you were born an artist

As my brother Kan likes to say, good art comes from mundane daily practice. This is an unequivocal fact. Kan is quite the artist, and most people only get the opportunity to see his final products, but there is a perk to being his brother. I got to see the practice that went into those pieces. Before any of those pieces came to be, I got to see the pile of papers on his desk on which he practiced, letter by letter and font by font, over and over and over and over again. Also, he uses the word “mundane” somewhat liberally here, because the acts of practice and continual improvement are actually far from mundane, in fact they are the most significant sources of joy for an artist. In a society so focused on results, many people misunderstand this point. They think that acting is about landing a role in a major film, painting is about having your work featured in a famous gallery, writing is about winning the Nobel prize in literature, and music is about playing to an audience at iconic venues. Of course, they are all wrong. Art is simply about showing up on a daily basis, and relentlessly pursuing to better ourselves. Everything else is just fluff.

There’s something so satisfying about practicing and getting better. Performing can be fun too, but not as much. Don’t tell anyone, but I actually don’t even like performing all that much. I do it anyway because my performances seem to give joy to some people, and I’m always happy to contribute joy to others, but after every performance I can’t help but think, “whew it’s over, now I can go home and do what I actually love, which is to practice.” As Karl Paulnack urges, we musicians must take our practice very seriously just as doctors would take their education seriously. If you’re a doctor, someday, someone will be brought into an emergency at 2AM, and it will be up to your knowledge and skill to save that person’s life. Well, if you’re a musician, it’s just as likely that some day a broken soul might walk into your concert at 8PM, and whether they go home whole again will be based purely on how well you do your craft.

Anyone who has recently pursued any form of art knows all this. However, recently, I have had several conversations with others that led me to wonder how many people have forgotten about the joy of creating art, and tragically settle for a never-ending spiral of consumption. Just consider that a friend of mine took one look at my apartment, which consists of just the bare necessities, and asked me, “Are you happy? I could not live like you, I need to enjoy life.” Societal influence is strong on this one. So many people have been led to believe that somehow there is a correlation between spending money and enjoying one’s life, and such a belief just turns people into slaves of money.

It would be one thing if people’s decision to stop creating art is a conscious one, but that is far from it. We are all born artists, and cultural influences suck the inner artists out of us. So much of this has to do with the society’s love of money. It isn’t out of randomness that I blog a lot about personal finance, although there don’t seem to be too many other pianists who blog more about finance than pianism. But I do it consciously because if you don’t control your money, your money will control you. And when it does, it makes it that much harder to have the mental energy to create good art.

I love this commencement speech by Neil Gaiman.

Creating your best art is your purpose in life. Are you getting farther from it? Then something about your life ought to change.

Kombucha is bullshit

Ok, despite the title, this post is not really about kombucha. I honestly don’t care for it that much, but if you like it, you do you. The beauty of life lies in enjoying the things that bring us joy, and if kombucha is your thing, so be it.

But this post is about something much larger and much more important, which is that I need to call bullshit on this “get results quick” school of philosophy that leads to more people resorting to stuff like kombucha, the Atkins diet (and its more recent cousins like Keto diet, Paleo diet, or any diet really), electrolyte water, penny stocks, bitcoins, some magical fitness machine that you can get for $99.99, or whatever else that claims to improve some aspect of you or your life with ease.

By the way, this kombucha thing is not new at all. My parents recall a time in Japan, before I was born, when it went by the name of “kocha-kinoko” and was all the craze. I point out its name because if you ask a Japanese person what “kombucha” is they’ll think of a completely different drink that has that name. Of course the Japanese eventually realized the ridiculousness of it and pretty much nobody in Japan consumes it today, but how funny that history repeats itself many years later here in the US. That’s actually one main reason I love studying history, because often times my knowledge of history gives me the insight to observe current events and see its exact parallels in the past. I guess it shows that despite all of the advancements we have made in society, fundamentally, humans haven’t changed. When I saw bitcoin prices go up uncontrollably not because people believed that it was inherently undervalued and worth investing in, but simply because they thought that as long as they buy it now they could sell it to some greater fool in the future for a higher price, I immediately thought of the historic assett bubbles I had studied about: the Dutch tulip craze, the housing bubble and bust in Japan 30 years ago (repeated in the US 10 years ago), and the dot-com bubble of early 2000’s.

When it comes to nutrition, the science is pretty clear, so can we all just stick to the objective findings of research and not get fooled by all the misinformation out there profiting off our desire for quick-and-easy schemes to get healthy? Nutritional science boils down to pretty simple but important key ideas: eat lots of fruits and vegetables, eat everything else in moderation, and do those consistently. It’s not rocket science.

So with that, here’s to a happy and healthy you!

PS I need to confess that I actually love sweets. But I consume them in moderation, and it turns out that small desserts bring me just as much joy as big ones!

Why trade happens

Recall that a few weeks ago, I learned that the $5 Trader Joe’s bags are being sold for $25 in Japan, and that really fascinated me. We’ll be revisiting this topic from time to time.

Today, I want to focus on one aspect of this phenomenon: “Why Trade Happens”.

By the way, it is a very hot day in Southern California, and I am writing this from the comfort of an air-conditioned coffee shop. I paid $3 for my decaf ice-americano and a seat at the cafe. Why should you care? Because fundamentally, trading my money for coffee is not any different from all trades that happen globally at massive scales every single day, which leads me to today’s key point: Trade happens because it benefits both parties. Once you understand this, you start to see the world a little differently.

In my case, I gladly traded my $3 for a table in this cafe, because to me, this comfortable spot where I can work on this hot day was way more valuable than the three dollar bills in my wallet. However, for the coffee shop, the opposite is true. To them, the $3 was more valuable than the coffee, so they gladly gave up their cup of coffee away in exchange for my $3. The trade made both of us better off, and we can rest happy that both parties contributed to the betterment of the other. Isn’t that beautiful? And just imagine, trades like this happen everywhere, every day, at unimaginable scale that makes the entire world’s economy function.

Access to the world’s market has been so important that it has lifted more people out of poverty than all of the well-intentioned non-profit volunteer organizations put together. There are tremendous advantages that come to allowing trade to happen freely; it brings costs of goods down, it makes us more efficient, and lives are improved everywhere. It is no accident that when governments try to intervene or restrict trade (or even worse, regulate how much of what should be produced and how much they should be sold for), the economy tanks. No economist is surprised that the Soviet Union has collapsed, and North Koreans are going hungry. I am amazed to see how there are so many well-intentioned but ignorant people today who have forgotten the brutal history of socialism’s collapse, and think that somehow the world will be better if it returns.

But there is a caveat to all of this. Our challenge is to carefully consider policies so that the market can continue to function effectively, while intervening in areas in which the market fails, such as when we act in ways that seem to grow the economy but actually doesn’t (like our increasing dependence on fossil fuel), or when we undermine important aspects of society that have tremendous long-term benefits but the free market will fail to provide because it benefits the entire society as a whole, and not one company (like providing high-quality education for everyone , or mandating a universal health care). Even though it may seem like drilling for oil and cutting back on education is a cheap and easy way to pay back some of our federal deficits and grow the economy, the growth that occurs in the short-term must be balanced with the long-term harm. Most people I know, even Trump supporters, at least agree with me on the point that it’s pretty difficult to grow our planet’s economy if we destroy the planet.

As you can imagine, the trading of Trader Joe’s bags are not too different from my trading my money for a cup of coffee. The bags are sold in Japan for $25 because those trades make both the buyers and the sellers better off, at least in their eyes. Who are these buyers and sellers and why do they act the way they do? We can discuss that in a future post, but today, I want to finish off by pointing out that there exists a common misunderstanding in which people assume that certain things are expensive because the sellers of such goods are evil. You know what I’m talking about if you’ve been surprised to see those $4 bottled-water or $18 sandwiches at airports. But before we make such judgements of merchants who sell these goods and services at outrageous prices, we need to remember today’s key point: trade happens because it benefits both parties.

Some people feel annoyed when they see water being sold for $4 at the airport and blame the merchants for such evil doing. Their anger is understandable because after all, not everybody pays attention in an economics class, but misplaced. Don’t think that the airport stores are charging that price because the store-owners have bad intentions of stealing your hard-earned money. Think again. Even if you refuse to buy that water, there are plenty of other people who are perfectly willing to buy them. I know that there are such people, because if there weren’t, the stores would have lowered the price a long time ago (or have really old water that they can never sell). So is the store to blame for this? Or are they simply charging a price that the buyers are willing to pay?

Another example that is a little more significant and relevant in recent political and economical discourse is the rising price of housing in certain places, namely New York City, coastal California, and Washington state where this is becoming a serious problem. Sometimes, landlords and developers are blamed for such high prices, but that comes from the same misconception. If you have understood today’s point, you should know that rent is simlar to other goods in that it becomes high when there are many people willing to pay it. You cannot blame the landlord, then, for charging that market rate. Why would they charge $500 when there are people willing to pay $1000? If any of us were in their shoes, we would do the same, so it is not right to criticize them. So who is to blame for the high cost of living?

The good news is, economists have studied this topic pretty extensively, and they actually know of data-driven solutions to make housing more affordable to people of varying levels of income, which is a topic I write extensively in this post (in short, remove rent-control, and remove zoning laws). The bad news is, emotionally-charged political debates that disregard everything that econmists have figured out, and politicians who play to people’s ignorance and emotions to get more votes, get in the way of implementing such solutions.

One big motivator for me to keep writing posts like this is to educate more people about economics, because we are all voting citizens. Let us not forget that politicians implement unhelpful policies because citizens ask for them.

Celebrating Humanity

I am not one to pay too close attention to the news. Some of my academically-inclined friends accuse me of not trying hard enough to stay informed about the world, and while they certainly have a point, I also think that for an average guy like me, paying too much attention to the news gives me a very false view of the world because of the biases that exist in the news industry.

But I have been noticing an interesting trend about the recent Ebola outbreak in Congo which was declared over this week.

In a nutshell, the trend is this:

  1. Humans have dealt with this recent outbreak so-freaking-amazingly well compared to the previous Ebola outbreak (2014-2016) in West Africa.
  2. News coverage of the topic was way down compared to the 2014 outbreak.

That’s not surprising given that news tend to have a negative bias, but can we all take a moment to celebrate the human progress?

The death toll of the previous outbreak was over 11,000 people. This time it was less than 30. Stuff like that don’t happen by chance or luck. Our progress is a result of collaboration between societies and organizations. We have dealt with ebola because we have the knowledge and technology to do so, and we have made it a priority to do so, from governments funding and expediting the ebola vaccine research and clinical trials, to reacting quickly to visit even the most remote of villages to administer the virus on first sign of an outbreak.

Of course, fighting the ebola virus isn’t the only area in which we have made a significant improvement.

Extreme poverty in the world (measured by income adjusted for inflation) has diminished to a half of what it was 20 years ago. It’s hard to notice this for those of us who live in the United States, because $2/day and $4/day both seem like extreme poverty to us, but this is a significant improvement in the quality of lives of people all over the world.

Casualties from war and battles have declined dramatically. During the World War II, the death toll was over 200 per every 100,000 people. That number is just 1 today, a whopping 99.5% decline.

Less children are working. Crime is decreasing. More girls are getting educated. Less people are enslaved. Nuclear weapons are getting disarmed. Deaths from natural disaster is declining. Planes are crashing less. We are harvesting more food per area of farmland. Share of people living in an elected democracy is increasing. More kids are getting immunized. Literacy rate is as high as it ever was.

Does that mean that we’ve solved every problem? No. But are we on the right track? Absolutely. I cringe when my pastor would make a commentary on something he saw on the news and say something like “in times like these, we need the love of Jesus more than ever.”

Precisely what does he mean when he says “in times like these?” The data is overwhelming. Now is the best time we have ever lived in, and it will be even better tomorrow. Humans collectively have realized the power to solve problems that were impossible to solve in the past. With that same power also comes the power to destruct just the same, but that is not the direction we have decided to move in. Data does not lie. Together, we’ve chosen to improve the world. That gives me hope.

On monopolies and antitrust laws

“Amazon is getting too big, it’s like a monopoly. I’m scared that they are going to take over the world. Other sellers cannot compete with them, and that’s not good.”

That was a concern my friend expressed recently. I was reminded of it again today, because the authorities of the European Union apparently have the same misunderstanding of what constitutes a monopoly. Today, the E.U. announced a fine on Google worth over $5 billion, claiming that Google’s partnerships with hardware makers such as Samsung, Huawei, and HTC to make Google’s applications the default services on the devices are in violation of antitrust laws.

Simply put, this ruling is not warranted. (Disclaimer: any views I express here are my own, and they are not of my employer, Google. For that, refer to their official blog.)

Antitrust laws exist for a simple reason: to prevent a monopoly from taking advantage of its status to remove competition from the market. Here’s a couple of examples of what might constitute a violation of antitrust laws:

  1. If my local cable company works out a deal with the politicians to make it illegal for other competitors to enter the market, then promptly jacks up the price of its services.
  2. If Google and Apple were to secretly agree that instead of competing to offer good products at good prices to the consumers, they would both jack up their respective phone prices (iPhone and Pixel) to some ridiculous amount.

Honestly, either of the above wouldn’t bother me at all because we’ll all be just fine without cable TV or smart phones, but still, I can see that such actions could be considered a violation of antitrust laws.

Now, let’s be clear about one thing. There is a big difference between a company who gets big because it has removed competition through corruption and has broken antitrust laws, and a company who gets big because the services and the products that they provide are so valuable to the consumers that so many of them choose to use it. So which is the case for Amazon and Google?

The reason Amazon is big is NOT because they are evil and they are taking advantage of all of us. Amazon is big because everybody chooses to use Amazon, which in turn makes them profitable. Why do we all choose to use it? Is Amazon our only choice? No, of course not. We can all stop using it any day, if we wanted to. But we don’t want to. We use Amazon because they offer better prices on many goods compared to their competitors, and that is a good thing for the consumers. That is far from a monopoly taking advantage of its status to jack up prices that it puzzles me why people confuse the difference. It might suck for a store owner about to go out of business due to increased competition, but the whole point of antitrust laws is to encourage this kind of competition, not to stop it. If that store owner were to argue he is going out of business and therefore Amazon must be harming the economy, he would be wrong. It is actually good for the economy for a company who does the job more efficiently to get more of the business, incentivizing businesses who don’t do it as well to step up their game and do it better. If they fail at that, they’ll go out of business as they should in a healthy economy, and hopefully they’ll go on to do something else with their time and resources to benefit the society in another way. Fallacies in economic thinking often comes from only thinking about a negative aspect of a small part of the economy (in this case, the store owners), so let’s make sure that we don’t forget about the positive aspects on the rest of the economy, which in this case obviously includes the consumers, but also the manufacturers whose customer-base has suddenly expanded to the entire world thanks to Amazon.

When it comes to Google and the Android platform, again, it would be wrong to say that they have taken advantage of their position to the detriment of the consumers. First of all, they have not at all removed the competition, and they aren’t trying to. Android is an open platform precisely because Google’s mission is to make the world’s data accessible to anyone and everyone. There are so many choices when it comes to Android devices, from over a thousand manufacturers. The competition in this market is alive and well, and there are many affordable options for the consumers because of it. Some of the manufacturers may have agreed to a contract with Google to pre-install Google’s apps, but it’s not as if they were forced to do so. If they thought that Google’s apps were bad and it would’ve been better to install other apps instead in order to sell more of their devices, they would have. Why didn’t they? Their choice. Customers also don’t have to use these manufacturers’ devices. So why do they? Again, their choice. And I didn’t even mention the competition from non-Android (which basically means iOS) devices, which is also a very healthy competition, so really nobody needs to use an Android device if they all choose to use iOS. Why don’t they all switch to iOS? Again, their choice. (Starting to see a pattern here?) All this competition is good for the consumer, and plenty of choices exist as we speak. There’s nothing confusing here, and I can’t put it any simpler. Despite the competition, customers are still choosing to use Google’s applications because of their high quality. These apps provide them with something valuable. When’s the last time Google Maps helped you navigate and avoid a traffic jam? It happens all the time for me. And recently at a sushi restaurant in Tokyo, I saw a Korean girl use Google Translate to figure out how to say her favorite fish, then proceeded to put in her order in Japanese.

My coworker told me about a time he witnessed a family at an airport attending a sick child, and a nurse happened to be nearby to help. They didn’t speak the same language, so they used Google Translate to communicate. Were they forced to use it? No, they chose to because it was useful and it provided them with something they needed.

Me llamo Shin. Soy músico.

During a recent conversational class, I learned to introduce myself in Spanish.

“Me llamo Shin. Soy músico.” (My name is Shin. I am a musician.)

This got me curious, because any English speaker would be tempted to say “Soy un músico” instead, but apparently, it’s not quite correct to add the article when speaking about my profession.

So during a 15-minute break with my band in between our shows, I asked my Spanish-speaking bandmate why he thinks this is so. His answer was so beautiful that I have to share with you:

“When you say ‘I am a musician’, you are just that, one musician. But you see, you are not just a musician. So you say ‘Soy músico. I am musician.‘ When I tell you ‘I am musician’, I’m heroically professing that I embody music. All musicians are within me, and I am within all musicians.”

I’m pretty sure he just made that explanation up, but nonetheless, I was inspired by how romantically he thinks about his language.

The economics behind Trader Joe’s bags: An Introduction

I went grocery shopping today at a nearby Trader Joe’s store. As Joel (my cashier today) was ringing up the items I had picked, he asked me in typical Trader Joe’s fashion, “any exciting stuff happen today?” By the way for anyone who hasn’t been to a Trader Joe’s before, their cashiers tend to strike up conversations with you.

I mentioned to him that I learned some Spanish phrases on Duolingo this morning, and asked if he had tried the app too. It turns out that he uses it for learning Japanese, and he started talking to me in pretty good Japanese: “watashi wa nihongo wo hanashimasu. Trader Joe’s no baggu wa nihon de ninki desu.” (I speak Japanese. Trader Joe’s bags are popular in Japan.)

Clearly that second phrase is not something he learned directly from Duolingo, so he must have taken his learning a bit further, and I was very proud of him for that.

Then he proceeded to tell me about an interesting phenomenon: the $5 Trader Joe’s reusable bags are being sold in Japan for $25. “There is a black market for Trader Joe’s bags in Japan,” he claims.

Of course the “black market” part is a joke because there’s nothing illegal about me buying a few of these bags and selling them in my home country, but I got curious so I searched on some Japanese peer-to-peer shopping sites, and sure enough, these bags are indeed being sold in Japan for around $25.

This fascinated me, because as an educator at heart, I could not stop thinking about what a great lesson in economics this makes. Any curious student of mine, when told about this phenomenmon, would have asked me: “Well why does a $5 Trader Joe’s bag sell for $25 in Japan? Can I get rich by starting a Trader Joe bag business in Tokyo?”

It turns out that answering this seemingly simple question requires a solid understanding of some of the most important economic concepts, such as “supply and demand”, “scarcity”, “free market”, “division of labor”, “tradeable vs non-tradeable goods”, “exchange rate”, “purchasing power parity” and many more.

So let’s delve into those topics in future posts. But first, why should you care? For starters, economics is really interesting, but more importantly, I believe that a firm grasp of economics is essential for any citizen of a modern society. Not only are we affected profoundly by the economic decisions we make in our lives, we are also voting citizens, and as such, we ought to understand the philosophies behind each of the fiscal and monetary policies we support. The field of economics, contrary to popular belief, is not just about money. At its core, economics is about making the best use of limited resources to improve society.

choose the difficult road

During a recent music gig, a girl who looked to be a teenager came up to me and asked, “is it hard to become a musician?”

At that moment, I could have simply answered the question and tell her that yes, it is probably difficult and requires much more work to be a musician than most other jobs, but I wondered about why she was asking the question in the first place, so I asked her, “what would you do if I told you that it was difficult?”

After a short conversation, I found out that she loves to play the guitar, and her parents think that making a living as a musician is difficult, so she should pursue other things instead.

I see two main beliefs that drive this kind of thinking.

  1. You should not pursue something if it is difficult.
  2. Pursuing one career takes away an opportunity to pick up another down the road.

The only problem I see here is that both points above are completely wrong.

Often, it is very tempting to take the easy road. In fact, a lot of what we do on a daily basis is driven by how much short-term reward we can get for doing as little work as possible. For example, many people (including me) like to get drunk for the good feelings we get in return, however temporary they may be. We also like to satisfy our hunger by consuming junk food. And we attempt to garner “likes” on social media by posting an over-dramatic representation of some status update based at least in part on our lives showing off how great our lives are, or taking pictures of food that we didn’t even make ourselves, as if we somehow deserve the credit for the culinary art.

All these things give us instant gratification, but they make us worse off in the long run. They make us feel good just in that moment, but that feeling does not persist, and we even pay a price afterward. In the case of alcohol and junk food, the price is obviously our degrading health. In the case of posting things on social media, our price is the empty feeling we feel on the inside from desiring so badly for social approval while doing nothing of value to others.

It turns out that the things that are truly worth doing, like the things that change the world for the better and the things give us a sense of purpose, are all difficult things. So even though we all succumb at times to the desire to pursue the easy road, we must not give up completely by making that our default action. Whenever we come across a juncture (which is pretty much every single day), we must intentionally choose the difficult path that takes more work but also leads to more growth.

And as for the second point, no, we do not necessarily diminish our chance at one career by pursuing another, and sometimes, we even gain more, as our philosophy slowly builds to help compound our overall growth which opens up more opportunities. Besides, with the current pace of societal changes, there isn’t a single job that exist today that is guaranteed to exist twenty years from now anyway, so we might as well embrace the changes and take joy in all the learning that we must do continually. It is even becoming the norm for people to pursue multiple careers throughout their lifetime. Personally, I know that I have lost nothing by pursuing music. In fact, music taught me some of the most important lessons that allowed me the chance to develop my skills in other areas. Music helped me internalize that the only way to get better is to work to get better. It turns out that this applies in any other field. So just by knowing that and letting that conviction be the guide for daily action, you will have a leg up on anyone who believes that there is some magical shortcut in life to achieve more with less effort. There isn’t.

Just show up

I happen to live and work by the gym where Kobe Bryant works out. He works out quite early, and today he showed up at 5:45AM for his morning workout. My coworkers tell me that this is nothing unusual for Kobe, and he’s been doing it since his high school days. Mind you, he is a retired player, but hey, Kobe is still Kobe, and I think the fact that he still shows up in the morning to this day says a lot about his attitude and philosophy toward life in general, not just basketball. Now I feel like a coward lecturing to my students about the importance of work ethic, when my daily practice sessions don’t start until much later in the morning (if it starts at all). Apparently, I still have a whole lot I must learn from truly dedicated people like Kobe. He makes me look like the laziest person on the planet, and that’s probably why he makes millions and I don’t.

By the way, here’s a little nugget of insight I’ve discovered over time, for anyone who thinks that practicing is too hard and unpleasant; practicing is actually not hard at all. What’s really difficult is to do the Step Zero, which is to show up for practice. Or in my case, to sit myself down in front of the piano. Once I can overcome that initial step, the actual process of going through the practice is not as difficult.

New York City

When I stepped foot in New York City, I felt a strange sense of familiarity. Here I was, in a city that I had never been in, yet it seemed as if the scenery in front of me was something I had seen before. I even felt like I had come home.

It could be because New York City is similar to my hometown in many ways. Just like Tokyo, you encounter thousands of pedestrians on a daily basis. Many of them seem to be in a rush to get somewhere. They are “strangers” to you, as in they are people whose only connection to your life is that they once walked by you in a busy city street. If your life were a movie, they are part of the “extra”. But let us remind ourselves that in their lives, we are the extra. Just strangers walking by. Most will stay strangers, yet, should you get to know some of them through a stroke of life’s luck that bring you together, you quickly find out that you were not strangers at all. After all, we are all human, and as such, we share much in common. We all seek meaningful relationships, we strive to do the best given our life’s circumstances, we worry about our future, and we ponder about things like the meaning of life and our place in society.

I wrote this piece, “New York City” for my album “Portraits”. The album is called that because these are pieces that portray some aspects of my life that have meant a lot to me.

You can listen to the rest of the album on Spotify and iTunes.