I read “100 Years: Wisdom From Famous Writers on Every Year of Your Life.” It’s more of an experience than a story. An experience so familiar yet distant, so eerie yet comforting, so relatable yet alien.
I see cycles, patterns, peculiarities and exceptions. Some passages are lifted straight out of my own journal. Some are unlikely to ever come out of my mouth.
The book is a sensational experience, guided by the subtle typographical transitions, meaningless on their own but purposeful together. The lush gradients were juxtaposed with the sharp serif words and morph in your peripheral vision like those who come and go in your life.
It’s humbling. It arouses full admiration for living, and all of its complexities. It’s a mirror. You can choose to dismiss it. Or you can look deeply into another version of you.
I was twenty-six, I thought: this is maturity. This is civilisation.
I like brewing and drinking tea in the morning. Mostly Chinese green and oolong. Sometimes sencha, genmaicha, or black tea. If I feel fancy throughout the day, I might even make fruit tea.
I started brewing consistently since 2017. I don’t remember exactly how I started, but I think it started with a box of dahongpao from my cousin, gifted to me during my visit in 2016. Or 2017, I don’t remember.
Everybody in my family always brewed tea for ourselves and our guests. Most of the time we did it the fast way: leaves in a cup. You’d sip the broth over time and as the broth gets thicker and thicker. A one-cup hack to achieve the gradience of flavors. They have proper tea sets, the whole traditional table and stuff, but they were reserved for special occasions like Chinese New Year.
I wanted it to be a bit more of a ritual. Spend a bit more time, maybe an hour in the morning, to aid some other reflective activity like journaling, reading, or writing. I started with a tea pot, then moved to a kyusu, and now mostly using my glass gaiwan, fair pitcher, and a set of double-walled glass cups. A mini gongfu set. I wrote down tasting notes of different kinds of tea and observed the taste changes throughout different brews.
But slowly, it became more of a habit than a ritual.
At my dentist appointment last week, they confirmed that my long tea sessions are what’s worsening my gum health. Apparently, when one drinks tea or eats food, their mouth keeps an acidic environment. Typically the saliva neutralizes the acidity after the meal, but since I kept sipping and brewing out of habit from morning to noon, the acidity in my mouth corroded enamel and allowed more bacterial build-up. Yikes.
物极必反 (wùjíbìfǎn), from Master Lü’s Spring and Autumn Annals, means “a thing turns into its opposite if pushed too far.”
A mindful activity turned into a mindless bad habit. It’s time to bring some intentionality back.
The reason I don’t have an idea of “I want to accomplish this” or “I want to do this by when” is because, in addition to the fact that I’m not naturally good at planning ahead, I’m more interested in “becoming” than “doing”.
At first, I thought he meant that he’s more interested in what he’s becoming (「なる」こと) than what he’s doing (「する」こと). Sounded like the classic struggle between goal vs. process. But then I realized that I was wrong:
One of my favorite stories is “Becoming an Adventure” by Nishimura Yoshiaki, in which he writes that the things that came out of the reckless advice he received from his friends and acquaintances ended up being much bigger epochs than the things he did.
He said, “As an architect, I’ve always refused to think about what I wanted to build.” What? That Koolhaas didn’t even think about what he wanted to build!? He said: “the really interesting things happen between the person who want the building built and the architect”. If you consider the fact that all work is done between people, what he said doesn’t just apply to architecture, but applies to many professions and works in the world, which might not be the result of what someone else “did,” but rather what “became” or “happened”.
The architect pointed out something profound about the nature of serendipity, that the really interesting stuff comes out of the interaction between people, and that’s something you cannot control and “think to do.” At best, you can only foster, like you do with a garden, hoping the flowers will turn out a certain way, which are mostly out of your control.
As Miyamoto pointed out, many things in this world are indeed born this way: they just “happened” and “became.,” rather than being done by will. He goes on to say:
I think, to a larger degree than they think, people live in relationships and flow more than they do in will…Of course, it’s great to have a strong will and vision, and that person will become what we call a visionary. But even if not everyone becomes a visionary, the things that “became” or “happened” will continue to give birth to wonderful work.
Silicon Valley is obsessed with visionaries and entrepreneurs who have the will to bend the world. I was too struggling with this implicit expectation, that I too should be aiming to change the world, that this is the only way to achieve something of value, or perhaps, make your life worthwhile. It was suffocating, but I didn’t know why. I only knew instinctively that this wasn’t quite me, and I kept searching for something different.
In Western values, the individual’s will is respected. In both self-help books and the coaching scene, the first step is to identify the will. “What do you want to do?” Or, “What’s your mission?” But I ask, how important are those things?
Or, to put it in another way: how many people decided what they wanted to do with their life early on and just willed their way into that exact goal?
This past year and half of various circumstances have given me a lot of space for introspection and questioning. Why is it that the image of an infallible man of will and vision the only way to success in life? Why do we collectively downplay the extremely significant role of serendipity in our lives? Is this just what people wish to interpret how the world works?
The oversimplification of cause and effect, and the predictable impact of a man’s will are extremely alluring realities that just aren’t. The sooner I accept that I too am just another duck in the flowing river of history, the sooner I can gain some peace. And with this peace, I can align and guide myself with the currents, and stop trying to fight against them.
A lot of times, we really do find awesome things somewhere between “becoming” and “happening”. In happening, you do. In doing, you become.
Where my introspection arrived at, but much better described in the resonating words from Miyamoto, is:
I still don’t have a great vision, but one thing I try to do as a freelancer is to hold a lightweight state of mind that is able to jump on the wave when the opportunity arises. A good surfer never misses an important wave, so I want to use my lightness to ride a good wave.
I can’t force everything and everybody around me to be a certain way, but I can be fully prepared to ride the waves of opportunity. Be agile in mind and body, and flow in becomings and happenings.
Kelsey and I started playing Animal Crossing: New Horizons four days ago, and so far, this game has become a relaxing and fun escape during this time of crisis. The real time and season mechanism is much appreciated, as it gets rid of the grinding anxiety that other RPG-style games always make me feel. There’s only so much to do per day, you can’t make progress at some point until the next day. So in a way, it forces you to have a healthier attitude toward gaming, and it feels more like a part of my everyday reality than a black hole where time flows differently.
The game is similar to Breath of The Wild in terms of the openness of what you can do. If you think of BoTW as a “design your own adventure” type of game, this is more of a “design your own life” kind. While Zelda is filled with quests and plots, it leaves very little room for design and personality. New Horizons has practically no overarching plot or any sort of battle short of running away from wasps and spiders, but it is filled with tools, decorations, and resources that you can design and express your personality with. It’s like a Nintendo version of Minecraft but beginner- and family-friendly.
Of course, any games that focus on personality expression wouldn’t feel complete without a social element. Kelsey and I have been visiting our friends and hosting each other, and while the interaction is limited while multiple players join, the give-and-take is very raw. Nintendo poses nearly no limitation on what you can do in terms of trade and resource collection, so letting a stranger into your island is definitely a bad idea. In fact, unless a visitor is listed as a “best friend,” they can’t even use an axe or shovel to plunder to landscape. These social-realistic elements and synchronization with real time make the game feel more like an extension of my social life.
There’s also a console-sharing mode that caught me and Kelsey by a nasty surprise on the first day. Little did we know, you can only have one island per console, not even per copy of the game. So other user profiles on the same console will join as regular residents after the first player (called a “resident representative”). To our huge dismay, only the resident representative can make decisions on the development of the island and gets all the fun by unlocking events and stories for the first five days.
I joined as a regular resident after Kelsey started the game first, and my experience was nothing short of a subpar and confusing one. There was very little tutorial or direction on what I should be doing. A lot of that felt like Nintendo just expects the first player to walk you through the details in person, because after all, you’re sharing the same physical console. And most of all, we have to share the resources. Meaning, if she “accidentally” picked all the fruits, I will have nothing to eat for a whole day.
There was a huge amount of disappointment online, mostly of people who discovered this “feature” expected each user profile to have a separate island, the same behavior as nearly all other Switch games. Apparently, the Animal Crossing franchise has always done this, but previous consoles didn’t have multiple user profiles, so this was sort of a backward move.
As some people rightfully pointed out, Nintendo went from selling multiple 3DS handhelds to one Switch console per household. The multi-account system works so well on the Switch that Kelsey and I had no need for separate handhelds. So it’s possible that this artificial limitation is meant to force more console sales.
On the other hand, sharing an island is an interesting feature after all. You extend the family interaction to a virtual space and everybody has to learn good etiquettes and how to negotiate for space and resources. Whether you still consider that “gaming” is debatable, but I can certainly see families in more collectivist cultures appreciating that. Andrew Webster on The Verge wrote a comedic piece on the game “[tearing his family apart],” which is just so interesting from a product design point of view. We’re living in personal bubbles more than ever, so perhaps a game that forces players to be considerate with others reminds us of what’s less common nowadays. Still, it strikes me more as a cultural difference than anything else. This makes perfect sense in a country where you tip toe at home so your neighbors below aren’t disturbed.
The worst part from a technical point of view is the inability to back up the save data to Nintendo’s very own cloud that I already pay for, or transfer it to another console. “Due to the uniqueness of the save data” as Nintendo says, a “unique” backup and transfer feature will come out later this year. I guess if multiple users have to play the same map, it is unique to an extent. But this is a game that requires me to invest my time and emotions into, and the idea that all of that is shackled to a local storage is just unnerving.
Still, there is too much promise to the game and I really didn’t feel like compromising my experience and coordinating resources as an “individualistic American,” so I bought a Nintendo Switch Lite, and started my very own island full of cherries. Good that Target is extending its return policy during this time in case I get bored.
Is it worth it because Kelsey and I can play together at the same time? Definitely so far.
After posting The Case for Tablet Cases last week, I’d like to elaborate more on how the design of a given case encourages certain types of behaviors. Let’s start with the three cases offered by Apple for the iPad Pro as examples.
Evidently, at some point in our history of Sci-Fi imaginations, everybody thought that slabs of glass are going to be the personal computer for everyone. As it turned out in 2020, the PC form factor is more fragmented than ever. For a good two decades, we had laptops vs. desktops. Now, we have tablets, big and small; we have convertibles, detachables, and foldables; we also have big phones that can extend to monitors and huge all-in-one desktop that becomes a table-sized tablet. it’s an exhilarating time to be a fan for all things human-computer interaction.
But today, I want to focus on tablets, and more specifically the various keyboard and stand cases that enable different use patterns.
I’m very grateful that I have a Nintendo Switch during this quarantine. Ring Fit Adventure, which is sold out now, gives me a solid and fun option to exercise at home. And most recently, Animal Crossing has become a social hub for me and my friends.
It’s truly lovely. The weather in the game, even on rainy days, feels calm and peaceful. Everything bounces and flexes like Disney animation and just looks so round and cute (except maybe the tarantulas). There’s also so much personality. I’ve never felt this much character from NPC’s in any simulation games. My neighbors will get confused if you enter their house and leave without saying hi. They will get frustrated if you say you will give them a gift but “never mind” instead. They wear the clothes you buy for them, and return favors once in a while. They are stingy to donate to community projects, while Tom Nook is ruthlessly capitalist and is constantly trying to get me in debt. It’s so real, and so much to be amused by!
But most importantly, the entire island is both a self-expression and a social hub. Yesterday, two of my friends and I took turns visiting each other’s islands. We talked and laughed over a voice channel, and just goofed around on each other’s island. We showed off what we caught, walked through tips, got envious of new items somebody received, and frolicked on the beach like some romcom anime characters. Each island can host up to 8 players at once, so I’ll definitely try to host some island parties that way.
At a time when there’s not much you can do and yet so much to worry about, we can feel so powerless. But if we have each other, at least we remember that we are in this together. Take a look online, heartwarming reunion stories fill the Animal Crossing communities. Even graduations and weddings are happening here. But even during normal times, which is hopefully not too distant in the future, I can see how Animal Crossing can bring together friends many time zones apart in new and meaningful ways. This shared visual and audio experience in virtual world full of possibilities couldn’t have come at a better time.
The Apple Watch for me has always been a disappointing device with so much potential. I owned a Series 2 before it cracked in the shower, and of course my life went on for a year without problems.
Then I decided to get the LTE version of Series 3, which admittedly was a lot more useful. I no longer needed to bring a phone “just in case I need to make an emergency call.” The absence of a 1lb object in your pocket was quite liberating when it comes to curbing temptations to browse away or staying lightweight when physically active. But I still could not recommend it to others.
The biggest problem I had with my previous watches was the speed. They should perfect for quick actions and glances, but if they take longer than a few seconds to perform those things, there’s no benefit to me to using the watch as opposed to just pulling out my phone. When everything else around me is blazingly fast in comparison, it’s hard to have patience as I stare at a spinning wheel on my wrist. Plus, keeping my arm in a pronated position (palm facing down when looking at a wrist watch) feels much harder than in a supinated (palm facing up when holding a phone) position. So for my previous watches, I only used them for passive glances such as activity tracking, calendar events, notifications, and time.
The new Series 5 feels to me like the jump from iPhone 3G to 3GS. The speed of which apps launch and run can make a huge difference in my daily experience. As the speed crossed that usability threshold, I now use my watch for a variety of tasks that I previously would not even try:
Logging habits such as how much water I drink (I have a problem of forgetting to hydrate).
Checking package delivery statuses.
Listening to guided meditations from Headspace’s watchOS app (Headspace did not even have a standalone watch app before watchOS 6).
Listening to music, podcast, or radio stations (previously, connecting to AirPods or browsing my music library was too slow and flaky to be enjoyable).
Checking traffic to certain locations and opening hours of places via Siri.
Other quick Siri queries (believe it or not, Siri seems to work a lot better on my Series 5 than Series 3).
But really, it’s the little speed bumps all over the user interface that make the entire experience a lot more responsive. It’s hard to feel the difference by reading my words, so if you own a Series 3 or earlier, I highly recommend that you give Series 4 or later a spin for a few days and try to stretch the watch’s capabilities.
I have had my Series 5 for about a month now and my experience has mostly been positive. I can confidently say that for someone who loves to deploy technology in their life, the Apple Watch went from “a small convenience that’s probably not worth spending money on” to “a great amount of convenience that you may want to pay for”. Still strictly not necessary, but if you love this kind of stuff, the quality of life upgrade is now more or less on par with what you expect to begin with. In other words, the Series 5 is a big step closer to the full potential of a smartwatch.
This is a good trajectory to be on. This device is only less than 5 years old, and if battery technology doesn’t pose a performance wall, the Apple Watch 5 years into the future could be an extremely competent personal device.
Three years ago, I stopped writing for FwdThoughts. The lofty and self-imposed expectation of long-form pieces, precisely research-backed facts and critically proof-read sentences, crippled my motivation to write. While searching for a path to remove that mental block, I recalled a quote by Ging Freecs, a character from Hunter × Hunter, that goes:
(Go enjoy the detours to the fullest. Because that’s where you’ll find things more important than what you want.)
So I started an informal travel blog called “detours” as an antidote to the suffocating perfectionism. It was a liberation; I could finally write without critical self-judgment. Later, I started writing about more topics as well—tea, cafes, ideas, opinions. It became a way for me share things with my friends. So I gave it a new name: b-side.
“B-side” is the backside of a cassette tape or vinyl that artists used to put instrumentals or tracks that are not intended for commercial promotion and tend to be more experimental. It’s a playground for trying things out. In the world of digital media, “sides” no longer exist. Everything is indexed and served just the same. However, I want to preserve that idea of b-side to be true to the chaos and spontaneity of the human mind and of myself.
But writing wasn’t the only area that perfectionism plagued me. Since I started working as a product manager, I began to view everything through the PRD lens. I ask questions like “what’s the success metric?” or “who’s this thing’s primary audience?” Soon, I started running my life as if I were running a business. I started filtering my own ideas and spontaneity through the lens of “how does this contribute to my overall success” and prematurely optimizing before giving ideas a chance to grow. My childhood self, who used to love building the most random and useless things, was completely silenced. My drive to pursue success and perfection became a mental block to my creativity and happiness.
Around the same time, I was also annoyed by WordPress in many ways, so I thought it was a good opportunity to design something myself that embodies my ongoing campaign against pre-mature optimization.
To achieve that embodiment, I needed to do two things:
Let go of control
So to translate my personal goals into design goals, b-side needs to
Feel at home to my readers
Be imperfect and evolving
And that’s the mission of this redesign.
What makes a place feel like home is different for everyone. In the digital realm, your devices are the home of your digital world. So something that feels “at home” digitally is something that works as natively as possible. Today, when you load a website, almost everything is determined to the exact pixel. That’s not a bad thing. A commercial brand needs exactly that. Corporations have brands to invoke certain feelings in you. We have our own personal brands that may or may not be intentionally crafted.
But b-side needs to be an anti-brand, which is its brand.
Think about the word “dark matter.” It’s literally a bunch of things that we have no idea about, but yet we know them. We know them as “dark matter” simply because we put a label on them and therefore have learned the unknown. We just don’t understand it in a technical sense. An anti-brand is a brand that tries to portray values and attributes that conflict with that we normally associate with a commercial or personal brand. Specifically in my case, the feeling of uniformity and permanence.
If I wanted b-side to reflect the inherent imperfections and inconsistencies of my life and myself, I needed a way to provoke that feeling. And since this is a blog, the first thing I focused on was typography.
To make reading on different screens a natural experience, I used Tachyons to help me build a fluid typographical system. The bread and butter of legibility must not be broken. Then I struggled to pick a typeface, endlessly comparing and asking the question: “is this type unopinionated and invisible?” I wanted sans serif for its unassuming quality and something humanist for its traces of handwriting flow. Effra, designed by Jonas Schudel, was my top choice. I liked its humble stems, playful arcs, laid back bowls, and overall simplicity. I also considered other free font options such as Roboto Slab or Source Sans Pro.
After many attempts and mock-ups, I suddenly realized: the process of picking the right font to convey that “unopinionated and invisible” quality in itself is very much an opinionated and exact choice. Meanwhile, no typeface is as unopinionated as the default system typeface on the reader’s device. Whether a user is reading from their phone or tablet, the operating system knows what font should be rendered to achieve the best native experience.
What feels at home digitally is what feels native. In a way, this is closer to my original intention of writing email updates. Plain text emails show up in whatever format my readers choose, which feels “at home.” So I thought that b-side should just use whatever the native system or browser uses.
I thought this might be hard to do, but thankfully, CSS standardized on a system-ui value a few years back, and has 90% coverage across the globe and 100% on all major web browsers. With this value on macOS, for example, text will automatically switch between San Francisco Pro Display and San Francisco Pro Text to get the prefect kerning for small and large font sizes. In addition, any user preferences such as default text size, and other accessibility settings will also be respected. There’s also the added benefit of speed from not having to load external fonts.
In addition, because I want to emphasize the native typographical experience, I literally just used the oversized left and quote quotation marks “ ” in ::before and ::after pseudo-class content of a block quote. This way, even basic decorations manifest themselves according to the reader’s device environment. It couldn’t be more opposite from a uniform and permanent design.
“Imperfect and Evolving”
After typography, there’s logo. I thought to myself: “there shouldn’t be a logo.” But then something just looked off, like a book without covers, a house without a roof, or a person without a face. So I thought that the logo, usually the strongest identity marker, might also be the best place to reflect the reality of constant change. Maybe, I thought, if I could fill the space where the logo would be with a series of renditions of “b-side,” a randomly selected version can be served every time a reader refreshes the page.
I thought this was pretty interesting. A logo that is never the same—the anti-logo. A logo that really is a space for experimentation. I can add more renditions of b-side to the collection in the future so that they may be served in unpredictable ways. All of the renditions will share a common theme around the idea of “b-side,” but I don’t intend to only make word art of these letters. There might be parodies, puns, interpretations, deconstructions, or whatever might seem interesting at the time. It’s a statement of the axiom that the only thing that doesn’t change is change.
Other Personal Touches
To make sure that some personality is reflected just as my handwriting on a plain white page still packs a lot of signals that it comes from me, I used the color palette of my apartment as the basis for some subtle accent colors throughout the site.
#C62727 Fire Engine Red: a favorite color of mine that reminds me of passion and my Chinese traditions.
#F9F4D9 Beige: a soft, easy-on-the-eyes, approachable ambient color that reminds me of fabrics, blinds, or cabinets.
#93B7BE Powder Blue: an accent that’s not too strong and exudes calm and purity.
#F1FFFA Mint Cream: a lighthearted version of Powder Blue that’s cooler and more neutral.
#E6EBE0 Platinum: a slightly cooler medium-weight color that reminds me of the structural metals and ceramics at home.
Aside from colors, I also wanted to incorporate some parts of my cultural background.
One of the fun things I like to do is to date my personal work with Chinese lunar calendar dates. For those who don’t know, the Chinese invented a calendar based on the movements of the moon at roughly 2,500 years ago. This lunar calendar went through many changes throughout the millennia and was the primary way the royals and commoners kept track of time. Today, the Chinese calendar is no longer used officially for industrial and legal work, but still governs traditional festivals, holidays, the selection of auspicious days. To follow my own habit, all of the posts on b-side have both Gregorian and Chinese calendar dates.
Another cool part of Chinese culture is the use of yìnzhāng or seals. Traditionally, your seal is made of stone and acts as your signature to bless documents in your authority. In my own experience, seals in China today are mostly used for artistic and official purposes as pen signatures have replaced seals for daily authorizations. I like the compact, bold, and artistic look of a seal, so I wanted to include a modern rendition on b-side as well instead of the boilerplate copyright notice at the bottom. Those aren’t really legally necessary anyways.
For the debut of the redesign, that’s about it. There are of course countless other details that make the site functional and aesthetic, such as responsive layouts and various placement, spacing, and alignment decisions. But I don’t think those are important enough to my readers to elaborate on as they aren’t and shouldn’t be noticeable.
As I mentioned before, pre-mature optimization has been one of my biggest enemies. To prevent that from happening, I promised myself to push the blog to production as soon as I checked off the last of my initial list of required features. The list was quite short—typography, layout, media support, navigation, logo, and signature. There were countless times during the construction that I could’ve digressed into making something extra or perfecting something to the bone. But I held back. Gallery view? I’m not writing anything with photos as the focus yet. Search? I don’t have that many posts that people want to reference yet. I didn’t want to develop anything that the site didn’t need, so I stopped myself to give the site space and time to evolve as it goes.
Of course, there is much more to be done outside of the site. For one, my Mailchimp template, which is how most of my readers will actually read my posts, has not been updated (and pictures are broken). But it’s ok. b-side will continue to be what it is meant to be—a playground.
So many products are confused. They overestimate people’s appetite for features and underestimate how busy they are to care. And when the “paradox” of products with less features succeed over those that don’t, many wonder why.
If you work in tech, you probably know at least one zealous friend who raves to you about the beauty of something that only another fellow engineer can understand. I was too an engineer and today I still love to marvel at the beauty and impact of Fourier transform and the absolutely ingenious RISC architecture that drove me sleepless in college.
As technology transformed society in the past few decades, more non-experts have learned expert terms such as “cloud storage,” “download,” or “RAM.” Some of them are necessary just as you need to know what a hand brake is to operate a car, but some are forced upon people (remember “disk partitions”?) simply due to a lack of more human-centered design or technological limitations.
Now for those who work in product, this might seem painfully obvious: you can’t build something useful by focusing on those. I think the products that are most successful are the ones that prioritize a reasonable number of relatable, understandable, and effective features. They do something most consumers find relatable (e.g. vacuuming), which gets them the eyeballs to begin with; they solve it in a way that’s understandable or marketable (e.g. cyclone-based powerful sucking), which convinces them to make a purchase decision; and they actually work (e.g. Dyson).
The RED Hydrogen One phone features a 3D display and also captures proprietary 3D pictures and videos. It was a flop. It works according to early reviews, and we can somewhat relate to its value proposition of better image and video experience. But crucially, nobody understands exactly how it makes a better experience.
Now, compare this with something like this that’s relatable, understandable, and truly works:
Sometimes, focus also means less but better. Take the new iPhone 11 Pro, for example. There’s literally one feature that Apple advertises the crap out of: the new 3-camera system with ultra wide lens and night mode. Is it relatable? Yes, everybody takes photos. Is it understandable? Yes, for ultra wide lens, you capture a wider angle. For night mode, photos are brighter and clearer at night. Does it work? Yes.
We don’t have time to build and explain everything. Just enough of the right features are what make products relatable, understandable, and work.