Interning at Samsung

I interned at Samsung America the summer after my freshman year.  It was my first experience with a real corporation, so I showed up dressed in college-kid slacks and tie,  excited about having this super important official job.

Now this super important official job was located in Samsung America’s headquarters in La Mirada, off the 5 freeway.  From the freeway, the building looked so tall!  It had to have been at least 10 to 15 stories.  It was with pride that I pulled into the parking lot.

Super excited about this super important official job I was there to do, I walked in and promptly discovered that the facade was literally that, an optical illusion.  The actual building was only two stories high, but achieved the look of verticality from glass panes that were stacked in ten rows atop each other, 3-5 panes per floor.

This was in the early 2000s, when Samsung’s primary products were televisions, printers, video players, CD-R’s, etc., before a single phone.  It was a prestigious company back then, but not at the level of the past 10 years.  And I became very intimately acquainted with all these primary products over my time there, not because I helped market them or do analysis on them, but because I spent most of my time there in the storage closet, which was a repository of old hardware.

My immediate supervisor was a short, bespectacled senior manager whose eyes were blurry behind his frames, and whose own ambivalence about his role in the company caused my summer to be a pretty unproductive, although amusing one.

Let’s just call him Mr. Lee, because I have a 20% chance of being right anyway.  Mr. Lee was well-meaning and honest, but maybe too honest.

After a two-day period of being introduced to people around the office, and being feted with lunches, I asked for work to do, to which he responded that there was nothing to do.

Dumbfounded, I asked what he meant.  I’m here on an internship, I said.

So, he said.  We have people to do everything already, he replied, casting a hand around the office.  You’re here to learn.

And what I discovered the learning was, was life lessons imparted in 3-hour lecture form, in Korean, by this man on an overseas posting.  They usually took place after lunch, in the storage closet.  More on the significance of this storage closet later.

I came into work three days a week.  In the mornings I was unsupervised and free.  One day I walked into another intern’s office (a guy from Harvard), and discovered him watching footage of a Korean pop star’s sex tape scandal with his own immediate supervisor, a man likely in his 30s.  His supervisor excitedly asked him to make a copy for him.

Sometimes I tried to do work.  This consisted of organizing files, and going out to get coffee.  When I asked for real work, I was waved off by everyone in the office, as if instructed by an invisible set of orders on high.

They can do it better than you, Mr. Lee said to me.

His lectures to me usually started right after lunch and sometimes lasted until 3 or 4pm.  And I’m embarrassed to admit, I remember almost nothing about them.  My Korean wasn’t as good as it is now, so even at the time, I understood maybe ~30%.  Add the effect of heavy lunch-induced food comas, so that the most distinct thing I remember is repeatedly dozing off right in front of Mr. Lee’s face and feeling bad about it, but as I blinked my eyes wide open with superhuman effort, him not even pausing, missing a beat, or commenting on my slumber, and instead continuing in his rapid, undulating, quite dramatic exhortations about working hard and being an immigrant and being loyal.

At home, I looked up ways to stay awake through food comas, and came across such tactics as biting your tongue and pinching yourself hard.  Neither worked for me.  I was too tired to summon the effort.

Mr. Lee himself had been sent by HQ on this overseas posting, and while he wasn’t the head of the office, he was a powerful #2.  Not so powerful that he could do anything he wanted, but still – three hour storage closet breaks can only be administered by someone with some clout.

The #1, boss of bosses, was an even older gentleman who was also bespectacled, and who Mr. Lee tried to avoid at all costs using various tactics and techniques.  If, in the parking lot, Mr. Lee spotted the Boss, he would instruct me and other underlings to duck inside the car so that we were not visible.  He himself would recline the seat back all the way so as to avoid detection.  More than once as we made our way up to the executive floor (the second floor of the 2-story building), he instructed me to crouch under the cubicles and commando-style, move towards the back while keeping out of the Boss’ line of sight.  This was way easier for him, because he didn’t have much crouching to do.  Our destination during these crawls was the storage closet, where the Boss never seemed to think to check.

The other staff in the office saw us and knew exactly what we were doing, but never said anything.  After all, Mr. Lee was the #2.

During our lectures, Mr. Lee became more animated and passionate than I ever saw him.  It’s like he could finally be the person he wanted to be, through his words.  By the way, I am not exaggerating about the duration of his lectures.  Directly after lunch, I knew I would be tied up until it was time to leave.

It was almost as if Mr. Lee didn’t want me to work.  A lot of it was defined by the fact that he resented the corporate hierarchy and his place in it, but looking back on it now, I wonder if in some way he was looking out for me.

It’s your job to learn, he had said.  To be a student.  Not to engage in the mindless drudgery that his staff was buried in.  The subtext: not so fast.

And you can’t give 3 hour lectures imparting the entirety of your life experience to someone you don’t like.  Probably the opposite.

I realize in retrospect that in many ways, without explicitly meaning to be, he was quite kind.

What Gary Taught Me

I never thought I was going to write a second post with Gary in it.  But he was killed two weeks ago in a tragic boat accident, aged 64.  When I went to his funeral yesterday, I saw that the latest entry in the guest book was, ‘so young!’  Overwhelmed, I didn’t know what to write after that, so I didn’t.

I also didn’t stay for the celebration of life part, where everyone gets together and talks about the recently deceased.  I just didn’t know what to say.  But now I think I do.

I met Gary during what was probably the roughest time during the last 20 years of his life.  He was going through an acrimonious divorce and everyone who worked with him, the 9 of us, stuffed in that two bedroom apartment off Manhattan Beach Blvd, knew it.

Sometimes his soon-to-be-ex-wife would drive up, shower us with abuses, and drive off.  One time we had a counterintelligence expert show up and do a thorough sweep of the apartment for bugs.  For whatever reason, this ‘expert’ thought I was working with the enemy, and kept turning away from me when I tried to listen.

They tried to sabotage each other, they maligned each other, they were each lawyered up to the gills, and part of my unofficial job description was to sort through his bank statements and files from the last decade in an effort to make the lawyers’ lives easier, because they were high-priced idiots who couldn’t see the outlines of the case.  I just remember the attorneys sitting there in the conference room, clearly exposing their ignorance about basic details, as the paralegals chimed in with what the paid-by-the-hour idiots should have known.  I don’t remember the firm’s name, but they were based out of Torrance.

Anyway.  Throughout this, Gary worked like a fiend.  I joined in 2010; in 2008 and 2009 he saw his net worth get destroyed by half, and the combination of this and the divorce made him feel like he was up against a wall.

Every morning he did 5 am yoga.  Then at noon he went out again for a spin class.  Then sometimes he did another yoga session in the evening, calling all the rest of us lazy wusses[not this exactly but something similar] for not being able – or unwilling – to keep up with him, who was twice our age.

He was working with a manic, crazy energy.  You could sometimes see his eyes go vapid from the exhaustion and anxiety.  Files were strewn all over his room as if TNT had exploded in it, but he knew where every single thing was.  Sometimes while he was talking, he would drift off, his mind wanting to be somewhere else.

Gary was my single ‘professional’ mentor.  Actually, he was more of a life mentor.  During that time, Gary was going through a period of intense reflection.  Mixed in with a simmering bitterness about the divorce, and intense anxiety about…everything, he rambled on about events in his life, thinking out loud about what had happened, and the majority of it revolved around the theme of Not Trusting the System.

He railed against everything – his ex-wife, against bankers, against people who spent too much on their cars and houses, against all the people in Manhattan Beach trying to be big fish in small ponds, against county assessors, against dishonorable clients who didn’t pay, against people who had full time jobs they didn’t enjoy.  The IRS.  The federal government.  Lawyers.  Accountants (he was formerly one).  Mostly against people who he thought spent too much on anything, and people who ‘bought’ into the system, the (former) American Dream, who tried to be like other people.  Son of a mailman, a boy from Hawthorne, Gary had a huge chip on his shoulder even while from the outside, you would see him as a millionaire and as part of the establishment.

Of course, a lot of it went too far.  Walking into hotel lobbies to enjoy their free continental breakfasts.  Withholding our checks while trying to convince us it was better for tax purposes.  Driving thirty minutes out of the way because gas was cheaper somewhere else.  Not wanting to go to lunch anywhere unless it had a lunch special that was at least a double-digit percentage cheaper than regular price.  Taking his son to LA Kings games but arriving purposely late, and then ‘teaching’ him about the bargaining advantage against scalpers when one arrives after the game has started.  Spending more time trying to rack up miles than on the details of his divorce (which we had to handle).

And the combination of his own personality and his circumstances made him bitter.  He did spend a lot of time badmouthing his ex-wife.  This spilled over into a judgmental attitude about other people too.  His neighbors who tried to keep up appearances.  County assessors and their work ethic.  And his relationship with his brother was not the greatest either.

But despite it all, he walked the walk.  He was frugal to a fault, even though he had become a millionaire many times over.  He said what he thought.  And I absorbed it all.  Because in most ways, he was right.  And for that, I was always grateful.

And that’s what I thought I knew about Gary.  Based on his cynicism and sometimes-pettiness, I didn’t expect to see the entire hall-full of people come to pay their respects.  I saw how much he was loved by his children.  I even saw his ex-wife sitting in the first row, and who read a poem about forgiveness, which had layers upon layers of meaning on it, since the boat accident was another’s fault.

One of his friends gave a moving speech full of fondness and affection.  More than once I heard him described as fun-loving, generous, big-hearted, friendly.

And then it got me thinking, as I stood there in the back of the room.  I thought I had known Gary.  But it seemed like actually, there was another side to him that I had never known.

Perhaps, just maybe, who I had seen was a man at his worst.

And that man at his worst, had still never raised his voice, was ready to greet us with a smile, and lived every day through that dark period with desperate, almost superhuman energy.  And come to think of it, I hadn’t made much of it at the time, but I do remember he had talked incessantly about his kids – about their nature, about their accomplishments, even when I hadn’t thought they were so great – with exceeding pride and love.  That man at his worst, was still better than many people at their best.

Rest in peace Gary.

8th Wonder of the World

Once I hit my mid-thirties, I started losing track of my age.  Sometimes I have to pause and think, and calculate the number of my rotations around the sun.  Time passes by deceptively quickly.  The months and days blend in with each other, and sporadically I have these startling realizations where I feel like I’ve been asleep and just woken up.

Like when, after spending 4 years abroad, I start reading the news and every article’s headline looks like it could be from the Onion.  I swear to you, my Feedly at some point started looking like April Fools’ Day, every day.

Or when you start not being able to comprehend pop culture or music.  And when the music you grew up listening to, becomes ‘old school’.  Sigh.

Or like when I go to the gym, and everyone is younger than me.  And I end up wrestling with high school kids.

Or when people who I think are not that younger than me, keep calling me sir.  That happens, by the way, when you’re in your mid-to-late twenties.  When it first happened, I was pleasantly surprised.  Now I’m more disgruntled.

Or when you lose touch with some friends for a few years, and that new job or project they were working on whose name no one knew, ends up being on the headlines of major newspapers.  And they become startup founders with huge exits, fund managers with billions under management, managing directors, directors, and start becoming the grizzled old guard.  This is astounding and inspiring at the same time.

Einstein called the power of compounding the 8th wonder of the world, and it truly is.  When you’re in school, everyone is kind of equal.  You have standouts and geniuses, but you drink together, study together, sleep together.  Shortly after graduating, you start seeing peoples’ paths diverge.  Ten to fifteen years out, and you see people on opposite ends of the spectrum.

People who haven’t taken care of themselves end up with serious health problems.  Some end up in jail.  Others make fortunes.  Others have almost fully grown kids.  Still others completely turn their lives around from drug addicts or violent juveniles to successful businesspeople.  It takes time, but the tiniest bit of compounding plays out.

I don’t know if it’s universal, but in my twenties I couldn’t even imagine being thirty.  Now I’m in my late thirties but I definitely can imagine 40, 50.  I wish when I was younger, I had fully appreciated this power of compounding.  And believed in it.  I would have made plans in 5- to 10-year increments.  Because although they might have taken nearly a decade, the things that my friends and colleagues said they would become, they truly became.

What’s your next 5 to 10 years look like?  It goes by in a flash.

1%

Of the places I’ve been to, there’s one entire city that I think would singularly defy explanation to an ancient visitor.  It isn’t one based on manufacturing, like Shenzhen, or trade, like Dubai,  or a port, like Antwerp, or a capital seat of power, like Washington D.C.  It’s not even a city based on mirages, like Los Angeles, or tourism, like Orlando.  Because it wouldn’t be that hard to explain these places.

Buildings are a concentration of energy and resources, and a reflection of our values and culture.  An ancient Egyptian looking up at the skyline, would see the Pyramid of Khufu, the deity-king, and go about his business, knowing that in his world, the link between the afterlife and this life was sound.  An ancient European, looking at the nearest castle or church, would have similarly seen the relationship between herself, the powers that be, and the powers that govern the ever after.

Even in our modern world, you can pretty much look at any building and identify its reason for being.  Office towers – a clustering of service-industry companies.  Malls – our consumerist economy at work, and/or modern town centers.  Residential towers – lack of space in a city where people want to live.

But.  There’s an island in the middle of the South China Sea with some of the largest buildings in the world.  Likely, 99% of the population of the world will never go there, nor have a reason to.  And I’m not so sure an ancient visitor would have any idea what they were for, nor understand how they were built.  They aren’t residences, marketplaces, nor granaries, offices buildings, warehouses, or anything that could have existed a few hundred years ago.

Because these buildings?  They’re a type of factory built on a single mathematical probability, and that is the probability that over hundreds of thousands of games played, it will lead to a convergence towards a single number – 1%.  It is an island built on our modern world’s triumph of risk management.

I’m talking about Macau.

Now there are a lot of different directions we can go here, but I want to start with the sheer size of these buildings.

Ancient descriptions of splendor always interest me.  For example, Marco Polo, arriving at the court of Kublai Khan, marveled at the “greatest palace that ever was”, with gilded walls and a main hall so large that it could seat 6,000 dinner guests.  The Khan’s palace, like many other palaces, were built to awe, stupefy, and impress power upon their subjects and vassals.

Now of course, this kind of breathless praise is subjective, and dependent on the eye of the observer.  What if we applied this kind of writing to modern buildings?  How’s this one:

A massive pleasure ground filled with all sorts of marvels and luxuries, boasting 30 restaurants of cuisines from all around the world, accessible to guests by means of a gondola crossing a lake, nearly 6 football fields in size, activated with fountains that explode into the sky in a synchronized dance.  At the end of the voyage, guests are greeted by attendants who show them into a staggering hall accommodating nearly 10,000 pleasure-seekers at once.  Above them, more than 1,000 stately rooms await, bedecked in lavish gold leaf and precious metal furnishings.  Plush carpeting create a serene environment for these guests of honor, who arrive at their rooms passing carousels and ferris wheels arranged throughout the lobby, made entirely of floral arrangements.  Artwork carefully selected from around the world and across the span of history, with priceless Qing Dynasty treasures and more than $120 million worth of contemporary paintings alike, greet these visitors.  Costing a staggering sum of more than $4 billion dollars, constructed over a 2-year period with a city’s worth of laborers, this pleasure palace is…the Wynn Palace in Macau.

Located in Cotai, the Wynn Palace is one of twelve casino resorts built with a similar level of stupefying investment.  At 400,000 square meters (4.5 million square feet), its gross area is larger than most buildings in North America, including the Mall of America (the largest mall in America) and the One World Trade Center (the tallest building on the entire continent), and larger than Disneyland or Disney World Magic Kingdom, including parking lots.  It’s larger than airports.

To build the Palace, Wynn invested more money than went into the One World Trade Center, a building whose reason for being, in Manhattan, is more or less crystal clear.

The Wynn’s neighbor, the Venetian Macau, ranks among the top 5 largest buildings in the world.  At over 1,000,000 square meters (250 acres), the single casino resort is more or less the size of Hudson Yards’ East Yard (home of 4 skyscrapers each over 900 feet tall, a retail mall, hotel, 2 million square feet of residential properties).

And on the Cotai Strip alone, there are ten more like them!

Returning to our ancient visitor.  No doubt he would be astounded to step foot inside one of these palaces, although he would have no idea what people were doing inside of them.  He probably would have been even more astounded by the fact that unlike ancient tombs, palaces, temples, or castles, stepping inside one of these modern palaces is completely free of charge.

Now imagine you’re the ancient visitor, entering a casino in Macau.  The casino floor sprawls out for, literally, acres.  There are people with their eyes glazed over the slot machines, seemingly engaged in some sort of modern-day temple offering.  They insert tokens of monetary value into a metallic, neon offering jar.  Capriciously, it offers some back.  Other times it swallows the tokens, as if appeased.

If you walk a little further, out to the open expanse of the tables, then you might see something that you can relate to.  No machines here.  Just a simple exchange between two humans, and a crowd of people surrounding them.  The two humans seem engaged in some sort of rite.  One of them wildly gesticulating, engaged in all sorts of rituals of extreme concentration: blowing on some pieces of paper, mumbling what seem to be incantations, shouting words as they flip them over, peeking slyly under them, slamming the side of a hand down and pretending to ‘chop’ the paper in half.

This is baccarat in Macau.  

This is a game where the house edge is slight, and the actual decision-making made by players is almost nonexistent.  Add to that the influence of native Chinese superstitions, and you get a game where paradox of the illusion of control looms large.

In baccarat, or punto cano, one plays the game by betting on one of three outcomes: whether the “banker”, usually the dealer, or the “player”, usually another player, will  win.  Or that they will tie.  The two sides are dealt cards, and these two players then flip them, nothing else.  Then they are issued new cards according to strict rules.  Literally, after you bet on one of these three outcomes you have nothing else to decide.  

And for the player herself, she does nothing else but flip the cards or draw them according to preset rules.  There is literally nothing to stop casinos from replacing the “players” and dealers with robot arms.  But perhaps for this simple reason, an elaborate edifice of rationalizations in the form of rituals and superstitions, arises.

Gambling has a rich mythology. From the earliest days of human society, casting lots —often by drawing straws or tossing dice made from the knuckle bones of sheep—was a way to ask the gods for answers. The high priest who wanted influence soon learned to become a “sharper,” positioning the straws just right, shaving the dice, or even devising elaborate rules to ensure that more than random chance would determine the outcome. In many societies, it was a serious crime for anyone but the high priest to touch the instruments used to divine the will of the gods. This imbued the dice with a sacred quality. It also made sure no one could tell if they were loaded.

A screen by the table displays whether the banker or player has won previous rounds, in alternating colors.  What is this screen even for?  The result of a previous hand has literally nothing to do with the next round of play.  

But when a player gets hot, you see the player’s marker blazoned in blue or red, curling back down and around, like an improbable banner, a dragon’s tail.  You see players in states of concentration, chain-smoking, guzzling tea by the gallon, “cutting” their cards with a big fist, pounding it down on the table, then chopping it in half before taking the edge of the card, like it weighs a ton and he’s struggling against the weight of his fight against fate, peeling it back with the force of the spirits unleashed in his hands.  Then you see tables erupting in pandemonium as players go on streaks, crowds gathering around the table four deep, jostling for position to bet, often through reps located closer to the action, chips flying above and through the crowd and landing all over the table, and then ladies of the night creeping up and slipping their phone numbers to the big winners.

The energy is intense, and it makes you start believing it, this thing called luck.

And on second thought, maybe it’s not so far-fetched to believe that an ancient visitor would have related to what goes on there.

*******

Gambling is 90%+ of revenues in Macau.  In Las Vegas, that percentage is closer to 40%.  Baccarat alone accounts for 80% of revenues in Macanese casinos.  And of this 80% of revenues, most of it is from VIP gaming, where the minimum bet size is $5,000 US dollars.  

By some estimates, the actual count of these VIPs is in the thousands or tens of thousands, meaning that it is the population of a small town driving the revenues of a small country’s GDP.

The mechanics of the baccarat game are worth reiterating.  

When you play baccarat, unlike most casino games, where there is no strategy or decision making.  You do not decide to draw or stand, like blackjack.  You do not have dozens of options, like in roulette.  You do not look at the other players’ cards or try to read their faces.  You can try to card count, but the consensus among the best card counters alive, including Ed Thorpe, are that “despite the resemblances between baccarat and blackjack, the favorable situations detected by perfect card counting methods are not sufficient to make the game favorable.”  

A more appropriate analogy might be to think of it as a team-based version of casino war.  There is no winning strategy.  The odds are given.  The “banker” will win 45.9% of the time, and the “player” will have the upper hand 44.6% of the time.  And you can bet on either.  Less than 1% of the time, they will tie.

The net of these three outcomes results in a 1% advantage for the casino.  It’s the slimmest of odds, and it’s the statistical substrate on which nearly billions of dollars in buildings have been built.  

Take some time to think about whether you would build a business on a 1% margin.  Does that sound appealing?

You might be saying that if it’s a sure thing, then of course!  

But the problem is that probabilities are not sure things.  In fact, because the house edge is so slim, in short games, small volumes, and large hands, baccarat players can go on inexplicable streaks that wreck holes in casino vaults.

Bill Zender, former Nevada Gaming Control Agent, sums it up: “your risk is 100 times your average bet.  So if a guy is betting $10,000 a hand, he could conceivably win $1 million from you.  That’s within two standard deviations, so it can happen.”

And in a game where VIP regularly wager half a million dollars a hand, the casino can lose tens of millions of dollars in minutes.  If this sounds theoretical, let’s take a trip back to 1990.

This was the era of one of the greatest bubble eras in human history, with its epicenter in Japan.  Residential land in Tokyo was worth $6,000/sqm.  That’s more than $60,000 a square foot!!!  The Nikkei stock index had quadrupled in less than 10 years.  The appraised value of the Imperial Palace was reportedly higher than the land value in California.  Reeling from the heights of their stock market, Japanese banks, companies, and businessmen were on a shopping spree, snapping up properties in Manhattan and London and “priceless” artworks the world over.  It was, for many Japanese companies and businessmen, the height of their arrogance.   

It was in this milieu that two real estate tycoons met.  One was a shadowy Japanese businessman named Akio Kashiwagi.  Rumored to have ties to the yakuza, Kashiwagi was known among casino owners to be a whale, one who would wager hundreds of thousands of dollars a hand.  And for this reason, he was widely courted.

His game of choice was baccarat, and he was the type of player to play big hands and have the ability to walk away with profits.  Exactly the type of player that casinos both love and fear.  In effect, because of the even nature of the game, a casino owner inviting a whale to play is himself making a gamble – that the combination of circumstances, custom rules, and setting will induce the player to stay as long as possible to let the slim 1% odds play out.

The second tycoon?

None other than our current president, Donald Trump.

This was their second meeting.  In their first meeting, Kashiwagi walked away with $6 million of the Trump Plaza’s money.  Earlier in the year, he had blown a $20 million hole in the vaults of the Diamond Beach casino in Australia, almost bankrupting it.  In other words, he was a fearless and skilled(?) gambler.

Now in their second encounter, Kashiwagi wagered $18 million an hour, playing a hand every 50 seconds.  At one point he had looted Trump’s vaults of that amount, $18 million.  The RAND consultant/mathematician that Trump had hired, along with Trump himself, watched in confoundment and extreme anxiety as the pile of $5,000 chips overflowed off the felt onto the carpet.

It was more money than the entire rest of the casino had lost or even wagered that weekend, meaning that this single chain-smoking businessman was single-handedly wrecking the hotel’s profits for the year.

As the marathon gambling session went on, the grindstone of the ever-present 1% odds began to work in Trump’s favor.  Kashiwagi started giving back his winnings, millions at a time.  He was down $10 million with every intent to continue playing when Trump decided to call it quits, reportedly against the terms of the $12 million freeze-out agreement that had been negotiated.

The point is not what happened.

It’s that the house edge of 1% is not assured.  A casino’s very fortunes can swing on the volatility of one player.  It takes time for probabilities to play out.  The probabilities also play out over multiple players.  Getting as many people to play, and staying as long as possible, is the only way to ensure that the probabilities work out in the long run.

Returning to our ancient visitor again.  By this time, having explained the workings of the casinos to him or her, perhaps explaining the game as a battle of spirits or gods, what would the game look like?

Macau, as a machine that crunches half a trillion dollars in rolling chips, the clay tokens thrown or carefully slid across the felt tables by players, making countless glances into the edges of their cards.  Millions of cards folded beyond recognition, thrown across the table, billions of dollars exchanged into chips, and as the probabilities roll on across millions of plays spanning thousands of hours, a residue.  A layer at the top, the 1% that is the house take, resulting in the gross revenues that drive the entire place.  A place where the vagaries of superstition, fortune-telling meet the caprices of probabilities and fortune, and have largely been…controlled.  

Essentially, a factory where thousands of hands transform money into revenues for the casino.  And that, is the reason for Macau’s very existence.  

What I Learned From: My Grandfather

I don’t remember much about him, but what I do remember: a booming voice that carried across a room, an unafraid voice, a voice from a generation unaccustomed to the idea of phones.  Whenever he picked one up, he yelled into it, unsure if the other person could hear him.  He spoke Korean with a northern, Pyongyang-tinged dialect, a lilting one, rendered harsh by Siberian winters.

He was an expansive man, moving in abundance and generosity.  Some of my favorite memories of him were when he came to visit, asked us if we “needed” anything from Toys R Us, and proceeded to order my father to drive us there.

He was born in 1923, at the height of Japan’s colonization of Korea.  He was fluent in Japanese, studied at Keio University, then returned to Pyongyang to work with his family of industrialists, capitalists, and landowners.

Also, they were Christians, which basically meant that there were at least four reasons the Communists wanted them dead.

Kim Il Sung’s goons came for him once, but he hid himself in the wardrobe – my grandmother standing at the door, chills running up her spine, her voice shaking as she remembered identifying the dead bodies of her cousins at the police station.  He wasn’t home, she said.

She sold it well – they went away.

Things got worse, and the war broke out.  He carried my oldest aunt, 7 at the time, on his back the whole way from Pyongyang to Busan.  They rode trains, took boats across rivers, and mostly walked.  The flood of refugees was so chaotic and compressed that sometimes babies were mistaken for luggage and thrown off the tops of trains.

They bundled all the money they had around themselves, but after carrying it thousands of miles, discovered that everything besides the gold was worthless paper.

In Busan, they became food stall peddlers.  Then they sold leather, coming home every night reeking of hides and dye.

Some of my most vivid memories are of my grandparents counting money.  They would take a wad of bills, fold it in half, lick their thumb, and rapidly flick the wad like human money counters.  They were in their golden years so I always associated it with prosperity, but I realize now that it was probably from their days as merchants.

They moved frequently.  A few years after the war, looking for startup capital, he wandered the city for a week.  My grandmother said the only time she saw him cry was when he was turned down by some people for loans.  These were “friends” who owed him the money to begin with.

I always try to measure myself against him.

When he was 30, the Korean War was on the verge of ending.  Having lost everything, he was just scraping by.

And then – for two decades, he just worked.  At one point, he saved enough to sublet space in a shoe factory near Daejeon.

This was his big break.  Before the war, his family were a clan of manufacturers.  And though they had to abandon all their property, including factories, my grandfather did have one thing left: knowledge of the precise method to make rubber.  In the desolate post-war landscape, not many other people had the knowledge.

And being sublet in the shoe factory had its advantages, because they had a ready customer for rubber soles.

By the 1970s, when my grandfather would have been 50 or so, he had completely reestablished his family’s business, with a factory churning out rubber soles for all sorts of uses.  He was on a council of a hundred businessmen personally advising Park Chung-Hee, the strongarm dictator of the decade.

They were prosperous enough that they were able to hire drivers, with a Ford Mustang and Jeep in the stable.  This was to the enormous chagrin of my father and younger aunt, who begged to be dropped off a block away from school.

And from his 50s until he passed away, just before the age of 70, my grandfather became the picture of a prosperous businessman.

Those are the outlines of his life, and that is all I know.  He died when I was 10, before I had a chance to ask him anything about life or business.  I’ve wanted to ask him so many questions.  What was the war like?  How did you go from having nothing to a KOSPI-listed company?  What did you tell himself, day after day, while struggling for decades?  What advice would you give?  What guidance?

I wish I knew more, but over the years, I’ve come to accept that maybe, he’s taught me what I need to know.

He was generous with his wealth, boisterous, loud.  He was playful, always shadowboxing with me, a big fan of “pro” wrestling, and outspoken and outgoing to a fault.  I remember him going up to complete strangers at Six Flags or Disneyland, striking up conversations in barking English monosyllables and gestures, and asking random people – usually blondes – to take pictures with him.

He came from a world where business was mostly conducted in person, and on the back of envelopes.  He carried around a little black address book, and lots of pens.  Decisive and quick, but sometimes wrong.

This made him not so good in other areas, such as principles of managerial succession, and those of finance.  With lots of debt, and no competent middle- or even senior managers at the company, it was made quick work of during the Asian financial crisis.  At some point, it was delisted.  And a few years after the AFC, it was completely liquidated.

He wasn’t alive at the time it happened.

My last memory of him was in 1992, when I held his warm, dying hand and looked into his eyes before they pulled the cord on his life support.  Only 10 at the time, I didn’t know what was happening.  I didn’t realize he was dying.  Surely after a few treatments, he would get better.  Because that’s how medical care works, right?

As a kid, no one tells you anything, especially in Korean families.  So I thought I was just there to say hi, and when my uncle told me later that he had passed away, my first reaction was disbelief and denial.

What I saw in his eyes?  They recognized me.  His grasp was light but warm.  His eyes were still very much alive.

It is a matter of family legend that his company had faced a credit crunch right before I was born.  It was an issue, again, of a loan.  After I was born, whatever the issue was, it resolved itself, and so it was the reason my grandfather prized me so much, his only grandson, because I was a good omen.  Or so it goes.

But I like to think it’s more than that.  Maybe it’s because he recognized something in me.  Maybe he wanted to pass something down to me.  Or, maybe it’s that I recognize something in him.  Maybe something he wanted me to have.

I saw a picture of my grandfather as a young man once.  He must have been in his late 20s, early 30s.  It must have been taken shortly before or after the Korean War.  It was his whole clan, his five brothers and a sister.  He was the fifth brother, and he stood at far right, the shortest one, a gaunt, almost hollow face above a wiry frame, in complete contrast to the thick, booming man that I had known.

It was a revelation about what those years between 30 and 50 must have been like.

Because his face was intense and his eyes were burning with hunger.

What I’ve Learned From: Raising a Daughter (so far)

About halfway through my hedge fund job, I lost my Xiaomi phone with the first six months of my daughter’s life in photos.

Six months old is a time when you can leave your child in the morning, and come back in the evening to perceive that she’s changed in all sorts of subtle ways – mannerisms, appearance, skills.

Like a fool, I hadn’t backed up any of the pictures, and it literally felt like I had no accounting of the last six months of my life – and hers.  This was still when I was working two jobs, so admittedly, I hadn’t been spending much time with her besides in the evenings.  I felt deprived and hollow.

This wasn’t the only reason, but it was a catalyst in a series of events that led me, a few months later, to quit my budding finance career.  I became a work-at-home-stay-at-home dad, at least in the afternoons.

And for the last three and a half years, I’ve taken care of her every day, for at least half of every day.  Playgrounds, playrooms, parks, bike rides, reading stories, swimming, etc.

Looking through my journals over the past three years, I’ve been astounded at how little I seem to have “accomplished”.

Because compared to my earlier years, I don’t have many notches.  And it was only after a momentary bit of confusion that I realized all the time had gone into raising a certain little rascal.

In many ways, you feel the presence of time when you have a child.  You hear that children bring you into the present, but you have no idea what that means until you have one.

They have no sense of past or future, everything is in the present.  Everything that is in front of them, including you, is their entire world, their here and now.  They emote with their whole bodies.  Their joy cannot be contained, they cannot help but to jump and shout.  When they’re sad, they curl up into balls.  They grow rigid and tense when fearful.  They droop and wilt, almost like flowers.  They cannot mean one thing and emote or say another.

They’re sheer expressions of energy and emotion, and if you forgot what things like joy, curiosity, excitement, and grateful mean, they’ll remind you.

In order to engage with them, you will bring yourself into the present too.  You can’t console a crying child with your mind on something else.  There is no meditation quite like holding a sleeping baby and peering into her face.  And negotiating meals, baths, and screen time against little machines designed to look for loopholes and the slightest contradiction, is no task for a distracted mind.  So yes, they bring you into the present.

And when you look back at that time spent raising them, you have to use an alternate measuring stick to keep track of your “accomplishments”.  I’m not sure I “accomplished” very much.  But every day, week, month, and year was full of drama, excitement, small terrors, triumphs, and wonderment.  It passed in a flash.  She’s so big, she’s a little miracle.  She’s our joy.  I didn’t accomplish anything, I just – lived.

*******

Parenting is immensely hard.  I know all the cliches about this, but let me explain why parenting is one of the hardest jobs in the world.

I see my peers dread the weekends and look forward to Mondays, the direct opposite of when you’re single.  Why?

The things that comprise job satisfaction in the workplace are well-documented.  It’s not necessarily money.  They’re jobs that give you a sense of autonomy, mastery, flow.  These things give you a sense of progress and growth, and boost morale.  And if you’re far enough into a career, then you have at least one or a combination of them.

In parenting you have none of the above.

Autonomy?  Not when you have a tiny being dependent on you for food and shelter 24 hours every day.  Having even 15 minutes alone is a relief, parents take long showers for this reason.  Parenting is a marathon energy drain by a million cuts.  It’s maintaining a simmering tension and attention on them, 24/7.  When they’re really little, it’s hard to even go to the bathroom by yourself, let alone “go home” at the end of the day.  You can’t sleep to “turn off”, because they’re waking you up every two hours.  And at 5am, they’ll do a wind sprint into your room and ask to play, as energized as you would be after downing a caffeinated pitcher of something.

Mastery?  Ask any parent if they feel like they’ve “mastered” being a parent to get a full-throated laugh in your face.  Raising kids is like playing ten games of whack-a-mole simultaneously – you think you’ve gotten the hang of feeding them, they get fussy with their sleep.  You toilet train them, but now they throw tantrums for no reason.  You think they’ve started getting articulate, then they start throwing you attitude and using bad phrases they somehow picked up from hearing one time randomly on the radio.  They get picky with their food, they ask for inordinate amounts of screen time.  They regress, they have no sense of reason or logic, they cannot explain things to you, and their brains are literally exploding with neuron growth every second of every day.  And…there’s no  measuring stick.  No one to tell you or give you feedback about how good of a job you’re doing.  Your boss is the baby, and she doesn’t do evaluations.

Flow?  When you’re interrupted every minute because their sense of time is such that one hour to them is like one week to you?  No.  Your only uninterrupted time will be at 4am before they get up, or near midnight after they’re deep in their REM cycles.  Or after they’re in school.  School = daycare.

The reality is that I’m not sure everyone will think it’s worth it.  For me it is, because what else am I going to do, ha.

In all seriousness, being a parent is a choice.  I’m convinced there’s no right amount of time you need to spend with your kids, nor one right way to do it.

*******

Naval Ravikant says about happiness and diets, that there is no single truth to them, otherwise there wouldn’t be millions of books continuously published on them.  It’s the same thing when it comes to modern parenting.

When you’re a parent, you’re bombarded with hundreds of different ways to, well, do anything: feed them, put them to sleep, talk to and educate them.  These books and methods seem to be written mostly by people whose sole qualification is the fact that they’ve had kids, sometime in the distant past, and have idealized memories of the experience.  There is no barrier to entry in this literature, and anyone can feed on the anxious mind of a first-time parent.

Of all the things that are “supposed” to work but that didn’t work for us, of which there are many, was the genius idea that you’re supposed to lock away an infant in a dark room by herself, let her cry for you, until she learns that you won’t come back.  Only then, are we told, will she learn to sleep through the night.  The same for naps.  And if you don’t do this, supposedly it impacts their ability to become an independently functioning human being later on in life.

This is the “cry-it-out” method, or in languages other than English, “child abuse”.  If it sounds ludicrous to non-parents, it’s because it is, and if you’re a parent you know that this germ of an idea is prevalent in the literature.

We tried it.  For years.  The first clue that it didn’t work, should have been the fact that she didn’t stop crying after 30 to 45 minutes.  Sometimes she would cry for over an hour before falling asleep from pure exhaustion.  She wasn’t tired, you say?  Well, the experts also say that you have to put them to sleep at the same time every night, so there’s that..

It should also have been a clue that as an 18-month old, she developed the ability to climb the steep poles of her crib and fling herself over 3 feet of railing and land on hard tile, unscathed.  Or that at the same age, she learned to climb over the crib, stand atop an air filter, and open a closed door to peer out at us while precariously perched on a level above her standing height.  It could also have been a clue that no matter how hard we tried to “walk her back to her room”, as you’re supposed to do, she would end up asleep in the living room or next to the office, to be as close to us as possible.  And that no matter how many times we walked her back, trying cajolery and punishments, she would wake up terrified and call for us.

It is my embarrassment that we tried this horrifyingly inane “method” for as long as we did, indoctrinated as we were by “experts”: i.e., parents who did this with their own children and are trying to self-justify and absolve themselves by cloaking it in pseudo-psychological nonsense.  I’m sure it works for many people.  But not all people are the same, nor are their kids.

Looking back, this is one of my only regrets about her upbringing.

One economic principle of life is to be aware and cautious of, is the misalignment of incentives.  The modern parenting-industrial complex is one rife with them.

Kids are the ones “consuming” the product of daycare and educational programs, but parents are the ones paying for them.  Self-professed “experts” and psychologists are the ones peddling half-baked ideas about parenting and child psychology, and other families bear the costs to implement them.

There are all sorts of self-promoters out there.  You would think that in the field of parents and children, there would be governmental protections against these kinds of charlatans.  But there aren’t.

In this, as in all aspects of life, the only way forward is to think.  And treat experts as those with just another opinion.  Take their opinions into account, but do what works best for you and your child.

*******

Parenting is a choice, but you could also argue it’s a biological imperative.  I guess.  Something like patriotism, but at the homo sapiens level.

Though if you take this to the next level, in biology there’s also the concept of extinctions – meaning, why would there be any particular reason our species has to keep going?

Anyway, all this is to say, when you get the readings for your second daughter, and you see that she has chromosomal abnormalities, meaning that she’ll be developmentally disabled  – you make the choice to keep her.

It’s hard, but she’ll be our joy, and that’s once again, our choice 🙂

What I Learned From: Daniel

Daniel was a straight D student.  His parents were liquor store owners, his older sister was a gangster.  He was the class clown, unafraid to tell us about his family’s problems, unafraid to be vulnerable, unafraid to stand up for himself, sometimes too revealing about his masturbatory habits, and quick on his feet for being five and a half feet and almost three hundred pounds.  Once, he pulled over at the side of a road to fight a neo-Nazi that kept honking at him.  I got my ass kicked, he said.  But at least he fought.

It was a dark and gloomy March in Philadelphia during my sophomore year.  I reached for the phone – we still had landlines back then – and decided not to call him.

This decision not to call is still vivid to me.  I remember justifying it to myself; we had just talked a week earlier and there was nothing to say.  I “knew” what we were going to talk about – he would tell me to hurry and come back home, he would maybe tell me about a new workout routine.

A few hours later, I woke up in a muffled state after an insanely real dream of riding a bicycle through a snow-white field, smashing into something, getting pitched over the handlebars, and landing in cottony-white, soft snow with an audible grunt as something hit my chest.  In that dream Daniel was in it, riding next to me.

The dream put me in a weird mood, and just a few minutes after waking up I got a call from Sandy.  Daniel’s car had slammed into a light pole, swerved around it, and landed squarely under it.

They had to extract him with pliers and airlift him to the hospital.  His reported cause of death was internal damage.

He was in my dream again last night.  We were meeting at a restaurant.  I rounded some seats, all the while seeing some familiar faces, until I saw him again, assessing me wryly through his glasses, under his spiked hair.  He looked exactly the same.

We were 19 when he died.  Now I’m almost double that age, and he remains the same to me.

When I was traveling the world in my 20s, I used to marvel at the places I found myself in and the people I met, and imagine telling Daniel about them.  I would always think, what would Daniel think of this?  What would I say?  He thought he would die tragically as an LAPD cop.  I thought I would never see 30.  I always imagined saying something like, Daniel, we made it.  Look where we are now.

He was my most honest friend.  And that, I now realize, is one of the only definitions of a friend.

He single-handedly cured me of my habit of saying stupid things as filler, just to fill the silence.  One time he looked me in the eye after one particularly inane comment, ‘Won, you’re smart, you’re good looking, you know why you don’t have a girlfriend?  Because you say stupid shit like that.’  I burst out laughing because it was completely true.

And because he was honest, you knew exactly who he was and where he stood.  That’s why I can see him in dreams and know that he would be the same person now as he was then, except with a few more white hairs.

And it’s kept me honest too.  They say that death grounds you.  When I read that a long time ago, I always wondered what it meant.  Now, I’ve come closer to understanding what it means.  At least for me.

Because Daniel – during this second lifetime I’ve lived without you in it, I’ve never wanted to become someone that you didn’t recognize.

And you were fearless.  So should I be.