Books

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness- book review

Twenty years ago, Indian writer Arundhati Roy wrote a novel that ended up winning a Booker Prize. Then in 2017, she released her second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, which sounds like a cheery, whimsical work, but that is not the type of writer Roy is. So while I was slightly taken by surprise when the book took a major change of direction early on, I should have realized there would have been more to the story. The book starts off with the story of Anjum, a hijra (transsexual) who moves to a cemetery and opens a guesthouse, before focusing on a tenant, Tilo, whose mysterious, sad past involves Kashmir.

The book is poignant in some parts, and light in others, but Tilo’s story and the brutality in Kashmir impart a heavy air. In the beginning, when we learn about Anjum, the capital Delhi is portrayed with a rich amount of detail highlighting history, culture and architecture. Roy also provides an entrancing description of the hijra community which Anjum becomes part of when he leaves home and decides he wants to become a woman.

However, Anjum’s life changes when she takes a trip to Gujarat and survives a communal massacre of Muslims (this happened for real in 2003 in retaliation for a massacre of Hindu passengers on a train). When the story shifts to Kashmir, where local uprisings have occurred against the Indian state, the tone changes to one of politics and conflict, as well as religious extremism and brutal policing. To be honest, I would have preferred it if the novel had just been about Tilo without the transsexual and funeral guesthouse part, though that adds a lot of colour to the book. The two parts differ in tone as well as story, and the effect is like two distinct stories fused together. Another issue is that midway in the book, during a recounting of Tilo’s past, the narrative timeline gets a little confusing and it is unclear whether events had happened in the past or had just occurred.

Roy’s focus on transgenders, history and the Kashmir conflict echoes her diverse knowledge (she trained as an architect in school) and tremendous activist work in speaking out against causes ranging from caste violence, dam-building, and religious conflicts in India, as well as the US government when it invaded Iraq. Besides her two novels, she has written numerous non-fiction books, a few of which I read in my university years, filled with blunt, angry essays about these causes.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is a pleasing book but one which might have been better if it had been streamlined.

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Books

SPQR- book review

Named after the famous initials of the Latin phrase “the Senate and People of Rome,” which was used by the Romans as an official slogan on documents, military banners, public works, and coinage, SPQR – A History of Ancient Rome tells the story of the Romans during their first thousand years as they grew from a small city state to become one of the world’s largest and most powerful empires.

Combining riveting facts, stories and details, Mary Beard, who has been hailed as one of the world’s best Roman historians, looks at different aspects of the Romans from famous emperors to politics and laws to the daily lives of commoners to the nations they conquered. I’ll be honest though, the book was a little tough at times though that was partly because I spread it out over several months.

Beard does well to give readers both a broader understanding of the Roman world and people, as well as an intimate look at daily life. Roman life was both extravagant and filthy, as well as dangerous. Not surprisingly, Rome was a place of great turmoil, strife, political intrigues, and complexity. Somehow, or perhaps because of this, they managed to create a powerful empire. And as the Romans conquered fellow Italians, Greeks, other Europeans and the Middle East and Egypt, they spread their influence and culture. While they considered other people as barbarians, the Romans also allowed elites in their conquered territories sought to copy Roman behaviors, similarly to how people around the world might curse the US and the “West”, but still use their software, buy their brands and ape their lifestyle. SPQR .

Europe travel · Travel

Italy travel- magnificent Milano

While Rome was the highlight of my visit to Italy during my Europe trip, Milan was actually my first stop. While the Italian financial and fashion center is not as well-known as the likes of Venice or Florence for travelling, I thought Milan was a fine city to visit. It is one of Italy’s most prosperous, being the seat of the country’s stock exchange, and modern cities, but Milan also has a very old historical heritage, said to have been founded in 600 BC by the Celts and being part of the Roman empire. However, Milan also fell under the control of the Habsburgs from the 16th to mid-19th centuries.

I’d chosen to visit Milan not because of finance, fashion or even football (I’m not a fan of Inter or AC Milan), but for its giant, white Duomo cathedral, plus the fact it was in Northern Italy and just a few hours from my previous stop in France. In addition, the city also had the fascinating Sforza castle, the 4th century AD-built Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio, as well as the beautiful Galleria Vittorio Emmanuelle, which is right next to the Duomo. There were also the Pinocoteca di Brera art gallery, with its many fine paintings, and a very interesting science and technology museum.

When I pulled into Milan’s Porto Garibaldi station and took the subway to my hotel, I had little idea of what to expect. I was wary of the language barrier and getting around, but it turned out to be relatively easy. I actually found that there was more English in Milan than in France, such as with museums and street signs. Also my hotel turned out to be Chinese-run, so I ended up speaking Chinese to the staff. Interesting, there seems to be a small Chinese community in Milan, consisting both of immigrants and students.

The Duomo was as impressive in real life as in the photos I’d seen, especially the massive interior where it felt like being in a cavern. The giant columns, stained glass windows and various statues were very attractive. I also went up to the roof where you can get a good view of the surrounding area as well as the myriad spires and other structures.
The open area in front of the cathedral was packed with people, including tourists, locals as well as dodgy characters holding strings which they are said to tie on unsuspecting tourists’ wrists and force them to pay money. Next to the Duomo is the Galleria Vittorio Emmanuelle, a high-end open shopping arcade with very attractive roof and floor decorations. On the floor tiles in the center, there were four coat of arms, those of Rome, Florence, Turin (capitals of the Kingdom of Italy), and Milan. Turin’s coat of arms features a giant bull on whose testicles (yes, really) which people stand upon and spin themselves because doing so is said to bring good luck. So many people do that so that there is a hole on the spot where the bull’s testicles are.


Continue reading “Italy travel- magnificent Milano”

Books

Elon Musk- book review

I only just completed Elon Musk’s biography earlier this week so it is fitting that his SpaceX just successfully launched its largest rocket, the Falcon Heavy, on February 7. Elon Musk- How the Billionaire CEO of SpaceX and Tesla is Shaping our Future provides a fascinating glimpse into how significant the accomplishments of one of the world’s most famous billionaire entrepreneurs have been. Besides SpaceX, whose ultimate aim is to transport humans to Mars to sustain a colony, Musk also heads Tesla, the world’s most well-known and successful electric carmaker.

What the book vividly shows is not merely Musk’s success, but how impressive (and near-impossible) it was for it to have happened. With Tesla, Musk put electric cars in the spotlight and in SpaceX, he built a rocket company virtually from scratch, with the help of co-founders, to launch rockets into space and compete with industry giants like Lockheed. In addition, under his direction, SpaceX found a way to make its rockets reusable by controlling their orbit back into Earth after they had launched into space. Previously, rockets were just used once and were useless afterwards. SpaceX runs into many financial and technical challenges and there are precarious moments, but it is extraordinary how Musk drove and willed his vision into coming true. Besides SpaceX being a startup competing against industry giants and rocking an aging space industry, the fact it manufactured much of its own parts and systems (in the US too) rather than outsource them to contractors like the large companies, increased the incredible nature of its success. As if space rockets and electric cars weren’t enough to manage, Musk is also chairman of SolarCity, a solar panel systems company which Musk’s cousins started up.

Besides Tesla and Space X, the book also details Musk’s earliest ventures such as Zip2, an online listings for businesses, and Paypal, where things got a little messy and Musk was ousted as CEO. While Paypal is known today as an online payment processing site, Musk’s vision had actually been to create an online banking institution which would offer products like mutual funds. Of course, this did not happen but at least you can see how Musk from early on in his career had a thing for wanting to disrupt industries. Musk’s upbringing in South Africa, which includes a difficult relationship with his father (who is barred from meeting Musk’s children), and his marriages and divorces (with the same person) are also detailed. Yet all this is just a sideshow to the most fascinating parts in the book which are about Musk’s work with SpaceX and Tesla.

Musk is portrayed as a visionary, obsessed with huge goals like bringing people to Mars or creating a nationwide gas-free infrastructure for electric cars, but also a brilliant engineer and scientist who knew the physics and engineering behind what his companies were doing. He is also a very demanding boss and micro-manager, who could be kind of vicious at times, which make him sound similar to Steve Jobs, though Musk is slightly nicer, according to people in the book. But the real difference is that while Jobs strove for great design and consumer technology, Musk has a much greater vision for the world that seeks to improve the environment, through using electric cars and utilizing solar energy, and make space travel a reality. While the latter might be a bit too much of a reach, it is hard to dispute the significance of his energy and environmental goals on society in general.

In some ways, Musk came off as a real-life version of Tony Stark, the Marvel tech billionaire who fights evil as Iron Man, and Robert Downey Jr, the actor who played Tony Stark, actually visited Musk at his business. I actually had little interest in Elon Musk and his work, not being a particular fan of space technology or electric cars, but reading this biography has made me admire him a lot. I actually carried this book with me on a short trip and because it turned out to be more interesting than I’d thought, I had to ration the pages near the end so that I wouldn’t finish it too quickly.

Europe travel · Travel

Paris travel- Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe


The most recognizable symbol in Paris is probably the Eiffel Tower, with the Arc de Triomphe second. Previously, my mother and I had appreciated the Eiffel Tower from afar, atop the Montparnasse Tower, but on our third day in the city we went right up to the tower. But before that, we had coffee at Les Deux Magots, a cafe where famous literature and artistic personalities like Hemingway, Sartre and Picasso met and ate at; then visited the Arc de Triomphe, which we walked to from the busy tree- and store-lined Champs-Elysees. The Arc was much bigger than I’d expected and I didn’t realize it was a 19th century military memorial. That said, I wasn’t awed by any one particular structure, but all these places just confirmed my impression from the previous days – Paris is a beautiful city.


It might seem very old-fashioned but it is convenient that Parisian metro stations have giant metal signs with their names right above the entrances

The Luxor obelisk, an over-3000-year-old obelisk given by Egypt to France in 1829, at the Place de la Concorde

The Arc de Triomphe also features the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier memorializing the dead of World War I.

River Seine across from the Eiffel Tower

Taiwan

Taipei hiking- taking in 101


Taipei’s skyline has long been dominated by one building, Taipei 101, one of the world’s tallest buildings. Nowadays, it still is but it’s got company in the form of the Nan Shan Plaza and at least another skyscraper is under construction in the area. The best way to get an up-close view of Taipei 101 and its surroundings is Xiangshan (Elephant Hill), a small nearby mountain. There is a popular spot consisting of several boulders that is ideal for selfies but there are more than one vantage point. Besides Taipei 101, you can get sweeping views of the city as well as the northern hills.




Books · Sports

NFL Confidential- book review

Some people think American football is one of the most boring or nonsensical sports, but I was actually a big fan of it. There’s something about American football that other sports just don’t have, which is probably why it has become the most popular sport in the US. The heightened tension of each individual play, amplified by the pauses between each play, and the quick athleticism and brutality on display makes each game a fierce and dramatic battle. I used to be a big NFL and American football fan during my university years in Canada and would catch the games every weekend.

Since coming to Asia, the early times of the games meant I wasn’t able to continue my NFL viewing and I’m no longer a major fan. However I still retain some interest, despite the serious concussion issue and other controversies. I still enjoy reading about the NFL when I can, which is how I read NFL Confidential- True Confessions from the Gutter of Football, a tell-all book written by a former player of an entire season in the league. He also claims to hate the league, which is why he wrote it anonymously.

The book exposes a lot of the drama that goes on behind the scenes as a NFL player, from racial cliques to bullying coaches to the precariousness of player employment. But somehow, the fact that it was written under a pseudonym and a lot of the names and details are deliberately falsified or omitted takes away from the supposed authenticity. After all, we don’t even know the team the player is part of nor any of his teammates, who he assigns nicknames to like GI Joe and Dante the diva receiver. The writer is also an offensive lineman, one of those huge blockers who protect the quarterback and plough holes for the running back.

The player starts off as a backup, which was his ambition since it meant he could get paid to do nothing during an entire year. Midway, injuries to starters means he is needed to start and soon he becomes a key part of the team. One would think this fortuitous change would shift his feelings but instead he realizes while he still loves the game, he still hates the business of the league. Along the way, he writes about his his longtime girlfriend, who he has gone out with since high school. And his feelings towards her veer towards a casual ambivalence which eventually sees an end to the relationship.

Those who are NFL fans will certainly find it interesting, but readers who want to learn about how an NFL team operates will also get something from it. That said, the premise of the book — the writer’s assertion about the problems with the league stemming from its thirst for profit — provides a somber, realistic take on the NFL that takes away from its guts and glory image.

China · Taiwan

China: great, invader, empire, pretender, threat – article roundup

It’s only the beginning of 2018 but there have been a bunch of major China articles which make some vital points about the ramifications of Chinaon the world. Some of the articles are long but they are worth reading.
Check them out below:

It is widely believed China has plans to invade Taiwan but by 2020? This writer thinks so as China might fear running out of time to achieve unification. Taiwanese, or at least 99.9% of them, want no part of being part of China and Xi Jinping seems to be very aware of this. Among the reasons for China to invade by 2020, the writer claims that “more and more Chinese are calling for unification by force,” which if true is very worrying, and that the Communist Party will mark its 100th anniversary in 2021.

From the NY Times’ correspondent Edward Wong who is leaving after 10 years covering China, he states China is trying to recreate an empire. Except it is one propped up by force and repression, not by ideas or ideology. This is a very long article that covers China’s change throughout the author’s time there, and by the end, it is clear he is not too positive. The paragraph below explains it all and might reflect the feeling of many China expats and observers.
Though unabashedly authoritarian, China was a magnet. I was among many who thought it might forge a confident and more open identity while ushering in a vibrant era of new ideas, values and culture, one befitting its superpower status. When I ended my China assignment last year, I no longer had such expectations.”

China has recently been caught attempting to influence local politics and spy on governments in Australia and New Zealand through various means. All this is part of China’s attempt to interfere, influence and even intimidate democratic countries and in large parts they have been succeeding such as getting foreign leaders to stop meeting the Dalai Lama and forcing British publishers to self-censor. Western countries are at a disadvantage, because they are competing against a country in which the ruling regime (CCP) controls everything from the government, corporations, media, courts, and even churches. By this, I mean the party, which puts itself above the country in the constitution and to whom the military swears loyalty, can utilize all aspects of society to do its will (directing companies to make investments in foreign countries such as regarding the Belt and Road “initiative”, funding foreign Chinese student organizations etc). Civil society is almost non-existent as unions and religious bodies are all affiliated with the party.

Evan Osnos, a former China correspondent, thinks Xi Jinping is making China great, thanks largely to Donald Trump relinquishing US dominance and influence in the world. Osnos is a very good writer, but citing the Belt and Road as an example of China’s greatness is flimsy, given it is largely a vague, dubious “initiative” that keeps being talked about but has few concrete benefits for countries other than China. Also, it is not so much China is becoming greater but that the US is willingly retreating, as the Chinese academic below says.
I dropped by to see one of the city’s wisest observers of America, Jia Qingguo, the dean of the Department of Diplomacy at Peking University. “The U.S. is not losing leadership. You’re giving it up. You’re not even selling it,” he said. 

However, Elizabeth Economy, from the Council of Foreign Relations, says not so fast about China ascending the world’s superpower throne. China faces serious economic and environmental problems, and most of all, does not have any true allies or inspire any significant trust and respect abroad. In short, would you want your country to be like China? Would you willingly move your family to China and take Chinese citizenship? Fittingly, Economy’s conclusion is exactly how I feel about China and its claims to world leadership.

Africa · Books

Homegoing- book review

One of the most poignant novels I’ve ever read, Homegoing follows the descendants of two West African half-sisters, separated by slavery and continents, over 200 years from the late 18th century to the modern era. A tragedy and painful family secret portend the fate of Effia and Essi, in their tribal homelands in what is now Ghana, during a time of growing interaction between Europeans and Africans, when slavery and Christianity came to the fore.

Slavery is what causes the stories of the two half-sisters, who never meet, to diverge, as Effia marries the European governor of the Cape Coast Castle, from where numerous African slaves were shipped to the US, while Essi is captured and transported as one such slave to America. One member of each ensuing generation of their respective descendants is featured in a chapter as their lives unfold in line with the historic development of the US and Ghana. While the Ghanaians cope with war against the British, colonialism and running their own country after independence, the Americans toil as slaves in the US South, then continue to cope with racism and discrimination.

Ghana is a fitting stage for a story focused on slavery, since it is where a lot of African slaves were bought, gathered and then shipped off to the New World, especially America. Cape Coast Castle is one of the more famous of numerous coastal forts built by Europeans to hold slaves, and was even visited by Barack Obama when he was US president in 2009. The author also makes clear the role of the local tribes, such as the powerful Asante and their Fante kin and rivals, in procuring and selling slaves to the Europeans, which illustrates the complexity of slavery in Africa. As such, this is not a one-sided polemic of whites neither a romanticized tale.

As its characters marched through history, there are heartbreaking chapters on captured slaves crammed into a filthy Cape Coast Castle dungeon, failed slave escapes from US plantations, and abductions. As someone who grew up in the Caribbean, I was familiar with slavery from school, given its key historic role in the region, but I still found the book to be stunning in its portrayal of the brutality of slavery in the US.

If Homegoing has one fault, it is that there are so many themes encompassing Africa-West relations, slavery, race relations, drug addiction, immigrants and diaspora which did not all get fully fleshed out. The conclusion also seemed a little too neat and contrived. Despite that, the author Yaa Gyasi does well to make most of the myriad characters people who you can care about and the novel remains compelling up until the end.

It is an epic tale that blends history and tragedy in both personal and societal forms. Homegoing is one of the best novels I’ve read recently and it is one book that I wished could have been longer.

Books

Art of Thinking Clearly, and Lionheart- book reviews

Earlier last year, I went to Singapore for a brief trip and what I came away with were a bunch of photos that I took and these two books.

From its title, The Art of Thinking Clearly makes an impressive, bold claim. People, like you and me, often have  cognitive biases that influence how we approach problems and make decisions. But these biases are often misleading, inaccurate or dead wrong. Summarizing various cognitive errors people often make, Rolf Dobelli presents 99 clear and brief lessons on how to identify and overcome these errors and make better decisions.

For instance, when should you overthink and when should you rely on your intuition? The answer: take your time to think things through for complex situations whereas for regular, repetitive tasks you should heed your gut. Other interesting lessons include the base-rate neglect and false causality. The former is about how easy it is to ignore the frequency with which something major happens and so exaggerate the possibility of that event, while the latter tackles how people often mistake the cause of something for the effect and vice versa (for example: a study shows smarter kids have more books at home. But that doesn’t mean the books cause them to be smart, since maybe smarter kids enjoy reading more or have parents who are more educated). Another interesting lesson is to use different mental models when facing problems, inspired by a saying attributed to Mark Twain: “If your only tool is a hammer, all your problems will be nails.” If you use the same approach or mindset to solving every issue you encounter, your solutions will always be the same and not necessarily effective.

There are many more lessons covering common scenarios such as loss aversion (fear of losses), groupthink, confirmation bias (interpret things that happened to fit preconceived notions), and sunk cost fallacy (reluctance to give up in hopes of recovering losses). There are also lessons for the corporate world such as why teams and meetings don’t often work. This is because social loafing happens, as the more people there are involved, the less the individual participation, and hence the less useful (something most of us who have to attend long work meetings would probably agree).

Dobelli did not do original research, which he openly admits, but put together his lessons from extensive reading of different sources, so it wouldn’t hurt to follow up on additional sources to get more details. Nevertheless, the book is a very useful tool for re-evaluating your thinking and decision bias.

I’m a big fan of historical fiction and have read a lot of novels in this genre, but Lionheart is the first one I’ve read about the Crusades from the Christian side, specifically Richard I the Lionheart and his quest to retake Jerusalem in the Third Crusade. Starting in 1189, the novel follows the English king as he stops at Sicily, then captures Cyprus, and eventually lands in the Holy Land to retake Jerusalem. The book is full of characters and details, though at times there is a bit too much exposition and not enough action. The author Sharon Penman does well to explain the turbulent backdrop of that time, which followed from after Richard I had actually fought a civil war with his father, Henry II, after he imprisoned his own wife and Richard I’s mother, Queen Eleanor, and prevailed. Richard I must contend with not just the Muslim Saracens, but enemies from within in the form of the French King, Philip II, who is supposed to be the co-leader of the crusade but also a rival. The two are actually related, given the ties between European royalty which the book also does well to describe (Richard’s sister was married to the Sicilian king and thus the queen of that island kingdom, for example). Richard I manages to retake Acre and Jaffa from the Saracens before going on to Jerusalem. The novel is followed by a sequel, so I won’t give away the ending of Lionheart (history buffs will know how everything ends though).