From China: All the wrong reasons for being selfless

Guilt & selfishness. From what I've observed, those seem to be the real reasons why many people here may act selfless on certain occassions. 

Firstly, the debate of whether having reasons such as guilt and selfishness are good or bad reasons to be selfless is actually a topic for another post. In that regards, I probably could have chosen a better title for this post, but I wanted it to be catchy. In fact, I will be discussing simply how those are the reasons I've noticed behind some selflessness here and I will not be trying to debate whether those are good or not. The means to an ends thing is a debate that could last 10 posts+.

Secondly, by "certain occasions" I am most specifically referring to dining experiences I've had while here. Similar things about selflessness can probably be extrapolated, but most of my 'evidence' will come from experiences I've had at famly meals.

Now to begin.

It is very common, that when out (or in) at a family (or even friends) breakfast/lunch/dinner, you will see others passing the plate to someone else first. Very forcefully. In a way that goes beyond what you will see in American politeness. 

For instance, today my Dad and I had lunch with his friends. When a plate of shrimp came out, my Dad insited his friend have the first take. Where upon his friend insisted, again quite forcefully, that my Dad have the first take. This went back and forth as voices raised until one person was able to outpower the other person (literally in a physical manner) in taking a spoon and shoveling some of it on to the other's plate. This is just one specific instance, but I could go on and on about other occasions of something exactly like this happening (including several more from the same meal). And I guaruntee anyone you ask who lives/lived/visited China will tell you the same.

This would at first seem to be an act of selflessness.

Another example (from the same plate). As the plate of shrimp was being devoured and only a few bits were left, they again fought over who would have the last bit. Again it became a physical fight. I even found myself engaging in such odd rituals with a plate of beef and me giving some of the last bits (with my chopsticks) to my Dad.

This would, also, at first seem to be an act of selflessness.

Now let me explain the motivations for such selflessness. People in China are taught that these are the right things to do. From very young (and I can speak to this from first-hand experience) you are taught to ALWAYS let your 'guests' eat first and NEVER be so greedy as to finish off  a plate. And it's grilled and grilled into you. The origins of these ideals are very selfless. In that you should treat guests well, and that you shouldn't be greedy. But because these ideals are forced down your throat, instead of Chinese people doing them because they are simply selfless (as such rituals intend), they do them because if they don't then they feel guilty. 

Beyond that conclusion making a lot of sense, I have two further pieces of evidence for this. As I mentioned earlier, I caught myself in the act of following such rituals when deciding to forcefully put some last bits of beef on my Dad's plate. After the fact, I thought about why I did that. I realized it was becuase I felt that I was eating too much of it, and I would feel badly if my Dad hadn't got to try any because of me. So that's straight up some guilt. And it was selfish because I wanted to rid myself of the guilt, and by giving some beef to my Dad I was able to do that. For self-satisfaction.

Another thing is noticing, time after time, people offering something on a plate to someone else, either waiting until they accept the offer or until that person decides to forcefully place the food on the other's plate, and then immediately going in and taking some for themselves. I saw this several times today and will see it more in the future (as I stay here in China). I cannot attest to exactly what these people are thinking when they do this, but I will make an educated guess. They would feel guilty for eating more off that plate, and therefore make someone else take some first (and act as if it was their duty to do so), and relieve that guilt to be able to take some for themselves and enjoy it comfortably.

So these so-called selfless traditions you will find in dining out, and in other situations where courtesy is often extended, have now become just a way for people to rid themselves of guilt. And that is selfish. 

Disclaimer though: I do feel like I see some people act truly out of selflessness. And especially when it comes to the older generation (i.e. observing the actions of my grandparents), I feel like when they make courteous gestures they do it because they are just being sefless and really care, rather than for other reasons. And again, I fall victim to this too.

Saw behind the Great Wall... didn't like the brainwashing

In China they now have a huge graduation-like celebration for you when you turn 18 and when you graduate. Cap, gowns, and everything. A huge ordeal. Since they can't throw those huge ordeals for every single individual in high school, they group birthdays togethers by months or so to get a large enough group that it makes sense to spend all the time/money into throwing that event.

I was told earlier this week when I arrived in Shanghai, that my cousin was to have hers! I was excited to go. Still excited as I walked into her auditorium and took my seat, I finally got a little dissapointed as it started. It was person after person, speech after speech. Admittedly, I drifted off a little at one point. 

As an American-born Chinese with only a few years of Chinese school under my belt at the ages of 5-7, I could still pick up enough words to get the general gist of what was going on. After giving listening a try, that's when I started to get intrigued again...

I started really paying attention to what they were talking about and I heard them emphasize family, country, and traditions. OK, well that wasn't too troubling..

But then... all the newly crowned 18-year-olds stood up and began speaking an oath. From what I heard (and confirmed with my Dad sitting next to me) part of their oath was a long pledge to remain true, loyal, and supportive to the Communist party. 

Then, surely enough, one-by-one cohorts within the 18-year-old class started screaming out oaths in synch with each other. Practiced, rehearsed, brain-washed. All the good bits. It felt really reminiscent to the Hitler Youth videos I see on Youtube.

And this was all supposed to be a celebration of the kids turning the ripe age of 18. But I couldn't stop picturing in my head a room full of top Chinese officials saying, "Hmm... OK we how can we brainwash these kids?"

"I have some great tactics we can use. Saw Germany use them successfully."

"Ok... now how do we get use them without being too open and getting criticized?"

"Hmm.. oh. Let's bring it to every school. Have a 'celebration' and do it then! And how can they criticize when we block ALL the things. lulz."

"Touche."

Oh right. That's the other thing. Along with the brainwashing, even if someone cared enough to talk about it they can't! All major social networks are blocked and the only one allowed (Weibo) is highly regulated by the Chinese government! 

It was really hard for me to see all that happening and realizing they couldn't do much about it. Noone could really get their voice heard that effectively even if they wanted too. I'm sure many people have thought about it, but realized rallying would be really tough.

And I talked to my Dad about it and he agreed the celebration was clearly a ruse to mask the brainwashing of these kids. And when I told him to bring it up with my Uncle, my Uncle agreed too but was very hesistant when talking about it. Not normally a shy person, he seemed that way when we brought it up.

My guess on it is that they've realized how badly the Chinese government is forcing their hand into their lives and how they have almost no say in it. So it's tough to face that fact, and easier to just try to pretend it's not happening. 

My dad told me a lot of Chinese are sympathetic to the censorship and brainwashing, because they feel it's the only way to main peace with such a large amount of people. Not only did I tell my Dad that's BS and that maybe the government should just act in the way that would not inspire riots, but also mentioned that it could clearly be a symptom of Stockhold Sydrome.

Anyways, today was a very eye opening experience. I'm really unsure about what it will take to fix these issues in China. Or if they ever will be fixed.

I told my Dad it's going to take a Ghandi of China - someone who can inspire a mass following, but who is not in it for the power. Because if someone likes power too much and gets traction, then it will just be another oppressive government taking over the old oppresive government.

Attending college right after high school is generally a bad idea

I have a feeling that most "kids" in college are not particularly sure of what they want to study in school or what they want to do when they get out of school (if someone has evidence to prove this, or otherwise please share). Given this assumption, I think that it makes even more sense to take a couple years off before you go to college. But even if this assumption is not true, I still think it makes a lot of sense to not go to college right away after high school. Let me tackle this both ways.

First, given that most kids are not particularly sure what they want to study or do it makes sense to take some time between high school and college so you can figure stuff out. I'm a proponent of being able to take time off, in this case, to explore different interests and career paths or just to party and hang around.

I think it's obvious why taking time off to explore different interests and career paths would be valuable for someone who is not sure of what they want to do. Through experience, someone can figure out what practical things they are good at, what they don't enjoy, and hopefully what they do really enjoy. So ideally, someone who takes time off after high school will go through these motions and get a better sense of the direction they want their lives to take, so when you go back to school you know what you need to focus in on. But in all liklihood, if you let a teenager loose they probably won't do the responsible thing. So let me explain why I also think it's important to take time off even if it's to party/chill out.

After taking it easy and partying for a while, a kid will probably wise up and realize that life is not that simple and will start to take more responsibility and go down the path I mentioned in my last paragraph. If a kid is never able to realize this after partying for a long long time, they probably would never have been able to get that beaten into them through being in the academic system for 4 extra years anyways. I personally know several kids that are really wasting their time in college, so I will extrapolate that there are millions of other students doing this whom I will never know. I define waste as: partying way too much, attending classes only on occasion (or not at all), and/or taking classes just for the sake of taking classes (and not because they are interesting or valuable in any way). These goof-offs are better off goofing-off while not in college. Doing this while in college is a waste of time, money, and a valuable opportunity. A parent will often say something like, "Stop partying and wasting your time! Trust me I know what's best, and what's best is focusing on school work."

Well as it turns out, parents and adults generally do know what they're talking about, but it's hard for us kids to see that as immature creatures. We listen and remember lessons better by learning from our own mistakes and making the decisions ourselves. So even though you Moms and Dads of the world are usually right, we probably won't listen and will go with our own gut. Why not let us go with our own gut, even if that gut says to party? Just make sure we're not in college while we're doing it. Let us waste our time when that time isn't worth $40K+ a year and wait for us to wise up, figure out what we want, and go back to school if we so please.

College can be extremely valuable. You have a wealth of resources from your classmates, to your esteemed/experienced professors, to the great choices of classes and extracirriculars. People would be able to attain much more value out of these resources if they knew exactly what they were trying to get out of them and if people weren't too busy being distracted by other goof-offy things. Therefore to me, it makes a lot of sense that someone who doesn't have it completely figure out yet should take some time to goof off and figure it out before they go to college and extract every dollar of value they can out of the resources there. It'd be much more efficient that way. For very similar reasons, someone who does know what they want to do should also take time off between high school and college.

Now given my first assumption was wrong, if kids did know what they wanted to learn/do they should still be expected to take time off between high school and college. The first obvious thing is that people often think they want to do something before they actually do it. So taking time off gives those people a chance to try it out, and really figure out if they want to do it. If they really did want to do it, well nothing is lost because at least you get some valuable experience out of it. If it turns out that the person didn't end up actually liking what they thought they would like, well then they just saved a lot of time and money figuring it out before they went to college.

There is a less obvious reason for why someone should take time off if that person already knows what they want to do with their life and that thing has a high liklihood of not changing. Let's say I know that I want to be a programmer. Taking time off to try to do that and getting some experience will still be extremely valuable for me because 1) I'll figure out what parts of programming I really enjoy and 2) which parts I really suck at. Knowing both these things will help me extract more value out of college. I will be able to choose which classes to take, professors to talk to, people to interact with based off what I know my particular fancy is and based off what I know I need to learn more about and get better at.

All of these reasons I mentioned about why taking time off between high school and college is good revolve around extracting the most out of college as possible. This should tell you that I am not actually against college and higher education, I am just for a different approach then what is traditionally acceptable. As I mentioned, I believe college has several great resources for people and that everyone should recognize it. The only thing is, I believe that you should optimize your time in college. And I think that for everyone, no matter what your case is, you can optimize your time there by first taking some time off between graduating high school and going to college.

I think that going to college is still generally a good thing so it should still be commonplace for people to attend college. I am just proposing people shift their views about how fast the turnover should be between a student exiting high school and entering college.

Would definitely love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

RIP 1983 BMW 320i

Rest in peace, friend. Today we officially (sort of) say goodbye to a very (very) old friend - let me clarify that he is very very old, but has not been my friend for that long of a time. 

While trying to install a new battery into the 1983 BMW 320i sitting in front of my garage, my friend and I heard a *thunk*. We thought nothing of it, until we walked around the car a few minutes later and noticed the exhaust pipes and muffler had fallen off the car... There they were just rusted off this masterpiece BMW.

Given I hadn't driven this car for a while, and it was only given to us recently, I was still hoping there was some chance to breathe life into it. My friend really needed a car and didn't want to spend much, so I was planning on giving it to him practically for free! 1) I get to help a friend out and 2) I get to vicariously live through someone who gets to drive that sweet BMW on a daily basis.

It just ended up needing too much fixing, and it probably wasn't worth it. At 260K miles, we knew we had to replace the battery, the alternator, and now also the muffler/exhaust pipes. Now this is what we found after just extremely basic inspection. I imagine if we looked any further, there were probably other parts that needed fixing or tuning up. In fact, I could easily imaginge my buddy driving down the highway and not realize that he had been losing bits and parts every so mile or so until he ended up home with nothing but two wheels and his comfy seat.

It was the right decision though to say, you know what there's too much risk involved and already a lot of money I'd have to up front for a crappy car. So I would have walked away too. But now, I have to either find a super passionate car-fixer-upper, or donate this guy/gal.

Frugality vs Stinginess

There's a fine line between being stingy and being frugal. You can choose to not waste money - that's frugal - or you can choose to hoard your cash - that's stingy. It's such a fine line because what counts as a 'waste' and 'basic necessity' is often subjective and very open to debate.

Here are a few things for consideration when talking about being frugal versus being stingy.

Choosing a living space. It can be argued that for your place of inhabitance, all you need is space to sleep, eat, and shower, and that's that. I think that may be true for some people, but for many people having the basic minumums could be a hinderance on productivity and happiness. I think that for what I know about myself, I can be perfectly content with just enough room for an air mattress, and some space to set up my laptop and a couple of plates for food and food I consumed the days before (since I refuse to clean up often). The thing is not everyone can live like this. Some people genuinely will become unproductive or demoralized without a certain level of comfort met. You have to decide if you still want to work with those people - if you do, you have to learn that this means you can't try to force them to be too 'stingy' - or if you want to find people like you. So being "frugal" or "stingy" in this case is just what the level of comfort someone must have before their mood or work is impacted. Again for me personally, my frugal tends to be a lot of other people's stingy. I'm okay with very very basic needs.

What to eat. Again, this is not cut and dry. You can decide to feed yourself the basic nutritional needs and could consider that frugal. But almost everyone else would find that stingy. I actually have found that empiracally, I do get a happiness boost if I eat good food over just basic cheap food. Being full is important, first of all, but being satisified can be just as important. It's all about morale, I suppose. Being frugal here is just trying to buy groceries on sale as often as possible and planning ahead, while stingy would be just always buying the dirst-cheapest thing available.

What office supplies to get. There are some clearer measurable metrics here, so this is probably the most objective out of the three. I think you could clearly measure productivity boosts that an extra monitor provides, or a separate keyboard/mouse, or even quality pens/pencils. I would say with office supplies, it can be good to spend some money here. Obviously, don't go buying huge monitors for everyone and their mothers, but make sure you don't limit your productivity by not having something you need. Being frugal here, I would say is just trying to get the best deals for the things you need. Being stingy would be telling everyone that just a laptop is enough and to go with Toshiba or something ridiculous like that. 

Overall I think being frugal means, spend the least amount of money possible so that you can be productive without thinking about what else you might need or having things get in the way. Being stingy would cause you to really be worn down by the environment. That would be bad.

Always find a key take away

I think it was JBiebs that introduced this principle to me first. I was back at Penn last year and we were having lunch. I was asking him for advice on what classes to take and how to get the most out of him. Something that stuck with me was what he said about how he always makes sure he has at least one key take away from the classes that he takes. One sentence that summarizes the most important concept he learned. 

A few reasons I think this is a good concept to apply to several things are that 1) it really makes your brain reprocess the information that was thrown at you and that itself helps you retain information better, 2) because it's one sentence it's even more likely that you'll remember it, and 3) because of 1 and 2 you're likely to really have gained value from that one class or whatever.

Today I had several meetings in a row and decided that I might try using this "find a key take away" thing to see if it does any good. Immediately I found myself really thinking about the conversations I had more than I normally did. Usually I would forget most of the notes that I took. In addition, being able to synthesize it I am now able to really internalize the lessons and advice that was given to me. I think this is something I am going to continue doing.

And this shouldn't only apply to meetings with people who offer advice and guidance. But it can be used on a daily basis for all tasks. After you do some Google-fu for research, after you read an article on Hacker News, or after you finish trying to figure out what way to design your next batch of code. Next time I'm going to use this method and figure out how much it will improve my life and the amount I learn and retain what I learn. My hypothesis is that it will be really beneficial.

Patent Trolls

Patent trolls are lame. Same with trademark trolls. And other trolls that just frustrate and waste the time of startups. Today I spoke with a startup that wasted valuable time and money fending off a pesky trademark troll. What a waste! But what else could they do?

I think Google was right in adopting the motto "don't be evil" because it really make sense for the technology world (and really the world as a whole).

It seems so simple, yet it's not common practice not be evil. I think the good thing about laws are that they establish somewhat of a boundary of no matter what you absolutely cannot be THIS bad or you will be punished but the issue with them is that many people (including myself) decide that "rules are meant to be broken" and there is no perfect rule that is not exploitable. So people will typically either exploit rules to exploit them, or people are genuinely a little evil but sensible just enough to not want to get arrested or sued themselves.

This general attitude of "but I'm not breaking the law" is what I find annoying and useless. Being good is not just being loyal to the PoPo but loyal to generally having a good moral compass. Now that is VERY subjective but I think there are a lot of things people can generally agree are good and bad. And also, more often than not, perpatraters who claim they know no better, really know the difference between 'evil' and 'good' and decide to be 'evil' because it's legal.

In general the law should not be your moral compass. 1) because the law can be wrong sometimes and 2) the law is just the boundary case of what is absolutely unnacceptable. I'm sure there are a lot of exceptions to this, but I make it simple for myself so it's just how I see things. Certain things are right and certain things are not.

For instance patent trolling is wrong. A patent is a legitimate way to encourage innovation, so don't use it to hinder it. Someone who just squats on patents and tries to debunk any somewhat successful person from building something awesome (or just wasting their time/resources) is evil in my book. Or at least not good. 

I know this is kind of a ramble. But it kind of makes sense.

TL;DR - don't be evil. 

A constant of sports and startups - always fail at full speed

This is a post that I've been meaning to write for a long time and I probably won't do justice to. So look forward to me rewriting it in the future :). But a valuable lesson that has (literally) been beaten into my brain since I started playing football in 3rd grade is always go full speed

Some of the more obvious safety beneftis of this is when you slow down or hesistate in football, you tend to be more prone to twisting your ankle or falling the wrong way and hurting your wrist/fingers. Also when tackling, when you slow down your opponent always seems to be able to knock the wind out of you that much easier. I can't explain how this works scientifically, but empirically I've noticed these things during my 10 years of playing time. 

And beyond just avoiding injury or getting pounded by a huge lineman, there seems to be a clear mental benefit in failing at full speed as well. Your body tends to remember the decision it makes, and it was right, it will repeat it. If it was wrong, it will avoid it. Again I have no scientific way to explain this, but I'll give this one my best shot.

I attribute this phenomenon to muscle memory. As an athlete, you will find yourself doing a lot of tedious drills. The point of this is to gain muscle memory for the basic skills you need for whatever sport and position. That's why drills tend to be easy, then hard, then easy, then hard, etc. Because you usually will build muscle memory for somehting very basic, move on, get used io it, then it becomes basic to you, and you have to move on, and etc. My observation is that drilling tends to be very effective, and my hypothesis is because it banks on muscle memory (which for many people is very effective). A lot of math people to do it too (I know b/c I used to be a mathlete). In school, we get drilled on fractions, times tables, etc. This is all because muscle memory is great for a quick and reflexive response.

This is why making mistakes (or failing) at full speed is important. Because failing at full speed enough times, will make you instincly know that it's the wrong thing. It means that you will be able to make the right decision faster, because your brain has been trained to see what's wrong. Maybe you won't instinctly know what's right but you'll instincly know what's wrong and if you fail enough times, logic says you'll eliminate all wrong options and therefore you will know what's right afterall. That's right there is an argument to fail fast. So you can get to the right option faster.

But just like with sports/math/whatever, some people "get it" faster than others. And some people develop that instinct after shorter periods of times than others. It really just depends on how smart you are, and after a certain point that is probably out of your control.

So segue into startups and real life... the more you make business decisions at full speed, the more likely that if it was the wrong decision, or a mistake, you'll build the instinct to avoid it.

The thing people end up doing wrong is overthinking and taking too much time on decisions. You'll never be able to internalize that decision process unless you're a super genius (which some entrepreneurs might be). So think about it, and go for it. This is why VC's encourage companies to go after high stakes really quickly. I think it's not only because that's how fund math works, but because it's how great companies are built.

And this principle of failing at full speed applies to life too! Try it next time, smarty! When you're lost and you have to decide to turn right, or turn left... next time don't think too much about it and just go for it. It will be better for you in the long run. Trust me.

How to hack several systems - all you need is a gmail address

So there is a simple hack you can use almost all across the web that I only recently found monetary value for. You can tell me what you think the ethics of it are, but let me first explain to you what I'm talking about. To participate in this, all you need is a Gmail address.

What I found out a long time ago from a friend is that Gmail has 'dot blindness,' or in other words wesley.zhao@gmail.com is functionally the same as wesleyzhao@gmaill.com, w.e.s.l.e.y.zhao@gmail.com, and wesleyzh.ao@gmail.com (etc..). If you send an email to any one of those email addresses, they will end up in your inbox (assuming that's your username).

Now the big question is...how can I use this new found knowledge to my advantage? Simple. First case is with Twitter. As someone who builds web apps now and then, I also like to get Twitter handles for those projects on occasion. Twitter doesn't allow you to sign up multiple accounts on the same email address (very similar to almost every single service out there which requires an email on sign-up) because usually that's the unique identifier in their records database. With this cool dot blindness knowledge, you can know sign up an infinite amount of accounts using just one Gmail account with varying numbers of dots. And as I breifly mentioned earlier, this can be applied to almost every single web service that requires an email and you would like to have multiple accounts for whatever reason.

Now the second way that I've found use for this, that also has some monetary value, is the new Red Robin Royalty Card promotion. If you get a loyalty (or royalty) card from them, you get a free appetizer within 15 days of registration, and a free burger on your birthday. All you need is an (unique) email! Well... needless to say. I may have found my way to several free appetizers and free burgers on consecutive months. You figure out how I did it. Should be easy if you've been paying attention.

The more crowded the restaurant the better the food

Or at least you would think. Ajay and I got into that discussion today as we were trying to decide which Taqueria to go to near my Dad's South San Francisco pad. We ended up choosing La Taqueria Menudo thanks to Yelp.

But as we were walking the streets we passed by several empty spots and a few more crowded places. We immediately casted off the empty spots as must-suck's and kept our eye open for places with a crowd. After a second though, I was a little hesitant about my logic. 

I started to recall experiences where a place was super-hyped, filled with lots of people, but I was a little dissappointed by the food. So I began to think to myself, how good of a predictor is crowdedness for the quality of food at a restaurant.

From my research (aka digging through memories of food experiences), I think that usually when I get a great meal the place is pretty packed. I've had experiences in spots where I've had to wait long lines and ended up with not-super-impressive food, but usually something made up for it like the story behind the place, the decor, or the location. The food, though, was never bad. I would just be dissappointed because I expected better.

However... on the other hand of that. I definitely can recall eating crappy food at empty places. Thinking to myself, "ah yeah that's a gem." But turns out it wouldn't be a gem... just a poorly maintained space. 

I think in general the following things are true (in general!):

- When you find yourself eating great food, you probably have a good amount of company.

- When you find yourself eating alone, the food is probably not going to be great and you need to find a friend.