Walking and talking — a review of Another Kyoto

Another Kyoto by Alex Kerr and Kathy Arlyn Sokol

Alex Kerr’s latest book Another Kyoto is another take on an old city, but in an old sort of way. Those of us who read a lot of historical work are conditioned to diligently check each footnote and to closely examine the bibliography (silently judging the book, even before we read it). Non-scholars too expect sources even when doing the daily task of reading an article on Wikipedia! However, Another Kyoto is an oral history, a conversation with a tour guide of deep knowledge, and not beholden to your scholarly standards. He says it right in the Preface:

Much of what I saw may turn out not even to be true. Although it should have been.

That doesn’t fill one with much confidence so early in the book, but Kerr’s conversational tone and profusion of insights (mundane, holy, and profane) draws the reader in quickly. Another Kyoto is a pleasurable read, bursting with knowledge, and it is best to just go along for the ride.

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Growth

self portrait of Chad with bristly beard and sombre expression

The last time I shaved was 2 weeks ago. It was the last time that I saw my grandmother alive. She was in hospice and I had been driving up to Vernon to visit her. We knew this was the end. (She was 87). So, I decided to stop shaving.

I have done something similar only a couple times before. Like when my wife told me she was pregnant, I stopped shaving for the whole pregnancy. I let my hair grow and everything for nine months and then shaved it once the baby was born.

There must be something deep — evolutionarily speaking — to do this kind of ritual at important life events. Some sort of inner emotional need to externally represent cycles — whether birth or death. I am not sure. I don’t think I learned it, it is just a feeling… a thing that has to be done.

My grandmother — my last living grandparent — is gone. She passed away on her terms, helping people while she went. It was pretty amazing actually. She will be missed.

Her funeral is soon. It has been exactly two weeks, so tonight I will shave the beard.

Let a new cycle begin.

Sharing some Asia podcast discoveries

I love podcasts, and have been a regular user for about 15 years. I also love audiobooks, which means when I discover a podcast and start going through the backlog, my GoodReads Reading Challenge suffers.

This year I have discovered a number of deep podcast catalogs that I thought I would share (in no particular order).


AnalyseAsia

analyse asia cover art

Topic: Startups in Asia

You probably know who the “unicorns” are here in North America, but do you know what is happening on the Asia side of AsiaPac?

Map of the most well funded started in Asia-Oceania
Credit: CB Insights

Bernard Leong’s AnalyseAsia podcast features interviews with various startup founders, VCs, institutional tech economy people from all over Asia. He is based in Singapore, and there is a good amount of content about Southeast Asia which is what interested me.

For a quick hit, check out this informative interview with Justin Hall on VC in Southeast Asia →


Disrupting Japan

Disrupting Japan cover art

Topic: Startups in Japan

Earlier this year LinkedIn listed Japan’s 20 best startups to work for. On the list is a company I was interested in called Shizen Energy, a utilities startup based in Fukuoka (a place I really want to visit!) that has been building renewable energy

Looking around I found this English-language interview with founder Ken Isono on the Disrupting Japan podcast. This was a fascinating interview as it turns out the podcast host Tim Romero works for TEPCO Ventures. I did my master’s thesis on energy security in Japan, so hearing two energy people discuss how to revolutionize Japan’s (and the world’s) energy mix was brilliant. They discuss all sorts of things, including the decentralization/localization of energy projects, which reminded me of the Citizen Energy project I learned about in Ikoma-shi, Nara.

During the interview Ken Isono uses a very interesting metaphor. He argues that in the future renewables will make energy free — so cheap it won’t be worth metering. He points out that in some areas of Europe the energy price is negative. In thinking about what that future looks like for utilities, he says they will have to shift much like telecom industries after the rise of Skype 20 years ago: “International calls became free. I think the same thing will happen in energy.” That didn’t destroy the phone companies, but they had to shift their business model away from charging for long distance calls to selling other value-added services. The same thing could happen in energy.

Fascinating interview. Give it a listen.


The Meiji at 150 Podcast

UBC Meiji at 150 Podcast cover art

Topic: History of the Meiji period

I love Japanese history, but my focus has always been the Sengoku and Edo periods because of my background in classical Japanese martial arts. I almost minored in Japanese history when I was an undergrad at UBC. This year I have been exploring other parts of Japanese history by reading a few books. Then I discovered the Meiji at 150 history podcast — produced by my alma mater UBC — and well, I have been stacking up the books on my Want To Read shelf all year listening to this thing.

Last year the 1868 Meiji Restoration celebrated its sesquicentennial, and UBC kicked off a lot of projects to explore that period of Japan’s modernization. In the show, Dr. Tristan Grunow interviews academics on various aspects of the Meiji, and I have learned a lot. Just listen to the show on coffee in Japan (I bought the book).

Trickle-down ethical leadership — a review of The Just King

cover of the book "The Just King"

The Just King: The Tibetan Buddhist Classic on Leading an Ethical Life by Jamgön Mipham

Take a moment to think of the good leaders that you have had in your life and/or career. Think of the qualities they possess, the qualities that you admire and might even emulate. I am sure we could come up with a common list of attributes (good communicator, humble, fair, etc). One key attribute I have seen across a number of sources is self-awareness. This not only translates into a mindfulness of how a leader acts around her people (self control, humbleness), but is the basis on which a leader can improve her skills. Even if you have a map to good leadership, if you don’t know where your starting point is…

Self awareness requires self reflection. Taking time to self reflect is one of the valuable tenets of Buddhism, and it is thus why on this year’s meditation retreat I spent time reflecting on what makes a good leader. To facilitate this internal discussion, I thought I would turn to one of the great thinkers in Buddhist philosophy. During my free time between meditation sessions I read The Just King: The Tibetan Buddhist Classic on Leading an Ethical Life by Jamgön Mipham.

Mipham was an illustrious polymath of 19th century Tibet who wrote on all sorts of topics, from art to science to religion. The politics of 19th century Tibet are fascinating and turbulent (I highly recommend Tibet by Sam Van Schaik to learn more), and when a new king took the throne in the high pressure region between Tibet and China, Mipham was requested to synthesize all best Buddhist teachings on being a good leader.

The breadth and depth of this book is vast. It covers a couple thousand years of writing on ethics, and puts it into a succinct form. A fairly quick read, it is full of pithy advice for people trying to be better leaders… and better people. At some points I felt that this book could be Mipham flattering his audience. This letter was directed at a king of course, so you cannot deny the power imbalance and potential for that to interfere in this enterprise. Like Machiavelli’s book The Prince, how much of this writing is putting “sweet words” into the mouths of those in power merely for ingratiation? I do not know. Still, there is value in reading The Prince despite its historical purpose. Mipham’s work should certainly not be written off either.

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Learning to lead in a transforming world

This summer I had the privilege of taking an online course. Usually you don’t hear the term “privilege” and “online course” in the same sentence, because online courses have such dismal completion rates. But my experience was so good I felt I should share.

3 charts showing course completion rates for Coursera in 2018: for non-degree consumer completion is 4% for unpaid, 50% for paid. For Enterprise learners 44% completion. For Degree consumers 89% completion.
Coursera course completions can be as low as 4% — from Mary Meeker’s Internet Trends 2019 report

The course was a five week Executive Education program from INSEAD called Leading Organisations in Disruptive Times. I was lucky that my company paid for the experience. I was pretty wary. The course is the first in a 3 course sequence to get online certification for “Leading in a Transforming World.” However, since my experience with the first course was so good, I intend to continue on with the program and obtain the certificate.

I have spent the last 7 years working on change initiatives in various companies, and INSEAD is a world-class business school, so it makes sense to brush up on some of the established frameworks and get better at this thing I do.

Leading Organisations in Disruptive Times was great for introducing tools for leading change. The course focused on the high-level factors involving change, rather than the on-the-ground tools and processes of change management that a program/project manager would employee. It covered decision-making, political challenges, and cultural impacts from a leadership perspective. I will give a bit of a summary of the course content, but first I would like to talk about how they approached the assignments, including the final project.

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Cycles: 2019 Meditation retreat

sunset with different hues with building in foreground

For a third time I went on retreat to Birken, a Buddhist monastery in the Thai Forest tradition. I try to do retreats like this annually as a way to reset my meditation practice. Going up on Friday, we stayed three nights and enjoyed complete silence, 45m meditation sessions at least twice daily, and lots of time in our rooms for introspection. I spent most of my alone time reading The Just King (review forthcoming). However the first day and a half I actually just spent sleeping! It took time simply to drain all the emotional stress of a busy 2019.

Since it had been nearly two years since my last visit, I was surprised to see so much change. There are newly transformed buildings at Birken, including a new studio and editing room (YouTube channel here) and a brand new state-of-the-art Abbot’s kuti (a meditation hut) with a 40 foot walking meditation path and super-insulated for the cold winters. The Abbot Ajahn Sona has been known for designing and building zero-impact “green monastery” facilities for cold weather climates.

The monastery is completely off the grid and not easy to get to. They added a new battery station and solar panels to the roof of the office building. Apparently the monastery generates more power than they can use in the summer months.

building with solar panels on roof
The office building’s solar-panelled roof provides electricity to all the buildings on the property.

One thing that hasn’t changed is Birken’s wonderful meditation facilities. The main sala, with its cool, reflective black floors, is a wide open space that facilitates the cultivate of a wide open mind.

mural of Buddha with rays of light emanating from him, and reflection on floor

Going down into the lower level to the eating area, my companion exclaimed, “Well! This place is special!” (in an awed whisper of course!). The eating area is adjacent to the walking meditation space, lined with ferns and vines to evoke an image of a walking meditation path in a Thai jungle. Amongst the plants are a number of wooden pillars adorned with beautifully lettered tiles — inspiration for introspection.

A series of concrete paths lined with plants and pillars. The pillars have words on them.
The walking sala

The words on the pillars are the Ten Pāramitā – or 10 Perfections – a list of characteristics that will help you on your way. Although meant for those pursuing a spiritual path, I think they could apply to lots of endeavours in life. Simply, the list is:

  • dāna – generosity
  • sīla – virtue
  • nekkhamma – renunciation
  • paññā – wisdom
  • viriya – energy
  • khanti – patience
  • sacca – truth
  • adhitthāna – resolve
  • mettā – loving-kindness
  • upekkhā – equanimity

These are real basics of Buddhism, but are useful reminders. And that is what retreat is about: periodically disconnecting from the noisy world and spending some time reminding yourself about what is important. You take that back to your daily life and practice at a higher level, until the daily noise gets too overwhelming and you struggle to stay on that straight and narrow path. Then you go on retreat again, and the cycle repeats. It is simple, but a very useful technique for self care, whether your path is Buddhist or not.

Not about process

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the people to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.

Antoine De Saint‐Exupery, author of The Little Prince

Delhi and Agra — The Taj Mahal and the Agra Fort

geometric patterns of cieling of gate to Taj Mahal

I had thought the roads in Mumbai were bad. The streets of Agra are less developed than Mumbai, and much less than Delhi. The current capital had the smooth, well-maintained roads befitting the nation’s capital of one of the world’s nuclear powers. The streets of the old Mughal capital of Agra were more reminiscent of a developing nation — an irony considering the Mughal empire was known for its amazing infrastructure. The (busy, of course) streets were lined with huts, piles of bricks and garbage strewn about. Holy bulls moved nonchalantly through traffic from garbage pile to garbage pile to feed.

But still traffic jams happen... for natural reasons
Traffic jam in Agra

It took about three hours to get to Agra from Delhi. I had flown into Delhi from Mumbai the night before on a late flight and stayed in the nicest hotel I have ever stayed at in my life. But it was very late and I could not enjoy the amenities since I had to be up at 6:30am to drive to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. People in Mumbai told me that the road would be nice since it was a new highway, and it was. Although it took an hour of driving through dense fog to get out of Delhi, once we got on the highway it was smooth sailing.

Rear lights of vehicles barely visible in fog
Dense fog while leaving Delhi

The highway was surprisingly empty. Not only was there nearly no traffic (which was surprising enough in India!) but the countryside was empty too. For a country with 1.2 billion people I was expecting more density, something more akin to driving between cities in the population corridors of Japan… each city and town just sort of melds into one another with no break. On the road to Agra I stared out of the car window watching endless farmland and tiny villages pass by. Vehicles passed by us as well. Apparently our hired vehicle had a speed inhibitor limiting us to 80kmh, a common thing for commercially licensed passenger vehicles.

The land was flat and green. Rice paddies and mustard seed fields were divided by deserted single lane dirt roads. Occasionally we saw Hindu temple, or a Muslim mausoleum. Every so often there was a roadside stop with a gas station and some food amenities. We stopped at a nice one that was decorated “Chinese” style and had veggie sandwiches and masala chai served in traditional clay cups. I walked around the corner to the washroom and saw that there was a Starbucks… even here in the middle of nowhere.

Entrance of a Starbucks Coffee shop
A Starbucks in “Chinese” style

After a while the verdant fields gave way to the concrete interchange of dusty Agra, the old capital of the Mughals, Islamic conquerers with roots to the Mongol hordes who ruled India from the mid-16th century until being in turn conquered by the British in the mid 19th century. Agra is partially bisected by the Yamuna river, which wends and winds its way through the plain, and whose shores are decorated with spectacular Islamic architectural treasures. Today we would visit the two most famous.

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Learning about the Asian fintech boom

After reading Alibaba: The House that Jack Ma Built with a friend, we decided to get together for a discussion with the old #StartupCoffeeKL group to go over some of our learnings. For me, the biggest takeaway was the impact Alibaba was having on the financial world. As Mary Meeker points out in the 2018 Internet Trends report, eCommerce is the culmination of a number of verticals, and Alibaba has been innovating in all of them.

Slide containing text:

E-Commerce = A Look @ Tools + Numbers...

Payment
Online Store
Online Payment
Fraud Prevention
Purchase Financing
Customer Support
Finding Customers
Delivering Product
KP 2018 Internet Trends slide on eCommerce tools

For the eCommerce giant fintech may have started merely with payment transactions, but soon turned into other offerings and eventually was turned into Alipay (2004) and then (controversially) Ant Financial (2010). The whole battle over the wallet is playing out very differently in China and is fascinating to learn about. The mix of heavily regulated banking infrastructure and wide population of unbanked has made for a dynamic context. But Alibaba has been aggressive in gaining a foothold in other markets too. Alipay has bought into Mynt in the Philippines, Ascend Money in Thailand, and in 2017 Alibaba took a $200B (40%) stake in KakaoPay, the payment arm of Korean chat giant KakaoTalk. Alibaba’s messaging platform is not that popular so it is is interesting to see them take a stake in a different platform to get the kind of business intelligence Tencent is getting from WeChat. In preparations for the Olympics, and to accommodate the massive amounts of Chinese tourists in Japan, Alipay has made huge strides, going from about 50K retailers in 2018 to more than 300K. But they are not stopping there, and are looking to bring their partners along too.

Other companies are getting in on the act. Tony Fernandes’ AirAsia is trying to make the switch from a low cost airline to a data company and has spun out BigPay. Hear him talk about this shift in this short CNBC interview.

Slide from recent AirAsia investor deck showing their shift in business model.

It is interesting to see how these payment products are being born out of other data-intensive businesses. I am not sure if you can built a payments company from the ground up with no data anymore. Grab and Gojek in Southeast Asia are also examples of this. They are both covered in this month’s fintech special report from The Economist which I recommend. Two small tidbits from that special I would like to highlight:

This quote from Singapore about competition shows that not all models are the same:

“As a public policymaker, we are working with banks to rationalise their costs, and create a level playing field for them to compete with non-regulated entities.”

This approach has had the desired consequence: fintechs in Singapore have largely shifted from offering services to consumers to offering digital services to banks.

Secondly, from the same article, I found this comment about Ant Financial by Piyush Gupta, the chief executive of DBS, Singapore’s biggest bank illustrative:

“They are getting the customer relationship and the data to create value, and then passing the regulated part of the activity to banks.”

It makes me wonder, are we seeing another Uber-style disruption in the offing? You already know how I feel about that…

In conclusion fintech in Asia is a boom that has been going on for a while but just got on my radar this year. Payments seems to be a vertical on fire (think of even Apple getting into it with their own card earlier this year), but it is not one that I fully understand. And in Asia we have a very dynamic lab that we in North America could learn from. I certainly intend to continue learning about it.

Mumbai — Roads, Rails, and Water

Swallowing a malaria pill, I was enjoying the “inflight entertainment” of scores of seagulls flying alongside our ferry to Elephanta Island. The ferry was laden with Indian tourists going to see the “city of caves.” It took about an hour for the little boat to make the 12 kilometres to the island, puttering out from the Gateway of India, past the naval base with its aircraft carrier museum, weaving through dozens of ships at anchorage, and finally past an oil terminal before docking at an ancient stone jetty.

A small ferry in the foreground, with shore in background
Ferry to Elephanta. Taj Mahal Hotel and Gateway to India in background. (Photo credit to PB, my traveling companion)

Being on the Arabian Sea, Mumbai has been an important port city for millennia, an important crossroads for products, cultures, religions and empires from East to West and back again. This fact excited me the most about the opportunity to visit India.

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