Going home to books
2021

→ Nghe Thuat Ngay Thuong

Phan Cam Thuong
READING

Coming soon...

→ Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice

Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha
READING

Coming soon...

→ The Politics of Design ✺

Ruben Pater

Coming soon...

→ The Secret Lives of Baba Segi's Wives ✺

Lola Shoneyin

Coming soon...

→ Inside Out & Back Again ✺

Thanhha Lai

Coming soon...

→ The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir ✺

Thi Bui

After failing to pick up and finish a book in the first 2 weeks of 2021 I decided to switch things up and start the year with a graphic novel/fiction/autobiography book.

I finished The Best We Could Do in one sitting and it was poignant, eye-opening as well as beautifully illustrated. The book tells the story of Thi's history, meaning her parents' histories, their childhoods, their marriage, the births (and loss) of their children against the backdrop of the Vietnam War and refugee crisis. It's ultimately about her journey in discovering her roots as well as understanding the generational trauma caused by war and the resulting effects it has on her childhood growing up in America and now building her own family in adulthood.

I'm a Northerner and growing up in peace time in Vietnam means I was taught a different story or perspective about the Vietnam war, never fully understood why the refugee crisis happened. This book gave me not only a glimpse into "the other side's" perspective but also the humanity behind it, and the realization that when it comes to wars, and particularly the Vietnam war, it is never black and white, people do what they need to, to serve the cause they believe in, to protect the people they love, and to survive.

2020

→ I Will Never See the World Again: The Memoir of an Imprisoned Writer ✺

Ahmet Altan

I thoroughly enjoyed reading I Will Never See The World Again, traveling with Ahmet Altan to the corners of his mind, of his cell, of his prison courtyard which, now that I think about it, sounds rather perverse, or maybe not.

My heart wrenched when the author feels the walls closing in on his freedom, when he wrote "life is dead" and he is left behind, when he dissected the cruelty of his subjects (the doctors who refused to let him out of his handcuff for an X-ray) because: "When they treated you like you were nothing, you could counter it by acting as if they were a topic of research."

The book reminds me of Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning (also briefly mentioned by the author in one of his essays). Because Ahmet Altan, imprisoned, also has "never woken up in prison – not once." I feel privileged to, dare I say, be the author's travel companion, as I peruse these pages, and to arrive at the end as one of the eyes that read what he has written, for he says "each voice that repeats my name holds my hand like a little cloud and flies me over the lowlands, the springs, the forests, the seas, the towns and their streets. They host me quietly in their houses, in their halls, in their rooms. I travel the whole world in a prison cell."

→ What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets ✺

Michael J. Sandel

In What Money Can't Buy, Michael J. Sandel argues that there are things that money should not buy, like queuing, the act of gifting, friendship, death and more... Market values invading these spheres not only crowd out but also corrupt important non-market values like love and civic spirit. Throwing money at things change the meaning of the things being made into goods and to decide what should and should not be bought, we need to discuss and debate what constitutes the good life, what non-market values are sacred and we want to cultivate. I particularly like the chapter on how offering money to encourage people to practice their civic duty actually makes people less willing to do so and that civic spirit is like a muscle that should be used consistently in order to be nurtured and strengthen in time.

→ A Civic Technologist's Practice Guide ✺

Cyd Harrell

Cyd Harrell's book serves as an introduction to working as a technologist with or in government sectors. A Civic Technologist's Practice Guide draws several comparisons between the private vs. public sectors nature, mindset and practices throughout its chapters making it very accessible for folks coming from private tech industry like myself.

A few central ideas that I really enjoy are inclusion, scale and time in civic tech and civic tech as change and capacity building work. Inclusion is the thread that runs through most of the books I've read this year and Cyd Harrell puts it front and center in this book, from the issues of access to tech as a privilege, to understanding that expertise comes from different fields and not just technology, as well as undoing tech saviour complex by avoiding sapping the oxygen from underrepresented groups already working on challenging social issues.

Working in civic tech also means working on public dimes with less resources and in a low risk tolerance environment as compared to private sectors (e.g. start-ups' motto Move Fast, Break Things is not acceptable). It means the time and scale are different from that of a commercial product, as suggested by Cyd, you need to look at your work in the public sector as a 50-year project, and that means changing the way you look at improvement or success (i.e. does not always means migrating to the latest tech stack), and your job is also to make things better for the next person to come in to sustain and build on top of what you've done.

Lastly, civic tech work is change work, it's not just building products to meet the public's needs but also to increase the capacity of the public sector to do so. It means that civic tech work isn't just what you might be comfortable with doing i.e. the craft, but also demonstrating, modelling, teaching, learning, advocating, understanding politics, building alliances, meeting people where they're at to also shift the underlying mindset, systems and practices.

→ Designing Disorder: Experiments and Disruptions in the City ✺

Pablo Sendra and Richard Sennett

This book reads like a promising proposal for how to build a civil society through opening up the closed systems that are our overly segregated, overly rigid and ultimately raced, classed, gendered, unequal and divisive cities.

A city without the interactions between people, and between different people, is a dead city. The interactions between different people and communities who come from various different backgrounds, practice different customs, who look, sound and behave differently allow for not just tolerance but also a "loosening" of their sense of identity through negotiation, treating it as less "definable" or absolute, more conducive to acceptance and thus also celebration of differences. A civil society is a place where people can and must have both solitude and community where complexity and disorder may occur but is imperative for its vitality and growth.

The authors propose many different strategies to make this happen on the city level, but one that stood out to me was the idea of not building spaces with assigned functions in mind which can't adapt, but with functional capabilities for various uses, for change, uncertainty, and for possibilities imagined by the communities (that are unintended to the "designer"). So things must be modular, must be able to be assembled and reassembled for different purposes. This "affordance" allows for different activities and communities to occupy the space together, which again teaches people how to live comfortably in the presence of others.

Another idea that keeps coming up in recent books I've read is for designers to be facilitators of democratic design processes. Processes like listening, understanding, co-designing, co-producing are all crucial to designing in disorder, because there's almost always history to places and communities and things that are important to people. Involving communities as partners ensures that the design or redesign efforts do not erase what matters to these communities but build upon what should be preserved and enhanced. The designer's role is not to dictate what should be built but open up possibilities. In activism, "though this craft [co-production] is important, it is not in itself enough. We need to have a certain modesty about what we can't do..." and listen to the true experts.

→ Get Together: How to Build a Community With Your People ✺

Bailey Richardson, Kevin Huynh, Kai Elmer Sotto

Get Together is a guide to starting, building and celebrating communities. The book is succinct and easy to read but packed with great advices and questions to spark ideas and actions. It's about building communities "with" your people instead of "for" them, which really makes me think about the many things we haven't done and can do in the future for Friends of Figma, Singapore (FOFSG). I particularly love the chapter about passing the torch and supercharging "leaders" as many folks have reached out to offer their help and we want to in turn, help support them in becoming a part of the community.

→ Design Justice: Community-Led Practices to Build the Worlds We Need ✺

Sasha Costanza-Chock

This is perhaps the most important book I've read this year. Design Justice: Community-Led Practices to Build the Worlds We Need positions design practice (and technology in general) as a function in a larger context, within social movements, instead of subscribing to techno solutionism.

Design in its current form reproduces the matrix of domination by failing to consider intersectional structural inequality. The book digs deep into the root causes as well as gives introduction to the various existing design approaches (e.g. Value-sensitive Design, Participatory Design, Co-Design, etc...) that aim to address this problem. It also highlights the constraints of such approaches and suggests Design Justice Principles that not only derive from these approaches but also extend them by drawing from existing theories such as Black Feminist Thought, Critical Race Theory, Disability Justice and more.

It is pertinent to me at a point in my life where I feel a sense of dread when reflecting on my role as a designer and as a citizen. I will probably need to reread this book, and dig into the different resources recommended in order to better understand how I can begin to apply some of the principles to my life and work. Highly recommend to anyone working in tech.

→ Skim ✺

Jillian Tamaki, Mariko Tamaki

Picked up the book just a couple of days ago and finished it in one seating. I've been a fan of Jillian and Mariko Tamaki's work for some time now, especially Jillian's illustration. The last graphic novel of the duo I read was That One Summer and it was beautifully written as well as illustrated. Skim didn't disappoint. There's a rawness to the stories and images, a quiet intensity that reminds me of my own young adulthood. As a bisexual person, I relate to Skim too, when it comes to the coming of age "forbidden" love. Definitely check out the book, and others written and illustrated by them.

→ On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous ✺

Ocean Vuong

Beautifully written, On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous reads more like poetry rather than a novel. For that reason, the book is a little hard to follow, I think you'll have to go into it not expecting a coherent narrative but "vignettes" that are part fictional, part auto-biographical. I found bits and pieces that "we" share as Vietnamese, bits and pieces different from me but not entirely alien to me. The book makes me sad in so many different ways.

→ This Book Is Anti-Racist ✺

Tiffany Jewell, Aurélia Durand

This book is extremely easy to read and calls for self exploration and reflection on privilege and racism. It is a great starter for anyone who's beginning to wake up to the role that each of us needs to play in the work of anti-racism.

There are certain terms and ideas that really resonate with me. One that stands out is the term "folx of the Global Majority" – an "empowering people-centered term that reminds folx that Black, Brown, and Indigenous people are (numerically) the majority of people in the world".

Another is the idea of mapping out the different social identities that hold power (privileges) and those that don't. Being adjacent to the dominant race, like being Chinese-passing in Singapore for example, makes it easy for one to move through society.

Apart from the work of understanding oneself, being anti-racist also means taking actions, educating ourselves and the people around us to break us free from the danger of, again, the single narrative, "calling in and out" racist behaviors, giving space and amplifying the voices of BIPoC, and working towards changing the institutions and structures that uphold systemic opression.

→ There is No Outside: COVID-19 Dispatches ✺

Edited by Jessie Kindig, Mark Krotov, and Marco Roth

There is No Outside is a collection of essays outlining the various experiences of living through the pandemic around the world. I picked it up just as the murder of George Floyd sparks protests in all 50 states in the US and in cities elsewhere around the world. The message, unsurprisingly, rings familiar and true. Marginalized communities have talked about inequality and fought against it since the beginning of time.

In the essay Whores at The End of the World, one of my favorites from the collection, the author used the $1,000 fine that Cuomo – the now famous governor of New York – imposed on citizens breaking Shelter-in-Place order, to illustrate such inequality: “Such a fine punishes those who cannot afford to pay it: those who cannot afford to not be on the street. Access to indoor and online work is classed, gendered, and racialized. The inability to protect one’s own health and the health of one’s clients is not the product of individual moral failing but of state-sanctioned violence: the criminalization of harm reduction, of poverty, of Blackness, of non-normative gender expression. Nonetheless, it is the sick prostitute who will be punished, rounded up in a vice raid by the armed and moralizing police.”

There is No Outside does a good job at providing a variety of perspectives with reports on sailors adrift at sea on cruise ships, marginalized Muslim communities in India, refugees in Moria, State prisoners and sex workers in New York, etc... I find the rest of the essays on groups who are supposed to be like me i.e. privileged, can afford to work from home, rather alienating given the state of the world and what we are all waking up to. It's hard to complain about not being able to take your afternoon walk or to enjoy the poetic proses written about it when the most vulnerable amongst us are dying.

We see now, more clearly than ever, that we have been living in a fragile system, a pandemic away from falling apart and that pandemic is here. I hope we refuse to go back to "normal" and our "new normal", which I believe will require sacrifices, will emerge fairer, more equitable, more just.

→ The Art of Frugal Hedonism ✺

Annie Raser-Rowland, Adam Grubb

The Art of Frugal Hedonism talks about practical ways that we can be frugal in life but it doesn't focus on just the environmental and monetary aspects of living with less. The book is a starter for shifting the ways we think about values, what's worthwhile, what should be "relished" and how. We can exist in the world in harmony with nature, in strong, supportive communities, and we might just be happier for it.

→ Copywrong to copywriter ✺

Tait Ischia

A concise introduction to copywriting for startups, small business owners and perhaps designers too. I quite enjoy the succinct approach with clear tips and additional resources for anyone interested in or need to do some copywriting. If you do have the budget to hire a writer, this book will help you learn how to create a writing brief and evaluate the work.

→ The Unknown Unknown: Bookshops and the Delight of Not Getting What You Wanted ✺

Mark Forsyth

This is not really a book, more like an essay but one you would want to keep on your shelf nevertheless to occasionally be reminded of serendipity. Some of the best books I've read were picked up by chance at bookstores. The Unknown Unknown – things we don't know that we don't know, can happen to us when we least expect and turn out to be the most wonderful gifts that life has to offer.

→ The New One Minute Manager

Ken Blanchard

This book is short and doesn't really talk about anything new, but the storytelling is compelling so it was overall quite enjoyable.

→ UX Design for Growth: How to Optimize Your Product For Customer Conversion

Molly Norris Walker

Short book about what a typical Growth Designer's work involves. There's nothing new here but it's still a good introduction if you're interested in designing for Growth.

→ No One is Too Small to Make a Difference ✺

Greta Thunberg

A collection of Greta Thunberg's speeches. Urgent but hopeful.

→ Whistleblower: My Journey to Silicon Valley and Fight for Justice at Uber ✺

Susan Fowler

I couldn't put this book down. I've had my fair share of great and terrible work places, as well as scepticism when it comes to the cut throat bro culture in Silicon Valley. This book confirms a lot of it. But what resonates and what stays is the line "Be in the world but not of the world" that Susan Fowler's father, a preacher, taught her when she was young. Her life story is that of a self-taught, driven and brilliant young woman overcoming obstacles after obstacles, navigating a world designed by men and for men. It isn't fair, our experiences are oftentimes discounted. But we persist: "to live in the world, flawed as it was, while at the same time" holding ourselves to a higher standard.

→ How to Be An Anticapitalist in The 21st Century ✺

Erik Orin Wright

A hopeful book about the way forward which explains some of the concepts that might be more than ever pertinent to this time that we're all going through e.g. the freedom/democracy debate. What does freedom mean in a democratic society? What's wrong with meritocracy, what's the difference between the right to opportunity vs. the right to access? I highly recommend this book for anyone who wants to imagine a world, different from now, better than now and how we can get there.

→ Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men

Caroline Criado Perez

Well-researched and informative. This book makes me so angry about so many things, like the fact that there could have been a cure for PMS (the debilitating pain anyone who menstruates suffers from on a monthly basis) but it isn't considered to be enough of a "public health problem" for the research for the drug to be funded. It's about data, or the lack thereof to be exact but above all, it's about inequality and what happens when your world, and the world of so many others like you or different from you are designed by and therefore, for, only a subset of people – namely: cis, white male. (P.s. There have been criticism citing that this book/the author is trans-exclusionary. Will update this note when I know more.) 

→ Lurking

Joanne McNeil

This isn't my favorite. It has some very good anecdotes and observations about the early days of the internet and social networks but I couldn't find a coherent narrative throughout.

→ Exhalation ✺

Ted Chiang

I thought Black Mirror was good. This is so much better. Please read it. Easily the best fiction I've read in a long time.

→ The Hate U Give ✺

Angie Thomas

I cried and sobbed and couldn't put the book down. Highly recommend. And yes, it's better than the movie.

→ Free Lunch ✺

Rex Ogle

Free Lunch is part fiction part autobiography. It tells the story of Rex Ogle's childhood through the eyes of a young boy. I often hear about meritocracy in Singapore, but not many discuss the profound psychological effect that poverty has on children. To be born and grow up poor is to learn early on that the world isn't kind, to learn pain, loneliness, anger and shame. No child should have to endure hunger, let alone abuse. No child should have to hide their bruises, to carry the weight of systemic inequality in their most vulnerable and innocent years.

→ Mobility Justice: The Politics of Movement in an Age of Extremes ✺
Mimi Sheller

This is one of the most difficult reads I've done in the last 6 months and probably even harder to comprehend than Scale by Geoffrey West. But it was also worth the struggle.

Mobility Justice examines inequality through the lens of movement (or the control of movement) starting with the politics of the body, the circulation of people in the cities, across countries and then the flow of energy, resources, money that powers the world. I was first introduced to mobility justice in Teo You Yenn's This is What Inequality Looks Like, with a simple premise that for the poor, movement is limited to their places of work, their home and where their children go to school or in Mimi Sheller's example, migrants are imprisoned, abandoned, turned away from at borders. While for the rich, the world is small and ever increasingly accessible. Nation borders are truly borders or where two nations meet for the rich, but they are boundaries, or the edge, the end of the road for the poor.

The book tackles the issue from a systemic perspective and Mimi Sheller, like Geoffrey West, calls for cross-pollination of knowledge, of different government and private sectors to learn and work together in order to demand and pursue justice for all.

→ This Could Be Our Future: A Manifesto for a More Generous World

Yancey Strickler

This was interesting to read after I finished How to Be An Anti-Capitalist in the Twenty First Century by Erik Olin Wright. There were a lot of common examples used in both books. The writing and arguments were a little too simplistic for my liking. "Bentoism" as a framework can be used to help you think big picture, and think about how your actions may affect others. I'm not a fan, however, of solutions that target individuals as a cure for systemic problems. This book unfortunately falls into this bucket.

→ Our Women on The Ground ✺

Zahra Hankir

It took a few tries to finish this book. It's not because it isn't interesting or the writing is bad, it's just not my usual kind of read. It's a collection of writings from Sahafiyat or female journalists highlighting their personal experiences reporting on the Arab world. These women are truly courageous and remarkable, going where no male journalists could go, both breaking out of the stereotypes of the oppressed and all the while embracing their cultures. Their stories need to be heard precisely because of the danger of the single narrative that is so prevalent in mainstream media. It also reminds us of the devastating human and cultural cost of war. It is heartbreaking and an eye opener and a must-read.

→ The Ethical Design Handbook

Trine Falbe, Martin Michael Frederiksen, Kim Andersen

This book has some practical tips to design better but feels very shallow in terms of research and arguments. I didn't really enjoy it unfortunately.