Oct 16, 2021

This past weekend Dora and I ‘celebrated’ our 1-year wedding anniversary together. ‘Celebrated’ is in quotations because we didn’t really do much – in part because we were hosting a friend until this week and in part because we were also busy traveling ourselves (SF-Singapore-LA). Hopefully we can do something this weekend, but I think we’re both content to take it easy for a bit.

To anyone wondering what being married feels like – I’m happy to share that this past year really hasn’t been any different than the previous 10, which I take is a good sign since that’s the version of each other we chose to marry. It has, however, felt like the start of a new chapter as we moved to a new country, found new jobs, and adjusted to new routines.

Our (rented) home!

Statistically most high school sweethearts don’t pan out, which puts us in an exclusive club where everyone assumes that we have the relationshipTM all figured out. The reality is that no one in high school really knows who they are or what they’re looking for, and Dora and I were no different. We just happened to luck into a certain compatibility as we grew up to share similar views on the big topics in life such as money, children and religion. Anything else we could either compromise or indefinitely hold a differing view on without much consequence.

But despite the affinity, our challenges came in a different form. At about the 3-year mark, we realized that we wouldn’t be in the same city for the foreseeable future and have to either break up or endure long distance for the duration. Dora had planned to move back to Hong Kong after her graduation and I had already begun taking internships in other cities with the hope of eventually moving to the states. A relationship felt like a cruel risk to take if only to delay the inevitable.   

Funkos of us from Hollywood!

Thankfully our emotions bettered our pragmatic selves and we decided to give it a shot. We didn’t go into it with a vision of what a long distance relationship would look like, and the first few years were definitely a bit of trial and error as we calibrated to each other’s expectations.

Many people contemplating a long distance relationship would ask me how we made it work, but I think the answer is pretty anticlimactic. Sure you need to start with strong fundamentals built on maturity and trust, but in the end it comes down to your personality to thrive in the independence. Some couples try to bridge the gap by seeing each other every few months, but over time I find that to be too financially and operationally taxing. The chance of success (unfortunately) really comes down to what you already know – it’s how you interact with or without the distance.

Dora and I eventually established a cadence where we would see each other 2-3 times a year, likely once in Asia and once in North America. We would communicate mostly through texts and have calls maybe a few times a week. I find the most difficult part to be being emotionally supportive during particularly tough moments, as there are only so many things you can say and do on the receiving end of a sobbing exchange.

Things started to simplify in May 2019 when we finally got engaged. It was both a major milestone on its own and also a commitment to each other after all the years apart. It would be a few more years before we moved together, but at least now the end was in sight.

Moments after the proposal on the Ferris wheel!

I visited Hong Kong that summer on route to Taiwan and decided to pop the question there. I had brainstormed a few locations with my friend for a private proposal but quickly realized a problem – anything indoors in HK was too crowded and anywhere outdoors was too hot. It didn’t leave me with many choices. I even contemplated for a moment to propose in her house. In the end, I carried the ring in my backpack and just hoped that the right opportunity came up.

It never really did until my last few days in Hong Kong when I saw the Ferris wheel while waiting for her to get off work. It wasn’t my first choice at the time since it felt pretty cliché, but I’ve grown to like it over the years. I think Dora knew the moment I asked to buy out a private cabin and had to watch the attendants awkwardly scan each one of the 10 or 12 tickets they gave me.

I don’t remember what I said in the actual proposal (no lie) except that it ran long and she asked if I was going to put the ring on her or not. I said yes and we got engaged!

Because of this whole other thing called Covid, we couldn’t get married until 2021, but I felt like the time in between went by in a blur. We moved back to Vancouver together, squeezed a bunch of stressful things in a few months (prepping for a career change, planning a wedding, preparing the move to the States), and came out of it mostly unscathed.

Wedding Reception at Hawksworth Vancouver

Like many others, Covid normalized our desires to have a small wedding, and it turned out better than I could’ve imagined. My old manager from EA mentioned to me once that there are really only two occasions where all your friends and family come together to celebrate your life – your wedding and your funeral. Seeing how I can’t attend one of those two, I felt like having a wedding is as much for us as it is for those we want to thank in our lives.

I still remember most of my speech to Dora because those are the same things I would reiterate today. That I admire her for her resourcefulness to navigate through the many years of uncertainty and distance, while still speaking of our future with the same enthusiasm as if we had just met. I feel very grateful for the past year and I’m glad that the future we always spoke of is here.

Happy Anniversary…!

What I’m reading: It was taking me way too long to get through Chuck Palahniuk’s ‘Rant’ that I finally accepted that I wasn’t really enjoying it. It’s a story about a murderer told through the eyes of others, but it jumped around a bit too much and the subject matter felt only as interesting as they were bizarre. Started a new series last week AKA Dune – my wife’s Christmas present for me last year :). I saw the movie recently which made the visualization easier, and it’s squarely in a genre I enjoy – sci-fi with political intrigue and with some cool characters/factions.

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So Long, Vancouver

I’ve been so busy procrastinating packing for my move back to the Bay Area that I only realized this week that my flight back is almost two years to the day I left. I flew back to Vancouver on April 7, 2020 for what I thought would be a few interesting months. And here I am, two years later, making the return trip on April 15, 2022.

An Empty SFO on my way home

It’s obligatory to mention how fast time has gone by, but I especially resonate with it on two levels – first by how quickly we were able to find our new normal and develop an entire perspective on the future of work, and second, more personally, how quickly my 30s are coming for me.

Some say the anticipation of the weekend is better than the weekend itself, and I kind of feel that way about my age, only in reverse and slightly negative terms.

There’s a lot more to say about what my 30s mean, but I’ll save that for when I actually turn 30 next year (!!). For now, I just want to take a moment to reflect on a place I’ve called home for so long, and one I probably won’t get to come back to beyond a few weeks here and there.

Even before thinking about anything in specific terms, I realized that my impression of Vancouver is drastically different between the first 10 or so years when I grew up and went to school, versus to the last 2 where I unexpectedly found myself back home after the outbreak of Covid. 

A typical Vancouver hangout

Growing up I was busy enough struggling through school and early adulthood that I never really cared for the identity of the city. But in retrospect I realized the ironic truth that I (and my family) contributed verbatim to the stereotypes of Vancouver – a beautiful coastal city that’s expensive, unfriendly to outsiders, and perfect for retirement.

I didn’t care to make new friends because I had a core group from high school. I didn’t care for the college scene because I always came home after my classes. And I didn’t care for the foreigner-centric culture because I was an immigrant like many others and never planned to stay long.

Perhaps the worst offense of all – my parents were foreign investors who bought property in the city without contributing meaningfully to the local economy. It’s especially ironic that Vancouver became my safe-haven during Covid, knowing how unattainable the market is for most.

So with all that said, it feels a bit tone-deaf for me to pile on the echo-chamber for all the things Vancouver isn’t. Instead, it’s more pragmatic to say that Vancouver appeals to a specific type of personality, but with an unfortunate pre-requisite that you must also be able to stomach its costs.

The city is consistently considered one of the best places to live because of its mild weather, scenic mountains, and safe neighborhoods, so it was always going to attract real estate investment and people looking to settle. The unfortunate part of the equation is that Vancouver’s industry cannot really compete with the powerhouses on the east, which means that wage growth remains stagnant and perpetually under the cost of living. All metropolitans are expensive to live in, but Vancouver takes the crown with the highest home price to income ratio than even San Francisco or New York.

Whistler Mountain, photo by Andrew H.

It goes without saying that I wouldn’t be here today without the financial backing of my family. But recognizing that and setting it aside, I’ll really miss the city once I’m gone.

Compared to the first 10 years, I was basically a tourist in my second time around. I drove out of Richmond to see friends more often, took advantage of the nearby mountains and got back into skiing, and dedicated nights to try out interesting restaurants with my wife. It’s no understatement that Vancouver is one of the most livable cities in the world.

I’ll finish my post with a few memories of growing up here, in no particular order:

  • Going to Steveston with my parents to buy live fish, and then playing tennis at the shed
  • Grabbing a bag of snacks and fruits after school to watch the Blue Jays on TV at 4
  • Taking “Guitar 12” in the last few semesters of HS when grades didn’t matter anymore, but really just learned to play Poker with all the Chinese immigrants.
  • Being downtown during the 2011 Stanley Cup riots, risking my life for a sport I don’t care about
  • Playing online RTS games with my brother before he moved to Europe for good
  • Planning a few murder mysteries with my friend Sam before Escape Rooms were cool
  • Nursing my fish tank comically placed in the middle of the kitchen
  • Hosting monopoly parties weekly for a stretch of like 2 months (please no more)
  • Meeting my wife and getting married 🙂 – more on that in the future

I told Dora the other day that it’s really bittersweet in hindsight that we do a lot of things for the last time and never know it – like playing on the playground, living with your parents and siblings under one roof, or setting foot in a place you’ve always loved. I definitely feel that way now.

What I’m reading: Recently finished “A Killer in King’s Cove” by Iona Whishaw, a local author from Vancouver. It’s a mystery novel where the world building and character development felt more emphasized than the “who and how”, which was surprisingly pleasant. I kind of like it as a break over the usual Agatha Christie or Sherlock Holmes style where the payoff is largely in the last few chapters. The next book on my list is “Rant” by Chuck Palahniuk. It’s not particularly well-rated but I have heard that it’s a pretty mind-blowing book that’s either a 1 star or a 5 star. I’ll have to try it and report back.

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2019, 2020, COVID and Me.

When I first started this draft, it was titled 2020 in review. Though now that we’re almost half a year in, I guess I’ll have to settle for something more generic. I’m not sure what I want to write about yet, but I really can’t justify paying for my own web hosting each year to not have written anything since 2018.

Part of it was feeling like I ran out of topics to talk about (at least somewhat intelligently), and so I pivoted a bit more into fiction. I ended up writing about 10,000 words in a D&D story before my progress kind of slowed. I just wasn’t very good at it. I write too slowly and have a hard time coming up with interesting plot ideas. My wife, on the other hand, has no trouble charming hundreds of readers with her regal x manga-inspired romance fiction.

Fanart drawn by one of my wife’s readers, littleroundpumpkin.

Like seriously. Her fiction has over 150,000 words and more than 12,000 clicks. And even though I see her writing most of the time, I still have no idea what her secret sauce is (I don’t have them).

All that leads me to my next point: what have I been doing for the last few years? The short answer is not much. Even if the last year was mostly a write-off due to Covid, my life was settling into a routine long before that. I would work M-F and then take some time on the weekends to try new restaurants or go to coffee shops to read my books. It wasn’t bad by any means, just a little stale.

Thoughts on COVID-19

Lockdown in North America started in March. In hindsight, I made two decisions right before it that could easily classify as both the best and the worst. On the plus side, I took an extended pilgrimage back home to Taiwan with my wife and her family that December. It was nice to see everyone for 3 weeks, live a slower-paced life and install match-3 games for my grandparents. It’s an annual trip that helps me put my life in perspective, sometimes as simply as looking out the window into a very different city.

When I returned to the States in January 2020, however, my brain had the genius idea that Covid was just a flu and that going to New York to see some friends would be a good idea. It was only my second trip to New York. The weather was a bit colder than I thought it’d be, but by far the most surprising fact was that I didn’t personally pick up Covid. New York would turn out to be the first hotspot in America where the virus was likely spreading as early as January.

William Vale rooftop with a nice view.

I definitely caught a break with the timing. And by the time I flew back to the west coast and gone back to work, it wasn’t long before the world turned into something none of us would recognize.

From the onset of shelter-in-place, I felt a sheepish joy which I can only describe as a very understandable aversion to commuting in the Bay Area. I didn’t think the virus would be that serious, and I was glad to get a few weeks where I could just wake up and roll into a meeting. Except the weeks turned to months, and soon I was on a flight back to Vancouver with just a small luggage of my essentials.

At this point I must go on a tangent to thank my roommate Kyle, who not only turned the negatives of a Covid-driven work situation into an absolute career-defining win, but took the time to help me clear out my belongings as we came to terms with the fact that Covid was going to last a very long time. I’m not sure anyone else would’ve had the patience, and I can’t be more grateful.

Today would mark almost exactly one year since my flight back to Vancouver, and what a year it has been. Even now I don’t think I fully grasp the magnitude of change that Covid will impart even once this is all over – the way we work, the way we share information, the way we interact with our governments. It’s kind of overwhelming, but on the balance I think a lot will be for the better.

My life now fits another set of routines, but not without some big differences. For one, my wife and I are finally reunited. We’ve been living apart for most of my time in the US (she worked in Hong Kong) without a clear goal of how our lives will come together. Covid accelerated that timeline. And even though our future is still up in the air, at least we’ll worry about it together.

Coming back home also means seeing some old friends, and that was something I missed in the Bay Area. I generally see myself as a pretty solitary person, but there are some things much easier to do with friends than doing alone – like starting a small business! Over the last few months, my friend and I worked on a felt crafts hobby together, eventually deciding to launch it as a small business. It’s in pretty early stages, but I’m excited to take on a brand new challenge.

A rose bouquet made with felt!

All in all, I would say that I’m beyond fortunate that Covid hit me at the time it did. I’m not a college senior trying to get that first internship or someone trying to re-enter the workforce while shouldering financial or familial burdens. My challenges were at best inconveniences, and often times not even that. I hope that by the end of 2021, we will be able to find the new normal, one that weaves in our multi-faceted needs honed by the reckoning of this global pandemic.

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The New National Sport

Staples Center, 2016 League of Legends World Championship

One of my favorite hobbies is playing video games, which for a long time just screamed a lack of foresight in life. The one thing career counselors ask you to leave off your resume, and then nudge you after the workshop to cut back on. Yes, organizing a raid is hard, but no – no one really cares.

So imagine my surprise when a string of good luck got me an actual job at a gaming company. Now instead of waiting for your disapproval, I can just toss it up to some good ol’ market research.

It was the perfect plan, except for that one memo I missed.  Unknown to me, somewhere in my 20s, gaming became cool again. 

Manuel “Grubby” Schenkhuizen, my favorite Warcraft III pro!

It’s hard to say when or how it happened, but I suspect a lot of it had to do with overcoming that social barrier. I still remember my dad’s surprise when my tech-savvy older brother told him that we could play Age of Empires II together over thin air. It was magical and hours of fun.

Gaming then became a central part of my life. Despite my parents’ lectures about how I’ll have no time for it once I start high school/ college/ my first job, I always came back to its charms. In no other medium can you create a fictional world and live in it. And in no other medium can you immense yourself as part of a story, one that grips you with its joy, sorrow and many surprises.

I don’t plan on stopping any time soon, especially knowing what’s lurking just over the horizon. Alongside technical improvements that gave us an entire spectrum from stunning realism to vivid fantasies, new network capabilities expanded the entire playing field. What was once an individual activity can now be shared by all, and that opened the floodgates for deeper game development.

DICE’s Battlefield 1942 (2002) vs Battlefield V (2018)

Connectivity ushered a wave of innovation that led to sell-out stadiums with huge viewership stats, but we’re already on the cusp of another one. This time, it includes all the buzzwords you’re already tired of – cloud computing, AI, subscription, and being the (big company) of video games.

EA recently announced Project Atlas, which is a futuristic development platform powered by AI and cloud computing. You can read about it here. The technicalities are above me, but there are two takeaways that I think spelled out the future of not just EA, but the entire gaming industry.

EA CTO Ken Moss

The first point is about being cloud-native. We know the cloud as some abstract space where we store and backup our data, but the cloud can also be used to process and stream an entire video game directly onto our computer or mobile devices. In other words, it’s a system where the game client does not reside locally on your devices, but on EA servers around the world.

This sounds like a convenience thing, and it is, but there’s another subtle point here. In a world where the hard processing is done elsewhere, developers can ignore the constraints of minimum spec. Traditionally, studios concern themselves with making games that can run on as many systems as possible, but now they can focus solely on creating the best experiences. We are about to see an explosion of creativity bound only by the frontier of game development.

The second point is about being in an even more connected world. From having spent thousands of hours in Warcraft III custom games (where DOTA originated), I am convinced that community content is the longevity of a game. However, since all triple-A titles cost $60 in the store, there is a real scalability problem due to the demands of creative hours and their associated costs.

A cloud-native system would look to address this. As game content workflow gets moved online, developers can more easily break off parts of a game for creative people to experiment with. They can use moddable asset databases to create something new, and then use that same platform to share or market it with the world, building a new ecosystem altogether.

Origin Access – Picking a game will soon be as easy as picking a movie!

And as that line between developer and content creator blurs, we would be one step closer to the ambitious goal of having “game-as-a-service” (please don’t call it GAAS). Imagine that instead of having to buy an iterative copy of Madden or Call of Duty every year, now a subscription pass gets you that access alongside periodic content updates by both the community and the developers.

The mainstream shift is well underway, with many exciting developments just around the corner. If gaming hasn’t been a part of your life, this is the perfect moment to dive in. Genres have never been richer, and there has never been as much freedom as we do now on how we choose to play.

The influence of gaming will continue to expand, and it won’t be long until we’re hit with the next set of questions around how we want video games to portray our society. If it’s anything like what we have seen in the TV or films industry, then here’s a suggestion to start. Maybe next time we go dungeon crawling, let’s not have the ugly troll guard the hero’s treasures.

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Betting on our Future

In a world where sentiment plays such a decisive role, is it unlikely that sometimes action is worse than inaction? It’s not a view life coaches would share, but one Warren Buffet might.

Warren Buffett | Image Source

On the last day of 2017, the Oracle of Omaha officially won the wager first placed in 2007 that an S&P500 index fund would outperform a group of hedge fund managers and their fast computers, and he was right. In the end, the fund, consisting of the 500 largest companies on the New York stock exchange, returned an annualized 7.1% versus the 2.2% of his counterparts.

It was a bet originally for a million dollars, but the pool ballooned to over $2.2M over the course of the ten years. In the end, neither party took any winnings. The real beneficiary was the Girls Inc. of Omaha, a non-profit group which became millions richer overnight.

This story isn’t about how hedge funds have no place in finance. In fact, one of the many sensible explanations of this “defeat” is that hedge funds, as their name may suggest, perform better in sluggish markets, but that’s empirically difficult to prove. Maybe the story would’ve been flipped had we experienced another recession in the last few years. But again, maybe not.

I’ll try to describe my thought process here, but take it with a grain of salt.

To me, the first fundamental understanding is that investing is not about chasing the products with the highest returns. To give you an example – My apartment in Vancouver appreciated by over 30% in 2016, but that doesn’t mean we should all be in real estate because it could go the opposite way next year. Therefore, what we care about is not absolute returns but risk-adjusted ones. In other words, how do we achieve growth without seeing crazy high fluctuations?

There are more details here regarding different types of risks, but we can ignore that for now. The bottom line is that based on historical performance, we know that we can eliminate a lot of risks by investing into about 20 large companies of different sector and space. This is diversifying. It makes things easier for us because we don’t have to put all of our eggs into one basket, but we can go even further.

According to Benjamin Graham (Warren Buffet’s mentor), there are two types of investors. One who spends all their time analyzing stocks and watching the news, and the other who has no interest in the market and looks to invest in passive portfolios that require no supervision.

We may be inclined to think that the former is more successful based on the description, but the key here is that we want to be one or the other, and never in between. Since most of us have jobs and obligations that take up our free time, I would argue that we should err on the passive side.

Knowing that, what investment vehicle do we have that is well-diversified (20+ companies) and could free us from any decision making? The S&P500 index fund that Warren Buffet loves is a great place to start. By siphoning a set % of our income into a fund every paycheck when we’re in our 20s, we would be well on our way to leverage the benefits of exponential growth.

Passively managed index funds like the S&P500 are a newer class of investment option that holds an advantage over traditional mutual funds. Not only are we free of the usual 2-3% management fees, index funds have also just outright outperformed against actively managed ones. It’s not that fund managers are stupid, it’s just very difficult to beat the market by the margin of your fees.

For those who want more control of their portfolios, ETFs (exchange-traded funds) are also worth looking into. They are a subset of index funds that trade on the market like any other stock. ETFs represent a basket of stocks/bonds that could track something as high-level as the entire S&P, or something more specific like ‘North American Large Cap Resources’. This way, investors can play around with their macro ideas without having to pick individual stocks.

To sum it up, I think investing (and budgeting by extension) is a skill for everyone. With even a few hundred dollars, anyone can open an online brokerage account and start investing. By buying and holding index funds and not giving a damn about what Trump tweets next, we are already well ahead of many peers earning abysmal returns in their savings accounts.

Nothing is certain and some years will be worse than others, but as long as our investment horizon is long enough, historical performance will skew heavily into our favor.

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