The Fourth Star

Victory

This was the best World Cup in a long, long time.

And not just because the final outcome suited me personally – it was defined by a record number of goals, the most shocking result in World Cup history, and world-class performances from unlikely threats like Costa Rica. The group stage alone was electric, with the United States emerging past both Portugal and Ghana. Italy, England, and Spain were all left behind, Spain most unceremoniously falling to Netherlands in an amazing 5-1 game.

And most memorably, Brazil’s bitter 7-1 to loss Germany will be remembered for generations. The most surreal sporting event I’ve ever witnessed, made even more dreamlike by the fact that it was 5am local time in China as I watched Brazil haplessly run around in circles while being thoroughly routed.

I had predicted a Netherlands-Germany final, as I thought that Netherlands with their potent attacking trio of Robben, Sneijder, and Van Persie posed too great a threat for Argentina’s perpetually misfiring offense. When the game went to penalty shots, Netherlands was without the substitution it needed and their goal keeping was woefully inadequate. Losing to penalty shots is the worst. Perhaps my most vivid World Cup memory is Germany defeating Argentina in a penalty shootout in the 2006 quarter-finals. Wearing the German jersey, I watched the game amidst a large crowd and directly next to an Argentinian wearing his own colors. His heartbreak at Argentina’s loss was only matched by my jubilation, after 120 minutes of nail-biting tension.

This final was a lot like that. Incredible intensity as both sides failed to capitalize on near-misses. Only 7 minutes from a penalty shootout did Goëtze sink the winning goal, paragon of excellence to punctuate Germany’s unparalleled domination in recent weeks. It was a goal worthy of winning the World Cup. This game was Man versus the Machine. Messi being the man, the be-all of the Argentinian offense, and The Machine being the redundant and well-oiled system that Germany has masterfully engineered with stunning precision.

At last, after 24 years and four consecutive appearances in the World Cup semi-finals, the fourth star falls into place.

Victory

Published on July 14, 2014

Book Review #14: No Exit

No ExitOne of my favorite movies from the past 5 years is The Social Network, which started as an Academy Award-winning screenplay written by David Fincher about the inception and rise of Facebook. What made the movie so exciting was that it captured the excitement and exuberance of being at the early stages of something that would grow to transform the world.

Of course, this experience isn’t more than a pipe dream for the vast majority of entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley. But we rarely hear about those, or the incredible hardship of chasing dreams in such an unimaginably cutthroat environment. That is what this book is about: the story of the downtrodden, overworked, and bewildered entrepreneurs who come to Silicon Valley everyday by planeload.

The Entrepreneurial Gauntlet

Most of us have our typical grind: wake up, fulfill the responsibilities that we’ve committed to, and spend the rest of our time pursuing personal activities that give our life meaning. This is a relatively carefree existence compared to the average tech entrepreneur in Silicon Valley, juggling five balls at once knowing the roof can fall on you at any moment, dashing all of your dreams in an instant. As the author of No Exit states, “San Francisco is full of people walking around with their pockets stuffed with 1.2 percent of nothing.”

That’s the price you pay for living the dream and having a crack at the distant possibility of becoming one of the minted legends of the valley. It’s the American Dream of Northern California, and a complement to the American Dream of Southern California: to come from nowhere and rise to notoriety within the impossibly-difficult-to-get-noticed film industry. Los Angeles proudly holds up the Jonah Hills, the Chris Pratts, and the Seth Rogans just as San Francisco has heartwarming stories about WhatsApp, Instagram, and Beats getting acquired for billions.

As the author explains, it’s not about a lack of money available to entrepreneurs. It’s that the money you raise is usually just enough to get you in deep trouble: “It’s pretty easy to get enough money to get in over your head and pretty hard to get enough money to stay afloat. The fact is that the rising tide does more drowning than it does lifting”.

Favorite Passages

Silicon Valley is not a place where one is invited to show frailty or despondence. It is “the place where everybody is killing it all the time.”

Due in part to the rise of startup accelerators like Y Combinator, as well as to the surplus capital washing around the Valley from recent IPOs, it has never been easier to raise a small amount of money, say $ 1 million. And it has never been easier to build a company— especially a web or mobile product— from that small amount of money, thanks in part to the proliferation of cheap, easy development tools and such cloud platforms as Amazon Web Services.

The iOS developer was the only one of my housemates with a university degree from an Ivy. He’d liked the first two years fine, but once he realized he wanted to study computer science, he knew everything else was a waste of time. The kid from Appalachia agreed that there was no longer a point to college. Most of the people at the flophouse had dropped out. “The whole university system,” he said, “is going to be made obsolete because of technology.”

The faster and more athletically they pivot, iterate, and fail, the less time they waste chasing a dead product and the more time they give themselves to develop something that will find or create a market. But the lean mentality demands necessitate a stoic detachment. After all, if you get too attached to what you’re building, you won’t know when to pivot away from it. What’s important isn’t that you make what you thought you wanted to make or that you really give a shit about the quality of the content at all, but that you learn to build the thing most desired by the biggest market.

As the engineer and writer Alex Payne put it, these startups represent “the field offices of a large distributed workforce assembled by venture capitalists and their associate institutions,” doing low-overhead, low-risk R& D for five corporate giants. In such a system, the real disillusionment isn’t the discovery that you’re unlikely to become a billionaire; it’s the realization that your feeling of autonomy is a fantasy, and that the vast majority of you have been set up to fail by design.

Conclusion

The counter point that this book offers to the popular culture Silicon Valley narrative has great value. It’s authored by a disillusioned dreamer on the ground and fighting, which gives this testimony additional gravity. I much prefer this first person perspective to that of a journalist recreating the emotional turbulence that actual entrepreneurs experience in this hectic environment.

We’re all attracted to stories with a happy ending, and there isn’t one here except for this: lesson learned.  There’s a reason why you don’t see people in their 40′s on this grind: the physical and emotional toll that it takes is simply too great.

Amazon link: No Exit: Struggling to Survive a Modern Gold Rush

Rating:

4 Stars

Published on July 8, 2014

Uniting WordPress Websites with InfiniteWP

One of my first jobs out of high school was creating and managing dozens of e-commerce websites in the early 2000′s. Looking back on that time, it was like the stone age of the internet. The tools and processed were arduous and crude, from designing to coding, to maintenance.

I remember having to update header artwork for a single site, and how it required me to manually change code in the header html file for each page on a website, and the relief I felt when I learned that I could use Find & Replace to update multiple header files at once. It saved a lot of time, but it was a hilariously antiquated and painful system to maintain.

Enter WordPress

Adopting Wordpress was a gigantic leap forward. I only had to learn one well designed (and well documented) system and use it as the foundation for every website that I made. Suddenly the production process became so easy that I could create websites in less than half the time that it had taken me. So for about two years I went on a tear and created dozens of websites, some for myself, but most for clients. Since most of my clients aren’t particularly tech-savvy, I assumed the responsibility of hosting and maintnence for the majority of these.

Eventually maintenance became overwhelming and interfered with my actual job. Managing critical updates and performing backup and maintenance took up a lot of my time because there were dozens of disconnected websites to manage. I implemented two solutions to alleviate this problem:

  1. I offloaded sites which weren’t a priority to their owners, instructing them on maintenance, backup, and updates.
  2. I adopted a system to manage multiple WordPress sites simultaneously called InfiniteWP

About InfiniteWP

InfiniteWPTheir own description sums it up very well: Stop wasting time. Never login to your WordPress dashboards ever again. Control all your sites from a single, powerful admin panel.

I login to a single dashboard daily now, instead of multiple sites. I get emails from InfiniteWP when updates are available on any site – be it a theme, plugin, or core update. If a plugin that I use on multiple sites is updated, I update them all at once with a few clicks. It sounds simple, and it is, but it’s an incredible time saver.

 

Before InfiniteWP I tried ManageWP, which is a similar service. Although ManageWP was functional, it came with significant restrictions: most notable the number of sites that you can manage. This, along with the inability of ManageWP to work self-hosted, pushed me to try InfiniteWP which I found works much better for me.

As a bonus, InfiniteWP offers useful add-ons which expand functionality. They come at a cost but this service has saved me so much time and hassle that I’m as motivated by contributing to the creators of a great product as I am by the added functionality. The add-ons are for things like managing comments, posts, and pages or scheduling automatic backups on any or all sites through the dashboard. They’ve done a great job bringing in users with no upfront fee and then giving them the option to convert to paid accounts with the add-ons.

Check out InfiniteWP
Published on July 5, 2014

Book Review #13: A Pocket Full of Needles

A Pocket Full of NeedlesThis is the second Steven P.R. book I’ve read in the last week and this one was markedly different from the apocalyptic adventure book The TurningInstead of following a couple as they struggle to survive in a post-apocalyptic landscape inhabited by demons, A Pocket Full of Needles is a horror mystery about a dysfunctional family broken apart by the abduction of a daughter.

I have a taste for frightening novels (Battle Royale and Zombie, Ohio are two of my favorites) but this book is truly harrowing. It begins quietly and methodically creates tension between members of the family while slowly revealing their true identities. The characters themselves are complex, intricate, and genuinely surprising. The mother of the family, Lindsay, is a disillusioned school teacher who’s lost her sense of hope. The father, Tom, is an addict psychiatrist deep in denial.

Most of this book is an elaborate set up for the finale act, which is tremendous. The book’s description on Amazon hints at the conclusion, but I was not prepared:

Meryl thought that she could get away from her parents and the pressures of college when she left home after graduation. But when she accepted an offer to homeschool the Creighton’s daughter, Dara, she had no idea she would be walking into a world of pain and tragedy beyond her imagination.

As Meryl bonds with Dara, reinvigorating her with a sense of purpose, she learns of the Creighton’s tortured past, a past that will eventually catch up with them.

Favorite Passages

I used to go to church and would get bored out of my mind. It didn’t resonate with me. I couldn’t understand why people forced themselves to go, why they felt they had to. I just think we don’t need God anymore. He’s a crutch. Religion is convenient for people that want answers handed to them rather than to cope with reality. We’re told that we need to have faith and to follow Scripture and everything will pan out. But life doesn’t work out that way.

Mr. Creighton shook his head, pouring himself another glass of merlot. “What a goddamn mess Lindsay, a goddamn mess,” he muttered. Meryl wondered if Mr. Creighton was another version of her father. The kind of man that called his daughter a disappointment, that said she couldn’t face reality, wouldn’t be good enough. The barrage of her father’s words echoed in her mind as she studied the calla lily in the vase, like it was the only beautiful thing in the room, sitting amongst lost souls.

“Lies are like a dagger to the heart,” Sylvia’s mom once told her. Sylvia held onto these words like a maxim, would use it as a weapon to destroy someone one day.

Conclusion

As with The Turning, I finished the book in less than three days – once I picked it up, I couldn’t stop reading. As with The Turning, these 271 pages went by extremely quickly.

The final act of this book was difficult to read because it was so horrific. Each sentence I read felt like it was confirming my worst fears for the characters in this book, but it didn’t happen in the way I that I expected. This book utilizes elaborate literary mechanics, subtle references, and foreshadowing to stun you with its smart brutality. It’s not just violent, because that alone isn’t very frightening – it’s psychologically distressing. The villain in this book is truly bone-chilling.

I won’t be forgetting this one anytime soon.

Amazon link: A Pocket Full of Needles

Rating:

4.5 Stars

 

Published on June 8, 2014

Photos from Strawberry Music Festival

Strawberry Music festival was last weekend in Chengdu, attracting thousands to Poly 198 park in the North of the city. I played on both days, the first day on the Chengdu Music stage and the second on the Electronic Stage. Both days of the festival were fun, but the second was even better than the first due to a much larger crowd.

Strawberry Music Festival

Strawberry Music Festival

Strawberry Music Festival

Strawberry Music Festival

Strawberry Music Festival

Strawberry6

Strawberry Music Festival

Strawberry Music Festival

Published on June 2, 2014

Book Review #12: The Turning

The TurningI frequently start books and don’t finish them. I also rarely read fiction, but when I do, I tend to like apocalyptic stories of destruction and the transformational effect that it has on characters. As soon as I started reading The Turning, I was hooked.

The story follows a couple, Ricardo and Linda, as they struggle to survive amidst an apocalyptic scenario where humans appear to be randomly transforming into bloodthirsty monsters, known as demons. This is a novel twist on the ever-present zombie theme that has dominated this genre of storytelling in recent years. And fortunately it’s explained in a satisfying way which raises as many questions as it answers, thankfully avoiding the cliched “this is a virus” cliche.

It’s written in a dated diary-like style with 36 easily digestible chapters which made the book feel much shorter than the 233 pages that it actually is. The quick pacing of this book is surely what contributed to me completing the book in just two sittings.

As you’d expect, The Turning can be brutal and graphic, and satisfyingly so. But it’s also heart breaking and touching, and the entire book carries an introspective, reflective tone. It’s about demons hunting humans like prey, but it’s actually about much more. When you read it you will understand – I was pleasantly surprised by the literary sophistication of a book about demons.

The characters in this book are fantastic and complete the spectrum of human compassion and depravity, from the Machiavellian Monsieur de Shawn to the altruistic monster named Pod.

Favorite Passages:

It was inexplicable why some turned and others didn’t. The devout speculated it was a curse, God’s wrath against humanity. He spared the righteous while the unrighteous turned. Though the authorities resisted the name, the day was called the Passover.

The Passover freed us from the trappings of morality, of the idiotic dichotomy of right and wrong, justice and injustice. It allowed us to gauge the grey, to explore who we are, not how we ought to be. The truth is that we are all beasts. The demons are an evolution of who we are.

We must embrace the purity of our true being, which society has suppressed and caged and suffocated.” “The truth,” the Monsieur began, “is that nature does not care what we do or how we live. All that matters is who’s on top, and who’s on bottom of the food chain.

Conclusion

As another reviewer on Amazon already noted, I noticed a few typos in The Turning. However, as they were neither numerous nor distracting, they didn’t affect my experience reading the book.

If you’re a fan of popular zombie fiction like The Walking Dead, my guess is that you will enjoy this. It sidesteps many cliched conventions of the genre and replaces them with fresh literary devices.

Amazon link: The Turning

Rating:

4.5 Stars

Published on June 2, 2014
Video

Song of the Day #157: Sweatpants

Childish Gambino – Sweatpants

I feel like I’ve slowly grown into Donald Glover’s rap persona, Childish Gambino. A good friend who’s knowledgeable on hip hop recently said to me that he likens him to a Drake who can’t sing or rap as well, but I see it a little differently: he’s clearly not singularly focused on rap or the rap lifestyle, but he has oddball charm to spare.

On his most recent album, Because the Internet, which Sweatpants appears on, he was songwriter, producer, and performer. Outside of being a singer, rapper, and record producer, he also has acting, standup comedy, and television writing careers.

Read about Childish Gambino on Wikipedia or check our Sweatpants on Rap Genius.

Published on May 15, 2014
Video

Infinite 115 @ Columbia University

Years ago I met a Chinese live visual artist named Miao Jing. At the time he was a student at an art university in Chongqing transitioning from painting to interactive media, and we did about 20 shows together across Western China.

As of a year ago, one Miao Jing has moved to NYC and has been setting up and maintaining art galleries and exhibitions in the city. This is the latest one, in collaboration with the Columbia University Arts Initiative, is called Infinite 115.

Needless to say, this is amazing work and Miao Jing has progressed very far from when I first met him. But I still have a framed painting of his from 2008 hanging on the wall in my living room. A portrait of a surviving child of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

Published on May 12, 2014