Saturday, 14 April 2018

Out Of Hibernation

About two months ago, Uncle had a stroke. Someone found him crawling out of the drain he fell into and brought him to the hospital. Bits of clotted blood were found in the blood vessels in his brain, but no surgery was required. Instead, they gave him blood-thinning meds.

The news shocked the family. Uncle didn't smoke, drink or pig out. The doctor attending him mentioned high cholesterol levels, but didn't the clots caused it? How much did his cholesterol levels have to do with it? The doctor couldn't say.

Two cousins and I visited him the next day in the ICU. A day later, at the aunt's suggestion, I stayed with him for a night the night he was taken to a normal ward. Though he seemed better, half his body was weak, he couldn't speak and swallow properly, and he apparently had little control over his bladder or bowels.

When I came down to the city to live more than 25 years ago, Uncle did a lot to help me set up here. Since then, he's been the go-to guy for stuff about my rented apartment, on top of the miles-long list of stuff he did for the aunt's food business, from logistics and HR to paying bills and banking. For a long time, he was the rock in the roiling chaos of my life in the city.

Seeing him like this gutted me.

Perhaps, selfishly, I thought about me. Like Uncle, I had no spouse, little money, and few means to bounce back from such an event. Would I even be as lucky as Uncle, if and when the time came?

I was told how "lucky" I was that my family didn't have a history of debilitating illnesses - not so "lucky" now. On top of my asthma, allergic rhinitis, IBS and gastric problems, my occasional insomnia and possible depression, on top of the anxiety Uncle's illness is causing, what else awaited me down the road?

That struck right to my core. I can't afford to get into any trouble. I need more money. I need more exercise. I need more sleep. I need much, much less Malaysian food. I need a life mission - or two.

(Did I declare, repeatedly, that I picked editing and writing as jobs because I won't be retiring from them? How arrogant of me. As if I'd be able to or allowed to.)

What the hell have I been doing all this time?

Thank goodness for Lok and Fong. They endured a long wait with me for a table at a full-house Omulab on a muggy Saturday night and listened to me pour my heart out (like now) and gave me an attitude adjustment, one of many they doled out over the years.

"You gotta be the rock for your uncle now. How can you, if you go all to pieces too?"

The small batch of test chocolate chip cookies I'd made earlier in the afternoon and gave them didn't suffice.

I went home bone-tired, weary, and still a little anxious. Despite not sleeping well at the hospital, I stayed up till one-plus in the morning, tucked in by fatigue.

To calm my anxieties, I'd embarked on some spring-cleaning, including two boxes left behind by a relative. I ignored the roach carapaces (one of my kryptonites) and sorted out the contents, throwing away everything that I could justifiably discard. I also vacuumed and mopped the floors, scrubbed the bathroom a bit, and washed the bed linen.

Amazing, how much one can do in an afternoon.

Throw it all off. Let it all wash away. Doubt, pride, fear, guilt, the burdens of the past. A life with no hang-ups, no baggage and nothing to hide sounds pretty good. Liberating, possibly. I don't know if it'll ever take off in a huge way, but I need to take steps.

If only I'd learnt and embraced all of this without such a high cost.

These days, Uncle's getting better. Even though his old self appears to have re-emerged, it's as if a chunk of himself is gone. Brain and nerve damage, likely. But he's still with us.

More heartwarming is the community that grew around him during his stay. Key members were his former roommate, also a stroke victim, and the roommate's mother.

Auntie has been extra supportive; she told us about an expensive but effective health supplement for stroke recovery several other patients in the ward were taking, after a thorough investigation (i.e., being an auntie). She also told me about the Tzu Chi Foundation, which helps out with equipment and such; the National Stroke Association of Malaysia (NASAM); and other stuff.

I believe they were another reason the rate of his recovery was good, apart from the acupuncture and almost-daily exercise drills by relatives. The roommate was discharged last week, so we won't be seeing Auntie and her crew at the hospital anymore. They were super helpful in keeping him company as well when we're not around, so they will be missed. I'm grateful for them.

Still, it seems I'm not done feeling sorry for myself. Looking at Uncle, his life thus far and his condition made me wonder what all the learning, skill training, trivia gathering, resume building, what all that writing and filling up newspaper columns is for, if this is what might happen. What's the point?

For a while, I turned to CDs of podcasts by Ajahn Brahm of the Buddhist Society of Western Australia for comfort. Since I found additional podcasts of his talks online, I've been tuning into them almost every night, in lieu of the YouTube videos.

Repeated listenings of his talks - recycled similies, anecdotes, bad jokes and all - nurtured a letting-go attitude, but that also meant letting go of the muse and a weakened urge to write. I think I'm developing a nightly BrahmTalk™ habit too; he's already displaced BFM Radio on my drives to work and back.

I'm not sure if that's good or bad. But it did put some perspective on an incident about three weeks ago.

One Saturday, I received summons to visit Uncle instead of the usual Sunday. I'd scheduled things a little tight, hoping to keep a dinner date with Fong and Lok after the visit. But I thought I could sneak in a wash for the car, so off to the car wash I went. I fumed as I left for the hospital because all the nearby car washes were packed.

I left the hospital around 5pm, wondering if I was going to be late for dinner. Then Lok told me through WhatsApp that Fong was napping and asked whether we could dine later. I didn't chafe at this delay, glad to have visited Uncle and glad to have a breather in between. I went back for a break and managed to get the car washed.

The hospital visit, car wash and dinner were all settled in the end, despite the hiccups in the schedule. And I felt stupid for blowing up because of my haphazard car wash scheduling - of course it would be packed on weekends.

When I returned from dinner, I found people pouring out of a neighbourhood school as I parked the car. Seems the opposition coalition had a rally there that night. Oh well, the company at dinner was better.

As a bonus, I discovered more potential stomach irritants: cheese and processed meats. Minutes after scarfing down a cheese-enhanced wrap, the gut ballooned. But there were other ingredients, so I couldn't be sure. I hope it's not (also) the basil pesto. That would suck - one less recipe I can whip up on occasion.

In spite of my worries, that Saturday turned out okay. That was when Ajahn Brahm's exhortations to not worry or be anxious about the future - "the present is where your future's being made" - made so much sense.

The podcasts wrought other changes. I've mellowed out a little more, spend less time online after hours, don't blow up so much at work or over bad manuscripts (and I'm working on a couple). I feel less judgemental and snarky, though I worry about what that might do to my book reviews.

And because of the changes to my body as well, I've shrunk my portions, I'm going to bed before midnight more often, usually after a nightcap of diluted oats and oat bran with a splash of milk. And I wake up around the same time, before dawn. Nor do I miss my frequent coffees.

Then came news of the upcoming general elections and the related shenanigans...

Good times will pass, it's been said. So will bad times. Soon, hopefully.

Sunday, 31 December 2017

Farewell, 2017

I didn't want to write this, because I knew more or less what the outcome would be when I wrote this list about a year ago. Of course I wouldn't even accomplish half of it.

So I'll just list down what I got done.

Despite not being active this year, I did pick up a new habit: swimming. Although, it's more enjoyable if you're not counting laps, competing with other swimmers and fighting other people for space in the pool.

I did yoga for several months, but my instructor took time off to have a baby and I never found - or went looking for - another instructor. If I ever need to I guess I can look around.

I had reviews published in the papers this year, but I could've done better. And the to-read pile just got a little bigger.

I made chocolate chip cookies. I've always wanted to go there after success with my shortbread. But the first batch didn't quite work out the way I thought, and as each failed batch means money and ingredients down the drain, I'm being careful about when I bake my next batch.

But I made more use of the rice cooker for oat porridge and got a pasta machine to play around with, so it's been a nice year for me in the kitchen.

Overall, though, this year sucked.

I got sick. The worst I'd been in years. Either I ignored or underestimated my gastric problems, which got so bad they gave me insomnia. For two weeks I barely slept, an as a last resort I went to a psychiatrist, who was confident that I had depression. And the medical expenses I've had to foot from all that.

The shock of it all might have reset my circadian rhythms, to my relief, and I could sleep again. But as 2017 drew to a close I found myself repeating the same pattern of behaviours that might have started the health problems in the first place.

Late hours. No regular exercise. Eating all sorts, many of which were spicy, milky, creamy, greasy, or a combination of some or all of the aforementioned. Much of which includes hipster-cafe fare, of course.

I found refuge in fine food, among others, when things got too tough to handle. What would I do if that door shut completely?

Guess some of us can't enjoy certain things as we age. That is still hard for me to accept.

I don't know where I'm going with this. Maybe I just want to rant.

I won't be making any more lists. I don't see the point.

Monday, 11 December 2017

Post-Insomnia Kitchen Adventures

The last meal or drink I made was in ... what, in May? Since then, my gut problems flared up and resulted in sleepless nights so bad, I turned to a psychiatrist.

In the end, sparse, cleaner eating and early nights helped to reset my body's circadian rhythm and I can fall asleep again. I don't want to credit the antidepressants too much, because what they did spooked me even if it's just fogging up my head and making me drowsy.

Downside: if I go to bed later than eleven, I start feeling sick. I suppose I shouldn't push my body back there again. I'm not who I was two decades ago.

But I did go back to the kitchen towards the end of October, mainly to stress-bake shortbread. I experimented with chocolate chips, ground oats and orange zest, but the oven seems like a different beast now. Maybe the dough should be less moist.


Oat-embedded shortbread, made naughtier with chocolate chips


I loved the results. They all tasted the way they should, especially the orange zest version. Though for the latter, I wanted something that also didn't have bits of zest in them. Should I go and get some Sunkist cordial instead? ...Probably not, unless I learn to balance the amount of sugar.

And I prefer the zest of Sunkist oranges because of its sweet scent. I don't know if the zest of other oranges would work as well or be right for the job.

Of course, shortbread isn't the same thing as cookies, and it's only natural to move on to the latter at this stage. But after so much shortbread I think I need a short break from home-made sweets. And I'd botched several batches so bad they had to be discarded. Maybe baking while stressed IS a bad idea. Speaking of which...


A poor shot of the orange shortbread. Realised too late that messing
with the camera speed settings downgraded the image quality.


I trashed a made-in-China pasta machine by running too-sticky dough through it while prepping it for use. On impulse, I replaced it with a new one. A made-in-Italy model looked the same but cost almost four times as much, and the auntie who manages the shop discouraged that choice: "Home use? No need for a fancy brand."

This time, I made damn sure the dough was about right, i.e., won't stick to my fingers when kneading. To get the dough right, I had to feel it with my bare hands. I used bread flour, which I guessed would require less kneading than all-purpose flour, and I hope to turn into mini-loaves soon. But bread flour uses less water (I feel) to form dough than all-purpose flour - maybe due to a higher gluten content.

(I was moved by this spectacle (between 6:17 and 7:50) and after repeated viewings, decided to take the plunge. I am impressionable like that. Also, that background music ... mmm.)


I felt like the Rumpelstiltskin of pasta and noodles when those
near-perfect strands rolled out - tres bien!


I made two balls of dough but ended up using only one, as the other was too dry. I tried wiping the rollers and cutters with kitchen paper but only managed to clean the rollers properly. Even less flour got caught in the spaghetti/noodle cutter, and I hope I pried every last bit out of the machine.

I'm not certain about its cleanliness, which might mean another batch of test pasta and several more tries with batches I'll eat before I get down to serving others.

Still, I couldn't contain my excitement when the near-uniform strands came out of the gadget, while that same track played in my head.

Oui, la beauté des nouilles d'une splendeur absolue.

While psyching myself up for the pasta/noodle machine challenge, I played around with my long dormant rice cooker to make savoury oatmeal. Again, inspired by online accounts of the same.


Rice-cooker oatmeal is just nuts. What a versatile utensil this is.


The first time, I had to wipe down the pot and counter - several times. Nobody told me it would boil over, but maybe I should've done more research. I would learn that oatmeal will boil over with classic rice cookers; one source suggested adding oil, but wouldn't it be unhealthy?

The results were nice and creamy, and I fortified it with several types of nuts I bought from a Castania nut boutique at Bangsar Village: Brazil nuts, cashew nuts, almonds, pecans and walnuts. They're bigger and of a better quality but damn, they're EXPENSIVE.

The second round involved presoaked rolled oats, garlic cloves, almonds, cashews, sunflower seeds, roast pork, chicken stock cube (so convenient!), olive oil, pepper and a wee pinch of salt. Less liquid resulted in a thicker gruel and a rougher texture, but so savoury and yummy.


Another batch of rice cooker oatmeal with mushrooms and fewer nuts


For round three, I threw in shiitake mushroom slices, roast pork, garlic, chicken stock cube, a bit of ginger powder, pepper, almonds and sunflower seeds with presoaked rolled oats. I sautéed the mushrooms and garlic first before the other ingredients went in, stage by stage.

I've cooked with mushrooms before, but not with the staple of many Chinese kitchens. The shops downstairs sell mountains of shiitake and picking them from those piles seemed daunting. The payoff though was worth it.

Though better than round two, I think I needed more oil to saute the 'shrooms. The texture was still rough - do I need to soak the oats for longer and maybe pulverise them a little? And maybe I should omit the ginger powder next time in favour of the fresh root.

Also, I resorted to lifting the lid to stir or leaving it slightly ajar for more steam to escape. At least the pot and counter stayed clean.

Feels good, cooking again. Every new dish I try and tweak later brings me closer to something.

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 that Kyncl grew up in, 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.


An edit has been made to this version, for clarity.



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