March 30, 2021

Naughty AI

Sometimes AI is naughty. Last night I set up Siri to control appliances. I gave them Russian names - who dare hack devices that show up in Cyrillic. The lamp is called Solaris (an alien planet from a Polish novel/Russian movie). The fan is called Buran (snowstorm).

Appliances with Russian names

As I was waking up this morning, drowsily I asked Siri to Play some music”. It starts playing the Soviet anthem. No need coffee anymore.

R/musictheory discussion on why it sounds so good. 

March 26, 2021

The Great Bitter Lake Association

The ship stuck in Suez Canal reminds me of an incident from late 1960s. At the start of the Six Day War, Israel quickly captured one side of the canal. To prevent Israel from using the canal, Egypt blocked the canal with debris. 15 ships got stuck in the part of the canal called the Great Bitter Lake. The ships were from opposing Cold War camps - West Germany, the UK, the US, Bulgaria, Poland etc, including one traveling from Singapore to the UK carrying toys for Woolworths (1960-70s SG used to manufacture many consumer goods).

Overlooking their idealogical differences, they formed a sort of pseudo-country called the The Great Bitter Lake Association. They organised parties and sports events to keep up the morale. They even issued their own postage stamps. It’s an interesting insight into how humans try to make the best of any situation. I heard about this some years back on a Radiolab podcast.

The Great Bitter Lake Association

February 20, 2021

The Land of Big Numbers

These days we can only travel via books or movies. This collection of short stories is by a WSJ reporter who was based in China. Her stories are extrapolation of news stories that you may have heard from China - a farmer building an aeroplane from junk, passengers stuck in a new metro station, sudden craze for a fruit or food etc.

Podcast interview featuring the author

December 10, 2020


This one is thin and small, but it’s important. When you had something you wanted to tell someone, you would write it down on a piece of paper and paste this stamp’ on it. Then they would deliver it for you, anywhere at all. But that was a long time ago …” The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa.

For me, sending letters is just an excuse to send cute stamps. Many years back when I used to travel in Chinese trains, almost every third person was a stamp collector. The stamps may wonder why no one loves them anymore.

November 18, 2020

The little phone

I was fond of my iPhone 5s. I continued using it as as a travel phone even after I got a newer model. It felt nice holding it - little but solid. Along the way, I switched to a dual sim phone. I just didn’t have the heart to store the little phone in some dark drawer so I passed it on to an acquaintance who was having trouble with her phone.

Little Phone

A few days back, I was pleasantly surprised to receive a note from her. It read:

You would never know

How much I love your phone

How my phone has been supporting my life Etc

I think I need a book

To tell the world my story

At first I assumed that it is too little, how can it help me deal with my huge problems

But surprisingly it works

Thank you sir!

It has been a long hard year. It is nice to receive such a message.

People Vietnam
November 10, 2020

Travelogues and travels

For some years now, I get Vietnamese travelers message me sharing their experiences or looking for experiences beyond sightseeing.

I feel one reason is the accessible local language publishing. Vietnamese publishers are always on the lookout for interesting stories. A traveler can tell her stories from her own context. Such long-form writing also captures a richer range of situations and feelings compared to what one can say on a vlog or Instagram post. The reader gets inspired to seek out similar experiences. I think Taiwanese (who got inspired by San Mao) or Japanese people who love to read will relate to this. I just hope that this lasts for a while, it’s probably more profitable to sell translations of foreign authors.

For many of us in English regions of Asia, a local traveler will have a harder time convincing a local publisher- most travelogues in our bookshops tend to be from international publishers featuring British or American writers and written from their cultural and social lens. There is limited space for perceptive travelers in our midst to put out their stories and inspire others.

Vietnam Books