2022 Book Reviews

It’s a sign of the pandemic nearing the end when I no longer have the luxury of time to read and run regularly. But that’s just life, a series of opportunity costs and compromises. At the start of the great lockdown 2020 I managed to read 62 books, in the depth of pandemic year 2021 I read 70 books, and this year? I mixed going out, playing football and watching live music with reading 56 books.

Now, the biggest thing for me this year was that I read 8 fiction books! Eight! And among the rest of the 47 non-fiction books there’s the usual names: Robert Greene, Ryan Holiday (3 books), Tim Ferriss, Steven Pressfield, Thich Nhat Hanh, Reza Aslan, the usual self-rule: 1 book about Indonesia, and a friendly old face in David Graeber in my re-reading portion for this year: his phenomenal book Debt: The First 5000 Years.

Furthermore, along with my core interests of history, business and self-help, in total I read 10 biographies this year, 7 books on religion, a little bit of science with Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and since this is a World Cup year I naturally read more books on football (3 books). I also had the priviledge to be approached by the author of The Founders, Jimmy Soni, whom offerred me his book for free in exchange for an honest review (which turns out to be a great book about the history of PayPal). And of course, in an increasing obsession with Ernest Hemingway, this year I read 2 books by him and 1 about him.

But naturally, not all books are great and I also had my fare share of crappy books along the way, like The Power of the Subconscious Mind, seeing what the fuss is all about on the controversial The Satanic Verses, and mercifully finishing my 3rd Steven Pinker book (out of 5 that I have – talking about tsundoku, eh?)

But all in all, it has been quite an interesting journey this year, where my reading list was more determined by the situation or theme of the moment. Like reading a book about football in the Balkans and the kleptocracy of the ex Soviet oligarchs during early days of the Russian invasion in Ukraine, or reading about the Freemasons before I took a tour of Freemason’s sites in my city, or sadistically reading When Breathe Becomes Air (about the journey of a dying doctor who’s also a cancer patient) when I finally caught Covid.

Anyway, here are the complete list for this year’s reading:

  1. The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
  2. A Brief History of the Freemasons by Jasper Ridley
  3. Aesop’s Fables by Aesop
  4. Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller Sr. By Ron Chernow
  5. Nudge by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein
  6. The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan
  7. Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator by Ryan Holiday
  8. A Billion Lives: An Eyewitness Report from the Frontline of Humanity by Jan Egeland
  9. The Little Prince by Antoine De Saint-Exupéry
  10. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin by Benjamin Franklin
  11. Kleptopia: How Dirty Money is Conquering the World by Tom Burgis
  12. Behind the Curtain: Football in Eastern Europe by Jonathan Wilson
  13. The Psychology of Money by Morgan Housel
  14. The ABCc of Success by Bob Proctor
  15. Amazing Muslims Who Changed the World by Burhana Islam
  16. The Laws of Human Nature by Robert Greene
  17. Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires by Juan Cole
  18. Beyond Fundamentalism by Reza Aslan
  19. The Islam Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained by DK
  20. The Power of Your Subconscious Mind by Joseph Murphy
  21. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
  22. When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing by Daniel H. Pink
  23. The Book of General Ignorance by John Mitchinson and John Lloyd
  24. Zero to One by Peter Thiel with Blake Masters
  25. Zonal Marking by Michael Cox
  26. Courage is Calling by Ryan Holiday
  27. Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson
  28. Rimbaud in Java by Jamie James
  29. Debt: The First 5000 Years by David Graeber
  30. Silence by Thich Nhat Hanh
  31. Effortless by Greg McKeown
  32. The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare
  33. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
  34. The Art of Happiness by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Howard C. Cutler, M.D.
  35. The Wizard and the Prophet by Charles C. Mann
  36. The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read: (And Your Children Will Be Glad You Did) by Philippa Perry
  37. Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process by John McPhee
  38. The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie
  39. The Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda
  40. The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss
  41. The Storyteller: Tales of Life and Music by Dave Grohl
  42. The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers by Richard McGregor
  43. Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! By Richard P. Feynman
  44. Put Your Ass Where Your Heart Wants to Be by Steven Pressfield
  45. The Founders: The Story of Paypal and the Entrepreneurs Who Shaped Silicon Valley by Jimmy Soni
  46. The Almanack of Naval Ravikant by Eric Jorgenson
  47. Hemingway’s France: Images of the Lost Generation by Winston Conrad
  48. Fire & Blood by George R. R. Martin
  49. Discipline is Destiny by Ryan Holiday
  50. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  51. The Stuff of Thought by Steven Pinker
  52. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
  53. The Theory of Everything Else by Dan Schreiber
  54. 101 Essays That Will Change The Way You Think by Brianna Wiest
  55. Angels With Dirty Faces: The Footballing History of Argentina by Jonathan Wilson
  56. The Truth About Wuhan: How I Uncovered the Biggest Lie in History by Andrew G. Huff

The claim of an exposé, delivered as a speculation

“The Truth About Wuhan: How I Uncovered the Biggest Lie in History” by Andrew G. Huff

First, the claims/hypotheses in this book: “This is the first truth about Wuhan: there is no evidence that SARS-CoV-2 naturally emerged.” And “The second truth about Wuhan is that the emergence of the SARS-CoV-2 is clearly not all China’s fault.”

The background of the accusations in the book: “The GoF work managed and conducted by EcoHealth Alliance, the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and Dr. Ralph Baric at the University of North Carolina, which resulted in the creation of SARS-CoV-2, was the most sophisticated, complex, and complicated GoF research and engineering known to man.” And then “In the proposal, USAID is credited by both American and Chinese researchers listed in the proposal as providing the funding to form the relationship between American and Chinese scientists, and to collect the necessary biological samples from bats to obtain coronaviruses. Without USAID’s funding, the relationship between EHA, the WIV, and UNC would not have occurred, Dr. Baric’s advanced methods and sophisticated biotechnology would not have been transferred to China, and, without USAID’s funding, they would not have collected the first bat coronavirus samples in China.”

And another big accusation: “In 2020, mRNA COVID-19 vaccines received emergency authorization from the FDA under artificial conditions due to the US government’s suppression of other effective treatments. According to FDA regulation, an emergency use authorization is only warranted if “there are no adequate, approved, and available alternatives.” On February 21, 2021, there was a complete match found between Moderna’s 2016 patent application and the genetic sequence of SARS-CoV-2 circulating in humans. This would have been virtually impossible unless the Moderna vaccine from 2016 and the pathogen that emerged in China were co-developed.”

But then the methodology to figure out the truth: “To get to the truth about whether SARS-CoV-2 was leaked or intentionally released, I like to use scenario analysis to determine which scenarios are the most likely. Then, I use qualitative or quantitative methods to make objective comparisons between the scenarios. As before, the first step is developing or imagining all the potential scenarios and trying to eliminate as many as possible with logic.”

Hence, the tl;dr conclusion: The data presented by this book are incredible at a first glance, but if we look closer there are nothing wrong with the data if viewed separately, and only “seems” problematic if we read the narration surrounds it. Hence, this is not a whistleblower exposing what had happened and presents us with the hard evidence. But instead, this is a supposedly insider being suspicious and then speculate on what could have possibly happened. There’s a huge difference between the two. And for a book that have big claims, the author sure uses these words a lot in his narration: “likely”, “I’m guessing”, “I would suspect” and “I feel”, as well as the mother of all sentences in chapter 19: “I have some ideas as to why, but only a formal investigation will provide us with the real reason.”

Now the longer version of the review:

This book promises so many but after screening out the noise, it eventually delivers so little. It was supposed to be a groundbreaking tell-all exposé about one of the main problems in the world right now: the origins of the COVID-19 virus, and who leaked it.

But instead, it took the first 6 chapters (chapter 2-7, after introduction in chapter 1) as a memoir on who Dr. Andrew G. Huff is, which is way too long involving not the relevant information about his background but instead dwelling on his time at school then US military deployments in first Honduras and then in Iraq.

It was only after 26% of the book that it started to tell about the time he worked at EcoHealth Alliance (EHA), a lab that allegedly work together with the Wuhan institute of virology to create SARS-CoV-2. However, instead of getting straight into the scandalous decision makings, Dr. Huff complains about how his co-workers in EHA were all, in his own words, “useful idiots.” And proceeded to rant about the long list of stuff he seems to be keeping inside for quite some time, which had nothing to do with the SARS-CoV-2 virus and a lot to do with the list of personnel and the office politics.

But I still gave the benefit of the doubt, because after all context is king. For example, his US military deployment to Honduras, where he met with spies and narco traffickers, could teach him early on about international politics. A background understanding that would make him well versed when it comes to Wuhan problem. And perhaps the context of working in the EHA environment will provide further clue on the incompetency level in dealing with the deadly new virus. But sadly, if there is a point in all of his rants, it was still buried among the unnecessary stories, even in chapter 11 (out of the total of 22 chapters).

Now, when chapter 12 comes, Dr. Huff is starting to dwell on how EHA is funded, but instead of laying out the precise structure in a concise manner, we get “At the annual charity event that I attended; I was asked to court male billionaires that were gay by Anthony. I am a straight man—not that it matters—but I have been told by gay men, including my friend and former colleague Anthony Ramos, that my fashionable dress attire, personal grooming, and overall appearance causes gay men to find me attractive.” Another wasted space focusing on the wrong side of things.

Indeed, after 50% on the reading progress, this becomes one of those books that instead of telling it straight who are the people involved and what they did / are doing, the author write this instead: “If you take a quick look at the current EHA board of directors and search for their names on an internet search engine, you will find that many of them are part of the ultra-wealthy elite, and many have strong ties to the petrochemical, pharmaceutical, agricultural, and food production industries. Some of these companies have long histories of polluting and destroying the planet; namely putting profits over people.”

But hold on, while he made that bold claim and ask us to search it ourselves in search engine, Dr. Huff then elaborate by saying “You shouldn’t use Google to search due to their involvement in funding EcoHealth, and others have suggested that their search algorithm has been manipulated to information tied to the COVID origin story. Some of these wealthy people were Democrats and some were Republicans. Regardless of party affiliation, I believe that their main concerns in life were maintaining or increasing their wealth.”

Yes, this whole exposé looks like not an exposé after all, but rather an allegation with unclear facts. And as I read on, the book increasingly feels more like of a narcissistic autobiography (70%) wrapped with the promise of an exposé that are in truth looks more like borderline conspiracy theories and suggestive narratives (30%). Seems like a huge opportunity missed here, because he can state that “It is only with these powerful and ultrawealthy donors that EcoHealth had enough funding to remain solvent and create SARS-CoV-2 over a period of roughly six years. From 2014 to 2016, EcoHealth Alliance finally figured out how to obtain large US government contracts” without further elaboration on who exactly the donors are and why is it a crime for them to fund the EHA. Because without further proof that this is actually something wrong, this sentence is only baiting people to think in a conspiracy way.

It wasn’t until chapter 15 that it finally get down to its main topic, with chapter 1-14 can actually be scrapped from the book and chapter 15 can serve as the introduction instead, with all the explanation of US involvement in the research of bioweapons.

Chapter 16-17 are where Dr. Huff really presents his core arguments for this book. In particular this sentence: “These discussions resulted in publications indicating that Dr. Peter Daszak, president of EcoHealth Alliance, was working with the CIA, and that the biological agent commonly known as COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2) had been in development at EcoHealth Alliance since 2012, and other evidence suggested that SARS-CoV-2 began earlier than 2012. The development of SARS-CoV-2 included several prominent US-based scientists and US academic institutions that received funding from numerous federal government agencies and private non-governmental organizations to complete the gain of function work on SARS-CoV-2.”

Furthermore the list of sequences after the COVID-19 became a pandemic is the closest thing as a hard proof data that looks hard to refute, with Dr. Huff’s conclusion as follows: “In my opinion, many of the people listed in this chapter behaved like a pharmaceutical pseudoscience mafia entrenched in the halls of the medical military industrial complex.”

But that’s just it, his opinion. The book promises to reveal but can only speculate, very convincingly, I must say. But after a second and third glance, the hard data still do not directly linked while the proof-less allegations are treated like facts. Hence, the book remains one of those journalism coverage or documentaries that have existed in the past 3 years, adding only to the noise and not providing a closure to the conspiracies.

And it gets weirder. In chapter 17 Dr. Huff is attempting to figure out how and why the virus was leaked by Wuhan Institute of Virology, through few different possible scenarios and then he guides us one by one to eliminate the possibilities and narrow down the conclusion. Yup, speculation after speculation, while not providing any proof on what happened. If you must know, the nominees include: global corporate greed, attempt to damage president Donald Trump, and an event that he thinks is similar like the Chernobyl incident in Soviet union in 1986 and the “Communist government’s” attempt to hide it.

So, after all of this, the big question remains: is he telling the truth? Chapter 20 serves as a bizarre attempt to validate himself as a whistleblower where he claims to be subjected to illegal psychological operation by the government, in order to shut him up. This includes drones spying above him, series of trespassers, hackers, wiretappings, and cars following him. The chapter itself is 30 pages long, almost 10% out of the total book. So, it must be true then? You know what, after finishing the book, I still don’t know. I guess nobody knows for sure except him.

Because, to be perfectly fair, let’s take a look at the counter-arguments made by the institute that Dr. Huff accuses, the EHA, in response of the book. Read it and judge it yourself.

Carl Sagan once said that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. To this regard, he did presents a lot of data, but the data are actually not direct evidences to anything. And instead, he creates a narration around the data to make a calculated speculation. It’s such a pity that he fails to elaborate on these extraordinary claims and fail to back it up with solid and clear evidence. Had he done this, this could be a massive game changer.

And in the end of the day if the intention was to tell the truth, I believe it could’ve been just done through a long article instead of a whole book filled with unnecessary gimmicks. But to his credit he did write an article about this but was rejected for publication in all the leading health policy and health economics journals. I wonder why.

The dramatic tale of the soul of Argentina

“Angels With Dirty Faces: The Footballing History of Argentina” by Jonathan Wilson

This is a story about a society that have football running through its veins. It is the history of the founding of a country that was followed by the introduction of its footballing soul not long after. And it is about how the brutal politics, the constantly chaotic economy, and the cultural background of a nation have shaped their footballing style, and in return this style becomes a part of the national identity.

At a first glance, it’s almost impossible to see the glories and despairs of its football matches alongside the country’s hyperinflation rate and series of political turmoils. But this is what happened in Argentina, and Jonathan Wilson did one heck of a good job in illustrating the ups and downs of the national team in each era alongside the context of the country’s environment.

To really get the feel of the soul, Wilson went down to the grassroots by living in Argentina, doing what the locals do, attending the many different football matches, meeting many of the legends himself for a first-person vantage point interviews.

Along the way he discovered that football is also a lucrative dirty business for the so-called “barra bravas”, the violent gangs controlling football in the country. Inflation and neoliberalism also dictate the way business are approached and this in turn spillover to how football management are handled, which partly explains the many exports of players to elsewhere in search for a better future. Indeed, it’s hard to escape the darkness of the history of Argentina, even in football where violence, rape cases, drug abuse, even murder became part of its horrifying past.

It is within this chaos that multiple generations of talents emerge, from a population of just 25 million people. From Alfredo Di Stefano, to Daniel Passarella, Mario Kempes, Maradona, Lionel Messi, and to so much more within their respective generations.

This book tells it all. It is like the history of the Argentinian national team, River Plate, Boca Juniors, Newel Old Boys, Estudiante, Velez Sarsfield, etc, all combined into one big narration. It is also a biography of the legends such as Maradona and Messi, and the many great coaches such as Cesar Luis Menotti, Carlos Bilardo, and the ever eccentric and influential Marcello Bielsa. No wonder it takes a huge effort to write, resulting a big book of 600+ pages, longer than intended by Wilson.

The book also tells the tale of the folk hero Martin Palermo, the tactical problems of deploying both Messi and Tevez, the enigma of how to best use Riquelme, the role that Mascerano mastered, why Saviola never quite made it in Barcelona, and other technical stuffs. It tells the romantic story of a returning heroes like Veron to his old Argentinian club Estudiantes, or what happened with Carlos Roa after Dennis Bergkamp scores THAT goal against him in World Cup 1998.

There are also some quirks every now and then, such as the way Boca Juniors ended up wearing their iconic jersey colour due to losing a bet in a match and had to adopt the colour of the first ship they saw entering the harbour (which happened to be a Swedish vessel), or how River Plate got its name from the name of a container that the local guys supposed to move (but they played football instead).

But the biggest revelation from this book for me is how bizarre and chaotic Maradona was. He breaks rules wherever he went, started mayhems, abused drugs, but then blame his loss or shortcomings on the paranoia conspiracy he had in his mind that everyone is trying to take him down. He always picks a fight with the club he’s in, ends his career at each club with a catastrophic disagreement. Indeed, trainwreck always follows him wherever he goes, but yet he still get chance after chance into good footballing positions as a player and as a manager, and he’s so loved by many and elevated into a status of “God.”

But I guess Maradona is the physical embodiment of the soul of the nation, a character trait that the people can relate to. Yes he’s an utter mess at times but he’s magical and brilliant at other times, just like the politics. He has wild mood swings and paranoia just like the hyperinflation. He came to any new club as a hero and leave like a president who just got toppled by yet another military coup in the country. He’s somebody with a huge potential but often crash and burn at the worst possible timings.

And perhaps that’s Argentina in a nutshell, a wonderful mix of chaos, highs and lows, perfectly reflected in its football. And for a relatively struggling nation, Argentina has an almost incomparably rich history. As Wilson pointed out, as at the time of the writing in 2016, “They’ve won two World Cups and lost in three finals; they’ve won fourteen Copa Américas (six more than Brazil). Their clubs have lifted the Copa Libertadores twenty-four times (seven more than Brazil’s).”

You see, football breathe differently in this part of the world. It is not merely a sports entertainment, but a way of escape, both mentally and, for many, literally a physical ticket to come out of the slumps. Football is a 90 minute distraction from reality. Football is a glimmer of hope in an otherwise bleak living condition. Football is the pride of their nation. Simply put, football is the life and soul of Argentina.

Self-help greatest hits

“101 Essays That Will Change The Way You Think” by Brianna Wiest

Brianna Wiest is one of my top 3 favourite authors at Medium. And this book is like all of her best articles put together into a book form.

The book has a similar approach to her articles, where it feels like a notebook of the main point summaries from all self-help books ever written. It’s thought-provoking, it’s precise, it’s wise, it’s beautifully written. And plenty to choose from, literally out of 101 short chapters.

It covers a wide range of subjects, from subconscious behaviors, to daily routines, emotional intelligence, social intelligence, cognitive biases, resistance, and to nice little segways every now and then like the one about experiences we don’t have English words for yet.

It discusses and analyses some difficult feelings and/or situations, such as how people close to us or people that we once loved can become stranger again, how to identify uncomfortable feelings that actually indicate that you’re on the right path, what the feelings you most suppress are trying to tell you, how people hold themselves back from real happiness, why we subconsciously love to create problems for ourselves, Ideas you’re keeping about your life that are only holding you back, and what to do when you don’t know what to do with your life or when you’re stuck.

It provides some alternative perspectives and inspirations, like signs that you’re doing better than you think you are, things we misunderstood about emotions, how intrinsically motivated people become the best versions of themselves, ways suppressed emotions are appearing in your life, or even reasons why heartbreak is often crucial for growth.

And it also teaches us some psychological tools and hacks, such as how to not let irrational thoughts ruin your life, why you shouldn’t seek comfort, why you should thank the people who hurt you the most, things you need to know about yourself before you’ll have the life you want, how to measure a good life, there’s no such thing as letting go, there’s accepting what’s already done, and small ways to deepen your relationship with anyone.

All in all, the book is a great entry point to the self-help genre, or indeed a wonderful refresher of the main points, while we can still learn a bunch of new things from it. Highly recommended.

The rough corner of human history

“The Theory of Everything Else: A Voyage Into the World of the Weird” by Dan Schreiber

This is a fun book about the weird, the unknown, and the unexplainable in our world. It is about bizarre occurrences that have helped to shape our society at the background and theories that belong in the “rough corner” of history, just like a perfectly neat Zen gardens have a “rough corner” to allow things grow uncontrollable as nature intended.

Suitably written by Dan Schreiber, 1 of 4 of the cast of my favourite podcast There’s No Such Thing As A Fish, the book dwells into mad scientists, alien chasers, thill seekers, and all the batshit crazy people that seem to be just one lab accident away from becoming a supervillain. It is celebrating the strangeness of characters, embracing the weird means to achieve solid and respectful goals, and telling the tale of those who will make us laugh at first, then think, then say “huh, I guess it works.”

The cast of the weird and wonderful are in abundance. Such as a doctor who trained a dolphin playing fetch using its erect penis. A real-life character that the series Ghost Whisperer is based on. The curator that published a seminal scientific paper that recorded the first ever case of homosexual necrophilia in the mallard duck. A woman who teaches a dolphin to speak English (but ended up having a sexual affair with the dolphin). The psychics hired by Los Angeles Dodgers, or the monks hired to bless Leicester City in their matches during THAT 2015/16 winning season.

Or the story of Tu Yoyou, the first native Chinese to win a Nobel Prize in Medicine by practicing Chinese herbal medicine, and doing so not with a medical degree or a doctorate but through travelling around China and devouring endless list ancient books to find a cure for Malaria. But the most remarkable part of her story is how she got her unusual name, and that the poem that her dad got her name from have a picture of a deer chewing the same plant that would become Tu’s life saving cure.

It is also endearing that no matter how successful people are in their chosen field, we can still find some batshit in them. For example, how Thomas Edison always sleep in his work clothes. How Novak Djokovic often visits an ancient pyramid in Bosnia to collect mystical energy. Or the incredible story of Kary Mullis, a Nobel Prize winner whose life was filled with batshit ideas they dilute the one brilliant thinking that won him the Nobel Prize, the PCR test.

Moreover, the book tells about the many amusing scientific theories or discoveries: How humans are too smelly for man-eating carnivores. How to say “thank you” to plant from a leading botanist. How Cleopatra is believed to had been reincarnated as a worm. The discovery of Canadian blue-grey taildropper slug, whose bum falls off when it gets too scared. The theory that the birth of civilisation in Mesopotamia was possibly sparked by a supernova, thanks to the clue from dancing Indians in Bolivia. The theory that plants have their own internet, which botanists call the “wood wide web”, and one guy’s plan to train a plant detective.

The book also attempts to explain some of the weird conspiracy theories. Such as the origin of the thinking behind a reptilian overlords. Or a guy who claims to have found the fountain of youth in the Bahamas. An alien conspiracy theorist that believes Jesus Christ himself was an alien, or another story believing that he was replaced by his brother at the cross and that Jesus fled to Shingo Japan, until he died and buried there aged 106 (with very convincing “signs” of traces of Jesus in the town). And of course, We have the usual “greatest hits” such as on Loch Ness Monster and Big Foot.

Indeed, some things are simply unexplainable, and the book have loads of these kind of stuffs: how a science fiction book can predict, in detailed accuracy, that Mars has 2 moons, 151 years before the moons were officially discovered. The phenomenon of the “third person” right before someone passed away. How everything “Titanic” – from the ship, to the museum, to the play – all experiencing a disaster. Another book that predict the future precisely: The weird 1889 novel that describe Donald Trump’s behaviour right to the tee. Or a 1953 science fiction novel written by Wernher von Braun who wrote about human colonisation of Mars, with elected leaders with the title of “Elon.”

But perhaps the most perplexing thing for me is the case where classical composers still allegedly create music years after they died, through a very convincing medium. How Mark Twain comes back to live in ghost form and write a new novel through an ouija board, or Victor Hugo who completed Les Miserables thanks to a three-legged table that told him to.

Meanwhile, some things in the book are just plain hilarious: the existence of big-foot erotic fiction. The art of rumpology, that is, astrology not through reading palms but instead using butt cheeks. The story of the unluckiest man alive that had 7 plane crashes in one solo trip (and ended up retiring from flying a plane but somehow got a job at Disney World driving a ferry boat). The backstory of two gravestones in the middle of the tarmac of runway in the Savannah Airport. Even Dan Schreiber himself is not off the hook, where while he’s composing all of these weird and wonderful things, he got caught by his wife reading a Neanderthal-human erotica novel in bed.

In this information age, where knowledge are in abundance and information often becomes diluted or exaggerated, this book is a refreshing oasis in the overindulgence desert. I thought that we have pretty much seen it all and getting harder and harder to be amused and surprised, but hot damn this book nailed it. It is so out of the box, it ventures toward the uncommon imagination and way of thinking outside the usual norm of society – that it’s ok to be messy and chaotic and crazy – and it inspires the exciting premise of putting oneself in the wrong place at the right time.

And perhaps the biggest realisation after reading the book is that craziness and chaos are indeed part of our big picture history, that batshit people are also contributing to shape society, just like Zen gardens have their “rough corner.” As Schreiber remarks, “you can’t always take the good without the bad – you can’t have the theory of everything without the theory of everything else.”

Not yet ready for this book

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

I’m calling it quit, 6% into the book. It’s too long, and I didn’t have full comprehension on it since the beginning.

Maybe it’s because I’m listening to it through Audible instead of reading it, or maybe I’m just not ready yet for a literature work with this type of magnitude.

Either way, I will revisit this book later when I have more mileage in reading literature.

It could use a little brevity

“The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature” by Steven Pinker

Steven Pinker is a psychologist and a psycholinguist, which makes this book his niche area of expertise. And it immediately shows right from the beginning.

It is a clever book about words, and the thought process behind their usage in a sentence. It is about how the structure of languages dictates our way of thinking. It is about how learning a new word in its context can shape or even alter the brain. It is about the intonation and aggression of a language that create cultures.

But regretfully, the brilliant idea isn’t matched by an equally excellent execution.

This is my 3rd Steven Pinker book out of 5 that I have in my possession – talking bout Tsundoku. And as it is the pattern with the first 2 that I’ve read, although the core ideas are superb he dwells on them a little too much that it dilutes the brilliance of his arguments.

Indeed it’s never straight forward with professor Pinker, he cannot go from A to B without tempted to detour first to J, M, Q. Hence, the unnecessary 500+ pages in his books.

They say that we do not need to finish a book if it’s a lost cause, with the golden rule of 100 minus your age. Hence, if you’re 60 years old, if after 40 pages you still cannot find the benefit of reading the book, just stop reading. If you’re 30 years old, stop after 70 pages if it doesn’t interest you further.

Still, he’s THE Harvard Professor Steven Pinker, and his ideas are world class, just look at his brilliant speeches and talks. And beneath the messy professor vibe, there are important pointers to be learned. If only we can find it.

So, in the end I still managed myself to skim read the rest of the book to find some gems about words and language in the middle of the mumbles of his words. Irony not intended. And sure enough I find some valuable lessons along the way such as the 5 different ways people swear, using only the F word to make the points. Delightful.

The key tools of Stoicism

“Discipline is Destiny: The Power of Self-Control” by Ryan Holiday

If you were asked to describe what Stoics look like, how would you describe them?

First and foremost, they are visibly calm and patient, able to wait for the right time and the right moment. They also have self control over their indulgences, and not letting impulses to undermine them. And while they still enjoy all the perks and luxuries in life, they do so within limits and nothing in excess. Everything in moderation, they would say.

They of course still get angry and can even be very passionate, but they won’t do anything out of anger. They respond, not react. They are able to not getting victory or criticism get into their head and affect them. They have the patience to not getting triggered by provocations, have the self restrain of avoiding all the quick fix scam or euphoria or gurus.

Stoics understand their own weak points, their triggers whether it is anxiety or aggression or lust, and how to contain them and address them. They also have the self-restraining ability from being trapped by a perfectionist prison, that you need everything to be perfect that it makes you refrain from doing things imperfectly and ended up not doing anything at all.

And instead, they have the strength and ability to finish the job through all the messiness, have intense focus while doing it, have the sense of urgency, but doing so by projecting grace under fire. They are quick, but not in a hurry. Indeed, while courage was defined as the willingness to put your ass on the line, Stoics have the ability to keep this particular ass in line, to go to the right length and no further.

Nevertheless, although they have the strength and endurance to weather any storm, they also have the decisiveness to cut loss, to step back, to throw in the towel when it’s a losing cause. It also means load management, knowing when to take a rest, giving their body enough time for recovery, taking a break, avoiding burnout, or simply to have a restful sleep. Everything is measured.

Moreover, Stoics are responsible with money, able to constrain themselves from splurging or wasting them on things that don’t matter. They also use time efficiently, use words wisely (brevity – not using two words if one word would do, or not using one if none would do), they also have the ability to put boundaries, to say no to all the unimportant things.

Last but not least, they keep their environment clean and minimalist. They keep themselves neat and tidy, dressing appropriately for the occasion and situation, demonstrating that they are in control over their outer appearance as well as their inner, aware of their surroundings, and can present themselves appropriately.

This, in a nutshell, is what discipline looks like. It is virtue no. 2 out of 4 on the four Stoic virtues of courage, temperance, justice, and wisdom. And it is arguably the most visible trait of a practicing Stoic.

In another unmissable Ryan Holiday signature style of writing, this book illustrates the traits mentioned above through so many stories from history and its many prominent figures. It shows that discipline is the key feature of all successful people, and more importantly it shows how these great men and women implement them despite their shortcomings, unfriendly environment, or upbringing.

Holiday reflects these lessons from the incredible habits of Lou Gehrig, the resilience of Theodore Roosevelt, the Stoic nature of George Washington, the calm and dignified Queen Elizabeth II, the restraint of Dwight Eisenhower, the grounded nature of Angela Merkel, the practicality of John Wooden, the 100% effort of Jimmy Carter, the importance of load management from Harry Belafonte and Martin Luther King Jr., to cautionary tales from King George IV and Babe Ruth, and lessons from many others such as Martha Graham, Joyce Carol Oates, Booker T. Washington, Floyd Patterson, and as usual the Stoic greats like Cato, Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius.

Now, of course discipline is not easy. But as Holiday remarks, “the good news is that because it’s hard, most people don’t do it. They don’t show up. They can’t even do one tiny thing a day. So yes, you’re alone, out there on the track in the rain. You’re the only one responding on Christmas. But having the lead is, by definition, a little lonely. This is also why it’s quiet in the morning. You have the opportunities all to yourself.”

And this is why discipline can be an edge. Discipline is the reason we get up and do our thing every single day, on time. It is what keeps us going even during hardship. It is what prevents us from risk and catastrophe. What helps us maintain our habit, our flow, even our savings. Discipline keeps us in check to do the right things, even if we don’t like it. It paved the road to the good life, it keeps us healthy and happy. Discipline is the key ingredient to shape our destiny.

How a perfectly engineered society looks like and how creepy it is

“Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley

This is a story of a disturbing dystopia, set in the year 632 AF (After Ford – their messianic figure), the equivalent of the year 2540 in our Gregorian Calendar, at a place called the World State.

It is a world where advance science can engineer a human embryo to create a perfect human being, where babies aren’t born through mothers anymore, they are raised in state conditioning centres instead of by their parents, and they are programmed from childhood not to feel strong emotions but rather to obey orders.

In World State, there are no countries or borders, no individual or private home, no religion, no heaven, no parliament, no democracy, while Polish, French, and German have become dead languages as everybody now speaks the same language. In the spirit of unison even monogamy, romance, and family are prohibited, as “everyone belongs to everyone else.”

Ending is better than mending, as they also often say in this society, as they immediately throw away old stuffs and encourage consumerism over brand new things. You see, they thrive on efficiencies. But they should not fear of being discarded themselves, because thanks to the advances of science ageing does not occur anymore.

The society in the World State is organized through caste system that divide people into 5 classes: Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, and Epsilon. All judged based on intelligence. And this is where the problem lies, as a lot of humans are engineered to be born and conditioned into a pre-designated caste. Because not everyone can become an Alpha since the world still needs someone to do the hard labour, which is the lower caste, as proven in the failed experiment of an all-Alpha society in Cyprus a while ago.

Indeed, the brilliance of this book is that it shows the flaws of attempting perfection, where this advanced society is trying to eradicate hardship, unhappiness, inefficiencies, violence, and inconveniences, but ended up oppressing people in the journey towards their utopian dream. In truth, life becomes dull without the struggles and people become less human and increasingly naïve as they lack the necessary experience of hardship to contrast evil with kindness, discomfort with comfort, failure with winning.

It is in this environment that the story of our protagonists is set. They do so firstly by being exposed to the “ordinary world” when they travel outside the World State to the Savage Reservation in New Mexico, one of the only places left that has not been influenced by the World State.

Over there, they observe for the first time natural birth, ageing process, disease, other languages, religious lifestyle, and all the spectrum of emotions including lust and love. And the novel witnesses their progress of embracing all the flaws, messiness and struggles to become human once again.

The narrative itself is intriguing, filled with twist and turn and drama, but as always with fiction work – whose strong point is in the story – I will not spill any further. The audible version in particular, narrated by Michael York, gives an additional creep to it, thanks to his brilliant expressions at reading it.

All in all, the book is so disturbing, it’s so good. And it’s astonishing how our real-life modern society is progressing towards this fictitious world, a world that was already cautioned by Aldous Huxley back in 1932.

The long history of the Targaryens

“Fire and Blood: 300 Years Before A Game of Thrones” by George R. R. Martin

I love history. And I love the Game of Thrones series, all 7 seasons of it. While it’s been years later, I’m still mending my utter disappointment for season 8, which I heard could’ve been stretched for 6 seasons until season 13.

So when the series House of Dragon came out, I hesitated. But then a certain self-proclaimed Game of Thrones walking dictionary (he has read every GoT books) suggested me to read this book instead.

And in a way it’s perfect, as I understand the world of GoT well enough having watched the series twice in a row. And reading this book is like reading a history book over a familiar current affairs issues, which is what I’m used to.

Not going to spoil anything from the book, but in a nutshell, let me just say it’s so astonishing that a book can have an unbelievable scale of imagination with all the richness of the backgrounds and legends about the Targaryen Dynasty, considering that this is a work of fiction. All of the human greed, emotions, injustice, political in-fightings, conspiracies, sibling rivalries, the barbarity of peasants, even plagues, are all felt so real, not unlike the real events occurring in world history.

I’ve never read fiction in this kind of porpotion before, and never read any of George RR Martin’s book before. Now I understands my friends’ obsession with the books. Very well done.