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I left the US for Guatemala right after I graduated in 2002. A couple of months later I moved to Taiwan, where I spent 7 wonderful years. After that I spent a bit of time in Hong Kong, then headed into China and lived for a while in Kunming and finally Beijing. Though I visited the US a few times during those years, it took me nearly a decade to move back.

Having just done a stint at a start-up, working on a framework for educational iPad and iPhone games, I found myself drawn to California, more specifically the Bay Area. It’s been a shock in all kinds of ways, mostly good.

I couldn’t help but feel excited as the plane touched down. I don’t remember if I’ve flown through SF Airport on the way to visit family or friends in the US before or not, but this time was memorable. I knew I was at a life inflection point, returning with the intention of staying.

The Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART)

As expected, the subway system was accessible directly from within the airport. It was sort of an odd experience. On one hand, everything was in English. On the other, it felt like I’d traveled back in time. The subway system felt horribly dated compared to those I’d used in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore or even Beijing. When buying tickets, instead of a pictoral display from which to select the station I wanted, there was a paper subway map, a paper chart of station names and prices and a text only ticket vending machine. After seeing that a trip to Powell station would cost $8.10, I put in my $20 bill and then had to hit the -$1 button 11 times and then hit the +10¢ button.

Inside the trains, there isn’t a visual display showing what station you’re approaching or a map of where you’re headed. You’ve got to know the names of terminal stops and hope you can understand the garbled announcements over the loud speaker… or just ask random people until you get there like I did. People were surprisingly helpful!

The Money

The money has just gone weird. When I left, American money was green. Canadian money, monopoly money and other currencies were funky and rainbow colored, but real money mean greenbacks. I do have some recollection of some $20s that were blue-ish when I was visiting my ex at Dartmouth a few years ago, but it wasn’t enough to prepare me for what was waiting. Five dollar bills with a big, obnoxious purple 5 on the back! Ten dollar bills with HUGE Alexander Hamilton heads not reined in by any oval-shape frames! Dollar piece coins given to in change at multiple locations! I wasn’t gone that long, was I?

Cars

The weirdest thing happened to me, multiple times. As I was walking up to an intersection, I saw some approaching cars. So I slowed down. And they stopped! Multiple cars in different lanes stopped for me, a single pedestrian! In China I always had to kind of wait until there were 5-10 pedestrians waiting with me to cross in a group. Drivers really had a lot less patience for pedestrians there, crosswalk or not. This change is still catching me off guard now and then, but I’m sure I’ll adjust quickly.

The Environment

In Taiwan it wasn’t too bad, especially out of the cities or up in the hills on the jogging and biking paths. There was some wonderful natural beauty. It was also unbearably hot and humid.

In Beijing, the air was absolutely terrible. During my first week there, I made the mistake of going out for a 90 minute jog in the Hutongs. I spent the half hour in a shower clearing out phlegm, all of it brown. I became well acquainted with bjair.info and learned to see any pollution index of under 200 as “pretty good”.

In San Francisco, it’s been great! The air is clean, the sky is blue, and the bay view is breathtaking from the hills, especially after climbing them! I feel like this is just a healthier life than I had in Beijing.

Free Beer

It seems that almost everywhere I go, there’s free beer being offered. The hostel where I stayed gave out free beer every night at 9:30. They had some kind of vodka company sponsoring them and the manager kept trying to get us to play beer pong with vodka shots. My second night in town I went to a talk at Adobe on mobile gaming, and got free pizza and beer along with some great talks, including one by the creator of the Corona SDK. The next night, at a SFJS meet-up, I got some organic burritos and free beer as I learned about the Meteor.js framework. Ditto for the Ruby on Rails hackathon I attended.

Also, it’s worth adding that not only is it free beer, but it’s free good beer, including stuff from my home state of Colorado– Blue Moon, Sunshine Wheat and others.

Technology

While the subways may have felt like a jump back in time, everything else feels like a huge leap forward. It’s absolutely stunning how many tech people are out here and also how technical a lot of random people working in other jobs are. A random lady I asked for directions on a train tried to recruit me to do mobile development for her ad agency. I heard coffee shop employees discussing the possibility of a 15″ MacBook Air.

On my way to a meet-up at Change.org, I incidentally passed the main offices of Adobe, airbnb and Zynga. I was looking for this when I moved, but I didn’t fully comprehend just how much different the concentration of smart technical people was here than in other places. Even compared with Boulder, CO, where I lived before, this is amazing.

Social Ills

Never before in my life have I seen so many homeless, desperate and just crazy people concentrated in one area as I did walking back to my hostel near Market Street from the talks at Adobe. I’ve seen poorer people, for sure. In Beijing, the high-end beggars may have been doing alright for themselves, but in Kunming there was a good deal of outright poverty.

San Francisco is different. Its neighborhoods are very granular. Walk 10 minutes in one direction from the financial district and you’ll be in the center of Chinatown. Walk further up hill and you’ll be in a very gentrified old neighborhood. Another ten minutes down another side of the hill and you’re in a street full of homeless, hopeless and mentally ill people. Another 10 minutes and it’s upscale tech offices. While I’m grateful that I’m not personally confronted by beggars outside my apartment and that I feel safe in my neighborhood, it’s still disturbing. I’ve only been here a week. I don’t understand the situation, its background or what people are doing to help.

It serves as motivation though, both selfishly to get a job and not fall through the cracks, and altruistically to gain the kind of power to help people who most need it.

Idealism

Surprisingly here in the home of so many lucrative tech companies, I’ve met a lot of people here who genuinely seem focused on making the world a better place. In some other places I’ve lived, I’ve gotten a very strong sense that money rules. Here, despite incredible disparities in wealth, I’ve found a lot of people to be cooperative with potential and even current business competitors. A girl I met on the subway told me her dream of being a volunteer worker.  Highly paid professionals collaborate to make free classes for those wanting to break into their industries.  Strangers at every meetup.com I’ve gone to have gone out of their way to help me.  I’m embarrassed to admit that having lived in Beijing even for a couple of years, I feel wary. I’m not used to such a high-trust society, yet. On the plus side, I’m feeling more inspired and more motivated than I have in quite a while.

This is probably just the beginning of a much longer adjustment, but so far it feels good to be back in my home country.

Ever wonder why so many expert witnesses lead juries astray due to mathematical errors? Or why so many gamblers and investors are so bad at assessing relatively simple probability questions? First imagine that you consider yourself an expert (at something other than math), and then you encounter a question like this…

Imagine there’s a completely random event with two outcomes, say flipping a coin. Each flip has an equal probability of landing heads or tails. Now imagine that we’re interested in seeing how long it takes to get a certain sequence of outcomes.

Pattern 1

Tails, Heads, Tails

Pattern 2

Tails, Heads, Heads

Now, suppose we flip a coin until Pattern 1 is reached, note how many coin flips it took, and then we repeat the process many times and average how many flips it takes to get a tails-heads-tails sequence . After that, we go through the same process to see how many flips it takes to get Pattern 2, a tails-heads-heads sequence. For example if we start flipping a coin for pattern 1 and we see:

tails, heads, heads, tails, heads, tails

Then we reached Pattern 1 after only six coin tosses. Sometimes it will take as few as three coin tosses, but other times it will take many more. If we were to repeat this test thousands of times and calculate the average number of tosses it takes to get Pattern 1 and compare it to the average number of tosses it takes to get Pattern 2, which be the bigger number?

On average, which pattern takes fewer coin tosses?

  • They'll happen equally fast, on average. (78%, 1,775 Votes)
  • Tails, Heads, Tails takes fewer tosses! (11%, 258 Votes)
  • Tails, Heads, Heads takes fewer tosses! (9%, 213 Votes)
  • I can't figure it out. (2%, 36 Votes)

Total Voters: 2,282

Loading ... Loading ...

The first correct answer with a valid explanation wins a beer (if you can make it to Taipei to collect).
Update: Two correct answers are in! Ray Myers, with some lisp code to brute force the answer, and Robin with a clear explanation of why. When and if you make it out to collect, drinks at the Taiwan Beer Factory are on me.

Related Posts:
Even Simple Probabilty Puzzles Can Be Tricky
Game Theory and Bluffing
Good God are There a Lot of Morons on Digg

Milton Friedman, who passed away less than a year ago, was undoubtedly one of the greatest minds of our time.

Milton Friedman (July 31, 1912 – November 16, 2006) was an American Nobel Laureate economist and public intellectual. An advocate of laissez-faire capitalism, Friedman made major contributions to the fields of macroeconomics, microeconomics, economic history and statistics. In 1976, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics for his achievements in the fields of consumption analysis, monetary history and theory and for his demonstration of the complexity of stabilization policy.[1]

According to The Economist, Friedman “was the most influential economist of the second half of the 20th century…possibly of all of it.”[2] Alan Greenspan stated “There are very few people over the generations who have ideas that are sufficiently original to materially alter the direction of civilization. Milton is one of those very few people.”[3] In his 1962 book Capitalism and Freedom, Friedman advocated minimizing the role of government in a free market as a means of creating political and social freedom.

Wikipedia: Milton Friedman

Friedman’s words about the War on Drugs are just as relevant today as they were two decades ago. Currently, America leads the entire world in prison population, both in total number, and on a per-capita basis.

The proper role of the government is to prevent other people from harming an individual. Government never has any right to interfere with an individual for that individual’s own good. The case for prohibiting drugs is exactly as strong and as weak as the case for prohibiting people from over eating.
We all know that over-eating causes more deaths than drugs do.”

-Milton Friedman

The following video is about Milton’s idea about the limited role of government:Milton’s definitive work on the subject, considered by many to be amongst the 100 most influential post WWII books ever written, is Capitalism and Freedom.

Since regaining my motivation to learn languages a couple of weeks ago, I’ve been trying out some of the methods from Barry Farber’s text, How to Learn any Language.

There are several components in Farber’s system, but the one that has helped me the most is the use of what he calls “hidden moments”. The idea is nothing new, but I’ve found it incredibly effective. The premise is simple. Forget all of those over hyped language programs claiming that you can learn a language in 20 minutes a day. It’s just not that simple. Learning a language is a gigantic undertaking and it takes time. The trick, is to free up time you didn’t know you had. continue reading…

Does the ability to write with a pen and paper matter? Apparently not, to quite a few Chinese as a second language learners. “Nobody really writes by hand anymore,” says one.

“Writing by hand is useless; I can just type everything at my computer,” explains another.

I disagree both arguments. While it is possible to get by without the ability to write by hand, it’s also possible to get by without learning Chinese at all. In fact, I know foreigners who have lived here for nearly two decades and who speak less Chinese than most students do after a single year. One of them was even my former boss. He got by just fine. The existence of people such as him is evidence that having fully functional language skills means something more than just being able to survive in a Chinese speaking city. Being fully functional in a language means using it to accomplish whatever daily tasks one chooses, not choosing daily activities based upon the limits of one’s language skills.

continue reading…

Dueling Lăowài is a new feature on Toshuo.com. Each “duel” will consist of four pieces by two writers: each writer will write one opening argument and one rebuttal.
continue reading…

Last night, I met my friend Nathan at the Taoyuan train station. We decided to go the night market, so we hailed a cab and jumped in. Before I mention what happened, I should point out that I generally like cab drivers in Taiwan. They’re usually personable, chatty, and sometimes even interesting. This particular guy, on the other hand, was almost a caricature of a Chinese cab driver. The conversation below all happened in Chinese, of course.

Me: Hi. We want to go to the night market.
Driver: Oh! Can you speak Chinese!!?
Nathan: Uh…. yeah.
Driver: You guys are Americans, right? Right?
Me: Yep. We live here, though.
Driver: What do you do? Are you teachers?
Nathan: He is, and I’m a volunteer worker.
Driver: What do you mean? What do you do?
Nathan: I do work at hospitals and juvenile reform centers…
Driver: Do they pay you?
Nathan: No, it’s all volun…
Driver: They don’t PAY you? Why do you do it?
Nathan: To help people. It’s…
Driver: No salary? I wouldn’t do it!

I’m sure a lot of westerners secretly think the same way. I’ve never heard any say it so bluntly, though. Even if it’s only lip-service and they can’t really relate to volunteerism or charity, they’re at least familiar with what would motivate other people to engage in those activities.

A few days ago, John (of Sinosplice) sent me a link to an article titled, “How public education cripples our kids, and why“. Interestingly, it was written by John Taylor Gatto, former New York State and New York City teacher of the year. He goes into a long explanation about how public schooling is used more as a tool for promoting social conformity than as means to an education. Quite a bit of the article rang true in my ears. Indeed, I’ve found a very large disconnect between schooling and education in my own life. continue reading…

One thing about living in Taiwan as an American is that people here already have a great deal of exposure to American things. As a result, many feel that they have a good understanding of things American, whether they be politics, traditions, dating customs or food. Unfortunately, much like Americans have very one dimensional exposure to, say, Europeans, the Taiwanese media only portrays a certain side of America. As an American who has also lived in Guatemala, I can say it’s downright shocking to see how different my own country, or even the state of California, looks on the television sets of two different countries.

One of the most grating things, is constantly being told I’m fat because “American food is unhealthy”. Sometimes I feel like wringing the necks of my usually well-meaning acquaintances and telling them I was in great shape until moving to Taiwan, and that I ate healthier food back home than I do here. “KFC” is unhealthy, they say. Well, I can agree with that. The KFCs here are certainly a lot less healthy than the ones at home were, though. In KFCs in Colorado, Texas and California, I’ve eaten spinach, red beans and rice, carrots, potatoes, corn, and a variety of healthy foods. That’s not even including the salad bar, either. The fried chicken may not be too healthy, but all the sides were. Here, none of those sides are sold. You can eat fried chicken or fries, and little else. McDonald’s is the same. All of my beloved salad-shakers are gone. True whole-wheat bread isn’t even sold in this town. Likewise, I can’t find water-packed tuna. The grocery store only sells oil-packed tuna. I haven’t seen baked chicken (or any low-fat meat) offered more than a handful of times in the entire time I’ve lived here. Sure, people here don’t weigh as much as back home, but I’m not sure if they’re doing any better in terms of body composition. Barring the capital city, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody on this entire island with an “athletic” physique.

I used to tell people here about this stuff, whenever they tried how terrible American food is. I’d tell them how not a damned bit of western food that I saw them eat was healthy and how only the junk food was popular. I told them about the wonders of Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. I told them how places selling healthy western food here would go out of business, because Chinese people just want white-bread (probably pastries), fried chicken, chips, soda and all the crap, but have no interest in our healthier, more traditional fare. Most people just didn’t believe me. They’d already heard about US food on TV and from all their friends. They “knew”.

I couldn’t see how people could be so blind and stuck in their own ways of thinking… until I went home. I’d forgotten the sesame chicken factor. At every single Chinese restaurant I visited, I was greeted by sesame chicken with so much sugar that it coagulates with a bit of stirring. I had crunchy “Kung-Pao” chicken soaked in so much grease it could give a small rhino heart disease. I had fried tofu sweeter than most deserts. Then it dawned on me. Nobody bothers that much with other cultures’ health foods. We all import the nastiest, most unhealthy stuff we can get our hands on and corrupt the rest of it in that direction quickly as possible. If and when we do eat healthier foods, they’re invariably either unprocessed whole foods, such as fruits, or staples basic to our own cultures, things that we grew up eating. Now, when people tell me how unhealthy “American food” is, I never tell them about the healthy foods I used to eat back home. I just ask them if they’ve ever eaten sesame chicken.

I’ve often heard people talk about “investing ethically”. What they mean, of course, is that they believe in supporting companies that they feel do good things, or they at least avoid supporting companies that do bad things. The one crucial problem with this line of reasoning is that except in a few special circumstances, investing in a company doesn’t really “support” it at all.

This can be illustrated with a few examples. Let’s say that you are a wealthy investor and that company A sells children’s books. You feel that company A’s books are educational, wholesome, and deserving of your financial support. They earn $7 million per year, and are currently valued at $100 million dollars. Seeing some growth potential in the company and wanting to support their cause, you buy $1 million of company A’s stock. The question is, how much did company A earn from your million dollar purchase? The answer is nothing. They still earned $7 million dollars this year; the only difference is that you now own 1% of company A and they will pay you next time they issue dividends.

If company A’s business improves, you will make money from your investment; if it deteriorates, you will lose money. Either way, your effect on them is non-existent unless you buy the stock directly from them (e.g. in an IPO), or they decide to sell more shares after you’ve made your purchase. Had you simply bought a million dollars worth of books, you would have increased their earnings from $7 million to $8 million and had a huge effect on their business for the year. Investing though, won’t help them a bit. If their earnings falter, you’ll lose your money, but it won’t have done them any good.

Likewise, if you don’t want to support company B which sells oil refinery equipment, you’ll have to find a better way than just not buying their stock. In fact, even selling their stock would do nothing to them in the long run. Suppose Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, the Vatican, Opera Winfrey, and the estate of Colonel Sanders managed to secretly buy all of company B’s stock and then agreed to sell all of it on the open market at a prearranged time.

The stock price would plummet, yes, but company B’s earnings and business prospects would stay the same. Opportunistic people, such as myself, would recognize how under-valued the stock was and buy it at a fraction of its true worth. Very quickly, the stock price would climb back to its actual value, give or take a factor of two, and our sneaky “pentavirate” would have accomplished nothing more than throwing away their own money.

When it comes to ethics and corporations, I have to make rational choices. That doesn’t mean I don’t think the effect of my actions is too small to matter. It just means that making investments based on ethical evaluations of companies doesn’t make much sense. If there’s a company I want to support, I’ll buy its products. If I don’t want to support a company, I won’t buy its products. If it’s a really evil organization, such as the RIAA, I might even try to get others to boycott it or write to my congressional representative. However, barring an IPO or an SPO, I’d buy stock in any of the RIAA’s member companies if I found the valuation attractive. Heck, I might even be able to influence them with the voting privilages that came with the stock…