What I’ve been reading:
- The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui
This was probably one of my favorite reads of all time. The last graphic novel I read was Maus during middle school and, ironically, The Best We Could Do touches on many of the same issues. As in Maus, survival was the central struggle. In broad strokes, Thi Bui chronicles her family’s hardships during decades of turmoil in Vietnam and their eventual escape to the U.S. Yet it is her humanization of her family members—her parents especially—that hit me really hard. I, much like many others, hold my elders in very high regard, superhuman, really (after all, I am Chinese, and those are the rules). However, when one runs through the gauntlet of humanity’s worst, the true weaknesses and strengths of a person comes to bare. The survival of life, family cohesion, sanity, future prospects, and integrity are at stake. Most people don’t make it out of the country, the ones that do only partially so, and no one comes out fully intact. The experience makes and breaks people. Escaping is only the beginning. As for the road ahead, we make do the best we can.
- Red Sparrow Trilogy by Jason Matthews
These were fun bedtime reads. Come for the spies, stay for the tradecraft. Matthews really knows what he’s talking about in these pages. Who would’ve thought that forty years in the Agency would make you a great thriller novelist?
- Crazy Rich Asians series by Kevin Kwan
These were also fun bedtime reads (I read the three books in three nights, so perhaps more all-nighter reads). They are also hilariously accurate about outlandish Asian wealth and traditional norms. Many times I laughed at the mannerisms of characters and familial obligations they had to attend to, it was like reading about my own family, the parallels are uncanny. I certainly view the Asian experience through a particular set of lenses, so I’m most curious to hear from different perspectives about the old money/new money and traditional/ABC family dynamics dichotomies that undergird the stories.
What I’ve been watching:
The Vietnam War by Ken Burns
I’ve been slowly chipping away at the episodes and must say that it’s been a very sobering experience. The series portrays the issues through all stakeholders (American leaders, troops, anti-war protestors, families, NVA troops, VC troops, Vietnamese civilians, Vietnamese communist leadership) and does a damn good job at being impartial. Most importantly, it forces us to reckon with the brutality of war, of human nature, and most of all, of bad policy.
It is also quite hard not to draw parallels with the happenings of America today. We are involved in two open-ended and protracted wars that most Americans are underinformed about. There are racial tensions marked by bombastic right and left extremes that overshadow some of the more peaceful groups. The world as we understood it from the 90s to the late 2000s is undergoing massive shifts across the board. We have American troops who feel foreign among civilians and frustrated by politicians, civilians who can’t relate to troops and not heard by government leaders, and finally, politicians who seem to be trapped in the DC bubble and unable to confront the realities that hound troops and the public on a daily basis. We have had no foreign policy for many years (before people come to support Obama, I would like to point out that the guy proudly declared to have “ended two wars” at a fund-raiser while ISIS blazed across the Levant and the Taliban kicked the Afghan government’s butt) and can’t seem to rise above partisanship to get much done at home. So, if anyone is interested in how things played out the last time we had all these things happen, I highly recommend looking into this series. We came out fine the last time this happened—and Vietnam was arguably our worst blunder in history—we’d be fine this time as well, right?
What I’ve been listening to:
- Tetra by C2C
I found this thanks to the ending sequence of a recent Silicon Valley episode. I’m normally not an electronic music fan, but maybe my palate needed some laid back lyric-less refreshing. More importantly, the discovery of this album led to the discovery of Scott Vener, the man behind the soundtracks of many HBO projects and with the dope quote: “Good music doesn’t come out every day.”
Felt a little groovy and funky.
- Get Down on It by Kool & The Gang
- Prhyme 2 by Prhyme
I’m a little disappointed by the project—probably due to the fact that I loved the first album. I didn’t hate any tracks but particularly like any either. Royce da 5’9″ had some nice bars and Rapsody’s feature was great (as is always expected from her), but honestly, a pretty forgettable album.
- Frank Sinatra
Still heavy in the rotation… something about a nice and soothing voice that makes me happy. Also, baseball season started, so New York, New York will be played for the foreseeable future.
An interesting observation:
I drove by a lot of old people playing Pokémon Go in a park in Taipei when I was on spring break. This was quite surprising given that the AR game seemed to be a one summer fad from two years ago. However, upon closer reflection, the affinity between elderly Taiwanese people and these virtual creatures didn’t seem so outlandish. After all, the Sony AIBO dog that was so popular in the early 2000s recently made a comeback due to popular demand. In fact, many elderly Japanese consumers were quite distressed when the dog was originally discontinued in 2006—some even held funerals for their robo-canines when they stopped working.
While it could just be that Taiwan is just really slow with the times (Frozen-mania is still a thing), but I’d argue that the link between old Asian people and robot companions deserves a deeper look (future research project?). Who needs a fancy lab to conduct robot/AI-human interaction research? Just go take a stroll in the park.
Something I’ve been thinking about:
In light of all of everything happening in regards to Facebook, I thought Ben Evans wrote a brilliant and timely piece in The death of the newsfeed. Many of the company’s recent troubles all lead back to the newsfeed: Russian trolls, filter bubbles, digital addiction, fake news, etc. The ruling solution to “fix” the newsfeed all center around regulation whether publicly “breaking up Facebook” (however that works) or asking them to privately “do a better job at combatting fake news”. Yet, neither of those really work, nor do they address the true underlying problem with the feature. Ironically, as Evans points out, the problem isn’t really with the newsfeed at all, but rather stems from the firehose of information that is the internet. The sheer volume of content is a persistent issue (see YouTube’s ISIS and child exploitation troubles or Twitter’s retention problems) and one with no immediate solution. Clearly, these very prevalent issues cannot be fixed by a clever design change or by hiring a bunch of Phillipino moderators. It is unfeasible for anyone to sift through all the billions of hours of content being created every day nor is it reasonable for people to demand that companies be able to do so. We also must consider the tradeoffs for any potential changes to the newsfeed or any other feed. It is easy to point out the flaws in the system, but rather hard to confront uncomfortable secondary effects that could arise from any change.
Favorite commonplace book entries:
- Again, history will never reveal to us what connections there are, and at what times, between science, art, and morality, between good and evil, religion and the civic virtues. What it will tell us (and that incorrectly) is where the Huns came from, where they lived, who laid the foundations of their power, etc.
I’ve always been curious about why the connections mentioned in the quote are largely missing in academia and public discourse. Interdisciplinary and antidisciplinary work certainly don’t fit nicely in traditionally defined specializations. They almost certainly work against the concept of disciplines and taxonomies. We definitely have an easier time understanding categorized things, but also miss out on the gray areas. The gray areas also represent a vast uncharted plane of knowledge. And if one follows Metcalfe’s law, then the great unknowns hidden in those connections surpass the knowledge base in our current disciplines by manyfold. An intimidating prospect, no doubt, but if history is truly reliant on these intangibles then I wonder how much we are missing due to our conceptual structure of information storage.
- It no longer applies in this dangerous century, but in a more civilized age, you would know what the Russians would do. You see, the Ruskies back then had been bloodied twice and hard. They wanted peace and would use strength to enforce it. In those distant cold times, the Russians would react professionally. They’d disappear into the depths, then before you even knew, they were off of your carrier group. They’d remind you who they were and what you were dealing with.
Makes you kinda miss those times where the boundaries and rules in international affairs weren’t so murky, eh?
- When my legs hurt, I say “Shut up, legs! Do what I tell you to do!” – Jens Voigt, German cycler