Skin in the Game- book review

Too many people in the world don’t have skin in the game, according to Nassim Nicholas Taleb. And because these people often make vital decisions in government or make “expert” forecasts, this leads to disaster. As a finale to his Incerto series of books on risk and uncertainty, Skin in the Game is a slender and incisive book that exposes hidden “asymmetries” in life.

One of the biggest problems in society is that people from government bureaucrats to economists make decisions that don’t affect them personally, meaning that there’s no downside or risk for them. This lack of skin in the game, which was introduced in Taleb’s previous book Antifragile, leads to flawed decisions that can seriously affect lots of people in society. Bankers are a major example, as after the 2008 financial crisis, major American banks received massive bailouts despite being responsible for causing massive financial harm. Also, pundits often make predictions or advocate for actions such as military action in which they don’t personally carry out. Journalists (a bit unfairly to me though obviously I would say that) are another target of Taleb’s as are university academics.

While not as long as the Taleb’s previous books, Skin in the Game features lots of brief and compelling lessons and observations.

For instance, societies in which inequality have ergocity or dynamism are better than that with static inequality, where the wealthy never change and the rich always stay rich. I’m thinking this applies to places that are dominated by old money families. If wealth is giving you fewer options, then clearly you are doing it wrong. What is ration is that which allows for survival.

Taleb also raises the point of the intolerant minority which can disproportionately influence society by skewing preferences or even rules. He gives the example of the widespread availability of halal food in Europe, even though Muslims are a small minority. His point is that sometimes a minority with specific preferences or bias, in this case towards non-halal food, can cause a majority to change their preference to accede to the minority’s preference. Another example is the use of “Happy holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” in many parts of the US due to atheist or non-Christian complaints.

Taleb also sums up the key ideas in the Incerto series, which besides having skin in the game, include via negativa in which you eliminate all the bad options and being antifragile in the sense of thriving or being resistant to shocks from change.

I admit the somewhat random structure of the chapters made the book feel a little slight in terms of the lessons. Antifragile was more lengthier and featured more interesting lessons in my opinion. However, I think Taleb would prefer people read all of his Incerto books rather than just one.

Taleb is not shy with his arguments and ideas and even if you don’t agree with most of what he says, there is a strong chance you will find his arguments interesting.

1776- book review

The year 1776 is a significant one for the US, as that was the year when its founding fathers declared independence from Britain. But 1776 was also a precarious year when the fledgling American uprising led by George Washington could have been crushed after several severe military defeats and setbacks. This grim scenario is made abundantly clear in the book 1776, which describes the near fall and rise of the American revolution during that pivotal year.

I’m not too familiar with American history, especially the American Revolution, of which I just know the bare facts. So the precariousness of the American movement and the desperation of its rebel army during 1776 were something I had no idea of.

Having risen up in 1775 and fought several battles, the Americans actually started the year off in 1776 in a relatively decent position as they laid siege to British forces in Boston. For months, the two sides were in a stalemate, until the Americans took a hill overlooking the city and launched withering artillery bombardments, using heavy cannon that had been audaciously hauled 300 miles from Fort Ticonderoga over hills, frozen lakes, and forests. Having taken Boston, the American army then moved on to New York, where their fortunes would suffer a massive reverse.

A massive British fleet unloaded an army that routed the Americans, forcing them to flee south to New Jersey. By December, calamity awaited the Americans as the British pursued them south. I won’t reveal what happens at the end, though American readers and people familiar with the American Revolution will have a good idea.

McCullough has written a stirring historical account that focuses on the American leaders and army and the dire situation they faced. The army suffered from a desperate lack of supplies and men, a lack of discipline, and a constant struggle in retaining and training men as the force transitioned from a militia to a professional army. At any point, the American army could have come close to collapse and dissolution. After all, they faced a formidable and well supplied foe, that was not only made up of British “redcoats”, but also Hessian troops, hired from Germany and much feared for their valor in battle.

The book focuses on Washington, naturally, and highlights his character as well as flaws such as his indecisiveness which cost the Americans at least one of the battles. But McCullough also shows Washington’s burgeoning leadership traits such as being able to endure criticism, even from a trusted confidante in a letter to another person, and his constant urge to take action, which he found better than not doing anything. This shows the measure of the man. Intelligence, cunning and strategy are important, but so are self-motivation, perseverance, and the humility to bear criticism and learn from mistakes. McCullough also features Washington’s commanders Nathanael Greene and Henry Knox, who decided on and brought the cannons overland from Fort Ticonderoga to Boston.

There is also a bit of sympathy for the British. King George III wasn’t as dim or ineffective as history often makes him out to be. The British commanders are described as reluctant to engage in total war, especially during the end of the year, preferring instead to wear out the American forces by attrition rather than kill them in numbers. I wonder if this had something to do with the Americans being mostly white descendants of British settlers, as British armies have not shown much restraint against military foes in India and Africa.

Get informed about Taiwan

We are now in the fifth month of the coronavirus pandemic, but Taiwan is still doing well at home while donating millions of masks and sharing its experience and research with other countries.

To help people know more about Taiwan, I’ve started a weekly newsletter called Taiwan Unraveled, which aims to unravel and unpack Taiwan in terms of politics, business, culture, tech, and sports. Check it out and sign up if you want to get a weekly list of the best articles about Taiwan.

To give you a taste, I’ve listed links to some of the best recent articles featured in the newsletter:

One of the major actions Taiwan took was to take control of facemask production and distribution. Thanks to this, Taiwan was able to ensure enough for its people as well as to donate millions to the world. But first, the authorities had to put together a team to ramp up daily facemask production in January. This article tells the fascinating story of a “national team” of engineers and technicians made this possible.

In March, I wrote about how Taiwan managed to successfully contain the coronavirus, employing a multifaceted approach that included early flight screening and travel restrictions, proactive measures including facemask production above, and the use of tech.

One of the biggest signs of how well Taiwan is functioning is that its baseball league was the first to start play in April, which has made sport-starved baseball fans in the US happy. Baseball is Taiwan’s most popular team sport and has a long history in Taiwan, having been introduced by the Japanese almost 100 years ago. The games were originally played behind closed doors, but on Friday (May 8), up to 1,000 fans were allowed into stadiums, making the Taiwan baseball league the only one now with live fans.

There are four reasons for Taiwan to look forward to the future, including a decent economy, better recognition from the world, stronger relations with the US and a growing “normalization” of Taiwan’s identity as a country.

Taiwan is becoming a haven for Hong Kong activists, as exemplified by the reopening of Causeway Bay Bookstore in Taipei by Hong Konger Lam Wing-kee. Lam was one of five booksellers who were kidnapped by Chinese agents in 2015 in Hong Kong and Thailand, secretly taken to China, and detained. Their crime? Selling books in the original Causeway Bay Bookstore about Chinese politics that were unavailable in the mainland but popular with Chinese tourists visiting Hong Kong.

Kaohsiung is Taiwan’s biggest southern city, widely considered the country’s second city (though population-wise it has been overtaken by Taichung). The port city is trying to develop a tech sector while building several major arts and tourism attractions along its waterfront.

Kavalan is a Taiwanese whisky brand that has quietly become one of the best in the world. The whisky is distilled in Taiwan’s northeast, where the local climate with winds blowing in from the Pacific is especially favorable.

Ottoman Odyssey- book review

If it wasn’t for the fact that Turkish authorities decided to ban the author from reentering the country due to her political journalism, the idea for writing about the former Ottoman Empire would not have come to fruition. So it is thanks to Turkey’s sensitive regime that Alev Scott wrote Ottoman Odyssey – Travels through a Lost Empire, a fascinating and somber account of the lingering heritage of the Ottoman Empire in its former territories.

Scott, a half-Turkish Cypriot and half-British reporter, had lived in Turkey for several years before suddenly finding out she was barred from the country after being refused entry from Greece. Originally intending to write about the social legacy of the empire within Turkey, she decided to broaden her scope to the wider empire. The book features people and places from Turkey to Greece to the Balkans to Israel and Lebanon.

The Ottoman Empire ruled modern-day Turkey as well as most of the Balkans, the Middle East and Egypt, which meant it encompassed Asia, Africa and Europe. While dominated by the Turks who were predominately Muslim, the empire had a cosmopolitan nature with multiple ethnicities and religions. It is sad that modern-day Turkey is far less multicultural than it was in the 19th-century, when significant Orthodox Christian and Jewish communities thrived in Istanbul. The 20th century upheavals such as the 1919-1922 war between Greece and Turkey, which resulted in both countries exchanging their respective Muslim and Orthodox minorities, ended this cosmopolitan nature.

For these minorities, displacement and exile became the norm, which the book covers in abundance. From Turkish Greeks living on the Greek isle of Lesbos just miles from the Turkish coast, looking on at their former homes whilst not being able to go back to live there is a daily experience. On divided Cyprus, locals from the Turkish and Greek-speaking sides talk about having more in common with their fellow Cypriots than their fellow ethnic and linguistic kin from the mainland.

But in general Ottoman rule has a mixed legacy across the region, especially among its former Christian subjects in Greece, Bulgaria, and the former Yugoslav republics, and not least of all, Armenia. After all, the Armenia genocide was carried out during the end of the empire by Turkish troops, as well as Kurds, amid a general unraveling. While still hotly disputed by Turkey, who refuse to acknowledge the genocide, the Armenians suffered the terrible loss of over a million people that still haunts them today.

Scott visits Armenia, though she has to keep her Turkish heritage (her Turkish Cypriot mother) a secret, and tell people she is from England (which indeed she is). She visits the capital’s Genocide Museum where she realizes the full horrors of what happened to the Armenians, and leaves shaken by the experience.

Scott also travels to the Levant, the southern reaches of the former empire, specifically Israel and Lebanon. There, she weaves through the complex religious and sectarian makeup of those countries, much of which stems from Ottoman times. There are visits to Jerusalem, the stronghold of the Druze in Lebanon, and even a former Islamic State enclave in Lebanon near the Syrian border.

Ottoman Odyssey is a poignant, sorrowful and entrancing book that does well to highlight the lingering traces of a once grand empire across its former lands.

National coronavirus success stories

The coronavirus pandemic still has a grip on most of the world and our lives, but there are a few bright spots. After over three months, here are a few countries in Asia and Oceania that are succeeding in one way or another in containing their respective outbreaks and resuming some parts of normal life.

Taiwan
I might be biased since I’m very pro-Taiwan and reside here, but the fact is much of society is still functioning like normal. This includes schools, offices and stores, as well as sports! As I’ve written before, Taiwan’s response includes early vigilance, proactive measures and transparency, as well as cooperation with private firms on making much more facemasks than normal. Taiwan did experience a small surge of imported cases from visitors and returnees coming back from the West in March, as well as a naval ship cluster, but they have had many days with zero or just one or two daily cases.

Vietnam
Remarkably, this country of over 90 million has less than 300 cases and no deaths due to the coronavirus. They did do a partial lockdown but there’s already talk of easing it. And just like Taiwan, taking early measures like shutting their land border with China and mass quarantining helped a lot. The one factor that hinders more recognition of Vietnam’s success is that as a Communist country, the government controls all information and the media is restricted and censored. There is a likelihood that the actual numbers might be higher but even then, not by too much, according to some experts.

South Korea
In contrast to the two countries above, South Korea got hit really hard by the coronavirus and at one point, had the second-most cases in the world. But despite over 10,000 cases, they implemented rigorous measures like mass testing, contact tracing, and public mask-wearing, and have managed to “flatten the curve” to the point where they only get low double-digit daily cases now. The public also played a big role as they voluntarily stayed home or closed down their businesses without being ordered to, so in a sense they did have a lockdown but it was a self-enforced one. South Korea might arguably be the most impressive success story because they actually experienced a mass outbreak within a short time and seem to have defeated it.

Australia and New Zealand
As the only non-Asian countries here, the two neighbors both enacted hard lockdowns but have reached the point where easing is being discussed and even a “bubble” involving the two countries. Both countries have managed to clamp down on daily infections and keep the death toll at a minimum, which is laudable. New Zealand implemented a lockdown when there were only 102 cases, which has helped them contain their outbreak. Australia implemented a lockdown much later (when they had over 4000 cases) but in the weeks since then have also managed to contain the outbreak at a reasonable level. In both countries, widespread testing and contact tracing were implemented. New Zealand did reference Taiwan as an example, which is why they did the smart thing of cancelling mass gatherings very early, unlike some Western countries which continued to hold large sporting events and concerts until their outbreaks hit hard.

Hong Kong
At one point in February, HK was being likened to a failed state due to being a state of panic over the coronavirus and a perceived lack of toilet paper and instant noodles. But HK soon got past that and has reached a point where, like Taiwan, they have enjoyed zero-cases days. HK people do love wearing their masks, maybe overly so, but it has helped with containing the coronavirus so that there have been no hard lockdowns. Schools have been closed since February and there are social distancing limits on restaurants and public gatherings though. And like South Korea and Taiwan, rigorous quarantine measures and contact tracing have also been implemented.

 

No matter what, it’s still necessary to stay on guard and keep up precautionary measures, even here in Taiwan, and the situation could easily change quickly.
For now, hats off to all these countries (and Hong Kong) for beating back the coronavirus and let’s hope that more countries can follow in these countries’ footsteps soon.

We, the Survivors- book review

It’s not often that a story of a murderer elicits sympathy but We, the Survivors pulls off this feat deftly. Told as a recollection of the life of a Malaysian Chinese ex-convict leading up to his act of manslaughter, this novel written by Taiwanese-born Malaysian Tash Aw is a somber but powerful tale of rural poverty, illegal migrant exploitation, environmental destruction, and class differences.

Having served his time in jail and now living a simple life as an ex-con, Ah Hock is approached by a young lady who is doing a PhD and wants to interview him as “field work” for research. Through the course of many interviews conducted over several months, Ah Hock tells of his humble upbringing in a poor fishing village, his move to the big city, and his gradual rise from manual labor work to foreman of a fish farm. He is doing well, having married and bought a house, until a childhood friend shows up.

Having grown up with Ah Hock in his village, Keong was a teen hoodlum and drug dealer in his youth, hustling around in the big city Kuala Lumpur until he becomes a labor broker. That is, he specializes in finding migrant workers to do manual labor. Given that these workers are most often illegals and have no work permits, they are easily exploited and sometimes literally worked to death. Keong’s reappearance in Ah Hock’s adult life is an ominous development that changes it for the worst.

Ultimately, this happens after Ah Hock desperately tries to find replacements for sick workers on his farm, leading him to ask Keong for help from his shady contacts. In a sense, Ah Hock is also responsible for what eventually happens, and hence his own downfall.

Eventually, the interviewer decides to turn Ah Hock’s story into a book, which Ah Hock is nonplussed about. Ah Hock’s interactions with her, which often form interludes between his narration of his life story, demonstrate the stark difference in their backgrounds (Ah Hock did not graduate from high school) and outlook on life. She is highly educated, opinionated and strongly critical of problems in the country like corruption.

We, the Survivors is a moving but sad book to read, especially with the way how Ah Hock seems to have accepted his fate with resignation and a lack of regret. The book does well to avoid descending into overwrought emotions or sappiness.

While Malaysia is one of Southeast Asia’s more prosperous countries, there is a lot of exploitation of migrant workers as people from poorer neighboring countries like Myanmar and Bangladesh are often smuggled into the country looking for a better life. In We, the Survivors, their fate in the country is told in sometimes horrifying detail.

This is the second book I’ve read from Tash Aw, with the first being the Harmony Silk Factory. Both of these books are set in Malaysia (his other books take place in China and Indonesia). Tash Aw has an impressive ability to make the hot, sultry Malaysian landscape a compelling backdrop for his books, whether it be the tin-mining boom city Ipoh or in this case, rural Malaysia.