I realize this is almost a month late, but as I am spending the majority of my time in Taipei this year I feel that it is not too egregious an offense to publish this post on (lunar) new years day.
I’m quite disappointed to have only written two posts in 2019 (including one hilariously misdated weekly update at the beginning of the year) but at the same time I’m glad to have spent more time goofing off and lazing about after a generally no good 2018. What 2020 has in store for my personal output is probably going to depend on how often my friends pester me about it.
Much like previous years, I spent a lot of time with people older than me and am incredibly fortunate to have these adults take me seriously and indulge in my curiosities. I think the different experiences and perspectives that come with generational gaps remain one of the most accessible yet underappreciated knowledge arbitrages. While parents of friends, colleagues, and older family members remain the most comfortable group for me to engage with, this year I found myself looking forward to tagging along with my parents to meet with their friends. I also ventured out to my first FinTwit meetup (Twitter is still the most underrated knowledge platform) and had a lovely time being the only college student in a crowd of kind and nerdy finance people.
My friends often ask me about these 長輩 (while the closest translation of zhang bei is “elder” it doesn’t imply that they are old but merely older) and how I seek them out and develop friendships. I never really knew how to answer beyond the usual platitudes of “Oh, he’s a really cool guy and enjoys our conversations” or “We just have similar interests”. It wasn’t until when I spent an afternoon with a close relative at a secondhand watch store that I finally realized what the secret sauce was. As he examined the bracelet of a “Hulk” Submariner, he started rattling off about how the serial number of the bracelet needed to match a specific set of serial numbers for the watch, how watches that carried those numbers had different lines of text on the dial, and how the number “4” on the bezel needed to have a flat top instead of a pointy one. I had at best a cursory understanding of his explanation but thought to myself, “man, what fun!” Each of these 長輩 have at least one child-like obsession that they are extremely passionate about and want to share with anyone that is curious enough to give them the time and attention.
Having never lived through a serious economic downturn in my adult life—and being kept well insulated and aloof during the ones of my childhood—one of my favorite questions to ask this year was about people’s experiences during the 2008 financial crisis. Certainly, secondhand experience with a heavy dose of hindsight bias does not substitute for living through actual events but it was still interesting to hear about how different people and firms deal with great uncertainty and stress. The ones that came out of the crisis relatively well off were both extremely confident and flexible in their ability and supremely humble in acknowledging their limitations and the fact that they—until they figure it out—did not have all the answers. Another commonality was that they all had strong family structures that could ride out or placate the emotional and psychological difficulties as a unit. The latter discovery led me to add a follow-up question, “what was the first phone call home like?” Hearing about the spouses and parents that provide background support for people working in an often times impersonal industry was quite interesting and added depth to simply describing “the job”.
Murakami’s asserts that one can only think differently if one reads different books, I think the same not only applies to the social sphere but is enhanced by it. The subtleties of micro-gestures, body posture, and atmosphere—ever elusive in digital despite improvements in video quality—give more nuance to the spoken word. Interactions with these 長輩 are one of the most intellectual, fun, and satisfying ways to spend my time.
This year was the first full (almost) summer that I spent in Asia since going to school in the U.S. I’ve missed the incredible livability of Taipei and look forward to spending most of 2020 here. I am also glad to have gotten to know Hong Kong and Tokyo better over the year—spending about a month in the former and seriously venturing out of the sanctuary of Ginza in the latter. All three cities remain very familiar which perhaps points to a general retreat towards normalcy and stagnation after the end of the boom years in the early 2000s.
Though not as extreme as a city like Penang, the pace of life is decelerating everywhere in Taipei outside of Xinyi district. The yearly additions of yet another new department store in Xinyi seems to be siphoning all social activity and value creation away from the periphery. This concentration seems to be mirroring the general lack of creativity and energy in the Taiwanese economy outside of the standout semiconductor industry—especially TSMC. The path forward for the city and country—barring extreme shocks to the Chinese political order—both seem destined to continue current trajectories.
Tokyo remains, to me, one of the most exciting cities in the world. Its eccentricities are vast and quality world class. My dad and I spent an afternoon trawling the watch markets of Nakano while my cousin and aunt found one of the most offbeat presents I’ve ever received (a zoomorphic painting of a cross between a salamander and a V-22 Osprey). Our family decided to spend my grandmother’s birthday at Sushi Saito, easily one of the best dining experiences I’ve ever had. Nothing quite beats seeing someone at the peak of his craft perform with such joy, being able to taste Saito-san’s food was just the cherry on top.
This year was a rather slow year in terms of TV and movies, the only two memorable experiences for me were Netflix’s Drive to Survive and the animes Mob Psycho 100 and Demon Slayer. Instead I’ve allocated more time to my newsletter, blog, and Twitter consumption. Text is still my preferred medium due to its ability to build depth and nuance but the visual medium does have many emotional and descriptive properties irreplicable by words. Tangentially, I’ve really taken a liking to the Shinkai Makato school of background aesthetic—some blend of Venkatesh Rao’s domestic cozy and mono no aware with an emphasis on urban subject matter.
I finished 38 books this year (one up from 37 in 2018) but also started dropping a lot more books midway through. This development removed the mental stress that comes with needing to finish the entire volume regardless of enjoyableness but has also compounded my liberal book buying habits. It is somewhat amusing, though, that this practice has only begun recently considering my tendency to skim or ignore assigned reading. I suspect that my introduction of tech blogs written in the Silicon Valley style—like good code: short, concise, and to the point—has slowly built up a distaste for non-fiction that is excessively flowery or imprecise.
My reading list this year largely migrated beyond the theme of international relations and (for the first time) included no books specifically on China. I think the current literature hasn’t really seen any substantial development in the past few years and the arguments seem either recycled or rather unimaginative. I’ve substituted it with reading more books in mandarin than in previous years. I found 余秋雨’s comments on growing up during the Cultural Revolution impactful but his meditations repetitive about two-thirds of the way through.
I made the mistake in reading Liu Cixin’s Three Body Problem trilogy in mandarin—he himself now pushes readers to Ken Liu’s English translation—and gave up after the second volume. I thought the premise and pacing of the first book rather good and especially enjoyed the story lines centered in the mid-1960s. I slowly lost interest as the timeline moved further into the speculative future.
In addition to Liu Cixin, Ted Chiang’s Exhalations and Ken Liu’s The Paper Menagerie were my first forays into science fiction. The stories of Chiang and Liu were usually pretty grounded in reality but interwoven with fantastical elements which perhaps presented easier material than the Three Body Problem for a new reader. Their prose was also much stronger and more beautiful than Liu’s. This is not to critique The Three Body Problem—which I think is an interesting series in its own right, not to mention its tremendous cultural impact—but rather that I simply enjoyed my experience with Exhalations and The Paper Menagerie more.
I also added more architecture and urban design books to my diet. Tom Kundig of Olson Kundig remains one of my favorite residential architects with the way he plays with the adaptable and changing nature of how we deal with space. Stewart Brand’s How Buildings Learn is I think one of the most clever books on systems thinking. It’s been a helpful guide to apply some of its lessons to other applications in different contexts such as dependency and technological paradigms or desire paths and UX design. Finally, Order Without Design was an interesting study on how economic decision making drives the ultimate shape and design of cities. Alain Bertaud’s discussion with Tyler Cowen on the themes of the book were similarly insightful and acts as a great compendium.
The other standout reads largely centered around investigating why great organizations are great and why some of them are no longer so great. Go Like Hell is about how great egos, brilliant people, and obsessive competition drove Ford to surpass Ferrari at the 1966 Le Mans. The book does a good job at showing the infighting on both sides as well as Ford’s struggle to escape its hulking bureaucracy and create a competitive car. Netflixed showed how difficult battling an incumbent actually is and how close Blockbuster was to killing Netflix. I think the book gave a lot of due credit to John Antioco’s management team for repositioning a struggling company to fight Reed Hastings. Although they ultimately failed after Blockbuster retraced its steps once Carl Icahn showed Antioco the door, his courage to cannibalize existing business with a new competitive product is commendable.
My full reading list below is chronologically listed by finish date. Bolded titles are ones I particularly enjoyed.
- Built: The Hidden Stories Behind our Structures by Roma Agrawal
- The Pacific War, 1931-1945 : A Critical Perspective on Japan’s Role in World War II by Saburo Ienaga
- A Burglar’s Guide to the City by Geoff Manaugh
- Princess Masako: Prisoner of the Chrysanthemum Throne by Ben Hills
- Tom Kundig: Works by Tom Kundig
- 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School Frederick Matthew
- Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds by Charles Mackay
- How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built by Stewart Brand
- Working by Robert Caro
- 泥步修行：破惑、問道、安頓 by 余秋雨
- The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America’s Banana King by Rich Cohen
- Waste Tide by Chen Qiufan
- Exhalation: Stories by Ted Chiang
- Refrigeration Nation: A History of Ice, Appliances, and Enterprise in America by Jonathan Rees
- The Man Who Came Early by Poul Anderson
- War and Chance: Assessing Uncertainty in International Politics by Jeffrey A. Friedman
- Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike by Phil Knight
- A History of the United States in Five Crashes: Stock Market Meltdowns That Defined a Nation by Scott Nations
- Decision at Sea: Five Naval Battles That Shaped American History by Craig L. Symonds
- The Outsiders: Eight Unconventional CEOs and Their Radically Rational Blueprint for Success by William Thorndike
- 三體 by 劉慈欣
- 三體II: 黑暗森林 by 劉慈欣
- The Great Depression: A Diary by Benjamin Roth
- Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas That Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries by Safi Bahcall
- Blood and Silk: Power and Conflict in Modern Southeast Asia by Michael Vatikiotis
- The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu
- Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber by Mike Isaac
- Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky
- More from Less: The Surprising Story of How We Learned to Prosper Using Fewer Resources—and What Happens Next by Andrew McAfee
- Go Like Hell: Ford, Ferrari, and Their Battle for Speed and Glory at Le Mans by A.J. Baime
- Order without Design: How Markets Shape Cities by Alain Bertaud
- The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned from 15 Years as CEO of the Walt Disney Company by Robert Iger
- 新海誠監督作品 君の名は。美術畫集
- The Inner Game of Tennis: The Classic Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance by W. Timothy Gallwey
- Netflixed: The Epic Battle for America’s Eyeballs by Gina Keating
- The Perfect Store: Inside eBay by Adam Cohen
- Glock: The Rise of America’s Gun by Paul M. Barrett
- The Man Who Solved the Market: How Jim Simons Launched the Quant Revolution by Gregory Zuckerman