Piaw Na invited me to his home for Sunday breakfast. Piaw, his wife and two sons live in a basic ranch on a quiet street, which in Sunnyvale puts it in the million-dollar range. Maybe more since the property has a grandfathered in-law apartment where his Mandarin speaking in-laws live. Piaw came to the United States from Singapore in 1988, “If you’re going to do computer science, you’re going to do it in the US.” Since graduating from UC Berkeley, Piaw’s been a software engineer with a variety of Silicon Valley start-ups. His cool and rationale temperament translates to every part of his life. When his physician discovered allergies in 2009, Piaw bought his house, stripped it of carpet and curtains, and created a hard-surfaced, minimum dust environment. When the drought became a concern, he pulled out his landscaping and installed artificial turf. Piaw’s lawn is surreally green.
When Piaw develops an interest or expertise, he researches it, applies it to his own life, and then writes a book about it. So far, he’s written four books: managing start-ups; finding Silicon Valley jobs; hiring a financial advisor, and bicycle touring; how-to’s on topics Piaw has mastered.
Like all of us, Piaw’s perspective on the world is filtered through his particular experience. For over twenty years his focus was on start-ups and bicycle touring, the subjects of his first two books. He guided cycle tours for small groups. “Lonely Planet is useless for cyclists. It’s all about the destinations, not the places in between. Cycling is about the places in between.” His start-up work focused around San Jose, last generation’s epicenter of tech action. “Now, all the start-ups are in San Francisco. The younger generation is willing to take public transit and wants to live more densely.”
When I asked Piaw about the real estate inequality in San Francisco he offered a fresh perspective. “There re 80,000 empty units in San Francisco, many bought by foreigners as vacation homes or to keep money out of totalitarian states. The US is the only major country that lets non-citizens buy and own property with all the same rights and guarantees as citizens.”
Now that Piaw is a parent and consultant, his focus is changing. He used to plan cycle trips every two to three years. “Parents become boring people. You can’t subject little people to what adults choose to do.” Although Piaw doesn’t know when his next trip might be, he showed off the four-seat tandem bike that the whole family rides.
Last year, Piaw was diagnosed as pre-diabetic. Since his doctor could hardly tell a man who cycles 10,000 miles a year to exercise more, Piaw lost twenty pounds. “Asians get adult onset diabetes at twice the rate of our Caucasian counterparts. The theory is that we had later exposure to industrialized sugar. But there are few studies. That’s a pet peeve of mine, why medical research focuses on the white male.”
Sounds to me like a good topic for another book.
How will we live tomorrow?
“It’s very clear that the future of transportation will be the electric car, not the bicycle. Density here will have to increase – we are too constrained. The only choice is more density. Eventually, demand will form for real public transportation.
“We will not solve the climate problem until it is too late. If you look at models in the past, they have been too conservative. We’re going to see an ice-free Arctic within a few years. Skiing will be obsolete in thirty years. The waters will rise in San Francisco Bay. I don’t believe for a minute humanity will do anything about it. There is too much pressure on developing countries to provide their citizens a middle class life.
“There are good things. By the time my son is sixteen the streets will be safer. There will be no geriatric drivers; driving will be automated. Taxis and truckers will lead in automated driving, insurers will see how safe they are, and charge much more for traditional driving cars.”