Posted by: yannaungoak | May 27, 2015

Transitions

It seems odd that the only times I feel compelled to write these days are when I’m on a flight, alone, with my phone switched off and my brain somehow set to “transition mode”. It is also odd that this “transition mode” only sets in on my flights from Singapore to Myanmar, but never the other way around.

Maybe going back to Singapore – back to the wife, back to the house – is too comforting to push me into being reflective. That transition is more of a switching off, where a certain domesticatedness automatically takes control inside me, and I am usually unconscious of it until I’m well in the thick of it. An obvious, adult, set of worries surrounds me on my flights back to Singapore: of laundry getting done, paychecks getting processed, and of finding places for dinner with the wife. No questions are asked beyond “How do I go about getting these tasks done?”, and then automaton-esquely, the Singaporean in me goes about doing them when I land.

The flights going the other way are always more jarring, requiring of a calibration, and a consciousness of a transition. It is a less obvious stream of thoughts, in the sense that if the random person sitting beside me on the plane were to guess what’s going through my mind, they’d probably get it wrong. Less obvious, and less adult as well, and definitely having less to do with ascribing personal responsibility to myself.

It is the transition of suddenly having to come to terms again with Myanmar, and the absurdities of the pace, of the transition that it itself is going through, and the leeway I have in choosing how much I want to be a participant in it, or just be a spectator watching from the sidelines.

I think the reflectiveness is really induced by the need to make that choice all over again, or rather something between that pseudo-freedom to choose and a recalibration of myself to the choices I have implicitly and explicitly, already made.

Questions pop up. “Why the hell did that stupid population control law get passed?” “When are they going to announce more details about the elections?”

They get more abstract. “How might all these moves be strategically important?” “What is the long game everyone is playing?” “What is the scope for ‘change’ and ‘transition’ anyways?” “How do we decide what is collectively good for 50 million people?”

I then get reminiscent. “Hmm I remember this lecture about public choice I attended at school.” “I want to go back and read Ken Arrow’s book on social choice.”

And so I drift into nerdiness. Away from the responsibility of having to actually do anything, to the pleasure of just being able to think about things, at least for the two and a half hours before hitting the tarmac at Mingalardon.

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Posted by: yannaungoak | December 16, 2014

Social Media Diet

Last week my wife went on a social media fast as part of a thing for her work. No facebook, twitter or instagram. So I decided I’d go along for the ride and do a fast too. Except that I couldn’t really manage a strict fast – as I found out a couple of days into the thing – so I downgraded to a mere “diet”.

Of course, during the stretches of time where I did manage to not go on social media, I had to find a way to fill the gaps of time formerly taken up by my procrastination routine. It was baked into muscle memory: grabbing my phone and thumb-flicking half interestedly through a feed on the touch screen, favoriting, liking and retweeting posts, as instinctively as a dog would as it goes about marking territory with pee. I suppose the whole process resembled the peeing dog in more ways than one. I would favorite tweets that linked to interesting articles to remind myself to read them later. I seldom went back. But the fact that I had a whole catalog of awesome articles to peruse in my “spare time” left me with a comforting feeling, like marking one’s territory on the feed driven ephemeral internet of today, before the scent of familiarity that you adorned it with evaporates and it goes back to the morass of “this article was almost viral with the (insert niche here) crowd for two days in late 2014”-ness.

I don’t know if it was something I forced myself to do, in a self-conscious, “oh I have to replace my social media-ing with more wholesome, learned things” kinda way, but I took to flipping through a thick tome in my bookshelf that was a most apt substitute for social media: George Orwell’s collected essays. Five minute reads ranging from classics like Shooting An Elephant and Politics And The English Language, to his book reviews like the one written by Bertrand Russell about Power, to his series of opinion pieces written for the Times called As I See It. Much like the articles that appear on my social media feed, they were on topics that ranged all over the place, but were nonetheless spot-on in terms of coinciding with my interests. They were about Burma, politics, history, economics and all delivered in that quintessential way that is Orwell, sincere and lacking in bullshit. If someone went through and distilled all the thousands of tweets I’ve favorited and then distilled them again a second time and then a third, maybe it will begin to look like that book of essays, albeit about a different age, one that I’m living in and don’t really care all that much about.

I’d go more in detail about my thoughts on each of the essays themselves but now I’m boarding a plane to Yangon.

Posted by: yannaungoak | April 9, 2014

Game of Thrones: Season 4 Episode 1 “Two Swords” Recap

I’ve been wanting to write recaps for Game of Thrones since a few seasons ago, but, you know, stuff gets in the way.

I promise, no spoilers, and if I’m telling you any background information, it’s only stuff that will be relevant to what’s happening in the episode. If I link to anything, I’ll try to make sure the links don’t contain spoilers, and I will include a warning flag if they do.

I didn’t even know the name of the episode was “Two Swords” until I went online to catch up on the recaps. I thought it was fitting how the episode began with Ned Stark’s greatsword, Ice, being re-cast into two separate blades, and ended with the vagabond Arya Stark reclaiming her sword, Needle. Two swords with special names: one belonging to the father whose death marked the beginning of the Starks’ downfall; and the other belonging to the daughter who is dealing with the trauma of the Red Wedding in the only way she knows how: revenge.

“Lots of people name their swords.”

“Lots of cunts.”

I love the back and forth between Arya and the Hound, one of the show’s many awesome travel buddy pairings (Tyrion and Bronn, Jamie and Brienne). This one also showed what swords mean to different people in Westerosi society. For the Hound it is a simple tool for survival, unlike those highborn “cunts” who have to name them, and define their status based on whether their house possessed a rare Valyrian steel blade.

Let’s start at the beginning again before I get too far ahead of myself.

Title sequence

We visit King’s Landing, Dragonstone, a Winterfell in ruins, Castle Black up at The Wall, and a new location in Westeros! The Dreadfort, which is home to the Boltons. Yes, that guy who orchestrated the Red Wedding, Roose Bolton, is the lord of the house, and he has a deranged sociopath of a bastard son, Ramsey Snow (Snow being the name that all bastards of highborns have to take in the North), who was having a hell of a time tormenting Theon Greyjoy last season. Also, in case you haven’t already realized, their sigil (which is also shown flying over the Dreadfort in the title sequence) is a flayed man hung upside down on a St Andrew’s X-cross. “A flayed man holds no secrets” is a common saying among the Boltons. These guys ain’t nothing to fuck with. Sadly we didn’t actually see any Boltons in the episode itself.

Over on the eastern continent of Essos, we finally see all three of the cities of Slaver’s Bay: Astapor, where Dany initially got her army of Unsullied in the most mother-of-dragons bad-ass move evar; Yunkai, which was the city that she captured at the end of season three with the whole lot of them crying “Mhysa!” (mother); and Meeren, which has been just added to the title sequence, and this is the one that Dany’s army is seen marching towards in this episode.

King’s Landing

The episode opens with Tywin overseeing two swordsmiths whom he has brought over from the East to melt down Ned’s greatsword, Ice.

“There are three living smiths who know how to rework Valyrian steel, the finest of them was in Volantis. He came here to King’s Landing at my invitation”, Tywin told his son smugly while presenting him with one of the newly forged swords.

So, what’s the big deal with Valyrian steel?

A lot of the legends in Game of Thrones center around Valyria, which was an old “freehold” (not quite sure what kind of political entity that is, but I think it’s something like a republic) which met a cataclysmic ending called the Doom of Valyria, about 400 years prior to the time of the TV show. It no longer exists and nobody dares to go there, because scary magic stuff still looms there. Geographically, this place is in the East, halfway between Slaver’s Bay, where Dany is now, and the Free Cities, which was where Dany started off when she was sold to Khal Drogo in season 1. It was definitely a place of powerful magic. Their lords were the only people in the world who had dragons. The Targaryens are descended from the Valyrians – they fled Valyria after the Doom and conquered the seven kingdoms of Westeros. That’s why Dany’s mother tongue is High Valyrian (remember that awesome awesome scene). Also, people in that part of the world still speak languages that are derived from High Valyrian. You can think of Valyrian as Rome with magic and dragons.

Valyrian steel, then, is the steel that was forged in Valyria, with dragon fire, which imbued it with wonderful magical and metallurgical properties. For example, a Valyrian steel blade does not lose its edge, even after repeated use. Since Valyria no longer exists, any and all Valyrian steel blades are just leftovers from back then. Hence their rarity and power as status symbols among the houses of Westeros.

In the show, we’ve only seen three Valyrian steel blades:

  • the aforementioned Ice, owned by the Starks
  • Longclaw, which was owned by Jeor Mormont (now deceased lord commander of the Night’s Watch, and father of the exiled Ser Jorah Mormont, a.k.a. Mr Friendzone). Now it has been passed on to Jon Snow, in season 1, after Jon saved the lord commander’s life from the ice zombies who tried to kill him in his sleep.
  • the dagger used by the Catspaw assassin, who tried to murder Bran Stark while he was in a coma in season 1. It belongs to Littlefinger.

Ok, coming back from that tangent, we visit Tywin and a clean-shaven but handless Jaime (haven’t seen him like that for two seasons). In the usual sequence involving Tywin putting his children in their place, daddy Lannister tries to convince his elder son to leave the Kingsguard and return to the Lannister’s seat, Casterly Rock, and rule in place of Tywin, who is busy serving as hand to his woefully incompetent grandkid, King Joffery.

You can really see Jaime’s transformation. He is really concerned about his reputation as “oathbreaker, kingslayer, man without honor”, and wants to salvage his honor (and also stay as close to the royal family as possible so he can fuck his sweet sister, the Queen, but of course you don’t tell your dad that). He tries a hand at dropping witty, cocky lines like his old self: “as long as I’m better than everyone else I suppose it doesn’t matter”, but at this point he seems to be doing it in a very self-conscious way, almost parodying pre-amputation Jaime.

Tyrion, Bronn and Podrick are tasked with welcoming a dignatory from Dorne, Doran Martell. The Martells are the house which rules over the Southernmost region of the continent of Westeros called Dorne, which is famous of its fine wine, fine women and hot sun. It turns out that Doran Martell is unwell, so his brother Oberyn Martell has come instead. Upon hearing this, Tyrion is visibly shaken, we will find out why soon.

It’s really interesting to note the style that the TV show has adopted for the Dornish. The riders at the head of the delegation were wearing some kind of turbans, and clearly they are the most exotic looking (ethnically and culturally) out of the houses of Westeros. The TV show seem to have given them a Spanish/Moorish/North African vibe, which I think really fits how they are described in the books. Dorne is not just most exotic region of Westeros, the people there consider themselves a separate kingdom entirely from the rest of Westeros, although maybe they are in some kind of vassal state relationship to King’s Landing, I think? That’s the reason why Oberyn Martell, when we meet him later, says he’s a prince. The rest of the houses of Westeros have lords and ladies, the Martells have princes. Although “prince” here is used in the “head of principality” sense, and not in the “son of a king” sense.

Aaaanndd… we get to meet the prince himself, with his paramour Ellaria Sand, and a display of fine young women, where else, but at Littlefinger’s brothel. The Dornish don’t discriminate, Oberyn insists that the young “procurer” who brought the whores over also undress along with the young lady who is now already in bed with Ellaria. The young man is the same one whom we saw seducing and bedding Loras Tyrell in season 3, and acting as spy for Littlefinger. Before the scene gets too entertaining, we hear the “Rains of Castamere” being hummed next door, which immediately catches Oberyn’s attention. Ellaria freaks out because she knows what’s up, and we get a hint at how much of a bad-ass Oberyn is. That grin on his face while he twisted his dagger into the Lannister soldier’s wrist borders on psychotic.

After an awkward intervention from Tyrion, we hear Oberyn’s story. Officially he’s in King’s Landing as a guest at Joffery and Margaery’s upcoming wedding, but his real motive is to take revenge on the Mountian (Gregor Clegane), first and foremost, for raping and mudering his sister, and for Tywin and pretty much the entire Lannister clan, for being pompous assholes who think they are better than everyone else. “Tell [Tywin] the Lannisters aren’t the only ones who pay their debts”. I love the creeped out look on Tyrion’s face after the conversation.

Sad Sansa is still totally devastated from her entire family being murdered by her husband’s family, and wouldn’t even eat her favorite lemon cakes. Tyrion continues in his awkward intervention mode, this time with awkwardness aplenty coming from the Shae-Sansa-Tyrion paramour-handmaiden-wife love triangle and that thing about having to confront his wife after her family was murdered by his dad. Tyrion is even more bitter and paranoid than he usually is. And to make things worse, Shae, the only person that he shares affection with, is being all we-never-do-it-anymore, right in his bedchamber. But ooops, another handmaiden was listening in on them and promptly goes to report it to Cersei.

Jaime gets a prosthetic hand! Made of gold. Fitting for a Lannister. It was fitted onto him by ex-maester Qyburn, whom we saw back in season 3 treating Jaime’s stump. He has a mysterious air about him and we still don’t know yet why he was discharged from his position as maester. Hmmmm….

As an aside, the exchange between Cerset and Qyburn was interesting. Cersei said something about thanking him for his help in the “other matter”, to which he replied by asking her if “the symptoms have abayed”. Hmmmmm….

Cersei fills Jaime in on why she’s become more of an alcholic. War, seige, having to give way to those sneaky Tyrells, having to marry off her beloved son to that “wicked little bitch” Margery, and herself having to marry Loras, a renowned “pillow-biter”. I had to look up “pillow-biter” on urbandictionary. It turns out to be exactly what you’ve think it refers to.

With all that shit that she’s been having to deal with, and her twin/lover missing a hand and not being there when she needed him most, she’s not into the sexytimes with Jaime, much to his frustration. “Not now? When? I’ve been back for weeks!” #twincestproblems

A few more scenes and we can wrap up this episode’s events in King’s Landing:

Margaery and her grandmother are discussing necklaces for the royal wedding when Brienne shows up, much to lady Olenna’s amusement. Brienne fills Margaery in about the shadow that killed Renly Baratheon back in season 2, but Margaery has of course moved on to bigger and better things. Sociopaths who are actual kings are worth more than gay dudes who are only contenders to the throne in her book, apparently.

Brienne then goes on to meet Jaime to remind him of her quest and her oath to the late Catelyn Stark that she would rescue the Stark girls from the Lannisters. Jaime duly reminds her that the lady she swore the oath to is dead and that in fact, there are no Stark girls left to rescue. The elder one is now a Lannister, having wedded Tyrion, and the younger one has disappeared for months, presumably dead.

Jaime gets to deal with more shit, this time from his nephew/son/liege lord. Joffrey (who now seems to have statues of himself all over King’s Landing) does his sneer/head jolt thing that he pulls whenever he’s trying to diss someone and tells Jaime off, saying he’s too old to achieve anything noteworthy, and odds are that losing his sword hand won’t help. And poor Jaime just couldn’t pull of the snarky comebacks anymore like he used to. He tries, but the old Jaime swag was clearly missing. Joffery on the other hand, remains perfectly annoying as always and effortlessly triggers the disgust reflect of all the millions of people who watched the episode (oh oh oh and on a side note, we get to hear about Ser Duncan the Tall, who is the main character in three of George R R Martin’s novellas called the Tales of Dunk and Egg, based on events that happened in Westeroes about 90 years before the time of the TV show.)

Sansa gets a visit by Ser Dontos (of Captain America fame from season 2 episode 1), who came by to thank her in a really creepy stalkerish way for saving his life, by presenting Sansa with his mother’s heirloom necklace. It seems really random that this dude shows up 2 seasons later but mayhaps he will be important in the coming episodes.

The Free Cities

Dany is in full-on mother of dragons mode AND HOOLY FUCK LOOK AT THE SIZE OF THE DRAGONS!!!

She is reminded by Ser Jorah “Friendzone” Mormont that her children will never be tamed and even something as simple as a dead lamb will excite them to the point where they will snap back at their mommy.

We then get to see the new Daario! He looks much better than old Daario, although he still lacks the purple beard and gold mustache from the books. We first meet him in the midst of an endurance challenge with Grey Worm, captain of the unsullied. The dude seemed to have been slowly getting comfortable with his new life. No longer being threatened with nipple slicing seemed to have helped him in the self-actualisation department.

New Daario is also smoother with the game-spitting, the old one was almost comical in his awkwardness. He offers locally grown flowers for the Khaleesi in the guise of discussing strategy on their march to Meereen. Before Dany has time to smell her suitor’s flowers, the army has to stop upon the wight of the creepiest little girl who seems to have been crucified just for decorative purposes so that she can be displayed on one of the mile markers on the road to Meereen. One dead girl for each of the 163 miles.

We leave Dany pissed-off with her righteous abolotionist-rage for this episode and move on to the (almost) frozen North of Westeros.

The Wall

Speaking of fierce, pissed-off ladies, Ygritte is making arrows to “kill every crow” while Tormund Giantsbane confronts her by saying she could have killed Jon Snow easily if she wanted to, and that her feelings for him clearly was a factor in letting him escape with his life. Meanwhile their reinforcements/creepiest wilding tribe of weird German accented, ritually scarred, baldy dudes known as the Thenns meet up with them. And whatdya know, they start BBQing a human arm. These guys are going to be interesting.

Up in Castle black, Jon is all healed from Ygritte’s love/hate arrows and is facing a tribunal of elder Night’s Watchmen, consisting of Maester Aemon (who has a soft spot for Jon after their little heart-to-heart in season one about family and duty), Allister Thorne (who has been a jerk to Jon since his early days when he started his training to become a brother), and Janos Slynt (that corrupt, two-timing leader of the Goldcloaks in King’s Landing who was sent by Tyrion to the Wall in season 2, who also clearly doesn’t like Jon). Jon admits he got himself some wilding loving, but then updates the tribunal with details about all the Wildings’ plans and numbers, 100,000 free folk from united clans, plus giants.

Since Commander Mormont died last season in Craster’s Keep, the Night’s Watch has been leaderless and it seems like the situation is tense with many brothers vying for the top spot and none quite trusting each other.

Somewhere in the Riverlands

Finally, the best scene of the episode! Sandor “man’s gotta have a code” Clegane a.k.a. the Hound, is riding around with Arya while she keeps annoying him and pointing out flaws in his moral code. Their path is strewn with dead bodies from the elder Clegane brother’s exploits (the Mountain LOVES his pillage, rape and torture).

They chance upon an inn overrun by drunk Lannister soldiers who are merrily drinking their fill and attempting to rape a girl. One of the Lannister men also happen to be Polliver, who in season 2, captured Arya and her friends, killed Lommy Greenhands and forcibly took Sansa’s sword, Needle.

Arya, keen to strike off a name in her revenge-prayer, runs into the inn. Immediately Polliver goes all fanboy crazy on the Hound and starts trying to charm him into joining their merry torture-happy crew of King’s men. “Gold, silver, more daughters… you’ll do well for yourself.”

The Hound, unfortunately, is only there for the chicken.

“You’re a talker. Listening to talkers makes me thirsty… and hungry. Think I’ll take two chickens.”

The Hound has the best lines this episode.

“What the fuck’s a Lommy?”

“If any more words come out of your cunt mouth, I’ll have to eat every fucking chicken in this room.”

The best fight scene ever ensues, and boy does Arya get her revenge.

She repeats the exact same words that Polliver said to Lommy before trusting Needle into his throat.

So, we got reaquainted with most of the storylines in this episode, except Stannis and Melisandre in Dragonstone, and Theon and his torturer Ramsey. We also haven’t caught up with Mance Rayder beyond the wall in some time, which is a pity because we could all do with more Ciaran Hinds in our lives.

In the aftermath of a decisive victory by the Lannisters at the Red Wedding, the Kingdoms are in the final stages of the War of the Five Kings. Only Stannis, weakened after his defeat, remains as a nuisance to the Lannisters. But old rivalries are brewing, especially with Oberyn’s vendetta, and maybe Tywin will see that he has some debts to repay himself. Dany seems to be at the height of her power and continues mowing down the landscape with her army of freed slaves, causing disruption in a land that is sadly stable in their slaving/exploitative ways.

Strong start to the season, and we’ve been promised by the producers that all the storylines are going to crescendo this season. Can’t wait for next Monday.

Posted by: yannaungoak | April 4, 2012

Myanmar’s 2012 By-elections

The winners and their districts (click to enlarge)

Thanks to @Altsean for letting me use their map, and Ko Linn Yaung for the pictures of the candidates!

Wow, what a day that was! I can only imagine the excitement and jubilation in the streets of Yangon. Even from here in Singapore, the live updates on the internet kept me on the edge of my seat from dawn on Sunday till dawn the next day. Seriously, a year ago, this was a pipe dream, now by every indication, it’s feels like the genuine start of a new era.

We’ve all been pessimists our whole lives, that’s what we’re taught to be when we grew up in Burma. Throughout election day, we gritted our teeth when we heard of all the ways they cheated: people’s names missing from ballot boxes, votes covered with wax so people couldn’t write the check marks properly, misinforming people on how to check the boxes so their vote will be voided, dead people voting, pretty much every trick in the book and then some. But when the polls close and the unofficial counting started, one seat after another went to the NLD, despite all the “irregularities“. Still, we thought this can’t be it, they’ll never let the NLD win every single seat, especially the ones in the capital, Naypyidaw. And so we eagerly waited for the official results. The real surprise was when the Burmese state TV news anchor read out the official results on Monday night. So far, votes from 40 of the 45 seats have officially counted, and every single one of them went to the NLD.

Here’s the video of the announcement (in Burmese).

So these 40 seats are divided into:

According to the constitution, the by-elections are held a year after the general elections because those members of parliament who were appointed cabinet ministers have to give up their seats in parliament. So, these 45 seats were all held by the ruling party USDP big-shots, most of whom were ex-military generals.

So, 38 seats out of 664 seats in parliament is a tiny minority by the standards of mature and vibrant democracies, but there’s more to the story than that.

First, we have to look at what has been happening since the new government formed last year. After the 2010 election, the USDP, which is basically the junta’s brainchild, controlled 58% of the upper house and 57% of the lower house. The military (mainly a new crop of generals who were promoted shortly before the formation of the new government) automatically controls 25% of the seats in both houses. So we are talking about close to 90% of seats controlled by people from (or aligned with) the old junta. Everyone thought it was a joke. But things started changing. The president turned out to be genuinely wanting to reform the country. And then they released Aung San Suu Kyi, and then over the course of a few months, most of the political prisoners. And then after that the world took notice. Hilary Clinton came to visit in December, and then dignitaries from one country after another. Then everyone wanted to invest in Burma. Everyone wanted to go on holiday in Burma. So, what was going on?

When I asked people what they thought of the 2010 elections, most said it was going to be the same thing as before. Some had an inkling of optimism, they would tell me about how they knew this or that person who was interested in politics and public affairs and was running for a seat for the USDP. These people weren’t ex-generals, they were everyday people who just was wanted to be part of something new, betting on a slim chance that they might actually have some autonomy in the decision making process in the new parliament. The fact of the matter was that the old junta didn’t have 600 generals to fill the entire parliament, they had to recruit civilians. And in addition, as president Thein Sein shows, an ex-general and a general (who can only follow orders) are very different things. They were all just waiting until they knew it was safe to express their real opinions. Everybody knew how messed up the country is, they were all just too afraid to say it. So, when the tide turned, everyone was enthusiastically one-upping another in their zeal for reforms. After all, they want to be remembered as someone who did the right thing, not filthy pigs for whom no curse word was strong enough.

Second, the fact that everything is new makes it possible for the democratic process to actually function well. Most of the members of parliament are either the new generals who have never been in a political position before, or civilians who also weren’t in a position of power before. This meant that there were no vested interests for them to protect. Sure, the members of the old guard who are paragons of corruption were also there in parliament, but they were outnumbered by the new members, who had no pre-existing privileges that they could lose in the process of reforms.

Third, so given that the NLD is stepping into power as the largest minority party in parliament, they really have the potential to drive the changes that are inevitably going to take place in the coming months and years. Nobody is wed to dogmatic ideologies. Even the USDP, they’ve never had ideology, they’ve only operated on the basis of fear. Take the fear away, and people start acting and thinking on their own. And amidst all this enthusiasm, these members of parliament’s concern for narrow self interest might just give way to a genuine concern for the greater good.

So, apart from all the politics, the thing that really moved me about Sunday’s election was how intimate it felt. It’s not politics, it’s about hope, about that feeling that something that has been wrong for so long is now going to begin to be made right. And it wasn’t just hope in the form of talking heads on TV waxing eloquently. Ask anybody in Yangon, most people would tell you they know at least a handful of those candidates personally. Myint Oo, who won in Thanatpin, is the father of one of my close friends from high school. Zayar Thaw, who won in Naypyidaw, is a ex-rapper, who’s of our generation, went to school with a few of my friends. From the candidates who ran for other parties, another high school friend, and a guy who taught in the same volunteer program as me in Singapore just a few months ago. And these are just the people I found out about randomly, if I looked carefully I’m sure I’ll find a lot more people I know personally. People were even complaining on facebook that everyone they knew had suddenly become a politician. But that’s exactly what’s great about all this! 50 years of cowering under fear, and now these people are pursuing politics as a vocation. As Weber said, they are moving onward from mere convictions to roles of responsibility. This hope is not false because we’re not going to let it be.

I can go on and on, but let’s leave it here for now. I’ll make sure to post more later.

Posted by: yannaungoak | October 10, 2011

(Book Review) The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan

I know, I know, it’s been like four months since I wrote on this blog. And today I’m just bored from grading exams for my tutorial class so I decided to engage in some fruitful procrastination.

So, these last few weeks I’ve been taking really long walks like every other day, and to pass the time I’ve been listening to audiobooks. And the late Robert Jordan‘s (and now Brandon Sanderson‘s) epic Wheel of Time series seemed like a fitting thing to start on, with 12 eight-hundred plus page books and counting, it’ll definitely occupy my nightly walks for some time.

This review is for the first book in the series, called The Eye of the World.

This stuff is classic epic fantasy. It’s got Lord of the Rings written all over it. In fact you can actually find pretty direct equivalents to the Shire, the Nazgul, Aragorn, Orcs, a female incarnation of Gandalf, and quite a bit more. The world of this series, judging from just this first book, seems to be definitely as rich as Tolkien’s Middle-Earth. Chronologically in this world, prior to the beginning of this book’s story there has been countless ages with heroes and legends and cataclysms and interactions with various fantasy races all with unpronounceable names. Indeed the whole concept behind the Wheel of Time is that time is a cyclical thing and you know, the whole “all of this has happened before, all of this will happen again” concept is drilled into the reader. So yeah, epic scope, hope I make that clear. Twelve books, two authors, still hasn’t ended.

The story starts out pretty slow I thought, in a quiet backwater village that seems inconsequential to anything important that might be happening in the world. But of course things are not as they seem. First of all, the heroes of our story are adolescent denizens of this village, which makes the whole story a coming of age tale (making it a tad annoying at times). And, soon enough, weird visitors start showing up, a mix of good guys and bad guys. And then boom, crazy shit starts happening and our young heroes now have to go off on a great quest! It’s boilerplate fantasy fare.

What kept it from just being a boring rehashing of a coming of age fantasy tale, though, is the sheer richness of the world that Robert Jordan has built. I’ll attempt a half-assed summary of it. So, there is this powerful dark lord who has been imprisoned, and is somehow on the verge of escaping from his prison, and in anticipation of his release, his minions have been preparing the ground for his dominion, and the good guys have been trying to hamper them in their plans. It’s just that most people in the world have forgotten about this grave threat and are going about their lives either worrying about minor things or in other cases being overly worried about irrelevant things (there’s a group of zealot Inquisition type guys who go around torturing and killing everyone they suspect are helping the dark one). So, the only people who seem to know what’s really going on are the Aes Sedai, who are an order of mages/sorceresses, who are the only ones able to wield “the One Power”, which is like the source of the most powerful magic in this world. The thing though, is that the Aes Sedai are all female, so they’re kind of like the Bene Gesserit in Dune. Well, it’s not that men are unable to wield the One Power, they used to be able to in ages past, it’s just that all of the male Aes Sedai went crazy and died off 3000 years ago before our story begins. And guess what, the Aes Sedai have a prophecy about the coming of a man who will be able to wield the One Power and defeat the Dark One, which is of course, another fantasy staple. On the other side of the good/bad spectrum, are the Fades and Trollocs, who are minions of the Dark One. The former are like Nazgul from Middle-Earth, and serve as commanders for the hordes of the latter, which are kinda like Orcs from Middle-Earth, just with heads of various animals and bodies of men. You can see them looking badass in the pictures below.

And that just barely scratches the surface of the story in the first book, which barely scratches the surface of the whole series. There’s tree people, space-time warps, merry ale drinking in inns, ravens that are, well, particularly ravenous, lost treasure, fog-monsters, hippie traveling parties, and all kinds of things going on.

So, what do I think of it? It’s not my favorite fantasy series for sure. The last fantasy book I read was A Dance with Dragons, and comparing that book with it’s intricate plotting and gritty realpolitik to the more adolescent, wide eyed adventurey tone of The Eye of the World, I’d say I’ll go for George R R Martin’s grittiness any day. But that doesn’t mean that the Eye of the World isn’t fun and super enjoyable to get lost in. I’m pretty sure I’ll keep listening to the rest of the audiobooks in this series.

I do have certain complaints about it though. And that mostly has to do with the characters. Again, it might be unfair to compare the characters in this book to the ones in say, more “mature” fare like A Song of Ice and Fire and Dune. But… it seemed like all the characters are either those coming of age types who are young and naive right now but just waiting to become awesome superheroes, or are already really powerful types who have very few flaws. That does make the characters hard to relate to. I never really felt particularly worried about any character’s plight because it felt like you already knew beforehand that they’ll succeed in some way eventually.

And for a world on the verge of being overrun by all consuming evil, people seem to be awfully polite and honorable. The only extant of swearing in this book seems to be the ubiquitous cry “blood and ashes!” And there’s no sex or gory murder or anything of the sort. It’s all very PG. And certain gallant characters spout lines such as “I will hate the man you choose because he is not me, and love him if he makes you smile“, which makes me all emo on one hand and roll my eyes at the same time.

But those complaints aside, if you’re fantasy fan, and don’t mind devoting a huge amount of time reading thousands of pages about a made up world, by all means pick up this book. It’s really fun.

Posted by: yannaungoak | June 11, 2011

(Book Review) Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

So, I thought I should start blogging again. Heheh… it’s been a while.

And today, we have a book review. I stumbled upon this book from this webcomic called Wasted Talent that I often read. So, it’s a steampunk novel set in World War I that has the Germans in giant battle mecha-robots fighting the British (plus French, Russians and others) who… have giant genetically engineered animals like whale/airships which have crews of hundreds of “airmen” living in them. It was too cool sounding not to check out so I googled it and guess what, the book has an accompanying trailer! I think that’s like the new thing now, for novels to have accompanying trailers. What makes it particularly cool for this book though is that it also has really awesome illustrations in it, like this one, and this, and this. In the trailer (below) you can see some snapshots of the cool illustrations that feature in the book too. Novels with pictures are so cool, all of them should be like that.

So, the plot is set at the dawn of the First World War. One of the two main protagonists is the only son of Franz Ferdinand, the archduke of Austria, who gets assassinated and sends all of Europe into a frenzy. The poor kid was only 15 or something and gets dragged out of bed in the middle of the night by his guardian/godfather (who’s an awesome character) to go into hiding. The other main character is a Scottish girl who has a passion for flying thanks to her late father and dreams of joining the “royal air navy”. She pretends to be a boy and ends up joining the air navy to become a midshipman on one of the whale/airships. The boy’s name is Alek and the the girl is Deryn, but changed her name of Dylan to pass off as a boy.

 

I guess it’s supposed to a “Young Adult” book, like Harry Potter or The Golden Compass or something like that, which features adolescent protagonists in a coming of age tale. But the whole time I didn’t feel annoyed by the main characters at all. I think it’s because the plot was so fast paced and just perfectly synchronized so that you never have a boring moment, and yet you don’t feel like the author is adding in action and excitement for it’s own sake. And I think the main characters were sympathizable too. All too often, if you have these young protagonists in coming of age tales you get the whole Harry Potter’esque “he’s super awesome but somehow he acts like he’s the emo loser kid” thing going on, it all seems unrealistic. The two kids in this book do seem more larger than life than typical real life fifteen year olds, but they mess up, they don’t have any secret super powers, and they really seem like naive teenagers thrown into a huge mess of a situation, particularly Alek.

Another commendable thing about the book is that although the setting is a ludicrously fantastical world, the author makes it into something rather believable. I love it when fantasy authors get their worldbuilding right, where it’s fantastical but within the framework of that world, everything has it’s own explanation. For example, the giant airship/whales are an ecosystem all on their own. They float because they are filled with hydrogen (as a result all the crew are only armed with airguns), which is produced by bacteria living in the whale’s gut. The bacteria feeds on honey that is produced by a shipboard colony of bees. Which means the airship/whale refuels by flying over fields of flowers and letting the bees feed on nectar, or by directly digesting massive amounts of starch.

The book also walks a fine line between real history and made up history. For example, the real historical Franz Ferdinand had more than one child, but the book stayed true to his real life romance with his non-aristocratic wife and the resulting dynastic difficulties. And as you may know, the history of the beginnings of World War I is labyrinthine and complex as hell (Germans invading France by way of Belgium to take them out before the Russians in a preemptive strike because they expect the Russians will invade in retaliation for Austria declaring war on Serbia, etc etc). The novel doesn’t skimp out on the gritty political details. Young Alek gets taught all this gritty geopolitics during a fencing lesson.

So, yeah, go grab the book! It’s the first part of a trilogy. I’m reading the second book, Behemoth, right now, and it’s set in a weirdly wonderful steampunk version of Istanbul. The third part of the trilogy comes out sometime this year I think, and there’s talk of this book series being made into a movie, which would be awesome, just for the eye-candy alone!

Posted by: yannaungoak | October 3, 2010

Shows! Shows! Shows!

So, I’m back from spending a week in Myanmar followed by a grueling week of mid-terms. Mid-terms did not go well, despite my spending almost the entire time I was back home with eyes glued to textbooks. Anyways, I’ll have another update about my trip back home pretty soon.

Anyways, tonight I was just randomly searching on Youtube to see if there were videos of shows I went to see in Singapore, and boy was I pleasantly surprised! These Singaporeans with their hi-tech gadgets and their kiasu-ness have recorded pretty much every single show I’ve been to this year with international bands. And unlike usual bootleg concert footage, the sound and video quality is amazing.

Heaven Shall Burn – This is the latest show I’ve seen, it was about a month ago. It was at this really small studio at Fort Canning and there was only about a hundred people. It was pretty amazing, well, I wouldn’t expect any less from these guys. And definitely the heaviest band I’ve seen this year.

Heaven Shall Burn – Endzeit (live in Singapore @ White Studio, Fort Canning Park)

King Ly Chee – These guys came to play for this huge (kinda, by SG standards) festival of regional for indie bands at the Esplanade called Baybeats. It had like three stages, right by the waterfront, and best of all, it was free. There were all these punks in mohawks and leather jackets walking around near confused/excited tourists who just happen to pass by the touristy place while taking photos. Really happy that I caught these guys, I’ve been a fan since I was a teenager. The song in the video is their cover of this Chinese punk band called SMZB, who are apparently one of China’s earliest punk bands.

King Ly Chee – Scream for Life (live in Singapore @ Baybeats 2010)

Slash + Coheed and Cambria – This one’s is my favorite show this year. I went there just excited about Coheed and Cambria but Slash was just awesome! The vocalist for his live band is Myles Kennedy, who’s from Alter Bridge, and man, can the dude sing! They played a ton of the old Guns N’ Roses songs, and a couple of Velvet Revolver songs plus a bunch from Slash’s new solo album. It was so much fun. Coheed and Cambria was good but they played a whole bunch of songs from their latest album (which I haven’t listened to) and random selections from the old ones, I was hoping they’d play The Crowing or In Keeping the Secrets of Silent Earth, but I guess they didn’t want to play many 8 minute songs.

Coheed and Cambria – Welcome Home (live in Singapore @ Fort Canning Park)

Slash (with Myles Kennedy) – Sweet Child of Mine (live in Singapore @ Fort Canning Park)

Smashing Pumpkins – I paid overpriced tickets for this festival they have here called Singfest (which is mostly big-name pop, hip-hop and pop-rock stuff), and was not really into the rest of the bands that night, but Smashing Pumpkins definitely made my night.

Smashing Pumpkins – Tonight, Tonight (live in Singapore @ Singfest 2010)


Rise Against + Muse – I don’t listen to Muse much but they played an epic show, they’re just super-talented and the theatrics were crazy, there were all these lasers and huge screens and giant balloons bouncing around. Rise Against weren’t too shabby either, they’re always great to scream along to.

Rise Against – Savior (live in Singapore @ Big Night Out 2010)

Muse – Undisclosed Desires (live in Singapore @ Big Night Out 2010)

So, that’s all folks. There’s only  one more show coming up for me this year, HATEBREEEED! Yeah! That one’s in November and it’s going to be epic!

Posted by: yannaungoak | September 19, 2010

Mid-Term

I was catching up with my old friends’ La Min‘s and Lin‘s blogs today, and got all nostalgic and felt like doing some blogging myself in an attempt to let the world know I’m still alive and well.

So, things have been rather dreary on the little tropical island. My classes at NUS have begun and it’s already halfway through the term! And man, I have been super busy of late. The thing is, I teach private tuition for O-level and A-level kids as a part-time gig, and I’ve quickly coming to realise that being a full-time grad student does not sit well with having to travel all over the island and do 20-odd hours of teaching a week. Plus, I have to tutor undergrad classes at NUS, and I also teach a volunteer English class on Saturdays. Yeah, so while I do thoroughly enjoy indulging in my passion for teaching, it’s definitely wearing me out. When I get home, 6 out of 7 days a week, it’s usually past midnight.

Well, complaining aside, what else is new? I’m going back to Yangon for a week! Leaving tomorrow (Sunday 19th Sep) and coming back next Sunday. It’s the mid-term break, so I get a week off school before the mid-terms exams start.

And about school itself? Hmm… where to start? First off, everyone except three people in my Master’s class are from China (the People’s Republic, to be more precise). The three being me, a Singaporean Chinese guy and a girl from India. But the entire cohort of graduate students in the economics department is only 18 students, counting both Masters and PhDs, so we do have relatively small class sizes, which is good. And at least for the first semester, Masters students and PhDs have to take the same classes, after that I can still keep taking the same classes as the PhDs, so there’s really no limit to how much torture I can impose on myself (it’s so exciting, serious).

As for the classes themselves, we have the standard four this semester, Micro, Macro, Math Econs, and Econometrics. And now the boring details… Micro is pretty standard, we pretty much go according to the biblical microeconomics textbook by Mas-Colell, Whinston and Green, and it’s being taught by two profs, the first half was by some big-shot visiting prof from Oxford. We’ve done choice, demand, production, and some general equilibrium up to now, but he went pretty fast and it’s all a bit of a blur. For Macro, we’re just doing some dynamic optimization and just finished overlapping generations models. But there’s no mid-term for Macro so I haven’t really kept up to speed with it. We’re not following any textbook for Macro but there’s some set of lecture notes by Per Krussell that the prof’s own lecture notes seem to be heavily based on. Later in the semester we’ll be using a lot of Romer’s Advanced Macroeconomics, and having read some of that book before, I have to say it gives a much clearer picture of the topic than the stuff we’ve been doing up to now. For Econometrics, we have a prof who’s fresh of the boat from doing his PhD and he seems to be a real nice guy. Goes really slow and makes sure everyone understands before moving to on. A great relief for me seeing as how my venturings into the land of probability and statistics in college did not go so well. And finally Math Econs, that’s the one I understand the most! The reason being that up to now we’ve only just covered the stuff you find in an undergrad real analysis class, and thankfully I had the privilege of taking real analysis in college from an awesome, awesome professor. I think in the second half of the semester we will being doing more advanced stuff from A First Course in Optimization Theory by Sundaram, so yeah, looking forward to that.

And for those of you people reading this who aren’t economist-types, lets just say by the end of the first semester, I would have forgotten all the interesting stuff about economics I learned in college and would have replaced them with a bunch of mathematical gobbledygook that I won’t really understand. Well, it’s the road I’ve chosen, and in time hope has it that such gambles might well pay off, so, onward we march.

I’ll report back when I come back from Myanmar, and hopefully things will settle down more. Although I fear the insanity will just escalate as the semester wears on, especially since my tutees are having the O-level and A-level exams in late October-November and they’d want me to come for extra classes, and I’m too nice to say “Well, can’t pass your exams? Too bad for ya”.

I really want to go back to the days when I had time to read, reflect, blog about intellectual things, all that good stuff, but that will have to wait.

Posted by: yannaungoak | June 30, 2010

Long Overdue Updates

Wow, it’s the last day of June already. And I bet it’s been about eight months since I wrote anything substantial about my life in Singapore on this blog. And my small but loyal readership (yes, I know your IP addresses) has asked me from time to time if I’ll start blogging again.

Well, I think it has to do with momentum, when you stop habitually doing something, it’s hard to get the ball rolling again. Also, and this is important, the lack of inspiration. When I first came to Singapore last year, man, it was exciting. Not that there were interesting things going on in my life at that point in time that are no longer happening now, its just that I was excited about things in general. It was about coming back to a familiar place after a long absence. About seeing things with a new set of eyes. It was about feeling that the stuff I had to say and the stuff I thought about were relevant, about feeling that I was relevant.

Well, that understandably fades away as monotony sets in. Boredom and drudgery are evil. Not being excited enough about your life to tell others about it is probably worse.

But that’s no longer true! The tides of change are brewin’!

So, here’s an update about the last few months of my life:

30 June, 2010 – Two important things happening today. (1) It’s the last day of my second job in Singapore. (2) I’m moving house, again! It’s the fourth place I’ll be living in since I got here last August.

Elaborating on (1). Yes, my second job. Since January, I’ve been working as a teacher teaching O-levels and A-levels at the school I used to go to when I was a teenager in Singapore. I was there for one and a half years doing my A-levels in ’03-’04. So, this time around, I came back to work as a teacher through just sheer dumb luck actually (more on that later). What do I teach? Physics and economics, duh!

But I had a blast! The principal, Matthew, is the nicest boss anyone could ever have. And he was the first economics teacher I ever had in my life! He was the one who sparked my passion for economics. I really consider him a great friend, and I’ll always try to keep in touch with him, wherever I might find myself later in life.

Oh, and the students. I’ll really miss them. Especially my A-level economics students. I feel like I’ve truly imparted something upon them, made them understand important things that they shouldn’t forget for the rest of their lives (AD=C+G+I+X-M!). That aspect of being a teacher is probably way up there on the list of “reasons for job satisfaction”, probably the only things that beat it are saving lives and creating original works of art or something.

So, why am I quitting such a satisfying job? Well, let me tell you first about point (2), moving house (again).

So, I’m moving from living with my othercousin and her husband in Choa Chu Kang, to living by myself in Clementi. I’m renting out a room in an apartment owned by an old Singaporean-Chinese couple. So, I’m on my own again, breaking free from the social ties of my extended family. I can’t believe I’ve been living with my cousins for about ten months. After six years of living on my own halfway across the world, I’ve become more acquainted with living alone than living with people I’m close to. So, nothing too strange there, although I’ve never lived in a Singaporean family’s house before.

So, why am I moving in with strangers instead of living with my cousins? The same reason I’m quitting my job. I’m going to be a full time student starting in August! 😀

Yup, after a year of “the real world”, I’m heading back into the snuggly arms of academia once again. I’ll be studying for a Master’s degree in economics at the National University of Singapore. It’s the most prestigious university on the island and it has a pretty good international standing too. Besides, from what I’ve gathered up to now, they run a pretty descent (i.e. rigorous) master’s program in economics, something that schools in places like the US have had cut down on because of funding issues.

And speaking of funding, the best part about the whole affair is that I’m getting a big fat scholarship! Whippeee! They cover all my tuition, miscellaneous expenses, textbooks, even airfare! Plus, I get a stipend every month, which is almost as much as my current salary as a teacher! So, I guess all the summers working as a research assistant in Middlebury and all the long hours I spent laboring on my undergraduate economics thesis kinda paid off. And sheer dumb luck I guess, as always.

(Quick aside: The new place I’m moving to in Clementi is about a 15-minute walk from the university.)

Dumb luck, of course, is also the reason that I got this job here as a teacher late last year. As you may well know, I came here last year with bright-eyed hopes of joining my bosscousin’s telecommunications business. Well, that didn’t turn out as I hoped/expected. They turned out to have a lot of “issues”, and basically the whole company kind of derailed in the couple of months that I joined them. It’ll teach me not to get into business relations with family in the future.

So, one fine day in December, I randomly paid a visit to my old school just to catch up and say hello to the teachers and staff there, and after a quick conversation with my principal and the school’s managing director, they basically were like, “hey, you want a job?”. At which point I pretty much said, “er.. yes”. I might be simplifying a bit here, it was slightly more formal than that. But boy, was I relieved.

And for the past few months, I think I’ve really become quite independent and able to support myself financially, which I’m definitely proud of. Also, at first, I didn’t know that I’ll be getting a scholarship for my master’s degree so I was planning to study part time, work full time, and pay for it myself. It’s not all that cheap to get a master’s degree either, so I was really putting in the extra effort to save up for the past few months, working as a private tutor after my work at school. Often times, it’d be midnight when I got home. It was somewhat of a monotonous grind but I find that times like that when I’m struggling towards a concrete goal are also times when I’m feeling most stable. It’s like your whole being is honed in on doing one particular thing, and getting it done.

So, that was my update. In a couple of hours, I’m wrapping up here at my job, getting a cab, and moving to my new place. Grad school starts early August, so starting from tomorrow, I’ll get a break for a whole month! 😀

Again, boredom and drudgery are evil, so hopefully I won’t fall prey to them and will spend more time writing interesting stuff here instead!

Posted by: yannaungoak | April 8, 2010

Ten Influential Books

Last weekend, I was reading some blogs and came across this post on Crooked Timber about 10 influential books by Kieran Healy, a sociologist who teaches at Duke. I thought he had some interesting choices, and I thought it’d be fun to make a list for myself, of the books that immediately come into mind when I think about “books that have influenced me”. So, these are not necessarily THE most influential books I’ve read, but they’ve definitely made an impact on my life, or the way I look at things.

It seems to have become somewhat of a meme this month for political/econo-bloggers. Here’s a list from economist Tyler Cowen of Marginal Revolution, and here’s one from the famous political blogger Matt Yglesias.

It’s funny, none of the books that come to my mind right away are academic ones, or ones that I had to read for class. All the books on the list are ones that I read in my spare time, except #6 which I did read for class. Even though I read that during totally chilled out month when I was doing an independent reading/study. I guess it says something about the rate at which one absorbs ideas and internalizes them. Especially for me, reading something, reflecting, mulling over, sidetracking on a tangent and being lost in my thoughts for an hour before returning to that page I was on is not only one of the best private joys, it’s also essential for me to remember or understand anything. It’s like planting a vine and watching it’s shoots climb across the fields of my memory and entangle themselves with the rest of the complicated mess that constitutes my “understanding of the world”.

So, here’s the list. I’d recommend any of these books to anyone with eclectic interests ranging from science to society.

1. George Orwell, Burmese Days.

This was the first book by Orwell that I read. I instantly fell in love with its atmosphere of subtle bleakness, and just how much it resonated with modern day Myanmar. I was about fourteen when I read it, I think, and Orwell’s portrayal of colonial Burma was to me a spot on description of twenty-first century Myanmar.

Most of Orwell’s most famous works like 1984 and Animal Farm, which are diatribes against totalitarianism are banned in Myanmar for obvious reasons, but this book, being a critique of colonialism, is widely available. It’s the ultimate irony. Orwell’s Burmese Days provides a more penetrating critique of present-day Myanmar and any of his other works. 1984 and Animal Farm dealt with made up, idealized dystopias, this book deals with a real-life one, in which Orwell himself lived a good chunk of his life. In Myanmar, nothing really ever changes, and anybody who wants to understand the country has to first realize that fact.

2. Stephen Jay Gould, Full House.

This book made me appreciate the explanatory power of clear-headed scientific reasoning. When you finally get to the real reason behind things, it usually has that stark simplicity that makes you go “duh”.

Gould centers the book around two questions, the first concerns the disappearance of the 0.400 batting average from baseball, and the second concerns the idea that evolution has a “direction”. Yeah.

It’s written so well, and it’s like reading a crime novel, where the clues build up and you only get the real answer in the end. It’s one of the few non-fiction books for which you have to watch out for spoilers. And the realization you get in the end that connects those two questions together, like I said, really makes one appreciate scientific reasoning.

3. Mitchell Waldrop, Complexity.

In high school, I was obsessed with complexity theory. Obsessed. I would scour the libraries in Singapore looking for books about Lorenz attractors, small-world networks, autocatalytic sets, sand piles, and all the other weird and wonderful things associated with that topic.

This book in particular, really stuck in my memory. I think especially because it was centered around the lives and stories of misfits: Brian Arthur, Stuart Kauffman, Chris Langton. And it gave me my lifelong dream: to go to the Santa Fe Institute.

4. George Johnson, Fire in the Mind.

Another book on complexity and the Santa Fe Institute. Out of all the books I’ve read on the topic, this book particularly stuck. It presented things from a perspective of individual peoples’ worldviews, specifically people who have settled in and around Santa Fe, New Mexico throughout the ages. And in the middle of that social history, the author would mix in more detailed descriptions of science, religion and worldviews, leading up to the “complexity” view of the world. It also had a particularly well written description of modern physics.

5. Douglas Hofstadter, Godel, Escher and Bach.

Wow, where do I start? It’s an absolute classic. Probably unlike anything else you’ll ever read. Get ready to become friend’s with Achilles and the Tortoise, GOD and Djinn, and if you don’t already, to really dig M.C. Escher and the genius of Kurt Gödel.

Hofstadter bends your mind. I haven’t really gotten back to thinking about the ideas in the book, but I think I still believe that his idea of the “strange loop” is a fundamental, inescapable part of reality.

6. Joeseph Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy.

Hmm… it seems I’ve unconsciously arranged this list into a somewhat chronological order. The first half of the list were books I read before college. The second half, I read during my college years. And my college years were a time when my interests shifted from the natural to the social sciences, and now I have an unhealthy obsession with both.

Well, anyways, like I mentioned above, I had to read this book as part of an independent study while I was on break from college in the US and living for a month back home in Myanmar.

I was studying economics in school, and as anyone who studies economics, you are gradually induced to take a side on whether you’re a “right-wing” free market supporter or a “left-wing” supporter of government intervention. This book of Schumpeter’s and his other book The Theory of Economic Development, were the two books that really convinced my how markets were essential and how markets worked.

And the thing I love about Schumpeter’s arguments are their sophistication. This is nothing like the pathetic dribble you hear the talking heads spewing on TV these days. This was written by one of the most brilliant economists of the twentieth century, who was a first rate sociologist as well as an economist; a believer in the power of entrepreneurs and private enterprise, who nonetheless worked for and admired a socialist government that came into power in inter-war Germany; who was living in an era where big government controlled socialism seemed to be the wave of the future (the 1940’s). This book was an acceptance of that trend, and a quiet lamentation and defense of the market forces that are so important to society.

7. Robert Heilbroner, The Worldly Philosophers.

I read this during a summer before I took a class on the history of economic thought. I think I enjoyed reading this small book more than all the stuff I had to read for class.

This book introduced me to Mill, Marx, Veblen, and Schumpeter. And who can forget that kind of an introduction? I love learning about how people view the world, and how worldviews evolve.

8. David Brooks, On Paradise Drive.

When David Brooks is not writing in his sometimes brilliant/sometimes crappy New York Times column, he’s going around America being a “comic sociologist”. This is one of his books where he analyzes American society in a not-so-serious but very fun and insightful way. I remember chuckling alot while reading the book and basically agreeing with pretty much all he says in the book. I particularly liked the part about geography, where he dissected the different groups of Americans depending on whether they lived in the inner cities, suburbs, exurbs, etc. It’s a great book for a foreign kid trying to understand American attitudes and mentalities. It’s like a slightly more serious version of Stuff White People Like, and sometimes just as funny.

9. George R R Martin, The Song of Ice and Fire series.

(Book 1, Book 2, Book 3, Book 4)

In addition to being a brilliant, brilliant story about a whole bunch of people in an awesome fantasy world, the Song of Fire and Ice is also about the gritty, realistic portrayal of medieval society and politics. You get sucked into it. The people you love die, just like in real life. And just like in real life, evil people are more often than not, people that you can really relate to. You can’t put these books down.

10. Neal Stephenson, The Baroque Cycle.

(Book 1, Book 2, Book 3)

I think this series has influenced me more than any other book on this list. And if I look back at where all my ridiculously eclectic interests in everything from science to history to economics to computers come from, it’s from this series of books.

The books are historical novels set in the Baroque era (the late 17th century) and deals with real life characters such as Isaac Newton, Gottfried Leibniz, Christian Huygens, William of Orange and a whole set of other characters ranging from a Catholic Samurai vagabond to Eliza the escaped harem girl from the fictional island of Qwghlm.

They weave together science, philosophy, politics, finance, economics, religion, the beginnings of what was to become computer science, and pirates hunting for gold. Stephenson is a total geek, and his books are meant for geeks, they’re like those “tomes of experience” in RPG games that upgrade your geekiness all in one go.

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