Building my own Jimmy Page Telecaster

Ever since I started working on my own guitars, it’s been hard for me to buy a guitar off the shelf – not necessarily because I’m that great of a guitar technician, but mostly because I’ve been able to make guitars just the way I like them. A recent experience that exemplified that feeling was when I was sitting in a guitar store earlier this year, holding a $2,000 guitar, thinking to myself: “My guitar at home, that I put together from used parts, with Tegan and Sara stickers on the back and a tremolo cavity that I’d hacked away at with a file to make room for a slightly different-shaped replacement (a Gotoh 510, if anyone’s curious) sounds and plays better than this”.

About a month ago, I was browsing the inventories of various guitar part suppliers when something caught my eye. It was a Telecaster-style body, shaped from a single piece of ash, with a beautiful grain pattern, that weighed around 4lbs. Relative to other commonly used woods in guitar-building, ash tends have more variability in weight, and combined with the fact that guitars are usually made out of two or more pieces of wood glued into one, it’s rare to find these attributes together.

I thought back to a guitar that I’d been coveting for a while – Jimmy Page’s signature white-blonde Telecaster. Besides the fact that it cost $2,500, the reason I never bought it was because there were a few things about that guitar that I wish I were different, and it’d seemed like a terrible decision to pay that much for a guitar, only to then put in more time and money modifying it into something less valuable than if I had kept it in its original condition.

With that guitar in mind, I clicked “purchase”.

Staining and Finishing

A few days later, it arrived, in a box full of shredded paper to protect it. After admiring the grain pattern up close for an inordinate amount of time, I set to work staining it with a white, alcohol-based pigment. A few coats later, I had come close to the shade of white I wanted and was afraid to apply more stain, for fear of washing out the grain pattern even further.

Over the next week or so, I applied a few coats of finishing oil a day, leaving at least a 4-hour drying time each coat. As it turned out, the oil finish lifted a bit of the stain, resulting in an unintended, but not unpleasant “white chocolate cake”-colored finish. A few days after I applied the last coat of oil, I buffed in a final coat of wax.

(L to R) Fresh from the factory, after a few coats of stain, and after about 15 coats of finishing oil. (Below) The same, from the back.

Acquiring and Refurbishing a Neck

The next step in this build was to find myself a neck with a rosewood fingerboard (like the one on the Jimmy Page Telecaster) that I would be able to work into playable shape, but that also wasn’t too expensive. I managed to find this old unbranded neck off Reverb for cheap.

However, it did have a number of issues.

Firstly, there was an old screw with a broken-off head embedded in the wood. The previous owner had drilled a hole right next to it, perhaps to try and extract the screw, but had apparently failed. I was able to remove the stuck screw by using my smallest drill bit to drill around the screw, making room for the pair of needle-nosed pliers which I used to grip and rotate the shank.

Secondly, the neck came with a headstock that was painted black. From the quality of the paint job, it was clear that this was not done at the factory (unless the factory happened to employ an amateur like me). I considered leaving it, but eventually, curiosity got the better of me (not to mention that the guitar I was trying to emulate did not have a black headstock). To my horror, the previous owner had inlaid their initials into the headstock. However, this also gave me the chance to learn how to make a headstock veneer (see below)

Thirdly, the frets that came with the neck were tiny – both skinny and short. These were common on guitars in the 50s and 60s, although you can sometimes still find them on contemporary guitars aimed at recreating instruments from that era. I ended up refretting the guitar with my favorite sized frets.

Fourthly, the plastic nut was completely worn out and would have had to be replaced anyway, even if I didn’t want to do a refret.

Finally, the edges of the neck were not rolled (i.e., the fingerboard and the side of the neck met at a 90-degree angle), making it uncomfortable to play. This was something I would address when I refretted the guitar.

Making a Headstock Veneer

After removing the stuck screw, the next thing I did was to make a veneer for the headstock. I pieced together the general concept in my head: (a) find some wood veneers, (b) cut it roughly to shape, (c) use steam (I used my kettle) to pre-bend the arched bit, (d) glue it to the headstock, making sure to use multiple clamps to get full coverage, (e) use a sharp knife to trim it to shape, (f) sand off the remaining edges to blend them in, (g) carefully re-drill the holes for the tuners, and (h) oil and wax the surface to protect it.

That said, this was straddling the territory of what was actually Google-able, so I had to fly by the seat of my pants for lots of the process.

After trying a few hardware stores in the city without luck, I turned to eBay and managed to find a set of wood veneers of various species of woods. I sorted them in order of how good I thought they would look, and did a dry run with an ash veneer. Ultimately, I chose to use a pine one, both because its reddish hues matched the color of the fretboard, but also as a secret homage to the early Telecasters in the 50s that were made of pine.

The Refret

I chose to refret the guitar with Jescar EVO Gold FW47104 fret wire. This is a common gauge used on many modern guitars, and I like it because it’s not too tall or wide, but just large enough that my fingers barely brush the fretboard while playing, providing enough contact to feel “connected” to the instrument, without too much friction from fingertips rubbing against the fretboard.

I wish I had taken better “before” pictures, but I had done a couple of refrets before and didn’t think this time was particularly notable, and it’s also hard to get good process photos because the operation involves using a soldering iron to heat the frets while using a pair of pliers to slowly extract them. With two hands already involved in the process, it would have been hard to operate a camera.

It took me a few hours to (a) remove the old frets, (b) hammer in the new ones, (c) cut the fret ends, (d) file down the remaining stubs till they met the neck, (e) file and shape the ends of the frets, (f) crown and level the frets using sandpaper, a sanding block, and a crowning file, (g) roll the edge of the fretboard and smooth out the fret ends, (h) polish the frets using sandpaper and micromesh.

(above) Post-refret

Replacing the Nut

After refreting the guitar, I had to replace the nut, as the new, taller frets sat higher than the nut (thus, none of the strings would have been able to ring when the guitar was played “open” – when no frets are pressed).

First, I had to remove the old plastic one. There are many ways to do this, but one which I had successfully used in the past was to use a hammer and wooden block to gently tap the base of the nut, causing it to pop out of the slot. However, this time, mishap struck, and after the gentlest of taps, the top of the fretboard, together with the plastic nut, disintegrated and broke off! Thankfully, the break was clean, and with my newfound wood-gluing experience from making the veneer, I was able to repair this fairly easily. If you look carefully at the “after” photo, you might be able to spot a couple of lines from where the break happened. And if you can’t spot them, I guess I did a good job!

Next, using sandpaper and a set of nut files, I shaped a new nut made of unbleached cow bone that I had ordered online. To save some effort, I bought one that was close to the width and breadth of the nut slot, and that had pilot grooves cut into the top to guide where the strings would go.

Lots of filing, sanding, and polishing later, I ended up with a result I was pleased with. I did end up cutting the nut slots as low as possible, so they might have to be filled with bone dust and re-cut in the future, but that’s not too difficult to do.

Soldering the Electronics

One of the changes I wanted to make to the original Jimmy Page guitar was the pickup configuration. I wanted something a little more versatile, and I loved the pickups on the Music Man St. Vincent signature guitar I used to own, so I decided to replace the traditional Telecaster neck pickup with a mini-humbucker. I also wanted to be able to split the humbucker with a toggle switch, to produce something similar to a single-coil tone. After some experimenting, I wired a 2.2K ohm resistor to the switch, which results in a “partial” coil split, and thicker tone when the coils are split.

I’m Done!

After a couple of weeks work, I assembled everything and set up the guitar, which included a couple of finishing touches: Knobs from a Jazz Bass, oversized strap buttons, and a Gotoh bridge with cut-off sides.

In case you wanted to hear what it sounds like:

Me covering “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”

A guitar part I wrote for Alessia Cara’s “Sweet Dreams”

Did Valve Just Do a Google?

Yesterday (July 16th, 2021) my YouTube feed was abuzz with tech content creators fawning over Valve’s announcement of the Steam Deck, a handheld computer that would be able to play games straight off a user’s Steam library, and additionally, function as a traditional PC, able to run third party software and operating systems.

To be honest, I’m pretty hyped up about the Steam Deck as well, particularly because of that secondary use case. I remember being completely enamored by the tiny Samsung N310 netbook that struggled to run Windows XP that I carried to college, and in just over a decade, a device that’s half the weight and multitudes more powerful could be had for about the same price (less, if you factor in inflation). 

That said, an interesting question that came up amidst the online discourse was: Why? After all, aside from a few forays into the hardware market with mixed results (e.g., Index/Steam Machine/Steam Controller), Valve, which started as a software company, seems content to serve its role as the custodian for the closest thing we have to a legal money-printing machine (Steam itself). Furthermore, the Steam Deck, which looks a little like a Nintendo Switch (and a lot like an old-school Sega Game Gear) doesn’t have the support of a game library that unconverted Switch users would be clamoring to play (e.g., family-friendly, casual games). So… why spend the time, money, and energy to develop this?

I obviously have no insight into how Valve operates internally; “Because it’s cool” is a perfectly justifiable reason to undertake an endeavour like this when your company is making money hand over fist, and to be honest, a reason that has fueled countless innovations throughout history. That said, the dynamics of this scenario reminded me of a product management interview question that I came across a while back: Why did Google get into the smartphone market?

To answer this question, we have to travel back in time to the 2010s, when the Nexus series of phones first launched. These were high-end flagship phones, which at first glance, seemed at odds with what Google’s strategy should have been. On one hand, Google, which was and is a company that primarily makes its money through its users’ data, should have been focused on driving down the price of Android devices as a whole, to get more phones to more users, rather than making devices that only the richest people in the world could afford. After all, the more people using Android, the more data Google gets. But – and this is easy to say with the benefit of hindsight – it’s possible that they believed that mass-market adoption of Android devices was a problem that the market would sort out on its own. After all, phone manufacturers are just as concerned with selling as many devices as possible, and given that Android was the only viable option for a cheap smartphone, perhaps it wasn’t that hard to predict the eventual proliferation of inexpensive Android smartphones in developing markets. 

What wasn’t going to happen by itself, however, was the creation of a premium experience and accompanying ecosystem – the main reason why Apple is a trillion dollar company. And so, a possible predicted future was one where the cost of manufacturing devices like the iPhone would continue to drop, incomes in developing markets would continue to rise, until one day, a switch would flip and these people, in their newly developed markets would “graduate” from their Android phones straight into the welcoming hands of the Apple ecosystem. Meanwhile, in this dystopian future (from Google’s perspective at least), manufacturers would have no incentive to develop hardware for software that wouldn’t make use of it, while Google would have no incentive to develop software for hardware that couldn’t make use of it. Google’s role, then, to avert this timeline would be to create reference devices that signaled where they were going with their software, to push hardware manufacturers to adopt these new capabilities.

Only a handful of Google executives will know if any this is even remotely true, but one development that might signal the end of this plausible arc is the fact that the latest Pixel devices at the time of writing (the Pixel 4a with 5g, and the Pixel 5), for the first time, are lagging behind competing devices, hardware-wise. They are no longer the fastest phones, with the best cameras etc. Instead, they take advantage of Google’s software prowess to provide the best Android experience you can get – software that can sometimes even overcome hardware deficits (e.g., cameras that take advantage of proprietary image processing to produce market-leading image quality) – all for a relatively modest price. Could this be a sign that Google believes that they’ve pushed the hardware as far as it needs to go, and that the next step to (further) global domination is to get this software experience into the hands of the masses by undercutting everyone? Only time will tell.

But the reason I went on this huge tangent in the first place is because if I had to guess, Valve developed the Steam Deck to solve a similar chicken/egg problem. The chicken here is that you have these games on the Switch that are designed for the form factor, and pull in a specific audience that PC games don’t typically appeal to. The problem is that developers are not incentivized to develop those types of games for the PC because of how most PC gamers play (on a desktop PC, with a mouse and keyboard). Thus, they’re hatching the egg themselves, by creating a device that will pull in that PC-gaming audience, thus incentivizing developers to develop games that take advantage of the device’s form factor. Who knows if they’ll be successful? But I, for one, am very down to play a Mario Kart clone on my new Steam Deck in December.

I asked 100 people about their best memories around food

One of my favorite memories is sitting around my dining room table with my college friends, eating a white truffle pizza that hung over the edges of the table because it was too big to fit. Although it’s true that the pizza tasted amazing – truffle oil and mozzarella over a white sauce base, with runny eggs on top – that memory is one of my favorites because it represented a really happy phase of my life, as well as the fact that I was surrounded by people that I loved. I think about this memory a lot whenever I have to wait in line for food, because time is precious – there are only so many hours in a day, and so many days in a lifetime, and if I’m going to spend time waiting, shouldn’t it be for a great memory?

But what makes a great experience – in this case, when it comes to food? Was it the food itself? The company? The atmosphere? An event that served as a backdrop for the meal? In an age where we endlessly pursue Instagramable meals, I asked 100 people what their favorite food memory was, wondering what they would say, and here are 15 of the best (these have been lightly edited for clarity):

  1. “Eating sundaes with my best friend at a place named Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlor. We were about 13 at the time and asked for more whipped cream because not much was on them. This annoyed our waitress. She brought back our sundaes with a ridiculous amount of whipped cream on them. We both laughed so hard we peed ourselves in the booth.
  2. My favorite food memory is when my mom would make tacos. It was the one meal that everyone agreed on and loved. We would get so excited when we smelled the tortilla shells cooking. She would make everything from scratch and it was usually for a celebration or special occasion. We would put all the condiments on a Lazy Susan and spin it around to fill up our tacos. As children, we found this endlessly entertaining and it was the only meal that we really got to serve ourselves and make the food as we wanted it.
  3. My favorite food memory was a few weeks ago when I was sick. My son, who is 11 and loves to cook, knew my allergies were bothering me. While I was laying down, he decided to cook me a steak and smashed potatoes and then he plated it so it looked very nice. He wanted me to feel special because I rarely have a fancy meal anymore after my divorce. Although we were only at home, the fact that he took the initiative to do it and then sat down and ate with me was so thoughtful and sweet.
  4. My sister and I were visiting our aunt and uncle in California. My uncle returned home one day with a flat of strawberries and that’s when it happened. Two of my cousins disappeared into the kitchen; one for a bowl of sour cream and the other for a bowl of brown sugar (It was clear; they had done this before). They then demonstrated the most divine way to enjoy fresh strawberries by dipping them first into the sour cream and then into the brown sugar. This is my favorite food memory.
  5. My favorite food memory is eating Christmas dinner with my grandparents in 1997. We had baked ham and chicken and noodles and mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie. It is my favorite memory as it was the last Christmas I got to spend with my Grandpa before he passed away. We were at my mother’s house when we had that meal.
  6. There was a Halloween many years ago when my husband made the most delicious chili he’s ever made and he’s never been able to recreate it. He and I and my son ate the chili and watched Frankenweenie for the holiday and there was just something special about it that I can’t even explain that makes that Halloween one I particularly remember.
  7. It was my 10th Birthday and my parents brought me and my friend to a Carvel’s Ice Cream shop. It was a surprise when they told me we were going. I got to pick whatever I wanted. My friend and I giggled and giggled. I was so happy and excited. I ordered this big fish bowl of ice cream and so many toppings, like 8 different varieties. We got two spoons and my friend and I sat at this round little table and dug in. It was so good. The ice cream was the best, so creamy. We did not even eat half the bowl. It was the best. My parents sat at a table next to us and kept smiling. I was happy, so happy that we came and I got to pick anything. I do remember I thought I would have to leave the rest of the sundae. My mom came over with this big dish and scooped it all up for me to take home. What a great day. What a great birthday.
  8. When I was 5 year old, my family didn’t have a lot of money and my parents struggled to put food on the table. However my mother still managed to make a sponge cake for my birthday.
  9. I went to a baseball game with my mom and got nachos served in a helmet. I saw someone with them and had to get it also. We searched and only one stand was selling it. They tasted great and I had a great time with my mom. Thinking about the food that day makes me smile.
  10. I ate at the Moon Thai restaurant with my girlfriend and had Pad Thai. It was the most delicious thing I ever ate in my life. It was memorable because I was the first American to order the dish with the spice level of Thai Hot. It was a mistake the next day when the heat passed through me and burned immensely.
  11. My favorite food memory is making homemade cookies at Christmas with my mom. I helped her mix the ingredients in the kitchen and press the cookies onto the sheets. She made these chocolate cream cheese caramel cookies that I still don’t know how to make. It was special because it made me love baking and I got to spend time with my mom.
  12. My favorite food memory is going out to eat at the waffle house with my dad. We would go there and eat waffles and breakfast foods on Sundays. It’s special to me because my dad died last year so I am very sentimental about it.
  13. I’d just arrived in London on a red eye and I was tired, thirsty and hungry. We walked around for over an hour before finally finding a burger place. The burger was one of the best I’d ever had and I doubt I’ll be able to replicate the taste or experience ever again.
  14. Eating popcorn with my ex boyfriend because I was brand new to NYC and it was so exciting.
  15. The first time my daughter and I made curry together. My daughter loves curry and I love to cook. It was a very special moment because she showed interest in cooking and it was something I could teach her. It was a moment we shared together, just the two of us.

The Reality Check

I love flying. Up in the sky, I’m unfazed by the arid cabin air, the ever shrinking seats, and the occasional crying baby. I love the mushy food wrapped in packaging designed more for the logistics company transporting it than the person eating it. On longer flights, I love drifting in and out to of sleep to movies I’ve seen dozens of times; on shorter ones, I entertain myself by re-reading the safety card repeatedly throughout the flight, or leafing through the in-flight literature, letting the offer of a timeshare vacation home waft by me just once more.

I think part of why I love flying has to do with the association I’ve had with it since I was a child. Growing up on the tiny island of Singapore, there were no domestic flights. The airport was a gateway to a new and different land, one that I’d likely never visited before. Nothing – not the glassy architecture of the building nor the demeanor of the passengers, arriving or departing – had the commuter-like quality that I’m now more familiar with, living in the US.

I also love flying simply because it’s possible. For thousands of years, human beings were limited to the speed of a horse. The only way you could travel faster was to jump off a cliff, and that journey tended to be one-way. Then, in the 1880s, you could commute as fast as the first motorcar, and at the dawn of the 1900s, early developments in powered flight would let you traverse “as the crow flies” for the first time. In 1947, the Bell X-1 finally let us match a speeding bullet, and in 1952, the first commercial jet airliner, the de Havilland Comet, entered service, letting the masses participate the entirely man-made cycle of extracting the remains of creatures long dead from the depths of the earth, and blazing them incandescent in the skies.

But, as I’ve grown older and started to question what’s meaningful in my life, I realize that there is another, perhaps more macabre reason why I love flying.

The journey into adulthood and, subsequently, old age, is filled increasingly with questions that nobody has answers to. It starts out with the fairly innocent “How do I make friends, now that I’m out of school?”, and ends, I can only guess, with “Was I worth it?”

On a daily basis, I grapple with what it means to live a meaningful life. Not necessarily a pleasurable one – that’s fairly straightforward. Depending on the time you anticipate having left on earth, it might involve a few million dollars in the bank, or some hookers and blow, but the gist of it is that most of us are pretty good at knowing when we’re feeling good in the moment, and it’s not too complicated to figure out how to sustain that.

I’m also not too concerned with living a life that seems meaningful to others. Wander around in the zeitgeist enough and the words of famous authors and Instagram influencers start to meld together into a meaningless existential soup of platitudes. Depending on who you ask, life’s about making an impact, or a loving family (I guess you’re out of luck if you’re an orphan), or raising kids you can be proud of (sorry if you’re infertile), or having hundreds or perhaps thousands of people attend your funeral (better hope there isn’t a pandemic when you kick the bucket). A meaningful life might be something you can look back on while lying on your deathbed, or maybe that doesn’t matter because all of us could die at any time, or because all of us are dying all the time. 

Ultimately, perhaps the fairest thing to say is that despite everything floating in the cultural space around us, meaning in life is something everyone has to square with on their own. Which means all of us, at some point, are going to need to find a feeling, deep in our gut, brain, or heart, idiosyncratic to us,  that tells us “Yeah, that seems about right.”

Which brings me back to why I love flying. 

As much as I revel in the miracle of human engineering that is human flight, I wonder if I’m actually, secretly, a nervous flyer. I say this because I realized on a flight once, that the internal voice that’s supposed to soothe me while the plane is barreling through turbulence isn’t that soothing. Presumably, I’m supposed to realize how vanishingly unlikely turbulence is at causing a plane to crash, referencing the statistics on the frequency and causes of plane crashes, or perhaps my limited knowledge of aviation engineering, garnered from hundreds of YouTube videos.

Those thoughts do cross my mind. However, while the plane is seemingly plummeting from the sky, albeit only intermittently, the overwhelming sensation I get is one of finality. In those moments, my mind goes to the worst possible outcome and announces: “Well, this could be it.”

I’ve been lucky. Over the past ten years or so, most of the time my response has been “Okay, I’m ready.” But that journey has been far from straightforward. Although there have been times in my life where I would have been totally at peace if we fell out of the sky like several hundred tons of metal ought to do, other times, I’ve felt a nagging sense that life wasn’t quite going the way I wanted it to. And in those fleeting moments, there is clarity: All that is external and out of my control falls away, and I am left staring into my own soul; a reckoning with myself. The things I can change float to the surface, and whatever is beyond me dissolves into the ether. It’s not perfect – those judgments are my own, and at my funeral, everyone else will have an opinion on what I could have and should have done. But life isn’t perfect – in the end, the only thing you can do is step off the plane, walk out of the airport, and start to make things better. Maybe that’s why I love flying – it takes me somewhere else.

The Red Button

I recently discovered a website called “Will You Press the Button?” where visitors are presented with a big red button. When pressed, a positive outcome – written by another user – would happen, accompanied by a tradeoff.

For example, would you press the button to receive a million dollars, even if a random person in the world died each time you pushed it?

The scenarios range from the whimsical (push the button to have the ability to have any car in the world… only to discover you wouldn’t be able to drive faster than 30mph) to the fantastical (push the button to have unlimited money, but have to listen to Justin Bieber forever) to ones that made me worry about the writer (push the button to be the embodiment of human beauty, but never find true love). 

As I went through a number of them that involved a wholesale reconstruction of one’s life (push the button to live your life as a wizard and go to Hogwarts, but at the cost of everyone you currently know forgetting you ever existed), an idea for my own red-button scenario started to coalesce in my imagination:

Would you press the button if it let you swap places with anyone in the world, but the result would be completely random?

Obviously, for most people, this is not a particularly challenging question to answer: Under no circumstances would I ever push that button, and I hope you feel the same way about your own life too.

However, I still found this example fascinating, because in making my decision, it forced me to consider the lives of all six billion human beings on this planet, and the joys and challenges experienced by each person – something that doesn’t often come to my mind often, on a day-to-day basis. Furthermore, it made me realize how ignorant I was about the world. Sure, I deduced that statistically speaking, I’d probably end up in either China or India, but where? How many cities are there even in China? Would I be young or old? What would I do for a living? What memories would I have? Who would be the people I love and care about? How much of the rest of the world would I be aware of?

As I was thinking through this example, I thought about the protesters who had stormed the US Capitol following the 2020 election. I had read and listened to interviews of the rioters and people sympathetic to them, I could not help but wonder if these people, feeling slighted by the world, would press that button – potentially finding themselves without access to the internet, food, or clean water. 

On a daily basis, I grapple with the same pitfalls in my thinking – albeit on a less consequential scale. As life throws challenges my way, my default perspective is simply my own, which ignores that my subjective suffering, no matter how valid, is not the same as objective pain that exists in the world. 

As I continued to ponder this idea, I wondered what the world would look like if such a button did exist, and if we all had one. I wonder whether the people with the most money and power would continue to live their lives the same way, if they knew that at any given time, they could be swapped with a random person who felt like their life wasn’t worth living anymore. And unlike many progressive ideas that are often assailed by accusations that they take us down a slippery slope to some weird communist utopia, I don’t think that would be the case here. After all, most of us aren’t extremely wealthy or powerful, and yet we wouldn’t push that button if offered to us. For some of us, we’re tethered to the relationships that we have with our friends and families. Others are buoyed by the satisfaction they get from their careers or hobbies. And most of us presumably have some inalienable attachment to our identities – the memories of our past, the narrative that defines our present, and our hopes for the future.

Yet, it’s not hard to imagine a significant part of humanity, born into famine, disease or war, having to endure suffering foreign to most of us living in the developed world, would push that button. It’s also not hard to imagine a significant number of people in the developed world, depressed, suicidal, or otherwise suffering from severe mental illness, would push the button, and have another crack at life. 

As these images ran through my mind, I thought about a larger question that I’d been struggling to answer: “What kind of world do I want to live in?” or “What kind of world would I want my kids to live in?” Turn on the news, or scroll through social media these days, and you’ll be flooded with a litany of problems. While the core grievances being featured are usually justified, using the level of outrage at any given moment to try and decide what’s important to you seems problematic, as you never know when the masses will decide an issue is no longer relevant to them, before they move on to “raise awareness” of something else. 

With limited time in a day, and limited days in a lifetime, it can feel overwhelming to decide how to spend the time, energy and/or money you’ve committed to doing social good. How do you justify picking one cause over another? For me, this thought experiment helps alleviate that at least a little, because I believe that doing anything that moves us toward a world where nobody would feel the need to push my red button will stand the test of time. 

Covering my most played song in 2020 (Bad Ideas – Tessa Violet)

I sometimes wonder why songs get stuck in our heads. In the case of “Bad Ideas”, I think what’s really interesting is how the chord progression in the song (C-B/C-Am-G-F-Em-Dm-G), which highlights the descending diatonic bass line, is really the “Pachelbel’s Canon” chord progression in disguise. Specifically, if you look at the chords that are different from the Canon chord progression in “Bad Ideas”, they are substitutions, sharing at least two notes in common:

C: C, E, G (same chord in both progressions)

B/C: B, E, G vs. G: G, B, D (compared to the G chord in Canon, the extra “E” in the B/C chord, and missing “D” is equivalent to a G6 – G, B, D, E – without the fifth)

Am: A, C, E (same chord)

G: G, B, D vs. Em: E, G, B (the G chord is equivalent to an Em7 – E, G, B, D, – without the root note “E”)

F: F, A, C (same chord)

Em: E, G, B vs. C: C, E, G (the Em chord is equivalent to Cmaj7 – C, E, G, B – without the root note “C”)

Dm: D, F, A vs. F: F, A, C (the Dm chord is equivalent to F6 – F, A, C, D – without the fifth)

G: G, B, E (same chord)

Littleroot Town – Pokémon Ruby/Sapphire/Emerald

I’ve never really thought about how video game music is composed, but recently, I’ve been learning common chord progressions in jazz/fusion/RnB, and have started noticing them in lots of different places.

In the theme from Littleroot Town from the Pokémon game series, for example, the transition from the I chord , to the viio chords, followed by the III7 and vi, then the ii-V of the IV into the IV, is the same as the chord progression in the jazz standard “There Will Never Be Another You”. Specifically, listen to the chord change around the lyrics: “There will be many other nights like this (from the I to the viio)”, and “and I’ll (from the III7 to the vi) be standing here with someone new (the ii-V transition to the IV chord)”.

To my ears, “There Will Never Be Another You”, has a nostalgic, wistful quality that transcends its lyrics, and I think the similarities in chord structure gives Littleroot Town the same feel.

A letter to my future self

Dear Friend,

I hope things are better in the future than they are right now. I hope that you’re able to look back at this point in time, laugh about how crazy everything was, and find some sort of meaning behind it all. I also hope that you’re enjoying what I’ve set out to achieve for the both of us. That’s what I wanted to talk to you about.

A few years ago, I thought deeply about what made me happy in life: Being creative around people that I enjoy working with, doing work that’s meaningful to others, and getting better at whatever I choose to do. And so I spent my time and energy finding places that I thought would support that. I entered, and left, academia; I moved from Singapore to New York, then left New York for San Francisco. I believed deeply that different people are attracted to different places, and if I found the right place to be, I would grow and find happiness.

Through that lens, a couple of years after moving to this city, I started to feel like life was getting stale. Sure, I was no longer a poor grad student, but I had fallen into the trap of routine. Every morning I would get on the CalTrain and walk into a car where 75% of the other commuters looked just like me, with professions differentiable only to each other. Life is supposed to be a series of choices, but I was beginning to drift aimlessly in a happenstance trajectory that may have looked like progress to others, but not to myself.

Today, I still think that surrounding myself with people who support and challenge me in line with my values is important, but as I reflect on my time in the Bay Area and all the people I’ve met since moving here, I realize what a revolving door this city has been for me. When the pandemic first hit, and all of us kept to our exorbitantly priced rental apartments, I made a list of all the people I had to check up on at least somewhat regularly. It was telling that even after three years living here, most of that list was made up of friends I had made in New York. Some of that was definitely because of me – I’m sure I’m less interesting now that I no longer say that I’m a “social psychologist” and just a regular “tech asshole” like everyone else, but the list of people I’ve met here who have left the city is also disconcertingly long.

However, this year has also taught me the importance of being able to sustain my own growth and happiness. Right now, it feels like the music has stopped, and for once, places and the people that inhabit them are disconnected – it doesn’t matter where you are, all of us are limited to seeing each other on a screen. And in this desolation, there is just me, and what I choose to think and do.

Like many of us, I had big plans for the year. A lot of them involved being somewhere other than here. I’ve been through the various stages of grief, doing enough to stay afloat day-to-day while slowly realizing that the year was going to be a wash. But if there’s one thing I want to take away from this year, it’s that I can’t wait for life to pass me by just because the world is going to shit. I still have to find a way to live rather than just exist.

I’m a little ashamed to realize how long it’s taken for me to realize that I haven’t been trying to live out my values, and instead, I’ve been waiting for them to be thrust upon me by my circumstances. So, my commitment to you is that I’ll spend a little less time thinking about where I’d rather be, and start making here better. I don’t know when this will all end, or what I’m going to do just yet. But I hope when we next meet, you’ll be in a better place.


When we were both 16, my best friend had an early smartphone – one of the first that made use of a stylus. One day, as a group of us were hanging out, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a pencil – an full-on, exemplary, wooden one – and started using it on the screen of his phone. Pre-empting the obvious question, he nonchalantly said: “Oh, I lost the stylus”, as if that was enough of an answer.

“But what are you going to do with all the pencil marks?”

Without missing a beat, he reached into his pocket again and produced an eraser, and proceeded to demonstrate its use, extremely, but perhaps undeservedly, proud of himself.

“Maybe you should use a pen, and then you could also use correction fluid [kind of like white paint, for all you kids born after 1990]”, one of us deadpanned.

I thought of this story because of what I’ve built while we’ve all been in lockdown: Something that technically solves a problem, but is inspired for all the wrong reasons.

Throughout my life on the internet, there have been a few very specific, but annoying problems that have come up often enough for me to decide to solve them:

  1. I can’t easily transfer text between devices. For example, when I come across a link on my computer/phone that needs to be transferred to the other device, it’s an instant ordeal . “Oh but Bryan,” you say, “you can just send an email to yourself; you can create another account on Facebook, add yourself as a friend, and send a message to yourself; you can record a YouTube video of yourself reading out the link to that fantastic post on Reddit”. To which I say: I’m a civilized person who doesn’t need to hijack the purpose of other products in my life, thereby adding to the clutter.
  2. I can’t share things with a group of people, and update that information, or the recipients, later. My friends and I recently went on a trip together, and we ended up start sharing potential AirBnB links through group text. Worst. Idea. Ever. First of all, our party kept expanding/shrinking, so new people would come in and we’d have to replay what they’ve missed. Second, we’d “vote” on things, but there’d be no way to keep track of who thinks what in the endless scroll of links and link previews. And no, I’m doing starting a Google Doc – life is too short to deal with people saying “I don’t have permission to view this” and “the app on my phone doesn’t work”.
  3. There’s stuff that 10,000 years ago, we’d write down on a post-it note because it kind of matters but not really. Like grocery lists. Today, that’s a bit archaic. Scraps of paper are easy to lose, and writing involves muscles that few of us use anymore. I wanted something that would persist a bit, but that I wouldn’t feel too bad over if it got deleted.

Anyway, for all those reasons, I decided to overengineer a solution and build a webapp: To use it, just add your own string to the end of the url (e.g.,

It’s running on React with node/mongo as the backend, and it took me way too long to build given the scale of the problem, partially because I had no idea what I was doing, but I enjoy using it and hope you do too.