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 Ago.
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.
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.
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.
October 12, 2020
Racism as a predictive model
I found this text in the book “Weapons of Math Destruction”.
Racism, at the individual level, can be seen as a predictive model whirring away in billions of human minds around the world. It is built from faulty, incomplete, or billions of human minds around the world. It is built from faulty, incomplete, or generalized data. Whether it comes from experience or hearsay, the data indicates that certain types of people have behaved badly. That generates a binary prediction that all people of that race will behave that same way.
Needless to say, racists don’t spend a lot of time hunting down reliable data to train their twisted models. And once their model morphs into a belief, it becomes hardwired. It generates poisonous assumptions, yet rarely tests them, settling instead for data that seems to confirm and fortify them. Consequently, racism is the most slovenly of predictive models. It is powered by haphazard data gathering and spurious correlations, reinforced by institutional inequities, and polluted by confirmation bias. In this way, oddly enough, racism operates like many of the WMDs I’ll be describing in this book.
Reminded me of George Bush Jr. quote “Too often we judge other groups by their worst examples while judging ourselves by our best intentions.”
July 16, 2020
Everyday beauty, countries and people
In Tokyo, I always enjoy visiting the “Muji Found” stores. These stores display handcrafted objects of everyday use from around the world.
I borrowed this book by an early 1900s author who encouraged people to look for beauty in everyday objects — perhaps he was the inspiration for Muji Found.
One essay is addressed to the Korean people; the author was unhappy with Japanese annexation of Korea. It is said this essay made many denounce the author as a Korea apologist and a traitor.
Talking about Korea, Whenever I read a book about Pyongyang, I miss the cold noodles (Raengmyon, 랭면), more so in July/August, you need this dish to beat the heat.
Luckily in Singapore, I am near the mini Korean neighbourhood where a small hidden away restaurant serves this.
I will recommend See You Again in Pyongyang by Travis Jeppesen. The author gives a glimpse of everyday Pyongyang. The book is also serves as a quick history refresher on North Korea.
There is an encounter with a North Korean soldier that the author describes. He got into a casual conversation with a border guard on the North-South border. Halfway, the soldier asked the author about his home country. The author replied that he is from America, expecting the soldier to break off the conversation. The unperturbed soldier sensing the author’s discomfort reassures him “Countries are countries, people are people”.