Thursday, 30 April 2015

Books: Spare Parts by Joshua Davis

In 2004, 4 Mexican American high school students from an impoverished neighbourhood of West Phoenix, Arizona entered a college level national underwater robotics competition and won, beating elite institutions including MIT.

In a sense, it is a David vs. Goliath story, but perhaps more importantly, it’s a story of illegal immigrants - the status held by 3 of the 4 students.  Davis paints a life outside the restrictions of the law, but also excluded from its protection.  The anxiety of deportation is ever present, making even a school field trip a test of nerves for the students, parents, and teachers, wondering at the sight of any law enforcer if that would be the prelude to a deportation.

For illegal immigrants, physical and social mobility isn’t a right.  After the competition, while the members of rival teams secured promising professional engineering careers, the main characters joined the army (after deporting himself), went to college, became a line cook, and a janitor.

While the protection of incumbent citizens’ opportunities and privileges are necessary and often justifiable, Davis wonders if a mutually beneficial path could exist for the newcomers who have shown the ability and willingness to contribute to the new society where they’ve come to call home?

Friday, 13 March 2015

Fall and Winter 2014 Reading

There’s a lot here.  I might try to update more regularly in smaller increments to see how it works.


How was the modern world build?  Johnson shows that through the pervasive use of glass with its optical characteristics, understanding and building infrastructure to separate the clean from the dirty, the amplified ability to project and perceive sounds, the ubiquity of electric lighting, and the precise measurement and calculation of and with time, our modern world emerges from a world hardly imaginable not too long ago.

Computers, the ubiquitous thinking machines we now carry in our pockets and wear on wrists, had its first uses as calculators for modeling nuclear explosions, building the hydrogen bomb, and predict the weather.  Dyson show the quirky team of mathematicians and engineers, philosophers and physicists, led by John von Neumann and following Turing’s seminal thesis, that laid the foundation of the architecture in this digital universe still in use today.

Thanks to my friend Justin for the recommendation.
In this book, Newport argues that contrary to the belief that one should do where passion leads, it is a better alternative to build a rare and valuable skill, build up “career capital”, and in turn grow into position endowed with aspects that one can enjoy, such as autonomy and purpose.  I still believe that passion is important in one’s work, but I’m glad Newport has contributed another viewpoint in the diverse view on career path.

The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies



Kinshasa Symphony

The Danish Solution: The Rescue of the Jews in Denmark

看見台灣 (Taiwan from Above)

Tiny: A story about Living Small

The Internet’s Own Boy:
The story of Aaron Swartz

No Impact Man


The Queen of Versailles


Jack Ma, (馬雲),founder of Alibaba, Interviewed by Charlie Rose at Davos:

雷軍(Lei Jun, founder of Xiaomi)來台演講 (In Mandarin):


From Stanford Entrepreneurship Corner:

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Introduction to the Middle East

In the past, my interests in history have mainly focused on the “east” and the “west” – China and Japan versus the U.S., Britain, Germany, France, and occasionally Russia.  But what of the area in the middle, the parts that connect the two ends?  For centuries, the middle east enabled and fostered trade from both sides.  I wondered, what was their history and relationships as the neighbours changed or stayed the same.  Were the tense relations with the west in recent years always the case in history?  What are its origins?

Below are my first attempts in looking for some answers.  They are only an introduction, and by no means is my study on the subject complete at the end of this post.  In fact, it opens more questions – this merely educates me on the background of the land, and the terms often used in conjunction with these cultures.

I felt in learning about the middle east it’s imperative to understand its predominant religion – Islam, and the establishment of Israel in Palestine, for these colour the political rhetoric, the legal framework, and fuel the fundamentalist cause. The material below reflects this focus, and so far covers the history of Jews, Arabs, Persians, but not yet the Turks.  This is merely a starting point.

Through it all, I have been equally fascinated by the scene of devoted and joyous Jews holding up their Torah up high and by a Muslim’s submission in prayer in practicing their faith.  While the Jews contributed greatly to the development of finance in Europe, the contribution of Muslims in preserving ancient texts made Renaissance Europe possible.  These are important peoples in history.

I hope you’ll find something below interesting.


Inside 9-11
(3 parts), by National Geographic

The Eleventh Day: The Full Story of 9/11, by Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan



Science and Islam
(3 parts) with Jim Al-Khalili, by BBC
Explores the history of Islam during its golden age from around 9th to 12th century and its contribution to math, medicine, astronomy, and more
Inside Islam (3 parts), by The History Channel
Prophet Muhammad (3 parts), by BBC

The first feature length film directed by a female Saudi director, this is the story of a free spirited 11 year old Saudi girl who joins the Quran recitation contest at school with the dream of using the prize money to buy a bike and race with her neighbour, in a land that frowns on girls riding bikes.  It portrays the daily life of  Muslim women, including their devotion to the faith.



Iran and the West
(3 parts), by BBC
30 years after the Iranian Revolution in 1979, Iran’s relationship with the west is still uneasy.  This series describes the amicable relationship America had with Iran prior to the revolution, how the revolution changed this dynamic by the leader Ayatollah Khomeini, how his stern stance changed the power relations between the west and the middle east, and brings us to today.



The Story of the Jews (5 parts), with Simon Schama, by BBC
Israel and Palestine: a Divided Land (45 min), by Knowledge Unlimited – a concise introduction on the history of Israel
Defamation, directed by Yoav Shamir
Director Yoav Shamir, himself a Jew, wonders and explores in this film what anti-Semitism means in the world today.  He interviews ordinary Jews, the head of the Anti-Defamation League, and investigates anti-Semitic claims.  From it emerges a contrarian and entertaining view.

Anti-Semitism: The Road to the Holocaust and Beyond, by Charles Patterson

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Video: How We Got to Now – Interview with Steven Johnson and Fred Wilson

This book and documentary series by Steven Johnson came out recently.  At the launch event, Johnson was interviewed together with Fred Wilson, a Venture Capitalist, to talk about technology history.

I quite enjoyed the video – Johnson did most of the talking, as he should, about the many fascinating story of technology.  For instance, the first North American sewage system set up was in Chicago, but the city was too flat for water to flow properly into the ocean.  So the engineers lifted the city up, neighbourhood after neighbourhood, using jackscrews, sometimes while the residents were still in the building.  This, together with his describing the experience of filming the series, gave an intimate view of the past and the present.

While Johnson brings the historical perspective, Fred Wilson looks into the future and gets paid to bet on some of his views.  At around 17:40 in the video, he talks about some of the big challenges of our time – transportation in crowded cities, new form of energy that is renewable, sustainable, and not carbon based, and how laying out communication networks through underground means is getting more expensive and making ideas like mesh networks quite enticing.

Here’s the video.  Hope you’ll enjoy it, too:

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Big History Extended Trailer | Narrated by Bryan Cranston | History Chan...

I recently watched this documentary series and thought it quite interesting.  Big history isn't really “history” in the traditional sense, but tries to see historical events in the context of science, somewhat similar to the way Jared Diamond uses Guns, Germs, and Steel to explain human developmental patterns.  The project was developed with the Big History Project supported by Bill Gate’s foundation.

There are 17 episodes in all, but most of them are short episodes.  Time may pass faster than you think.

Monday, 4 August 2014

Book Thoughts: The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

Habit, it turns out, means more than just subconsciously grabbing a toothbrush using the same hand all the time.  During the time of WWI when brushing wasn’t a habit, professional salesmen had to go door to door selling toothpaste, often with so poor a result that toothpaste companies suffered financial loss and the government considered the state of oral health to be of national concern.  Leveraging tendencies in human habit and creating a craving through leaving a clean feeling in the mouth, however, Americans learned to brush, earning fortunes for the companies involved and left many with much better teeth.  Through this and many other examples, Duhigg shows habit’s impact in businesses, civic movements, and an individual’s well being.

Fundamental to the forming of habit is the “habit loop”, consisting of a trigger, a routine, and finally, a reward.  Once a routine has been performed many times with a reward following it, the brain identifies a trigger – a signal which is always associated with the ensuing routine, and engages the proper “autopilot” routine in the brain to perform the sequence of actions to get to the reward.  For a habitual smoker who lights a cigarette when feeling the need to relax, that feeling of tension is the cue triggering the routine of smoking.

Finally, the reward (a sense of relief in the smoker example) reinforce the habit loop, flagging it to our mind as being a worthwhile habit to keep, prodding the brain to seek ever more efficient ways to perform the routine, and gradually creating a craving, such that when a cue is given, one’s brain already anticipates and expects the reward.  If the reward is absent, however, feelings of disappointed and frustrated would arise – the stronger the habit, the stronger the emotions.

My favourite part of the book is in seeing the extraordinary similarities of human behaviours between individuals as manifested by the predictions of commercial software.  Retailers know a few things about its consumers.  First, buyers of a particular profile – say the same gender, age, wealth, and occupation – have fairly similar and persistent buying patterns.  Secondly, though many shoppers try to stay to their shopping list, most purchasing decisions are made during their time in store.  And thirdly, one is most susceptible to marketing influence such as placement, shelving, and display of products in the store when major life changes happen, such as a job change or family relocation.

All this adds up to one particular customer profile being exceptionally lucrative – couples with newborns.  Babies cost money – by their first birthday, the average spending on each is close to $7000.  That’s just a start.  Parents with a newborn are so deprived for time and energy that they will purchase everything in one location, during a time when such a life changing event renders them most malleable to advertising influence.  Soon, where they get diapers will get to sell them orange juice, movies, and many more items.  It is why retailers go to great lengths to court parents of newborns, even visiting maternity wards in hospitals.

But by the time a baby is born, the competition for that customer is too fierce.  Could it be possible to win the moms over before others got to them?  Target, a leading retailer, wondered if they could somehow find out who are the expecting mothers through their buying patterns.  Target’s group of mathematicians, scientists, and programmers experimented, and found they could – that 25 products, if purchased in a certain sequence and over a period of time, predicts quite accurately if the buyer is expecting a new baby.  Through the loyalty program data, Target would then send relevant marketing material to entice the customers ahead of competitors.  This program was so successful it contributed to Target’s profit rise from 44 to 65 billion between 2002 and 2009.

Besides the retailing world, Duhigg shows that software algorithms are now employed to predict the future success of songs in the music industry, and in casinos to forecast individual’s gambling behaviour, precise to the minutes and cents.  It reminded me of the talks that professor Larry Smith gave on expert systems.

Brain scans show that once a habit is formed it is etched in our neural pathways.  Trying to completely quash the desire to indulge in old habits through willpower alone is therefore often fruitless.  It’s why many who quit smoking “cold turkey” without other support can succumb to it all the more upon encountering major life stresses.

Bad habit may now seem like an insurmountable force that enslaves us, but Duhigg is more optimistic, and argues throughout the book that though persistent, habits are like muscles and can be weakened and also reframed.  Through patient self examination to find the triggers, and carefully cultivating new routines and experimenting with rewards that one responds to, habits can be changed.  Using again the smoker example, some have found the use of meditation as the routine (instead of lighting the cigarette) when the trigger of tension arises to be useful.  Others find this not at all, and try other methods.

Habit change then, can be a very drawn out process in self exploration that requires much motivation and an understanding that what seems like a string of failed attempts are actually experimentation toward betterment.  In addition, new habits can also be cultivated, and by weakening the old habit loops, can overtake the old habits.  It also bears mentioning that the power of habit works equally strong on the good habits too, and while bad habits may be devastating, good habits can be a significant force for good.

I’m not sure habit is destiny, but it is powerful – and the book showed a myriad of examples for its downside and upside.  In closing, Duhigg writes:

This is the real power of habit: the insight that your habits are what you choose them to be.  Once that choice occurs – and becomes automatic – it’s not only real, it starts to seem inevitable, the thing as [William] James wrote, that bears ‘us irresistibly toward our destiny, whatever the latter may be.’