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.

The Mundanity of Excellence

Below are my notes from the academic essay named The Mundanity of Excellence, which was written by Daniel Chambliss. The essay drew on his years of studying swimmers on different levels to understand the sources of excellence. And as you can see below, the lessons aren’t only applicable to swimming. They can be very useful to us all in every walk of life.

What are NOT the sources of excellence

Excellence is not, I find, the product of socially deviant personalities. These swimmers don’t appear to be “oddballs,” nor are they loners.

Excellence does not result from quantitative changes in behavior. Increased training time, per se, does not make one swim fast; nor does increased “psyching up,” nor does moving the arms faster. Simply doing more of the same will not lead to moving up a level in the sport.

Excellence does not result from some special inner quality of the athlete. “Talent” is one common name for this quality; sometimes we talk of a “gift,” or of “natural ability.”

I agree with Daniel that socially deviant personalities, quantitive changes or innate talent ALONE does NOT explain excellence. There are plenty of world class athletes who seem very socially friendly such as Kobe Bryant (Rest in Power, Mamba), Roger Federer, Leo Messi or Lewis Hamilton. If the amount of practice alone was the determinant of excellence, why wouldn’t we have more world class competitors? Why would people have different skill levels even at the same age and likely the same amount of practice? If the innate talent could determine excellence, then why did we have several 1st draft pick players in NBA fail to meet expectations? Why did we have the likes of Ravel Morrison, who people at Manchester United labelled as genius, fail to reach the heights that seemed destined for them?

On the last point, the author expanded on why he didn’t think talent alone doesn’t lead to excellence

Talent is indistinguishable from its effects. One cannot see that talent exists until after its effects become obvious. One of the more startling discoveries of our study has been that it takes a while to recognize swimming talent. Indeed, it usually takes being successful at a regional level, and more often, at a national level (in AAU swimming) before the child is identified as talented. 

It seems initially plausible that one must have a certain level of natural ability in order to succeed in sports (or music or academics). But upon empirical examination, it becomes very difficult to say exactly what that physical minimum is. Most Olympic champions, when their history is studied, seem to have overcome sharp adversity in their pursuit of success. Automobile accidents, shin splints, twisted ankles, shoulder surgery are common in such tales. In fact, they are common in life generally. While some necessary minimum of physical strength, heart/lung capacity, or nerve density may well be required for athletic achievement (again, I am not denying differential advantages), that mini- mum seems both difficult to define and markedly low, at least in many cases. Perhaps the crucial factor is not natural ability at all, but the willingness to overcome natural or unnatural disabilities of the sort that most of us face, ranging from minor inconveniences in getting up and going to work, to accidents and injuries, to gross physical impairments.

Excellence is mundane

Superlative performance is really a confluence of dozens of small skills or activities, each one learned or stumbled upon, which have been carefully drilled into habit and then are fitted together in a synthesized whole. There is nothing extraordinary or superhuman in any one of those actions; only the fact that they are done consistently and correctly, and all together, produce excellence.

Doing more does not equal doing better. High performers focus on qualitative, not quantitative, improvements; it is qualitative improvements which produce significant changes in level of achievement; different levels of achievement really are distinct, and in fact reflect vastly different habits, values, and goals

All the world class put in thousands of hours in practice before they burst into fame. Not only do they train as hard as anyone else, but they are almost maniacal about improving their craft. The late Kobe Bryant studied cheetahs to improve his fade away shots. He called up Hakeem to learn about post-up moves. He talked to Michael Jackson to become a better athlete. LeBron James and Cristiano Ronaldo have taken care of their body and skills so well that they are still performing exceptionally at the age of 36.

Motivation is mundane, too

But even given the longer-term goals, the daily satisfactions need to be there. The mundane social rewards really are crucial. By comparison, the big, dramatic motivations— winning an Olympic gold medal, setting a world record—seem to be ineffective unless translated into shorter-term tasks. Viewing “Rocky” or “Chariots of Fire” may inspire one for several days, but the excitement stirred by a film wears off rather quickly when confronted with the day- to-day reality of climbing out of bed to go and jump in cold water. If, on the other hand, that day-to-day reality is itself fun, rewarding, challenging; if the water is nice and friends are supportive, the longer-term goals may well be achieved almost in spite of themselves. 

You see the effect of short-term goals and daily satisfactions every often in reality. Fitness apps have leaderboards so that you can compare yourself with friends or strangers. The confidence and satisfaction boost derived from seeing your name on the top of the leaderboard makes you likely committed in the long run. Personally, when I started to learn English, the road to fluency wasn’t easy. First, I needed to reach some local certificates that were proof of the mastery of the language in Vietnam and the stepping stones for international tests such as IELTS or TOEFL. After I achieved those certificates, then came the preparation for IELTS. Even after I got my IELTS, I still needed to practice a lot to use English comfortably. Without the small wins, I am not sure I would have persisted for years to learn a second language.

Maintaining mundanity is the key psychological challenge

In common parlance, winners don’t choke. Faced with what seems to be a tremendous challenge or a strikingly unusual event, such as the Olympic Games, the better athletes take it as a normal, manageable situation18 (“It’s just another swim meet,” is a phrase sometimes used by top swimmers at a major event such as the Games) and do what is necessary to deal with it. Standard rituals (such as the warmup, the psych, the visualization of the race, the taking off of sweats, and the like) are ways of importing one’s daily habits into the novel situation, to make it as normal an event as possible

Rafael Nadal is famous for his rituals on the tennis court. He always takes a cold shower before every game. He walks into a court with his bags on one shoulder and a racquet in the other hand. He never steps on the court lines. He has two bottles, one is water and the other can be juice. They have to be placed in a certain order and the labels always face the side that he is on. There is no scientific explanation for his behavior, except that doing these little things make him focused and at ease.

One of my favorite movies is Burnt, which stars Bradley Cooper as a 2-star Michelin chef named Adam striving for his 3rd. Adam is infamous for his short temper, ridiculously high standards and lack of patience. He kept pushing his team to the limit every day and wore out everybody in the process. After a betrayal of his Sous Chef, sorting out his personal problems and with the help of his new girlfriend, Adam became more relaxed in his pursuit of the 3rd Michelin star. This scene below is what he got his chance. At 0:22 when being informed that the judges arrived, Adam nonchalantly said “We do what we do”. Everybody looked shocked because it wasn’t what they expected from him. But it’s exactly that attitude that helped him and his team psychologically in their triumph.

The biggest take-away for me from this article is that in addition to putting the work in, I need to spend more time on thinking about how to improve myself qualitatively and how to be smarter and more disciplined with my practices.

A 750-year-old soy sauce secret and an iconic product design

As an Asian, I love soy sauce. That’s what I grew up with and continue to use it regularly in my own cooking. So it was a pleasant surprise that I came across two very interesting clips. The first one talks about how a method to make soy sauce has survived centuries and generations in the birthplace of soy sauce in Japan. The second one discusses the iconic product design of Kikkoman. Not only is their dispenser’s design recognizable without any logo or branding, but it also bolsters customer experience.

Isn’t the world interesting? The design that we usually take for granted took the original designer, Kenji Ekuan, several years to develop. The sauce that we dip our sushi or pour on our food has been around for centuries. This is the main reason why I want to travel the world, to learn about new things.

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.

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

The title gives away much of what the book is all about. Although it doesn’t reveal any groundbreaking fact or insight that no other books has, Think Again is a helpful reminder that we all need to re-evaluate our thinking and our life regularly.

Adam Grant is a professor at Wharton School of The University of Pennsylvania and majors in organizational psychology. In addition to penning several books, including Think Again, he received his tenure at the age of 28, authored many papers and research in his field, and was the highest ranked professor at Wharton from 2012 to 2018. In terms of credibility, there shouldn’t be much to worry about. Back to the book itself. The tenet of Think Again is to encourage readers to think like a scientist with a great deal of humility. To think like a scientist, we need to avoid being too invested in our own opinions. As scientists usually possess a healthy dose of doubt and tend to review formed opinions regularly with concrete data and new facts, that’s what Adam Grant wants us to do. Whatever we learned needs to be revisited and, if necessary, unlearned. The world becomes increasingly complicated. Virtually all the issues that we discuss in our life are multi-faceted and complex; which requires constant investigation and evolution of thinking when new data and theses come up. Yet, many of us, including myself, succumb to mental laziness. We get stuck in the way we think and the opinions we formed in the long past. Changing our minds is often accompanied by admitting that we were wrong and that we made mistakes. Such an admission can be unpleasant and is not what many of us are willing to do. But Adam Grant, using academic research, argues that we must do the hard thing and constantly challenge/review our opinions, for our own benefits.

About a decade ago, when I was fresh out of school, I held beliefs that would make me ashamed now. Back then, success in life was to get a job at a big company, to have a fancy title and to have a lot of money. That success, in turn, would make me happy. Three years into my career, I got depressed. I resigned from a job that paid me well at the time, took almost two months’ sabbatical and accepted a job in a much smaller job market. My life got better. I learned more about the holes and the shortcomings in my thinking which evolved a bit, but there was still a lot of room for improvement. I was still haunted by the idea of pursuing my passion and figuring out the one thing that I should do in my life, like many of us are by all the self-help books and the speeches by the lucky ones such as Steve Jobs. It took me years to finally be at peace with not knowing what I was born to do in this world. Instead, I am happy with being healthy, working towards a future life with my girlfriend and having the freedom that my parents don’t have. Whether that state of mind will persist in the future remains to be seen. But I guess that’s in line with what Adam Grant talks about in the book.

All in all, a nice read for the weekend. It is simple to digest, but the lessons it brings can be profound. Really recommend it.

“If you’re a scientist by trade, rethinking is fundamental to your profession. You’re paid to be constantly aware of the limits of your understanding. You’re expected to doubt what you know, be curious about what you don’t know, and update your views based on new data. In the past century alone, the application of scientific principles has led to dramatic progress. Biological scientists discovered penicillin. Rocket scientists sent us to the moon. Computer scientists built the internet. But being a scientist is not just a profession. It’s a frame of mind—a mode of thinking that differs from preaching, prosecuting, and politicking”

“Mental horsepower doesn’t guarantee mental dexterity. No matter how much brainpower you have, if you lack the motivation to change your mind, you’ll miss many occasions to think again. Research reveals that the higher you score on an IQ test, the more likely you are to fall for stereotypes, because you’re faster at recognizing patterns. And recent experiments suggest that the smarter you are, the more you might struggle to update your beliefs.”

Excerpt From: Adam Grant. “Think Again.” Apple Books.

“In preacher mode, changing our minds is a mark of moral weakness; in scientist mode, it’s a sign of intellectual integrity. In prosecutor mode, allowing ourselves to be persuaded is admitting defeat; in scientist mode, it’s a step toward the truth. In politician mode, we flip-flop in response to carrots and sticks; in scientist mode, we shift in the face of sharper logic and stronger data.”

Excerpt From: Adam Grant. “Think Again.” Apple Books.

“When we lack the knowledge and skills to achieve excellence, we sometimes lack the knowledge and skills to judge excellence. This insight should immediately put your favorite confident ignoramuses in their place. Before we poke fun at them, though, it’s worth remembering that we all have moments when we are them.

We’re all novices at many things, but we’re not always blind to that fact. We tend to overestimate ourselves on desirable skills, like the ability to carry on a riveting conversation. We’re also prone to overconfidence in situations where it’s easy to confuse experience for expertise, like driving, typing, trivia, and managing emotions. Yet we underestimate ourselves when we can easily recognize that we lack experience—like painting, driving a race car, and rapidly reciting the alphabet backward. Absolute beginners rarely fall into the Dunning-Kruger trap. If you don’t know a thing about football, you probably don’t walk around believing you know more than the coach.”

“It’s when we progress from novice to amateur that we become overconfident. A bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing. In too many domains of our lives, we never gain enough expertise to question our opinions or discover what we don’t know. We have just enough information to feel self-assured about making pronouncements and passing judgment, failing to realize that we’ve climbed to the top of Mount Stupid without making it over to the other side.”

Excerpt From: Adam Grant. “Think Again.” Apple Books.

“Arrogance is ignorance plus conviction,” blogger Tim Urban explains. “While humility is a permeable filter that absorbs life experience and converts it into knowledge and wisdom, arrogance is a rubber shield that life experience simply bounces off of. Humility is often misunderstood. It’s not a matter of having low self-confidence. One of the Latin roots of humility means “from the earth.” It’s about being grounded—recognizing that we’re flawed and fallible. Confidence is a measure of how much you believe in yourself. Evidence shows that’s distinct from how much you believe in your methods. You can be confident in your ability to achieve a goal in the future while maintaining the humility to question whether you have the right tools in the present. That’s the sweet spot of confidence.”

“Beware of getting stranded at the summit of Mount Stupid. Don’t confuse confidence with competence. The Dunning-Kruger effect is a good reminder that the better you think you are, the greater the risk that you’re overestimating yourself—and the greater the odds that you’ll stop improving. To prevent overconfidence in your knowledge, reflect on how well you can explain a given subject.”

Excerpt From: Adam Grant. “Think Again.” Apple Books.
Excerpt From: Adam Grant. “Think Again.” Apple Books.

“One possibility is that when we’re searching for happiness, we get too busy evaluating life to actually experience it. Instead of savoring our moments of joy, we ruminate about why our lives aren’t more joyful. A second likely culprit is that we spend too much time striving for peak happiness, overlooking the fact that happiness depends more on the frequency of positive emotions than their intensity.”

“At work and in life, the best we can do is plan for what we want to learn and contribute over the next year or two, and stay open to what might come next. To adapt an analogy from E. L. Doctorow, writing out a plan for your life “is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

Excerpt From: Adam Grant. “Think Again.” Apple Books.

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.