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Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

From A Field Guide to Getting Lost:

For many years, I have been moved by the blue at the far edge of what can be seen, that color of horizons, of remote mountain ranges, of anything far away. The color of that distance is the color of an emotion, the color of solitude and of desire, the color of there seen from here, the color of where you are not. And the color of where you can never go. For the blue is not in the place those miles away at the horizon, but in the atmospheric distance between you and the mountains.

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Blue is the color of longing for the distances you never arrive in, for the blue world.

More here.

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Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China. Evan Osnos wrote an engaging and insightful book on today’s China. In his words, the book “is an account of the collision of two forces: aspiration and authoritarianism.”

The hardest part about writing from China was not navigating the authoritarian bureaucracy or the occasional stint in a policy station. It was the problem of proportions: How much of the drama was light and how much was dark? How much was about opportunity and how much was about repression?

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Now and then, a surge of patriotism provided a form and direction to people’s lives, but it was, as the Japanese author Haruki Murakami wrote of nationalism in his own country, “like cheap liquor”: “It gets you drunk after only a few shots and makes you hysterical,” he wrote, “but after your drunken rampage you are left with nothing but an awful headache the next morning.”

I long for a day when people are less nationalistic, and anyone could travel and live in any country he/she wants.

If there’s a clear trade-off, to what extent is having a say and control over our life more important than a capable government who can make our country strong and prosperous?

PS: Evan’s book has the most detailed account of Justin Lin’s experience I’ve come across.

Floating on a Malayan Breeze: Travels in Malaysia and Singapore. Observations of the different culture and lifestyle between Malaysian and Singaporean, as well as racial and political background.

The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement. Overall I enjoyed reading about the fictional characters that David Brooks created to illustrate a range of social science findings and philosophy. There are plenty of sensible advice on learning, happiness, and success, but I think some of the findings are not as robust as he makes them seem to be.

we are primarily wanderers, not decision makers…We wander across an environment of people and possibilities. As we wander, the mind makes a near-infinite number of value judgments, which accumulate to form goals, ambitions, dreams, desires, and ways of doing things.

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The truth is, starting even before we are born, we inherit a great river of knowledge, a great flow of patterns coming from many ages and many sources. The information that comes from deep in the evolutionary past, we call genetics. The information revealed thousands of years ago, we call religion. The information passed along from hundreds of years ago, we call culture. The information passed along from decades age, we call family, and the information offered years, months, days, or hours ago, we call education and advice.

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But looking at her son, Julia didn’t really get the sense that the unsupervised Harold, the non-homework Harold, the uncontrolled Harold was really free. This Harold, which some philosophers celebrate as the epitome of innocence and delight, was really a prisoner of his impulses. Freedom without structure is its own slavery.

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“The real great man is the man who makes every man feel great,” the British writer G. K. Chesterton wrote.

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“There is no craving or demand of the human mind more constant and insatiable than that for exercise and employment,” the Scottish philosopher David Hume wrote, “and this desire seems the foundation of most of our passions and pursuits.”

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Recognition and wealth, she had learned, do not produce happiness, but they do liberate you from the worries that plague people who lack but desire these things.

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Life is change, and the happy life is a series of gentle, stimulating, melodic changes.

 

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Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman. Hirschman lived an extraordinary life. He’s an intellect with original ideas and on-the-ground experience as well as talents to make the most out of life. His Exit, Voice, Loyalty still provides a useful framework for me to think about things.

Pleasure disappoints, possibility never!

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Being open to many possibilities meant accepting uncertainty and embracing the fact that one could learn from experience in the world by forfeiting presumptions that one could not know it all.

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Hirschman’s odyssey can be read as a journey with no particular end, the life of an idealist with no utopia because he believed that the voyage of life itself yielded enough lessons to change who we are and what we aspire to be; to require and stay on course toward an abstract destination threatened to deprive the journey of its richest possibilities.

The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success. Many good advice from Megan. I clearly suffer from the impostor syndrome. Here‘s Megan on EconTalk.

The fear of being unmasked as the incompetent you “really” are so common that it actually has a clinical name: impostor syndrome.

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The metaphor for our age is the disappearance of high monkey bars from playgrounds across the country. We have made it impossible for children to fall very far–and in so doing, we have robbed them of the joys of climbing high.

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Dweck encourages parents and teachers to praise children for their effort, rather than their intelligence, talent, or looks.

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As anyone who has raised a kid can attest, the same is true of children: swift and consistent punishment is by far the best way to change behavior…Consistency is probably the most important tool of parenting.

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Learning to fail well means learning to understand your mistakes, because unless you know what went wrong, you may do the wrong things to correct it…Most of all, learning to fail well means overcoming our natural instincts to blame someone–maybe ourselves–whenever something goes wrong. Societies and people fail best when they err on the side of forgiveness. Not forgetting: the information gained by failing is far too valuable to be lost by pretending that nothing happened.

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The secret to catching your mistakes quickly is simple: treat outside information as if it were inside information. When someone tells you you’re off track, don’t look for reasons why they may be wrong; listen for reasons why they might be right.

Rethinking Housing Bubbles: The Role of Household and Bank Balance Sheets in Modeling Economic Cycles. The authors’ main argument seems to be that asset bubbles in durable goods (housing in particular), when financed with excessive debt, have been the main driver of US business cycles. I wish they had focused more on the insights gained from experiments and how well they fit with historical events, or ways we could apply those insights to analyse various situations.

 

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Robert Kaplan provides a good background on the geopolitical issues surrounding the South China Sea in his recent book, with separate chapters on the countries involved (Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines, Taiwan).

Think his base case is that there won’t be war: Europe is a landscape while East Asia a seascape, and the sea reduces the chance of war (e.g. warships travels more slowly, while navies and air forces do not occupy territory the way armies do). He sees China’s position towards the South China Sea akin to the US’ position towards the Caribbean Sea in the ninetieth and early twentieth centuries.

Similar to the author, I came away with more questions and no stronger convictions on what will happen, but I gained a better understanding of the historical background and countries’ perspectives.

Here is a good NYT review of the book, and here‘s a talk with the author.

Excerpts:

Some background

More than half of the world’s annual merchant fleet tonnage passes through these choke points, and a third of all maritime traffic worldwide. The oil transported through the Malacca Strait from the Indian Ocean, en route to East Asia through the South China Sea, is triple the amount that passes through the Suez Canal and fifteen times the amount that transits the Panama Canal.

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The heart of the drama revolves around historic claims to three archipelagoes: the Pratas in the north, the Paracels in the northwest, and the Spratlys in the southeast. The Pratas are claimed by China but controlled by Taiwan. In any case, there is little argument that these are Chinese islands. China and Taiwan actually agree to a significant extent on the South China Sea, except that China does not consider Taiwan a party to the claims because in Beijing’s eyes Taiwan is not a state…The Vietnamese have a strong claim to the Paracels, but the western part of this archipelago has been occupied by China since Beijing took control of it from a failing Saigon government in 1974, near the end of the Vietnam War. The Chinese and Vietnamese have, in fact, solved their disputes in the Gulf of Tonkin: a tribute partly to solidarity between the two countries’ communist parties and their pragmatism…Then there are the Spratlys, which have been claimed by the Philippines only since the 1950s…Unlike the Vietnamese claims to the Paracels, which the Chinese privately respect and worry about, the Chinese don’t respect Philippine designs on the Spratlys. Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei all, too,  claim features in the Spratlys.

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…once the Law of the Sea came into play, China’s cow’s tongue—or historic nine-dashed line—suddenly had little legal meaning or rationale…Well, the Chinese say that they have authentic historic claims, while the Law of the Sea only came into being in 1982, and is therefore only part of the story. (Though China ratified the Law of the Sea treaty in 1996, it does not really adhere to it; whereas the United States adheres to it, but hasn’t ratified it.) In 2009, Chinese officials put out for the first time a map with the nine-dashed line and began interfering with other countries’ survey ships. In 2011, the Chinese made a submission to the United Nations actually making a claim of a full two hundred nautical miles around each of the Spratly Islands.

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Vietnam is Southeast Asia’s “principal protagonist” in the South China Sea dispute, asserting sovereignty over both the Paracel and Spratly islands, “based on historical usage dating back to at least the 17th century,” write scholars Clive Scofield and Ian Storey.  “If China can break off Vietnam they’ve won the South China Sea,” a top US official told me. “Malaysia is lying low, Brunei has solved its problem with China, Indonesia has no well-defined foreign policy on the subject, the Philippines has few cards to play despite the country’s ingenious boisterousness and incendiary statements, Singapore is capable but lacks size.”

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The problem is all sides, with partial exception of Malaysia, are guilty of playing domestic politics with their claims, and by energizing the nationalistic elements in each country, reaching a compromise becomes more difficult.

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Asia’s arms race may be one of the most underreported stories in the elite media in decades.

China’s perspective and strategy

However, throughout Beijing, one is inundated with the nostrum, While China only defends, the United States conquers…Hard-liners and soft-liners alike in Beijing—deeply internalizing how China suffered at the hands of Western powers in recent past—see the South China Sea as a domestic issue, as a blue-water extension of China’s territoriality…Indeed, the South China Sea and its environs are China’s near-abroad, where China is reasserting the status quo, having survived the assault upon it by Western powers. But because the United States has come here from half a world away in order to seek continued influence in the South China Sea, it is demonstrably hegemonic.

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China understands power, and thus it understands the power of the United States. But it will not tolerate a coalition of smaller powers allied with the United States against it: that, given the Chinese historical experience of the past two hundred years, is unacceptable. As for the nine-dashed line, as one university professor in Beijing told me: sophisticated people in government and in the foreign and defense policy institutes here recognize that there must be some compromise down the road, but they need a political strategy to sell such a compromise to a domestic audience, which harbors deep reservoirs of nationalism.

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Andrew F. Krepinevich, president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, believes that the nations of the Western Pacific are slowly being “Finlandized” by China, meaning they will maintain nominal independence but in the end abide by foreign policy rules set by Beijing. He points out that China’s People Liberation Army (PLA) sees U.S. battle networks—“which rely heavily on satellites and the internet to identify targets, coordinate attacks, guide ‘smart bombs’ and more”–as its Achilles’ heel. The Chinese, he goes on, have tested an antisatellite missile in 2007, have reportedly used lasers to temporarily blind U.S. satellites, and have been conducting cyber-attacks on the U.S. military for years. This is in addition to the large numbers of ballistic and cruise missiles and other anti-access/area-denial weaponry that the Chinese have been fielding to undermine U.S. forward bases in Asia.

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The aim is not to go to war, but to adjust the disposition of forces so that, as in the case of Taiwan, but writ large across the Western Pacific,  the U.S. military increasingly loses credibility as to what It can accomplish. According to Yale professor of management and political science Paul Bracken, China isn’t so much building a conventional navy as an “anti-navy” navy, designed to push U.S. sea and air forces away from the East Asian coastline.

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The very buildup of military power by China means that paradoxically China can wait and not use force. For as each year passes, China’s naval position strengthens. Beijing’s goal is not war-but an adjustment in the correlation of forces that enhances its geopolitical power and prestige.

Taiwan’s strategy

Henry C. K. Liu is the deputy director general of Taiwan’s National Security Council…”The longer we survive,” he told me, “the more likely that political changes will happen in mainland China itself.” We can buy time, it is all about playing a weak hand well was what I heard throughout Taipei. In the meantime, Liu said, “we must try our best to maintain the status quo” through creative diplomacy and hard military power. “We can only try, through our own defense capabilities, to make those on the mainland see that the use of military force is unthinkable.”

Vietnam’s view towards China

Explains another Vietnamese diplomat: “China invaded Vietnam seventeen times. The U.S. invaded Mexico only once, and look at how sensitive the Mexicans are about that. We grow up with textbooks full of stories of national heroes who fought China.” The Vietnamese historical hostility to China is, in part, artificially constructed: modern-day Vietnamese emphasize the resistances against medieval and early modern Chinese domination, while downplaying the many centuries of “close emulation” of China and the good relations with it, in order to serve the needs of a strong state identity.

Singapore’s view

In fact, no foreign policy and security elite in the world struck me as quite so cold-blooded as that of Singapore’s. Example: though the Philippines, like Singapore, is enthusiastic about countering Chinese power, the Filipinos, in the Singaporean view, “are emotional and unstable and thereby make the security situation worse.” The Singaporeans are more comfortable with serious adversaries than they are with unserious friends. One Singaporean summed it up this way: “At the end of the day, it is all about military force and naval presence–it is not about passionate and well-meaning talk.” Typically, everybody I met in the various Singaporean ministries insisted that frank conversations must be off the record: public diplomacy, in their view, is overrated, and is another thing they have no illusions about. “Spider-Man needs a suit to make him strong; we needed an outsized armed forces,” explained a defense official. While Singapore has only 3.3 million citizens, it boasts an air force the same size as Australia’s, whose population is 23 million.

 

 

 

 

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The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead: Dos and Don’ts of Right Behavior, Tough Thinking, Clear Writing, and Living a Good Life – Advice from Charles Murray for people in their twenties. Here‘s an interview with the author. Given that I’m sympathetic to many of his advice, does it means I’m a curmudgeon?

The Art of Learning: A Journey in the Pursuit of Excellence – Josh Waitzkin shares his thoughts on learning, based on his experience in chess and tai chi. The concepts make sense but they are not easy to implement (e.g. knowing how important deliberative practice is doesn’t mean we can do it).

GDP: A Brief but Affectionate History – Good background on GDP. I would prefer it to go into more details.

The One Hour China Book: Two Peking University Professors Explain All of China Business in Six Short Stories – Quick read. The authors provide some statistics to illustrate the big issues in China. I didn’t learn much from it, but it could be interesting for people less familiar with China macro.

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An interesting book on the rituals/routines of many famous artists. Different routines work for different people. There are those who like to work in the morning and those who can only work at night; those who prefer a simple, uncluttered life and those who prefer more chaos and spontaneity; or those who always feel compulsive to work and those who are more relaxed.

To me, the most attractive (and surprisingly common) lifestyle are those who follow a rather simple yet balanced routines. The day goes something like this: make breakfast, work intensely for a couple of hours, have lunch and take a walk, work a few more hours, maybe take another walk, have dinner, socialize and relax at night (listen to music, play games, read, etc.).

Excerpts:

The book’s title is Daily Rituals, but my focus in writing it was really people’s routines. The word connotes ordinariness and even a lack of thought; to follow a routine is to be autopilot. But one’s daily routine is also a choice, or a whole series of choices. In the right hands, it can be a finely calibrated mechanism for taking advantage of a range of limited resources: time (the most limited resource of all) as well as willpower, self-discipline, optimism. A solid routine fosters a well-worn groove for ones’ mental energies and helps stave off the tyranny of moods.

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“My experience has been that most really serious creative people I know have very, very routine and not particularly glamorous work habits,” [John] Adams said in a recent interview. “Because creativity, particularly the kind of work I do–which is writing large-scale pieces, either symphonic music or opera music–is just, it’s very labor-intensive. And it’s something that you can’t do with an assistant. You have to do it all by yourself.”

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[Filmmaker Claude Lanzmann talking about her lover Simone de Beauvoir] — There were no parties, no receptions, no bourgeois values. We completely avoided all that. There was the presence only of essentials. It was an uncluttered kind of life, a simplicity deliberately constructed so that she could do her work.

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Character, for [Immanuel] Kant, is a rationally chosen way of organizing one’s life, based on years of varied experience–indeed, he believed that one does not really develop a character until age forty. And at the core of one’s character, he thought, were maxims–a handful of essential rules for living that, once formulated, should be followed for the rest of one’s life.

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[William James] — The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work. There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision, and for whom the lighting of every cigar, the drinking of every cup, the time of rising and going to bed every day, and the beginning of every bit of work, are subjects of express volitional deliberation.

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“I don’t think that my life style is like most other people’s and I’m rather glad for that,” [Glenn] Gould told an interviewer in 1980. “[T]he two things, life style and work, have become one. Now if that’s eccentricity, then I’m eccentric.” In another interview, Gould described his preferred schedule: I tend to follow a very nocturnal sort of existence, mainly because I don’t much care for sunlight. Bright colors of any kind depress me, in fact, and my moods are more or less inversely related to the clarity of the sky on any given day.

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The Undercover Economist Strikes Back: How to Run-or Ruin-an Economy. Here‘s a good panel discussion on the book.

The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant TechnologiesDidn’t learn as much as I thought, perhaps because my expectation was too high. Here‘s a critical review by Robin Hanson, and here‘s a podcast interview on EconTalk.

Work saves a man from three great evils: boredom, vice, and need. –Voltaire

A History of Future Cities. Good historical background on how four interesting cities – St. Petersburg, Shanghai, Mumbai, Dubai – have evolved and influenced by the West.

Transforming India. The more I read about Indian politics, the more complicated it seems. The rise of regionalism is a major trend that’d continue to shape India’s future, which suggests even a Modi-led government might not be a game changer as many expect.

The Upside of Down: Why the Rise of the Rest is Good for the West. The title sums it all.

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