Tag Archives: books

Book: 钟博士讲解弟子规

弟子规(钟博士讲解)
Maosen Zhong’s annotation of Dizigui (“Rules for Children”). Written in Chinese.

Recommended for all under 40 years of age. Study the original text intensely before reading.
196 pages, ★★★★
Language: Chinese 

I’m already a fan of Maosen Zhong’s teachings. Recently, I finished reading his annotated collection of classical excerpts on femininity called 窈窕淑女的标准 (which roughly translates as “How to be a Fair Lady“). I gave it five stars and recommended it for men, too.

Dizigui (pronounced ‘deetzergway’)  is an ancient Chinese classic that teaches children and adult students how to behave in daily life according to ancient Confucian principles. It focuses mainly on how to treat ones parents and teachers with “禮”, or “lǐ”, which is roughly translated as “respect”. Since Confucius placed so much emphasis on 禮, a book that fully expounds its meaning comes as a great relief.

Among the 360 rules in this book are:

  • Don’t be picky about food
  • Always get enough sleep
  • Stay away from drugs (including alcohol and karaoke bars)
  • Don’t be lazy
  • See no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil and read no evil.
  • …and many more, with stories to illustrate each rule.
Zhong interprets and illustrates these rules using his own (usually exemplary) experiences and the (usually erroneous) actions of others.

The original text consists of 360 lines of three characters each, which form a beautiful poem just 1080 characters long. Zhong has printed this original text in full at the beginning of the book, which you should study meticulously before reading. The author expounds each line in great detail (sometimes too much detail) later on in the book—so I strongly recommend trying to make your own interpretation of the text before reading the author’s.

All children under the age of 40 should read this book. It should be taught in all Chinese schools (and it is starting to be introduced). Accessible English versions, however, are still hard to come by. The Pure Land School of Buddhism offers the best English version, available free for download hereBetter still, I think this book should be translated as poetry. So I started. ★★★★

Book: A Little History of the World

A Little History of the World by E. H. Gombrich
I read this as a PDF on an iPod. The paperback version would probably earn five jameskennedybeijing stars. I’ve been reading this in bed.

Perfect Middle School World History Reader. Adults should read this with children.
305 pages, ★★★★ (probably five stars in paperback) 

A Little History of the World is delightful to read. It’s written in verbatim speech, more like a bedtime story than a history textbook. The author, E. H. Gombrich, wrote this book extremely fast: sometimes one chapter per day, and very little editing was done before publication. The book therefore retains an original, colloquial style. That adds character.

Gombrich brings an obvious Greece/Rome/Europe-centric bias to this book. Very little space is devoted to flourishing ancient cultures in China, India, Africa and the pre-colonial Americas. In fact, the sole chapter on Chinese Buddhism was written not by Gombrich, but by a guest author. I suggest reading this book in conjunction with both Quick Access to Chinese History and China’s History for a more balanced picture.

I like how Gombrich sets the historical background for world-changing ideas: Christianity, Confucianism, Buddhism and Marxism, according to Gombrich, were inevitable results of social situations at different times. He explains the social background for each of these philosophies, and introduces each of them as a “solution to a major historical problem”. Historical atrocities are thus a little easier to accept. This suits children.

E. H. Gombrich tells stories less like a professional historian and more like a grandfather. His style is colloquial and his account of history is not 100% correct—he corrects his errors in the final chapter—but his vivid descriptions of character and situations are always memorable.

I’d read this to primary school students at bedtime; and I’d teach this to middle school students after school. A Little History of the World lends itself extremely well to annotations, research projects and extra homework assignments. It’s a book designed for adults to read with children. ★★★★

Book: China’s History

$45.99 on Amazon USA. ¥56.90 ($9.01) on Amazon China. I bought this from China, of course.

Read Quick Access to Chinese History before this.
210 pages, ★★★★

China’s History was first written (or at least planned) in Chinese before being produced in English. The paragraph structure and rigid coherence to China’s official historical narrative screams “China!”. All Chinese history books, including this one, tell exactly the same story. This is reassuring. 🙂

However, having already read Quick Access to Chinese History, I didn’t learn much new from this book. It just reinforced what I’d already read. There’s a little more detail on several historical events, but this could be too complicated for absolute beginners. I strongly recommend reading Quick Access to Chinese History (a clear, event-by-event summary) before reading this book. ★★★★

Book: An Introduction to Modern China History (1840–1949)

I like to reading the English. Do you?

Tragic period of Chinese history made funny by terrible English and production.
191 pages, ★★

An Introduction to Modern China History is riddled with errors, some of which are funny. Fonts and text colours change haphazardly, which indicates careless copy-and-paste jobs from external sources. Fixed-width symbols are used instead of Roman numerals, and the book suffers greatly from bad grammar, repetition and missing punctuation throughout. Historical references are sometimes questionable, too: answers.com and blogspot.com are each cited several times. I would have a field day proofreading this book.

Grave historical mistakes are also made. Confucius most certainly did not “invent” Confucianism, and the Taiping Rebellion did not occur in 1950.

The intended audience is explained in the book’s opening sentence: “Generally speaking, this book is provided to the overseas students who study in Jinan University.” The majority of overseas students in Jinan University probably won’t even open this book.

The second sentence is utter nonsense: “As a book of history, the basic historic events should be the most important material of the book”. Delete.

As a proofreader, terrible English prevented me from taking this book seriously. I learned little. Read Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-45 instead. ★★

Book: Cults: Faith, Healing and Coercion

I read this as a PDF on an iPod. The average eBook review is one-and-a-half stars lower than the average hardback review. The paperback version would probably therefore earn four of jameskennedybeijing's stars instead of three.

Lesson: How to recognize cults.
Thesis: Cults are everywhere and they’re mostly beneficial.
304 pages, ★★★ (probably four stars in paperback)

Cults” is an inaccurate title. This book instead refers consistently to “charismatic groups” with flattering prejudice as the nomenclature suggests. The author mostly analyses “Moonies”, the People’s Temple and Alcoholics Anonymous. Admittedly, it seems inappropriate to lump the outrageous (Moonies), the demonic (People’s Temple) and a recovery group (AA) under one category. The thesis of “Cults” is that cults are everywhere and they’re not all bad.

According to page 4, for a group to qualify as a “cult” (or, “charismatic group), it must:

  1. have a shared belief system
  2. have a high level of social cohesiveness
  3. are strongly influenced by the group’s behavioral norms
  4. impute charismatic (or sometimes divine) power to the group or its leadership

Using the definitions outlined in this book, I could qualify just about any group as a cult. Using these definitions, the Armed Forces, Scientology, Goldman Sachs, Catholicism, Apple, the Hell’s Angels and book clubs all qualify as “charismatic groups” too. And they’re not all bad.

The University of Cambridge, too, satisfies all the four requirements of a “charismatic group”:

  1. they believe they are better than non-Cambridge people, and a high grade will bring satisfaction (a high salary, a PhD, etc.);
  2. they are extremely cliquey;
  3. they have “formal hall”, “bops”, “balls” and other strange rituals found nowhere else;
  4. they boastfully impute charismatic power onto themselves (but not to the leadership).

In my view, universities are definitely “charismatic groups”. When approaching the end of their educational railroad (high-school, graduation, etc.), students panic and apply for a continuation of the same meaningfulness that their old schools used to provide. These people go on to study BA, masters, a second masters, a PhD, and so on. They love the titles, the rituals and the sense of purpose these educational ladder-rungs (and their diplomas) give them. I read Cults book to understand this phenomenon.

The book tells us that charismatic groups (such as universities) provide a “set meal” of meaning to people who lack it. People are likely to turn to such groups when at a “nadir” resulting from sickness or trauma (see my Fight Club review) and embrace the spiritual element that such groups provide them. Surveys show, like the protagonist of Fight Club, that most people try many different groups before settling into one.

Charismatic groups are like spiritual buses: they take you close to your destination, even if it’s not exactly where you wanted to be. The best places are off the spiritual bus-routes, so the last part of the spiritual journey involves leaving the “charismatic group” and going alone.

It teaches you not how to recognize and avoid “charismatic groups”, but how to recognise and use “charismatic groups” safely. Give this book to help anyone who’s been brainwashed and it’ll help them start thinking for themselves. ★★★

Book: A Natural History of the Senses

Each word surprises you pleasantly. Reading this book feels like being tickled. 🙂


An appreciation of all things bright and beautiful. Very Powerful Muse.

352 pages, ★★★★★

Walking back from the gym, I noticed a new stall in the mall: the Demeter® Fragrance Library. Their stall was unstaffed when I arrived, so I went about sniffing over 200 perfume bottles like a kid in a candy store. I smelled classic aromas such as “Rose”, “Lavender”, “Peach”, and “Ocean”, then tried the more obscure ones: “New Car”, “Laundromat”, “Rain”, and “Baby Smell”.

The Demeter® Fragrance Library sells body sprays, bath products and room air fresheners with a single, recognizable scent. Demeter calls them, “single experience fragrances”.

The most interesting part for me was the gift packaging. A quote printed on the gift boxes claimed that Diane Ackermann’s book, A Natural History of the Senses was the inspiration for setting up this playhouse of a store. I wanted to be inspired, so I didn’t buy the perfume, but I did buy the book.

This book is divided into six sections: smell, touch, taste, hearing, vision and synesthesia. Author Ackerman takes thousands minuscule daily encounters with nature, connects them, and amplifies them into vibrant prose. The result is a delightfully indirect journey from violets to neurones, from tattoos to phantom limbs, and from “salty” human origins (in the ocean) to the launch of a space shuttle. Natural History of the Senses is a constant surprise to read—rather like being tickled. The first chapter on “smell” is by far the best.

A Natural History of the Senses belongs beside The Importance of Living (see my review) and 窈窕淑女的标准 (see my review) in the genre of “appreciation of the smaller aspects of life”. I recommend these three delightful reads for anyone with the time and patience to find exquisite beauty in everyday life. ★★★★★

Book: 窈窕淑女的标准(宋尚宫女论语研习报告)

I finished reading this book before finally learning how to pronounce the first three characters of the title. It's "Yǎotiǎo shūnǚ de biāozhǔn", for reference. 🙂

The good life: a beginner’s guide based on Song Dynasty culture.
Written for women but highly relevant for men too.
322 pages, ★★★★★
Language: Chinese

Maosen Zhong (钟茂森) is highly regarded in China. He writes books and essays, and teaches ‘open classes’ (公开课) about traditional Chinese culture. His academic background is impressive, too: he studied undergraduate in Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou, then finished his masters and doctorate degrees in Louisiana and Kansas. In 2003, at just 30 years of age, he was awarded a lifelong position as Associate Professor in Finance at the University of Queensland, Australia. Such an impressive degree collection earns one great respect in contemporary China.

Maosen Zhong uses this pedestal of respect to preach the growing movement of Traditional Chinese Culture (传统文化). His books and ‘open classes’ are mostly about history and Chinese spiritualism, with a particular emphasis on Chinese Buddhism. In my view, Zhong’s teachings are an attempt to plug China’s “spiritual vacuum” (a problem to which almost everyone in China acknowledges); China’s “self-racism” (which causes many young Chinese to reject Chinese norms in favor of KFC, basketball, and California); and the “moral breakdown” that’s occurred since the Communist era ended (from which corruption and other misdemeanors stem). To solve these issues, Zhong advocates moral education (伦理道德教育), a greater influence of Chinese religions in modern life and a greater respect and understanding for China’s own history and culture.

[Zhong addresses China’s] spiritual vacuum… self-racism… [and] moral breakdown

Maosen Zhong first convinces us of the need for moral education not just in China, but worldwide. He appeals to common sentiments by referring to the collapses of Enron and Lehman Brothers, and the Financial Crisis of 2008 that followed. Personally, I didn’t need much convincing: I already know that mainland China is morally bankrupt. People are kept in line by the heavy hand of the government, not by an inner sense of doing what’s right. Thank God for that heavy hand.

The Solutions: society is made up of families, which in turn are made up of people. To build a moral society, we first have to carry out moral education at the individual and family levels.

This book therefore starts at the individual level. It tells us to wake up between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m., to open the curtains immediately, to stretch, sweep the floor, make a lukewarm breakfast, and wash the tea leaves ready for brewing after breakfast. And so on. He teaches the tiniest aspects of a good life in polite verbatim. I feel more educated than patronized.

The book then progresses to how to look after your family. There’s a chapter on taking care of your children and a lengthy chapter on taking care of elderly parents. The most minute aspects of life are spelled out very clearly.

“Men and women are equal but different” is very clear in this book. It contradicts the Western feminist movement, which was based on the idea that “women can be men, too”. Despite the Chinese title (which intends the book to be read by “fair ladies”), the role of women is a very minor aspect of the book.

To build a moral society, we first have to carry out moral education at the individual and family levels.

Dozens of key ancient texts are quoted throughout this book, each followed by Zhong’s own interpretations of these texts in a modern context. I didn’t fully understand these text excerpts (古文), but I still get the intended message: “the ancient Chinese would have done better”.

I learned two lessons from this book: the first is, “take great care in absolutely everything you do”. The second is, “no matter how morally you think you’re behaving, you’re almost certainly not doing enough”. China should listen. How to get masses of morally-starved, money-obsessed Chinese to listen to Zhong’s teachings, however, is a tricky problem to solve. ★★★★★

Book: Quick Access to Chinese History: From Ancient Times to the 21st Century

Beautifully-produced. The cover feels like ancient paper: it even has imperfections. Made by Chinese authors and Chinese publishers in perfect English. That's rare!

No. 1 Chinese history overview. Basically China’s National Museum in print. A Syllabus.
357 pages, ★★★★★

I’ve been looking for a Chinese history overview for many months now. I tried ancient history authors like Jonathan Spence (too detailed) and Gavin Menzies (wildly outlandish); and also modern historians such as Martin Jaques (increasingly confused). Nothing has come close to Quick Access to Chinese History‘s in terms of a clear overview.

Surprisingly, this full-color book was only $8.50 (¥54) on Amazon China with free delivery. It’s entirely made in China. Since mistakes in language and production usually jump right out at me, I’m proud to say that this book is almost completely error-free! As a proofreader, high-quality editing and production makes me very happy. 🙂

History in this book is exactly the same as that in China’s National Museum: even the pictures are the same. This is important because China, unlike Britain, seems to be very sure of its ancient history. Unlike British authors, Chinese authors seldom present conflicting views or alternative versions of the last few thousand years. Quick Access to Chinese History is therefore the only version of Chinese history you’ll ever need.

Rather than waking up at 6am to get museum tickets, then skipping lunch in order to see everything, this book can be read at home with tea, chocolate and breaks for meals. It’s more relaxing.

Each of the 1000 or so events in this book warrants reading a whole other book. Quick Access to Chinese History gives you more of a reading list, or a syllabus, than an in-depth understanding. It describes the Neolithic Era to the year 2010.

Rather than brainstorm this book (as I do with all books), I made a list of topics I want to research further. My further reading list starts like this:

  • Did Yuanmou Man of 1,700,000 years B.C. really use fire?
  • What was the Ganzhi dating system?
  • Yi Ching (易经)
  • “Upamichad” (Indian philosophy)
  • Spring and Autumn Period (春秋). Mohism, Confucianism, Daoism, Legalism, Naturalism and Yinyang schools of thought all emerged during this turbulent period.
  • Zhuangzi (庄子) and his furthering of Daoism (道教)
  • Taichu calendar
  • Huangdi Neijing (黄帝内经)
  • Communist-style land reform first occurred in 485 A.D.
  • Eight-legged essay…
  • … and many more

This is the best-value book I’ve ever bought on Amazon China. And it would make an excellent starting point for a Chinese history syllabus in a school: not just as an ancient history syllabus, but since the 20th century occupies the last 25% of the book, as a complete modern history syllabus too. I recommend this book as a history starting point for all Sinophiles. A gem. ★★★★★

Book: Our Hidden Lives: The Remarkable Diaries of Post-War Britain

This book is big (over 500 pages) and very soft. It feels more like a teddy bear than a book. Read this in bed.

Big, soft, and cuddly. Perfect piecemeal bedtime reading.
544 pages, 

Mass-Observation was a government-led initiative to monitor a representative sample of British citizens via regularly-submitted diary entries. Thousands of participants, from youth to old age, of all political viewpoints, consented to the project from 1945 to 1949, documenting their lives during and after the Second World War. The resulting diaries were archived for decades before being compiled in date-order for this book, Our Hidden Lives.

I’m surprised by how little these diarists thought about the war. Most of their musings are about food, family, hobbies and what they’ve read in newspapers (only a fraction of which might be war-related). One diarist, “Herbert Brush”, a London pensioner uses his Mass-Observation diary to play with numbers: on page 32, he looks for a “book of prime numbers”, on page 40, he proves his “law of 37” (incorrectly!); on page 54, he tosses a coin repeatedly to see whether it’s biassed; on page 152, he redesigns the Gregorian calendar so that certain days always fall on weekends; and on page 184, he bores a group of women with a game he invented. He almost never comments on the war.

Food rations changed with weather-like uncertainty. And all diarists commented on the wildly-changing prices of tea, persimmons, and bananas in local stores. There are four times as many entries about food than about the war. And I find that comforting.

There are four times as many entries about food than about the war. And I find that comforting.

B. Charles, a gay antiques dealer, gets audibly giddy from his garden experiments with DDT. He goes on to describe how the British have become accustomed to queueing for absolutely everything (since rations required regular shop visits for small quantities of items).

“This queue business is simply amazing. I can’t think of how it was that there were none of them prior to the war. When I was coming home on the tram, I spoke to a naval officer and his opinion is that, now people have become so queue-minded, they just fall into a queue instead of hanging about the counters of shops, as they used to before the war… a great many women LIKE queueing: the queue is, really, the 1945 edition of the Mothers’ Meeting” – page 138

Does that explain Brits’ love of queueing? Probably. But the Chinese were also taught to queue during the Communist era. What caused them to regress back to primitive push-and-shove tactics? Alight at Beijing Zoo station and you’ll understand.

This book also highlights the uselessness of daily news. And weekly news. And monthly news. News (including financial news) should be read at no more than quarterly intervals. The diarists of Our Hidden Lives illustrate this by occasionally commenting on throwaway news stories in too much detail. On most days, nothing of interest happens, so junk news takes the headline slot. Our Hidden Lives reminded me never to let “news” clog my brain.

Our Hidden Lives was much more interesting than I expected. This book reminds you of life’s tiny pleasures. It reminds you not to dwell on negative events; just as the diarists resisted dwelling on the war. Food, family and hobbies are the most important aspects of life, even in times of war. ★★★

Book: Moab is My Washpot


Moab is My Washpot

Intelligence, gayness and (bipolar) mania. First 20 years of Fry’s life.
384 pages, ★★

I respect Stephen Fry as a man of a thousand talents. Wikipedia describes him as an “actor, screenwriter, author, playwright, journalist, poet, comedian, television presenter, and film director”. Moab is My Washpot was addictive to read, even if it only covers the first 20 years of his life. For me, Moab is My Washpot is about intelligence, homosexuality and a manic episode of bipolar disorder.

When talking about his (slightly sadistic) school, Stephen Fry defines intelligence as an “unappealing quality” and has “never expected anyone to find it appealing in me”. He is stumped by conversations with fans that start with, “Of course, I’m no brainbox like you”, and “I know I’m only stupid but…”. Stupid people are more appealing than pompous braggers, though:

“I might use long words from time to time and talk rapidly or name-drop culturally here and there and display and number of other silly donnish affecations, but if this gives me the impression that I might admire a similar manner or nature in others, then it makes me just want to go ‘bibbly-bobbly-bubbly-snibbly wib-wib floppit’ for the rest of my life, read nothing but Georgette Heyer, watch nothing but Emmerdale, do nothing but play snooker, take coke and get drunk and use no words longer than “wanker” and “cunt”.” — Page 125

Fry defied his “intelligent” image in school with mischief. He played with electric fences and stole money from his classmates’ coat pockets. Personally, I know that pupils with a golden reputation among teachers can get away with anything.

Fry then talks graphically about his first time having sex, also in school. It doesn’t cover much text, but because it’s so descriptive, it seems to jump out and hijack the rest of the book; so that “graphic gay sex” is the first thing I’m able to recall when I’m planning a book review. I didn’t know that he was gay, so this was a shock to read.

Moab is My Washpot ends right in the middle of the manic episode described in the TV documentary The Secret Life of the Manic Depressiveleaving us hankering for the sequel, The Fry Chronicles: An Autobiography. I look forward to the sequel, his tenth book(!), which documents the vibrant career that followed him being released from jail.

Page 322 explains how he managed to maintain both an exciting career and a distinctively charming personality: “People who can change and change again are so much more reliable and happier than those who can’t”. All things change. ★★★★

Book: 1434: The Year a Magnificent Chinese Fleet Sailed to Italy and Ignited the Renaissance

The new iPad adverts look remarkably similar to these photoshopped pictures of me holding books. The ink on my paperback has 4x the number of pixels as a Retina display. The paper is wonderfully responsive to two-handed multi-touch, has infinite battery-life, and supports bookmarking, annotation and sharing. Despite the new iPad out today, there will always be a market for real books. 🙂

Scrapbook of an obsessive historian threaded with a wildly outlandish thesis and bookended by a convincing introduction and conclusion. I’m in.
368 + 32 more pages, ★★★★

The introduction is speedy. We’re whisked through the prequel’s thesis (1421) and the incredible (and widely-accepted) story of Emperor Yongle (written 永樂, pronounced “Yong-ler”). The thesis of 1434 is wild: that China started the Renaissance, invented the helicopter, and settled on New Zealand, becoming Maoris.

1434 is very different from its prequel, 1421. First, the writing style is different. Whereas 1421 was a well-paced historical narrative, 1434 is a more like a fascinatingly-annotated scrapbook. It’s loaded with excerpts from different ages and languages, some italicized, some capitalized, and others indented in a smaller font. Abundant sources are glued together with commentary and original research.

Second, 1434 is so brave that it borders on “wildly outlandish”. Apart from the book’s highly provocative thesis―that a Chinese fleet sparked the Renaissance in Italy—author Gavin Menzies calculates that Admiral Zheng He had up to 2020 ships in his fleet. The museum at the Ming Tombs, Beijing, however, tells us that Zheng He had only 60 ships in his fleet.

The most controversial twist hits us on page 170. While telling us that the Chinese gave Leonardo da Vinci absolutely everything that he invented, we’re told that:

“[Joseph] Needham describes a number of examples of rotating blades being used for flight, often in the form of flying cars” — 1434, page 170

Whoa! Flying cars in 15th century China? Let’s check the footnotes. Unfortunately, I’m led on a wild goose chase through the references before finally being led to to an ancient picture of a Chinese man wearing a parachute. I want proof of flying cars being built in China before Leonardo da Vinci designed (or “copied”) them.

It goes on… On page 222, the author claims that the ships of Admiral Zheng He (who we know to be an introverted, pacifist, castrated muslim) were actually armed to the teeth. They brought (get ready)…

  • Flamethrowers (“incinerates the opposition”)
  • Poison grenades
  • Chemical mortars
  • Feces mortars
  • Iron shrapnel bombs (“cuts men to pieces”)
  • Sea mines (“to protect his ships”)
  • and Rocket batteries (“to terrify [his enemies]”)
Incredible. Widely-accepted history is listed on page 226, which describes the “bamboo fire kites”, and other gunpowder-based inventions that were, and still are, used ceremonially and as toys. Chinese students have told me that the ancient Chinese invented gunpowder but never used it for the purpose of warfare. This issue (and the issue of flying cars) is yet to be explained.

More incredible facts follow:

  • Zheng He took Yongle Dadian (a giant collection of encyclopaedias) with him on his voyage. The library would have required half a ship-deck.
  • In the 14th century, Guo Shoujing calculated the lunar month to be 29.530593 days. This is accurate to 0.000001 months (or 2.55 seconds).
  • Columbus had detailed maps of the Americas before he set sail. They were copied from Chinese maps.
  • A Chinese gave the Europeans the printing press, which helped spread information about the plague quicker than the plague.
  • A Chinese fleet was destroyed by a comet and the resulting tsunami off South Island, New Zealand in the early 15th century. While some ships were slammed against the cliffs by 403 m.p.h. winds, some sailors swam ashore, planted rice paddies and settled there. They would later become known as Maoris.

I love China so I want everything in 1434 to be true. If you love China, you’ll love this book regardless of whether you believe it to be true. Even though 1434 approaches my threshold of believability in many places, “incredible” doesn’t necessarily mean “false”. I believe it.

I respect Gavin Menzies as an explorer, as a writer and as a historian. And as an optimist, I’m thinking that Gavin Menzies’ work is as understated, as controversial and as ahead of its time as the ancient China he describes. I believe 1434 and I believe that this theory will catch on. If the 1434 theory were a penny stock, I’d put a grand on it today. Good read. ★★★★

Book: Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (Schumpeter)

Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy
Intellectual hundredweight. Medicine for avid intellectual Marxists. Since I'm neither Marxist nor intellectual, reading this book made me feel like a tourist.

Heavy. Like swimming through treacle.
442 pages, ★★★★

Schumpeter begins this book with an intelligent analysis of Karl Marx to grip Marxist readers. In the book’s later chapters, he analyses the logical flaws of socialism only implicitly, allowing Marxists to criticise their own position.

Schumpeter flatters Marx for predicting the rise of private “big businesses”. He also explains Marx’s simplistic two-class ideology by calling it the only means of achieving Marx’s “dictatorship of the proletariat” goal. Schumpeter explains that a revolution’s success can only be measured if the heir to the throne (such as “the proletariat”) is clearly-defined; and if rule were to be given to some nebulous group such as the “middle class”, chaos would result (before the old ruling class settles back in). In musing about global uprising, Marx had no choice but (wrongly) to divide society in two.

While Schumpeter acknowledges the end of capitalism and the onset of socialism, he says (famously), “If a doctor predicts that his patient will die presently, this does not mean that he desires it.” According to Schumpeter, socialism will arrive not by a revolution but by evolution, in which socialist governments are elected democratically with increasing frequency.

This was a very heavy read. It muses over stuff. Here are some highlights:

p47: Schumpeter tells us that big businesses take advantage of a country’s contempt for the rest of the world when advocating protectionist policies. Such policies always prioritize profits for that business over the interests of the country being protected.

p69: Schumpeter criticizes the buying up of patents as investments or to stifle competitors because to prevent the use of technology is invariably a hinderance to human development, and this is morally unjust.

p118: We learn that in the absence of continued innovation, capitalism becomes atrophic and yields to socialism. In other words, capitalism requires growth. This reminded me of Tim Jackson’s poorly-written, CO2-obsessed book, Prosperity Without Growth. Tim Jackson made ridiculous assumptions, extrapolated economic data ad absurdum then drew ridiculous conclusions (for example, that by 2050, a thriving human economy will be primarily concerned with removing CO2 from the atmosphere). Shortly after this outrageous book was published, the environmental quango he headed was cut by the coalition government. Hooray!

p188: the discipline of workers in a capitalist economy was created and handed down by feudal society. Schumpeter tells us that all progress is a result of disciplined, authoritarian training undergone in the past. It follows that socialism would fail unless it fosters more discipline than the capitalist society it replaces (see my review of On Revolution).

On page 136, he talks about higher education. He makes three points:

  1. Higher education is an ineffective means of creating supply. Higher education will lead to sector-specific unemployment.
  2. For the same reason, higher education will lead to unsatisfactory conditions of employment (e.g. white collar workers earning less than manual laborers)
  3. And then there’s my favorite quote from the whole book (pages 136-137),

[Higher education] may crease unemployability of a particularly disconcerting type. The man who has gone through a college or university easily becomes psychically unemployable in manual occupations without necessarily acquiring employability in, say, professional work.His failure to do so may be due either to lack of natural ability—perfectly compatible with passing academic tests—or to inadequate teaching; and both cases will, absolutely and relatively, occur more frequently as ever larger numbers are drafted into higher education and the required amount of teaching increases irrespective of how many teachers and scholars nature chooses to turn out. The results of neglecting this and of acting on the theory that schools, colleges and universities are just a matter of money, are too obvious to insist upon.

One last point of interest: on page 235,

“[ignorance] persists even in the face of the meritorious efforts that are being made to go beyond presenting information and to teach the use of it by means of lecture, classes, discussion groups. Results are not zero. But they are small. People cannot be carried up the ladder.

Everyone will find something of interest in this book. But I couldn’t follow everything. Reading Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy is like walking into a cinema then realizing that the film’s in a language that you don’t speak very well. Fans of politick with a lot of time on their hands will enjoy reading this book the most. And by reading this, I learned that I’m neither of those things. Well-written. ★★★★

Book: The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently…and Why

Original Pirate Material, just $2. If I had read an authentic edition of this book, I might have taken its thesis a bit more seriously. Instead, I look at this pirate edition and laugh.

Simplistic and unscientific. But it’s fun to read and a great conversation piece.
288 pages, ★★★★★

Richard Nisbett’s previous work had been criticized for having an overt Western bias. He admits this in the introduction. The Geography of Thought was, in part, an attempt to repair the author’s image. This book is essentially a collection of ways in which “Easterners” are the exact opposite of “Westerners”. Cultural differences are exaggerated ad absurdum, while both sides are treated with great respect.

Despite this, The Geography of Thought suffers from classic mistake of “Oppositism“, where the author falls for the erroneous assumption that every aspect of life in the East must be the exact opposite of that in the West because, well… “East” is the opposite of “West” in the dictionary.

According to this book, Westerners are individualistic, narrow-minded, focussed, racist (in favor of Caucasians) and scared of contradiction. Easterners think in groups, are broad-minded, holistic, racist (in favor of Caucasians) and embrace contradiction.

There are experiments, statistics, and pictures that help portray East and West as laughably diametric opposites. Having lived in China for several years, I testify that China is neither Western nor the opposite of Western. It’s something else entirely. To compare China with the West is helpful (and entertaining), but it’s a very simplistic philosophical approach.

Another weakness is that the book’s definitions of “East” and “West” keeps changing. At the start of the book, “East” refers to ethnically Chinese college students in the United States, and “West” refers to their ethnically European counterparts. But in the rest of the book, “East” refers to either Korea, Japan, Thailand or some unspecified part of China; while “West” invariably refers to the United States.

This book is really wrong. But it’s polite, respectful, exposes the weaknesses of the scientific method )(unknowingly) and, most importantly, is really fun to read. It will spark some lively discussion. But in 50 years’ time, when China rules the world, we will look back on this book as satire; just as a book from 100 years ago that describes Europe and America as diametric opposites would likely be looked upon with ridicule today. ★★★★★

Book: The Grapes of Wrath

I love Photoshop CS5! I used it to delete the background from this photograph. The new Content-Aware Fill function is, I quote, magic.

Five stars for description. Two stars for the story.
536 pages, ★★★

I’m new to fiction. As a habitual reader of non-fiction, I expect to learn from books. Steinbeck‘s The Grapes of Wrath alternates between extremely well-written descriptions of 1930s America (which satisfies my need to ‘learn’ while reading) and a slow story that really doesn’t grip me. I want the descriptions without the story.

Descriptions of the desolate environment (around page 100) and of mechanized farming (around page 300) were an unforgettable history lesson. I’ll remember this book because the 1930s America is describes resonates with late 1950s China, where farmers also endured natural disasters, excessive mechanization, unemployment and famine. Anecdotes in The Grapes of Wrath (such as not having enough money to buy bread) made me, for the first time, sympathetic of towards the United States of America. They’ve not always had it so easy.

Here’s some of my favorite description in The Grapes of Wrath:

Now farming became industry, and the owners followed Rome, although they did not know it. They imported slaves, although they did not call them slaves: Chinese, Japanese, Mexicans, Filipinos. They ice on rice and beans, the business men said. They don’t need much. They couldn’t know what to do with good wages. Why, look how they live. Why, look what they eat. And if they get funny–deport them.

And all the time the farms grew larger and the owners fewer. And there were pitifully few farmers on the land any more. And the imported serfs were beaten and frightened and starved until some went home again, and some grew fierce and were killed or driven from the country. And farms grew larger and the owners fewer.

And the crops changed. Fruit trees took the place of grain fields, and vegetables to feed the world spread out on the bottoms: lettuce, cauliflower, artichokes, potatoes–stoop crops. A man may stand to use a scythe, a plow, a pitchfork; but he must crawl like a bug between the rows of lettuce, he must bend his back and pull his long bag between the cotton rows, he must go on his knees like a penitent across a cauliflower patch.

And it came about that owners no longer worked on their farms. They farmed on paper; and they forgot the land, the smell, the feel of it, and remembered only that they owned it, remembered only what they gained and lost by it. And some of the farms grew so large that one man could not even conceive of them any more, so large that it took batteries of bookkeepers to keep track of interest and gain and loss; chemists to test the soil, to replenish; straw bosses to see that the stooping men were moving along the rows as swiftly as the material of their bodies could stand. Then such a farmer really became a storekeeper, and kept a store. He paid the men, and sold them food, and took the money back. And after a while he did not pay the men at all, and saved bookkeeping. “These farms gave food on credit. A man might work and feed himself; and when the work was done, he might find that he owed money to the company. And the owners not only did not work the farms any more, many of them had never seen the farms they owned.

And then the dispossessed were drawn west–from Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico; from Nevada and Arkansas families, tribes, dusted out, tractored out. Carloads, caravans, homeless and hungry; twenty thousand and fifty thousand and a hundred thousand and two hundred thousand. They streamed over the mountains, hungry and restless–restless as ants, scurrying to find work to do–to lift , to push, to pull, to pick, to cut p anything, any burden to bear, for food. The kids are hungry. We got no place to live. Like ants scurrying for work, for food, and most of all for land.

We ain’t foreign. Seven generations back Americans, and beyond that Irish, Scotch, English German. One of our folk in the Revolution an’ they was lots of our folks in the Civil War—both sides. Americans.

— Chapter 19, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

I wanted to read a descriptive, historical account of 1930s America. The Grapes of Wrath certainly provided that, but I would have preferred if it were not interwoven with such a dull story. This book was too long. ★★★

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: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Irrelevant compared to Fight Club.
214 pages, ★★★

In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, civilisation on Earth has been almost completely destroyed by a combination of nuclear war and excessive consumerism. Some people have emigrated to colonise other planets. Among those who are left on Earth is protagonist Rick Deckard, who is given the task of retiring six Nexus-6 androids.

Most anti-consumerist books and movies are set in a dystopian future, rather than a dystopian present. I believe in the message of these books but disagree that setting them in the future is the best way to deliver that message.

“God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables – slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need.” — Fight Club

Depicting a future consumerist hell doesn’t deliver the message hard enough to anybody. Present-day readers will learn that they should change their behaviour for the benefit of future generations. They will also accept the subtly-implied notion that our present-day level of white-collar slavery is somehow acceptable. Yet, future readers will have already witnessed history diverge from the trajectory predicted in the book (particularly in the tiniest, usually technological, details), and they thus see only an irrelevant, hypothetical message, rather than a perfectly apt warning to change their current lives. Futuristic books and movies like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep soften the anti-consumerist blow.

In Fight Club, the protagonist gave up his sedentary, repetitive, alienating and socially-destructive office job to embark on a journey of self-discovery. He believed there was something more important to life than being a “slave with a white collar”. Read my review here. ★★★