June 14, 2006
Book Review: Gweilo

Gweilo by Martin Booth

Nostalgia typically doesn't translate well into book form, especially when the author's topic is himself. But Martin Booth's Gweilo is an exception to the rule. The reason? Because Booth has actually written a character study dressed up as a memior. Set against a Hong Kong recovering from Japanese occupation in World War 2, Booth paints a portrait of a woman who was far ahead of her time in her open-mindedness, her intelligence, her forthrightness and her foresight. Who is this woman? His mother. Now while many little boys worship their mother, it would truly seem that in Booth's case she was an exceptional woman.

Booth's book is deceptively easy to read, which shows how well it has been written. A young Booth dives head-first into the Hong Kong milieu and ends up far richer for the experience. His father, on the other hand, was the very caricature of an English expat, in Hong Kong under suffrance and worried about his wife and child "going native". There are still many parallels with today's expats in the two kinds of experiencces.

This book shouldn't be restricted to those with an interest in Hong Kong in the early 1950s, although it will give a first-hand window into those times. It is also an exceptional memoir thanks to its strongly drawn protaganist. Well worth a read.

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[boomerang] Posted by Simon at 13:22
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March 21, 2006
Book review: The Game

The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists by Neil Strauss

It seems that in modern publishing the best thing to do is to explain the book's premise in a sub-title, because otherwise us humble readers won't bother picking the book up. So with an appropriately catchy premise, Neil Strauss's book is sub-titled with the hint of the holy grail for men: how to become an instant Casanova and lure any woman one wants. With such a hook it's pretty hard to stuff the book itself up, although Strauss tries. The plot is simple: it's a step-by-step recounting of Strauss's introduction and delving into this world of PUAs (pick up artists). He meets the obligatory mad-cap set of characters and becomes our tour-guide through this sub-culture of misogynists and misfits. There are some interesting detours, including his interview with Britney Spears (he's a rock critic by day), an interlude with Courtney Love and Project Hollywood, where a group of PUAs find that underneath it all they're just a bunch of backstabbing bastards. It's effectively a group biography of some emotionally stunted, low self-esteem men who can only gain validation in life from their conquests of women. It also doesn't speak highly of the kind of women these guys are picking up. Strauss is bowled over by Lisa, a band member of Courtney Love's who manages to demonstrate there are women that are intelligent, emotionally mature and capable of avoiding all this bullshit. It's almost comical at the end of the book where Strauss finds his lines have already been run on many of the women hanging out on Sunset, his favourite pick up location. But there's always the inevitable Hollywood ending, the self-realisation and the fitting finale (with the movie not far off).

The book is fascinating in the same way as watching a mouse running on an exercise wheel is - it seems entertaining while you wonder if the mouse realises there's far more to life than spinning on the spot. I'd recommend it, although don't be expected to be blown away by the writing. The plot's the thing in this case and Strauss manages to tell it straight. It's a tour of a world you'd think you'd be jealous of, until you visit it.

As for the magic formula? Quite simple, really: have a personality, have some self-confidence and have something to say. Alternatively you can pay US$2,000 and find out from these misanthropes the "secret", or read this book and realise there isn't a secret after all.

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[boomerang] Posted by Simon at 13:52
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February 17, 2006
Book review: The Undercover Economist

The Undercover Economist by Tim Harford

This book is simply great economic journalism extended into book form. Unlike Freakonomics, which demonstrates economics is a social science, this book start with a basic introduction to some key economic concepts, starting with Ricardo, the value of scarcity and the margin rather than the average.

The genius of the book is the introduction of economic reasoning in a very understandable and easy to read manner, using real world examples. The final chapter on China is worth the price of the book alone, being the most consise and clear outlining of the modern Chinese economic "miracle" out of the depths of Mao's economic destruction. So is the chapter on globalisation, where Harford gives a truly impressive smackdown of all the hogwash that often passes for "debate" in this topic. Today's example is Greenpeace's glee at stopping the stripping of a French aircraft carrier in India, even though it will now place thousands of Indians out of work. The problem for those with an economics background is so much of this stuff is so obvious that it becomes difficult to even acknowledge there are counter-opinions. Another example is the beautiful job Harford does of explaining how protectionism hurts most people but helps a noisy few.

So who should buy this book? Everyone because economics affects us all. If you enjoy Starbucks coffee, think French farmers deserve their subsidies, want to know how to solve traffic congestion, want to understand the stock markets, the best way to run an auction or why poor countries are poor and rich countries are rich, this is the book for you. It is particularly relevant for Hong Kong's civil servants and politicians. Try this from page 78:

...economists believe there's an important difference between being in favor of markets and being in favor of business, especially particular business. A politician who is in favor of markets believes in the importance of competition and wants to prevent businesses from getting too much scarcity power. A politician who's too influenced by corporate lobbyists will do exactly the reverse.
Can someone give me Donald Tsang's mailing address please?

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[boomerang] Posted by Simon at 13:35
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January 27, 2006
Book review: Billions: Selling to the New Chinese Consumer

Billions: Selling to the New Chinese Consumer by Tom Doctoroff

The rapid growth of Chinese trade has seen an equally rapid growth in "how to" books by various China experts and insiders. The pitch is simple: author spends years slogging in difficult Chinese business conditions, learns valuable lessons, distills them in 250 easy to read pages, sprinkled with anecdotes and unlocks the keys to the (Middle) kingdom. It's an alluring prospect and a modern one: an offering of a short-cut to avoid the difficulties of hard work and experience.

Tom Doctoroff is a marketing man, running JWT in China for years. It is not spoiling the book for me to give you the two keys to successful marketing for foreign mutlinationals in China: be Proctor & Gamble and/or hire JWT. But despite the not-so-subtle extolling of his own agency's virtures, the book has strong merit.

Before we get to that, a quick instruction guide to reading this book. Do not read the introduction by Sir Martin Sorrell, unless you are looking to fill your quota of China cliches. Unless you're in marketing, skip Part 2. But the rest is worth reading. Sprinkled with photos from ad campaigns, Doctoroff lays out his rules for success in selling to the two key Chinese markets: the 100 million urban rich (or middle class) and rising mass market (the 300 - 400 million urban poor). Despite a predilection for lists and bullet points, Doctoroff has a keen insight into the Chinese mindset and culture. And that's the true value in this book.

It should not be read by marketing people - I'm not in the field but the book seems to only skim the surface of marketing in China (which may be the point; why else hire an expensive JWT marketing consultant?). But it should be read by anyone from the West trying to understand what makes the Chinese tick. A slightly annoying habit of dropping in political barbs along the way can be excused for the incredibly consise summary from pages 16 to 28 of Chinese history and culture. Doctoroff clearly has not just spent years living in China, but learning and absorbing China as well. In fact the first 100 pages are the strongest of the book and would form a solid base for a longer and deeper analysis of Chinese history, culture and people and how it applies today.

Buy this book and read it for its insights. You might pick up a few tips on selling in China, but more importantly you'll likely be far more enlightened as to how the Chinese think and work. Such an understanding is crucial in dealing with a newly assertive China, reclaiming its (in its own eyes) rightful place as a world power. If marketing doesn't work out for Tom Doctoroff, he could offer his services to his country as a cultural go-between, bringing much needed understanding in Washington and Beijing of the respective mindsets and cultures. I even know a good agency to handle his marketing.

It is my policy to note books that are sent to me gratis for review. This book was sent by JWT to me for review. I've sent it on to another blogger who may have further insights.

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[boomerang] Posted by Simon at 11:34
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January 19, 2006
Book review: Due Preparations for the Plague

Due Preparations for the Plague by Janette Turner Hospital

According to the author bio, Janette Turner Hospital is an author and academic who teaches English literature. You can tell. This book is crammed full of literary tricks, allusions, allegory, symbolism and whatever else English professors get off on. But she makes it work, and work well. The story itself revolves around the consequences of a hijacking and the discovery of the truth behind it. The plot turns aren't particularly difficult to spot, but that's largely beside the point. At times the voice jumps from a narrator to one of the characters, but throughout the erudition and writing remain eloquent without being grandiose. The plot merely serves as a vehicle for some great writing, and the book isn't any less for it. It's not perfect, and there are parts that slip and feel forced. But they are minor compared to the effect of the whole.

In a world awash with crap books, this is one that makes you go hmmmm. It won't take you long but you'll enjoy it, recognise it is far above most of the humdrum that passes for writing these days. It grapples with themes of alienation, identity, connectedness, consequences and the difference between the search for truth and knowledge. You get literature in the form of a thriller. That's value for money.

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[boomerang] Posted by Simon at 14:35
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January 03, 2006
Book review: Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

I have a rule when reading books - if I'm not enjoying it after the first 100 pages, I put it down. It drives Mrs M crazy - she's a read it to the bitter end kind of gal - but if the first 100 pages aren't good, there's unlikely to be a good 400 pages to follow. And for the rare time that is the case, it's a risk I'm prepared to run.

What's this got to do with Cloud Atlas? It is one of those books that flirts with disaster, wearing its artifice on its sleeve. It is a series of six novellas, the first telling the sea voyage of a young American notary in the 19th Century, jumping to the letters of an early 20th Century musician, followed by a political/murder mystery, the delightfully titled "Ghastly Ordeal" of a minor English book publisher, jumps to the near future and then further future before working its way back in reverse order. Sound confusing? Each of the novellas are stories in their own right but with occassional links to stories forward and back. The book takes some time to get into, although it is easy to read and never impenetrable. At the start it feels slight but the pace quickens and the inventiveness kicks in...safely before page 100. There are some literary wonders to behold - the switching of voice and style six times mostly works, but this book is not one to read now and again over several months. While you can pick up the threads of stories as you return to them, it is a book best taken in quickly.

While watching this tight-rope balancing act, the author uses that oh-so-post-modern irony to reflect on the artifice involved, and does so several times. Its the stage wink in written form, a hint from the author that he knows he's showing off. In lesser hands it would come across as trite and contrived, but Mitchell has created a collection where the sum is greater than the parts. It's a book that covers grand themes so often told: alienation, the search for truth, a questioning of our reality and existence, our ability to impact events even as a small cog in a big wheel, to name a few.

There are very few forms of entertainment today that truly satisfy in any medium. There's plenty of content, but not much that you finish and sit there and think that it was worth the time and money involved. Cloud Atlas is worth both the time and money. It's one of those books that you anticipate with glee, enjoy as you read it, and close with a satisfied smile but with a tinge of disappointment - because such good reads are hard to find.

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[boomerang] Posted by Simon at 17:48
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November 30, 2005
Book review: The Wisdom of Crowds

The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki

This book follows the pattern established by Malcolm Gladwell with The Tipping Point and Blink - take a collection of interesting studies and anecdotes and put them together into a vaguely scientific sounding extended essay. These are what I call "Chinese meal" books - you read them voraciously but finish feeling somehow empty. Wisdom of Crowds is a well written book, as you would expect from a journalist. The basic thesis is simple: crowds often get things right. He gives example after example, and keeps coming back to markets as the ultimate expression of collective wisdom. It's sugar coated Hayek for the masses. It is no lesser a book for that, and is certainly worth a read. At times the "gee-whiz" factor gets a bit much and the book isn't likely to shake your world view, but compared to the cr@p that's on TV these days it makes an enjoyable alternative.

I fully intend to send a copy to Donald Tsang for Christmas.

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[boomerang] Posted by Simon at 09:37
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November 25, 2005
Book review: Collapse by Jared Diamond

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive by Jared Diamond

It seems to be a condition of becoming a card-carrying greenie that you must have two qualities. Firstly you must be an unrelenting pessimist. Secondly you must have a broad knowledge of all the social sciences with the massive exception of economics. The subtitle of this book gives away its premise: how societies choose to fail or survive, not choose to fail or thrive. In short, it's all about evil humans being too stupid/arrogant/short-sighted/greedy/selfish in our unrelenting rape of Mother Nature and our certain path to destruction unless we renounce our ways.

Now, in long...

It's hard to know where to start with a book that can get so much so wrong. Where Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel was an interesting compilation of why Europeans have been the seeming "winners" in the march of societies, this book follows a similar template but on much shakier ground.

As my wise Da put it, the book contains plenty of interesting research and anecdotes. The problem is the misguided conclusions Diamond often draws from them. Often there are glaring contradictions or morally dubious calls. For example Diamond basically lauds the aims of the Zero Population Growth movement and China's one child policy. He also borders on the ridiculous. On page 114, in discussing the Easter Islanders Diamond asks himself why they were thinking as they chopped their last tree down...

Like modern loggers, did he shout "Jobs, not trees!"? Or: "Technology will solve our problems, never fear, we'll find a substitute for wood"? Or: "We don't haev proof that there aren't palms somewhere else on Easter, we need more research, your proposed ban on logging is premature and driven by fear-mongering"?
I still can't decide whether to laugh or cry after reading that. Maybe the poor bastard was thinking "I need this to live for just a little bit longer", or even "One day this will make for a trite paragraph for a rich America's rant on the environment".

At times Diamond gets it plain wrong. On page 394 he says the Australian constitution gives a disproportionate vote to rural areas. There are no notes or references to back this assertion and to this Australian it seems outlandish.

I'm the kind of person who, much to my wife's chagrin, can easily stop reading a book if I don't enjoy it. Yet in this case I found myself 400 pages in, still reading despite a record high blood pressure. Why? I can only compare it to the morbid fascination people have as they drive past a car crash. It repels and attracts all at the same time. If you want to read a book that tempts you to throw it against a wall at regular intervals, this is the one for you.

But any book that authoratatively sites Lester Brown in its further reading is understandably built on shaky foundations. Diamond obviously doesn't see the irony in churning out almost 600 pages of hogwash, depleting our precious forests and blah blah.

The most obvious and damning problem with the book is the complete lack of understanding of the modern world and economics in particular. The final section of the book is Diamond's attempt to draw the lessons of the past and apply them to our modern world, trying to alter our headlong path to oblivion before it's too late. He has an attempt at answering "one-liner objections" to his thesis and yet most of his answers fall flat. For example he cannot see that environmental concerns are already being addressed by governments, companies and people because it has become clear it is in their economic as well as environmental interests. He dismisses the potential for technology to help, even though technology since the Industrial Revolution has lead to spectacular improvements in agriculture, living standards and in more modern times cleaner air and water, better forest management and so on. He falls for the common fallacy that our non-renewable resources will suddenly one day stop with dramatic consequences, whereas the miracle that is the price mechanism will help ensure smooth transitions, as it already has. He incredibly dismisses the massive improvements in human living standards (and not just in the rich world), saying it has been too great a cost to the environment but without backing it up at all. He also laments rising living standards for the Third World, because rising living standards (in Diamond's world) automatically means increased environmental destruction. He dismisses being labelled a gloom-and-doom merchant by saying while greenies have got it wrong, so did Julian Simon, so you can be both too pessimistic and too optimistic.

Diamond's problem is he has allowed his politics to overwhelm what his research supports. His lack of faith in modern humanity, in our ability to learn from history (such as what he's pointed out in this book), in our improved understanding and management of nature and the environment, in modern capitalism and globalisation to spread wealth and better living standards and reasonable cost, betrays the key theme of this book: Jared Diamond is smarter than you and doesn't think you deserve what you have.

Amazingly, he hasn't yet started a line of sackcloth.

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[boomerang] Posted by Simon at 10:30
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May 23, 2005
Book review: Song of the Azalea

Song of the Azalea by Kenneth Ore and Joann Yu*. You can visit the Song of the Azalea website for more information.

What is history? Often it is taught as numbers and factoids to be memorised and repeated. But there is an alternative: the personification of history. First hand accounts of events from those that were part of them. This has the benefit of making history live rather than a mass of numbers. It also leads to the natural problem of all reportage: perspective. Those involved in events will never be neutral about them, although one could argue that using numbers only gives a vaneer of objectivity. History, especially modern history in the era of cheap information, benefits from memoirs such as Songs of the Azalea. One can allow for bias and it is far outwieghed by the human element. It turns two dimensional facts and figures into three dimensional real life.

Kenneth Ore retraces a living history of Hong Kong from the Japanese occupation through the troubles of the 1960s and to more recent times through the eyes of a reformed secret Communist. For anyone lover or student of this city and history it is a vital tool in understanding the mindset of those who have lived through such periods.

The book is framed around an apology to Ore's mother. She was a phenomenal woman who was dealt a crappy hand by life. The story of the young Ore's life under the Japanese gives an inkling into the depth of hatred many still hold. It is also the tale of a well educated woman and the extent she went to protect her family. As the story unfolds the feeling of disenfranchisement with the ruling Nationalists grows. The KMT's soldiers quickly lose there place as the defenders of the Chinese nation, at least in Ore's eyes, and he soon falls under the spell of the Communists. It is a testament to the power of propaganda that until Ore was well into middle age he still fervently believed the Communists were the answer to all China's problems, defenders of the peasantry and proletariat. Ore and his brother both become secret members of the CCP in Hong Kong, taking orders, recruiting, getting involved in riots, getting told who to marry and how many children to have. But an organisation as paranoid as the Communists would inevitably turn on even such loyal soliders as Ore, especially once he started challenging his fellow members when personal tragedy strikes. As the wool is removed from his eyes he sees that self-interest has overtaken (indeed, was likely was always) the ideals of the movement. Hell hath no fury like an ex-Commie scorned.

Within 280 pages anti-Japanese feelings, impressions of the KMT and Communists, the secret operations of the Communists in Hong Kong, the British Government in Hong Kong and how it dealt with leftists are all covered. The book shows the power of brain-washing and mass movements and the gradual awakening from indoctrination. For those who say "I would never be like that", Ore's account demonstrates how easily it is to fall under the sway of ideals. Ore amply demonstrates the personal costs of blind faith and adherence to ideology. Page 252, as Ore is kicked out of the Communists to whom he has devoted his life:

To lose all hope is a terrible sentence to bear. A man without hope is dead, even thought he continue to walk.
That's the true horror within its pages.

Like much history, there are parts that are relevant to today. Page 151:

Even after 1997, when the Hong Kong legislative members were "elected" from their local constituencies, the Communists called all left-wing supporters in each district to vote for the "selected" member.
They've made it even easier now. Just vote DAB. In the Epilogue, on pages 275-277, Ore discusses what became of his fellow comrades. One is a unversity vice-chancellor, another an adviser to the Chief Executive. He goes on:
Hok Yau Club continues to be a non-political student fellowship on the surface. However the Communist Party in Hong Kong is still up to its old tricks, placing members to work in various institutions...the Chinese Communist Party does not officially exist there, and many people are naively unaware of the Communists' agenda and opeations in their city.
Ore has far kinder words for the former colonial masters, the British:
...after the May Riot of 1967, the British did try to improve their governing with much more humane policies...For the majority of Hong Kong people, there was likely a great deal of sadness and more than a trace of apprehension with the lowering of the Union Jack on July 1, 1997.
Through covering small tragedies we also see the larger tragedy. A similar example is First they killed my father by Loung Ung, the story of a young girl living through the horrors of the Khemer Rogue. This personification of history has taught me far more than any number of textbooks.

To anyone interested in Hong Kong, the Chinese Communist Party, or simply a interesting story well told, I can recommend Songs of the Azalea. It should be handed out by the Immigration Department to anyone coming to live here.

* I was sent this book gratis for this review.

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[boomerang] Posted by Simon at 16:13
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