Monthly Archives: February 2012

Book: Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power

A waterproof book. Great for a weekend of waterborne piracy off the coast of Somalia.

Optimistic & Illuminating. Makes me as excited about the Indian Ocean as I am about the Chinese coast.
374 pages, ★★★★

How relevant! Monsoon, a book about the Indian Ocean, is waterproof. Its cover is coated in a special plastic sleeve which would probably look fascinating under the microscope (I’m imagining it looks like an orderly micro-Karst topology with rounded hilltops). This book’s cover is probably strong enough to survive a short stint on a Somali pirate ship. By reading Monsoon with my feet soaked in a tropically hot foot bath, I ensured that this engineering nicety was not squandered.

Monsoon illuminates one part of the world I knew almost nothing about (the Indian Ocean). Trading has occurred across this ocean for centuries between east Africa, the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent and China; and all countries have benefitted as a result. The Indian Ocean’s magic winds allow for predictable travel in one direction at almost double the speed that could be achieved by similar ships in the North Atlantic. Many people talk about the rise of “India”, when they should actually be talking about the rise of the Indian Ocean coastline (including Oman, Pakistan, Burma and Indonesia) because that’s where we’ll see most development in the next few decades. Oman’s island topology is fascinating. Pakistan’s developing western region is a future global trading hub. And I even learned more about China.

Many people talk about the rise of “India”, when they should actually be talking about the rise of the Indian Ocean coastline (including Oman, Pakistan, Burma and Indonesia) because that’s where we’ll see most development in the next few decades.

China’s building stuff all over the world. They’re building a huge port in Iran, an ambitious railway to Afghanistan, and oil fields and pipelines in east Africa. China’s building military and political connections with its neighbours (Myanmar/Burma and Taiwan respectively), and watching its Malacca Strait with great scrutiny (as are the Americans).

Monsoon is overwhelmingly bullish on the prospect of the Indian Ocean region. The author even describes the benefits of the 2004 tsunami and compares it to Pinochet’s Death Squads of Mao’s Cultural Revolution (with something like “great suffering paved the way for miracles”). Monsoon predicts a strong Indian Ocean region, a strong inland Middle East, a strong China, a strong mainland India, and touches on a declining United States. The author is correct to note that scarce, renewable resources (such as the Malacca Strait) can promote alliances; while scarce, non-renewable resources (such as oil or gold) can promote war. The author outlines thousands of reasons to be optimistic in the Indian Ocean coastal regions.

This is a very pleasant book full of description. My feet are warm, and my mind has wandered. Forget the battle between Imperial American Hegemony and Kantian Postnationalism. Monsoon assumes that the latter will reign superior—and with unwavering cultural flattery, welcomes the underdog (the Indian Ocean coastline) to the collective throne. ★★★★

Book: Tiny Buddha: Simple Wisdom for Life’s Hard Questions

Tiny Buddha by Tiny Author. She's "petite" and so's the book!

Buddhist by coincidence; written from a self-help perspective; story of my life.
278 pages, ★★★★★

I’m anything but tiny. But after three days of doing stressful bank-related stuff, I really needed to read this book. I’d already waited several weeks for it to be published (I got caught up in the pre-release internet hype) and yesterday, it finally arrived at my lavishly-decorated front door. Happy Lantern Festival! It was well worth the wait.

Tiny Buddha is Buddhism without Buddha. Author Lori Deschene steers so clear of jargon that the usual Sanskrit and self-help vocabulary (except “mindful”) are nowhere to be seen. Rather than teach us the basics, the history (or anything) about Buddhism, Tiny Buddha condenses all the worthwhile advice from hundreds of self-help manuals down to one easily-readable book. Read this book properly and you can ignore everything else from the self-help section. By omitting Buddha almost entirely, Lori Deschene both proves that Buddhism is not a dogmatic religion, and that the new-age self-help genre is merely Buddhism re-evolved.

The author’s journey is the most inspiring aspect of this this book. She spent years drifting (as I did) in what David Brooks would call the “Odyssey” (the stage between adolescence and mature adulthood). She hopped between tiny apartments, overworked, underslept, and didn’t trust anyone long enough to maintain friendships or relationships. She did almost exactly the same things as I did (there’s mention some friends of teaching in China) and uses her own experience justify her authority as a teacher.

Episodes from Tiny Buddha resonated with me. The author analyses why she once overworked and found it unsatisfying (I used to set financial goals before I realised that nothing happened when I achieved them). The author also tells us why she felt cheated after a $495 “life-changing” seminar (I can relate to this). Read this book and you’ll find your own stories. All of them are accompanied with covertly Buddhist solutions.

Tiny Buddha might not be a book about Buddha, but it’s certainly a book about you. ★★★★★

The future of iTunes U

I flirt on the subway. When I’m not flirting, I’m listening to iTunes U lectures, particularly the Introduction to Psychology course from MIT.

The iTunes U iPad app is an education revolution. 500,000 lectures from top universities are now available anywhere, any time, complete with video, audio, books, articles and a global notepad so people can compare notes. Unlike university, you can pause, mix, and choose your courses. There’s more quality teacher time and less idiotic student time. And best of all, the lectures are FREE. Nobody needs to go to university any more.

While contemplating where this movement might be headed, I got very excited. Here’s my vision for iTunes U:

  • Apple TAs mark your essays. I want to be able to submit written assignments and pay to have them graded by approved teaching assistants (TAs). The Apple TAs would be approved by the course organisers at the university, not by Apple; as their background knowledge needs to be specific to the course in question. Each Apple TA will have a profile page (like the pages in the App Store) with sample essay comments, star-ratings and feedback from previous students.
  • Apple TAs earn money. Apple gets 30%, while TAs get 70% of the essay fee. There would be rules (such as 72-hour turnaround; comment guidelines, and recommended prices). I would love to earn money as an Apple TA. This is a logical extension of how millions of developers can now make money via the App Store and the iBooks Store.
  • Apple issues diplomas. These could one day be worth credit in a brick-and-mortar university.
Nobody needs to go to university any more. Long live iTunes U.