Repatriation can be a pretty daunting experience. In the past few months, I tried a couple of things just to see if something would click. While I originally thought I would need a year to transition to life back in Manila, it took me twice the amount of time to fully settle.
On the first day of 2020, I changed my units of measurement from miles to kilometers and my personal accounting currency from US Dollars to Philippine Pesos. I guess you could say I’m finally home.
Overall, 2019 was a pretty great year. I joined a great organization that allowed me to continue my product work, we moved in to a new apartment, I ran a lot, ate a ton of food, visited Japan for the first time (and enjoyed it) and watched my kids grow and thrive. It was actually a bit of the same, but in a different city with different ways of doing things. Sure, I had to unlearn a lot of things, but I managed to pick up pretty fast.
A new cycle begins. Pretty apt considering I’m turning 40 in a few months.
It’s great being based in Asia. 2019 travel was a mix of the familiar and the new. It’s been months since I’ve been on a long haul flight and I don’t miss it at all.
I visited Hong Kong way too many times (in a holiday sense) for it to count as international travel. To us Manila-folk, Hong Kong will always be a convenient travel option. It makes perfect sense— you get there in a little under two hours and upon arrival you immediately enjoy world-class public transportation, eat amazing food and have access to pretty good retailers. Flights can be quite reasonable too, and so are the hotels. A 3-day trip is more than enough to scratch my itch. What’s not to love about this city?
When violent protests broke out in the streets of Mong Kok, I was attending a conference a few blocks away. Curiously, there was a “business-as-usual” air all throughout the event, with only a few people worrying as their return flights were canceled. But it was clear, Hong Kong society is entering a transformative era. Things might never be the same again.
Towards the summer months, I joined my wife and her friends for a short weekend in Bali. A big group of us stayed in a villa where we were attended to by a staff of three. The villa had great rooms, a nice pool and a common area. We dined on home-cooked meals and relaxed amidst the view of adjacent rice paddies. It was an honest-to-goodness vacation, I hadn’t felt that relaxed in a while.
We did check out the party scene in Bali. We felt our age, kept it real and realized that we’d rather be back in our villa not doing anything.
We visited three key cities in Japan over two trips, one in May and another in December. This country has everything, tasty food, great people, green parks, fast trains, rich culture, heated toilets and quite possibly the best convenience stores on the planet. What took me so long to go ?
Japan is the current destination du jour for Filipinos. Flights have become cheaper and visa issuance isn’t much of a pain anymore. This meant getting a lot of recommendations prior to our trip. It also helped that my father-in-law is a huge Japanophile, with a particular interest in Japanese trains that made it really convenient for us to get around the city.
We began our journey in Tokyo, where my family traveled with the rest of my in-laws. We were a big group, with two toddlers in tow. That didn’t stop us from doing a lot of things in Tokyo. I took my son to Hakuhinkan, a building filled with tons of Japanese toys, perfect for a kid who’s into Tomica and Plarail sets. We checked out the teamLab: Borderless exhibit and treated ourselves to a pretty trippy light show. We bought gashapons at every opportunity (those things do add up), sampled a lot of food from those Konbinis, bought knickknacks from Tokyo Hands and walked a lot.
For a big city, Tokyo works really well. The public transportation system is great, its neighborhoods bring a lot of vibrance and personality (just like New York) and people are polite. I’d love to see more of Tokyo in the future. I feel we barely scratched the surface.
We hopped on a shinkansen and made our way to Kyoto, the second leg of our May trip. we settled in a smaller hotel and experienced a city sans the overwhelming urbanity of Tokyo. We had a more relaxed pace during our time there, we opted to just randomly discover stores and restaurants in our immediate neighborhood. The kids even managed to play in a tiny city playground with locals.
We used Kyoto as a jump-off point for a series of day trips to the Osaka Aquarium and the Arashiyama Bamboo forest. We mostly did touristy stuff but even those things were fun enough, after all, we were there for the kids.
Kyoto is probably more representative of Japan. It’s quieter, full of people just minding their own business.
I had a different reason for visiting Osaka in December so it was just me and my wife this time around. Osaka is still distinctly Japanese, maybe with a little bit more liveliness in the air. It feels different from Tokyo, it’s just a bit hard to pin down why . Still, we enjoyed the sheer density of the place . The food scene is definitely more vibrant and our appetites pretty much guided us around the city.
It may not have been as great as the previous year but I was still obsessively consistent. In 2019, I ran a total of 2,309 kilometers spread over 224 runs. I ran more indoors, on a treadmill, thanks to a lack of proper outdoor running options in Makati (good thing I can run down south on weekends). Burned through a lot of shoes as well, retiring my trusty long run Mizunos for a new pair (that turned out better), cursed Nike for making narrower shoes, resulting in a nasty callus that requires a pedicure every six weeks, and rekindled my relationship with Asics.
I’m slower now. I would say by a lot. Easy runs in New York meant running an 8:45 minute mile, now it’s more of a 10:15. But that’s okay. I’m not too bothered.
Coming from the running wanderlust I gained from Chicago in 2018, I ran the China Coast Half Marathon in January and it proved to be one of the toughest 21Ks I’ve ever encountered. As someone used to running flat indoors, the course’s 418m elevation defeated me towards the end.
It was a fun race though. The view from the top was great. Dodging taxi cabs from time to time was weird but kinda added some quirk to the race. It also marked my second half marathon in Hong Kong (the first one was way back in 2010 and gave me a pretty solid reason to train early in the year.
My official time was 2:00:14. I was happy with it, given the elevation.
After a strong-ish start to the year, I settled into my running routine—- typically 4-5 runs a week, covering 40-42kilometers. I’ve run under the scorching heat frequently enough to know this is not for me. This also meant sacrificing a big chunk of my sleep to wake up between 4-5AM just to avoid 8AM scorchers. Same yearly mileage goal, different ways of tackling it.
Going for a quick run during a holiday has its perks. Not only do you get to see more of the city, you get to offset excess calories from all that eating. I ran in parks, on hotel treadmills (they count), around castles and palace grounds.
I was still yearning to run a marathon. I felt I was in good running shape after the 2018 season. I originally signed up for the Porto Marathon in November but skipped that in favor of something else. Osaka was the more attractive option for me, given its proximity. Also, I didn’t get in any majors in 2019, thanks to my luck with lotteries.
I’m so glad I chose Osaka though. I was already smitten with Japan after our trip last May and I wanted to see more of the country.
The 12-week training period is the marathon itself. It was a pretty difficult training session for me. Opting to do my speed runs on the treadmill. I trained with the standard McMillan Running program made available to Strava Summit subscribers. Since it worked so well for me in Chicago, I didn’t see any reason why it wouldn’t a second time.
I started my training in September. I jumped at the chance of joining some Berlin and Chicago-bound runners during their taper runs which would help me get over the mental hurdles associated with a grueling 12-week training plan. It was a considerably late fall marathon, which tends to cluster around the late September to early November. At one point, I knew I was going to train by my lonesome. Fortunately, I managed to reconnect with people from my past, and also meet new friends. I joined a training group for Osaka led by Coach Ige Lopez. It was great meeting all of these people. They’re a great bunch.
So yes, I did my usual mix of intervals (doing Yassos again), tempos and long runs. It was hard at times, I remember cramping on one long run in Alabang. I rarely cramp. I knew I wouldn’t be as fast coming into the race. And I was totally okay with that. There was just so much happening in my world, I’d be lucky to do a sub-5. I tried to follow the plan to a T, but life happened so I missed a couple of key workouts. But I had to finish what I started. So I just showed up.
The race itself was wonderful. The weather was perfect, a bit chilly but perfect for running. It was well organized too, with a pretty fun expo experience and great communications with its participants. It’s really something deserving of its status within the running community. In fact, it felt just like a major. With 32,000 runners, it’s not too far off.
And wow Osaka. What a great city. Great food, nice people and culture to boot. Rica and I got there three days before the race so I had ample time to soak it all in and have some glorious local food. We started the race at around 7AM so I was all relaxed and ready by then. It was also a big plus that our hotel was just two blocks away from the start line. I was ready, powered by one egg sando and a couple of carby treats I brought from Manila. They even had this jelly drink that has the same energy content of one cup of rice. It was pretty good. I hoarded carbs minutes before the race.
I needed all of it. The course had a lot of “false flats” – those things that sucker you into running the same pace only to leave you more tired than usual. It was quite scenic though– things you tend to forget once you’re there and focused on the next aid station. So yeah, I remember it as scenic. At the halfway point, clocking in at 2:04, I thought I was doing pretty well, the prospect of a hitting a new PR even possible.
As I ran through the next half of the marathon, my legs started to feel tired (rightfully so). I almost hit the wall in the 30s, if not for the food distributed throughout the course. Osaka is known for all the available treats along the course and it did not disappoint. I was actually full towards the end! It also helped that there were a ton of people – most of them elderly – cheering you on AND ready to give you a hit of their muscle spray which was quite endearing.
I finished the marathon with an official time of 4:13:02. 5 minutes longer than my personal best but 5 minutes less than my projected finish time. I was quite happy with the result. I think I’m going to do more of these in the next few years. Berlin is next.
No surprise that I sampled a lot of new food with all that travel. It was mostly Asian fare ranging from classics to new, interesting restaurants in the region.
Hong Kong is a great restaurant city, filling that void created when I said goodbye to New York. We had a chance to check out two of chef May Chow’s restaurants, the Little Bao Diner in Causeway Bar and Second Draft in the Tai Hang area. The specialty buns were good, huge and tasty, but I’m now a fan of her LB Caesar and Brussel Sprouts. Naturally grammable sans the stunt food appeal, Second Draft was fun, serving great gastropub fare. We enjoyed her fried chicken that went really well with beer.
Then we had Cantonese siu mei staples like Yung Kee (we didn’t have the patience to line up at Yat Lok). You’ll always have a good time there. If you feel like splurging some more, there’s Mott 32 for their decadent char siu. Despite all this , I fondly remember those cheap, take-out char siu/siew yoke combo meals from the neighborhood siu mei place in residential Kennedy Town. I’d eat those in my airbnb and be full at probably a tenth of the price of Mott 32.
We didn’t really eat out in Bali. For the most part we had our villa staff prepare our meals. While their nasi goreng and satay was tasty, it was actually the Gado-gado that stood out. We enjoyed it so much we asked them to make it twice. It was delicious. Otherwise, the restaurant scene, based on our limited experience, was okay. I had an okay burger from an okay Aussie brunch joint, and the food in Mexicola was just plain instagram bait. I’ve had better tacos elsewhere in Asia (read: Lagrima).
Then there was Japan, full of restaurants that get a lot of things right. It was love at first bite with the tamago sando .I ended up running an ad-hoc taste test across all the konbinis just to figure out which had the best (Answer: Lawson’s). Some of our memorable meals included ramen with a nice seafood base, steak prepared two-ways (grilled and teppanyaki-style), both of which were good. The sushi place we went to, unfortunately, was a tourist trap and was kind of a letdown considering the rest of the restaurants we’d been to . And it’s Japan!
Have you had Tempura so good you completely ignored the shrimp and went crazy for sweet potato (custardy, rich) and baby corn (snappy, fresh)? We chanced upon an unassuming Tempura restaurant in Kyoto, filled with locals, and tucked into one of those side streets. It was magical. Right across it was a karaage specialty restaurant that was also good. We had biru with everything.
Speaking of alcohol, I also drank way too much chuhai in Japan, something my Fukuoka-based friend described as a typical gaijin behavior. I tried as many variants as I could while I was there, from the ubiquitous Strong Zero series to the canned highballs carrying the Suntory and Jim Beam brand. It was cheap, and delivered a nice kick at 9%. You can just imagine my joy when I saw them stocked in some Manila groceries.
I also ate a lot of street meat. From braised intestines in the streets of Hong Kong, to yakitori and kushikatsu in Japan. I should turn this into an instagram project.
Manila remains to be quite a vibrant city for dining. Standouts this year include The Ricksha Street Tandoor restaurant in Kapitolyo where I enjoyed their Tandoori Chicken Salad & Dum Biryani. I also enjoyed Siam Thai BBQ in the same area, proving that you have way better alternatives to those ubiquitous Samgyupsal-esque places all over the city. Elbert’s Pizzeria in Salcedo Village adds further fuel to a growing pizza scene in the city. Metronome was also good.
I’d like to go deep into certain genres of food at this point. I’d like to understand Japanese Curry some more, maybe experiment and find some East Asian food as well.
I’m resigned to the fact that I can’t do as much cooking as I want to. But our household help has proved to be quite a stellar proxy for all the things I’d like to try. Our cook previously worked in the Middle East and brought with her great recipes like Chicken Kabsa (a.k.a. Majboos), Biryani and Cabbage Rolls, all of which were really good. I’m a sucker for mixed rice dishes. I think we should have more of it at home. I also attempted to make kebabs with the wide grilling sticks I ordered from Lazada but can’t seem to get it right. Maybe it’s the lack of a proper charcoal grill. I have to tweak this further.
I wanted to like my Spotify annual review a lot but Something about it was a bit off. All in all, I listened to 2,719 unique tracks from 1,449 artists.
My top 10 tracks for the year were all women-led. Leading the pack was Charli XCX’s single “Gone” from her latest album with me listening to it 253 times. I’ve followed Charli’s work for years now, even before her collaboration with PC Music’s A.G. Cook, and she continues to create the music of the future. Then more of the same from the past years, mostly Scandinavian pop, most of them danceable (I don’t dance). Scandinavian pop dominated my Top 100 list all in all. I listened to a lot of Tilda Austen, Sigrid, Eva, Noonie Bao, Lisa Ajax.
My commute was dominated by podcasts and audiobooks. I’ve narrowed down my Podcast listening to a pretty simple routine. There’s “The Daily” by the New York Times, “Track Changes” by Postlight and the occasional “Splendid Table” by American Public Media and of course “Planet Money” by the NPR guys. Otherwise, audiobooks (more on this later).
This leaves me with room to listen to music during my runs, which kinda explains why this year’s list is poppier than usual. In fact, I listened to music less than the previous year, mostly concentrated -in the months of June and July (at the height of marathon training). I also listened to music at work, stuff from jazz guy Mathias Algotsson (whose album was aptly titled “Home at Work” followed by the inspired “Home at Work Again”). I also listened to a bit of Lonely Island just for laughs. “Jack Sparrow” remains to be one of the best comedic works in recent history.
As I built my running playlists, I’d often revisit old favorites so it was a big year for that too. In fact, I’ve iterated on my running playlist many times and it’s finally in a good, unstoppable state. As part of my marathon music prep, I come up with two playlists of equal length— a steady first half playlist with lots of pop, R&B and Electro then shift gears with my “And Off We Go” playlist with music from Sonic Youth, The Dambuilders, Com Truise and a whole slew of music you would categorize as “vaguely danceable rock music”. It’s a lot of fun. If there’s one thing to take away from this, just add Sonic Youth’s “Incinerate” and you’ll run faster by at least 20%. The same can be said about Mr Little Jean’s “Good Mistake”. These are timeless power songs. Then there’s “Pogo” by Digitalism. Of course!
As for albums of note, I liked Shura’s “forevher” while Lil Nas X’s EP was an unexpected surprise (I’m partial to his track “C7osure”). I’m also honest enough that “Charli” by Charli XCX was a bit of a disappointment, especially after releasing a lot of bangers in the lead up to the actual release of the album.
I continue to “stan” (obligatory “is that what kids listen to nowadays” bit) PC Music only because they’re the best. Like really crazy good. Get on this train.
Speaking of stanning, I sampled some Kpop, but nothing major. It’s actually pretty good. I respect the scene. It’s just that I’ve reached that point in my life where an album like “Home at Work” is my idea of a good time. I look forward to more music like that in my life. I’m getting old.
Software done right, is a beautiful, living thing. I love it so much that I practically earn a living from it as a product person. But sometimes these things wilt, either from bad decisions or an emergent alternative that’s good enough to replace the incumbent. As I begin a new decade of computing I said goodbye to software I’ve used for years (some going all the way back to 2004) and said hello to more progressive, hungrier products. It was a bit difficult to mechanically say goodbye, yet I emerged triumphant. I was ready to move forward. Farewell, Evernote and Flickr.
Then there’s social media. Things are generally more inward-looking for me right now. I only published one post on Facebook (only to thank people who greeted me on my birthday – I’m no barbarian) and shared two photos on Instagram in 2019. I still tweeted a lot though, probably more than the usual but then again, Twitter is a weird place. This sense of inwardness led me to finally cut off Flickr, whose community, much to my disappointment, died a long time ago. Couple that with a pretty stagnant and dated product experience, I just knew I had to let it go.
This was also the year of realized disillusion with some hardware brands I’ve grown loyal to. I think Apple has become too complacent (save for the Airpods, now on my second pair). I was really taken aback by Apple’s response to this whole keyboard fiasco (yet, I got one of those newer Macbook Pros for work) and the lack of any substantial updates on the iOS and iPhone front. It just wasn’t something I wanted anymore. That Apple magic has somewhat dimmed.
I had the option to get a new phone at work so I jumped at the chance and immediately got a Huawei Mate 20 Pro. True confession: I used to view Android fanboys (disparagingly) as the same guys who used to overclock their PCs in the 90s. People who saw complexity and pointless performance as a plus rather than a liability. Let’s just say I ate my words. I love how I can actually customize a lot of things with my phone right now, from custom launchers to widgets.
But the big revelation here was the maturity of the Google ecosystem, which brings me back to my timely farewell to Flickr. Google Photos is what a modern photo management site should aspire to be. Not only does it offer a better way to view and catalog your photos, it’s great at repurposing your photos. Your photo library becomes this highly personalized source of entertainment, from resurfacing and remixing existing photos to surfacing old photos from the past (in the form of stories). I love how I can autogenerate albums and I actually use its people feature. While there’s valid concern for privacy, given that Google is essentially an advertising business, I’ve more or less adapted a pro-data sharing stance. It’s always a two-way relationship with these platforms.
In a way, my shift to Google could be one of circumstance. Asia is more conducive to an open Internet where sticking to your typical Apple stack can be limiting (but amazing in the US). Google offers more flexibility. To illustrate, my TV runs on Android TV. Equipped with the Google Assistant, I can now control my Xiaomi air purifier and electric fans through my TV(!) and phone. Of course you can do this with Apple, but your options are more limited.
I still got an Apple Card though. That thing is pretty.
On the note-taking front, I’ve successfully migrated my Evernote content to Notion, where it’s more organized and frankly, prettier. I like the flexibility provided by notion blocks. The ability to have multi-column layouts did it for me. It’s just a superior product experience. It also helps that there are a lot of users out there openly sharing their workflows. Evernote’s community, on the other hand, is dead. And these things do matter. As for notion, it has become a reliable note taking, lightweight project management, trip-planning app for me. Evernote’s old job, which- was to serve as a vault for important, scanned documents has been relegated to Google Drive and iCloud (just for redundancy), I don’t need a notes app for that. Still, there’s so much to improve on the Notion side of things, maybe better search and speed.
I love these morphable apps. Airtable is quite the workhorse– I’m using it as a CMS for some of the sites I manage, a home inventory (inspired by a paid option I found in the wild), planned our move to the new apartment – basically anything that requires a pretty rich database. It sucks as a spreadsheet and should never be considered as one – that’s what Google Sheets are for.
As for other apps, I still use Dropbox paper for general writing, especially product specs and longform content. I’ve tried my hand at Figma and see why it’s better than Sketch but I still find myself using Sketch as my core design tool because I’m just too lazy to learn a new design tool. I never missed a day in my Day One diary and look forward to writing init every day. The whole Google Suite is just better, even after my exposure to Office 365 at work (is this even a valid argument?).
Slack remains to be my core chat tool, begging everyone at work (who’s used to Viber – the corporate messenger of choice in this market) to sign up. So far, it’s been good. The ones I have to interact with everyday are online so that works out . All I’m saying is, we should compartmentalize. You should separate work chat from the personal. That way you can mute it outside of work. Isn’t that better? Interestingly, Slack usage dropped for a total of 35 hours in 2019, a far cry from my News Deeply days.
Airmail remains to be my go-to mail client, having spent a total of 96 hours on it last year. This was followed by me spending 69 hours on my to-do list. Managing your tasks can have such a huge overhead.
I’ve tried a couple of duds too. Coda.io is pretty interesting but not good enough to make me choose it over Notion. Plus a whole slew of apps I completely forgot about (and there are lots of them).
I had a little bit of fun with hardware this year and it pretty much covers a lot of things. I suddenly had to upgrade my Fitbit Flex, which I loved, after losing it in Osaka in December. It was the third model I used (starting with the Zip, then the One). I needed something I could put on a clip so ended up getting a Fitbit Inspire right away. I’m quite happy with it and I consider it a huge upgrade from the hyper minimalist Inspire tracker. And I have a better chance of not losing it.
I stand by my policy of having an almost ambient tracker. I don’t need another thing to put on my strap, that’s what my refurbished Garmin Forerunner 235 tracker is for. If you want to maintain a step habit, which I have since 2012, you want something that’s out of the way. I’ve seen way too many people get a Fitbit for Christmas, only to drop it after a few years (you should see my Fitbit friends list).
I also acquired a couple of neat toys that, in a way, are a reflection of my new life here in Manila. We had to get Air Purifiers for our apartment, one Coway and another Xiaomi to make sure that the kids are breathing cleaner air in the city. I also got one of those Mi Walking Pads, which is a delight to use. I paired it with a cheap standing desk setup and now I have a walking treadmill I use at work. I have no excuse now not to hit my daily 10,000 step quota on days where I don’t run.
As part of my whole Google ecosystem, I have a Sony Android TV that could be a bit better on the user interface side of things, and a Google WIFI setup that came with my home fiber connection.
I’m currently using a 2019 Macbook Pro (sans Touchbar) for work and I’m quite happy with it (I know I’m seriously contradicting myself here). I upgraded to the newer Airpods after my first generation Airpods died. I do most of my charging with Qi Wireless chargers.
I’ve more or less kept the rest. My personal Macbook Pro from 2015 is still running pretty well despite showing some physical signs of age and my refurbished Garmin Forerunner 235 is still a workhorse. My phone doesn’t really matter much since they’ve all felt the same, performance-wise since 2017. Only the software has changed.
The Southeast Asian Internet (in 2019)
It’s been more than a year since I last set foot in North America. I still think about the overall Internet experience a lot but I don’t necessarily miss it. More often than not, it’s really the external factors that irk me from time to time. Case in point, waiting times for Grab during peak hours. It’s really more symptomatic of the market rather than the technology itself, which is considerably more sophisticated than Uber. Lalamove remains to be indispensable for personal errands (without the complicated add-on fees and taxes of American startups). As for services I have yet to try, there are transport services like Angkas and MetroMart for online groceries since Honest Bee had to shut down. There’s a beepbeep.ph, as a service for motorists with their on-demand services. I love it. Klook is also pretty great for traveling, something North America badly needs. Our move to the new apartment was also aided by Transportify, though I had a pretty sad experience with Gawin. There are hits and misses.
I totally dig this whole superapp scene made popular by the likes of Grab and Gojek (which isn’t available in the Philippines yet). To a certain degree, Lazada is also a superapp (I guess in the same vein as Indonesia’s Tokopedia). They all seem to have a core wallet strategy, then offering a whole slew of adjacent services on top of their core offering. Grab can do logistics, food delivery, bills payment and airtime while Lazada does the same too with airtime. I haven’t completely utilized these apps, going more with Paymaya – a true wallet app with really generous rebates when you pay your bills and groceries. In this superapp world, the incentives are financial for me.
After a period of disappointment, I’ve been happy with our online banking options as well. BPI does it pretty well, followed by Security Bank. I’d love to try Unionbank one of these days. I think they’re well on the right path to make things better.
The Southeast Asian Internet is far from perfect. I’d love to see online pharmacies giving the incumbent Mercury Drug a run for its money. Here in the Philippines, you have an overabundance of lending apps, a classic case of the lechon manok phenomenon. Maybe it’s also time for us to have a good regional ebook and audiobook retailer, although I can see how they’ll have a hard time competing with a juggernaut like Amazon when it arrives on our shores.
I went on semi-hiatus this year. I did buy a lot of games though, mostly out of peer pressure and serious FOMO. I wish I had more time to play. I really do. There was an attempt to relive my Zelda experience (by proxy) with Skyrim and although I see and actually appreciate the appeal, the realization that it was going to be yet another 200 (or more) hour game just made it hard for me sustain. It’s great though. It feels as if you can do so much more in that universe. There was also an attempt to play Super Smash Bros Ultimate, but that didn’t work out so well. I’m just not good at playing Smash and I’m totally fine with that.
Tetris 99 was a pretty good distraction and West of Loathing was a throwback to those days we played Kingdom of Loathing at work more than a decade ago. Untitled Goose Game and its novelty wore off after a few attempts. Maybe I’m better off playing “big” games on the Switch. The last game I played, Pokemon Sword was fun. But again, you really have to put in the work here.
I sometimes wish I could find more time to play. After all, I’ve got a TV set in a living room with a Switch. Kids, especially toddlers can be a blocker too. And I’m usually tired by the time I get home. I’m not good at this whole gamer dad business.
I’ve completed Goodreads’ Reading Challenge for the seventh straight year, going all the way back to 2013 – where I set a yearly reading quota of 20. It has since normalized to 30 books a year and I’ve been setting this target since 2015. While it’s good to read all of these books, I’m now starting to feel less attached to what I read. I feel I haven’t been retaining as much, a lot of ideas have been falling through the cracks.
As an aside, I live by very simple rules in my life. Run 1200 miles a year, read 30 books, set aside a certain amount of money for savings and if possible, run a marathon. I noticed everything flows from there. You can see where this is going. I’ve become an achievement junkie and it has somehow led to this state of subpar retention when it comes to books. Maybe I’m measuring progress with the wrong metrics.
I discovered the utility of audiobooks last year, again more as an adjustment to my relocation to the Philippines. It just makes more sense for me to listen to audiobooks while sitting in Manila traffic. It’s essentially the same pattern of media consumption I had in New York, where I would catch up on my ebook reading during my commute. The intent remains the same, the medium just adapted to its environment. I should note, however, that I tend to retain more information with audiobooks. And this was an unexpected benefit.
I listened to a total of 19 audiobooks last year, translating to a lot of listening hours (considering that an average audiobook is 8 hours long). I guess you could say I listened my way through my reading quota. I’m currently subscribed to Audible, with the occasional purchase of credit bundles. It’s been such a great experience. And they have Android Auto/Apple Carplay capabilities too.
I gained additional credits in my personal MBA in 2019, reading a lot of books about Management and Leadership. I’ve been an individual contributor in the past decade and with my new role in Cignal, so I had to reacquaint myself with these unsharpened skills. I started with the basics, going with “The First 90 Days” by Michael D. Watkins then progressed to Julie Zhuo’s “Making of a Manager”, “Radical Candor” by Kim Scott, “Measure What Matters” by John Doerr and Ben Horowitz’s “What You Do is Who You Are” and “Trillion Dollar Coach” towards the end of the year. This set of books gave me a general toolkit to draw from. And this was something I really needed in 2019. Of the lot, I found “Measure What Matters” to be really inspiring, “Making of a Manager” on the other hand, was quite a good listen, allowing to me to get a refresher course on the basics.
Then there were books that were so below the radar, only the dedicated and curious are rewarded with a find so good that you’re just surprised by its unseen value. I was thinking about Nokia one day and wondered if there was a good case study out there about the company’s history, notably what caused the company to lose so much market share to Apple and Google (by way of Microsoft). In my search, I stumbled upon a pretty boring looking book called “Transforming Nokia” written by its current chairman Risto Siilasma. And here I was thinking, “what? they’re still around?”. This book is a great modern fable of too much success, a company’s decline and its eventual redemption. The prose isn’t entertaining, oftentimes, robotic but the message is clear – with great management – and a great board of directors in this case you can pretty much steer a company to a dramatic turnaround. You won’t hear stories like this nowadays. I have so much respect now for Nokia and its leadership team. They should also write a book on Foursquare and maybe even Vonage.
I remember kidding to someone about completing my “modern grifter” trilogy years a few years back, right after reading “Billion Dollar Whale” and “Bad Blood”. The joke was finally complete when I read “My Friend Anna”, the story of New York City grifter Anna Delvey. It was generally entertaining, as is always the case with high profile scams. As a bonus, and not necessarily part of my imaginary grifter trilogy was Evan Ratliff’s “The Mastermind” – the story of a hacker turned kingpin who somehow built his empire from the Philippines. In Makati no less.
I’m a nonfiction reader by default. I do, however, read at least one fiction book to keep things fresh. In 2019, I read Ling Ma’s “Severance”, a post-apocalyptic zombie novel with a deadpan narrator. I liked the book a lot, it was quite an easy read(listen) and goes to show how boring life can still get when society breaks down.
Other notable books of the year include John Hodgman’s “Medallion Status” and “Vacationland“. I didn’t know he was such a gifted writer, in the same vein as David Sedaris. I also liked the bittersweet saga of Serious Eats, through the almost eponymous book “Serious Eater” by Ed Levine. I also enjoyed Russ Parsons “How to Read a French Fry” as well as Scott McCloud’s “Understanding Comics”. I wanted to really get into James Clear’s “Atomic Habits” book, maybe I’ll have a chance to read this again. There’s just so much to digest in that book.
There’s still a ton of stuff to read (more of listen) out there. But I have to somewhat tweak my accidental solution to information retention with audiobooks. Goodreads recently clarified that rereads actually count against your reading challenge targets. I think it’s time to revisit some old friends.
My wife chides me for not talking about our family too much. Well, it’s really more of a privacy concern more than anything. But hey, a big bulk of the “action” came from this part of my life. It’s the most important part!
Rica has pretty much transitioned to Manila-life, way earlier than I did. She’s still in advertising, enjoying a leisurely stroll to work (occasionally hailing a Grab) and has taken up spin classes in the neighborhood. The kids on the other hand have been busy during the day with school. It’s funny how 2 year olds like Oz have the option to attend special classes where they learn their ABCs. Max, on the other hand is doing great in a Montessori setting. I’ve taken particular interest in their toys as well, with both kids into cars, the Tomica kind in general. Max has graduated to legos with Oz taking over Duplo duties. I think these toys are great for creating new neural links in their developing brains.
It’s good to be surrounded by family. Again this is one of the major reasons why we decided to move back to Asia. Everything just seems tighter and stronger at this point. We are blessed to raise our family around a community. We wouldn’t have it any other way.
I’d like to have the mental capacity to “create” and “share” again so this means increasing my output. I see a lot of great opportunities towards building datasets and turning it into real products. I love how Airtable has made this whole thing fun and I’m trying to come up with ways on how to do more with it.
On a related note, I’m also loving the growing NoCode movement. While some of us have great memories of visual software development with dreamweaver in the late 90s, I started playing with modern versions like Squarespace and a whole slew of visual page building plugins in WordPress like Visual Composer a few years ago. I think this will result in a new “adept” class of professionals, people who understand how the web should look like without the need for sophisticated engineering. Being tool adept is a great modern, professional skill. You’ll go places with this mindset.
These things are by no means revolutionary. The time is just ripe for greater adoption of these tools. And that’s pretty exciting.
I’d love to go deep with a couple of things in 2020 as well. Maybe I can spend more time in the kitchen, improving my skill. I’m curious about working with flour, water, salt, yeast and all that good stuff. Maybe I can practice again with Jim Lahey’s no-knead bread since I don’t have a stand mixer (nor do I plan to get one, those things occupy so much space). I’d like to learn more about Mexican cuisine. Fermentation is also interesting.
I don’t really have any bold, new initiatives this year. I believe in the power of incremental growth. Small tweaks can really go a long way. I started the year resetting my tools and dropping some. But the core framework (see aside above) remains the same only because it has worked so well for me in the past.
I’m turning 40 this year. I’ve gone through enough cycles already and it’s nice to approach this age in a time of relative stability. I’m happy to be where I am. There’s no place I’d rather be. Not even New York City.
This marks my fifth year of writing this yearly essay, but also a reminder that I’ve only been doing this one post a year schtick this whole period. I keep telling myself that I should write more. Some people have told me that they checked out my “blog” and I find myself really embarrassed for subjecting them to this exercise in navel gazing.
But this is such a great exercise in reflecting on the year that was. There’s a tiny part of me that does write this for third-party consumption, only to give some people I’ve lost touch with a sense of catching up (if they can power through all 7,500 words of it). This year was particularly long. I’ve become more verbose in my writing thanks to my daily journaling routine which has progressed from 200 words to a day to more than double. Life remains more or less the same, I’m just getting more comfortable putting it in writing.
I do believe that people will start embracing inwardness soon though and entries like these – putting yourself out there, is going to be a thing of the past. Maybe we’re all tired of keeping tabs. I am.
I started writing this essay on the 23rd of December. Then I started writing a section a day on weekdays. I had to rewrite a lot of sections in the process. It’ll never be perfect. I still see typos and regrettable prose from the previous years. I’ve kept at it on a daily basis, setting up a recurring task for January and February. I finished the first round of copyedits on February 9. It all came together towards the end of February, thanks to my wife! You should marry someone willing to edit this. Photos were added in March. Links came last. I should be more efficient next year. Or reduce the length by half!
Thanks for reading. Whoever you are!