Kopi Luwak

There are two types of people in the world: those who have experienced the spiritual transcendence of Kopi Luwak and those who have not. This afternoon, after years of anticipation, I finally crossed the threshold myself. If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to drink nectar brewed from the ass of the civet cat, here’s your chance to find out.

Asian Palm Civet: the magical cat that looks like a rat (photo courtesy Wikipedia).

Yes, dear reader, you read that right. Somewhere in Indonesia, a hungry civet cat ate a bunch of coffee cherries, ushered them through its enzyme-rich digestive tract, and delivered the fermented beans via the unsavory vessel of its poop. Some fine soul picked out the beans, washed them—knock on wood—and dried them for sale.

Now this process might sound like the worst possible thing you could do to a coffee bean, but believe me there is something special about the civet. Civet musk, secreted from the animal’s perineal glands—its anus—is among the most valued fragrance agents used in the world’s finest perfumes. Similarly, the civet’s digestive juices work their magic on the beans, “making shorter peptides and more free amino acids.”  I don’t know what that means exactly, but as of this afternoon I know how it tastes.

After the consumption, digestion, defecation, and cleanification, and perhaps through a far more complex series of transactions, several small bags of unroasted Kopi Luwak beans made their way from Indonesia to my barista friend in Seoul, Sang Ho, proprietor of the excellent Cafe the Sól.

As a coffee connoisseur, I have dreamed of tasting Kopi Luwak for years. It was even on my bucket list. But as one of the most scarce and expensive coffees in the world, fetching up to $600/pound1, it’s just not something you run across every day. My attempts last year to try a cup at an upscale cafe in Kuala Lumpur were thwarted when the beans were out of stock. I certainly never expected to find Luwak in Seoul. So when Sang Ho gleefully showed me the beans a couple of weeks ago, my eyes grew large like saucers.

Then the waiting began. There is nothing like having a major life milestone in your sights and counting the days, hours, minutes, and seconds until fulfillment. I felt like this in the last weeks before my company was acquired after years of hard work and months of due diligence and negotiations. I felt like this after I’d filed my PhD dissertation, not knowing whether it would actually make it through the UC Berkeley bureaucracy without a hitch. I felt like this on my wedding day. I felt like this losing my virginity. The deal’s not closed until the check clears, as they say.

There is something very polarizing about the process of anticipation. The climax is either superb or superbly disappointing.

Eighteen days, two hours, and twenty-eight minutes after my first glimpse, it was my time. Seoul was cool, gray, and rainy this afternoon, weather fittingly reminiscent of Seattle where I discovered and developed my love of coffee.

My brain was in overdrive as I watched Sang Ho grind the beans into a metal cup. A whiff of the fresh grounds made my head spin. The scent was rich, dark, and earthy. I’d even go as far as to say I smelled a hint of musk. In my heightened sensory state, a well-disguised cup of Sanka might have elicited the same response. My arm hairs stood on end.

Sang Ho took his time preparing the individual drip cup. As he worked, he tried to set my expectations. Kopi Luwak, he explained, is all about scarcity. If my expectations for taste were too high, I would surely be disappointed. I fidgeted. He checked the water temperature with a thermometer. Just hurry up and pour the cup.

As we waited for the water to drip through the filter, we both took another good sniff. Powerful, heady stuff. I shivered. A minute later, a full cup of Kopi Luwak was sitting in front of me. I summoned willpower of Herculean proportions to take a picture before my first sip.

It is simply not possible to taste objectively when you are as worked up as I was at that moment. Half-excited to reach the Everest peak of coffee drinking, half-nervous that it would fall short of expectations, I gingerly raised the porcelain cup to my lips. The first sip was … as awkward as you might expect. “Hmm.” It was strong, dark, a touch sour, smooth and round in my mouth. Are those notes of prune? Walnut? I’ve never been good at explaining flavors. It was different, but I didn’t know how much of that difference was due to the thing being observed, and how much was the observer. I took another sip. “Hmm.” So much pressure!

I chatted with Sang Ho as I slowly sipped and tried to make sense of this coffee enigma in my mouth. When I’d finished half the cup, no closer to the truth, I asked for a hot water refill. The water cut the strength, but without altering the basic flavor. I carefully worked my way through another half cup, waiting between sips. No epiphanies. Simply frustrating. I could taste the flavor more clearly, but was still grappling to have something to take away from the experience.

Over the next few minutes, as my drink cooled, so did my anxiety about the experience. The tension in my shoulders loosened, my head became clear, and suddenly I enjoyed one of the most delicious mouthfuls of coffee in my ten years of coffee appreciation. And again. A wave of bliss washed over me. Apricot? Chocolate? Smoothness. Fireworks going off in my brain. Perhaps the caffeine was kicking in. It was heavenly. Small sips, delicately savoring the precious resource. Euphoria. Gently, slowly, until every last drop in the cup was all used up.

Six hours later, I can still taste the sweet tang of Kopi Luwak on my tongue. Like a symphony concert that leaves your ears ringing, my mouth is still ringing from this afternoon’s cup. My brain is still ringing.

If you’re a skeptic, you’re probably screaming “placebo effect!” Would a normal cup of coffee have elicited the same response given my state of mind? Perhaps. But does it even matter? It’s a rare and wonderful thing to experience the rush I had this afternoon, and I can honestly say my mind is blown. Heartfelt thanks to the civets, poo-pickers, bean-washers, middle-men, and most of all Sang Ho for making it happen. At long last!

  1. Note that this is a steal compared to Uchunari Grade 0 coffee which fetches up to £7,875/lb. Outrageous! []

Drive Time

I was a guest on a radio talk show this afternoon, Drive Time with Sam and Annabelle on TBS 101.3FM. It was a last-minute invite from a friend and I went in cold. For my segment my friend asked me “personality test”-style questions, and as soon as I would utter a complete thought (1-2 sentences), he and the co-hosts would jump in and riff improv-style.

I could barely keep up. These guys are incredible talkers, really quick on their feet. They make it up on the fly, every day, in front of a massive audience. Listening on the radio vs. sitting in the room and (barely) participating is, I suspect, like the difference between watching a pro tennis match and being on the receiving end of a 150MPH serve. I left both humbled and inspired.

Citizen Science: Geiger Counting in Japan

Today is the one year anniversary of the terrible tragedies of Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami and the subsequent Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. There have been recent fears brought on by high levels of radiation found in fish around the reactor, but how safe is Tokyo? I am visiting Tokyo for a few days and brought my geiger counter along, so read on to find out.

The first order of business was to secure a 9V battery for the device, which has sat unused in its box since my wife bought it last year. This was more challenging than it should have been due to my rusty 20-year-old Japanese, but led to a nice walking tour of Shinjuku around my hotel.

Battery secured, I fired up the device. It is easy to forget that the consumer electronics industry benefits from fierce competition to provide simple and intuitive user interfaces to its products. The geiger counter industry apparently does not. While the device is pretty simple, consisting of just three switches, three buttons, and a display, it was not obvious to me which settings to use and how to interpret the results. The product manual wasn’t much help either.

When I turned on the Audio switch, the device clicked just like in the movies. Every click made my heart jump a little. It was clicking once or twice every second, but wasn’t going nuts. I crossed my fingers and hoped that things were safe.

I put the device on the floor and set the mode to “mR/hr”, which measures milli-Roentgens per hour. It started at zero and just kept going up, up, and up. 0.001, 0.006, 0.009, 0.010, 0.013 … all the way to 0.026 at its highest. I moved the counter from the floor to the table and the readings went down, fluctuating between 0.009 and 0.013. Was this good? Bad? I scratched my head and consulted the Internet.

The most useful site I found was the Health Physics Society’s answer to the question “How many mR/hr (alpha,beta,gamma,or x ray) could be considered unsafe for continuous exposure?” There are two different answers, one for radiation workers and one for the general public. At first that seemed really strange to me, but it’s because the general public contains people of all ages and levels of health. Duh.

Right, right, get to the point already. I know. Here’s what they say:

The limit for radiation delivered in addition to the natural background radiation to individuals of the general public is 500 mrem in any one year and 100 mrem/yr on a prolonged basis. If we interpret continuous exposure as 8766 hours per year (24 hrs/day x 365.25 days/yr), 100 mrem/yr translates to 0.011 mrem/hr or 11 microrem/hr. This would be in addition to the natural background radiation which is quite variable but which averages about 300 mrem/yr or 34 microrem/hr

I believe that the device is measuring the absolute radiation, in which case the readings are well below the limit of .046 mR/hr, and is even below the “natural background radiation which averages .034 mR/hr. Hooray! I am safe being here for a few days, and so are the people of Tokyo who are exposed to this continuously.

I am curious to test fish here myself, but don’t want to freak anybody out. Perhaps I’ll take some sushi takeout tomorrow and see how it looks.

Super, Sad, True Love Story

It’s 10˚F in Seoul and I’m freezing my balls off. Thank you Gary Shteyngart.

I read Shteyngart’s Super, Sad, True Love Story back in July when Seoul was an uncomfortably humid 85˚F. By the time I’d fully digested the book, it had become a pleasant Autumn. In the midst of Korea’s finest season and under the influence of Love Story‘s pessimistic vision for the US, I upgraded my short-term visit to a long-term relocation.

As we wait for my bits and pieces to thaw, allow me to reflect on that decision.

Love Story is the tale of overweight Russian-Jewish American protagonist Lenny Abramov and his tragic courtship of the much younger, more attractive, Korean-American, Eunice Kim, set against the backdrop of a dystopian Manhattan sometime in the near future.

My dad gave me the book based on the superficial similarity of my wife and I to the book’s main characters. The book’s accounts of Lenny and Eunice’s sex life makes it an extra-creepy present. Creepier still are the far closer similarities of Lenny/Eunice to Shteyngart and his real-life girlfriend. TMI. But I digress.

The character setup, however unsettling, got my attention but didn’t hold it for long. The characters are awful and impossible to sympathize with. Fortunately Love Story‘s characters are simply instruments with which to paint a horrifying portrait of the US in free fall and the lengths that people will go to survive as society around them crumbles. In this, the author succeeds brilliantly.

Written in 2006, Shteyngart is a sort of Nostradamus of the near future, picking up on trends and bringing them into cartoon-like focus.

Privacy, Scores. Lenny’s life is reduced to a set of scores based on his actions and the actions of those of his social network. Credit score, personality score, “fuckability”. Sound… familiar? These scores are overlayed on the real world through ubiquitous äpäräti, de rigeur digital pendants that hang around your neck. And if you don’t happen to have an äpärät, never fear: your scores are also displayed on “credit poles” that light up when you walk under them. Creepy, but for those who followed Facebook’s Open Graph announcement yesterday, this is where we’re heading.

National Debt, Division of Wealth, Camping on Wall Street. The US is fighting another war in Venezuela and finally buckling under its national debt. The rich are above it all. The government and armed forces are revealed as tools of the wealthy, while the riff-raff are sleeping in tents on the streets. China and Norway are divvying up Manhattan as the US becomes insolvent, and all hell is breaking loose.

And So On. Industry has been reduced to credit, media, and retail, and those sectors have morphed into gross caricatures of their current forms. The written language has decayed, taking a page from another classic, Idiocracy. Women wear onion-skin jeans. The rich fixate on life extension. The book contains many other predictions on top of all this, most of which are in some stage of realization today.

But despite Shteyngart’s uncanny ability to see where the puck is going, my move to Seoul had little to do with his predictions. I am hopeful that events like S&P’s US credit downgrade and movements like Occupy Wall Street are wake-up calls to the system, and that it bodes well for our ability to turn things around that these shocks are occurring while the economy is still holding together.

Of course my primary motivations for the move lie elsewhere, mostly around family and career. But every difficult decision needs an extra psychological push, and Love Story was mine. I stumbled through the story and was struck by a feeling of claustrophobia. The book’s characters are caught up in a bubble, and as the bubble collapses, the characters collapse with it. I couldn’t stop thinking about it for weeks and I slowly realized that back home I was operating in my own bubble, albeit a healthy one. From there, the pieces quickly fell into place. The best time to break free of a bubble is when everything’s rosy, and the easiest way to break free is a change of environment. Thus my move to Seoul is about shaking things up, stepping out of my comfort zone, building bridges, creating options, and opening my eyes to another way of living.

To wrap up my review, I invoke the old Remington electric shaver commercials with the slogan “I liked it so much, I bought the company.” Super Sad True Love Story: I was so disturbed by it, I moved to Seoul. I only wish I’d brought warmer clothes.

Elva Minch

My Grandma Elva died on Sunday night at the age of 97.

Elva was my fun grandma. She had a hearing aid that beeped when you put your hand close to her ear, and she used to surprise kids with it. Thirty years later my friends from back then still remember that trick ear. She had a Round Tuit (“I’ll do it when I get a round tuit.”) and a B.S. Grinder and an embroidery hoop with “Bang Head Here” printed on it. Her knickknacks expressed her personal brand of humor and sentimental value. She had boyfriends and went dancing and jet-setted between South Dakota, Arizona, and California when she wasn’t busy traveling the world. She was cool.

Elva had style. She wore bright clothes and heels, got her hair permed, and had her nails done in all kinds of splendor. Her house was always clean, and she seemed to have a system for everything, from her crock pot to her Hot Shot which heated up a cup of water in a matter of seconds. She took pride in those systems, and evangelized them to whoever would listen.

My grandma was an adventurer. I was in middle school when Grandma took my mom to China for the trip of a lifetime. She taught me that the other side of the world was just a plane ride away. She gave me the travel bug and bought me plane tickets to Sweden so I could spend the summer of my eleventh birthday there with my best friend. Elva traveled well into her silver years with trips to Ireland and Israel, and even as a kid I remember thinking “Wow, this is a woman who is not letting old age slow her down!”

Grandma also had an independent, can-do attitude and saw the best in everything. For many years, even as her hearing and eyesight worsened, she stayed upbeat. I remember when she told us about her class for the blind, and how interesting and funny everything was, even though without hearing her loss of eyesight was a serious problem. She explored the problem and addressed it head-on. She aggressively adopted technology to help improve her life. Her house in Grass Valley was a study in workarounds, from special playing cards for the visually impaired and a bed-vibrating alarm clock for the hearing impaired to a magnifying projector and books on tape by subscription. And when I say it was a study in workarounds I mean that literally – my wife worked at one of the world’s leading product design firms and was so inspired that she turned it into a case study of how the elderly adapt. She loved to play cards, and in life she played the cards she was dealt.

My most precious memory of Grandma Elva was the last adventure she took me on, a road trip across South Dakota when I was in grad school. We visited her hometown of Wetonka which is now deserted and stopped by a lake outside of Aberdeen to see the migrating snow geese. We drove down to see the Corn Palace in Mitchell and then across the state to see the Badlands, Mount Rushmore, and the Crazy Horse Monument. One night it was snowing and I was driving slowly, looking for our motel after a big prime rib dinner. In an unfamiliar place and with poor visibility, I accidentally rolled through the town’s one red light and seconds later was pulled over by a cop. We put on our best, most innocent grandma/grandson faces and got off without even a warning.

Even as old age got the better of Elva, she maintained a positive outlook, curious about the journey ahead of her. And in her final weeks there were bits of levity. I was very lucky to be able to see her at Christmas. At first she thought I was her son Tom, and when my mom explained that it was her grandson she laughed “Oh! Well I’ll be…” and gave a big warm smile.

Elva lived a long and incredible life, through both world wars, the great depression, the cold war, the civil rights movement, women’s lib, as well as multiple waves of industrialization and globalization. She lived her life optimistically and to its fullest through the richest century in human history. Even in death she left this world in the best possible way: peacefully, courageously, and on her own terms. She’s an inspiration who will be sorely missed. Happy trails, Grandma.

Land Grab: Novel Adaptations of Public Space

My mom’s cousin lives on a houseboat in Portland’s Columbia River. Like most houseboats everything is small, including a deck that’s just large enough to hold a table for four. If it were a normal house, extending the deck would be a multi-day project possibly involving permits, demolition, and construction. On the houseboat they simply tied on a floating pontoon and doubled their deck space. I remember having a small “Aha!” moment when I saw that – on the water, structures don’t need to be as fixed as they are in the “real world”. Recently I’ve been seeing similar adaptations of space happening closer to home.

The Kogi BBQ truck and its long line of adoring customers. (astrobuddha @ Flickr, Creative Commons license)

The first space adaptation is the rise of the food truck. Once sources of cheap and barely edible chow and nicknamed “roach coaches”, the food truck has recently re-emerged as a mobile source of hip, innovative street food. In 2009, the success of LA’s Kogi BBQ truck ignited this trend , serving “korean bbq tacos”, tweeting its location as it drove around the city, and attracting block-long lines of hipsters and hipster-wannabes curious to see what all the fuss was about. While novel at its outset, this innovation quickly spread and there are now many of this next-generation food truck serving a diversity of foods in many metropolitan areas. It has become such a fixture in San Francisco that there are events like Off the Grid SF, in which a group of trucks gather in fixed spots on a weekly schedule and provide common seating, like an outdoor food court.

The food trucks’ creative reappropriation of space is not without side effects. The SF Chronicle recently described how some restaurants are having trouble competing with food trucks that drive into their neighborhoods and steal their business. The article and its heated comments pulled at my sympathy for local businesses who are more heavily taxed, regulated, and rent-burdened than food trucks and who are struggling in this difficult economy. It also stoked my appreciation for what the food trucks have to offer and general disdain for businesses that are unable to adapt to changes in the market. This food truck-restaurant tension left me feeling conflicted for a day, until a possible solution hit me.

A second space adaptation that’s going on in San Francisco is the emergence of Parklets, reclaimed parking spots with public seating and/or vegetation, approved by the city of San Francisco and erected/maintained by private parties. It occurred to me that Parklets can be a key weapon for restaurants to fight back against their mobile invader counterparts.

An SF parklet turns street parking into a comfortable lounging space. (sfbike @ Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Parklets range from functional spaces to artistic expressions. In Noe valley, there are several multi-spot parklets with tables and chairs to enjoy snacks from the local eateries. In Mission, my favorite parklet contains dinosaur topiaries lovingly maintained by a resident:

A triceratops topiary in the "Deepistan Parklet" on Valencia St in San Francisco.

Parklets are the urban version of the houseboat pontoon-deck. They are quick to set up, novel, and create attractive community space, drawing people to the business district. What’s more, they take away parking spots from food trucks!1 🙂

One catch is that Parklets are public space, so there is always a possibility that a food truck can benefit from the Parklet phenomenon even more than the restaurant that sponsors it. Imagine a strategically placed Parklet sponsored by a food truck… local restauranteurs would flip!

Either way, it’s exciting see these trends in transforming public space and am heartened by everybody involved: both on the side of businesses for making this happen and city government for encouraging it. I’ve previously lamented the lack of progress among US local businesses, especially compared to the ultra-competitive Korean market, where everybody is constantly angling to make a buck or carve out a new niche. Food trucks and Parklets are a breath of fresh air and will hopefully lead to further innovations and improvements in the US local business landscape.

Like an ice cream truck for neat freaks, this shop on wheels cruises around Seoul, selling brooms, toilet plungers, and other household supplies, broadcasting its wares by loudspeaker.

Know of any other good examples of public space adaptation? Share in the comments!

  1. They also take parking spots away from drivers, which sucks for drivers when parking is already at a premium, but is great for pedestrians. []

The Honey Badger

With the recent death of Steve Jobs, there has been much introspection online among my friends and in general about the desire to achieve greatness and create a legacy, to “put a dent in the universe”. There has also been another great message to come out of it, which is to “be yourself, with passionate intensity”. It’s all very inspiring, but at the same time sounds like a lot of pressure. Enter the Honey Badger. Aside from being funny, there’s something to be said for simply being yourself at whatever pace suits you:

Image courtesy of the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland.

A Tale of Two Attitudes

I have been eagerly watching the Occupy Wall Street movement from Seoul. At this distance, I am insulated from the action and much of the media coverage, yet I am dismayed and disgusted by the conservative response to the protestors and events. Specifically, the message that if you don’t know exactly what you’re asking for, then you should shut up and go home. This is a message of complacence and denial, and the wrong way to think about what’s going on. It reminds me of the attitude I saw at Microsoft in 2006, back when Microsoft was still the undisputed top dog of technology. I contrast this with the attitude of personal accountability that Steve Jobs took when he returned as Apple CEO in 1997, beginning the turnaround that would lead Apple from the brink of destruction to the most valuable company on the planet.

Microsoft: Complacence and Denial

In 2006, Microsoft was at a crucial point in its history. It was the most profitable technology company on the planet, with its two cash cows, Windows and Office, enjoying a monopoly firm grip on their respective markets. Yet the company was in danger, with minor competitive threats coming from every direction – Apple OS X, Linux, Google Apps, etc. Moreover, in addition to these external threats, Microsoft’s own worst enemy was itself. The company was filled with politics, infighting, and bureaucracy. The successful products were stagnating, with minimal improvements rolling out at long, multi-year intervals. New projects were under-delivering. The writing was on the wall: if things continued this way, the company would eventually get knocked off its perch.

At the time I was a research scientist at Microsoft and happened to attend a talk given by a brand/PR consultant, apparently fishing for work. The talk began with a simple experiment, which was to query Google for the phrases “love Microsoft”, “hate Microsoft”, “love Apple”, and “hate Apple”. Hardly scientific, but the results at the time indicated a striking difference between the two companies, with lots of love for Apple and lots of hate for Microsoft. The message of the talk was roughly:

You have a monopoly but your users hate you. As soon as there is a credible alternative to the monopoly, users will abandon you in droves. You need to fix your products, but there are also lots of low-hanging fruit to simply make your users like you more, independent of your products.  (So hire me to help you figure it out.)

The talk contained a lot of unproven assumptions, but it more or less matched my gut feelings about the state of the company and its market at that time.

More interesting than the talk, however, was the reaction to the talk. There were about 100 people in the room, and my sense was that the many of us were stunned, thinking “wow, that made a lot of sense”, but not really knowing what to do about it.

Most of the audience responses, however, were attacks at the speaker. Some of the attacks involved the validity of the claims – contesting the idea that a Google search was a useful proxy for anything. Many of the attacks were of a “haters gonna hate” variety – that people only hate Microsoft because of its incredible success, and despite that hate, Microsoft was still and would continue to be the best software company on earth. Both of these responses were forms of complacence and denial: “there’s nothing wrong with the status quo, and time will prove us right.”

Apple: Personal Accountability

After hitting an all-time low in the mid-1990’s, Apple began to turn around with the return of Steve Jobs. Here’s a quote from Jobs at the 1997 MacWorld Expo, after receiving a $150M lifeline from archi-rival Microsoft (full video at the end of this post):

If we want to move forward and see Apple healthy and prospering again, we have to let go of a few things here. We have to let go of this notion that for Apple to win, Microsoft has to lose. We have to embrace a notion that for Apple to win, Apple has to do a really good job. And if others are going to help us that’s great, because we need all the help we can get, and if we screw up and we don’t do a good job, it’s not somebody else’s fault, it’s our fault. So I think that is a very important perspective. If we want Microsoft Office on the Mac, we better treat the company that puts it out with a little bit of gratitude; we like their software.

So, the era of setting this up as a competition between Apple and Microsoft is over as far as I’m concerned. This is about getting Apple healthy, this is about Apple being able to make incredibly great contributions to the industry and to get healthy and prosper again.

After the history of bitter rivalry between the two companies, this must have been a tremendously difficult speech to give, and an even more difficult realization to have come to in the first place. Even after the speech was over, in the video you can see audience members shaking their heads.

But difficult or not, it was a pivotal moment for the company and one which led to a renaissance of innovation and impact that has changed the industry and the world. The following twelve years of growth were the product of massive numbers of people, and countless acts of hard work brilliance, at all levels of strategy and execution. But I believe they all came from this basic attitude of personal accountability and a quest for excellence.

Occupy Wall Street

Like the personal computing industry, the globalized world is more dynamic and ultra-competitive than ever. Like Microsoft in 2006, the USA is still the world’s dominant superpower. Over the past century, we have built up an economic and infrastructural lead over the rest of the world. Recently, the USA is squandering that lead and failing its people. If there’s ever a time to question what’s going on in our country, it’s now.

Yesterday, while I was writing this, Occupy Wall Street issued its first official declaration. It is a series of grievances about corporate forces that “place profit over people, self-interest over justice, and oppression over equality, [and] run our governments.” Each grievance is of the form “They have X” where X ranges from illegal foreclosure to privacy violation to animal torture and cruelty. It’s all over the place. I don’t agree with every statement, and I don’t believe in the use of “they”. I think that these are problems that “we” all have to address. But I think these are the right questions to be asking.

To paraphrase Steve Jobs (deceased between the time I started writing this and its completion, may he rest in peace.):

This is about getting America healthy, this is about America being able to make incredibly great contributions to the world and to get healthy and prosper again.

We should accept that there are huge problems that need to be addressed now, while, in some respects we’re still on top, rather than waiting until we hit rock bottom. Some of the people occupying Wall Street may already be at rock bottom, or feel like it. Some of them may simply be angry, or crazy, or there for a good time. But they are raising great questions.

Furthermore, in addition to questioning what’s going on, we should take a personally accountable attitude about how to address those questions. Again, paraphrasing:

We have to embrace a notion that for America to win, America has to do a really good job.

If our people are sick, oppressed, under-educated, and disenfranchised, it is a problem for all of us. And it is the responsibility of the government, the industry, the protesters, and the rest of us to do what we can to do a really good job and fix it.

Jobs’ full 1997 MacWorld speech:

 

 

 

Let’s Just Give Up and Go Home

I just read this post (via Lucas), in which an economist argues that the following graph does not prove much either way about the efficacy of the economic stimulus:

The nature of the argument, as I understood it, is that the actual unemployment rate being much higher than the predicted rate (even higher than the predicted rate without a recovery plan), is evidence that the stimulus did not work. However, the strength of this evidence is related to the strength of the model, and because the model’s predictive power is so poor, the strength of the evidence is also poor. What this also could suggest is that even if the actual employment rate tracked the prediction, it might not be much evidence that the prediction worked anyway. I didn’t look into the original model, but knowing a bit about statistics and that there are numerous factors that affect unemployment rate, the argument sounds plausible.

This is really frustrating as a proponent and sometimes-practitioner of mathematical modeling, who is starting to dabble in economics. If these macro real-world problems are so difficult to model that the best modelers are not able to say anything useful about their work, what hope is there for the rest of us? Why don’t we all just pack it in and stock up on gold, guns, and supplies? Depressing.

Book Review: Boomerang

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal is one of my favorite comics these days, and aside from giving me a chuckle, today’s post also struck a deeper chord, reminding me of the philosophical truism: “the more you know, the less you understand.” It was the perfect cartoon to run across on the day that I read Michael Lewis’ Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World, the best of a handful of fantastic books I’ve read over the past few months.

My first “the more you know” experience was in 2003. Back in high school I was a chemistry whiz. Twelve years later, as I was finishing my Computer Science PhD dissertation and volunteering at a Seattle community college, a student asked for chemistry help understanding electron configuration.  As I helped the student, I realized that I had no idea what orbitals and spins actually were, how anybody had ever discovered them, or whether there were any alternative explanations. By attempting to create and document new knowledge myself as the product of my PhD research, my perspective on existing knowledge had changed without my realizing it.  Things that I’d once taken for granted, and which helped me breeze through the AP exam, were more mysterious than I’d ever considered. It was as if I’d just learned the truth about the Matrix, but was simultaneously baffled by all the little green characters flying everywhere I looked.

Reading Boomerang was a similar experience, eye-opening yet utterly mystifying. Each chapter in the book describes a country in the throes of financial crisis: Iceland, Greece, Ireland, Germany, and the USA, in that order.

In the first four chapters, Lewis comically describes the economic insanity perpetrated in these four European countries and how this insanity is tied to some massive cultural delusion. It was surprisingly easy to chuckle and shake my head at these silly Europeans, playing with fire and getting burned in ridiculous ways.

Then, in the final chapter, he sets his sights back in on the US, and the narrative changes. Lewis begins with the observations of banking analyst Meredith Whitney, which amount to a literal hierarchical passing of the buck. As much as possible, the US federal government will pass its financial burdens down to the states, and the states will in turn pass their burdens down to the municipalities.1 The state in the deepest trouble? California. The city? Vallejo, in my own back yard. Sound familiar? Yes, I’ve touched on that before. In a masterful zoom from macro to micro, Boomerang literally hit home for me and confirmed some of my deepest fears, but from a top-down perspective.

The storytelling, facts, figures, and opinions are spectacular and have to be read to be appreciated, but ultimately they are really just a vehicle for the Lewis’ message, which is about a culture of greed and its consequences. Culture can be made funny and interesting and at one level “easy” to understand. But as I read Boomerang, I couldn’t help but fixate on the other part of the message, which was the raw mechanics of debt.

Like the electrons that somehow bond together atoms, debt is the substrate that holds together the extremely complex web of modern finance. Between countries, corporations, states, cities, and individuals (what’s the difference anymore?), there are pools of sticky, gooey debt, stretched thin and piled high in all kinds of arrangements between all kinds of parties. It’s invisible and yet everywhere we look, like another form of matter. Like the Matrix. It’s what makes the world go round, and it’s what might cause it to implode.

And like the electrons, debt has its own conservation laws. One man’s gain is another man’s loss. But enough men’s gains and losses, when put together, can be society’s loss, in the form of bubbles and busts and “too big to fail” bailouts and intricate chain reactions that have to be meticulously deconstructed, after the fact, like Lewis has done in Boomerang. These conservation laws made me think about flipping a startup in a whole new light, and generally about value and different forms of sustainability. Sustainability is something I’ve been thinking a lot about anyway, as I take the year off to travel around the world, but Boomerang raised the question up a level or five. Before I questioned the personal ethics of a leisure life. Now I question the global ethics of it.

If you want to begin to understand the global financial crisis, Boomerang is a great place to start. But if you’ve never thought much about economic theory, be prepared to have your mind blown. Are you ready to take the red pill?

  1. Lending more support to Engin’s thoughts about cities as the new countries, and in fact Lewis even mentions this idea explicitly, but that’s a subject for another post. []