Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Voting for the very first time

Two nights ago, I voted for the first time in my life.

I left Canada when I was 17, before I could legally vote. For the next eleven years, I could not vote in American elections, so I watched helplessly as George W. won against Al, then hopefully as Barack cruised to the Oval Office. I became an American citizen almost 18 months ago, and missed last year's elections because I was traveling in Southeast Asia.

This year, I have no more excuses. As elections go, the San Francisco mayoral election is rather small and insignificant. The mayor can't do much to fix the economy, can't order men to bomb foreign lands, and only tangentially affect the lives of half a million or so people. I don't know much about the candidates, and have even less knowledge about the ballot measures. So I wondered, how much is my vote really going to matter? And if I vote without knowing about what I'm voting for, is it better than not voting at all?

So the night before election day, I sat in front of my computer with my mail-in ballot and downloaded the voters pamphlet from the city's election website. Pamphlet is a misnomer, since it is 187 pages long, but I gave myself an hour to figure out the personalities and issues.

I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of the voters pamphlet. The first section outlined the format of the elections and how to fill out the multiple choice ballot. The second section introduced the candidates for the three posts up for election (Mayor, District Attorney and Sheriff). There were many candidates for mayor, some with more experience than others, a few are just plain crazy (it is San Francisco after all). The next part, also the most helpful section, detailed the ballot measures. For each measure, the election committee gave a non-opinionated background on what the issue is about, then the controller gave a statement on how much the measure would impact city finances and taxation. Then the proponents and opponents gave written arguments and rebuttals, followed by paid endorsements either for or against the measure by various groups ranging from concerned citizens to the Sierra club and Republican party. Reading through these arguments actually gave me much clarity on the issues and allowed me to form my own opinions. The last section of the pamphlet consisted of actual legal wording of the ballot measures, which I didn't bother reading.

I was done within an hour. I believe I had at least 80% understanding of the issues and problems. Sometimes it was difficult to decide, and I wish I had more time to research the issue. For example, I had to weigh the ballot measure on increasing sales tax 0.5% to pay for some city services against a bond measure to do maintenance on our streets. I ended up voting for one and not the other, but it wasn't an easy decision.

And this was the interesting part. Because I took time to read through the pamphlet, I actually cared. This is why the decisions weren't easy. I felt responsible. My vote may not have mattered much among the hundreds of thousands of votes casted, and I may not have made the best decision possible, but through the act of voting, I better understood the complexities of the issues facing my city today. Thus, participation is the most important part of democracy.

I'm a believer now. It only take an hour to be informed enough to vote. The difference is between ignorance and responsibility. The trade-off is well worth it.

Monday, October 24, 2011

I am the egg

Today, flying across my Facebook feed, someone I barely knew, that I met ever briefly, so long ago, posted a link. And it spoke to me in a very meaningful way.

The post was Haruki Murakami's acceptance speech when he won the Jerusalem Prize back in 2009. He delivered a simple personal message, the one thing that he keeps in his mind when he writes fiction. He said,

Between a high, solid wall and an egg that breaks against it, I will always stand on the side of the egg.

In the metaphor, the "high, solid wall" is the System, and the "egg that breaks against it" is the individual. There are many ways the System manifest itself. This takes on meaning both on the greater world stage and in my own humble existence.

In Libya, the system was an authoritarian dictator who for 42 years ruled by violence, persecution and fear. The eggs are the thousands of people, students, farmers and tradesmen that rose against it.

In Zuccotti Park, the system is the impersonal financial and political hegemony maintained by the rich and powerful. The eggs are the laid off workers who have no more to lose, the middle class that watched their dreams squashed, and the retirees whose pension is worth less by the day.

And in my life, as an entrepreneur, the system represents big corporations, other startups with a lot more funding and clout, and users with their established habits and resistance. Up against all that, is me. I am the egg.

I've been smashed against this wall before. But there is hope, there's always hope. If the events in Libya is any indication, sometimes the egg can be stronger than the wall.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Reflections on Humbert Humbert

Recently, I finished Lolita, Nabokov's masterpiece, his quiet yet disturbing demonstration to the world of his power as a prose writer and mastery as a story teller. Had I read it just a few years earlier, the full force and majesty of the novel would have totally escaped me. Not to say that I am either, but I believe the enjoyment of Lolita increases exponentially with the reader's emotional and philosophical maturity.

Most people are familiar with the subject matter of this novel. A 40-something hebephile Humbert Humbert has a carnal relationship with a 12 year-old Dolores Haze, his Lolita, Lola, Lo. In sexually conservative America, this book stabs through the fabric of societal mores and became famous and infamous because of it. But there's something more to this novel than just the shocking, lewd, and obscene subject matter. It is an illuminating examination of a shadowy recess of the human condition.

The story told in the first person does not make Humbert a sympathetic antihero, rather it makes him understandable. We understand why he does what he does, but there is nothing to mask his ugliness as a human being. He is contemptuous of everyone except himself and Lo. This contempt is spread all around to his ex-wife Valeria ("brainless baba"), to his landlady Charlotte ("big Haze"), and even to his friend and chess buddy Gaston ("glum repulsive fat old invert"). No one is spared his venom, yet no one knows its sting, because what he thinks he does not say. Humbert is a coward who fancies himself otherwise. When his ex-wife left him, he thought of "hurting her very horribly", but found that "impossible to put into execution with the cursed colonel hovering around all the time". In short, Humbert will strike a woman, but will not risk a confrontation with another man.

The most revealing aspect of Humbert is, without a doubt, his dysfunctional relationship with Lolita. It cannot be accurately described as a love. Humbert paints to great length of how he ached for her, longed for her, and desired to possess her. What troubled me was that his love was all physical.

There my beauty lay down on her stomach, showing me, showing the thousand eyes wide open in my eyed blood, her slightly raised shoulder blades, and the bloom along the incurvation of her spine, and the swelling of her tense narrow nates clothed in black, and the seaside of her schoolgirl thighs.

Humbert loves Lo not as a man loves a woman, but as a man who loves his own lust. His love is the pinnacle of selfishness. He tries to fill two roles for Lo, that of the guardian (Lo calls him "dad") and that of the lover. He utterly fails at both. When he tries to be a good step father, he invariably becomes consumed and succumbs to his desires. His inability to make Lolita fall in love with him also makes him a failed lover. He admits that Lo has never "convulsed" during their intercourse and yet he has had "two years of monstrous indulgence". It took a long time, years after his relationship with Lo had ended, before Humbert found clarity in the most beautifully written (and longest) sentence of the entire novel.

... I simply did not know a thing about my darling's mind and that quite possibly, behind the awful juvenile cliches, there was a garden and a twilight, and a palace gate -- dim and adorable regions which happened to be lucidly and absolutely forbidden to me, in my polluted rags and miserable convulsions; for I often noticed that living as we did, she and I, in a world of total evil, we would become strangely embarrassed whenever I tried to discuss something she and an older friend, she and a parent, she and a real healthy sweetheart... might have discussed -- an abstract idea, a painting, stippled Hopkins or shorn Baudelaire, God or Shakespeare, anything of a genuine kind.

That was the only redeeming quality of Humbert: the flashes of honesty he often writes of himself. It is only through these tiny viewports that we shine the light on his and Lola's inner condition.

I don't blame Humbert for his predilection towards his nymphets, because it is a preference. Just as some are attracted to buxom blondes and others to skinny red-heads, Humbert has his peculiar preference. This brings me to an interesting philosophical thought experiment. If my preferences were a little different, would I become a hebephile too? Is the difference between me and Humbert merely a difference of taste? I admit, this question bothered me as I read the novel, but at the end I reached my conclusion. The key difference of Humbert and the rest of us is not a matter of preference, but a matter of control. Humbert is a slave to his desire, to his lust. The rest of us, too, full of desire and lust, are, for the most part, able to control them and harness them towards love and self-improvement instead of having them control us and destroy us and all those around us in the process.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Second Thoughts about Obama

I, like many people of my age, was caught up by Obamania three years ago. But lately, I have seen enough. My opinion has turned decidedly negative, and I know I'm not the only one.

As a progressive, I have read Obama's books and listened to his speeches, and know that deep down, he is intelligent and true to his beliefs. But if only that were enough to be an effective leader! Now it seems to me that he's better suited to be a college professor, inspiring young men and women to change the world, than to be the leader of the most powerful country on earth and lead the change himself.

We have made enough excuses on his behalf already. Yes, he inherited the worst economic recession in two generations and two unpopular wars on the far side of the world. Yes, the republicans hate him, for his ideas, for his care, for his name, and for his birth certificate. Yes, there are disasters economic, natural, and man-made around every corner. I don't blame him for the things he can't control, but he must take responsibility for the things that he can control and failed to do so.

Obama's high minded ideals are no match for the mud wrestling nature of realpolitik. I while applaud his initial efforts at bipartisanship, it is obviously not going to fly. The Republicans has not, is not, and will never, play ball with him. But Obama's refusal to swing the shovel is damaging not only the standing of the administration, but also the entire progressive agenda. I don't blame the Republicans for acting like IQ-challenged douche bags; they have been consistently that way for years. They spew the same vitriol and espouse the same inane policies as they always have. But instead of forcing the Republicans into a corner and effectively ending them as a viable political force, Obama's conciliatory approach has only lengthened the pain period for everyone.

I do believe that the Republican's shelf life is limited. Lincoln (ironically, a Republican) famously said that "you can fool some of the people all the time, all the people some of the time, but never all the people all the time." Eventually America will realize that living standards have not increased in more than a decade, unemployment will never fall below 7% again, and science doesn't care if you believe in it or not. A party that is against change is against the universe. A party for the top 5% will be surrounded by 95% enemies. The demise of the Republican party will not mean the demise of dissent and differing opinions. It just means the demise of stupid opinions.

If Clausewitz is to be believed, that "war is an extension of politics", then we must also conclude that politics is a lot like war. And this war is best fought if the enemy is defeated quickly. This way, we can stop slugging at each other and contemplating hari-kiri with our debt ceiling, and get back to solving problems that matter. Unfortunately, Obama has shown time and again that he is unwilling or unable to do the dirty deeds. In war, this means killing. In politics, it means using leverage until it hurts. Yes, he may gain a few more enemies by doing that, but considering he has plenty already, it shouldn't matter at all. On the other hand, he will inspire and motivate millions to fight on his side.

Unfortunately, I don't believe Obama is the man for the job. If Hilary had won the primary instead, we may have a chance. She seems to have the political experience and the balls for this kind of task.

Come election day, unless Huntsman gets nominated via Devine intervention, I think I'm just going to sit this one out.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Smart woman and wise words from 320 years ago

In 1691, a nun living in Mexico City (then under the Spanish Crown), wrote a long letter. Her words echoed for 320 years, and finally found their way to me this weekend, proving once again that S/he who writes well, lives forever.

Sister Juana Ines de la Cruz was a prodigy, but born of the wrong sex (or the right one from my perspective). At a time where educated women were practically nonexistant, a woman with curiosity and intellect is frowned upon, discouraged, and ridiculed. Sister Juana is one of the first feminist, a feminist by example. Although three centuries later, women's rights have advanced light years since her time, we still find that men feel more threatened by a smart woman than by a pretty one.

The letter Reply to Sister Filotea, is one part apology, one part autobiography, and one part argument against the status quo. Her writing rivals and even surpasses the best writers of her day. Her shewed arguments quoting everything from the Bible to classical texts from Greek and Latin, demonstrates the depth of her learning while her use of both logical arguments and rhetoric skills demonstrates the quickness of her wit.

In the letter she detailed how in her childhood she secretly learned to read at the age of 3, and her insatiable appetite for knowledge drives her inexorably towards learning. Apart from the woman who taught her how to read and write, she had no formal schooling since her parents rejected her idea of dressing up as a boy to attend school. Instead, she learned by herself, from books.

But what may be offered as an exoneration is that I undertook this great task without benefit of teacher, or fellow students with whom to confer and discuss, having for a master no other than a mute book, and for a colleague, an insentient inkwell...

The desire to learn is so strong within her, she thought of nothing else. At her time, the only path available to her is to become a nun, so that she can devote the most amount of time to learning and reading.

Her intelligence is such that she did achieve quite a bit of fame in her time. However it was not, in her words, [sailing] before the wind across calm seas for her as there were a number of aroused vipers, hissing their emulations and their persecutions. Of these persecutions she writes:

Whatever eminence, whether that of dignity, nobility, riches, beauty, or science, must suffer this burden; but the eminence that undergoes the most severe attack is that of reason... because it is the most defenseless, for riches and power strikes out against those who dare attack them; but not so reason, for while it is the greater it is more modest and long-suffering, and defends itself less...

And of those who attacks her, she writes:

One will abide, and will confess that another is nobler than he, that another is richer, more handsome, and even that he is more learned, but that another is richer in reason scarecely any will confess: Rare is he who will concede genius. That is why the assault against this virtue works to such profit.

A large part of the letter was devoted to arguing for the education of women. She argues that to properly understand the Bible, women will have to be taught languages, music, geometry, history, architecture, etc. And retorts, from a theological point of view, the words of the Apostle: Let women keep silence in the churches, does not prohibit women from learning and being taught in private. Furthermore, she shrewedly expounds:

... not only women, who are held to be so inept, but also men, who merely for being men believe they are wise, should be prohibited from interpreting the Sacred Word if they are not learned and virtuous and of gentle and well-inclined natures... For there are many who study but are ignorant, especially those who are in spirit arrogant, troubled and proud...

She also cites numerous examples of learned women in bibliocal, mythological, and historical examples, and these women of intelligence are both revered and respected. Afterwards she presents a very logical argument (given her time and values), for the education of women:

... because of the considerable idleness to which our poor women have been relegated, if a father desires to provide his daughters with more than ordinary learning, he is forced by necessity, and by the absence of wise elder women, to bring men to teach the skills... from which no little harm results, as is experienced every day in doleful example of perilous association... as that of familiarity with men, which quandary could be prevented if there were learned elder women...

Finally Sister Juana concludes that in the end, all her struggles have made her better instead of worse. She writes:

... I fear applause more than calumny, because the latter, with but the simple act of patience becomes gain, while the former requires many acts of reflection and humility and proper recognition so that it not become harm.

It never ceases to amaze me that her wisdom is as valid today as the day it was written. And her style of writing, is as fluid and graceful now as it was 320 years ago. In a single letter three centuries past Sister Juana proved that progress of humanity starts with the equality of the sexes.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Bravo Mr. Vargas, Bravo.

An unjust law is no law at all

- St. Augustine

I, like many people in America, woke up to the Essay by the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas. In it, he confessed to the world a secret he kept for almost two decades: that he is an illegal alien. Even more illuminating was his detailed description of what life is like being an illegal in this country. Among them, not having a drivers license, unable to travel abroad, constant fear of being caught, and the support he found in friends and colleagues.

What I found most admiring, is although he lacked the proper documentation, his spirit is nonetheless completely American. Being an illegal did not stop this spirit in the pursuit of his dreams, his American Dream. With this indomitable spirit, he won an 8th grade spelling bee without even speaking the language properly. With the same spirit, he inspired his teachers, his bosses, and his friends to help him hide the secret. And it is also this spirit that led him from college to internships and finally to his dream of being a journalist. Finally, there's a Pulitzer Prize to attest that this spirit also had talent.

What I found most disheartening, is reading some of the bigoted, xenophobic, and idiotic statements this news prompted from average Americans. Not only did most of these people didn't bother to read the original essay, the pure vitriol spilled forth from their keyboards can only be attributed to a combination of ignorance and racism.

Notwithstanding the most bigoted arguments, the one I see most often is that no matter what Vargas' accomplishments are, he broke the law and should be punished for it. But those who espouse the legality argument forget that both George Washington and Rosa Parks broke the law. One we now call Founding Father and the other, First Lady of Civil Rights. If we go by the letter of the law, Washington should be executed and Parks jailed. This issue has crossed the boundary from a legal issue to a moral issue.

There's a strange belief among a subset of Americans, that by the accident of their birth, they are somehow entitled to an Americanness not afforded to others without this happy accident. No matter how good, smart, and hardworking someone is, as long as it is not accompanied by the proper paperwork, this person can never truly be American. But I aspire for a better America. An America where people earn the right to be called citizens. An American where people are judged, not by the place of their birth, but by the content of their character.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

One Thought at 29

I'm 29 today, and I'm overwhelmed by one thought and one thought alone. That to do anything worthwhile it takes an inordinate amount of time.

I've spent the past 6 months, working on a single iphone app. And it's still not finished. Even after it launches, to fulfill our vision for the product and the company it will take at least 5 years. A VC can invest in dozens of companies in one year. An entrepreneur can only work on one (great) idea every five years.

Putting things in perspective. It took Steve Jobs 14 years to turn Apple into the world-dominating force it is today. My dad spent 6 years to get his PhD in computer science. James Cameron took 4 years to make Avatar and Christopher Nolan needed almost 2 years to make Inception, and this is not counting the years they spent learning the craft of moviemaking.

To a single mortal human being, these numbers are oppressively large. Unlike money, time does not scale. And unlike money, there's no place from which to obtain more. Time is a hard limit. Harder than the principles of economics, the rules of psychology, even the laws of physics.

I'm a dreamer. I have a lot of dreams and all need time to realize. There's really only one thing to do: pick the most worthwhile ones and execute with greater urgency and efficiency.

That is the best I can do.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Start With Why

Every year I read a book that changes my life. I'm lucky this year because I found the book in February. Start With Why, written by a business consultant named Simon Sinek comes at the exact juncture in my life that I needed its message the most.


I was tuned into Simon after I saw the video of a TED talk that he did (embedded at the end). Normally I don't read books by consultants, but his talk made a lot of sense and became one of my favorite TED talks of all time. If you don't have time to read the book, at least watch the video, and if you're like me, you will probably buy the book afterwards.

The basic premise is very simple: great leaders (and companies) communicate with the outside world in the opposite way that everyone else communicates. Great leaders start with why, whereas everyone else starts with what.

This is best illustrated with a concrete example (my own).  I've always been a fan of BMW. I consider myself a loyal customer of BMW, despite the fact that I've never owned a BMW. BMW is a great company, and they communicate with why first. If BMW started with what, like everyone else, their marketing message will be something like:

Our cars are luxurious, well engineered, beautifully designed... buy our car.

But that's not how they actually communicate. This is the message that I actually hear:

If you're someone that strives for perfection, boy do we have a car for you.  It has 50/50 weight distribution, meticulously designed, and luxurious.  Want to buy one?

Sure, they don't actually say this word for word, but the message is consistent, and it's actually what I hear. Since I am someone who strives for perfection, BMW is my car company. The funny thing was, until I read this book, I couldn't tell you why I liked BMW so much. Now I can. I want a BMW orders of magnitudes more than I want a Mercedes, and what is the real difference between the two?

The real difference is that, in the words of Simon, people don't buy what you do, they buy why you do it. Sure, you can manipulate people to buy your stuff by cutting prices, use peer pressure, or fear mongering. But those tactics don't generate loyalty. And loyalty is ultimately what you want.

This is a profound realization for me. Since I am in the process of powering up my 4th start-up, I've been struggling over the why before I even realized it. On Sunday, I finally answered the question, and suddenly everything, past, present and future became crystal clear. This is one of those head-out-of-the-cloud moment for me. Even more so, I'm trying to distill the why for me personally. Why do I wake up in the morning? Why do I do the things I do, and care about the things I care? This is a bit harder because I'm driven by many different feelings and they occur in parts of the brain with no capacity for language. But knowing what this did to my professional life, it also has the ability to profoundly influence my personal life.

Philosophical questions aside, Simon also presents very real and very practical things. For example, how does knowing why actually help you and your company? Or how do you go about finding your why?

If you don't believe me, check out the video first: