Blood and Silk- book review

Southeast Asia is a region that’s often linked with travel and economic growth, but Blood and Silk- Power and Conflict in Modern Southeast Asia takes readers on a different tour covering political, religious, and social turmoil. Despite the optimistic economic forecasts and the sunny image of countries like Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia as places to travel, eat and party; the region is beset with significant problems that can threaten to unravel significantly in the future.

Author Michael Vatikiotis, a mediator and a former editor of the Far East Economic Review with decades of experience in SE Asia, has written a compelling book about these political and religious tensions as well as societal cleavages. From the ongoing military junta rule in Thailand to corrupt and feudal politics in Philippines to gradual radicalization of Islam in Indonesia and Malaysia, almost all countries in SE Asia suffer serious problems.

The book first looks at how power is manifested throughout the region, whether through military junta rule or democratically elected governments. This is the more fascinating part of the book as Vatikiotis delves into the politics of countries like Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand to provide a more in-depth look at how those countries are run. We get detailed riveting and sometimes bloody accounts of riots, insurrections, coups, and insurgencies, some of which was hardly covered by international media.

Vatikiotis makes a really interesting point about the issue with pluralism in countries like Myanmar and Malaysia. These countries have several ethnic groups who live alongside each other but only really mix in “the marketplace in buying and selling,” according to a former British colonial officer. This was perpetuated by the colonizing British to their benefit and the result was enforced racial division and political conflict after independence. Personally I think this is true in a broader sense when looking at many Asian countries, but I won’t digress. For Myanmar and its Rohingya crisis (in which the Rohingya minority have been killed and forced out by the Burmese army, a move that is actually popular within the country), Vatikiotis sees this as a factor.

The second and final part of the book looks at the conflicts in various countries. However, while making very sound points, this part is more academic and rhetorical than the first part, which makes it less interesting. There are interesting chapters on the growing role of China as a partner and threat, as well as Islamic fundamentalism which has afflicted politics, such as the downfall of Jakarta’s then-mayor in 2017 on blasphemy charges for allegedly insulting Islam, and caused terrorist attacks such as in Indonesia and Thailand.

Vatikiotis believes that while Southeast Asia has undoubtedly prospered economically, at some point this will be inadequate to cover up the socioeconomic and political problems and conflicts. Ultimately, Blood and Silk is a forceful piece of work that provides readers a more in-depth look into a very fascinating region that is not as idyllic as it sometimes appears.

Tools of Titans- book review

Written by the same guy who wrote The Four-Hour Workweek, Tools of Titans is a fascinating collection of inspirational tips and helpful advice from over 200 entrepreneurs, writers, artists, and other successful people.  The book is massive, with over 650 pages packed with interviews and profiles of, as the book’s sub-title states, “billionaires, icons, and world-class performers.”

Tools of Titans is divided into three parts – the first focuses on health, exercise and nutrition; the second is on work and productivity; and the final part is on life tips. In addition, Tim Ferriss also sprinkles chapters of his own insights and tips for things like dealing with critics, creating a podcast, investment, and work-outs. For me, the second and third parts were the most interesting and helpful. Ferriss interviews writers, artists, entrepreneurs, fitness experts, an ex-Navy Seal and even a yoga instructor. The sheer number and scope of people profiled and the advice given means readers will definitely something useful and applicable for their own lives.

Among the tips I found interesting were come up with 10 ideas a day (writer and blogger James Altucher), suffer a little regularly and you cease to suffer (Tim Ferriss advises based on the philosopher Seneca’s teachings), and listen to a song or album you like repeatedly while working to improve your focus and awareness (which Tim Ferriss points out that some successful people do). From Nicholas Nassim Taleb, getting everyone to like you is a sign of mediocrity and it is better to be care about the many who would love your work than the few who hate it. Venture capitalist and a math research fellow at Oxford Eric Weinstein says something similar in that people (like writers, entrepreneurs, and artists) should strive to be known and respected by 2,000-3,000 people rather than be widely famous because this then gives one the freedom to do what he wants.

One especially meaningful piece of advice is from tech CEO and investor Naval Ravikant who says that in any situation in life, you have 3 options: change it, leave it, or accept it. It sounds deceptively simple but I’d never thought of that and there are a few instances in my life I should have applied this.

Tools of Titans is both fascinating and helpful, and will also give you lots of ideas to boost your work, health and lifestyle.

Radiance of Tomorrow- book review

Written by Ishmael Beah, the author of the child soldier memoir A Long Way Gone, Radiance of Tomorrow is a novel about a village in Sierra Leone trying to move on after a terrible civil war. This small West African nation experienced a savage civil war between 1991 and 2002 that resulted in 50,000 killed and perhaps more ghastly, the mass maimings of adults and children. The novel might be about the aftermath of this war and filled with terrible events, but its writing is lyrical and evocative, inspired by the oral storytelling tradition of Beah’s native Sierra Leone.

The village of Imperi comes back to life when years after the war, a trio of elders return and try to resume their life. Soon, other former residents make their way back including the son of one of the elders, who brings his big family. Bockarie becomes a teacher but soon sees a crisis envelop Imperi after rutile (a mineral used in road coatings and pigments for paint and plastics) deposits are found nearby, which lead to a foreign corporation coming in and opening a mine. Pollution, disorder and drunkenness afflict Imperi as the mining company ignores the concerns of the residents and its workers exploit their poverty. Soon, Bockarie is forced to take a job with the mining operation but problems still remain that eventually push him to consider a move to the capital Freetown.

While the events are not exactly uplifting, Radiance of Tomorrow is a pleasure to read. The book’s plot is heavy on reality, specifically the woes of a poor African nation struggling to take advantage of its mineral resources but still dependent on foreign expertise, while still unable to provide for its people. The one constant is the bond between individuals and family members, especially with Bockarie, his friend Benjamin and their families. There is no magic happy ending, but there is a slight sign of hope.

It’s good to see that with Radiance of Tomorrow, Ishmael Beah is not a one-hit wonder.

Island People-The Caribbean and the World- book review

The Caribbean often conjures up an image of idyllic white-sand beaches and blue seas with steelpan music or reggae playing in the background. The reality is far more turbulent and fascinating. The Caribbean is a region of multiculturalism and complexity, mixed with arts, poverty and crime.

First off, the Caribbean comprises over a dozen countries ranging from Spanish-speaking nations like Cuba and the Dominican Republic to English-speaking Jamaica, Barbados and Trinidad. This also extends to current British and American territories like Cayman Islands and Puerto Rico and the French islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique. Island People- The Caribbean and the World is an excellent guide to this diverse region that covers history, politics, sociology and culture of 14 of these island nations and territories.

As someone from the Caribbean myself, hailing from the southernmost island nation of Trinidad and Tobago, I must confess I’m ignorant of the wider region. While I grew up in Trinidad, I’ve never actually traveled to any of the other islands in the Caribbean. But even still, I am not unaware of these other places, especially Jamaica, whose reggae and dancehall music is widely popular in Trinidad, which we had to learn about in school. As a former British colony that that grew a lot of sugar with slave labour, Trinidad shares a common history with many of its fellow Caribbean brother nations like Barbados.

However, Island People, part travelogue and part sociological and historical study, gave me a much greater insight and appreciation of the Caribbean beyond the little I knew from history classes at school and the news. The book is the result of Joshua Jelly-Schapiro’s lifetime of studying, researching and visiting the Caribbean. Starting from the north and winding its way southwards, Jelly-Schapiro’s book traces the arc of the Caribbean from the Greater Antilles of Jamaica, Cuba and Hispaniola to the Lesser Antilles islands that ends with Trinidad.

Some of the more memorable chapters are those on Cuba, which the author spent a year in and devotes three chapters to; Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere but also the only one where slaves won their independence by force; and the lush island of Dominica that remains the last refuge of the indigenous Carib people, after whom the region is named after. The author certainly enjoyed Jamaica a lot and found its reggae and politics intriguing which he also wrote three chapters about. My own country Trinidad is featured in the book’s finale, and not surprisingly, the author covers carnival, Trinidad’s carefree nature, and crime.

For Jamaica, Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, music is a key theme as Jelly-Schapiro expounds on reggae, rumba, meringue and salsa respectively. For Antigua and Dominica, he focuses on writers like novelist and essayist Jamaica Kincaid and Jean Rhys (author of Wide Sargasso Sea), while in the chapter on Guadeloupe and Martinique, he goes into detail on intellectuals like Aime Cesaire, poet turned statesman, and Frantz Fanon, a fierce critic of colonialism. And for Trinidad, both music and literature are featured (I write with a little pride) in the form of calypso and soca music, and historian and writer CLR James and VS Naipaul, the Nobel Literature laureate.

One thing that plays a major role in the Caribbean is race relations, which is a product both of colonialism and the mix of races and cultures. Going beyond merely black and white (and Indian and Chinese), race relations involve complex hierarchies that encompass not just colour, but also the tone of one’s skin due to the mixing of races. As a result, light-skinned people, whose ancestors were a product of colonizers mixing with their slaves, often form an elite minority. Consequently, this also plays out on a national scale with the lighter-skinned Dominicanos looking down on their mostly black Haitian neighbours.

Island People- The Caribbean and the World is a superb book that will appeal to a lot of people interested in travel and history, even if they don’t have a personal connection or interest in the Caribbean. The book will take readers on a journey through the Caribbean, alright, just not a light-hearted one like the holidays you’d go there for.

Antifragile- book review

Having introduced the idea of the black swan to the world in his 2007 bestseller of the same name, Nassim Nicholas Taleb is on a mission to spread the concept of antifragility in Antifragile – Things That Gain from Disorder. Antifragility, the opposite of fragility, is the attribute of being able to benefit from chaos and shock, which in the turbulent world we live in would seem to be very relevant. However, antifragility differs from robustness in that it doesn’t mean simply enduring chaos, but actually gaining from it.

As to be expected, Taleb has a lot of fascinating ideas and provocative arguments. Using history as a constant example, Taleb doesn’t hesitate to take aim at the likes of Socrates, the ancient Greek philosopher; medical science; and even academia or book knowledge. Some of these arguments go against regularly accepted norms. Going to the doctor and taking medicine for minor ailments can make your problems worse, Taleb says, as it is an example of “naive intervention.”

Meanwhile, sometimes theoretical concepts are useless as they only came about after the events or phenomenon they referred to. Taleb mentions the idea of birds flying despite not knowing about centrifrugal force, as well as how ancient bridges were built even though the builders had no concept of mathematics, but relied on tools and empirical methods.

Taleb is a huge critic of iatrogenics, solutions that actually cause more harm than benefits and which are often found in economics and government policies. And the people who propose these dubious policies are often those without “skin in the game,” meaning they don’t actually get affected by their policies.

As examples, Taleb brings up follies like the US decision to invade Iraq in 2002, a conflict which is still going on now, and the 2008 financial crisis, both of which he argues were caused by people in power making reckless and harmful policies without having to personally bear any of the consequences (US leaders who ordered a war whilst never having served in one themselves, for eg).

A very compelling concept is that via negativa (the negative way), which means knowing what something is not, is of the utmost importance in approaching problems. In other words, sometimes knowing what not to do is more useful than knowing what to do. It’s a very reasonable idea and I’ve also read a similar argument in another book.

Antigragile covers a lot of different topics, and sometimes this makes it difficult to keep track of all the points and arguments. Taleb is a very self-assured and supremely confident writer, which makes his arguments seem very convincing. However, it is necessary to apply some skepticism to his arguments as one should to whatever he/she comes across. Angifragile is a hugely fascinating book with lots of compelling arguments that definitely convinced me of the merit of antifragility and how vital it is for life.

Double Cup Love- book review

Taiwanese-American foodie Eddie Huang is back at it again with Double Cup Love- On the Trail of Family, Food, and Broken Hearts in China. His first book Fresh Off the Boat was about growing up and starting up his New York eatery Baohaus. Double Cup Love sees him, a little jaded after Baohaus’ success, and his youngest brother Evan go to Chengdu, China to test himself in the ultimate way – by cooking for the locals.

As with his previous book, Huang doesn’t hold back in talking about his fights with his brothers, or bursting in on his girlfriend when she’s using the toilet. In fact, his girlfriend is at the heart of the book since Huang has decided he is in love and ready to commit. As such, he decides to bring her to Chengdu after a few months and propose to her.

First, Eddie and Evan go to Chengdu where they find out their hotel is one of those hourly ones where people rent rooms for amorous activities. After some conflict with each other, which their other brother Emery gets involved in, they manage to bond with some locals and impress them with their food. Eddie’s girlfriend comes to Chengdu, where Eddie pulls off his proposal successfully. The main story ends there, but there is a sad epilogue where Eddie confesses that they broke up 18 months afterwards. Eddie still sounds like he hasn’t gotten completely over her.

The book is quite entertaining, but it contains too much details at times. Eddie’s recollection of details and conversations is impressive but readers probably don’t need pages of every argument or thought that comes to Eddie’s mind. What is impressive is when Eddie starts talking about cooking. At one point, he cooks beef noodles, augmenting it with a little local flavour, and Evan’s judgement of the dish is striking. Who knew so much flavour and feeling could be derived from a mere taste of noodles?

At the beginning of Double Cup Love, Eddie provides a raw and very politically-incorrect take on Asians that is one of the best insights I’ve read in popular media. Basically he riffs on how Asians aren’t actually quiet or lack opinions, but that Asians are a very passive-aggressive, tribal people. A little later on, Eddie says Asians are very keen at making judgments and calculations using “advanced research skills” despite never really touching, feeling or seeing the things they judge. It’s something that as someone living in Taiwan, and before this, Hong Kong, I think is very right on the money. Disappointingly, there is nothing like this in the rest of the book which I suppose is due to Eddie being new to China and not wanting to be too harsh.

However, Double Cup Love falls a little flat at times because the rationale seems to be two ABTs/Cs (American-born Taiwanese/Chinese) go to Chengdu, hang out and have fun. Also, the pan-Chinese angle is apparent (Eddie’s parents are from Taiwan, but his grandparents are from China) but it would have been more accurate if he’d gone to Taiwan to find his roots. Unlike Fresh Off the Boat, Double Cup Love lacks the emotional depth and cultural insights to make it more than just a book about a crazy guy going on a half-baked trip to China.