This is the second part of my previous post.
A Fresh Appreciation of History and Historians
Last year, I wanted to read about the Ottoman Empire, so I started going through an audiobook from The Great Courses about the Ottoman Empire. The audiobook is a lecture series comprising of forty or so one-hour lecture. The Ottoman Empire began in1299 and lasted until the end of World War I in 1918.
A story from the Ottoman Empire series where Tamerlane annihilated the Sultan’s military got me interested in Genghis Khan and his descendants, so I followed through my Middle Ages discovery by reading two books by Jack Weatherford, ‘Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World’ and ‘The Secret History of the Mongol Queens’.
Genghis Khan was a fascinating leader. He was quite the visionary. Engineering innovation, gender equality, cultural diversity, religious tolerance, stable political system, postal and transport network, foreign trade (the Silk Road), record-keeping, and banking system were some of the things that Genghis Khan managed to set up for his empire before his death. He really thought about almost everything required to keep a legacy. However, his descendants did not have the same unyielding commitment to maintaining the same legacy for very long. Genghis Khan’s legacy ended with the end of the Chinese Yuan dynasty, ~150 years after Genghis Khan’s first established the Mongol Empire.
The power that Genghis Khan was willing to give to women, especially his daughters, is fascinating to read. Mongol men fought international campaigns far away from home, but all the domestic matters back home were handled by the women of the court. The Mongol Queens were perhaps more influential than the male Khans in making decisions that allowed the Mongol Empire to thrive. Mongol Queens were tough cookies, and many of them were savvy political players. Jack Weatherford’s second books unravelled some historical anecdotes of the Mongol Queens.
Discovering the end of the Yuan Dynasty made me wondered what happened in China afterwards, during the Ming and Qing dynasties (the last two dynasties before the Chinese Republic was formed), so I picked up another lecture series from The Great Courses series. This audiobook provides an excellent brief overview of from the period at the end of the Qing Dynasty in the late 1800s until the opening up of China to the world in 1972 (when President Nixon met Deng Xiaoping in Beijing).
Behavioural Economics and Human Psychology
I bought Michael Lewis’ book ‘The Undoing Project’ a few years ago, but I totally forgot that it existed. This book is about the friendship of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, and how they rattled the accepted dogma among old-school economists by asking simple questions about how human psychology really works in the real world, outside economic theories. For his work, Daniel Kahneman received the noble prize in economics in 2002. Unfortunately, Amos Tversky had passed away many years before Kahneman was awarded his noble prize.
For further reading, you can read Daniel Kahneman’s book ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ although this book is not fun to read. The book is a compendium of Kahneman’s 30-years worth of research in a single volume. I suggest you read Richard Thaler’s book ‘Nudge’ first before getting into Daniel Kahneman’s book.
Richard Thaler is also a behavioural economist, whose work is inspired by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. For his research, Richard Thaler also received a Noble Prize in economics in 2017. Thaler’s concept of ‘nudge’ is being used all around you to influence how you do things without you probably ever realising.
This book is one of the recommended further reading by Thaler is his book ‘Nudge’. ‘The Design of Everyday Things’ is a popular book. The book was first published in 1988, and it has gone been printed almost every year since then. Somehow the original content of the book is still highly relevant even today. The book is useful for designers, engineers, techies, entrepreneurs and everyone who needs to convince other people to commit significant actions (or part with their money) without having to change their habits.
Threading Together Education, Technology, and AI Future
This section is for misfit books that (I reckon) have a strong connection between them, but I can’t quite find the right title for the theme. ‘What School Could Be’ provides exemplary case studies from schools across America about how the gift of education if done right can affect young people. The education that the next generation will need to have a fighting chance in the world of ‘Capitalism Without Capital’.
‘Capitalism Without Capital’ explains the advances in data and technology in shaping how new products require very little labour and eventually those workers without the right skills and the right ability to constantly learning might get left behind and resent any change — and the consequences will not be pretty.
In his 2018 book, Kai-Fu Lee explains the condensed history of artificial intelligence (AI), and why all the AI jargons we hear a lot recently in the media are not sure signs of significant progress towards artificial general intelligence (AGI). What different today is that the computers are massive and powerful, so they crunch more data with fewer resources. Lee’s main message is that the world is finally primed for an AI take-off — a long-awaited take-off which had been on the mind of many AI researchers for many decades.
In the final few chapters of the book, Lee beautifully reminds the readers of the essential ingredient all humans need to thrive in the AI-powered future (and this remedy is probably not what you think it is). This book is one of the must-reads from 2018.
Big Government is Not That Bad
Michael Lewis latest book ‘The Fifth Risk’ takes the readers into a journey across America — showcasing anecdotes from some colourful American civil servants doing important (and often undervalued) jobs that keep the US in full working order. Who maintains and monitors the missile silos that house the US nuclear arsenals? How many lives does the advanced prediction algorithm of the National Weather Service save each year? Which department provides the cashflows to rural farmers all across America? How much money does the Department of Energy invest in renewable energy research? The books elucidate the answers to some of these questions and some more.
‘The Entrepreneurial State’ breaks down the economic arguments of investment by state actors. As a former advisor to Obama’s White House and a professor in economics and public policy, Mazzucato has plenty of experience in implementing policies, dealing with political machinery and analysing the economic metrics. In this book, Mazzucato attempts to induce a paradigm with some compelling arguments that the state is an integral part in innovation, and that goal posts can often tumble quicker when governments are your partners.
I Read Some Fictions Too
The fiction genre I enjoy reading is very selective, so this is a work in progress. I tend only to read novels that are telling Chinese diaspora stories because that is why I enjoy. Tiffany Tsao’s book was the most memorable one because the plot of the novel was so weird yet the characters were familiar to me. I wrote a short reflective review after finishing the book, although I think my review has one too many spoilers. Here it is:
Under Your Wings is a fascinating fiction written by a closeted entomologist. This book is the author’s way of peeping into what life inside a formicarium (read: ant farm) habituated by some crazy rich stereotypical ethnic Chinese in Indonesia could be.
Not only the opulence of the characters that got me hooked, but also all the flawed characters in the story. Every single character in the book was imperfect. Excessive wealth was the only cocoons that shielded them from the reality of how broken the characters were inside, whether or not they could willingly accept this notion.
You could tell from the very beginning of the book — not this time, no happy ending for you. Fortunately, the mystery arc of the book would keep you hanging and entertained until the end.
This book could only have risen from closely scrutinising, poking around and mingling with dozens of real-world characters. Some little details about how some Chinese Indonesians behaved were eerily familiar and cringeworthy.
All the geeky reference about insects blended nicely into the story. Was Estella the cocoon Gwendollyn left behind as she metamorphoses into a butterfly? Or was it the other way around? Were they ever two different individuals? Were they really sisters or alter egos? Perhaps Gwendollyn was forced to tell the Estella’s story while being half-dead, just like how cordyceps (a type of fungus) would control the brain of their host insects to reproduce?
In the end, nothing mattered — just like a formicarium that got tipped over would be. Everything is gone as if nothing had happened — the cycle of life continues.
I had to reread Kevin Kwan’s trilogy after watching the movie ‘Crazy Rich Asians.’ The books are more interesting than the movie. The underrepresented element of the Hollywood production of ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ is the multiple strong female characters in Kevin Kwan’s books. Each book in the trilogy presents the readers with multiple female characters that complete the Kwan’s story puzzle.
The multiple dimensions of ‘Asian-ness’ that each female character represents are very complex, and it might or might not be interesting for those who are not familiar with the culture of the Chinese diaspora (especially the one that took up roots in South East Asia). When all the characters in Kwan’s books are considered together, they form a fun-to-read ‘insider’s ethnography’ about people with Chinese ancestry in South East Asia (Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia in particular).
I also think the second book is not as exciting as the first and the third book. I wish there would be more books based on one or more Kwan’s characters soon. I cannot get enough of the character Astrid Leong — the British actress, Gemma Chan, gives the perfect impression of this loveable character on the big screen.
If you manage to get this far, thank you for reading. May you have a productive book year ahead! Also, let’s be friends on Goodreads if you are keen to let me know what you are currently reading.