Three Minimalist Experiments

This academic year, I aimed to “question the status quo”. To challenge the notion that discomfort is inherently harmful or unnatural. There’s a common thread in many of the activities I chose to embrace: other Berkeley students wouldn’t do the same thing just because it was unpleasant.

With that in mind, I wish to share three minimalist experiments that I found especially worthwhile:

Cold Showers


This started off as a challenge from Tim Ferriss and Jerzy Gregorek. They said that there were substantial health benefits to the practice, and asserted that many, many people simply weren’t willing to tough it out. After I couldn’t find any contrary evidence, I decided to try out cold showers for a week.

That was three months ago. I still take exclusively cold showers. I might not fetishize them like other Silicon Valley inhabitants, but I can’t deny that the cold has improved my quality of life. Why?

First, it put me in the right frame of mind to tackle the day. Nobody in the Bay Area takes a colder shower than me. Period. No matter how poorly the rest of the day went, I started with a win. And there’s something magical about not relying on a resource everyone else thinks they need. For example, I didn’t even notice that the gas went out (no gas means no hot water) for my apartment building until my roommate complained.

Second, cold showers jolt me out of a mental funk. You know the feeling. That foggy sensation that strikes after you finish a grueling homework assignment. The kind of fatigue that tricks you into wasting two hours scrolling through Facebook or watching Netflix. Instead of going down that rabbit hole, I take a five-minute cold shower. This serves as a powerful mental reset, letting me get back to work tout suite.

Finally, cold showers help me appreciate the moment. The caress of the towel, the warmth of my blanket, and the hum of my shivering body all strengthen my brain-body connection. The cold washes away all the aches and pains of the day (although my muscles get tighter than a bowstring).

Same Four Meals for Six Days

Another activity I still follow. My diet is not as diverse as I thought, which gave me the courage to reduce my meal diversity even more. By consistently eating plain, healthy food (as described in Tim Ferriss’s 4-Hour Body) I saved a lot of brainspace and time that others devote to picking their next meal. I also learn to appreciate the nuances of the food I’m eating because the spice’s are the only thing that’s changing!

The best part of this practice: I pig out on the seventh day. I eat unhealthy food until I’m sick to my stomach. This give me an outlet from my spartan diet and reminds me why I eat minimally on the other six days. Originally, I committed to this diet for a month. Many friends found that a week is enough to decide whether they like it.

Not Speaking for a Day, Digitally and Orally

Many monks can go years without talking to others. Having the fortitude to embrace solitude and companionship as one and the same is a powerful trait.

I’m doing this activity tomorrow (read: no blogging/talking). I’ll let you know how it goes on Tuesday.


  • Tribe of Mentors (p.113-121)

Cultural Events and You

Today is an exciting day for many Berkeley students. It’s 4/20, the “stoner’s holiday.” Students and Berkeley citizens will conglomerate at Memorial Glade to light up a joint at 4:20PM.

Last year, I attended (and did not partake) as a naïve freshman to see what the hype was about. This year, I was busy writing an essay in a coffee shop.

The things we choose to celebrate (and ignore) define who we are to a large extent. To distinguish the family man from the workaholic, simply observe his behavior on Christmas eve or day. Same goes for Mother’s or Father’s Day.

So if you find yourself celebrating the same events year after year, you can interpret in one of two ways. One, you found your groove. Or two, you’re in a rut and need a jolt. Choose wisely.

Peter Thiel Interview

On March 15, Peter Thiel gave a talk at the Economic Club of New York, explaining his opinion on the way various economic developments will pan out.

I highly recommend watching the full thing (on double speed if you’re in a rush) just to see how Thiel works through meaty problems. For those that are too busy, here’s a summary of the surprising stances Thiel took. Bear in mind that I’m deciding what qualifies as surprising, so you might miss out on profound insights that I consider run-of-the-mill.


Thiel related Bitcoin to gold, an analogy I’ve never heard of before. He said he believes that cryptocurrencies will cascade to a winner-take-all outcome because of their vast similarities to gold and silver. He said it was ok if the product is inherently a bubble-like in character; gold and silver have no inherent value either. Paradoxically, the value of any currency is social in nature (e.g. I find it worthwhile to have gold because many other people believe it’s valuable too). In short, he was “long” on Bitcoin, and neutral to skeptical on every other cryptocurrency. 

I don’t know enough to evaluate the prospects of Bitcoin, but I agree that the plethora of ICO’s and small currencies is going nowhere fast. As established above, social value increases exponentially when you double the number of people utilizing a certain currency. Thus the most popular a cryptocurrency gets, the more attractive it becomes to investors, which increases popularity. This virtuous cycle will eliminate most (if not all) coins from usage.

Artificial Intelligence and Automation

He critiques AI for being poorly defined and overblown. He says when we look at the U.S. economy, automation has not been producing massive differences in jobs lost or corporate efficiency. He says that the bulk of the U.S. economy is based in tradable service sector jobs, and that they’re automating much more slowly than people think. Ditto for the industrial sector.

It’s interesting that he dismisses AI so readily; I thought it was a substantial competitive advantage in his company Palantir (although I could be wrong). There could be three motives behind this. One, as a multi-billionaire he’d rather focus on products that will radically change the world we live in (instead of solely focusing on a healthy profit). Two, he doesn’t want to discuss the details of specific ventures he’s in. Three, he actually meant what he said.

Politics and Groupthink

He mentions that there’s a lot of lemming-like behavior in Silicon Valley now, and believes that the place has lost much of its luster. He points to their inability to correctly evaluate the odds of Trump winning as an example. Additionally, he indicates that he doesn’t see Silicon Valley as the innovation hub that it used to be ten years ago. I agree. For larger companies, they still need to put branches where the talent is (especially the 30-50 year old cohort with families that don’t want to move). As far as startup founders, there are compelling reasons to go back home. Lower cost of living, easy virtual communication, and budding innovator cohorts in other cities all make the Bay Area less compelling. 

Thiel also discusses trade wars, and establishes that trade is so lopsided with the U.S. and China (or even Germany), that it’s hard for them to tariff any substantial product we export to them. In other words, there’s not a lot of downside to creating some bite back against these net-importers. I have no opinion on this subject. I don’t know enough about international relations and its idiosyncrasies. 


Finally, he talks about how democrat news outlets almost have the perverse incentive of getting Trump re-elected, so that they can lampoon him for another four years. He points out that the Republicans tried something similar against Obama in 2012 with poor results. He advises that politicians steel-man their opponent’s arguments, and only disagree once they can argue the other side stronger than them. Straw-manning and vituperative demonizing will actually ensure Trump’s success.

This aligns closely with what I’ve learned about media systems. They’re incentivized by consumers to synthesize sensational stories, not untangle stories in a logical, coherent manner.


Peter is a smart motherf*cker. The way this guy teases through issues, adjusts for prior odds,  and dampens his cognitive biases is downright extraordinary. Watching thirty minutes of him talking makes me acutely aware of how little I know about complex macro-issues. 

I don’t know if I’d work for him, but I’d love to grab coffee if he’s ever at Berkeley…

The Four Stages of Online Publications

Ever since the blog started, I read close to an hour each day on my computer. Instead of writing notes (like I do with books), I would screenshot great passages. At the end of each day, I would delete all of them to prevent desktop clutter. I was like a machine before bed. Read. Internalize. Delete.

Then I read a few articles by Ben Thompson (here and here), taking a few screenshots in the process. I found I simply couldn’t delete the photos without immortalizing them in an email or blog post. So here are Ben’s findings that I “grok” with.

Four Stages of Online Publications

Ben hints at an interesting idea when he discusses “destination sites.” Basically, he argues that a site or application must become a destination that the end user goes to directly in order to make native advertising a viable business model.

//For those who don’t know, native advertising occurs when you populate ads that look exactly like regular content (e.g. Buzzfeed writes about certain content in exchange for cash)//

Ben goes to talk about subscription-based destination sites (think NYT or WSJ), and how their business model necessitates even higher quality and consistency standards for content. This made me think about a natural progression for online websites:

Where each number represents a challenge to a successful transition.

(1) Idea to Content

I’m currently advising an official U.C. Berkeley blog that’s in a gray area between idea and brandless blog. Why? Because they put all their content on a free site instead of forking out $20/year for complete autonomy. It is impossible to truly be an independent blog or application if a company can eradicate all your content on a whim.

Additionally, free hosting on WP means relinquishing personal control over ad content, creating situations that run counter to your values. For example, I’m leery (but curious) about cryptocurrency. After checking on my original, free blog, I discovered that it was populated with bitcoin ads! Although I could shut it down without backlash, the situation would be a lot worse for a customer-oriented product.

(2) Content to Waterhole

This is where best practices get hazy. Out of the ten destination sites I peruse regularly, they vary wildly on UI/UX design, post frequency, entity type (i.e. company vs. individual blogger), and number of interactive experiments (a few don’t even allow comments).

This is the stage my blog is currently in. Creating a destination site usually means starting with a more focused topic to write about (e.g. Tim Ferriss and the Four Hour Work Week) and then leaving room for growth in the brand (such as Tim’s expansion into exercise, body hacking, productivity tips, and podcasts).

For beginners though, I advise productivity over perfection. Ben recounts the following story from Art & Fear:

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot – albeit a perfect one – to get an “A”. Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

In other words, trust that your passions will naturally coalesce around a niche theme and just keep writing about subjects that interest you. For what it’s worth, I’m experiencing a convergence of passions right now and it’s well worth the wait.

(3) Waterhole to Cash

As somebody who’s never successfully started a side hustle or monetized an online business, I don’t know how this transition works. Some interesting stories on content monetization include Ben Thompson on Stratechery, Evan Williams on Medium, and a Ben Franklin quote. Enjoy.

Raising Awareness

Keep in mind that with digital publication, people can access an individual story without visiting your homepage. Thus, link distribution channels (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) are far more important when it comes to raising awareness of a story. The cost of sending one more story into the world is nil.

So internalize stringent quality standards and create a latticework of articles that can interact and stand alone on their literary merit. Understand that there’s a lot of junk information floating around on the internet; by building a trust-based digital community, you can leapfrog over whole teams of content generators.


I’ll give Ben the last word. The following quote simply makes my heart swell.

“The world needs great journalism, but great journalism needs a great business model.”


The Cambridge Analytica Incident

As I mentioned in a previous post, I found the media coverage of Mark Zuckerberg in Congress overwhelming. Not because of the articles’ import, but because of how superficial their analyses were.

The debacle frustrated me so much that I wrote a 1000 word essay on the long-term prospects of Facebook. Here’s the full essay, altered for readability purposes:

What happened?

Recently, Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg had to travel to Washington D.C. to talk to Congress about the data privacy violations committed by Cambridge Analytica. A professor named Aleksandr Kogan harvested data from 270,000 participants for research, leveraging their connections to compile extensive data on around 86 million users. Professor Kogan gave this data to Cambridge Analytica, who then used it to refine for-profit media campaigns.

Following this debacle, Congress is contemplating creating government oversight to ensure Facebook’s compliance with data privacy laws. They are also determining whether Facebook constitutes a monopoly. This is important because 58% of American adults use Facebook, spending an average of six hours a week on its website or mobile application. Additionally, Information Technology is responsible for over 7% of the U.S. GDP. Thus, investigating governmental concerns with data privacy yields important insights into the future of American business. More importantly, Congress’ reaction will have a profound effect on the way businesses interact with their consumers. There are no close product substitutes to the experience provided by Facebook to end users and marketers alike. Advertisers would have to use generic distribution channels (e.g. television) or other tech platforms that, at least in the short run, cannot offer the same demographic partitioning.

Economic Factors:

A key factor in Facebook’s competitive advantage lies in its oligopoly power. As described by Ben Thompson, Facebook is an aggregator of data that modularizes advertisements while integrating profile data with ad inventory (see image 1). This gives Facebook a monopoly on customer information, which is valuable because it allows for better advertisement targeting (e.g. targeting an adult diaper ad at only octogenarians instead of college students).

Additionally, having complete control over its own data allows Facebook to practice perfect price discrimination. The more popular a demographic or keyword is, the more it’ll cost to advertise to that group. By selecting ads on an auction basis and phasing out organic content in newsfeeds, Facebook pricing closely reflects marketer demand.

As one of a handful of data firms, Facebook can create profound market shifts with company actions. For example, along with Google, Facebook easily created user-friendly data tracking by punishing non-compliant websites and advertisers. In summary, Facebook’s monopolistic stockpile of data allows it to offer marketers niche target audiences, price differentiate based on the level of demand for certain keywords, and shape industrial policy.

Another important factor in Facebook’s success lies in its strategic acquisitions. By buying out Instagram and Whatsapp, Facebook prevented the mobile-social-media-app market from degenerating from a monopoly to an oligopoly. Additionally, it strengthened the depth and international breadth of its data pool, achieving economies of scale by allowing marketers to access (via API’s) information from users on any of the three applications. This revitalized Facebook’s competitiveness on mobile channels, allowing it (with a few feature modifications) to effectively starve other nascent applications like Snapchat and Twitter.

Finally, Facebook’s creation of secondary markets with Facebook Pixel revamped the company’s competitiveness in the face of more and more alternative data sources (see image 2).  In the early days of Facebook, the company created value by acting as a gatekeeper of sorts. If you wanted access to aggregated data for millions of consumers, you had to market on Facebook (see image 1). As Ben Thompson points out though, this created a problem when the data market shifted from a monopoly to an oligopoly. Specifically, Google differentiated its product by giving marketers information on user behavior across the whole web, while Facebook was confined to the actions people took on the website or in the application. This all changed with Facebook pixel, which allowed third-parties (i.e. individual companies) to stockpile user data for ad retargeting. It works like this: John clicks an advertisement to view webpage X. This click sets a pixel on his browser. If he then clicks through to page Y, but doesn’t buy on page Z, the pixel will save how far he progressed, create a subcollection of data for the 3rd party to use for future advertisements. This data is saved on the third party’s servers. Thus, pixels create a plethora of secondary data markets, with companies paying their insolvent counterparts for exclusive access to their data sets.

A Few Helpful Images:

Image 1
Image 2
Image 3

This graph displays the economies of scale Facebook gained by acquiring Whatsapp and Instagram. As you can see, its revenue from mobile platforms far surpassed desktop advertising following the two mergers (Instagram in April, 2012; Whatsapp in February, 2014). Equally important, Facebook only paid $1 billion for Instagram (which it made back within two years). It paid out a hefty $20 billion for Whatsapp, but has been compensated by substantial user growth on the application. This graph shows the importance of Facebook’s subsidiaries to the company’s durable competitive advantage. This relates to the Cambridge Analytica incident because subsidiary spin-offs will be the first antitrust action the U.S. takes against Facebook if it falls out of favor.

My Take:

I believe the Cambridge Analytica backlash has been exaggerated. There will not be substantial government oversight of Facebook for the foreseeable future (at least two years). There are three reasons for this.

One, Facebook has powerful lobbying forces that will help neuter any new legislation before it gets to Congress. There’s a reason why Zuckerberg talked about facilitating reform instead of outright rejecting it. In the unlikely event of a media frenzy, Facebook is poised to create substantial loopholes that allow compliance without substantial change. In other words, what it’s doing with the E.U.*

Two, technology companies benefit to an extraordinary degree from economies of scale. This is part of the reason why most tech titans are international in scope. Splitting up Facebook would reduce its competitive advantage, and create an economic vacuum for a foreign business to enter the space (e.g. Tencent). That’s a non-negotiable for the U.S. government; they simply cannot give a Chinese business (and by proxy, the Chinese government) unrestricted access to so much American consumer data without economic consequences. 

Three, politicians are operating with an apathetic constituent base. Even though more Americans become concerned with data privacy every day, very few understand how social media companies, search engines, and other user data-based services make money. Only educating the everyday consumer will lead to legislation that restricts the activities of Facebook and related companies without ruining their respective competitive advantages.


* The E.U. passed landmark data privacy regulation that requires Facebook make available a report of all the data it has on somebody at their request. Instead of creating comprehensive reports, the company makes it excruciatingly bureaucratic to get ahold of the document, and refuses to include data from 3rd parties (via the pixels mentioned earlier). The company argues that the cost of parsing its data to assemble these reports is restrictively expensive.

Further Reading:

As you can see, by putting in a little bit of work I discovered company information with a much longer half-life. Equally important, I tried to understand how Facebook makes money, why these data privacy violations recur fairly frequently, and what the company’s critical competitive advantages are. Thus, I’ll be able to analyze future developments surrounding Facebook much faster.

Interestingly enough, I also learned more about the companies Facebook jostles every now and then. Over the next few weeks, I will be reading up on Amazon, Google, Twitter, and Snapchat much more.

In closing: what’s a news soundbite you’ve heard repeatedly over the past few days? What questions do they evoke and how can you go about answering them?


Martial Arts Competition

Last Sunday, I competed for the first time in about sixteen months. I submitted two people and got submitted by two others (who needs fully-functioning shoulders, amirite?). Here are the lessons I learned: 

Take Care of Your Body

After starting the slow-carb diet, I decided to focus on pre-habilitation instead of athletic performance. In other words, I asked myself which habits and exercises would minimize my chance of getting injured. To that end, I consistently got eight hours of sleep, ate right, and warmed up properly before competing.

This focus saved me when I got submitted with a shoulder lock. My muscles were warm and strong, taking the brunt of the force instead of my rotator cuff tendons. After a few days of icy-hot patches, I’m 95% recovered.

Many people focus too much on achieving certain athletic goals. It’s equally important to take steps to prevent undesirable outcomes like injuries or burnout. Don’t sacrifice quality of life to hit an artificial life-metric (e.g. money in your bank account).

Have No Ego

The mystery man who submitted me wasn’t a black belt in disguise. He wasn’t even a man. The winner of the tournament (who submitted everyone he faced) was a fifteen year-old green belt.

As a result, my coaches have been making fun of me. Let them say what they want. Part of my passion for martial arts stems from its egoless nature. No amount of money, prestige, or shit talking can save you when you get on the mats to compete. I feel only gratitude that I’m healthy enough to participate.

Some people say that this isn’t the mindset of a champion. I find that many top-level athletes (my coaches Ahmed White and Nate James come to mind) don’t brag. They’re ruthlessly hard on themselves, and won’t let an inflated sense of self-importance get in the way of learning.

Technique is Only One Component

This is very applicable to the real world too. I felt like I was easily the most technical person in the tournament. But I got third place instead of first. Why? Because technical precision and beautiful form doesn’t matter if you don’t bring aggression, grit, and a game plan to the table too. I missed many opportunities to push that extra inch and takedown my opponent. I also neglected to push through my fatigue in the fourth match (even though I ended up securing a submission).

Although I find joy in pursuing the perfect sweep/submission/pin, in competition the move just has to work. Similarly, in real life people wait for the perfect opportunity to change career paths, take an experimental vacation, or ask a love interest out on a date. Don’t. The stars will never align 100%. Trust that by taking the leap, you’ve endowed yourself with the energy and ingenuity to make the life transition work.

Find Comfort in Your Discomfort

The tagline of this blog, yes. But worth repeating. It’s a hard mantra to follow when you’re seeing stars and still getting the life choked out of you.

Remember that thirty minutes of explosive combat unearthed all the insights I mentioned above. It’s simply not possible to be happy and hopelessly out of your depth. Instead, sprinkle uncomfortable life experiences in your schedule to become the person you want to be.

Forget yesterday, your aching pains, your plethora of excuses. At some point you have to take the lessons in these blog posts and apply them to the real world in a sustainable manner. So think before you take a risk. But don’t forget to take the risk!

How to Read Daily News

A week ago I talked about getting a balanced information diet. In the article, I said that news-based information is more important than I previously thought. I now need to qualify that statement; news-based information only rises above the literary-junk-food level if you read it selectively.

Bad News: Zuckerberg at Congress

I read three or four news articles from WSJ and the MIT Tech Daily Newsletter that made the same speculations about the future of Facebook. Even though I overtly disagreed with the findings of the writers, by the fourth article I found myself expecting significant legislation against Facebook.

After talking through the issue with my friend, I came to my senses. Facebook isn’t going anywhere for a long time*, but the news’s coverage of the Cambridge Analytica issue made me inflate its importance. Look at my inbox if you don’t believe me:

I get it. Writing daily is hard. But repeated exposure to the same issue and viewpoints won’t improve my decision making. To prevent this unhelpful side effect, I switched to MIT’s weekly newsletter.

*Facebook’s long term prospects: Let’s ignore Facebook’s powerful lobbying, winner-take-all business model, and desire to shape (and thereby nullify) any short-term reform. Ditto for Congress’s snail pace when it comes to regulating the private sector (read Titan to see how long it took the U.S. government to regulate Standard Oil). At the end of the day, most people simply don’t care if tech giants have data on them. It’s hard to enact substantial legislation with an apathetic constituent base. Over the next decade, public sentiment may change. Until that time, Facebook is coasting.

Good News: Wall Street Journal’s 52-Week Lows

By contrast, reading the Wall Street Journal’s 52-week lows is exactly the kind of timely information you need. In other words, reading the news should supply you with fleeting facts (proposed mergers, business calamities, macroeconomic trends, etc.) that make you excited enough to go out and form your own opinion. They are the starting point of original thought, not the end.

Although the above examples were business, this advice applies to your chosen niche. If you’re a NASCAR engineer, you should probably consume news that’ll make you an expert on the bleeding-edge of automobile technology. If you’re a writer for the New York Times, this means constantly honing the art of storytelling, as well as delving into the competitive advantages of various literary media sources (e.g. Medium vs. NYT vs. The Economist).


Don’t overwhelm yourself with stuff to read. Instead, understand the four or five inflection points in a specific industry (where real-time developments have profound implications) and follow those closely. Try to avoid consuming the same soundbites over and over. Overexposure leads to overweighing certain factors. And substantial repetition leads to ideology, which

“cabbages up one’s mind. … When you’re young it’s easy to drift into loyalties and when you announce that you’re a loyal member and you start shouting the orthodox ideology out, what you’re doing is pounding it in, pounding it in, and you’re gradually ruining your mind”


Nothing to add.


being the same person in private that you are in public.

being told you’re “obsessed” with a certain subject.

defining situations where the ends justify the means.

finding a groove and sticking too it.

having heated-yet respectful-debates on issues you care deeply about.

remembering Lou Vincenti’s rule:

Tell the truth and you won’t have to remember your lies.

sacrificing nuance before truth to oneself.

viewing failure as less painful than never trying.

Morningstar Challenge

While looking for people to hang out with at Berkshire’s Annual Shareholder Meeting, I stumbled upon TIPS. I’ve written about one of their founders before. They provide stellar podcasts, blog posts, and tutorials on value investing.

After subscribing to their newsletter, I received a checklist for value investing. I found the document’s resources spectacular. So I decided to follow the checklist, find five companies on Morningstar, and see if they were worth investing in.

I wasn’t impressed by the businesses I found. However, I discovered three things about value investing.


It’s hard to read financial statements. Even when I followed a checklist format, it was tedious and draining to find the appropriate metrics. Sometimes, they wouldn’t even be available unless you had a premium account. It makes sense why Munger advocates for checklists when investing; it’s easy to overlook an important detail when you’re inundated with so much information.


The metrics are useful. I’ve noticed a difference in my ability to evaluate businesses. After interacting with Shawn and realizing how awesome Chipotle was, I looked up its stock price. The metrics helped me guess what the business was worth before ever looking at the current stock price.


China is omnipresent on the stock market. Maybe it’s the fact that I read too much WSJ and MIT News. But again and again, I found Chinese conglomerates oil companies, and tech companies when sniffing for deals. I’m very interested to see how China-US economic relationships will change over the next thirty years.  I’ll write a separate article on Lee Kuan Yew and other’s opinion on the challenges China faces in the future.