Dear Js,

Happy Thanksgiving! OK, confession time. I’m a grinch. Holidays make me sad. I don’t really know why. One of the reasons could be because it feels like everyone is trying to force me to be festive. JINGLE BELLS! JINGLE BELLS! Come on! Why aren’t you singing and dancing? Where’s your Christmas spirit? Meanwhile, I’m thinking Uh… I don’t know? Yesterday was Thursday and today’s Friday. Saturday comes after Friday and then the week starts again with Sunday. Which day is it that I’m supposed to turn my holiday spirit on again?

I ate too much. God, we had Thanksgiving dinner with our neighbor this year. Everyone tried to outdo each other by being more generous and bringing more and cooking more. So we ended up with a turkey, stuffing, 4 lobsters, tons of crab and clams, soup, bread, pie, etc. We had to continue with Thanksgiving lunch the next day and Thanksgiving dinner Part 2 after.

And there was Black Friday. Let’s see… I didn’t buy any of the usual things people go crazy over like electronics. It took a lot of energy to resist getting a mini quadcopter. I’m waiting until you guys get a little older. I did buy a few things for our home emergency kit. I bought some clothes. And I bought 18 books I had queued up in my wishlist. I bought 5 more Travis McGee books because I really enjoyed the first one. And I have to admit, it felt good to give in to temptation and BUY.

Maybe that’s what thanksgiving is about. Being thankful that you can, because some people can’t. Well… that’s no longer true with credit cards. I was listening to an interview the other day with Bill Bartmann. He bought the first defaulted loans sold by the federal government. He reminded us that there was once a time when personal loans were uncommon, because the credit card hadn’t arrived yet. Can you imagine that? Bill Bartmann’s an interesting guy. He was an alcoholic gangster who later became one of the 400 richest people in America. He said it was thanks to his girlfriend who believed he was worth something. Apparently he was nominated for the Nobel Peace price for his debt collection industry reform efforts.

Anyway, all this holiday pondering led me to a revelation. I think I have figured out the one human trait that is responsible for why we’ll never be happy. And that same trait is what guarantees that we’ll keep killing ourselves trying, and why we keep advancing as a race.

Think about this. Have you wondered why we work? I mean sure, we all need money. We need food, shelter, etc. But why do you want a $20000 car when you can have a $5000 one that works? Why a $1MM house when you can have a $500K one? Let’s not forget that we once lived in caves. And once upon a time before that, our caves didn’t even have fire. Now we have a gas fireplace that turns on with a flick of a switch. When will we stop wanting more?

Did you know that the wolves of Wall Street once feared that our economy would crash as soon as everyone’s basic needs were met. They thought that after everyone had all the modern comforts, they’d lose the motivation to work harder. They thought that people would get satisfied, lay back and be lazy. But that couldn’t have been farther from what happened. We’ve gone full steam ahead and invented even more things to desire. It’s funny to think of it now, isn’t it? Funny to think we’ll ever stop wanting more. We eventually discovered that human desire is infinite.

And I think I know why.

I think it boils down the the fact that our brain is terrible at absolutes. Here are a few examples:

  1. “Log or Linear? Distinct Intuitions of the Number Scale in Western and Amazonian Indigene Cultures” – Science 30 May 2008. Vol. 320 no. 5880 pp. 1217-1220. The study showed that people without math training natural think in terms of ratios. E.g., “There are twice as many wolves chasing us today.” Or “We ate half of the fruits we gathered.” You can almost feel portions. But absolute numbers are almost meaningless. 10 oranges? 9 apples? What difference does it make? We can only make sense of it when we frame them in a context or compare them. E.g., We have 8 apples and 4 people, that means each of us gets 2. Now 8 apples “feels” like something, because we know it means that you’ll get 2.
  2. Mental accounting. Dan Ariely explains, “Money is an abstract concept that we, as human beings, don’t understand. How much money is it worth to eat sushi? Economists used to think we could calculate that, but it is really impossible. At any moment in time I may be able to say that I prefer sushi to a banana. I may even have a notion of how many bananas I would trade for one piece of sushi. But how much money are they worth? I have no idea.” Ariely and his colleagues then went on to conduct experiments to show how people can be tricked into paying more just by priming them with a higher number (“Coherent Arbitrariness: stable demand curves without stable preferences” – Journal of Economics, Feb 2003).

    It turns out that we just stumble through life because of our disability to understand money. One of the ways our brain has learned to cope is by thinking of money in categories. So what we end up doing is like how a company’s accounting department sets a budget for different categories. We might have a budget for House ($1MM in the Bay Area), for car ($20M), for cellphone ($50/month), for gas ($80/month), etc. And we think of each category independently. E.g., you won’t lose sleep over $1000 when negotiating a $1MM house, but add $1000 to the price of your cellphone and you’ll scream. But why? It’s the same $1000. Well, it’s because $1000 doesn’t mean much in our brains until we frame it with something. It’s the comparison within each category that makes it feel different.

  3. The magic $75K salary limit for happiness. The following study was done by economist Angus Deaton and psychologist Daniel Kahneman (who has won a Nobel Prize for Economics) – “High income improves evaluation of life but not emotional well-being” – National Academy of Sciences, USA, Aug 2010. Summary:

    They analyzed the responses of 450,000 Americans polled by Gallup and Healthways in 2008 and 2009. Participants were asked how they had felt the previous day and whether they were living the best possible life for them. They were also asked about their income.

    Researchers found that lower income did not cause sadness itself but made people feel more ground down by the problems they already had. The study found, for example, that among divorced people, about 51% who made less than $1,000 a month reported feeling sad or stressed the previous day, while only 24% of those earning more than $3,000 a month reported similar feelings. Among people with asthma, 41% of low earners reported feeling unhappy, compared with about 22% of the wealthier group. Having money clearly takes the sting out of adversities.

    At $75,000, that effect disappears. For people who earn that much or more, individual temperament and life circumstances have much more sway over their lightness of heart than money. The study doesn’t say why $75,000 is the benchmark, but “it does seem to me a plausible number at which people would think money is not an issue,” says Deaton. At that level, people probably have enough expendable cash to do things that make them feel good, like going out with friends. (The federal poverty level for a family of four, by the way, is $22,050.)

    But in the bigger view of their lives, people’s evaluations were much more tied to their income. The more they made, the more they felt their life was going well. The survey asked respondents to place themselves on a life-satisfaction ladder, with the first rung meaning their lives were not going well and the 10th rung meaning it was as good as it could be. The higher their income, the higher the rung people chose. “Importantly, the same percentage increase in income has the same effect on evaluation for everyone, rich or poor alike, even though the absolute dollar amounts differ,” the authors write. So every 10% rise in annual income moves people up the satisfaction ladder the same amount, whether they’re making $25,000 or $100,000. “High incomes don’t bring you happiness, but they do bring you a life you think is better,” conclude the authors. Might it be time for Oprah to give these guys their own show?

    Past research on money and happiness has also found that it’s not absolute wealth that’s linked with happiness, but relative wealth or status – that is, how much more money you have than your neighbors.

  4. “Less Is Better effect”Journal of Behavioral Decision Making 11: pp. 107-121.. Christopher Hsee demonstrated this effect using various experiments. For instance:
    * seven ounces of ice cream overflowing in a small cup was preferred over eight ounces of ice cream in a much larger cup
    * a dinnerware set with 24 intact pieces was preferred over a dinnerware set of 31 pieces with a few broken pieces
    * a smaller dictionary was preferred over a larger dictionary with a torn cover
    * participants perceived people giving away a $45 scarf as more generous than those who gave a cheap $55 coat.

And so on. What does this all mean? As much as we want to pride ourselves as capable of being logical and rational, our brain is always working against us. The examples above are manifestations of various cognitive biases. The simplest example is something you’ve probably tried as a science experiment by now. Do you know the cold-water-hot-water trick? You know, where you put your left hand in hot water and lukewarm water will feel cold. Put your right hand in cold water and the same lukewarm water will feel hot.

That’s the contrast effect. It’s a cognitive bias that ensures we’ll never be happy. And it’s also responsible for our infinite desires. As much as you want to be happy and satisfied with all that you have, your brain just won’t let you.

But knowing we all have this disorder is important. Because, now you can trick your brain and you use it to your advantage. Two tricks below:

Trick #1: for Productivity, compare UP

Jim Rohn said, “You are the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with.” What he’s describing is the effect of forcing yourself to compare with people who are more successful than you. This is self-inflicted cognitive dissonance that is very uncomfortable. But if you are strong-willed enough, this almost guarantees you’ll take your game to the next level. But be careful. This might make you successful, but it won’t necessarily make you happy. For that, you have to apply the contrast effect in the opposite way…

Trick #2: for Happiness, compare DOWN
This is the secret reason why we love gossip; why we can’t resist looking at trashy tabloids. Why? They show us celebrities at their worst. Celebrities are the ultimate authority figure in our society today. So comparing against their lives at their best has the most depressing effect. But comparing against them at their worst makes even the most down-on-their-luck John or Jane feel better about themselves. On the other hand, that’s why Social Media makes us feel like shit. Because everyone’s personal feed is a stream of their best side. No one likes to make a fool of themselves in public. They want to paint the picture of the daring adventurer, the fabulous foodie, the mom with perfect kids, etc. So what you’re seeing in effect is, your average self compared against everyone else’s glorified selves.

So how do you compare down? Laughing at celebrities is ONE way to compare DOWN, but I don’t think it’s very healthy to have to puff yourself up using other people’s misfortunes. Here are a few better ways…

One thing some people have had success with is moving away from the bustle to quieter places. Places that have no Internet. Or out into the countryside. Or travel around the world on a shoestring budget. Away from civilization. Because in modern society, there is no upper limit to a person’s “success”. You have the Richard Bransons and Bill Gateseses. Unlimited opportunity to feel terrible about your underachieving life. But out in the wilderness, alone with the crickets and stars, there’s no one to compare to. Comparing something with nothing means you are infinity times better.

I think these escapes are good. But I think there’s something even better that you can do. Something more productive. Because if you go disappear into the woods, it’s a personal thing and you’re the only one who benefits from it. I think there’s a way to compare DOWN, be happy, AND make someone else happy too. Something we could do more of, and maybe something we should all think about, especially since it’s Thanksgiving and all.

So the other way is to help someone less fortunate. See what a magical opportunity that is, even you are 100% selfish? You don’t need even need God’s help for this. By helping someone less fortunate, you unconsciously compare against their misfortune and feel thankful for what you have. But as a nice bonus, you made another person happy at the same time. Then, if you want, the ultimate happiness virus you can plant is to tell the person you helped, “Don’t pay me back. Pay it forward.” I.e, Go do the same for someone less fortunate than you. Just like what Paul Erdos did.

I just remembered about when I once worked with a non-profit that helped mentally disabled kids in Ukraine and the Philippines. Writing copy for them meant that I had to let myself feel and empathize with the poor kids. I had to feel in order to help others feel. It twisted me inside out and one time when one of our kids died from malnutrition it made me physically sick. But after doing any of the work, I always came back happier to see you two. I hugged you a little tighter. It made me think that kids are really at the mercy of us parents. It reminded me that happiness is as simple as we make it.

But I can’t help wondering why I’m sometimes unhappy. I have beautiful children and a beautiful family and a nice life. Good health. Why am I not happy? When I lived with my parents I wanted to be out on my own. When I was out on my own I felt alone and broke. Then I was happy to get a job. Then I dated and had women but no wife. Then with a wife we wanted a family. Now with job, family and home, I want success. Wealth? Fame? Change the world? So many things not yet done to feel depressed about. Why do I sneak away, try to squeeze out more time out of the day, feel annoyed that you kids don’t give me any time? So I imagined what if one day… I got what I wanted. How would that be like? I think I would love it but I would be sad that I lost all these times I wasn’t present. It’s so hard to be present.

Why do I want more? Isnt this little girl clinging to my leg spinning around enough? Isn’t that smile as she says “Daddy”! and charges into my arms each time she sees me enough? The other day you kissed me so hard it hurt your teeth and my cheek. Why can’t I just be at peace with where I am?

I found some old photos of you two. Seeing you as tiny babies reminded me of the overwhelming feelings to take care of you. You were so helpless. Now that you’re older it’s easy to mistake you for being grown up. After all, you can talk, get dressed on your own, eat, sing, run, hit, tell lies. It’s easy to forget you’re just kids.

We take quiet a lot of photos are videos of you. But some moments I just want to keep for myself. Like how cute you are when you wake up. With a camera you can’t help but think about what it looks like when someone else is watching. But without a camera you can enjoy the moment without putting on a show. It was raining one morning. I made the bed creak and you opened your eyes. You smiled when you saw me. I pointed out the window and said, “The wind is blowing. The trees are moving.” You climbed onto the headboard and stared. “Me like it?” Then you zoomed close to my face and smiled. You touched my nose with yours and said, “Nose.” Then you said, “Bao. Wheee wheee wheee.” That’s the sound the motors make. Lion goes Roar, Duck goes Quack Quack and Bao goes Whee Whee. Then you made me sing Row row row your boat, and you said, “LION!” “OK. Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream. If you see a Lion, don’t forget to Roar!” You smiled.

I woke up before you did the next day again. I thought it’d be interesting for you too so I took a video. You looked out the window to see if it was raining.

Mama put up our Christmas lights today. We’re the last ones on our street. She also dragged us out to get a tree. If it wasn’t for her, we’d probably have no Christmas in this house. This Grinch would have stolen it.

Funny convos

Me, trying to take Kimi out for a walk by myself
Me: “I’m going by myself. It’s cold.”
j: “Jacket?”
Me: “It’s raining. It’s wet.”
j: “Boots?”

j: “Wow! Cool! Nice!”

J: “I’m very excited to ride my bike!”
j: “Patience jacha patience…”
We laughed.

J played rocket and astronaut before bed.
J: “There are two astronauts. They carry their water bottles with them because it’s a long trip.”
Me: “But there is also no air in space.”
J: “They carried their air too. In air tanks. They sleep in their beds behind their seats. No, their bed is in the rocket. They have bunk beds. But the top one is high so he needs a ladder.”
Mama: “He does remember the things we talk about.” *tears*

(You know, that made me think of a cool sci fi plot. One day, we figure out how to live in space indefinitely. We have a closed-loop air + food system + energy from Sun. Like a nomad village floating in space. It’s an explorer family, like how people once set sail for new worlds. So for generations, they float an explore, solar system after solar system. Until one day, they discover a malfunction in their life support system. They are leaking air. It’s kinda like being at the bottom of the ocean, miles from the surface and you realize you don’t have enough air to make it back.)

j: “Please jacha. Thank you jacha. Welcome.”

J: “Why do we die? Maybe I can be a scientist. I will study why dinosaurs die and bring them back to life. I will bring my bucket to keep the dinosaur bones. And put them back together and see what dinosaur it is.”

j: “Me, happy. Jacha, happy!”

J: “Mama put your breast away I don’t want to see that nipple sticking out.”
Mama: “That nipple fed you young man!”

Curious developments

Mama: “Breastfeeding a toddler: It’s the end of the day, you prepare to relax with a quiet shower without spectators. Then a squishy purple snake falls out of your nursing bra onto your feet to nearly give you a heart attack. #nursingmamaproblems”

Mama: “Breastfeeding a toddler: saying yes when there’s a request for ‘leche’ and ending up with peanut butter nipples lol. Guess she had some stashed in her mouth after her snack.”

j, your favorite thing to draw is cats. “Kitty Cat.” You drew a kitty cat at bing. All you want me to draw is cats. After each one I draw you say “Again? Nother kitty cat? Here?”

BANNED – no more robots!

J, one day, mama tried to help you with writing and you said, “I don’t want to write, I like to type better.” Mama glared at me. I had made typing with Bao so interesting and fun that you didn’t want to write! You wanted to skip learning the basic skill of writing. It made me wonder what is basic anymore. Because these days, even writers don’t write anymore. Everything published is created digitally. So printed material, even commercial art, starts with the artist or writer creating directly inside a computer. And one day I think there will be a generation that never had to learn to write. Just like how it’s possible today for someone to never learn how to gather food/water, grow crops or hunt – skills once thought necessary for survival.

And of course, typing is the only way to write software – which some argue has become a modern survival skill. One day we won’t need to write. Who knows what our brain will look like then. But until then, this is what your brain needs. So let’s learn to write first. I’ve put the robot stuff on hold. And I made up for my heresy by spending some time with you writing.

"Can we keep it until Kimi dies and we get a cat?"

“Can we keep it until Kimi dies and we get a cat?”

But that didn’t stop me fom tinkering some more. Behold – Bao the spybot cellbot:

This was poor Bao cobbled together

This was poor Bao cobbled together

This week in pictures

Thanksgiving Elves

Thanksgiving Elves

You helped make pie

You helped make pie

You also helped eat all the ingredients

You also helped eat all the ingredients (pie, bacon, chestnuts)

In the end we had a feast

In the end we had a feast

We went tree hunting

We went tree hunting

Our turn!

Our turn!

We found one

We found a tiny but bushy one

Turtle horse

Turtle horse

Mama's boots

Mama’s boots

"Mine train!"

“Mine train!”



"Hello Bao"

“Hello Bao”



"Mousey Towel. Jacha. Tutto towel"

“Mousey Towel. Mine. Jacha. Tutto towel”

Stealing bro's bike

Stealing bro’s bike

stomp stomp

stomp stomp

"Avion!" You say that then jump onto my feet so I can lift you on my shins

“Avion!” You say that then jump onto my feet so I can lift you on my shins

"Side to side"

“Side to side”

Phew. What a day

Phew. What a day

Reading Snugglepuppy for sister

Reading Snugglepuppy for sister

"That's not the sun. It's the asteroid belt."

“That’s not the sun. It’s the asteroid belt.”

Hand boots are in style

Hand boots are in style

Kimi pillow

Kimi pillow

Laughing in your nest

J likes to make you laugh

"I'm reading to j so she can learn how to read"

“I’m reading to j so she can learn how to read”

We give you your own bed and your own bedroom but you'd rather sleep in the hallway. You tried to sneak in but mama forgot to unlock the door. Mama said she used to do that too, and cradled you into bed.

We give you your own bed and your own bedroom but you’d rather sleep in the hallway. You tried to sneak in but mama forgot to unlock the door. Mama said she used to do that too, and cradled you into bed.

"Bao's looking too"

“Bao’s looking too”


Reading story in spanish with monkey in the background

“Can you say…”

Dino school

Wagon. Pulling

Choo choo

Flying machines

“What’s your name?” (J taught you to finally say your name. Until then, you said “Me” or Jacha but never your own name)

J the pilot

Fun times before dinner

Fun with Bao and ball


Slurp slurp. Mama left me to give you two dinner. Dinner was SOUP. I feared for the worst but I somehow managed to keep the flooding under control.

Reading for sister

Your brother teaches you many things

Dino school

Interesting things


So funny. And interesting. (Pattern interrupt, Incongruity, Benign violation, unexpected juxtaposition.)

Christmas presents

I just bought two quadcopters and I’m sad that neither of them will be coming to me! That’s okay. One’s going to my dad (your grandpa). I am not sure if he’ll like it. On one hand, he likes toys and gadgets and if he gets into it, it’s going to be a hobby he could go crazy over. On the other hand, it’s small and delicate and his eyesight and coordination are slipping so this might frustrate him and make him feel old and that this is a toy for younger kids. Why two quads? Because after buying the first one I remembered that I have a really nice uncle who’s been very good to us. He works really hard and he’s not that well off. But he’s always smiling and he’s always the first person to offer a hand whenever we need it. He’s my mom’s brother. He likes gadgets too so this would be something he’d love to brag to others about. As a side bonus, if I get HIM into it, there’s a good chance he’ll keep bugging my dad to fly. It’ll be good if he picks this up as a hobby. Healthy to keep the mind engaged and challenged.

It’s a luxury too. Back when he was growing up, only rich people got to fly planes. And because battery tech wasn’t advanced enough, planes were big and ran on gas with internal combustion engines. I remember my uncle having a garage full of gas planes. Some fuselages and wings ran from wall to wall. He was excited when planes went electric. They became small, cheap, clean, quiet and easier to fly. But even then, only rich families got to indulge in flying toys. The RC toys most people could afford were the ones that moved on the ground. So to get to enjoy flying an RC aircraft really is a modern luxury. And the quad is a unique product just recently made possible by a confluence of new tech. Two key pieces being the electronics and batteries. The reason quads can be so cheap is because everything’s solved with software. The mechanical pieces are simple – 4 fixed props on a stick. Software does all the magic to spin the props in the right combination to give 6 axes of movement. And Lithium-Ion Polymer batteries mean more juice in a small package, and light enough to fly in a mini quad.

Anyway, I know I’m excited. We’ll just have to wait to see if grandpa likes it.



P.S. We went to try a bike at a local bike store today (a Specialized Hotrock 16). We wanted an Islabike at first but it’s hard to find them here. You liked the Hotrock so we bought it. We’ll pick it up next week. It will be your first pedal bike. As we were leaving mama pointed out their deal called, “Growth Spurt Guarantee.” Get 50% trade-in credit when upgrading to a new kids’ bike. Not bad. Local stores really need to up their game with online retailers like Amazon eating their lunch. But when I looked at the fine print, it wasn’t as attractive as I thought. E.g., 2 year limit (we’ll have the bike longer than 2 years, because it’ll be used by 2 kids). Plus, any repairs will be deducted from the credit amount. Good effort, but I feel like they could do better.

P.P.S. My dad sent me this. I was about 3+ to Kindergarten.