Monthly Archives: January 2018

What I’ve Been Reading

Books, books, books.

1. Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan. Great historical fiction authored by a Pulitzer Prize winning writer who has command of every page. Set in Brooklyn during World War II, I learned a bunch about New York at that time, the mob scene, and scuba diving. The main character becomes the first female diver working on the Brooklyn docks.

2. Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami. My fifth or sixth book by Murakami. Kafka is totally engrossing. I read 200 pages of it straight through, in the middle of the night on a 12 hour flight. Kafka On the Shore, while set in modern day Japan, is as strange as any of his novels: cats who talk, fish fall from the sky, alter egos take on their own named characters, and characters enter others’ dreams. Murakami is peerless in his ability to create rich worlds that leave you in a trance. Critics often refer to Murakami’s novels as “dream like.” That phrase captures my reading experience 100%.

This is not a book with dozens of highlightable one-liners. But here are a few of my highlights:

“Actually, I don’t have any memories either. I’m dumb, you see, so could you tell me what memories are like?” Miss Saeki stared at her hands on the desk, then looked up at Nakata again. “Memories warm you up from the inside. But they also tear you apart.”

I’m free, I think. I shut my eyes and think hard and deep about how free I am, but I can’t really understand what it means. All I know is I’m totally alone. All alone in an unfamiliar place, like some solitary explorer who’s lost his compass and his map. Is this what it means to be free? I don’t know, and I give up thinking about it.

“The pure present is an ungraspable advance of the past devouring the future. In truth, all sensation is already memory.”

3. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Harari.

The first 60% is a rehash of Sapiens. The next 40% is good (I highlighted 110 sentences!) but not great. Still worth reading if you’re a fan of Sapiens (as I am) if for no other reason than to get the refresh. A few random highlights:

If and when computer programs attain superhuman intelligence and unprecedented power, should we begin valuing these programs more than we value humans? Would it be okay, for example, for an artificial intelligence to exploit humans and even kill them to further its own needs and desires? If it should never be allowed to do that, despite its superior intelligence and power, why is it ethical for humans to exploit and kill pigs?

The technological solution to such dramas is to ensure we never have uncomfortable desires. How much pain and sorrow would have been avoided if, instead of drinking poison, Romeo and Juliet could just take a pill or wear a helmet that would have redirected their star-crossed love towards other people.

We just don’t know what to pay attention to, and often spend our time investigating and debating side issues. In ancient times having power meant having access to data. Today having power means knowing what to ignore. So considering everything that is happening in our chaotic world, what should we focus on?

4. Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Justice by Bill Browder. Surprisingly gripping true life account of a hedge fund manager who makes a fortune in Russia by being contrarian, and then ends up making enemies with Putin. Timely, given the state of U.S.-Russia relations.

5. My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem. An engaging memoir from the legendary feminist and social activist. Stories from her travels, especially her visits to college campuses across the U.S.

Musings on Philanthropy After Hosting Refugees

For much of 2017, we had LGBT refugees from Iraq and Uganda living at our house in the Bay Area. I sent out some private reflections and anecdotes about the experience to some friends. For those especially interested in the topic, feel free to email me and I can share with you.

Here are the thoughts on philanthropy that I’ve been mulling over after the tremendously fulfilling experience of hosting refugees.

Maximizing Philanthropic Utilitarian Impact vs. Emotional Satisfaction

My favorite charity to support is Give Directly. Give Directly sends money directly to some of the poorest people in the world with no strings attached. Backed by research, I believe Give Directly is one of the most efficient ways for your dollars to help those who need it most.

The challenge as a donor to Give Directly is that you don’t feel anything when you give. The money leaves your bank account and ends up in some stranger’s bank account. Then you move on with your life. Whereas when you host refugees, you feel very emotionally involved in the experience. But helping one refugee in the Bay Area is not making a dent in the global refugee issue in general, arguably one of the most important humanitarian issues of the next decade. The “systems”/impact part of my brain struggles with this.

What I realized this past year is that our experience hosting the men was a perfect 1-2 punch. By being extremely hands-on with three refugees, we generated the emotional propulsion to care deeply about the refugee issue more generally. We then used that emotional energy to engage at the systems level: learn how the systems work, research which organizations are helping, and begin to take steps to engage in philanthropy that would be more scalable.

Doing only Give Directly or any other type of super utilitarian and analytical but ultimately feeling-free giving would be emotionally unsustainable. Doing only refugee hosting or food bank handouts, or any other type of non-scalable, super local volunteer activity would undershoot on our potential to maximize impact. Do both — that’s what we learned.

Are the Financially Poorest People the Absolute Neediest?

When I donate to charity, in my own small way I try to prioritize helping the financially neediest on a global scale. For this reason, I haven’t given much to America-centric non-profits.

That said, the refugee experience has prompted me to re-evaluate an element of this belief. To what extent is financial poverty the truest proxy of neediness? The LGBT refugees from Iraq had phones, Facebook and Snapchat accounts, and exposure to most modern technologies that we have in California. In financial terms, they were/are richer than teenagers living in, say, the slums of India. At the same time, they’ve been disowned, indeed had their lives threatened, by their own family. And exiled from their country. And rejected by their religious community because of their sexual orientation. Who’s needier?

You Can Care About Complete Strangers. You Can Love People who Aren’t Biologically Related to You.

Complete strangers walk into your house. From a different culture, speaking a different language. They shack up with you. You help them. They help you. You argue with them. You laugh with them. You begin to care about them. You begin to love them.

I now have a glimpse, I think, into how and why people adopt children. You really can love people who aren’t biologically related to you. In our own ways, we truly grew to love the refugees who lived with us.

Scuba Diving the Great Barrier Reef

It was a blast living on a boat for two nights (a “liveaboard”) and diving 10 times in the warm waters of the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Cairns, Australia.

Our schedule was: Wake up at 5:30am, dive, eat breakfast, read a book on the sun deck, dive, read, dive, eat lunch, read, dive, read, go to sleep. Repeat.

It was my first time diving post certification. My ears still aren’t fully equalized, but beyond that, I had no issues and was able to really relax into the experience. Swimming amidst the fish and coral is really something.

Here’s a ~1 minute video I created with photos/videos from the dives. My iMovie for iPhone directorial debut…