Best of Digressions

Oh Japan, that happy place

It’s 2019, three years since my first trip to Japan. I never realized I had a happy place until I actually experienced separation anxiety when I flew back. I always thought that these “happy places” were abstract constructs. It didn’t matter where I was or what state I was in. The happy place was always a video game in some form. In my room. On my phone. But I never thought it to be a place.

And it’s weird, really. I enjoy the travel. The journey does excite me but the contrast of being in a place that is more foreign planet than country makes it so much interesting. In 2006 when I was writing for another tech publication, the editors would joke around to having “news” from “Planet Japan” because everything was just so over the top. I mean, the mere Japanese toilet that comes with background music to hide your farts were a pragmatic work of art.

Cheap bucket list thrills: see a snow man

So that was it. A foreign place with a language I cannot understand and yet I can easily make my way around town with these unlimited JR bus passes and order food without talking to anybody thanks to push button menus in almost every modern restaurant. I recommend Japan to anyone that wants something new. There’s wanderlust in the city where shops sleep at 7PM and the salarymen make their drunken shuffle to the karaoke. Where two-year-olds accompany each other to school without the help of grown ups because they know they can trust strangers. Where there are robots just because.

In 2016 I visited Tokyo for the first time. The streets of Ginza, Japanese whiskey, BIC Camera, Izakaya, Don Q. This opened my eyes to text book Japan.

Later than same year we went to Osaka and from there made our way to Kyoto (for the market), Narra (for the deer), and Kobe (for the beef). This trip expanded my perspective of how easy it is to get around a country. That you can cram 10 destinations in one day with efficient public transport.

snow is like dirt, but cleaner

Then early this month — first quarter of 2019 found me on an impromptu trip to Hokkaido for work. I was researching Hokkaido, as this tropical body has never felt snow when I got a call from a friend, “hey we’re sending you to Japan.” Speechless, my phone kept buzzing — it was a series of messages from another colleague, “Go to Japan.” Making sure that there were no hidden cameras around my office (as this may have been an elaborate prank by psychics), I said,

“OK but I should tell my boss.”

“Hi boss, I’m supposed to go to Ja —“

“We know. Enjoy! It’s minus 20 so suit up.”

And that was it.

I’ve written about my Hokkaido trip for the Manila Bulletin so you can read that. A huge thanks to Japan Airlines for sponsoring this trip. #FlyJAL #GetMoreJapan

Best of Digressions

Parents, let’s not feel too guilty about screen time, OK?

Guys, I’m not a developmental psychologist. I’m a tired parent.

Let’s address the elephant in the room — the whole screen time issue with our children is a drag. The struggle is real: balancing the conflicted amount of guilt whenever we pull out the phones at a restaurant so that the kids can sit still and eat versus just having them sit and play with the food. Or that family photo that we need to curate well so that the kids aren’t looking at the phones when the picture is taken. Choose: sit and watch videos while waiting for your turn at the pediatrician or run around the hospital trying to catch them (on all fours my god)?

I’m not sure if this is how our parents felt — we grew up with television and the Family Computer. So maybe that was screen time for us? But what our parents did have was the luxury of not being judged on social media by whoop dee doo — other parents. And strangers who do not know what it is like to have a 5 year old.

Fellow parents, I say this: let’s not feel to guilty about the phone. I’ve managed to convince myself that these are the cards that are dealt to this generation, the so-called “digital natives.” And what many people forget is that they tend to isolate screen time as a problem in itself when in fact kids, by nature do get tired of the screen and would rather play outside (and get dirty). Yes my kids use the phone a lot. But i have to keep reminding myself that I have to give them two evening baths because they run around the house after dinner with their LEGO’s and dinosaurs and scooters. Or how weekends with their cousins are pure bliss — running around the park and getting scabs on the concrete pavement. So yeah, they aren’t missing out.

I do have three learnings I would like to share though.

Don’t use regular YouTube
If you do let your kids watch YouTube on the phone, use the Youtube Kids app. It’s a much safer way for them to discover content. There are a lot of disgusting people out there who release sexual content (using kiddie toys like Barbie or GI Joe) masking them as ‘Let’s Play’ or ‘unboxing’ videos which get placed in the Related Videos section and the algorithm can’t tell the difference. At the very least, the YouTube Kids app is a lot more well-curated by humans — and parents.

Switch them from passive to an active screen
When you can, “upgrade” them to video games. My eldest son (he’s 5) has discovered the wonderful world of rage quitting on the Nintendo Switch because he keeps falling off platforms in Skylanders Imaginators. There is a learning opportunity here — as I oft recall moments when I would throw the controller from sheer frustration with Mega Man for the Nintendo in the 80’s. So these father and son moments with video games are important in teaching life skills like how to deal with failure and frustration.

Sometimes we just need to ask
Last — sometimes we forget to ask our kids what they really want to do. There were times when I would mechanically hand over the phone to my eldest because I know, historically, that he wants to watch Dino Trux on Netflix. But then he tells me that he wants his crayons so he can draw The Avengers instead. I forgot to ask. Well, what do you know, right?

To end, I also have to keep reminding myself that back in the day our parents told us that MTV was bad. So were the Simpsons. And that their parents said that The Beatles were the devil reincarnated. We are part of a cycle of parenting.

This piece originally appeared in my Dad Buds column for The Manila Bulletin on May 20 2018.

Best of Digressions

Being a ‘houseband’ for five years helped me realize the silent struggle of many mothers

Note: This column appeared in Manila Bulletin’s print edition on April 14 2018. You can also read the online version.

For the past century, modern society has relegated women as the “light” of the family — which felt more like a consolation title to having that heavy burden of rearing children and managing the home. Like most things in life, this is easier said than done and I assure you, having taken the role of a “house husband” for more than 60 months has made me empathise with how we see parenting from the mother’s point of view.

Here are three things I learned (and am learning) to accept for being a ‘houseband’ in charge of a home and two small kids for 5 years:

On having that ‘second wind’
One of the best moments coming home to family were that few seconds where my boys would run to the door and tackle me with hugs (and plastic swords). As a parent, we all know that second wind — the fatigue from a long day at work washes away when we see our family. It’s not as easy when you’ve been at home the whole day. You’re just tired. Imagine now the roles being reversed — if your wife stays home she must probably feel the same thing. Now I totally get why it’s offensive to say “But you were just home! You didn’t have to go out?” A stay-at-home parent doesn’t have an office job that acts like a vacation from the kids.

On celebrating weekends
When I got back to working weekdays full time, I became oddly excited for the weekend. My wife, who works a full-time job all the way in Quezon City (we live in the south) and I woke early (we have kids duh!) and had brunch in one of those garden malls nearby. I told her “OK now I get it. I know why you look forward to weekends.” Being a stay-at-home parent made me complacent with weekends because it felt like “just any other day” except that your spouse is home. On one end, she dug me out of the hole which was domestic life and helped me remember that married life is a lot more than just having children.


On having honest conversations
One evening I almost broke down in front of my wife because there were just too many things that needed to be done. Balancing my work, taking care of the kids (thank heavens for their grandparents being around when needed), chores, our marriage – this was a huge turning point that led me to really do a deep dive into what it means to handle a household and, more importantly, having a supportive partner, who I realize is on the same page. Had the roles been reversed and my wife told me the same thing I could easily have said “Kaya mo yan! You’re so good at it,” but now I know this response would have come from a place of zero empathy. My wife asked me “how can we make it better?”

Are you a stay-at-home dad? Then kudos to you! Because at the end of the day, there’s nothing like having a home with a father’s touch!

Best of Geek

Startup Nation: how Israel is rebranding itself as the friendliest nation for technology

There’s a special place in the world for startups and we aren’t talking about Silicon Valley.

Viber. Wix. ICQ. Waze. What do all of these companies have in common? These popular apps all have their roots in Israel, a melting pot of culture, religion and yes we aren’t sugar coating it — conflict. But in the same way that the last decade has been good to the Philippines, lifting itself up from being the “sick man of Asia” to an overperforming infrastructure and GDP growth hub, Israel has been making waves in research and development. The startup scene is vibrant in Israel — namely in key cities Tel Aviv and Jerusalem because of a few key factors that make this small country unique.

For one week I immersed myself into the startup culture of Jerusalem. I toured startups, accelerators, VC’s, co-working spaces. For those who need a step back, a startup is an entrepreneurial venture that is set up to meet a certain demand. But what makes this type of company particularly interesting is that it is designed to be lean and agile — meaning it needs to scale very quickly. As to how quick, some may say that these companies need to grow around 5% every week — whether it be sign ups, page views, or the holy grail of metrics — revenue.

Instagram, Uber, Waze, Facebook, Twitter — these were all startups once and have since exited or become acquired by bigger fish (in the case of Instagram and WhatsApp being bought by Facebook and Waze (formerly called FreeMap Israel — being bought by Google). Silicon Valley painted the perfect picture of a startup ecosystem as the location was nourishing to the tech community in general. But rising real estate costs and other factors made it harder for startups to cut costs – a major impediment to being agile.

Enter Israel, ‘the land of milk and honey’ and now the Promised Land for technology entrepreneurs. From my immersion, I’ve gathered that startups thrive in Israel because of three key situations that are unique to the geography:

Israel needs to innovate because of their geopolitical situation
With negative immigration, scarcity of resources and conflict in neighboring countries, Israel has needed to fend for itself. They invented drip irrigation, engineered crops (the cherry tomato was invented in Israel), built the iron dome missile defense system (the technology which they also repurposed to combat agricultural pests) and made such huge advancements in medical technology and automation. “Adapt or die” is a common catchphrase in the startup world and this has been inculcated into their culture. The scarcity of resources encourages “thinking inside the box” to immediately address needs.

Israel has a unique military
Speaking of culture, the military plays an active role during the formative years of every citizen. By law, all men and women are required to serve in the military — 3 years for men and 2 years for women once they turn 18. Service is considered a rite of passage and since conscription is mandatory, strong bonds are forged which become vital in civilian life as well as employment.

Unlike in the Philippines where the most training a civilian received was with the ROTC, military service in Israel throws you in the middle of a hot bed – military intelligence, tank and chopper pilot, artillery. For many women , they may opt to do what is the equivalent of the NSTP in the Philippines which involves a lot of community work, which helps open doors to being great tour guides and public relations specialists.

It has become such that in one way or another, the military had influenced the careers of these tech entrepreneurs in one way or another: Hanan Lipskin, an entrepreneur who develops an anti cyber-bullying app for children called ‘Keepers’ used to work in military intelligence. Another tech entrepreneur Zeev Farman, CEO of Lightricks (makers of the ever-popular app Enlight) says that although he didn’t benefit directly from military service, he did meet his co-founder while in service.

An Israeli startup immediately needs to go global in order to survive
The total population of Israel is a bit over 8 million people — which by comparison is way below the total population of Metro Manila with about 10% living in Jerusalem and half of that in Tel-Aviv. In other words, you could fit the entire population of Israel inside Metro Manila and it still would not be as crowded as it is now in the city.

That being said, there are over 5,500 startups in Israel, which if you think about it. brings a huge disparity in supply vs demand for tech services. As such, due to their small population an israeli startup always sets itself up to be acquired – such as how Waze was acquired by Google and just recently, Mobileye was acquired by Intel.

5,500 startups in Israel
500+ in Jerusalem
USD $1B in funding from Jerusalem-based companies
70 VC funds active today
USD $100M funding from government
4.3% of GDP invested in R&D
2nd largest number of companies on NASDAQ next to China

Failure is an option in the startup community, so much so that the culture of failure is not frowned upon, even by the Israeli government. With about USD $100 million in the bank reserved solely for entrepreneurs the government takes an active role as both VC fund and accelerator. Any Israeli citizen can pitch their concept to the government and after undergoing a rigorous vetting system, they receive seed capital. If their venture succeeds, the seed money is returned. If a venture fails, the government calls it a learning experience and the doors are left open to try again in the future.

In his book, Startup Nation, Saul Singer has branded Israel as the new Promised Land for research and development. It is a welcome label backed by astounding facts — Israel has the second largest number of companies on NASDAQ next to China, with more than 4% of GDP invested in research and development.

Israeli Startup Rundown

Dubbed as the food crawl app that doesn’t need a tour guide, bitemojo helps foodies and tourists build custom food tours by availing any of their curated packages. In our stay, we took the Jerusalem Market food tour, one of the most popular destinations in Jerusalem. Husband and wife tandem Michael and Yale Weiss developed the app to help tourists discover the city through food, with everything curated by locals. Since everything is pre-paid, tourists do not need to second-guess prices and potentially be ripped off by tourist traps.

OrCam Assistive Technology for the Visually Impaired
This is the world’s most advanced assistive technology to help the visually impaired. Resembling a camera that attaches to your glasses frame, OrCam makes use of a highly accurate text-to-speech recognition using the camera and hand gestures. OrCam also does facial recognition as well as brand logo recognition and can translate up to 20 languages as of this writing.

Imagine the “Uber for family dinners.” Enter EatWith, a “social eating” experience that allows you to book dinner with a family in Israel. During our stay we were graced into the home of Chef Aliza, a Cordon Bleau trained chef who migrated to Jerusalem. She acts as EatWith’s ambassador, creating dishes that speak about the cosmopolitan influences of Israel. As a tourist, EatWith is one of the best ways to experience Israeli hospitality.

Hanan Lipskin is passionate about keeping children safe from the perils of the Internet — especially with cyber-bullying. With background in the Israeli military intelligence, he developed Keepers, an app that protects children from cyberbullying on their social media platforms and chat by alerting parents if conversations are leading towards harassment.

Nava brief Fried had a career in PR before she founded ModLi, the “first and only modest fashion platform.” Whether due to religion or simply fashion sense, ModLi takes into account cultural and religious nuances into the fashion world. Since launch she has gone global, realizing that the demand for modest clothing went beyond Asia and the Middle East.

This startup darling is the recent poster child of what every Israeli startup wants to achieve: being fully acquired by a bigger fish, in this case, a USD $15B acquisition by Intel for their vehicle automation technology. Although self-driving cars are still in development (and Mobileye is the world leader), current technology includes super advanced dash cameras that can predict accidents and help driver navigation, “turning back the clock 3 seconds” to help drivers make better decisions on the road.

Although more of an accelerator and less of a startup, the ALYN Hospital for Pediatric and Adolescent Rehabilitation Center has its own R&D center inside the hospital. Whereas in other countries, startups are usually “outside looking in” out of the box solutions, in this case, the startup is located inside the hospital to find “inside the box” solutions for their patients. One of their projects is the Wheelchairs of Hope, which aims to mass produce the most affordable wheelchair into the market at only USD $100.00 per seat.

This article originally appeared in the technology section of The Manila Bulletin.

Best of Digressions

An audit of what it means to be young

This article originally appeared in the December luxury supplement of the Manila Bulletin, dated December 4 2017.

The relentless search for youth has been a consistent theme in humanity’s aspirations. Because youth is fleeting. It is synonymous to time, to better days — “the good old days”, to unbridled passions where mistakes were to be made, and the scars — both physical and emotional were worn with pride. To freedoms, rebelliousness and the small but seemingly timeless window of being invincible.

I thought I was young (in age, at my late 30’s), but I realized that the power of real youth is recognizing old from new. To declare, without hesitation, that “wow that was so long ago” or recognizing a 90’s playlist as oldies or to say that good guy Kanye West is “giving this Paul McCartney guy a chance to be famous” with a duet.

The age of information has made the search for youth more bittersweet:

“People think this 60 year old mother is her son’s girlfriend.”

“Nigella Lawson’s secret to looking great is eating lots of chocolate.”

“Nurses reveal the things patients at their deathbeds wish they had done when they were young.”

It’s also given rise to the 1% of the metabolically gifted — all flaunting on Facebook; that while many search far and wide for the best diet and cleansing routine, these flawless men and women are outliers in that they eat and drink anything.

It is in such times that humanity has labeled youth to be part of the many luxuries we aspire for, and the concerted effort to “looking and feeling younger” is all thanks to the coalescence of social media with the debates on both sides never being resolved. But the one thing that we can all agree on is that the culture of youth — of being young — whether it is a mindset or a literal turning back the clock to look a decade younger is more prevalent today than any other time in human history.

There are those that believe that youth is directly related to the physical aging process. This is the default stance, where the west has been trying to discover that miracle cure of eastern medicine and treatment. A digression: about a year ago, I attended a small “meeting of the minds” with several regional journalists who were all digital practitioners. We were social media and the prevalence of how fake news takes its form per country and the rep from Thailand said that most of the false news isn’t about politics, but about the beauty and wellness industry, with miraculous claims of snake oil permeate the news feed of tens of thousands of Thai women.

There are those that believe that youth can be prolonged through science. The life sciences have become rather exciting in the past decade. With ketogenics (or insert new science-backed diet fad here), intermittent fasting and Functional Medicine leading the pack, society is at its healthiest. In this lifetime, we’ve rid ourselves of polio, malaria and smallpox all because of science. In the Paleolithic era, I would have been dead ten years ago. In the past 50 years, we’ve almost doubled the life expectancy to an average of 71. What does this tell us? This trend of catching our youth is a direct response to a scientific breakthrough, a bi-product of the sign of times because of advances in food and medicine allow us now to live longer than 50 years on average. Imagine, just about 70 years ago, the global average life expectancy was 50 years for human beings. That would mean that your 30’s was your last hurrah before retirement. The longing for youth in our 50’s and 60’s is a luxury in itself, as human beings have never lived this long.

There are those that believe that youth is a state of mind, and this is is perhaps the stance that most people want to accept – that youth is a life style – a life choice, that 40 is the new 20, that your retirement plan is to travel – because this is the most positive manifestation of affordable luxury. Positive thinking, yoga, anger management – these lifestyle pursuits ultimately lead to a clearer mind, spirit and conscience.

On a personal level, I do believe that youth is humbling. It is the reality that punches you in the face, once you realize that you tend to catch your breath at closer intervals when climbing stairs, and that the only solution is even more suffering in terms of diet and exercise. I also do believe though that the pursuit of youth is a tautology: the Romans defined duty and responsibility as being in medias res, or with all things in moderation. It is most apparent in Bk II of The Odes by Horace titled The Golden Mean,

Whoever takes delight in the golden mean,
safelt avoids the squalor of a shabby house,
and, soberly, avoids the regal palace
that incites envy.

This advice is often given to the young, bestowing upon them a sense of responsibility and duty, to be at the center of the turning wheel so that you are never up nor down. But of course, we all know that this sense of sobriety comes as a function of time and wisdom. Isn’t the youth defined as brazen and unbridled?