Books in May 2019

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Ruined By Design: How Designers Ruined the World, and What We Can Do to Fix It
Mike Monteiro

Monteiro doesn’t mince his words, and his fire and conviction come through loud and clear. Designers and the decisions we make in the course of our work wield more influence and affect more heavily on people’s lives than we think, even though it may not always feel that way. 

“A designer uses their expertise in the service of others without being a servant. Saying no is a design skill. Asking why is a design skill. Rolling your eyes and staying quiet is not. Asking ourselves why we are making something is an infinitely better question than asking ourselves whether we can make it.”

The book cites many worrying examples from the Silicon Valley juggernauts (Twitter, Uber, and not surprisingly, Facebook were in starring roles), and puts into perspective how real and serious the implications from our design work are.

Why has this happened? Moving fast and breaking things. Lack of diversity (psst, not every unexpected outcome is an edge case; just because it isn’t applicable for you doesn’t mean that it is an edge case). Lack of experience. Design education has not been sufficient and robust to prepare us for the work in the real world. Newer design disciplines have barely been defined, but now they are taught and taken as truth (or best practices). 

Fight.


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Loonshots: How to Nuture the Crazy Ideas that Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries
Safi Bahcall

I read the book over two loan periods; not because it was a long read, but because I only got to it days before it was due. I’m not sure if the staggered reading was the cause, but I found the first part of the book much more interesting than the second half. 

Loonshots. Two types: Product-type (P-type) loonshots where advancements are centered around a product’s capabilities and technologies (faster, bigger, smarter!), and strategy-type (S-type) loonshots where advancements are preemptive responses to market needs, and where they revolve around how a product is shaped, monetised, and marketed. 

To reach what Bahcall calls a Bush-Vail balance (named after Vannevar Bush who headed the Office of Scientific Research and Development in WWII, and Theodore Vail who was the former president of AT&T), organisations should aspire to accomplish the 4 rules. They are: 1. Phase transitions (deliberate separation between the franchise groups and the loonshot groups); 2. Dynamic equilibrium (treat both groups equally, and create a seamless exchange of ideas and knowledge between the two); 3. Critical mass; 4. Raise the magic number (the optimal number before the group descends into unproductive and costly politics).

I found the magic number bit most interesting.

(Goodreads)


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Bad Call
Mike Scardino

It is good to take a break from reality by reading about other people’s realities. 

(Goodreads)


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Design for How People Think: Using Brain Science to Build Better Products 
John Whalen

This was one book that I held great expectations for, but sadly, it was also one that ultimately fell short. 

What was good: The Six Minds

What wasn’t: The book felt repetitive in many parts and it got too full of questions, literally. My first recollection of this book was that I read more questions than I read insights. Now, unless I’m reading an interview guide, I prefer my thought starters to not end with a “?” all the time. 

(Goodreads)

Books in April 2019

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Open Up: The Power of Talking About Money
Alex Holder

Money is indeed a tricky topic. Talk about it, and you risk coming off crass, a show-off, or materialistic. But let’s not kid ourselves, money matters underpin many of the decisions we make day to day and as a result, affect our lives. 

Holder is all for talking money, and I must say she makes pretty convincing cases. She made the argument that more than our genes, we also inherited spending habits and financial behaviours from our parents. There may not be a scientific basis to that hypothesis, but I can definitely see some parallels between how my parents and I treat money. 

I also liked reading about the people she interviewed on their $$ woes and considerations. Holder mentioned that talking candidly about money with a friend who shared similar spending habits made her more receptive to money advice and suggestions (the if-he-can-do-it-it-must-be-doable effect), and I found myself again in total agreement. 

On salary transparency, I say hell yeah. The power of information goes a long way. And if that helps to bridge the salary gap between genders, which I believe it will, then hell double yeah. I’ve shared numbers with a couple of friends, and it is empowering. 

Ultimately, talking money may cause you a little social discomfort, but not having an honest conversation about it with yourself and whoever you share your life with is probably more detrimental to all other aspects of your well-being. 


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Future Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age
Steven Johnson

In 2019, it’s likely that peer networks are no longer a new thing. But I think most of our (really, my) understanding of peer networks still revolve around media distribution and consumption. I wish I had read this book in 2012, the year it was published. Reading this made me feel that I spent the better half of the last decade not fully understanding and appreciating the mechanics, influence, and power of peer-driven networks beyond the p2p file-sharing industry (oops). 

In the hierarchical model (what Johnson calls the Legrand Star model), the control and power sits with a small and centralised group of people. The flow of information is linear, restrictive, and stifled by selfish agendas. In contrast, the peer network is driven by a productive web of interconnected networks, where decisions are made collaboratively across the entire network. The result is better, more inclusive outcomes for the community served by the peer network.  

The peer progressivism concept is explained less generally and more convincingly in anecdotes across the various areas of government, business, technology, and communities — the maple syrup incident, the role of incentives in cultivating a robust and diverse innovation culture, Porto Alegre’s participatory budgeting


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Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine
Gail Honeyman

I found out about this book Lisa Congdon who raved about this book on her Instastories, and got the e-book from the library and finished it that same day.

(A little sidetrack — I absolutely love that it is so easy to loan e-books from the library. Props to whoever made it possible at NLB. Overdrive is the default app for downloading loans, but I use Libby, which is also by Overdrive, and that app has a better syncing and reading experience. If I could send all my Kindle books to Libby, I would.)

This is the first fiction book that I read in what feels like a super long time, and definitely the first piece of fiction for the year. Sometimes I wonder about the person who used to read exclusively fiction.

I love fiction for the worlds it sends me to and for the worlds that it opens up for me. This one brought me to a little suburb in Glasgow, and let me in on the strange secrets of people (imagined ones, but I’m sure, inspired by real ones).

🥰

Books in March 2019, Part 2

UX for Lean Startups
Laura Klein

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Lean startup or not, it is more than likely that few design teams have the luxury of time. If you are not new to UX or design and have been keeping a somewhat conscientious tab on learning, you probably don’t need to read this book. I did anyway, just to let you know that you don’t have to. 🧐 

It did drive home several points for me (your mileage may vary) and while these aren’t new insights, it’s good to be reminded: 1. User research need not be a mammoth task; be clear about what you want to achieve and don’t boil the ocean; 2. Qualitative research helps create hypotheses and narrows down what to test; 3. Experiment, test, and iterate; set up a cadence for continuous discovery and design. 


Measure What Matters
John Doerr

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I’m going to be brief here and say that I like what I hear and read about OKRs.

I liked this book too, and though I’ve read slightly negative reviews about how this is just a book of case studies (which truthfully, it is), I enjoyed it because of them case studies. Stories are more engaging, and it is easier to believe them. However, I shall also acknowledge that stories are often flawed, misremembered, glorified collections of details and incidents. Doesn’t make them less memorable. 

The concept of OKRs is straightforward. Make a goal or an objective, then put in place activities to achieve it and metrics to measure these activities. Reviewing them is simple and impartial — were the key results achieved? While the book talks about implementing OKRs on an organisational level (I very sincerely wish that they really do help with strategic alignment and focus like the stories here mentioned, because it makes me hopeful), I think personal OKRs would be a good substitute for new year resolutions. I like that it is a goal and a plan -in-one, so you can’t make one without the other.  


AI Superpowers
Kai-Fu Lee

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I don’t know enough about artificial intelligence, and I want to know what lies beyond sensationalistic headlines and hopeful high-level discussions. And, this is a great book to start acquiring that knowledge. There is a lot to know about AI as well as its development in past and present technologies. Its role in the future products and services can’t possibly be overstated, given how pervasive technology is in our day-to-day. 

But the part I enjoyed most was reading about how China came to be a major player in AI and digital technologies. The country’s rise to being a digital and data powerhouse did not come by sheer luck. China’s first internet boom in the 1990s yielded copycat companies (Wang Xing’s Xiaonei and Meituan, Charles Zhang’s Sohu etc), and the fierce competition amongst these companies and their other copycats meant that only the fittest would survive. They learnt what worked and what failed with Chinese users, and continuously iterated and localised their products and services. “Every divergence between Chinese user preferences and a global product became an opening that local competitors could attack”, and Silicon Valley’s reluctance to adapt their global products (eBay, Groupon, Google) for Chinese users precipitated their demise.   

The government’s campaign and support for mass entrepreneurship and innovation + the emergence and subsequent ubiquity of internet-enabled mobile devices in China in the late 2000s and early 2010s = enabled companies and enabled users. Tencent’s angbao move / attack into the mobile payments space was very smart! On a local note, I wonder if Grab’s angbao campaign during this year’s Chinese New Year had similar intentions.  

Ok, back to AI. According to Lee, most of what AI is and will be in the near future is based on what has already been existing in the AI world. Breakthroughs in AI research will be harder to come by, contrary to popular media representation. The implementation of AI is the innovation. Lee mentions 4 waves of AI: 1. Internet AI (data, machine learning, and algorithms to serve up more accurate and relevant content/recommendations); 2. Business AI (Leveraging huge structured datasets to identify weak features or recognise correlations, and predict or execute outcomes); 3. Perception AI (OMO — online-merge-offline — environments where data generated and collected in the digital space is used to inform our offline and physical environments); 4. Autonomous AI (your lovely robots and self-driving cars). 

However, as AI revolutionises manufacturing and production, it will “deprive poor countries of the opportunity to kick-start economic growth through low-cost exports”. Even within developed economies, the gap between companies or industries with a foothold in AI and those without will continue to widen, as the former leverages AI-enabled productivity advantages and benefits. This may have the worrying effect of driving down prices and eliminating competition. 

Lastly, and one that hits closer to home, is the concern about jobs. The author mentions two different kinds of job losses: one-to-one replacement (your job is lost because technology can do it better); and one that results from ground-up disruption (essentially, your job no longer exists because the capabilities involved are no longer necessary). 

In the last few chapters, Lee laid out a blueprint for “human coexistence with AI”. Among his suggestions, I found the stipend for social investment, where individuals are rewarded for socially-beneficial activities, intriguing and frankly, a possible one (though the reward matrix would be a tricky one). 

Ah, this is more a book summary than I expected it to be. Good for forgetful ol’ future me.  


The Coddling of the American Mind
Greg Lukianoff, and Jonathan Haidt

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Do you remember how old you were when you were first allowed to venture outdoors alone? I remember evening sessions at the playground when I was in kindergarten, and the adult supervision was a handful of parents or grandparents of a couple of kids also at the playground. Sometimes my mum would be there, but most times, she would be back at our flat. We would get summoned for dinner, or when chores awaited. My parents were pretty laid-back, but to be fair, Singapore was and is still a very safe country, and accidents at the playground and elsewhere were far and few between.  

Despite knowing that the crime rates in American cities have declined, it wasn’t a great surprise to learn from the book that American kids and teenagers don’t quite enjoy this kind of freedom (well, it is all thanks to all these crazy shooting incidents). It also wasn’t surprising to read that freedom beyond physical whereabouts and activities has also increasingly been curtailed. Even in Singapore, I’ve noticed that parents have gotten more watchful and anxious; expectations have gotten to be rather plentiful in an ever-increasing number of areas. With expectations, I would say, come anxieties. With anxieties, comes overprotective and overindulgent “helicopter” parenting that ironically has failed to ready our youth’s attitudes and mindsets for well, real life. 

The book talks about three great untruths that have contributed to this coddling: 1. The Untruth of Fragility (What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker); 2. The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning (Always trust your feelings); 3. The Untruth of Us Versus Them (Life is a battle between good people and evil people). To elaborate the effects of these untruths, the authors raised various events that happened on American campuses in the past decade — pointless witch hunts and actual violence arising from a “common-enemy” mindset in reaction to presumed threats to emotional “safety”, resulting in a call-out culture and a lack of rigour in exploring diverse and necessary viewpoints. This is a worrisome self-perpetuating cycle.

While the book is ostensibly about American youth, I found the ideas and the described effects relevant for my non-American and non-youth life. A particularly sobering one is the “concept creep” of the meaning “safety”. Where it used to refer to physical safety — and it is never wrong to ensure physical safety — the term “safety” has now expanded to include “emotional safety”. That doesn’t sound too bad, does it? But “emotional safety” is fraught with subjectivity and personal biases. It also sounds very much like an echo chamber to me. Expecting others to maintain your “emotional safety” is training in fragility, and that will make you weaker over time. 

“A culture that allows the concept of ‘safety’ to creep so far that it equates emotional discomfort with physical danger is a culture that encourages people to systematically protect one another from the very experiences embedded in daily life that they need to become strong and healthy.” 

“When children are raised in a culture of safetyism, which teaches them to stay ‘emotionally safe’ while protecting them from every imaginable danger, it may set up a feedback loop: kids become more fragile and less resilient, which signals to adults that they need more protection, which then makes them even more fragile and less resilient.” 

Needing some Guang 光

I watched Guang 光 on a half-whim, half because while I didn’t know I was heading to the cinema and I didn’t know about the film until today, I had thought of watching a movie and had checked for possible can-watch movies just before I went for my driving lesson. 

Guang is a story about a pair of brothers, one of whom is autistic and has a penchant for collecting glasses (the drinking type). Based in Kuala Lumpur and directed by Quek Shio Chuan, the film was an authentic blend of sentiment, humour, empathy, and love. I particularly loved how natural the dialogue felt, and also the bigger-than-life scenes of Guang’s elation because I’m pretty sure/hopeful that they are representations of how the protagonist felt. 

This is the second movie I’ve watched this year, the first being Captain Marvel a couple of weeks ago. It seems a little ridiculous to compare these two movies because they are as different as they possibly can get, but there I was, minutes after the lights went back on, evaluating both shows against each other. 

Captain Marvel is a huge show. It’s big on everything — the budget, the actors, the plot, the intergalactic setting etc. There are aliens and super powers and supreme intelligences. Humans are the hapless beings, serving only to foil a plan, or squirm as hostages, or die as collateral damage. Agent Fury no doubt realised that because look who decided to set up a superhero task force. That’s fine, superhero shows have a place in cinema and I’m waiting to book tickets for the next Avengers movie. 

Watching Guang, on the other hand, made me feel less helpless, more hopeful, and more assured of our tenacity. It’s a small story set in a small cinematic world, but the introspection it provides beats any intergalactic alien war.