Relocation from Vietnam to the US with a cat

Here is a summary of how my wife relocated from Vietnam to Omaha, Nebraska with a cat. If you are looking to do something similar, this may be useful to you.

H4 Visa

As spouse of an H1B holder, my wife is eligible for an H4 visa. The State Department currently allows issuance of multiple visa types without an interview by the end of 2022, provided that all the requirements are met. My wife’s case fell into that category and there was no required interview. That was awesome because if she had had one, it would have pushed her arrival to much much later this year or even next year.

We submitted everything that was asked and, on top of that, materials to show that our marriage is true and genuine, such as pre-wedding photos, wedding photos, wedding invites and receipts. I’d recommend that the primary H1B holder should share with spouse a letter to prove their employment, the latest paystubs, all the tax returns while in the US and a copy of I797. Better be careful than sorry. Once you get denied, mail-in visa applications will likely not be available to you again.

About three weeks after we sent our application, the status of my wife’s visa application was “Administrative Processing”. If you have applied for an American visa, you know this is a hugely annoying feature of that process. The term “Administrative Processing” can mean anything. It can mean that your application is approved and your visa will soon be issued. Or it can mean that they need more evidence and will reach out shortly. Worse, it can also mean that you are out of luck and will hear of your denial in a day or two. Without any clarification, and usually there is not, applicants have no choice but to wait in fear and anxiety. That’s what we did. But luckily, the best case scenario happened to us and my wife got her visa.

Unfortunately, the visa is just permission to approach the border. Whether you gain admission is entirely up to the Customs and Border agents. My wife carried all the documents she used to apply for the visa, plus my most up-to-date paystubs. The agent that she met asked to see only my i797, but I would not be surprised if others asked for different materials. Only after she passed the Customs check did I breathe a sigh of relief.

Book a flight for the cat

There are multiple airlines that fly from Vietnam to the US. Even though they all allow pets, they have different policies as to where the pets will stay and what the fees will be. Vietnam Airlines, for instance, allows pets on cabin for a fee of $400 as long as 1/ the carrier has to be sturdy; 2/ the combined weight of the carrier and the cat cannot exceed 6kgs; 3/ the carrier cannot exceed their dimension limitations. Airlines such as ANA or Cathay only fly pets in the cargo at around $300 per animal.

If your trip involves more than one airline, you are obligated to contact all airlines individually regarding your pet and pay fees accordingly. Some, if not all, operators impose a quota on the number of pets on an aircraft. Availability is on a first-come-first-serve basis. Customers won’t know such availability at the time of booking as airline staff won’t process any request for pets without a confirmation or booking number. Luckily, most airlines have a policy of free cancellation within 24 hours of booking. Take advantage of it, contact your airline promptly and act accordingly.

Knowing that the pet fee on international flights is much higher than that on domestic flights and striving to avoid dealing with more than one airline, we booked a direct flight from Vietnam to the US and chose Southwest Airlines for domestic trips. At the moment, Vietnam Airlines is the only carrier with direct connection from Ho Chi Minh City to San Francisco. There are a couple of things you may want to know before flying with this carrier, though. First of all, those flying with pets will be seated on the last row so that other passengers won’t be disturbed. Second, either the pilot or the lead flight attendant will decide at the check-in counter, at their discretion, whether a cat can sit in cabin or in cargo. Honestly, who loves that kind of uncertainty?

The flights with Southwest were more straightforward. Once we had the booking confirmation, we called them to reserve space for our cat, but the official check-in could only happen at the counter before the flight. Southwest mandates that a pet must stay in its carrier at all times during flight and the carrier must fit in the space under the seat. Our pet’s carrier was allowed in the cabin but deemed oversized. One of the attendants had a spare Southwest-branded and approved carrier for which he could have charged me $95. But the good man didn’t and I am very thankful for his generosity.

After about 30 exhausting hours of transportation and anxiety, our little family got home. Our cat puked a lot during landing and take-off, and the poor boy was completely worn out. Hence, when traveling with pets, I’d suggest that you minimize the number of flights as much as possible.

Preparation for pets before migrating to the US

It’s very important to check the health regulations concerning the importation of pets into the US. Different rules apply to different animals. Here is what the CDC has to say, as of this writing, about the importation of cats

A general certificate of health is not required by CDC for entry of pet cats into the United States, although some airlines or states may require them. However, pet cats are subject to inspection at ports of entry and may be denied entry into the United States if they have evidence of an infectious disease that can be transmitted to humans. If a cat appears to be ill, further examination by a licensed veterinarian at the owner’s expense might be required at the port of entry.

Cats are not required to have proof of rabies vaccination for importation into the United States. However, some states require vaccination of cats for rabies, so it is a good idea to check with state and local health authorities at your final destination.

Because there are no complex requirements by the CDC, our preparation for our cat included essential vaccinations, a microchip and all the related documents. We also bought a cat harness so that he would not run away when he had to leave the carrier upon security check. There was also an absorbent pad to make the cat more comfortable in the carrier as well as for hygiene purposes. What I wish we had done is to tape the carrier’s handle with a piece of cloth. The immigration line at SFO was long and there was no luggage cart. My wife couldn’t carry the 6-kg carrier for a long time. Her hand got all red and a bit swollen because the carrier handle was uncomfortably small. Therefore, do yourself a favor by increasing the contact area between the handle and your hand with a piece of cloth. You’ll need it!

Relocation to another country is stressful enough. Doing it with your beloved pet complicates everything even more. I hope that our story shared above will be helpful to someone looking to do the same thing.

Two tips that will help your financial planning

Plan future expenses

To ensure that your financial planning is set up properly, it’s NOT enough to consider only current expenses. It’s very important to take into account for future expenses, particularly those that you know will appear.

Let’s run a simple scenario as an example. For simplicity sake, imagine your after-tax take-home income, from both you and your spouse, is $100,000 a year. You expect to get two promotions in 2025 and 2028, which will increase your income by 15% and 10% from the year before respectively. Except those two years, your income will grow on average by 3% every year till you retire. Regarding current and future expenses, here are the big items:

  • Your current monthly expense is $4,000. The natural increase in this expense line item is 2% a year, unless specified otherwise.
  • You plan to have two children. One born in 2025 and the other in 2028. It will cost approximately $20,000 to deliver each kid.
  • The first kid will see the monthly expense grow to $5,500 and the second will push it to $7,000.
  • The estimated amount that you want to give them for college tuition fee is $100,000 each by 2043, when they are 18 years old. Hence, the combined college fund will total $200,000 by 2043.
  • You and your spouse understand that unfortunate events can happen to anyone. As a result, you both want to set aside 10% of your annual take-home income for emergencies.
  • For investments, you budget it at 20% of your annual income.
  • Life is short. You want to see the world and travel. Hence, travel will take 5%, if possible.
  • Whatever left will go to the disposable fund that can be used for any purposes.

Using the information above, here is what the numbers look like every year between 2023 and 2035

If you notice, I am pretty conservative with the income estimate. Growing the top line, as long as other expenses don’t grow proportionately, will bring more flexibility, freedom and choice. This is why folks want a higher salary or have a side gig. One source of income isn’t sufficient to sustain various financial needs. Also, I don’t include the fund for retirement which can be $2 million for person. The exclusion is driven by the fact that our 401K already comes out of our paycheck prior to the scenario and that the Emergency, Investment, Travel and Disposable Fund, if unused, can all be funneled into retirement.

Regardless, it’s obvious that the paycheck now doesn’t seem very big any more, does it? If it’s not possible to grow income sustainably, then there must be restrictions on the number of financial needs and there must be also compromises. That fancy car that you dream about, that new TV and furniture set that you crave or that yearly trip to Europe that you brag about, they need to be either axed or paid for by money slated either for emergencies or investments. It all comes down to preferences and willingness to compromise. But without an exercise like this, a normal person with little adequate personal finance awareness would get themselves deep into debt or make decisions that would not leave much margin for accidents.

Nobody knows what their future holds. Hence, the point of this exercise is not to be 100% accurate. Rather, it’s about putting more thoughts on one’s financial status and life priorities, which is ultimately what all this boils down to.

The 2x Rule

I “stole” this tip from a book called Just Keep Buying: Proven Ways To Save Money And Build Your Wealth. Essentially, this rule dictates that anytime I want to splash money on something, I must put the same amount of money on investing (most likely an index). This simple tip is a brilliant way to tamp down my urge to spend impulsively or too discretionally. It creates a moment of doubt in your mind and makes you wonder how much you want the item at hand and whether you are willing to pay double for it. For example,I have told my wife numerous times in the past year that I wanted to buy new Apple gadgets, but the thought of having to put the same amount in investing deterred me and made me realize that I didn’t need those new toys that much. The end result is that I am still using a 10-year-old Mac and a 3-year-old iPhone.

Personal finance, as the name may already give it away, is very personal. What works for me may not work for you. These tools are helpful, but their usefulness depends on how you use them, whether you do so religiously and what your life circumstances are. Mike Tyson said it best: everyone has a plan till they get punched in the face. Nonetheless, it’s better to be prepared to some extent than to be caught completely off guard.

Should you stay at a job for more than 2 years regardless?

Job hopping is a common topic among white-collar worker communities. How long should a person stay at a company to avoid being negatively judged? Somebody started that conversation on Twitter a few days ago and the originator’s position was that job hopping, which in this case means that no previous tenure lasted more than two years, was terrible. Kelsey Hightower, the principal engineer at Google Cloud, chimed in with his opinion and own experience: he never worked at a place for more than 2 years before Google!

Some of my coworkers have been working here for more than 25 years, but most of them are on the same organizational level as I am, despite the massive difference in tenure. Does that make them less respectable? No! I respect them a whole lot for their knowledge and especially their personality. But I won’t be surprised if head-hunters raise questions on why they made so little progress career-wise over the years.

Kelsey Hightower became the Principal Engineer for Google Cloud, even though he didn’t comply with the conventional wisdom that you need to spend more than two years at one job. Bozoma Saint John was the top Marketing Executive at two different companies (Uber and Endeavor) in three years before being appointed as Chief Marketing Officer at Netflix in August 2020. Her reign at Netflix ended 8 short months later, in March 2021. If even widely successful professionals hop from one job to another, why should younger workers be judged harshly for doing the same?

There are literally countless reasons why relationship between employees and employers can sour. For instance, you may get a good-paying job that promises great career growths yet demands long hours. You have no choice but to quit because you have a newborn and you need to spend more time at home with him or her. You love a company, but the organizational structure doesn’t enable career advancements anytime soon in the next 3 years. Or the work is great, but your manager exhibits grueling micro-management and doesn’t advocate for you.

Finding a job where you can stick around for years is like finding love. You need dumb luck. A lot of things can go wrong and they often go wrong. Plenty of factors need to be aligned for a professional relationship between a company and an employee to last long. But if luck plays a big role in this matter, we should all take that into consideration whenever assessing someone’s working history. Extend more empathy. Ask questions. Give the person a chance to explain the short tenure, why they left the very previous job and what they did despite staying for a short time.

Let’s say a normal person’s career is 45 years long. Staying for two years at a company means you commit 4.5% of that career time, not an insignificant amount. We only live one life. Our time on Earth is so valuable that we shouldn’t waste it to stat-pad a resume. If it’s a pain to go to work or there is no prospect for career advancements and there is nothing that you can do more about it, then leave. Nobody knows what will happen in the future. Perhaps, the new job will lead to disappointment and you will have to jump ships again. But leaving may also give you a chance to find a better employment where you feel content and happy. There is only one way to find out.

To close, I’d like share a famous drawing of Tim Urban.

Source: Tim Urban

Do as I do

When I started working 10 years ago, I joined a local advertising agency in Vietnam. I was an Account Executive, the lowest rung of the ladder. I worked under an Account Director named Quang. I didn’t know much about her. In fact, I never got a chance to get to know her better at the time since she left two weeks after I joined. But she taught me an important lesson. One time, we were preparing a pitch deck for a potential client. I was tasked with doing some market research and putting together a few slides. Upon review, she told me that my slides didn’t have smooth transition because images were off by a few pixels from one slide to another. What she wanted was that when the audience moved from one slide to the next, everything would stay in the same position and there would be no movement, no changes in size of the images. Only the content of the images would change. I was shocked at the attention to detail and more when I saw the final product and other pitch decks from her. She did what she asked of me, even though I didn’t know her credentials at the time.

Almost two years ago, my company recruited a new person. This guy didn’t have any experience managing a credit card portfolio at an issuer before. Somehow, he was trusted by the leadership team to manage the acquisition side of a portfolio worth millions of dollars. The first few months on the job, he kept preaching about data-driven decision-making. Whenever somebody proposed something, he challenged by asking what data supported this. To me, that was a legitimate question. You need to back up your hypothesis with concrete numbers. The thing is that the standard doesn’t seem applicable to him. He repeatedly makes suggestions and decisions by starting with “my guts say” or “my hunch is”. A case of “do as I say, not as I do when the track record is non-existent”.

Amazon is known for putting a lot of thoughts to ideas before execution, even if such ideas might be crazy and far-fetched. The objective is to make the initiator think through the idea as much as possible. In “Amazon Unbound”, Brad Stone described two stories that were contrary to that reputation. In one instance, Jeff Bezos, the founder and legendary former CEO of Amazon, proposed off the cuff that the company should launch food trucks that roll into neighborhood and sell steaks to residents. Internal teams were tasked to develop a plan for that idea and execute. After more than one year and numerous days and nights worth of efforts, the service went live. But it was unsuccessful and abandoned shortly.

In another example, Jeff Bezos wanted his team to create a “single cow” burger that can only be bought from Amazon. The idea is that this Amazon burger would have meat from only one cow whereas commercial burgers on the market sourced the meat from several. It was even designated as one of the high-priority goals, directly tracked by Bezos himself and his direct reports. After almost one year, the product launched with great customer feedback initially. But the unit economics of this product didn’t make sense, as feared. Consequently, it eventually fizzled out.

You see, the one common theme of the three stories above is that a person in power asks somebody down the food chain to do something. The difference lies in whether the authority has credentials and whether such authority sets examples. My first manager showed leadership by setting examples, even though I had no idea about her credentials. The guy at my company didn’t adhere to the standard he set despite non-existent track record. Jeff Bezos didn’t demand of him what he demanded of others, but he had a monumental track record of great decisions.

The lesson here to me is that leaders should lead by examples. Show the troop that the standard is applicable to everybody, not selectively only when the situation suits those in authority. That’s especially important when a previous track record doesn’t exist. An established successful credential will earn a leader some leeway, but he or she should not use up the rope and act like they are THE culture and the expectations don’t apply to them. Aldi wouldn’t be what it is today if executives drove fancy cars and splurged the company’s money on themselves while forcing employees to find ways to cut expenses. Warren Buffett wouldn’t command respect and following if he showed up on newspapers with a scandal every 6 months, would he?

The longer leaders lead by examples, the stronger a culture becomes.

I adopted the Mediterranean diet

Why I researched and adopted the Mediterranean diet started with a silly story.

A few weeks ago, I felt a little bit on pain on my left chest and noticed that my heart rate was a bit higher than it usually was. For good measure, there was a little bit of pain in the area right above my left elbow. I Googled the symptom and the results said that it could be a pinched never or it could be a harbinger of a heart attack. Paranoid and scared, I scheduled a visit to a doctor at a nearby hospital, despite knowing that I would have to pay out of my pocket. I don’t want to have a heart attack and how silly it would be to die from saving a couple of hundred bucks!

I explained to the kind doctor how I felt. He did a few checks, pressed on the painful area on my chest and asked a few questions on what my routine was. After some 20 minutes, he told me that I simply had inflammation on the area, that I got a pinched nerve on my left elbow, that my high heart rates might just be because I was under work stress and he didn’t think I was at risk of a heart attack. The inflammation could be due to exercise or just because my 13lb cat had a habit of walking on my chest every morning to wake me up. He prescribed me some pills to deal with the inflammation and sent me on my way. My little scare went away a few days later, but my relief was soon replaced by the $140 bill that the hospital sent. I spent all that money just to know that my cat might have given me chest inflammation!

But then it hit me that deep down I am really concerned about the health of my heart and the risk of a heart attack. I needed to do something to make sure I gave myself the best chance at living with my newly wed wife as long as possible. In addition to regular exercise, food is an equally , if not more, important factor. So I went down a rabbit hole and it led me to Mediterranean diet.

What is Mediterranean diet? It describes the way that people in the Mediterranean region have consumed food for centuries and still to this day. Their way of life features a high emphasis on vegetables, fruits, whole grains, olive oil, legumes and white protein meat such as fish or other seafood. The Mediterranean diet discourages the consumption of red meat, processed meet, butter, eggs and sweets. (Figure 1)

Figure 1 – Mediterranean Diet Pyramid. Source: Domestic Dietitian

Numerous studies have linked Mediterranean diet with lower cholesterol and lower risks of heart disease. According to Harvard, a study involving 26,000 women over 12 years associated the Med diet with a decrease of 25% in risk of cardiovascular disease. Plus, elderly women who followed this diet were 46% more likely to age healthily with no chronic disease. More studies on this subject could be found at National Library of Medicine.

While the evidence seems abundant, I would be intellectually dishonest if I didn’t say that not all study was properly conducted. Healthline reported one study of more than 7,400 individuals that lasted more than 4 years showed that Mediterranean diet lowered the risk of a stroke and heart attack by at least 28%. This study; however, was found to be flawed in its design and conclusion.

Nonetheless, I don’t think that all the studies on this subject are flawed. And I do believe that a plant-based diet with an emphasis on vegetables and fruits like the Med diet is healthy for us. The trick is to actually put some figures on the effect.

One concern regarding the Med diet is how we can substitute the benefits of red meat. Red meat offers a high amount of protein, iron and B12, the latter of which is crucial in generating red blood cells. The problem is that various studies show a clear link between a high intake of red meat (more than 3 servings per week according to The chair of Harvard’s Department of Nutrition) and a higher risk for cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer. The association between heart disease and processed meat is even stronger as processed meat can come with additives and chemicals. While we do need protein and B12, we certainly do not need the additional health risks. For the maximum health benefits, we just need to find plant-based food that is rich in B12 and protein. Fortunately, there is no shortage of that.

The American Red Cross says that the likes of of kale, broccoli, peas, spinach, sweet potatoes, dates and watermelon are rich in iron. The National Institutes of Health lists clams, tuna, salmon, fortified cereals, milk and yogurt as good sources of B12. Additionally, you get fulfill the daily intake of protein with protein, beans, yogurt, walnut, pistachio or hemp seed. Nowadays, food comes in much more diverse forms; which helps us design an interesting meal plan. For instance, this Edamame spaghetti from Aldi contains 24g of protein per serving. Instead of eating cooked beans, you can spice up the meals with this spaghetti

Figure 3 – Protein rich spaghetti from Edamame. Source: Aldi

In short, I have been on Mediterranean diet for 3 weeks and I feel good physically while losing a couple of pounds already. I can still run 5kms or finish 30 minutes of HIIT without disruption. Anecdotally, I notice that since I cut back on red meat, I have saved some money on grocery every week (likely due to the increase in red meat’s prices). In the midst of historic inflation, that’s an additional benefit that I didn’t expect.

Nonetheless, my goal is to share my story and what I found while researching on this topic. I understand that food and diet are highly personal. What works for me may not work for you. If what I wrote can pique your interest enough that you do your own research or talk to your doctor, I will be already happy.

Book Review: Soul In The Game: The Art Of A Meaningful Life

This book came to me at the right time.

Soul In The Game was written by Vitaliy Katsenelson, who was born in a remote and cold city in Russia before migrating to the US in 1991. Tragedy came at a young age when his mother died from brain cancer. A few years after the death of his mother, he moved to the US with his father, settled down in Denver and despite knowing little English when he arrived, Vitaliy has gone on to become a successful businessman and investor. Currently the CEO of IMA, a Denver-based investment firm, he is also an author of multiple books and an award-winning writer.

Soul In The Game is a collection of essays and stories about life, Stoicism and a little bit of classical music. A big portion of this book is dedicated to the school of philosophy whose famous proponents include Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. Readers will get to know these historical characters a little bit and many chapters end with a quote from them. I find it very cool. Vitaliy did a great job making the topic interesting through his own experiences and interaction with folks around him, especially his children. Some of the points and lessons from this book are profound enough that they require that you drop the book for a day or two so that they can marinate on you.

I was in a rough patch recently. I dropped a few good habits that I worked hard to build. I let frustration at work negatively impact my emotions and personal life. My pandemic cat, which adds so much joy to my life, became distant to me because I spent most time in the office and didn’t spend enough time with him. This book is a much needed reminder of what I can and should do, to feel happier and find what is truly valuable to my life. If you are looking for a book on Stoicism or life lessons, I highly recommend this book. Both the content and the writing are great. It gains some additional points from me as several stories speak to what I am going through. Here are a few excerpts that I took note of

“Artisans constantly strive for improvement. Jiro has been making sushi for over 70 years and is still learning. He says, “Even at my age, in my work… I haven’t reached perfection… There’s always a yearning to achieve more. I’ll continue to climb, trying to reach the top, but no one knows where the top is.”

“Artisans have a very narrow, single focus. Jiro said, “I do the same thing over and over, improving bit by bit.” Stoic philosopher Epictetus said, “You become what you give your attention to.” Single focus combined with a drive for constant improvement, while being a student of life, adds up to an incredibly powerful force.”

“There are so many other things I could be doing. But a while back, I realized that there is a finality to everything in life and especially to kids being… well, kids. This changed my perspective on life. Instead of looking at driving my daughter to tournaments as an obligation and feeling victimized for being forced to do it, I choose to do it. And I really, honestly look forward to doing it. As we drive, Hannah and I listen to music and podcasts, and we talk. We go to lunch. We spend time together.”

Excerpt From: Vitaliy Katsenelson. “Soul in the Game: The Art of a Meaningful Life.”

“I know that in two hours they’ll wake up. We’ll have breakfast and I’ll drive them to school. Jonah (my 16-year-old) will be bargaining with me about what music we’ll listen to – classical will not be his first choice. Hannah will be on Jonah’s side. Mia Sarah (my almost-four-year-old) will offer her preference, which is always the same: “Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round.” We’ll compromise. Jonah has a learner’s permit, and he’ll be driving us through a beautiful park. I’ll hug and kiss them, drop Jonah off at high school, Hannah at middle school, and Mia Sarah at preschool.

I am overwhelmed with emotions just writing this. This is all finite. One day they’ll all be grown up. The house will be empty and days like today will be distant happy memories. I never want days like this to end. I really don’t want my kids to grow up, and a bat mitzvah is another reminder that they are! Someday I will no longer be hugging and kissing them in the morning and driving them to school.

The stock market, economics, politics somehow seem so trivial next to this”

“Tim Urban estimated that by the time you finish high school, you have spent 93% of the total time you’ll ever spend with your parents. Today I spend at least six hours a day with my kids and another 20 hours on weekends. When kids live in your house they are completely dependent on you, especially younger ones.”

Excerpt From: Vitaliy Katsenelson. “Soul in the Game: The Art of a Meaningful Life.”

“When writing is a habit, I do not have to force myself to write. Writing is part of my identity. I am a person who gets up every morning and writes. After not writing for a month, I realize that without it my brain is complete chaos. Just like working out is exercise for my body (I feel mushy when I skip workouts), writing is exercise for my brain. It is not something I do in addition to investing. No, it’s a necessity for me; it’s how I keep my brain tuned and how I connect and organize my otherwise chaotic thoughts.”

“I write a few hours every single day. When I’m done writing I have a similar feeling to the one I have after I work out at the gym. When I’ve worked out hard, the micro-tears in my muscles leave me with a feeling of fullness and growth.”

Excerpt From: Vitaliy Katsenelson. “Soul in the Game: The Art of a Meaningful Life.”

“The problem with a normal budget is that though it captures well ongoing daily expenses like a mortgage, the cable bill, groceries, etc., it ignores future expenses. Let’s take your car, for example. It’s paid for, which is great. But in five years this car will need to be replaced and “suddenly” you’ll discover that you have a one-time $20,000 expense, which should not be sudden and is actually anything but one-time unless you are planning to drive this car for the rest of your life.”

“Sit down together and identify all of your expenses, current and future. Once you have identified your future major expenses, create a sinking fund for each one of them. Once you’ve identified your future expenses, create your budget; and I guarantee that you’ll discover that your true income is much lower than you thought. Just because these expenses are going to happen in the future doesn’t make them less real.”

“By bringing all current and eventual expenses into our monthly spending budget, we got rid of unwelcome surprises. Also, when unexpected things happened – a car accident, a significant repair to the house – since money had been saved in the “emergencies” sinking fund and it came out of a different savings (and mental) account, writing a check was a lot less painful.

I realized over the years what Mark saw then: That our wants are unlimited and will always exceed our income. No matter how much money you make, without a system your insatiable wants (if not controlled) will always outpace your income.”

Excerpt From: Vitaliy Katsenelson. “Soul in the Game: The Art of a Meaningful Life.”

“Stoicism seeks to minimize unnecessary negative emotions, which in turn amplifies positive emotions.”

“Nassim Nicholas Taleb put it so well: “A Stoic is someone who transforms fear into prudence, pain into transformation, mistakes into initiation, and desire into undertaking.”

“Stoicism was started in ancient Greece around 300 BC by Zeno, a wealthy merchant who lost all his wealth in a shipwreck and barely made it out alive himself. Throughout this book I constantly make this point: Pain often unlocks creativity. It must have been a devastatingly painful experience for Zeno to lose everything overnight. Nevertheless, he later wrote: “My most profitable journey began on the day I was shipwrecked and lost my entire fortune.”

For a while Zeno’s philosophy was called Zenoism – but maybe because Zeno did not want it to become a cult of Zeno, he named it after a place in Athens where he and his students gathered, the Stoa Poikile (“painted porch”).”

Excerpt From: Vitaliy Katsenelson. “Soul in the Game: The Art of a Meaningful Life.”

“Some things are up to us and some are not up to us.” This is how Epictetus introduced the dichotomy of control framework”

“He continues: “Within our power are opinion, aim, desire, aversion, and, in one word, whatever affairs are our own. Beyond our power are body, property, reputation, office, and, in one word, whatever are not properly our own affairs.”

“As Epictetus said, “Men are disturbed not by the things that happen, but by their opinion of the things that happen.” We just need to remember that opinion is completely up to us. We can reframe it in a way that minimizes our suffering.”

“Richard Feynman, Nobel laureate physicist, said, “You have no responsibility to live up to what other people think you ought to accomplish. I have no responsibility to be like they expect me to be. It’s their mistake, not my failing.”

Excerpt From: Vitaliy Katsenelson. “Soul in the Game: The Art of a Meaningful Life.”

 

Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade and took away rights to abortion

Today, the Supreme Court overturned a long-standing precedent in Roe v Wade and outlawed abortion. The Court’s opinions were leaked a while ago, but when the news broke, it’s still as devastating.

When I was younger, I used to mistakenly think that the Founders were so brilliant that the Constitution stood the test of time with few changes. “How could they think THAT far ahead?”, I naively thought. The truth is that the more time I spend in the US, the more I realize that they did NOT think that far ahead. They did what they could and it’s nobody’s fault that they couldn’t foresee what happens almost 250 years later. How could they foresee the radicalization in ideologies that plague our society nowadays? How could they foresee a society where it’s more of a hobby to own a gun than a necessity and where guns kill children far too often than anyone could imagine? How could they foresee a society where women are NOT second-class citizens and they have rights to their bodies?

I understand that opinions on gun control and abortion vary significantly across the US. But in a democracy, the policies should reflect the will of the majority. The fact of the matter is that the majority of Americans support abortion and think it should be legal, at least to some extent. By declaring that the Constitution doesn’t automatically give citizens the rights to abortion, the Court allows states with draconian policies to dictate what women CANNOT do in any circumstances. How can we call this a democracy when the will of the majority is cruelly ignored?

A few days ago, the Supreme Court allowed open carry in the state of New York, citing the 2nd Amendment. Here is what the 2nd Amendment says

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

Since we tend to scrutinize every word in the Constitution, let’s look at the two key phrases: well regulated Militia and the right. America is the lone outlier among developed countries when it comes to gun homicide. And not for a good reason. It’s unthinkable how many mass shootings we have in the country. It’s even less fathomable to imagine teenagers that are not old enough to drink yet are old enough to buy military grade and kill kids at school. Does that sound like well regulated to you? Furthermore, if the Amendment itself includes the word “regulate”, more regulations on gun control do NOT mean the infringement of the rights. We have the right to express ourselves, yet we have a bunch of laws that dictate what we can or cannot do. Then how is it that we are more gung-ho on this gun control issue more than we are on others? Nobody ever proposed that we don’t have the right to bear arms. It’s just that we have the responsibility to make sure arms are in the right hands.

Why do I mention gun control? To demonstrate the head-spinning reality in the US. We allow open carry in public, discarding the risk to human life, yet we outlaw abortion because we want to protect fetus. It doesn’t sound logical to me. It doesn’t sound like a society well-run by the rule of law and common sense. It sure doesn’t sound like something worthy of the Greatest Country status.

As disappointed as I am today, I am more fearful for what is coming next. Appointments to the highest Court in the land are life-time. These judges are here to stay. Their ideologies are here to stay. For citizens to moot this kind of opinions from the Court, there must be codified laws. Unfortunately, Congress is as broken as they come. Given that Republicans are all but guaranteed to win back the House, the Senate and likely the White House as well, chances of new meaningful and reasonable laws to protect citizens’ rights and safety are as slim as none.

Below are some of the notes I took from reading the opinion of the dissenting Justices

The lone rationale for what the majority does today is that the right to elect an abortion is not “deeply rooted in history”: Not until Roe, the majority argues, did people think abortion fell within the Constitution’s guarantee of liberty. The same could be said, though, of most of the rights the majority claims it is not tampering with. The majority could write just as long an opinion showing, for example, that until the mid-20th century, “there was no support in American law for a constitutional right to obtain [contraceptives].” So one of two things must be true. Either the majority does not really believe in its own reasoning. Or if it does, all rights that have no history stretching back to the mid- 19th century are insecure. Either the mass of the majority’s opinion is hypocrisy, or additional constitutional rights are under threat. It is one or the other.

Source: https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/21pdf/19-1392_6j37.pdf

The Court knew that Americans hold profoundly different views about the “moral[ity]” of “terminating a pregnancy, even in its earliest stage.” And the Court recognized that “the State has legitimate interests from the outset of the preg- nancy in protecting” the “life of the fetus that may become a child.” So the Court struck a balance, as it often does when values and goals compete. It held that the State could prohibit abortions after fetal viability, so long as the ban contained exceptions to safeguard a woman’s life or health. It held that even before viability, the State could regulate the abortion procedure in multiple and meaningful ways. But until the viability line was crossed, the Court held, a State could not impose a “substantial obstacle” on a woman’s “right to elect the procedure” as she (not the government) thought proper, in light of all the circumstances and complexities of her own life.

Today, the Court discards that balance. It says that from the very moment of fertilization, a woman has no rights to speak of. A State can force her to bring a pregnancy to term, even at the steepest personal and familial costs. Some States have enacted laws extending to all forms of abortion procedure, including taking medication in one’s own home. They have passed laws without any exceptions for when the woman is the victim of rape or incest. Under those laws, a woman will have to bear her rapist’s child or a young girl her father’s—no matter if doing so will destroy her life.

Source: https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/21pdf/19-1392_6j37.pdf

The majority’s core legal postulate, then, is that we in the 21st century must read the Fourteenth Amendment just as its ratifiers did. And that is indeed what the majority emphasizes over and over again. If the ratifiers did not understand something as central to freedom, then neither can we. Or said more particularly: If those people did not understand reproductive rights as part of the guarantee of liberty conferred in the Fourteenth Amendment, then those rights do not exist.

As an initial matter, note a mistake in the just preceding sentence. We referred there to the “people” who ratified the Fourteenth Amendment: What rights did those “people” have in their heads at the time? But, of course, “people” did not ratify the Fourteenth Amendment. Men did. So it is perhaps not so surprising that the ratifiers were not perfectly attuned to the importance of reproductive rights for women’s liberty, or for their capacity to participate as equal members of our Nation. Indeed, the ratifiers—both in 1868 and when the original Constitution was approved in 1788 did not understand women as full members of the community embraced by the phrase “We the People.” In 1868, the first wave of American feminists were explicitly told—of course by men—that it was not their time to seek constitutional protections. (Women would not get even the vote for another half-century.) To be sure, most women in 1868 also had a foreshortened view of their rights: If most men could not then imagine giving women control over their bodies, most women could not imagine having that kind of auton- omy. But that takes away nothing from the core point. Those responsible for the original Constitution, including the Fourteenth Amendment, did not perceive women as equals, and did not recognize women’s rights. When the majority says that we must read our foundational charter as viewed at the time of ratification (except that we may also check it against the Dark Ages), it consigns women to second-class citizenship.

Source: https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/21pdf/19-1392_6j37.pdf

Stare decisis also “contributes to the integrity of our constitutional system of government” by ensuring that decisions “are founded in the law rather than in the proclivities of individuals.” As Hamilton wrote: It “avoid[s] an arbitrary discretion in the courts.” And as Blackstone said before him: It “keep[s] the scale of justice even and steady, and not liable to waver with every new judge’s opinion.”

So how does that approach prevent the “scale of justice” from “waver[ing] with every new judge’s opinion”? It does not. It makes radical change too easy and too fast, based on nothing more than the new views of new judges. The majority has overruled Roe and Casey for one and only one reason: because it has always despised them, and now it has the votes to discard them. The majority thereby substitutes a rule by judges for the rule of law.

Have something to do in mind? Just do it as soon as possible!

Here are a few anecdotes that lead me to believe that when you have a task in mind, it’s better to just get it over with as soon as possible.

Last month, a colleague opened a work ticket. The request was not easy, but I knew if I could sit down with full focus for a few hours, I would be able to finish it. I didn’t. I let it sit there and marinate for over a month while having different projects pull my attention in various directions. Two days ago on Monday, the person sent an email asking for an update and said he needed the data in the middle of this week. I freaked out because I was going to fly out fo a conference on Tuesday, taking the rest of the week off. I had to scramble, asking multiple people for information, and work late on Monday night to complete the ticket that I should have dealt with a while ago.

Knowing full well that I would need shirts to don casual business outfits for the conference, I planned to have several professionally cleaned for the occasion. The thing is: I procrastinated on it. I thought that washing and cleaning shirts would be quick and I could delay till the last minute . The day before I flew, I took my shirts to a cleaning store in town. I received a rude wake-up call when they said they needed more time than just 12 hours for these shirts. Such a poor decision on my part led to my washing the shirts by myself and unnecessary anxiety.

This trip didn’t come at the right time. I was cat-sitting for a friend who lived 20 minutes from my apartment. Because one of the cats has to take medicines at 8am and 8pm every day, I had to live there instead of shuttling back and forth. My flight yesterday was scheduled to be at 1pm. Hence, I planned to pack in the morning, go to work for a scheduled presentation, return home and head to the airport. Well, life threw me a curveball. While I was enjoying my coffee at 6:30am, I got a text from my fellow conference attendee that our flight out of Omaha was delayed and we would not make the connection flight in Salt Lake. He said there was another flight leaving in about 1.5 hours, but of course I couldn’t make it since I had to drive home, shower, pack and leave for the airport. Had I packed before, I would have probably made that flight. The result? A lot of anxiety to arrange a replacement flight and frustration because of the delays. I finally got to my final destination at 9pm, 4 hours later than expected.

The thing is that I reaped the profits of acting right away before.

When I was in Vietnam, the first thing my wife and I did out of quarantine was to prepare for the visa application and submit it. It took a couple of days, but we finished the task without delay. It was good that we did because the Consulate took longer than we expected to renew my visa. During those 3 weeks, we were anxious, not knowing when I could book the return flight or whether I could return to the US at all. My wife admitted that it felt good that we didn’t waste time on that crucial task.

Another example is my marriage certificate. My father-in-law asked us to only get the certificate a few days before the wedding and before my departure for the US. We refused. We wanted to become married legally beforehand. It turned out that we were right. Here is what happened. To get such a certificate in Vietnam, one person has to be certified single in their district before register as married together in the other person’s district. It took me three days to receive a piece of paper confirming that I was single. It’s just ridiculous red tape in Vietnam. Then, my wife and I went to her district’s People’s Committee for the registration. First, they turned us away because there was a small omission on my paper mentioned above. So we had to spend 2 hours sorting it out. When we came back, it took a couple of more tries to finally get the paperwork in order. But trouble didn’t stop there. The person called us at 4pm later that day to inform us that since my wife moved residence once after she turned 18 years old, she had to go back to her previous place to get a document certifying that she was legally single as well. Long story short, thanks to my mother-in-law hoarding old and outdated documents, after 4 days or so, we could finally have a marriage certificate in our hands. The tricky part is that we both had to be present when they gave us the certificate. So you see, had we listened to my father-in-law, either I would have had to delay my trip to the US or we would not have had the marriage certificate we need.

Life has a funny way to punish the unprepared. There are just a lot of unforeseen curveballs and these curveballs, unfortunately, tend to happen too often and at the wrong time. Procrastination and stupidity punished me a few times and I saw the rewards of prompt actions. But I was too comfortable in the warmth of procrastination. I need to work on myself to leave that comfort zone once there are tasks to be done. If you had similar experiences, I hope this will give you some necessary push.

Review of my 2021

Here is the scorecard for my 2021.

Investing

The last couple of months wasn’t nice to my portfolio, but overall I made money in the whole year. My portfolio’s total return went from 4% in 2019 to 23% in 2020, to 40% in 2021. It’s not much, but it’s honest work and I can’t say I am too disappointed. Can it be better? Absolutely.

I made some stupid mistakes with my portfolio. The first was to sell Costco. I love the business, but I was in need of some capital to invest in companies which, to me, had more potential for growth than Costco. I paid the price dearly as the stock went from $370 when I sold it back in April 2021 to $550 today. The second miss was Upstart. A good friend recommended to me when the stock was trading at $88 in January 2021. I didn’t jump on it for reasons that I still don’t fully understand. At the peak, the stock hit $390 or something and even though there was a big pull-back, I would have still made a healthy return. The third mistake is that I didn’t save enough cash on hand when the market dipped and presented great opportunity to buy.

I wrote about how Investing is hard. It really is. I am sure I will continue to make mistakes. I can’t promise that I won’t repeat the ones I made this year. What I do hope is to take my return to a new height. The good news is that I have compounding on my side.

Grade: 6/10

Books I reviewed

I read in total 15 books this year. Not bad, but not a lot either. I’ll strive to read more in 2022. Below are some of my reviews:

Richer, Wiser, Happier: How The World’s Greatest Investors Win In Markets And Life. This is the best book I read in 2021.

Obviously Awesome

Junk To Gold

Amazon Unbound

Think Again: The Power Of Knowing What You Don’t Know

The Spotify Play

Exercised: Why Something We Never Evolved To Do Is Healthy And Rewarding

Grade: 7/10

My Blog

I blogged less this year than I did in 2020. There were weeks when I only had one post, excluding the weekly reading series I always do on Saturdays, or when I didn’t write anything at all. One of the goals I have for 2022 is to increase the posting frequency while keeping the same level of quality. I am not saying that I am a good writer at all, but truth be told, what I wrote this year or in 2020 makes me cringe less than what I put out three years ago. So I’ll take that as progress and continue to work on myself as a writer. I wrote some time back about why I blog. It rang true then and it does ring true now. It helps me become a better person, a better professional and I still do enjoy the process. If you ever came across this little blog of mine and became a subscriber or left a like, you have my thanks.

My top 5 blog posts, besides the homepage:

My experience with Amazon Shopper Panel

Naval Ravikant’s take on death

Create a hover effect on Mapbox

Circadian rhythm, Melatonin, Adenosine, Caffeine and Sleep

My thoughts on Walmart Plus

Grade: 7/10

Work

2021 has been a very busy year for me at work. The pandemic has turned the team upside down with folks relocating to other cities or leaving for better opportunities. Though we tried to backfill the ones that left, the new arrivals have to take some time to acclimate to the team and the overall business. Meanwhile, the work just keeps coming. Existing business-as-usuals and new initiatives. Hence, I have had to shoulder more responsibilities and spent more time working outside the business hours more than I’d like to. But it’s not all bad news. I got promoted and had a chance to mentor interns and new teammates; which is one of the areas I really love to improve next year and beyond.

There are two main things that I want to do better in the future. The first is to sell better, whether it’s myself or my work. This year, several occasions showed me that while the work I did might be good, it didn’t come across as convincing to others as I was a lousy salesman. My self-assessment was echoed by a senior leader in the company, who was gracious enough to share his thought candidly. To be able to move up the ladder, I need to be more confident and communicate my ideas more effectively and better.

The second goal is to have a team to manage and more ownership of an entire project. I managed folks before, albeit briefly, and have been mentoring some people at work. Nonetheless, my goal in the first 2 or 3 years to have a team of my own so I can manage and lead. In addition, I don’t want just ownership of a project’s aspect. I want the ownership of an entire project that can help my company meaningfully.

Grade: 8/10

Is Menadione – Synthetic Vitamin K safe for your pets?

I have a 14-month-old cat that I love so much. He has been eating Purina Pro Plan Focus – Sensitive Skin & Stomach for over a year. Lately he has seemed to be fed up with the food so I looked for an alternative last weekend. That’s when I came across the controversy of Menadione and started to read upon it. I’d like to share what I have learned so far.

What is Menadione? It’s the synthetic version of Vitamin K, an essential vitamin for humans and animals. The natural version of Vitamin K (K1 and K2) are proven to be harmless, even with high doses. Menadione, on the other hand, can cause several health issues for humans, particularly liver toxicity. In fact, the FDA has long banned the use of Menadione as a supplement for humans, a decision echoed by several studies in Europe.

Although allergic reaction is possible, there is no known toxicity associated with high doses (dietary or supplemental) of the phylloquinone (vitamin K1) or menaquinone (vitamin K2) forms of vitamin K. The same is not true for synthetic menadione (vitamin K3) and its derivatives. Menadione can interfere with the function of glutathione, one of the body’s natural antioxidants, resulting in oxidative damage to cell membranes. Menadione given by injection has induced liver toxicity, jaundice, and hemolytic anemia (due to the rupture of red blood cells) in infants; therefore, menadione is no longer used for treatment of vitamin K deficiency. No tolerable upper intake level has been established for vitamin K.

Source: Oregon State University

Since Menadione is cheaper to produce, pet food manufacturers have every incentive to include this substance to make their products nutritionally complete (on the surface) and commercially cheaper. The question is whether it is legal to do so in the first place.

Here is what the FDA says on the matter, as recently as April 2021:

Although vitamin K is an important nutrient for animals and several sources are available, not all of those sources can or should be used in animal feed. Many have not been approved for use in the United States. 

Menadione dimethylpyrimidinol bisulfite and menadione nicotinamide bisulfite are vitamin K active substances that are regulated as food additives for use in animal feed. Federal regulation 21 CFR 573.620 lays out how menadione dimethylpyrimidinol bisulfite must be used in feed. Menadione dimethylpyrimidinol bisulfite is a nutritional supplement for the prevention of vitamin K deficiency in chicken and turkey feeds at a level not to exceed 2 g per ton of complete feed, and in the feed of growing and finishing swine at a level not to exceed 10 g per ton of complete feed.

Menadione nicotinamide bisulfite is also used as a nutritional supplement for both the prevention of vitamin K deficiency and as a source of supplemental niacin in poultry and swine. Federal regulation 21 CFR 573.625 states that this substance can be added to chicken and turkey feeds at a level not to exceed 2 g per ton of complete feed, and to growing and finishing swine feeds at a level not to exceed 10 g per ton of complete feed.

Before either menadione dimethylpyrimidinol bisulfite or menadione nicotinamide bisulfite could be used in a manner different from that specified in the appropriate regulation, a new food additive petition would need to be submitted and approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

According to NRC’s publication, Vitamin Tolerances of Animals (1987), based on the limited amount of available information, vitamin K did not result in toxicity when high amounts of phylloquinone, the natural form of vitamin K, are consumed. It is also noted that menadione, the synthetic vitamin K usually used in animal feed, can be added up to levels as high as 1,000 times the dietary requirement without seeing any adverse effects in animals, except in horses. Administration of these compounds by injection has produced adverse effects in horses, and it is not clear if these effects would also occur when vitamin K active substances are added to the diet. 

Source: FDA

The fine print clearly says that the FDA only allows the use of Menadione in chicken and turkey feeds. Any other use of the substance will have to be reviewed and sanctioned by the agency. The last time I checked, my cat is a cat, not a turkey or a chicken. Therefore, if a cat food label doesn’t clearly show that it’s approved by FDA, it’s safe to say that from the agency’s perspective, the product is not legal.

The lack of explicit approval from FDA doesn’t deter pet food manufacturers. These companies argue that Menadione is safe for pets because they follow guidelines from AAFCO and that the substance is used in amount that is so much smaller than what AAFCO recommends. Let’s analyze that. Firstly, AAFCO is an NGO that consists of state officials with responsibility for passing and enforcing state laws and regulations with regard to the safety of animal feeds. AAFCO sets the standards and guidelines that these officials often adopt, but the organization itself has no regulatory authority.

Second, when it comes to the role of AAFCO in this debate, it’s important to separate its opinion on Vitamin K from the one on Menadione. The organization does require that “Vitamin K does not need to be added unless the diet contains more than 25% fish on  a dry matter basis“. What this requirement means is that if a diet doesn’t contain fish at all, there is absolutely no reason to include Menadione. When I found out that my cat’s chicken paste from Purina contains Menadione, I was furious. They put a controversial substance in the food even when they don’t have to! And even though Vitamin K is mentioned, AAFCO doesn’t refer specifically to Menadione as an approved source. In fact, here is what the Pet Food Committee Chair of AAFCO had to say on the matter:

Nowhere in Dr Kashani’s response did he mention that Menadione is approved for use in pet food. He clearly relies on the FDA guidelines, which, as mentioned above, only regulate the use of natural Vitamin K sources K1 and K2. Like the FDA, AAFCO only approves Vitamin K3 for poultry feed, not for pet diets. Sadly, pet food manufacturers muddy the waters and use it as a blanket excuse for their inclusion of this supplement in commercial pet products. In a response to a customer’s question, the owner of Weruva said: “according to AAFCO, cat food that contains at least 25% seafood on a dry matter basis must contain a certain level of vitamin K, and according to AAFCO, the only approved source of vitamin k is menadione“. As you can see from the screenshot below, it’s not exactly what is in the rule book.

Among the items discussed in the AAFCO meeting in August 2021 was the use of Menadione. An expert panel commissioned by AAFCO concluded that this ingredient was safe for use in pet foods. Here is the catch. The panel came to this recommendation after reading a white paper written by Purina Pet Foods, which, you may guess, is a pet food manufacturer. The white paper is miraculously deemed confidential and not available to the public eyes. This blatantly flawed process is frustrating and calls into question the recommendation of this so-called expert panel. Without knowing the rational and evidence behind the conclusion, who can say that it’s thoroughly studied and scientifically proven?

I visited a Petsmart and Petco store last weekend. There are a lot of products with Menadione. Apparently, the ingredient has been used in pet food for decades, yet the exact legality of the practice has barely been questioned. Just because something is a long-standing practice without any regulatory approval doesn’t mean that it’s legally allowed. Rules are rules. And if that’s not enough, consider this. We don’t often change our pet diets without cause. The consistent consumption of food with Menadione, albeit with a tiny dose, every day may also accumulate over the long term. And who knows? It may cause serious health issues for our pets. I don’t know about you, but I am not, in good conscience, willing to do it to my beloved cat.