Dark days in America. What’s next?

Do you even remember how this week began? Do you remember that we are still in the middle of a deadly pandemic that killed more than 100,000 people in America?

What has happened in the last few days is scary, infuriating and sad. It blurred that happened before earlier this week or almost many events that occurred. A black man was arrested by four police officers in Minnesota and brutally killed after one officer put his knee on the victim’s throat for a few minutes. The offender, ironically a police officer in this case, continued his act even after George Floyd repeatedly pled for air. He died at a hospital shortly after. The whole episode was filmed by a few folks that happened to be at the scene and were kind and brave enough to ask the four policemen to stop. It sparked anger and riots across the country that called for justice for the victim. Violence took place. Destruction of properties happened. Police intervened. Politicians voiced opinions and of course, the President poured gas on the fire with his controversial tweets. The whole country is in chaos and suddenly, arguably the worst pandemic ever seems to take a back seat in people’s mind.

As I have been following coverage on this tragedy and the aftermath, I feel sad, angry, scared and worried about what comes next for America. The country is increasingly deep into chaos. The problems that America faces seem impossible to overcome. Let’s go over a few

  • The government is in disarray. The two parties are more willing to win at all cost than to do what’s best for the country. The current administration rolled back a lot of regulations that the previous one put in place. The next administration, if from the opposite party, will install back what was removed. The cylce may continue on
  • There is no longer a uniting, calm and compassionate leadership at the helm. Whenever the current leader gets involved in an issue, things tend to take a turn for worse
  • The trust in authorities is seriously eroded. Scandals, misinformation, corruption, cover-up, violence, ineffective policies, unkept promises
  • Courts seem to be politicized
  • Racism is still alive and well in America. What happened with George Floyd is just one of a few that were caught on camera. It’s 2020 and we still are having to deal with this
  • High unemployment rate amid a pandemic that doesn’t seem to end soon
  • Voter suppression
  • Income inequality

Those are just a few significant challenges that US faces. Can you imagine even with the new leadership and Congress things will change? Can you imagine the divisiveness that we have right now will be lessened with a new administration? Can you imagine racism will go away when it hasn’t after decades? Can you imagine the trust in authorities will be regained soon?

What’s next for America? I think about this a lot because this is where I intended to reside for a while in the future. While China is still growing as an economy and a global power with a less democratic yet effective and stable leadership, America has too many structural challenges to deal with. Do a quick research and you can see America’s standing in the world also slipped over the past 3 years. The anti-immigrant policies make America less attractive to foreign talents. A couple of my friends who wanted to do PhD in the US already ruled out coming here. Personally, I wouldn’t recommend anyone to study here any more.

Perhaps, I am being pessimistic. But if right in the middle of the worst pandemic the social and political issues can dominate everyone’s mind, and we know that given enough time (a few weeks) there will be a bigger scandal, what’s the future looking like for the country? I hope I am wrong, but I don’t see too bright a near future

A word on the fight between the President and social media

It started when the President sent out a tweet about mail-in ballots. Twitter put a note below the tweet to suggest other content to fact-check what the President put out there. Trump took issues with it.

He then sent out a tweet on the debacle in Minnesota with language that seemed to call for violence. Twitter warned users of the content, but didn’t take down the tweet (see below)

Trump, his fanbase and allies accuse the company of violating First Amendment Right and censoring him. He was supported by Mark Zuckerberg, who disagreed with Twitter’s approach. Trump signed an Executive Order to curb protection for platforms like Twitter.

Now, I won’t get into the debate whether First Amendment Right is infringed here. I do want to talk a bit about the fine line social platforms are walking now. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter want to do both:

  • Enable expression and access to information, including what politicians say
  • Promote an impression that they are a safe place for users and that they contribute positively to the world

The challenge is difficult, but it’s not impossible. It becomes much more difficult when bad actors want to distribute misinformation for their agenda. Leaving misinformation intact is detrimental to our society; which contradicts one of the two things platforms want to do. Censoring misinformation will cause outcry over infringement of First Amendment Right and contradict the other. As bad actors want to take advantage of social media to aid their propaganda, the disregard for truth intensifies. Platforms like Twitter are stuck in a dilemma between censoring harmful or false content and abiding by free speech and expression.

In the case of Twitter, they are doing the best they can. They didn’t take down the President’s tweets despite repeated requests from many other users. They did put a label on two of his most egregious tweets recently. But that’s not enough, from both sides. Concerned users want a complete removal of some of Trump’s tweets while Trump is using his popularity and power to arm-twist the company not to.

When the two sides cannot compromise, platforms like Twitter, as some sort of a middleman, will soon have to pick a side. Eventually. The walking-a-fine-thin-line will likely not work for much longer.

5 things I wish I learned/knew sooner than later

What do you wish you knew sooner or later? I ask myself that question all the time. Here is what I came up with for myself.

Know how to curate what to read and how to read

A popular and widely cited stat reads that 90% of the world’s data is generated in the last two years. Regardless of the figures, I think the premise is true. We encounter a lot of information and data every day. News, social media, photos that we take, tweets that we write, new movies or shows that streamers release, songs that artists launch. The deluge of information makes it incredibly challenging for a person to know what information to absorb and from what source. There are days when I spend hours reading and there are days when I get information fatigue. What makes it more tricky and challenging is misinformation. It’s harder than ever to distinguish between accurate information and false information. The accuracy is only just relative, depending on how you look at things. For instance, somebody may claim that the government did a good job with the economy prior to Covid because the stock market hit all time highs and unemployment rate was rate. Well, that may be true, but it’s only part of the story. There are other serious issues to look at including but not limited to federal budget, minimum wages or income inequality. When you take those into account, the assessment won’t look as rosy. Additionally, while there is value in being informed in many areas, specialization into a few may serve you better. It would be valuable for us to learn how to curate what to read, how to read and how to say “no” to information.

No one knows everything all the time

Because we are overwhelmed by a lot of information every, as mentioned above, it makes everyone prone to mistakes in judgement. Hence, even established authorities in certain areas become wrong at times. Legendary investors lost money. Famous economists erred on their predictions. Analysts screwed up on assumptions and evaluations. Scientists’ claims were challenged and debunked. We often associate previous successes with the ability to be right all the time or successes in one area with knowledge in other areas. That often is not true. One tech founder that may succeed in building a billion dollar firm can make disastrously wrong claims on biology or sociology or even in other business areas such as fast food, hospitality or energy.

To figure out when an authority with credibility errs is tricky. How often do you read a scientific article from The Lancet and question it immediately? How often do you read a report from World Bank and pick it apart detail by detail? Or do you share them first? Past track record and credibility help, but they don’t guarantee accuracy all the time. Hence, although it’s good to respect and appreciate greatness, I think it’s valuable to learn to think for ourselves and be vigilant.

Focus. Focus. Focus

I sometimes have to stop myself from multitasking. Modern societies have trained us to constantly want to multitask. We have all been there. Listening to music or podcasts during work. Putting on radio while driving. Chatting while studying at night or doing homework. It’s incredibly difficult to stay completely immune from distractions. I don’t believe anyone can do that. Nonetheless, it is extremely helpful and valuable to learn to be “in the zone” more, even for just a few hours every day to do deep work. I do believe that the more a person can do so, the more he or she can succeed

Learn to write

I think writing is as important, if not more important, than coding which is touted as something we all should learn as early as possible. The ability to communicate in writing, even in the form of an email, a report or an article, is essential nowadays. First, writing is a form of communication with others. A well-written piece can carry a message effectively and there can only be good things coming from effective communication. Second, writing is thinking. When thoughts go into words, we think about the thoughts at hand more. We pick apart every aspect of our thoughts more to make them more refined. So when you come across some good content, it mostly comes from a vigorous thinking process beforehand. It’s not a coincidence that Jeff Bezos replaces the use of Power Points at Amazon with a 6-page memo. Therefore, learning to write is highly important

Learn to different yourself

Whatever you want to do, it’s impossible that you are the first or only person in the world to do it. If you want to launch a cryptocurrency hedge fund, there are hundreds out there. If you want to launch a newsletter, there are thousands already in the market. If you want to build an Asian eatery in the local community, it’s impossible that there is none already in operations. Modern societies and technological advances make it easier than ever to launch individual ventures. At the same time, it’s also exceedingly challenging to stand out from the crowd. What I think can make each of us stand out are individual uniqueness and work ethic. Nobody in the world can beat you at being you. Each of us has a different unbringing, life experience and personality. Infusing that uniqueness into our work, I believe, can make us stand out more. For instance, millions of people can speak English. If you speak English, it’s nothing special. If you add a foreign language such as Japanese, it narrows down the competition. If you add another such as Latin or a special specialty such as flying a commercial jet, it narrows down the competition even more. The chance of standing out from the crowd is now higher. Hence, capitalizing on our unique experience, personality and perspective can be very useful.

The second piece is work ethic. Even if you have all the talent in the world, it means nothing if you don’t put in the work. Athletes like Kobe Bryant, Lebron James, Michael Jordan, Cristiano Ronaldo put in hours of work every day even after achieving success and fame. If you don’t have genius-level talent, like most of us, the ability to put in 12-15 hours of work a day will differentiate you from a lot of folks that are not willing to work beyond the required 8 hours. On the other hand, even if you work long hours every day, yet you don’t have a factor that can help differentiate you from others, it doesn’t mean anything. That’s why thousands of blue collar workers who work two or three jobs a day are not as famous or rich as others. The work they do deserves respect, but it is nothing different from the work of hundreds of thousands of others.

Learning about your uniqueness, deploying it and working hard is important and the sooner one does it, the better.

Learn to avoid jealousy and self-pity

I believe it is tremendously important to learn about controlling jealousy and self-pity early in life. Everyone in the world should be happy. Life is too short not to. Though we differ from one another in the things that make us tick, there are a few common factors that contribute to happiness such as being healthy, avoiding jealousy or feeling sorry for yourself all the time. While they seem obvious, they all require practice and learning. If you sit on the couch on the time and eat fast food every day, chances are that you won’t be healthy. If you don’t purposefully train your mind not to be jealous of others or compare yourself to others, chances are you may not be able to do it. If you are trapped in self-pity and don’t make effort to get out of that trap, how can you? I grew up in Asia where your parents subject you to comparison with other kids all the time. If you get a 9 out of 10 from a school assignment after putting in a lot of work, you may still be scolded if other kids get 10. I was trained and wired to be jealous as a kid. I worked really hard in the past few years to escape from that and I make concerted effort every day to stay away from the jealousy and self-pity. Does it make me completely happy? No, because there are other factors at play: work, family, relationship, goals. But it surely helps me not be unhappy.

What do you wish you learned/knew sooner than later?

Beautiful and inspirational speech by John Bradley on being comfortable with yourself

John Bradley, who played Sam Tarly in Game of Thrones, had a beautiful inspirational speech on accepting himself and being comfortable with finding his own way through life. He used to feel shy and sorry about himself before Thrones, until the two Executive Directors chose him for a very important role in arguably the biggest TV show ever in history. They chose him because of his virtues or what he considered as his failures. I can relate to the shyness and the self-consciousness.

Like him, I often went to bed, thinking that when I woke up, some things about myself would be different. In the past, I got jealous of folks who were more famous and richer than me, especially my peers. The jealousy has been reduced over the past few years after digging into how to live a happier life and the harm of jealousy. Nonetheless, the trap of jealousy and self-consciousness is always there, lurking around and waiting to take over at any time. It’s a real constant struggle to keep it at bay. I am sure that I am not the only person with that struggle. It feels encouraging to hear from a real life case study, especially a famous celebrity bravely talk about it.

Barriers to entry become liabilities during Covid-19 & remote working

Barriers to entry become liabilities

For the past few weeks, I have seen people claim that Disney is doomed because it reported millions of loss due to the closure of its parks and resorts which, in normal times, bring a lot of revenue and margin to the table. In the same vein, airlines are called a horrible business since there are a lot of costs involved and it’s capital intensive, making it extraordinarily vulnerable in the face of a pandemic like the one we are going through.

They have a point.

However, it’s also important to remember that the current liabilities are what make barriers to entry in their industries so high. Restaurants have low barriers to entry, so it’s not unusual to see a new restaurant in town every day. How often do you see a new airline come up? Because the barriers to entry are so high, airlines at least don’t have to worry too much about a new competitor enter the fray often. Similarly, operating a park like Disneyland is no joke. It requires employing hundreds of employees and a tremendous fixed cost as well as maintenance expenses. How many parks at the same scale as Disneyland enter the market every week/month?

This crisis will blow over. It has to. It’s unfathomable to think that we will be in this self-quarantine forever. Once we get back to normal, whatever it may be, people will fly and go to Disneyland again. Although I don’t deny that what reduces new competition for those businesses now becomes sort of liabilities, it’s worth remembering that nothing good comes easy. The same logic applies to business

Remote working

Plenty of discussion online has been about how people will adjust their working style post-Covid19. Even in my company, talk has been going around on how folks will continue to work remotely for a while and how preparation should be looked into to accommodate that need. Personally, I think there will be a mixed working style moving forward. Indeed, working remotely saves everyone time from having to dress up and driving to work. Nonetheless, there is also value in face-to-face and human interaction. There is a reason why companies design common areas, hoping that folks will randomly bump into each other and creativity will spark. Plus, speaking from personal experience, I am sick of sitting at my desk, staring at the screen for hours and putting more time into work. I miss my workplace, my coworkers and casual conversations at work. So, even though folks will prefer working remotely 100% in the short term, in the long run, I expect it to be a mix.

Absolute personal freedom – the power that must be exercised responsibly

Over the recent weeks, there have been disturbing reports on the protests across the country against stay-at-home order. In some cases, the terrifying scenes of a group of protesters carrying guns to local governments’ buildings or signs that stand for the worst of human hatred as below.

Those that are involved in the protests argue that the government has no business in restricting their personal freedom to go out and work. The underlying premise of the protests is that individuals have absolute freedom to do whatever they are pleased to. Extreme and absolute personal freedom is in the fabric of American life. It’s not that citizens in other countries don’t have freedom, yet here in America, it’s something that is almost sacred, non-negotiable and in some cases, regardless of what is the cost. I don’t dispute the merit of individual freedom. Coming from a country like Vietnam, I value a lot the ability to say and do things in America that wouldn’t be possible in my own hometown. Individual freedom is a great power given to us. However, like Spiderman’s Uncle Ben says, “with great power comes great responsibility”. Is this great power being exercised responsibly? I really don’t think that is the case.

I don’t believe that any politician wants to extend a lockdown more than he or she has to. After all, if you listen to every politician, they all want to sell you on “jobs, jobs, good paying jobs”. As a result, an existing or extended lockdown is put in place because they fear that an early reopen of the economy could bring the virus back into play and force us all to go back to square one. Singapore had been very confident in their ability to handle the pandemic. Fast forward to several weeks later, they now have the most confirmed cases in the area. Germany recently allowed football clubs to go back to training. Shortly after, Koln, a German club, reported three new cases. It’s entirely possible that scenario could happen to any US state. In fact, we have a case study. Several citizens in Wisconsin got infected after they went to vote in person because the Supreme Court kinda forced them to. If reopen isn’t managed carefully, we may go back to where we were at the end of March again. And that would prolong our march towards the normal life and economy as we knew several months ago.

The protesters have the right to voice their opinion. But instead of a peaceful civilized protest, they carry around guns and signs of hatred messages. Don’t we have the right to feel safe in community? As somebody who has never touched a gun before, I’d feel terrified by someone carrying guns around on the streets. I mean, if they use guns on a hunting ground legally, by all means. I am not bothered by that and I don’t honestly see anything wrong. But living in a community, why would some’s right to feel safe be inferior to others’ right to carry out guns needlessly just to make their point? Don’t some who lost family to Nazi in WWII have the right not to feel the pain from those messages? If protesters get infected by the virus by participating in these protests, would it be responsible to do so, come home and spread it among their family members and community? What do you think about the photo below? (Source: Twitter. I forgot to save the source link)

Admittedly, it’s hard to completely fault somebody for putting food on the table for their family. There have been 30 million unemployment insurance claims in the country and the figure isn’t likely going to stop there. Folks want to work and make ends meet. Even then, it’s our responsibility to consider what consequences our actions may lead to and whom those actions would affect. I’d argue that instead of what they are doing, protesters can feel free to sign online petitions. Call and write civilly to lawmakers to make their point. If a physical protest is necessary, Israel offers a valuable example

Source: the Daily Beast

Several polls showed that the majority of Americans wanted to continue social distancing and not rush back to work. Hence, I am not sure an extreme irresponsible protest would change the minds of politicians whose interest is in listening to the majority of voters. Instead of disturbing and putting others in danger in the process, protesters may consider exercising their great power a little bit more responsibly.

“Third-world country” label

Let’s play a little game. I have two unnamed countries and one of them is often labeled “a third-world country”. Country A has almost 600,000 confirmed cases and more than 23,000 deaths from Covid-19 as of now, and charges its citizens a significant sum to have tests and treatments. Meanwhile, country B has less than 300 cases and, thankfully, zero fatalities so far, yet provides FREE Covid-19 tests and treatments. Which one is the 3rd-world country?

Another clue is that in country A, there was almost, on average, one mass shooting a day last year while, in country B, the number of deaths from guns is minimal. In country A, children have to practice drills for shootings while that concept is foreign to children and parents in country B.

In my examples above, country A is the US and Vietnam is the other one. Yes, I did cherry-pick some aspects to make a point, but that’s THE point. I often hear politicians and citizens in the US use “third-world countries” and call out names like my country’s to talk about major existing issues here, usually ending with: we are not a third-world country. Frankly speaking, Vietnam has an endless list of problems, but we are aware of that fact and we own them. On the other hand, in the US, some media outlets, some politicians and many folks still don’t acknowledge that there are serious flaws in the current systems. They still make claims such as this: we are still the greatest country on Earth. Well, on what grounds though? Each country can cherry-pick some metrics to make a claim for themselves and it will be perfectly legit.

By no means am I implying that the US is a 3rd-world country, in any shape or form. My first point is that the term carries a condescending tone towards other countries and shouldn’t be used, especially in the context of discussing your own (often neglected at worst and under-addressed at best) issues. The second point is that we all know without self-awareness of our own issues, we, as individuals, won’t make progress or self-improvement. Why would it be different for countries? Is it even remotely possible that problems that have existed in this country for decades still exist because of a belief that no matter what happens, the US is still the greatest on Earth?

There are a lot of great things around here. My admiration for the US, not as strong as it used to be, is still there. I appreciate what it has given me. As a result, I hope that things will change in a more positive way in the future, that there will be less denigrating attitude towards other less developed countries and that people here, in the words of Sansa Stark in Game of Thrones, “look the truth in the face”.

Covid-19, data, arguments and made-up minds

If we look at the number of confirmed cases in the world and the death count, US is one of the worst hit countries in the world and delivered one of the worst responses to the crisis. Allegedly.

But folks would argue that the figures, when put in terms of per capita, wouldn’t look that bad. The death rate isn’t that bad, compared to that of Iran, Spain or Italy. Allegedly.

But even if the death rate per capita is bad, other countries might have under-reported their figures to make the US look bad. Allegedly.

Let’s say if all reported numbers are true, some would say what is happening is, allegedly, actually better than what was projected by the models which were created to prevent the worst from happening.

And even if things are bad, losing 100,000 to 240,000 American lives isn’t the worst. There is nothing anybody could do or foresee, allegedly. There were other lethal pandemics that killed more in the past when the healthcare infrastructure wasn’t what it is today. Or the number of deaths from the flu or traffic or other causes is bigger than the death count from Covid-19, except the fact that those deaths by other causes are often cited on a 12-month timespan which is far longer than a few weeks of Coronavirus.

The older I become and the more I read and work with numbers as they are my day job, the more I become certain that nothing is 100% certain (see what I did here?). My default feelings go from “am I looking at the numbers from a correct perspective?” or “am I making an apple-to-apple comparison?” to “am I missing something?” or “is it remotely possible that the counter-thesis to what I am thinking is right?”. I realized that we often come to an issue with some pre-determined assumptions. Depending on how open we are to the legitimacy of evidence, especially opposing evidence, there are no numbers or arguments that can change such assumptions. Numbers can be manipulated. Arguments can be doubted and rejected. Like the scenario above.

If you think that there are serious shortcomings in our healthcare and other aspects of life, the data from Covid-19 should help you back up that opinion. If you think that the US is fine as it is and that despite what has happened for the last few weeks, there is nothing anybody could do and there is nothing we need to do after this crisis blows over, the data could help you too, depending on how you slice and dice it. Or not, and you wouldn’t care anyway.

I am in the “there is a lot to do in the US as this crisis shows” camp. But in an alleged democracy (why I say “alleged democracy” is a topic for another day), what matters is the opinion of the majority. For my own personal sake and for the sake of many, I truly hope the majority is in the same camp as I am.