This is the second part of my previous post.
A Fresh Appreciation of History and Historians
Last year, I wanted to read about the Ottoman Empire, so I started going through an audiobook from The Great Courses about the Ottoman Empire. The audiobook is a lecture series comprising of forty or so one-hour lecture. The Ottoman Empire began in1299 and lasted until the end of World War I in 1918.
A story from the Ottoman Empire series where Tamerlane annihilated the Sultan’s military got me interested in Genghis Khan and his descendants, so I followed through my Middle Ages discovery by reading two books by Jack Weatherford, ‘Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World’ and ‘The Secret History of the Mongol Queens’.
Genghis Khan was a fascinating leader. He was quite the visionary. Engineering innovation, gender equality, cultural diversity, religious tolerance, stable political system, postal and transport network, foreign trade (the Silk Road), record-keeping, and banking system were some of the things that Genghis Khan managed to set up for his empire before his death. He really thought about almost everything required to keep a legacy. However, his descendants did not have the same unyielding commitment to maintaining the same legacy for very long. Genghis Khan’s legacy ended with the end of the Chinese Yuan dynasty, ~150 years after Genghis Khan’s first established the Mongol Empire.
The power that Genghis Khan was willing to give to women, especially his daughters, is fascinating to read. Mongol men fought international campaigns far away from home, but all the domestic matters back home were handled by the women of the court. The Mongol Queens were perhaps more influential than the male Khans in making decisions that allowed the Mongol Empire to thrive. Mongol Queens were tough cookies, and many of them were savvy political players. Jack Weatherford’s second books unravelled some historical anecdotes of the Mongol Queens.
Discovering the end of the Yuan Dynasty made me wondered what happened in China afterwards, during the Ming and Qing dynasties (the last two dynasties before the Chinese Republic was formed), so I picked up another lecture series from The Great Courses series. This audiobook provides an excellent brief overview of from the period at the end of the Qing Dynasty in the late 1800s until the opening up of China to the world in 1972 (when President Nixon met Deng Xiaoping in Beijing).
Behavioural Economics and Human Psychology
I bought Michael Lewis’ book ‘The Undoing Project’ a few years ago, but I totally forgot that it existed. This book is about the friendship of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, and how they rattled the accepted dogma among old-school economists by asking simple questions about how human psychology really works in the real world, outside economic theories. For his work, Daniel Kahneman received the noble prize in economics in 2002. Unfortunately, Amos Tversky had passed away many years before Kahneman was awarded his noble prize.
For further reading, you can read Daniel Kahneman’s book ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ although this book is not fun to read. The book is a compendium of Kahneman’s 30-years worth of research in a single volume. I suggest you read Richard Thaler’s book ‘Nudge’ first before getting into Daniel Kahneman’s book.
Richard Thaler is also a behavioural economist, whose work is inspired by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. For his research, Richard Thaler also received a Noble Prize in economics in 2017. Thaler’s concept of ‘nudge’ is being used all around you to influence how you do things without you probably ever realising.
This book is one of the recommended further reading by Thaler is his book ‘Nudge’. ‘The Design of Everyday Things’ is a popular book. The book was first published in 1988, and it has gone been printed almost every year since then. Somehow the original content of the book is still highly relevant even today. The book is useful for designers, engineers, techies, entrepreneurs and everyone who needs to convince other people to commit significant actions (or part with their money) without having to change their habits.
Threading Together Education, Technology, and AI Future
This section is for misfit books that (I reckon) have a strong connection between them, but I can’t quite find the right title for the theme. ‘What School Could Be’ provides exemplary case studies from schools across America about how the gift of education if done right can affect young people. The education that the next generation will need to have a fighting chance in the world of ‘Capitalism Without Capital’.
‘Capitalism Without Capital’ explains the advances in data and technology in shaping how new products require very little labour and eventually those workers without the right skills and the right ability to constantly learning might get left behind and resent any change — and the consequences will not be pretty.
In his 2018 book, Kai-Fu Lee explains the condensed history of artificial intelligence (AI), and why all the AI jargons we hear a lot recently in the media are not sure signs of significant progress towards artificial general intelligence (AGI). What different today is that the computers are massive and powerful, so they crunch more data with fewer resources. Lee’s main message is that the world is finally primed for an AI take-off — a long-awaited take-off which had been on the mind of many AI researchers for many decades.
In the final few chapters of the book, Lee beautifully reminds the readers of the essential ingredient all humans need to thrive in the AI-powered future (and this remedy is probably not what you think it is). This book is one of the must-reads from 2018.
Big Government is Not That Bad
Michael Lewis latest book ‘The Fifth Risk’ takes the readers into a journey across America — showcasing anecdotes from some colourful American civil servants doing important (and often undervalued) jobs that keep the US in full working order. Who maintains and monitors the missile silos that house the US nuclear arsenals? How many lives does the advanced prediction algorithm of the National Weather Service save each year? Which department provides the cashflows to rural farmers all across America? How much money does the Department of Energy invest in renewable energy research? The books elucidate the answers to some of these questions and some more.
‘The Entrepreneurial State’ breaks down the economic arguments of investment by state actors. As a former advisor to Obama’s White House and a professor in economics and public policy, Mazzucato has plenty of experience in implementing policies, dealing with political machinery and analysing the economic metrics. In this book, Mazzucato attempts to induce a paradigm with some compelling arguments that the state is an integral part in innovation, and that goal posts can often tumble quicker when governments are your partners.
I Read Some Fictions Too
The fiction genre I enjoy reading is very selective, so this is a work in progress. I tend only to read novels that are telling Chinese diaspora stories because that is why I enjoy. Tiffany Tsao’s book was the most memorable one because the plot of the novel was so weird yet the characters were familiar to me. I wrote a short reflective review after finishing the book, although I think my review has one too many spoilers. Here it is:
Under Your Wings is a fascinating fiction written by a closeted entomologist. This book is the author’s way of peeping into what life inside a formicarium (read: ant farm) habituated by some crazy rich stereotypical ethnic Chinese in Indonesia could be.
Not only the opulence of the characters that got me hooked, but also all the flawed characters in the story. Every single character in the book was imperfect. Excessive wealth was the only cocoons that shielded them from the reality of how broken the characters were inside, whether or not they could willingly accept this notion.
You could tell from the very beginning of the book — not this time, no happy ending for you. Fortunately, the mystery arc of the book would keep you hanging and entertained until the end.
This book could only have risen from closely scrutinising, poking around and mingling with dozens of real-world characters. Some little details about how some Chinese Indonesians behaved were eerily familiar and cringeworthy.
All the geeky reference about insects blended nicely into the story. Was Estella the cocoon Gwendollyn left behind as she metamorphoses into a butterfly? Or was it the other way around? Were they ever two different individuals? Were they really sisters or alter egos? Perhaps Gwendollyn was forced to tell the Estella’s story while being half-dead, just like how cordyceps (a type of fungus) would control the brain of their host insects to reproduce?
In the end, nothing mattered — just like a formicarium that got tipped over would be. Everything is gone as if nothing had happened — the cycle of life continues.
I had to reread Kevin Kwan’s trilogy after watching the movie ‘Crazy Rich Asians.’ The books are more interesting than the movie. The underrepresented element of the Hollywood production of ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ is the multiple strong female characters in Kevin Kwan’s books. Each book in the trilogy presents the readers with multiple female characters that complete the Kwan’s story puzzle.
The multiple dimensions of ‘Asian-ness’ that each female character represents are very complex, and it might or might not be interesting for those who are not familiar with the culture of the Chinese diaspora (especially the one that took up roots in South East Asia). When all the characters in Kwan’s books are considered together, they form a fun-to-read ‘insider’s ethnography’ about people with Chinese ancestry in South East Asia (Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia in particular).
I also think the second book is not as exciting as the first and the third book. I wish there would be more books based on one or more Kwan’s characters soon. I cannot get enough of the character Astrid Leong — the British actress, Gemma Chan, gives the perfect impression of this loveable character on the big screen.
If you manage to get this far, thank you for reading. May you have a productive book year ahead! Also, let’s be friends on Goodreads if you are keen to let me know what you are currently reading.
The second part of this post is here.
In mid-2018, I decided that reading online articles that got pushed to the top of my social media feeds and online media portals I frequented was not for me anymore. It was time to focus my reading on new topics with different (more robust) perspectives. I focused on reading and listening to paid contents in various formats: e-newsletters, printed newsletters, literary reviews, podcasts, opinion pieces and audiobooks.
With the help of audiobooks and a dedicated weekly time block to read, 2018 became an incredible year of book-reading and discovery for me. Listening to audiobooks is different from reading books, some people argued, but I disagree. You can read Daniel Willingham’s opinion about this issue here. It was challenging to enjoy fiction books using audiobooks though, so I got them in physical copies.
The 100 books that I ended up consuming could be categorised into a few distinct topics of personal interest for 2018. One notable thing from this experience was that I discovered a new appreciation of history books and historians. Also, I found a systematic way of discovering new books I like, and how I should budget my time and my book acquisition for the following year.
Another lesson I learned is to be sceptical about all new bestsellers and books that Bill Gates recommends :D. Bill Gates and I have a very different preference for books that are joyful to read.
Economics, Inequality, Debts and Crashes
Finishing Piketty’s book ‘Capital in the Twenty-First Century’ was really what spurred me into reading more and more books throughout 2018. From then on I kept digging into different books that could help understand the past and recent economic-related issues, especially those in the United States.
Capital in the Twenty-First Century
Capital in the Twenty-First Century has 17,922 ratings and 1,583 reviews. Jeremy said: Given the amount of hype and…www.goodreads.comhttps://www.goodreads.com/book/show/18736925-capital-in-the-twenty-first-century
Edwards’ book ‘American Default’ is an eye-opener. Before reading the book, I didn’t know that the United States technically defaulted on its debt during FDR’s administration in the 1930s. The debt default of the United States under F.D. Roosevelt was also one of the five crashes in Scott Nations’ book ‘The History of the United States in Five Crashes’.
Adam Tooze’s book provides an excellent closing to my year reading about popular topics on economics in 2018. His historian take of the recent economic crashes in the last decade produced a holistic timeline of events from all around the world that contributed to the last great crash in 2008 and what happened the subsequent years after. Yanis Varoufakis’ memoir ‘Adults in the Room’ complemented Tooze’s book by providing a deep glimpse into what happened during Varoufakis’ short stint as Greece’s finance minister during the turbulent period of Greece’s negotiation with the European troika.
Tooze also provides the readers with a reminder that not everything that was wrong which caused the big crash in the past had been fixed — many of the global systemic weaknesses are still in place until now. Perhaps the next big crash will leave an even more significant impact than the last painful one.
Political Tribalism and The Age of Trumpism
In 2018, I realised that I had missed out big time from not discovering Francis Fukuyama’s books any earlier. After enjoying Acemoglu’s book ‘Why Nations Fail’, I had to find out about Fukuyama’s books which he mentions many times as a reference. ‘The Origins of Political Order’ and ‘Political Order and Political Decay’ were incredible books. No doubt I will revisit these books many times in the future.
Francis Fukuyama also happened to release a new book in 2018, titled ‘Identity’. In the book, he described identity politics in the wake of recent events like Brexit and Trump. In his book, Fukuyama briefly touches on the historical contexts of identity politics, and why recently identity politics has become a thing again.
I read too many books about Donald Trump and his presidency. I got sick of reading about Trump at the end of the year. The notable books are ‘Identity Crisis’ and Bob Woodward’s ‘Fear’. From what I have read, the main conclusion of many people is that Donald Trump is a loss-case egomaniac with the emotional intelligence of a five-year-old. I hope his term as a president won’t go into a second term because it will be quite depressing having someone with that kind of mental capacity as the leader of the free world, whatever that means. Apart from the fact that Trump is president, the world is still one piece two years later since he became the president, so perhaps all things will turn out well shortly.
Madeleine Albright’s latest book ‘Fascism’ is an excellent primer about the topic. Using her academic knowledge as a political science professor and the former secretary of state under Clinton, Albright provides a handy framework drawn from the lessons of history to spot how a new fascist leader might rise, and why the societies should prevent any such event from happening.
Jon Meacham’s book ‘The Soul of America’ provides a soothing narrative that the United States of America had seen and survived many worst events in the past, and the country will come out bruised but probably unscathed despite what our recency bias is telling us that things are terrible in the United States.
“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” — Abraham Lincoln
Tweaking The Daily Grind
My new daily habits for 2019 are inspired by these five books I read in 2018. I recommend reading them in the following orders if you are interested.
James Clear’s ‘Atomic Habit’ is practical, and the book is inspiring. My reading goal for 2018 was successful partly because of the atomic habits I had built around my reading. Clear provided with a smarter framework to improve my atomic habits. I have been using the strategy to consistently spend a few minutes learning a new foreign language every day besides reading and writing.
Cal Newport’s ‘Deep Work’ is about how to be ‘in the zone’ while doing your work or while practising your daily atomic habits. Newport’s anecdotes and his research (he is a computer science academic) into the topic of deep work are quite fascinating to read.
Angela Duckworth’s ‘Grit’ is all about the mental attitude one needs to be an accomplished learner.
To improve your ‘insanity’ (thank you Luke JD for pointing out the mistake, I am going to keep the word :D) at the workplace and to sustain a well-balanced personal and professional life, I highly recommend these two books. The first one ‘It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work’ is by James Fried and DHH, the two superhuman founders of Basecamp with a very high emotional intelligence. ‘Give and Take’ by Adam Grant is about the personal philosophy of giving more to get the most out of life.
The Leaders, The Contrarians
I also spent a great deal of 2018 reading memoirs and biographies of different notable personalities; some are still alive while other some others have passed away. I conclude that all leaders are contrarians and the effective ones have a great deal of compassion for other people. A jackass with power but no empathy will never amount to a good leader, no matter how rich or how good his oratorial rhetorics are. I think Ray Dalio is an exception, but maybe that is because his personal qualities are deliberately not captured in his bestseller book ‘Principles’.
The life story of Chip Gaines (whose memoir I discovered by chance) was one of the most exciting books I read in 2018. I have come to a new sense of admiration towards Theodore Roosevelt, Jimmy Carter, John McCain, James Comey and Satya Nadella — American leaders from different generations of the past and the present. Non-American leaders like Lee Kuan Yew, Jack Ma and Muhammad Yunus have different qualities to them, but the contrarian traits are also evident.
As I am editing this post, I realise that all the books below were the stories of men. I shall make a more conscious effort to read books of this genre by female authors in 2019.
Greed and Capitalism
Two new books in 2018, ‘Bad Blood’ and ‘Billion Dollar Whale’, tell us two incredible tales of ego-driven greed, and how far some people are willing to go to for their vanity. Look forward to these two books being made into Hollywood movies in a few years.
Mariana Mazzucato suggests some remedies for the current capitalist insanity. In her book ‘The Value of Everything’, Mazzucato makes a compelling case to her readers to consider a different way of appreciating and questioning who really creates values in the economy. Is it the glorified entrepreneurs who copy their ways of doing everything from the Silicon Valley? Or is it the bright and highly influential bankers of the world? Do the big, bad and lazy governments of the world need to go away and let the market runs effectively?The Value of Everything
The Value of Everything has 166 ratings and 22 reviews. Dan said: Mazzucato’s observations and conclusions won’t…www.goodreads.com
In the past three weeks, I had the opportunity to use Sketch at work, albeit only for creating wireframes. I am not a qualified designer, and I am a ‘fully-stacked’ developer ?.
Early last month, the team trusted me with a UX redesign challenge (which I accepted) after a convincing pitch about how a particular implementation of a new UX can support the new growth direction of the business.
This post documents a few learning points I have encountered while doing so.
Stationery list: paper, pencil, sticky notes, masking tape, and some fancy wireframing stencils. No laptop! I didn’t touch my MacBook Pro for one week (I should do it more often).
In late February this year, I purchased these stencils from UI Stencil. The mini shopping spree turned out to be a useful one. The stencils were very useful for the challenge.
These fancy stencils inspired me to use my hands and different part of my brain more than otherwise, and they also encouraged me to step away from the familiarity of my keyboard and touchpad (maybe this is just me being biased?). Check out UI Stencil website for more stencils and other goodies.
Why Sketch for wireframing?
Before this, I had always felt that wireframing using Sketch is overkill and that it should be reserved for creating high fidelity UI mockups. Tools like Balsamiq or draw.io seem like less scary options than Sketch if you are a developer like me.
It is quite simple for me — Sketch makes me happy. Wireframing tools are supposed to be quick and straight-forward to use, but using something like Balsamiq is not any easier than using Sketch.
PS: You do need to know some basic Sketch tricks.
Wireframing on paper
I started by printing a few copies of printable grids from UI Stencils (https://www.uistencils.com/blogs/news/tagged/download) since I know the scales on my pixel ruler and stencil kits would be compatible with the printed grids.
It was very liberating working with paper and pencil. I could reiterate different wireframe layouts. Wireframes on paper were great for communicating your idea to other team members. Also, I had no attachment to the paper mockups. I recycled the paper in the bin without regret if a particular draft was not suitable
I used the common breakpoints as the starting point of my grid system — 1024px, 768px and 375px (see below). The grid system would work well for this particular use case (we’ll know soon ?). Have you tried experimenting with something like this before? Please let me know what you think.
From paper to Sketch
I translated the grids that I had drawn on paper into a Sketch document. There must be a faster way of laying down the initial grids, but I didn’t know any better. The screen sizes I was working with were from the default Sketch template.
Getting the nod
I printed all pages of my wireframe including the different screen resolutions on A3 paper before stitching them together using masking tape and sticking them on the glass wall in my office.
Laying out the wireframes this way was more convenient than going page by page on a computer screen. I also attached a link to InVision project to the cards inside our Trello board to keep track of revisions. I used Post-It notes to add notes about specific interactivity. I also used Post-It notes explain why the individual section appeared in a certain way.
The next fun and colourful bits can start next.