Thursday, 16 November 2017

Saving Timbuktu's Treasured Texts

A tale of a high-stakes rescue of a trove of ancient manuscripts that is the stuff of legends

first published in The Star, 16 November 2017


The Book Smugglers of Timbuktu by Charlie English is a painstakingly well-researched saga of a far-flung desert town in the West African nation of Mali and the incredible modern-day effort by that town's librarians and archivists to save its cache of ancient manuscripts. But it's also more than that: It appears to warn against taking anybody's word at face value.

A fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and former head of international news at Britain's The Guardian newspaper, English tells the story of Timbuktu by alternating between two timelines: the West's long quest to discover the city, and the attempt in 2012 to protect its trove of texts from a civil war.

For centuries, the City of 333 Saints (and probably just as many spellings of its name) was a key part of a trans-Saharan trade route, small parts of which salt caravans still ply today. Early accounts by medieval-era travellers painted Timbuktu as an African El Dorado. The city did thrive on trade, but Timbuktu's wealth and stature has long faded since then.

However, it had other treasures. Timbuktu was also a university town in its heyday. Scholars from the Islamic world flocked there, and tons of written material on various subjects including mathematics, medicine and astronomy were produced, copied, and imported. It is estimated that tens or even hundreds of thousands of manuscripts could reside in its libraries and private collections.

Both strands of the narrative are well paced and thrilling. Tales of derring-do and misadventures abound, showcasing the best and worst of humanity. Besides the terrain and weather, the early European explorers also grappled with disease, hostile tribes, local politics and anti-Western attitudes, while the book smugglers had to deal with ransom-seeking thugs, faulty equipment and patrolling rebels.

However, we lurch between the two timelines like a camel's ungainly walk, making it onerous to closely follow both in long stretches. Key figures and events blur and blend into the background as impatient readers pray for the ride to end. Well, at least the experience is immersive.

The story doesn't end with the Great Manuscript Rescue. Questions eventually arose over details of the operation, the final tally of the salvaged manuscripts, how foreign donations for the task were spent, and whether the texts were in any danger at all. Even the principal rescuers appear to be vying to claim control of and credit for masterminding the effort.

One also notices similarities between the two timelines: the role of legend in shaping the image of Timbuktu in the minds of outsiders, the Timbuktiens' resistance against hostile forces and changes to their way of life, and how the town and its manuscripts became the focus of competing agendas.

From what I could gather, besides those ancient voyagers, the Timbuktiens of old may have concocted their own myths about their town and its personages. They attributed religious piety and supernatural abilities to the resident Muslim scholars, perhaps to deter invaders or bandits. Such sketchy and sometimes fantastical anecdotes helped feed the West's centuries-long curiosity of Timbuktu and boosted its reputation among adventurers looking for a challenge.

In the present, news of the manuscripts' successful evacuation raised a similar degree of excitement relief, and a sense of victory. At the time, Timbuktu was occupied by al-Qaeda-linked jihadists embroiled in the civil war. They had vandalised some of the city's landmarks, which were accorded World Heritage status, and many feared the prized papers might be targeted as well.

But one can't help but wonder: could the threat to the manuscripts have been played up to bring more of the world's attention to this town?

English provides notes for his sources and appears to vouch for them but he seems cautious, as we should be, about who and what to believe. When it comes to researching and writing about people, places and events of bygone eras and in isolated locations, one has to start with and trust contemporary sources of information, and dig deeper from there because – pardon the cliché – nothing is what it seems.

According to English, "This book is as much historiography as history. That is to say, it is an account of the interpretations of Timbuktu's past at least as much as it is the story of what actually happened there. The reasons for this will, I hope, have become clear: Timbuktu's story is in perpetual motion, swinging back and forth between competing poles of myth and reality. Spectacular arguments are made and then dismissed before another claim is built up, in an apparently continuous cycle of proposition and correction."

So one should read it without judgement, and take whatever is printed with a pinch of (caravan-borne?) salt. Like the glittering fables of West African empires, English's tale of these latter-day book smugglers can be compared to pearls: grains of truth layered with opalescent embellishments from the author's sources, with a little writerly polish.

Yet this doesn't diminish the story, its protagonists and what they sought to save, or cast doubts on the author, his work and his motives. Instead, English has brought us closer to this corner of the world, helping to lift the mystery shrouding it and revealing that even bare truths are just as fascinating as illusory palaces of gold in the African desert.



The Book Smugglers of Timbuktu
The Quest for this Storied City and the Race to Save its Treasures

Charlie English
William Collins (2017)
400 pages
Non-fiction
ISBN: 978-0-00-818490-2

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Rise Of The Streampunks

How YouTube and its stars are driving a revolution in media

first published in The Star, 07 November 2017


This book made me feel old and question what I'm doing with my life. Understandable, I suppose, as it's mostly about the new stars of online video, many of whom are millennials and Gen-Xers—dubbed "streampunks" by Robert Kyncl (pronounced "kin-sil"), chief business officer at YouTube.

Written by Kyncl with Google writer Maany Peyvan, Streampunks tells how a bunch of creators and entrepreneurs used YouTube to do their thing and transform how media works. The book also highlights the tactics they've used, the challenges they have faced, and what their success means for the future of media.

Kyncl and Peyvan set the mood by contrasting the barren media landscape that is the Czechoslovakia of Kyncl's childhood in the 1970s, with scenes from the YouTube Creators Summit in New York in the present day. The latter is attended not by greying guys in sharp suits, but youngish-looking people in "the rarest sneakers", "the sharpest athleisure", or just jeans and T-shirts, many of whom have tattoos or dyed hair.

And yet, there is an "overwhelming sense of respect as they exchange greetings with their peers from around the world", the authors note. Perhaps, above all, the people in that space are those who seem to be doing what they've always wanted to do, from vloggers (video bloggers) and beauty gurus to chefs and gamers.

How is it possible for these people to earn a living and achieve fame rivalling that of Hollywood stars, to have a global audience of millions and gain influence the likes of which big brand names would splurge for, by just being themselves and doing what they love?

Kyncl would probably say "YouTube", which would be a gross oversimplification. When TV was king, the authors argue, a small group of executives determined what got aired and what didn't—subsequently deciding who got the limelight and who didn't. With online video, that power has shifted to the audience, whose interests "are far more diverse and unique than those execs ever imagined".

So it turns out that many out there are interested in quilting, as demonstrated by the story of Jenny Doan from Hamilton, Missouri, the United States, whose YouTube quilting tutorials made her the Julia Child of the craft and brought her quilt company and her town global fame.

Other chapters tell of the rise of other personalities who built their brands on the platform. There's Lilly Singh, a.k.a. "Superwoman", who created that geography video for racists; vloggers Hank and John Green, the latter many would know as the author of young adult fiction bestsellers like The Fault in Our Stars and Paper Towns; Shane Smith, CEO and cofounder of Vice Media; and talent manager Scooter Braun, who brought the world Justin Bieber and made Psy's "Gangnam Style" as hot as Shin Ramyun instant noodles.

More than a collection of success stories, however, this book can be considered a primer for aspiring streampunks in how the stories are stitched together. Besides sharing some tricks of the trade, the authors make a good case for their subjects' bright futures, dropping names and lobbing figures to fortify their arguments.

But behind the six-figure subscriber counts and slick online clips is a lot of hard work, passion and perseverance. Hints of that are sprinkled throughout, but it's the title of the eighth chapter, "The Struggle is Real", that drives it home.

The cost of being "real" and independent is constant engagement with the audience, while coming up with new ideas, and learning to shoot better videos ... imagine doing all that and more for years before one's big break.

That's a lot of time and money spent, not to mention crappy clips, at least in the early stages. The issue of revenue is also looked at, spliced between accounts of the births of crowdfunding platform Patreon and premium service YouTube Red (which is not available in Malaysia when this was written).

One thing that's only briefly touched on and perhaps more suitable for discussion in other books is the potential downsides of online fame, as illustrated by the posting of anti-Semitic content in 2017 by Felix Kjellberg, a.k.a. PewDiePie. Also, what to make of recent outbursts (which might have emerged before the book went to print) by some YouTubers against the platform's alleged demonetisation of videos that it considers not ad-friendly?

And just because there are YouTube videos of how braces are fastened doesn't mean one can watch those and start practising orthodontics. Even cooking videos and recipes don't always yield perfect results when followed faithfully.

On the whole, Streampunks paints bright picture of an emerging new media landscape powered by a growing horde of video wizards who are coming up with innovative ways to tell and share stories in an engaging and authentic manner.

As such, the overall tone for this book is quite rah-rah, no surprise considering who the authors are. Whether it's because they sound genuine about what they feel for these streampunks and the future of new media or that Kyncl works for YouTube—or both—is best left to the reader to decide.

But no one should deny that a revolution is happening in media.



Streampunks
YouTube and the Rebels Remaking Media

Robert Kyncl with Maany Peyvan
Harper Business
288 pages
Non-fiction
ISBN: 978-0-06-265773-2

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Book Marks: Celebrity Blurbs, And The "New" Booker

In the wake of the twin hurricanes Harvey and Irma, booksellers are pitching in any way they can. Some bookstores are raising money and donating books. Third House Books in Gainesville, Florida, offered free coffee at its premises. Seeing bookstores step up to help in times like this makes me fuzzy.

Also:

  • Has the mystery of the Voynich Manuscript been solved? Is it really just a medieval women's health manual? Hold your horses.
  • "One of things to be said about being Mrs. Lim was that during Cheng Beng, she received many, many presents. These many lush things from her children helped her keep abreast with the living world, to a certain extent. It was unusual for anyone to keep receiving Cheng Beng gifts so long after dying, but then, Mrs. Lim was of a family with unusually high expectations." From io9's Lightspeed Magazine, "The Last Cheng Beng Gift" by Jaymee Goh.
  • British author and travel writer Colin Thubron has criticised the "gushing" blurbs of books by authors, saying that some of these might make readers feel bad about not liking the books. But who really believes the blurbs nowadays? Especially those that glow so bright they can help you see in the dark?
  • "Americans didn’t ruin the Man Booker Prize. Book publishers did." Specifically, the several behemoths of publishing currently dominating the scene. However, the article alludes to a shrinking pool of Booker-worthy works and that book prizes are becoming indistinguishable from others, Could it be that the criteria for what wins prizes are becoming similar?
  • Stealing Indians has similarly received some glowing reviews, but for years, [John] Smelcer's been an object of suspicion within Native circles, where authors including Sherman Alexie and Terese Mailhot, as well as scholar Debbie Reese, have raised questions about his Native heritage and his credentials, and critiqued his books as misrepresentations of history and Native cultures. Stealing Indians, indeed.
  • This curious case of an alleged plagiarising poet laureate sounds familiar. Taking works from other poets, then translating and publishing them as originals ... has that happened before?
  • Was a photo of Brock Turner used to illustrate a textbook entry on rape? Apparently, yes. The former Stanford University student who avoided a longer jail sentence for the sexual assault of an unconscious woman briefly became the face of rape in Introduction to Criminal Justice, published by SAGE Publications. "Briefly", because SAGE has announced it will be issuing a revised edition of the book, because it seems what Turner did does not fall under the FBI's definition of rape.
  • "Here's a pro tip if you want to attract Asian women: Don't read e-books on the subject written by white dudes."

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

What We Reveal Online

first published in The Star, 19 September 2017


"Everybody lies" is a favourite maxim of Hugh Laurie's character, Dr Gregory House, in the medical drama series House. Despite this, he often gets to the bottom of what ails his patients.

Opinion writer for The New York Times and former Google data scientist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz also believes that everybody lies. He says people lie to their friends, bosses, kids, parents, doctors, husbands, wives, and even to themselves.

"And they damn sure lie in surveys."

The images of perfect lives on Facebook and Instagram aren't the whole picture, either.

What people lie less to, according to Stephens-Davidowitz, are search engines.

"The everyday act of typing a word or phrase into a compact, rectangular white box leaves a small trace of truth that, when multiplied by millions, eventually reveals profound realities."

Which is why in his book, Everybody Lies, he posits that these small traces of truth make Google searches a gargantuan pool of "honest" data that holds insights into our true nature. But instead of volume, he focuses on the quality of the information and analysis: "You don't always need a ton of data to find important insights. You need the right data."

Stephens-Davidowitz explains why big data – a catch-all term for all the data out there, including searches, blog posts and everything else we put online – is powerful. It is so huge that even small samples can yield meaningful results, which is how companies such as Google and Facebook can conduct random, controlled experiments online to find out what works and what doesn't.

Big data also offers new types of information and ways to look at things from other angles. Who knew that the brightness of a place at night can indicate its economic situation?

There are limits, of course. The author tells us what can't and shouldn't be done with data, highlighting instances where it can be misused. The low-down on customers' buying patterns can help companies sell more products, for instance, but shouldn't be used to keep customers hooked.

At fewer than 290 pages, not including the acknowledgements, notes and the index, the book is small and digestible for its genre. It covers just enough about big data to make the case for its potential and leave one wanting to know more. The language is pretty straightforward and the tone is conversational.

Occasional displays of wit can be found in the text and the footnotes, particularly in observations about sex and porn, of which there are quite a few – which is perhaps unavoidable when discussing what's on the World Wide Web.

But several of these footnotes feel uncomfortably confessional. For instance, the author hints that he might be an unreliable narrator, particularly in relation to how hard he worked on the book. In a footnote, he says, "Since everybody lies, you should question much of this story." Because, that footnote concludes, "Everybody lies. Every narrator is unreliable."

Even big data, it seems, but that depends on how one interprets its multiple facets. And how much do fake news, bots, and hackers affect its "honesty"? Can this pool of Google searches be rigged to skew certain findings? The book does not appear to address any of this.

Nor does he trust many of us to finish reading the book: "No matter how hard I work on polishing my prose, most people are going to read the first fifty pages, get a few points, and move on with their lives." Maybe that's why, compared to all the information about data, the conclusion looks hastily scribbled, almost like an afterthought.

One can be easily swamped by all the revelations that support his argument: What we Google mirrors our true selves and can help us understand people better, but do we really want to? We reconsider our relationships with people, places, and the world at large anyway, from time to time. Some might feel they are being told what they might already know (eg, people can be horrible, and why they lie), except for the scope and intricacies of that knowledge.

Stephens-Davidowitz may not consider himself a focused author, but we can probably trust his work on big data, given his experience and reputation in this field, and how convincing (and perhaps a little biased) his case for it looks.

However, one should also bear in mind his advice to question everything one reads, online or offline. Mountains of information do not make a source, be it a database or a person, infallible. What we require is the wisdom to sift through all that data without letting it overwhelm us.

When we begin re-evaluating what we read, look for and wish to share online, the ever-growing mound of digital bread crumbs we leave in cyberspace will, hopefully, become a more authentic reflection ... of our better selves.



Everybody Lies
Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz
Dey St.
338 pages
Non-fiction
ISBN: 978-0-06-239085-1

Thursday, 7 September 2017

A Soup Kitchen For The Urban Soul

first published in The Malay Mail Online, 07 September 2017


n my search for healthier eating places, I heard about this soup-centric destination and thought, what a godsend.

It was hard to find, even after I referred to Google Maps. I ended up wandering around the Jalan Tun Mohd Fuad area for a bit that evening until I looked up.


Look up when looking for Alison Soup House.


Oh.

I climbed the stairs towards Alison Soup House, a mostly white and wood-brown dining space ― not large, but cosy. I looked down and saw a poodle meandering about. Turning around, there was a closed-off dining nook that was once the balcony.

A dog-friendly restaurant? How quaint. It balances the cat café located a few doors away.

What I noticed the most were the aromas. Wood. Soups. Coffee, if you're in luck. Wherever you were born, it doesn't matter; the aromas remind you of home. The calming atmosphere sets in almost immediately ― unless you dislike dogs.

The staff were helpful, especially the lady boss Alicia. "Alison" is the portmanteau of her and her husband Derson's names. The Chinese soups are the highlight of their menu, which feature their families' recipes and the couple's own inventions.

Depending on what you order, you will get a bowl of multigrain rice, or your soup will have brown rice beehoon or mee sua in it.


The pumpkin walnut soup with bacon bits is very comforting.


Besides the usual, which can be as basic as ABC Soup, festive and daily specials can include Western brews such as a thick pumpkin and walnut soup with bacon bits, a black bean and pork rib soup (eyeing that), and the familiar bak kut teh, with real herbs and fall-off-the-bone pork ribs, which was being sold during the long Merdeka weekend.

When I first came here at the end of June or early July, Alison Soup House (henceforth known as ASH) was still at the soft-launch stage, so not much was being offered. But there was only one of me.

I picked a Six-Treasure Herbal Soup to go with a bowl of brown rice, and I asked for a much smaller bowl of a lotus root soup with pork rib ― just to sample.


The Six Treasures (since upgraded to seven) herbal soup and Lotus Root Soup
with pork rib are sure to remind you of home.


I loved the soups.

The Six Treasures was brewed with six herbs and came with a grilled pork belly ― and a lot of herby bits. Can the latter be eaten? Alicia assured me they can.

ASH's lotus root soup, meanwhile, is hearty, meaty and fragrant. This is not the stuff some rice stalls serve.

The folks at ASH claim to simmer their broths for at least 10 hours, resulting in broths that are richer in flavour and nutrients. Proof: the bones for that bak kut teh gave way like a soft cookie when pressed.

Also, MSG is not used and the meats come from animals that are fed with natural food and not pumped with antibiotics.

I've been sending friends their way ever since, especially those with strict diets and a tendency to fall sick.

ASH started offering more side dishes, including green veggies, plates of char siew and roast pork, and pork satay. But this time, the little poodle ― Alicia's dog, Spikey ― started nosing and barking at me. For something as big as two cats, it was LOUD.


Alison Soup House's version of that old favourite ― bak kut teh.


When I brought Sam and Wendy over, the former was recovering from a bout of flu. Sam wisely chose what's now called the Seven-Treasure Herbal Soup (upgraded from six), which she liked ("Full of flavour!").

She also had a bit of of Wendy's fiery spicy pork soup, which Wendy poured into separate bowls for us. It came with beehoon, tofu, pork and was REALLY SPICY.

In contrast, my Red Dates, Shiitake Mushroom and Chicken Soup with brown rice beehoon tasted so clean.

A hint of sweetness was there, but little else ― was it due to the spicy soup I tried prior? I can imagine a meatless version of this being a hit with weight-watchers and clean-eaters.


White pepper pork soup for those who like their soup with some kick.


A taste of the pork satay was courtesy of Irene, whom I brought along on another visit on another evening. Spikey was still spiky about my presence at ASH. It barked like a gun upon seeing me at the door. Maybe Alicia should rename it "Thunder."

Irene did not seem as enthusiastic about the menu, but other than the bits of spring onion in her soup, which she meticulously picked out, she had no complaints.

I do remember her saying nice things about the pork satay. Well-balanced proportions of flesh and fat from properly sourced and marinated meat speak for themselves.


The pork satay at Alison Soup House for those who love their pork.


As I reminisce, I think of the old haunts that had closed shop over the years since I started writing. Many of them were opened and run by younger people like Alicia and Derson: youthful enough to dream, energetic enough to chase those dreams, and resilient enough to bounce back when reality hits ― at least, in the early days.

Irene wondered whether places like ASH ― upstairs restaurants that are hard to spot from ground level and cater to niche markets ― can survive in the current economy. At the time, so did I.

Later, checking Instagram, I saw that Sam and Wendy were back at ASH at the tail of the long weekend. That gave me a glimmer of hope. Perhaps Alicia and Derson, their cosy little restaurant and, yes, even little Spikey will be fine.



Alison Soup House
6A (1st Floor), Jalan Tun Mohd Fuad 2
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Non-halal

Tue-Fri: 11am-3:30pm, 5:30pm-10pm
Weekends: 11am-10pm

Closed on Mondays

+6012-737 2085

hello.alisonfood@gmail.com

Facebook page

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Uptown Craft: Rekindling A Taste For Food And Adventure

Standing Theory. Gee and Geek. Flingstones. The Coffee Sessions. Fork D World. Not having them around would take getting used to.

To say I was depressed when these venues folded is an understatement. It's enough to make me quit writing about food, even to scratch a mental itch.




With this cloud hanging above my head, I made my way through the evening rush-hour traffic to a pizza place at Damansara Uptown I learnt about online. Few things these days compel me to endure Klang valley traffic. But the days at work have been long of late and what better comfort food than a nice Italian roti cheese?

When it first opened, Pizza Craft had some brave offerings: dessert pizzas with ice cream, and toppings that included potatoes and kimchi - apparently in tune with the out-of-the-box ethos of master pizza chef Theo Kalogeracos, from Western Australia.

I guess the aspirational stage of the business had ebbed somewhat, judging from its now more conservative menu. Holdovers from those days include a salmon pizza and something with beef and blueberry jam. Nevertheless, I was piqued. But how to try more than one flavour?


The Grandma's Pizza, just like how your imaginary Italian granny makes it


The pakcik who was the manager on duty when I dropped by said I could take advantage of the "two-box" offer to order two small pizzas. Vito Corleone couldn't have done a better deal.

When my pizzas were ready, though, the staff started packing them into boxes. In my haste and hunger, I'd forgotten to tell them I was dining in. Pizza Craft has its own delivery service for the Uptown area, but they tied up with Foodpanda and HonestBee for longer distances.

I can't remember which pizza hit the table first. I haven't had a decent one in months and the sight of a thin-crust platter of dough, its layer of tomato sauce blanketed by gooey cheese and one's choice of toppings, emanating that fresh-out-of-the-oven melange of aromas...


For meat lovers and trolls under bridges, this Billy Goat will be a treat


The mere proximity of the warm slice near my lips nearly caused a spit tsunami. Swallowing, I dug in.

The hearty Billy Goat, with its chunks of still-moist slow-roasted Australian lamb, rubbed in rosemary and in-house seasoning, is a must for lamb aficionados. It even came with a wedge of lime and small cup of mint sauce.

The thing called Grandma's Pizza is less complicated, yet satisfyingly delicious. Roasted garlic, basil (they could add more of that, though - should I bring my own?), red sauce and cheese. As a rule of thumb, I always pick a basic pie at a new pizza joint. You'd have to be a crappy pizza chef to screw up something so simple.


What's better when you're hungry than a wedge of Italian roti cheese?


Surrounded by the scent of baking pizzas, I felt there's still hope for the world - and the local food scene. Then all that crashed when I saw that only one slice remained. All good things must come to an end.

Unless they start again, that is.

Just several days later, I returned to Pizza Craft with Sam and Wendy, where we tried more flavours. Little Rita was an even more basic version of Grandma's and just as good; the Smokey BBQ Chicken, was so nice I ignored that it also had pineapple; and the Meatball Capital (crumbled Italian meatball, cherry tomatoes and red onions with BBQ sauce), because I messed up the order. Wendy was interested in the Billy Goat after reading my glowing description of it on Instagram.


Clockwise from top: Little Rita, Smoky BBQ Chicken, and Meatball Capital


I also liked the Peri Chicken: grilled chicken, roasted red peppers with peri hot sauce, oregano and parsley - a tad spicy, but quite good. Pizza Craft claims that they churn the dough fresh each day, and it shows in the taste and mouthfeel. I wasn't too interested in their pastas - why have pasta at a pizza joint?

All things considered, I'm grateful I found a reason to brave the evening rush-hour traffic again.



Pizza Craft
28, Jalan SS21/39
Damansara Uptown
Petaling Jaya

Pork-free

Mon-Thu, Sun: 11:30am-9:30pm
Fri-Sat: 11:30am-10pm

+60 3-7496 7333

pizzacraftmy[at]outlook[dot]com

Facebook page | Web site

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Genuinely Trying To Help

first published in The Star, 03 September 2017


"...Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong" is a pretty eyecatching subhead on the cover of this book, if its bright traffic-cone-orange isn't enough to grab your attention. But besides that, what makes this tome on the secrets of success different from the (many, many) others out there?

From what I understand, these nuggets come from the author Eric Barker's blog, Barking Up The Wrong Tree (bakadesuyo.com), where he apparently has been researching and cross-referencing heaps of stuff related to the science of "how to be awesome at life" for eight years. The fruits of his labour are filed online under such categories as happiness, productivity, relationships, success, and "How To Rob Banks And Get Away With Murder" (coming soon, the blog says - I can hardly wait).

"Many of [the answers] are surprising," Barker writes. "Some seem contradictory on the surface, but all of them provide insight into what we need to do in our careers and our personal lives to get an edge."

Many books tend to focus on success stories while ignoring the downsides. These triumphs come at a cost, and that's what many still don't fully grasp. Barker helpfully lays all this out.

From stories of famous figures in history such as British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and US President Abraham Lincoln, to people many of us probably never heard of - Jure Robič, an insane guy who completed a trans-American bicycle race; Glenn Gould, the hypochondriac genius pianist; and Michael Swango, a doctor and a serial killer - Barker explains what made them good at what they do.

Barker also compares the titular alien symbiote Venom from the Marvel comic book with the Japanese karoshi (work to death) phenomenon, illustrates how pirates can school us on cooperation and meritocracy, and explains why the raccoons in the Canadian city of Toronto are role models when it comes to tenacity.

What the case studies show is that there are flip sides to behaviours that might get you ahead in the short term, but will eventually sink you. Kiss just enough ass to get noticed, but don't make it a habit. Follow up on your dreams but do it with a solid plan ("No, folks, The Secret doesn't work.")

Despite his blog's web address, bakadesuyo.com, in which "bakadesuyo" means "I am an idiot" in Japanese, Barker seems anything but. To the first-time readers of his work, the way he connects the dots between two disparate things ("prison gangs" and "community spirit") seem refreshing - revelatory, even.

Much of the advice seems like familiar common sense; it's just that it is usually all over the place, rather than being in one place like this. However, the thing about such books is that something new will come along and displace it on the shelf. Those who have read a few books in this category might not care enough to pick this one up.

Most of the scenarios follow the anecdote, reveal and research-backed rationale, followed by the caveat, more reveals and research-backed rationale formula. The pace is manic, so when a reference is made to a previous story, the mind backtracks - and realises it's lost.

That the sections aren't proportionate throughout doesn't help, either. Chapters Two, Three and Four are bulkier than the rest and you will need more time to read and digest them. Quitting halfway is not advisable unless you have a bookmark (and, if you're scatterbrained, made some notes). Also, some of the text feels repetitive.

My takeaway from Barker's book is that there is no universal formula for success. One needs to pick and choose the strategies one is most comfortable with, and tweak things as one goes along. "We get hung up on the heights of success we see in the media," writes Barker, "and forget that it's our personal definition of success that matters."

That's the rub, isn't it? That "personal definition" takes too much effort to figure out, hence the allure of off-the-shelf solutions. But that's not what Baka-san is selling. You need to put in the work: "In most cases, there is nothing you cannot overcome with time and effort."

Which involves not merely changing yourself but your circumstances as well. Even before he delves into each success story, Barker points out that "What defines success for you is, well, up to you."

Even for the jaded and well-read, this book has something to teach about defining success, and there's something about the light, conversational style of writing that makes me feel he's genuine about helping you get there. Just don't race through it like that Jure Robič fellow.



Barking Up the Wrong Tree
The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong

Eric Barker
HarperOne (2017)
307 pages
Non-fiction
ISBN: 978-0-06-241604-9