Get back to what you love

Google just published a moving ads named “Get back to what you love”. Have a look. It’s been a while since I saw such a good ads from Google.

I got my 1st vaccine this week. The following day, I felt tired and my shoulder was all sore. But the soreness and tiredness didn’t last long. Two days after the dose was administered, I felt fine. After more than a year of isolation by myself in my apartment, I felt a tremendous feeling of relief. I can’t wait to get back to where we were before this nightmare started. You know, a proper haircut, meeting my friends, family & colleagues, taking a walk without a mask, eating a great meal in a restaurant freely, traveling.

You know, back to living.

I took this photo from Downtown Omaha. Folks were talking and having meals on terraces. Street artists were playing music. People were walking hand-in-hand, laughing and smiling. Car parks were crowded. I haven’t seen the area that vibrant for a very long time. According to the CDC, every state in the US has more than 25% of its population receive the 1st dose. I hope to see the herd immunity in a month or two. So that we can get back to what we love.

Downtown Omaha, Nebraska

Great reminders for clustered and busy minds

I came across a couple of things that I absolutely believe are great reminders and lessons in life, especially when our mind is often distracted by the deluge of daily information, and clustered with hours at work.

The better measure of success

When I was a kid or even in my 20s, success was solely associated with money and title. Because how success is measured is personally subjective, that approach must still ring true to some. That’s perfectly fine. But it’s important to keep in mind that it’s NOT the only approach. Liz and Mollie created a graphic below to demonstrate another point of view on success. And I agree with it. Whenever you compare yourself to another person’s title or net worth, it’s important to keep in mind that they are only two small slices of the whole pie. There are other aspects that are as, if not more, important than Title and Money. Would you still trade for bigger Title & Salary slices if the other shrank significantly? Would Title and Salary still mean as much if you hated what you do, got sick often, had bad sleep most of the time and never had time for your hobbies?

If there is anything that I want to add to the pie, it’s relationship. Relationship with friends or loved ones is highly important and it requires time and attention, both of which are limited resources, to cultivate. Sometimes, not “having a life” may be what it takes to achieve professional success and I applaud those who are willing to make that sacrifice. But personally I am at a point of my life where surrounding myself with friends, family, my cat and my girlfriend sits firmly at the top of my agenda. Hence, it’s pretty pointless to compare my situation with others’. And it’s often pointless to make any comparisons, to begin with.

Title 1: How we’re taught to measure success. Image: A pie diagram showing two equal parts, Salary and Job Title.

Title 2:
A better measure. Image: A pie diagram showing more segments, which in increasing sizes are Job Title, Salary, Free Time, Liking What You Do, Physical Health and Mental Health.

Twitter handle in top right: @lizandmollie

The Dunning Kruger Effect

The Dunning Kruger Effect is a bias in which people mistakenly overestimate their ability at something. Barry Ritholtz had a graphic that succinctly illustrates the Effect

The Dunning-Kruger Effect
Source: Barry Ritholtz

The world’s problems are often complicated, multi-faceted and, in my opinion, can hardly be fully explained in most cases. Should the federal government provide the economic stimulus package to help out citizens in need or should it be aware of the potential federal debt and inflation? Which one outweighs the other at this moment? Would action or lack of it result in a worse scenario for the US? I don’t think anybody can say for sure. Additionally, people in Western countries, especially in the US, often claim that democracy is the best societal form. But is it? Given what is happening with voter restrictions, the spread of misinformation, the dysfunction of Congress, the income inequality and the long lines at food banks, is it really definitively better than what happens in Vietnam, Singapore or China, countries that are essentially authoritarian? Financially speaking, can anyone explain why Bitcoin has risen leaps and bounds in the last few years? What are the underlying rationales for its rise or fall?

I understand that there are scenarios where we need to “fake it till we make it”, as in we demonstrate a high level of confidence than what our competence can back up. In interviews for a new job, how can an outsider applicant be sure that he or she will do a better job than an internal candidate? How can a person be confident in succeeding in a new industry or a new environment? Yet, all of us sell ourselves hard in interviews all the time. In entrepreneurship, investors pour plenty of money in startups and make expensive bets that these startups will be able to cash all the checks that they claim they can write. I am not naive enough to think that confidence doesn’t play a role in our society.

However, if one is serious about intellectual curiosity, it’s important to beware of the Dunning-Kruger Effect and avoid overconfidence when one is not competently ready. The tricky parts are to know where one is on the curve and how to move to the right of the x-axis. Everybody has their own method. Mine include 1/constantly remembering that in most cases, nobody really knows what is going on, 2/ reading everyday to keep myself as informed as I possibly can and 3/ writing things down. The act of writing my thoughts down really helps. Often, the end result is much better than my initial thought, regardless of whether it is good enough to thousands of people out there.

One implication is that if you have a different point of view than some authority voices out there who have a better reputation, a brand name or a celebrity mark on social media, it doesn’t mean that you’re wrong and they are always right. I am a fan of Twitter as I learn a lot from the people on it, but I am often taken back by claims that some experts make with startling confidence. For instance, some chastised the AB5 law in California as a disaster, but recently the top court in UK forced Uber to recognize drivers as employees and the company followed suit, pointing out that the extra expenses would not raise fare. In another instance, some experts called GDPR a disaster as it would help incumbents like Google or Facebook and reduce competition. Well, the WSJ yesterday said that Amazon, Google and Facebook are now responsible for 90% of the US’s digital ad market. The US doesn’t have GDPR, yet there is a triopoly. Also, it’s difficult for me to believe that analysts think that they can run companies better than insiders who have a lot more information. Yet, I have seen many who make declarations with overwhelming confidence on social media all the time.

We’re nobodies in the grand scheme of things

A couple of days ago, Business Insider published a picture of the Milky Way, which took a Finnish astrophotographer 12 long years to put together. Just look at the magnificence and grandness of the picture below

When viewed from outer space, we will look extremely small, like a peck of dust on Earth. Imagine how would you describe each of us when Earth itself looks extremely small in the Milky Way? Microscopic is the best adjective I can come up with, but that doesn’t even come close to doing the scenario justice. Plus, most of us don’t make it past 100 years of age. Yet, the Earth is millions of years old and the Milky Way is much much older than that. What if there is a civilization out there that is so advanced that our current one looks like BC to them? Whenever I think about life from this perspective, it’s easy to get me grounded. And that often helps with avoidance of the Dunning-Kruger Effect or of the thinking that success is just about money and title.

Take-aways From Berkshire Hathaway 2020 Shareholder Letters

Shareholder letters, when written well, are a great source of knowledge, wisdom and interesting things. Berkshire Hathaway’s is one of those letters. Today, the company, which is based in Omaha where I currently reside, published its 2020 letter. I read it with a hot cup of coffee and pleasure, and now I want to share my take-aways in this post. You can read the letter in full here

You don’t always win every year, but being patient and having a long-term horizon matters

On the second page of the letter, readers can see the annual and compounded return of Berkshire Hathaway for the last 55 years. The firm didn’t always have a positive return every year. Far from it. It fluctuated greatly from one year to the next, from 28% return this year to -32% the following year. If these professional capital allocators who have more years of investing than my years of living don’t have a positive return every year, I think I shouldn’t set that bar for myself or neither should you. The main thing is that Berkshire had a compounded annual return of 20% in the last 55 years, meaning that the overall gain is some 2.8 million percent, a ridiculous return. Everyone prefers getting rich fast, but in the long term, it is likely better to be patient and have a long term horizon. The results will come, if you do it right.

Having an investing philosophy

Once in a while, I ran across some FinTwit folks who questioned the wisdom of holding large cap stocks such as Apple or Amazon. You know, the familiar big names across industries. These people claimed that to earn an outsized return, investors should look somewhere else where the fish isn’t fished as often. That may be true, but in the age of information, it’s really hard to get information that others can’t. What is harder to possess is patience and willingness to adopt a long term horizon. Back to Berkshire Hathaway, the company said that its Apple position was likely its 2nd most important asset. I mean, if these people upon whom thousands of investors entrust their savings choose Apple and earn excellent returns, why shouldn’t anyone, provided that they did their homework?

Berkshire’s investment in Apple vividly illustrates the power of repurchases. We began buying Apple stock late in 2016 and by early July 2018, owned slightly more than one billion Apple shares (split-adjusted). Saying that, I’m referencing the investment held in Berkshire’s general account and am excluding a very small and separately-managed holding of Apple shares that was subsequently sold. When we finished our purchases in mid-2018, Berkshire’s general account owned 5.2% of Apple.

Our cost for that stake was $36 billion. Since then, we have both enjoyed regular dividends, averaging about $775 million annually, and have also – in 2020 – pocketed an additional $11 billion by selling a small portion of our position.

Despite that sale – voila! – Berkshire now owns 5.4% of Apple. That increase was costless to us, coming about because Apple has continuously repurchased its shares, thereby substantially shrinking the number it now has outstanding.

To Charlie and Warren, I think they don’t care about being a contrarian like so many aspire to be. What they want to be is to be right with their allocation of capital, as it is their fiduciary duty to shareholders. If we can get excellent returns, will it matter if those returns come from a tech giant or a company few heard of? Nah. So if you are only comfortable with the companies you know, don’t listen to the “advisors” who seem to be more eager to be “contrarian” (whatever that means) than to be right.

On page 4 of the letter, Warren and Charlie laid out their investment philosophy. They prefer owning a piece of a great business to 100% of that business. Their reasoning is that great businesses are rarely available for the taking, and even if they are, they will be greatly expensive. Owning a piece of a great business is cheaper, more profitable and cheaper. Berkshire Hathaway’s favorite companies are good to great businesses with a competent leadership that retain most of their annual earnings. As the investees grow their businesses over time, Berkshire’s ownership becomes more valuable. Over a long period of time, the growth in value will be aided by the 8th wonder of the world, compound interest. It may sound easy, but it isn’t. Identifying great businesses to buy is a challenge in and of itself. Sitting on those investments patient for a long period of time is not an easy task either.

What’s out of sight, however, should not be out of mind: Those unrecorded retained earnings are usually building value – lots of value – for Berkshire. Investees use the withheld funds to expand their business, make acquisitions, pay off debt and, often, to repurchase their stock (an act that increases our share of their future earnings). As we pointed out in these pages last year, retained earnings have propelled American business throughout our country’s history. What worked for Carnegie and Rockefeller has, over the years, worked its magic for millions of shareholders as well.

Admittedly, I learned a lot from Charlie and Warren in terms of investing. I try to read up as much as possible about a business and if I like what I read, I buy the stock and try not to sell it. The decision not to sell isn’t driven by my financial determination that a stock has more upside to go. That piece, I still have to learn, even though I don’t find it easy. Instead, my choice to keep stocks over time is mainly driven by my laziness. I don’t want to get up every day and day trade. Plus, I believe that once I own a piece, a very small piece of a great business, it will be more beneficial to keep the ownership as long as possible. A lesson from the two wise old men.

Work ethic

Charlie is now 97 years old and Warren is 90 years old. They are still actively managing their firm, making investment decisions and interacting with shareholders, either through letters like this or a meeting. In the letter, they talked about the story of Nebraska Furniture Mart and its founder, Mrs B, which is one of my favorite business stories:

The company’s founder, Rose Blumkin (“Mrs. B”), arrived in Seattle in 1915 as a Russian emigrant, unable to read or speak English. She settled in Omaha several years later and by 1936 had saved $2,500 with which to start a furniture store. Competitors and suppliers ignored her, and for a time their judgment seemed correct: World War II stalled her business, and at yearend 1946, the company’s net worth had grown to only $72,264. Cash, both in the till and on deposit, totaled $50 (that’s not a typo).

One invaluable asset, however, went unrecorded in the 1946 figures: Louie Blumkin, Mrs. B’s only son, had rejoined the store after four years in the U.S. Army. Louie fought at Normandy’s Omaha Beach following the D-Day invasion, earned a Purple Heart for injuries sustained in the Battle of the Bulge, and finally sailed home in November 1945. Once Mrs. B and Louie were reunited, there was no stopping NFM. Driven by their dream, mother and son worked days, nights and weekends. The result was a retailing miracle.

By 1983, the pair had created a business worth $60 million. That year, on my birthday, Berkshire purchased 80% of NFM, again without an audit. I counted on Blumkin family members to run the business; the third and fourth generation do so today. Mrs. B, it should be noted, worked daily until she was 103 – a ridiculously premature retirement age as judged by Charlie and me.

Mrs B worked daily till she was 103. Charlie and Warren are in their 90s and still working. I mean, I find it inspiring. Sometimes, I feel old whenever I think about the time when I was 16, even though I am just approaching 31. But these great examples remind me that I still have a few decades to work and enjoy life. Such a reminder can be hugely valuable.

What I like about Apple Fitness+

Apple Fitness+ is a new service from Apple that is dedicated to helping customers work out more. The service is paired exclusively with Apple Watch, meaning that you need at least an Apple Watch 3 to use it. You can read more about Apple Fitness+ here. The normal subscription is $10/month. Like every other subscription, there is a one-month trial for new users. There is also an option of buying the service through a bigger bundle Apple One. Here is my experience with the service.

I used my free month in December and got hooked. I like the service enough to pay $10 for this month, a move that I don’t do very often. As many of you can relate, I don’t enjoy getting changed, preparing my clothes & a towel, driving to a gym and driving back. Now that the cold and slipper winter is upon us and we’re still in the middle of a pandemic, I have even less motivation to jump through those hoops just for a workout, no matter how important regular exercising is. With Apple Fitness+, I can work out in my living room and even my bedroom whenever I feel like. So that’s a plus.

There are other ways to work out at home without Apple Fitness+ and $10/month. I even wrote about a channel called The Body Coach TV that I really like. What other benefits does Apple Fitness+ offer? Choices! In addition to different workouts, there are clips of different lengths; which adds to the variety that helps spice things up. There are days when I am in a mood for a 30-minute HIIT, and there are days when I only have energy for a 10-min yoga, a 10-min core and a 10-min stretching & breathing. Make no mistakes. Exercise is often repetitive and boring. Our energy level isn’t at a high level every; therefore, we need all the help that we can get to exercise regularly.

Apple Fitness+: New online exercise service for Apple Watch | Macworld
Source: MacWorld

Having different types of exercises under one app is also valuable. I used to finish a 20-min HIIT and spend several minutes on YouTube trying to find a breathing and stretching clip that I liked. With Apple Fitness+, it usually takes me about 5-10 seconds. What they call “mindful cooldown” lies in the app with different clips that last from 5 to 10 mins and different trainers. I do think that this is a subtle strength of Apple Fitness+. We measure how many clicks it takes for a customer to finish a banking application. The same mentality should be applied here. Apple Fitness+ brings down the friction that stands between users and more exercises. These mindful cooldowns or yoga don’t burn as much energy as HIIT, but together with other types of exercises, they spur users to move more, close rings and in turn, get more motivated to get a workout in the next day. The rings on the phone act similarly to a list of tasks. The more rings you close, the better and motivated you feel to do it again the next day. Even when your energy level is low, you can still close rings with lighter exercises and keep the momentum alive.

Another thing I like about Apple Fitness+ is the setup. As a guy living alone in my apartment during a pandemic, I crave for a sense of community though I don’t desperately seek out people to meet. While I train with Apple Fitness+, for about 30-40 minutes a day, I get that bit of sense of community with the trainers. The number of trainers is limited to three; which is enough to make users feel that they have companions in a meaningful way. So far I have enjoyed the music curated and played in the clips. The curators know when to up the beat and when to give us silence, especially during the meditation periods.

Which brings me to what I like the most about it. I have started my days in the last few weeks with some yoga, stretching and meditation on Apple Fitness+ and I feel really great. I feel connected to my mind and body more through these exercises. As somebody who reads a lot and tends to work on a lot of things at the same time. I often catch myself unfocused and distracted in the busy world. These few minutes of connecting with my mind and body make me feel different and relaxed to the point that I really look forward to the next workout. Of course, I can search YouTube for free clips, but as I mentioned, I haven’t found anything that can offer consistency in style and variety in content like Apple Fitness+.

All in all, I don’t think that there is anything ground breaking about Apple Fitness+. If you look for some never-been-done-before reasons to like it, there is none. What makes it appealing to me is a combination of little things put nicely together to create a pleasant user experience. Pleasant enough to make me shell out $10/month.

Simple tips to save money

Saving money is something that many of us share interest in, especially when the financial situation is tight. Here are some methods I use to save money

Use public library

I talked about this on my blog before. With public libraries, folks can have some serious savings on books. The public library in Omaha allows free borrowing of many books and as long as the books aren’t in demand, members can renew their withdrawals several times. Even if you turn the borrowed books late, the overdue fees are usually pretty low. I believe that should be the case for other cities. If you don’t have a problem with reading good old-fashioned physical books, why waste money when you can borrow them for free? Take the book below as an example. I had to read it for a course at school. Instead of $12-$15 to Amazon, I could borrow it for several weeks for free from Omaha Public Library.

Buy international version or used books

There are three versions of books: US Edition, International Edition and Global Edition. The content is essentially the same across three editions. What differentiates them is the copyrights and whether you can resell it legally. Here is what Abebooks says about International Edition Books:

Looking for cheap textbooks? Consider international editions – textbooks that have been published outside the US. These books are usually significantly cheaper than textbooks published in the US. Offering tremendous value, international edition textbooks are created to be sold in different regions and are often printed on cheaper paper and are usually softcover. The content may be the same as the U.S. version, or may have differences such as the book cover, ISBN, pagination, or region code.

Customers located in the US can now purchase international edition textbooks. However, note that the publishers of international editions generally do not authorize the sale and distribution of international editions in Canada and such sale or distribution may violate the copyrights and trademarks of the publishers of such works.

Source: Abe Books

In the US, the difference in prices between US Edition and International Edition can be outrageous. Take Marketing Management by Kotler as an example. If you look for a brand new US Edition of this book on Amazon, it will cost you around $140. The same title in International Edition costs $72 on Abebooks. A used International Edition version costs $5. Even if you could resell a US Edition for some money, that would take away your time and require you to pay up front. Think about how many books you are requested to buy during your degree and how much money you could save. E

Buy groceries at Aldi

Almost everyone in America knows about Costco and its appeal, but if you are a lone wolf or don’t shop enough to justify a Costco membership, I highly recommend Aldi for groceries. I get it. The retailer doesn’t do much advertising and its stores don’t look fancy at all. What you get; however, is cheap groceries. I wrote about why Aldi manages to sell their goods at a cheaper price. The gist of it is that many popular items such as vegies, milk, yogurt, bread or fruits are available at a significantly lower price than they are at other stores, including Walmart. If it’s cheaper than Walmart, how much money could you save from not shopping at Whole Foods or Hyvee?

Source: CNN

Save before spend

I set aside 10% of my monthly salary for my 401k and then a few hundred dollars every time I receive a paycheck is automatically transferred to my Robinhood account for my own portfolio. Thanks to these little tactics, my savings are guaranteed before any expenses kick in. I can safely spend all the rest, though I rarely do, without worrying about whether I will have any left for savings. How many of us end up with no savings every month after all the expenses, even though we plan to in the beginning? Save before spend

Avoid premium gas

I’ll let CNBC explain it

Other small and simple tips

  • If you have a medical procedure, try MDSave. I wrote about my own experience with MDSave.
  • I make my own coffee and food at home
  • Instead of paying a gym membership, I use free and helpful resources like this channel for workout at home. No equipment, no driving and no membership needed

Power, Responsibilities, Choices and Agendas

In the aftermath of the terrorist attack on the Capitol Building on the 6th of Jan 2021, multiple companies either severed their business relationships with Trump’s organizations or banned him on their platforms altogether. Different views arose. Some agreed that Trump was too radioactive and too harmful. His supports protested the backlash levied on their hero. Others pondered whether some companies like Twitter and Facebook should have the power to ban even the President of the United States.

It has been a week since that happened and I thought a lot about two things. The first is the famous line that Spider Man’s uncle told him: with great power come great responsibilities. The other is this clip:

If you’re not a Marvel fan, this is the scene where the superheroes debated whether they should be put under guidance and supervision by a panel, instead of making their own choices. Some led by Tony Stark thought they should be, while others led by Captain America disagreed, saying that the panel would be run by people with agendas and agendas change. Cap reasoned that surrendering their right to choose and submitting to people’s agendas, especially with their superhero power was too big a risk.

There are multiple issues here. First, think about what Captain America said about agendas and what happens in real life. The legislative and judicial systems are supposed to be there to rein in the Executive Branch, especially the President. What has happened in the last 4 years is nothing but that. The Republican officials in Congress did Trump’s bidding and closed their eyes on the crimes and misdemeanor that he has committed. Why? Because they follow their own agendas and want to stay in power. Angering Trump will provoke him to turn on them and tell his supporters to remove the dissenters from office. What is supposed to supervision and a check against balance becomes gas to the fuel.

Some argued that powerful platforms should be supervised by a committee or panel of experts or regulated by the government. Either option is run by people with agendas and like Cap said, agendas change. What if the government doesn’t like criticisms made on a government-controlled Facebook and decides to ask the company to censor them? What if the politicians and the powerful work behind the scenes to install friendly faces on the supervising panel/committee? It’s not an exaggeration to say that the likes of Google, Facebook or Twitter have superpower heroes. Used the right way, they can further the society’s interests. Used the wrong way, they can be very harmful weapons.

But should these companies have that much unchecked power at their disposal? Let’s talk about the accusation that they censor content on their platforms. The extreme case first. Trump is the President of the United States. As long as he has something to say, media outlets all over the world will likely broadcast it, even when it is an outrageous claim. He can have a press conference, a rally or he can call in right-wing media which also has significant reach to broadcast his messages. Being banned on Facebook or Twitter doesn’t amount to a complete censor. He was banned because he repeatedly violated the terms of services written and imposed by private entities; which gives them the right to act like they did. Had he not pushed the envelope too far like when he incited violence on the 6th of Jan 2021, he wouldn’t have been banned. Two months after the election, he repeatedly called into question the legitimacy of the election, yet the likes of Facebook and Twitter didn’t ban him. That should be the evidence that if anyone is to blame for Trump not being on Twitter or Facebook, it will be him and him alone.

The same goes for other users. These social media platforms want and need you to engage with their platforms so that they can bring in valuable ads dollars. If you don’t commit grave offenses that warrant a ban, there is economic benefit to these platforms to ban and purge you without a legitimate reason. What’s the point of building a platform and acquiring users without wanting to keep them? Plus, the Internet allows anyone to broadcast his or her opinion in multiple ways. Banned on Twitter? Try Facebook. Banned on Facebook? Try Snapchat. Banned on Snapchat? Try writing an op-ed to a newspaper and getting it published. That doesn’t work either? Try having a blog and advertising it. Want to get the message out in person? Try having a small rally or a speech at a market.

Social media platforms connect people, including the good guys and the deplorable. They are also essentially megaphones that send wide and far well-intentioned messages or on the opposite, purely harmful agendas. A knife is a great cooking tool, but in the hands of a criminal, it’s a weapon that can take one’s life. How social media are used hinges much on the users. Since it’s practically impossible to prevent the extreme or the propagandists, the platforms have to take up the responsibility to ensure their platforms do more good than harm.

As private entities, these companies have agendas. The people like Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey and their confidants have agendas. If they were just “normal” folks, their ethics would affect only themselves and those around them. However, because they are vested with immense power, the importance of their own ethics is amplified so that they can wield the power responsibly. Their ethical compass will dictate what their agendas are and whether the greater goods look like. As to what can be the fail-safe/safeguard against these powerful individuals, I would argue that it would be competition. Powerful as politicians in the US are, they listen to their donors which, in turn, listen to their customers to some extent because of the risk that customers will flock to their competitors. In the aftermath of the terrorist attack last week, big companies and political donors decided to stay away from Trump and some halted their political donors to those that voted against the certification of the election. That should have a sway on the elected officials’ mind, whether they publicly take action or not. Moreover, Whatsapp delayed the rollout of their new privacy terms which would make it easier for them to share data with Facebook because users protested and flocked to rival apps such as Signal. Without competition and action by users, such a reversal wouldn’t happen. Powerful as Facebook is, they are not immune to the threat from competition.

I don’t claim to know how to encourage healthy competition in the market. I refer it to the people whose full-time job is to make laws. What I am trying to say is that between encouraging competition and creating an oversight that can be tainted by personal agendas, I would prefer the former. I don’t know about you, but my experience in Vietnam the US so far hasn’t given me much confidence in the latter.

Pay less for medical procedures with MDSave

If you’re having some health issues, thinking about receiving health procedures, but feeling concerned about medical bills, try MDSave. It is a website that have connections with many hospitals in the country and offer medical procedures at a significant discount in the form of vouchers. Here is my own experience.

A couple of weeks ago, I had some weird feelings in my abdomen that led me to a doctor visit and a blood test. The blood test turned out good and the doctor said I didn’t have anything to worry about. However, abs still nagged me. Paranoid as I am, I asked the doctor to order a CT scan so that I would be surer about my body and health. After the doctor office confirmed that the scan was ordered, it was up to me to call the hospital to set up an appointment. Knowing how expensive medical care can be in this country, I made a point of asking about the potential cost in advance.

After agreeing on the appointment date and time, the operator connected me with the Finance department or something like that. The person told me that the scan would cost $5,800. I was floored. Even with insurance, I would have to pay around 60% of that before the insurance kicks in due to my high deductible. And she wasn’t joking. Here is what UMC Health listed as the price for my procedure.

I was about to give up on this test because there is no way that I would shell out that much for a test that my doctor didn’t even think I need. But the person on the other end of the phone quickly told me to look up MDSave and see if there is any voucher for this procedure. As it happened, there was and still is. For the same procedure at the same hospital, the voucher costs $484.

Cost of CT Scan of Abdomen and Pelvis with Contrast on MDSave
Source: MDSave

With the voucher, I essentially would receive the same care for less than 10% of what they would charge me. How insane that is! Please note that whether what you pay MDSave can be counted towards your deductible depends on your insurer. Mine doesn’t allow that. But it may be possible to get reimbursed by your HSA provider.

Luckily my scan turned out well and showed that I do not have any major underlying condition with my abs and internal organs nearby, for now. But this experience is really enlightening for me. How on Earth could something like that happen? I talked to a few people in my office, including my well-educated American boss and he hadn’t even heard of MDSave. How many people had to pay much much more than what they would have to? And then, I thought of this

40% of Americans don't have $400 for emergency expenses
Source: ABCNews

How many people have to roll a dice with their health every day because they can’t afford it? I took the scan because I didn’t want to go by my days, fearing for my health and knowing that I could have done something, but didn’t. That would be a horrible feeling to carry. With that kind of feelings, you can’t be happy. But many people likely don’t have the luxury to assuage themselves, simply because the system is so broken.

One last message to take to 2021

As I was having my morning coffee today, I came across this email from Ryan Holiday, who is a fantastic writer and somebody that you should subscribe to, I couldn’t help, but think that this message below is an important one to take to 2021:

One of the best pieces of advice from Seneca was actually pretty simple. “Each day,” he told Lucilius, you should “acquire something that will fortify you against poverty, against death, indeed against other misfortunes, as well.” Just one thing. One nugget. This is the way to improvement: Incremental, consistent, humble, persistent work. Your business, your book, your career, your body—it doesn’t matter—you build them with little things, day after day.  Epictetus called it fueling the habit bonfire. The filmmaker, entrepreneur, author, former governor of California, professional bodybuilder, and father of five Arnold Schwarzenegger gave a similar prescription for people trying to stay strong and sane during this pandemic: “Just as long as you do something every day, that is the important thing.” Whether it’s from Seneca or Epictetus or Arnold, good advice is good advice and truth is truth. One thing a day adds up. One step at a time is all it takes. You just gotta do it. And the sooner you start, the better you’ll feel… and be. 

In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear talks about something he calls “The Plateau of Latent Potential.”  This plateau can be likened to bamboo, which spends its first five years building extensive root systems underground before exploding 90 feet into the air within six weeks. Or to an ice cube, which will only begin to melt once the surrounding temperature hits 32 degrees (or the resulting water that only boils at 212 degrees). Just because it sometimes takes longer than we’d like to see the results of our efforts doesn’t mean that our efforts are going to waste. In fact, most of the important work—the build up—won’t seem like it’s amounting to anything, but of course it is. Plutarch tells the story of Lampis, a wealthy ship-owner who was asked how he accumulated his fortune. “The greater part came quite easily,” Lampis supposedly answered, “but the first, smaller part took time and effort.” Any goal we have will take time and effort to accomplish, and beginning it will most likely be harder than finishing. But we have to keep going, because habits and hard work compound. Remember always that greatness takes time. Most importantly, remember what Zeno said: that greatness “is realized by small steps, but is truly no small thing.”

Source: Ryan Holiday

It took me back to what has happened in my life since I came to the US 4 years ago. I came here with just around $4,000 in my pocket, a computer, a graduate assistantship at University of Omaha, Nebraska and a desire to have a better life. Initially, I rented a room in a house that was about 15 minutes of walk or a couple of bus stops from my university campus and had 5-6 other tenants. I hadn’t known how to drive and didn’t have enough money to buy a car or to learn how to so. My sole income at the time was the $1,200 stipend from the school. Nothing else. After rent, food and everything else, I managed to have just about $300 in savings. Nothing much, but I got by.

Public transportation in Omaha is spotty and leaves much to be desired. I used to ride bus #2 to school and that bus runs once every 15 minutes during the weekdays before 6pm. After 6PM, it runs more slowly at once-every-30-minute frequency. On the weekends and especially Sundays, buses in Omaha either stop or run at a very low frequency. In the fall, missing a bus wasn’t that big of a deal because I could comfortably walk to school. In the harsh winter of Omaha when streets were slippery, I often had to watch the bus schedule closely so I wouldn’t miss it. For groceries, it was a bigger challenge. I used bus #18 to go to Walmart, which has arguably the cheapest groceries. The bus runs once every 30 minutes, so to save time, I had to game it out before hand what I needed to buy and how to leave Walmart just in time to catch the bus. Besides school and grocery trips, it was a bit tricky and time-consuming to go anywhere with buses around here without wasting precious money on Uber/Lyft, money that I didn’t have much at the time.

The following summer, I had to find a job. My school stipend wasn’t available during the summer when I didn’t have to work at school. Luckily I got a 10-week internship at one of the eCommerce companies in Omaha. But I knew that I would have to line up the next job after the internship to gain more experience here in the US and make more money. As an international student, you’re not allowed, as far as I know, to have an internship during the first school year. You can have a 20-hour/week job after the first year and luckily a graduate assistantship at school on top of that. So I got an internship at a managed service provider in Omaha on top of my job at school. That earned me more money. The catch was that I had to work 40 hours a week and completed 4-5 courses a semester, since I wanted to graduate as early as possible. I graduated in December 2018 and landed my current permanent job in Feb 2019. Had I graduated a year later, I would likely have been jobless because of Covid.

The strain of study and 40-hour work made me wonder at times what I was doing during my 2.5 years at the university. I felt frustrated and hopeless at times because I didn’t feel like my life was inching forward. I had to work a lot to reduce my jealousy and avoid comparing myself with others. Certainly, looking at my peers and their lives was a bit hard for me at some point. Fast forward to now, I have a job, my own apartment, a car and some savings. I am grateful whenever I reminisced wishing for a car while I was walking to school or on a bus to a grocery store in the middle of Omaha winter. On some winter days, I felt deeply hopeless and frustrated. Like my life wasn’t going anywhere and being here was a goddamn giant mistake. Harsh coldness, alone from family and friends and a feeling that whatever I was doing wasn’t leading anywhere. Obviously, I had no idea that the struggles were necessary for what was to come next. I just had faith, for absolutely no reason, that it would work out. Thankfully, so far, it has.

Another reason why I relate so much to Ryan’s quote is this blog. It’s called onepercentamonth because I want to have personal progress every month. Enough to feel that I am progressing gradually and consistently, but not too much to miss other funs that life has to offer. My other intention is that this is the getaway space for my thoughts, a place where I put thoughts to words to hone my thinking and my writing. I haven’t advertised this blog before, even on social media. I figure what is the point when fame isn’t what I am after here. Nonetheless, it’s good to see the blog’s growth. All traffic came from WordPress, word of mouth and the search engines. At first, there was little traffic. But I continued to toil at it and after two years, I could get traffic for the whole month of Jan 2019 in 2-3 days. My little blog is nothing compared to that of many other people, but it’s something that gives me comfort and joy. Plus, I could see the last two years as the plateau of Latent Potential for what it is now and hopefully what it is now is the buildup for something greater that will come in the future.

Those are my two stories which serve as concrete evidence for what Ryan said above. As 2020 is drawing to a close and I am sitting here, reminiscing the past and reflecting on what happened, I feel that this is an important lesson to take with to 2021. If you come across this entry, I wish you health, luck and happiness in the next 12 months. If you feel stuck at times in your life that nothing is progressing, I hope Ryan’s message and my life stories should help as a reminder that you’re likely paying the dues, that you are planting the seeds for future fruits, that you’re growing your own bamboo.

Until next time!

Wonder Woman 1984 is a solid movie with an important message

I paid $16 today for HBO Max with the sole intention of watching Wonder Woman 1984. It was money well-spent as far as I am concerned. If you are still on the fences about the movie or if you’re looking for something to watch, I recommend that you give it a try.

The movie is a sequel of the previous Wonder Woman. It was in 1984 and Diana Prince was working at the Smithsonian in Washington DC as an expert. Steve Trevor was still dead and Diana still missed him dearly, wishing to have him back every day. One day, the Museum received a historical item that could grant a person with one wish, as long as the person touches the item upon making the wish and the so-called Dreamstone could take away one thing in return that the wisher might not know yet.. All hell broke loose from there. I am not giving away spoilers here, but the ending is beautifully bittersweet and the cast did a great job, especially the chemistry between Chris Pine and Gal Gadot. Plus, it’s not too often that we see a male playing a supporting role to a female hero. That is a refreshing change I can get behind. But I have two biggest take-aways from this movie.

Every one of us has something in our life that we are not pleased with, that we want changed. A bigger house, bigger eyes, more money, more time in our youth, a better paying job, a healthier body or a fancier car, you name it. The item, called the Dreamstone, in the movie grants a person the wish and takes something in return. We make trade-offs like that often in our life. Sometimes some of them are more obvious in the short term than others. Like, if you have a reasonable pay and a job that makes you happy and excited to go to work every day, would you trade it for another job with an additional $100k that yet would make you miserable every day? If an investment job paid you extremely well but took away 16 hours of your day and left you little to enjoy life, would you still be up for it?

The question would be even more profound if what you wish for was at the expense of many others. Said another way, if your refusal of one thing you ever wish for contributed to the collective well-being, would you still make that sacrifice? The movie, in the end, came down to that question. I find it very relevant with the current pandemic we have to deal with here. If many of us had made the sacrifice on the personal level and done the right thing, especially in America, we would have been in a far better situation today. If we had worn a mask and practiced social distancing…If we had put the collective well-being of the society above our personal freedom…If the politicians in charge had put their duty above their thirst for power…

The movie also reminded me of gratitude. I too have things in my life that I wish to change. Some of them remain short-term terms that keep me going every day and looking forward to in the future. But being obsessed with wishes can often carry me away from being appreciative of what I currently have. In the middle of a pandemic and a winter that is going to get harsher, I have my own apartment that keeps me warm and safe, a job that helps me put food on the table, people that I love and can reach out every day, and health that has shielded me from trouble and expensive bills. Can it be better? Sure, but a lot of people are in a worse situation.

Sometimes I find myself in a bad mood because I am consumed by jealousy of others and the wishes that may or may not happen in the future. 30 years of living taught me enough to get myself back to appreciating the present, most of the time. Books and movies like Wonder Woman 1984 do help as well. For that reason, I consider my subscription to HBO Max money well-spent, though I struggle to find anything else to watch, apart from the new Wonder Woman.

A friend asked me today how I was going to spend the rest of this eventful year. Being isolated in an apartment without much work, I answered: relaxing and self-reflecting. It has been a tough year so far, but it also came with some positivities for me in the last 300 days; which I may talk about in the next few days. The most important thing is that I am sitting here, able to blog about a new movie instead of being in a hospital or worse, dead or toiling away in a 2nd or 3rd or 4th job on a cold Friday night to make ends meet. That’s what I appreciate the most.

Three important changes I made to my life during Covid-19

Like all of you, I saw my life changed suddenly and dramatically in March 2020. Omaha, where I currently reside, registered its first case and my company shortly sent us home to work. For a good reason. Since then, I have been in self-isolation, almost close to 9 months now, and it will not change any time soon as we were already told that we wouldn’t be back to the office until next summer. Unlike a lot people, I am alone in the US. I don’t have any family member to surround myself with. My girlfriend is in Vietnam, which has closed its borders since March as well. Alone and isolated in my own apartment, I got to make some changes and I did. Here are the biggest three that I want to share, in case they are useful somehow

Exercise more with The Body Coach TV

It’s not easy to stay fit and healthy while in isolation. Especially when you don’t like running. I understand all the health benefits of a regular run, but it’s just not for me. The gym had been closed for about 6 months and opened its doors again two months ago. However, I still don’t want to go to a place where sweating and sharing surfaces with other people are a norm. Those two things can quickly become ingredients of a Covid-19 nightmare. Hence, I needed to find a way to exercise effectively in my small apartment. Luckily, I found this great channel called “The Body Coach TV”. This channel is owned and developed by Joe Wick, a British fitness enthusiast. He regularly posts short workout clips that range from a few minutes to about 30 minutes. The workouts are either full body High Intensity Interval Training or specifically developed for a muscle group such as upper body, lower body or abs. Spend 20 minutes a day on one of these clips and you can easily burn 250 to 300 calories at least. I have been on a 2-day-training-1-day-off schedule for months and it has been going well so far. I feel good every day after a workout (not exactly the case 10-20 minutes right after) and my girlfriend complimented me on looking leaner. Give it a try. This is the clip I did today. It’s pretty intense, but good.

Recalibrate my eating and find my interest in cooking

Back in July, I came across a research on how our body consumed energy. Apparently, it turns out that we don’t need to eat twice a day to have enough energy to function, an assumption and a habit that I blindly followed for 20+ years. I decided to change my eating routine to only once a day, around late afternoon. For the rest of the day, I resort to healthy food with low carb such as avocados, cantaloupes, chia, soy milk and Greek Yogurt. Pine apples and nuts are sometimes included as well. White rice was replaced by red rice and select vegetables such as broccolis, mushrooms, carrots, asparagus, beans, okras or tomatoes are regulars. It was a bit tough in the beginning, but gradually I grew accustomed to the new diet, but still have enough energy for work and a High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) workout.

As a fan of matcha and coffee, I felt gutted for not being able to frequent local cafes any more. So I decided to invest in equipment to make matcha and coffee at home such as ground coffee, matcha powder, a small aluminum pitcher, an espresso maker from IKEA and a milk frother. If you consume 2-3 caffeine drinks a day like myself, I think you likely will save some money from not having to pay $5 for a latte.

Additionally, my interest in cooking shot up. Isolated at home and glued to my computer for hours a day, I sometimes feel restless and agitated. Besides a short workout, cooking relaxes me. Because I don’t want to invest too much money on kitchenware, my preference is simple recipes which require ordinary equipment from every kitchen, like this one:

I like Gordon Ramsay’s channel. He usually has great and short videos with instructions that an idiot like me can follow

Learn German

The next big change I made is to decide to learn German. With all the free time I have, I figure that I should learn something useful instead of just doom-scrolling on Twitter or surfing the Internet. After weighing all the pros and cons of the options such as a spoken language, an online degree or a coding language, I decided on German. It is the most spoken language in Europe, behind English. An acceptable command of German could open the door professionally for me to European markets later on, in case Trump won or something happens in the US. Since I already code like 5-6 hours a day at work, I don’t feel really like coding in my free time. An online degree just doesn’t excite me. So German it was! I found two very good resources: Germantogo.com and the Easy German channel on YouTube. With a 365-euro annual subscription, you can have access to on-demand video lessons from A1 to B1 and have any questions answered by Juliane, the owner of the site. It’s similar to having a private tutor, but virtually. I have been learning German for 4+ months with Juliane and totally enjoy it.

Meanwhile, Easy German is a YouTube channel which features short video clips through which German learners can improve listening and vocabulary. The Easy German team comes up with a topic question every week and interviews German native speakers on the streets. A casual setting brings the natural speaking pattern and choice of words. Plus, you can learn something about the German culture as well. If you want to learn German like I do, give those two sites a try. Below is a bit about me in German (show-off alert!!!)

Ich heiß Minh. Ich komme aus Vietnam, aber ich wohne in Omaha, Nebraska. Ich wohne seit 4 Jahren hier. Ich bin 30 Jahre alt. Ich spreche Vietnamesisch, Englisch und ein bisschen Deutsch. Ich lerne seit 4 Monaten Deutsch. Es ist eine schwierige Sprache, aber ich mag sie. Weil ich zu Hause bleiben muss, denke ich, dass ich etwas Neues lernen sollte. Warum nicht Deutsch? Ich arbeite in einer Bank in Omaha. Meine Hobbys sind Fußball, Basketball, Formel-1, Tennis, Lesen, Schreiben, Reisen und Kochen. Wer bist du? Was machst du?