Books in March 2019, Part 1

It appears that I’ve been mostly writing about books these days. I reckon that it is better than not writing, and writing these little summaries helps me with my reading and information retention. Not to mention, it is also a great motivation for me to actually finish my books instead of leaving them unloved at 63% — 4 books currently suffer from this neglect, and it is not because they aren’t any good; it’s all me.

• • •


The McKinsey Way
Ethan M. Rasiel

This is quite a dull book. If you are interested in how McKinsey consultants worked in the 90s, maybe this is worth a read.

I’m not sure how much of the work culture and practices still apply in present times (it’s been a full 2 decades), but I sure hope the hours have gotten better. I’m not against long working hours; I’m just not a fan of the glorification of the practice — if you need a badge of honour, let it be the outcome of your long hours. 

Anyway, if you aren’t sure how smart McKinsey consultants are, this book will die trying to convince you.

Understandably, the approaches mentioned here are better elaborated in newer and more current books publications. The Waterfall chart, though, is pretty cool. 



Born A Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood
Trevor Noah

I didn’t know that I knew nothing about South Africa. After reading this book, I now know that I know next to nothing about South Africa (the little that I know now, I read about in this book). 

I kept hearing Trevor Noah’s voice as I read this; it was as if I was listening to this as an audiobook instead. 

I enjoyed this thoroughly, and along with Noah’s very exciting childhood, I learnt a little about the country and its history along the way. Especially interesting to read about was the use of language (intended or not) to sow / maintain discord between its people. 

(Off-topic here, but reading really does expand your understanding of the world. Then you get to decide what you want to feel about that.)



Shane the Lone Ethnographer
Sally Campbell Galman

This wasn’t the book I thought it was. I’ve always wanted to conduct ethnography, but I was framing the activity as one for design. While ethnography has been used in design research, its roots are in anthropology, and this book is mostly written for a non-designer audience and more for academic researchers. Nonetheless, it is a solid introduction into ethnographic research and methods. 

This book is easy to read and I appreciated the brevity its comic-book format provides. Its chapters about data collection, analysis, and writing are relevant for anyone doing research! Be structured, be disciplined, and start analysing and writing early and consistently. Sounds like common sense, does it? Oh, just you wait.


Textbook, by Amy Krouse Rosenthal

Once in a very, very long while, you read something that changes you. This book did, but I can’t really tell you how exactly. Not yet, anyway. 


Textbook is a peculiar book. Throughout the book, via cues and questions, Rosenthal invites you to interact with her. Share a thought, a memory, a moment, or a photograph. You can even win a pie! The interactions are facilitated via text messages; being from the other end of her world (and before knowing about Rosenthal’s death), I did not and merely browsed others’ contributions on the book’s accompanying website. 

But it is not these invites to interact that make this a peculiar book. It is one of many contributing factors — the book is sectioned into different subjects (Geography, Science, Music etc); the book runs the gamut of content, from poetry to riddles to art to slice-of-life recollections; it has no particular narrative; there is quite a number of tables and charts… It is unique, funny, thoughtful, thought-provoking, real, and surprising. It is part Yoko Ono’s Grapefruit, and part Miranda July

• • •

When I finished the book, I went into Goodreads to mark the book as read. I hadn’t read any of the posted reviews of the book previously, but I loved the book and I wanted to find some comrades (the average rating was/is >4.0, so I knew I would find some solidarity). 

The first review I tapped into saddened me, not for the reviewer’s views, but because it mentioned that Rosenthal was diagnosed with cancer soon after Textbook’s publication and had passed away from the illness. It also mentioned that Rosenthal was the author of a NYT’s Modern Love article, You May Want To Marry My Husband. I remember reading that article when it first came out; it was a poignant and heartbreaking read. It was one of those things you read and never really quite forget. It was a love letter you never would hope to receive, but wish that you would be a worthy recipient if things ever go crap. 

• • •

Textbook is the kind of book I hope I would write if I ever do write one, and when I do, I hope that I would remember her imagination, her sense of wonder, and her guts to imagine this book. 

It’s hard to say what this book is really about, except it’s about life. That sounds a little lame, so I shall share a couple of pages from the book. 

• • •

I borrowed the book from NLB, but have since purchased the book. I bought 2 copies, one for myself and one for one of you who happens to be reading this.

In the spirit of Textbook, I’m gifting a copy to the 7th person who shares a little about their last or most memorable taxi conversation (I’ve always been a fan). I will leave the book in a Popstation locker; you will need to be in Singapore to collect the book, but no address will be needed. An email address will be required. 🙂

Some (Maybe New) Things I Noticed in Japan

A trip to the country always yields interesting discoveries.

This time around, I paid attention and started a note on my phone that I updated whenever I saw something new, interesting, and/or smart. I wasn’t as assiduous as I hoped I would be (habits take a while to form, no?), but here’s a few that caught my eye!

Suica in Apple Wallet

Adding a Suica card into Apple Wallet

You can now add a Suica card into your Apple Wallet!

There was one trip-changing thing that happened when I travelled to Japan a couple of weeks ago. I was browsing Instagram stories, and someone I followed (thank you!) who had just returned from Tokyo posted that it was now possible to add the Suica card into Apple Wallet*.

A Suica card is a stored value debit / IC card that is mostly used to pay for transport, especially if you’re a tourist. For the Japanese and folks who are living in Japan, the Suica is used to pay for all sorts of expenses at a wide variety of merchants including convenience stores, restaurants, vending machines etc.

Suica card within Apple Wallet

The onboarding is an easy and straightforward process, and some steps are similar to how you would add a credit card to Apple Wallet. Here’s how, and if you don’t feel like reading, you simply have to set your phone region to Japan (Settings > General > Language & Region). Then launch the Apple Wallet app and follow the instructions on-screen to add the card.

When adding the Suica card, you’re asked if you would like to set it as the Express Transit card. If you agree, then all you had to do when making payments is to tap your phone on the IC pad. It is like VISA payWave, but without the phone authentication.

After I added my Suica card, I used it everywhere. While I had a Suica card before and knew that I could use it to pay for stuff in Japan, I never really gotten around to using it. Why the difference? One explanation was that I mostly used my phone to pay for most things in Singapore, so it was just a natural behaviour for me.

Japan may still be a predominantly cash-based society for now and the move to cashless transactions may be moving more slowly there, but I believe that that is set to change in the near future. Suica has seen year on year increase in usage, and July 2018 saw a record 200 million transactions. I think that the increasingly robust ecosystem of merchants and partners, together with the seamless onboarding, usage and recharging experience are bound to accelerate their momentum.

Vending machines for drinks now come with snacks

Vending machine with drinks and snacks

Which absolutely makes sense, doesn’t it? Yet, we seldom find vending machines that offer both drinks and food/snacks. I’m guessing the internal feeding mechanics and storage requirements work differently for different types of food and their packaging.

This one we found offered Kit Kat and Glico biscuits, which we agreed were very good choices to accompany a hot milk coffee or tea on a cold winter morning.

Clearing a path for the ambulance on a crowded, narrow street

Nakamise on Enoshima

Enoshima is a small offshore island in the Shonan area, which is just a little over an hour from Tokyo. You cross over to the island via a 15-minute walk across a bridge. On the little island is the Enoshima Sea Candle — which is a very cute name for a lighthouse I think!

The main shopping street on the island is the Nakamise Shopping Street. The narrow and steep street is lined on both sides with souvenir shops and restaurants (the local specialty is the shirasu fish). It is a street just barely wide enough for 5-6 people abreast.

When we were leaving the street on our way back to the mainland, we kept hearing the ambulance siren but couldn’t quite locate the source of it. Eventually, we saw a number of men running, holding a sign, and clearing a path. Then a couple of moments later, we saw more men, and this time they were running alongside a small ambulance. Ah!

🙋🏻‍♂️• • • 🙋🏻‍♂️• • 🚑 • • 🙋🏻‍♂️🙋🏻‍♂️

Booking airport limousine buses in advance

You can now make reservations online and in advance! I prefer taking the bus instead of the train, mostly because it is a more comfortable journey and the bus stops right at the hotel.

Reservations can be changed up to 5 minutes before departure time, and you can make up to 3 changes. Our flight landed 45 minutes late, which meant that we wouldn’t make our initial bus. Upon landing in Tokyo and while the plane was taxiing on the runway, I went online and changed our tickets to a later bus. 👏🏼

How JAL presents its meal choices

Meal options on our JAL flight

This was how meal options on our JAL flight were presented. This was the first time I saw it, but on our recent flight to Bangkok, we also saw it used by SQ. Passengers are usually plugged into their entertainment, and when flight attendants rolled around with the meal trolleys, they had to take out their earphones and the flight attendant had to repeat themselves. Repeat that a dozen times…

This was great, I thought — and I liked having a visual of the meals too.

And the food was surprisingly very good!

Tissue pack distributors

I only saw one person distributing tissue packs. They used to be everywhere! According to this Japan Times article in 2007, 4 billion tissue packs were distributed in Japan every year. 12 years on, it seems like things have changed.

Also, I learned today that this is called tissue-pack marketing.

Tissue pack marketing

Packaged konbini eggs

Konbini Eggs

Every evening, just before we head back to the hotel, we would make a stop at the nearest konbini for some evening snacks or a quick breakfast the next day. This time, the nearest konbini was a FamilyMart.

I found these eggs while looking for a breakfast option on the refrigerated shelves, and they come hard-boiled and onsen that is essentially a half-boiled egg. That is convenience.

A Suica hack

A Suica hack

Rounding off this list is another one on Suica. On our last morning in Tokyo, we had a nice cuppa joe at Blue Bottle, and across the table was someone who has very literally added the Suica to his phone — by just squeezing it into his phone case between the phone and the case! The phone case was not fully opaque so I was privy to this rather smart hack.

If you aren’t willing to add the card into your Apple Wallet or Google Pay, this is one little trick (it seems so obvious in hindsight, as most good ideas are!) you can use.

Books in February 2019


Call Them By Their True Names
Rebecca Solnit

I haven’t read Rebecca Solnit before this, but I’m glad that’s no longer true. This is a collection of essays from the last 5 years, and the themes revolve around politics, environmentalism, bias/exclusion, and the justice system. It was refreshing to read from an unfamiliar category, and Solnit’s writings were urgent, current, and engaging. Her disdain for President #45 was obvious, rightfully so, and such a delight to read about and nod along to. 

I found these particularly interesting: 

New and old SF, the effects of gentrification, and the tragic story of the killing of Alex Nieto

Preaching to the choir as a way to build influence and strengthen solidarity through a more robust debate of beliefs and convictions; seeing the other side as the audience to reach out to and making compromises to that effect sometimes results in a dilution or betrayal of values.



Predictably Irrational 
Dan Ariely

I have read a lot on cognitive biases and norms, even when their names and their origins sometimes escape me. (It is one reason why the academic life is not for me.)

Ariely’s book relates the various experiments conducted to test and validate some of these strange cognitive challenges that so often colour our perceptions and influence the way we behave. 

Price of zero / free: Similar price reductions may induce different behaviours, when one of the reductions results in a zero-cost price tag. 

Social norms vs market norms: Money changes the way we think about things. Behaviour may be better encouraged by appealing to the social eager-to-please animal in us.  

Distrust: Once earned, perpetuates itself.

The rational and the aroused: We are different selves when aroused, and the both of us make very different decisions. 

Dishonesty: When the conditions are willing, people cheat but only to a certain extent. This extent is influenced by social influence and perception, and our “internal honesty monitor”. We treat different transgressions differently - appropriating office supplies does not set off an alarm, but appropriating $10 from the petty cash is likely to. However, our honesty or value monitor can be triggered by the mere suggestion or memory of ethics.  



Anything You Want: 40 Lessons for a New Kind of Entrepreneur
Derek Sivers

This is such a short read that it felt like a cheat book. But it wasn’t intended to be; I only realised that it was that short after I borrowed it from the online library and started reading it. 

What’s pretty amazing about this book is how compact but thorough and insightful it is. Derek Sivers founded CD Baby, an independent music distributor in the 90’s and 00’s and this is the story of what happened and his thoughts/lessons on what worked and what didn’t. A similar memoir (if this can even be called that) would had run into a substantial tome. 

Do what’s right, do what you love until you don’t. Know your customers, empower your employees (but maybe keep an eye on any profit-sharing scheme). 



Meltdown: Why Our Systems Fail and What We Can Do About It
Chris Clearfield and András Tilcsik

Highly readable, and oh-so-relevant. It is an eloquent book, and the authors have included tons of examples to illustrate their points.

We are living in a world of complexity, where activities, processes and transactions involve a network of actors interacting with one another within a web of interconnected systems. Our systems are tightly coupled, which introduces dependency and opaqueness. Which, you can imagine, can go south very quickly. 

Clearfield (perfect name for a book like this, no?) and Tilcsik articulated measures that we can take to increase transparency and reduce errors in our thinking and perception, which ultimately will improve our decision-making and guide less biased actions.

SPIES, premortem, and predetermined criteria: To ensure that decisions are based on facts, and can withstand objective validation and scrutiny.

Diversity: Because just the presence of difference is enough to change how people think (more skepticism, less comfort zone).

The “stranger” or outsider: To provide diversity in opinion, and introduce more objectivity and innovation in problem-finding and problem-solving.

Slack and transparency in systems: These can be designed.

Get-there-itis: Diagnose, do, evaluate, adapt. Do not spend all your time time in the task zone.