I have now joined the ranks of Asian girls with DSLRs after treating myself to a Canon t4i, and my goal is to know kind of what I’m doing asap so that I can stop embarrassing myself.
I’ve been learning photography basics from my much more talented friends and have made my first lens upgrade. Here are some reasonably decent photos I’ve taken so far on my first two outings this past weekend with the old kit lens. Faster lens is better!
An Asian Holiday Gathering
I love rituals, I have fear of being alone during the holidays, and I love dinner parties. But I’ve never been able to connect with the the Asian family holiday tradition of having huge potlucks with friends - ones in which parents (usually the overbearing mother) subject their entire family to while their children begrudgingly attend out of loyalty or lack of choice. I have been a victim of Asian parties for my entire life; I am always the outsider, so I just observe.
Large homogenous groups in one room scare me. Groups consisting of 20+ Asian parents and children running around send off panic alarms in my head. I sit to the side playing with my phone or hang around my mom asking her who people are. “You should talk to June. She can give you career advice,” some random woman says as she pushes her daughter towards me. “How old are you?” the daughter asks. This again - the motions of giving career advice. “What do you want to do?” I ask. “I’m not sure - something in finance - or consulting is also an option.” Typical. I’m so bored already.
Then there is the awkward choice of having to sit at the kids’ table, which is meticulously lined with plastic tablecloth and situated in a place where nothing could possibly stain anything if an accident happens, or the parents’ table. Parents separate themselves in accordance to gender. Men generally drink some baijiu (a type of clear Chinese liquor) before dinner and joke about how drunk they are even though they are actually not even close to it; most of them have red faces, though. They stand as they eat because there’s never enough room for everyone to sit and talk about their jobs. Or something. It’s still a mystery to me.
Women sit at the dining table and talk about one of three things with 99% certainty: 1) how their children are doing - usually in school, 2) how their husbands are lazy and don’t help around the house, or 3) their family road trip that they are planning with some of the other people at the table. This year I am thankfully leaving just in time before a road trip with 6 other Asian families to Corpus Christi for New Year’s Eve. Corpus Christi is a drab, sad excuse for a beach town that had poisoned my conception of beaches for years. Ah mediocre family vacations. That is an entirely different post.
Throughout the years, there have been some highlights. Once we got our hands on some beer and tricked my friend’s 13-year-old brother to drink it. He proceeded to enjoy it after finding out what it was and get slightly tipsy, waving his toy swords around precariously. Since his face was also totally red, we had to hide him from the adults until it went away. It wasn’t my idea. I also learned how to play Starcraft at Asian parties, amongst other random video games like Mario Kart. If it weren’t for these parties, I would never be able to connect at all with stereotypical male geek culture.
You’d think that I would have it down by now and do what men (and women who value efficiency) have been doing after one night stands for years. Find a way to sneak out right after the meal without anyone noticing. The main restriction of suburbia, though, is that you need a car to go anywhere, so as long as the party is not within an hour’s walk, you’re pretty much stuck there. This year I got lucky. A cold front blew in, and it was about freezing by the time I left, but I was in walking distance of home. So I ran without any socks on in the freezing cold, cursing every time I felt like my feet were going to freeze off.
But I’m home. Enjoying the company of my favorite person. Me.
We believe in empowering people to make a living doing what they love and creating a world where having a passion in something is your source of financial stability. Technology should make our lives better by solving problems and enhancing real world interactions. All of us have met friends during our travels - in Peru, in Nepal, in Cambodia - who we wanted to help if only there was something like Vayable. We want to make it easy for people to connect and explore the world in more meaningful ways.
We’ve been inspired by unexpected hidden gems found off the beaten path, far from touristy parts of town. Benefits of tourism should be more widely distributed, and locals should have an influence on the neighborhoods, communities, and businesses that tourism dollars go to. More tourism dollars should stay in the local economy. After all, destinations are only appealing because of the cultural and natural heritage that has been cultivated by people who live there. We love our community and are constantly inspired by their generosity and love for their cities.
We also just want people to have kick-ass experiences when they travel. Other than that, we’re wicked fun, and you’ll be stoked to see us for 12 hours a day. We love to go hiking, do yoga, sail the seas, and live what we make. We have healthy foods for breakfast and lunch, but you can also request whatever you want, and we won’t judge you if you get a weekly bag of cookies. We like cookies too, and we eat pie on Fridays. So come along for the ride - we’re just getting started.
“And what is it to work with love? Work is love made visible. And if you cannot work with love but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of those who work with joy.” - Kahlil Gibran in The Profet
Prop C and Prop E in November 2012
Everyone besides the people I know who are super involved in SPUR has been super quiet about these measures on the ballot, maybe because the election is still a few months away or maybe because everyone is just talking about the presidential election these days. It is, after all, much more entertaining. Prop C and Prop E are some of the most important city-wide items on the ballot this election. Funding for affordable housing has been decreasing over the last few years and is now in a state of actual crisis. I’ve been following this issue for a while, and here’s a brief history.
In an attempt to spur construction projects in the city in 2010, Gavin Newsom passed legislation that would allow developers to defer the fee required if they wanted opted out of including affordable housing in their plans. Before this legislation 25% of developers opted to pay the fee, but now 55% of developers opt to pay the fee rather than build affordable units into their plans. This should theoretically be fine because revenue generated from the fee is supposed to be used to build affordable housing elsewhere, but 1) there’s a lag of 5 years in actually getting the money because of the deferral and 2) it’s really hard to get affordable housing projects off the ground to begin with.
Back in December of 2011, the California Supreme Court ruled in favor of the state’s law to abolish redevelopment agencies, a win for Jerry Brown by reducing the budget gap and allowing those funds to go to schools and public safety. Redevelopment agencies (with about $5.7 billion in funding a year state-wide) became a popular shell agency to get more funds that revitalize blighted areas after a proposition in 1978 limited the state’s ability to raise new revenues. Though they are far from perfect, in fact pretty corrupt, half of redevelopment funds in SF went to supporting affordable housing ($50m per year). Without the agencies, funding for affordable housing looks like this.
Development of places like Mid-Market, Hunter’s Point, Mission Bay, and the many vacant lots you see in San Francisco were delayed because of this void in guaranteed funding sources. With rents rising to record highs, that’s not a pretty chart, so there obviously needs to be a a new solution to financing affordable housing in this city. People are moving out of San Francisco, causing the city to be less diverse and less livable for many people. Hell, we are even thinking about creating micro-apartments to make rent cheaper.
Prop C creates an Affordable Housing Trust Fund that essentially gets funding from a few sources: gains from property taxes that used to go to redevelopment agencies, an increase in the transfer tax on the sale of properties valued over $1m, and new revenues generated from Prop E (also on the ballot). It’s a 30-year fund that would get $20m in its first year, increasing year over year, capped at $50m per year. Basically a guaranteed $1.2billion for affordable housing over the next 30 years. The city hopes to build 9k new units of affordable housing over the next 30 years.
Prop E changes San Francisco’s business tax from a payroll based system to a gross receipts based system and will generate an additional $25.8m a year for the city. Right now companies paying more than $250k in payroll have to pay payroll taxes to the city. This issue was hotly debated when Twitter was considering moving out of the city because of it. With this new tax structure, labor intensive operations that don’t make that much money like restaurants and supermarkets will benefit, and firms that don’t employ as many people vs. revenue would have to pay more (like engineering or real estate firms). The tech community is for this because many internet companies don’t make a lot of money and employ expensive talent ^_^. Small businesses with less than $1m in revenue are exempt from this tax. This structure just makes sense in general, so very few people are against it.
In a perhaps desperate measure, Ed Lee allocated about half of the increased revenues from Prop E to fund the Affordable Housing Trust Fund created by Prop C, so the two are invariably linked. If Prop E doesn’t pass, he’ll have to veto Prop C. Some of the burden in building affordable housing is taken off of developers because the city will now purchase units at the market rate and reserve them for affordable housing. Nay say if you will, but developer interests will always lie with their pocketbooks, so we shouldn’t count on them to make decisions that are good for the city as a whole. Prop C is pretty much also the only choice we have right now in funding affordable housing.
You can also read this nice summary of SPUR’s stance on these ballot measures written by Corey, a really smart dude who I sit on a working group with at SPUR. TL;DR - vote for Prop C and Prop E :).
We’ve seen this happen over and over again, which is why things like Airbnb and Vayable are important, focusing on benefiting local communities by re-allocating tourism dollars in neighborhoods and to people who otherwise don’t benefit from it.
Stage 1: Communities build small bungalows for local tourism. Residential houses are renovated and converted into small hotels and boarding lodges, earning revenue for local people.
Stage 2: Land values increase and roads and other infrastructure developments begin. Outsiders begin buying land and establishing their own operations on a larger scale than the locals. Local people still benefit economically, although the bulk of the income goes to a small number of people.
Stage 3: Hotel construction begins at a faster rate, planning regulations are ignored, and building proceeds haphazardly, causing degradation of the environment. Local people benefit as employees in the local hotels and lodges and in the transport sector.
Stage 4: Most hotel, bungalow and restaurant owners are from outside the local community. Money begins to flow out. Large developments are implemented without regard for regulations. Large hotels and organisations promote international tourism, and profits stay in the country of origin. Tourists contribute small amounts of money by buying souvenirs. Water supplies and the environment become endangered and developers fear for the future. Local residents may begin to resent tourists.
Stage 5: Degradation of the environment sparks fears of a decrease in the volume of tourism and prompts calls for action. Remedial action is slow to take effect, and the degradation continues. The local community has benefited all along, but control has been taken over by outside developers, who may decide to abandon the area and move somewhere else.
On preservation as the end of life
Preservation is something I have mixed feelings about. On one hand, historical and natural heritage is important and should be celebrated; I love the feeling of being somewhere with rich stories from years past to tell. The act of preserving something, however, oftentimes kills it and drains away its soul.
Take Toledo, Spain, the former capital of Spain, a city of incredible historical and cultural significance. It’s filled to the brim with tourists with about 87% of locals working in the services industry and most of the rest in construction. There’s no trace of local life on the streets even though 83,000 people live there, probably concentrated in the outskirts of town. In 2009 when the economy tanked and tourism was on a decline, unemployment doubled to 62%. For all intents and purposes, tourism and preservation killed the city. Being there is like being in an artificial place created for your amusement. Like Disneyland.
Steve Mouzon, one of my favorite bloggers recently wrote an article about preservation that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately.
We know how to preserve artifacts, and have gotten pretty good at it. It can be time-consuming and expensive, to be sure, but it’s not impossible. And if the tradition that produced that artifact is now dead, then we’re unlikely to get any “more where that came from.” So if we love that artifact, then our only choice is to preserve it.
But what about preserving a tradition? If it is a living tradition, then we have two choices: We can either preserve it in its current state, or we can preserve its life. To preserve a living thing in its current state, you have to kill it. If you would have wanted to preserve me as I was at seven years old, for example, you would have had to kill me and then embalm me because I have now transformed into someone quite different from the person I was at seven.
Historic districts preserve traditions in their current state by killing them. As a matter of fact, historic districts should be thought of as “architectural formaldehyde”.
So how can we compromise between preserving the traditions and artifacts we hold dear to us while also maintaining their life? Instead of sticking with formalized styles based on tradition, we need to celebrate and value the living culture of places by providing ways for travelers to “go native.” I do believe that certain important monuments should be preserved in their state, and I’m glad that certain important organizations like UNESCO are moving towards more progressive techniques of preservation that emphasize the involvement of local communities.
Very few local governments, however, are aware of the overarching impact of their decisions during the planning process. Especially since the most vocal and influential stakeholders oftentimes don’t represent the local population as a whole; tourism dollars are not distributed evenly at all. It’s hard to erase development from the past that comes to haunt you in the future.
I recently wrote this in the Vayable blog, but I like it, so I’m going to publish it here.
Whenever people ask me why they should take Vayable tours, I always talk about the idea of authenticity. Wikipedia defines authenticity as “the truthfulness of origins, attributions, commitments, sincerity, devotion, and intentions.”
In the modern world “authenticity” can mean almost anything. It can mean identifying with “alternative” lifestyles and tastes; it can mean being effortlessly cool; it can mean being all natural without artificial flavors or packaging. Sometimes things trying hard to be “authentic” actually actually end up becoming laughably inauthentic. Things that mean anything actually end up meaning nothing.
To us, authenticity equates to a sense honesty - the things that people do in their daily lives, that they enjoy, when no one else is looking. Oftentimes, these are the things that are most telling, most beautiful. Take this royal cremation ceremony in Bali that my friend Michael was fortunate enough to participate in. From the chaotic ceremony itself to the onlookers quietly watching from the sides, you can see into the soul of the people and the culture.
I love seeing the eyes of professional tour guides light up when we explain the concept of Vayable. “You mean instead of the sights that everyone has in their list, I can show people what I like to do?” someone once said to me during a guide vouching interview. As travelers, we oftentimes don’t know what we want, and some of the best Vayable tours feature guides who do not compromise on what they show travelers because they know their city best.
When we go to a faraway place, we want to eat la comida típica, but much of the time restaurants that serve this type of food have huge placards on storefronts beckoning to tourists with their “authentic” fare. The prescriptivism involved in trying to preserve the “authenticity” of the food makes it bland and soulless. Every single time without fail, the low-key neighborhood haunt that’s been a local destination for generations will be much, much better. Explore the tapas scene in Barcelona with a local chef instead of going to some place with a flashy sign on La Rambla.
The tourism industry as a whole is really bad at figuring out what people want; take the prevalence of double-decker bus tours as evidence. So we challenge you to put your afternoon or day into the hands of someone else and trust them to show you their world. At most, you’ll have the time of your life. At the very least, you’ll gain a better understanding of the world around you.
If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.
Today was YCombinator Demo Day, and those words have never been so personal and so true. We owe our growth to the gifts that our guides have to share with the world - their lifelong passions that they are able to monetize through our platform. What makes me happiest about our being profitable is that other people are making even more money doing what they love.
As a whole, we are indebted to so many people who have mentored us, given us the benefit of the doubt, and helped us with projects. That filmmaker that believed in our cause and made a beautiful short for us. That engineer who helped us with international payouts. Past contributors who worked the trenches with us. Hopefully we can repay all these people by creating something that will make the lives of many others better.
I owe the fact that I had the strength to take the risk and join Vayable to emotional support provided by friends and a certain loved one (whom I will always owe my life to). So no, if you built a successful business you didn’t do it yourself. Everyone who believed in you and helped you, knowingly or unknowingly, made it happen.
Tick tock. The pressure is on.
Sweet are the uses of adversity
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;
And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in every thing.
- Shakespeare in As You Like It.
I got the last three lines of this made into a wall decal for my room. I like it because it’s about resilience and seeing the best out of the worst situations. To me, it’s also about creativity and being inspired by the things around you, no matter how inconsequential they might seem. We all need to notice things more.
About three weeks ago, I moved away from Hayes Valley, one of those “modern neighborhoods” of San Francisco that had to basically rebuild itself after the earthquake. Even though there are certain pockets of sorrow, it has developed from an anemic jumble of high end boutiques and mediocre eateries to a lively gathering spot in the short time that I’ve lived there thanks to one of the greatest interim vacant land use projects I’ve seen so far.
The little village of pop-up restaurants, food carts, and community hangouts that makes up the Proxy has given Hayes Valley a much-needed cultural renascence. Two of the best coffee roasters in the city, an outdoor beirgarten, a truck whose sole purpose is to sell meat, amongst other things. Some of our tour guides are even running their bike tours from that spot. Because there is no dedicated seating space associated with most venues, everything served from the Proxy is designed to be taken on the go, which results in people milling about various nearby public spaces eating ice cream or drinking coffee with their friends. I only wish that the shipping cargo containers were more aesthetically pleasing.
Another one of my favorite Hayes Valley projects is the Hayes Valley Farm. I believe in principles of permaculture design and love their mission, but going to the farm always leaves me with a slight sense of alienation from other people. Everyone tends to the Earth, and sharing is a central motif, but oftentimes I think farmers seem to have some disdain towards the others - the consumers. Maybe it’s not as bad as this short suggests, and it’s probably the aura of not wanting to touch dirt that I give off. I am saddened that this project is slated to end this year with the development of (albiet much-needed) new housing.
More and more specialty shops have been opening up - travel necessities, a Spanish food shop, a French gourmet shop, a meat shop, and so forth. These types of operations are inherently inefficient and don’t benefit from economies of scale, but the niche nature of each venue creates a sense of connectedness between the different businesses because each is reliant upon the others to exist. There needs to be a level of density and diversity for people to do the one thing they do well and are passionate about. On your way home, you can very conveniently walk into five shops to buy your meat, flowers, vegetables, cheeses, and coffee.
In places where the population is less dense, there tend to be big box retailers trying to meet all your needs and engaging price and resource wars with one another. It’s anti-community oriented, and every commercial entity just ends up catering towards the average person rather than each maintaining its own sense of character. That is why the suburbs always seem so soulless to a city person.
I am going to miss Hayes Valley and feel slightly remorseful about abandoning my rent-controlled apartment, but I’m excited to see what it will evolve into. Plus, I have plenty of reasons to go back ;).