Monday, December 28, 2009

Airport Insecurity

Recent events have shown once again that airport security is an oxymoron, implemented by morons.

Ever since that terrible day in 2001, we have endured endless security procedures. We have our ID's checked and rechecked. A bunch of squiggly lines are drawn on our boarding passes determine if we'll be pulled aside for extra screening. Then we take our laptops out. Then we take off our shoes, belts, empty our pockets of change. Then we can't take bottled water, or any fluids more than 3 ounces.

And yet last week, a man got on a plane with a bunch of explosives strapped to his legs.

So now, we have more regulations. No getting up in the last hour of the flight. No music, no blankets, no inflight entertainment, and no reading (!!!). And even better, we have a massive confusion of what is allowed and what isn't. All in the name of combating terrorism.

Here's a new idea. Let's prevent people with explosives strapped to their bodies from boarding airplanes. These asswipes aren't the smartest people in the world. They don't have super high-tech weaponry. No ceramic x-ray proof weapons. No James Bond type gadgets. No previously unknown explosive agents. So why the hell can't we catch them?

And more importantly, how is depriving me of magazines and music make me any safer if you allow people with explosives to board planes? This is an utter failure of higher level thinking. If we keep going down this road, eventually we'll all be sitting in planes buck naked. And we still won't be any safer.

Let's face the facts. We are never going to be completely safe. The United States is a target, just like Israel. I'm okay giving up some freedoms in order for us to be safer in planes. Not allowing knifes and boxcutters... great idea. But I'm not going to sit here while all my rights are taken away but nothing is made safer. The truth of the matter is most people who fly, are NOT terrorists. We need to be smarter in our screening. The time spent frisking babies is wasted. That's time not used to frisk people who are on terrorist watch lists. Our TSA agents on the ground need to be more than just minimum-wage GED washouts. We need people who can read facial expressions, decipher body language, use high-tech bomb detection equipment, can conduct on the spot interviews, and most of all, can put two and two together.

Will somebody in Washington please wake up! This is getting ridiculous.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Time Traveler's Wife

I just finished reading The Time Traveler's Wife. I was captivated by the fourth page, and breezed through the book in less than 2 days.

This is a great book for me because it plucks my heartstrings just ever so perfectly. The story is less about time travel and more about love, destiny, and well, life. The life of Henry and Clare are so intertwined that even the fibers of time and space could not keep them apart. Although they could not alter their destinies, they made the most of it.

I loved the way Niffenegger told the story. In the first person, but from both Henry and Clare's perspective. The story, more or less proceeds in a chronological order, but since it involves time travel, all the pieces are revealed slowly but they all fall into place beautifully at the end.

It isn't often I read fiction. It usually takes long stretches of time, time, I couldn't afford normally. But I'm glad I spared some time during this Christmas break to take in this novel, one of the better ones I read all year. Unfortunately the movie, which I haven't seen yet, will no doubt disappoint. I will probably still watch it, just for Rachel McAdams.

One day, I aspire to write something as good.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Hot List 2009

It's the end of the year, and everyone's making a list and checking it twice. So in the mood of the season, I made my Hot List for 2009.

Number 1: Alicia Keys - Not only is she drop-dead, head-turningly gorgeous, this girl can sing. She just released her fourth studio album a few days ago, but for most of the year I've been rocking out to her song Doesn't Mean Anything while at work. I love the way she sings straight from the heart about matters of the heart. Her range is amazing. The contra-alto voice and her expertness at the piano combining influences of R&B, pop, rock, latin, and classical styles makes Alicia Keys one of a kind. Oh, did I mention, she's also gorgeous. I didn't really notice her when she took off back in 2001, but this year, Alicia, you're my number one.

Number 2: Stana Katic - Currently playing opposite Nathan Fillion in the ABC show Castle, is Canadian actress Stana Katic. And that name is Croatian, in case you're wondering (like I did). She plays a strong, witty, sassy, at times vulnerable, but always lovable NYPD homicide detective. If you ask me, there's not enough strong, bad-ass female characters on film and television these days, so thank goodness there's Stana. She's going to be a breakout star, not only because she is ball-numbingly beautiful, she is also a good actress. Besides, any tall beautiful brunette who straps on a Glock for work (even if it's fake) will rank high on my list.

Number 3: Teal Wicks - Anyone living in the bay area will be able to see Teal in person, performing the lead role in the musical Wicked. Ironically, Teal Wicks, plays the green wicked witch of the west, Elphaba. Even in florescent green makeup from head to toe, this girl is hot. That is, until she starts to sing. Then she moves from hot to oh-my-gawd-that-was-off-the-charts. And since she lives in San Francisco right now, there's always a chance I'll run into her on the streets. But Teal is definitely headed to Broadway in the future. Her last performance here is Feb 7, so catch her while you can.

Number 4: Shakira - This Hips Don't Lie superstar from Colombia is a surprise entry on my list. I was never a big fan of her music and she pretty much stayed off my radar. That is, until this year. Apparently she was taking time off back in 2007 and took history classes at UCLA incognito. Not only that, I learned that she has been very active in helping bringing education to the poor in her home country with her Barefoot Foundation. She even guest wrote a column for The Economist The World in 2010 special issue, specifically on how to use education to bring communities out of poverty. Beauty + Brains + Heart = Sexy!

So, there you go. That's my Hot List for 2009. Everyone on the list is a winner, but the top place winner wins something extra special. Alicia, if you're reading this, you've just won a free dinner, hosted by yours truly. Redeemable anytime in 2010 at any restaurant of your choice, anywhere in the world (no cash equivalent). So, just have your people call my people when you're ready.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Paperless Revolution

This week my Christmas came early. My presents to myself arrived, not in Santa's sleigh, but in UPS trucks. There is one present that managed to surprise me: the Amazon Kindle.

As soon as I played with it for 3 minutes, I knew, then and there, that I found myself in the middle of a revolution. The Paperless Revolution.

The underlying technology for the Kindle is something called E-Ink. This was developed by a bunch of brainiacs at MIT many years ago and had trouble finding market adoption. I know this, because I read about them as an assignment while I was taking entrepreneurship classes at Haas Business School. The company almost went under because they were a few years ahead of their time. It was a technology in search of a market - one of the classical traps of disruptive technology.

Well, the time has come. The cool thing about e-ink and the Kindle, is that the display is not really a display. Normal LCD display needs continuous power, because it is backlit. Even new fancy OLED (Organic LED) displays require power to display content. E-ink, when it is displaying a page of text, draws no power. Zero. Zilch. A page can be displayed on the screen, practically until the end of time. The only time power is required is when you flip a page or when you use wireless internet to download books.

Since there's no backlight, the Kindle works just like paper. You can read only if there is an external light source. Just like paper. But regardless of where you are, in a classroom or outside under the sun, the text looks the same. Just like paper. You can angle the device any which way and it still reads the same. Just like paper. And you can bookmark, annotate, and scribble notes. Just like paper. But no trees are being killed in the process, unlike paper. I can buy a book in my boxers and have it delivered wirelessly in seconds, unlike paper. Best of all, it can store thousands of books in less than 10.2 ounces, very unlike paper.

The Economist predicts that 2010 is going to be the year of the ebook. I can see why. The Kindle won't completely replace books any time soon. Even today, the mobile phone has not completely replaced land-line phones. Right now the Kindle is still in its early adoption phase. The user interface is a bit clunky. The e-ink display needs a bit more polish. Color is totally absent. But remember the first cell phone? The thing was the size of a brick and had battery that lasted 30 minutes. The technology will get there and it will get there very soon.

I just love living in this age of constant change. The entire publishing business will undergo phenomenal turmoil in the next few years. Old companies will wither away and new ones rise from their ashes. And I have a ring side seat to all this action. Life is awesome.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The American Dream is Not Dead

Today I got into a discussion with a person I met, whose view point I disagreed completely. I made a passing remark that in this country, anyone who really wanted to can obtain a college education. She disagreed and said, "just look around in Oakland... the numbers show that this is the first time where the next generation will do worse than their parents" and ended by concluding that the American Dream is dead.

Now, it's been awhile I had to debate people and I was unable to adequately make my point before the conversation abruptly ended. I was really bothered by this type of attitude. It is fatalistic, uninspired, and in my opinion totally wrong.

I'm not going to argue against the numbers, as I don't know them or where she got them. Even if it is true, it doesn't mean what she thinks it means. I agree the system is imperfect. A child growing up in East Oakland has a lot less going for them than a child growing up in Pac Heights. That is a difference in circumstances of life, which occurs everywhere in the world. In China, in Brazil, in France, there are the haves and have nots. Class differences exists all over the world.

But the point I want to get at, is that the American system is still fundamentally meritocratic. That child growing up in East Oakland, is not deprived of the opportunity of going to college. Sure, it may involve much more hard work, but it is not impossible. Upward mobility does exist. That is the American Dream.

We live in a country where fifty years ago, a black man cannot use the same toilet as a white man in large parts of the country. Yet fifty years later, we have a black president. Show me another country where this is possible. The American Dream is for those with willpower and the willingness to work. No one said the American Dream is easy. It's not a handout... it is something to be earned.

I think a lot of intellectuals suffer from excessive cynicism. True, the system should be improved so that the bottom of the class hierarchy can achieve more class mobility. However, we cannot discount individual accountability. On the contrary, we need to promote it. It is true that child from East Oakland can go to college, or become president. The difference lies in how much he/she want it, and how much he/she is willing to work for it. There is nothing intrinsic in the system that makes it impossible.

As long as the possibility exists, the American Dream will be alive. 90% of start-ups fail. Yet I'm still an entrepreneur after two years, because I don't believe the numbers apply to me. Others before me have done it, and if I couldn't do it, it would be entirely my fault. That is individual will.

Lastly, this is not a liberal vs conservative issue. Individual will and success, and even the American Dream, is often associated with the rhetoric of the right. But I'm a liberal. Even liberals, need to believe in the American Dream. The dream that one person, whether it be Susan B Anthony or Martin Luther King, can make a difference. Individual will and action can change the system to make our world better. What is, is not all that it can be.

The American Dream is very much alive.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Finding Pixar

I recently finished the book The Pixar Touch by David A. Price, an engagingly written corporate biography of Pixar Animation Studios and the passionate people that brought it to life.

Unusually, as an entrepreneur, I seldomly browse biographies of other tech companies. I have found that startups all have very different stories, and every successful startup succeeds differently. Sometimes you just have to blaze your own path and forget what everyone else has done, is doing, and will do. But somehow, the Pixar story appealed to me on a deeper level, much like the beloved movies they pour soul and heart into, this story looks like a fairy tale.

Pixar started almost two decades before their first feature film release, Toy Story. It was tenuously held together by a handful of people who had a single, identical dream: to make movies... computer animated movies. It was a wild and fantastical dream at the time. They had all the odds stacked against them. Of the three risks face by entrepreneurs, they had them all. There are plenty of technology risks because no one has done it before them and most doubted it could be done at all. Then there were huge business risks; at the time Disney is the 800 pound gorilla and unchallenged in arena of animated movies. Lastly, there were financial risks. In the entire early life of Pixar, up until the release of the Toy Story, the company lost money every year like clockwork.

But a few things saved them.

They had talent and passion. The people who founded Pixar are the heavyweight intellectuals and when you get a roomful of these guys and they work themselves day and night doing what they love, miracles do happen.

They found a great animator in John Lasseter. Lasseter understood that making a computer animated movie takes more than technical perfection. He added that human touch that connected the audiences' hearts with the souls of the characters and story on the screen. A very telling quote from the book says it all:
Ironically, though, several of [Disney's] senior execs admitted to [Ralph Guggenheim] by the end of the Toy Story production that Pixar had made a film that contained more of the "heart" of traditional Disney animated films than they themselves were making at that time. They grudgingly admired Pixar and Lasseter for this.

Lastly, they were lucky. No denying this one. Sometimes even the most humble of entrepreneurs underestimate the importance of luck in their successes. Pixar got lucky many times over its existence. And they capitalized on their luck because the men calling the shots, knew exactly what they wanted.

And at the end, all that looked like a fairy tale in a lot of ways isn't. This is a story of passion and will triumphing after decades of hard work.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Obama's "Socialism"

It seems that recently the health care debate has devolved into an one-way screaming match about socialism. I recently saw a picture of a protester, holding a sign that read simply "Socialism Sucks". Of course, the protester is correct. Socialism does suck. Unfortunately, neither he nor 90% of the people in this country know what socialism really means.

No can can accuse me of being a socialist. At least, not with a straight face. I'm an entrepreneur, which could only exist and thrive in a capitalistic economy. I employ workers; I invest my capital; I reap my reward. I am the very evil Marx fought with his pen. Perhaps this gives me a little credibility when I say: Obama is no Socialist.

At the core, Obama is a student of liberalism and perhaps of egalitarianism. We should never forget that this country is founded upon the foundation of egalitarianism. That "All men are created equal". But how equal are the 50 million people without health insurance? How equal are the people who could not marry because of their sexual orientation? How equal are the poor who are left to the mercy of the public education system?

We have deviated from the principles of our founding. This was not the first time, as you may recall from our American history class. America is unique in the world in that we have the best universities in the world, yet produce some of the lowest test scores among our students. We have the best doctors and medical technology in the world, yet have the lowest life expectancy out of developed nations. Why is that?

The answer is simply that wealth concentrated in the hands of a few does not benefit society as a whole. This is not an argument for socialism. Too often we suffer from the fallacy of false dilemma. No, this is an argument for government to do more for those needing the most help. Alas, this help isn't free. Some of that cost must be borne by those who could afford it.

I don't believe that we could pay for universal health care from cost savings alone. I recognize that when it comes to taxes, I'll be in the percentile that will be affected the most. Am I willing to sacrifice a few percent of my wealth if it means we could raise the average well being of this country? Absolutely. But only if this plan has a reasonable chance of working. Otherwise it would be a waste. A waste of my money and everyone's time.

But our debate has been hijacked. We are bitching about socialism and death panels instead of what is really important... the meat and potatoes of reform. The wealthy (or the right, if you prefer) wanting to scuttle the entire process by misleading and fear-mongering the masses. And more dishearteningly, Obama seems to be wavering in the face of this challenge. If he couldn't do this, the rest of us don't stand a chance.

Perhaps this is the time for Obama to take a stand... and the rest of us to have a little faith.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Found a cool Podiatrist

I went to a Podiatrist today. Because I had to.

I had a minor mishap landing my parachute on Sunday. I flared too early and came down really hard. I would've been alright, had I kept my legs together, but instead my right foot landed first. Really hard. Let's just say, I had to be carried back into the hanger.

I didn't go to the doctor right away. It didn't hurt too bad, and I got my roommate to get a pair of crutches for me, kept the foot on ice and spent a few days dragging myself to work. It wasn't until at the urging of mom, did I finally relent. I had Tylee make an appointment for me. She found Dr. Wolff.

I got to his office, but apparently there's some miscommunication, and they had the appointment down for next Thursday. But the receptionist said they'll see me anyways.

Then as I was waiting, this guy came out. I thought he was a patient, at first. Nicely dressed in a sports jacket, round glasses, I would guess about 50 to 60 years old, very distinguished looking. Exactly what a doctor would look like if you had to picture it. That was Dr. Wolff.

He looked at me and asked me how I got that way and I told him. He then asked, "did you get that thing x-rayed?". I answered, "no, not yet." He immediately said, "well, I was on my way to the hospital (next door), why don't I just x-ray you real quick."

So I followed him, hopped on the x-ray machine and had two pictures taken. He was concerned that I may have a fracture, especially after I took off the wrapping on my foot.

I only had to wait a little while before he came back with the x-ray film. He told me I was lucky... no fracture that he could see. He gave me a little hard time for waiting so long to see a doctor. Okay mom, you're right.

Dr Wolff fitted me up with a cool plastic velcro cast for my foot. This cast is pretty fancy, even has a pump to put pressure so blood don't pool at the bottom. Awesome. We chatted while the receptionist rang me up for the cast.

I really like this doc. He was more concerned about my well-being than I was, which is exceedingly rare. I just felt really comfortable trusting him, and obviously he loved his job and helping people. So... I'll be seeing him in 2 weeks and he'll give me a lighter brace to wear.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

2 Years in San Francisco

It's almost exactly 2 years to the day since I moved to San Francisco. Jeff and I just came back from our epic Euro Trip and my luggage was delayed at JFK. I had no clothes and had to buy a t-shirt at the airport souvenir shop. I still had an apartment in Berkeley at the time, but we already signed the lease for our place in SF before we left a month earlier. But since my key was in the luggage that didn't make it, I had to crash on the couch in our new apartment on Van Ness Avenue.

That was two years ago. Memories likes to play funny tricks with the mind. I could remember some things vividly, yet it all seems so distant.

I was just starting my first full time job and still had a Master's project to submit. It felt very different, not being a student anymore. The funny thing is I had no idea what my future held in store for me. I was so different then. Insecure, both financially and emotionally. A little dumb and a lot unwise. I seemed to be okay playing the same game everyone else was playing.

Then, life happened. Someone hit the fast forward button. Was I ready for it? No, absolutely not. But it happened anyways.

Quitting my job and starting our first company together was probably a very stupid thing to do. I was so naive. All we had was a grand idea, a fuzzy path for getting there, and an unshakeable belief in our ability to execute. We didn't think it was going to be easy, but hell, we had no idea it was going to be that hard. Had I known all the obstacles, would I have started?

And that is one secret to be an entrepreneur: dare to be stupid. When Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard in his sophomore year, it was probably a stupid idea at the time. The important thing was to take that leap; and that leap is almost always a little stupid. Smart people doing stupid things and somehow wonderful things happen.

That is how it all started.

The unfortunate side-effect is that I never quite got to live in San Francisco. My physical body is here, but only to shuttle myself from home to work and back home again. One of these days, I'll really live in San Francisco. Maybe I'll throw a party to celebrate that occasion...

Monday, June 29, 2009

New Blog

The past year has been an incredible journey. So much has happened it felt like I got 5 years worth of experience all compressed, squished and jammed into one. Not only did I do more things and had more things done to me, I felt more. I felt more alive than ever before. It is as though I took a trip to explore the range and depth of emotions: anger to frustration, exhilaration and love, sadness yet joy. But those emotions also came with crystal clear realizations of life.

Proust once wrote,
We don't receive wisdom; we must discover it for ourselves after a journey that no one can take for us or spare us.
For the first time, I think I'm beginning to discover wisdom. It is as if I woke up one day and started to understand life. And I believe that with understanding, mastery is sure to follow.

Unfortunately the more I did, the less I wrote. Today I decided it was time to start a brand new blog. Who knows when the journey might end, or change, or become incomprehensible again. I can't promise everything I write will be enlightening or brilliant or even interesting, but at least there will be some kind of public record of me waking up daily in this beautiful city by the bay and the metaphorical awakening that I'm only beginning to realize.