rovik. reads: the second machine age

Part of my preparation for my Master’s program in LSE includes going through a reading list. The Second Machine Age was one of the books on the list and it spoke to me because after reading Sapiens, I had developed a new curiosity in evolutionary theories. As a self-declared technologist, this book seemed like a good way to carry on the research into how our world is evolving in tandem with the growth in technology. Brynjolfsson and McAfee are MIT professors who have separately published books and studies on technological development and their effects on societies. Coming together to produce this book consolidates some solid insights into how technology is rampantly transforming our world and what we ought to be thinking about moving forward.

As a quick summary, the authors claim three main factors as the drivers of technological growth and advancement in the past few years. The first is the increase in cheap hardware – something we’re familiar with through Moore’s law and the miniaturization of products. The second is the digitization of a vast number of resources and processes – making it much easier to think of anything as manipulatable by a computer program. The last is recombinant innovation – the ability to remix, recreate and to iterate through infinite possibilities, of which each promises to possibly change the way we interact with the world altogether. Think about Instagram, for example. Instagram took advantage of the mobile smart-phone (cheap hardware) to digitize the process of taking photos. While there were already photo publishing apps online (such as Flickr), Instagram is now the leading photo sharing app simply because it made a seamless mobile app that was socially integrated.

The consequences of these trends are what I find especially interesting in this book. The authors claim that because of the internet, markets these days belong to superstars who create a product that is only marginally better than the next best product. Why would anyone choose a second best product when resources are abundant in the digital sphere and one provider can supply an infinite number of clients/customers. While the first machine age, known popularly as the Industrial Revolution, allowed anyone who took advantage of productivity tools to gain an increase in their market access, the current machine age is not as simple. It’s a winner-takes-all market these days and with the transference of capital to owners of digital products, the aggravation of an increasing poor-rich divide is even more prevalent.

The worst note about this future that is painted is how far behind people are economically if they don’t even have a habit of trying to catch up with technological trends. Because of the nature of exponential growth in the sector, by the time skills are learned to manage the current state of technological needs, the next innovation is introduced and a whole new set of advanced skills are in demand. For example, right now there is a burgeoning demand for data scientists who actually are able to engage with complex and large forms of data and make clarity out of it. Data scientists are not only lacking, but those who exist don’t have the courage to make sense of data beyond standard statistical tools. Schools these days are offering courses in data science and handling, but technology firms that have a solid data science team are already moving on their next challenge. There’s really no promising what is or isn’t possible with technologies these days, simply because of the nature of exponential growth.

The authors do provide a lot of suggestions for solutions, from a range of levels. The most interesting was to teach everyone to start working alongside with robots and technologies rather than necessarily compete with them. It seems like an easy enough recommendation, but I truly believe we need a paradigm shift amongst the entire workforce from the moment they start education to see computation as a skill just as essential as mathematics or language appreciation. By learning to understand how to embrace technology and how to work together with trends rather than compete with them, the labor force is much better prepared for an economy that is changing at a much faster rate than ever before.

The book does lack some focus on how to push some of its policy recommendations past their current constraints. Most policy recommendations aren’t new and in fact, I skimmed through most of these, looking for only those that seemed novel, which were few. What would have been useful is a more honest discussion of why some of these policy ideas are stuck with lawmakers and not moving towards becoming fully implemented.

At the end of the day, Brynjolfsson and McAfee have taken a number of known and established ideas and put them together in a cohesive and readable manner, drawing connections that elucidate larger trends and patterns in our economy and society. In that way, this book is an important reading for any technologist wanting to understand what’s happening around them and how to ride the wave moving forward. It took me two weeks to finish reading this book and it’s easily readable in a shorter time if you want to give it the effort. Here are my ratings for it:

Readability: 5/5

Intellectual Stimulation: 3.5/5

Perspective Shifting Capability: 4/5

Would I Recommend? – Yes

rovik. and friends discuss: globalisation v. nationalism

As mentioned in one of my previous posts, I’ve started to participate in a discussion group around topics that are relevant to society. We recently had our first conversation and it was centered on globalization and the rising tide of nationalism. This is both a summary of the conversation and some additional thoughts from me. I know you’re considering whether you want to spend brainpower reading another intellectual post, but I’ve tried to make this interesting enough so join along.

Note that this is not meant to be an authoritative piece on the topic – a lot of the views follow conjectures that are extended from what we see in the news, read in books and articles as well as witness from conversations we have in our circles. These don’t negate the validity of our views, they simply require more rigorous research for actual verification. We did use some resources as starting/additional material and I wanted to invite you to check them out with us.

Articles:

  1. League of Nationalists
  2. Quora on Globalisation
  3. Power of Populists
  4. For Third Culture Kids, Travel is Home
  5. Fuck Chineseness: On the ambiguities of ethnicity as culture as identity

The conversation can be divided into two main sub-discussions – the first on the Polito-economic debate and the second on the cultural debate.

Let’s look at the Polito-Economic portion first:

It probably is worth noting that globalization was popularly more of an economic concept than anything else. We know the basics: countries produce on their comparative advantage, overall production increases, global costs lower and everyone ends up happier. Of course, we also know this isn’t completely true. But economics is always in bed with politics and so too, in this case, has globalization seen so much more exacerbation of its forces with the wavering will of politicians and bureaucrats.

Political institutions are the focus here. Firstly because of what they do and second because of what they don’t. Global trade and commerce aren’t new – we’ve had empires and trade routes since some of the earliest of societies. What is relatively new is the emergence of a plethora of global institutions such as the UN, WTO, IMF, EU etc and the manner in which nations interface with them. Globalization as an economic concept has been a long time coming, and as a member of our group said:

Debating globalization is debating the inevitable

So what should we debate then? Well there are some real pains out there:

  • Economically uncompetitive jobs in developed countries are being lost to developing countries
  • Rapid emergence of low cost and primary/secondary economic activities in developing countries are causing labor exploitation and environmental degradation
  • Retraining isn’t happening nearly as fast enough around the world to catch up to technological advances and job losses
  • etc. etc.

Here we find some truth to the argument for nationalism. Countries have lost their ability to determine their futures by themselves. For the longest time, aside from the occasional war/invasion/diplomatic mission, domestic policy was the only policy to care about. Even then, the only wars you had to fight were the ones you had an actual stake in – as in, you had to protect something of your own such as your border, people or asset. But now, with the intertwining of national and global agendas under the umbrella of global cooperation, we have global institutions that are mostly run by unelected officials taking over ownership of some policy topics. Environmental preservation, free trade, international peacekeeping and many others may have used to be a concern of national governments but now are law of the land under global institutions. But here’s the catch – countries get pressured to sign a lot of these agreements – a lot of times not because of moralistic agendas but ultimately economic and political strategy. These coalitions and policies take years to discuss and are in no way a small feat, but are ultimately answerable to only the politicians that sign it, not the citizens of the countries that are pulled into it. You could argue that your vote for your politician is by proxy a vote for the international support, but many a time these international deals are swung hard and fast between election seasons to manage the costs of disapproval. Politicians and bureaucrats hardly manage the impact of some of these policies on their own citizens.

So there’s a moralistic question here. Is this necessarily a bad thing? The ‘nationalists’ argue that their wages are depressed and their lives are of a lower standard but they vote for the nationalist candidate not because he necessarily promises them a better life, but because he promises them control over their destinies again. No longer can the private citizen in the US feel that his fate is determined by the cosmopolitan will of a Singaporean minister. But is that really going to happen? No matter whether we like it or not, global institutions have become hard-coded into our political machines to the point that its place is certain. Until another global crisis perhaps.

What could be an interesting thought though, is that countries that do end up taking advantage of globalization end up ‘winning’ and the countries that don’t do so end up ‘losing’, shifting the list of developed and developing countries again. This constant flux of economic powers in the world is something that we’ve seen before in history. In 50 years, if the US continues on its nationalistic path, would it perhaps be considered a ‘developing country’ because it isn’t economically competitive as a complete nation anymore. I don’t know the answer and won’t try to navel-gaze but it really is an interesting thought.

We ended the polito-economic portion of this debate here, but I have a personal addendum. Modern society really isn’t that old. We like to speak in terms of economic values and traditions and the way things used to be, but none of these things were entrenched in humanity for too long before making way for new values and traditions. In the Quora link above, there is a conversation on the Transformationalist school of thought in globalization conversations. This school believes that while nation states are stuck in between this struggle of satisfying domestic voters and achieving global goals, it is time for citizens all around the world to recognize that it is time to give up some political clout to global institutions so that world problems can actually start being solved quickly. Global warming is scarily advancing and we’re spending more time bickering rather than creating change.

Theresa May recently stated

But, if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what citizenship means.

But I truly wonder if it could also mean that you are a citizen of everywhere. Citizenship like most constructs we’ve lived with can take on new meaning in changing contexts if current meanings don’t do well enough. I’m still exploring this idea because I understand the implications. Sovereignty is a beautiful privilege that we must always fight to preserve, and the idea of loosening that is potentially a slippery slope. But I don’t think we’ve given the space enough room to grow. That could be interesting.

We then moved on to talk about culture:

This is also a good time to segue into our conversation on culture. One of the big components in globalization is the loosening of borders. Explicitly and economically, this allows labor to move freely to suit economic needs. More implicitly, this is also part of cultivating a connected world where traveling is much more commonplace and the understanding of other cultures contributes back to building a global mandate to protect our world.

Nationalists aren’t too supportive of that. They see the arrival of different kinds of people as diluting of local culture. “Go back where you came from” and “You have to learn to be like us” are common quips. I don’t want to reduce these arguments though so let’s expand some of these wider:

  • We visit other countries for many reasons but culture is a big one. We visit India to see how the locals live and celebrate festivals such as Deepavali. We visit China to see how Confucian principles have shaped policies. We visit Peru to see what the Incans left behind and how their descendants grapple with their history. The dilution of culture is scary because we lose a lot of this ‘preciousness’. Diversity doesn’t necessarily promise plurality – especially if politics have to try to be ‘one size fits all’. It could cause blending instead.
  • Friction does arise when groups from different cultures have to adapt to a new environment. But also when existing groups have to adapt to them. It goes both ways and it hurts each way.
  • Adaptation has costs, and these costs are borne by taxpayers. While those who have grown up in a country know they will continue paying taxes for the rest of the life, the certainty of an immigrant setting down roots and being a contributing member of society is low and that’s a fair judgment.

So let’s tackle these. I do want to start with this though – a lot of these arguments assume a pure and stable initial state that is now undergoing change and shock to an impure and fluctuating state. But very few cultures are ‘pure’. The Irish love for potatoes couldn’t have existed if not for imports from South America. Australian coffee culture isn’t a thing without imported coffee beans because of its imperialism. Even the American sport of football is derived from rugby and soccer. It is an amalgamation of two different cultures. There is no purity.

Cultures are still ethnocentric and this is because history has always been biased towards the dominant narrative. While no country is ethnically homogeneous, it is the privileged who dictate the cultural hegemony. So when change is introduced and culture is once again caused to shift, what are we really fighting? Are we fighting the loss of a unique way of life or are we really fighting an unhealthy obsession with the notion of purity and tradition?

Cultures have evolved year on year, century on century in every part of the world as long as it has been open to people from the outside. Heck, even from people on the inside. Politicians love the buzzword though. It’s a sellable point – something that can unite and create stability. I get that – as someone in power, you don’t want unpredictability. Having a culture that benefits your agenda is crucial. So they use culture as a political tool to fight against immigration and an increase in diversity. Perhaps what’s more important is preparing generations for a culture that isn’t ethnocentric and is focussed on values rather than experiences. These are tough by so many standards, but they seem more robust. Someone in our discussion talked about having an overarching culture that is easier to buy into – such as capitalism. Everyone loves money so if we all just agree on that then perhaps we can all get along. I’m not too sure how far that one will go.

____

So there you have it, some interesting thoughts on some recent discussions. It’s very evident that I’m globalization-leaning in my arguments and that’s a result of both my background in Singapore (where we are fed globalization as baby food) and my left-leaning political beliefs. But I’m starting to understand the nationalistic argument in more believable forms now. There are legitimate concerns and issues and none of them are easily solvable. All my proposed solutions are far fetched, idealistic and require massive shifts in perspective. But that’s the world we live in, and we have to navigate that. If you know me, far fetched, idealistic and perspective shifting are some of my favorite fuelwords though, so I do hope to try to play my part in advancing the world in a better direction.

I’d love to hear your own thoughts on my post above. A lot of you have dropped my DMs in response to my previous posts so thank you for that, but do feel free to drop comments on the post too! I am more in favor of discovery and discussion than holding any particular world view at this point of my life – so your conversation will only help me and others grow.

go global.

rovik. reads: Sapiens

I’m going to start by saying Wow. This book shifts your perspective. I was recommended this book a friend of mine in college while we were talking about our views on life. He kept referring back to ideas postulated within these pages and while not necessarily rigorous, they seemed interesting enough for me to want to actually give it a read myself. I’m very glad I did because I now feel like I’ve been given a new pair of lenses to look at the world with.

Sapiens is written by Yuval Noah Harari, a professor at Hebrew University of Jerusalem and historian. The book works on the premise of answering some of history’s biggest questions, but essentially the overarching one of “How did we get here?” There are four main parts, each encapsulating what Harari claims to be the four big inflection points in human history:

  1. The Cognitive Revolution i.e. when humanity first imagined
  2. The Agricultural Revolution i.e. when humanity built society
  3. The Unification of Humankind i.e. when humanity developed money, religion, and empires
  4. The Scientific Revolution i.e. when humanity indulged in its curiosity and developed science

The book itself is a long read. It took me three weeks to read it and it has around 20 chapters. It is to be noted that while you could potentially breeze through the book in a week, it was impossible for me to read a portion of the book without wanting to put it down and chew on it for a while. It made me want to talk to someone about the implications of what Harari was writing and actually give it some rigorous evaluation. That’s this kind of book. It’s not for a casual read on the beach. This is a book that you want to dedicate brain power to because regardless of whether you agree with Harari’s claims, you will finish with a much more open and stretched mind.

I want to use this review to discuss one of the biggest implications of the book:  that humanity’s ultimate strength is its ability to create fiction.

One of Harari’s main premises is that to truly understand the constraints we live by we have to start with physics, move on to chemistry, then on to biology and then finally history. History begins when we stop being able to explain our lives by biological terms. For example, the concept of culture cannot be explained by biology.

“Culture tends to argue that it forbids only that which is unnatural. But from a biological perspective, nothing is unnatural. Whatever is possible is by definition also natural. A truly unnatural behaviour, one that goes against the laws of nature, simply cannot exist, so it would need no prohibition.”

This is a fascinating insight because this belief single-handedly begs us to question everything we believe. Humanity’s main evolutionary advantage came when it was able to focus less on what was immediately visible and to focus more on what could be. Its ability to create fiction allowed it to build societies that agreed on common laws (fiction), hierarchies (also fictional) and even rights (ultimately, still fictional).

“Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, Sapiens have thus been living in a dual reality. On the one hand, the objective reality of rivers, trees and lions; and on the other hand, the imagined reality of gods, nations and corporations. As time went by, the imagined reality became ever more powerful, so that today the very survival of rivers, trees and lions depends on the grace of imagined entities such as the United States and Google.”

It seems heretical to say that human rights are a fictional construct but nature does not provide anyone any innate right. One may believe that God or religion did, but even then, they’re basing that on what could also controversially be claimed to be a construct. Harari delves deeper into the evolution of religion at a sufficiently rigorous level that you have to seriously ask yourself first if what you’re believing is truly from God or by Man trying to speak for God and secondly whether God can even exist considering how we have evolved.

“How do you cause people to believe in an imagined order such as Christianity, democracy or capitalism? First, you never admit that the order is imagined.”

The implications of this are monumental. Yes, there’s a lot to question about the contexts in which we live, but I’m more excited about what that means for the future. We get to shape our realities and the fictions around us. We choose what is important because we decide they are valuable. Yes, human rights may be fictional, but they’re essential and I choose to value them. It is not about being nihilistic, but about ultimately deciding we have the power to break out of constructs and shape reality around us. That’s exciting.

This is only one of the bold claims made by Harari. He documents his research well and his focus is on conveying the narrative, so for an outside reader like myself, it was very easy to start chewing on his literature. There is a fair criticism that sometimes he makes leaps and jumps, but Harari never claims to provide definitive truths and instead offers his perspectives and views. History is so muddled by itself that his work provides more clarity than it does confusion. One can trace some of his research back from the References section if they truly want to make a rigorous exploration of his ideas. I would call out that while in the early parts of his book he shows more of his balance in views, the latter shows more opinionated perspectives that one must navigate carefully. These especially seem to be in topics that he cares about passionately such as veganism and capitalism. A more comprehensive critique of the book can be found in this response written in The New Atlantis Journal.

I’m scheduled to have a book club discussion about this in a couple of weeks and I can’t wait to hear more views on this book, especially those that are counter to his claims. If you’ve read the book and have views, I’d love to hear them. It’s really exciting to hear what other ideas people have developed as a result of reading this book.

Readability: 4/5

Intellectual Stimulation: 5/5

Perspective Shifting Capability: 4.5/5

Would I Recommend? – Yes

rovik. screens: Dunkirk

This is my first movie review, and what better movie to choose than the cinematic experience everyone has been looking forward to – Dunkirk. There’s a lot to be said about this movie, but let me start with this – the trailers don’t really prepare you for the movie the way it’s told. From entrapping cinematography to Hans Zimmer’s choice music accompaniment, Nolan’s take on the war movie genre is bold and daring. Watching it on the IMAX screen was breathtaking, particularly in the landscape scenes that show desolation. What it lacks though are a coherent narrative and some minor historical corrections, but that doesn’t take too much away from Dunkirk’s brilliance.

This review does have spoilers, although the story of Dunkirk is actual history and so spoiling really won’t do you any wrong.

The war movie genre is a tough one – it’s one of the most popular genres because of explosions, historical relevance and its metaphorical significance and yet it also ends up being saturated with many of the same kinds of movies. How many times have we seen a war movie try to address Churchill, Hitler or some kind of Nazi monolith? One of the first productions that got me into the war genre was HBO’s Band of Brothers. While it was more of a series than a single movie, it shook me on how heavy the times used to be, particularly because of its committed storytelling and beautiful development of characters amongst all the chaos of the war. There is a high bar to beat in the genre.

Nolan’s Dunkirk takes place in three storylines that are nonlinearly intertwined. They occur over land, air, and sea and cover a week, a day and an hour respectively. It’s really a poetic attempt at describing how time seemed to stretch and compress differently for different agents in Operation Dynamo, the effort to rescue the troops stuck in Dunkirk. I had no idea about this premise and ended up being very confused for around 80% of the movie on when what was happening. The trailers for Dunkirk promise a story of how 70 civilian boats saved the troops when the big navy ships couldn’t. This really isn’t that story. This is ultimately a story of suffering, longsuffering I may add, of everyone involved in the battle. And that suffering is felt throughout the movie, regardless of storyline. As someone who has served in the military, I could connect, albeit in no way to the fullest extent that the soldiers themselves felt, with the kind of desperation and hopelessness felt by the troops. This is Nolan’s primary success – he has used all the tools at his disposal from music score to visual elements to paint the bleakness of Dunkirk in such a compelling light.  The 70 civilian boats take up a grand total of 10 minutes in the movie.

From scenes of soldiers cramped onto a boat to the roaring shriek of the Destroyers as they drop bombs on the troops, Dunkirk takes you on an immersive journey through the battle. My favorite scenes are during the expansive shots of the environments where you realize again and again how alone all these agents are. The fighter pilot in the sky, the civilian boat at sea and the soldiers stuck on land are all in such open settings that the vulnerability is felt throughout. The film also has some powerful close-up scenes on the characters including Tom Hardy and Kenneth Branagh where you can sense the stress of their responsibility.

This movie does have a happy ending, with more than 300,000 soldiers being evacuated, but it does gloss over some other historically significant points. For example, in the battle of Dunkirk,  many soldiers did end up being caught and treated as prisoners of war (POWs). This is hinted at by Hardy’s character’s capture but the omission of the nearly 80,000 soldiers who were also left behind underplays the implications of being stuck at Dunkirk and the actual torture endured. No movie is going to be a 100% accurate – that’s a fair point, but I do feel in Nolan’s attempt to be poetic with his story, he left this end untied.

Overall, Dunkirk is a movie meant to be watched on the big screen and experienced with a mind and heart ready to take it all in. I wish I watched it on 70mm, to see the movie with its slightly grainy texture but the IMAX experience was already sufficient in giving me something to chew on. Also, I couldn’t find a cinema in Singapore screening this in 70mm film so if you know one let me know.  Let me know what you thought of the movie – I know people are divided on Nolan’s hype and whether he deserves it so I’d love to hear any new insights. Here’s my rating of the movie below:

Cinematography: 5/5

Screenwriting: 4/5

Score: 5/5

Acting/ Performance: 5/5

Overall: 4.75/5

 

 

 

july updates.

It’s been more than a month since graduation and it’s a good time to ask how well I’ve used it. There’s nothing wrong of course, in lazing around or just finding time to relax. But relaxation for me instead means the tempo is lowered while I keep my momentum going. Some parts of this post also serve to establish future posts where I check back in on my projects. It’s been a wild time regardless – I’ve joined a startup, started a book club/conversation group, made headway in learning blockchain and music production and consumed a lot of stimulating content.

Let’s start with the interesting stuff. Check out Quibbl, a new way to consume the world around us. The website you see is its first iteration and I’ve been brought on by a great friend to be part of the team. What I love about this is the way it plans to change the way we interact with content. Right now, the most common way for us to interact with content is to ‘react’ to it – from the ‘Like’ button on Facebook to the Heart-shaped symbol on Twitter/Instagram, we are encouraged to be rapidly interacting with content by simply clicking a button. Worse is when we’re allowed to simply share content without even having read it – the click bait title is sufficiently provocative to warrant a shout to our friends. Quibbl says ‘Let’s change that. Let’s make your reaction tied to your credibility as a consumer’. If you read something and agree with it, claim it. If the line of reasoning has an expected outcome, then your position can be supported by reality. For example, if you believe the logic for Trump’s impeachment is insufficient, you can vote on it, and if you’re wrong, your credibility points are affected. I love this because now we empower netizens to be more conscious about what they consume and about what they believe in. When Quibbling becomes the new norm, you will see a natural fight against ‘fake news’, enabled by the social system we build around Quibbl. More of that can be found in this video. I’m working on the Tech team, which is mostly my effort to be a part of this big change in the social news consumption environment. But it’s also a step towards my effort on building technologies that support my social agendas. If you remember, five years ago I set up five grand goals for myself, I’ve made serious headway in four of them – the school I’m keeping for a slightly older me to approach. I’ve learned Computer Science, but that’s just step one. I still need to learn how to use my knowledge and skills to build projects and this will give me significant experience in that arena. Bigger moves to come.

The second thing I wanted to talk about is Deliberate Evolution, an exciting project that’s in no way going to be attributable to one person which is what makes it thrilling. DE started out after a couple of friends and I realized that we were having such great conversations. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a good way to continue the conversation post-college, especially if we wanted an environment where we can engage with people from opposing views.  The world around us was trying to put us in camps that isolated themselves from each other, but us as moderates were frantically looking for spaces to engage a diversity of views. DE is a promising step in that regard. We’ve set up a small group to try out the philosophy and methodology, and we aim to expand over time and establish a way for others to set up similar groups.  We meet online (because the group is eclectic in backgrounds) twice in a month, once to have a conversation on a pre-selected topic and the other to have a discussion on a book we’ve chosen. We just had a pretty rich discussion on Globalisation and the growing tide of Nationalism and we’ll be chatting in a couple of weeks to talk about Sapiens – a book I’m extremely affected by.  I’m aiming to post summaries of these discussions on my blog, as a way of collecting knowledge but also making it open to the public forum of discourse and debate. Over time, we aim to build trust with another and not just grow intellectually but empathetically as well. There’s a lot of thought gone into the establishment of the group’s values and procedures and I’m looking forward to the day we have a tested concept to reveal to others.

Of course, I’m making use of my time to do a lot of self-improvement and strengthening. Mind, body, soul and all that. I like the concept of using my downtime to power up again for another big marathon. I’ve decided to grow in two main fields – cryptography and music production. Cryptography, specifically cryptocurrency, is such an emerging field that it’s already disrupting ways of life as we speak. In my time in college, I frequently brushed along themes of cryptography but was always intimidated by it. Now I decided that if I want to invest in Bitcoin, Ethereum, and the other 20 currencies, I want to know intimately how it works. That’s how I do most of my investment, but with currencies, I’ve always been cautious. I also don’t just want to invest, but I want to create products and services around them to derive value. This course taught by Princeton  is so powerful for that.

I’m also learning music production in an effort to figure out more ways to transform some of these wild concoctions in my mind into beautiful things. I realize over time that we connect to music in different ways, especially when we’re emotionally sensitive. As I started listening to music, especially in that recently emotional portion of my life, I decided I wanted to create music too.  For this, I’m taking an online course from Berklee that’s really exciting. Maybe I’ll drop some stuff over here soon.

Those are the highlights. I’ve been reading, watching shows, partying, eating good food, adventuring and all of the regular me stuff but I’m excited for these inflections that I’m on. There are also secret projects, projects that I’ll announce when it’s the right time, but these are pretty darn monumental if I can get them to work. Also I’ll be in Berlin in a week and a half. Wow, I’m making myself excited, there’s a lot to look forward to. I’ll keep riding these waves.

i hope you’re riding yours.

rovik. reads: Neither Civil nor Servant

PhilipYeoBook

This is my first book review and part of a series of reviews I plan to post as I consume interesting and stimulating content over the next few years. Neither Civil nor Servant was given to me as a birthday gift from my brother and it covers the life and career of Philip Yeo, one of Singapore’s most prominent economic architects and dreamers. People have frequently cited him as someone I share prominent traits with, so it made good sense for me to learn more about him and learn some tricks.

The book is written by Peh Shing Huei and is published by The Straits Times Press, which tends to publish a lot of such biographical pieces about local figures. The book on a whole is an easy read, with nine chapters spanning Yeo’s family life and background to some of his groundbreaking decisions in his various portfolios. Each chapter is broken into a narrative piece that intertwines observations and quotes from Yeo’s compatriots on a certain portion of his life as well as a dialogue piece that is simply a transcription of the actual interview. It took me only a week to finish reading the book and I was taking my time – I read two chapters a day.

Perhaps one of the biggest takeaways from this book is how different the Singapore government was back in the day. It’s an understated but quickly obvious fact that Philip Yeo got away with a lot of his bold ideas because he had good bosses (Dr Goh Keng Swee and then-PM Lee Kuan Yew) who recognized that they had to trust him and give him space in order to have him succeed. The word ‘reckless’ was forced upon him, but he really was a lot more thoughtful and deliberate in many of his wild decisions. It is this diligence that earned him the respect and freedom he possesses to this day. I think it is this balance of bravados and accountability that has allowed him to keep sailing his ship without doubt from his peers. Yet for all the recognition of these merits, the Singaporean civil service machine these days cannot allow for more Philip Yeos. Yeo himself states “The management is too involved in day-to-day matters. They become administrators rather than leaders”. Context is a useful tool here – public accountability is one of the highest priorities for the current government and a system that prevents excess of any kind is the best system. This way, politicians and top leaders can trust in a reliable system rather than unpredictable humans. The book discusses some of the implications of this conflict and complexity, but it left me unsatisfied on what my mandate should be moving forward. Yes, I want to be like Philip Yeo, but if all that means is to dream and live with purpose, and to forget ever hoping to traverse a similar path to him, I’ve already consumed that message from other great leaders. I still believe that Singapore has survived only because of its grand innovations and thoughtful commitment to its people. Yeo believed that too. To him, your imagination was your limit. It takes some reading between the lines but you’ll find that greater truth in this book.

Another good takeaway from this book is on Yeo’s belief in people. Yes, he had a great knack for technology, roadmaps and policies, but ultimately Yeo trusted people more than he did any of the above. He believed people needed to be empowered and valued, and in all of his work, you can see a care and investment in those around him. This is a truth I have encountered for a while now, but it’s powerful to see how even decades later, the people that he led and partnered still stand by him and can name and claim the impact that he’s had on them. Those of you who know my narrative know that my life goal is to build a legacy, and Yeo has shown me that by valuing others and leaving behind some kind of connection, your legacy is amplified and strengthened by its presence in others. Shing Huei has done a phenomenal job collecting quotes from so many of Yeo’s colleagues and partners – even the CEOs of big companies like GSK and Mobil. This tapestry of views provides a uniquely humbling perspective on Yeo, a man who makes himself smaller than he actually is.

Is it worth reading the book? Yes, especially if you’re Singaporean. Don’t get disheartened by the system – even Yeo found ways to work around bureaucracy and if you’re truly a maverick, you too will find ways to partner and collaborate to get around the lines. The stories of how he faced roadblocks and just bulldozed through them are inspiring and stimulating. The book is an optimistic and ultimately simple view of a very complex person in complex times. Read it once to get the popular view, and then read more about him by following the paths left unexplored by Peh by going online.

I’ve created my own metrics for reviewing content below that I will replicate for future reviews.

Readability: 4.5/5

Intellectual Stimulation: 3/5

Perspective Shifting Capability: 3.5/5

Would I Recommend? – Yes

 

 

 

independent thought.

This is my first proper post so I guess it’s useful to do some sort of mapping before I jump in. Where my last blog traced the last 5 or so years of my life, I see this one lasting for a while longer. I’m entering the definitive young adult part of my life, where I’m thinking about topics of career, purpose, and justice in a more mature and nuanced light. I’m making a concerted effort to choose the people I want to keep in touch with and am selecting projects to be a part of based on a larger vision.

It’s really quite exciting, but I would be lying if I told you that I’m not any more nervous. The safety nets are being taken away and I’m going to have to take some huge risks to follow what I believe in.  There will be some structure to this blog, but there also will be chaos. I’m learning to become a fan of that: structure in chaos and chaos in structure.

I want to do more reviews – I want to read books, listen to podcasts, watch documentaries and make my own analysis of all of them. I want to build a thought product that is synthesized from the accumulation of experiences past and my own journey thus far.

I also want to do more reflections on major moments in my life. My friends and followers have reached out to me, mentioning the connection they feel to my posts and perspectives. I’m not delusional – I know I cultivate a rather privileged lifestyle but the truth is that a lot of this lifestyle is new to me and it feeds on itself. My character, principles, and values have been consistent though, and you’ll see that in every post I put up. My contexts may change, and boy do they do, but I fight to make my own place in this world and I fight that others may have theirs. That’s my narrative, and that narrative connects a lot to multiple parts of my identity. As Singaporeans, we fight to have a sovereign place in this world. As an immigrant, I still craft my own place as a Singaporean within this country. My introspection has not been self-indulgent but instead ironically outward-looking, trying to connect myself with a wider way of life.

And that brings me to the name of this blog. The Magic in the Space Between. A while ago, I told a good friend about my favorite movie series – the Before Trilogy. In my explanation, I discovered that a lot of what I loved about the movie was the balance between words said and words unsaid. In the attempt to understand, we discover the secrets in themselves that ask us to keep them hidden. And so, as I continue to make my place in this world, and continue to fight bullies that stop others from making their place in this world, I hope to derive a connection to the cosmos and life that allows me to understand the magic that exists. I will write about these attempts and I will trace how they shape my life.

I’ve thought about how these blogs will play a role in my future. I do want to play a larger role in my society and I am conscious that someday if not random people then at least my family will find these posts and gain insight into my development as a person. I’ve been truthful in all that I write, sometimes even making controversial claims, but one must understand that development and growth are not without error or exploration. I don’t trust anyone who believes in absolute truth because then they have never left their own area of comfort. We can only live a life true to ourselves, every day, every moment.

Here we are, I do think we’re ready to begin. And oh, I’m so excited….

make a difference.