Books

Civilization- book review

Why does the West dominate the world today? Why did the West become so successful in advancing from a chaotic backwater 500 years ago to overtaking Chinese, Indian, Ottoman, Arab, and other civilizations? Niall Ferguson attempts to tackle this major question in a fascinating and informative book. Despite its provocative subtitle – The Six Killer Apps of Western Power, the book is nuanced and not some form of propaganda advocating Western supremacy. According to Ferguson, six major factors allowed the West (Europe and later, the US) to become the world’s leading region: competition, science, property, medicine, consumption, and work.

Competition arose from compact populations that led to a multitude of kingdoms and city states that eventually became the dozens of countries in Europe today. China, for example, is equivalent to most of Europe in area and has a far greater population. As a result, while Chinese emperors put a lot of effort into administering and securing their giant empire, European states constantly fought and competed.

Science is self-explanatory. Europe experienced the age of Enlightenment and Reformation that led to the questioning of old dogmas and religious ideas that were erroneous or nonsense, like the earth being flat. In contrast, in civilizations like the Arab world, religion became a central force and dominated thinking and education.

Property rights meant people could own their own land and be assured of ownership by ensuring the state or other people could not simply seize it. Ferguson compares North America to South America, which were colonised by different countries and had vastly different experiences. Hence, North America had a more “liberal” experience (not trying to excuse slavery) in which private property rights payed a key role in legal, political and economic liberalization, while South America had a more feudal colonialism in which land was concentrated in the hands of the few.

Similar to science and also a result of it, a lot of medical advances took place in Europe in various fields (surgery, dentistry, psychology etc) and led to things like the eradication of smallpox, rabies, polio etc.

Consumption refers to materialism. Simply put, this was a big part of the West’s economic success over the last century (and East Asia’s in the last few decades). Industrialization meant both more goods produced and more wealth generated, which would be spent on goods and hence lead to greater demand, in an ever-growing cycle. For the US, this helped it become the world’s most dominant economy due to a vast domestic consumer market and because it made goods that the world wanted like jeans, Coca Cola, and planes.

Work might sound strange, because people everywhere work, but Ferguson’s main point is that Protestantism, which originated in Germany, helped promote economic development. That’s because its emphasis on hard work and prosperity encouraged people to focus on economic activities by making generating wealth seem sanctioned by the Lord.

There is much, much more than what I’ve summarized up here. There is a lot of facts, arguments, and examples in Civilization that make it a very compelling book, whether you agree with its points or not.

One might argue that China, as well as India, Southeast Asia, and Russia, is challenging Western dominance and Ferguson addresses this directly in the conclusion. In this, he says the West’s problem is not the rise of China, India etc but that it has lost faith in its own advantages. That might be true but it remains to be seen whether the West can regain its dominance or shrink from the challenge of China, Russia, and the developing world.

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Books

Smarter Faster Better- book review

A lot of books claim to boost your productivity, efficiency, thinking etc, but Smarter Faster Better makes it very clear about what it intends to make readers become.

Using 8 main concepts, each of which is described in one chapter, Charles Duhigg aims to help readers become better in work and in life. These concepts include motivation, teams, focus, goal setting, managing others, decision making, innovation and absorbing data. Like other books on behavioral economics and neuroscience, Duhigg provides lots of interesting facts, studies and examples from the real world to illustrate his concepts.

What makes the book especially good are a number of vivid real-world examples, such as how Disney made the massive animated hit Frozen, how a woman won a $2 million professional poker tournament, the creative process behind Saturday Night Live (the US late night weekend sketch show), and even how the FBI solved a kidnapping case.

There are interesting points that go against conventional wisdom. For instance, it’s normal to think that in a successful and creative team, everyone in the team should get along well and like each other. But Duhigg uses Saturday Night Live to illustrate that people don’t need to be friends or be nice to each other to be productive and creative, but to be able to express their opinions openly. It’s not about team members agreeing with each other all the time, but to be able to listen to their fellow team members and in turn have their ideas listened to.

Another surprising point is that the most innovative ideas aren’t necessarily original and new, but combine existing ideas in new ways. This can be seen for plays, electronic devices and even scientific papers. Duhigg uses Frozen and West Side Story to illustrate how those hits came about through their creators meshing different ideas.

We all wish we could predict the future but of course, that is impossible. But what is possible is being able to come up with multiple outcomes in your mind and estimate the various likelihoods of them happening. This is called probabilistic thinking, which according to Duhigg, helps decision-making significantly, as it did the female poker player who beat more established players to win a US$2 million jackpot.

The tragic loss of an Air France flight flying to Brazil over the Atlantic in 2009 is used to illustrate the problem of cognitive tunneling or overly focusing on something to the detriment of the overall situation. Basically, the pilot reacted wrongly after encountering a stall and his copilots focused too much on the flight display screen unknowingly ignoring the pilot’s mistake.

According to Duhigg, the key to countering cognitive tunneling is to have strong mental models. This means thinking up ideas or stories in your head relating to your work or other areas of life and coming up with possible solutions. This is useful for a lot of work situations, whether it be a nurse figuring out a patient’s abnormal problem or flying a plane. Not only does this help you become more focused on details, but you can understand how things work on a deeper level. This chapter on focus started with an air tragedy but ended with a positive story. A Qantas flight lost a wing in mid-air but avoided crashing and landed successfully. The captain had a habit drilled his crew constantly before each flight, so when disaster struck, they were able to react calmly and correctly. Thus, a great example of the importance of developing mental models.

Some of these ideas do seem obvious, such as combining both short- and long-term goals instead of fixating on only one, but the hard part is implementing them. The examples in the book show why and how they work.

Smarter Faster Better is a very helpful book that should enable readers to achieve at least some of what its title promises. I’d say it is one of the most entertaining books of its kind that I’ve read.

Books

The Triple Package- book review

It might be a sensitive topic, but academic and economic success varies among different ethnic and cultural groups in the US. What makes ethnic groups like South Asians, Jewish, or East Asians such high performers in the US? The Triple Package- How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America  argues that three factors foster the success of certain groups.

Some readers might recognize co-author Amy Chua for her 2011 book Battle Hymns of the Tiger Mother, a memoir of how she parented her two daughters based on strict “Chinese” values as opposed to American/Western compassion. In The Triple Package, Chua and co-author Jed Rubenfeld (also Chua’s husband and fellow Yale professor) explain that three main traits are essential — superiority complex, insecurity and impulse control (discipline). Superiority and insecurity seem contradictory, but they go together because groups need to both have a strong sense of self-esteem and confidence while also feeling insecure enough to keep striving and pushing themselves. Impulse control is also important, so for Mormons, their austere upbringing as well as the two-year service for many young Mormon adults who go on evangelical missions worldwide, is a great benefit.

All three traits are vital because if a group lacks even one of them, they will not be successful. For example, the authors explain that black Americans (those whose ancestors came to the US as slaves) lack a sense of superiority due to enduring persistent discrimination, which hinders them from being successful, whereas Nigerian-Americans, one of the successful groups mentioned in the book, and other African immigrants don’t. Another example is the Amish, who live even more austere lives (no electricity!) and possess more discipline than the Mormons, but they do not have a sense of superiority and have little desire to compete and advance in modern society.

Most of the groups like Chinese-Americans and Nigerian-Americans are immigrants or have only been in the US for 2-3 generations, though the Jewish community and Mormons are exceptions. However, decline usually sets in for immigrants after two generations so that for example, “first- and second-generation Asian students outperform whites, whereas there is no difference between third-generation Asians and whites.”

While the subject matter is rather sensitive, the writing is rather nuanced and not inflammatory or exaggerated. The authors also devote a chapter to exploring the downside of the triple package traits in cultures, which manifests in insularity, high pressure and psychological problems. Asian-Americans often do very well in academics and are one of the highest earning groups in the US, but some young Asian-Americans chafe under the high expectations and try to break out of the narrow stereotypical mold they grow up under.

While groups might rise, they can also decline as they become complacent and lose the discipline or drive to strive harder. Interestingly, the authors apply this to explain the recent fortunes of the US as a whole. This is because the US can be considered the ultimate “Triple Package” nation- a young upstart that harboured a strong desire to prove itself compared to the much older and cultured European powers, whilst also possessing a sense of “exceptionalism” as a nation forged from a desire to be free, and a “Puritanical inheritance of impulse control” including moderation, saving and industry. But having risen to become the world’s superpower, America lost its discipline and sense of insecurity and became too confident. The world has become very turbulent and unstable but the authors say this is the right time for the US to recover its “Triple Package” due to insecurity presented by threats of terrorism, China, and financial woes. It will be interesting if the US can recover its status as a “Triple Package” nation.

Ultimately, the success of ethnic groups may not be simply due to these three factors, but the authors make convincing arguments that they are key.

Books

Originals- book review

Being original is seen as highly valued in many areas in life, including work, business and arts, but it is not easy to attain. Some people are born with highly original and innovative minds, but the rest of us need to develop and foster originality. Originals- How Non-Confirmists Move the World aims to help readers do this with interesting lessons, insights and arguments.

Originals is a highly informative book, but also surprising as author Adam Grant makes arguments that contradict some pieces of conventional wisdom. For instance, at work, we always hear that instead of pointing out problems, we need to also have solutions (obviously managers love this suggestion), but Grant says that this can make people unwilling to speak up and as such, problems can be overlooked or ignored. As such, people should be allowed to make critiques freely.

Risk-taking is often praised and even encouraged, so you might think this is a key part of originality, but not so fast, says Grant. Keep your day-job while pursuing your dreams, like what author Stephen King and musician John Legend did initially before they really hit it big; and balance risks you do take in one area with caution in others, like a stock portfolio, for instance. To be honest, Grant’s advice seems more pragmatic than original as security seems to be the priority for him.

A lot of readers will take heart from the chapter on procrastination and companies not rushing into new markets. We often hear that procrastination is bad, but Grant says while leaving things to the last minute might hamper productivity, it might be good for creativity as it allows for flexibility and adaptability. Another instance of first being considered best is that companies that come out with products first always get lauded as innovators and supposedly have the first-mover advantage. Grant argues that these companies often get overtaken by competitors who wait and come out with better products. If anything, first-movers tend to be driven by impulsiveness which brings on more risk, says Grant. Grant also says civil movements and ideas failed because they were “ahead of their time” though he doesn’t give much evidence. Meanwhile, assigning somebody to be a “devil’s advocate” is less effective than if somebody was genuinely critical.

Another interesting chapter is about when to trust your intuition. According to Grant, intuition is dependable only when used in a familiar environment or situation but not in situations where conditions are always changing or a surprise. As such, you should trust your intuition in situations you are familiar with, but use more caution and thinking for unfamiliar circumstances. Hence doctors can trust their intuition when assessing cases they have encountered numerous times, but political and economic “experts” always seem to get things wrong.

One really surprising chapter is the one on the influence of birth order and parenting on originality. Grant finds that last-born children often turn out to be more creative and rebellious than their eldest siblings, who are more inclined to excel in traditional pursuits and become business and government leaders. Grant uses charts and stats showing that comedians and baseball steals leaders (steals are a sign of more risk-taking) are often the youngest in their families while a study showed that the largest percentage of CEOs were firstborn. In a somewhat vague link, Grant says parenting plays a key role such as using lessons and not orders to teach children to do the right thing.

Grant specifically praises investment company Bridgewater, where the founder and CEO Ray Danzig allows himself to be criticized publicly and harshly by subordinates. This is part of the company culture, based on over 200 principles that Danzig came up with. Employees are encouraged to publicly criticize their colleagues; all meetings are recorded; and all employees have scores published on a company-wide ratings board.

In the end, Grant lists a series of rules and suggestions including to procrastinate strategically, to back up your opinions, come up with more ideas than usual, and to present your ideas to disagreeable people who can challenge it earnestly. Originals might veer towards pragmatism in a few areas, but it provides a lot of useful ideas that might change your mind about common situations and behaviors, which would be the first step in becoming more “original.”

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 .

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.

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.

Books · China

The Horse That Leaps Through Clouds- book review

In the early 20th century, a Swedish-Finnish nobleman by the name of Baron Gustaf Mannerheim undertook a secret mission for the Russian Tsar to spy on China. Starting from Moscow, Mannerheim crossed Russia, traveled through Central Asia and across China to collect information on the country’s reforms and development. 100 years later, in 2006, Canadian writer Eric Enno Tamm decided to undertake the same journey as Mannerheim, going through the Central Asian Stans and into China, from Xinjiang to Beijing.

Even 100 years after the original, Tamm’s voyage is a remarkable journey. Going through Central Asia, the author sheds light on little-known countries like oil-rich quasi-authoritarian Azerbaijan and repressive and secretive states like Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. The murkiness and poverty of the cities in those states is balanced by the beauty of the sparsely-populated, desolate wilderness of mountain passes, desert and plains. In China, Xinjiang is already heavily policed and Sinicized as cities like Kashgar are built up while having their historic neighborhoods ripped apart. Tamm visits famous cities like Xian and not-so-famous ones like Taiyuan, capital of Shanxi Province, and the holy sites of Wutaishan, one of China’s holiest mountains, and Dunhuang, site of one of China’s greatest Buddhist grottoes.

At every stage, Tamm describes fascinating accounts of Mannerheim’s trek, which was especially sensitive as he had to deal with rival European explorers and spies, and the Qin Dynasty authorities. Besides the historical and nature aspect, the book also features a lot of interesting descriptions of the diverse cultures and ethnicities that is present across Western China, such as small Mongolian and Tibetan sub-tribes as well as the local Uyghur majority.

Despite the 100 years separating the journeys of Mannerheim and the writer, there is a striking similarity between how China was going through significant change in the form of economic and industrial development during Mannerheim’s journey under the Qing Dynasty, as it was during Tamm’s journey and to the present. Tamm raises a provocative point about the parallels between the present and in Mannerheim’s time, as the Qing embraced Western industrial technology and economic changes, but not values and ideas, in an attempt to make the country prosper while retaining power, which ultimately proved futile. The Qing Dynasty would fall just a few years after Mannerheim’s journey when a successful revolution broke out in 1911. The recent news of China’s supposed banning of VPN by early 2018 and the death of imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiabo is a reminder that China’s impressive economic rise and might has been accompanied by greater censorship and repression. I’ve never read this specific view linking the last years of the Qing with the present time expressed before, despite the abundance of predictions about the fall or decline of the Chinese Communist Party, and I admit it is partially convincing.

Tamm also notes the tensions in China’s borderlands, especially the restive northwestern region of Xinjiang, where the Muslim Uyghurs chafe under harsh Chinese rule. Indeed, Xinjiang is China’s most heavily policed region, and there are restrictions on the Uyghur’s practice of their religion and culture. It is obvious that Tamm is not too positive about his observations and experiences during his travel through China.

Tamm also coins a word for China’s pervasive technological censorship – technotarianism. Back then, China had just erected its “Great Firewall” and Google provided a limited version for use in the country, which didn’t prevent it from being banned completely. The censorship has only gotten worse so Tamm’s “technotarianism” is still in place.

Another serious problem Tamm observes is China’s dire environment, especially the heavily polluted air or smog which is as much of a problem in Beijing and much of China now as it was 11 years ago.

Coincidentally, much of Tamm’s journey traces the ancient Silk Road, as he goes through Xinjiang, Gansu, Shaanxi, and Shanxi to get to Beijing. He also visits Henan and Inner Mongolia. Given that the Belt and Road (also known as One Belt, One Road) is meant to recreate the Silk Road and passes through the countries Tamm traveled to, I was thinking it would be fitting if Tamm could go on another journey through Central Asia and China and write a new book.

Incidentally 2017 is the 100th year of Finland’s independence from Russia. After Finland became independent, Mannerheim became its regent and then a national war hero by defending Finland from the Soviet Union during the 1940s as the Commander-in-Chief and Marshal of Finland.

While the book was published 6 years ago, several of the observations are still very relevant. It is a little sad that not only do issues like the severe pollution and the repression in Xinjiang and Tibet still exist in China, but they are perhaps worse now than when Tamm undertook his journey.

Books

From Third World to First- book review

Lee Kuan Yew was one of Asia’s greatest modern leaders and visionaries, having led Singapore from a poor, third-world country to a wealthy, first-world one in a few decades. As Prime Minister from independence in 1965 to 1990 and then Senior Minister from 1990 to 2004, he is closely tied to his country’s rise. So it is no surprise that his autobiography From Third World to First- The Singapore Story: 1965-2000 is basically a story about Singapore. The book lays out how Lee Kuan Yew transformed Singapore, while managing relations with bigger and threatening neighbours as well as the US, the UK and China. In fact, the latter part takes up most of the book.

Having been one of Britain’s major Asian colonies as a vital port, Singapore had a traumatic beginning as an independent nation, as it was initially part of a federation with Malaysia before being kicked out due to political differences and racial fears. In what now seems surprising, Lee Kuan Yew was so distraught by this that he cried, because tiny Singapore was now alone with no resources and hinterland. But with commendable planning, foresight and effort, Lee and his government made Singapore into a shipping and financial hub, with substantial manufacturing services and eventually, one of the world’s richest nations.

The first chapters are a historical timeline of Lee’s early years, the breakup with Malaysia and his attempt to solidify his domestic rule, including his fight against the local Communists. Internationally, he had to fight diplomatic battles with Malaysia and Indonesia, who had a very hostile stance against Singapore in the 1960s. He maintained relationships with a fading Britain, while building up ties with giants like the US, Japan and eventually China. It is fascinating to read his insights into the US, which had taken over from Britain as a global power, and China, which was moving away from its chaotic and tragic period under Mao Zedong and starting its economic rise under Deng Xiaoping in the eighties.

ASEAN relationships were also vital to Singapore, especially those with neighbors Malaysia and Indonesia, which improved immensely after the tense early days of Singapore’s independence. However, he had a very hostile attitude towards Vietnam, due to their Communist regime, but even opposed their invading Cambodia and driving out Pol Pot from power, which I think was a little unreasonable. Taiwan, South Korea and Hong Kong also feature. With Hong Kong, he had a very interesting insight in that the British rule of Hong Kong, which lasted until 1997, meant Hong Kongers did not need to act cohesively as a community, thus they became “great individualists and daring entrepreneurs.” It is an attitude that still prevails today, though perhaps not the “daring entrepreneurs.” Lee’s view also helps explain why Hong Kongers seem to lack leadership skills in governance as under the British, they were never decision-makers but managers.

Lee was firm in what he did and had a pragmatic and ruthless streak. This also means he is blamed for Singapore’s authoritarianism which was exemplified in media restrictions and heavyhanded libel rules which saw him often successfully sue media outlets and political opponents. But he also genuinely cared for his country as signified by the public housing policy, which allows most Singaporeans to enjoy affordable quality public housing, and diversification of the economy into areas such as high-tech manufacturing and gas processing. There are a few policies that might raise your eyebrows such as a racial ratio quota with housing developments, meaning the proportion of Chinese, Indian and Malay residents had to be kept at a certain level, as well as a dating service for civil servants.

Singaporeans may be getting tired of their country’s one-party rule and rethinking Lee’s legacy, but they should consider themselves lucky to have had a leader like Lee who was pragmatic, intelligent about domestic and international politics, and was upfront about his policies and actions. At the least Singaporeans should be glad that Lee was not like other regional strongmen who either enriched themselves obscenely, like the Philippines’ Ferdinand Marcos, or ruthlessly held on to power, such as Mao, while letting their countries stay poor.

Books · Travel

Indonesia Etc- book review

For such a diverse, fascinating and lofty country, Indonesia is somewhat obscure. Completely made up of islands, and thus the world’s largest archipelago nation, Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim nation and fourth most populous, and it is Southeast Asia’s largest economy. But other than Bali (and maybe the Komodo dragon), is there anything famous about it? Elisabeth Pisani decided to do something about this pitiful situation by setting out to travel across the length and width of the nation. The result was Indonesia Etc- Exploring the Improbable Nation, part travelogue, part history and political primer.
As a former journalist and epidemiologist who had lived and worked in Indonesia for many years and spoke the language, Pisani certainly had the knowledge and experience to pull this off. But more importantly, she had the traveler’s knack of always being curious, never shunning an adventure, and being able to befriend strangers, even stay with them for months as she did with a family in a headhunting tribe.
Eschewing the main island of Java, where the capital Jakarta is located and home to two-thirds of Indonesians, at least until the end, Pisani travels from giant Sumatra to tiny islands in the Maluku chain. She also takes on Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo (Malaysia and Brunei occupy the rest).

However, what makes the book compelling is that Pisani goes beyond just travel, but gives some insight into Indonesian habits and quirks, like corruption. It is common to portray third-world countries as naturally beset by corruption with family and ethnic ties playing a huge role. But, Pisani explains that for Indonesia, factors like government decentralization and democracy exacerbate corruption.
There is also some good commentary about Indonesia’s recent history, from colonialism under the Dutch to independence to the present. We also learn about the country’s first two leaders, Sukarno and Suharto, and the complications with forming a nation that was made up of hundreds of peoples, languages, cultures and islands.

Pisani also does not shy away from the hard stuff like the mass killings of Chinese and Communists by the army and militias under the guise of crushing an attempted coup in the late 1960s, as well as East Timor, which eventually separated and is now independent, and Aceh, where fundamentalist Islam is strong. For the latter, which some call “Veranda of Mecca,” a strong separatist movement has given way, after the 2004 tsunami, to but with more autonomy to run their own affairs, which notoriously include sharia law. In fact, just a couple of weeks ago, a pair of gay men were publicly caned after being caught engaging in sex. And also recently, the former mayor of Jakarta, a Chinese Christian, was found guilty of blasphemy for criticizing a passage in the Koran. He had also lost the election in May to an Islamist rival.

The book was published in 2014 and it had been on my reading list for some time. It still holds up even if some of the political and social problems described like Islamic fundamentalism and the decreasing tolerance towards minorities may be even worse now. But nevertheless, they would strengthen Pisani’s assertion that Indonesia is still a country that deserves more attention from the world.

Visit the book’s website where she still writes about Indonesia.