Important, but best to read with prior knowledge about Indonesia

“Indonesia: Archipelago of Fear” by Andre Vltchek

This book reads like a John Pilger or Naomi Klein book, written by an investigative journalist who are personal friends with the likes of Noam Chomsky and Eduardo Galeano, and who has travelled to 145 countries covering numerous wars and conflicts. Passionate, brutally honest, and bitter at times; I can’t think of another way to describe Andre Vltchek rather than an “angry John Pilger.”

To write this book, Vltchek seems to have spoken with all the right scholars, historians and leaders. This including the late former Indonesian president Gus Dur, several ministers and ex-ministers, the late author Pramoedya Ananta Toer and scholars from other countries such as British anthropologist Andrew Beatty from Cambridge University, not to mention the numerous Indonesian historians and frustrated journalists that seems to finally have a proper platform to express their thoughts.

The book provides the same historical background of Indonesia as a “model pupil” and the blueprint for US plunders throughout the world that are inline with what John Pilger, Naomi Klein and John Perkins wrote, but he dig much deeper and understandably paints a more detailed picture about Indonesia (as the main focus of the book) than the 3 authors. He went even further than any other books I know on the “extreme capitalism” installed in Indonesia, discussing at length the Indonesian brand of “law and justice”, the state of the “independent” media, and even analysing the many hot stories happening in Indonesia for the past decades, from Edy Tansil to Lapindo mudflow to Cikeusik massacre. And all are neatly discussed under several sub-headings.

However, his portrayal of Indonesia is so negative and so one-sided (it’s a messed-up place with no hope!), sometimes it gets very insulting and makes me wonder how he differentiate hard facts with his own negative opinion, and where he draw the line between telling the truth and just being plain obnoxious? For example, in numerous occasions he portray the Indonesian word “bule” as a highly offensive word towards white people (equal to n**ger), and goes to length to show that he’s offended, while in reality the word is only a generalisation to describe white people regardless of nationality.

Furthermore, he dedicate 1 full chapter on Islam in Indonesia by focusing on the rise of extremists, which is solid, but he then declared that secularism has died in Indonesia and implies that religious harmony is no longer exist, as if the state of religious conflict in Indonesia is like in Nigeria or Northern Ireland, which is far from the truth. He also criticise Indonesia as not having a culture, whilst failing to mention the fact that Indonesia is home to 300 ethnic groups and up to 742 languages that are VERY rich with cultures.

Nevertheless, in the end of the day after I put down the book, the amount of truth that I have learned from it can somewhat make up for the negative stereotype written by Vltchek. All in all, read this book with careful discretion, best to read it with prior knowledge of what the beautiful country is all about and then proceeds to read the dark version of Indonesia that Vltchek has uncovered. It is the kind of reality check that Indonesians urgently need to know, which makes it the best book I’ve ever read about the truth of the country (though the selection is very limited). No wonder they don’t sell it here in Indonesia.

How arguably the best news channel challenged the world

“Al Jazeera: How Arab TV News Challenged the World” by Hugh Miles

The US accuses them to be anti-American, while the Arabs accuse them to be pro-American. Israel claims that they are negatively bias at the Israeli government, while the Palestinians complain about their apologetic tone on Israel. The US forces bombed their bureau in Afghanistan during the Afghan invasion, while some of their journalists have been kidnapped and tortured. It is the only network that Osama Bin Laden trusts, while reluctantly the US is also relying to (and almost desperately trying to control) the network.

Their groundbreaking talk shows changed the socio-cultural context of the Arab world, breaking barriers, and discussing things previously considered taboo. Offended and feeling fundamentally being attacked, a lot of highlighted Arab countries threaten to cut diplomatic ties with Qatar, the owner of the network, over and over again. Such is the boldness and the magnitude of the influence Al Jazeera has, in providing nothing but the truth and the balanced arguments that comes with it.

This is a very essential book on the fascinating story of Al Jazeera, from the difficulties of starting the network to their struggles and near-collapse experiences, from their first ever media triumph to breaking the ranks of the world’s top global media.

Written between the story of Al Jazeera, lies a very important knowledge in understanding the vital role of media in a war, the politics in the battle to win the hearts and minds of the viewers, and the very rough journey Al Jazeera had to go through in defending their principle of providing a fair chance to every side, and ultimately providing the truth. This is easily one of the best books I’ve ever read.

An excellent book that completely changed the way I see the role of money in our society

“The History of Money” by Jack Weatherford

Deeply rooted in history, this highly fascinating book traced the evolution of our current money system back from the days of commodity currencies in ancient civilizations, to the birth of coins in Lydia and to the electronic currency in today’s modern world. Along the way, the author describes very vividly the way each society throughout history utilized their form of medium of exchange, giving a complete set of perspectives on people’s relationship and attitude with money.

Which raise a premature issue, will today’s currency such as dollar and yen will soon join in the scrap box of history among ancient currencies such as cowrie shells, salt, guinea, and ducat?

I can’t think of a better way to learn everything about India than by reading this book

“Holy Cow: an indian adventure” by Sarah Macdonald

From the very introduction of the book, I thought this would be a hilarious journey the author had in living in India, a kind of light and entertaining book. Although it is a hilarious one, the book, to my surprise, is a very deep and moving journey. It’s a journey filled with disgust and anger at first, revealing the country’s in-your-face poverty, dirtiness and “organized chaos” in an excruciatingly detailed and bluntly honest flavour; with a change of tune of the author later on, as she begins to understand more about the meaning of life India has taught her.

In an easy-going style of writing, the author takes us to the beautiful journey of her spiritual quest, from being an atheist to become a person who are very exposed to many different faiths, attending Hindu’s Kumbh Mela, visiting the Dalai Lama, performing Judaism rituals, learning about Islam in Kashmir, learning about Sikhism in Amritsar, learning about Jainism and Sufi, exploring Christianity in the west, even visiting a living “Divine Mother” and other gurus. Along the way, subconsciously the author also teaches us the many different ethnics in India, where they live and mainly concentrated in the big subcontinent, and the socio-cultural struggle. The country’s strong social and culture dominance in everyday life is also vividly described, through the stories of the many people she met and befriended.

All the tragedies, the deaths and despairs; all the festivals, colours and the cows in the middle of the road; and all the spiritual quests and gurus are all so very real, as if I was the one who’s doing the journey. India is a very big and complex country, but the author can describe it almost effortlessly, with great details, in a fun and gripping style of writing. A really great book, well done.

Brilliant book written by one of only a handful of journalists who have interviewed Bin Laden in person

“The Secret History of Al qaeda” by Abdel Bari Atwan

How frightening it is to read the history of an extremist group and learn that despite the casualties, the destructions and the terror they have caused; their condemned actions have a good underlying reason.

As one of only a handful of journalists who have interviewed Osama Bin Laden in person, Abdel-Bari Atwan wrote this book based on his first-hand knowledge from visiting Al Qaeda camps and interviewing key players, among other in-depth researches. And his findings are intriguing.

What begins as a fight against the corrupt oil-rich Saudi government, the Zionist state of Israel and US foreign policy to control the Middle East; Al Qaeda has evolved from a regional radical organization fighting for oppressed Muslims, to become a global ideological umbrella with many small cells all over the world, conducting complex financing and mastery over the cyber world. The growth and violence are inevitable, especially after the US-led coalition invade Iraq with no legitimate reason, killing hundred of thousands of civilians and destroying the country into a total mess.

What struck me most with this book is the psychology of suicide bombing. How the worst socio-economic and political conditions leave many people with no other option whatsoever in their lives other than to fight against the regime that have killed their family and friends, and destroyed their home and country; by becoming a suicide bomber.

If I was stranded in an island and can only bring 1 book, this would probably be it

“Passing Time in the Loo: v. 2” by Steven W. Anderson

The book is a 606 pages of worthy library filled with seemingly all the information you need to know to be a very knowledgeable person.

In a condensed but well-written style, the book has a perfect balance between fiction and non-fiction collection: short biographies of 25 of the most influential personalities in history, summary of 35 of some of the best business books (from Tom Peter’s “A Passion for Excellence” to Peter Lynch’s “One Up on Wall Street”), 19 synopsis in personal effectiveness books (like “7 habits of highly effective people”), 80+ classical literature summaries (such as Dickens, Shakespeare, Thoreau, Wilde, Voltaire and Hemmingway), and even the synopsis of some of the most influential books for mankind such as Darwin’s “Origins of Species”, Marx’s “Das Kapital” and Plato’s “The Republic.”

Moreover, the book also has a huge volume of inspiring quotations, a no-nonsense guide to a lot of practical things, challenging quizzes and miscellaneous trivial facts from geography, to sports, art and music. Although the title of the book is slightly damaging its credibility, I can’t deny that with the short narrative for each topic, it is indeed best to read the book in a toilet. After all, can you think of a better place to learn and contemplate some of the best knowledge in life?

In the end I still don’t know whether I like it or hate it

“Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

I can see why there are so many mixed reviews on this book. It is a very smart book, it is thought provoking and it does give several interesting angles on certain things, but my God how arrogant this guy is. Throughout the book he pretty much mocks everyone that he can think of (from Newton to Soros) from a bias point of view, without considering other elements that determine a success. And his unnecessary complex style of writing gives the impression that he’s trying too hard to be recognized as an intellectual, thus sometimes make the book exhausting to read.

Nonetheless, true to his central theme of randomness, he can present a random range of pretty interesting topics, while providing a lot of excellent examples to back up some of his fine theories, such as the ones about “survivorship bias.” And actually he can tell engaging stories, although most of the concluding analysis ended up being an anti climax. But what is up with his long list of “references” at the back section of the book, while claiming in the introduction that he “detest the practice of random use of borrowed wisdom.” Do I smell a hint of hypocrisy here?

In the end I don’t even know whether I like or hate this book, but one thing for sure, this is a book with an attitude. Ultimately, this could easily be a key reference for those who are strongly believe in Random Walk Theory and Efficient Market Hypothesis.

My market bible

“Inside the House of Money: Top Hedge Fund Traders on Profiting in the Global Markets” by Steven Drobny

Ever since I bought Inside the House of Money, the book has been some kind of a market bible for me. I read it when I got interested with the financial market, I referred to it when I wrote my finance dissertation, I hang on to it when I was looking for a job and indeed I often seek inspirations and knowledge from it as a market practitioner.

In its core, the book provides us with the essence of what global-macro hedge-fund world is all about, through the interviews with 13 of the utmost experts on the game. Bottom line, if you like the Market Wizards books by Jack D. Schwager, then you’ll definitely love this book

Read the book and you will never see the world in the same way again

“The New Rulers of the World” by John Pilger

John Pilger is one of the best journalists in the world, and this book shows us why. He’s sharp, focused and brave, he tell the raw truths about international politics as it is, and let us have our own opinions based on the facts that he investigated. Mind you though, it is exactly because of this nature that sometimes he can be seen as a little extreme to the left and too idealistic.

But nevertheless this book will shows us that he’s very well referenced, that he dig out the painful facts straight from the main sources, and he can seriously challenge us to see reality from many different points of view. Read the book, and you will never see the world in the same way again. And it’s a good thing.

Exquisite piece of wordcraft

“Devil take the Hindmost: A history of financial speculation” by Edward Chancellor

Tragic, exuberant and somewhat unchanged; there are probably no other place where history often repeated itself, other than the financial market. And in “Devil Take the Hindmost”, the history of financial market speculation is being brought back to life, through Edward Chancellor’s exquisite writing.

Written in the pages of the book, there were once a Publicani in the Roman Empire era on 2nd century B.C., the primitive form of financial market in Hotel Des Bourses in 16th century Antwerp, and the Tulip Mania in 1630s Netherlands. There were also the eras of Stockjobbing in London’s Exchange Alley, the infamous South Sea Bubble of 1720 where Sir Isaac Newton lost a fortune, and the famous 1929 Great Depression. And there were of course the Masters of the Universe and the Big Swinging Dicks of the 1980s, the Asian Crisis in 1997 and the astounding story of Long Term Capital Management.

With stories from Europe to US, from Japan to Nicaragua, from Indonesia to Mongolia, the book also describes the political and economic complexity of each era, and the irrational human behaviour that has never really changed since the beginning of time. But most significantly now than ever, when it was written in 1998, the book pointed out the root causes of what 10 years later would be known as the Global Financial Crisis. Bottom line, it’s a must read book, especially for market practitioners.