I agree with all of Bryan’s advice/strategies.

I like to think of myself as a non-conformist. But my guess is that most people also like to think of themselves as non-conformists, at least in some ways. Like other personality traits, there is probably a conformist vs. non-conformist scale where each of us lies, and it could vary for different issues (i.e. we conform to some norms/conventions and not others). Guess one message from Bryan’s post is that we should be smart in choosing which battle we want to fight. Life is all about balance and trade-offs.

PS: Good time to re-read Emerson’s Self Reliance:

What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and in intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness. It is the harder, because you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it. It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.




Optimal sleep hours

WSJ has an article asking how much sleep do we need. Some experts argue that seven hours might be optimal, while others think we should sleep longer. As usual we should be skeptical about these findings. My guess is that it differs by person, and the quality of sleep is as important as the amount of sleep.

This might be a way to find out your optimal amount of sleep:

Experts say people should be able to figure out their optimal amount of sleep in a trial of three days to a week, ideally while on vacation. Don’t use an alarm clock. Go to sleep when you get tired. Avoid too much caffeine or alcohol. And stay off electronic devices a couple of hours before going to bed. During the trial, track your sleep with a diary or a device that records your actual sleep time. If you feel refreshed and awake during the day, you’ve probably discovered your optimal sleep time.


Interesting article arguing against sending kids to top schools. I’m sympathetic to some of the author’s views and think it’s better for kids to 1) focus less on grades and career prospects and more on learning and personal development, 2) take more risks and worry less about failing,  and 3) mix with people from different background and social class, including those from lower incomes. At the same time, I don’t think we can deny that there are many benefits from studying in top institutions. As I noted previously, today’s education system is like an arms race. I don’t like it but nevertheless need to find a path that I think will be best for my children.

Some excerpts below. The whole article is interesting.

A young woman from another school wrote me this about her boyfriend at Yale:

Before he started college, he spent most of his time reading and writing short stories. Three years later, he’s painfully insecure, worrying about things my public-educated friends don’t give a second thought to, like the stigma of eating lunch alone and whether he’s “networking” enough. No one but me knows he fakes being well-read by thumbing through the first and last chapters of any book he hears about and obsessively devouring reviews in lieu of the real thing. He does this not because he’s incurious, but because there’s a bigger social reward for being able to talk about books than for actually reading them.


So extreme are the admission standards now that kids who manage to get into elite colleges have, by definition, never experienced anything but success. The prospect of not being successful terrifies them, disorients them. The cost of falling short, even temporarily, becomes not merely practical, but existential. The result is a violent aversion to risk. You have no margin for error, so you avoid the possibility that you will ever make an error. Once, a student at Pomona told me that she’d love to have a chance to think about the things she’s studying, only she doesn’t have the time. I asked her if she had ever considered not trying to get an A in every class. She looked at me as if I had made an indecent suggestion.

There are exceptions, kids who insist, against all odds, on trying to get a real education. But their experience tends to make them feel like freaks. One student told me that a friend of hers had left Yale because she found the school “stifling to the parts of yourself that you’d call a soul.”


Let’s not kid ourselves: The college admissions game is not primarily about the lower and middle classes seeking to rise, or even about the upper-middle class attempting to maintain its position. It is about determining the exact hierarchy of status within the upper-middle class itself. In the affluent suburbs and well-heeled urban enclaves where this game is principally played, it is not about whether you go to an elite school. It’s about which one you go to…


The major reason for the trend is clear. Not increasing tuition, though that is a factor, but the ever-growing cost of manufacturing children who are fit to compete in the college admissions game. The more hurdles there are, the more expensive it is to catapult your kid across them. Wealthy families start buying their children’s way into elite colleges almost from the moment they are born: music lessons, sports equipment, foreign travel (“enrichment” programs, to use the all-too-perfect term)most important, of course, private-school tuition or the costs of living in a place with top-tier public schools. The SAT is supposed to measure aptitude, but what it actually measures is parental income, which it tracks quite closely. Today, fewer than half of high-scoring students from low-income families evenenroll at four-year schools.

A long article by Nancy Andreasen on her research on creativity. Excerpts:

As in the first study, I’ve also found that creativity tends to run in families, and to take diverse forms. In this arena, nurture clearly plays a strong role. Half the subjects come from very high-achieving backgrounds, with at least one parent who has a doctoral degree. The majority grew up in an environment where learning and education were highly valued. This is how one person described his childhood:

Our family evenings—just everybody sitting around working. We’d all be in the same room, and [my mother] would be working on her papers, preparing her lesson plans, and my father had huge stacks of papers and journals … This was before laptops, and so it was all paper-based. And I’d be sitting there with my homework, and my sisters are reading. And we’d just spend a few hours every night for 10 to 15 years—that’s how it was. Just working together. No TV.


I’ve been struck by how many of these people refer to their most creative ideas as “obvious.” Since these ideas are almost always the opposite of obvious to other people, creative luminaries can face doubt and resistance when advocating for them. As one artist told me, “The funny thing about [one’s own] talent is that you are blind to it. You just can’t see what it is when you have it … When you have talent and see things in a particular way, you are amazed that other people can’t see it.” Persisting in the face of doubt or rejection, for artists or for scientists, can be a lonely path—one that may also partially explain why some of these people experience mental illness.


One interesting paradox that has emerged during conversations with subjects about their creative processes is that, though many of them suffer from mood and anxiety disorders, they associate their gifts with strong feelings of joy and excitement. “Doing good science is simply the most pleasurable thing anyone can do,” one scientist told me. “It is like having good sex. It excites you all over and makes you feel as if you are all-powerful and complete.” This is reminiscent of what creative geniuses throughout history have said.


Some of the other most common findings my studies have suggested include:

Many creative people are autodidacts. They like to teach themselves, rather than be spoon-fed information or knowledge in standard educational settings…Because their thinking is different, my subjects often express the idea that standard ways of learning and teaching are not always helpful and may even be distracting, and that they prefer to learn on their own. Many of my subjects taught themselves to read before even starting school, and many have read widely throughout their lives…

Many creative people are polymaths, as historic geniuses including Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci were

Creative people tend to be very persistent, even when confronted with skepticism or rejection…


In A Beautiful Mind, her biography of the mathematician John Nash, Sylvia Nasar describes a visit Nash received from a fellow mathematician while institutionalized at McLean Hospital. “How could you, a mathematician, a man devoted to reason and logical truth,” the colleague asked, “believe that extraterrestrials are sending you messages? How could you believe that you are being recruited by aliens from outer space to save the world?” To which Nash replied: “Because the ideas I had about supernatural beings came to me the same way that my mathematical ideas did. So I took them seriously.”

Some people see things others cannot, and they are right, and we call them creative geniuses. Some people see things others cannot, and they are wrong, and we call them mentally ill. And some people, like John Nash, are both.





What I’ve been reading

Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman. Hirschman lived an extraordinary life. He’s an intellect with original ideas and on-the-ground experience as well as talents to make the most out of life. His Exit, Voice, Loyalty still provides a useful framework for me to think about things.

Pleasure disappoints, possibility never!


Being open to many possibilities meant accepting uncertainty and embracing the fact that one could learn from experience in the world by forfeiting presumptions that one could not know it all.


Hirschman’s odyssey can be read as a journey with no particular end, the life of an idealist with no utopia because he believed that the voyage of life itself yielded enough lessons to change who we are and what we aspire to be; to require and stay on course toward an abstract destination threatened to deprive the journey of its richest possibilities.

The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success. Many good advice from Megan. I clearly suffer from the impostor syndrome. Here‘s Megan on EconTalk.

The fear of being unmasked as the incompetent you “really” are so common that it actually has a clinical name: impostor syndrome.


The metaphor for our age is the disappearance of high monkey bars from playgrounds across the country. We have made it impossible for children to fall very far–and in so doing, we have robbed them of the joys of climbing high.


Dweck encourages parents and teachers to praise children for their effort, rather than their intelligence, talent, or looks.


As anyone who has raised a kid can attest, the same is true of children: swift and consistent punishment is by far the best way to change behavior…Consistency is probably the most important tool of parenting.


Learning to fail well means learning to understand your mistakes, because unless you know what went wrong, you may do the wrong things to correct it…Most of all, learning to fail well means overcoming our natural instincts to blame someone–maybe ourselves–whenever something goes wrong. Societies and people fail best when they err on the side of forgiveness. Not forgetting: the information gained by failing is far too valuable to be lost by pretending that nothing happened.


The secret to catching your mistakes quickly is simple: treat outside information as if it were inside information. When someone tells you you’re off track, don’t look for reasons why they may be wrong; listen for reasons why they might be right.

Rethinking Housing Bubbles: The Role of Household and Bank Balance Sheets in Modeling Economic Cycles. The authors’ main argument seems to be that asset bubbles in durable goods (housing in particular), when financed with excessive debt, have been the main driver of US business cycles. I wish they had focused more on the insights gained from experiments and how well they fit with historical events, or ways we could apply those insights to analyse various situations.


Robert Kaplan provides a good background on the geopolitical issues surrounding the South China Sea in his recent book, with separate chapters on the countries involved (Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines, Taiwan).

Think his base case is that there won’t be war: Europe is a landscape while East Asia a seascape, and the sea reduces the chance of war (e.g. warships travels more slowly, while navies and air forces do not occupy territory the way armies do). He sees China’s position towards the South China Sea akin to the US’ position towards the Caribbean Sea in the ninetieth and early twentieth centuries.

Similar to the author, I came away with more questions and no stronger convictions on what will happen, but I gained a better understanding of the historical background and countries’ perspectives.

Here is a good NYT review of the book, and here‘s a talk with the author.


Some background

More than half of the world’s annual merchant fleet tonnage passes through these choke points, and a third of all maritime traffic worldwide. The oil transported through the Malacca Strait from the Indian Ocean, en route to East Asia through the South China Sea, is triple the amount that passes through the Suez Canal and fifteen times the amount that transits the Panama Canal.


The heart of the drama revolves around historic claims to three archipelagoes: the Pratas in the north, the Paracels in the northwest, and the Spratlys in the southeast. The Pratas are claimed by China but controlled by Taiwan. In any case, there is little argument that these are Chinese islands. China and Taiwan actually agree to a significant extent on the South China Sea, except that China does not consider Taiwan a party to the claims because in Beijing’s eyes Taiwan is not a state…The Vietnamese have a strong claim to the Paracels, but the western part of this archipelago has been occupied by China since Beijing took control of it from a failing Saigon government in 1974, near the end of the Vietnam War. The Chinese and Vietnamese have, in fact, solved their disputes in the Gulf of Tonkin: a tribute partly to solidarity between the two countries’ communist parties and their pragmatism…Then there are the Spratlys, which have been claimed by the Philippines only since the 1950s…Unlike the Vietnamese claims to the Paracels, which the Chinese privately respect and worry about, the Chinese don’t respect Philippine designs on the Spratlys. Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei all, too,  claim features in the Spratlys.


…once the Law of the Sea came into play, China’s cow’s tongue—or historic nine-dashed line—suddenly had little legal meaning or rationale…Well, the Chinese say that they have authentic historic claims, while the Law of the Sea only came into being in 1982, and is therefore only part of the story. (Though China ratified the Law of the Sea treaty in 1996, it does not really adhere to it; whereas the United States adheres to it, but hasn’t ratified it.) In 2009, Chinese officials put out for the first time a map with the nine-dashed line and began interfering with other countries’ survey ships. In 2011, the Chinese made a submission to the United Nations actually making a claim of a full two hundred nautical miles around each of the Spratly Islands.


Vietnam is Southeast Asia’s “principal protagonist” in the South China Sea dispute, asserting sovereignty over both the Paracel and Spratly islands, “based on historical usage dating back to at least the 17th century,” write scholars Clive Scofield and Ian Storey.  “If China can break off Vietnam they’ve won the South China Sea,” a top US official told me. “Malaysia is lying low, Brunei has solved its problem with China, Indonesia has no well-defined foreign policy on the subject, the Philippines has few cards to play despite the country’s ingenious boisterousness and incendiary statements, Singapore is capable but lacks size.”


The problem is all sides, with partial exception of Malaysia, are guilty of playing domestic politics with their claims, and by energizing the nationalistic elements in each country, reaching a compromise becomes more difficult.


Asia’s arms race may be one of the most underreported stories in the elite media in decades.

China’s perspective and strategy

However, throughout Beijing, one is inundated with the nostrum, While China only defends, the United States conquers…Hard-liners and soft-liners alike in Beijing—deeply internalizing how China suffered at the hands of Western powers in recent past—see the South China Sea as a domestic issue, as a blue-water extension of China’s territoriality…Indeed, the South China Sea and its environs are China’s near-abroad, where China is reasserting the status quo, having survived the assault upon it by Western powers. But because the United States has come here from half a world away in order to seek continued influence in the South China Sea, it is demonstrably hegemonic.


China understands power, and thus it understands the power of the United States. But it will not tolerate a coalition of smaller powers allied with the United States against it: that, given the Chinese historical experience of the past two hundred years, is unacceptable. As for the nine-dashed line, as one university professor in Beijing told me: sophisticated people in government and in the foreign and defense policy institutes here recognize that there must be some compromise down the road, but they need a political strategy to sell such a compromise to a domestic audience, which harbors deep reservoirs of nationalism.


Andrew F. Krepinevich, president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, believes that the nations of the Western Pacific are slowly being “Finlandized” by China, meaning they will maintain nominal independence but in the end abide by foreign policy rules set by Beijing. He points out that China’s People Liberation Army (PLA) sees U.S. battle networks—“which rely heavily on satellites and the internet to identify targets, coordinate attacks, guide ‘smart bombs’ and more”–as its Achilles’ heel. The Chinese, he goes on, have tested an antisatellite missile in 2007, have reportedly used lasers to temporarily blind U.S. satellites, and have been conducting cyber-attacks on the U.S. military for years. This is in addition to the large numbers of ballistic and cruise missiles and other anti-access/area-denial weaponry that the Chinese have been fielding to undermine U.S. forward bases in Asia.


The aim is not to go to war, but to adjust the disposition of forces so that, as in the case of Taiwan, but writ large across the Western Pacific,  the U.S. military increasingly loses credibility as to what It can accomplish. According to Yale professor of management and political science Paul Bracken, China isn’t so much building a conventional navy as an “anti-navy” navy, designed to push U.S. sea and air forces away from the East Asian coastline.


The very buildup of military power by China means that paradoxically China can wait and not use force. For as each year passes, China’s naval position strengthens. Beijing’s goal is not war-but an adjustment in the correlation of forces that enhances its geopolitical power and prestige.

Taiwan’s strategy

Henry C. K. Liu is the deputy director general of Taiwan’s National Security Council…”The longer we survive,” he told me, “the more likely that political changes will happen in mainland China itself.” We can buy time, it is all about playing a weak hand well was what I heard throughout Taipei. In the meantime, Liu said, “we must try our best to maintain the status quo” through creative diplomacy and hard military power. “We can only try, through our own defense capabilities, to make those on the mainland see that the use of military force is unthinkable.”

Vietnam’s view towards China

Explains another Vietnamese diplomat: “China invaded Vietnam seventeen times. The U.S. invaded Mexico only once, and look at how sensitive the Mexicans are about that. We grow up with textbooks full of stories of national heroes who fought China.” The Vietnamese historical hostility to China is, in part, artificially constructed: modern-day Vietnamese emphasize the resistances against medieval and early modern Chinese domination, while downplaying the many centuries of “close emulation” of China and the good relations with it, in order to serve the needs of a strong state identity.

Singapore’s view

In fact, no foreign policy and security elite in the world struck me as quite so cold-blooded as that of Singapore’s. Example: though the Philippines, like Singapore, is enthusiastic about countering Chinese power, the Filipinos, in the Singaporean view, “are emotional and unstable and thereby make the security situation worse.” The Singaporeans are more comfortable with serious adversaries than they are with unserious friends. One Singaporean summed it up this way: “At the end of the day, it is all about military force and naval presence–it is not about passionate and well-meaning talk.” Typically, everybody I met in the various Singaporean ministries insisted that frank conversations must be off the record: public diplomacy, in their view, is overrated, and is another thing they have no illusions about. “Spider-Man needs a suit to make him strong; we needed an outsized armed forces,” explained a defense official. While Singapore has only 3.3 million citizens, it boasts an air force the same size as Australia’s, whose population is 23 million.





Daydream with Sky



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 43 other followers