[book review] Tokyo Totem A Guide to Tokyo

Tokyo Totem A Guide to Tokyo
A different introduction to Tokyo, Tokyo Totem is not your usual guide book. It steps away from the glitz and glamour of Tokyo and gives you a different view of the city. Instead of the tourist traps, this book is a great guide on seeing how the city actually lives and breaths. It shows you the ebbs and flows of one of the largest city in the world. How does 37 million people live and work in such cramped spaces and how it all works harmoniously.
Tokyo Totem

The book is a collection of articles ranging from the mundane convenience store to the enchanting bath houses. I never thought I’ll use the word enchanting for a public bath house, but I’ve you’ve been to a city sento, you’ll know what I mean.

There’s a lot to say about this book and it’s so hard to categorize because the topics are so diverse so I’ll just focus on the one that I enjoyed a lot.

Ever Transforming Tokyo

A big theme of the book is how Tokyo is an ever changing landscape. Japan being a earthquake heavy country, this means that building codes are strongly enforced and old buildings are torn down rather than maintained. This means that the building you saw two years ago during your vacation are probably gone by now. This is why it’s so hard to stalk some film locations as the whole scenery has probably changed by the time you went on that vacation.

In the book you’ll see several examples like the combini who keeps changing owners yet occupies the same space throughout the years. This is one aspect of Tokyo that baffles a lot of my tourists friends. The contrast between the old and the new is obvious just because of the temples besides the modern skyscrapers, but there’s really no district in Tokyo that you can point at and say that  it has been there since the 1800’s. This is a great contrast compared to older European cities like Paris or Amsterdam. However, a redeeming factor with all this is how areas change but it’s purpose doesn’t. There’s a few places in Tokyo that still retained it’s purpose either because the family continues it or the place is known for that expertise. Places like a butcher, sushi shop, or knife seller. The physical buildings might have changed and now looks modern and yet its purpose hasn’t changed in hundred of years. One of the authors compare this to Amsterdam where the building is 400 years old, but the meaning is lost now that it’s a sex shop.

This fluidity of Tokyo is sometimes confusing and yet comforting for me. Right now there’s even several construction sites near my apartment and it went through the building life cycle of Tokyo. A building has been there for twenty years, gets demolished and new one replaces it in a few months time. This renewal and rebirth is common in Tokyo. A part of it that one has to contend with. The book conveys how much of this change we rarely see especially for short time travelers. Even for somebody like me who has been here for 4 years, I can’t comprehend how much of Tokyo changes unless I frequent those areas.

This dichotomy of Tokyo is starting to get more obvious. Tokyo’s charm for me is its small alleyways and dirty corners. This usually contains small bars and pubs that cater to locals. Usually located near the stations, these watering holes are disappearing as part of Tokyo’s ever changing landscape. Being close to the station means that they are on prime real estate. Yet, these are the things that make the place unique and interesting. The book captures this evolution as Tokyo takes it’s final breath, clinging to the past and yearning for the future.

The Familiar Neighbor

Tokyo’s evolution as a mega city can be traced back hundreds of years ago when the merchants and the elite families occupy land in a certain type of way. Rich families usually have their homes in more favorable lands while the working class surrounds it. This evolved throughout the years and formed a certain bond among the neighborhood which you can still see around Tokyo if you look hard enough.

Far from the tourist areas, residential sections of Tokyo are a delight to see with the usual market street close by the station, a neighborhood park, and other fixtures that are always present in Tokyo streets. Unfortunately, as the whole of Japan is being urbanized, this common structure is slowly disappearing. Coupled with Japan’s declining birth rate, this comes with a whole slew of societal problems that will only get worse in the future. It’s not uncommon to see older people, living alone and sadly, dying alone in their homes only to be discovered days later. The rise of single occupancy housing adds to this complication as more and more people live alone rather than sharing households.

The book definitely recognizes this change as this played a big role in Tokyo’s development as a city. This is part of a larger issue as well that the Japanese government has to solve sooner than later.

A Different Set of Glasses

Living in Tokyo for 4 years, I miss a lot of the charm that I found when I first moved here. I clamored for challenge and adventure as every new corner and scenery is a new area to explore and learn from. As the months went by, a lot of it became familiar and second nature. I went out further to different parts of the country to explore more and chase that feeling once again. The more I went out and did newer things, the more I realized how being content is a big part of life.

This book gave me a new outlook on the familiar. How things that change often doesn’t and yet it does. How we see things is not how they are but is rather just a part of that evolution.

Tokyo Totem definitely gave me a new set of glasses to look at Tokyo with the enchantment that I once had and how I can appreciate the city further.




[book review] The Mathematics of Love

A quick read on how aspects of such a complex thing such as love can be summed up into equations. Hannah Fry shares with us her thoughts on how mathematics can help us how to find someone, keep someone, and live happily every after. The Mathematics of Love will get you thinking on the patterns that make this unique feeling into something more tangible, and ultimately, understandable.

This short book is more of a compilation of other’s peoples research that Fry compiled into a more focused book. It starts by making sure that we understand how math plays a role in our lives including love. For such a complex emotion, I had doubts on how this will go about explaining love. I was somewhat disappointed and yet relieved that the book doesn’t really talk about love itself, but more of the aspects that make up relationships, from meeting people both online and off, to seeing the importance of beauty when dating. Fry also has a good equations for inviting people to your wedding and how to maintain a happy married life.

The book doesn’t kid itself that it knows how to quantify love, but it somewhat does because of how it approaches the other part of love, meeting people, maintaining relationships and happiness.

If you want to look at love from a different angle, I highly recommend this book. It’s only 86 pages long and you’ll definitely learn more about love afterwards.

[book review] The Truth About Trust: How It Determines Success in Life, Love, Learning, and More

A well researched book with experiments to back it all up, The Truth About Trust distills trust in it’s basic form. Such a complex part of our lives and yet we leave it all to our gut, The Truth About Trust gives us a better understanding on what trust is and how much we should know about it.  A must read.

My past few books are disappointments and I’m finally happy again after reading The Truth About Trust (TTAT). It has been a long time since my thoughts has been challenge and my common beliefs questioned, and happily answered by a book. DeSteno does a great job of dividing trust in it’s pure essence and getting us interested on the things we use, or rely on, and trust the most.

What is trust? The first chapter sets his hypothesis on what trust is. A few key takeaways that are established in this chapter:

  1. Trust is short term versus long term gains
  2. Trust should be contextual. This means that past behavior cannot determine future outcome. Just because somebody was worthy of your trust before, doesn’t mean you should trust them in the future
  3. Likability and competence are two big factors in trusting someone and being trusted

DeSteno relies on these three premise throughout the whole book and it’s a good guide on understanding his theories and how these three hypothesis and the building blocks on his whole research.

Trust is short term versus long term gains

Why is it that we want to be trust worthy on certain situations with certain people and not with others? Given a situation to steal without consequence, will we do it? Given a situation that we can exploit while hurting other who trusted us, what will we do? These situations mainly do have short versus long term consequences and gains.

DeSteno goes in the book saying that in some situations, we would rather be trust worthy as we can see a potential future with a situation, person, relationship, friendship, or something that will have gains in the future rather than the “now”. In business, relationships, and just everyday “humanness”, we are forced to trust and be trusted by strangers in the premise that we are going to get or give something of value. This transaction is how we have been living for generations that we are forced to trust that the person will keep their end of the bargain. What makes us trust that person? DeSteno presents his first point that trusting is a battle between short and long term gains. How, as a person, I can build your trust by producing results or being a good worker, because I want to stay in the same company where I will be compensated for the amount of work that I perform. However, I don’t know if you are only there for short term gains where you’ll disappear or pay me less than agreed after a certain project. This balance of short and long term gains can then be applied in various situations where we trust other people. Are they worthy of gaining my long term trust or are they just turning in a quick buck? Distilled in this essence, trusting then becomes a much easier premise than relying on our gut instinct. But of course, something this complex, can’t be translated as easily.

Context in Trust

Another great point of DeSteno is how we should not rely on past behavior in trusting people. His experiments has proven that people change depending on what context they will be trusted on. This reminds me of a saying that “If I can’t trust you with an egg, how can I trust you with a chicken?”. Of course this talks more about responsibility than trust, but given a situation in the past, then a similar situation arises in the future, the context greatly plays a role on how much trust should we put on the person as situations changes a person. His various experiments show again and again, how when a person rises in rank, so does his lack of trust worthiness. There is something in how when you have the resources, you lose a certain connection as you won’t need others anymore to survive. He shares the possible evolutionary reasoning behind how fundamentally, trust is about survival. How we are geared in trusting when we need people, when we are vulnerable and need help. No matter what the background of the people in the experiment were, the results were always the same, they lose connection and they become less trust worthy.

This raised a great point for me on how situation changes people. All of us can reinvent ourselves and success or failure can definitely change us. This is why people in the movies when losing their money suddenly become really nice and trusting. Their vulnerability has made them trust others more. Since they have nothing to lose and needs all the help they can get, trusting becomes their only means of survival while being on the top is the complete opposite.

Likability and competence

It is easy to gain short term trust. There are tons of tips out there on how we can be easily trusted by people. Mirroring, smiling, etc. are just a few ways on how we can get the immediate trust of others. However, maintaining this trust once situations calls for it is where our trust will be tested. DeSteno mentions two main points on how we can be trusted, likability, and competence. Experiments done with children showed that likability alone doesn’t necessarily mean that we will be trusted automatically. Competence has to be balanced with this likability and depending on the situation, these two traits will be measured.

Certain situations and relationships call for different traits. Maybe in a professional environment, I don’t need everybody to be likable, but everybody has to be competent to do their job. While in a social gathering, we won’t be looking for people who can fix a car, but more on how likable and enjoyable spending time with a person is. This balance was tested in DeSteno’s experiments and it shows that we have evolved not only to like likable people but to trust competent people when the situation calls for it. This made me think on how friendships are created and what we look for in people when making friends or professional connections. On why it’s wrong to ask advice to friends we know to well just because they might not give the right advice or we already know what to expect them to say when we trust them with our most intimate problems.

These two words, likability and competence, made me think on how are relationships are shaped by factors that are both totally in and out of our control. How we decide on who to trust with what. Luckily, these two traits are not mutually exclusive. The challenging part is finding someone that is both likable and competent for you as these values are not universal for everyone.

Juicy Bits

Equipped with his three points, DeSteno goes on to discuss situations about trust. Trust in romantic relationships, at work, online, and most importantly ourselves. He uses the three points and more in discussing these topics and I think he did a great job of, again, distilling it to the basics. No point in the book did I feel lost, rather I felt that every chapter was a discovery towards something that I should’ve known ages ago. I appreciate how each chapter summarizes the main parts just so you won’t forget.
I won’t go into all of the chapters like I do in my previous reviews, rather, I would like you to focus on the three main points when thinking about being trusted and trusting someone.
  • Short term vs long term goals. Gaining now with the potential lost or going through the long haul
  • Context in trust means that you can’t judge people based on their past performance
  • Likability and competence should be balanced and again depends on the context.
I haven’t entered a book and left with much insight in a long time. “The Truth About Trust” sounds like a huge endeavor especially for analyzing a part of us that is so vague and yet it does a great job of actually making it more understandable. For all the times we trusted our gut and got conned, for all the times we wished we were more vulnerable towards someone, remember what trust is all about…

[book review] Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better

I was intrigued with the premise, heard it on a podcast, regretted the time I spent on it. Another technology journalist creating a premise, looking for evidence and correlating everything so that it’s a cause, Smarter Than You Think is just another mish mash of how technology is changing us and how a current popular line of thinking is wrong.

I never learn. If you’ve read my other reviews, I already made my mission to avoid these type of books. Somebody creates a premise over a popular thought or topic. The author creates an interesting title to stir discussion or discord, then does selective research to prove their point. Of course, writing the review was also a painful experience and I don’t know how I was able to last this long with this book.

A key point with book is how technology evolves not to replace us but more of how it complements us. A long drawn out example of chess has evolved over the years and how we evolved in playing chess as technology caught up. For some reason, this part reminded me of Nate Silver’s The Signal and Noise. The example was strikingly similar.

After a long and winding explanation of how computers complement us in the chess game, he then proceeds on how the internet enables us to collaborate effectively. Examples such as the Haiti earthquake, numerous Arab springs, and the use of Ushahidi were presented.

After this, he proceeds on explaning how we are silently connected via facebook, twitter, and other social networks and how this gives us some sort of ambient awareness that changes how we keep updated with our family, friends and the people around us.

He also dwells on MOOCs (of course he would) and how this changes the whole education industry.

This has got to be the most regurgitated book I have ever read and for some reason I felt cheated of my time. I’m not even disagreeing with his premise but the whole presentation feels so skin deep. I think he could’ve delved deeper and presented more convincing arguments than just the typical exposition of current events and good examples. The whole technology and internet industry is so vast that you can nitpick any topic that you want and write about about it.

Who is this book for? If you haven’t been keeping up with internet trends, been living under a rock, or just limit you interactions to facebook, buzzfeed, and iphone games, then this is a good primer to understand how beautiful technology has evolved not only itself but us too. But please oh please, get deeper as his points are shallow at best.


[book review] The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business

Good start but dwindled near the end, The Power of Habit shows how we are affected by our habits and how we can identify, control, and ultimately shape ourselves with the habits that we have created over time.

Divided into three parts, The Power of Habit talks about how habits affect individuals, organizations, and societies. We already know that our habits shape what type of person we become, but how do we actually create these habits in the first place, and more importantly, how do we change our bad habits.

Habits of Individuals

Starting off with the habits of individuals, I think this is the strongest part of the book as it scientifically shows how we are guided by our habits. We all have habits both good and bad and realizing what they are is a big part of how we can better ourselves. Duhigg talks about the habit loop which is the major parts of our habits. I’m not sure who created the term, but he definitely popularized it and how we should change the way we look at habits.

Through various experiments and research, we have found out that habits are ingrained in our minds and the parts that dictate habits makes it hard to change. Cue, routine, and reward is a diagram that he refers to when explaining a habit and it makes it easy for us to understand the situation as well as helping us look at our own habits with these criteria in mind.

If you think about it, we don’t necessarily do a habit out of nowhere, usually, we are in the correct environment or situation that we engage in a habit. Several examples are presented in the book from cookie eating, gambling, and quitting smoking. Several keystone habits were also presented on how certain habits affect others. I like the idea of a keystone habit, a routine than affects other parts of our lives. I can attest that going to the gym regularly did have a huge effect not just in my fitness, but also in my eating, sleeping habits and general positivity. I’m guessing it’s more of the physical and mental effect of exercising that brought this but it definitely helped a lot in other aspects. The idea of a keystone habit is definitely something that we should consider when trying to replace a bad habit. He had several more example of such habits especially with the story of the lady trying to quit smoking.

Here he also discuss some marketing tactics that Pepsodent used and how using the cue, routine, reward pattern created an effective marketing campaign to get people to pick up brushing teeth with the toothpaste. This section went on and on with other examples such as Febreeze and for me, this type of correlation was starting to get tiring.

Here the author will interject some scientific experiments while going back to the current premise to show how his analysis made it relevant to current times. I know that he wants to back up his claims, but somewhere along the writing, it felt like he was trying hard to connect the two stories together.

Habits of Organizations

More examples of habit forming organizations, and here he moves away from the main pull of the book which is the cue, routine, reward and starts looking at how companies like Starbucks became one of the biggest managerial/training companies in the world and how Target “targets” you as a customer by business intelligence. 

Again, going back to my previous point of trying a bit hard to connect the main premise to the current story, I felt some points were a bit forced and lacking. More of this becomes obvious on the last chapter which definitely ended the book much weaker than how it began. 

Habits of Societies

This is where I felt that it definitely went downhill as the author talks about the Saddleback Church and Rosa Parks, which definitely blew me away on how he made that connection. He talked about how Saddleback was formed and how the founder shaped it to be a different type of church. Don’t fault me for reading A Purpose Driven Life (it was a gift) but I honestly cringed upon reading this part as it was such a jump from his initial point on the book. Such a complex situation with lots of hard work and a bit of luck can’t be attributed to his point just so that the story would fit. As well as looking for relatable parts of the story that can be attributed to his point, I think that the story is too complex to be just a puzzle fit into his book.

More especially cringe worthy was how he connected his main point, of which by this time was already muddled, with the whole civil rights movement. Of course it was presented well enough that you would believe how he packaged the whole thing with a final disclaimer that he knows it’s a complex situation blablabla but going through that route with a hard connection left me with a bad taste.

I greatly enjoyed the first part of this book, mostly because it was presenting a lot of scientific experiments and thought process on how they came with certain conclusions, but the latter part really made me think on why I still read these type of books. Should I limit myself with books that are written by scientists rather than journalists from New York Times. I have already given up on Malcolm Gladwell just because of his repetitive points type of books, but sometimes I still fall for this trick. I honestly liked his premise and how he researched it and all, but the last two thirds of the book just left me wanting to finish it and see how it goes.

None the less, at least now I know how routines should be analyzed. Cue, routine, reward.

[book review] The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail — but Some Don’t

Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise is a great entry to know how much information is out there and how much we don’t know about it. All the data in the world will not make us predict the future yet knowing how to analyze it is a something that I think all of us has to know.

I think we don’t value statistics enough and this book tells me how much I need to know more about it.

The Signal and the Noise

As much as I want to be a great fan of statistics, I was never really good in math but luckily the statistics subject wasn’t that hard during university. If you read The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb then you would have an idea how much we under utilize statistics in our daily lives. This book will give you insight on how statistics is being used in different industries and how wrong we are in analyzing the data that we are given.

Nate Silver was already known in the baseball world before the US presidential elections last 2008, but the elections made him a household name after successful predicting the winner in 49 out of 50 states. If you follow just a bit of US politics like I do (via The Daily Show and Colbert Report 😛 ), then you would have definitely heard of him.

A former accountant, Silver created his predictive baseball algorithm on the side which eventually led him to better opportunities. The book discusses several industries where prediction and forecasting is their main role. Jobs like political pundits, weather forecasters, chess computer programmers, and even poker players rely a lot on statistics. This varied mix of industries got me really into the book and showed me how important statistics is.

The book was released in 2012 and a good start to any “statistics” book is to start with the 2008 economic crisis and how nobody saw it coming. Of course, he does give the typical hindsight is 20/20 routine but Silver does have a bunch on insights on why a lot of people saw it coming and how fiscal irresponsibility and ballooning property prices were good indications of the things to come.

A ironically funny chapter in the book is about political pundits and how they constantly get things wrong. Silver is in the pundit game and he knows what he is talking about especially about television pundits. It’s just hilarious for me especially since I get my “news” from comedy news show.

The book does have a good analogy on two types of thinkers: hedgehogs and foxes.

  • Hedgehogs are personalities that believe in Big Ideas. People who won’t change their minds on predictions even though new evidence presents otherwise.
  • Foxes on the other hand are people who believe in little ideas and use the data to formulate their predictions.

The book has better examples and explanations of this.

Moving away from politics, the book goes into weather forecasts and how this industry has improved over the years. If you are like me and you look at weather predictions all the time then I’m sorry to tell you that we’ve all been had. I used to live in tropical countries and man the weather forecasts are at best “a guide”. Unless it’s for a major storm, 20% of rain means nothing to me and I would always carry an umbrella. Having only two seasons, tropical countries have a hard time predicting the weather (or so I thought). When I moved to Japan, I was quite surprised on how “good” their predictions are and I would always follow their advice on what to wear and whether to bring an umbrella or not. Alas, a few months later, I still carry my umbrella all the time. Expecting a good weekend picnic is not an accurate science too. Apparently, weather forecasts are much much better now than they were 30 years ago which I totally believe. The advancement of weather forecasting technology would definitely have given us more data to work with. However, one key point I got from the book is the biases that are introduced into the forecasts as well as 5-day forecasts. The book explains this more, let’s just say that I only look at forecasts with confidence two days in advanced now.

Living in Tokyo, the topic about earthquake prediction definitely got me interested. If you’ve lived here for a few weeks, you’ll know that earthquakes is as common as the wind. Silver discusses how earthquake predictions are always wrong and why we always want to look for patterns in earthquake predictors. I really believe that the technology to predict earthquakes are still far off and until then, all we can do is be prepared. I felt a couple of moderate earthquakes here and to be honest, I won’t know how I’ll react once another big one comes. I am ready with my emergency pack and all, but looking at the statistics a big one will definitely hit sooner or later. The book has a good analysis of earthquake occurrences that he will later discuss but on the topic of terrorism.

Another chapter that got me piqued was the chapter about climate change. Although I still don’t understand why there are still people who don’t believe that climate change is a real thing is beyond me, he does have some information on why. Comparing date from the past, sample sized, and different predictive algorithms has a big part on this. Although just looking at what is happening with our weather patterns should make you think that climate change is real. Larger storms, longer winters, hotter summers, and random freak fests should give us an indication that something is wrong with our nature and we are contributing to this destruction should be freaking obvious. The recent storm in the Philippines, Haiyan, is another single point example of this.

I really enjoyed this book and if you are like me who likes to know how much I don’t know, then you would appreciate this book at lot. Looking at different industries and professions in a different angle will just make you appreciate them more and all the thought that goes into their jobs that we take for granted.