Power, Responsibilities, Choices and Agendas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pay less for medical procedures with MDSave

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One last message to take to 2021

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

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

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

Source: Ryan Holiday

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time!

Wonder Woman 1984 is a solid movie with an important message

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exercise more with The Body Coach TV

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

Recalibrate my eating and find my interest in cooking

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

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

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

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

Learn German

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

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

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

Joe Biden won the 2020 Presidential Election

The excruciating suspense is finally over. Major media outlets just called the race in Pennsylvania and, as a consequence, the whole election for Joe Biden. Crossing over the magical threshold of 270 electoral votes, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will be the next President and Vice President of the United States.

To be honest, I can’t put into words how I felt right now. In 2016, I came to the US, hoping that I could build a better life for myself. It took a massive beating on November 8th, 2016 when Donald Trump won the election because he had been campaigning on the hard-line anti-immigration policies. The past four years was nothing but easy. On multiple occasions, the administration put forward proposal after proposal to make it harder for immigrants like me to find a job and to be on our path towards citizenship. Imagine that you worked hard for years towards a goal and only had it yanked away because somebody woke up one day with a new idea. There is no price tag to put on the uncertainty and worry that immigrants like me have had to endure during Trump’s administration so far.

Then I watched the Election Day on Tuesday. I knew it would be a tight race, but I didn’t expect it to go the way it did. Trump outperformed the expectation. I watched in horror what was unfolding on my laptop. I almost cried. I was in disbelief on how so many could vote for Trump after all he has done and in complete shock as to what to do if Trump actually won. I couldn’t work effectively the rest of the week as I was following closely every update from the states. I don’t think any of my friends could either. The mood was better on Wednesday when Biden’s chance became clearer and it was pretty much obvious that Biden would win the election, barring official confirmations. After a few days of brutal suspense, finally the moment was here. The best I can say is a huge relief mixed with hope.

Whatever happens in the next four years remains to be seen, but one thing almost certain is that Biden will restore decency, certainty in policies, reputation among our allies, humanity and respect to the American institutions; all of which have been severely torched and evaporated by Trump and his enablers in the last few years. To be clear, it won’t be easy. The country is more divided than ever before. The pandemic is rampant with a new daily case tally every day north of 100,000. The people need help. And the Republicans in Congress, particularly the Senate, already signaled that they would not let Biden appoint who he likes. The road won’t be smooth and easy, but at least now that there is light at the end of the tunnel. At least now America has a chance at redemption.

There is something I want to call out here. This week, the whole world has been consumed with the US election. You don’t see this phenomenon with elections from UK, Canada, China, Russia or Germany. Even the people that don’t have anything directly at stakes paid attention to this election and followed every update. That’s the power of America. That’s how the world views America. Even though some may say that only America proclaims itself as “beacon of hope”, there is some truth to that. There is a reason why millions yearn to come to America every year. I recently read this about comedian John Oliver voting in America for the first time

“Standing in line, I thought maybe this will be it and I didn’t feel it,” he continued. “Giving them my name and getting the ballot, I didn’t feel it. Scanning it into the machine and the machine saying, ‘Your vote has been counted,’ I nearly burst into tears. That is the truth. My eyes got misty. I thought, ‘I don’t know if I can cry in a voting station.'”

Source: People.com

I completely feel him. I am not a citizen yet, but I almost cried after the news broke. I have stopped writing this a few times, to check the news if this is all true. Despite all its faults, America is loved by many. I love this country even when I criticized it before. That’s why it has hurt so much the past four years under this administration. And I don’t think I am even close to being alone in this

The nightmare is about to end. We can start rebuilding this country. On top of that, we’ll have the first ever female Vice President and the first African & Asian American Female Vice President at that. It’s hard to believe that almost 250 years after its foundation, this is the first time it happened in America, but I’ll take it.

Time for celebration. At least there is finally some great news in 2020. Have a nice weekend everyone!

Approved progressive measures on ballots that folks should know more about

I don’t think there is anything else in the world that has captured our attention today and yesterday more than the Presidential race. Not the Senate races. Not the House of Representatives races. Not even Covid. Everything else has to take a backseat, but there are measures or propositions on the ballots that I personally support and think should be called out more. I hope you will find them helpful.

Florida voters approved a significant raise in the minimum wage.

I am not a huge fan of Florida, but this move is awesome! Florida voters approved the raise of the minimum wage from $8.56 per hour to $15 per hour from now till at least 2026. For every working individual, that’s double what they are getting paid now. Imagine the relief that these hard-working people and their family will have from this measure. Critics of this measure would tell you that it’s hurting their business and keeping the wages low would stimulate business and the trickle down economics. Have you ever known the trickle down economics work before? Me neither! If business owners can retain more profits at the expense of employees, there is no way that they will let it go. That’s not in the human nature. The only way to improve the livelihood of workers is to make the minimum wage high enough. Is $15 per hour sufficient? I don’t know. But it sure is a hell lot better than $8.56/hour.

The City of Portland in Maine banned the use of facial recognition, imposed a rent control and raised the minimum wage

The City of Portland in Maine also lifted the minimum wage to $15/hour, but it also did two other things: ban the use of facial surveillance technology and impose more rental protections for renters. In addition to limiting an annual increase in rent to the rate of inflation, the measure also mandates the creation of an oversight body that handles rental disputes and shortens the length of unofficial leases. All of these are legislations truly by and for citizens. It’s not uncommon to hear about renter abuses by landlords. If you read any rental agreements, the clauses embedded in those agreements aren’t particularly in the best interest of renters. Although it likely won’t solve all potential issues, the new approved measure is a step in the right direction and tips the scale a bit more in favor of renters.

Paid and Medical Leave in Colorado

It’s still mind-blowing to me that paid and medical leave isn’t universal in America. But the state of Colorado took a step in the right direction by approving the measure that requires companies to pay workers 12 paid weeks for childbirth and family emergencies which include medical occasions. There is not much else to elaborate on this. I’ll just let State Senator Faith Winter take it from here:

I am happy for the workers of Colorado. The new law will ensure that mothers don’t have to return to work mere days after giving birth, she said, and that cancer patients can take time to heal.

Source: CPR

Data privacy expansion and voting rights restoration for folks on parole in California

California’s voters approved a proposition called Prop 24 built on the California Consumer Privacy Act. The proposition will allow consumers an ability to limit how businesses can use their data such as race, location and health information. There will also be a new body that oversees the adoption of the law and the new proposition. In my opinion, our privacy is our right. Companies such as Internet Service Providers shouldn’t be able to exploit our own data and sell it to advertisers without our consent. Sadly, that’s what is happening across the country. Along with other egregious violations of our privacy. Hence, I do think this is a good proposition to have in effect.

Another approved proposition is the restoration of voting rights for folks on parole. Called Proposition 17, it gives people back the rights to vote after they serve their sentences. I mean, everyone makes mistakes. Just because there is a stain in a person’s record should rid you of one of his or her basic human rights, especially in a democracy. It baffles me so much that there are many states in the country where folks are deprived of their voting rights simply because they made a mistake in the past. Well, the way to integrate them back into a society is firstly to let them be a human, with human rights. It’s reported that the proposition will help 50,000 Californians have their voting rights back. 50,000!

Find other ballot measures here

Ableist Culture

Scientific American published an excellent article on Trump being an extreme example of the ableist culture in the US.

It was a grotesque sight: the president of the United States preening from the White House balcony, his mask pulled defiantly off his face, able to infect anyone around him with the novel coronavirus. He had just been released from Walter Reed hospital, after he’d tweeted that we shouldn’t “be afraid of COVID” or “let it dominate your life”—as if it hadn’t already killed more than 200,000 people in the United States alone.

If you encountered the coronavirus, had “good genes,” and were just plain strong enough, Trump seemed to be saying, you wouldn’t have to be like the one million sad, weak losers around the globe who let the virus beat them.

We laud people who “overcome” their disabilities and deride people who live with them, even as this pandemic has taught us that we need mutual aid and interdependence. This ableist culture that glorifies “beating” and “getting over” sickness has ushered in the grotesque carnival we are witnessing now in the White House.

The single word that encapsulates these problems is lame. While lame is clinically defined  as a body part with impaired mobility, “That’s so lame” is tossed about as a pejorative constantly—because what could be more disgusting and useless than legs that can’t walk?

Source: Scientific American

The disdain for getting help from others

I feel like every time I hear about expanding social safety nets or giving aid, even unemployment aid during Covid-19, in the US, the word “Socialism” comes up and so do all the nasty associations. From what I observe, grinding yourself to success is glorified as strong while receiving help is perceived as weak.

The idea that we are responsible for our own fate is not wrong. I buy into that too. Every time I run into a roadblock in life, I look at myself first and wonder what I could have done better instead of placing blame on others. But I didn’t get through college without help. Nor did I land a full time job and a working visa all by myself. I got help. From families, friends and others. Bill Gates was lucky enough to go to the one school in the US that had a computer at the time; which planted the seed for extraordinary success later in his life. He would be the first to admit that he couldn’t do all that he has done alone. Warren Buffett repeatedly admits that he is lucky to be born when he was, and as a white male. Talk to any decent and truthful people and they’ll tell you that their success derives so much from luck.

Then why are we looking down on those who just need a little help to get their life together?

There are folks born with the odds greatly stacked against them such as disabilities, livelihood destroyed in a natural disaster or living in an under-developed area. In those cases, there is no question that we should extend as much help as possible. There are others who are in a bind because of poor decisions. Nonetheless, past mistakes or decisions shouldn’t rid oneself of a chance at redemption or assistance. If a 50-year-old coal miner lost his job because the industry contracted and didn’t have much saving due to poor personal finance, is it his fault for not having a sound strategy in his life? Yeah, perhaps. But should the government give him some help in the form of unemployment assistance or job training & placement? Absolutely. Because of these two main reasons: 1/ We live in a society where folks should help one another better. And if you don’t give help directly, at least don’t ridicule others for getting help. & 2/ you could be on the receiving end yourself.

A fellow Vietnamese once told me that he hated Indians because Indians helped one another land all doctor job opportunities that should have been his. When I asked what he would have felt if the shoe had been on the other foot, he stumbled. Politicians, especially those from the right wing, often argue that social safety nets make people lazy, but these politicians have no problem giving companies tax cuts to bail them out or give them a leg up, even though we have never seen a trickle down economics work, like ever.

I think a very good antidote to the disdain that our society has towards assistance to the people in need is that each and every of us should ask ourselves: what if that was me?

Language matters

Like the article says, language matters. The words we use matter. I sometimes joke to my friends that they shouldn’t act like a girl or that they should man up. I also use the word “lame” to describe a few others. While I consider myself a feminist and someone having respect towards people, in some cases I was being sexist, in others I was just straight up ignorant. I need to get better. Reading this article is a wake-up call for me. I should have known it earlier, but I am glad I identified the issue.

Changing a culture is immensely difficult and time-consuming. How long did it take us to get where we are today in terms of our position towards slavery and gender equality? But it has to start somewhere and now is just as good a time as any.

Schools saw Covid outbreaks. We got this onto ourselves

I remember six months ago, on a Friday when I was in the office, my colleagues and I were alarmed by the news that Covid-19 appeared in Omaha. We got the first confirmed case on that day. I went straight from my office to my car and drove to buy supplies that I still keep to this day. After that, we followed the news to get updated every hour on the number of cases in the US and Omaha, where we live. Every new case was a big deal. Fast forward to now, 6 months later, we have more than 170,000 deaths in the US and the number of cases is not in the hundreds or the thousands. It’s in the millions. I no longer care what the number of cases is on a daily basis. My friends don’t and judging from what I have seen on the streets of Omaha, Nebraska, many don’t either. We are already used to living with the virus at this moment. Not because we beat it. No, the number of cases in the US is still high. The last day when we had fewer than 35,000 new cases a day was almost 2 months ago! And look at the upward trend from left to right. You would love it if that were your stock portfolio’s return, but this is a deadly pandemic we are talking about!

Source: Google

Things don’t seem much better in Nebraska. We are on the same level as we were in May, in terms of new cases a day. It has been three months and it’s pretty difficult to argue that we made progress.

Source: Google

Vietnam’s handling of the crisis has been objectively successful. It was perfect up till 31st July. After going 99 days without a community transmission, an outbreak appeared in the 3rd biggest city in Vietnam. Since then, we have had 300-400 more cases and 25 deaths so far. The same story applies to New Zealand. The country also had a 102-day streak of no transmission before a new outbreak appeared out of nowhere.

That goes to show how vulnerable and fragile our societies are against this virus without a vaccine. If we don’t take, I’ll say it, draconian measures before a vaccine arrives, we won’t win this battle. Vietnam put towns with infections into lockdown. No one can be in or out. Borders have been closed to international guests for 6 months and I expect it to continue to the end of the year. Authorities go on the streets to fine folks who don’t wear a mask. Even all of those measures cannot stop the virus.

Look at what we are doing here in the US. Anti-mask is still going on in the country. If a government institutes a lockdown like we do in Vietnam, I fear there would be a civil war. Worse, some states are pushing for schools to reopen. To no one’s surprise, it didn’t take long for the consequences to arrive. Omaha reported, as of Tuesday (8/18/2020) night, there were 17 students and 18 staff tested positive while more than 150 others were in quarantine (Source: Omaha.com). In Mississippi, 71 out of 82 counties reported outbreaks at school with more than 430 confirmed cases and 2,500 in quarantine (Source: Tara Haelle).

Given what happened in Vietnam & New Zealand and what is happening in the US, do you think we are going to contain this pandemic without a virus? I don’t. The consequences of our failure are real. One of my teammates has three kids, two of which are 5-year-old twins. He desperately wants to send them to school, because working remotely and taking care of three kids at home with their class schedule is taxing for him. However, at the same time, sending them to school means that he is putting their health at risk. And I don’t think his situation is unique. It’s common among Americans.

While some businesses boomed lately because of the pandemic, many others struggled. Even a corporation like Kohl’s struggled financially, let alone small businesses. The government can throw money at the problem a couple of times, but it can’t be the solution forever. Somewhere it has to stop. Additionally, many people lose jobs and have likelihood in jeopardy. The stimulus check is still stuck somewhere in the Senate.

Airlines have secured a lot of cash to improve their liquidity, but at some point, they will have to increase the number of flights, including international routes. But if they do, receiving folks from other countries can easily raise the risk of new infections.

The domino effects of our situation in the US are multifold and severe. Yet, the odds that we have even a mild control over it are pretty slim in my opinion. Remember the last time we had fewer than 35,000 new cases a day was almost 2 months ago and you have to go back to 22nd March 2020 to find the last time we had fewer than 10,000 new cases a day.

This is not a summer that I could ever envision. I miss the feeling of sitting in a coffee shop for a couple of hours and working on my laptop. I miss sitting on a patio and having fun with my friends. I miss going to the office to meet my colleagues. I miss going to a park without wearing a mask. We could have had a chance at all of that if we had done a better job of handling this crisis.

The US is trying to shoot itself in the foot again, with this move

Yesterday, the Trump administration announced new immigration policies that concern specifically international students or F-1 visa holders. Per the new policies, if students already in the US attend only online courses in the upcoming fall semester, they will face deportation. To avoid that horrible fate, students can transfer to another institution where in-class sessions are available and take those classes. For prospective students who are coming to the US for online-only programs, they can no longer come here. The policies sparked an outrage by anyone who has a vested interest or those who really care about this country’s competitiveness moving forward.

Let me tell you a personal story. 3 months after I came to the US, my two Belgian friends and I joined a 4-day hiking trip with some American friends to Badland National Park. It was my first hiking trip ever. We spent time before the trip getting to know each other and learning the ABCs of the adventure. During the hike, we spent the whole four days talking and doing various activities together. It brought us closer. Towards the end of the trip, on the last night, we sat around a bonfire and had to identify one person in the group that we learned the most from during the trip. Half of them chose me.

The point here is not to boast, I just don’t know any other example, but to say that international students can help Americans gain exposure to other cultures. I was really surprised that some people I met in Nebraska had never boarded a plane before, let alone going overseas. If there were no immigrants here in the US, how else could they gain real-life exposure to other cultures and widen their horizon? That’s one of the benefits international students bring. Well, unless you don’t think knowing about another country or culture is a good thing.

Another real benefit is the contribution to the economy. A study estimated that international students contributed $45 billion in 2018 to the US economy. That’s a significant sum. This policy wouldn’t normally affect that sum too much, I suppose; however, given the pandemic still raging on in the US, a lot of schools now have to offer online courses to protect both students and staff. The current situation makes this policy more dangerous and seriously more harmful to the economy that already took a hit from Covid-19.

For years, the US has benefited greatly from brain drain and the arrival of immigrants. Many immigrants founded great startups here after school, created jobs and contributed to the economy. Many immigrants came to study and stayed to contribute to the academic and scientific advances for the US. Many immigrants are still running the biggest tech companies in the US.

With these policies, the US basically says no the future influx of skilled immigrants. In the past, the country might get away with it, but globalization made the competition for international talent fiercer. Other countries with immigrant-friendly policies such as France, Canada and Germany are more than happy to pick up skilled workers that the US turns away.

While I was still in school, I met two Americans who were roommates to my Belgian friends and I am not exaggerating when I say this: they don’t know how to do basic maths as 20-year-olds. What does it have to do with the newly announced policies? 1) the presence of international students shouldn’t affect the learning of Americans. Whether we are here or not, Americans should be able to learn unimpeded or affected. 2) If some Americans don’t know how to maths while in university, how can they compete with skilled and educated immigrants for high-paying and technical jobs? If some local students refuse to get educated and work in STEM fields, how would the absence of international students help technology companies and other businesses in the US?

In summary, I don’t see a single one beneficiary of these policies. Universities will suffer financially because foreign students pay much higher tuition fees than locals and contribute greatly to the student communities. The economy will suffer financially because those $45 billion contribution will be reduced significantly. Businesses will suffer because there will be less talent. If schools force staff and students to go back to the classrooms under the government’s pressure, don’t be surprised that we will still have Covid-19 decimating our communities at the end of the year. Think about 5 months ago. Did anyone of us imagine that by July we usually break record for the number of cases in a day?

All of this is nothing more than a couple of xenophobic, cruel and terrible policies whose sole objective is to fire up a support base at the expense of the country and to hide the failure in dealing with the pandemic. Sadly, the US is shooting itself in the foot, again.