The art of backpacking

“Vangabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel” by Rolf Potts

This is a guide book on travelling. Not from the angle of what, not from when, not even from where. But from why. And also about the how, for that why.

It attempts to show that travelling requires less money than presumed. That the best timing to do so is now, even if we don’t have that much money, instead of when we have accumulated a lifetime of wealth but we cannot really enjoy it due to our deteriorating health in old age.

So instead, the book encourages a sabbatical, a gap year, a career break, becoming a digital nomad or a remote worker, or even finding a job overseas. And it provides us with all the tips and tools to help us make that decision, as well as providing the many website references and books for the specific topics at the end of each chapter.

Indeed, this is not a travel story book, but it’s more of a condensed Lonely Planet-esque how-to checklist for vagabonding. The art of backpacking on a shoestring, if you will. But of course it still has the incredible stories from the author himself and the many testimonies and/or stories from fellow travellers, which are very inspiring.

The book teaches us how to plan ahead and keep ourselves informed, how to avoid danger, how to be minimalist and frugal, how to pack light and get the secondary necessities on the road. It is about budgeting our travel, having an emergency fund, a travel insurance, and discussing the pros and cons of bringing money vs. getting them at the local ATM.

Apart from the essentials, the book also gives us tips and tricks on everything we can think of about travelling, such as how to buy souvenirs and the art of bargaining, how to successfully interact with children or how to deal with hostile locals, how to avoid scams, how to keep healthy on the road, how to do volunteer work, and of course it addresses the end of the journey: on coming home and adapting back to our ordinary lives.

It is simply THE book to read before you embark on a backpacking journey, before you do your research, and before you open the travel guide books. The only drawback of this book is, it infects me with a huge amount of travel bug and gives me this urge to leave my life and career behind, take my family with me, and do a life of wandering around the globe (which looks very doable, thanks to this book).

The web of destructions behind the mask of philanthropy

“Philanthrocapitalism and the Erosion of Democracy: A Global Citizens Report on the Corporate Control of Technology, Health, and Agriculture” edited by Vandana Shiva

This is a series of papers by several experts that expose the hijacking of technology, media, health, education, and the main focus of the book, agriculture, by opportunists that hide behind the mask of philanthropy. Edited by none other than the Gandhi of grains herself, Dr. Vandana Shiva.

It is a critical view on how capitalism destroys the planet’s ecosystem, the rich variety of seeds, and hundreds of food sources to replace them with corporations’ own genetically modified crops, all in the name of profit and shareholders’ wealth. Along the way, by doing so these corporations eliminate thousands of year worth of ancient methods of sustainable agriculture that are good for the Earth, and subsequently send the indigenous population into poverty and famine.

Worse still, the newly genetically modified food, as it turns out, are proven in this book to have less nutritions and more risk to cause multiple diseases, even those in the “healthy” plant-based food hype including the Impossible Meat. But the corporations then create their own research with paid scientists arguing over the benefits of the new food and the primitiveness of the ancient way.

As mentioned in the book, just like missionaries trying to save indigenous people from their “barbaric practice”, corporations “turn a blind eye to the knowledge, tools, and innovations farmers have evolved over millennia to breed seeds, renew soil fertility, manage pests and weeds ecologically and produce good food. They elevate corporate tools to a new religion and new civilizing mission, which has been imposed to civilize the ecological, independent, knowledge-sovereign farmers who are seen as the new “barbarians.””

To be clear, this is not a case against capitalism per se, since “a more enlightened and beneficent capitalism is possible…, but it requires capitalists to transcend self-interest and greed, which is not wholly supported by the record.”

Indeed, self-interest and greed are what this book is investigating, with arguments predominantly build up against the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (or the Gates Foundation for short), the philanthropy foundation that have made strategic donations to some of the nastiest bunch of capitalists: the petrochemical companies, agribusiness, and multinational corporations that together form what is dubbed in the book as the “Poison Cartel.”

It is through the web of Gates Foundation’s fundings that the book is making its case, by providing a thorough evidence complete with the dollar amount and the sinister purpose of the projects.

However, we need to take a grain of salt in reading this book, as some of the arguments look suspiciously biased. Such as the critic over Bill Gates’ funding for geo-engineering experiments to curb the climate change, which could well be a genuine attempt to search for options rather than to protect the fossil fuel industry (in which Bill Gates has some stakes in them). Or the attempt to create a digital education was criticised as if they’re trying to deny the children access to human relationship and prevent them to be out in nature, and instead an author in the book proposes a new concept of holistic school as suggested by one guy, J. Krishnamurti.

Another minor bias is shown in some of the authors who criticise Warren Buffett for giving a large chunk of his money to the Gates Foundation, money that they say came from “speculations on the market”, which is not how Buffett makes his money and thus makes me wonder on what else do they get the detail wrong or misleading? And then there’s the concluding chapter in part X where bizarrely “Gaia” or “Mother Earth” somehow can write an article about herself, where the terra madre herself basically criticise the human conduct since the industrial revolution for destroying her (which is true) but not presenting the acknowledgement that it also generates many good things to modern society (which is half the story) and is not necessarily implemented only by pure greed as presented.

But then again, for the most part the critics towards the Gates Foundation are indeed justified (and more importantly, argued with concrete evidence). Such as Gates’ effort to eradicate malaria using gene drives in Burkina Faso that turns out to be an open air lab for human experiment on genetic manipulation of mosquito. Moreover, the revelation on how Buffett invested the Gates Foundation Trust’s money in food and consumer products that are harmful to health, is indeed questionable. And the good image and good reporting about the Gates Foundation do come from the likes of NBC, Al Jazeera, BBC, Viacom, the Guardian, El Pais, NPR, to name a few, that happen to either receive funding from the Gates Foundation or they are its partners on global health and development agenda issues.

Then there’s the Global Alliance for Vaccine Immunizations (GAVI) where the Gates Foundation is the largest private donor for 20.8% of its budget and where the Foundation strongly promotes the financialization of health. And of course their infamous big funding to the World Health Organization (WHO) that makes them the second largest contributor in 2010-2011 after the US government (and 24 times higher than Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa combined). As a result, the WHO priorities have mimics Gates Foundation’s priorities (although the book doesn’t elaborate further on the Covid conspiracy theories that expand from this).

All in all, the book is filled with incredible accusations towards one of the biggest philanthropic foundations in the world and one of the richest people in the world. But it is nonetheless accusations with solid evidence that should make us at least listen and think, although a degree of healthy skepticism is still needed.

The very essence of the Romans

“Horrible Histories: Ruthless Romans” by Terry Deary and Martin Brown

You know that saying by Albert Einstein “if you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, then you don’t understand it yourself”? Well this book is kinda like that.

It is one of the clearest explanations about all things Roman Empire that I have come across, delivered with short and concise wordings, accompanied with cool illustrations and a British sense of humour (with sarcasm, puns, and some dad jokes every now and then). What’s not to like? And, oh, it is indeed intended to educate young readers.

At the very beginning, the book shows a glimpse of what to come with this neat summary of the Roman timeline:

“First there were Roman “kings” – war leaders who went around smashing other people. Then the seventh king started smashing his own Roman people so…

Kings were thrown out and the people ruled themselves – that’s called a ‘republic.’ But the Romans decided one strong leader was better for smashing other people so…

They created ‘emperors’ with an ‘empire’ which smashed everyone in sight… and many who were out of sight too. It all started back in the distant mists of time in Italy…”

The book then proceeded to cover everything you can imagined about the day-to-day Roman life, from festivals and wedding ceremonies, to the different types of gladiators and how the gladiator matches were organised, the “hooligans” supporters fighting between people from Pompeii and Nuceria (like in football culture today), to the class warfare between the posh Patricians and the working class Plebeians.

It also covers the more superstitious side such as how to get into a Roman heaven, the story of the first ghost buster, the deal with the God of cupboard, how to spell a curse on your enemy, fortune telling (and how to do it ourselves at home), some of the local beliefs such as lighting strike is caused by angry gods, the story of one particular Emperor who banned sausages, or why it is unlucky to have a cow stuck on the roof of your house.

Moreover, the book addresses the misconceptions about the Romans, such as the ability of the Roman soldiers. Sure, they’re good at swords and war battles, but the one thing that became their winning edge was their ruthlessness, with unbelievable cruelty as their war tactics as well as towards their own deserters. You know what they did to Jesus with the whipping and the nailing on the cross? Yeah that looks mild now in comparison with the stories in the book. But nothing compares with what the evil emperors did to their enemies, which are described pretty vividly in this supposedly children’s book.

Another example of misconception is about the gladiators. Contrary to popular belief gladiators don’t usually fight to the death, but it was criminals and prisoners of war who do. Also, not all gladiators are slaves as there were some freemen who became gladiators, did well, and retire rich. In fact, gladiators from many different walks of life train and fight like boxers today, complete with the bettings happening on the fight day.

Meanwhile, every once in a while the book tells amusing stories that portrays the human day to day lives. Such as one story where there was once an old senator Aponius that fell asleep in an auction with his head kept nodding (a custom that indicate you’re bidding), and when he woke up he found out that he had just bought 13 gladiators (that cost him 90,000 gold pieces!).

And of course, there’s the amusing long list of many things during Roman times, including the shocking [and sometimes hilarious] remedies for diseases.

In the end, I cannot believe that all of these rich information are covered in just under 136 pages, and even that already includes all the fun quizzes. Needless to say I am thoroughly entertained while learning a lot, and will definitely show this book to my kids.

The complete picture of North Korea

“North Korea Confidential: Private Markets, Fashion Trends, Prison Camps, Dissenters and Defectors” by Daniel Tudor and James Pearson

Beyond Kim Jong Un and his predecessors, beyond the secretive nature of the hermit kingdom, beyond the missile launches and the occasional butt of a joke on the internet, there are 24 million ordinary North Koreans with common concerns just like people anywhere else in the world to make money, raise their children, and have a little fun every once in a while.

This book gives a rare glimpse into what this world really looks like, with impressive details and a tone of writing that switches back and forth between what feels like a Lonely Planet travel guide and The Economist in-dept investigation.

The authors, Daniel Tudor (The Economist’s Korea correspondent) and James Pearson (Reuters’ Korea correspondent), gather their research materials from interviews with Pyongyang’s government insider, diplomats, NGOs, cross-border traders and defectors, as well as written accounts in Korean, English and Chinese. And if that still doesn’t convinced you, they only use reliable claims made by 3 or more separate and credible sources to produce an honest view on the reality of life in North Korean society today.

The book started out by introducing the structure of the economy, where there are practically 2 functioning types of economy in North Korea: 1. The government controlled, which serves as the front or the face of the ruling regime that international observers see from outside, and 2. The real underground capitalist economy that consist of black markets and network of bribes that actually runs the country.

It is very interesting to read about how despite the oppression from the central government, capitalism can spring up naturally underground. For instance, while the average North Korean breadwinners still have official jobs in state-owned factories, they also increasingly make a living from private trade using business stalls in the black market, or Jangmadang, which interestingly are paid by people chipping in together in a shareholders kind of scheme.

Another fascinating observation is the market mechanism for the black market prices, as the authors describes, “Rice traders, for instance, (illegally) monitor foreign radio in order to find out in advance about aid shipments into North Korea. If a shipment is on its way, the market price of rice will fall due to the expectation of increased supply—and the race is then on to sell up before everyone else finds out. A big incoming supply of fertilizer will have a similar impact on the market, as it will have the effect of increasing rice production.”

Moreover, in an utter contravention of the government’s wishes, thanks to these black markets people can now enjoy listening to South Korean pop music, as well as watching South Koreans TV shows obtained from China in the format of DVD, Micro SD card, or USB stick. And when they do get caught in possession of these goods, unlike in the olden days when they will be severely punished, today they simply pay a bribe and can walk away free.

Indeed, while it seems that the country looks like a dictatorship with an iron fist rule and strict law enforcements, in truth corruption is rampant and it is what makes the underground capitalist economy works, where Chinese Yuan, US dollar or even a pack of cigarette act as the currency of choice for bribing the officials (and quite often they became familiar with one another and treat the bribes as normal fee money). In other words, the real North Korea is a society governed by unofficial cash and connections.

The main shift towards this more lenient North Korea is actually a tragic one: the 1990s famine where several hundred thousand people died. It weakened the bond between the state and the people, which then forced the average North Korean to survive on themselves without the help of the government. As a result, the government is now just one part of a quasi-capitalist market economy instead of the sole coordinator of economy that it once was.

And actually, even the government itself has unofficial illicit businesses, using complex smuggling techniques pioneered by drug trafficking organisations to conceal the movement of small arms, nuclear weapons or missile component, as well as luxury goods, and using a complicated financial countermeasures to mask its transactions from international watchdog and to make their way around international sanctions. All of which involved complex corporate ecosystem of foreign-based firms and individuals, as well as the North Korean embassy.

Moreover, what’s happening in the economic front is also happening in the political structure, where today Kim Jong Un does not actually impose an absolute power that we thought a dictator would have. At least not like his father Kim Kong Il. And instead, they have an incredibly complex structure inside the party. As per the authors, “Viewed from the outside, the government of North Korea appears as a monolith in which all power is invested in Kim Jong Un, an omnipotent boy-tyrant who threatens the world with nuclear weapons, and executes his uncle—while still enjoying the adulation of his brainwashed subjects. Internally, however, what lies beneath the uniformed and “single-hearted” image of the state is a collection of competing factions and power-brokers who jockey for political control, influence, and money.”

And this shadow power structure was actually set up by Kim Jong Il, in the form of Jojik-Jidobu (or Organization and Guidance Department – OGD). As the authors remark, “those who consider the execution of Jang Song Thaek [the uncle] to be Kim’s work would do well to know that the OGD had far more to gain from it. At the same time, the OGD is no ordinary organization—it is headless, and to further add to the confusion, some of its members are not even “real OGD.”

So what exactly is this “headless” organization? “The OGD has existed since 1946,” the authors explain, “but its role was reinvented following Kim Jong Il ’s accession to its directorship in 1973, when he began to use it as the main means by which to take control of the state. The OGD since then has risen to become the central hub of power in North Korea.” The OGD today consists of 9 deputy directors but no director since Kim Jong Il passed away and the succession of power to Kim Jong Un wasn’t completed before his father died (hence the OGD remains “headless”). The 2 most powerful deputy directors in OGD are Hwang Pyong So (in charge of military affairs) and Kim Kyong Ok (surveillance), with the rest are in charge of the Supreme Leader’s personal secretariat.

Even the generals fear the OGD, because military guidance comes through the General Political Bureau, and General Political Bureau answers to OGD Section 13, as ordained by Kim Jong Il in 1992 in a speech to senior officers. But the OGD does not issue policy, that’s the Supreme Leader’s job where his words is quite literally the law: “if Kim Jong Il said to an aide, “women should be made to wear traditional Korean dress,” then the aide would note this down, and it would become a policy.” But then it is the OGD that is processing and documenting the note and implements the new law to various branches of the state.

The authors summarize it pretty neatly: “Today’s DPRK is best considered a formally unstructured coalition composed of Kim Jong Un and his close relatives, senior OGD members such as Hwang Pyong So and Kim Kyong Ok, and any high-ranking military or party officials who have their trust. In that sense, North Korea has something in common with other countries. The DPRK has an identifiable figurehead, but behind him stand a layer of powerful people with interests and inclinations that do not necessarily always match. If a “hard-line” policy is followed by a “reformist” one, or a “rising star” is suddenly pushed out, it does not mean that “absolute dictator” Kim Jong Un is mercurial and unpredictable. It means that neither he, nor any one other individual, is in full control.”

Furthermore, the book is not all economics and politics as it clearly attempts to paint a balanced picture on North Korea as a whole. For example, there are chapters dedicated on fashion and leisure where once again shows the softening grip from the regime: while there are strict code for fashion and style, which is enforced by fashion police, women close to the Chinese borders now wear skinny jeans and can get away with it despite it being technically illegal to wear. And when anyone seek out romantic liaisons outside marriage, which is illegal in North Korea, they now have their version of South Korea’s “love motel” but in a more discreet place: at someone’s home for an hour of two. And like their cousins in the South, people in North Korea are big on drinking alcohol in social gatherings. Even Kim Jong Un himself is suspected as a drinker who loves to have parties, as well as a smoker who struggles to quit.

But there is still one area where most ordinary North Koreans cannot enjoy freely, even in black market: travel. As the authors explain, “It is illegal for DPRK citizens to travel to places outside of their region, except where permission is given. And even when permission is given, the terrible infrastructure makes the journey long and arduous. It is no exaggeration to say that North Korea had a better overall railway system 80 years ago; power cuts and breakdowns can make a single cross-country journey last a week.” As a result, the idea of foreign travel is still far away from reality, most cannot even travel to other region within the country simply because they’re not allowed to.

This evidently shows that North Korea is still a brutal regime that oppresses its citizens. This is reconfirmed in the crime and punishment chapter in the book that shows the cruelty of the regime, including the caste system based on your family’s loyalty to the Kim family and the infamous prison camps filled with some political prisoners, some real criminals like murderers, but some only there because of being blood-related with, for example, someone who gives a snark comment on the dear leader.

Yes, the brainwashing to worship the Kim family is true and still very much in practice today. What’s intriguing for me is how Kim Il Sung wasn’t even supposed to be the first dictator of North Korea, as the leader of the Korean Communist Party during the war was Pak Hon Yong, but Kim Il Sung somehow managed to eliminate Yong to eventually become the supreme leader. The book also shows that it wasn’t a smooth succession either from Kim Il Sung to Kim Jong Il, with plenty of in-fightings occurred within the family, just like Kim Jong Un notoriously killed his own step brother Kim Jong Nam to secure the succession.

All these infightings and loosening grip on power begs the ultimate question: with all these iron fist brutality and lesser control over the social and economic aspects of the country, will the regime stay on power for much longer or will it eventually collapse? The authors are doubtful about its demise because the key political control is still intact, while any challenge to it is met with extreme ruthlessness. And those powerful people with vested interest are not looking to undermine the system either, while with China’s massive support and interest for the regime there is little incentive for the US and South Korea to even contemplate attacking North Korea.

But if there is ever going to be a change in the country the authors suspect that it would likely begins from the underground capitalist system, like it’s already going on in a small scale. But the fact of the matter is, we just don’t know what the future lies for them. Thus, the country remains one of the most closely monitored and anticipated in the world. And thanks to this book we now have a better understanding over its complete picture.

The key to a meaningful life is a sense of belonging

“Plays Well with Others: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Relationships Is (Mostly) Wrong” by Eric Barker

Sigmund Freud once said, “Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness.” While Eric Barker’s first book was about work, where he tests out all the theories and common beliefs about work and whether the maxims of success were all true, in this second book Barker explores and tests out the myths and science of the other half of Freud’s statement: on relationship.

In his signature style, the book mix hard science and wide range of psychological findings with humor, a laid back tone of writing, and amusing stories to illustrate the points, which makes reading it feels like we’re on a holiday with a funny but wise friend.

Stories such as the tale involving a genius horse, a Korean War hero who fought against hundreds of enemies alone, the girl who broke Casanova’s heart, the love story between a Japanese man with his anime pillow, lonely Frankenstein’s monster, a story about a leper colony, the search for an alien frequency, the invention and marketing of Viagra, a made up disease to protect jews in Rome from Nazi, a case of severe picnic deprivation, and the real life case of amnesia and love like in the 50 First Date movie.

The book also provides tips and tools for a good relationship, such as the danger of making assumptions and instead we should always clarify, how to ask questions to figure out whether someone is lying or not, tools – like active listening, mirroring, labelling – that would make Chris Voss proud, understanding our primordial need to make sense of our surrounding (hence how people can get duped by the likes of astrology or Tarot card), or the important concept of emotional contagion where when we feel excited we tend to associate it with what’s around us, even if they are not directly responsible.

Now, there are so many notes taken from this book, but in a nutshell it gives an insight into human relationship as a whole. And if we only learn one thing from the book, it’s probably this: “What predicts how meaningful we perceive life to be? [A] 2013 study found a very robust and clear answer to that question: a sense of belonging.”

Indeed a sense of belonging gives us a feeling of meaning in life, because as Barker said “it’s why our species’ superpower is cooperation. It’s what we saw with drug addiction hijacking the social reward pathways of the human brain. It’s what we saw with the placebo effect curing ills by telling your body someone cares.” Oh yes, research found that the placebo effect have an active ingredient after all: human beings caring for one another, which was brilliantly illustrated in great length in the book.

Moreover, the book addresses misleading or incomplete statistics such as the claim that married people are happier, while in truth people who are in a happy marriage are happier but so do people who are happily single. Meanwhile people in a bad marriage are worst off, the same with single miserable people.

Another statistic shows the minimum requirement ratio between positive and negative experience for a relationship to work out. For example, friendships need an 8:1 positive to negative ratio, marriages 5:1 positive to negative ratio, where couples who headed for a divorce typically have a ratio of 0.8 positives for every 1 negative. And with your mother in law? The number is 1000:1. HA! Surely it’s an over exaggeration? But hey if the science says so.

And then there’s the big one, the topic of loneliness epidemic. “Loneliness is a subjective feeling”, Barker wrote, “it’s not necessarily about physical isolation. We’ve all felt it: lonely in a crowd.” Indeed, loneliness isn’t actually about being physically alone, but instead it’s more about not having a feeling of meaningful connection.

And we can trace this phenomenon back to the 19th century, where the term loneliness did not actually exist. So what happened? In the 1800s a new concept emerged alongside other social narratives such as the idea of marriage for love, and it can be summed up in one word: individualism. It is not a coincidence that the term “individualism” was first appeared in the 1830s, about the same time that loneliness began to appear. As Barker remarks, “We went from seeing life as ensemble drama to a one-man show. We went from a default “someone cares” to “no one cares.””

And it gets trickier. Psychologists call it parasocial relationship. It is a concept created in 1956 to describe the pseudo-relationships people would have with TV characters, because according to researchers Cohen and Metzger “television represents the perfect guest—one who comes and leaves at our whim.” And the statistics back this up. Between 1985 and 1994 there was a 45% drop in involvement in community organizations, 43% drop in time spent on family dinner, 35% drop on activities where people invite friends over, in fact virtually all forms of togetherness became less common over the last quarter of the 20th century, and the primary culprit is television.

And the introduction of the internet and the rise of smart phones make it even worst. Meaningful human contact now largely replaced by online interactions that are fundamentally different in some ways. Most significantly, it eliminates the body language and human expressions that serve as a feedback loop for the things we said.

The ease of having “online friends” also makes people more likely to be selective over engaging with online behaviour, where they can just tune out when they don’t feel like responding, a behaviour that could carry over offline into the real world. Hence the resulting younger generation with severe lack of empathy, because they never learn how to develop their empathy that can only be learned from trials and errors from physical human connection.

Barker remarked, “add in the hypercompetitive atmosphere and inflated expectations of success, borne of celebrity ‘reality shows,’ and you have a social environment that works against slowing down and listening to someone who needs a bit of sympathy.” So what happens in a world that is lack on empathy and instead focuses on status and so little on care? We become depressed.

But luckily, the cure for this is quite straight forward. Barker noted over a camping experiment, “In only five days in a sleepaway camp without their phones, empathy levels come back up. How does this happen? The campers talk to each other.” Indeed, go offline and interact with each other. Or as Barker would suggest, we can join the Amish community. As he explains, the Amish “don’t eschew technology because they’re Luddites. They do adopt some of it, like tractors. How do they decide what gets approved and what doesn’t? By the effect it has on the closeness of the community. Tractors help you grow crops. Sounds good. But cars let people live farther apart. No bueno.”

Now, we don’t need to literally join the Amish community but we can certainly learn from them. Because, “[w]hen we’re in a community, we get high on our own supply, but when there is no community, we must get our supply elsewhere.”

And as it turns out we cannot discount the huge effect of what having a physical community can give us. When Paula Klemm and Thomas Hardie studied online cancer support groups, they discovered that 92% of the participants were depressed, but when they studied physical cancer support groups? The depression goes down to zero percent. They report: “Traditional cancer support groups can help people cope with their cancer, but the efficacy of Internet cancer support groups . . . remains to be proven.”

Indeed, while it is relatively easy to replace face-to-face contact with online interaction, it doesn’t have the same effects on us. This is backed by psychologist Thomas Pollet who found that “spending more time on IM or [social networking sites] did not increase the emotional closeness of relationships.”

All of these come back nicely to the main point of the book: the sense of belonging. Us humans tend to maintain the sense of belonging through stories, with the primary purpose wasn’t necessarily truth but unity. As Barker remarks, “[j]ust like your body accepts a fake story in the placebo effect. The acupuncture doesn’t help, but the care it delivers is a clear signal of belonging, and that’s what’s important.”

Barker then continues, “How do we maintain belonging when our stories are mutually exclusive? The solution is simple: more stories. We can always create another story to unite us in a new way. We do it now. You may not be my family, but you are my friend. You may not be my religion, but we are part of the same nation. We may not have any of these in common, but we may both be Star Wars fans. New stories can unite us when the old ones fail to.”

This, in the end, is our human story. A story about community, togetherness and belonging. We might not be the strongest or the quickest animal on Earth, but we’re the most cooperative with each other. As Dutch historian Rutger Bregman puts it, “If Neanderthals were a super-fast computer, we were an old-fashioned PC—with wi-fi. We were slower, but better connected.”

And this can be evident in the unlikeliest circumstances, where in the most difficult situations where survivorship is at stake – like during war or disaster – humans tend to go back to our default settings and help each other more.

Gibberish rants from solitude

“Walden” by Henry David Thoreau

Between 4 July 1845 and 6 September 1947 Henry David Thoreau went into a solitude and live a simple life alone in the woods in Walden Pond for 2 years, 2 months, and 2 days. He did so to escape what he saw as “over-civilization”, and to search for the “raw” and “savage delight” of the wilderness.

And by immersing himself in nature, Thoreau wished to gain more understanding over society as a whole from afar as well as to learn about simple living and self-sufficiency. This book is the brainchild of his thoughts and diary that came out from that deep state of meaning, which became an instant classic.

At least that’s what initially portrayed, which is why I was surprised when I finally get my hands on the book and it turns out to be nothing like the many good reviews and references about it.

Firstly, his idea of solitude was living in his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson’s property (and not, as he claimed, “in a house which I had built myself”) just 2 miles away from Concord where his parents are and where he still go out to every day. Secondly, he spent quite some time playing host to a variety of visitors, which spoils the spirit of solitude. And thirdly, the resulting diary out of the semi-solitude was written in a condescending tone, where he seems to project a sense of superiority by practising frugality and a minimalistic lifestyle and that everyone else who don’t follow this path are idiots.

Moreover, while some parts of the book focused on his contemplation of society and the affairs of men, there are many parts that got weird real quick such as a detailed account on bean cultivation, his many grocery lists (complete with the prices), and an obsession on how to measure the depth of the pond. Indeed, the majority of his solitude diary contains nothing more than gibberish rants over his experiment.

Nevertheless, if we stick with him until the end of the book he will eventually come around to what makes this book ground breaking in his time: the mindfulness feel of living in solitude, no matter how flawed it was. Sure, after a wave of transcendentalism movement his ideas are not new anymore today, but it was something inspiring and fresh during his time.

Read the beginning in chapter 1 and the conclusion in chapter 18, skim read the rest in between, and we arguably can still get the overall mood of the book and might learn one or two things in the process.

An intellectual biography of the Critical Theory

“Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School” by Stuart Jeffries

This is a biography of the lives of German-Jewish thinkers originated from the Institute for Social Research at the University of Frankfurt, or collectively known as the Frankfurt School.

Initially founded in 1923 in Weimar Republic, the neo-Marxist school of thought dreamt of a socialist revolution in their homeland akin to what occurred in the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, but instead they witnessed the rise of fascism in the form of Hitler and his Nazi Party. As a response to their failure to foresee the rise of Hitler they eventually developed the Critical Theory, a form of social critique that relies heavy on dialectic approach.

In particular, they criticize fascism and reject the growing capitalism movement in the US and the rest of Western Europe, especially their mass indoctrination through western pop culture (with arguments that are eye opening and will make us think). And while rooted in neo-Marxism, they eventually evolved into more of an anti-Marxist especially after the 1930s. Confused?

This is the delightful contrasting nature within the Frankfurt School. In fact, interrogating society’s contradictions is indeed the basis of their intellectual approach, where the philosopher György Lukács once commented that these men had taken residence in “Grand Hotel Abyss”, where the fictitious hotel was “equipped with every comfort, on the edge of an abyss, of nothingness, of absurdity.” Indeed, nothing is definitive for this group of scholars, some can even contradict each other, and everything is up for a discussion and/or scrutinize, which could be seen as chaotic from the outside.

With this in mind, the book provides a fresh look into the intellectual debates that have shaped German thinking outside and inside the normal zeitgeist of communism, capitalism and fascism, and shows how the proverbial sausages (or bratwursts) were made behind the scene for these ideologies. In here we can arguably see their flaws, the chaotic implementation of the theories, and the human flaws that eventually corrupt them. And to be fair, the book also points out the imperfection of the ideas and arguments of the Frankfurt School themselves, while also addresses the many false conspiracy theories about them.

Through all of these, we can see the evolution of life in Europe during the turbulent decades. Firstly from the time the Frankfurt School was born in the midst of post-War-1 era filled with collapsing economy, failed currency, hyperinflation, the rise of populist parties, as well as social and sexual liberalism. And then during the dark days of the rise of the Third Reich in the 1930s, where the German-Jewish men’s lives were thrown into jeopardy and the Frankfurt School was forced to move to exile first in New York where it found its new home at Columbia University, then Los Angeles in the 1940s. And then during the rapid development of post-war Germany, when the School made its comeback to the homeland.

The author, Guardian columnist Stuart Jeffries, has the ability of making the complex arguments among the different personalities within the School more readable by the lay people, without losing their core points. Hence, the readability and clarity over the subject and thinkers that were often misunderstood, where Theodor Adorno once commented “I established a theoretical model of thought. How could I have suspected that people would want to implement it with Molotov cocktails?”

Theodore Adorno (1903-1969) was one of the big guns of the Frankfurt School, alongside Walter Benjamin (1895-1973), Erich Fromm (1900-1980), Max Horkheimer (1895-1973), Friedrich Pollock (1894-1970), Leo Lowenthal (1900-1993), and Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979). And since the 1970s a new generation of thinkers emerged such as Jürgen Habermas who turned the School into a global influence, which in turn the third generation of critical theorists mostly came from Habermas’ research students.

There are a lot of topics on society that they covered, from analyzing the roles of art, Jazz and Charlie Chaplin movies in creating a pop culture for indoctrinating the masses, to the more heavy topics such as why do Jews become the scapegoat in Nazi’s Germany, on surviving the Holocaust, on the post-war analysis on how people could follow the Nazi thinking, and how life after war looks like in Germany in the 1940s and 1950s. It is through all of this we get to understand the nature and problems of our mass-produced society and more importantly the psychology of the masses. It is indeed a way of thinking outside the norm.

It is exactly because of this that the Frankfurt School is now largely forgotten in the footnotes of history, as communism, capitalism and fascism rose to be the dominating ideologies in modern history. But the recent chaos and schism in failed communism, the rise of predatory capitalism, and the re-emergence of fascism in some parts of the world have turned people into Critical Theory once again, with conversation-style debates dominate the quest to search for fresh new ideas.

You know that phrase the more you read the less you think you know? This is what this book is for me, a rosetta stone to a whole new politico-social thinking that brings me to a rabbit hole of more readings to come.

A little side note, I received this book from a German friend who, like myself, love to read many different intellectual models and point of views that have shaped society. And an intellectual biography about a group of people living on the edge of absurdity, that offer fresh perspectives over the status quo ideologies of the world? He never said that this wouldn’t be a challenging read, and in fact it is exactly the many contradictions of the Frankfurt School that makes the book complicatedly fascinating. Good choice mate, the book did not disappoint one bit.

A practical guide to Stoic exercise

“A Handbook for New Stoics: How to Thrive in a World Out of Your Control” by Massimo Pigliucci and Gregory Lopez

Massimo Pigliucci said that Stoicism is 1 part understanding and 9 part exercise. And this is what this book is all about, a practical book designed to train us to do the latter, to live according to Stoic principles, through 52 weeks guide that is supposed to be implemented in a year.

But Pigliucci himself admitted that not everyone can commit to a year-long exercise, and I found that the book can also be as effective by learning the lessons and embodying them in just few days.

To be perfectly fair, it might be easier for me as I have read 17 books on Stoicism so far and have practiced the principles since 2017. But still, while I have pretty much covered the 1 part of understanding, the rest of the 9 part of practice is more of a lifelong habit rather than a certain milestone goal trying to be achieved.

And this is where the book comes in handy, a refresher course as well as a new practical approach for implementing them, organised so neatly and in a step-by-step manner that makes it relatively easy to follow the flow of the guided lessons.

It covers all the major Stoic principles, such as the discipline of desire, empathy and sympathy, giving yourself an advice from the 2nd person perspective (from the outside view), looking at things from the other person’s point of view, practicing discomfort, anticipating misfortune, practicing view from above, night reflections, temperance during eating, embracing minimalism, speaking little but well, and so much more.

And among the whole lot, 3 simple insights stand out from the rest for me: 1. Nobody wants to do harm on purpose 2. To understand how to properly live we need to know how the world really works and see our place in it 3. The best way to avoid temptation is to minimise exposure to the source of the temptation.

All in all, in a larger scheme of things the book could serve very well as a next step practical book, to help us implement the 9 part of exercise after we’ve done with the 1 part of understanding.

The humans of India

“Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India” by William Dalrymple

This is a story about nine people that have nine completely different religious paths, each one with an unforgettable true story. Written by a historian who has explored India for 25 years to cover about its history and vast religious traditions.

More specifically, it is a story about a Jain nun, a blind minstrel, a Tantric practitioner, a Tibetan monk, an idol maker, a devadasi (temple prostitute), a Sufi mystic, a Rajasthani medieval poem, and an ordinary prison warden who for 3 months a year is worshipped as an incarnate deity.

Through each one of these nine lives, the book teaches us about the many different religions that live side by side to form a colourful society. And in between the stories we can find the authentic feel of India, the mash up of cultures, the stark contrast between the caste, the festivals, the extreme poverty, the wandering monks and nuns and sadhus, the spirit-summoning rituals, the brutal politics, and the ordinary lives caught in between two worlds of ancient temples and modern skyscrapers.

And the stories are all very human. It shows their aspiration and inspiration, their day to day struggle, their different path to peace or enlightenment. It shows the emotions behind the mask and costume, the injustice they are experiencing, with some heart breaking stories as well as some heartwarming stories, all of which provide so many lessons in life no matter what the religious medium is.

They say nothing beats visiting India and experience it yourself, as you will get inspired and/or appreciate life more. Well, reading this book is a close second. And for the longest time I thought it was a positive tone through and through, but now after reading the book I can also sense the contrasting attribute for the second part of that sentence. Yes, India is spiritually inspiring, but it is only after seeing the harshness of life in the country that we can also learn to appreciate our lives back at home a little bit more. And to that end, the book has done such a tremendous job illustrating all the flavours of reality in the sub-continent.

The history of mysticism in Java

“Bandit Saints of Java: How Java’s Eccentric Saints are Challenging Fundamentalist Islam in Modern Indonesia” by George Quinn

Finally, a book that properly discussed the elephant in the Indonesian room: the mystical side that dominates the island of Java.

It is an impressive coverage and analysis of the spread of Islam in Java, the integration between the new religion and the local culture heavy with Hindu-Buddhism influences, and the rejection of the assimilation in several places that has created the hot spots that exist until today. But above all, the book tells the tales of the mysticism occurring throughout the island, from the weird to the wonderful, from the myth to the history.

The book is written by George Quinn, a New Zealander fluent in Indonesian and Javanese languages, who uniquely earned his BA from a local Indonesian university, Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta. He first visited Indonesia in 1966 and began his love affair with the country ever since, including marrying a local woman from Banyumasan. Quinn also has a PhD from Sydney University on Indonesia and became the Head of the Southeast Asia Centre in the Faculty of Asian Studies at the Australian National University.

For this book he travelled and visited some of the most sacred tombs across Java (most of them not for the first time), and blend in with the locals to get the ground-level oral history. And for every folk tale that he found he corroborate it with the official historical records, which makes the book a unique mix of solid academic approach and the raw folk tales stuff straight from the people who live it.

Perhaps the best feature of this book is the clarity between fact and fiction, as they are usually so many different version of folk tales developing on the same subject or person, sometimes with different towns claiming ownership over the origin story. And in here Quinn tells the many different versions and addresses them all, including predicting what really occurred and clearly distinguishing whether or not it is likely to be a myth or a real historical event.

The book mainly revolves around the pilgrimage culture over the tombs of the so-called Nine Saints (Wali Songo) spread across the island. As Quinn remarks, “pilgrims regularly plead for personal favours (in Javanese: ngalap berkah, to grab a blessing) or make a nadhar promise, vowing to repay Allah or a saint in some fashion if their plea is granted. Outside the tomb chamber they may take part in a ritual slametan meal, or tear apart a mini-mountain of food in a rebutan ritual, or help to replace the power-charged cloth canopy that hangs over the tomb.”

So why do so many pilgrims come to the tomb of the saints to pray, a practice that is considered an idolatry in Islam? Because first and foremost, they believe that the saints have a direct access to Allah, and praying at their tomb means that they are praying towards Allah using “the express” pathway to Allah instead of the ordinary prayers “lane” mixed with billions of people. Hence it is arguably not a form of idolatry like the common misconception.

The practice is a remnant of the now-vanished Islam “abangan” culture that includes some of the local surviving customs not commonly associated with Islam outside Indonesia, such as scattering flower petals and charging bottles of water in tombs, burning incense, and slametan ritual, which is in contrast with the Islam “santri” culture most associated with Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah (the two largest Muslim organizations in Indonesia) today that teach the more traditional Islam from the Middle East.

Islam “abangan” was initiated by Sunan Kalijaga, the semi-mystical character that Quinn dubbed as “the embodiment of all that Javanese Islam stands for.” His teachings were then proceeded by several other disciple saints, all of whom were recruited by Sunan Kali Jaga in fascinating mythical stories filled with magic and deity-like powers.

And inline with the “abangan” approach, they assimilated the teachings of Islam into the existing local culture instead of replacing it completely, by using the stories of the shadow puppet shows familiar with Hindu characters and inserted Islamic values into the story. Such as the story of the 5 Pandawa brothers that were rebranded as a symbolism of Islam’s 5 obligations.

Moreover, although the book mainly provides the biography of some of the saints (with stories directly linked with Sunan Kalijaga), it also covers everything else related to mysticism in Java. Such as the story of the goddess of money, the tuyul army, and mystic places such as mount Kawi and Ketonggo forrest. It has the fascinating story of the guardian of the Merapi, which involved Panembahan Senopati and Nyi Roro Kidul, and how it ended up with mbah Maridjan. And about the believe of the emergence of Ratu Adil on judgement day, the prophecy of Jayabaya, and many other tales of magic that at one point involves a talking penis.

It also discusses real historical events, such as the story of a gay saint and strong aristocratic women in Madura. The backstory of Mbah Priok (and the name Tanjung Priok) and the long saga of his tomb that culminates in 2010 riot. And even contemporary affairs such as the rise of the Pemuda Pancasila and what it does with the balance of power in the country, addressing Wahhabism and its terror attacks in Indonesia, and the massive 212 demonstration agains Jakarta’s incumbent governor Ahok using religion as a political tool.

Indeed, this is a complete view of Java, filled with all the fact and fiction, the myth and the history. And it puts everything in their right explanatory contexts, including the local Javanese practices that could seem weird and wonderful for outsiders, but have deeper meaning for most of Java’s 130 million people (even for presidents). And the book captures all of the essences brilliantly. Simply amusing from start to finish.