Creativity strikes twice in a row

My ego got not one, but two boosts in a row over the weekend. Two of friends thought I was a genius for coming up with solutions to their problems. I thought my ideas were common sense, but they thought I was genius. I’ll bask in the glory anyway.

  1. On Saturday, I was comparing notes with my friend Dr. DJ about swimming. She alternates between two pools in the East Bay, one of which has a handy-dandy centrifugal swimsuit water extractor, and the other doesn’t. When she swims at the one that doesn’t have spinner, she has to bring an extra towel to squeeze out the excess moisture from the swimsuit.

“I actually looked into buying a portable swimsuit spinner, but it would take up too much space in my house.”

“Don’t you have a clothes rack for hanging clothes to dry?”

“I do, but then the wet drip would ruin my hardwood floors.”

“Why don’t you put the clothes rack in your bathtub or shower, that way your swimsuit drip will just drain away . . .”

“OMG, I never thought of that! I’m so excited now, I feel like that alien in the Little Caesars pizza commercial, spinning its head in glee after discovering about cheese-filled pizza crust….”

This idea was not really genius on my part. It’s precisely what I do at home, since I swim regularly at one pool, and it doesn’t have a swimsuit spinner. Still, I was very happy and proud that Dr. DJ thought I was really smart.

By the way, I couldn’t find the commercial she was talking about (I tried youtube). If anyone else knows, please send me a link!

  1.  On Sunday, I was talking to A. She was still getting over a cold, and preparing for trip out of town. But most of all, she was stressed out about her brother who lives in a very small town out-of-state. He’s functionally homebound due to ill health, and his housemate-cum-attendant had gone the grocery store with his debit card on Friday, but hadn’t come home. So he was stranded at home with no cash, and no groceries. A was frantically trying call his neighbor and his social worker to help.

“Well, why don’t you look up online for pizza places in his town and order him pizza delivery? You can charge it on your credit card. Then he’ll have something to eat.”

A was dumbstruck for a moment. ”Wow, I never thought of that! That’s a great idea!”

Later she told me she’d ordered her brother a pepperoni pizza, and a large milk, so that he could have it with his cereal for breakfast the next day.

I thought the milk was a stroke of genius on her part.

“Did you add the tip to your credit card?”


She ended up ordering him another pizza the next day, so hopefully she remembered to tip extra to make up for it.

Actually it’s a generational/cultural context thing. When I was in college, we ordered pizza delivery a lot. When A was in college, there was almost no such thing. (A is actually my parents generation. Her children are my age – in fact they were at Cal the same time I was, but we didn’t know each other then.) And here in Silicon Valley, almost every restaurant posts a sign offering food delivery via Grubhub or I eat out a lot, so I’m constantly reminded that there’s such an option. A doesn’t eat out as much, so she wouldn’t really think about it.


Why I never became a teacher

(This is a prequel anecdote to a much longer upcoming piece I am writing for the blog. Writing this episode got so digressive and detailed that I am publishing it as a stand-alone piece.)

Fifth grade had been traumatic for me. It was marked by a ‘it’s-so-crazy-I-still-can’t-believe-it’ incident; the loss of innocence that irreversibly advanced me in one bounding leap from child to adult.

When I was in 3rd grade, Ms. Hydon, the 4th grade teacher, got married to Mr. Lawrence, the 5th grade teacher and became known as Mrs. Lawrence. Young and pretty, Ms. Hydon was considered the most glamourous teacher in school. Getting married —to another teacher, no less— added to the aura of fairy-tale romance.

For 4th grade, I had Mrs. Lawrence. She became pregnant, and was out on maternity leave for the second semester, so we had a long-term substitute. Mrs. Cox, who ended up in our class photo, was middle-aged and decidedly less glamourous.

For 5th grade, I had Mr. Lawrence. Mr. Lawrence was the only male classroom teacher in our school. The rest of the male teachers were specialists: Mr. Butterworth taught French to the 5th- through 9th-graders; Mr. Somkid taught PE for all grades; and then there was Mr. Lawson, the headmaster. 

Mr. Lawrence had a reputation for being strict. In fact there was a kid named Steven who was transferred from the other 5th grade class into our class, because his parents wanted more discipline for him. Steven’s mother was the school nurse.

Since I was a quiet and conformist kid, I didn’t think I would have any problems with Mr. Lawrence.

He turned out to be — how can I put it mildly — a pompous, thin-skinned megalomanic jackass.

Mr. Lawrence was actually one Lawrence Kow from Malaysia. He was addressed by his first name. It wasn’t unusual for teachers in our school to go by their first names. For some, they were addressed as Mrs. Suchada or Ms. Sukon because they were Thai. Or they had polysyllabic Thai surnames that were difficult to pronounce by non-Thai students: Mrs. Angela, Mrs. Christine instead of Mrs. Bankerdmuangnorn, Mrs. Namlaifaidap.  The only teachers who were addressed as Mrs. <PolysyllabicThaiSurname> were British women who had married Thai husbands . . . and kept the perverse European practice of being addressed by their married surname, like Mrs. Phavantha, Mrs. Sananikorn.

(I guess I should have explained this at the start, but you’ve probably figured out by now that I went to a British elementary school in Thailand. In Thailand, the universal convention is to address someone by their first name, not surname.)

Now Kow is quite easy to pronounce, but worried about students mocking his name with bovine jokes, he went by Mr. Lawrence. That’s how insecure he was. In matrimony, Mrs. Lawrence had taken not just his last name, but his first name as well.

There’s a section in Roald Dahl’s “Danny, The Champion of the World” where Danny is unfairly accused in of cheating in class.[1]  Mr. Lawrence’s psychological abomination against me played out the exact same way. Except I was charged with lying.  And that even Mr. Lawrence knew better than to try inflict corporal punishment on me…

In 5th grade, I was pretty good about doing my homework.  As much as my dad nagged me about other things, even he didn’t bother to see what homework I had each day, he knew I’d finished it.

We had been doing a series of spelling lists. Mr. Lawson had announced an upcoming school-wide spelling competition, and Mr. Lawrence wanted his class to have the best showing.  Especially since Mr. Lawson’s daughter was also in our class.

We were supposed to write down each day’s words in a notebook, and bring it back to school each day, even though Mr. Lawrence wasn’t consistent about collecting them to check. It was more for practice. On the one day I had left my spelling notebook at home, Mr. Lawrence asked the class to hand them in for a spot check.

“I left mine at home,” I told him.

“You’re sure you didn’t just simply not do your homework?”

“I DID do my homework. I just forgot to bring it.”

“LIAR!”  Mr. Lawrence thundered. In front of the entire class. Without a shred of proof.

“I am not lying!”

(The funny thing was for once my dad knew what my homework was and that I had finished it the previous night.  I had asked Dad for one of the definitions. ‘Why don’t you ask my dad,’ I wanted to say to Mr. Lawrence, but of course this was before the age of cell-phones. It was inconceivable to trek down to the school office to use the only telephone on campus and call my dad at work, just to ask if I had done my homework.)

Mr. Lawrence launched into a slanderous tirade against me, fueled by a vehemently insane conviction he had to be right. There was no room for him to be wrong because he was the adult/teacher, and I was the student/child.

I was rooted to the spot, unable to believe what was happening. I had always turned in my homework, complete and on time. I’d never been in any trouble with Mr. Lawrence before.  I had never thought that adults could be so blatantly unfair and such bullies. Now I knew, I was blown away, shell-shocked.

I don’t know why Mr. Lawrence did what he did. The only remotely plausible reason I can think of is that somehow he was trying to discredit me. In class, I was one of the kids with the best grades, along with the headmaster’s daughter. Mr Lawrence had shown signs of favoritism towards her, to curry favor with his boss, I guess.

I can’t remember if I told my dad about the incident. Whether I did or not, I knew nothing would happen.  My dad didn’t call up the school to make a fuss, to have Mr. Lawrence punished, nor to have me transfer to the other 5th grade class.

(I also did wonder about Mrs. Lawrence, did she know what kind of abusive man she had married and fathered her child?)

After this episode, I resolved to never become a teacher. I knew that as a teacher, I too would become prone to biases, favoritism, and dislikes with my students. If I could not hold myself to treating all my students equally and be fair to all of them, then I would not be a teacher at all.

BACK TO POST [1] Excerpt from “Danny, the Champion of the World” by Roald Dahl

A teacher called Captain Lancaster [taught] the nine- and ten-year-olds, and this year included me… He had been a captain in the army during the war… and that was why he still called himself Captain Lancaster instead of just plain mister.

We were having our first lesson of the day with Captain Lancaster. I was sitting next to Sidney Morgan in the back row and we were slogging away.
Sidney Morgan covered his mouth with his hand and whispered very softly to me, “What are eight nines?”
“Seventy-two,” I whispered back.
Captain Lancaster’s finger shot out like a bullet and pointed straight at my face. “You!” he shouted. “Stand up!”
“Me, sir?” I said.
“Yes you, you blithering idiot!”
I stood up.
“You were talking!” he barked. “What were you saying?” He was shouting at me as though I was a platoon of soldiers on the parade ground. “Come on, boy! Out with it!”
I stood still and said nothing.
“Are you refusing to answer me?” he shouted.
“Please, sir,” Sidney said. “It was my fault. I asked him a question”
“Oh you did, did you? Stand up!”
Sidney stood up beside me.
“So you were cheating!” he said. “Both of you were cheating!”
We kept silent.
“Cheating is a repulsive habit practiced by guttersnipes and dandyprats!” he said.
From where I was standing I could see the whole class sitting absolutely rigid, watching Captain Lancaster. Nobody dared move.
“You may be permitted to cheat and lie and swindle in your own homes,” he went on, “but I will not put up with it here!”
At this point, a sort of blind fury took hold of me and I shouted back at him, “I am not a cheat!”
There was a fearful silence in the room. Captain Lancaster raised his chin and fixed me with his watery eyes. “You are not only a cheat but you are insolent,” he said quietly. “You are a very insolent boy. Come up here.”

The freedom to sing

In the past four months, I’ve had visits with each of my favourite cousins. That’s really amazing, considering they all live on the other side of the Pacific Ocean!

The best thing about them is that when we go on road trips, there’ll be certain songs that come on the radio/music player in the car. And we’ll simultaneously and spontaneously start singing along, without hesitation or embarrassment.  It’s pretty neat to be able to have people in your life with whom you can belt out cheesy 80’s songs as naturally as breathing.

Annoyance tax

There was an interesting article in the NYT Sunday magazine the other week with a punchily titled “A Tax on Annoying Behavior?’ The premise was “What if we could impose a tax or fine on certain negative externalities to discourage people from generating those externalities. With such a tax, “. . . we would probably do less [of those damaging things] if we had to pay for them.”

It’s a theme that I daydream/fantasize about, often. I suspect many people do as well, even if their pet-peeve externalities are different from mine.

(There already are ‘taxes’ on externalities, but in some cases the revenues don’t cover the actual costs, or cannot be applied to directly to mitigate the cost of damages. Or in many cases, there is no practical way to collect the tax.)

A couple of my fantasy taxes/fines (transportation-related, of course) are:

1) Bike carcasses on locked up on bike racks:
Where there are clusters of bike racks, you often see bikes locked up to racks amputated of parts: front wheels, rear wheels, frames. Some deadbeat owners never return to retrieve/unlock the bike carcasses, as I call them, from the racks. Their lack of responsibility in unlocking and removing bike carcasses really annoys me. The owners should be fined.

Externality 1: As the unused/abandoned bike takes up a useful bike parking space, it is a waste of public resources. It’s also a nuisance, as it may reinforce the impression on bike thieves that the area is vulnerable for easy pickings.

Externality 2: Extra work is imposed on maintenance folks who should, but rarely, forcibly break the locks to remove the carcasses. Yes, it’s probably a hassle to have to come by car to take the bike away, since it can’t be ridden. Yes, it’s probably easier, or even cheaper to buy a new bike than to buy and install missing parts. But this is littering writ large!

A fine should be imposed on owners of locked up bike carcasses who do not remove their bikes from the racks within a reasonable time period, say 3 weeks. The financial fine should be substantial enough to motivate the owner to respond quickly. (In theory, if bike registration were mandatory just as it is for cars, all owners would be traceable, and the fine could be sent by mail.) An additional incentive would be to provide a rebate for owners who do remove their bikes upon notice, scaled to their promptness in doing so.

Plus some good could still be salvaged from those bike carcasses: by donating them to worthy fix-and-donate bike non-profits; there’s at least one in any urban area. My local favourite, Bike Exchange, is run by Jack Miller and Dave Fork, two of the coolest pedallers I know.

2) Fines for drivers who cause incidents/accidents which generate congestion:

You’re free-flowing on a freeway when traffic unexpectedly slows down. Some car has caused an incident, and the rest of the passer-by traffic is slowing down for (a) safety: in case the driver or responders are standing around; and/or (b) curiosity: what kind of car (s), and what type of driver(s) were involved? How gruesome was it? Humans can’t resist looking at crash scenes.

Whether the incident was an avoidable one (i.e., negligent driver at fault), or “unavoidable” (i.e., unexpected mechanic malfunction), the fact remains: the incident caused a traffic jam. Other people who were driving along were inconvenienced; they were forced to travel slower than they should, and expected to have to. Extra fuel wasted, increased pollution, wasted time are all externalities. The driver(s) who caused the incident should be charged a fine for causing the congestion (externality). The fine would be based on the vehicle-hours of delay generated, which can be calculated and/or measured based on the volume cars driving by in the vicinity and the decrease in speed relative to before the incident.

The prospect of such a fine should influence drivers to be more careful to avoid causing incidents and the attendant congestion. The revenues from these fines would be used for operational improvements for the roadways (i.e. more communication to drivers to enable them to avoid downstream congestion caused by a incident, etc.)

I wouldn’t mind some sort of social fine either: highlighting the embarrassment or shame of the at-fault driver for literally causing a scene that so many passers-by are slowing down to stare at. That should also change the driver(s)’ behaviour to drive more safely. Maybe it would be in the form of an indelible ink bomb on the car (like those used for money stolen from banks)?! (I personally impose my form of this by staring pointedly at the culprit driver as I drive by, although s/he is totally unaware of it. But it helps me vent a tiny bit of my frustration with the unexpected traffic jam.)

If you’re wondering if annoyance taxes exist in real-life, see below:

Cigarette tax
Do cigarette taxes really cover the cost of treating lung cancers, and laundering the smell that clings to clothes and furnishings? What about the externality of the yucky whiff of a lit cigarette that drifts towards me from the pedestrian in front of me? If only I could collect a penny from him as the fine for the annoyance he has caused me, as I overtake him in order to be upstream of his smoke – the annoyance tax.

Congestion pricing
There’s two versions: (1) the option for solo-drivers to pay to drive in the Express/HOT lanes instead of the mixed-flow lane traffics, since traffic in HOT/HOV lanes generally moves faster during peak periods (Bay Area freeways); or (2) to drive into/within in a CBD (Singapore, London.) You can either see it as a tax on the act of causing congestion: if you don’t want to pay, then don’t add to the congestion by driving at that time/place. It can also be seen as elitist: you can pay for the privilege of using the faster lane. This is the more common perception, hence the nickname ‘Lexus lane.’ Some claim that it is unfair to low-income drivers, who can ill-afford the fees.

In either case, the fee is intended to discourage demand of the road capacity and thus reduce crowding. There are alternatives though: drive at a different time, i.e. at off-peak hours (when there’s no or lower fees), a different route (which could be a longer distance, but has more capacity/less congestion), or best of all take transit, walk, or bike. Carpooling is an option for the Bay Area – you can drive on the HOT lanes and bridges and avoid paying if you have 2 or more in your vehicle. (3 people for the Bay Bridge.)

I have no problem with this kind of fee. But irrationally I hate the two-tier security check queues at airports, where people who have are traveling business or first class tickets (or paid for pre-screened security clearance programs) get priority to bypass the queue and go through first, and leave the rest of the passengers feeling like second-class citizens, fuming with frustration at how inordinately slow the regular queue is processing. Even though it’s no different conceptually from automobile congestion pricing!

Luddite compliments

This was too funny. . . on Monday I went to a cafe to do some writing (not editing, but writing raw in my journal).  Someone at the next table said to me “It’s so charming and unusual to see someone write with pen and paper nowadays!” And it was true, there was a laptop at every other table in that cafe. Of course this being in Silicon Valley . . .

But this probably true all over the Bay Area. Especially in the winter when most people tend to stay indoors, due to the cold. It is a bit of a nuisance though, all the cafes are perpetually full and not being able to find an open table. For the last three times I’ve gone to a cafe, it took me a while to find a seat. People are usually nice about splitting a table though. 

The whole start-up, work anywhere culture has made squatters out of cafe customers. People lingering with their laptops, even to surf the net, if they’re not doing anything concrete.  Even if you’re engaged within your own mental bubble with your gadget, you still want to be share the physical atmosphere with other breathing human beings, I guess.  

Never too late to say thank you

It’s funny, there seems to be a recurring theme of me giving belated thank you’s in my life. Some things you take for granted, or don’t realize how valuable they are, until much, much later. Then there’s a specific trigger which switches on a light bulb over my head, and inspires me to specifically tell people how much I appreciate what they did for me.

I thanked my mom when I was 30, for having introduced me to the classic Chinese folktales of Journey to the West when I was 6.  (This was inspired by another ABC who told me he had no idea what I was referring to when I mentioned Monkey. ) I was so grateful my mom gave me that cultural reference.)

I thanked my cousin when I was 40, for taking me camping and teaching me to build a fire without lighter fluid when I was 10.  (This was inspired by a lecture by Paul Theroux, where he talked about being a Boy Scout and how profound camping had an impact on him.) I am grateful that I don’t have hang-ups about sleeping outdoors.

I thanked a former director 10 years after the fact, for the direction and free rein he gave me for first major project I worked on. (This was triggered by the frustration I had working at another agency subsequently on a similar project, and having to deal with the lack of support /interest from management.)

So recently, I made another belated thank you to a former manager of mine. She had organized a good-bye party for me several years ago when I had wrapped up delivery on a bike project I worked on full time, and leaving the agency.  I don’t think I merited it, especially since I was merely a consultant (a dime a dozen at this particular agency), and at that point my manager hadn’t worked with me for very long.

But that manager was a very nice person, so she took the time and effort to organize a good-bye party for me. (I honestly can’t remember much of it, except the nice touch where I was given a bottle of bicycle-branded wine as a parting gift!)

The trigger was that I had organized a good-bye lunch for my one staff-person who was taking a new job elsewhere.  She was my staff-person by default; her most recent manager had left a month ago.  Since I was the last manager standing, I took it upon myself to ask whether whether she preferred a luncheon or a cake-gathering.  (At this agency either or, or both are common.) I was short on bandwidth –work being really hectic, so I only offered to organize one.  She asked for a luncheon, and gave me a list of people to invite. In due course I sent out the emails and booked the restaurant for a date during her last week.

Not long after the luncheon date had been set, the staffperson went to talk to the department head, and mentioned that she expected/hoped for a cake party so she could have the opportunity to say bye to other people in other departments. The department head came and asked me (knowing I was her manager) about organizing a cake party. (He hadn’t known that I already had organized a luncheon for her, since she hadn’t included him on the list of people to invite.)  I then explained that a luncheon had been arranged, but since he was asking, I didn’t feel as if I could say no, and reluctantly organized a cake party as well. But I was livid, because it was short notice; I was really busy and short on time; I had already given the staffer a choice of one, not both; and she had gone behind my back to ask the department head about it.

I really wasn’t feeling gracious about this at all.  A couple of my other colleagues helped plan and do a lot of the stuff like picking up coffee, and setting up the room, etc.  So it worked out OK.  But organizing these things always takes time and effort, and it made me appreciate the effort my manager had made in throwing me a good-bye cake party 4 years ago.

The funniest irony?  My manager of 4 years ago who threw me the cake party, was also the manager of this staffer. So if the staffer had left before the manager, the same manager who organized my cake-party would have probably organized the cake-party and luncheon for this staffer. But she had a left a month ago, so now it was left to me. What goes around comes around, eh?

Styling and modeling for two wheels

I’m working on a proposal for a bike project near Mountain View. In order to score some brownie points for being ‘local’, my partner and I decided we should include some shots of cyclists tooling around past recognizable neighborhood landmarks.

I was lucky, Anne happened to on a bike delivery tour in Mountain View, and had free time,so she could model for me. Better yet, she had with her her long tights over her short tights, as well as her cycling jacket, so I could one model in several costume changes! It’s better not to have what appears to be the same person in different photos on the same document, because then it looks too staged!

Rather than stake myself out somewhere and wait for strangers to randomly pedal past, I usually bribe (lunch) or cajole friends to model on bike for me. I’ve shot Joe stopped on the bike detector symbol (to show correct positioning), and yahooing with glee as he comes barreling down the ramp of a nearby bridge. I have a shot of Marcella pedaling through an alfalfa field with a baguette sticking out of her backpack (it’s based on a 1980’s French tourism shot of a guy wearing a beret pedaling on his bike, with a baguette at the back). I was all set to guilt-trip one of my colleagues to pose for a bike lane shot; he was supposed to create some files for me, but forgot, which held up something I was working on. He agreed to pose with such alacrity, I was surprised. I suppose he secretly relished being a model, even if it was for a boring plan document. (Cue: “I’m too sexy for my bike…”). I’ve gotten my Caltrain colleagues to pose for me too: Leslie is walking her bike (actually mine) down the platform ramp, because you’re not supposed to ride on them.

I’ve shot Chris in a red jacket on the San Tomas Aquino Trail; VTA is still using those photos! Tom gets a kick out of it whenever he sees them in the newspaper; maybe they’ll be in circulation long enough that her sons will be old enough to be able to recognize their mom in print too!

Having a model for my photoshoot means I can make them ride over and over again and get multiple shots, praying that there will be a few usable ones from the batch. Also with models, I can shoot them face on, and ask them to smile. Bicycling is fun, remember that! I hate photos that show bicyclists’ backs.

I’m the first to admit it – I’m not a good photographer. What I am good at, however, is styling my bicyclist models. By that, I mean I dictate and organize the type of clothes and accessories that the model will be wearing for the photo shoot. Last year I worked on the photo shoots for a print campaign for BTWD in Oakland. One of the photos shows a woman lifting her bike onto a bike rack on the bus. She’s wearing my orange fleece sweater!

I firmly believe that the outfits on models in bike photos help subliminally reinforce key message points:

1) Bright colors make you more visible: the more likely motorists notice you, the more likely they’ll drive carefully around you on your bike

2) Wear regular clothes; you don’t need to have specialized biking clothes to pedal in on a day-to-day basis. You should definitely get a helmet. Next, get bike shorts/tights because of the padded bottoms, and gloves. Cleated shoes and bike jerseys are optional.

3) Wear white at night: again, it makes you more visible to motorists.

4) The other thing is I do like using women cyclist models – they become role models, because amongst the universal cycling population in the US, bicyclists are predominantly male. (Funny though, most bike planners I know are female!)

Likewise, I find the propensity for Asian people to wear black (or other shades of mind-numbingly somber greys and browns) to be very annoying. It makes everyone look alike in the crowd, and then I can’t locate people. (I can’t remember people’s faces very well.) It’s bad enough that most people have rather similar hairstyles (well we can’t help all having naturally black and straight hair!), or ‘ugly but hip’ glasses.

Anyways, we’ve finished the final draft of the proposal, and are going to print tomorrow, and submitting the day after. We’ll see how it goes; I have no idea what to expect. I’m assuming all the major firms are submitting proposals (everyone is very hungry), so either the client will just blow us off because we’re unknowns, or they might call us in for an interview out of curiosity. Actually my partner was at one of the major firms for a really long time, so she’s got the cred! But developing this proposal was a good experience for me, I’ve never done a formal competitive one before. It would be great if we made it to interview round, I’d like to experience that too. (There’s some differences between a proposal interview and a personal interview.)

I’ve been doing nothing but working on it (interspersed with seeing movies), so I feel like a troglodyte. Deja vu, feels like I’ve been working on a term paper in college again.