Author Archives: Scott

A Fascinating Look at Corrupt 7-year-olds and their Plots to Gain Power

I recently stumbled across a documentary with a great concept: take a class of Chinese 3rd graders, tell them that rather than the teacher picking the next class monitor, they will be voting on the choice, and give them a week to campaign. See what happens. It quickly becomes clear that while ostensibly this was conceived to explore the contrast between the CCP and Democratic styles of government, this child’s contest is nothing more than a classic power struggle, with all the delicious backstabbing, plotting, and conniving that goes along with it. Frank Underwood style.

We quickly get a cast of candidates:

Cheng Cheng – A pudgy 7-year-old boy, who can’t seem to keep his shirt on in front of the camera. Why he wants to be class monitor? “I want to boss people around.” You got to give him points for honesty. But he wants to watch TV instead of practice campaign speeches with his parents. That won’t get you far, Cheng Cheng. It seems pretty hopeless until you notice the magnetic charisma he uses to try to convince his mom. Kid’s got charm.

Luo Lei – A skinny, bright-eyed 7-year-old boy who was the past class monitor. You can’t help but admire the kid at first – he tells his parents he can win under his own strength, and when asked how he will win, responds, “I don’t want to control others, they should think for themselves. People should vote for whoever they want.” Brings tears of idealism to my eyes. But then the camera pans to his smiling parents. “You need some tricks,” his mother says. His father, the police chief, corrects her. “Techniques.”

Xu Xiaofei – A quiet 7-year-old girl. She’s got no confidence, which ultimately makes her forgettable. Oh Xiaofei, this won’t be pretty.

The first event is a talent show, where the candidates all get to show off some sort of musical ability to the voters. But true politics is won before the show begins. The lineup is uneven, Xiaofei is out of her depth, and it’s time for an early kill. Cheng Cheng meets his best friend in private before the show and confides in him. “When Xiaofei gets up there, I want you and everyone else to shout ‘You’re terrible!'” The friend eagerly agrees to rally the classroom. Cheng Cheng goes in and sits down, Xiaofei stands up, and the whole room erupts. She never stood a chance.

Xiaofei runs out into the hallway crying, and Cheng Cheng follows, knowing that she never saw him do anything. “I want to apologize on behalf of myself and Luo Lei.” Conniving bastard. They return to the classroom and Cheng Cheng grabs both his best friend and Luo Lei and pushes them up to the front of the class to apologize. The latter are both in tears, having genuinely felt like they’ve done wrong to hurt Xiaofei, and sob out apologies. Cheng Cheng stands behind them, unable to hide his smile.

Cheng Cheng pushes his scapegoats to the front.

Cheng Cheng (center) pushes his scapegoats to the front.

The rest of the talent show plays out like you might expect it would. Xiaofei cracks under pressure and botches her flute performance, Cheng Cheng gets the class singing along with him and literally has the whole class crowding around him trying to touch him to receive ‘karma’, and Luo Lei’s supporters get into a chanting match with those of Cheng Cheng. The day ends with a decisive Cheng Cheng victory. Xiaofei is by all accounts out of the race and Luo Lei decides that he want to quit.

Until, that is, he gets home and talks with his father. Time for some techniques.

The next day, the teachers announce that they’re going on a surprise field trip to the city’s brand new monorail. “I want to spend some time getting to know you all better,” Luo Lei announces, and diplomatically decides how to tell them that the trip didn’t cost anything: “It’s my treat.” With megaphone in hand, he leads the class in song, while a bewildered Cheng Cheng can’t realize how his power trip wore off so quickly. He complains to his mother, “Luo Lei has bought off one of my assistants.” Point Luo Lei.

Luo Lei stands off against Cheng Cheng.

Luo Lei stands off against Cheng Cheng.

The voters are wising up. They’ll no longer commit to one side or the other, saying that they want to wait for the final debate to decide. And they grow stronger, not letting Cheng Cheng or Luo Lei strong-arm or bribe them into voting for them.

The final debate essentially comprises a laundry list of complaints about the other person’s leadership. Cheng Cheng’s platform? These past years, Luo Lei has hit you all a lot. I will be a manager, not a dictator, someone who will be equal to others instead of beating them. Even with his manipulative tendencies, that’s pretty compelling if you ask me. For all his faults, Cheng Cheng is a good-natured guy.

Unfortunately for Cheng Cheng, Luo Lei has a silver bullet. Earlier in the show, Cheng Cheng had promised Luo Lei that he would vote for him, out of pity. Upon hearing that, Luo Lei’s father told him, “During the debate, ask who he will vote for. If he says you, ask him how he can lead without believing in himself. And if he says himself, well, he’s a liar.” It’s the ironclad sort of logic a child loves.

During the debate, Luo Lei executes flawlessly. “Liar!” he screams, “A class monitor must be honest and you told me you’d vote for me no matter what!” When confronted about his violence, he explains, “You think it is for no reason? I must be strict with you like a parent, or else you would not learn.” Cheng Cheng pushes back with superior oration, but the damage is done and the debate is over.

It’s neck and neck going into the final speeches before the vote. Cheng Cheng gives a solid speech, Xu Xiaofei gives a bland one, and Luo Lei gives a pretty good one. But right at the end of his speech Luo Lei whips out his final technique. “Sunday is the Mid-Autumn Festival, and I want to give you all these cards as presents. Now let’s vote.” And with this eleventh-hour giving of gifts, Luo Lei, of course, wins.

Luo Lei wins ... and promptly starts beating people again.

Luo Lei wins by a landslide … and promptly starts beating people again.

So the corrupt dictator won, over the corrupt manager who didn’t. Cheng Cheng was the better candidate and will go farther in life, I feel, though Luo Lei already has the connections to jumpstart the ladder-climbing process. But mostly I was struck by how similar our adult elections are to this childish facsimile. The voters listen to their candidates through weeks of attack and counterattack that don’t go anywhere, the people watching the documentary on tv are thoroughly entertained, and in the end it’s all decided by a few unsubstantial gifts that are perfectly timed as to sway the vote at the last-minute. Makes you wonder who’s really making the decision at all.

Video: Why Democracy – Please Vote for Me (请投我一票), from Vimeo.

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Setting My Sights

Do you know that feeling where you’ve got the next few years all figured out but everything past that is a giant white hole of nothingness? In middle school, high school was this great unknown, in high school I had absolutely no mental image of what college life would be like, and now here going into my junior year of college, it seems like all the goalposts here will soon be passed. Past that, I have no idea what to expect. What’s next? Where do I set my target as I start adult life?

I’ve been reading a lot about financial independence in the past few days, because financial independence is an ancillary goal that makes a lot of other life goals possible. Specifically, I tore through Rich Dad, Poor Dad, No More Harvard Debt, and the blog of Mr. Money Mustache (MMM, who is quickly becoming a personal hero). And I’ve realized just how skewed my view of money is. I was lucky enough to have been taught well enough by my parents to never carry a credit card balance and pay off your debts early, but that information on its own was only probably ever enough to keep me from seriously shooting myself in the foot. I didn’t know that the way the rich made money- through the interest off of investment – was something anyone could reasonably do. And  I had never thought of dollar bills as little workers, who, when put to work in the right places, will give you 7-8 cents every year, forever. Gamechanger.

Of course, I’m not inheriting any family nest eggs that will turn me a steady profit the rest of my life. I’m going to have to build one myself. Luckily, as Mr. Money Mustache points out, this won’t be hard at all. It just takes a willingness for frugality and a focus on what you really need. The idea behind financial independence is simple: for every dollar that passes into your hands, treat it like a quarter. Invest the other 75%. In 7 years, you will be done.

How long it takes to retire at give savings rates

The magic graph: the time to retire based on your savings rate. At 75%, it’s 7 years. At 60%, it’s 13 years. At the recommended 10% savings rate? 51 additional years. Most people die before then.

7 years! I’m going to graduate college at the age of 22 1/2. At this high savings rate it will take me half a year to pay off student loans, meaning that on my 30th birthday as I cut the cake, I could retire, financially free for the rest of my life. And yes, this all includes inflation.

The catch is that the remaining 25% of your gross income becomes your working income. So if I make (hypothetically) $80k per year in a decent engineering job, I’ll actually take home $20k. But considering  that after the first 7 years this $20k/year is absolutely free, that’s not such a bad deal at all. And especially considering that of all of the things that make us happy, such as close loved ones, good and active health, freedom of choice, and purchasing experiences over things, a gross high income is not among them. The rest of MMM’s blog is dedicated to cutting out the financial fluff that, in the end, isn’t necessary and doesn’t really do anything to make you happier. It’s the difference between the wealthy and the rich.

Retiring at 30 doesn’t mean I’ll never work again – it simply means I won’t have to. I’ll finally have the freedom and choice to live how I want to and work on the projects that matter to me. Isn’t money supposed to buy us freedom?

All the same, past that 30 year mark is the same white unknown that has presented itself again and again. I don’t know what I’ll do once I get there, and I have no idea what’s in store along the way. But that’s to think about another day, and for now my sights are set.

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Would You Want to Know How You Will Die?

Would you want to know how you will die? Usually when this is a movie plot point, the protagonist dies by some very specific method that he tries to avoid and in doing so inevitably causes to happen. And you walk out of the theater laughing at some message about fate. But this is real life, and barring a freak car accident, I will be able to face this exact question for perhaps the first time in history.

I will learn how I am going to die.

How am I going to get this information? Well, I took part in a study a few months ago where the had a bunch of people spit in tubes, sequenced their DNA, and then will (essentially) plot everyone’s genetic code against their SAT scores. The goal of the project is to find the genetic markers for intelligence. On my end, as compensation for participating, they are sending me all the genetic data they collected from my spit sample for free, and it arrives in a week or so. Essentially, I get to be one of the first people to see their own genetic code and know, on a basic biological level, who I really am. I get to be genotyped.

What is genotyping? Well it isn’t a sequence of my entire DNA. Remember the oft-quoted statistic of how humans’ and chimpanzees’ DNA are 98.5% the same? Well, the genetic similarity between different humans is around 99.9%, and it turns out that ignoring the bulk of a person’s genetic code and focusing in on the 0.1% that varies from person to person is a lot cheaper, faster, and nearly as meaningful as sequencing the whole thing. Eventually, in the future, we will have cheap whole-genome sequencing, but right now this partial sequencing is almost as good. So that’s what genotyping is – looking at the 0.1% of genes that make someone unique.

Colored picture of the human karyotype (all 23 chromosomes)

There’s a host of benefits to this, such as learning your true ancestry, seeing if you have any cool rare mutations, and picking out any medications you are likely to have a bad reaction to. But the most useful outcome of this is learning what diseases I am predisposed to. WebMD tells me that the risk for type 2 diabetes is 30-70% genetic, 20% of all Alzheimer’s cases have genetic roots, and 17% of all the risk of heart disease (my grandfather has a pacemaker) comes from one’s DNA. There are tools out there that run your genes through Bayesian statistical analysis to spit out how much a particular gene raises your risk factors for this or that disease, and the first thing I’m doing when I get my own genetic data is going to one of them and plugging it in.

Of course, the answer to ‘do I want to know’, is clearly and unequivocally, ‘yes‘. And it should be for you too. Because the way you and I are going to die is not going to be through some mystical prophecy where an evil rival meets us in a duel where only one can survive. It is going to be, very likely, something common such as heart disease, cancer, respiratory disease, or a stroke. (Smoking and obesity top the list if you like cigarettes or are fat.) And thankfully for me and my evil rival, these are all diseases where we know how to reduce risk. By taking the results from my genotyping and seeing my comparative likelihood for various diseases, I will be able to target the ones I am most likely to die from and start developing habits that will reduce my chance of having them. I’m still young, and if I start now, I fully expect to be able to add several long years to my life. And who wouldn’t want that?

Life expectancy in the US, 1900-2009

The great thing is, I’m not the only one who will benefit from this information. Genetics being genetics, my family will be able to use this same data. The rule of thumb is, every step away from yourself halves the likelihood that a family member shares one of your genes. So, my parents, sister, (future) children, and dad’s twin all have a 50% chance of having a particular one of my genes. My grandparents, biological aunts and uncles, and father’s twin’s daughters all have a 25% chance of having a particular gene of mine, and my great grandparents and first cousins have a 12.5% chance. So when I get this data back, I will share it with the family and hopefully they can use it as a guideline for being healthier and living longer in their own lives. I don’t want to have to see someone leave a minute before they have to.

For the rest of you, getting genotyped is cheap. 23andMe is the leading provider and charges only $99, with the cost dropping every year (there are other options as well). Honestly, this is an absolute no-brainer, for the value of the personal information you get out of it, and with a completely affiliate-free voice I can’t recommend another service more highly. The information is only going to get more useful too, as more research into various genes is done and doctors start to include personalized medicine into their treatments and diagnosis. Seriously, go do this. Odds are it will save your life.

I’ll post again later this week when I find out some of my more interesting and unique genes. Keep your eyes open!

Edit 7/10: Got an email from BGI saying there were some delays and I should expect the results in July. I’ll update when I get them.

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Predicting the Future: Cool Tech and College Debt

“We are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist, using technologies that haven’t been invented yet, in order to solve problems we don’t even know are problems yet.”  – US Secretary of Education

For my generation, when the cost of college compared to yearly income is twice that of our parents and choosing to get a degree is even more of a gamble than ever, the idea that the knowledge we are learning may not be at all relevant with the knowledge we’ll need is absolutely frightening. It’s part of why I chose a very broad engineering field (Mechanical Engineering), because I felt and still feel that too specialized of a degree is a long-term death sentence.

But this post isn’t to rant about the rising cost of college and the ever-shrinking job market. That’s been covered plenty. This post is to see, when can I do about it? How do I target areas that will be useful in the future, even if they aren’t now?

The answer lies in a report I recently stumbled across put out by the McKinsey Global Institute, titled, “Disruptive technologies: Advances that will transform life, business, and the global economy.” Not the sexiest name, I know, but it’s very easily digestible and if you want to get a taste of where the world is going in the next 12 years, please do yourself the favor of skipping the rest of this post and just read the whole thing. (Click here [pdf] to download it).

To get straight to it, here is their list of technologies that by 2025 will drive the economy and change the world as we know it …

  1. Mobile Internet
  2. Automation of Knowledge Work
  3. Internet of Things
  4. Cloud Technology
  5. Advanced Robotics
  6. Autonomous Vehicles
  7. Next-generation Genomics
  8. Energy Storage
  9. 3D Printing
  10. Advanced Materials
  11. Advance Oil and Gas Extraction
  12. Renewable Energy

… and further technologies that will reach maturation soon after:

  1. Next-Generation Nuclear Fission
  2. Nuclear Fusion
  3. Carbon Sequestration
  4. Advanced Water Purification
  5. Quantum Computing
  6. Private Space Flight
  7. OLED Lighting
  8. Wireless Charging
  9. Flexible Displays
  10. 3D Displays

The good news is, there’s a lot of really cool technology here. As an engineer, I’ll likely get to work on building one or more of these and it means that if I can start targeting these areas now I’ll be in very high demand. (My personal target at the moment – private space flight. Seriously, how awesome is that?) But it also means lots of money for those businessmen who are able to anticipate and leverage these new technologies, as well as good work for the lawyers who will have to craft intelligent policy to address issues that will arise.

The bad news is if you’re planning on being a secretary, truck driver, or are uneducated. The jobs for the two former are going to quickly disappear, and for the latter have already gone. The days of huge portions of the population being able to work a living wage straight out of high school are far in the past. Factory jobs are being automated and the ones that aren’t are done much more cheaply by a rising Asian middle class who is desperate for that some work. Income inequality in the US will rise higher between the those who have skills in this new economic landscape and those who do not. The whole trick here is to be on the skilled side.

For the many artists, musicians, writers, and actors I know, the good news is that this whole march of technology largely doesn’t affect your professions. For you, it is the same timeless struggle of trying to make a name for yourselves in the cutthroat and unstable environment of the entertainment industry. Best of luck guys, I don’t know how you do it.

Who is the future look brightest for? Those who instead of finding a job, make their own: innovators and entrepreneurs. These new technologies drastically reduce the cost and time investment needed to conceive, prototype, and scale up a new idea or product. The rewards for successful entrepreneurs are potentially huge, and the rising world of VC’s and angel investors makes it ever more possible. Beware, however, the current app bubble we’re in.

So there you have it, my plan for escaping the crushing debt of student loans after I graduate: Make myself useful in the planning and execution of technologies that are going to change the world. I suggest you all do the same.

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Eating On 40 Dollars a Week

Somehow, even though I haven’t lived at home for the past 6 years, I’ve always been able to live off of someone else’s cooking, whether that be a dining hall meal plan, mom’s food over the summer, or Losino’s delicious meals at the fraternity house. So, when I moved into my rented room a little over a week ago and saw an empty fridge, my stomach panicked a little bit. It ran some calculations – $12/meal at a restaurant at three meals a day will run it $36 to get one day’s worth of food. Stomach brain then realized, it has $40 for seven. This wasn’t going to work. It passed this troubling information up to the main brain which said “No worries! Groceries are less expensive than restaurants and look stomach – google has all these people saying they can get by on $40.” “But main brain,” stomach brain said, “we’re not most people. We eat a lot.” “Well,” replied main brain, “you have a point.”

But two weeks in, I’ve actually found it pretty easy to not only keep within a budget but also to keep the food tasty and something I want to eat. Also, I’m eating more healthily than ever before. Following pretty basic diet guidelines (lots of veggies, lots of protein, minimal sugar, breads, and processed foods), I’ve found that by simply staying on the edges of grocery stores and not going in the center aisles I can get a lot of fresh, healthy ingredients for much less than a cart full of frozen dinners. Portion control is also way easier when I’m cooking my own meals and Losino isn’t there saying, :Come on buddy, one more plate!” (Which is impossible to refuse.)

My menu:

Breakfast

Dry oats and milk in a bowl (like cereal), with chopped fruit on top.

Needs the fruit for a little sweetness. Good fruit so far: apples, bananas. Meh fruit: peach (too squishy)

Lunch

Some meat-based stew that I volumize with a lot of vegetables. I make a big pot at the start of the week and freeze it in tupperware to bring to work every day.

Week one was meat slop (ground beef, tomato puree, chopped cabbage, garlic). Verdict: Not bad, tasted like eating a bowl of meat. Yum. But too much cabbage and very greasy, could definitely use onions/mushrooms and other flavorings. Maybe try BBQ sauce?

Week two was Thai curry stew, based loosely on this recipe (chicken, coconut milk, curry, chilli garlic sauce, Asian veggies). I stopped by Chinatown on my way back from USC to visit an Asian market which was by far the best decision of the week. It had tons of unique ingredients and a whole shelf of pocky. Verdict: Very tasty. Would add less water and more lime to keep flavor concentrated, but definitely worth doing again.

Next week I want to do some sort of Mexican chicken/carnitas mix, and the week after that I think an eastern European stew with sausage, sauerkraut, and apples would be really good. After that, I’m not sure. I could use more cultures to steal food from.

(If people have recipes, please share.)

Dinner

Eggs with veggies. (No cheese)

Good egg combos so far: Sauteed garlic and spinach omelet (my staple). Soy sauce and onions with eggs over easy, keeping the yolks a little runny. Hot sauce is always good.

Bad egg combo: Lemon and chives, the lemon does something to the eggs and they came out all granular.

Dessert

Ha. Lots of water. I’m trying to get in shape here.

Really, it’s not hard at all, way better than I thought it would be. Being constrained by a tight summer budget has actually been somewhat of a plus – it’s forced me to buy only raw natural nutritious stuff. Kind of funny how that one turned out.

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Beginning

So, I’ve decided to start a blog.

It’s something I’ve always had in the back of my mind like “Oh! That would be cool!”, but never taken the time to do. Like a lot of things. But I finally have some time for the next few months, so it’s a perfect opportunity to start and set a habit. Here goes.

I suppose this is the part where I explain why I’ve decided to start writing and posting it on the internet. Well, for a couple of reasons:

  1. It’s an outlet. I’ve got ideas for ten different things flying around in my head, and finally have somewhere to spit them out into words. Plus, since the end of this semester I am forever done with writing creative essays for school, it’s a way to keep up and practice my writing. At the same time, though I am occasionally struck by the desire to write, I don’t want to give myself another chore. Which leads to my one rule: I make no obligation to myself to write.
  2. It keeps me honest. Anything written on the internet is written in black ink: once it’s up there’s no taking it down. Considering I have decided to write under my real name, I have to make sure that everything I write I am comfortable standing behind. Of course, people are far more interesting when they stick to their (often controversial) opinions, and part of this is an exercise in being comfortable with putting my true thoughts out there. The people who I admire most are unabashedly honest in who they are, and I want to become that.
  3. It’s a record of me. The world knows nothing of you except what you tell it – you have no other true advocate but yourself. So, for my friends, families, and people I do not yet know, here is my most public voice. I’d throw around words like ‘networking’ and ‘online visibility,’ and those are all good, but really what excites me most is the chance that something I write will connect with someone and resonate on a very deep level. That’s a pretty cool thought.

Why a blog of all mediums? I’ve always been a fan of the long form – it gives way more space to develop and clarify thoughts. If I had to compress things into daily 140-character tweets that are also clever, I’d probably commit seppuku within a week.

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