Tuesday, July 9, 2019

The Book of Job

Rumors had been whispering for a month. The new financing round hadn’t gone well, the expected deals hadn’t materialized, and something had to give. Free lunches had been cancelled, the weekly company updates had changed to biweekly and the last one of these had been mysteriously cancelled. I started updating my resume.

One Tuesday I learned from backchannels that there would be “a layoff of not insignificant size” the next day. Despite some reassurances from a colleague that I should be safe, that night I tossed and turned until 3am, when I firmly concluded that I would be laid off. A mix of terror and exasperation hit me. I’d been laid off just a year previously, and I didn’t want to be unemployed again. When I awoke Wednesday morning, the commute to work felt like marching to the gallows. 

The process was efficient. Half the startup was called in 1 by 1 to private offices, handed exit papers and told to turn in our badges and laptops. By 10am I was out of the office, and by 11 I had rendezvoused with other ex-employees at the Friendly Toast, where the bar was empty but open. The ensuing hours reached a level of day drinking rivaling my senior year St Patrick’s Day.

When I sobered up, I was sad, bitter, exhausted but excited. I was sad because CiBO had been my most enjoyable job. I had done interesting work with smart coworkers serving a great high level mission. It paid well, hadn’t been too stressful, and I could run to work on occasion. It had even taken me on a crazy 1 day trip to Malaysia. While the job didn’t trap me in the office long, I found myself home practicing Scala and studying the growth stages of corn. It bristles me now how fruitless this effort feels. Furthermore, the immediate termination was much rougher than the 1 month notice GE had given me. I had no time to mentally prepare to wake up the next day with absolutely nothing to do. I was bitter that after this long journey of changing careers, having spent so much time reflecting on what I wanted and then working so hard to actually get there, I had ended up with nothing. Twice. And during winter again. My browser cookies still remembered the Massachusetts unemployment website. I joked that I was now an expert in company collapses, of all different sizes. I got plenty of sympathy laughs, but when faced with the reality of yet another job hunt, I was exhausted before I even began.

Considering how much I care about my career, it’s a bit ironic that I’ve spent so much time funemployed that I've named each period. Leaving Hong Kong, backpacking around Asia and returning to the US was my SabbatiCal. The period between GE and CiBO that involved two international trips were my Callivanting days. This period? More like a Calamity. While I’m lucky to have had so many employment breaks - so many of my friends haven’t had any - this one was ill-timed and unwelcome.

However, I was excited because I had options, because in 2019, data scientists are in short supply.  CiBO had been a fantastic tech environment where I’d worked closely with great software engineers. I had accrued enough confidence that I was a pretty badass data scientist and almost immediately began working with 20+ recruiters. I quickly realized though that I wanted, and had enough savings, to take my time. I wanted to explore transitioning out of a technical role, perhaps into strategy or product management. I wanted to return closer to the energy sustainability domain. And I wanted to move back to Asia. It was a tough multiple-criteria decision problem to optimize.

The best part of this Calamity was the many people who reached out to me and helped. It seems like I caught up with 100 friends that first week, juggling all time zones to the east and west. I chatted with friends about their professional lives and gained valuable insights into how other jobs worked. I had plenty of deep conversations that convinced me that my heart was still in Asia. I specifically targeted Beijing, Shenzhen, and Saigon, cities where I felt I could find cool jobs and cool people.

Saigon had vibed with me when I first visited during the SabbatiCal. I knew there was a decent tech scene, with a large concentration of foreign “digital nomads” utilizing the abundance of talented (and cheap) local coders. I wasn’t sure what the options were for someone with no local country or language background, but my Saigon-dwelling friend Sam Axelrod connected me to someone who’d know. This guy gave me a rundown of the work international consultancies were doing, the locally-disconnected digital nomad scene, and the rapid government-backed digitization across the economy. He inadvertently went on a rant against those big name consultancies collaborating with government officials and multinational corporations to perpetuate modern colonialism. Having also lived in an Asian former colony, this rant won me over - he had expressed my views, albeit much more profoundly and eloquently. When he told me that in his previous role leading a UN bureau, he had made all his employees learn Vietnamese, I was sold. Then the conversation took a turn. “I lead a startup consultancy now. We have a Taiwanese manufacturing client and only one Chinese speaker on staff…and all of our work is really about using data to drive decisions….actually we could really use someone like you.” And so the informational chat turned into a job interview. A week later, I booked tickets to Ho Chi Minh City.
This is a fine ad for funemployment


In the meantime, I had already had a trip to New Orleans to visit my friend Jason Siu and partake in Mardi Gras. I took my employment frustrations out on hurricanes and Sazeracs, and somehow found myself walking down 10 blocks of Bourbon Street double fisting beers looking for Jason. The next morning, I awoke wearing a bushel of beads and needing to dry heave. I had scheduled a handful of recruiter calls before a late afternoon flight back to Boston. As I laid down on the couch in utter pain, I talked to Amazon on speaker phone and tried to go through my work history. I didn’t get a second interview. I barely made it to the airport, where I passed out on the dirty floor while JetBlue delayed us for 2 hours. When I took my middle seat, the old man sitting window asked me, in a volume indicating he was hard of hearing, “Did you enjoy the parades?” I did my best not to puke on him.

Back home, I planned an Asia trip to be part fact-finding mission and part friends catchup tour. I eschewed traveling to new places in favor of looking for jobs in familiar cities. I initially outlined a Saigon to Hong Kong to Shenzhen to Beijing to Paris to London trip, allotting myself 3 weeks. When my friend Doug Heimburger sold me hard on his 40th birthday celebration, I swapped out Shenzhen for Tokyo, then dropped Paris. I realized my dates in Hong Kong would coincide with Tosscars, the annual awards ceremony/party for the Hong Kong ultimate community. The ceremony’s hosts are secret until the event itself, and I had never been a host. I texted the organizers, and asked them if they wanted a super secret host. They replied that the theme was Carnival, and asked me to bring over Mardi Gras party supplies. Coincidentally I got that text while in a cafe in New Orleans, and walked outside to see a street vendor hawking party jackets. I got a sympathy $20 unemployment discount, and that jacket has proven to be one of my best investments.
I made a pun so bad, Vietnam decided to banh mi

Even since 2016, Saigon’s change was noticeable to me. There were more foreigners around District 1, Southeast Asia’s tallest skyscraper on the horizon and flat whites served in some coffeeshops in District 3. My first sight was a continuous stream of motorbikes street with no crosswalks and I had to relearn street crossing in Vietnam (with confidence and without eye contact). 

The startup consultancy was located above a clothing store and consisted of 6 employees. Though I’d be the only non-Vietnamese speaker, I knew I’d fit in well. My main worry with the role was whether I would stagnate technically. Though I was excited to learn about the Vietnamese economy and management consultancy in general, there was a good chance that the clients wouldn’t be ready for any interesting modeling, and I wasn’t sure I was ready to give that up. On my last day there, I was offered a role as an analyst, with the expectation that if I proved I could adapt to Vietnam, I would create and lead the company’s analytics division. There was a lot to consider. Between the motorbike traffic, lack of a subway (coming in 2020!) and inexorable heat, Saigon life is not without its challenges. But the food, coffee, nightlife and people I met in 3 days convinced me I could adapt to love the city.

Saturday morning I flew into Hong Kong. I had told myself that I shouldn’t move back to Hong Kong, that it wouldn’t be good for my career. But as my taxi zoomed down Gloucester Road past the pretty buildings, I thought to myself, I could carve a good life for myself here again. A few hours later I was in my party jacket hidden on the top floor of the Winery in Sai Ying Pun. It had been weird keeping my arrival a secret. As I heard the voices of my friends entering from below, I so desperately wanted to burst out and shout my presence. I managed to contain myself until Donna Doubet announced a surprise guest from America, and I flew down the stairs, threw some authentic New Orleans beads into the crowd, and awkwardly raised my arms, a little uncomfortable with the sudden attention. This was only my second time back in Hong Kong since I left, and I couldn’t imagine a better rewelcome party.

The next several days consisted of as many as 7 appointments a day, catching up with friends and family. I also got some intel on the work environment, and while the tech scene is growing rapidly, I confirmed my suspicions that interesting and high paying data science jobs don’t exist in Hong Kong yet. 
Doug popping his cherry blossoms
Doug’s party in Tokyo was a Hanami 見花, meaning cherry blossom viewing party, because of course Japanese has a word for that. We had rented out space at Yoyogi Park, roped off and carpeted to enforce a shoes-off policy. Organizer Niji had arranged for a small arsenal of whiskey, champagne and a buffet of sandwiches. To meet the formal dress code, I paired the New Orleans party jacket with grey suitpants. Even at this party, I met a programmer who tried to recruit me. I realized that having a skillset unbound by geographies or business domains could be a blessing and a curse - too many options means you have to restrict yourself to stay sane. I decided not to pursue working in Japan. 

Taking place a month past his 40th birthday, the Hanami was really a farewell party for Doug, as he had just accepted a promotion that would relocate him to Seattle. We spent the entire weekend bemoaning the challenges of managing an American career while smitten with Asia. Discussions with him and Austin taught me that for us, location can be more important than job, and wanting to learn a language is a legit factor in deciding location.

In Beijing I was fortunate to get connected with good tech people. My friend Joohee had moved from Hong Kong, and it was only face-to-face when I learned she now worked in Chinese tech venture capitalism. She connected me to the CEO of an AI startup trying to develop the flying car, and through another friend I met the former head of data science at Mobike. I learned about the speed of China’s 9/9/6 tech culture, the role of WeChat in everything, the way government-led directives influence entrepreneurs, and the sheer abundance of data available. Joohee evangelized her bullish views on China, and I was reminded how much I missed the uniqueness of Beijing life when I found myself telling my life story to an attractive group of film producers in Mandarin. I seriously wondered if I should focus on returning to China. However, barriers included the vast amount of competing Chinese programmers and the increasingly domestic nature of China’s tech scene that render multilingual people like me no longer highly valued. And this is before getting to all the moral and logistical complexities enforced by the Chinese government. 

By the time I got to London, I was exhausted. I met with friends there in interesting companies, and tried the city on for size. In my most productive conversation, I talked with a former coworker and ultimate teammate about how moving to Vietnam might mean missing weddings and/or an ultimate tournament in Amsterdam that I’d been invited to. “Oh, you have to go to Windmill.”  And so I did. I returned from my round the world trip with lots of renewed friendships, and lots of discussions comparing the social joys of living in Asia, the family warmth of staying in the east coast, and the asymmetric way America treats international experience. While Asia would always respect my US work experience, the converse was not necessarily true. I decided I needed to at least explore interesting jobs in the US to compare with the offer in Ho Chi Minh City.

-----

I was full of energy the first month back in Boston. I pursued all those things I never have the energy to do when working. I read voraciously, studied languages, attacked the gym, played ultimate and went through a TensorFlow tutorial.

The second month was harsh. The job interview process plodded along frustratingly slowly, and all my hard work towards self-improvement was largely irrelevant to the interviewers. It became difficult to sustain such intensity, and the uncertainty slowly ground me down. Not knowing where I’d live or what sort of income to expect made it difficult to plan things, date or try new activities. 

The Vietnam offer was still outstanding, while two local options were in play. One was a tech startup where I had wanted to work back in 2016 that was now recruiting me. They had given me a dataset assessment back then, and I laughed when they sent it again, virtually unchanged. With years of practice now under my belt, I did a way better job on the assignment. In the followup interview, a kid just out of college review the assignment with me. It was a little stunning to see 2018 as his graduation year, but he introduced to me a little trick transforming linear variables like date or time into cyclical variables, by taking the sine and cosine of them. The interview went well and they indicated they would bring me onsite. Then without explanation, they wished me luck and rescinded the onsite interview.

The second was a large tech firm where my friend had internally referred me as a product manager. I was excited to pivot away from straight technical work, which often strained my extroverted personality. That firm’s HR operated slowly, and weeks elapsed between followups. Finally in mid May, they brought me onsite for a marathon session of interviews. While the experience was largely positive, I reflected over the weekend and realized I needed to follow my heart to Vietnam. With that realization, I then booked my Europe trip for Windmill.

That following week my brother and sister-in-law visited, and I told my whole family that I was moving to Vietnam. They did not take the news well. They mainly believed that the low salary, distance from tech thought leadership and lack of any incredible valuation growth were wrong for me. Only my father, who had spent a decade working in Shanghai, considered the possible upside of being in a growing economy at the right time. The next day at breakfast, my brother asked me if I was happy at my last company. I had been, because we had been working towards real global impact, and that in the months since I hadn’t come close to any company that excited me like that. “Oh there was this company in New York that tried to recruit me last year. They’re using machine learning to solve city sustainability issues. Would that interest you?” “Uh, yeah, no shit that’d be cool.” “Damn, I should have remembered to bring this to you earlier.” “Yes, you should have."

I figured it was too late to apply as I had already interviewed onsite at the big firm. But my brother emailed the CEO, who responded extremely quickly, and the next day I spoke with the head of their urban analytics team. The conversation went shockingly well and I learned that this guy’s previous role was leading analytics for the city of New York. A Google search revealed him to be kind of a big deal, as well as a visible minority in the field. It’d be really cool to work for him. They sent along their dataset assessment and told me to take a week on it. I pulled an all-nighter and turned it back in a day and a half, producing some of the best modeling I had ever done including applying the cyclical transformation trick I’d learned just a couple weeks before.

Finally on Monday, a full two and a half weeks after I’d gone onsite, the big tech firm gave me an offer. It was at the level that I had wanted and legitimately thrilled me. It’s funny how much more interested I’d become in the role when the offer became tangible. Still, I made arrangements to speak with the Vietnam CEO and sent an email to the New York startup informing them of the offer. Again they got back to me right away, and I soon had a call scheduled with the CEO for Wednesday morning. The Vietnam CEO also asked to speak Wednesday morning, and I had a followup with the big tech firm for Wednesday afternoon. Wednesday evening I would fly out to Spain. It would be the most eventful Wednesday since the CiBO layoffs, and similarly, I couldn’t sleep at all the previous night. I had 3 separate timelines at my fingertips, with 3 very different cities and 3 very different roles.

The New York CEO informed me that they typically bring people onsite before offering roles, but he’d be willing to make an exception if I was committed. I replied that if they could meet my salary expectations, I’d also take an offer without coming onsite. He then said he’d have his people get back to me.

The Vietnam CEO and I had a good heart-to-heart chat, but he was not able to meet the salary expectation that I wanted. It was an enormous risk for both of us, and while I’m not exactly risk-averse, I realized that his startup probably wasn’t as ready as other places to get value of data science.

Finally, the Boston tech firm gave me their final offer and told me I had until Friday 5pm EST to accept it. After how long they took to get back to me, I was a bit resentful about the tight deadline they’d given me, but they had other candidates in queue.  I then proceeded to fly to Spain.

When I landed in Madrid on Thursday, I had emails from the New York startup. They wanted me to go on Google Hangouts with some more employees. Sigh. I wanted to vacation, but this was my future, so I said sure, how about 4pm EST/10pm Spanish time? Considering I’d done my final interview with CiBO in Tokyo, this wasn’t even unusual for me. I flew to Bilbao, met up with Antonio and his wife Raquel, grabbed a quick dinner and drink, then hustled back to get on Hangouts. The interview was full of challenging questions, but by now I’d done so many interviews I was almost on autopilot. In one of the last questions, they asked me how I approached a dataset. Tiredly, I asked back, did you see my assessment? Surprisingly, one of the interviewers excitedly responded, “yes, I thought it was awesome, it was so cool how you transformed those cyclical variables.” Fuck yeah, I thought. Finally I told them I had until 5pm tomorrow to respond to the tech firm.
¿Donde esta el email de Nueva York?
The next day we touristed around beautiful Bilbao. I tried to enjoy it as much as I could, but the whole day I was aware of the time in New York. 9am... they’re getting into work... lunchtime….no email yet. 11pm Spain was my deadline. By 9pm we posted at a bar with wifi. I tried to be a fun conversationalist but the anxiety was real. At 9:30, the New York startup sent me an email…all it said was “hang in there, we’ll get back to you within the hour.” By 10:30, they still hadn’t. 10:45, the inbox was still unchanged and I’d lost the ability to make conversation. At 10:50 Antonio lent me his phone and I called someone at the company. No response. Finally at 11:00, I sent an email to the big tech firm saying, “I accept!”

The burden was gone. I’d be a product manager in Boston. It’d be a good life. I approached the bartender and said, “Tres tragos de tequila por favor. Tengo un nuevo trabajo!”

I brought the three shots back to our table and prepared to do a toast to the new job. Glass in the air, I sneaked a peak at my phone and glimpsed one new email. “Wait hold on! We have an offer for you!” I put my glass down and sighed.

In the ensuing telephone call, I admonished the New York startup for being late. They quantified their offer, apologized for missing the deadline by 5 minutes, and asked me to consider rescinding the acceptance. That thought literally made my heart quiver - I hate going against my word. I sighed, told him I’d sleep on it, and to please send a formal offer via email. When I checked my email that night, there was a formal offer that was slightly larger than what he’d said on the phone - turns out accepting the other job was a good negotiating tactic - as well as a response from the big tech recruiter revealing her joy at my acceptance. 

I did sleep on it, sent the offer around to my family, and ended up choosing the New York startup - Urbint. The email to the big tech firm rescinding my acceptance was the hardest email I’ve ever had to write - I had to get my brother to draft it for me. I clicked send on the train to Paris, and now, two weddings and a painful move later, I’m in New York City.

The Calamity was longer than desired, but was an invaluable period reconnecting with friends. My lessons learned:

  • It is so valuable having a strong, diverse peer network to inspire and raise you
  • It's important to be patience
  • It's important to be bold
  • It's ok to prioritize location
  • Jobs are like buses. You wait around for ages and then they show up all at once
I've chosen to be patient, to put off my return to Asia for an exciting job opportunity. Hopefully I'll be here in Urbint and New York for a long while. If I'm in this position again in a year, I'll know I'm truly cursed. But if that happens, I'll tell big companies to pay me to work at their competitors.

Friday, March 1, 2019

Game of Thrones Characters and their American Political Equivalents

The HBO fantasy-drama series “Game of Thrones” based on books by George R. R. Martin is an epic winding tale centering primarily over the political dominion of a large powerful landmass. With numerous colorful characters that often get unexpectedly offed, coalescing alliances, twisting side plots, deadly game changing weapons, straight up evil people and foreign interventions, the American political system has also captivated audiences worldwide. Ever since the campaigns for the 2016 Presidential Election began, real life has done its best to stray into the territories of fiction. 

With Game of Thrones coming back April 14 after so long, and the Mueller Report due to come out after so long, now is a good time for a refresher course on both worlds. The following post will compare the numerous players of Westeros and America. I make no pretenses at staying unbiased or at containing spoilers. Please do not read further if you are not caught up on Game of Thrones — or American political news. 

Joffrey — Donald J. Trump
These characters have so few redeemable qualities that even author George R. R. Martin acknowledges the comparison. Impulsive, cruel, cowardly and blond, Donald Trump is an adult Joffrey. As the leaders of their respective kingdoms, they've both done an array of outrageous acts that are difficult to tell apart. Which one talked about making homosexuality punishable by death? Which one mocked a disabled person? Which one started a city riot after overreacting to getting hit by a piece of poop? Which one encouraged his allies to "DO SOMETHING"? 


Cersei / Jamie  Lannister— Ivanka Trump / Jared Kushner
Despite the more obvious incestual Donald - Ivanka relationship, our parallel here will focus on the more functional but still loathable couple Ivanka and Jared. Javanka may look respectable in public, but you know in private they are doing terrible, terrible things. It remains to be seen whether their close relationship fractures over coming seasons.

Ned Stark — Hillary Clinton
Ned is the experienced leader overwhelmingly supported by the North who makes a huge political miscalculation and whose unexpected loss sets off uncontrolled calamity. 

Robb Stark — Bill Clinton
If Ned is Hillary, you'd think Catelyn should probably be Bill, but Robb was the one whose downfall was heeding the call of his boner.

Lancel Lannister  — Eric Trump
Lancel is probably one of the most worthless characters of the series, beginning as a bumbling loyalist to his aunt Cersei whom Tyrion easily blackmails, and ending as a High Sparrow follower crawling to his death.

Daenerys Targaryen — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
Daenerys is the young female leader whom everyone underestimates until they realize she is straight up fire.

Euron Greyjoy — Vladimir Putin
When the Lannisters are in trouble, they call up the repressive dictator from overseas.

Barriston Selmy — James Comey
Selmy was the head of the Kingsguard who opposed Ned Stark when he tried to remove Joffrey from the throne. He showed he had too much honor to work for the Lannisters though and was fired, and became a hero to the opposition.

Oberyn Martell — Anthony Scaramucchi
These hotblooded men entered our world in a flash and dazzled us with their way with words. Then just as we had gotten to know them, they died in spectacular fashion completely due to their own foolish accord.
Janos Slynt — Reince Priebus
The former leader of the City Guard who thought he was a big deal with friends in important places, but was not protected by other Lannisters when Tyrion sent him to the wall, where he eventually was beheaded by Jon Snow.

Maester Pycelle — Roger Ailes
The old man on the small council was supposed to be independent but was really loyal to the Lannisters, and caught with gross sexual habits.

The High Sparrow — Mike Pence
Religion.

Tywin Lannister - Fred Trump
Tywin is the real progenitor of the Lannister family, the one who built up their wealth and reputation.

Varys - Chuck Schumer
Varys is the guy behind the scenes with a funny voice and pulls strings but never really puts himself in harms way.

Littlefinger — Steve Bannon
I began this post in July before Season 7 had finished and while Bannon was still Chief Strategist in the White House. I kept going back and forth between Qyburn and Littlefinger for Bannon, and wisely decided to wait a little bit before posting this. Then Littlefinger was killed and Bannon was fired - all within the same week, and the parallels between the manipulative evil people behind the major political developments became clear. 

Qyburn — Mitch McConnell
Qyburn is the true, evil mastermind behind the most destructive of the Lannisters’ policies. He's quiet but does not seem to possess a conscious.

Arya Stark - Robert Mueller

The incredibly deadly Arya has an ever dwindling number of criminals on her kill list, including members of the crown.

Waldorf Frey — Paul Manafort
The people put away after years of shady and treacherous activity.

Roose Bolton — Michael Flynn
The more badass and very much evil guy who carries out the major acts of treason.

Jon Snow — Barack Obama
Jon Snow is the hero that we need but not the one we deserve, who has taken arrows to the back, daggers to the heart, and somehow is not dead

Loras Tyrell  Paul Ryan
Loras was a candidate that appeared principled and badass, but after defeat and torture, ends up kissing ass and dying in disgrace.

Melisandre — Kellyanne Conway
If there’s anyone who could justify the sacrifice of a little girl, it would be Kellyanne Conway.

Sansa Stark — Melania Trump
Sansa is quite a likable character, but the comparison here between her and Melania is their propensity to be stuck in unhappy marriages. To be determined if Melania will be able to break free.

Ramsay Bolton — Ted Cruz
I don’t think I need to explain this one.









Bronn — Joe Biden
The blue collar hero who came out of nowhere to somehow be second in command to Jaime, despite often saying very inappropriate things.

Hodor — Chris Christie
Up til now all these comparisons have been based on personality traits and positions, not physical appearances. Up til now.

Robert Baratheon — George W. Bush
The bumbling but charming old King who really wasn’t all that interested in ruling, was pretty terrible at it with the debt spiraling out of control, but now that he’s gone all the ensuing chaos has made his reign look better.

Stannis Baratheon — Jeb Bush
The brother of the old King who thought he would inherit the throne but progressively loses more and more influence and power until he suffers an ignominious death

Renley Baratheon — Neil Bush
Turns out there are actually 6 siblings in that Bush family.

Randall Tarley — General Kelly
The bad ass general brought in to restore order, but ultimately killed off after accomplishing nothing of significance.

Khal Drogo - Rex Tillerson
Khal Drogo was an intriguing and powerful character, but left our world quite early without really doing very much.

Olenna Tyrell - Nancy Pelosi
Olenna He Was ACunt GIF - Olenna HeWasACunt GameOfThrones GIFsNancy Pelosi Clap GIF - NancyPelosi Clap New GIFs

Meryn Trant - Roy Moore
We already hated Meryn Trant from his execution of Ned Stark and his brutal treatment of Sansa Stark. Then we saw him in a brothel in Braavos and we learn about his perverse inclinations towards little girls. Fortunately he was stabbed and killed shortly after.

Brienne of Tarth - Elizabeth Warren
I kinda like this one.

Davos Seaworth - Bernie Sanders
Somehow these old people are still kicking.

Viserys Targaryen — Lindsey Graham
For some reason they look pretty similar and were both eliminated pretty quickly after having accomplished nothing

Theon Greyjoy — Mitt Romney
Once a seemingly powerful man with ability to connect with multiple sides, he was quickly defeated through several gaffes and reduced to a pitiful man.
Image result for mitt romney reek

Dontos Hollard — Sean Spicer
This is that dude who was supposed to joust in a tournament for Joffrey but showed up drunk. He was going to be beheaded but Sansa suggested he be made a court fool, which might have been his true calling. He was then killed by Littlefinger after helping Sansa escape. Sean Spicer was the court fool of the early Trump administration, whose greatest hits include "the largest audience to witness an inauguration, period" and "Hitler didn't even use chemical weapons," hiding in the bushes and dressing up as an Easter Bunny in the Bush administration. Spicer is one of the few ex-Trump administration officials who actually resigned of his own accord.

Bran Stark — Al Gore
Used to have a big inheritance, now crippled after an unfortunate incident many years ago. Currently spends his time prophesizing about impending doom but many people refuse to heed his words

The Hound - Arnold Schwarzenegger 
The Hound is this imposing, unbeatable figure on the side of the Lannister Crown, but ends up leaving the King he despises and though his true loyalties are murky, he is now on the opposing side.

Tyrion Lannister - Stephen Colbert
We have to go out and find the comedian who roasted George W. Bush back in the day to really capture the cleverness that is Tyrion Lannister.

Edmure Tully - Tim Kaine
Edmure Tully is the one who married one of Frey's daughters after Robb Stark broke his promise. At that point he was high up in the Stark command, as a dutiful co-commander, but their whole group is massacred in the Red Wedding. Tully is locked away and not heard from again for a long time.

The Iron Bank - Republican Donors
This means the conquest of Highgarden is the Game of Thrones equivalent to passing the Tax Plan.

Ellaria Sand - Omarosa
Why are these characters even in this show? How did they manage to outlast so many other characters? Why was it so compelling when they were offed?

Jorah Mormont - Michael Cohen
Jorah was expelled from Westeros for trading slaves, and while in exile, tried spying to gain back favor. Ultimately has a change of heart and proves useful to Daenerys.

Lysa Arryn - Sarah Huckabee Sanders
Lysa is Catelyn's sister who leads the Vail, breastfeeds her son, and says ridiculous lies.

Gendry - Beto O'Rourke
Gendry has spent most of his life as a regular smith away from public scrutiny, but now has a legitimate claim to the Iron Throne.

The White Walkers - Global Warming
Because while everyone is squabbling about politics, there's actually a gigantic force that will kill us all.

The Slave Revolt in Meereen in Essos - Brexit
While most of our attention has been concentrated in the palace intrigue in Westeros, over in Essos, shit has gone down. There have been slave revolts, the masters staging a counter revolt in masks, the economy is in chaos and dragons burning everything down. Really the whole social order has been upended all over Essos, and no one knows what's coming next. 

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

So you want to save the world?

When they eventually open the Barack Obama Presidential library in Jackson Park Chicago, I don't expect there will be any mention of the speech he gave on March 30, 2011 at Georgetown University. The energy plan he unveiled that day has not proven historically consequential, and the speech nowhere near "A More Perfect Union"-type fame. In fact, watching it in today's context feels like opening a capsule to an alternate timeline. With the price of oil at $104/barrel that day (it's around ~$57 on 2/22/2019), Obama's plan focused on energy independence. He mentioned solar and wind as longterm aspirations, and even proposed incentives to oil companies to expand drilling. Less than 8 years later, the rhetoric surrounding global warming has changed dramatically, even if the enacted policies have not.

It's the 44:30 mark, closing his speech, that leads to my writing today. Addressing the students:
"I think that precisely because you are coming of age at a time of such rapid and sometimes unsettling change - born into a world with fewer walls, educated in an era of constant information, tempered by war and economic turmoil - because that's the world in which you're coming of age, I think you believe as deeply as any of our previous generations that America can change and it can change for the better. We need that. We need you to dream big. We need you to summon that same spirit of unbridled optimism and that bold willingness to tackle tough challenges and see those challenges through that led previous generations to rise to greatness. To save a democracy, to touch the moon, to connect the world with our own science and our own imagination. That's what America is capable of. That's what you have to push America to do. And it will be you that pushes it. That history of us ours, of meeting challenges, that's your birthright. You understand that there's no problem out there that's not within our power to solve."
As a graduate student at Georgetown at the time, you can probably see why I was inspired by this.  I was already leaning towards a career in sustainability, but here was confirmation from the leader of the free world that I should go for it. Obama provided this external pillar that I could latch onto and give my ill-defined life some direction.

I barely got a job coming out of school. With my criteria of "sustainability" and "Asia" and my skills (none), I'm lucky to have ended up at Arup, on a group that specialized in designing energy efficient buildings. What I did have was this compelling narrative, which I've told countless times over the years. I had ended up in Beijing just to watch the Olympics, loved the experience, realized how terrible the pollution was, and wanted to return to combat that. I thought that that narrative and my position now in this Building Sustainability team in Hong Kong would allow me to go forth and change the world.

My idealism was out of place even on that team. My coworkers had studied mechanical or civil engineering and learned how to design buildings. The fact that there was now this marketability around "green buildings" was largely incidental to their original career interests. Of course it made sense that the people put in charge of designing green buildings were the ones who knew how to design buildings, but it didn't seem in line with Obama's message to change for the better.

That job was not easy. The hours were long, the pay wasn't great, and the work frequently tedious. Ideally the higher purpose would keep me going, but oftentimes, I couldn't draw a link from my work to any meaningful reduction in energy use.  I spent many hours simulating wind flow around buildings, finding documentation to prove environmental compliance, or finding tricks to simulate as much energy savings as possible. Green building certification was the worst. Although cool in theory, LEED and other certification standards have struggled to balance promoting good practices while not impeding development. The Hong Kong local standard was even worse, incredibly "腌尖", or nitpicky. I still remember the horror I felt when they rejected my certification points on water reduction, because I had not included this one disabled restroom's faucets in the calculations. As I called the contractors in apprehension, about to explain in Cantonese that they needed to go back to the completed building with a bucket and measure the water flow of that faucet, I thought to myself, "What are we doing here? This ain't saving the world."

But it was in my search for a new job where I really hit hurdles. I had happened into engineering by accident, a byproduct of my passion for sustainability. Turns out passion isn't necessarily the best guide during job searching. The jobs that interest made ranged from carbon trading to reforestation to policy research to building management to solar financing to supply chain responsible sourcing to energy markets. These roles passed my muster of meaningfulness, but rarely did I pass theirs. With these jobs requiring such vastly different skill sets and experiences, I struggled to write unique cover letters and position myself. I thought I had built up goodwill from having chosen to work in sustainability - this never got very far. For several years in Hong Kong, I struggled as a math major working in engineering who had know idea what he could do next.

I had to reinvent myself. Instead of searching for jobs that matched my interests, I searched for jobs that matched my skill set. And when that didn't work, I changed my skill set and became a data scientist.  Since then, the primary aim at my recent jobs has been to develop my data science experiences, but luckily I haven't gone too far from sustainability. With GE, I was exposed to the hydro and wind energy business. At CiBO, I worked on simulation technology that could help manage fertilizer runoff and minimize destructive agricultural practices. I got a foot in the door because of my expertise, and then theoretically could have then found a role making a direct meaningful impact.

From a distance, I can see how frustrating trying to save the world tends to be. First of all, the problem is massive and the more you know about it, the more depressed you become with the gravity of it all. Second, in many jobs like policy and engineering, the most intellectually challenging tasks make up a minuscule portion of the total tasks. You go through the challenges of crafting clever policies that benefit multiple stakeholders with good measurement and enforcing mechanisms, and then spend 95% of your effort getting those policies passed or publicized. You spend 5% of your time designing a beautiful smart building with all sorts of advanced energy saving features, and then the rest of time being told to remove them from the architect or developer, then documenting and coordinating to get your stripped-down design built. These are difficult jobs that are both taxing on one's morale and rarely glorified. The people I know that are deeply committed to careers in sustainability are the hardest working, most educated, most multilingual and generally most overqualified people I know. 

If I were offering advice to someone who wanted to work to save the planet, I would tell them to be strategic. If they knew a specific type role they wanted, they could position themselves for that. If not, I would recommend just becoming as much of a badass as possible and to try to get into a position to make decisions. While sacrifice, determination and passion can be strong forces in shaping one's own life, capitalism is run by other forces. It is only by understanding and playing with these forces that one can really affect change.

But despite my evolution into CyniCal, somewhere deep down there's still that "spirit of unbridled optimism." I can't help it, even though I know how awful the challenges are. In writing this I hope to make those realities very clear, that we need to understand the existing systems before we can change it, and to help people avoid the frustrations that plagued me. I hope that people are not burdened, but emboldened, to remember the enduring challenge of our time as they progress along their lives and careers.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Calpirinhas

Boston to Rio de Janeiro had taken me over 20 hours, including a stressfully short transfer window in Sao Paulo. I had already needed to use my meager Portuguese to navigate the surprise of exiting Santos Dumont airport directly into a mall populated by non-travelers. I had hugged my luggage through the subway until I emerged at Nossa Senhora da Paz in Ipanema. My hotel was located just two blocks from that beach made famous worldwide by a 1960s Bossa Nova, and I barely unpacked and reclined before I making my way there. My travel anxiety instantly melted away. The urban blocks had opened up into beach impossibly fast, and an inviting caipirinha stand was immediately in front of me. "Uma caipirinha por favor" came out of my lips before I had done any mental calculus on whether a drink fresh off a red eye was what I needed. "Onde vocestasentado?" I stared stupidly, and was about to admit I didn't speak Portuguese, when I made contextual sense of the word onde (meaning where) and randomly pointed to a spot. The bartender, if this makeshift stand that was essentially a refrigerator on wheels could have a bartender, nodded, and I went and laid down on that spot. Minutes later, a pretty woman came over with a caipirinha. As I sipped the sugary rum, marveling at the beautiful mountains on my right, the tall buildings off on my left and the expansive beach everywhere else, I wondered why everyone didn't live here.

Antonio and I had been paired together on the Corporate Audit Staff at GE. We had only spent all of 3 weeks in physical proximity, in Cincinnati, but they were an intense 3 weeks and we had gotten close. They were cutoff when I was suddenly laid off.  I had planned to visit him in Brazil in the intervening period of unemployment, but timing did not work out (I went to Colombia instead). When a wedding invitation came in the mail, it was a no-brainer for me to make the trip.

Ever since I made a point of studying Italian before visiting Italy in 2014, I try to learn languages in advance of trips. For this trip, I was able to put in 2 months of semidecent Duolingo practice before going. Unlike in Colombia, where I drastically improved in Spanish over the course of the trip, here I was never placed in do-or-die Portuguese situation, and my Portuguese improved only marginally. Upon landing I was able to ask for directions and the price of items, and that was basically the bare minimum to get by.

In Rio, I couldn't help but be reminded of Hong Kong. It's geologically remarkable for land to rise from the coast to a point high enough yet near enough the city to provide wonderful views. To have both mountains and beaches within subway access -  I'm only aware of those two and Cape Town.  Furthermore, the two cities are both harbors at 22° latitude, at different hemispheres of course, and as a result have similar climates, with palm trees adorning the major boulevards. Both cities had been extremely important colonial possessions, but had since evolved very distinctive local styles and customs. The open air cosmopolitan bars of Ipanema intermingled with cheap food stalls selling coxinha (dough covered chicken) reminded me of Wan Chai.

While the mountains of Hong Kong are fantastic, the beaches are fairly meh. They aren't all that close to the city and get crowded quickly, with some less than pristine public facilities. But in Rio, Ipanema and Copacabana beach are right there, and they are so wide that they weren't crowded on a hot Sunday summer afternoon. If you wanted to get away from that, there were more options further down the coast. I bought some Havaianas, those famous Brazilian sandals, and dipped my feet into the South Atlantic for the first time in my life. I think it was like the third wave that overwhelmed me and suddenly I only had one Havaiana. I stood firm, knowing that the wave would bring the sandal back. But for ten futile minutes, I futilely scanned my neck of the beach. Walking back to my spot, a young man walked up to me. "Amigo, podevocesascorato?" he said, pointing to somewhere behind him. I stared dumbly, until I saw my sandal at that spot. "Obrigado!! Muito obrigado!!!" I replied, amazed. "De nada."

Of the mountain views in Rio, there are many. I visited three notable ones - Pão de Açucar, Vista Chinesa, and Cristo Redentor. Pão de Açucar, bread of sugar, or Sugarloaf Mountain, is this thumb of a rock that arises suddenly from a peninsula situated between Copacabana beach and the downtown sector. Two systems of cable cars had been built to take tourists from the ground to an intermediate thumb and then the Sugarloaf. My view at sunset was spectacular. It was all there - clouds rolling into the mountains in the distance, lush jungled mountains, wide white beaches on both sides, dozens of marina boats dotting the reflective bay. No wonder that the entire bay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The next day I wanted to hike the Vista Chinesa. This dot on Google Maps aroused my curiosity (it means Chinese View), and research told me it was a great view with a pagoda. I had no idea how to hike to it though, and hotel staff warned me that the surrounding area wasn't exactly safe. So I told a taxi driver just to drive to it. It happened that as he approached, there was a road closure and he said this was as far as he could go. I saw a dirt road leading up into the mountains and jumped at the fortune to get to hike it after all.

The hike couldn't have been more than a mile, but it went through real jungle. It had rained a few days before, and parts of the sloping trail were slippery mud, and I nearly didn't make it up. Finally I clawed my way to a paved road, and as I peeped out from the jungle, I saw dozens of faces staring back at me. I awkwardly looked around in confusion, until I heard cheering and then a skateboarder zoom by me. Evidently there was some sort of downhill race going down that road, which was why my taxi couldn't enter. Looking both directions, I crept uphill towards the audience and pagoda, clinging to the side. I reached the pagoda, and stared out at a beautiful view that included both the Cristo and Pão de Açucar, as well as miles of lush jungle. The extent of the jungle within city limits was truly astonishing.

I admired the view at the pagoda for only a few minutes before a bilingual announcement came on that there would be a 15 minute break in the race. "Quick!" shouted a girl in the pagoda. "This is our chance!" Alarmed, I wondered how long they had been trapped there. I immediately followed suit.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

My Crazy Quick Asia Trip

I still consider my company CiBO a startup, though it is big enough that most people don't have any relationship with the CEO. At the time of this event, we were about 130 employees. So when the CEO David walked into the meeting and asked me to step out, my first thought was, "this can't be good." But his request completely surprised me: "Do you speak Mandarin or Cantonese?" I could have given the long answer, but I'd learned to be concise with executives. "Both," I replied.

"Can you talk about CiBO in Mandarin?" David continued.

"Uh, yes...but I'd really need to prepare."
"Can you talk about CiBO in Mandarin in a meeting in Malaysia in about a week?"
"Uh...maybe....sure."
"Ok. I'll let you know at the end of the week if it'll happen. I'd really appreciate it."

With that he was gone. I returned to my meeting confused but excited, my mind fluttering with possibilities.

Turns out end of the week meant Sunday. Sunday afternoon I happened to be on my work laptop and saw an email with the subject: "KL on 8/2 at 1200 local." The body of the text began, "Ready to give this a shot?"

Saying yes to scary situations, often against better instincts, has been surprisingly rewarding over my life, and become one of my guiding principles.  This Malaysia trip with my CEO seemed exactly like the sort of scary but rewarding experience that I should say yes to.

So I cancelled all my plans and next thing I knew, I was selecting business class flights leaving on Monday. The next day. I had so many misgivings!  For starters, though I'm not shy about speaking, I have long been very insecure about my Mandarin skills. It is my third language which I began learning at age 19.   I'd barely formally studied and never worked in the language, having only lived 6 months in mainland China, so I really wasn't sure I could do this. Secondly, I had no more context about the meeting than I'd just described. I didn't know who we'd be meeting, what we wanted to talk about, what we wanted to gain from the meeting, and why it needed to be in Mandarin in freaking Malaysia. The official language of Malaysia is Malay (not related to Chinese), and English is the language of international business. But I took a deep breath and trusted that David wasn't being hilariously ignorant.

I immediately headed over to my parents. I pulled up a random investor deck and stumbled through it in Mandarin while my dad looked on. It was rough.

I had never been more anxious to get to work on a Monday morning, desperately wanting to get to the bottom of this Malaysian mystery. Unfortunately, almost no one knew what was going on. David's leadership style kept everyone on a need-to-know basis, and it seemed no one in Cambridge needed to know about this China meeting. The only other person going to Malaysia was on a boat off Rhode Island. But with all hands on deck, we put together a reasonably presentable set of slides in the morning - in English. In the afternoon, I gathered the 2 Mainland Chinese coworkers (whose passports prevented them from going to Malaysia themselves) and translated the deck.  The process dramatically expanded my knowledge of Chinese agriculture and software terms. Over and over again I practiced, until phrases such as "Simulating Agricultural Ecosystems - 农业生态模型" became pronounceable, then branded in memory.

Though this trip would circumnavigate the globe, because of weekend commitments, I'd only be in Malaysia for 36 hours. I grabbed my passport and just one small bag, and headed to my parents, where I practiced for another hour. They then drove me to the airport for my 1:50am flight to Hong Kong. I've flown to Asia many times of course, and jet lag inevitably crushes me. This time however, I had business class tickets - and discovered how the other side lives. I was able to pregame the flight with champagne from the British Airways lounge, and the flight attendant offered me another glass when I priority boarded. I reclined my seat down to a bed, and slept a solid 8 hours. Upon waking, I made a point to practice with some Chinese movies, but somehow chose two awfully dubbed Hong Kong movies.

The familiar HSBC posters and temperature checks of Hong Kong International Airport greeted me, yet unknowingly tormented me. How cruel to be in this city I love but unable to enjoy it? Sure I had a 4 hour layover, enough time to take the airport express to Central and grab breakfast. But, after a longing stare at the customs checkpoint, and fidgeting with my HKID card, I decided that this was a business trip and I should focus on business.
Cathay Lounge in HKIA

I reached Kuala Lumpur around 1pm, about 24 hours after I'd set off. My CEO happily greeted me at the hotel lobby. The scene was still surreal and mysterious as we sat down for lunch, and amazingly even then the mystery was not resolved. CiBO had been connected to this Chinese fund through a confusing web of well-placed people, facilitated by our "external consultant", a Norwegian with a suspiciously unremarkable name (I'll call him Jan). It seems Jan's entire job was to open doors. While he seemed like a nice and intelligent man, I couldn't help but imagine him as a less sketchy Paul Manafort. I'm not saying Cibo was doing anything nefarious, but I wouldn't be surprised if I found out Jan was banned from entering Thailand.

We were considering the Chinese company as either a potential investor or a client. While there was partnership to be had here in Malaysia, the work in China was the real objective. That evening we would have a 5pm meeting with the director of the Malaysian branch of this Chinese fund, and afterwards I planned to pass out.

The Malaysian director was not Malaysian Chinese as I had guessed, but a Malaysian Indian man named Rohit. Rohit explained the fund's origins and their investments in infrastructure that fit into the strategic One Belt One Road initiative, such as a port and rail link across Malaysia and Thailand allowing goods to bypass Singapore. They had also some substantial investments in a range of agriculture, and thus there was some generic thought that we could partner.  We wrapped up the meeting with plenty of optimism, and I yawned in anticipation for my jet-lagged sleep.

"We're going to dinner with the Princess. Cal would you care to join us?"
"Sorry what? Princess?"
"Yes, we are having dinner with the Princess of Kelantan. You should come."

Never before had I dined with a Princess before. Jet lag be damned.

So it turns out Malaysia has a monarchy. While mostly a figurehead position, the monarch does exert some influence over the Prime Minister and the democratically elected lawmakers. I was told that the King of Malaysia probably had more real power than the British Queen, but less than the Thai King. Unusual about Malaysia's monarchy is its rotating nature. Malaysia contains nine Sultanates, and every 5 years one of the Sultans is elected King. So one day you're the Sultan of Johor Bahru, the next you're the King of Malaysia. The current King of Malaysia is the Sultan of Kelantan, a state in the north of Malaysia bordering Thailand, with a poor and largely agriculture economy. In the comically non-royal venue of an Italian restaurant in a downtown mall, the King's cousin or niece (I can't remember the exact relation) was seated, accompanied by a male Malay friend.

The Princess was casually dressed in plain western garb. We made introductions (the word "Princess" was omitted), shook hands, and somehow I was placed next to her. The whole encounter was surreal in its normalcy. As wine was ordered and conversation began, my good fortune dawned on me. Though David and Jan had been working on getting business in Malaysia for months, I had actually been to Malaysia more times and to more places, this being my 5th trip. Armed with Facebook updates from friends like Julia Chan, I mustered up fairly insightful questions about the recent election, the local tech industry, and Malay naming traditions. In an extremely geeky company, I was definitely the best data scientist at schmoozing with a Malaysian Princess. To top it off, I discovered that her young daughter shared the exact same birthday as my niece. They even looked remarkably similar. I noticed David smiling at our connection, and again counted my blessings.

The Princess opened up about what her life was like. She seemed like a fairly normal, smart woman whose birthright didn't provide outrageous luxury, but did prevent her from living a completely normal life. She was not as lost as her spoiled younger brother, but didn't have a real career of her own either. She was much more of a conflicted millennial than a Disney protagonist. On our way back, I was so desperate to get to bed that I nearly got hit by a car exiting the taxi.

The next morning I woke up at a surprisingly normal hour and admired the high rise view over central Kuala Lumpur. We didn't need to meet up until 11, so I was able to get out of the hotel and partake in some of my favorite Malaysian staples - white coffee at an Old Town Coffee, smell the char kway teoh at an open air Chinese restaurant, stroll past street stalls with coconuts and cans of Milo.

That afternoon was the only part of the trip that felt like work. David and I sat together in the lobby for hours, picking at the Chinese slide deck my coworkers and I had prepared. It was a hell of a learning experience, seeing him tailor a pitch about technology, agriculture and international growth. Several times I had to add Chinese content, and I found myself sounding out scientific phrases in Mandarin, trying to find the right word order - a skill I'd never used professionally. Trying to get the right tone, we had discussions about Chinese culture and appropriate business practices. As an extroverted data scientist in Boston, I've often bemoaned how my international experience has added nothing tangible to my professional life. That moment, at a fancy Hilton lounge in Kuala Lumpur translating data science terms into Chinese with the CEO, was the manifestation of everything I had wanted. David and I scripted out the entire conversation, starting from "Hello, how was your flight in? How about the weather here?" At one slide, he wanted me to translate "We use plants as sensors." Barely understanding this concept in English, and I told him I couldn't translate this, and managed to convince him towards a different approach.

The meeting wasn't until 7pm. I was a nervous wreck, drinking coffee and rehearsing the slides from a business lounge on the 28th floor with a distractingly gorgeous view. I went over vocab - 计算机软件 (computational software), 肥料利用 (fertilizer application), 实时监控 (real-time monitoring) - and amazingly it had begun to click. While I can't really think in Mandarin, I can think in Cantonese, and the similar word order dramatically improved my speaking.

Finally it was 7pm, and Jan and David and I sat in a conference room in nervous silence, with iPads and slides prepared.  The minutes rolled by and the Chairman didn't show up. At 7:05 David chose that moment to go to the bathroom, probably nervous himself. And of course the Chairman arrived when he was outside the room. "Ni hao, ni hao" we greeted each other as the Chairman and an entourage that included Rohit and 2 Chinese men rolled in. The Chairman rushed in briskly, going through the motions of handshakes before grabbing his seat. He looked like he'd been through a full day of meetings and just wanted to get this over. He snatched the iPad and tried to swipe up and down on our beautiful presentation. It wasn't working, and even as I tried to intervene, "you need to swipe right to left", he gave up frustrated and handed the iPad to his lackey, and grabbed the black and white slides I had printed out as a backup. I protested, "please used the iPad", but he was already on slide #3. At that point David walked in, and I tried to grab the Chairman's attention - "CEO! Let me introduce you to our CEO!" The Chairman barely made eye contact. I looked to David and shrugged. He shrugged back and we got into our well-rehearsed script.

"Hello this is David, our CEO, Jan, our external consultant. I'm Cal, a data scientist and today, a translator. Did you fly into Kuala Lumpur today? How are you finding the weather?" Dead silence. The Chairman was on slide #5. My heart raced ahead as the makings of a disaster unfolded.

We moved ahead to the contents and I implored the Chairman, please turn back to slide #2. Finally he started giving me some attention. Around slide #4 he was listening to me more than he was reading the paper, and at slide #6 he realized that we were not an ordinary company. I hit my stride and could tell that he actually understood me. I breezed through the Brazil project that I had worked on, struggled through the word 策略, and closed it up with a slide saying 谢谢. The Chairman gave an appreciative nod, and then went into a long remark complimenting us on our interesting approach and inquiring about the crux of how we built our model. Though he went on for over a minute, I smiled because I understood exactly what he was saying. "He wants to know how we get our data," I translated.

As a data scientist, I was prepared to say to give an exact and literal answer, but I deferred to David. As a Japanese major in college, he was not a literal person. "We use plants as sensors," he replied. I sighed deeply and protested, but David put his hand up and said, "wait, give this a chance." I panicked as I was at a translation loss, but the Malaysian man next to me asked, "What do you mean?" David proceeded with his elaborate and essentially philosophical understanding of plant modeling. The Malaysian Chinese then went into translation mode and I breathed a deep sigh of relief. Like many Malaysian Chinese, his multilingualism was exceptional, and allowed him to take over. His translation took over 2 minutes - I was amazed he was even able to remember all David had said - and amazingly, it worked. With an assenting nod that restored my esteem for the liberal arts, the Chairman bought into that explanation. With the Malaysian Chinese in charge, our conversation continued swimmingly. At one point the Malaysian Chinese asked me if I knew the English translation for "农药", and when I meekly suggested, "farm medicine?" we looked up and learned it meant "pesticide." The Chairman finished his round of questioning then impressed upon his agricultural experience, bragging about how he'd created the finest apples in all of Shaanxi. He concluded with the bold declaration that, were we able to raise $50 million, he would match us by raising $50 million, to be focused exclusively on China. I knew instantly that while this oral statement was by no means a guarantee, it meant that this meeting had been a success. Our message had been positively received, and there would be followups.

Down in the lobby, David toasted me on a job well done and laughed about how disastrous the meeting had begun. It felt so satisfying to step up to a challenge and meet it, and gain so much insight into our international business in the meantime. Three hours later I was on a British Airways flight to London, and I was back in Boston by Friday afternoon, in time for a road trip to Maine.

***

Two weeks later, David was removed from CEO. All the goodwill I had built up with David and the beginnings of a deal with the Chairman instantly evaporated. #startuplife

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Crazy Rich Asians

When I first heard that they were making this movie with Asian people called Crazy Rich Asians, I was not excited. I don't care about the stories of rich people and I really didn't think long about what it would mean to see this all Asian movie. After all, I've seen plenty of films from China and Hong Kong. But as the buildup to the movie spawned more dialogue, I realized I loved its concept - whether I loved the movie itself would depend on its execution.

I loved the movie. It is shocking to me how much this New York - Singapore rom com story resonated with me, how many different scenes directly and viscerally engaged my memories. I walked out shaking my head, wondering if they'd made the movie for me, a Chinese American who has experienced both "normal" Asian American life, stepped into rich circles in Asia, and roomed with a Singaporean. At times I identified with Constance Wu's character, at time with Henry Golding's, at times with various other members of the all Asian cast. I've never experienced anything like that before, seeing people who looked like myself on the movie and wondering if I could've auditioned. I realize now that I had been conditioned to accept that movies were not made for me, that Hollywood was serving what they were serving and I would have to learn to enjoy it. Seeing this, and realizing that other people have been experiencing this their whole lives, I'm honestly jealous.

And naturally, I have a LOT of thoughts and I'm going to spit them out in bullet form, because I got too much going on to organize. If you haven't seen the movie yet, there will be lots of spoilers, go see the movie:
  • Awkwafina killed it. It's a bit weird that she is cast as a wealthy Singaporean who went to college in the US, but really she is playing herself, a not wealthy girl from Queens. There has been some criticism that she's appropriating from black culture, but she is just playing herself. You can't entirely control the way your environment affects you, and how she speaks is genuinely how she speaks. She makes no effort to act like a Singaporean, but is absolutely hilarious and steals the show. I really want to hang out with her now.
  • The opening scene in Singapore, at the Newton Hawker Food Centre, was amazing. It reminded me of the meal I had when I visited my former roommate Francis after he'd moved back. I think they could've lingered longer and named all the roti canai, the chili crab, the laksa, the char kway teow etc. but this movie wasn't about explaining Asian culture. Director Jon Chu has a great quote about this, that explains how his vision is almost the opposite of Wes Anderson's (which I heavily criticize):  “We didn’t want to give people an excuse to think of this world as some kind of obscure, exotic fantasyland — this is a real place, with real culture, history and tradition, and instead of just giving them answers to their questions, we want them to have conversations.”
  • When I was 23 I went from living on a mattress in a shared attic of a house in DC to starting a career in Hong Kong, being welcomed by aunts and uncles, a few of whom are quite rich (not crazy rich). I found myself often at fancy dinners in country clubs and members-only restaurants, and for me it was definitely a surreal experience trying to look presentable and not say anything uncouth. Rachel's experience takes this to another level.
  • The whole movie I kept thinking what is the actual national and ethnic background of this actor/actress, and who are they portraying. Brits and Aussies play Americans all the time, but the cultural and linguistic abilities at stake make this trickier in Crazy Rich Asians
  • Michelle Yeoh is cast perfectly. She is Malaysian Chinese from Ipoh and speaks great Cantonese, and does so throughout the film, which is believable for her character (who reminded me of many of my aunts). She doesn't speak with a Singlish accent, but her English accent is believable for someone of her wealth who studied in the UK and would want to present as higher class.
  • Henry Golding is an interesting casting decision, and my thoughts on this are, no pun intended, mixed. With a white British father and an Iban Malay mother, his portrayal of the Singaporean Chinese lead was criticized from the beginning. There is something to be said for making a statement that Asian men can be sexy leads and to authentically portray the part. But as a mixed-race Asian myself who has resented being considered "not Asian enough," I will defend Golding's Asian chops. He spent the first 7 years of his life in East Malaysia, and the last 7 in Singapore, speaks Malay (which he shows briefly in the hawker stall scene), and seems culturally quite Asian. I totally bought his portrayal as a rich Singaporean heir (in his first ever acting role!). He has a couple Mandarin speaking lines in it, and while his first one is kinda scary, he does a respectable job on the longer ones. However, his mixed visual appearance was impossible to overlook, and was completely not addressed in the movie. His mother is shown to be Michelle Yeoh, and his father is in my opinion very deliberately not shown, in hopes that this would ignore the topic. There are plenty of wealthy Eurasian families in Singapore, and it would not have been difficult to write this into the movie adaptation (the book's Nick Young is not supposed to be mixed).Crazy Rich Asians (2018), Henry Golding, Constance Wu
  • Constance Wu excellently plays an American-born Chinese, which she is. Now... I'm not in the business of shaming second-generation immigrants on not speaking their "mother tongue," and my own Mandarin accent has been called "freakily jarring," .... but I had no idea her Chinese was so bad. Her lines with the paternal grandmother were distractingly painful, and considering her character in Fresh Off the Boat, I had just assumed she spoke fluent Mandarin. Like her Mandarin is bad for an American-born Taiwanese. For her role in this movie, it's fine, but I think Constance Wu could benefit greatly from a tutor.
  • Also the grandmother speaking Mandarin is not believable. The matriarch of a family like that in Singapore would probably speak English, Hokkien and not Mandarin. It's an odd juxtaposition to Michelle Yeoh, who famously phonetically learned her Mandarin lines in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
  • Ronnie Chieng, born across the causeway in Malaysia's Johor Bohru and graduated high school in Singapore, is believable in his role but totally overacts.
  • There are a lot of non-Chinese Asian actors/actresses playing Chinese roles, including Ken Jeong, Nico Santos and Sonoya Mizuno. This can sometimes feel whitewashing-ish. We Asians complain that white people can't tell us apart, but then we cast roles like we can't tell each other apart? In my opinion, this is not a problem right now. White people play characters from European countries they are not from all the time, and there is so much variation in how people look that all these roles visually pass. I'm focused on how good it is that this movie can create so many roles for Asian actors/actresses.
  • There are lots of great Singapore scenes. The shots of the Merlion, the party at the Gardens by the Bay, the hawker stall, the Helix Bridge, the shophouses - visually I think they make Singapore look really cool. There are several images shot out of focus or very quickly that brilliantly portrays how overwhelming the experience can be for an American landing in Singapore for the first time. The last scene on top of Marina Bay Sands overlooking the infinity pool reminds me of a crazy night I had freeloading on some rich business school student's bottle service in the club where that scene is shot.
  • However, Crazy Rich Asians does not do Singaporean culture justice. There are very few Singaporean actors/actresses in the film, and one of them, Tan Kheng Hua, plays a non-Singaporean role. There is very little Singlish in the film, and while there is plenty of discussion of Chinese culture, almost none of it is Singapore-specific. It's super clear the film is targeted for the Asian diaspora in the Western world, particularly in America. I am curious as to how this film will be received in Singapore. 
  • In addition, there is basically no portrayal of Malay or Indian Singaporeans. While the film can't be everything for everyone, and the Chinese dominant friend group is believable, it would have also been believable and not too difficult to have written in a Malay or Indian Singaporean character into the wedding parties. And it would have made a big difference in how this film depicts Singaporean society.
  • One last note for the Singaporeans, I'm surprised there wasn't at least a cameo of a recognizable Singaporean like JJ Lin or Joseph Schooling in the wedding.
  • There is also very little service towards mainland China. I figured that since China's market is so big, the film would try to kowtow towards mainlanders, possibly by casting a major star from there, but I'm glad to see they stuck to making the movie they wanted.
  • I dated someone in college who is from India, and while I knew she was wealthy, I was shocked to visit her in India and discover that her family is so well known in property development that their last name is immediately recognized throughout India. So I immediately identified with Rachel.
  • I've also dated an Asian-American in Hong Kong from a working immigrant background, and brought her to fancy dinners with my family, so I also identified with Nick.
  • The most intriguing part of the movie is stated by Eleanor, Michelle Yeoh's character, about how Asian culture demands putting the family first, and how Americans put themselves first. The scorn she shows towards Rachel pursuing her passion isn't just relatable, it's the reason I drink. I wish the movie could've spent more time on that.
  • Even though I know the rules, I totally did not understand the Mahjong scene, which has a shit ton of nuance and subtle imagery
  • Besides the opening scene with a racist British concierge, there are almost no white speaking roles. In fact, there is one scene on a boat where white women are in the backdrop, used as eye candy. To someone like me, this invokes an anti-version of a common Hollywood trope of placing pretty Asian women in the backdrop (Social Network, Ex-Machina). Experience had taught me that even in Asian-centric films, there is always at least one white person, written in so that the movie can appeal more easily to a white American base. It makes me think of a line from Rush Hour 2, where in the midst of investigating a Chinese gang, Chris Tucker says, "Behind every big crime, there's a rich white man waiting for his cut." This movie eschews that entirely, and it's refreshing!
  • I was pleasantly surprised to see/hear Kina Grannis as the wedding singer. She's a half-Caucasian half-Japanese singer from California whose career I've loosely followed for years.
  • On a related note, the soundtrack is amazing. I've been listening to the Chinese version of "Yellow" on repeat. There's a lot of fascinating backstory to its inclusion, an adaptation that the band Coldplay was initially dead set against, afraid the title Yellow would come across negatively. When I first listened to the song, I expected it to be a direct translation of the Coldplay song, and so I was disappointed that I was unable to match any of the lyrics. The word "yellow" - 黄, is barely sang in the song. I've since looked up the lyrics and realize it's nearly a complete rewrite - it's a beautiful adaptation written in 2015 by a mainland artist Cheng Jun 郑钧 that's only loosely connected with the English lyrics.
  • I was also told to expect Cantopop, but when Sally Yeh (in her 3rd language!) came on with a Cantonese version of a Madonna song, I was still shocked to hear Cantopop in an English language movie. Again this is due to a conditioning that Cantopop is this tiny, niche medium that should be restricted to certain settings. It's still crazy to me that my white friends who watched this film have now heard Cantopop.
  • As a romantic comedy, the story isn't original. There are plenty of tropes, and the main characters are quite underdeveloped. We are never really shown whether Nick and Rachel are actually a good couple. The fact that I hate rom coms and found this movie so enjoyable is a testament to how well they handled everything else.
  • I wish there was some sort of body symbol coming out of the film, like the Wakandan salute that came out of Black Panther. I want to have something like that.
  • I had no idea who Jimmy O. Yang was. I might start watching Silicon Valley just cause I liked him so much.
This was made possible because of the Asian American creative forces behind this, Jon Chu and Adele Lim. You need that sort of direction from the top to understand what representation really means – not a college brochure of different colored faces, but different people telling their own very different stories. Going forward, I hope they produce the whole trilogy, what I really want isn't more all-Asian movies. Rather, I want Americans of all backgrounds to understand each other's specific issues better and naturally incorporate them more into their stories. Long term, I want this country, this world, to be far less segregated so that no group needs to feel culturally marginalized. 

I'm excited for what's to come.