Computer Games and Life

I’ve been re-playing missions in this computer game where I lead piloted robots in combat against other robots. This girl I’ve been seeing finds it all a bit ridiculous. I’ve already beat all the missions, she says!
I tell her in response that that’s true, but I replay the missions to see how I could have accomplished them differently – say, with a different combination of robots, or armed with different weapons, or utilizing different strategies to take advantage of terrain. In short, how can I complete the missions *better, and set myself up for even greater success in future missions (when you suffer less damage in previous missions, you have a better chance of succeeding in future missions, etc).
It all actually reminds me of volunteer work I’ve done with kids who would be the first in their families to attend college.
So much of “success” in life is beyond genetics, it’s also situational. If you have parents or older siblings who have been to college, you have someone to tell you how to go about it, without having to research and figure out everything on your own. That gives you a head start. That head start lets you focus on other things, and those things continue to add up to give you better and better opportunities to succeed. It’s about knowing what to do, how to do, and how to do it better. In life, as opposed to computer games where you blow up robots, you only get one chance. Having mentors, family or otherwise, to guide you, makes a difference. When you have only one chance, and have to figure things out as you go rather than just focusing on learning the actual subject material etc – those are real, if intangible challenges that the luckier ones don’t have to face.
Tangentially, it also makes me thing how important it is, in a family, that the parents get along – for their kids. Compare it to a company – any office politics distracts from the energy and attention that could be going toward making a great product. Compare it to national corruption and economic output – studies have shown that countries with high corruption have lower economic growth. Corruption has the effect of an implied tax that lowers productivity. All the energy a couple spends fighting each other is energy that isn’t available to devote elsewhere. Then maybe kids may get neglected more, tired parents let the nannies or teachers at school handle “it.”
Thankfully, the girl tolerates my computer gaming with good humour … so far.
That, and the fact that I am not taller than her when she wears heels, that I don’t have a job in private equity, that I am not an “alpha male”, etc. etc. (all things very important to many NYC women who are “not here for a hookup”)

Land of the Free, Home of the Brave

My parents came to the United States from Taiwan in the 70s to pursue better opportunities in life. But in the 80s, when the so-called “Five Asian Tigers” experienced an economic boom led by their export-driven economies – which then spurred political liberalization due to a growing middle class – my parents moved back.

I remember returning to Taiwan as a child, and my mother taking me to the movie theaters. Taiwan technically remained a martial law country until 1986. Until then, at the movie theaters, they would play the Taiwan national anthem before the movie – very martial, F-16 jet fighters screaming across the screen – and, the audience *had to stand.

I remember having to be told by my mom to stand and – not fidget. There might be police watching, she said. It’s unfathomable to me to imagine that in the United States, you would go to an AMC Theater to watch Frozen, and prior to the screening, the theater would play the Stars Spangled Banner, and the entire audience would be *required to stand at attention, with the notion that the police “might be watching.”

I celebrate that Colin Kaepernick has the choice to sit.

I celebrate that Colin Kaepernick can choose to sit during the national anthem, to protest injustices he sees (degrees to which we may disagree on, yes), because he believes that our society has fallen short of America’s best ideals.

In one act (or non-act), Colin Kaepernick draws attention to both how we as a nation might have failed ourselves, while demonstrating in other regards, where we as a Nation are indeed the land of the Free, and the home of the Brave.


Empowerment (non-Kardashian alternative)

Emails from mom:

#Repost – Emails from Mom. And what “#empowerment” means to me:

“When I was in 4th grade, I came home one day and saw posted on the gates outside a foreclosure notice. When I went inside, the notices were also posted in the yard, on the house’s door, even on our piano inside. Dad was not home, and Mom sat there looking lost. I went over to her and cried holding her. (I only knew something was wrong and cried out of fright). I didn’t go to school for a while, following Mom in and out of the house, and learned that … the banks had further limited our daily bank withdrawals…. Before I was born, your uncles and auntie had very tough lives, they never wore new clothes, everything was used, with no distinction for gender. Grandmother’s family [was better off and] helped out a little. I often used the excuse of seeing Grandmother’s family to go over and eat apples and oranges. Grandfather’s career was devoted to politics. He never lost an election, but … his focus was on getting elected and constituents – a lot of responsibility fell upon Grandmother to take care of family matters, political pr, business. When I grew up, I didn’t want to marry a politician or businessman, but to have a peaceful life. But I also didn’t want to have too many hardships. When I married a professor, I hoped that Grandfather might help us financially. Grandfather helped by giving us the money to help build the house. Sadly, he passed away before it was completed, and Grandmother became mindless after Grandfather died.

I am grateful I was born in the right family, but I also regret not having contributed to society.” Sent from my iPhone

January 11, 2016


April 8, 2016

My mom once lamented the fact that, at all the dinner gatherings, the husbands sat at the men’s table, and the wives sat at the women’s table. The husbands talked about politics, business, and world events. The wives passed gossip. Mom found the women’s table incredibly boring – she yearned to sit with the men, and learn about the politics, business, and affairs of the world.  

I know that if I ever have a daughter, I want her to grow up able to sit at any table she wants to. I want her to have the equality of opportunities from childhood, to be able to forge her own path without being subject to stereotypes and prejudice, and to grow up to become an adult who is treated as an equal at any table.

Some women may gain empowerment by advertising their boobs. That’s fine. But I believe that the best path for any daughter of mine will come by fighting to remove institutional barriers to women’s equality, combined with educating the individual mind. And that a better measure of #empowerment isn’t the amount of attention one attracts, but how much (after balancing enjoying the world with improving the world) one has left to give.

“#JKRowling recognises the gnawing pain and dispirited nature of poverty….

 ‘I remember 20 years ago not eating so my daughter would eat. I remember nights when there was literally no money. I would have done anything to work and I took as much work as I could…. I am now able to #give….

 In her 20s, she worked for Amnesty International and Christian Aid. Maybe there is a bit of her DNA which is wired to fight injustice. ‘I have this quotation by #EBWhite on the wall in the room where I write,’ says Rowling. ‘It says, “I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.”


Luck, Opportunity, and a “true”Meritocracy 

March 8, 2016: 

Peyton Manning’s career has so many things that are a microcosm of life – that so much of it is a lotto. Being born with talent is a lotto. But so is the NFL team you end up being drafted by – and that it can take almost two decades before you win a Superbowl, despite being amongst the best quarterbacks to have played in the NFL, ever.
That even talent, combined with preparation, and working harder than anybody else, doesn’t guarantee a result that lesser talented, less prepared, QBs might have accomplished before (Trent Dilfer, maybe?). 
This is true from the moment you are born – what country, what race, what gender, what economic class, in terms of the range of opportunities you’re likely exposed to. This is true where you work, the politics, the mentorship, whether the team you’ve been assigned to has the support of management, which can depend on your boss’s own relationship with the higher ups, whether, if you work for government, your organization’s mission is supported by Congress, and political sentiment at large (The SEC gets consistently underfunded due to Republican opposition, leading to a former boss, to tell the interns, as far as potential hiring, “you have to understand the waters you swim in”) . 

But it’s also worth reading Ben Bernanke’s Princeton 2013 speech, and Chad Pennington’s comments after being cut from the NY Jets years ago, when he then joined the Miami Dolphins.

3. The concept of success leads me to consider so-called meritocracies and their implications. We have been taught that meritocratic institutions and societies are fair. Putting aside the reality that no system, including our own, is really entirely meritocratic, meritocracies may be fairer and more efficient than some alternatives. But fair in an absolute sense? Think about it. A meritocracy is a system in which the people who are the luckiest in their health and genetic endowment; luckiest in terms of family support, encouragement, and, probably, income; luckiest in their educational and career opportunities; and luckiest in so many other ways difficult to enumerate–these are the folks who reap the largest rewards. The only way for even a putative meritocracy to hope to pass ethical muster, to be considered fair, is if those who are the luckiest in all of those respects also have the greatest responsibility to work hard, to contribute to the betterment of the world, and to share their luck with others. As the Gospel of Luke says (and I am sure my rabbi will forgive me for quoting the New Testament in a good cause): “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded” (Luke 12:48, New Revised Standard Version Bible). Kind of grading on the curve, you might say.
4. Who is worthy of admiration? The admonition from Luke–which is shared by most ethical and philosophical traditions, by the way–helps with this question as well. Those most worthy of admiration are those who have made the best use of their advantages or, alternatively, coped most courageously with their adversities. I think most of us would agree that people who have, say, little formal schooling but labor honestly and diligently to help feed, clothe, and educate their families are deserving of greater respect–and help, if necessary–than many people who are superficially more successful. They’re more fun to have a beer with, too. That’s all that I know about sociology.

Who is worthy of admiration?


Don’t do stupid shit

Strategic patience v tactical bias for action –

March 26, 2016

“What do you want you want us to do? Sit around and do nothing?!” – Battalion Operations Officer, Helmand Province, Afghanistan, 2010

Out S-3 or “Ops O” (Operations Officer) had lost his shit at me. I had just given our Battalion Commander a run down of the numbers I had come up with: Total of Afghans detained our first 90 days, total released, total handed over to either the local Afghan police or Afghan security service, total sent to Lashkar Gar, the provincial capital, for potential prosecution or onward to for longterm detention.

The NYPD and “stop and frisk”, viewed by its critics, on its worst day, might have appeared saintly.

Our detention standards/policy was far too relaxed (reminiscent of post-invasion Iraq’s rounding up of all “military-aged males” (MAMs in military acronym-jargon)).

Already, the Provincial Governor, in my daily meetings with him, was lamenting the number of complaints he was receiving from the villagers – That the Americans were being too heavy handed. Wives and mothers were showing up at the gates wondering how to support their families, and when would their men be released?

And now I had run the numbers.

Certainly, out of every 100 Afghan “MAMs” (a term I despised for the very implication that being both male and of a certain age was basis for detention) we detained, 4 might have been criminals, and 1 a no-shit Taliban insurgent. But, more importantly, what if – of the 95 who weren’t, the experience and indignity of detention caused them to harbor resentment against NATO forces, their provincial government (that could not stop the NATO forces from executing seemingly arbitrary detentions) – caused even a third of those 95 to become sympathetic to the Taliban? Or a third of that third to decide to actively support the Taliban against NATO forces/the Afghan government? If so, by detaining 100 Afghans to capture 1 Taliban was a net negative by potentially creating 10 more Taliban/insurgents.

The Ops O had a supporter in our S-2, intelligence officer. I had mine in our S-4, logistics officer. The breakdown was unsurprising: The intel officer’s job is to identify the “bad guys” and either neutralize and/or exploit them (for human intelligence). The logistics officer, on the other hand, was weary of the drain on his resources in supporting the effort required to move, house, feed, care for the Afghans we were detaining – and, by his observation (supported by my 90-day number crunch) – his Marines, vehicles, etc were not being efficiently deployed. The requirement to support a “liberal” detention policy was, in his view, unnecessarily competing for the more essential tasks of delivering supplies to various outposts, procuring supplies from higher headquarters, etc.

The line companies themselves just wanted clear guidance – they weren’t the “policy” makers – they just wanted Battalion leadership to give them clear guidance so they knew what to do.

I argued to our Battalion commander for a bigger picture, above the individual S-2, S-3, S-4 functions. What was our broader mission? What did we want to leave behind when we re-deployed to Southern California in another four months?


Nick Talib: “We need to learn to think in second steps, chains of consequences, and side effects.”

*Naive intervention can be worse than doing nothing at all.


#Antifragile is actually very relevant to approaches to counter-terrorism.

Arguments have already been made by seasoned “counterterror”and intelligence experts that loud responses and heavy-handed reactions to terror attacks only fuels more terrorism in the long-run: the loud responses merely confirm to the terrorists that they have achieved their goal, and their methods are effective (because their true goal was never to kill people – the method – but to create fear); the heavy-handed reactions potentially recruit more to the terrorists’ cause than “defeating” them.

But those arguments have only been drowned out by the 24-hour news cycle, and the notion that “strong leadership” means decisive actions (building walls, carpetbombing) or that deliberate restraint is is trait that belongs to “feckless weakling[s].”

A war that never ends.



“I believe that we have to avoid being simplistic. I think we have to build #resilience and make sure that our political debates are grounded in reality. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the value of theater in political communications; it’s that the habits we—the media, politicians—have gotten into, and how we talk about these issues, are so detached so often from what we need to be doing that for me to satisfy the cable news hype-fest would lead to us making worse and worse decisions over time.” – BHO


From the Bulge to Trumpismo – the European view

#HenriMignon was our local guide in #Bastogne. He had spent his entire life in Bastogne. In 1944 he was six years-old during the Battle of the “Bulge”, when the Allied Forces first liberated Bastogne from Germany, then became besieged in the surrounding Ardennes by a German counterattack, before finally pushing the Germans back across Belgium.
Henri recalled the German soldiers occupying his family house, but noted a difference between the regular #Wehrmacht and the #SS. The SS were “young, arrogant, and brutal.” They did not get along with the other Germans, and were an “army within an army.” When an SS officer demanded that the Mignons vacate their house, the Wehrmacht officer, who outranked the SS officer, told the family that they could stay as long as the Wehrmacht officer said so. So they stayed, for a while…

On the last day of the German occupation, and during the Allied bombings, Henri and a friend hid in the cellars. They heard a “hello”, but they were suspicious of the accent. Through the holes, they say that it was a German officer with a lugar, possibly trying to find other Germans (suspected of fleeing to surrender). A while later, they heard another “hello.” This time it was two American soldiers. The Americans entered the cellar, looked around, then told Henri and his friend to get out of the cellar. When Henri and his friend left the cellar, they realized that the house was on fire. The Americans were “very kind” and gave him and his friend chocolates. 

In Bastogne, Henri emphasizes, nobody says anything bad about Americans. If they do … he gestures by drawing his finger across his throat.

The Belgian girls were smitten by the Americans, though many had also had “affairs” with German soldiers during the occupation. All the “Belgian boys were gone fighting the war,” Henri remarked,in a matter-of-fact manner. But, he noted, after the liberation of Bastogne, those who were accused of having affairs were punished by having their heads shaved as a mark of treason.

On the other hand, when the war ended, it was a “great period” for the children. Henri became animated, and his eyes lit up, describing the crashed planes and abandoned tanks in the countryside. Decades later, Henri the grandfather would boast to his grandchildren that he “played with the real things.” Henri and two friends always went together to climb around the tanks, and play with ammunition that they found. Of course, there were many accidents. The civilians had no idea of what they were doing, when playing the ammunition. One day Henri’s friends went off without him, and were playing with ammunition they found when it went off, killing one of Henri’s friends. Today Henri sees all the video war games, and reminds his grandchildren, “#war is not a #game.”

Multiple times during the tour, Henri mentions that no American President has visited Bastogne for the anniversaries of the Battle of the Bulge. Once, there were black vehicles that went through the town. President Obama was in Europe to receive the Nobel Peace Price. The town went into a frenzy, speculating that maybe the American President was coming to Bastogne. But after the black vehicles departed and no American president was seen, the town went back to its typical business.

“I hope to see the day the President comes,” Henri says. He explains how it was personally important to thank the Americans for liberating Bastogne from German occupation, and how meaningful it would be to him, to be able to express that gratitude, in Bastogne, where so many reminders of 1944 – tanks, machine gun holes in the side of century-old homes – still litter the country side, to an American President.

I joke with Henri that I’ve heard him, and if I ever become president, I was promising then and there, that I would return to Bastogne to receive his thanks on behalf of the American people.

“It’s not political,” he adds. Then, after a pause, he carefully notes, looking away into the distance, “But if #DonaldTrump wins … I don’t know, it would be very … surprising … for us.”

[Photo of Henri from his website]


The Baby in the Well

“Why do people respond to these misfortunes and not to others? … Rifkin and others have argued, plausibly, that moral progress involves expanding our concern from the family and the #tribe to #humanity as a whole. Yet it is impossible to empathize with seven billion strangers….. Our best hope for the future is not to get people to think of all humanity as family—that’s impossible. It lies, instead, in an appreciation of the fact that, even if we don’t empathize with distant strangers, their lives have the same value as the lives of those we love”, share the same skin color or practice the same religion with.

And we would be wise, too, to afford them the same #dignity in times of misfortune, lest the disparate treatment causes the gap in/focus on differences to grow wider, and potential for conflict to grow greater.


Parochial Boys 

“He’s still a simple boy from Queens.” – Maryanne Trump, appellate court judge

“#Territorialists like Donald J. #Trump suggest that people can have their cake and eat it: disrupt globalisation and stay rich, minimise investment in international affairs and remain safe and free. They take the huge gains in prosperity, security and freedom of the last decades for granted. They fail to understand that those gains depend on massive investments of nation states in international order, and that globalisation is based on open societies and increasingly easy cross-border flows of goods, people and information.”


Rule of Law in a Democratic Nation

Political Real talk – Legal and Financial theory edition:
1. Rule of law and adherence to norms is crucial in a capitalist economy. Take contracts, for example. You enter into contracts with strangers you have no reason to otherwise trust, because you believe the other party will nevertheless fulfill the terms because a court would uphold those terms. Trust in the *system lowers all kinds of potential transaction costs compared to corrupt and/or opaque systems (see, China). 
2. Rule of law and adherence to norms thus provides the predictability that encourages investment. Beyond day-to-day transactions and contracts, US capital markets are considered the best because of both size, transparency/regulation. Companies want to access cash, investors don’t want to get swindled. (US treasuries are considered amongst the safest debt.) Only the riskiest investors are in Russia and Nigeria!
3. Investment creates jobs. When a company accesses capital to grow, it hires! When companies hire, employment goes up, purchasing power goes up, demand goes up, the economy goes up! And stock markets also do well – which is how investors are rewarded for parting with their cash in the present, for *potential return in the future.
4. Pension funds invest in markets. Teachers, firemen, police, government employees – pension funds depending on market returns in a healthy, growing economy, to be able to deliver when people retire and collect (you didn’t think your money was simply being held in a bank account on your behalf – I hope not!) #Mainstreet is tied to #Wallstreet! (Compensation to finance professionals, tax rules, and carry percentages/moral hazard is a separate topic)
5. Rich people …. oh, we’re talking about rich people now. Well, Jeff Bezos probably doesn’t care as much as you think he does if his net worth drops $100 million. But a pensioner might care, at the time of his/her retirement, if the market that year tanks 10% then the economy enters a 5-year recession, causing the State government to force renegotiations over pensions that can’t be funded. 
6. When the markets/economy goes to shit, rich people may theoretically have more to “lose”, but the average Joe actually *feels more pain.
7. When there is uncertainty, investment slows. People with money stop investing, companies with cash stop hiring (see, e.g. all the corporate stock buy-backs post-financial crisis! Low reinvestment rates!) Workers – blue collar workers – tend to be the first to lose jobs! People with money makes less money, but “average Joe” actually feels the pain.
8. Ok … politics. When Rule of Law is threatened by Rule by Man, guess what? When democratic institutions are weakened and the judiciary slandered, when experts are dismissed and mob “justice” encouraged, guess what! The whims of a populist demagogue …. is just … all so unpredictable. The rich, educated “elites” (e.g. 100 tech leaders) probably think, eff this. America isn’t so clearly first; free capital movement – to India, and beyond (or, corporate America, sit on cash piles and not reinvest, not hire).
9. When the American economy contracts because of political uncertainty (see, eg, Brexit), those who voted for the demagogue feel the pain first. The “elite” will most definitely be ok (for a while).
10. Be afraid. Be very afraid.