at Joaquin Miller Park in Oakland. It was not what I expected. I had never run a trail before, let alone thirteen miles of it. It covers an elevation gain of 2,370 feet and more than half of it is single track (meaning it is just wide enough for one runner). It bottlenecks in the beginning, but by a mile in people spread out. For much of the race, I'm running alone, jumping over tree roots and fallen branches and logs, splashing through mud, losing time carefully descending the rocky downhills, and swerving around prickly bushes. The run took me 2:34:24.

    Friday, August 19, 2011


    A blaa is a bread roll originating from Waterford, Ireland. It is made from very simple ingredients—flour, sugar, salt, butter, yeast, and water. The trickiest parts were converting from grams to cups and tablespoons for the measurements, kneading the dough, and having the patience to let it rise three times.

    After it came out of the oven we had it with fried eggs and it was deeeeeeelicious. In the morning, they were hard as frozen patties but still good after being microwaved and spread with butter and strawberry jam.

    Thursday, August 18, 2011

    Moto Guzzi V7 Classic

    After my boss and I finished talking business today, he asked me, "So ... totally unrelated question, but did you ever get a bike?" I sheepishly answered no. Earlier this year, I had asked him for advice on selecting a bike (he had recommended the Ducati Monster for me because the seat height is adjustable).

    "I have to build my nerve," I told him. "I was on the verge of getting the Ninja 250r, but then everyone who cared about me was telling me the million ways I could maim myself or turn myself into a vegetable."

    "You know," he said, "fear is a good trait to have in a motorcyclist. Makes you cautious."

    "And then one biker friend said, 'When I wanted to get a bike, no one could stop me. If you don't have that unstoppable force in you, maybe you shouldn't get one.'"

    "I don't know if that's true," he replied.

    "Meanwhile, my gorgeous red Shoei helmet is burning a hole in my kitchen countertop."

    "There's a time when it's right for you," he said. "I started riding motorcycles when I was eighteen. But I stopped two months after my daughter was born, and I sold my bike." His daughter is now in her early twenties.

    "I'll get a bike at some point," I said. "I know I will. I just want to do it when I really want it."

    "I'm gonna start riding again," he said. "I'm thinking of taking the MSF course, to get a refresher."

    "Great course," I said. "You know what bike you're gonna get?"

    "I think so," he said. "The Moto Guzzi V7 Classic."

    Wednesday, August 17, 2011

    Tuesday, August 16, 2011


    The cabbie taking me to SFO said to me, unprompted, "Man plans, God laughs." It's a Yiddish proverb, he said. I like that, I told him. Haven't heard it before. When we arrived at the airport, I found out my flight was canceled.

    Monday, August 15, 2011

    Source Code

    I love the first 83 minutes of Source Code. The central conceit of the movie—reliving the same eight minutes on an exploding train and uncovering clues each time to identify the bomber—works surprisingly well. Repeating a scene (á la Groundhog Day) can wreak havoc on pacing. But each repeat in Source Code contains such thoughtful variants that I actually want more. It reminds me of a “choose your own adventure” book: Given the same starting point, how would you choose your path differently each time? Jake Gyllenhaal finds the bomber almost too fast.

    I even like how the evil scientist Dr. Rutledge (whose halting and breathy talking style is ripped straight off the Kiefer Sutherland character in Dark City) refrains from a lengthy exposition on the science of source code. Let’s not pretend like any of this makes sense, folks, the filmmakers concede here. Just roll with it.

    With a few minutes left in the movie, the filmmakers employ such a poignant device to capture Jake Gyllenhaal’s death—they freeze his kiss with Michelle Monaghan, a strangely private moment, because as the camera pans out, all heads are turned in the opposite direction toward a comedian showing off his chops. All the passengers are frozen mid-laugh, and the happiness on their faces seems not like the happiness of actors, but genuine. These few seconds in the movie actually make my eyes wet.

    But then the filmmakers ruin it. When Captain Goodwin pulls Jake Gyllenhaal’s life support, he doesn’t die. Instead, the frozen kiss unfreezes and he discovers he gets to live on in perpetuity in his own head, with the beautiful woman he has come to love.

    The movie toys ambitiously with big ideas (the right to die, what it means to be alive), but ultimately shies away from them. They slap on a silly happy ending that is out of character with the rest of the movie. I was so hopeful about the movie’s resolution (please don’t make it happy, please don’t make it happy, please don’t make it happy), but they just didn’t have the courage to keep it real. I felt robbed.

    Sunday, August 14, 2011

    Revisiting Artificial Intelligence

    I just signed up for a free online course, entitled "Introduction to Artificial Intelligence," being offered by the Stanford School of Engineering this fall between October 10 and December 16. So far, 75,382 people have signed up for it from over 175 countries. You get no credit, but to "pass" and get a "statement of accomplishment," you must watch all lectures online (approximately 20) and turn in all eight homework assignments as well as the midterm and final exam. A system in the Amazon Cloud will facilitate automated grading of online students. The lecturers are Peter Norvig and Sebastian Thrun, and the course textbook is Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach. The website for the course calls it a "bold experiment in distributed education."

    In college, I developed a miniature obsession with the ideas behind robotics and AI. The study of artificial intelligence is really the study of human intelligence. It's as philosophical a pursuit as any other—to understand how to replicate or mimic the human mind in machines, you first have to understand the human mind. What stays with me most from that period is The Age of Intelligent Machines, by Ray Kurzweil, a provocative read.

    Curiously, I didn't take the AI course while I was in college. I was probably too busy gritting my teeth through "important" foundational courses like Operating Systems and System Programming, of which I recall nothing today.

    Friday, August 12, 2011


    Reading Siberia is like being in a dream. It is an autobiographical graphic novel drawn in pencil and written by Nikolai Maslov, about his life growing up into a young man in the Siberian countryside from the 1950s to 1970s—working on a construction site, serving in the military, living among drunks and bullies. Life is brutal. But occasionally, his drawings will go silent and contemplate hills and light and rivers, and the quiet beauty of his pastoral home.

    Siberia (originally entitled A Soviet Youth) was published by the U.S. publisher Soft Skull Press in 2007. Lire, the French literary magazine, says of Siberia: “It’s possible that right before our eyes, the Russian graphic novel is being born.” Graphic novels are not popular in Russia. And Siberia, one of the few works of art that portray everyday life in Soviet Siberia, has yet to find a Russian publisher.

    With its stark grey images, the graphic novel felt far more Siberian than the actual place. Siberia was nothing like what I had expected. It was not wintry, empty, and desolate. Instead, it was hot (naturally, it being summer) and bursting with greenery, its cities (e.g., Barnaul, Novosibirsk) no more or less developed than any others in Russia. But of course, a lot has changed since the decades depicted in Siberia, including the collapse of the Soviet Union.

    Faces are very difficult to draw realistically, and I wonder whether Nikolai Maslov's are slightly off because he was being deliberate or because he just couldn’t render them "right." Either way, his faces actually enhance the book's effect because they are almost always slightly grotesque and disturbing. The nostrils are too dark, the lips too sharply defined, like those of a burn victim.

    The story that lingers with me is that of the man who dies on the day of his sister's wedding. He was one of the few men in town who didn’t drink. He tilled the fields, and his boss prohibited him from going to the wedding in the morning. Not wanting to annoy his sister and arrive too late, he rushed his work, and in the dark his tractor tires got bogged down in the mud. The tractor slipped at the edge of a ravine. Nikolai Maslov depicts revelers at the wedding laughing and playing accordion as the vehicle crashes and explodes in flames. "He had no time to jump," he writes.

    Nikolai Maslov was working as a night watchman in 2000 when he approached Emmanual Durant, a French editor of Asterix in Russia, with just three panels and asked if he would fund the rest. He worked on the graphic novel for three years. When he finished, he returned to being a night watchman.

    Thursday, August 11, 2011

    Wednesday, August 10, 2011


    Chris Stevens, a character in the late great 90s show Northern Exposure, was the host and DJ of KBHR, the lone radio station in the fictional town of Cicely, Alaska. In the episode "Altered Egos" (season five), he posed the following question to all Cicelians:
    What throws the switch? How is it my brother Bernard, my veritable other self, finds himself head over heels about someone to whom I'm totally indifferent and yet—and this is a big yet—someone for whom I once carried a monster torch. Was I different back then; was she? Is love supposed to last for all time, or is it like trains changing at random stops? If I loved her, how could I leave her? And if I felt that way then, how come I don't feel anything now?

    The KBHR lines are open.
    Why don't they make shows like this anymore? (Or do they, and I'm just not privy?)

    Tuesday, August 9, 2011


    I watch many many many trailers, and the single movie I am most excited to see in 2011 is Drive, directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. An action movie about a "wheelman" who drives getaway cars, it is described by NPR's John Powers as "almost pure style ... almost no emotion." I love movies like this, movies that get to the point and don't mess around. Drive was nominated for the Palme d'Or and won for Best Director at Cannes this year. Some say it evokes Hong Kong action films or Quentin Tarantino, but it looks to me more like total noir. It comes out September 16.

    Monday, August 8, 2011


    Riding my bike home tonight, I passed the Palace of Fine Arts and had to stop, pull out my phone, and take this picture. It looked so ethereal. The photograph can't do the moment justice—the emptiness, the quietude, the wind kissing my face. (In my excitement, I dropped my bike and sadly it now rattles in first gear.)

    Sunday, August 7, 2011

    Las Vegas

    A couple of girl friends and I spent this weekend in Vegas. The entertainment highlight was an aging saxophonist at the Tao nightclub, dropped directly from the 80s, with the requisite blonde mullet and black blazer over white T-shirt and blue jeans. He serenaded me three times, for such prolonged (and somewhat awkward) periods, riffing himself into such a sweaty frenzy, groups were stopping to gawk.

    I was reminded this weekend that you can't hang in Vegas without noticing that the women, especially the ones who work the clubs serving drinks tableside or bartending, are consistently and ostentatiously beautiful and provocatively presented. (This feels especially true in counterpoint to San Francisco, where women dress so casually to go out at night.) Andrés Martinez, in his book 24/7 (for which his editor gave him $50,000 to gamble at ten casinos over six weeks, whatever money he had left at the end he could keep), quotes a female hustler who says that beauty "is the only currency that matter[s] in this place."  

    Be that as it may, that currency seems to buy only entry into a limited job network where the length of your career is bounded by your youth. It's like how they say that Hollywood chews you up and spits you out, except more stark and ruthless. At Tao, two girls sit in a stone tub shaped like a shallow bowl, and move like they're giving it a lap dance. They're naked except for the flower petals that cover their breasts. From the side, their upper halves appear strangely disembodied from their lower, like amputees. They look bored. My eyes are drawn to them reflexively, even as I feel slightly embarrassed for them. One of the girls is Asian and thus reminds me of myself and I think, "How heartbreaking if her parents saw her like this ... " But on her bored face I detect flashes of satisfaction, even pride, her work a kind of validation of her appeal. 

    Vegas, of course, is a city literally built to entertain adults. (For a while, Steve Wynn and other developers trended toward entertaining the whole family, with themed hotels like Aladdin, Paris, Venetian, and Luxor, but that seems to be giving way to neutrally elegant hotels like the Wynn, Encore, and those at City Center.) Because Vegas's only raison d'être is to entertain, it is set up to provide exceptionally convenient and ubiquitous ways to separate you from your money. The Strip is a looping conveyor belt of cabs, restaurants, liquor, spas, shows (apparently, Celine's back!), and of course, gambling. It's strange to me how there may be children born and raised in Vegas for whom everyone they know works in the gaming industry, maybe all on the Strip itself—parents, siblings, relatives, friends, friends' families. It's like the Vegas version of living in a coal mining town.

    We noticed this weekend a particular plethora of bachelor and bachelorette parties, easy to spot when big tables are filled by either all men or all women. While choosing to throw your bachelor or bachelorette party in Vegas seems cliché, maybe even lacking in imagination, I can see how for someone who doesn't live close by and hasn't visited dozens of times, Vegas can be truly fresh, exciting, and novel. One charming trend I notice is all the men in a bachelor party wearing matching T-shirts.

    But bachelor parties can be tricky. Without at least one friend who's got your back even as he ensures you get completely wasted, it can be a recipe for disaster. I'm conjecturing here, but guys probably feel pressured to come home from Vegas with wild and crazy stories. Most women, including me, understand and accept the rite of passage of the Vegas stripper at a bachelor party. That's totally fine. But even the most cosmopolitan woman is not going to accept drunkenness as a valid excuse for sleeping with one of them. My friend, who's getting married, told me this weekend that she made a pact with her fiancé that neither of them would have strippers at their bachelor and bachelorette parties. "Ideally," she said, "I'd like his bachelor party to be a backpacking trip into the woods."

    Saturday, August 6, 2011

    Catching Up, Part V

    This is a photo of my hands. When I posted it on my blog a few years ago, I entitled it "Subsurface Scattering" (which is what happens to light when it penetrates translucent objects like flesh). I asked anyone to figure out what I am holding in the photo, but I got no takers then.

    Friday, August 5, 2011

    Catching Up, Part IV

    I love this photograph, taken in Seoul. She looks so serene. But the thing is, the temperature on that sunny day was positively subarctic, and my fingers were numb when I took it. I felt so sorry for her, in that spellbinding but delicate dress, freezing her ass off. Tourist photographers like myself followed her around like paparazzi.

    Thursday, August 4, 2011

    Catching Up, Part III

    An obligatory tourist activity in Bangkok is to see a "ladyboy" show, where all the performers are transsexuals. When my sister and I went, we happily obliged. Not surprisingly, the transformation from man to woman ranges in believability. I found the performer second from the right to be particularly convincing and beautiful.

    Wednesday, August 3, 2011

    Catching Up, Part II

    When I was a summer intern at the firm at which I now work, one of our social events was going to a Giants game. I wasn't being a very good intern then; instead of mingling and schmoozing with the attorneys (we were, after all, engaged in essentially a summer-long interview), I disappeared for an hour to take photos of the ballpark. Two of the other interns had to track me down, worried that I had been eaten by a mascot or had fallen over into McCovey Cove.

    When a friend of mine visited AT&T Park for the first time, he called it "the most beautiful man-made structure in the history of the United States." Sometimes, in my more nostalgic moments, I'm hard-pressed to disagree.

    Tuesday, August 2, 2011

    Catching Up, Part I

    This blog is woefully behind, so in an attempt to catch up, I am posting a series of photos I have taken over the past few years that I still find interesting.

    For a semester during law school, I studied abroad at the University of Hong Kong and lived in the dorms. I took this staircase, which was attached to my dorm building, to get to Kennedy Town everyday to go to the gym, which was on the top floor of the chain business hotel Novotel, and always empty.

    Monday, August 1, 2011


    When I was an intern on Forum at KQED Public Radio, we produced a show on "The Culture of Disability." Our guest, a man in a wheelchair whose name I can't recall now, told me before the show that he calls people like me "tabbies."

    "What?" I responded.

    "Tabby," he said. "Or TAB. Stands for temporarily able-bodied."

    I thought of this exchange on a plane from LAX to SFO, when a very old man sat down next to me. His thin pale legs stuck out from his Bermuda shorts and tan loafers (with requisite black socks), and liver spots coated his sagging skin. He shook, like a human earthquake, or an unending seizure. He put his hands on his knees to still himself but it helped hardly at all. When the flight attendant asked him if he wanted a beverage, he replied, "Pretzels?"

    My thoughts wound through a familiar trajectory. Poor poor guy, was my first thought. That's me in sixty years, was my second thought. Then again, I exercise and eat well, was my third thought. Who am I kidding, was my fourth.

    Whatever state I actually end up in at the sunset of my life, I do know that healthy and invincible as I feel now, it is only temporary. There's no getting around it—we're tabbies.

    Sunday, July 31, 2011


    I am in love with San Francisco, and so unsurprisingly, I have very few complaints about it. Conventional negatives are reasoned into positives ("overcast skies" are "atmospheric," "bums" add "character," "expensive housing" means "real estate that holds value").

    But one negative I can't reason away, even for my beloved San Francisco, are the friggin' flight delays. Fog. Rolling in this way and that. Normally so benignly mysterious, it is transformed into an indomitable force in a head-to-head match against the aviation industry. At least a third of my evening flights into San Francisco are delayed by two hours or more.

    Or is it just me? Does anyone else notice this pattern?

    Saturday, July 30, 2011

    Alone Together

    I finished Alone Together, by Sherry Turkle, a book about what technology is doing to our relationships and our brains in an age of texting, social networking, and games like Second Life. Publishers Weekly says it "makes a strong case that what was meant to be a way to facilitate communications has pushed people closer to their machines and further away from each other." I find that my strongest feelings about the ideas in this book are already encapsulated in a post I wrote almost a year ago, about Facebook.

    Friday, July 29, 2011

    An Exceptional Day

    On this day, 27 years ago, the most loving beautiful sister in the history of humanity was born. Happy birthday M.!

    Thursday, July 28, 2011

    Looking Back at St. Petersburg

    Below are some photos from St. Petersburg, which I couldn’t post at the time I was there. The sculptures are from the Hermitage.

    Vladimir Nabokov's Scrabble set, Nabokov Museum

    In Dvortsovaya Ploshchad

    From Nabokov's butterfly collection, Nabokov Museum

    Treasures of Saudi Arabia exhibit, Hermitage

    Tchaikovsky's grave