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August 28th, 2014

Book Review: “My Beloved World” by Sonia Sotomayor

From the Bronx Housing Project to graduating Summa Cum Laude from Princeton, and Yale Law School and then becoming a district attorney, and finally becoming a federal judge and US Supreme Court Justice, Sonia Sotomayor’s journey is nothing short of perseverance, determination, great effort and a little of luck. Though I know the ending of the story (she became a US Supreme Court Justice), the memoir reads like a thriller full of twists and turns like a novel. Hard to imagine the Perry Mason show could have inspired her to reach the ultimate goal of being a Supreme Court Justice.

My lessons learned from reading this book:
1. Being a Type 1 diabetes since 8 years old in a poor family and an alcoholic and yet loving father, Sotomayor beats the odds and turns the disadvantage into a constant reminder of her mortality and works with great sense of urgency toward achieving her goal of becoming a judge. That’s a lesson for most of us endowed with reasonably good health.

2. From her memoir, I learned a little bit of dilemma of Porto Rico and its residents. Is it a US territory with all the benefits of being part of US or a true second-class entity caught in a web of history and politics? Probably both. Would love to visit Porto Rico someday as she painted a picture of a paradise.

3. Having the right mentors and advocates makes a huge difference. She had several good mentors and advocates (like Senator Daniel Moynihan) along the way.

4. She could have gone the way of her childhood pal, Nelson, who ended up being a junkie and died of AIDS at his young age of 30. Two people growing up in almost the same environment came out very differently. The shocking tidbit was when she drove unknowingly her friend to a heroin joint to shoot up while she waited outside as an off-duty district attorney.

5. Like a good judge, Sotomayor is brutally honest about her marriage and her analysis of the situation in retrospect painted a pretty dire picture of the people in the law enforcement sector. They’re so independent and self-preserving – making the relationship difficult with their loved ones. Here’s a good video interview of Sotomayor by Oprah.

6. Behind a successful person is a cast of people cheering her/him on. Sotomayor has loving relationships with her mother, and her brother (“Jr.” as she called him), her grandma, and aunts. She attributes her success to her hard work and to their support.

7. On Affirmative Action, Sotomayor was clearly a successful case out of the Affirmative Acton movement and hence supporting the policy. I wonder without it, where Sotomayor and her brother would end up? With a little of luck (being born in the Affirmative Action era) and a lot of effort on her part, she came a long way to get to where she is now.

8. There is so much Spanish, her native tongue, in this book. It made me want to learn Spanish. Maybe I will some day learn Spanish to reduce the likelihood of an Alzheimer disease as the study shows.

Overall, this is a great memoir for those who enjoy a good real-life underdog-turn-victor story. The depth and the honesty of the author makes the book a real joy to read.

Posted by Derek Tsai as Book Reviews at 12:00 AM PDT

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August 25th, 2014

An Interesting Conversation With a Barber About Kids

Getting a haircut is usually a not-so-pleasant experience for me because it’s hard to strike an interesting conversation with the barber beyond the usual “you live around here?” conversation during the haircut and the end result of my haircut invariably gets a thumb down from my wife and daughter. So I normally wait one or two weeks more than necessary to get a haircut. Today was no exception.

I keyed my name into the SuperCut (Yes, SuperCut) wait-list system and waited my turn. No more than 3 minute of wait, I got called by Tommy, a new guy. “Here we go again,” I thought, “gotta go through another ice breaker.” Tommy was friendly, having just given lolly pops to two kids waiting for their daddy’s haircut. He asked about my plan for the rest of the day. I casually griped about having to drive my daughter around for her drawing class like a chauffeur. He asked how many kids I had. “Just one,” I replied. Then came the shocker, “I’ve got 5 kids! 4 boys and 1 girl. The last ones were a twin of a boy and girl” “OK,” I thought to myself, “what am I complaining?!”

Then the conversation turned into shopping for the kids as the school was about to start next week. I jokingly mentioned that with 5 kids, he could economized by using the hand-me-downs. “No,” he corrected me, “at their age (13 years old – his youngest twins), they don’t take hand-me-downs any more.” He even bought sneakers well over a hundred dollars a pair because “he’s really good at basketball” and they “compare among their friends.” Yap, the parents have to bear the burden of their children’s vanity.

It’s hard for me to imagine having 5 kids in the family nowadays with a barber’s income, probably helped by his wife’s income. It’s a struggle nevertheless. As the conversation continued, I saw my hair was getting thinner and thinner. I shut up quickly for the fear of turning into a skinhead.

As I walked out, I tipped Tommy an extra dollar and wished him good luck. It’s a good day after all.

My lesson learned: There is always someone else had it worse than you do and they compensate with something else. Need not complain, just enjoy while you can.

Posted by Derek Tsai as Personal at 12:00 AM PDT

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August 23rd, 2014

Getting My House Ready for Sale

I have been spending last few weeks trying to get my house ready for sale. This is a house that we’re been renting out for a couple of years. After the tenants moved out, my wife and I decided to sell it in order to capitalize on the tax free exemption.

Due to the drought, the tenant have been cutting back on watering resulting in yellowing of the lawns and plants. I had to first rescue the plants and lawn by increase the frequency and duration of irrigation. Somehow the personal interest overrides the public good of conserving water. Sorry. Then, I got the interior repainted by a professional painter. I also repaired window screen, vent cover and etc. and cleaned miscellaneous things like the dish washer, kitchen wall, and etc. Of course, as part of the local real estate tradition here I had to get the house inspected by a termite company (as expected, we’ve got termites) and a general property inspector for the roof/chimney, appliances and etc. The reports will be a part of the disclosure.

Then we power washed the exterior stucco wall, which resulted in some paint damages. I hand to repaint and touch up some of the exterior wall and the decorative window shutter. This was no small effort due to the difficult in matching the color.

To enhance the aesthetic, we planted lots of fresh, colorful flowers along the front walkway, and the backyard. The bare soil areas got covered with mulches – 15x 2-cubic-ft bags. The flower bouquet next to the front door looked extra appealing. It was both exhilarating and exhausting to “stress” up the house for a quick and hopefully profitable sale.

The last thing we had to do was to hire a professional stage company to stage the house with beautiful furniture and decoration to pique the interest of potential buyers. You can see the end result in this virtual tour.

The open house will happen on 8/23/14 and 8/24/14. I’m hopeful that all our efforts will yield good results.

Posted by Derek Tsai as Personal at 2:33 PM PDT

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August 15th, 2014

Fence Door Jams on Floor – How I Fixed It

I have a fence door that tends to jam the floor on the bottom after a couple of years. I had to move the hinge screws and bias the screws up a bit to fix the problem. Here’s how I fixed it:

Posted by Derek Tsai as Tips at 12:00 AM PDT

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August 10th, 2014

Screw Won’t Stay Put, Thead Stripped – How I Fixed It

This is a quick tip on how I fix all the screw holes that have their threads stripped:

Posted by Derek Tsai as Tips at 3:11 PM PDT

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August 5th, 2014

My DIY Coconut Milk Story

This is my story of making my own coconut milk. Enjoy!

I learned how to make coconut milk from John Koehler of OKRaw.com. See below:

You can find all of John’s Coconut Milk videos here. He is a real authority on coconut milk.

Remember to do all things in moderation, especially drinking coconut milk, or you may suffer the same consequence I had.

Posted by Derek Tsai as Tips at 12:00 AM PDT

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August 1st, 2014

Plant vs. Mushroom

For several months, my indoor Bromeliad plant has been attacked by mushrooms attaching themselves to the wall of the outer leaves. The mushroom seemed to grow overnight and would create a black spot on the leaf surface, making the plant look like a Dalmatian. According to what I read, cinnamon powder can be used to keep the fungi out. So I spread the cinnamon powered around the soil of the plant. For two weeks, I had not seen any mushroom growing until today. This little sucker seemed to pop out of the seam around the plant overnight. I recorded a video here:

Posted by Derek Tsai as Gardening at 12:00 AM PDT

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July 28th, 2014

Old Drywall Screw Holes – How I Fixed It

I replaced the drapes pole and ended up with a few empty holes left over from the previous drape brackets. It’s ugly and I need to patch them up. In this video, I recorded how I applied Fix-It-All Patch Compound to the holes and sand them and applied the touch-up paint.

Posted by Derek Tsai as Tips at 12:00 AM PDT

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July 24th, 2014

Book Review: “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman

This book shines some light on what make people tick – makes judgments and decisions. Too many concepts were presented and require lots of time relating our current life. I listened to the audiobook twice. The first time was more than a year ago. The second time wasn’t sufficient without reading the book for this review. By the way the Kindle version of the book is selling for just $3. What a bargain for a rich book like this!

My key take-aways:
1. Thinking statistically is really hard and maybe the way to avoid falling trap into our own System 1.
2. Planning fallacy really hit home in my career. I like the remedy of applying past statistics and adjust from there.
3. The use of “premortem” (Part 3) to counter group think is brilliant. I think it’s a great way to think about one’s big personal decision. Ask yourself, “Imagine X years into the future and you have failed. Write a brief history of your failure.” Wow, that’s powerful.
4. WYSIATI (What you see is all there is) lies in the basic theme of System 1. We can only decide based on what we perceive at that moment, mostly from our intuition or System 1.

Overall, it is a very good book if you’re interested in understanding human nature and the conflicts we often found in ourselves.

Here is a quick summary:

There are two systems and two selves in each of us:

Part 1 goes in System 1 and System 2.
System 1: Fast and automatic, with little effort and voluntary control.
System 2: Slow, effortful and attentive – articulates judgments including mental activities and makes choices but if often endorses or rationalizes ideas and feelings that were generated by System 1.
Priming effect is due to System 1. Whatever is easier like what’s easier to pronounce, or rhyme due to cognitive ease. Explaining away the coincidence like the “Black Swan” event, halo effect, and jumping into conclusion are what System 1 is good at, assisted by System 2. System 2 plays the “apologist” role for the emotions of System 1 then a critic of those emotions – an endorser rather than an enforcer.

Part 2 talks about the heuristics vs. thinking statistically, which system 1 lacks. Small samples do to lend to statistically meaningful conclusions – fooled by small samples. Also we’re subject to anchoring for something we have no reference of, like “Is the tallest redwood tree taller than 1200 ft? What’s your best guess?” The availability bias makes us think things are more frequent if we can recall most instances like consecutive plane crashes. “Availability Cascade” is attributed to the limitation of our mind to deal with small risks: we either ignore them altogether or give them far too much weight due to viral news spreading. The sins of representativeness: excessive willingness to predict the occurrence of unlikely (low base-rate) events. Both System 1 and 2 may be guilty of incorrect intuitive judgement. System 1 suggested the incorrect intuition and System 2 endorsed it and expressed it as a judgment – due to ignorance or laziness. 2nd sin: insensitivity to the quality of evidence. Leverage Bayesian Statistics and anchor your judgement of the probability of an outcome on a plausible base rate and question the diagnosticity of your evidence. Conjunction fallacy as in the “Linda” example highlights the laziness of System 2 that breaks the statistical logic – less is more – a more plausible story that appeals to System 1. People often don’t learn things from statistics (especially the base rate) until they can derive causal interpretation from them. This is where Bayesian Statistic is important. Also grasping the concept of regression to the mean is difficult because of the insistent demand for causal interpretations by System 1.

Part 3 describes the limitation of our mind and over confidence in what we believe we know. Hindsight bias leads observers to assess the quality of a decision not by whether the process was sound but by whether its outcome was good or bad. Outcome bias is when the outcome is are bad, the agents get blamed for not seeing the handwriting. Illusion of validity is acting like as if each of our specific predictions was valid, for example, author’s predicting the solder’s future performance and the fund manager in finance. Experts are often inferior to algorithms because experts try to be clever, consider complex combinations of features in making their prediction and humans are inconsistent in making summary judgments of complex information. Only trust those with two basic conditions for acquiring a skill: an environment that’s sufficiently regular to be predictable, and an opportunity to learn these regularities through prolonged practices and feedback. Planning fallacy describes plans and forecasts that are unrealistically close to the best-case scenarios, and could be improved by consulting the statistics of similar cases. We tend to exaggerate our forecast ability which fosters optimistic overconfidence. Optimistic bias is what drives the entrepreneurs who drive our economy. Use of “Premortem” procedure – when a group almost come to an important decision but has not formally committed itself, gather a group of people knowledgeable about the decision and ask “Imagine that we are a year into the future. We implemented the plan as it now exists. The outcome was a disaster. Please take 5 to 10 minutes to write a brief history of that disaster.” The premortem legitimizes doubts – not suppressing healthy amount of doubts and paranoia.

Part 4 challenges the rationality assumption in standard economics. The author debunked the Bernoulli’s utility theory by arguing that it doesn’t take reference point into account. Starting from $4M to $2M vs. from $1M to $2M would have different utility curves. A person become risk seeking when all his options are bad – the basis for author’s Prospect Theory. Endowment effect explains why you tend to value more of what you own and less of what others own because of different reference point and loss looms larger than gain – unlike a trader. Possibility effect places a heavy weight between 0% and 5% probability and certainty effect places a heavy weight between 95% and 100%. In the author’s Fourfold pattern, people tend to be risk adverse when there is high probability of gain and low probability of loss (insurance), but risk seeking when there is high probability of loss and low probability of gain (lottery). People tend to over-estimate the probability of rare events and overweight their probability. The emotion of regret is more felt to an outcome that is produced by action than to the same outcome when it’s produced by inaction. By anticipating the regret before your decision, you may minimize the regret.

Part 5 describes the two selves: the experiencing self and the remembering self.
When it comes to pain, the following were observed: Peak-end rule – worst pain and the pain at the end dominates. Duration Neglect: the duration of the procedure had no effect whatsoever on the ratings of the total pain. Is the experience or the memory of the experience that matters? We’re often confused by it – cognitive illusion. Pain is preferred to be short and pleasure long but our memory, a function of System 1, has evolved to the remember the peak (pain or pleasure) and at its end and neglects its duration. We have an experiencing self and remembering self, which we seem to care more as demonstrated in the “amnesia vacation” example.

Posted by Derek Tsai as Book Reviews at 12:00 AM PDT

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July 20th, 2014

Buried Bokashi Revisited

I was curious about how long does it take for the Bokashi turn into a full-fledged fertilizer. I dug out one buried Bokashi that I buried 3 months ago and another one 2 months. Below is a video for it:

Conclusion: It’s about 3 months when the Bokashi is fully composted at this time of the year.

Posted by Derek Tsai as Gardening at 12:00 AM PDT

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