Books

Chaos Monkey-book review

Silicon Valley is where every Mark Zuckerberg wannabe goes to make it big, hoping to land that million dollar-investment or even better, multi-million dollar buyout for their app. But things don’t always go according to script and behind the flashy deals and investments, there is a ton of bluster, bust-ups and bullshit, according to Antonio Garcia Martinez in Chaos Monkey, his tell-all account of his career as an entrepreneur and a Facebook product manager.

Martinez started off working for an online ad company, then left the company to do his own start-up to create an ad app, which earned the attention of Twitter and Facebook. Playing the two against each other, unknowingly to his two start-up partners, Martinez got into Facebook where he helped orchestrate their ad monetization strategy. Things then got a little rocky and complicated, and his Facebook stint didn’t end as promisingly as he had hoped.

As fascinating as this book sounds like, the reality, unfortunately, is that it was disappointing and one of the most boring books I’ve ever read. Maybe my intellect isn’t up to par, especially when it comes to tech and online marketing, which the author really gets into the nitty-gritty of, but a lot of the content just flew over my head. It gets quite complex with tech jargon and industry professionals would probably like it, but not the average layman reader. I honestly think the book could have been trimmed by over one-third and would have been a better book. The author describes a lot of minor events and details, and doesn’t hesitate to drop names including Sheryl Sandberg, who he had meetings with but never actually knew, and industry executives and venture capitalists. It gave the impression that he was trying a little too hard to impress readers. I was also hoping for more dirt on working in Facebook but the author sticks to meetings, technical stuff, and general workplace struggles. The craziest thing that happened in his book at Facebook is a weekend graffiti painting spree by employees after moving into their new headquarters. I might be a little harsh but the book’s subtitle was “Mayhem and Mania inside the Silicon Valley Money Machine” and in the end, it turned out to be a big yawn.

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Books

Night of the Golden Butterfly and This is How You Lose Her- book reviews

As the fifth of Tariq Ali’s Islamic Quintet of novels, The Night of the Golden Butterfly is the most contemporary one, taking place in 20th and 21st century Pakistan and England, as well as China. The story starts when a famous but mysterious Pakistani painter Plato asks his childhood friend, novelist Dara, as a special favor, to write about his life for his lover. Hailing from Lahore, Plato and Dara met during the latter’s university years in the 1960s and developed a friendship while ruminating over politics and philosophy. The latter would come to fall in love with a Chinese-Pakistani, Jindie, the sister of their friend and the “Golden Butterfly” of the book’s title, who ends up marrying another of their friends. Jindie harbors a fascinating ancestral origin, being the descendant of a Yunnan Hui sultan who rose up against the Qing emperor in late-19th century China. The sultan’s defeat drives Jindie’s ancestor to flee Yunnan and eventually Pakistan.

Decades after their university years in Pakistan, Dara, Plato and Jindie have all immigrated to the US and England, but still stay in touch with events in an increasingly unstable Pakistan, which has uneasy relations with the Taliban, which part of its military tacitly supported (as most people know now, Osama bin Laden was killed while “hiding out” in a Pakistani military town). The problems in their homeland catch up to Dara and his Pakistani friends in the West in the form of “Naughty,” a former socialite and ex-wife of a corrupt Pakistani military officer, who flees to and gains fame in Europe as a liberal Muslim woman who openly criticizes Islam and was implicated in a murder and sex scandal involving Pakistani army generals. While the story meanders a lot, going from Pakistan to the West and to China, it is an entertaining read that cleverly mocks liberalism, art, religion, especially radical Islam, and Pakistan.

 

This is How You Lose Her is a collection of short stories from Junot Diaz, whose The Wondrous Life of Oscar Diaz is one of the bluntest, raw and profane novels I’ve ever read. As with the novel, the protagonist of these short stories is a Dominican-American guy from a working-class background. As the title suggests, the stories are all, except one, about the opposite sex. In several of them, the protagonist features his family, especially his womanizing older brother. They are a bit raunchy and profane, in keeping with Diaz’s literary style, which is like someone talking. Most of them feature sorrowful or wistful endings, which I suppose is the main point, to portray the joy and fickleness of love and passion.

Books · Hong Kong

The Expatriates- book review

The title alone should provide a strong clue that The Expatriates may be set in Hong Kong but isn’t exactly about Hong Kong. But in keeping with Hong Kong, the expats in question aren’t your regular entrepreneur, copy editor or English teacher as in many other Asian countries but the ones on fancy expat packages, living a charmed life in mansions with Filipino maids/nannies/cooks, and high-end dining and yacht/junk jaunts. On the one hand, it is about privileged Western (mostly white), American expats living it up in Hong Kong, but on the other, it is a story with more substance than you’d expect.

When it begins, we are introduced to the three protagonists, two of whom mask a tragic secret which surprisingly is soon revealed. Consequently, the plot drags a little in the middle, but it does pick up towards the end and builds towards what could have been a predictable ending, but instead turns into a surprising finale.

The three main characters are American women at different stages of their lives whose fate is tied together by very unfortunate circumstances. One is a young, Korean-American, Columbia grad, another is a mom of young kids, and the third is a childless wife whose marriage seems to lack more than just children. At times, the details of the pampered lives of these well-to-do expats seem obscene, being something that is miles away from our lives, not to mention the poor and working class in Hong Kong. But rather than glorify the lives of those expats, it actually almost makes us feel a little sorry, but just a little. There is a very self-aware tone throughout the narrative about feeling as if one is putting your real life on hold and not being in reality, which is true when one has a 24-hour maid who caters for your every whim. But of course, this also reflects a major disparity between the lives of the characters in this book and  the more common expat life, which is that of putting up with greater challenges and hardships than you would face at home.

The funny thing about Hong Kong is that, as tiny as it is, it can sometimes seem like it comprises two very distinct worlds. This book is only about one of them, and even then, only a small segment of this world, specifically the highest-paid expats, the ones who could live in houses and actually not even have to pay for them. Add in the fact that pretty much most of the main characters are American expats, with nary an Englishman or Australian in sight, and one could wonder how much of this actually bears any relevance to most people living in Hong Kong. But yet, somehow the story is interesting enough, the details dramatic and the plot intriguing for the most part. It is a credit to the author, a Korean-American who was born and grew up in Hong Kong.

China · Taiwan

It’s China, not Trump who’s at fault in the Taiwan President Phone Call controversy

So Donald Trump hasn’t even become president yet but he’s already causing international scandals. Judging from some of the shocked and horror-stricken reaction in the media and from some people, it is like he almost caused World War III to erupt. If you don’t already know, what Trump did was to call the president of Taiwan Tsai Ing-wen, and have a conversation with her last Friday, December 2. It was a mere phone call, but it was unprecedented in American history, because it was the first time any US leader or president-elect had spoken directly to a Taiwan president since official relations were severed in 1979.

As expected, China reacted angrily though not as badly as many people expected, because they were probably as stunned by the seeming audacity out of nowhere from Trump. After all, this is a guy who many people in his own country don’t understand.
Now, I’m no supporter, fan or admirer of Trump and I think he is a vile, arrogant and pretentious person. But I can’t deny I felt a little bit of  for what he did. Many people don’t see it that way because they think this upsets the critical state of affairs between the US and China over Taiwan. Basically, Taiwan is a nation that China claims belongs to it, due to the losing government side in the Civil War fleeing to Taiwan, then a former Japanese colony that had been returned to China, in 1949 to govern for themselves. Since then, Taiwan has become a democracy and a relatively well-off country with its own government, army, currency, courts and schools, in short basically everything a country has. And China has never relinquished its view that Taiwan belongs to it, forcing all major nations and the UN to give up official relations with Taiwan. The US also gave up official ties with Taiwan in 1979, but remains Taiwan’s main ally and provides tacit support, including military arms albeit outdated and in limited quantities.

However, many people were annoyed or angry at what Trump did, because they think this might provoke China into declaring war on the US and starting a regional war in East Asia and the South China Sea. But while I understand these folks, including a few expat friends and acquaintances of mine in China, don’t support China’s regime, they are letting their anger at Trump overshadow the actual situation. They guess that Trump is a fool who made a reckless move (I doubt that though), or that he only made the call (Trump has since claimed Tsai called him) to discuss investment projects his associates had previously visited, as reported by the BBC. The danger though is that they end up supporting or giving weight to China’s position, as unjust and groundless as it is.

One person who I knew from Beijing, a very intelligent and knowledgeable writer, came out with this piece where he makes an interesting but in my opinion, groundless, argument. Basically, it is that the Communist regime has drilled into its people so successfully, that Chinese strongly feel that Taiwan belongs to them and is part of their country. If the government even appears to look weak by not constantly pressing its claim on Taiwan and allowing even the slightest international acknowledgement of Taiwan as an independent nation, there is a danger than an angry Chinese population could stir up and force the Chinese government into taking military action. The article does make good points to try and back up this argument, but there are a couple of big holes which ultimately make it a flawed argument. One is that what the Chinese government imposes on its citizens about Taiwan belonging to them is a lie, and one which has serious international ramifications. As foreign countries and the UN freeze Taiwan out (besides not being part of the UN or many international bodies, Taiwan participates in the Olympics as Chinese Taipei and flies an artificial flag that is not its own), this perpetuates the lie among many mainland Chinese. However China reacts, whatever it does, such as threaten or increase provocative actions near Taiwan, the fault is not Trump dared to talk to a Taiwanese president, but that the Chinese Communist Party has maintained a nonsensical lie for decades while attempting to bully and coerce a nation of 23 million people.
The second is that the writer stresses that the lie is so deeply ingrained that to mainland Chinese, it is “weird and taboo” to consider Taiwan as anything but a part of China. This is not true in my experience because I have met a number of mainlanders who are sympathetic or open to Taiwan being a separate nation.

It is time more mainlanders become aware that the world isn’t what their party forces to tell them. They need to know that Taiwan is not a part of China, but a separate nation, and just because their government claims it is, that is not true. If a lot of Chinese can’t accept that and get their “feelings hurt,” so be it. But I doubt all 1.3 billion Chinese, especially not the ones I know, are rabid, mindless, nationalist maniacs intent on forcing Taiwan into being part of China. This situation is still causing consternation with both China and Trump, with Trump responding with some bold (but not exactly untrue) tweets about China after Chinese state media criticized him.

So whether Trump’s motives were, the result is that it has brought Taiwan’s plight into the open, and put some pressure on China. I’m still not certain or ready to accept he could be a decent president, but I certainly don’t share a lot of people’s anger over Trump and I grudgingly give him a little credit for talking to Taiwan’s president on the phone.

Uncategorized

Big news- US wins World Basketball Championships

A while ago just before the World Cup started in June, I wrote a piece that lauded football (soccer) for being the world’s biggest sport and the World Cup as the world’s biggest event. Well, I couldn’t help thinking of this when I just read how the US won the World Basketball Championship over Turkey. Sure the biggest American stars stayed home (Kobe, Lebron, Wade etc.) though there was a bunch of good talent on show like Kevin Durant, Leandro Barbosa, Luis Scola and Hedo Turkoglu. Did anybody really care? Outside of Turkey, the host country, and maybe some fans from each of the participating nations, I’m sure very few people and little attention (look how short this article is) was paid to this tournament, especially when compared to the extravaganza known as the World Cup that ended just 2 months ago in South Africa. Basketball may be one of the most popular sports and NBA athletes may be among the most famous worldwide, but it doesn’t capture the world’s attention like football does. And the piece, well it was not accepted.

Books

Three months

This past weekend marked three months that my company’s book page, of which I am the editor, has been published. It’s been a lot of work, especially since I actually read the books, and it\s been quite good. The most rewarding bit isn’t reading good books, but reading books which turn out to be great that I wouldn’t have read before if I wasn’t reviewing them. Examples include Way of the World and Deluxe- how luxury lost its luster. While I link to all of my reviews on my Published articles page,  I’ll now be putting them up in full in my posts as well.

One of the best books I’ve read so far is The Way of the World by Ron Suskind, which looks at a range of people including a top U.S. intelligence official who’s charged with investigating nuclear weapons and the threat posed to his country, as well as a young, hip Pakistani expatriate who gets swept up in  major part of his nation’s recent turmoil and an Afghani exchange student who has a memorable time in America. It’s hard to classify this book because the main focus is politics, but it’s written in a very literary and descriptive, personal style. It’s also very idealistic about America and its moral importance, especially to the world. It also has a very poignant, personal narrative on former Pakistani leader Benazir Bhutto and her last moments alive.

Review:

Before the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, the CIA secretly met with the Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri. A trusted source, Sabri denied that Iraq had any nuclear, chemical or biological weapons programs. The CIA prepared a report but was dismissed by a White House bent on invasion. When passed on to the British, the report said the complete opposite, almost certainly having been distorted under pressure from Washington.

This high-stakes game of ‘Telephone gone awry is one of the revelations in The Way of the World showing how the Bush administration endeavored to deceive the world into supporting its invasion of Iraq. In doing so, Ron Suskind’s ambitious and provocative book asserts that the Bush administration squandered the high moral values of the U.S. which ultimately weaken it in fighting fundamentalism and nuclear terrorism. The wealth of revelations is fascinating and disturbing, shedding light into how Bush, Cheney and their administration veered into darkness, even engaging in conduct that may bring about impeachment.

Iraq is but one of the main themes of the book, because what is more important are the high moral values the U.S. stands for, of reason and individuality and law, and which bring it into opposition to the forces of fundamentalism that Osama bin-Laden and al-Qaeda represent.

Suskind also presents the stories of a diverse bunch of characters, from an Energy Department intelligence official tasked with devising strategies to counter nuclear terrorism to a young Pakistani working in the U.S. to former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s last days. Suskind binds the stories through the common thread of morals and virtues, to demonstrate on a personal level the impact of U.S. values, such as on an Afghan teen in an exchange program, and a young Pakistani expat in America, who suffers the ignominy of being detained, albeit briefly, merely for walking past the White House when the President’s convoy was driving out.

The most compelling narrative is on Benazir Bhutto and her last days, as she returns from exile in 2007 hoping to run for elections. Knowing that her safety was in jeopardy, she remonstrates with Pakistani leader Pervez Musharraf to protect her, poignantly trusting the U.S. to help her by pressuring Musharraf. Unbeknownst to her, Musharraf was in close contact with the White House who made it clear they favored him, allowing him to disregard Bhutto. She dies in an attack by unknown assailants during a rally in December.

There are a few shortcomings such as the fixation on nuclear terrorism as the world’s biggest threat, and there seems to be some simplification of characters into good guys and bad guys. The book has a strong sentimental and idealistic view of America, which some may find blindly patriotic.

Suskind doesn’t actually offer substantial solutions for America to rebuild its moral status and in that sense, he falls short of the promise of his lofty narratives. But as an investigative tome which exposes the intrigues and failures of the U.S. in facing international crises, this book does its job superbly.

Uncategorized

Obama?

US Presidential candidate Barrack Obama spoke in Berlin, Germany drawing a massive crowd of 200,000 which illustrates his broad appeal and charisma to people not just in America. Whatever you think of him, 200,000 is a mind-boggling number and one which no other American presidential contender like Hillary Clinton or John McCain could have come close to attracting.

Yet in spite of this, I still do not truly believe in Obama mainly because I think he is too inexperienced and that his campaign is more style than substance- the “Yes, we can” celebrity-laden video being one of the main flashpoints. He may win the upcoming US elections but I really feel that the “change” that he promises will be hardpressed to come and that many of his supporters will be severely let-down. This isn’t something personal against him because a lot of times, I am always wary whenever too much hype is lavished on someone or something, even in sports for instance. But the thing is, in international politics, there’s been a constant stream of charismatic politicians who’ve been voted in with a lot of promise to bring in change and benefits to their people and have come up flat. Taiwan’s Ma Yin-jeou might be showing signs of becoming one of these, but others include but are not limited to: Peru’s Alexandro Toledo, the Philippines’ Gloria Arroyo. I’m thinking that with Barrack Obama, there might be a similar effect. People have such high expectations of him, no doubt encouraged by his campaign, and if he comes to office, people will expect some kind of political revolution (metaphorically speaking) leading to a new era in American politcs. Frankly it’d be great if he could actually live up to his promises and more, such as cutting down on partisanship prevalent in politics and bringing about more cooperation between the 2 parties, but the thing is that as someone who is so new to federal politics, his goals seem to be more naive than achievable.