The Best Day Ever and What it Taught Me

It was a big day for us. Even seventeen years later, I can still remember walking up the “Alice in Wonderland”-like corridor, with the pattern of its wooden walls oriented downwards as the floor sloped up, leading us to the stage. Our concert band was about eighty strong, with an unbalanced eight tuba players (three or four would have been more appropriate for a band this size), and I was one of them. We were taking part in the Singapore Youth Festival, a biennial competition for school bands, and were under significant pressure to play well, both because we had spent the last year practicing intensely, but also to live up to the collection of gold medals spanning the past ten years that hung on the wall of our band room.

We took our seats for a moment, but then stood all at once as our conductor walked up to the podium, our instruments gleaming under the stage lights – as a final ritual, we had spent the last night polishing them. He motioned for us to sit, and waved his baton for us to play a “Bb” note, checking our tuning one last time. A “cut”, a short pause, another wave, and we were off. The next fifteen minutes or so were a blur. I vaguely remember thinking we sounded good, although a cornet player missed a high “C” at the very end, souring the performance in our minds.

And just like that, the central point of hundreds of hours of practice vanished – it was time to put away our instruments and take our seats in the auditorium, awaiting our fate. I don’t remember any of the other bands that played that afternoon; we were far to self-absorbed to pay much attention. I remember being caught in between wanting them to announce the results immediately, but also wanting an appropriate amount of suspense before the tension was released. Two years later, with the benefit of experience, and as a better group of musicians, I wouldn’t feel as nervous – I remember walking off the stage fairly confident that we had nailed our performance.

The fifteen minutes or so on stage were the culmination of more than a year of preparation. A few weeks prior, we all had to be fitted for blazers, and get haircuts to make sure we looked presentable on stage. I remember hearing the barber repeat, in broken English: “Don’t worry, I make it neat… neat”, as he buzzed off entire swathes of my friend’s shaggy mop. Another friend walked in the next day nearly bald, and was met with derisive laughter. As it turned out, the barber had asked him “What number?” – referring to the size of the clippers, and our friend, without having any idea what that meant, answered “2”, which is the standard for fresh recruits in the army.

In retrospect, the last year had been ridiculously intense for a group of 13 to 16 year old boys. Our regular schedule consisted of a mix of of full band practice, sectionals, and individual practice, four to five times a week (in the afternoons after school and on Saturdays), for two to three hours. However, in the last three months, we had supplemented that by coming to school at 6:30am to practice for an extra hour before school started, and by staying for a couple of hours past our usual practice time, wrapping up at about 7 to 8pm. During these months, our conductor, who was strict at the best of times, took on a “J.K. Simmons in Whiplash” quality – he once kicked a floor air-conditioning unit, only to arrive at the next practice hobbling, with a cane. We kept quiet about it, though.

To further prepare, we also had band camp. Unlike the “American Pie” variety, where apparently no practice takes place, ours basically consisted of practice from morning to night, in addition to foot drills (we were a “military” band), push-ups, and running (either to build lung capacity, or as punishment for being unruly or playing poorly). Once, we found ourselves running around the rugby field at midnight, doing push-ups whenever our drum major blew a whistle. These had to be done synchronously – a “timer” would yell “down”, and we would yell the count in return. I’ve long forgotten why we were doing this, but still retain the comical (in retrospect) memory of noticing a conspicuous silence from my right, only to realize that our “timer” had passed out, and was lying face down in the dirt.

Back in the auditorium, after the last band had played and shuffled to their seats, the results were announced. My stomach was in knots as I heard a bunch of silver and bronze medals being awarded, and I thought I would throw up as the announcer took their time in drawing out: “Saint Andrew’s School Military Band…Gold”.

To date, this is the only time where I can distinctly remember feeling the slightest out-of-body experience, jumping to my feet and cheering without consciously willing myself to do so.

I didn’t know it then, but that cycle of events, lasting just over a year, would have a profound impact on my life. It was the first time my 13-year-old self saw the point of preparing for a goal way out in the future (remember that a year was about 8% of my entire life at that point). I’m sure it was the same for many people in my year, too. What we learned, however, was deeper than just “working hard”. Instead, we formed a culture that many of us still try to live up to today, for better or worse. By being punished for someone else’s mistakes, we learned that nothing was “Somebody Else’s Problem”; under the constant reminder that our actions had consequences for the reputation of those who came before and after, leaving the band “in a better state than you found it” became like mantra. There are many of us who might have been put on different paths in life if not for this shared experience.

Of course, that sense of perfectionism and elitism came with a price, at least, for me personally – a general sense of constant self-loathing, an attitude of “do it well, or don’t do it at all”, and a strong preference for “my kind of people”.

For the longest time, while learning to play the guitar, I refused to play anything by my hero Stevie Ray Vaughn in front of anyone else, because I felt like I would be doing a disservice to the music. Even today, I can still feel in a gnawing in my stomach when I, or other musicians are “off”, and the back of my head is still filled with snarky quips that I would never say, like “This isn’t music, this is just noise”, or “Let’s try that again – this time, correctly.”

Outside of music, I spent many years ashamed of being less than perfect at anything. It took me a long time to realize the most simple, blatantly obvious thing: That before you’re good at something, you’re going to be bad at it. It also took me too long to realize that you don’t have to set out to finish everything you start – that some things don’t have a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, and you only realize halfway; that there’s nothing wrong in giving up.

Despite the anxiety and despair that these flaws have occasionally caused, I wouldn’t trade them for the world, for they have afforded me a life I would not otherwise have had. Besides, it’s far easier to lower your standards when needed than to try to conjure them up after a lifetime of absence.



I Tried to Write a Gypsy Jazz Love Song

Ever since learning how to play “la pompe“, the signature rhythmic guitar style of gypsy jazz, I’ve wanted to write a song in that style. At the risk of sounding super nerdy, I was inspired by the chords of this snippet of music at the end of a QI (Quite Interesting – a British panel show) clip on YouTube – you might be able to hear a similar chord progression.

This was recorded using my Taylor Academy 10e, which I’ll write about soon, and also my old MIJ Squier Stratocaster using VSTs from Simulanalog. I thought it was really cool that the entire project was done for academic reasons – to model guitar amplifiers and effects pedals as accurately as possible. There’s also a synth track that I originally used to keep time, but left in because I thought it sounded cool.

As for the lyrics, I probably should have abandon the rhyming scheme much earlier on, but didn’t.

The Point of Everything

A couple of weeks ago, I took some time off work to reflect on what I was trying to accomplish in my life. It very quickly dawned on me that I had basically “ghosted” through the last year.


When I was in college, there were a group of (other) snobby nerds who would refer to everyone else who didn’t explicitly have a strong sense of purpose as “ghosts” – floating around without any real direction. Although I didn’t share the same level of derision or contempt, I definitely shared the same pressure to make life meaningful. And throughout the last year, I’d definitely been remiss in acting upon that pressure.

The Point of Everything

Over the last ten years, I’ve discovered that I’m basically happiest doing things for one (or, hopefully more) of three reasons:

  1. I’m producing something that people use
  2. I’m working with people who share my values
  3. I’m learning something new

And over the last year, while I had lived a life someone my age is supposed to live (e.g., moved into my own place, bought shares in EA, the most evil gaming company in the world, etc.), I also didn’t spend enough time actually living.

To be clear, this is not some crisis. Plenty of people go through their entire lives without worrying about how they spend their time. I’m pretty sure most of my ancestors were more concerned with putting food on the table than making sure their lives were filled with some higher-order purpose.

But it bugs me, because I am the product of good luck. My family in Singapore is upper-middle class, and throughout my life, there were countless occasions where my laziness or ignorance would have sent a less fortunate person down a much darker path. When I joke about how someone with only 4 ‘O’ level passes also has a Ph.D from one of the top programs in my field, the subtext is that I got a second chance that many people in my position would not have had.

So, to quote Michael Lewis’s speech here, I “owe a debt to the unlucky”, and I’ll admit I don’t know how to fully repay it. I think part of it is not having Machiavellian goals like “be more rich, famous, and powerful than everyone else”, and I think another part of that debt is to responsibly wield whatever influence I have over the world. Most of all, however, I think paying off that debt means living the life that hypothetical less fortunate person would have wanted to live, and not squandering it by floating around until I randomly die one day.

I’ll keep working on it.

Why I Hate Yams (and Other Sweet Tubers)

When I was growing up, I spent my afternoons after school at my maternal grandparents’ apartment, waiting for my parents to come home. Being the eldest grandson in the family, my grandmother would dote on me with toys, candy, chocolate, cheese, ham, chicken wings, McDonald’s, and the like (naturally, I was a really fat kid, but that’s another story for another time) [Editor (also me): yeah let’s not tell that story ever].

Of all the treats I ate, my favorite flavor of all was artificial grape, and I mean artificial grape (because which kid has time for real fruit?)[there is something wrong with you]. I loved grape flavored gummies, grape flavored hard candies, grape flavored children’s vitamins – once, I even had grape flavored toothpaste (note to self: this is still available, please look into it, thanks) [no].

Fast forward to today, people are often shocked to find that I hate sweet potatoes, in any form. They’re especially outraged to learn that I hate sweet potato fries [to be fair, I think you mean “hate” in the first world sense, and by that I mean you’ll still eat it because you’re greedy, but feel resentful afterwards].

This is why:

My main occupation while staying with my grandparents’ was hunting for food that they didn’t want me to eat just yet. I would find a stool and use it to climb up to the highest cabinets in the kitchen, looking for anything sweet or savory. In retrospect, I’m surprised this strategy worked for as long as it did. You’d think they’d switch up the hiding spots.

Something that they couldn’t hide elsewhere was ice cream – there was always some in the freezer.

One fateful day, I opened the freezer to find the holy grail: Grape Ice Cream. Even today, I can remember being overcome with excitement. How could I have lived all of my six years without knowing that this existed? [truly, it is a mystery]

Well, there were many other things that, as a six-year-old, I didn’t know existed, such as yams. And just as I remember the anticipation of feasting on what might as well have been the heroin of grape flavored confectionery, I can vividly recall the disgust and despair that followed when I discovered that a fellow human being had seen fit to make ice cream out of essentially, edible dirt. After all, isn’t that what compost literally is? Stuff that you don’t want to eat that you bury in the ground? [that’s not what compost is…]

So that’s pretty much why I hate all sweet tubers now: Yam ice cream. I know it’s not a rational reason, or even a very good one [correct…], but I can’t help but feel the universe conspired against me on this one. Just like the time I ate a tablespoon of salt because “adding it to food makes the food taste good, so salt must taste good, right?” [you are a moron] Or like the time I ate spaghetti Bolognese together with cherry soda, which, in case you didn’t know, is a flavor combination that tastes exactly like vomit. [kill me]

When I was growing up, my grandparents used to tell me about how sweet potatoes were all they had to eat during World War II.

Well, it’s not World War II anymore, so I’m not eating any.

Falling Easy

I wrote this song about overcoming the uncertainty and nostalgia that comes with being itinerant. In case you were curious as to what the phoenix guitar sounds like, I play it at the end.

Here’s a direct link:

A Fender Firebird

Of all the mythical creatures I don’t believe in, the phoenix is my favorite. Throughout my life, I’ve learned and grown the most following abject failure (usually after I’d said to myself “I got this, 100%”), and so the mythology of a creature that is reborn and rises from the ashes is one that really speaks to me.

In the case of this guitar, the “rebirth” analogy applies, too.

It started out life as a late 90s Fender Deluxe Super Strat, which was made in Mexico for around either years, until around 2004, before being replaced by another model, the Deluxe Players Strat. As far I as I know, the two are very similar, with the main differences being the pickups and neck radius (the latter having noiseless pickups and a flatter neck). Here’s a photo of what it looked like originally:

Fender Deluxe Super Strat

Anyway, back to the rebirth analogy: After some back and forth on Craigslist, I met the owner at a small coffee shop in the Lower Haight, and I found that it was her ex-boyfriend’s, and that he had left it as a “gift” when they broke up (which I assumed to mean he was simply too lazy to take it with him). I ended up buying it for a steal, but needless to say, I had a strong desire to wash the instrument of its sordid history.

So, I commissioned my friend Molly Michelle Smith to paint the beautiful phoenix motif that stretches across the entire guitar:

The design covers the back too:

I think it looks great.

On Forgetting and Happiness

I can barely remember the most beautiful thing I’ve seen in my life. I was 15 or 16, and my family and I were in Japan. My dad’s company had paid to send his entire office on a trip to Tokyo, Osaka, and the places in between.

I don’t recall exactly where in Japan we were at the time, other than squeezed into a passenger van. As it sped down a large, man-made dam, going blindingly fast while barely making a dent through the landscape, I looked to my right and saw a little village nestled on the outskirts of a forest. Then, to my left, I saw the sea. And as my attention vacillated between the left and right windows, we drove into a tunnel, carved through a mountain.

To be clear, I don’t think this actually happened. It’s been more than fifteen years, and our memories are fragile things. I’ve bombarded Google with all manner of queries, and the most convincing hint I’ve gotten is that we were probably on the Alpine Route, and that the dike in question was the Kurobe dam – Japan’s tallest. But there isn’t a village, and the body of water to the left isn’t the sea:

Lake Kurobe 1-1.jpgBy 柑橘類 (talk) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

My memory hasn’t so much faded as it has been (at least partially) fabricated. It’s the same funny feeling I get when I step into my the apartment my maternal grandparents used to live in. Growing up, I would walk there every day after school and spend hours playing and getting fed while waiting for my parents to come home from work. Stepping inside today, it feels “too small”, like I’m Gulliver in Lilliput. Somehow, my brain doesn’t seem to want to learn the new, subjective size of everything, and insists overlaying my perspective with my 6-year-old self’s vision.

As I’ve gotten older, and I’ve started to worry about my memory. Well, maybe worry is the wrong word, but its transience has long since dawned upon me. On one hand, I seem to remember lots of irrelevant things, and I still have a 10-digit span working memory. But the ever expanding black hole of things I’ve forgotten always seems to loom in the shadows. Most of all, however, I wonder how many of my memories are real, and how much of the present I’ll remember. Although most of us believe we can recall the “good old days” with certainty, research suggests that we’re more often confident rather than correct.

That said, the realization that everyone’s memory is transient has made me happier: I keep hearing about how you shouldn’t be afraid to embarrass yourself, because nobody will remember it – not even you. I never understood that. I’d always remembered every time and place that I’d misplaced my dignity.

But not lately. Lately, those memories seem far away, like someone yelling at me from behind a closed door. Maybe I’ve gotten old enough to see that it’s all like the Kurobe dam: Stuff happens, and everyone thinks they’ll remember, but when they see you again, it’s you who gets to decide if the artificial lake they remember was actually the sea.

Book Review: Disrupted

I’m super late to the party, but after a year in the tech world, it’s time for me to review one of my favorite books: Dan Lyon’s Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-up Bubble.

By way of a summary, here are the top three things I liked about the book:

  1. It’s funny. Dan Lyons is a better writer than I will ever be, and his anecdotes and metaphors are hilarious. My personal favorite lines in the book are the ones where he comments on how phallic Hubspot’s logo is.
  2. It’s revealing. Because of the circumstances surrounding his hiring, Lyons is privy to a lot of what seems like “dirty laundry”. Although the accounts are shared from his perspective and dramatized to be more entertaining, you get the sense that someone, somewhere does feel that way about this kind of stuff that happens behind closed doors. Without giving away any spoilers, the conclusion to the book is also a doozy.
  3. It’s deep. Despite its often whimsical tone, I believe that Disrupted asks important questions about why we work and the way we work, in tech, but also generally. For example, there is a powerful anecdote about a senior leader who wants to create a company that people love working at by way of a “culture code”, but really ends up creating a company that he loves, and strives to convince others that they love working there too.

The book opens with a chapter titled Beach White Male, and details the circumstances around Lyons’s firing from Newsweek. Immediately, you get a sense of Lyons’s ability to dramatize. The narrative, while riveting, is essentially a story about what some guy is thinking as he gets fired and has to pick up the pieces.

Lyons eventually gets hired at a software company called Hubspot, and reading his subsequent account of his time at the company feels sort of like you’re a fly on the wall next to the office water cooler. Disrupted is abound with office drama and “Did that really happen?” moments. However, because Lyons has such a lively (and often sarcastic) writing style, it can get hard to get a sense of what really happened, and the book as a whole has an intentional (I’m assuming) “gossipy” feel.

Despite the cattiness of some of the writing, Lyons raises important points about the future of work, as well as the problems of the present. For me, the most insightful theme was about how large companies often use euphemisms, rituals and precedence to mask unpleasantness, such as an unrewarding task or a difficult conversation or evaluation. Lyons’s description of HEART and VORP, for example, makes one wonder whether the values of a company, consisting of thousands of unique individuals, should really be distilled into a five letter acronym.

In summary, I highly recommend Disrupted, especially if you work in the tech industry. Whether you’re just starting out a career, or someone in power, it might be a welcome long, hard look in the mirror.

A Weird Time to Waltz

This is a song I’ve been wanting to write for a while now. I titled it “A Weird Time to Waltz” because of the 7/4 (7 beats to a bar) sections in the song, and I wrote the 7/4 sections of the song because I like having headaches while thinking of how lyrics should scan over weird time signatures.  My approach to writing the music to this was to uh… “chuck more and more notes at the chords as the song progresses”. Eat your heart out, Mozart.

A 1987 Japanese-made Squier Stratocaster

The electric guitar was invented in 1931 by George Beauchamp. Since then, thousands of iterations have appeared, with my favorite being the rocket-shaped Stratocaster. Produced by Fender since 1954, the Stratocaster has an illustrious history: Listen to guitar nerds talk about them long enough, and they’ll start to sound like they’re discussing wine – Stratocasters produced in 1957 and 1962, for example, are believed to be of an especially good vintage, and in 2018, can fetch anywhere between $20,000 to $30,000. In the intervening years, the Stratocaster was used by greats such as Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughn, and the legendary Jimi Hendrix, among countless others.

In the late 70’s, many Japanese guitar makers started making knock-offs of popular guitar shapes, including the Stratocaster. These were infamously known as “lawsuit guitars”, because of the resulting lawsuits from manufactures like Fender. Ironically, these Japanese counterfeits were often as well made as their U.S. counterparts or better, partly because Fender was struggling financially at the time and were engaging in highly unpopular cost-cutting measures such as removing the Stratocaster’s iconic jack plate.

To fend off these copycats, Fender revived the Squier brand (originally a maker of guitar strings), and started producing their own guitars in Japan. In the first few years of production, the guitars were essentially clones of American Stratocasters – to the point where it was rumored that the factories actually shared a common inventory of parts. Although these guitars were originally sold at a lower price point than their Fender counterparts, today, a Japanese Squier with a “JV” or “SQ” serial number (from the first few years of of production, up to 1984), can sell for about $1,000 to $1,500; about the same price as a new American model in 2018.

Subsequent generations of Japanese Squiers, however, would slowly start to fall victim to cost cutting as well.

The guitar pictured was manufactured in 1987 at the legendary FujiGen Gakki, and has an “E” serial number. It has pickups with ceramic magnets in them, which are cheaper than the traditional AlNiCo (aluminum, nickel, cobalt) alloy. It uses lower quality electronics, such as a plastic printed circuit board switch rather than a metal mechanical one. It also features various anachronisms, with parts mixed-and-matched from various time periods in the Stratocasters history.  For example, the white plastic pickguard is single-ply, and has 8-holes, which was standard in the 50s and early 60s. However, the tuners and string trees on the guitar are contemporary to the 80s. Most likely, they were working with whatever they had in inventory at the time.

Despite these oddities, I bought this guitar because it had soul.

Let me explain: Since the advent of C&C technology, every large guitar maker has been able to churn out a consistent stream of guitars largely because of automation. A machine cuts out the shape of the body and routes all the chambering, with no humans involved to mess things up. But there are things that humans still need to apply the finishing touches on, even today, and where humans do mess things up is in the details. As the guitar is assembled, people are still needed to dress the metal frets, solder all the electronics, tidy up the wiring, and ensure that everything has been adjusted correctly so the guitar feels playable.

It’s in these human elements that this 30-year-old guitar feel alive. The parts of the guitar that someone had to work are impeccable: The fretwork is immaculate, the fingerboard has had its edges smoothed off by hand (something that’s advertised as a “feature” in expensive guitars today), and the wiring of the cheaper electronic components is pristine.

To me, this guitar represents a story – in some ways, the end of an era: it would be a few years after this guitar was built that Fender would start to find even cheaper sources of labor in Korea, then Southeast Asia and China. But with this guitar, it’s clear that someone cared about their job, and didn’t feel like they were building an “inferior” guitar.

I don’t either.