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Discourse on Fate and Free Will

Some ten years ago, Nathan and I were sitting on the floor of our college dorm in St. Louis, waxing poetic about nothing and everything at 3 AM. On this particular night, which I remember vividly, we were focused on the topic of fate, destiny, and free will. Over the years, I kept thinking about what I described and my thoughts have changed much on the subject. Personally, fate, destiny, and free will all fit together as pieces to the greater whole of life. So how do they fit together?

The idea is really quite simple, despite debating all night about it. Fate is generally the idea of things happening as preordained by some higher power. Destiny is that specific or necessary events will happen – set points in life like having three kids. An apt analogy would be a book. Fate is the existence of that book while destiny is the chapters of that book. Free will, then, is the unwritten or forgotten details in between the chapters. This seems contradictory, because is free will really free will if it leads to the same conclusions regardless? The argument is that this is the same as having the parameters we face everyday. If I don’t have the ability to invent the next generation of renewable energy sources, then I don’t. No amount of free will can bring me that outcome. Likewise, if I cannot dunk a basketball, then no matter how much training I choose do, I still won’t be able to jump high enough to do so. Therefore, free will is the ability to choose and make decisions within the given parameters. Fate and destiny are those parameters.

In some sense, fate and destiny is akin to socio-economic background and personal characteristics. The place you are born, the culture that you are born into, the economic condition that you had growing up, and the way you act all have influences on outcomes later on in life. Some are able to rise above it because of choices they made. Others choose to remain where they started. Of course, chance and luck has some part in this as well. Some people want to rise above but are unable to and they can’t explain it. This unexplained lot in life was traditionally attributed to fate and destiny. In this framework, fate and destiny encompass luck as well. It does not mean hard work and merit has no place. As some have suggested, luck can be created. I believe that to a large extent, certain choices and effort in certain aspects can generate luck. For example, your destiny might be living abroad but where you live and what you do may be the luck from certain choices.

If free will can create luck and fill in the blanks between chapters, then can destiny be changed – can the chapter titles be changed? When I first discussed this with Nathan, my answer was yes. Your choices can alter the trajectory of your destiny, though you are still bound by certain parameters. As you progress through life, those parameters can slowly shift. So, destiny can be changed but not to a drastic degree immediately. Small changes can accumulate into a significant difference in future outcomes. Today, I am not sure if I will give the same answer. This is the question I am still pondering and this was the question that we spent all night debating. The framework I believe in does provide leeway for overcoming destiny but it can also be interpreted to be immutable. In the end, I still lean towards destiny being open to change but your fate is yours.

The book is cast in stone, the chapters are alterable, and the details are up to you.

The Stories I Write Are Stories

The darkness stretches before my eyes; the sunset is just beyond the skyline. I know, I know but I don’t see the light. The rain is pounding. It is rattling on the windows. It is pounding, pounding, pounding; it is unrelenting. I find it soothing – the drip drop against the awning. The world has changed. I see the high rises with lights on all night. I see the bright skies shining from below, instead of twinkles of white. It has definitely been a few months since the air was dry. It has been a few months since I cried.

It is cold outside. My fingers swell up from the cold. I can barely hold on the railing so I go inside. There is a bed. It is not my bed, but it is my bed. It does not matter, it is time to sleep because I need to dream to remember. I need to see. I smell the past in the sheets I brought from across the sea. I close my eyes and I see everything. I hear the words “最想念的人是你, 別走.”

I open my eyes. I cannot think in Chinese. I cannot think. This bilingual, third-culture bullshit has me reaching again. That recurring nightmare that haunts me. “別走 寶貝 別走.”

The rain is pouring. A hole opened up in the sky. I can see the moon, hiding her light. She is hiding the ceremony of purity. She is hiding that which can rescue me from fear. Is this punishment or deliverance? I am looking for salvation, but I cannot dream. Sleep only brings fear. That fear is fueled by three simple words. That fear lingers behind the strain of my eyes. Bloodshot, as I get up and check the mirror. It is not yet midnight.

I have to think. In the darkness of my eyes, in the blinds of my mind, I switch, I switch, I switch. 妳好嗎? 我到了 妳卻離開了. 還是其實離開的是我. 說過不走 妳當時拉著我 我卻沒牽住妳的手. 到底是到了還是倒了. 這傾盆大雨中 妳還在嗎? 我分不清 這到底是不是夢.

I cannot think anymore. I close my eyes. I sleep.

Sunrise awaits, in a few days.

This is Not the End

You die at sunrise; you died in your sleep. Every night, you dream. Every time, you fall in a little bit. Six inches under, six inches deep. Just as the sun is below the horizon, your destiny is in the East.

Rise from the last day’s ashes; you find yourself sweating, unable to breathe. Is that fear I see?

Yesterday’s knowledge congeals into baggage. Today is another day for mistakes. Tomorrow, you know nothing.

So you died in your dream, over and over again, chasing what you want to believe. What you want to believe is the gravity holding you down, the air above. What you want to believe is tomorrow. Tomorrow, the sun will rise. Yet, at sunrise you are dead. You see nothing in the light. You see nothing as the night fades from your blinds.

There is only one thing you see. One person you actually see. Who am I seeing? Who I am seeing? The one person you see, staring back blindly, blinking.

The face is familiar, the smile is peculiar. Dimples? You see. It is nothing but someone from your unpacked baggage. It is something you tucked away in the West, someone you unpacked in the East. You stare back with your fingers tracing. You outline the hair. You outline the chin. You outline the chin.

You realize, who you see. You see fear in the darkness in the eyes. You see fear in the darkness. You see fear. You see.

Tomorrow, the sun rises.

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New Beginnings – Columbia

The past month has been a whirlwind, from my departure from the City of Los Angeles, my cross-country roadtrip, to my first week at Columbia University. A lot has changed. I am no longer engaged in building public policy or writing feasibility studies.

Everything has become a blessing after the hardships I endured the last eight months.

There is much truth in the idea that new beginnings allow you to do something new and be someone new or even to feel something new.

I have never worked so hard or felt as assured in my life, from handling grad school coursework to really trying to organize and bond our cohort together. This change really came from the lesson during my time at DCP, especially the last months. The importance of knowing the people you see and work with everyday cannot be understated. Babak, Cally, Nina, Jason, Iris, and Angela you taught me so much during the last few months we spent together. I cannot thank you enough.

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What a ride it was – City of Los Angeles, DCP 2017

Though everyday has been pretty much a 9 AM to 9 PM affair, by personal choice, it has been such an eye-opening experience. First, of course, are the amazing classes. I really forgot how much I loved the sciences. Our professors are also amazing lecturers and teachers. They are all incredibly approachable and engaging, both inside and outside the classroom.

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COLUMBIA SIPA MPA-ESP BABY!

However, the most important thing is my cohort. My classmates are such inspiring people. Everyone comes with such strong experiences in so many different backgrounds and disciplines. Though it has only been a week, it has been a blessing to meet and know every single one of them, not only by name but also to have had at least one conversation with each. I am so thankful that they have responded positively and helped organize the many social events we have had in the last week to bond.

I will keep it short for now cause it’s getting late.

Much love to everyone. Don’t stop striving for greatness.

Flowers for Algernon – Knowledge and Distrust

Where do I even begin to discuss this book? With everything that has happened over the course of my life, the impact now is more profound than if I read the book any earlier than I did. To put it simply, it is about the journey of a man who undergoes an operation that lifts him from ignorance to knowledge.

The book contains a multitude of themes I have yet to ruminate over, but here I want to discuss the issue of knowledge breeding distrust. As Charlie becomes smarter, he wants to learn more to know more about himself. Through that process he realizes that the people around him all have something to hide; they all have imperfections. He becomes ashamed of himself as well, because of his own past and imperfections. His coworkers at the bakery, though they take care of him, laugh at him because of his lack of mental acuity. The professors who performed his intelligence enhancing operation are not motivated by his well-being but rather their own professional advancement. His mother tries her hardest to make him smarter, yet it is because of her own fears of producing an abnormal child. The moment his sister demonstrates normal intelligence, his mother sends him away.

Yet, that is not to say these people in Charlie’s life are bad and deserve punishment. We all have that capacity for evil, we all have that darkness within each of us. Furthermore, we are all constrained by our own personalities, circumstances, and pressures. This point is worth repeating, as it is representative of the people in our own lives, and it is something I have struggled with.

I struggle with the balance between the need to know, to trust, and to forgive/forget that arises from knowing humanity’s darkness. Perhaps, my own pursuit of knowledge (in the general sense) is much like Charlie Gordon’s: impartial, manipulative, and selfish. Like him, I need to know and I need to know why. Do I really need to? Even when the why is given to me, I question its truth, unable to trust myself and to let go of what I know.

Some things are best left alone, some things are best forgotten, and some things are best forgiven. Yet, I have struggled. I empathize with Charlie’s insecurities driving his need to know and to prove himself, leading to destructive personal relationships after his ascension to intelligence. He ends up being fired from the bakery where he worked for seventeen years. He destroys the relationship with Professor Nemur who developed the technique that led to his intelligence enhancement. He fights with his own selves, past and present, until he realizes his own imperfections.

In a way, knowledge is suffering. How true that statement can ring. The moment you find out about something, you will never unknow it and it often leads to distrust of those around you. The more you know about the dark side of the world, the easier it is to fall into a dark spiral of distrust, especially once your realize your own darkness. The moment Charlie finds out about his coworkers behaviors towards him, he finds himself unable to be friends with them. When he finds out that Nemur is not as smart as he claims to be, Charlie no longer respects him. Thus, this destructive cycle goes on until Charlie finds the emotional maturity and intelligence to empathize, as shown by his love and relationship with Alice Kinnian, who treats him equally from the beginning to the end.

Charlie grows up emotionally and finally tries to balance knowing, trusting, and forgiving because he is no different from any one. He sets out to mend his relationships, to find some semblance of peace before the end.

Charlie Gordon says, “[I]ntelligence and education that hasn’t been tampered by human affection isn’t worth a damn…Intelligence is one of the greatest human gifts. But all too often a search for knowledge drives out the search for love. Intelligence without the ability to give and receive affection leads to mental and moral breakdown, to neurosis, and possibly even psychosis.”

So where are you on your journey?

There is more to be said, but I need to compose my thoughts.

Transit Oriented Communities Affordable Housing Incentive Program

On Friday, September 22, the Transit Oriented Communities Affordable Housing Incentive Program (TOC) – implemented by Measure JJJ last November – became effective.

This has been a project I have worked on for most of this year and it has been very exciting to see it become a reality. With the rising housing costs in Los Angeles, it has been crucial to develop initiatives that spur more residential housing development.

This program can be viewed as a super Density Bonus, which is an ordinance that allows for increased density in exchange for the provision of affordable housing. Affordability is defined as 30% (very low), 50% (low), and 80% (moderate) of the area median income. Though the program is limited to a half-mile radius around Major Transit Stops, as defined by the California State Public Resources Code Section 21064.3, many developers are excited because this new program allows for the possibility of a density increase up to 80% off the base zoning, along with a variety of incentives such as reduction in parking and increase in floor area.

There are four Tiers of TOC areas, based on distance from and type of Major Transit Stop: regular bus, rapid bus, and rail. In addition to drafting the program, I developed the prototype maps earlier this year before leading our department’s GIS Division’s efforts to create the official reference map with the data uploaded to our public zoning information portal, ZIMAS.

Based on my analysis and the program’s provisions, only around 13% of the City’s total land is eligible for this program and only 42% of that land has access to the full range of incentives. This small number is partly the result of the still developing public transit network in the city and partly due to restrictive zoning (a majority of the city’s land is zoned for single-family residences). Hopefully, with a greater population being housed near quality transit through this program, the city can accelerate its efforts in creating more transit options.

In this view, TOC not only will affect the housing market, it will hopefully allow Los Angeles to become more sustainable by increasing demand for better and higher quality public transit.

*The following are my views and mine only. I do not claim to represent the views of the City of Los Angeles Department of City Planning.

As an aside, since TOC is based on Density Bonus, the same supply-side arguments apply. The basic idea is that by increasing the housing supply, the market will adjust accordingly and result in lower housing costs. The required affordable housing is an added bonus to the city’s housing affordability. Though in reality, these initiatives typically increase the property values of the lots affected and there are strong arguments that precisely due to the increased value, supply–side solutions actually lead to higher housing costs. This is a philosophical debate for another time. For now, let’s rejoice in the passing of a policy initiative that is sorely needed in a city with some of the most illogical and restrictive zoning.

Public Policy 101: Understanding Policy

It is important for the public to understand how to understand policy, especially when it is in the process of being deliberated and adopted. As a policymaker, I want to share some of the finer points of policy making, especially into today political climate.
*
My views do not represent the City of Los Angeles or the Department of City Planning.

Every year, a large number of policies are deliberated at all levels of government. Some are passed, some are postponed, some are dead upon arrival.

In a democratic government, almost all of these policies are heard in some form or another by the public. However, there are a lot of nuances to understanding them and because the public are not generally versed in understanding policy, there are ways to get policies passed by influencing public sentiment or despite public sentiment.

To make it easier for you to understand policies, especially those you care about, the following are three important things to look for to avoid supporting a policy on misguided assumptions. They are listed in order of complexity:

1. Intent

Policies come with a statement of intent, usually stated in its project description, its summary, or its text. Often, they are accompanied by a report that further explicates the need, the background, and the proposed solutions of the policy. Some policies come with extensive marketing and public communications as well; this is particularly true in ballot initiatives.

Like any good marketing campaigns and public communications, however, what I just described can be misleading if not completely untrue. You see this often in the media or marketing campaigns, where they latch onto the stated intents or singular parts of the policy and promote them without actually explaining how the policy sets out to achieve its stated goals. The true intent of the policy is usually not found the aforementioned documents but rather in the whole of the text – how does the policy propose to achieve what it set out to do?

What you, the public, need to do is to understand how each component work with one another and how the components correlate with the state goals.

For example, if a policy is proposing to encourage development by removing development standards and restrictions, you need to ask what the exceptions are, or in other words what kind of projects do not get the proposed relief from standards and restrictions, and if there is a corresponding tightening of standards in other parts of the policy. If the exceptions affect the majority of the city (or the particular geographic distinction) or there is tightening of standards, then what you have on your hands is not a policy that promotes development, but rather one that restricts it.

2. Definitions

Definitions can be used to shape public perception. Within a policy, there are typically a number of terms and words that need definition. Most of the time, the definitions are details at the beginning or end of the policy. Sometimes, the definitions are within the text linking to existing laws. These definitions are usually key to understanding what the policy is proposing, especially ones linking to existing laws. What you think a term might mean might actually be defined very differently within the policy.

Sometimes, a term is important but not defined. In those instances, it can become problematic and usually you need to rely on a memorandum or a report by the responsible agency.

Other times, a term is defined elsewhere but redefined specifically within the proposed policy. The differences between the definitions then becomes critical.

For example, California has clear definitions of Affordable Housing and the rent to be associated with different income levels. However, the City of Los Angeles has its own rent definitions. This has implications on the types of affordable housing that is being built in the city.

3. Assumptions

This might be stating the obvious, especially if you already read the text to parse out the intent and the definitions of a policy, but it cannot be overstated.

For many, figuring out the intent and the definitions will probably be enough to convince them to support or oppose a policy. For others, it is the understanding of the assumptions of the policy that is important. This usually requires background understanding of the current conditions.

Similar to any decision you make in your life, a policy is created based certain assumptions. One of the biggest problems I see with people’s support or opposition of policies is the lack of understanding of their assumptions. People can hold assumptions that do not align with a policy’s, which can lead to a misunderstanding or a certain perception of a policy. Marketing campaigns for policies tend to take advantage of these assumptions, perceived or otherwise. What you need to understand is what the proposed policy takes into account and what the proposed policy disregards.

For example, a policy may make assumptions that requiring affordable housing necessitates a certain amount of incentives to developers, otherwise it is not economically feasible. Yet, the public might assume that the government is catering to the interests of the developers without understanding that because of certain existing laws, this is the one of the only ways to impose affordability requirements. So instead of picking a battle with the existing law, the public picks a battle with the proposed policy.

 

In today’s climate, it becomes ever more important to be engaged with the public process. There’s a wealth of information out there; some are credible, some are not. It becomes important to learn how to cut through the noise. I hope with this quick guide you will find it easier to engaged in the public discourse and with public policies.

Los Angeles – No to Measure S

Dear Friends in the City of Los Angeles,

For those of you who are residents and are able to vote, there is a ballot measure to take an important stand against in next week’s local elections: Measure S. L.A. Times, Governor Brown, Mayor Garcetti, and many others have came out against this measure, (here, herehere, here, here, herehere, and here) which will basically prohibit development in the City for the next two years and make it extremely difficult in the years after (to be explained below).

For those of you that don’t know, the City of Los Angeles like the rest of California, is in the midst of a housing crisis. With a vacancy rate hovering around 2%, the supply of housing is extremely tight and housing costs are skyrocketing. What most people don’t realize is that at around $56,000, the median wage in Los Angeles is actually not that high, yet average home sale prices have now soared above half a million. That is lunacy. Renters are also suffering, with many paying more than 30% of their paycheck on rent – this is unsustainable for many and detrimental to long-term wealth outcomes of households. Just as policies are starting to come online to provide more housing for the City, Measure S is proposing to shut it down.

I am sure MANY of you feel that housing crunch.

Though numbers do vary, around 54% of the City is zoned residential, of which 40% of the City is zoned single-family residential and another 10 to 15% low-density. Measure S is aiming to protect this majority of sprawl-like, low-density neighborhoods.

In the City of Los Angeles, some of the biggest reasons for that are myriad zoning regulations, inadequate land use zoning (the dominance of single-family and low density zoning), outdated Community Plans, and anti-development movements. Most of our Community Plans are more than 10 years old, hence two of the ways to deal with outdated land use is general plan amendments and zone changes. Measure S will eliminate these tools permanently, essentially killing all development in the City, as a majority of the development will require some kind of zoning relief.

Despite what the absurd amount of mailers supporters of the measure have sent out, most of them are blatant lies. I have seen one that says Measure S will provide housing for homeless veterans. Let me ask you this, how are you going to house the homeless when you stop development?

Friends, I urge you to do the right thing. For you and the future, vote NO against Measure S.

Lastly, in today’s political climate, it is more important than ever to be active political participants. Next week’s election will allow you to choose the next Mayor and Council members. This is your CIVIC DUTY! This is a chance to keep Los Angeles an attractive city and make it more affordable for not just us, who live here now, but future immigrants.

A city is only great because of its diversity and diversity comes from affordability and immigration.

(Image via L.A. Times)

 

Reimagined 3016

The world was wicked. They burned the ground and slowly chocked everyone and cooked everything with pillars of invisible smoke. One day, a tribe decided they must call the rain to wash the air and wash the land, so the rain came and never stopped. The water rose and rose, slowly and steadily ate the earth. At first the water was so foul, everything that touched it died. People tried to run and tried to hide but there was nowhere to go. Water became everything, drowning everywhere. Even the tribe that called the rain vanished under the water. It was many suns before the water went away.

There was a woman. When the rain first came, she took her son to a mighty mountain that was the only place that was to be spared from the water. It was in the East. When they started climbing the mountain, a landslide blocked everyone behind from following them. The woman and her young son found a hidden valley, full of animals who escaped and full of trees, flowers, and plants. Shielded by the mountain, it was untouched by all the smoke and fire and all the rain and water.

The queen of the animals was an old elephant matriarch of great wisdom. She had gathered all the animals she could find and led them to this valley before the rain. The wise elephant welcomed the woman and her son, however, the queen warned them not to climb the walls of the valley lest their human touch break the rocks and flood the valley. The woman was surprised that she could talk to the elephant. With the elephant’s help, the animals soon taught the woman and her son the ways of nature and how to speak all the animal languages so that they can survive in the valley.

Years passed and the son grew into a fine young man. He took the name Nyanm after the language of the elephants. The queen was especially fond of Nyanm. He was stronger than all the animals except bears, smarter than all except elephants, and faster than all except cheetahs. One day, while in a tree hunting for mangoes, he spotted a crack in the side of the valley. He was too young to remember the queen’s warning and being curious, he moved towards the crack. Fascinated and having never seen a cracked rock before, he reached out and traced the crack with his finger.

Suddenly a loud rumble shook the valley and threw Nyanm through the growing crack. The queen immediately knew what happened, and with tears in her eyes, she carried the woman to the cracked rock. A huge hole opened up, showing lightning and rain outside of the valley, while Nyanm laid outside in shock. Before the elephant threw the woman out to her son, she told the woman to take her son North. There they will find land to live on. Then, the walls of the valley come crumbling down, forever closing the valley.

Nyanm and his mother slowly traveled North, suffering the cold and the wet rain for many days until one day, they saw in the distance a land with blue skies and the sun. When they arrived, there was green grass all around them and a clear, blue lake with floating ice like crystal. A small hut stood by the lake. There lived a young woman named Shiwo, the sound of water. She brought them inside, fed them, and gave them clean clothes. Nyanm quickly fell in love with the young woman and they eventually became husband and wife.

Shiwo had magic and she taught Nyanm. She created animals and people, unlike any seen before, out of the lake water and mud. As soon as they come alive, they wander off in all directions, never to been seen again. Shiwo explained that the animals and the people are looking for other lands to settle as the great flood had slowly retreated. Nyanm with his knowledge of animals learned in the valley eventually helped Shiwo to make some animals that stayed. This is how Shiwo and Nyanm became the life-givers. They gave birth to the people and animals that now live here and everywhere, and so the world came to be.

– William Hsu
November 2, 2016

As inspired by the book, African Myths of Origin by Penguin Classics.