Friday, November 21, 2014

Reader's Reader

This book is for book lovers and lovers of history. It is also for the Gen Y, who prefer to consume the written word in bite sizes. Yet ironically, "Books - A Living History" is a big-sized book. It contains the history and development of the written word right from the Mesopotamian period up to today's virtual books that reside on Tablets. It is amazing that mankind's history of the written word has turned full circle, after 6,000 years. The earliest forms of writing were inscribed on rocks found in caves and in the emergent civilization, cuneiform represented the form of writing in the Sumerian period. Pointed stylus were used to impress signs (icons) and numbers on clay tablets. I don't have to belabour the point that writing today can be made using stylus on the glass surfaces of tablets computers. Perhaps the keyboard is the real innovation in the development of writing and the printed book.

This book is a collection of bite-size chapters tracing the development of the written word from the Mesopotamian period, which eventually evolved into the form of books that we are familiar with today. Thus you can read the book in any order, from front to back, cover to cover, or jump from chapter to chapter, front-forwards or in back-reverse order. Although the book has 224 pages, it is filled with 266 illustrations of which 214 are in colour. I admit I didn't count. This is what the book says and somehow, I trust these numbers.

Thumbing through the table of contents, you will see that the book begins with the world of ancient writing, including religious books such as the Hebrew Bible, ancient Buddhist texts and the Koran amongst others. The invention of the printing press and the role that Gutenburg played in the explosion of printing and the dissemination of knowledge to the masses through the printed book gave rise to the age of enlightenment.

The book also explores issues related to printing and the press, such as copyright, the genesis of the concept of royalties and the rise of the bookstore The book concludes with modern developments of the book such as the mass market printing that gave rise to distinct categories of books such as the Penguins and the paperback (discussed in a chapter), novels, encyclopedias, manga, children's books, illustrated books, and finally the virtual books, more commonly called ebooks today.

I read a couple of chapters. They aren't that long and you probably can finish a chapter in 10 to 15 minutes but come away enlightened by the nuggets of knowledge within. The illustrations heightened the reading experience.

Highly recommended.

Saturday, March 01, 2014


Singaporeans will recognise this word. It isn't by any means the English of the Queen. Yet
this is the singular word that comes from that variant of English known as Singlish. Maybe some linguist might want to deconstruct and trace the root of this word. To the rest of us Singaporeans, we just use it in our unique eateries known as Foodcourts, but actually was, and still is, known as hawker centres.

For those foreign to this word, it means reserving a seat at a hawker centre. This is usually done by placing a packet of tissue paper on an empty seat, which in effect is saying to one and all would-be diners that the seat is taken. Well this is not the only Singlish word listed. There are others such as 'teh siu dai', 'kopi o', 'Michael Jackson' and others. Hold on, 'Michael Jackson' is Singlish? Well of course not. Its one of those lingoes that has entered Singaporean coffeeshop speech that refers to a specific concoction of drink - mixed Singapore style, of course. This 111 page book is very informative, even for an old Singaporean like me. There are pictures in all pages and words are used sparingly only to explain the word or lingo. This serves as a manual of sorts, particularly for those of us who are often bewildered by the names of various concoctions of drinks available at Singaporean heartland coffeeshops.

If you are foreign to these terms, and I don't just mean a foreigner in Singapore, this will be a good book to leaf through before you head down to the coffeeshop to demonstrate solidarity with the heartland crowd.

Saturday, December 21, 2013


It is rare to find a book, and a literally heavy tome at that, that is written and published by a residents' association. "Down the Seletar River - Discovering a hidden treasure of Singapore", is just one of them. It is a coffee table book in the sense that almost every one of its 284 pages contains at least a picture. Many pages are pictures. And each page is somewhat glossy and thick, which is necessary to bring out the vibrant colours of the photographs that fill the book. And did I say that it weighs a ton? So it has to stay on the table. You probably can't take it along with you as you could an Economics textbook. Yes, it is that big. But juicy in the extreme, and I am not referring to the fruit trees that littered the landscape of rural Seletar.

This book contains a wealth of information about that part of Singapore called Seletar. It is not exactly a kampong tucked away in an obscure part of the island of Singapore. No, it is a place that is known to many British, Australian and New Zealanders who served in the their respective armed forces right up to the nd of the 1960s. And it is not too far away from the former British Naval Base, where I grew up. In that sense, Seletar is a close cousin. Whereas the Naval Base was where the ships were, Seletar was where the airplanes were. As the book points out, "the Naval Base at Sembawang and the British Royal Air Force (RAF) base in Seletar...were to serve as the frontline of British defences in the East.". Since then, Seletar Airbase has been home to the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF), and civilian planes fly out of Seletar Airport.

Since the British finally left Singapore in the early 1970s, Seletar has been re-developed gradually. Today, it is difficult to pinpoint a particular place that is Seletar. Rather it is now south of Yishun - a satellite heartland, encompassed by Seletar Hills, Jalan Kayu, Seletar Airbase, Yio Chu Kang and Lorong Buangkok.

Given the wide expanse of land that it used to occupy, the history of the area is rich and varied - all of which are documented in this book. The book recounts the development of the land into rubber plantations in the early 1900s. Before the decade of the 1910s was over, the Bukit Sembawang Rubber Company, which owned and developed rubber plantations, including those in the Seletar area, had become the largest rubber plantation company in Singapore. Pioneers such as Lim Boon Keng, Lim Nee Soon, Tan Chay Yan, Tan Kah Kee and Song Ong Siang all made their fortune in plantations. From the late 1940s onwards, Bukit Sembawang Rubber Company began to build houses in Seletar. This set off the real estate boom in the 1950s and 1960s in that area, initially catering to the families of the British soldiers, but gradually taken up by wealthier locals. While many of these early single and double storey semi-detach houses remain today, newer houses with improved roads and amenities have followed. The book also dwells into the rich flora and fauna that dots the Seletar landscape and highlights the origin of landmark schools, roads and foods that were to make Seletar a destination.

The book contains a wide selection of reminisces of its residents. This is not surprising as it is put together by the residents of the area. These help to put live into the narrative and showcase a part of the development of Singapore as a community of peoples. I enjoyed reading the book, and the great selection of photos that accompanies the narrative has made this a must-have book on the coffee table.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Different read

As of this writing, the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy has been on the New York Times Best Sellers list for 23 weeks. Ellen Degeneres featured it in her talk show. But I wouldn't have known about this had not a colleague of mine drew my attention to it. And when he mentioned sadomasochism, my interested was piqued. But I live in squeaky clean Singapore, so would such a book with this type of content be allowed on the island? It probably won't be in the bookstores here, at least not any time soon, so if I wanted to read it now, I'll have to buy it off or some similar online book retailer. But declaring it at customs may present a problem.

But hey, we live in the internet age. There are eBook versions available too, which you can buy off these same online retailers, or get the bootleg versions. So I got the eBook version - all three of them in a 'trilogy' package and spent the better part of the last 2 weeks reading it from cover to cover. Actually, I skimmed in books two and three. You just want to get to the juicy parts. ;-)

I agree with many that this is primarily a romantic fiction. I have never read Mills and Boon before, so this counts as the first real romantic fiction that I have ever read. Romeo and Juliet don't count. And what do I think about it? It is a well written story, although at times unconvincing and a tad tiring with the sexual trysts and generous number of sexual narratives. The two protagonists appear to be sex starved individuals. Every time they are together, they think only of, and eventually, have sex, whether of the vanilla or kinky flavour. But I suppose that's what readers would expect and why this book is hot. This is perhaps why it is still up there in the New York Times best seller list.

What is unrealistic? A super rich but emotionally disturbed guy who pilots a helicopter. The cause of his disturbances? It is sexual in nature, of course. It appears complicated and you'd need to read the book to begin to figure out what it is all about. I'd have second thoughts, though, about climbing into the cockpit with him, much less flying from Portland to Seattle in it. But that's what the male-adjusted and female romantic protagonists did, until the helicopter crashed and burned, sans our protagonists, i.e.

The progression of the story is interesting enough. It begins with an unplanned meeting and instant attraction. The man, Christian Grey looks for a female submissive relationship, which the female protagonist - Anastasia Steel, expressed misgivings and rejects, all through the first book - 50 Shades of Grey. However, as the story unfolds, Ms Steel eventually accepts, enthusiastically, may I say, a submissive mode. You get a hint of this through the book covers. Book one is that of a tie (in more sense than one) and ends with a handcuff on the cover of the third book.

The ending is somewhat surprising. It wasn't what I'd expect given the tension and doubts in the relationship between the two protagonists from the beginning. But I won't spoil it for you by writing about it here. Go read the book.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Steve Jobs

This is an extemely fascinating biography of one of the icons of the 20th and 21st centuries. Yes, his life straddled 2 millienia, and he obtained fame in both. Last century, he, with Steve Wozniak, founded Apple Computers, which went on to become wildly successful. In his "Second Coming" towards the end of the last century into the 21st, he reinvented Apple as a company of mobile products which paved the way for Apple to become the most valuable company on earth in this new millenium. Steve Jobs has always viewed Apple as a products company. And his product design philosophy is that it must be simple, beautify and closed. Because of this strategy, and the creative people he goaded to produce of their best eventually created the most beautiful products on planet earth - think iPod, iPhone, iPad, MacBook, and before that, the wildly successful Apple ][. Steve Jobs, however, never considered the Apple ][ as his product. That would be the Macintosh computer, which though it introduced many innovative technologies (the graphical user interface, the mouse) flopped as a product.

Yes, Steve Jobs was not perfect even though he demanded perfection in whatever he built. Some people who worked on the original Macintosh computer burnt out working with/for him, as the chronicler, Walter Isaacson, related in the biography of Jobs, simply titled "Steve Jobs".  Isaacson is brutally frank about Mr Jobs in this book. Fortunately, Jobs left him to write whatever he thought he should, and Isaacson did just that, warts and all. It is a very fascinating account. I grew up looking envious at his Apple machines while I bought and used the more affordable IBM-compatible PCs, and wondered about the man. But he was a very private person although he did behave in ways that people either loved him or hated him. Some loved him and then hated him, but strangely never the other way around. Those are the kinds of emotions that one has to go through with him, his wife not excepted.

Jobs was charming, selfish, and spoilt. His exacting ways resulted in highly innovative products that has made fanatics of Apple products the world over. That said, Jobs never always produced the things that became successful. And not all the things that he produced succeeded. Ultimately, his genius was to surround himself with highly creative people, such as John Lasseter of Pixar and Jonathan Ive of Apple, to work his magic through them. All  the rest were bozos to him.

Unfortunately he was so driven that he failed to heed warnings about his health. Some thought that his health was permanently damaged by him running 2 very successful companies - Apple and Pixar - at the same time. But I suppose he wouldn't have had it any other way. He was not a person who listened to others easily. Unfortunately, his strict dieting habits, acquired since young, also contributed to his failing body.

Brilliant as he was, he had to battle the emotional hurt he suffered all his life from the knowledge that he was an abandoned child. One wished he had been able to overcome it, but he never did. This is perhaps the saddest part of an otherwise eventful and creative life. He had done it all. No regrets. RIP.

P.S. I still don't own any Apple product.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Why and wherefore

Singapore's President SR Nathan will be leaving office in 10 days' time. His last day as President is the 31st of August 2011. He has served the longest of all the Presidents Singapore has had - 12 unbroken years (well there was the matter of his re-election 6 years ago, but he was returned un-opposed). His Presidency has, by all measures, been a successful one. Of course, there are detractors, people who think that his actions (or in-actions) as President has lowered his standing among all previous Presidents. But these, in my opinion, are not the majority view. During his presidency, Mr Nathan has written a short book on his time as a Seaman's Welfare Officer in the 1950s. He had graduated from the University of Malaya. He wrote that the reason why he got the job was because he had written about Seamans in Singapore. The post was a new one and in the first few years, Mr Nathan shared the responsibilities with fellow civil servant, Mr Goh Sin Tub. Gradually he defined his own work, which was to help one and all Singapore seafarers with their problems, which ranged from lodging, meals, unemployment to unfair treatment by their employers. He has spent a fair amount of time describing the social situation of Singapore seafarers, and occasionally about foreign seafarers stuck in Singapore, and the challenges and hardships they faced.

Mr Nathan gives some anecdotes of seamen and their families that he had helped, and described how these same people have risen in their social standing in life. This is an easy-to-read book, and absorbing in its contents, if only because it describes real situations and real people. I used to live in the Singapore Naval Base, and as a youth, have had neighbours who sailed the seas for a living. While many had fathers around every day, like mine, these others will be gone a considerable length of time. They are sailing the seas, I am told. I even wrote an essay in Primary school about my ambition - to be a sailor - without quite realizing the harsh and hard life of a sailor - people that had often to turn to others, like Mr Nathan, for help.

Why the title of the book "Why am I here?" I thought it wasn't such as great title at first. I mean, all of us would ask that question of ourselves. A book that focuses only on a few years of one's life hardly qualifies for a biography. But as it turns out, that question helped to define Mr Nathan's years of service, not only as a Seaman's Welfare Officer, but also as an Ambassador, and ultimately, the President of Singapore. Read this book to find out how exactly he learnt to ask that question.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Quagmire

Bob Woodward's name, in my mind, is synonymous with Nixon and Watergate. He is a chronicler of US government and US Presidents ever since his book, "All the President's Men", documented the Watergate affair. Since then, he has written about the Presidencies of Clinton, Bush Snr and Bush Jnr and most recent about President Obama. Of course President Obama's term in office is hardly over. Woodward's book, "Obama's Wars" is about the wars that the President has had to fight in 2008-2009. Specifically these wars refer to the left-over conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. More specifically, it is about Afghanistan and Pakistan. The book describes in detail the involvement of the many people around Obama, whose jobs were to figure out how to get the US out of the Afghanistan quagmire. The main players in the White House, besides Obama himself, includes the Secretary of State, Mrs Hiilary Clinton, VP Joe Biden and White House staffers such as Rahm Emmanuel and David Axelrod. The National Security Council (NSC) consisting of General James Jones, Admiral Mullen and their deputies formed another "division" in the war deliberations. The US Department of Defense is represented by the able and just retired Robert Gates, and his field commanders Generals McKiernan, McChrystal, and Petraeus formed a formidable 3rd division. On the opposing side, are President Hamid Kazai of Afghanistan, and President Zardari of Pakistan. The reasons for all these wars, the Taliban and Al Qaeda, remained largely a black box in the narrative.

Quite beyond these names are the accounts of the almost day-to-day issues that swirled around the conduct of the Afghanistan war during the years 2008-2009. Indeed the account rarely mentions the year, just the day and the month as events moved along. This is a fascinating study, if nothing else, into the workings of the US government White House at the very highest levels. Woodward writes it as it as he sees it - the various actors, their actions, concerns and fears, and the often swaying discussions on the Afghan war. The narrative draws out the often conflicting strategies of the military and the government towards a common objective. This "common objective" itself was deliberated over quite extensively, as described in the book.

Its a long and detailed narrative. One cannot help but feel what Woodward thought about certain people, such as Biden, whom he describes as being long-winded and and tended to be unfocused during the many strategy review meetings described in the book. General Petraeus was quoted as saying the "vice president tended to get lost in his own verbiage...". One gets the impression that Joe Biden wasn't a very lucid thinker. But he had been asked from the beginning by Obama to play the devil's advocate, be the "contrarian". This book is full of such personal observations, some of which may not be complimentary. So if you want to know a bit more about what people thought about other people in this book, and process by which Obama ordered a surge and set a timeframe for the eventual pullout of American troops from Afghanistan, this book would satisfy that curiosity.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

The Big Short

The name "Michael Lewis" is always a draw when it comes to 'storybooks' about the finance industry, particularly the bond markets. I first read him in 'Liar's Poker', perhaps his most famous, and hilarious, book on the goings on in the now defunct Saloman Brothers. Since then Mr Lewis has gone on to write more books, the latest of which is "The Big Short", which is billed as a  true story. Unlike many books on the Financial Crisis that plagued the world in the 2007-2008 period, Lewis writes intimately about the people caught up in the maelstrom. He is a good story teller, which is why his books are popular. "The Big Short" tells the stories of several protagonists - investors and small time fund managers, who placed bets against the prevailing sentiment that the sub-prime mortgage market would never crash. Their stories were about a search for information, for clarification, for understanding the behaviour of the markets that had basically malfunctioned. That is the polite way of putting it. In fact, as our protagonists were to discover, the entire financial system had gone to the dogs. Nobody in the big Wall Street Investment Banks (including Citigroup, Merrill Lynch, Bear Stearns, and yes, Lehman Brothers) cared that what they were doing, selling 'crappy bonds' to unsuspecting investors, was anything but ethical. The abuse of trust and the greed has been documented widely since then.

In the telling of the stories of individuals' search for truth about the innovative investment products coming out of Wall Street, Lewis points the finger straight at the ratings agencies, Standard & Poor and Moody's, for facilitating the widespread fraud that culminated in the eventual collapse of such names as Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers, with hallowed institutions such as AIG and Citigroup needing vast infusion of cash from the US government to stay afloat. All these are the stuff of legends now.

The Big Short relates how a few investors, would be fund managers, decided that the sub-prime mortgage market, which spawned the now notorious CDOs (Collaterised Debt Obligations), was bound to fail one day, when people start to default on their mortgage loans which they could not afford in the first place. When this would happen in a Wall Street flushed with CDOs was the great unknown. By conventional wisdom, mortgage repayments carried little risk of defaulting, so any investment product based on these mortgages would also carry little risk. And the ratings agencies gave them their stamp of approval, without understanding the complexity of the CDOs.

True enough, our protagonists were proven correct at the end, which netted them not a small sum of money. The book can be heavy going at some points as Lewis tries to explain the more technical aspects of investments in bonds. He readily admits that the subject is not simple, and this perhaps has taken the enjoyment out of reading Lewis this time around. Perseverance is needed, but at the end of it, it is still a good story.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Crisis upon crisis

Intentionally or not, I have been picking up books on the financial crisis of 2008. First there was "Fool's Gold", a largely US-centric account on Investment banks, such as JP Morgan,  "The Crunch" which is a British-centric account around Norther Rock. And then there is that all-rounded discussion by Prof Paul Krugman in "The Return of Depression Economics", where his analysis of the financial crisis spanned the times and the globe, from the Latin American crises in the 1980s to Mexico in the 1980s and 90s, and forward to the Asian financial crisis in 1997, arriving at the most recent crisis in 2008. Such a broad survey linking common and originating factors illustrates the truth of Solomon's wisdom, that there is no new thing under the Sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9). His is a unique account among a sea of books that have already been written on the same subject.

The latest I have read is Fintan O'Toole's "Ship of Fools", which, if nothing, is a damning account of the Celtic-Tiger years in Ireland. (The term, "Celtic-Tiger" is taken from the term, 'Asian Tiger' referring to Singapore, Hong Kong, S Korea and Taiwan that experience rapid economic growth and development between 1960 and 1990). Though Ireland also experienced rapid economic growth towards the end of the 1990s and into the first decade of the new century, the account in this book focuses, quite unflatteringly, on the almost pervasive corruption and incompetence of the powers that be in the very highest of government and society (read: bankers, and property developers).

My prior impression of Ireland is that illustrated by the Irish-American Frank McCourt's in his award-winning book, "Angela's Ashes". The book was depressing reading because it described an Ireland that was poor and hopeless. So much so that, as Mr O'Toole pointed out in his book, one of the things that characterized the Irish people is emigration - away from Ireland, for good.

For almost a decade, Ireland seemed to have gotten itself out of its depressing cycle of civil conflict, poverty and depression. Electronic giants such as Intel, Motorola, and Apple made a bee-line for Ireland to set up a significant presence. Ireland's economic growth became the stuff of legends and impressive case studies in management literature.

But the statistics have lied. And while the industries are real, lured to the island through generous tax incentives, the over-priced properties that came up in those years were a mirage. The account does not attempt to hide Mr O'Toole's contempt for the character and integrity, or more precisely, a lack of these qualities in people like Bertie Ahern, erstwhile PM of Ireland in the Celtic-Tiger years and his fellow government ministers. Names have been named in the book, and it doesn't need to be repeated here. I have no personal interest in what happens in Ireland, but it is incredible that a country can fall into such a state at all in the first place. Were there no opposing voices to right the wrongs? Is Parliament sleeping all those years? Is the media dead? Are there no regulators? Sadly, according to Mr O'Toole, all of these parties are either intentionally ignorant or complicit in the 'crime'. The rest of the good people, I suppose, have simply left for greener pastures across the seas.

There is a lesson in this for countries with mal-functioning democracies, and of countries which believe only in one-party rule.

A disturbing book.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Against the odds

Some say "Manners maketh the man". Others say "Looks maketh the man". But there is yet a third - "Trials maketh the man". Of course in this day and age, the word 'man' includes woman. And this is the subject of the book "Innovate! How great companies get started in terrible times", written by Thomas A. Meyer.

Meyer makes the point that, as the saying goes, 'in tough times, the tough gets going". In his narrative in this book, he documents how some well-known and enduring companies were actually borne during economic recessions. His narrative goes as far back as 1797 and continues right up to 2008, where the phenomenon described in his book continues. The companies that were borned of adversity  are exceptional companies, and the people who founded them are exceptional people - like Thomas A. Edison, Walt Disney, Milton Hershey, Robert W. Johnson, and Mary Kay, right up to Steve Jobs. Meyer believes that much can be learnt from the experiences of these entrepreneurs. He has helpfully organised the book according to the qualities demonstrated by these people who would not give up easily - qualities such as perseverance (Edison), Pain (Walt Disney), Intuition (Steve Jobs), Simplicity (Robert Johnson), Failure (Hershey), Faith (Mary Kay), Insignificance (Lonnie Johnson of Hasbro), Greed (AIG), Integrity (George Foreman) and of course, Luck (William Procter and James Gamble).

Each narrative is short and simple but effective. He states the lessons to be learnt through a narrative of the underlying story that validates the point. For example he illustrates the power of starting from the bottom with the example of how Robert W. Johnson Jr, the son of one of the founders of Johnson & Johnson, chose to begin his career in his father's company by first working as a mill-hand in its factories. 10 years were to pass before he assumed control of the company as its CEO. Meyer showed how asking for help can move a person's passion forward after a series of failures in the example of Milton S. Hershey, the creator of the Hershey empire. And as they say, this book is chock full of similar examples and lessons.

It is a great book to learn how not to give up when everything seem to work against you.